This Game Is Getting All Too Real

   Sam Tracy likes to stay under the radar and hang out with his friends from the Rez. But when he saves rich suburban princess Riley Berenger from falling off a mountain, she decides to try to save him. Riley promises to help Sam win the heart of the girl he can’t get over, and suddenly Sam is mad popular and on everyone’s hot list. Except now Riley’s trying out some brand-new bad-girl moves and turning both of their lives upside down.



   “Fred is a likable heroine, both loyal to her community and determined to create a different life for herself….The high level of emotional drama will appeal to fans of contemporary teen romances, and readers with a special interest in books with Native American characters will be interested in the raw clash of cultures depicted in an Arizona community.”


   “This is Fichera’s debut teen novel, and she immerses the reader in the culture of the Southwestern Native American way of life.”

   —VOYA magazine

   “I love Fred—she’s sporty, smart, stands up for herself and goes after what she wants.”

   —Miranda Kenneally, author of Catching Jordan and Stealing Parker

   “From the very first pages, this powerful story about the fight for tolerance, equality, understanding and love will have you ‘hooked.’”

   —Megan Bostic, author of Never Eighteen

   “I love this book so much!…Now that I’ve read it, I can say it’s one of my favourites I’ve read this year…It’s like Perfect Chemistry (one of my fave books ever!) and Catching Jordan and golf!”

   —Jana, The Book Goddess

   “Honestly, I did not understand what I was getting myself into when I picked up this book. It was crazy amazing! I was intrigued by the story because it was a new idea to me. It was great and I would recommend it to anyone who wants something cute that is a little bit different.”

   —Gabie, Owl Eyes Reviews

   “Hooked is exactly the right title for this one, because hooked is what I was from page one on. Liz Fichera has written a masterpiece about the troubles of high school, acceptance and how to be yourself.”

   —Erica, The Book Cellar

   “Hooked is one of the best contemporary YA novels that I’ve read since Pushing the Limits. It is a stunning story about what happens when two people from opposite ends of life fall for each other….Fichera’s words are compelling and gorgeous, creating a truly fantastic novel.”

   —Bailey, I B Book Blogging

   Books by Liz Fichera

   available from Mira Ink




   Liz Fichera


   For Craig




























































   We know what we are,

   but know not what we may be.

   —William Shakespeare



   Being the good daughter wasn’t easy.

   First there was the guilt that gnawed at my self-esteem like a leech whenever I didn’t live up to my parents’ expectations. That guilt could be triggered by the smallest of things. Like when I snapped at Mom before school because I was late and she didn’t appreciate my lipstick shade, and she looked back at me with wide eyes as if wondering whether I was her real daughter or an imposter from outer space. Or when I pulled a B on a chemistry test (my least favorite subject) instead of the A Mom and Dad wanted. For the rest of the day, my anxiety was on overdrive.

   Second, because I’ve had to overcompensate for my loser older brother for, like, ever, old habits were hard to break. The worse he behaved, the better I behaved, because I was the Designated Good Daughter, remember? So when Ryan would come home reeking of cigarettes and beer, or sometimes not at all, and Dad would corner me about him in the family room, I’d make excuses for him. “He had to go upstairs” or “He’s getting a cold” were my standbys as I feigned interest in whatever was playing on television. Being the perfect daughter, I got away with my little white lies, and my parents overlooked my brother’s shortcomings. It was easier that way. And even though Ryan had recently achieved Good Son status thanks to his new girlfriend, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had to continue to be the glue that kept my family together.

   Which was why it made no sense that I’d been going out of my way the past few months to be the Undesignated Bad Daughter. It was like there was another person inside of me with her hands on the controls, pushing my arms and legs, my mouth. My brain. She was definitely stronger than the normal, good me. But this strong part of me kept my confused and frustrated parts together, the ones that I tried to keep hidden from everybody.

   You see, being the good daughter wasn’t something I wanted. It was just the way the universe arranged things. No rhyme or reason. I’d give anything for a do-over, a chance at some normalcy. A chance to make mistakes and not always feel like bad behavior meant I deserved banishment to a black vortex.

   “Just one teeny prick, Riley. Maybe two, at most. Between your eyebrows. You’ll never feel a thing,” Drew said. “It’ll make you look hot.” Drew Zuniga had been in dance club with me at Lone Butte High School since freshman year. She was pretty much my only friend, but I was a quality-over-quantity kind of girl—at least, that’s what I told myself. It made my friend situation seem Zen instead of serving as reminder that I wasn’t very popular, despite having a popular older brother. We had gotten into the habit of chilling at her house after dance practice. It totally beat walking home, especially during the hotter months which, in Phoenix, Arizona, was pretty much every month. And walking was for freshman. The best part was that Drew had gotten a car for her sixteenth birthday and could ferry us around. I had to wait three more months before I’d get to pick out my own car, which was as good as waiting for forever. Today we were standing in her bathroom as I watched her point a clear syringe-like thingy at my face. It was freaky crazy, actually, but Drew was my friend. I trusted her.

   The syringe was filled with some type of BOTOX concoction, pilfered from her dad’s medicine cabinet. Dr. Zuniga was a plastic surgeon and brought home BOTOX injections for Mrs. Zuniga, who, in her defense, did look like she could fit in with the popular seniors at our school. From a distance, at least.

   “But this is creepy.” I leaned away from the shiny pointy end as far as the edge of the bathroom counter would allow. “You don’t even know what you’re doing.”

   “Sure I do!” Her brown eyes widened with indignation. “I’ve watched my dad do it a ton. One time I even practiced on an orange. It’s just a tiny prick.” She paused. “And one time my dad even did it on me. Right here.” She pointed to her chin.

   “No way.”

   “Way. See how smooth the skin feels?”

   I squinted at her chin. It did look a little different, maybe rounder. Softer. It might have been my imagination but I thought Drew’s chin used to look square. Like a boy’s. “But this stuff is supposed to be for moms. With wrinkles,” I said.

   “And you’ve got a few already, I hate to tell you, chica.” Drew’s eyes swept over my face in full I’m-not-really-a-dermatologist-but-I-play-one-on-TV mode.

   “Where?” I turned toward the mirror.

   “Right there.” She pointed to the skin between my eyebrows, which, okay, had a few stray blond hairs that needed plucking.

   “Those are freckles.” I frowned at her. Teeny orangey-brown spots dotted my forehead like a dartboard.

   Drew ignored me. “It’ll tighten that skin right up. This stuff is totally preventative. You’ll see.”

   I swallowed as my knees weakened. I could use a little help, that much was certain, but would it make me look pretty? Jenna Gibbons-pretty? Jenna Gibbons was without a doubt the most gorgeous girl in our sophomore class. To make matters worse for every other girl at school, she had a twin sister, Jeniel, who looked exactly like her but wasn’t as outgoing—which was a good thing, because two perfect Jennas on the planet would be more than any girl could handle. With their wavy black hair and killer blue eyes, the twins could seriously be teen models. Why did some girls have all the luck? “But won’t it leave a scar?” I said, weakening beneath Drew’s unrelenting gaze.

   “No scars. It’ll just leave a little red mark. Like an ant bite. It’ll be gone by tomorrow.”

   “Tomorrow?” My voice rose. “What about tonight? My mom will freak.”

   Drew’s eyes rolled. “Your mom will be at work, like always.” Her hand—the one holding the syringe—lowered.

   I swallowed again. Drew had a point. No one would see me. Dad would work late on a case or a trial like always, too. Ryan would be at Fred’s house, where he was living practically 24/7. (By the way, Fred was a girl. Fred was short for Fredricka, but Fred hated her name and insisted everyone call her Fred—and who could blame her? She had an old-lady name, even though she was one of the coolest junior girls at school, in my opinion.)

   Besides, I’d overheard Shelley McMahon say at lunch that other girls at school had tried BOTOX, even Jenna Gibbons. That was why I remembered. That was why I was standing in Drew’s enormous bathroom, pressed against the double marble sinks, inches from a sadistic-looking syringe, squinting into about one hundred obnoxiously steaming-hot vanity lights. Maybe there was something to this BOTOX frenzy? And maybe feeling pretty was just as important as being pretty. “Okay,” I heard myself say. “Do it. Between my eyes. Just once.”

   Drew flashed a triumphant smile, her thumb ready at the end of the pump. “Trust me, after you see what this will do, you’ll be begging for more.”

   “Won’t your dad notice it missing?”

   She shrugged. “He hasn’t so far.”

   Then she positioned the syringe inches above my forehead.

   I sucked in a breath.

   “Lean back,” she said, reaching for my neck with her other hand.

   Every nerve, muscle and brain cell in my body told me that this was stupid and wrong, but I wasn’t in control. It was that other girl inside of me, the fiercer, spunkier one who’d been calling the shots—no pun intended—lately. That voice inside my head kept telling me that I needed to be cooler, more spontaneous. Different. Definitely different. So I leaned back, closed my eyes, tilted my head and begged for different.

   “Ouch,” I said when the needle pierced my skin, freezing my forehead like it’d been doused with dry ice. Then the feeling spread to the rest of my face. “This so better be worth it,” I said to Drew through gritted teeth.

   Drew took a step back, still holding the syringe in her right hand. She reached inside a jar on the counter that was stuffed with cotton balls.

   “It feels like my forehead is on fire.”

   She dabbed my skin with one of the cotton balls and some other liquid that I couldn’t see. “Don’t worry. It doesn’t last.” She took a step back, still studying me, and tossed her ponytail over her shoulder.

   “Better not. I’ve got the leadership conference this weekend.”

   Drew frowned. “Good gawd! Total dorkdom, Riley. You might as well wave the white flag on your social life right now.”

   “And what social life would that be?” I didn’t bother hiding my sarcasm. Besides, it wasn’t as though Drew had a better social life than I did. Otherwise, why would she be hanging out with me? “It’s my parents’ fault. They’re making me go,” I added, which was a complete lie. “And it looks good on college applications.” Now that was true. It was pretty hard to get into the Art Institute of Chicago—that was my dream—so I figured I’d need all the help I could get, especially since I was kind of mediocre at anything besides art classes, at least as far as my grade point average was concerned.


   I ignored her frown.

   But then Drew smiled. She finally said what I longed to hear. What I never heard. “You look different already.”

   I wanted to believe her. No, scratch that. I needed to believe her. It gave me hope. It lifted weight off my shoulders. For a moment, it was as if my life had real possibilities. Potential. Magic.

   Welcome to the inside of my crazy head.



   My buddy Peter and I hitched a ride in the bed of Martin Ellis’s pickup. Martin drove and Vernon Parker called shotgun. There was a party tonight somewhere near the Estrella foothills. When you lived way out on the Rez like we did, sometimes that was as close to real excitement as you got.

   Going out beat the alternative, which was stay home, watch my grandmother weave baskets on the front stoop and pretend that my heart hadn’t been pulverized into a thousand pieces.

   Martin’s truck chugged its way along a single-lane dirt road. The sun had already begun to set and by the time we reached the foothills, the sky would be as black as a bruise. Someone would have already started a campfire and (hopefully) someone else would have brought beer—just a can or two apiece, but that was probably all that anybody could sneak from home.

   Peter and I clung to the sides of the truck as Martin charged up and out of bumpy washes that snaked across the Sonoran Desert. Peter was another Rez kid and a junior at Lone Butte High like me. Despite being fifty pounds lighter, he was as tall as I was. That’s why our legs kept knocking whenever Martin sped like a madman over the washes. Across the truck bed, Peter kept giving me the stink eye from behind his wire-rimmed glasses, even as his glasses kept slipping down his nose.

   “Stop it,” he yelled over the grind of the engine.

   “Stop what?” I yelled back, tasting a thin layer of dust on my lips.

   He shook his head. “Stop thinking about it.” Peter and Martin were the only ones I’d told, but I was pretty sure everyone on the Rez knew. Even though the Gila River Indian Reservation stretched forever in just about every direction, it was microscopic, if you know what I mean. Sometimes the biggest places could be the tiniest.

   I shrugged and looked away from Peter, preferring to stare across miles of brown desert and dried tumbleweeds as if it were the most exciting scenery in the whole world.

   As usual, Martin continued to drive like a maniac. Frankly, I was surprised his old man’s truck could do more than thirty-five. If the truck were a hospital patient, someone would definitely be reading it its last rites.

   I turned away from Peter and focused on the wake of dust that swirled like a minitornado behind us in the darkening sky. If Peter referred to That Which Shouldn’t Be Named one more time, I was seriously thinking about ripping off a truck panel. It was bad enough that Peter even thought it. But he surprised me.

   “I can’t believe you’re gonna bail on us this weekend.”

   I breathed easier and looked at him. “I know. Can’t help it. My mom wants me to go.” Total lie. My parents, my dad especially, had stopped being interested in what I did at school ever since I’d started going to Lone Butte High. Not sure why, exactly. But it was better for all of us when they stayed out of my business. Besides, they both worked all the time at the casino on the Rez and Mom was studying for her master’s degree whenever she wasn’t working, so it was probably easier that they didn’t have to worry about me. One less hassle.

   “Why don’t you tell her that you don’t want to go? Martin, Vernon and me, we’re gonna drive down to Coolidge. Supposed to be a fair in town or something. Maybe even a rodeo.” His eyebrows wiggled. “Maybe even hot rodeo queens.”

   “You wish,” I said.

   “A dude can dream. What else I got?”

   I laughed. But then I dragged my tongue across my lips, tasting more dust. “Too late for me, anyway,” I said. “Already paid for it.” Another lie.


   “Seriously.” What I didn’t share was that Lone Butte High School had paid my registration fee to the Maricopa County High School Leadership Conference. They’d paid the fees for the two sophomores, two juniors and two seniors with the highest GPAs. I happened to be one of the two juniors. Sucks to be the other sixty students who were invited but had to pay out of their own pockets. Now all I had to do was show up to school tomorrow morning and board the bus. It would get me to Monday and put about 250 miles of desert between me and the Rez.

   “What do you want with some leadership bullshit?” Peter said. “You need someone to tell you what you already know?”

   I swallowed. The truth? I really didn’t know. My guidance counselor at school, Mr. Romero, had told me about it. He’d said things like conferences and awards looked good on college applications. He’d said I had to be more of a game player, especially since there was a good chance I was going to graduate early and colleges were already starting to inquire about me. Me. Sam Tracy, the smart kid from the Rez. Unfortunately I stunk at playing games. Just give me something in black-and-white, minus the sugarcoating. Minus the doublespeak.

   A part of me knew I couldn’t stay in-state, and I think Mr. Romero would just about blow a gasket if I didn’t apply to college, not when my SATs were among the highest in Arizona. Too bad that looking good on paper was more important than simply being smart enough.

   I closed my eyes and tried to ignore Peter, even as he teased me for the rest of the ride about being the biggest nerd on the Rez. It was probably true.

   Peter was lucky he was one of my best friends. Otherwise I would have tossed him out of the truck, which was pretty easy to do when you were my size.



   Mom dropped me off in the Lone Butte High School parking lot early Saturday morning with my overnight bag. The sun was still rising over the horizon, bright as an orange slice. Small bonus: Mom had just gotten off her hospital shift and her red-rimmed eyes were clouded with fatigue, one of the drawbacks to being a doctor, but a major advantage when you didn’t want her to notice stuff. It helped that we had to drive into the sun. That was probably why she hadn’t commented about my fave tie-dyed pink baseball cap being tugged superlow over my forehead. I had to hide the results of Doctor Drew’s secret BOTOX concoction handiwork. I was lucky it hadn’t turned into an infection or a rash or worse. It looked like a couple of ant bites, just as Drew had warned me. She’d conveniently forgotten to tell me, though, that my forehead would feel like plastic. Whenever I wrinkled my nose, my forehead stayed as frozen as stone. Most people wouldn’t notice, but most people weren’t my mom.

   “When should I pick you up?” Mom yawned as I opened the passenger door of her Mercedes. Two yellow school buses waited next to the curb, their engines idling. Students had already begun to board. I recognized a few from Lone Butte, a couple sophomores and juniors, but nobody that I knew well. Most of the ones that I didn’t recognize were from other Phoenix schools. One guy was actually wearing a cowboy hat so I figured him for Queen Creek, way out in the boondocks where people still had ranches and dairy farms. Kind of lanky-cute in a Jake Gyllenhaal way.

   “Tomorrow night,” I said. “We’re supposed to be back here by six.”

   “What time did your brother get home last night?” she asked, her eyes narrowing with newfound sharpness.

   I pulled the rim of my cap even lower. “Not late,” I lied. “Probably around ten.” Another lie. More like midnight.

   Mom smiled, just like I’d known she would. “Good. Well, have a good time. Where are you going again?”

   “Woods Canyon,” I said, but the door had already shut. I had left all the brochures and information about the leadership conference on the kitchen counter, perfectly stapled and organized with pink paperclips and Post-it notes, and, seriously? She’d signed my registration form two weeks ago, so it wasn’t like she didn’t already know. I didn’t want to have this conversation with people staring at us from the bus windows. That was kind of why I didn’t wave, either. I mean, it wasn’t like she was dropping me off for my first day of kindergarten or anything.

   Life would be so much better when I got my own car.

   Instead, I pulled out my cell phone from my pocket and fired off a text while I walked to the bus:


    The conf is @ Woods Canyon. Info on the kitchen counter. Bye. Love u.

   I hoped she got the message. Mom didn’t totally get texting and hated that she had to pull out her reading glasses to see the keys. But I wasn’t going to call her when I was within spitting distance from the bus. Even though the windows were tinted, I could see the outlines of faces staring down at me and I was a little distressed to see that almost every seat, at least on the parking lot side, was taken.

   Two seconds later, Mom surprised me with a reply: Okay. Have a nice time. Love you back. Always. Mom

   Mom always signed her texts Mom as if I didn’t know it was her.

   I reached the front of the bus and drew back a steadying breath. Maybe going to this conference was a lame idea, after all. I mean, what normal teenager goes to a leadership conference on a perfectly good Saturday? I should be at the mall with Drew.

   I hoisted my bag higher on my shoulder. It wasn’t really a backpack but it wasn’t luggage, either. It happened to match my pink baseball cap. Pink, in case you hadn’t noticed, was my all-time favorite color. Given the choice of pink and anything else, I always went pink. Cheesy, I know, but the color was one of the few things in my life that made me happy. Whenever I saw shades of pink, I smiled inside. I kept waiting to graduate to a more mature color preference, like blue or retro green, but it just wasn’t happening. Maybe when I left for college.

   Scott Jin stood at the bus door with a clipboard. His eyes dropped to his sheet when he saw me, presumably to find my name. Scott knew me through my brother, like most upperclassman. I think he may have been on the golf team with Ryan before he traded golf for Math Club and Debate, but he always dressed like he was ready to play—brown shorts with perfect creases and golf shirts buttoned right up to his neck. “Riley Berenger,” he said, very official-like, without looking at me. “You’re in bus number one. This one.” He pointed to the door with a blue pen.

   “What about when we get to Woods Canyon?” I said. “Where will I be assigned there?”

   “Girls will be in one cabin. Guys in the other,” he said. He might as well have added “Duh” at the end of his sentence.

   “Oh,” I said, mildly relieved that this wasn’t a sleeping-in-tents-with-an-outhouse affair. The brochure hadn’t been completely clear on that point, and camping was not my thing. “I didn’t know.”

   He tapped his clipboard, dismissing me, and I climbed inside.

   There was excitement on the bus but it wasn’t, say, going-to-a-football-game-at-a-rival-school excitement. This was, after all, a collection of some of the smartest kids in all of Phoenix. Sometimes I had to remind myself that I was considered one of them, especially on the days when I felt like the biggest idiot in the world. Like yesterday, when I let Drew inject my forehead with toxic chemicals. What was I thinking?

   The bus driver was reading a newspaper, his baseball cap turned backward on his head. He was chewing on a toothpick that looked as if it had been spinning between his teeth for the past six months.

   When I reached the top step, I looked across the bus and saw that all of the seats were taken except for the first two rows behind the bus driver and one empty row near the back of the bus. It might have been my imagination but the excitement on the bus dimmed a smidgen. I pulled my cap lower as I surveyed the real estate. I didn’t see any sophomores from Lone Butte, and the juniors and seniors were already sitting with people, talking. There was no way I was walking all the way to the back, so I slipped into the second empty row behind the bus driver. At least I’d have a whole row to myself, so I guessed that arriving late had its advantages.

   Behind me, Scott Jin hopped up the stairs, trailed by Mr. Romero, one of the school’s guidance counselors. Instead of his usual dark pants, white shirt and either red-or blue-striped tie, Mr. Romero looked almost human dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt that said Someone in Bozeman, Montana, Loves Me on the front. But his brow was furrowed as if he were anxious about something—and who could blame him? No doubt he’d rather be anywhere than camping with two busloads of teenagers. “Time to roll,” he finally instructed the bus driver.

   Scott and Mr. Romero took the first seat behind the bus driver, thank god. Mr. Romero was okay, but I really didn’t want to talk to him for two hours about college applications and test scores, not when I’d downloaded four episodes of Friends to my iPod along with five new songs that I was dying to listen to.

   The bus driver tucked his newspaper next to his seat, reached for the handle that cranked the door shut and steered the bus away from the curb.

   We hadn’t even made it to the street when Mr. Romero stood and yelled, “Stop!”

   I wasn’t the only one to look up in surprise. I hadn’t even scrolled down to my first Friends episode.

   A blue pickup truck sped into the parking lot and headed straight for us.

   “What the...” the bus driver muttered as the bus jolted to a stop. It looked like the truck was going to play chicken with our school bus.

   I gripped the seat in front of me as a black cloud spewed from behind the truck, which, by the way, looked ready to explode. When it got closer, I could make out two faces behind the cloudy windshield. Boys. The one in the passenger seat was waving his arm out the window.

   “Good!” Mr. Romero said, a smile in his voice as Scott returned to his clipboard.

   “I thought we had everybody?” Scott said.

   “We do now,” Mr. Romero said.

   Scott’s brow furrowed as he continued to study his clipboard. He flipped through a stack of white pages. “Who’d I miss?” he said, as if it were not humanly possible for him to miss anything. Which, for him, was probably true. I’d heard that he’d gotten a perfect score on the math section of the SATs. I mean, who scored perfect on that? That was borderline freakish.

   “Sam Tracy,” Mr. Romero said as he stared out the front windshield. “But let’s cut him some slack, okay? He traveled a long way to get here.”



   Martin’s truck almost stalled three times before we finally chugged into the school parking lot. It was a miracle that his wheels made it at all.

   Both my parents had worked late, so if the truck had died, waking them wouldn’t have been my favorite option. At the casino on the Rez, Dad worked security and Mom worked in a back office, “counting the money,” she always said, but really, she was an accountant for the tribe, and a damn good one. Dad was Gila and Mom was Havasupai and they’d been together since the summer of their senior year when they’d met at some high school summer program in Oklahoma. Figures that two Natives from Arizona would have to travel across state lines to meet. According to Mom, they’d fallen madly in love that summer, which was impossible for me to picture. You had to know my dad to understand—and knowing my dad, even a little bit, was one of the hardest things in the whole world. Harder than AP physics. Dad wasn’t exactly the flower-and-chocolates type. “Your dad’s just not sensitive like you are, Sam,” Mom had whispered to me once when I was about ten years old and I’d made him a Father’s Day card at school. “But he loves you, even if he doesn’t say the words. It’s what he thinks in his heart that’s most important.” Dad had looked at the card I’d made and smiled, sort of, but then he’d closed the card and placed it facedown and never looked at it for the rest of the weekend. I knew, because I’d watched him. I’d never made another card for him again. “But you’re more alike than you realize,” Mom had added, which I absolutely had not believed. Still didn’t. Sometimes I wondered if I was adopted.

   On a good day, you’d never hear Dad utter five words, least of all to me, but I supposed that came in handy when most of your day consisted of sitting in a smoky haze and watching for people who cheated or misbehaved while playing slot machines or blackjack. I knew that my parents loved me. At least, my mother told me she did all the time. I just wished that I could hear my father say it, even once, before I stopped caring altogether.

   Fortunately for my parents, they usually worked the same hours, but that was unfortunate for me from a ride perspective. So Martin really had saved the day by offering to drive me to school at the butt-crack of dawn on a Saturday morning, on the condition that I stayed later at last night’s party.

   “How are you gonna stay awake long enough to reach Coolidge?” I stifled another yawn.

   “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” Martin said dully, his eyelids as puffy as mine.

   “You sound like a rapper.”

   “Don’t I wish,” he said. And then he flashed some sign with his fingers. I had no idea what it meant, but I was sure it was stupid.

   I didn’t know how I was going to make it to noon on practically no sleep, much less through the rest of the weekend. I figured I’d catch some z’s on the bus ride.

   “There they are.” I pointed to two yellow school buses.

   “Dude. I’m just tired. Not blind.” Martin slammed down on the accelerator, grinding it to the floor.

   I could smell something burning. Motor oil? It was pluming somewhere in the back of the truck. I felt kind of bad leaving Martin, especially since there was a pretty good chance he’d need a ride home. “Call Fred’s brother, Trevor, if you break down again. He’s good with cars. He’ll tow you home if you need it. There’s a pay phone by the front of the school, next to the drinking fountain.”

   Martin nodded. “I’m not worried,” he said, and I smiled to myself.

   Martin was about as good a best friend as a dude could have. We’d known each other all our lives. We grew up together. Our dads grew up together. It was like we were brothers, not friends. “Thanks, man,” I said as he approached the buses.

   “No prob, bro,” he said. “Just don’t turn dork on me, okay? I’ve got a reputation to uphold.” He smirked, one arm draped lazily across the wheel, even though he was practically playing chicken with a school bus full of high school students, not to mention a couple of teachers.

   I chuckled. “Sure. Reputation. Got it.”

   Thanks to Martin, the bright yellow bus had no choice but to stop. Its brakes even screeched a little.


   I sure hoped that Mr. Romero wouldn’t be too mad at me, but what could I do? It wasn’t like we’d be able to catch up to the bus if we road-raced down the freeway.

   “Sure you want to do this?” Martin asked. “I can always keep driving. Here’s your chance.”

   Chance. I needed one. I needed a hundred. “Yep. Got to.” I reached for the door handle. “Besides, I think Romero is ready to dive through the windshield. Can’t back out now. He’s probably pissed.”

   “Okay.” Martin didn’t sound convinced. He paused. Then he said, “You know you can’t avoid her forever.”

   I sucked back a breath, hitching my backpack over my shoulder. I looked at Martin for an instant without saying anything. Then I said, “I know. But I can try.”

   Martin just shook his head.

   “Later, dude,” I said.

   “Later. See you Monday.”

   I closed the door—more like slammed it, because the rusted door stuck a little—and then jogged the six steps to the waiting bus.

   Even through the windshield, I could see at least thirty faces, including Mr. Romero’s, staring back at me like two rows of dominoes. A few mouths hung open.

   “Okay, you idiot,” I muttered to myself. “You asked for it. Now deal.”

   When I reached the door, it was already open.

   Mr. Romero stood at the top of the stairs. His mouth twitched in one corner below his salt-and-pepper mustache. I couldn’t tell whether he was angry or glad to see me.

   “Sorry I’m late, Mr. Romero. Had some trouble with the truck.” I nodded back at Martin’s ride, as if its mechanical limitations weren’t obvious. Martin turned and headed back toward the freeway as blue-black smoke billowed out of his tailpipe. He was never going to make it to the Rez.

   “I can see that,” Mr. Romero said. “Well, glad you made it. Now have a seat. We’re already behind schedule.”

   “Sorry,” I said again as I looked over his shoulder at all the faces on the bus. As usual, I was the only Native. I recognized maybe six people on the bus including Matt Hendricks from advanced chemistry. He nodded. I nodded back. Unfortunately the seat next to him was taken.

   “You’ll have to put your backpack under your seat.”

   “No problem,” I said, removing it from my shoulder. Other than a toothbrush and a change of underwear and socks, it was pretty empty.

   There was an open seat up front next to a girl dressed in a pink sweatshirt and pink baseball cap. It was blinding, really. For some reason, she kept pulling her cap lower like she was in disguise. But I recognized her.

   “Hi,” I said, slipping into the seat. There was barely any room for my legs. The bus driver closed the door and the bus lurched forward.

   “Hi,” she said. “I’m—”

   I interrupted her with my sigh. “Yeah, I know who you are.”

   The bus lurched again and we all lunged forward, grabbing the seats in front of us. For some stupid reason, I put my left arm out to stop her from crashing her head against the seat.

   “Um, thanks?” she said, turning sideways to look at me and then my hand on her shoulder.

   My hand snapped back and I nodded, facing forward, wishing I could have found a seat all to myself.

   She began to fidget with her hands before fumbling for the iPod in her lap. “Oh. Well...” Her thumb pressed one of the buttons, probably a little harder than she needed to. A notebook with some sketches and doodles sat on her lap.

   I leaned my head back, hoping that I could sleep most of the way. Just my luck I had to sit next to Ryan Berenger’s sister, who was every bit as annoyingly perfect as her brother. Maybe worse. The clothes, the pale skin, the graceful way she crossed her legs like a pretzel all the way down to her ankles.

   It was going to be a long ride.



   Oh. My. God. What a jerk. Drew was never going to believe this! I pulled out my cell phone and began to text her.

   I should have taken that seat way in the back, after all, despite the sea of juniors and seniors. I’d had no idea that Sam Tracy was so in love with himself. I know who you are? Seriously? I mean, get some manners.

   I had seen him talking with Fred a couple of times in the cafeteria, and he’d seemed nice enough on school territory. Obviously I’d misread him.

   My nose wrinkled. Great! And he reeked, too. Eau de Charcoal Grill.

   Because he was so tall, I supposed he’d want to claim most of the leg space underneath the bench in front of us. Not gonna happen.

   Once I got my internal hyperventilation under control, I uncrossed my legs, taking as much space as I could. Then I finished a quick text that Drew wouldn’t see until at least noon and pressed the volume button on my Friends episode. I’d rather listen to Chandler and Joey and sketch in my notebook any day than attempt conversation with Sam Tracy, especially now.

   Mr. Romero turned around. He looked at Sam and me over the tops of his wire-rimmed glasses. “Could you pass these backward?” he said, handing us a stack of papers. “It’s the agenda for the weekend.”

   I removed one earbud, one eye trained on my iPod screen as I grabbed the papers with my right hand. It was my favorite Friends episode, the one where Ross gets his teeth whitened so pearly white that they glow in a black light. Hilarious.

   Mr. Romero stood. “Can I have your attention?” His chin lifted while his eyes swept over the rows. “Pause the texting for a moment, people. I promise your brains won’t self-destruct.”

   A few people chuckled as the bus grew quiet.

   Mr. Romero moved to the center of the aisle, still hanging onto the back of the seat with his free hand as the bus headed down the freeway toward the rising sun. “Since we’ve got three hours to kill till we reach the campground, we might as well go over a few details. As many of you know, we’ve reserved two large cabins—one for the girls, the other for the boys.”

   “Damn,” someone behind me said, feigning disappointment. People around him laughed.

   Mr. Romero smirked. “Watch the language, Mr. Wolkiewski,” he said.

   “Sorry, Mr. Romero,” Logan said, but he didn’t sound the least bit sorry.

   Mr. Romero continued. “Anyway, we’ve got a busy weekend planned and you can read all about it on the agenda that’s being distributed as I speak. There will be competitions and contests, and tonight we will have a barbecue. Keeping up so far?”

   No one spoke. Most of us were too busy looking over the agenda. It seemed that at any given hour there was an activity—from rope climbing to scavenger hunts to leadership tests that were supposed to reveal our leadership styles. I had a style? It kind of looked like the weekend had the potential for fun, in a weird, dorky way. I did always like variety. I pulled out my pink highlighter.

   “As soon as we arrive at the campsite, we’ll unpack the buses, get you settled and then get started on the first activity. Everyone has been organized into teams. They’re listed on the back of the agenda.”

   I flipped over the page and scanned for my name. There were twelve groups of five. I was on the Green Team. One name jumped out at me right away: Sam Tracy.

   It was impossible not to groan.

   Then I stole a sideways glance. At that same moment, Sam and I locked eyes for a millisecond. He had these impossibly dark eyes, the intense kind that looked like they knew what you were thinking, even before you did. We both looked away so fast that I had to wonder if we’d eye-locked at all.

   I guessed he was as excited about seeing my name alongside his as I was. His loud sigh and accompanying frown as he stared at the page were dead giveaways. I just wish I knew what I’d done for him to hate me so much.

   Maybe I was making something out of nothing. I did that a lot. It was a sickness.

   To stop stressing, I began to sketch in my notebook. Before I realized what I was drawing, Sam’s angry dark eyes began to take shape on my page.



   I folded Mr. Romero’s fancy agenda and stuffed it in the back pocket of my jeans. Then I sank lower in the chair until my feet popped out from underneath the bench in front of me. I leaned my head back, closed my eyes and begged for sleep.

   The next thing I knew, my head had bounced onto Riley’s pink shoulder. It felt as if it had been pounded against a two-by-four.

   “You mind?” She glared at me, her blue-green eyes stretched wide below the brim of her baseball cap as she held a thick pencil in midair. Jeez, she looked exactly like her brother with that same know-it-all, confident face that always got on my last nerve.

   “Sorry,” I mumbled with a headshake, sitting upright, facing forward, hoping that drool hadn’t made an appearance.

   Just then, the bus exited the freeway. My ears began to pop, and I was pleased to see that we had already reached the top of the Mogollon Rim. A brown sign with white letters welcomed us to the Woods Canyon Lake campsite, and the bus pulled off the highway and proceeded along a narrow two-lane road. The bus shook from side to side as it made its way deeper into the campground on a stretch of road that alternated between pavement and dirt. Exactly as I remembered.

   I hadn’t been to Woods Canyon since I was a kid. One August weekend, my parents and Martin’s parents had lugged all the kids, including his older brother and sister and my older sister, Cecilia, to the campground. Martin and I were probably around twelve years old. We thought it was killer to be camping in tents and fishing for trout. Our parents were thrilled to escape the desert heat and probably a weekend of night shifts at the casino. Who knew then that I’d be back five years later with two busloads of students that I barely knew?

   Mr. Romero stood, stretched his arms overhead and then turned to face us. The look on his face demanded our attention. “Look, I know you’re all pretty anxious to get off this bus and have some fun. I am, too. So that’s why I’m going to ask you to dump your bags quickly once we reach the cabins. Don’t worry. Nothing will happen to them.” He rubbed his hands together and squinted his eyes. “And I hate to be the bearer of bad news but your cell phones probably won’t work way out here.” He chuckled.

   A few people gasped and I rolled my eyes.

   I was probably the only person on the whole bus without a phone—not like I didn’t want one, but it was the kind of luxury that I couldn’t afford. Mom said that if I wanted my own I had to pay for it. Maybe I would when I started college. I’d be able to work full-time during the summer before the first semester. Vernon Parker was the only one of our friends back on the Rez who had one, although I wasn’t sure why. Who was he calling, if not us?

   As soon as the buses rolled to a stop in front of two large cabins that I didn’t remember from my previous visit, Mr. Romero directed all of the guys to the monstrous log cabin on the right and the girls to the equally large cabin on the left. The buildings looked like college dorms, only in the woods. I think I would have preferred to sleep outside.

   “Leave your bag on a cot in your respective cabins, use the facilities if you need to and then hustle back outside for the first team-building activity,” Mr. Romero said as we began to file off the bus, stretching and groaning from having sat for close to three hours. “Don’t forget to grab a water bottle from one of the ice chests and then gather on the picnic tables with your teams.” I took a deep breath and forced myself to channel Mr. Romero’s enthusiasm.

   Fifteen minutes later, I heard Riley’s voice outside the guys’ cabin. It cut through the wind whistling through the pine trees. “Green Team!” she said. “Green Team, over here!” She was waving a pink scarf over her head, the same one that had been wrapped around her neck like an intestine in the way that girls liked to do. Two boys and another girl gathered around her at one of the ten wooden picnic tables that surrounded a half-dozen grills and ice chests.

   “Good,” I muttered to myself. Matt Hendricks was on our team. At least I’d know someone besides Riley, who I really didn’t want to know at all. I bristled at the way she was waving the damned scarf, an obvious attempt to assume the team leader role. She was already taking charge. Should I be surprised? Like brother, like sister.

   I was the last one at the Green Team picnic table. “What’s the first activity?” I said.

   “We’re supposed to give each other nicknames,” Riley said, not meeting my gaze. She jumped off the table holding a plastic bag. From the bag, she pulled out pens and those peel-and-stick My Name Is name tags. She proceeded to give each of us a name tag and a pen, although for herself, she grabbed a pink pen out of the front pocket of her sweatshirt.

   “What. A regular black pen isn’t good enough for you?” I said, admittedly a weak attempt at humor, though Matt chuckled as we fist-bumped before straddling the picnic bench.

   Riley rolled her eyes. “Ha. Ha. I think I already know your nickname.”

   “What’s that?” I sat across from Riley.

   “Lame Comedian.”

   “Ha. Ha.” I mimicked her tone.

   “So,” Riley said as the five of us stared at each other around the picnic table. “Nicknames?” Her gaze swept over us, prompting us to begin. Her eyelashes dipped when she reached me.

   After a handful of quiet, uncomfortable seconds in which we all had to listen to Riley tap her pink pen against the wooden table, I said, “Um. Suggestion. Shouldn’t we introduce ourselves first? You know, try and get to know each other?”

   “Would you like to be team leader?” Riley’s eyes widened.

   “Do we need one?” Before she could reply I said, “My name is Sam Tracy.” I turned my attention to the other faces at the table. “I’m a junior at Lone Butte. I live on the Gila River Rez. That’s me.” I swiveled toward Matt.

   “Hey,” he said. His leg began to shake against the bench. “I’m Matt.” He even gave a little wave. “Used to go to Lone Butte. Now I’m a junior over at Hamilton.” He paused to drag a hand through what little blond hair he had. “Live in Phoenix. Born in Chicago. I guess that’ll do.” Matt turned to the girl beside him.

   The girl next to Matt crossed her arms when everybody looked at her. Hazel eyes widened behind her wire-rimmed glasses. She forced a nervous smile and spoke just a hair louder than the whistling pine trees surrounding us. “Cassidy McMahon.” We all leaned closer. “Basha High sophomore.” She spoke very fast, as if she wanted to get the whole introduction thing over with, and who could blame her. I hated these kinds of things, too. “I collect comic books,” she added, her pale cheeks blushing as she said it.

   Cassidy turned to the boy wearing a baseball cap who was seated across from her. He sat sideways with his legs pointed away from Riley so I didn’t get a good look at him at first. But then he spun around to face everybody, a piece of brown grass spinning between his teeth. “Jay Hawkins.” He said his name like he couldn’t wait to tell us. Like it was a piece of vital information necessary for human survival. I couldn’t help but groan inside. Jay Hawkins was one of my least favorite people at Lone Butte, even one notch lower than Ryan Berenger, and that was saying something. “And I really hate these team-building things or whatever they’re called. When’s lunch?” Jay added, which got the others to chuckle. Naturally he didn’t bother with any further details, because guys like Jay Hawkins assumed the rest of the world already knew about him. Humility was not one of his strengths. He turned to Riley and flashed a set of perfectly white teeth instead.

   Riley beamed back at him, tugging on the scarf that had found its way back around her long neck.

   It was hard not to eye roll, watching the silent flirting. Of course Riley fell for it. Girls always did.

   “Well, I guess that just leaves me,” Riley said, tapping her pen again against the table. I noticed she bit her fingernails. As if she could sense me and everyone else at the table staring at them, her fingers curled around the pen until finally she hid her hand beneath the table. “I’m Riley Berenger. Sophomore at Lone Butte High.” She smacked her lips, as if considering what else to add. If I knew her, she had something clever memorized, no doubt recorded in her notebook in her perfect handwriting with her perfect hot pink pen. “I love to dance and I love to draw.”

   Then she turned to me, like I was supposed to add something additional to our introductions, which, in her defense, I did suggest.

   Before I could respond, Jay leaned forward and looked straight at me. He had on his pretend-serious face. “Dude. I’m curious. What do you like to be called? I mean, Gila, Indian, American Indian, Native American? What?” He paused. “Sorry for asking, but I never know. It’s confusing.” If it had been anyone else, I would have told him that it was a legitimate question and there were a lot of names, some of which I truly hated, but Jay was hardly sorry for asking. His tone was anything but innocent.

   I let a few uncomfortable seconds pass between us. Then I said, “Just Sam. I prefer to be called Sam.”

   Softly, Riley said, “Fred told me that she prefers to be called Gila first. Then, Native. Then—”

   I interrupted her. “Well, that’s Fred.”

   “Well, you have to admit, it does get confusing sometimes. Right, Sam? Knowing what’s right. What’s proper. What’s best.”

   I finally broke my gaze from Jay and turned to Riley. “You don’t have to remind me about that, Berenger.” I deal with it every day, I wanted to add. Of course guys like Jay Hawkins would never have to deal with it. It wasn’t something that they’d have to stress over for one solitary second.

   Riley’s eyes grew big and she pulled her cap lower on her forehead, like she wanted to cover her whole face. Like she preferred that I look away. So I did.

   “Then Sam it is,” Matt added brightly, trying to inject some lightness into the discussion. “I can live with that.”

   I nodded at Matt, once, as Jay grinned. “Yeah,” Jay chimed in. “Just Sam it is.” Jay had gotten under my skin and that pleased him. I could kick myself for letting him get the best of me.

   Our group grew quiet again. After a few more seconds, Riley cleared her throat. “I think we should probably decide on nicknames before we run out of time,” she said, tapping her pen all over again.

   “How much time we got?” I asked, grateful for the tapping. Grateful to move away from a topic that no one ever understood and one that was almost impossible to explain.

   “Mr. Romero said we had until he started to grill the hot dogs for lunch.”

   Naturally Riley continued with more directions. “I suggest we write our names on the back of the name tag and then pass it around the table so that everyone gets a chance to write a nickname for everybody.”

   “Okay,” I said again. “Anyone else have any other ideas?”

   “What do we base the nicknames on?” Matt said. “I don’t get it....”

   Riley looked down at the agenda, turning it over for the instructions. “Says here that we’re supposed to base them on first impressions.” She air-quoted. “And then see if our impressions still hold by tomorrow.”

   I turned over my name tag. I wrote Sam on the back and tossed it in the middle of the table. “Give me your best shot.”



   Grumpy? Needs a Haircut? Condescending? He Who Irritates? Those were the nicknames for Sam Tracy floating in my head.

   Poor Jay. Why did Sam have to be so snippy about his question? It wasn’t dumb. Sometimes I wondered the same thing, especially when I heard so many names and labels bandied about. It was confusing. Somehow I would need to come up with a less caustic nickname for Sam by the time my fingers found his name tag.

   And why did he think I was trying to take over the team? I was merely getting us going. No one else had stepped up.

   I nibbled at the end of my pen and pushed Sam Tracy out of my mind and focused on the other name tags tossed into the middle of the table.

   I reached for Cassidy’s first. Hers was easy. We’d taken a watercolor class together at the YMCA a couple of summers ago. She was killer smart and I loved her retro eyeglasses. Very John Lennon. Batgirl, I wrote on the front of her name tag, because she loved comic books. I smiled to myself. Cassidy would love that nickname. Then I reached for Matt’s name tag.

   I’d never really talked to Matt before, even when he went to Lone Butte. The only thing I knew about him after his introduction was that he had one of the deepest voices ever. And cute lips. So I wrote Barry White Impersonator and hoped he would get the humor.

   Next was Jay’s. I peered at him in my periphery and watched him smirk at the name tag in front of him. I hoped it wasn’t mine. I couldn’t help myself. I wrote Hunk and then quickly slipped the name tag upside down to the center of the table and then, reluctantly, reached for Sam’s.

   I squeezed my eyes shut and then tried, really and truly tried, to come up with a nickname that wouldn’t be mean. Or hateful. Because I so desperately wanted to write Grumpy. That nickname fit Sam oh, so perfectly. Was there a nicer word for grumpy? If only my phone had internet access. I could check a thesaurus....

   Finally I opened my eyes, let loose a relieved exhale and wrote Complicated. There. That was totally Sam Tracy.

   Behind us, Mr. Romero yelled, “Okay, folks. Five more minutes till chow time! Let’s wrap it up!”

   Everyone on our team stopped writing and pushed the five name tags back into the center of the table. I was dying to read the nicknames on mine.

   Since no one else reached for them, I picked up the name tags, clicking them against the table like I was readying a deck of cards. Then I passed each person his tag.

   I sank onto the bench. Like an idiot, I’d totally forgotten that I used my pink pen. Everyone else had used their black pens. How could I have missed that? It was all Sam’s fault! He’d gotten me so unnerved with the whole icy, just-call-me-Sam discussion that I completely spaced it out.

   Dang it.

   Across from me, Sam’s right black eyebrow shot up as he studied his nicknames.

   I looked down at the ones written on my name tag.

   Smart. Okay, I liked that one.

   Bossypants. Huh? Who wrote that one?

   Thorough. Humph. That one was completely lame and boring.

   But it was the last one that ignited fire through my veins: Pink Girl. I’d bet my new iPad that Sam Tracy wrote that one. He thought it was funny to make fun of my clothes? How nice.

   I peered at him through my eyelashes. It was impossible not to glare. The jerk. Naturally, now that I wanted his attention, wanted him to know how much I was beginning to loathe his existence, he turned his back to me the moment I looked at him. He must have realized I’d figured out his clever nickname for me. He didn’t even have Matt to chat up anymore. Matt had grabbed his name tag then jumped up to help Mr. Romero with the intricacies of hot dogs and hot-dog buns. There were two stone barbecues on the other side of the picnic tables and Matt began to line the hot dogs into neat little rows on each metal grill. Sam was watching them from his seat at our picnic table as if grilling meat were the most fascinating thing in the whole world.

   Pink Girl came from Sam, I was sure of it.

   “Don’t forget to wear your name tags!” Mr. Romero shouted, turning in a half circle so everyone could hear him. “Then step right up and grab a paper plate and a bag of chips. Scavenger hunt starts in thirty minutes.” He glanced up at the sky, at least what little we could see through the tops of the pine trees. He had to yell to be heard over the wind whistling through the branches. “You’ll be pairing up with people on your team. Some teams are larger than others but everyone should have a partner!”

   I walked closer to the barbecue grills. The hot dogs had already begun to sizzle. “Mr. Romero, do we pick our partner?” I asked, hoping—praying—that I could pick Jay or Cassidy.

   Mr. Romero scratched his head. “We’ll do this one by birthdates. The person or people closest to your birthday will be your partner.”

   I turned back to my Green Team and said, “My birthday is March sixth.”

   Jay said, “Mine is October twentieth.”

   “Mine’s November fifth,” Cassidy said, her eyes brightening behind her glasses as she beamed at Jay. My body slumped with that news.

   Sam sighed. “Mine’s February twenty-third.” He looked straight across at me, his jaw stiffening.

   I turned to Matt. He was already stuffing his mouth with a hot-dog bun. “When’s your birthday?”

   “September first,” Matt said as bits of bread flew out of his mouth.

   Ugh. I mentally counted the extra days for leap year, but not even leap year could save me. Sam and I were officially scavenger-hunt partners.

   Kill me now.



   I had barely started eating my third dog when I heard her voice. It was impossible not to moan.

   “Looks like we have to find stuff around the forest,” Riley announced behind me.

   I turned midbite and then decided to dump the rest of my hot dog.

   Her nose wrinkled as she rattled off the list for the scavenger hunt. Jeez, did she ever relax? “Pinecones, bark, berries and...stuff.”

   “Yeah,” I said again, although I hadn’t really studied the list. I mean, how hard could it be to find stuff that littered every foot of the forest?

   “Even petroglyphs,” Riley added.

   I squinted at her. Okay. That could pose a challenge.

   “How do we take a petroglyph from a rock?” She paused from reading her list, which, I noted, was already highlighted pink in places, along with some intricate curlicue doodling and fancy arrows around the margins.

   I shrugged. “I suppose we have to figure that out. You got a camera?”

   She nodded. “Don’t you?”

   I didn’t answer her question. “Then we’ll use your phone to snap a picture. Problem solved.”

   From the way that Riley’s anxious expression softened, I’d like to think that she was impressed with my solution. But then she had to be a brat and add, “Let’s just get this over with, okay?”

   “Absolutely. The sooner the better.”

   Behind us, Mr. Romero started barking out more instructions. “Okay, people! Find your partners and spread out. Be back here in ninety minutes! Remember the days are still short. It’ll be dark before you know it, and we’ve got lots more to do before dinner. No messing around out there.”

   Like that would be possible.

   I started walking toward the entrance to Woods Canyon in silence. Riley didn’t budge.

   “Do you think that’s the right direction?” she called after me. “Cassidy, Jay and Matt are headed to the lake. Maybe we should follow them?”

   “You can, if you want,” I said with a shoulder shrug. “But I think this way’s better.” Seriously, I didn’t think it mattered where we started but there was no way in hell I would follow Jay Hawkins anywhere, at least not on purpose.


   I kept walking.

   A second later I heard her footsteps behind me and I couldn’t help but smile a little inside. “Okay, okay!” she said. “If you say so. But you better be right.”



   Sam Tracy. I grumbled to myself. Why’d you have to be a Pisces, too? I pulled on the brim of my baseball cap and followed him deeper into the forest.

   I looked down at the list as I walked. Juniper bark. Prickly pear cactus needle. Pine nuts. Aspen leaf... There were about twenty items in total, including a petroglyph that, seriously, I had doubts we’d ever find. And I was embarrassed to admit that I really had no idea where to find most of this stuff. “Are you kidding me?” I complained to no one in particular.

   “What’s the problem now, Berenger?” Sam said beside me.

   I slapped the paper against my thigh and looked up at him.

   Sam’s eyes blinked wide again as if I were irritating him, a look that I was growing used to.

   I fought an eye roll.

   “I take it you haven’t spent much time in the woods.”

   “Well, not really.” I tried to sound like I could care less. “And I suppose you have?”

   He nodded. “A bit.”

   “It’s not like I’ve never heard of these things.” My voice got a little defensive.

   “But you’ve never touched them. I mean, outside of books and stuff. Right?”

   I didn’t answer. Did the school field trip to the zoo in the second grade count?

   Sam looked from side to side. We were completely alone. Against my better judgment, I followed Sam, even when almost everyone else had hiked toward the lake, which would probably be way more fun and scenic than where Sam was going. “Well, we better start finding stuff,” I said.

   His voice was flat. “We’re wasting time by arguing.”

   Wasting. Nice. “I’m not arguing. I’m following.” My chin lifted. “Lead the way, since you’re the forest expert.”

   Without another word, Sam picked up his pace and headed toward the Mogollon Rim, where the pine trees stretched even higher into the sky. No doubt we’d at least find pine nuts or whatever they were called.

   I jogged behind him, saying nothing, but I did consider flipping the bird behind his jet-black, irritating, know-it-all head...before I found myself concentrating on the shoulder muscles beneath his stretched T-shirt, which, it pained me to admit, were kind of hot. I blushed as I thought about them, grateful that Sam couldn’t see my eyes.



   Traipsing through the woods with Miss Spoiled Brat looking for nuts and needles. Somebody put me out of my misery. Not exactly what I’d anticipated for my weekend. Coolidge with my buddies and rodeo queens were suddenly sounding better by the second.

   I didn’t slow my pace to match Riley’s, either. Let her try and keep up.

   I’d spotted a few aspen trees and even an alligator juniper near the entrance to the campsite on the bus ride in, which was one of the reasons I’d taken us in this direction. I’d bet Jay Hawkins wouldn’t have known that. Couldn’t Riley just shut up and trust me?

   “Okay. Where are we going, exactly?” Riley called out. The thick trees swallowed her voice. She trailed a good five yards behind me.

   I lifted my arms in case it wasn’t obvious. “Um. Three guesses?”

   “Ha. Ha.” Her footsteps quickened across the dirt and dry leaves. “If I knew, I wouldn’t keep asking.”

   I didn’t slow my pace.

   “Wait!” she said. Her footsteps pattered faster behind me and I figured if I sped up any more it would probably be more than a little cruel. Not that she didn’t deserve it, especially after the last remark, spoken in the tone of someone used to getting her way all the time.

   “I saw some aspens over here,” I said without turning, anxious to be done with this scavenger hunt.


   “Just follow me.”

   She closed more distance between us. “But aspen leaves are sixth on our list.”

   I stopped and she practically crashed into my back. “So?” I spun around to face her.

   “So maybe we should do them in order.”

   My voice grew higher. “Why?”

   She looked up at me, wide-eyed. “So we can make sure we get everything.”

   “That doesn’t make sense.”

   “It makes perfect sense to me.”

   “Figures.” I turned and started walking again as Riley jogged.

   It ended up being farther than I thought, but we finally reached the entrance to the campground. Cars and trucks chugged along the highway in front of us.

   “Just one aspen leaf, right?” I asked Riley, reaching up to a branch to pluck a decent-sized one.

   She studied the list again. “Doesn’t say. Let’s take a couple, just in case.”

   I rolled my eyes but said nothing as I plucked two green aspen leaves. In a few months, the leaves would turn golden-yellow and drop to the forest floor. I decided against sharing that tidbit with Riley, especially since she was practically fainting over finding all the items on the list. This girl had serious chill issues.

   “What should we put them in?” she asked.

   “Unless you brought a backpack, we only have our pockets. I’ll put them in mine—”

   Riley raised a palm, stopping me. “What if they get crushed?”

   I dropped them inside the front of my jeans pocket. “Take it easy, Berenger. They’re leaves, not museum pieces.”

   She looked back at me as if I’d just slapped her.

   I chuckled to hide the last-minute remorse in my tone. “I’m sure Mr. Romero won’t mind.”

   “I noticed that Jay brought his backpack—”

   “Jay,” I muttered. Again with Jay Hawkins! “What’s the use in bringing a backpack if you aren’t smart enough to find any of the stuff on the list?”

   “Are you saying Jay’s not smart?”

   Ugh. She didn’t really want to know my answer.

   “’Cause he’s in all AP classes. Otherwise he wouldn’t be here—”

   I interrupted her again. “Good grades doesn’t always mean smart.” Smart aleck, more like it.

   “And he led that school drive last year to collect new sneakers for the homeless.”

   “Purely for show.” And to get another photo caption for himself in the yearbook.

   “Well, it doesn’t hurt, Sam.”

   “Save it, Riley.” I lifted both my palms at her. “I know all about Jay’s compassion and brilliance.” I wondered if Riley would change her tune about Jay if she knew how he’d teased Peter during freshman year gym class, taunting him about being so skinny. He’d called Peter a totem pole. He’d tried to tease me, too, until I’d put on six inches and twenty pounds the next semester. That had shut him up real quick. Ever since, Jay had resented everything about me, including my growth spurt. I was pretty certain it bugged him that I had a higher GPA than him. Last year I’d overheard him say to another guy—loud enough for me to hear, too—that I received special treatment from teachers, which I totally did not. I worked as hard as he did, probably harder. It had been my experience off the Rez that there was no reaching guys like Jay Hawkins.

   Riley closed her eyes, briefly, as she steadied herself with a loud exhale. “Look, I’ll carry the leaves. My pockets are bigger.” As if to prove it to me, she lifted the front pockets of her pink sweatshirt with her fists still balled inside. I had to admit, they did look pretty roomy. In one of the pockets, the top of a water bottle peeked out.

   “Okay,” I said, backing away. “You can carry the prickly pear needles. If you want, you can carry a whole handful of those.” I meant it as a joke, but Riley wasn’t laughing.

   Her hands left their pockets and moved to her hips. “What exactly is your problem?”

   “No problem,” I said, turning toward the four-lane road. We had to cross it to reach the pine trees. “Just trying to be helpful.” My sarcasm was a little excessive, but I hardly cared, especially after she’d continued to defend Jay Hawkins. After this scavenger hunt was over, our partnership would end. I’d see to that.

   Riley didn’t follow me this time. She just yelled at me as I kept moving. “You know, this is supposed to be a leadership retreat. We’re supposed to work together. We’re supposed to be leaders.”

   “So lead,” I said as I kept walking. “Where to next?”

   She didn’t answer me. I heard her jeans swish as she jogged across the dirt to catch up. But this time she didn’t catch up and jog alongside me. She charged toward the highway like she was some kind of world-class runner. A line of cars sped up the mountain. They weren’t going that fast, but fast enough.

   “Hey. Wait up,” I said. Now it was my turn to catch up to her. Fast when she needs to be, I noted. Convenient.

   Riley caught an opening between the cars and darted across the highway to the other side. She ran toward a ranger station that overlooked the entire Mogollon Rim, which also happened to be where the drop-off to the valley below was the most extreme. The tiny parking lot surrounding the ranger station was empty, probably because everyone was on the other side of the campground, fishing. Or looking for stupid forest stuff, if they were part of our school group. “Hey, wait up!” I yelled again, but my voice was drowned out by the engine noise of cars and trailers racing down the highway.

   I had to wait a few minutes. At least twenty cars passed before I got an opening in the traffic. Then I ran to the other side of the road, but Riley was gone.

   Gone, where?

   “Riley!” I called out. In front of me stretched the Mogollon Rim. All I could see were the tops of pine trees, a million triangles in every direction. They swayed like green waves in the wind. I wouldn’t be able to see the little mountain towns below until I reached the edge, and even then the towns were miles below, tiny brown and red roofs dotting spaces between green pine trees like Monopoly pieces. I ran to the Rim, expecting to find her near the edge beneath the trees gathering pinecones.

   But no Riley.

   I stood frozen on the Rim. The wind whipped through the treetops and against my ears. Cold, dry air filled my mouth, stealing my breath as I called Riley’s name. The only thing that came back was the muffled echo of my own voice.

   I ran along the edge but it was empty. Nothing but red dirt, pine trees and enough pinecones littering the ground to fill a football stadium. So where was she? There hadn’t been enough time for her to run very far. She might be fast but, sorry, I was a lot faster.

   Was she crazy enough to climb a tree?


   My eyes swept across the trees dotting the edge. Their skinny green leafy branches danced in the wind. I paced along the edge, scanning the trees, and then looked down. The drop was nearly vertical. More pine and scraggly juniper jutted out from the side of the mountain like deformed arms.

   I cupped my mouth with my hands and yelled again. “Riley!” My heartbeat kicked up a notch. “Not funny! Where are you?” Of all the girls here this weekend, how had I gotten saddled with her?

   And then I heard a muffled squeak, somewhere below me. I tilted my head, trying to focus on the sound, trying to place it. Was it an echo? An animal? But from where? I squinted and scanned the side of the mountain, but it was like staring into the bottom of a murky ocean. I saw only endless greens and browns...and then a sliver of hot pink.

   “Riley!” I yelled again, walking as close to the edge as I could without my toes curling over. I cupped my mouth, screaming her name as loud as I could, squinting through the branches and leaves. How had she gotten down there? “Stupid girl,” I mumbled as dirt crunched beneath my feet. Rocks rolled beneath my toes and I had to stop myself from slipping over the edge.

   Riley’s voice was faint, but I made out two words. “Help me.”



   The moment I opened my eyes, the world spun in slow motion.

   I lay on my back, staring up at pine trees as tall as city skyscrapers. Their skinny brown trunks swayed in the wind like they could snap at any second and bury me forever. The sharp pine smell filled my nostrils.

   I didn’t know how long I had blacked out, but the smell must have coaxed open my eyes. Pine needles, pinecones, pine everything was scattered everywhere. Green-and-brown needles stuck to my hair and sweatshirt sleeves.

   I couldn’t have been out for longer than a few seconds. I’d been reaching out to a tree branch for the perfect pinecone, number two on the scavenger list. All of the ones scattered on the ground were moldy-looking or broken. I needed to pluck the right one. I’d only needed to stretch forward a few inches to reach it....

   Then, whoosh! My right foot had skidded across a layer of pebbles, and I’d tumbled over the edge of the Mogollon Rim. Next thing I knew, I was lying flat on a piece of rock that jutted off the side of the mountain like a shelf.

   Dumb idea, obviously, reaching for that pinecone. If I had only taken one of the many zillion covering the ground, I wouldn’t have tumbled down this mountain and found myself staring up into the sky—and into Sam Tracy’s most assuredly I-told-you-so face. I couldn’t see any of his features, just the black and coppery outline of his head. But how was I supposed to know loose gravel lay hidden beneath a carpet of pine needles?

   “Sam!” I yelled the moment I heard him call my name. “Help me!” I could guess what he was thinking about me now. The words crazy, irrational and unstable came to my mind. No doubt he could add a few more nicknames to my Hello, My Name Is tag, which, miraculously, was still stuck to my chest.

   “I’ll get some help!” His deep voice floated down to me.

   I breathed hard, looking all around me. My arms and legs were stuck in branches at the base of a thick pine tree. Suddenly I was less worried about broken bones than I was about bears and mountain lions. The shiny brochures about Woods Canyon had mentioned the wildlife in the area. Certainly all sorts of animals could scale up and down the side of the mountain as easily as I had somersaulted down it, right? “Wait!” I yelled up to Sam, my voice dry and raspy. Yelling burned my chest. “Don’t leave me!”

   But Sam’s face disappeared from the sky. I started to hyperventilate; my hands turned ice-cold and my whole body began to shiver, a slow rumble at first that quickly morphed into full-on panic. My eyes clouded with tears.

   I tried to calm down. Maybe I could get myself out. I began to wiggle my fingers and then my toes. When I sat up and leaned forward, a sharp pain shot up my back. Hot tears dribbled down my cheeks. I wiggled my toes again and then raised each leg. It hurt to lift my right leg. My crying turned to silent sobs, the kind where your whole chest heaves in and out. Why had I ever signed up for this stupid conference or retreat or whatever it was called? I caught tears with my tongue.

   Then a branch snapped.

   My body froze, including my breathing. I tilted my head, listening for movement. Above me, enormous black birds flew in a circle. I untangled my arm from its branch so my fingers could sweep the ground for a stick, a rock, anything hard or heavy. All I could reach was dirt and more pinecones. It was as if the pinecones multiplied times ten every time I blinked. My only weapons were a pink cell phone with no service, a granola bar and a water bottle.

   Snap! Crack! The sounds drew closer.

   I reached inside my front pocket for my granola bar. Maybe I could throw it and buy myself some time.

   But from what? And, where?

   Pine needles and pinecones rained down all around me.

   I squinted into the wind, anxious to see what predator was moving toward me. The wind howled louder, messing with my mind. It was like I was being slowly surrounded. I began to picture a hungry pack of coyotes, or wolves. Or bears. Lots and lots of hungry bears...

   My heartbeat echoed all the way to my temples. Goose bumps snaked up my back. I reached inside my pocket for the water bottle. It was the heaviest thing I had on me and better than nothing.

   Snap, crack, snap!

   I lifted the water bottle over my head.

   And then a set of gray antlers appeared from behind a trunk, followed by a head.

   A deer—or maybe it was an elk—peeked at me with beady black eyes from between two pine trees. It lifted its long snout toward the sky, its nostrils sputtering. If not for its antlers, it would have blended into the tree trunk.

   “Oh, god.” I exhaled. I wondered whether to throw my water bottle at it. I wondered whether it was alone. Maybe I was about to be trampled by a stampede. Panicked, I inched back a fraction against the tree trunk. If I moved back far enough, the lower branches might hide me. But my whole body hurt when I moved even just a few inches. Instead of screaming at the animal and flailing my arms, I simply froze, watching the animal watch me.

   The elk lowered its antlers toward the dirt and moved forward. Straight for me.

   It took one step, then another, lumbering toward me like it had all the time in the world.

   Was this elk psycho? Shouldn’t it be afraid of me? But then, why would it be? It was as wide as a horse, maybe even bigger.

   Carefully, I brought my arm back, readying my water bottle.

   Snap, crack!

   More pine needles floated down from the sky.

   My head jerked right just as a flash of blue and black tumbled from above.

   A set of feet landed with a loud thump between me and the elk.


   For a big guy, he moved amazingly fast.

   Sam whistled, that loud kind mastered by jocks and gym teachers, his fingers spread in his mouth like a triangle.

   The elk’s ears sprang to attention like pop-up tents before it fled in the opposite direction, hooves clattering across the rock and then back up the mountain until the sounds disappeared into the wind.

   “Did you see that?” I screamed, gasping for breath. “I think it was going to attack me!”

   Sam bent over, placing his hands on his knees, breathing hard. Pine needles and brown leaves clung to his hair. He shook them from his head and they rained to the ground. Finally, he stood upright, wiping his hands together. “Elk don’t attack. He was just curious.”

   “You didn’t see its eyes!”

   Sam came closer, peering at me almost the same way as that elk had. “Are you okay?” His tone held more annoyance than concern.

   “Yes!” Tears built behind my eyes again, whether of relief or pain I wasn’t sure. “I mean, no.” I paused to catch my breath. “Did you bring help?”

   His dark eyes stretched wider. “You asked me not to leave you!”

   I swallowed, hard. “Yeah. Well. I meant—”

   “You mean I climbed down the side of this mountain for nothing?” He looked at his hands. They were red and scratched from branches and rocks. His jeans were dirty and ripped like mine at the knees.

   My mouth opened but no words came out. Frankly, I was a little touched that he had climbed down after me. And totally shocked, to be honest.

   From his back pocket, he pulled out a baseball cap. It was pink.

   My hand flew to my forehead. I wondered if my skin was still red and blotchy. Not a great time for vanity, but that’s the crazy thought that flashed through my head.

   He walked closer, still holding my hat. “So, are you okay or not?”

   “I’m...I’m not sure.” I began to wiggle my fingers and toes again. “My right leg stings. And my back hurts.”

   Sam knelt beside me. His hands, big as plates, pressed against my thighs and then ran up my arms, surprising me with a gentle touch.

   I stopped breathing, maybe because I wasn’t expecting him to go all Mr. Paramedic on me.

   “How did you fall, anyway?” His gaze swept up and down my arms.

   I shut my eyes, forcing an exhale. “It was stupid.”

   “Well, obviously.”

   My eyes popped open but I didn’t say anything. Tough to argue with that.

   “Can you walk?”

   “I’m not sure.” I swallowed.

   He began to examine my forehead. “Did you hit your head?”

   “No. I don’t think so.”

   His fingertips reached for my forehead, never mind that I couldn’t feel them. “What happened here?”

   Heat rose up my neck and I was fairly certain that my whole face blushed, probably in pink and red splotches, the way it usually did when I got flustered. “That. Well. Nothing. I don’t know.” I talked faster. “Probably scraped against a pine branch or something.”

   “Are you sure—”

   “Could I just have my hat, please?”

   He handed me my baseball cap and I thrust it over my head, covering Drew’s handiwork.

   “Wasn’t there a ranger station up above?” I was anxious to not discuss my BOTOX experiment because, truthfully, that sounded even dumber than my tumble down the side of the Mogollon Rim for a pinecone.

   “Empty. I checked.”

   “Great,” I mumbled. “What’s the sense in having a ranger station if there’s no ranger?”

   Sam shook his head. “Off-season, I guess. Doesn’t matter now. Let’s see if you can walk.”

   With his arm around my waist, Sam pulled me to my feet. I wrapped an arm around his shoulder and pressed my lips together to muffle the shooting pain at standing up. I’d had sprains before from dance practice, but nothing like this. It felt as though a thousand needles were pressing into my back and leg. By the time I stood straight, I was gasping and unable to stop clutching Sam as if he were a life preserver.

   “This doesn’t look good,” he said, shaking his head as I balanced on my left foot, still leaning against him.

   “I’ll be okay,” I said, gasping for my next breath. “I’ll just need to take it slow. I don’t think anything’s broken.”

   Sam looked at me and then at the side of the mountain. The climb back up wasn’t completely vertical but it would still be a challenge, especially now with my injured leg. He didn’t say anything but I knew what he was thinking: it was going to take forever to get out of here.

   “I think it helps to stand,” I said, trying to stay positive. “I can do this.” I glanced at the top of the rim and nodded confidently. “I know I can.” I really didn’t want him to leave me. I was going to climb up the mountain, inch by painful inch, even if it took the rest of the weekend.

   Then the sky cracked open.

   “What the...?” I stared upward, numb. Ice-cold raindrops cooled my cheeks.

   Sam sighed. “It’s the rim. It rains in the afternoon.”

   “B-but,” I stammered. “The sky was blue a second ago.”

   Rain started to fall harder, white and blinding, almost like hail. The valley below us disappeared in the storm, as if it weren’t even there. The temperature must have dropped twenty degrees, just like that.

   Sam’s arm stayed wrapped around my waist and my arm still wove around his shoulder. It was awkward but necessary, given the circumstances. The corner of his mouth twitched with obvious panic. We stared at each other, wide-eyed, at a mutual rare loss for words.

   Finally Sam said, “Let’s wait it out. Got no choice.” He had to yell over the rain. “We can’t climb out now. Too dangerous.” Raindrops clung to the ends of his bangs before spilling onto his cheeks. “Let’s sit underneath the branches. At least it’ll keep some of the rain off.”

   “But it might start lightning,” I yelled back.

   His eyes widened. “You got a better idea?”

   I shook my head. “Not at the moment.”

   We turned back toward the tree, me leaning against Sam and Sam dragging me forward. We limp-walked until we dropped in a heap beneath wispy pine branches already heavy with rain.

   “How long?” I asked.

   Sam looked up. A second ago, the sky had been a hazy gray. Now clouds raced across it, dark as ink blots. “Could be five minutes. Could be five hours. The storm’ll let us know, soon enough.”

   “That’s comforting.”

   Sam sighed. “Sometimes you can’t have everything you want.”

   “You think I don’t know that?” The rain fell harder. It landed on my face like pinpricks.

   Sam didn’t answer with a clever quip like I expected. Instead, he placed a hand on my shoulder. Despite the chaos swirling around us, his touch slowed my panicked breathing. He leaned closer to my ear and said, “It’ll be okay. I promise.”

   Thunder rumbled. Together we looked up at the unforgiving sky and squinted against the rain. “I hope so,” I said. “But what else can we do?”



   Crazy freaky spoiled white girl! What had she been thinking?

   Even worse, what had I been thinking? I should never have climbed down after her like an obedient dog.

   We’d crawled beneath the closest pine. It had thick, wide branches like a Christmas tree, but the lowest branches didn’t touch the ground. Instead of getting completely drenched, our clothes and hair only got annoyingly soggy. It didn’t bother me much but I could tell it was getting to Riley.

   She kept wincing. I knew that her leg must have ached but she didn’t moan much. That surprised me. I figured her for someone who’d be full-blown hysterical by now.

   But when her whole body began to shiver, I got scared. I knew what I needed to do but I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to like it.

   “You’re shivering,” I said.

   “Telll meee something I donnn’t know,” Riley replied, her teeth chattering. She wrapped her arms around her chest.

   “Wait here,” I said.

   “Where are you going?”

   “Not far. Stay here.”

   “Where am I gonna go?”

   Ignoring her sarcasm, I ran to the tree nearest ours and gathered as many dry pine needles and pinecones as my arms could carry. I ran back and forth several times, making a fairly decent pile of dry needles beside Riley. We’d already had a nice pile under our tree, thanks to all the needles that had already dropped, but I knew we would need a lot more.

   “Can I help?” she said, but I continued to ignore her. There wasn’t time to explain. The rainstorm made sure of that. Besides, what could she do with a sprained leg?

   I remembered the folding knife in my pocket. I squeezed it. It was one of those Swiss Army kinds that did everything from slicing through cardboard to popping open bottle caps. Dad had given it to me for my thirteenth birthday, a gift that had surprised me, since Mom was always the one who bought the birthday and Christmas gifts. I couldn’t take it to school but I carried it in the front pocket of my jeans at all other times. Practical Dad. He’d told me it would come in handy when I least expected it. Said a man should always carry one. Also said his dad had given him one when he was my age, shiny silver with turquoise inlay, no longer than my forefinger, just like mine. I used it a lot at work, cutting through duct tape and boxes loaded with paper towels and pasta noodles. But today was what Dad would probably call one of those critical times. Thanks, Dad, I said to myself as I removed it from my pocket. With a flick of my thumb and forefinger, the knife opened with an easy click.

   I cut down four leafy, dry, skinny pine branches as fast as I could. I had no idea how long we’d be stranded on this ledge, but I did know we had to stay as dry as possible.

   Racing against the rain, I grabbed the branches and hauled them back to Riley. She sat beside the pine needle piles, running her fingers through them, clearly not understanding my plan. The rain continued to pound all around us.

   I dropped the branches and then dropped beside her, motioning for her to scoot to the side so that I could begin.

   “What are you doing?” Riley said.

   “Making a bed for us.”

   Riley’s eyes grew wider. “Will we be here long enough to need one?”

   “I’m guessing we might be. And we’ve got to work before there’s no light left at all.”

   “What can I do?” She grimaced as she pulled her injured leg out of the way.

   “Nothing. For now.”

   I spread the pine needles in a circle big enough for two. Then I placed the branches over the needles, weaving them top to bottom. It wouldn’t exactly be plush but it would be better than sitting on the wet ground.

   Rain trickled down my back as I worked. Drip drip drip. It was going to be a long hour, a long night, a long weekend—I had no way of knowing. If we were lucky, the storm would blow across the valley before sunset and we could try to hike back to the campsite. I started thinking through several scenarios, one of them including carrying Riley on my back. She was tall but thin. I could probably manage it.

   Satisfied with our makeshift bed, I leaned back on my heels to give it a final once-over. “Well,” I said, turning to Riley.

   “It’ll have to do,” she said, her teeth chattering again.

   I sighed and then moved closer to her on one knee and then the other. Without another word, I put my arm around her and pulled her toward me before she could object, which, knowing what I knew about Riley, she would.

   But she surprised me. Again.

   Instead of complaining, she exhaled against me, curling into my shoulder. I sat with my back against the tree trunk, Riley’s body pressed against my chest. My arms wrapped around her, tighter, as she shivered. Her warm breath heated my neck, the closeness of our bodies heating us both. I tried to ignore that she smelled all girl, her hair like flowers mixed with fresh pine. It kind of became hard for me to speak, but after an excruciatingly long silence, I forced out a word. “Warmer?” It came out like a squeak. I rubbed the side of her arm.

   She nodded, her hair brushing up against my chin. “Should we start a fire or something?”

   “It’s kind of raining, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

   She turned her face to mine. “You mean, you don’t know how to start a fire?”

   My back stiffened.

   “I thought you would know....” Her voice trailed off.

   “You mean, I should know because I’m Native?”

   “No,” she said, her whole body rising in place. “Because you’re a boy. Weren’t you a Boy Scout or anything?”

   I pulled back and stared at her, speechless. A second ago, we were sharing a moment. Now I wanted to get far away from her all over again, which was pretty much impossible given our current living quarters.

   We both seemed to be counting back our outrage. One second. Two seconds. Three...

   We glared at each other. It became a staring contest.

   And then, when we both absolutely had to blink, we both burst out laughing. In that moment it was as if a balloon had popped between us as we sat tangled together on our mostly dry makeshift bed of pine needles and branches.

   “Believe it or not, Boy Scouts wasn’t exactly a big thing on the Rez.”

   “Sorry, I didn’t mean—” she began, still laughing.

   But I stopped her. “Forget it. No offense taken.”


   “Yeah.” I’d certainly heard crazier than that. During my freshman year, a guy had actually asked me if I lived in a teepee. And he’d been serious. To which I’d replied, “Dude, you need to get out more.” It hadn’t exactly made us friends, and he’d looked at me strangely for the rest of the semester.

   “In case you were wondering, I wasn’t a Girl Scout.”

   “No?” I said. “I thought all girls north of Pecos Road were Girl Scouts at some point. You know, with the lure of the thin mints and all.” So much for stereotypes.

   “No.” Riley lifted her chin. “I was a Bluebird.”

   “What the heck is a Bluebird?”

   “Someone who didn’t want to be a Girl Scout.”

   “Did they happen to teach survival techniques to Bluebirds?”

   “No.” She looked up at me, totally serious. A raindrop clung to her eyelash and I thought about reaching down to wipe it away with my finger. “But I did get a cooking patch for making macaroni and cheese from scratch.”

   “Totally useless right now.”

   “Agreed,” she said, grimacing.

   We laughed again and Riley blinked, the lone raindrop trickling down her cheek.

   I leaned back against the tree trunk again with Riley pressed against my chest. We looked out past the branches. The world had become a gray wall of water, and I wondered how much longer the tree branches would shield us.

   Since it looked like we’d be stranded for a while and Riley was tucked inside my arms, I got brave and said, “So, what’s with all the pink?”

   She turned her head to peer up at me from beneath the brim of her cap. “What do you mean?” she said, although I knew she knew what I meant. I mean, come on!

   “You. Pink. It’s all you ever wear.”

   Her clear eyes widened. “How would you know?” She turned defensive and I immediately felt like an idiot. Here I was just trying to make small talk, and I succeeded in pissing her off again in less than twenty seconds.

   Just as I was about to open my mouth and apologize, she said, “What about you? Ever heard of a washing machine?” Her button nose wrinkled for emphasis. The awkwardness between us had returned.

   I closed my eyes and counted to three. “I was at a party last night. Got home too late to change.”

   “How nice for you.” She didn’t hide the contempt in her voice.

   “Our maid doesn’t work on Saturdays,” I added, matching hers with more of my own.

   “Ha. Ha.” She exhaled. “Now you think we have a maid?”

   “Well, don’t you?” Ryan Berenger had gotten a new Jeep for his sixteenth birthday. He wore expensive sunglasses and his parents were members at the country club. Didn’t people like that employ maids?

   Riley exhaled again, loud. Loud enough for me to hear the disgust in her voice. Or maybe it was disappointment. She shifted in my arms. “Look, could we just not talk?” She tugged on the rim of her baseball cap again.

   Now my shoulders shrugged indifferently. “Sure. Just making conversation.” I looked out at black clouds blowing straight for us.

   “Well, insults don’t exactly make good conversation starters.”

   “Okay,” I challenged. “So you say something. We might be here awhile, you know.” I hesitated to tell her that it could be more than a little while, especially when she kept reaching for her leg, the one she said hurt the most.

   “I wonder what everyone’s doing up at the campsite? You think anyone’s noticed we haven’t come back yet?”

   “Maybe,” I said. “Maybe not.”

   “Hasn’t it been hours already?”


   “I wonder what they’re thinking,” Riley said. She had finally stopped shivering.

   “Who?” I really hoped she wasn’t referring to Jay Hawkins again.

   “The other kids.”

   “What do you care what they think?”

   “I always care what other people think,” she said. “Years of practice. Can’t help it. Don’t you?”

   I chuckled. “I couldn’t care less.”

   She sighed, heavy. “I wish I was more like that.”

   “Then why aren’t you?”

   She looked at the name tag on my chest. I reached down and ripped the soggy thing off.

   “I suppose you’re the one who nicknamed me Pink Girl. Real nice, by the way. Very original.”

   “That really fits you. And I may borrow it from time to time. But it wasn’t me.”



   Her chin lifted. “Which one?”


   She sighed like she didn’t want to play. But then she said, “Bossypants.”

   I bit back a laugh because that nickname seriously had crossed my mind for Riley Berenger. “Nope. Not me.”

   She pulled back. “Smart?”


   Her voice grew louder. “Thorough?”

   I smiled down at her. “Bingo.”

   “But that is so...lame.”

   “I thought it was perfect for you. The perfect nickname.”

   “Thorough is for grandmothers and computer manuals, Sam. A girl doesn’t want to be nicknamed Thorough.” She rolled her eyes and looked away. “I thought for sure yours was Pink Girl.” Then she reached for her name tag and peeled it off her sweatshirt. She crumpled it up and slipped it into her pocket.

   “So which one was yours?”

   “I’m kind of hungry. Are you?” she said, ignoring my dumb question since her pink ink on my name tag made it pretty obvious which nickname she’d chosen for me. I was Complicated, though? What did she mean by that?

   “What do you have?”

   She reached into a pocket in her sweatshirt. “One water bottle.” She reached into her other front pocket. “A slightly broken granola bar.” And then she reached inside her pocket a third time. “And one stupid pinecone.” She threw it as hard as she could into the slanting rain.

   “Nice throw.”

   “It’s a gift,” she said.

   I looked down at her as she continued to stare straight ahead. Riley’s neck was long and pearly white, almost translucent. For some reason my eyes landed on the skin just below her ear and stayed there. I swear I could see her pulse move, and it stole my breath for a second. I did a mental headshake. But before I could stop myself, I said, “You know, you’d be a lot prettier without that hat.”

   Silence. She turned to me, unamused.

   I swallowed, hard. I had no idea why I’d said that. It just popped out. Suddenly I was a fashion expert?

   But it was true.

   “I’ll shut up now,” I said.

   Riley nodded and looked away. Instead of making stupid small talk, we listened to the rain.



   Sam was seriously starting to freak me out. Why did he say such things? I knew he was a little odd—well, I really didn’t know that to be a hard fact, but I had heard that he acted strangely.

   Scratch that.

   More like it was what I’d observed.

   Sam often sat by himself in the cafeteria. I knew this because I sat alone sometimes, too. And when you sit alone, pretending to study the math book beside your sandwich or doodle in the corners of your notebook, your eyes tend to scan the whole room beneath your eyelashes. My attention was usually drawn to other loners like me. There weren’t many of us but, if we wanted to, we could have started a club.

   The one thing that stood out about Sam was that he didn’t mind being alone. He wore his aloneness like a badge, challenging anyone to mock him. No one ever dared to look at him funny or anything. It was sort of a mutual unspoken understanding, which I suppose you could negotiate when you were well over six feet tall and, maybe, two hundred pounds. Even the biggest senior boys kept their distance from Sam. One time I’d sketched his face in my notebook because I liked the way his expression never seemed to change and yet it said everything.

   And now he sat behind me, his arms wrapped around my shoulders like we snuggled all the time. Like we were best friends. And he’d said that I could be pretty. What kind of boy says something like that after insulting you a half-dozen times? None that I knew—not that I knew many.

   But Sam Tracy was indeed a strange boy. He wasn’t like my brother’s friends, and it wasn’t just because he was Gila or Native or Native American or whatever he called himself, either. He was just different from all the boys I knew. He didn’t say much, and when he did he didn’t waste time with too many words.

   We sat staring out at the rain for what seemed like an eternity, grateful for our little patch of dryness and the heat radiating from our bodies. Then my stomach grumbled.

   Weakening, I peeled back the wrapper to our only food source. I wasn’t ready to eat pinecones. “What some?” I pointed my granola bar at him.

   He shook his head. “Nah. You eat it.”

   “We can share.” I pulled back the paper and broke the bar in two.

   Sam lifted his hand. “Better not eat it all at once.”

   “Seriously?” My voice got higher. “You seriously think we’ll be here that long for it to matter?”

   He looked up at the tree, considering my question. “Maybe.”

   So I halved the half and stuffed the other half back in the wrapper. “For later,” I said.

   Sam took his piece and chewed it slowly, his lips making a perfect circle, which looked really strange on him.

   I did the same, trying to savor each morsel like he did. I closed my eyes and tasted the tiny bit of chocolate, a sliver of almond, a breath of dried cranberry and then crunchy honey and oats. It was probably the first time I had ever truly tasted a granola bar, despite inhaling at least two after every dance practice for the last two years. “Not bad,” I said when I allowed myself to swallow the last bite.

   “I would rather have had your macaroni and cheese.” There was a smile in Sam’s voice.

   “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

   “True,” he said.

   “Now for the water. Pretend it’s champagne.”

   “Have you ever tasted champagne?”

   “No,” I said, popping open the cap. “This is pretend.”

   “Then I’ll pretend it’s a chocolate shake.”

   “Yum. Even better.” I passed the bottle to Sam. “You first.”

   First he raised his hand, motioning for me to take it, but I insisted. “Just a sip,” he said, finally tipping the bottle to his lips. And a thimbleful was all he took. Barely enough for a bird. “Now, you.”

   I took the bottle and it took all my willpower to drink just a sip. I could have swallowed a gallon. “I guess if we get desperate we can suck the water off leaves, right?”

   “I hope we don’t have to.”

   Lightning flashed all around us and the mountain lit up like a birthday cake. A few seconds later, the sky cracked open even louder than before and I jumped. “This storm is freaky,” I said, my knees curling into Sam. “And it feels like it’s getting colder.” He pulled me closer.

   “We’ve got to do something to pass the time,” Sam said. “Or we’re really going to go nuts.”

   “Damn straight,” I said, almost leaping into his lap when the lightning cracked again.

   “See? You’re not as perfect as you think. You even curse.”

   “Who said I was perfect?”

   “No one needs to.”

   “You don’t really know me.”

   “I know enough.”

   “Humph,” I said, slightly taken aback. “Well, since you’ve got me all figured out, tell me something about you.” I paused, just as lightning filled the sky again, turning everything all silvery-gray. Like a camera flash. “Tell me something no one else knows.”

   “No,” Sam said quickly.

   “Why not?”

   “Because I don’t want to.”

   “What’s it matter? We’re not going anywhere for a while. You said so yourself. And besides that crazy elk, we’re the only ones out here.” Rain splattered above us, droplets bouncing from one branch to another, one pine needle to another. It was as if we sat below a giant fountain, each raindrop trying desperately to reach our hiding spot. “I’ll give you the rest of the granola bar if you do.” My eyebrows wiggled.

   “Forget it.”

   “You’re no fun.”

   “Wait. I thought I was complicated?”

   “Touché.” I sighed and looked away.

   I counted raindrops when the storm quieted for a few seconds. During one stretch, I almost reached one hundred. But the rain always returned to pound around us like an encore. The sky soon became so dark that we didn’t even get a sunset.

   Sam’s shoulders began to shiver. I hadn’t thought he ever got cold, but he was wearing only a T-shirt. At least I had a sweatshirt.

   This wasn’t good.

   “Okay,” I said, mostly to keep our minds off the growing cold and our grumbling stomachs. “If you won’t go first. I will.” I bit the inside of my lip to keep my teeth from chattering, because if they started again I wasn’t certain they’d stop.

   “What are you talking about now?”

   “I’m going to tell you something personal,” I said. “And you have to promise never to tell a soul. Can I trust you?” I looked up at him, just as the sky flashed another bolt of lightning, squiggly white lines stretching in every direction. “Promise?”

   Sam surprised me by nodding. Or maybe he was shivering again. Whatever it was, I decided to tell him. What if we never made it off this mountain? What if we froze together tonight in each other’s arms? What did I have to lose?

   I took a deep breath to steady myself and said, “I let my best friend use BOTOX on my forehead on Friday night. That’s why I’m wearing this stupid baseball cap.”

   Dead silence.

   Sam’s chest began to shake—but not from shivering. From laughter. It was the dry-heave, raspy kind, like he was having difficulty catching his breath. It started slowly and then built to a splitting crescendo.

   “Thanks,” I said, between his chest heaves. “Thanks a lot. Glad you find it hilarious.”

   His laughter turned into a coughing fit when he tried to speak. He raised his hand, begging me to wait. Sam’s laughter finally subsided until all we could hear were raindrops again.

   “Why would you do that, Riley?” He reached for the brim of my baseball cap but I slapped his hand, which only got him chuckling again.

   “I’m gullible. I was bored. I don’t know. My best friend, Drew, talked me into it. I blame her.”

   “Does your forehead hurt?”

   “I don’t know. I can’t feel it.”

   Sam started another laughing fit and I just shook my head at him, biting back my own smile.

   When he finally quieted, I challenged him. “Okay, now it’s your turn to play. You’ve got to tell me something juicy, something really personal. And I swear to god I’ll keep bugging you till you do. I could bug you all night. I swear, I will.” I looked out beneath the branches into nothing but infinite blackness. “We’re not going anywhere, so make it a good one.”



   “I’m not playing.”

   I was defiant. I even forgot how chilled I’d become for a few seconds. There was no way I was playing Riley’s stupid game.

   It was such a girl thing. Why did girls always feel compelled to share personal embarrassing stuff? And BOTOX? Are you kidding me? Why would a pretty girl do something like that? Girls confused me.

   “Please?” she begged.




   “Maybe you’ll play?” She tugged on the collar of my T-shirt, hard.


   “Then I’ll have to guess.”

   In the growing darkness, I heard her lips smack. It was obvious that she was giving this way too much thought. I could practically hear the wheels spinning in her head. Or maybe that was just her teeth chattering.

   “Still cold?” I said to change the subject.

   “I’m freezing,” she said, just as a gust of wind blew through the tree, knocking icy raindrops off the branches. “This is miserable.” We shivered in each other’s arms.

   “Your sweatshirt is wet.”

   “So’s your T-shirt.”

   We hugged tighter. We breathed heavily for warmth. We rubbed skin where we could reach. We didn’t have a choice. And while it didn’t seem so bad in the dark, now that we couldn’t see each other’s eyes, the situation was clearly going from bad to really, really freaking bad. Ugly words raced through my head—hypothermia and pneumonia, for starters.



   “Don’t take this the wrong way—” I paused for courage “—but there’s something we need to do. Now.”

   “You’ve changed your mind about playing?” Her voice turned giddy, even as her teeth resumed chattering. I hoped she wasn’t starting to crack. I’d read about such things in life-or-death situations. Some people turned crazy as a survival mechanism.

   My eyes rolled. “No. I’m not talking about playing your game. Be serious.”

   “What, then?”

   “We have to take our clothes off.”

   Her body stiffened against mine.

   “We’re soaking wet,” I added by way of explanation. “We could freeze to death if we don’t take them off.”

   “We could freeze to death with them on.”

   “True.” I nodded, trying to play to her reasonable side. “But we should at least...consider it. For body heat.”

   “Get naked?” she whispered.

   “Get naked.”

   But then her shoulders softened beneath my hands. “Yeah, I was thinking about how to handle the wet clothes, too.”

   “This is survival,” I stammered a little. “Nothing else.”

   “Agreed,” she said. “Survival.” She sounded like she was trying to convince herself more than me. “What about underwear?”

   “I guess...I guess we can leave those on.”

   “Okay,” she said. It sounded like she was trying to work up her nerve.

   At least it’s dark, I wanted to assure her, but that sounded like something a creepy guy would say. “I’ll go first—”

   Riley caught my arm in the dark, interrupting me. “Let’s do it together.”

   “Okay. On the count of three.” I counted slowly. “One...”

   “Two,” Riley said with me.


   With only a couple of inches between us, we stripped out of our wet shirts. Blindly, we fumbled and felt for a branch beside us to hang them in the hopes that they might dry, knocking arms at the same time.

   “Sorry,” we said at the same time when our elbows crashed against each other. I winced when hers caught my funny bone.

   I doubted that our shirts would dry even a little in the damp night air. Removing our pants was harder. I had to help Riley pull off hers, one slightly soggy leg at a time. When her jeans pulled over her injured leg, she moaned.

   “Sorry,” I whispered.

   She garbled something back that sounded like “sleigh” but it was probably “it’s okay.”

   After helping her, I unzipped my jeans and then shimmied them down and stripped them off my bent legs without kicking her in the face.

   Beside me, Riley shivered even more and I wondered if stripping was the right idea, especially as rain continued to fall. If there had been a more awful night, weather-wise, I hadn’t experienced it. This was like a bad horror movie.

   As we sat across from each other in our underwear, shivering in the dark, lightning lit up our hiding space. In the flash, I looked at Riley, and she looked back at me. In that instant I saw everything. She was so white she glowed. Her arms crossed to hide her chest. Most of all, I saw that she was as terrified as I was, and for that reason alone I could not look away.

   “There’s no reason to be embarrassed, Riley. Or scared. I’m as scared as you are.” I had to push off to the side of my brain that I had never been with a girl before, naked. Not like this, so close we were practically sharing the same heartbeat. I wondered if I should tell her that? Would it put her at ease?

   Instead, when it turned dark again, I reached for her shoulder. “Come here.”

   A few seconds later, as if she’d needed time to consider it, she crawled to me on her knees. She sat between my legs, facing me. I wrapped my arms around her and she wrapped her arms around me, at least as much as she could. We were chest-to-chest, skin touching skin. I tried not to think about the softness of her skin or the sweet scent of her hair. Instead, I counted backward from one hundred and forced myself to focus on survival. Staying alive. Global warming. Global cooling, more like.

   I rubbed her arms, her back. “Better?” My voice cracked.

   Her head nodded beneath my chin, fast. Nervous. I could hear each swallow. “You?”

   “Yeah,” I said. “Much.”

   Her body froze again and so did mine.

   “It’s not like that, Riley. I promise.”

   “Okay,” she said, but her voice was still uneasy.

   “Let’s lie down.”

   She stiffened again in my arms but I pushed her backward, gently. I cradled her head by my right shoulder and then curled the rest of my body over hers, doing my best not to crush her. Her warm breath heated my neck as we lay on the ground. “Are you okay?”

   “Uh-huh,” she squeaked.

   “Am I hurting you?”

   “Uh-uh.” Another soft squeak.

   “You’re lying.”

   She didn’t answer.

   I shifted a few inches, as much as I could in the cocoon that we’d made for ourselves. Pine needles poked every inch of my skin. Despite the branches for our makeshift bed, the ground was still rock-hard. I closed my eyes and did my best to relax. Did my best to picture being warm. I pictured a bright sun and a hot, sizzling desert—anything but the soft body beneath me. After a few silent, agonizing minutes, I said, “I know this sounds gross but it would be better if we burrowed underneath the pine needles.”

   Her hands squeezed my arms. “What about bugs? And spiders? I really hate spiders.”

   “It’s too cold for them,” I lied. We’d probably wake up covered in ant bites, but at least we wouldn’t freeze to death.

   “Okay,” she said with so much trust in her voice that I felt equal parts good and bad—good for keeping us warm but bad for telling lies. Suddenly I felt very responsible for this girl in my arms. Riley trusted me. She believed me. I did not want to disappoint her.

   We burrowed like animals, digging beneath the branches, covering ourselves in a blanket of mostly dry pine needles and moss. Then we lay back again, Riley curled into my chest and one of my legs curled around Riley. After a while, our breathing slowed, and there was warmth.

   The warmth turned into heat. Blessed heat. Body heat as thick as a blanket. Our shivering stopped and my breathing matched Riley’s, breath for breath. I felt her heartbeat against my chest.

   I looked up at the sky, breathing easier, but still trying to keep my mind focused on anything but the fact that I was holding a mostly naked girl in my arms and willing the rest of my body not to react. Rain still pattered against the trees and a few drops reached us, but a couple of stars poked through the clouds with the promise that the storm was breaking. Finally.

   “Riley?” My voice sounded loud.

   “Yeah?” she whispered.

   “I’ll play.”

   She gasped. Her chin rose to touch mine and I couldn’t help but smile. “You’ll tell me something personal?” She sounded doubtful at first. “Really, really personal?”

   “Yeah, why not?” I paused to swallow. “But you’ve got to swear you won’t tell anyone. Not a soul.”

   “I absolutely promise.” Her breath hitched.

   “Okay,” I said. “I trust you.”


   “Okay,” I said again, hesitating all over again. Why had I opened my big mouth?

   “You can tell me, Sam,” she said with conviction. “I won’t tell anybody.”

   I sighed. Then I took a deep breath. Then another for some nerve. Another patch of black sky cleared above us. More stars twinkled through the tops of swaying treetops. I looked down at Riley and could see the vague curve of her chin, her nose, even the whites of her eyes twinkling in the starlight. She waited for me to speak, barely breathing.

   “Sam?” she prodded, lifting herself over my chest. “You’re killing me. What. Is. It?”

   My secret dislodged like a boulder from the top of a cliff. There was no taking it back. “I’m in love with your brother’s girlfriend,” I blurted.

   Riley gasped again but for a split second I didn’t care.

   It felt good to be rid of it.

   So I proceeded to tell Riley everything.



   Say. What? I raised myself higher on my elbow, knocking the top of my head against Sam’s chin.

   Okay, I was expecting Sam to fess up to hot-wiring a car or maybe even cheating on a final exam but lusting after my brother’s girlfriend, Fred Oday? No. Way. Was he crazy? Fred and Ryan were inseparable. He’d have a better chance dating Lady Gaga.

   “You’re in love with Fred Oday.” I didn’t say it like a question.


   “For how long?”

   “For forever.”

   “What’s that mean?”

   “Since we were in grade school.”

   “No way.”


   “What do you love about her? I mean, aside from the obvious.” Fred was brilliant. She was also beautiful in an unconventional way. She was kind of like the exotic foreign exchange student who intrigued everyone without really trying. Throw in the fact that she could beat the butts off most of the guys on the varsity golf team and she became A-list material. I couldn’t blame my brother for loving her, too.

   “Everything,” Sam said with a sigh.

   He wasn’t making it easy. “You need to be more specific.”

   “She’s pretty.”

   “Tell me something I don’t know.”

   “And she’s smart,” he added.

   “Well, duh.”

   Sam laughed. “That’s not good enough for you?”

   “No,” I said. “There must be something else, something you’re not telling me....”

   I felt him inhale deeply beside me. Then he said, “We want the same things.”

   “You play golf, too?”

   “No,” Sam said. “It has nothing to do with golf.”

   “Then, what?”

   Sam paused. “It’s where we’re from....”

   “Because you’re both Gila?”

   “No. Yes. I mean, no. We both have had to work so hard. We understand each other. It’s just that we both want...more. More for ourselves. More for our people.”

   “More, what?”

   “It’s kind of hard to explain, Riley.” Another heavy sigh. “You wouldn’t understand.”

   “Try me. We’ve got time.”

   His hand dropped against my back. “There’s not enough time to explain to you what I mean. You don’t live it. You wouldn’t get it. Trust me.”

   “I’m smarter than you think, you know.”

   “I never said you were dumb.”

   “No, you said I was thorough. Remember? This is me, living up to my nickname. I need more detail. Now tell me.”

   Sam chuckled, but it was the kind of nervous chuckle where I knew he wasn’t going to share anything more. His legs began to twitch as if they were covered in ants. Very un-Sam-Tracy-like. And, honestly? I was shocked he’d even told me what he had. In a weird way, I felt kind of privileged. Sam didn’t strike me as the kind of boy who went around sharing his secrets.

   “Tell me more about her, Sam. Tell me more about what you love about her?”

   “I haven’t said enough?”

   “Not even close.”

   He snickered. “Okay, then. Well, she laughs at my bad jokes. She’s kind to people. She’s patient—more patient than I’ll ever be. And she’s determined.” He paused. “I think I love that most of all.”

   After a silent moment, I said, “You know that getting her is impossible, don’t you?” I leaned back down from my elbow.

   Sam didn’t answer.

   “Ryan and Fred are so in love that it’’s almost sickening.”

   Sam chuckled. “I know.”

   “I think they’re considering getting surgically sewn together.”

   Sam’s chest shook against mine.

   “And then I hear that they’re going to share the same brain.”

   “Stop it, Riley,” Sam said, laughing harder.

   “I’m just telling you. You’re asking for the tragically impossible.”

   “I didn’t say that I wanted to go out with her. I just told you that I loved her. That’s my really, really personal thing that you said you wanted to hear. That’s all.”

   “Yes, well. That’s...sad,” I said, forgetting for the moment that, except for the parts covered by my underwear, my naked skin was touching Sam Tracy, a boy who was in love with my brother’s girlfriend. How twisted was that?

   “That’s the way it is,” Sam said. “You can’t have everything.”

   “At least you understand.”

   “More than you know.” He sighed, and for a few seconds that turned into minutes, we said nothing and just listened to the rain drip-dropping through the branches that sheltered us.

   My eyelids grew heavy as my body stayed warm against Sam’s, even as I kept playing Sam’s secret in my mind. I couldn’t picture it—Fred and Sam? My brother without Fred? To say that it was impossible would be an understatement. There are some people who go together, like dark chocolate and sea salt. Would Sam really have a chance with Fred?

   Despite his love for Fred, right now I was glad that we were together. If I had to get stranded in a forest and Jake Gyllenhaal wasn’t available, I was glad I was with Sam Tracy. In fact, forget Jake. I’d definitely choose Sam. He’d scaled down a mountain for me. He hadn’t left me alone. He was keeping me warm. He was keeping me alive. And he’d told me his deepest, darkest secret.

   “Let’s try to get some sleep,” Sam said. “We’ll need our strength for tomorrow if we plan to hike out of here.”

   I yawned. “You don’t want to talk anymore?” I needed to do something to get my mind off what could be crawling around and over the pine needles and dirt that were doing a decent job of keeping the cold away. Just as Sam had said they would. “No more secrets?”

   “That wasn’t juicy enough for you?”

   “Good point.”

   “I’m tired.” Sam yawned.

   I sighed. “Okay, you win. I’ll shut up.”

   So I rested my head on Sam’s smooth chest, listening as his breathing slowed. Somewhere in the distance, an owl hooted. That’s when I realized it had stopped raining. There was still a tiny rumble of thunder, but it sounded miles away.

   “Sam?” I whispered. I wanted to tell him that the rain had finally stopped, the storm had passed, but he didn’t answer.

   And then I began to dream crazy dreams.



   Wrapped around Riley, I didn’t sleep a solitary second the entire night, but she did.

   Riley talked in her sleep, too. She said nothing that I could understand, but at least it helped the night to pass. It was like trying to figure out Latin or something. One time she even giggled. Martin and Peter were never going to believe this. They were going to give me grief for being Mr. Gentleman. “Why didn’t you at least kiss her,” Martin would probably say. “Or at least brush her breast while your hand was in the general area?”

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