I was late to practice on Monday. When I rounded the corner to my locker I saw her, standing by my locker. She was in a yellow skirt printed with fun flowers. She smiled big and I felt a stirring. We wandered back to the terrace, but a couple groups of kids were smoking cigarettes and some other stuff. Miss Farr says you’ve got to be stupid to risk expulsion by having drugs on school property, and that your education is worth more than looking cool or getting high. I never even thought about it, since my dad would kill me if I got caught smoking weed on school grounds. Some kids still do it. Even Central has idiots.
I’d given myself a lot of pep talks about having the balls to make the first move, so when we got outside I took her hand in mine. I was kind of figuring she’d slap it away, but she held hands back, and ran her fingernails along the inside of my fingers. I was surprised how good it felt. I led her to the South Lawn. She told me about her day, complained that nobody she liked had her lunch. I told her I sat with Mike, but I was thinking about joining the soccer players.
“Why leave Mike?”
“He really hates soccer.”
“You’re not just a soccer player, are you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Alex said you’re a big nerd.”
“What?” I was stalling while I figured out the way to answer this.
“She says you and Mike are really into Hamlet and you always talk the most in class.”
I shrugged. “I like it. Yeah, I guess that makes me a nerd.”
She said, “It’s okay. I’m a nerd too. Just don’t tell anyone.”
By then we’d walked under the spreading boughs of an oak tree, its green leaves tinged with copper. It felt like we were alone. She turned to me and leaned in and kissed me. I responded with the best imitation of the movies I had. This included throwing my arms around her and mashing my face into hers. She pulled away after a second.
“Relax. Slow down. It’s more fun if you’re gentle.”
“Oh. Sorry.” I felt kind of dumb.
She had her arms around me, and she pecked the corner of my lips, right where the lower and upper lip meet. She said, “First kiss?”
I looked around. I was a nerd; I’d never kissed a girl. She knew too much, too fast.
She laughed. “That’s good. I get to teach you.”
More kisses. This time I tried to go slow and follow her lead. I liked it a lot. Being super-powered was an awesome feeling. When I went on those runs out the R8 tracks, my feet drumming the railroad ties, throwing wind-wounding punches, I was strong against the world, and that made me feel alive. This was different, the beginning of a togetherness that was just as vibrant, but calming in this deep and sexy way. She said, “I like kissing you.”
Later she said, “The team is running laps.”
I looked over and saw practice had started. I kissed her one last time, and took off down the hill. I shouted, “See you tomorrow.”
“Call me,” she yelled.
The next day I stopped by the soccer table, where Aiden was. He congratulated me on making out with Jean. The other guys said similar things. It was fun to be there but eventually I peeled off and made for our corner table, where Mike was working a lunchroom hoagie like it was his first meal in forty days.
He said, “You see these Primo Grand commercials?”
“They freak me out.”
“All the kids in the commercials, they have this weird look. They look mindless.”
Mike could be weird himself, “That’s just commercials, man. Don’t be crazy.”
“No, watch them when you go home. It’s like Barbie heads or something. A nonstop smile, almost plastic, and nothing behind it.”
“Why do you think they all look like that?”
“I don’t know. Something is going on at that mall. There is something rotten in the city of Philadelphia, and it’s Primo’s Grand. That place is up to no good, trust me. We should go investigate it.”
He could be such a dork. I pictured us with magnifying glasses and notebooks, wandering through a mall full of kids who were cool and attractive, like Encyclopedia Brown apprentices. I couldn’t get my head around that idea.
“Yeah, let’s do it.”
“I don’t know, man. I’m kind of busy. Looks like I got a girlfriend!”
“Fine, I’ll investigate myself.”
“Alright, just don’t get spotted by the evil Primo.”
“I’m serious.” While he spoke, his square fingers ground his hoody into the glass.