Home > Be the Girl(6)

Be the Girl(6)
K.A. Tucker

“So it seems.” His thick gray mustache lifted with his easy smile as he strolled around the classroom handing out a three-page pop quiz full of equations for us to complete. It’s meant to help him gauge what he’s working with. A pop quiz, five minutes after sitting down. And I don’t think I answered any of the questions right.

Next to that, Biology with Ms. Singh was a breeze.

“At least one more class and you’ve made it through your first day, right?”

“Right.” And English has always been my favorite. I glance around at the sea of faces. I recognize one or two from my classes, but that’s all.

A burst of laughter carries over the loud buzz of conversation. I glance over to see Holly strut down the stairs from the second floor with a tall, willowy brunette, turning heads as she strolls toward the lunch service line, her toned thighs flexing with each step on those wedge sandals. She waggles her painted fingers at a table nearby, nodding as they point to the vacant seats beside them, mouthing “Thank you!”

“Is she for real? Holly Webber, I mean.”

Jen’s blue-gray eyes flash to the blonde bombshell, where they sit a moment. “Why are you asking?”

“No reason. She just seems so perfect.”

“She does, doesn’t she?” Jen picks at the top of her bun, breaking off bits of bread to make it look like something has nibbled on it.

Josie doesn’t say a word. I have a feeling we won’t be having many conversations.

“So, when did she and Emmett hook up?” I ask casually.

“The start of last year. That’s when she moved here. It didn’t take long for that to happen.” Jen’s eyes widen with emphasis. “She looks like that and Emmett’s like, Mr. Popular, in case you haven’t figured that out yet.”

“I took a wild guess.” I join in, pulling my bagel into bite-sized chunks.

“Yeah, everyone’s saying he’s going to end up in the NHL.” She shrugs. “I don’t know. I don’t like hockey. But he’s nice. And smart. We were biology partners last year and he did his fair share of the work, and never made fun of people. Not like the other jock assholes who just want to get drunk and laid and be general jerks. Not that Emmett’s lacking in the ‘getting laid’ department. If the rumors after every party are true, those two are doing it every chance they get,” she says. “But at least he’s nice.”

My stomach squeezes. But of course they are. I would be, too. Even though I haven’t actually done “it” with anyone yet. But if I were with Emmett, I doubt I’d be able to keep my hands off him.

I squash that flare of envy, needing to get my mind off the boy next door. “So, what do you know about Mr. Kapp?” Emmett alluded to there being something worth gossiping about.

Jen freezes, her sandwich halfway to her mouth, exchanging a wary expression with Josie.

“Aria.”

My heart jumps at the sound of my name on Emmett’s tongue. I spin around to find him hovering over me, backpack slung over his shoulder, his wavy hair tousled as if he ran his fingers through it—or someone ran her fingers through it. His phone is in his hand. “Hey.”

“What’s your number? I should have it, in case of an emergency.”

I swallow against my suddenly dry mouth. “I don’t remember it. It’s new.”

He grins. “Gimme your phone.”

I dig it out of my side pocket and hand it to him, glancing around to make sure no teacher’s watching.

“It’s locked.” He holds it out for me to unlock with my thumbprint.

“Wow. Black home screen. This is a new phone,” he says, his thumbs flying over the key pad. “’Kay. I’m in there. And now”—he sends himself a text on my phone. A chirp sounds in his pocket with the incoming message—“I have yours.” He hands me my phone, his fingertips skating across mine, sending an electric current through my entire body. “See you later, AJ. Gotta run. Coach will kick my ass if I’m late.”

“Yeah. See ya,” I manage, staring at his retreating back.

“Well, girls …?” Uncle Merv pauses trimming the bush by the front porch to watch us approach, his wide-brimmed straw hat shading most of his face. “How was the first day of school?”

“Good. There are two new kids in my class this year. Adnan and Ophelia. Adnan is fifteen and Ophelia is fourteen. She has a dog named Rusty. He’s a mixed breed,” Cassie declares. Details I’ve already heard during our walk home, along with the names of every pet on the street, the names of the dogs at the shelter where she volunteers, and her favorite chocolate brands. Which is all of them, just ranked.

Uncle Merv’s eyes narrow. “And are these kids troublemakers?”

Cassie laughs. “No, Uncle Merv. I think you’re a troublemaker.”

He chuckles as he leans in to inspect a thorny branch. “You might be right.”

“Whose truck is that?” She points to the red pickup in our driveway, parked behind Uncle Merv’s silver Oldsmobile—that I haven’t seen leave the driveway since we’ve been here.

“That’s the plumber. He’s been here for hours. Woke me up from my nap with all the damn noise.”

Cassie giggles as she always does when he says “damn,” but then her face goes blank as she seems to process this new information. “There’s something wrong with your plumbing.” It’s a statement, not a question.

“So I’ve been told,” he grumbles.

“There is?” she corrects.

“Cassie!” Heather calls from her porch, waving her daughter home.

“Oh, I have to go. I have swimming tonight!” She rushes off, galloping across the grass toward her mother.

“Thank you for walking her home!” Heather smiles at me.

“No problem!” I sigh with the sudden peace. If Cassie’s not prattling, she’s asking question after question.

After question.

Two yard bags full of pulled weeds sit next to the freshly churned soil by the porch. “Mom was gardening?” I ask, though I know the answer. There’s no way Uncle Merv managed that himself. He can barely reach his shoes. Most days he wears slippers that he can slide his feet into, even outside.

“That woman can’t sit still, can she?” he mutters, his wrinkled fingers smoothing over a wilted leaf.

I sense it’s a rhetorical question, but I answer anyway. “By the time she goes back to work, this house will be turned upside down.”

He makes a sound, and I can’t tell if it’s a happy one or otherwise. “How was your first day, by the way?”

“Uneventful.”

“Uneventful is good, from what I remember of high school.” Fetching a spray bottle from the edge of the porch, he spritzes the leaves.

The storm door creaks open and Mom steps out, wiping her hands on a tea towel. “Aria, you’re home! Come on.” She nods, beckoning me inside.

The house smells of warm cinnamon. I inhale deeply. “What is that?”

“Muffins!” she exclaims, holding up a plate that’s sitting on the kitchen table. A streak of flour coats her forehead, and the apron covering her capris and T-shirt is dusted with more. “There are so many apples on the trees in the backyard, I don’t know what to do with them. I’m going to make a few batches of applesauce tomorrow.”

Gardening, baking … I stare at her with mock concern. “Who are you and what have you done to Debra Wiser? I mean, Jones,” I quickly correct.

“Ha. Funny. I’m actually enjoying domestic life.” She pulls a chair out. “Come, sit. Tell me three things that happened today.”

I groan. “Mom, I’m tired.”

“You heard Dr. C. We’re doing this, Aria,” she says in that firm voice that promises I’m not going to win this battle. I’ve often wondered if there was a course in law school on bending people to your will simply through tone of voice. She certainly didn’t learn it being an involved parent. “If there’s one thing I’ve realized, it’s that we don’t talk. So talk.” She slides forward a plate with a muffin. “And eat. But talk.”

“Fine.” I slump into the chair, slowly peeling away at the paper cup. “Number one: I had my meeting with Ms. Moretti. She seemed nice. She wants me to try out for cross-country.”

“That’s good news! And you said you would, right?”

“Number two: I’m going to think about going to the first cross-country practice next week. But I have to train a bit first. I’m so out of shape, I’m not showing up there to embarrass myself.” Especially not in front of a certain hot neighbor.

“You know, Heather mentioned that Emmett runs every morning,” Mom murmurs through a sip of tea, as if plucking his name from my mind. “Maybe you can go with him?”

I shrug, feigning indifference. “Number three: Emmett’s in my first-period class, so at least I know someone. Two people, actually. This girl named Jen is my ‘buddy.’” I air quote that word.

“That’s fantastic, Aria.” Mom’s shoulders seem to sag with relief.

“Mrs. Jones?” a male voice calls out, and the stairs creak.

“That’s the plumber,” Mom whispers, yanking off her apron and heading for the foyer, tucking her hair behind her ears and smoothing her shirt over her hips on the way. “It’s Ms. And Debra. Please,” she says, smiling. She hates being called Mrs. anything, especially since Dad cheated on her with a woman ten years younger.

“Right. Sorry. I’ve been warned once already, haven’t I?” the deep, smooth voice says with a chuckle, a moment before a lean man steps onto the landing and into my line of sight, his thumbs hooked on his tool belt.

I’d put him in his midforties, with crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes and gray at his temples of otherwise light brown hair. “Something smells good in this house.”

“Oh! Here!” She rushes over to collect a napkin and a muffin. “They’re still warm from the oven.”

“I couldn’t,” he says, in the way that means he totally could. His gaze drifts to me, his blue eyes crinkling with a smile.

“I insist.” Mom thrusts a muffin into his hands. “Any news?”

“So, the washing machine and toilet are hooked up. I can change the shower faucet and valve upstairs to help with the temperature regulation, but that means cutting into the back bedroom closet to get to the pipes.”

“That’s fine. We can get someone in to patch it up. I was going to paint my room anyway.”

“I can do that for you, no problem. I do more than just plumbing.”

“That’s great!” She grins up at him as if that’s the best news she’s heard all day. “And what about the water pressure?”

The man’s cringe doesn’t bode well. “This house was built in the 50s, so all your pipes are galvanized. There’s decades of buildup. It’s only gonna get worse. You need to think about repiping the whole house.”

Mom groans. “I was afraid of that.”

“Sorry, I wish I had better news for you. I’d be happy to give you a quote if that’s something you want to look at doing. Going with PEX will save you a few thousand …”

I tune them out, gathering my backpack and muffin and ducking past to head to my bedroom.

6

Dear Julia,

So, I did it. I survived my first week at Eastmonte and it wasn’t that bad. Though, if I’m being honest—that’s what I’m supposed to be doing here, right?—it has more to do with Emmett. Between the ride to school and first period, my heartbeat doesn’t settle down to a normal, healthy rate until Math.

McNair doesn’t believe in assigned seating, but Jen and I sit together every day. I’ve managed to drag her away from the front of the class the last three days and we’ve sat behind Emmett. I’m beginning to think that’s a bad idea. I tend to zone out and miss notes. I can’t help it, though. He has a hot neck. I didn’t think that was a thing, but it is definitely a thing.

Of course, this also means I’m stuck watching Holly twirl his hair and paw his thigh every morning, too. She can’t seem to keep her hands off him. It’s annoying. But if I had free rein to paw Emmett Hartford, I’d be just as bad.

And, again, full honesty here, right? No judgment? I’m insanely jealous of her. Like, prays-she-says-something-dumb-hopes-she-bombs-a-test-crosses-my-fingers-that-she-accidentally-farts-in-front-of-everyone jealous. Something—anything—to make her a touch less perfect.

I know it’s wrong to wish that kind of stuff upon someone. But it’s how I feel. Don’t worry—I won’t tell anyone besides you.

At least she’s nice. She says hi to me and Jen every morning (though she keeps calling her Jennifer, emphasizing the FER, even after I made a point of saying JEN, emphasizing the JEN, within Holly’s earshot). Still, it would suck a hundred times over if she was a bitch.

Still … it sucks.

Talk later,

~AJ (Emmett’s been calling me that all week. I love it. I think I love him. Whoa! WAY too soon, right?)

“I like to eat early and in a quiet environment. That way I have time to digest before bed.” Uncle Merv hobbles up the path ahead of us, his usual green khaki pants swapped for black ones. Mom says he only has two pairs of pants that fit his waist, so she bought a few more and sent them to a seamstress to be tailored.

“Heather promised dinner for six.” Mom juggles the wine bottles in her grasp to free up a hand so she can fix the foil cover of the apple pie I’m holding, still warm from the oven. “Emmett had hockey this afternoon so they couldn’t do it earlier. And apparently, it’s rare to have a Saturday night without a game, so they wanted to take advantage while he’s available.”

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