This sucks. I hate you for not being in my class. Bored! So bored. It’s all your fault.
You still coming over after school? Mom said she’s making brownies.
The notebook was one of many. This particular one had been chosen by Lucas, so it had a cover of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which Nina had already colored over with black marker. The girl always fancied herself an artist and liked to make changes to things, whether they were necessary or not. Lucas was a writer, his imagination wild and encouraged by his mother, who had bought him his first notebook and told him to fill it with his dreams. He had been six. Instead, he used it to write notes back and forth with his best friend, Nina. Born barely a day apart, the two of them had lived next door to one another from birth and shared everything, so it had only made sense to share the notebook with her.
Nina didn’t take the notebook as seriously as Lucas did, but he did like her drawings. Every so often, his notes would request drawings, and she would spend hours filling a page with fanciful characters and scenes. Notebooks from the past showed the improvement that she’d made over the years, now ten years old and giving her drawings definite shapes and shadows. Her fifth-grade teacher was droning on about math, drilling multiplication tables into the heads of the students currently trying their hardest to stay awake. Nina was the only one who appeared the least bit alert, but she wasn’t paying attention to the monotone voice coming from the chalkboard. She had written her note to Lucas in the middle of the page, and then decorated the space around it with swirls and flowers, numerous tangled vines and hidden animals peeking out from behind bushes. She hadn’t touched on any of the questions or ideas that Lucas had written in his note, but that was normal. Knowing him as she did, she would be hearing about it on the walk home, whether she wanted to or not.
She ran out of space on the page, and finally set her pencil down to cast an appreciative eye on the drawing before turning the page backward so that she could reread Lucas’ note. She hadn’t bothered answering any of his questions or talking about his ideas because she knew that wasn’t what he wanted. Lucas rambled and chattered and argued with himself more often than not, with so many ideas racing through his mind. Nina had learned soon after they’d started writing notes to each other that he didn’t want her opinion, or for her to add her own ideas in. He needed a sounding board, and he had one ready-made in Nina, and she liked listening to him. He tended to get animated, talking with his hands, and he had a way of making it easy to see what was going on in his head. She couldn’t help grinning as she read the note, shaking her head at one of the sillier ideas. What if there was a prince that had to be rescued by a princess instead? What if he was a combination of all those silly Disney princesses? Except for Ariel’s seashells. That would just be stupid. Nina laughed aloud, which then drew the attention of the teacher. She hurriedly put the notebook away, before the teacher could swipe it from her desk, sighing in relief when the teacher turned back to the board. The clock said there was only ten minutes left until lunch, so she resigned herself to paying attention to the rest of the lesson.
The bell rang, and the class lined up to go to the cafeteria for lunchtime. The notebook came with Nina, since she planned to give it to Lucas at lunchtime so he could write her back. Lunch was boring, as usual, since she was seated between two other students that she wasn’t friends with. There wasn’t ever any other option, since her teacher made them line up in alphabetical order. Nina wolfed her lunch down, and spent the rest of the time until recess re-reading Lucas’ note again, if only just so she would know what he was talking about once they were out on the playground. It was rare that she ever got a word in edgewise, but she didn’t mind. She had always been more than willing to listen to him.
The fifth grade was finally led out onto the playground, and Nina made a beeline for Lucas, under the tree where they normally passed recess time away. She thrust the notebook toward him and plopped down onto the bed of pine needles, yawning while Lucas flipped to the page where she had written her note. She watched as he grinned, noting his eyes as they moved over the many elements of the drawing she’d done to while math away.
“This is pretty,” he said in his soft, almost musical voice, tracing his finger over a vine that trailed around the circle she had made around her note. More than once, it had been said that Nina and Lucas seemed to be in the wrong bodies. Lucas was soft-spoken, quite shy and reserved, and almost fragile-looking. It didn’t endear him to the other boys of their grade, and Nina was often frustrated by the boys’ attempts to ridicule her best friend, even though it never seemed to ruffle Lucas. Nina, on the other hand, was known for being brash, loud and spontaneous. She was what her mother had deemed once as ‘ruthlessly pretty’ – white-blonde hair coupled with vividly green eyes, and skin that readily absorbed a golden tan color. She was tall and somewhat lanky, and a definite tomboy, the one reason that the boys of their grade didn’t do more than pick on Lucas. Nina had quickly made herself known as someone who wouldn’t fight fair, especially not when she was fighting for her peaceful friend. After she had bitten one of the boys who had tried to hit Lucas, none of the others felt comfortable with being put in the position of fighting that hellion.
“I don’t know, it looks weird,” she replied, scrunching up her face as she leaned forward, peering closer at the vine he was touching. “I wish I had better pencils,” she said mournfully. She had colored pencils at home, Crayola pencils bought at the grocery store. A lousy twenty-four colors. But she didn’t like saying anything to her mother, who worked two jobs just to pay the bills and rent after her dad split when she was six. The only other option had been moving out of the house her mom had grown up in, which wasn’t an option at all. Not only did Sabrina Baker live next door to her best friend, but her daughter and her friend’s son were the best of friends as well. Moving would have been cruel on both sides.
“Shhh,” Lucas said in that calm, reassuring way he had. Nina had trouble remembering sometimes that they were the same age. He seemed so much older, so much wiser than even some of the sixth-grade kids. “It’s really beautiful. Really. You draw so pretty, Neen. The pencils are just the tool. You give it life. Besides, you love those pencils Aunt Sabs got you. You looked so happy when she gave you that bag with the pencils and sketchbook.”
Nina couldn’t help preening a little over Lucas’ compliments, and she shrugged. “I was just happy that she got them at all. Mom barely even has money most of the time to get a new book, and you know how much she loves to read.”
“Aunt Sabs loves you,” Lucas said with a little smile, looking over at his best friend. “She wants you to be happy. Drawing makes you happy. I heard her say to Mom once that she wants you to go for whatever dream is in your head, that she doesn’t want you to get hurt like she did. What did she mean by that?”
“I dunno, maybe she meant Dad leaving?” Nina kicked at a rock, and then drew her knees up to her chin, wrapping her arms around them. She didn’t like talking about her father. Before he had left, she had adored the man. She had pictures of the two of them camping, hiking, fishing…she had thought that her father loved her too. Then he left, and she heard from him twice a year, on her birthday and Christmas. The last thing she had heard from her father was that his new wife was expecting a baby. That had been almost a year past.
“Maybe,” Lucas said with a shrug, looking at Nina concernedly. He, better than anyone, knew her reservations about her dad, the man he’d called Uncle Nick until he’d taken off. He didn’t like that he had made her sad, even if it was an accident. “Was it her dream to marry your dad?”
“Doesn’t seem like much of a dream,” Nina said, wrinkling her nose. “Kinda awful if it was, and it ended up like that.”
“Well, whatever it was, Neen…I think all she means is that if it’s your dream to draw, and paint, and be a real artist, she wants to help you. She wants you to be happy,” he repeated, figuring that the point was important. “So even if it means she doesn’t get a new book for a while, she’s going to do what she has to. So just…appreciate it.”
“I do, Luke!” Nina said, whipping her head to the side to look at him. “I know Mom does the best she can…is it just a bad thing to wish for a little more sometimes, though?”
“No, I guess not,” he said amiably, not wanting to make her mad at him. He knew that Nina could hold a grudge for a while, and he didn’t want to deal with it over something that he didn’t even feel was actually an argument. “Wishes and dreams, Nina…I know how you feel.”
She felt her temper leave her as quickly as it came, and then bristled when the recess bell rang, signifying that the period was over. Nina could see her class lining up, and she sighed. Standing up, she brushed pine needles and dirt off of her backside and looked at him as he stood as well. “You gonna answer my question?”
Lucas glanced at the page again, and nodded. “Yeah, I don’t think Mom will mind. I’ll just call her when we get to your house so she doesn’t worry.”
The two children hooked their pinkies together, then pulled until they came apart and then touched the tips of their thumbs together. They had created their ‘secret handshake’ when they were seven years old, and no parting was ever complete without it. Nina ran toward her class’ line, Lucas choosing to walk the short distance to where his class was lining up. He was already coming up with ideas to write down in his next note to her.
After school let out, Nina and Lucas met at the front doors and began to walk home. It was as much a ritual for them as anything else was, to the point that, more often than not, if one of them was to be absent from school, the other would usually stay home as well, since they refused to walk home without each other. Nina’s mother and Lucas’ parents allowed it cautiously, since neither side relished the idea of their daughter or son walking home alone. Lucas had handed off the notebook to Nina, who had tucked it into her backpack, and then settled into the walk quietly as Lucas began to talk about the idea he had had after going back to his class when recess was over, his hands moving quickly as he spoke. It was one of the only times Nina ever saw Lucas get loud or boisterous, when he was describing one of his story ideas.
“Think about it, Neen! Wouldn’t it be beautiful? Your drawing gave me the idea. A tiny rainforest, filled with creatures that we’ve never heard of. So tiny that it has to be kept somewhere safe so that it doesn’t get stepped on or run over or something. And these creatures are all magical. They can talk and they secretly guard humans, even though the humans put them into danger. They know they don’t mean to. The humans don’t even know they exist! But a couple of kids discover the tiny rainforest, and they’re sworn to keep it a secret. But one of them accidentally tells someone, and the secret gets out, and the kids have to save the tiny rainforest before the grown-ups take it off somewhere to experiment with it. Wouldn’t that be awesome?”
“Mhm,” Nina said with a laugh and a grin. “I suppose the kids might get a little jealous sometimes? Like, here’s this rainforest that only they know about, and it’s awesome and beautiful, but they can’t do anything in it because even they’re too big?”
“Well, I suppose so, yeah. Maybe the secret getting out isn’t an accident after all? Maybe the kid wanted a grown-up to make it bigger so they could play in the rainforest and with the magical creatures?”
“Yeah, I think that would happen,” Nina said, nodding. “And then they’d feel bad, when they see the creatures so sad, so they decide to do the right thing and help them to be a secret again.” They rounded the corner onto their street and Nina pointed, seeing Lucas’ father in their yard. “Hey, I didn’t know Uncle Bryan would be home today. Shouldn’t he be at work?”
Lucas blinked, looking confused as he saw his father. “He should be at work, he’s never home when I get home. C’mon, let’s hurry.”
Their pace quickened as they walked toward Lucas’ house. “Dad!” Lucas called out, drawing his father’s attention. Nina immediately became worried as she saw the weary look on her uncle Bryan’s face.
Bryan Connelly was normally a laid-back, easygoing man, with the same coloring as his son, dark red hair and blue eyes, freckles liberally spread over his face and arms. Nina had always known him to be good for a laugh, and had come to see him as much of a father as her own – more so, since her dad left. But now his face was drawn, and sad. But he gave his son a smile and welcomed him into a hug.
“What’s the matter, Dad?” Lucas asked softly after pulling away from his father’s embrace.
Bryan looked to Nina, and she thought for a second that he was going to have Lucas go inside, so she turned away to go into her own house, until Bryan said something. “You don’t have to go, Nina. I know Luke will end up telling you anyway.”
Nina turned back around and swallowed her sigh, then returned to Lucas’ side, reaching out to take his hand in comfort. Whatever his dad had to say, it couldn’t be good. Lucas turned his head to look at her, smile at her, and then looked back at his dad. “What is it?”
Bryan led the children toward the porch, and gestured for them to sit on the swing. “Luke…your mom got a call from your Grandpa Martin earlier. Your Grandma Ellen had a heart attack this morning, and she passed away.”
Nina gasped and looked at Lucas, who was blinking fast, and Nina knew he was trying not to cry. He sniffled, bringing his arm to his nose to drag his wrist underneath. “Is…is Mom okay?”
Bryan knelt and hugged his son tightly. “She’s very sad right now. It was very unexpected, and so it was a huge shock. Try and be easy around her, okay, son?”
Lucas nodded, and Nina opened her mouth, as if to say something, then closed it. But the motion had drawn Bryan’s attention, and he reached his hand out to pat Nina’s. Their families were all close, and Lucas’ grandparents had always been kind and friendly to Nina and her mother. Bryan knew that Sabrina and Nina would feel the loss as keenly as his wife did. “What is it, Nina?” he said softly, his voice very similar to the calm, music-like quality of his son’s.
“Can I go in and give Aunt Laurie a hug?” she asked, her voice small. Bryan smiled softly and leaned in to hug the girl that he considered like one of his own. “You sure can, honey. I’m sure your auntie would love a Nina-hug. Your mom’s already inside with her.”
Lucas and Nina got up and went inside the house, following the sound of quiet sobs back to the dining room, where Sabrina Baker was sitting next to her best friend Laurie Connelly, holding her hand with one of her own, her other stroking her friend’s thick brown curls. Hearing the sound of someone coming close, Laurie lifted her head from the table and caught sight of her son and his best friend. She smiled wanly at Sabrina, then drew her hand away and opened her arms to Lucas and Nina, who both dropped their backpacks on the floor and flew into the embrace.
Laurie clung to them tightly, burrowing her face into her son’s hair, thick and curly like her own, her hand stroking Nina’s pale locks. After a few minutes, Nina pulled away carefully, gently, and then went to give her own mother a hug, who kissed her cheek and pulled her in to sit on her lap.
It was silent for several long minutes, with some who had no words and others who didn’t know what to say, until Nina broke the quiet. “Mom said she was going to make brownies, Aunt Laurie. Do you want a brownie?”
It was quiet for another moment, and then Laurie laughed, reaching out and brushing her fingers across Nina’s cheek. “I’d love a brownie, sweetling. Why don’t you and Luke go over and get the brownies, and maybe a board game or two? I’d love it if you and your mom would stay for dinner tonight.”
Nina’s face brightened, and she slid off of her mother’s lap, grabbing Lucas’ hand to pull him along with her. “We’ll be right back!” she said excitedly, and the children ran out of the house.
Inside the house next door, Lucas was sitting on the couch, holding the tin of brownies while Nina searched through their board games. “Well, we’ll bring Clue over. And Monopoly. But do you think they’d like Candyland or Battleship better?”
“I don’t know,” Lucas said, his voice quieter than normal. Nina turned toward him, and her face fell, seeing how sad he looked. Nina abandoned her task and went to sit next to him on the couch, putting an arm around his shoulders, leaning her head against his.
“I’m sorry, Luke,” she said, her voice as small as it was when she had spoke to Bryan. “I’m so sorry.”
Those few words seemed to be what broke the dam, and Lucas began to cry earnestly, turning his head to cry into his best friend’s shoulder, clinging to her. He adored his grandparents, both sets, but he and his Grandma Ellen had had a special relationship, having the same temperament and love for writing. Nina had gone to the zoo with Lucas and his grandmother once, and found herself amazed at the detailed worlds that the two of them were able to come up with, barely missing a beat before the other spoke to add onto the fanciful scenes. Nina knew her friend would feel this loss keenly, and could only be glad that he hadn’t been told while at school. The stupid boys in their grade would have made fun of him even more for crying, even if it was over a beloved family member’s death.
Lucas cried all that he could, and Nina smiled, hugging him tight. “C’mon, Luke, let’s get back before they come looking for us.” Lucas smiled weakly and nodded, standing up from the couch and waiting as Nina gathered up the games they had chosen. They crossed the lawn from one house to the other and smiled brightly when they entered the dining room again. It was obvious from Lucas’ red eyes that he had been crying, but no more so than Laurie’s own puffy eyes and pale face. A silent decision seemed to be made that no one would mention it, as Bryan went into the kitchen to start dinner and Sabrina got a knife to cut the brownies into squares, taking one and putting it on a napkin to place in front of Laurie.
Half an hour later, they were sitting around the dining room table, two half-eaten pizzas in the middle. Nina, intent on drawing Lucas out of his sadness, brought up some of the ideas that he’d written to her that day, inviting him to talk about them, and get more inspiration from his parents and Nina’s mother, with the effect of the conversation becoming silly as everyone tried to top the last thing said.
“Well, what if the tiny monkeys like cheese?” Sabrina said between laughing, reaching a hand up to wipe tears from her eyes, grinning toward her daughter.
“Stinky cheese!” Nina cried out, laughing as she took another bite of her pizza.
Lucas had fallen silent, eating his pizza while watching the others joke animatedly. He was smiling, but there was a definite droop to his eyes. He had liked his idea for a story about a tiny rainforest, and couldn’t help feeling like they were making fun of him. Laurie was the first one to notice how quiet her son had gotten and reached out to touch his hand in concern.
“You okay, honey?” she asked quietly, smiling gently when his hand turned over to curl his fingers within hers.
“I’m fine, Mom,” he said softly, doing his best to look as fine as he claimed to be.
Laurie chuckled and took her hand from his, reaching over to ruffle his hair. “No you’re not, Luke. They’re not trying to be mean, sweetheart, you know that, don’t you?”
Nina heard the last part and glanced over, almost immediately contrite when she realized how her friend must be feeling - hearing his precious story become a joke, especially after he’d complimented her earlier when she was sure that her drawing was messed up. The table fell silent, and Lucas looked at each of them, keeping his smile on his face. “It’s okay, really. I know you’re not being mean. I just…I really liked the idea. I thought…with you joking about it…that maybe you thought it was stupid. Or something. I don’t know.” He shrugged and looked down at his plate of mostly-eaten pizza.
Nina shook her head emphatically. “It’s not stupid, it’s brilliant!” She was almost defiant as she looked at each adult in turn before turning her attention back to Lucas, as if daring them to argue with her. “I think we were just…trying to have fun. You know, instead of thinking about sad things.”
Lucas shrunk a little in his chair, biting his lip. He knew Nina had a point, he had just been unable to see past the idea that someone was making fun of him. Most of the time, at school, he took it in stride because he knew the boys in his class just didn’t understand, but he had gotten scared when he thought that his family and best friend might think he was just as stupid as the school boys did. Instead, they had just been trying to keep the mood light, to try and make him and his mom laugh.
Bryan cleared his throat and stood up from the table, obviously intent on changing the subject. “Why don’t we clear this pizza up and get the brownies out? We’ve got ice cream to go with them. C’mon, Lucas, come help me, will ya?”
Lucas nodded and pushed back from the table, walking around to gather up the plates and bring them into the kitchen while Bryan picked up the two pans that had held the pizza. Once they had set their burdens down, Bryan reached over and pulled his son into a hug.
“I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, boy,” he said, somewhat gruffly, but when Lucas looked up at him, Bryan was glancing down at him, his face stoic and serious.
“It’s okay, Dad. I think I…just got a little too upset over nothing.” Lucas smiled when Bryan ruffled his hair, the same motion that his mother had made a few minutes ago.
“Why don’t you get the bowls and some spoons, Luke, and I’ll get the food.” Lucas nodded and reached up into the cabinet to take down five bowls, then dug five spoons out of the silverware drawer. Bryan was still trying to dig the tub of ice cream out of the freezer, so Lucas took the dishes out and set them in front of the chairs while Sabrina cut brownies out of the pan and set one in each bowl. Bryan finally came out with the ice cream and scooped some onto the brownies, so that everyone could tuck into their dessert.
Their meal coming to an end, the five of them went into the living room to settle around the coffee table so that they could play the games Nina had brought over. Midway through Monopoly, both children had fallen asleep, and rather than worry about waking Nina up to go home, Bryan carried both Nina and Lucas, one at a time, up to Lucas’ room, letting Nina sleep on his trundle bed. Sabrina went home afterward, having an early wake-up the next day for one of her jobs.
Nina woke up sometime after midnight, taking only a glance around to know that she was in Lucas’ room rather than her own. Normally, that wasn’t a problem, since the two of them stayed at each other’s houses as much as their own, but Nina was restless, and she wasn’t sure why.
She got up to go to the bathroom, trying to be quiet so that she didn’t wake his parents up. As she neared the bathroom door, she heard voices coming from his parents’ room, and curiosity swept over her. She crept closer to the bedroom door so that she could hear their conversation.
“I worry about him, Bryan,” she heard Laurie say quietly. “He’s so shy, and so…fragile. You know he doesn’t have many friends. Just Nina. And now I can’t help but worry that this news about Mom is going to make him close down even more.”
“Well, I know he can’t go his whole life expecting Nina to protect him. She’s a good friend to him, I know, but the boys aren’t going to respect someone who has a girl fight for him, whether he’s a pacifist or not. He’s got to wake up sometime.”
“I’m not going to make him be a fighter. I think it’s nice, actually, having a son who’s not so driven to prove himself a man. He’s going to be ten times better than any of those boys that are going to make fun of him because he won’t fight.” Nina could hear the irritation in Laurie’s voice, and could understand it. Just because Nina protected Lucas didn’t make him weak, but that was what it sounded like Bryan was saying.
“I know, sweetheart. I’m not saying that I want him to be anything other than our boy. But he can be the good kid that we know he is, and still be confident enough to keep the boys from picking on him on his own, without having to have Nina step in. Hell, I think Sabrina could stand to step in and make that girl of hers a little more ladylike. She’s going to grow up eventually, and she’s pretty enough that she’s going to turn heads, but pretty as she is, no boy’s going to want to be involved with someone who has to out-do them at everything. I love Nina just as she is, but I can’t help worrying that she’s going to end up unhappy.”
Nina bristled and stepped away from the door before she heard anything else. She knew her Uncle Bryan loved her, liked watching sports with her and playing catch, especially since his own son wasn’t into things like that. But she couldn’t help feeling a little hurt, hearing him say those things. Sighing, she went to the bathroom and quickly went, washing her hands afterward. Nina looked back toward the bedroom door as she stepped out of the bathroom, but the light had been turned out, and it was quiet. She crept back to Lucas’ room and closed the door behind her, crossing the room to kneel on the trundle bed and shake Lucas awake gently.
“Huh…what?” He rolled over and cast bleary eyes at Nina, rubbing his fists over them to wake up. “What’s wrong, Neen?”
She told him what she had heard his parents say, watching as he steadily lowered his eyes with every word. “Luke, I think you’re great the way you are. You don’t have to be a big butthead to be cool.”
“But Dad’s right,” he said softly, leaning his elbow into his pillow to prop himself up. “I don’t have friends at school, except for you. The boys don’t like me. I don’t know why. They think I’m girly, or something, because I don’t play sports and I don’t chase girls, and I’m smart and like going to school. The girls think I’m weird. I’ve heard a couple of the other boys say that I must be prissy if I have to have a girl fight my battles.”
“They’re stupid,” Nina whispered vehemently. “You’re ten times better than they are.” She echoed what she had heard his mother say without realizing it, and she shook her head. “They’re buttheads, and all they think about is sports and video games and who they can make fun of.” It made her sad to think that her friend was put through that last part just because he was different. “You’re sweet and funny and smart. One day, you’re going to be all their bosses, and you’re going to make them sorry they ever teased you.”
Lucas smiled and shook his head. “But that’s just it, Nina. I won’t. Because you’re right, I am better than they are. And being mean to them means that I’m not.”
I’m taking a rest day from my ideas. Sometimes, I think I get so caught up in them that I don’t really pay attention to what’s going on. You know you’re my best friend, right? I don’t think I tell you enough. I mean, we’ve been friends forever, and I know we’re close, but I just want you to know that you’re the best person I know. As long as you want to be my friend, you will be, because you mean the most. I know what you heard my dad say upset you. But he loves us both, and just wants us to be happy. And I want that too. So I talked to Dad and they’re going to sign me up for martial arts classes. He says it can help me, and I want to try, but not just for me, for you too. I don’t want you to have to worry about me all the time. I want to be able to take care of myself against the kids at school, and I don’t want for people to start making fun of you. You know they will eventually. That’s something else that I talked to Mom and Dad about. I don’t know if you’ll like it or anything, but for your birthday, they’re wanting to get you ballet lessons. They say you’re a little old to really try and be a ballerina, but I know you wouldn’t want that, so I think it’s just to give you something…girly to do. I dunno. I like you just the way you are, so don’t think I’m trying to make you change. I just want to give us both something to help us out, add more to who we are. Don’t be mad at me, Nina. We’re still going to be great. I’m going to write and you’re going to paint and we’re going to be amazing. This will just help us be more amazing. Think about it.
Can you believe it’s almost summer? Not only that, but this summer is going to be better than ever. Your parents are amazing, I can’t believe we’re gonna get to go to DISNEYWORLD! I wish my mom could come too. It’s not going to be the same without her, but I know she’d get mad if I said that I won’t go unless she does. I don’t know if I’ve thanked you or your mom and dad yet either for getting me in ballet. I think I have, but in case I haven’t…thank you. I love it. It’s so great. I never thought I would like to dance, but there’s always at least ten times a day that just makes me want to spin around and around and around, even when I’m in the middle of thousands of people, no matter how they’ll look at me. It makes me feel so good about myself, it makes me happy. Thank you, Luke. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I can’t wait for our recital so you can see how good I’ve gotten. And I was so proud of you last week at your tournament! I know you just started, but you’re so great at it! I think you’re right, and this is all going to mean great things for us both. More to draw on. But, for now – back to thinking about summer! We should make plans after school.
They met outside the school doors, like they usually did, and Nina handed Lucas their notebook. They had gone through two notebooks since the beginning of the year, with Nina selecting a spring-colored striped cover for their current notebook. They were coming to the end of it, which meant that they would need to go pick out a new one soon. Lucas slipped it into his backpack and pushed the thick red waves he sported back from his face.
“Aren’t you going to read it?” Nina asked, blinking toward him.
Lucas looked at her, his confused look filling his eyes. “Well, I wasn’t going to yet. We don’t usually read it when we’re walking home. That’s, you know, talking time.”
“Read it, Luke. Please?”
The confused look still on his face, he pulled the notebook out of his backpack and flipped through it until he reached the page she’d began her note on. They walked in silence as he read, until he stopped once they had crossed the street, reaching out to stop her there on the corner by catching her wrist. He smiled at her and squeezed her hand. “I’m glad it makes you happy, Neen. We hoped it would.”
Nina grinned and reached out, pulling him into a tight hug. “I have no words for how awesome it is. You’re coming to my recital, right?”
They began to walk again, and Lucas chuckled. “For the fifth time – yes, Nina. We’re all going to be there. Your mom took the night off, my parents already said they would. What is it again?”
“Coppelia. I’d never heard of it before, but, well, I’ve never really heard of any ballet besides Swan Lake. I’m playing Swanilda, which is the lead role, and they never give the lead to new dancers, but Madame said I suit it so well and have the right look and am a very strong dancer so she’s trusting me with it. I can’t wait.”
“You’re going to be great, Nina, I know it. You’re gonna make us all proud.”
Nina preened and skipped a little along the sidewalk before turning around in a pretty pirouette while Lucas laughed. Encouraged by his cheer, she continued, sliding into moves of the choreographed dance, pirouettes followed by jetes, leaping and landing in an arabesque as they reached their driveway. Lucas clapped wildly and Nina laughed as she mocked a formal bow.
“You’re such a pretty dancer,” Lucas said admirably, catching up with her in a few steps as they walked toward Lucas’ front door.
Nina smiled and opened the door, the children calling out a greeting to Laurie, who would be the only one home, with Bryan and Sabrina still being at work. It was their normal function, with Nina staying at Lucas’ house to do homework until her mother got home. Laurie returned their greeting, walking out of the kitchen into the dining room at the same moment that Nina and Lucas walked in, holding plates of cookies.
“C’mon, you two, have a snack before getting into your homework.”
Nina stood behind the curtain, pulling it aside slightly so that she could glance out at the audience. She had just gotten out of makeup, and was in her ballet costume, a long white gown that was fitted through her upper body, and then fell in a graceful sweep of tulle to her ankles, with glitter added liberally to give it a sparkle. Her white-blonde hair had been pulled back tightly and wrapped in an elegant bun with red rosettes twined throughout to give her a bit of color. She was nervous. Nina had never been on stage before, and had never been expected to perform in front of large amounts of people – or small amounts of people, for that matter. She swallowed, her throat tight, and cinched the curtain closed before turning around, refusing to acknowledge that she was trembling.
Her ballet teacher, Madame Ivanova, approached her and slid a thin arm around her shoulders, giving her a kind smile. “Do not be afraid, cherie,” the teacher said, her voice sweet and soft. “You are beautiful tonight. And you will be beautiful for all these people. I feel faith for you, Nina. Not because you do not want to disappoint me, or your family, but because I know you want to give these good people something beautiful to see. For that reason, you will not fail.”
Nina smiled and hugged her teacher, and then she looked at the woman calling her over for pictures before the recital was to start. She glided toward the woman and her castmates, posing in third position and smiling brightly for the pictures.
Places were called and she hurried to the side of the stage, feeling light-headed as the music started. Then she felt weightless as one of the assistants counted off her cue, leading up to her walking gracefully out onto the stage. Suddenly, it simply seemed natural, as though each pirouette, each jete, each arabesque and side spin was exactly her own reaction, moving as though she were truly Swanilda. The audience faded away, and it was only Nina as Swanilda, Doctor Coppelius, and Frantz. She barely remembered the names of the boys who were dancing the other parts, or the name of the girls dancing in the chorus, so connected was she to the music, the story, and the dance. As it came to the end of the recital, where Swanilda was dancing and pretending to be the dancing doll Coppelia, dancing with and around Frantz to show him the error of his way, Nina’s eyes met those of the boy dancing Frantz’s part, her vividly green gaze staring into his grey eyes. He smiled, and she smiled back, and then she slid into her series of spins that ended with her being caught in his long arms as the curtain fell.
The chatter began almost instantly, loud and cheerful and exultant, and Nina felt as though everything was spinning around her, her only anchor the boy still holding onto her. She smiled and stepped away, blushing even through her makeup, glancing down.
“You were wonderful, Nina,” he said, leaning in to kiss her cheek lightly. “I would never have known that you have only been dancing for a few months, except that you do not go on point yet.”
Her blush deepened. She had asked Madame Ivanova two months ago if she could begin to practice dancing on point, and had been deemed not ready. But they had begun working on conditioning her ankles properly, and the dance had been amended so that she could do the roll without having to be on her toes the whole time. “We’re working up to it,” Nina said, almost defensively, and then she bit her lip. He had said that she had done well, and she’d snapped at him. “Thank you, though…you were great yourself. And…I’m really sorry, but I can’t remember your name. I’m really bad with names.”
The boy chuckled and extended his hand. “I’m Samuel. You can call me Sam, though. I can’t blame you, they didn’t have us practicing together for very long.” He looked as though he were going to continue, but the stage assistants called for the final curtain call, with the entire cast lining up and joining hands, the three main characters in the middle. Nina took the hands of Sam and the boy who had played Doctor Coppelius, and the curtain rose, the cast moving toward the front of the stage. Nina grinned broadly, fighting the glare of the lights to find her mother, Uncle Bryan and Aunt Laurie, and Lucas sitting in the front row, clapping wildly. Nina wasn’t sure if it was the lights, but she thought it looked like her mother was crying. The cast skipped backward, and the curtain came down, the cast moving quickly off of the stage to leave the three stars alone on stage.
Nina had been waiting for this moment. She’d even practiced it in her room, thinking of all the people clapping for her. She practically danced forward, holding onto the two boys’ hands until they reached the front, and then she let go, taking two more steps and sinking in a low curtsy. She rose, and her glee was unmistakable as she waved enthusiastically to the audience. Lucas walked up to the stage, and she bent down to take the bouquet of wildflowers he held. Nina laughed aloud and thrust the bouquet up in the air, then stepped back between the boys so they could move far enough back again for the curtain to fall for the last time. Behind the curtain, she hugged the Doctor boy tight, then turned back to Sam when the other boy had left.
“You really loved that, didn’t you?” Sam asked, laughing.
“Well, it was my first curtain call! It was the best part of getting the lead.”
Sam looked at her, seeming to be a little confused. “Your first ever? And you had a lead part?”
Nina’s mouth pursed and she looked down. She was a little embarrassed, but she shrugged. “Madame held auditions, and she said I danced the part the best, even if I wasn’t on point yet. I’d never really thought of taking dance before, until my aunt and uncle got me lessons as a Christmas present.”
Sam laughed and shook his head. “Wow. Well, you’re a natural. I’ve been dancing my entire life, and it seems like you’ve been dancing about as long.”
There was something about Samuel that reminded Nina of Lucas, how he seemed so much older, even though she knew he wasn’t much older than she was herself. He was so sure of himself. “I didn’t really know boys did ballet.”
“Well, most don’t. They’re afraid that it makes them girly. But my mom put me in lessons almost as soon as I could walk, and I think it’s great. I also play baseball and football, and I think the dancing helps me out.” Sam smiled and tilted his head. “Hopefully, we’ll see more of each other. My dance teacher is moving out of state at the end of the month, so my parents have arranged for me to continue my lessons with Madame Ivanova.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Nina exclaimed, just as she saw her mother and friends come onto the stage from the wings. “You guys, c’mere! I want you to meet Samuel – he danced as Frantz tonight.” She was gleaming as she introduced them, the adults gladly shaking his hand and complimenting his performance.
Lucas came to Nina’s side and hugged her tight. “You were beautiful, Neen,” he said with a small smile. “I almost couldn’t believe that was you up there, you seemed like someone else completely.”
She laughed and linked her arm with his. “That was the point, silly.” As the adults moved away, she gestured toward Samuel. “Luke, this is Samuel. Sam, this is Lucas, my best friend.”
The boys shook hands, and Sam looked at Nina, smiling widely. “Thank you for the dance tonight, Nina. I hope we get the chance again soon. It was nice to meet all of you. I have to go find my parents, they’re probably caught up talking Madame Ivanova’s ear off.” He waved and left the stage, while Nina turned her attention toward Lucas again. “C’mon, maybe we can get them to take us to Pizza Hut.”
Lucas laughed, and Nina was caught up enough that she didn’t notice that it sounded a little off.
Lucas walked into the studio where he took his martial arts classes, feeling slightly withdrawn. His mother had dropped Nina off at her dance studio, and Sam had been outside to meet her and walk her inside. Nina talked about him a lot lately, and Lucas, whether he wanted to know or not, now knew how many performances Sam had been in, how many lead parts he had, and how many ‘girlfriends’ he had had.
The last part made Lucas wrinkle his nose. They were only in the fifth grade, for crying out loud! Sure, they would be in sixth grade the next year, but he hadn’t even thought about looking at girls. Nina was about the only girl he could handle on a regular basis, and that was because she was like his other half. Now, he felt like there was a distance between them, and Sam, whether he realized it or not, was the cause. It wasn’t like he didn’t like the kid, since he didn’t know him, but he missed having Nina’s full attention.
Lucas changed from his street clothes into his uniform and then met his coach out on the mats for stretching. He enjoyed the repetition of the movements, feeling like he could simply forget everything else and go from one position to the next without having to think about it. As they finished stretching, his coach, a thin Asian man named Daniel who refused to be called anything else, touched Lucas lightly on the arm, and gestured toward a nearby chair. “You seem troubled today, Lucas. Is something bothering you?”
Daniel offered him a glass of water and Lucas took it gladly, drinking down half of it before shrugging. “It’s not a big deal.”
His coach smiled and took a seat in the chair across from him. “If you can name it as an ‘it’, and are aware of what it is, it’s a bigger deal than you might think. Would you like to talk about it?”
Lucas thought about that for a moment. He felt weird talking about it to his mom, since she was Nina’s mom’s best friend and might say something to her, and he didn’t think his dad would be interested. But he found that he wanted to talk about it with someone. “It’s my best friend,” he began.
“The dancer girl, yes? Nina?”
Lucas nodded and shrugged. “Well, she wasn’t always a dancer. She just started doing that. I’ve always known her as an artist. She’s so great at drawing, and painting. She still does it, but not as much since she started dancing. It kind of sucks, because she used to draw for me all the time, and now all I get is…notes.”
Daniel chuckled, then gestured for him to continue. “Well, she just had her first recital. The boy that danced the lead part with her started taking lessons from her ballet teacher, and now, he’s all she talks about. I…kind of feel like she’s forgotten about me.” Lucas sighed and finished his water. “I’ve only talked to him a couple of times, and he seems like a nice kid, but…I miss my friend. I miss when it was just me and her.”
His coach nodded in understanding. “You’ve told me about her, I think…you’ve been friends since you were very little, yes?” Lucas nodded in answer. “Well, that’s normal. You’re both getting older, and letting new people into your lives is going to happen. Have you ever thought that…maybe she likes him?”
Lucas wrinkled his nose for the second time that day. “If she does, she hasn’t told me.”
Daniel nodded. “She might be too embarrassed to say anything about it to you. Or she might not even realize it yet. Now, Lucas…here’s a question. It sounds like you wouldn’t be happy if that’s the case. Is it possible that, perhaps, you like her?”
Lucas blinked, looking at his coach like he was crazy. “No! I mean, she’s my best friend, and I love her like she’s family, but…I can’t look at her like that. That’s just weird.”
Daniel laughed, careful to not show Lucas through his face that he thought Lucas wasn’t thinking about it deeply enough. They were only children yet, after all, and reasoning with children wasn’t the easiest thing in the world. “Alright. So you like her only as a friend. But she might like this kid as more than that. You’re all young yet, so it might be confusing her. And you miss your friend – but she might be worried that you’ll get mad at her, or stop being her friend, if she says anything to you about it. She might not realize what she’s doing, but she could be preparing herself for you pulling away. If you care about your friend, and your friendship, you need to let her know that you’ll be there for her no matter what – and also that you want your own time with her, where she remembers that you were her friend long before she found some boy that she likes.
Lucas thought about what Daniel said, and then nodded slightly. He looked Daniel in his eyes and said, “Okay. Can we…get back to the lessons now?”
Daniel laughed and nodded, then gestured for Lucas to begin his floor exercises.
Laurie picked Lucas up from the studio, Nina already settled into the front seat of her sedan. She had music on, which was usually an indication that she wasn’t keen on conversation. Lucas’ mother was a writer, and had some very specific quirks about her writing. When she was in the middle of a scene, she wouldn’t let anyone talk to her if she was taken away from it. Lucas and Nina were both used to it, and so they remained silent through the ride. Once they were back at the Connellys’ house, Laurie sequestered herself back into her office, and Lucas led Nina up to his room so that they could pass the time away until Nina’s mother returned from work.
Nina settled herself in Lucas’ green beanbag, while Lucas sat in the chair at his homework desk. They were silent for a few minutes, and then Lucas asked softly, “Can we talk about something, Neen?”
She had picked up a comic book that had been dangling off of a nearby shelf when he had spoke, and it surprised her a little, enough that it took a second to register what he asked. Nina turned her head toward him, and the look in her eyes was a little worried.
“Sure, Luke…something wrong?” she asked.
“Not…exactly,” he began. He scooted off of the chair and moved to sit near her, curling his legs beneath him to get comfortable by the beanbag chair. “I just…well, I guess I’m just a little confused. I don’t know if I’m getting something wrong, and I figure I should ask you instead of thinking up weird stuff in my head.”
It was Nina’s turn to look confused, and she had achieved it perfectly, Lucas thought. He knew he was being vague, but he would explain what he meant. After she was silent for a few moments, and finally got the look in her eyes as if asking whether he was going to get to it, he let out a breath. “You’ve…been talking about Sam an awful lot lately, Neen. Like, you bring him up at really weird times, when I wouldn’t think there was any reason to talk about him. And I saw that he was waiting for you outside the studio when Mom dropped you off this afternoon. I guess I’m just wondering…so I can stop being confused…do you…um…do you like him, Nina?”
Nina blushed and ran a hand over her head, feeling the smoothness of the tightly-pulled-back hair, clear back to the ponytail holder that held the tail of her long hair to swish down her back. “I don’t know,” she answered softly, staring down at her hands. “He’s awfully smart. And funny. And he doesn’t treat me like I’m stupid or weak or anything just because I’m a girl. He actually reminds me of you, a lot, except that I don’t feel like he’s family. Sam…well, Sam’s new. You’re my best friend, you’re like the other half of me. And he…we’re becoming friends. Except that I can’t just look at him like a friend. He calls me pretty and carries my stuff and only wants to dance with me in class, not any of the other girls. I mean, it’s weird…I’ve never really liked a boy before, so I don’t know how it goes. But he makes me feel…special.”
Lucas glanced down, and Nina realized what she had said. “Luke, please don’t do that,” she begged, reaching out to grab his hand. “You’ve always made me feel special. You’ve always made my life feel like something amazing. It’s always been me and you, and I love that. I just mean…he makes me feel special. You and I are special together, we’re wonderful and amazing and awesome and we’re meant to be something out of this world. But he…well, he looks at me and I think sometimes that I might be the only girl in the world.” Nina sighed and shook her head. “I’m sorry…if I’ve made you feel like I don’t care about you anymore. I think I’ve been a little overexcited.”
“Would you like him so much if you hadn’t danced on stage with him?” Lucas asked, tilting his head up so that he could look at her.
She shrugged, fidgeting slightly. “I don’t know. That’s where I first met him, and it was…great. He’s such a good dancer, and then he told me that I was good. Maybe if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t even be talking to him now, but…it did, and I’m glad, because he’s a really nice boy.”
“If he’s nice to you,” Lucas said, smiling a little at her, “I guess that’s all that matters. Do you really think he likes you?”
Nina smiled and shrugged again. “I don’t know. But I’m having fun thinking that he might.”
The last day of school had come and gone, and Nina was staying the night over at Lucas’ house so that they could make it to the airport in time the next morning for their flight to Florida. Sam had come over for a couple of hours to play games and spend some time with Nina before she was going to be gone for two whole weeks, and his mother had just picked him up. Bryan, Laurie, and Sabrina had rented a movie to watch for their last adult night before they left for Disneyworld, leaving Nina and Lucas to entertain one another upstairs. Their parents had given them the option of renting a movie of their own to watch in Lucas’ room, but they’d decided not to, and were now reading through the notebooks that they had written in during the year, laughing at some passages and blushing in embarrassment at others.
“We should do this every year,” Nina said, taking a long swallow of her orange soda. “Look through these things and see how silly we were, or how right. You know, like when I told you that Anne girl in your class liked you. You didn’t believe me, but I was right.”
Lucas laughed and shrugged. “Sure, we can do that. And Anne didn’t like me. She liked the only boy who didn’t tease her because of her red hair.”
“Which was you.”
“You’re missing the point, Neen.”
Nina snickered and turned a page, coming to a drawing she’d done in the beginning of the year, one that filled up the entire sheet of paper. “I remember doing this,” she said with a smile. “I haven’t done much drawing since I started my ballet lessons.” The smile slid into something more wistful, and she sighed. “I guess I haven’t had a lot of time to do it.”
Lucas was looking at the drawing and remembering it himself. That had been the same day that he’d found out that his grandmother had died. The same night that Nina had heard things that his parents had said, and, though Nina didn’t know it, he’d resolved to make some changes, not just for his parents, or for Nina, but for himself as well. He’d gone and asked for martial arts lessons. Not only did he take them, but he’d found out that he was good. It had given him extra confidence that added to his normally unshakeable demeanor. Nina had started taking her ballet lessons soon after, and he’d noticed a change in her too – in the way she dressed, a little more girly now, the way she talked to people, not picking so many fights. Maybe, he thought, this was how they began to grow up.
“Well…we can do a little bit of that now, if you want,” he said with a little grin. Lucas reached over to his shelf and pulled out a wide sketchbook, and his bucket of colored pencils. “C’mon. I’ll tell a story, and you sketch it out. All on one sheet. Add whatever you want in as I tell the story, and we’ll see what you come up with.
Nina grinned and took the book and pencils, flipping open to a clean page. “You’re on.”
They spent the next three hours storytelling and sketching, with loud laughter drifting down to the living room where their parents sat watching their movie, finally falling asleep, Lucas on his bed, Nina curled up in the bean bag chair. Bryan checked on them, lifting Nina up easily and placing her on the trundle bed, tucking her in carefully, not wanting to wake her.
The next morning, Sabrina had made breakfast while the others showered and got ready for their trip, stowing their suitcases in the Connellys’ minivan, running around the house looking for lost but precious items, and trying to stay awake despite getting up at such an early hour. Sabrina was used to being up early, and so had volunteered to get them fed while they did what they needed to, and the other adults had readily agreed.
After being fed, they piled into the van and Sabrina drove them to the airport. Pulling up to the curb, Sabrina parked to help get their luggage out. While Bryan and Laurie were exchanging their tickets for boarding passes, Nina said her goodbyes to her mother.
“I wish you were coming, Mom,” she said in a small voice, hugging her tightly.
“Oh, me too, sweetheart. I wish I didn’t have to miss this. But I’m glad you’re getting to go. And I’ll be right here when you get back. Maybe we’ll go to that art museum you’ve always wanted to go to, just me and you. How’s that sound?”
Nina smiled and hugged her mom tighter. “Whatever you want, Mom. I’m good.”
Well, you’re sleeping, but I can’t sleep. We’re going to Florida tomorrow, and I’m so glad that you’re coming with us. It wouldn’t be the same without you. I wish your mom could come, but maybe next time? There’s got to be a next time, right?
I’m glad Sam came over earlier. I haven’t really been able to get to know him, but you’re right, he’s a nice kid. If you’ve got to like someone, I guess it might as well be him. You got his address, right? So you can send him a postcard while we’re gone?
I had a lot of fun tonight, doing the whole drawing and storytelling thing. I know what you mean, it feels like it’s been ages since we’ve done anything like that, since we started doing new stuff. But we’ll just have to figure out a way to do it all I guess, right? There’s time enough for that next year.
Hey, I just realized, this is the last sheet of paper in this notebook. Guess that means we’ll need to get a new one in Florida, or maybe at the airport so we can write on the plane. How weird is that, that it ended right when school did?
Hey, guess what, Nina? WE’RE GOING TO DISNEYLAND! Don’t tell me you’re not excited.
Summer went by quick, didn’t it? Too quick, really. We didn’t do half the things that we planned to…but what we did do was fun anyway. It was funny, you refusing to say anything about summer ending this whole last week, like we still had months of it ahead. But, you know what? It made the last week great. Not having to worry about school coming up, or our senior year, or anything like that. It was perfect. Maybe more so because it was the only week all summer that we had all to ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, I love hanging out with Grace, and I can never have enough time with Sam, but it feels like we don’t do anything on our own anymore, like when we were kids. I kind of miss it…so having that one week to sort of remember what it was like to be kids together was probably the greatest thing we could have given each other.
So enough mushy stuff. I can’t believe we’re seniors! After this year, it’s all us from there, going out and making our way in the world. I can just see us now, at this time next year, phase one of our plan to rule this planet will be in effect. Just kidding, but seriously? I know we’re going to do amazing at the whole adult thing. Now we just have to get past school. It’ll help that we’ve got all those classes together…you know, with the boredom factor.
So I’ll be giving you this before homeroom, and then I’ll see you and Grace in chem. Be good til then, Luke.
Nina had to fight to keep her head from hitting her desk. Math was never her best subject, and to have it first thing in the morning seemed like a death knell for her stellar grade point average. She barely wanted to be awake, and being forced to listen to an old, tired voice drone on about integers and variables was not exactly a punch of adrenaline. She didn’t even have the notebook, having given it to Lucas right as she’d gotten to school, with barely a second to lose before the bell rang for homeroom. Lucas and Grace, her best friend’s girlfriend of the past six months, had made a beeline for the homeroom class they shared, clear at the back of campus, while Nina had scaled the steps to go to her own homeroom class, the same one she had had the past two years, since she was on the yearbook committee. Aside from having a class period for yearbook matters, the yearbook staff also had brief meetings during that short class period of homeroom.
Sighing, she pulled out her own notebook, figuring that she should at least look as though she were taking notes. In reality, though, she was working on a rough sketch that she’d begun over the summer of her boyfriend, Samuel. She had stopped taking ballet after she’d turned thirteen, wanting to focus on her art instead, but she still went to the studio at least once a week while Sam practiced, and during one session, she had begun to draw him there in the studio, standing at the barre in front of a wall of mirrors. Over the last several weeks, it had been steadily been added to, developed into something more than a quick sketch. Nina wasn’t sure why she was putting off transferring the drawing to canvas, where she could paint it properly, but at least for now, it served for some manner of entertainment while she worked at ignoring the teacher, even if that wasn’t the best thing to do on the first day of school.
She had trouble believing most of the time that she and Sam had now been dating for a little over three years. Nina had liked him since she had danced in Coppelia with him, and had gotten to know him really well while they had taken ballet lessons together. It was the only time they’d really had, other than occasional get-togethers at one of their houses, since he went to a school across town. Then, on her fourteenth birthday, in the middle of July, he’d asked her to be his girlfriend, sitting on a blanket in her front yard under the stars. She’d learned a few days afterward that a comet had collided with Jupiter, and her heart had grown romantic enough that she believed it had to be a sign. Nina had no doubt in her mind that she loved Sam, he was a good guy and had always been amazing to her. Sometimes, it just seemed like it was all fiction, though. Like it was just filler for a story.
Finally, like a blessing, the bell rang, signaling the end of class, and Nina was one of the first ones out, having seated herself at the back. The notebook with her drawing had been stuffed back into her bag, and Nina all but ran for a nearby vending machine, craving chocolate before she went to her next class, the economics course that seniors at her high school were required to take, which was sure to be another snoozefest. She looked down the hall for a second after punching in the numbers for what she wanted, and her eyes landed on Lucas, walking hand-in-hand down the hall with Grace.
Lucas had filled his thin, fragile body out once he’d started to grow. He would never be bulky, Nina thought, but he was tall and slender, with a build that was muscular without being ostentatious. His hair was still the deep red of his father’s, but he had taken to cutting it short instead of letting the thick waves he’d gotten from his mother grow out. His blue eyes were still as soft and kind as ever, sparkling at any given time with his ready humor and wit. He had, over the years, gotten over his shyness, and had begun making friends more easily, and now, as a senior, he was one of the more popular boys at school, even though he was still quiet, soft-spoken, and loved his writing more than ever. He’d found a way to come out of his shell, which had both pleased and worried Nina. He had begun dating Grace, a pretty brunette girl on the cheerleading squad, a couple of months before school had let out, and it had served to cement his place at school as someone ‘cool’.
Lucas caught sight of Nina at the vending machine and walked toward her, grinning broadly. “That bad, huh?” he asked, casting eyes at the chocolate bar she’d just pulled out of the machine. “Normally, it takes at least a week before you have to dig in for help.”
Nina wrinkled her nose and glanced briefly at Grace before looking back toward her friend. “Stuff it. I have intermediate algebra first period.”
Lucas winced for effect, and turned his grin toward his girlfriend. “Neen’s hatred for math rears its ugly head again.”
Grace snickered and turned her lovely brown eyes to Nina. “That’s not going to help much, though, you know. You should try a granola bar or something, that would help you stay awake better.”
Nina’s eyes narrowed slightly, and she bit back a retort as the warning bell sounded. Making herself smile, she turned around and waved over her shoulder. “I’ll see you guys next period.”
Sitting down in the seat she’d chosen once she reached her economics class, Nina tore into the candy bar with a little bit of viciousness, muttering under her breath. “Ugh, Little Miss Perfect can have her nasty granola bars.” She bit into the chocolate and sighed, propping her head up on her hand, supported by her elbow against the desk. Suddenly, the day looked as though it was going to take years to get through.
Lucas watched Nina walk down the hall, and he and Grace picked up their step to make it to their next classes on time. He’d caught the look in Nina’s eyes, and it had worried him a little, but he was unsure about how to mention it to his girlfriend without making her mad at him. Coming to Grace’s class first, he leaned in to kiss her cheek briefly, then stepped back to smile and go to his class, stopped by hearing Grace speak.
“I hope I didn’t make Nina mad. I was only trying to help,” she said, twirling a finger in her hair as she glanced down.
“I’m sure she knows that, Gracie. She’s just not at her best in the morning, so she’s a little surly.”
“I guess,” she replied, shrugging. “I’ll see you next period, Luke.”
He watched Grace enter her classroom, and crossed the hall so that he could go into his. He knew Grace was telling the truth, that she only wanted to help, but the fact was that Nina and Grace were on two different wavelengths. Grace was a cheerleader, used to watching her diet closely, exercising vigorously, and having to work to keep her figure where it needed to be for the exertion she put it through. Nina, on the other hand, had always been the artsy type, and one of those girls that never really had to work to stay slender, though her years of ballet lessons hadn’t hurt in that manner. He knew that Nina still kept up her stretching, and danced every so often when at lessons with Sam. All the same, Nina had never worried about watching what she ate, but he knew she could be plagued by self-doubt as much as any other girl their age. Her boyfriend was at another school, and having another girl constantly around that put emphasis on what to do and not to do with food, especially when they were as pretty as Grace was, could be daunting.
Of course, Nina had never understood just how beautiful she was. Her hair had darkened, but only slightly, so that her white-blonde hair had a sheen of brown to it on the underside, giving her the effect of two-toned hair. She was tall, taller than some of the boys in their class, and slender, her body and personality made for dressing in bold, outrageous styles. Her green eyes seemed capable of staring into anyone’s soul, and, to Lucas, it had often seemed like she could take that and put it to paper or canvas. The girl could have had her pick of any boy at school she wanted, but she chose to remain loyal to the first one that had made her feel special, as she’d told Lucas all those years ago.
Lucas sighed and took his seat in his history class, pulling out a textbook and notebook, followed by the notebook he shared with Nina. Part of him couldn’t believe that they’d actually kept this tradition going for so long, especially with the two of them both dating now. Lucas knew there was always the possibility that either Sam or Grace could get jealous and make them stop, but, for now, Lucas was taking comfort in the fact that he still had this manner of communication, private and unsullied, with his best friend.
He opened it to the last page that Nina had wrote on, and read the note that she had written the night before. He smiled, remembering their last hurrahs of the summer, going to the zoo, spending a day at the nearby lake and jumping time after time off of one of the tall rocks situated in the middle, instituting a monthly ‘alternate’ movie night, where one of them would pick the movie one month, and the other the next month, and neither of them could complain about their friend’s choice. Thinking about it, he realized that she was right – they almost never spent time alone anymore, it seemed like they were always doubled up with Grace and Sam. That wasn’t a bad thing, most of the time, but he did miss hanging out with Nina alone. He turned the page, and began replying to her note while the teacher introduced the terms of the class.
Lucas wrote her name, beginning the note as he had so very often, and then found that he didn’t know what to say. He had never had a problem saying anything to Nina, but now it simply seemed weird. He turned the page back to her note and re-read it, trying to find something that jumped out at him, something that would give him a starting point. He didn’t know what the problem was, so it was hard to pinpoint a place to fix it. Then he had a bit of an epiphany – Nina was never so emotional, or so…mushy, as she had said. Normally, he was the hopeless romantic while Nina was the logical-minded one, and now, it seemed like their places were reversed. He knew what he should say – that they were getting older, and it was only natural to find someone to complement them romantically. They would always be best friends, but the time had passed when they were all that the other had.
The problem was actually saying it, because he didn’t really believe it.
Lucas sighed softly and slid a hand through his short hair, wondering how he could skate around this. He really cared about Grace…but when he thought several years down the road, the only one that he could see there was Nina, because she was the only constant in his life. Grace was something amazing for now, but there was no guarantee that it would last, no certainty that she would stick with him as time went on. Aside from that, he couldn’t tell her that it was natural for the two of them to spend more time apart than they used to, when it seemed like it was inviting Sam and Grace into their world that was the real work.
He was between a rock and a hard place, he knew. Sure, their notebooks were private and he knew that she wouldn’t tell Sam anything that went on solely between them, just the same as he wouldn’t snitch to Grace. But he wanted Nina to be happy, and Sam gave that to her in a way that Lucas was pretty certain he couldn’t. After all, they were best friends. They’d never suit as anything else. He wasn’t sure if he and Grace would go the distance, but he was willing to give it a shot. But did that really have to mean that he and Nina couldn’t ever simply hang out alone ever again? Did there always have to be a full car, for lack of a better term? He recalled times over the summer when he told Grace of plans that he had with Nina…plans that she inexplicably managed to invite herself to, sometimes without enough warning to let Nina know so that she could invite Sam as well.
Was that half the problem? Did Grace harbor some sort of jealousy or resentment toward Nina? The comment that morning about Nina needing to find something better to eat had been out of Grace’s normal character. Lucas knew that he had assured Grace more than once that he and Nina were simply best friends, and had been since birth. He also knew that Nina had never had to do any of this with Sam, but then…Sam had been around since they were all ten years old, he’d had time to get to know their dynamic and find his own place within it.
So the big question: Was this all Grace’s fault?
Lucas sighed again and sat back, trying to focus on what the teacher was talking about, if only just to give his overactive mind a break from jumping to conclusions. It normally wasn’t hard, history was a favorite class of his, and, if what was written on the board was any indication, they were going to be beginning the year with the Chinese Revolution, a time that he hadn’t studied yet. But he couldn’t shake the idea that the girl he’d taken as his girlfriend was somehow trying to sabotage his friendship with the girl who had been there his entire life. Without meaning to, a memory from the summer flashed in his mind, arriving at Nina’s house for one activity or another with Grace in tow, and seeing the dejected look on his friend’s face. Another memory flashed, and he remembered the feeling of relief he’d had when Grace had told him that her parents were taking her to the seashore for the last week of summer, doubled when Nina told him that Sam and his family had gone north for that last week for a final vacation.
Lucas let out a breath, opened the notebook again, and began to write, pencil moving across paper almost with a vengeance.
The bell rang to end the class period, and Nina practically staggered out of her economics class. She hated admitting it to herself, but she would rather go through a full day of nothing but math classes than sit through economics – and this was only the first day! She reached her locker and opened it up, switching the economics textbook for her chemistry text and workbook, then closed the locker again and spun the combination lock. By the time she made it to chemistry, with a minute to spare, she found that Lucas and Grace were already seated – and that the other two chairs at their table were already taken. She couldn’t help the sizzle of hurt and betrayal that shot through her, staring at Lucas for a moment before she ducked her head and went for the nearest seat, settling into it and refusing to look backward.
The class droned by in a slow blur, Nina barely paying attention as she wondered what had happened. Maybe Grace had gotten her knickers in a twist because Nina hadn’t been quick enough to get her irritated look off her face? Perhaps Lucas hadn’t been fond of the fact that he’d known Nina had been two seconds away from snapping at his girlfriend? Nina didn’t know, but she had thought that she and Grace were friendly enough – and Lucas…he’d never not saved her a seat in any class they ever had together before.
As the class ended, Nina shoved her books back into her bag and sped out of the class so that neither Lucas nor Grace could catch up with her. She didn’t want to hear excuses, she didn’t want to hear apologies. She was going to her art class, and she was going to drown herself in paint. And when school ended, she was going to go right to the dance studio and dance with Sam, her boyfriend, and, as of that moment, the only boy who had never hurt her. She wasn’t even going to wait for the notebook to be traded back to her.
Nina stalked into her art class, gave a perfunctory greeting to her teacher, whom she normally adored, and secluded herself in a corner of the room that managed to be almost an alcove, surrounded by vacant cabinets and easels, hiding her in plain sight. She grabbed a nearby easel and a large canvas, setting it up for a portrait. Hitting the paint cabinets, she gathered up several bottles of acrylics, grabbed a coffee can full of an assortment of brushes, and another that she filled with water. Somehow, amazingly, she managed not to spill any of what was gathered in her arms before reaching her station again.
She painted in broad, angled strokes, using reds and blacks and blues so dark they were almost a jet color on their own. She left unpainted holes of white canvas for accent, and applied sharp slashes of yellow and purple and green where they would work. Before she knew it, the class period was over, and her eyes blinked, taking in the painting that she had completed in her fury, of a blackened red rose that grew and grew, so tall and large that it choked out the rest of the garden of sunny yellow pansies and bright purple poppies, an angry black sky above the dead garden. Her art teacher, Ms. Anderson, came to her station once the class had emptied to speak to Nina before the next class came in and Nina had to go to hers.
“Are you alright, Nina? You seemed upset.”
It was natural and normal, as far as Nina was concerned, that Ms. Anderson had waited until the class was over to try to speak to her. Ms. Anderson was a great advocate of letting out extreme emotions through art. So she would wait until Nina took out her anger on the canvas, and then would approach.
“I don’t know,” Nina said wearily, taking the brushes to the sink to rinse them out, and then she dumped the dirty water down the drain as well, leaving the brushes in the strainer to dry out. “I just…don’t seem to know what’s going on. I feel like I’m helpless.”
Since Nina hadn’t volunteered information as to what had her feeling helpless, Ms. Anderson decided not to ask and instead said, “You’re not helpless. No matter what else happens, you always have yourself, and you have your talent. It will never fail you or guide you wrong. Now, can I hang this up in here, or would you like to take it home?”
Nina chuckled and waved a hand. “You can have it. Can you write me a note? I think I’m going to be late to my English class.”
Ms. Anderson grinned and nodded, going to her desk to write the note and hand it back to Nina. “You know you’re welcome in here any time that you need to let out some steam, Nina.”
Nina smiled. “I know. Thanks, Ms. A.”
Lucas took advantage of Grace having cheerleading practice right after school and waited for Nina outside the school doors. Once she exited, her eyes landed on Lucas, and she glared at him, pushing past him with an elbow to his ribs. He grunted, then moved to catch up with her. “Neen, don’t be like that. It wasn’t my fault.”
“Right. Those guys were definitely going to mess you up if you told them you were saving a seat for your best friend.”
“I had only just gotten to class. Grace had only saved one seat, the other two were already there. I was just about to ask one of them to move when you came in and got all pissed off.” Lucas groaned and rolled his eyes. “I told Grace that was messed up of her. She said that she forgot you were in that class.”
“Never mind that I had just said one period earlier that I’d see you guys in chemistry?”