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Leap of Faith

By Ethan Young All Rights Reserved ©

Humor / Romance

Complete Story

His alarm, as usual, went off at what seemed like an ungodly hour. Marco De Vega groaned as his fingers scrabbled for the snooze alarm, and once the noise had stopped he spent a few seconds glaring at it hatefully.

Oh, God…another day.

He muttered something uncharitable under his breath and tossed the sheets aside. Clad only in his boxers, he shuffled to the toilet in the tiny bathroom down the hall, took a leak, and then ran a hand over his face as he looked in the mirror.

Ruby-pink eyes stared back at him from the glassy surface.

His face combined the sharp-edged features indicative of Hispanic ancestry with aquiline cheekbones and a strong jaw, but his skin was the almost the color of white marble. His hair, which he wore short-cropped and un-gelled, was also ice-white.

Marco fumbled for the plastic case that he kept his contact lenses in. He made sure to insert them with utmost care; they were expensive and he couldn’t afford to buy new ones. This pair had to last.

Albinism was the term used to describe Marco’s unusual pallor, and it was to his misfortune that he’d been born with its most severe subtype. His skin and hair produced very little pigmentation whatsoever, which meant that he had to take extra precautions if he were to venture out of doors: for one thing, he was extremely sensitive to sunlight, and whatever he couldn’t cover up with his clothes was thoroughly plastered with the highest-SPF sunblock he could find, as well as prescription sunglasses to shield his sensitive eyes.

At times, he felt like he was living an almost vampiric existence.

And albinism carried with it other sets of drawbacks that were lesser-known to the general public. Marco's vision had been naturally poor until he’d undergone three separate corrective surgeries, and even then he still had to use contacts to be able to see with clarity.

He showered and dressed in attire typical of teenage boys: faded blue jeans and a gray long-sleeve shirt that clashed horribly with his complexion but did wonders to keep the sun off his arms. The day would be hot (it almost always was in Nevada) but he was willing to bear it. Better that than to peel like an onion or contract skin cancer by the time he hit thirty.

Thus dressed, he headed into the kitchen and fixed himself a plate of scrambled eggs. Marco was a tolerable cook, though he couldn’t compare to his grandmother. But Nana, who’d taken care of him since infancy, wasn’t up yet. She usually slept in on weekdays. But on weekends…

He grinned. On weekends, she’d always fix him the best food this side of the Rio Grande.

One more reason to look forward to Saturday, not that I needed it. He crossed himself—Nana had raised him a good Catholic—and ate with a hurried pace.

When he had finished eating, he scrawled a quick note telling her the leftovers were in the fridge and left the dishes in the sink to soak. There was something comforting about the routine; it helped take his mind off the fact that the sun would have risen by now.

He grimaced and felt the same uneasiness he always did right before leaving the house. Another day. Another day of avoiding attention, keeping a low profile, and trying to remain as inconspicuous as humanly possible. Marco was no fool: he knew that many would find his appearance unusual and perhaps even unsettling (his eyes, in particular, seemed to have that effect) so he went to considerable lengths to avoid being noticed. He had been exposed to enough ridicule already in his sixteen years to want to avoid the spotlight. Or sunlight. Or most types of light, now that he thought about it.

Hopefully the sunscreen he’d used would be enough to keep him from frying like a strip of bacon until he got to school. Usually it was, but you could never really be sure.

Even with his sunglasses, he winced and held a hand to his eyes as soon as he stepped outside. For a moment, Marco almost wished he took the bus every morning, but he was close enough to walk if he got up early and the yearly fee was too much in any case. He didn’t want to have to shell out more money than he had to, not with Nana already on a frayed, knotted shoestring of a budget.

Marco kept a brisk pace as the sun rose higher. He had always found a bitter sort of irony in growing up in the American Southwest, as if a giggling capricious God was having fun at his expense. Why else would He stick him here? For that matter, why would He make him an albino to begin with?

He must have been drunk when he got around to shaping me, Marco decided, and felt a silent thrill at the delicious blasphemy. He knew Nana would have tanned his backside with a hickory switch if she’d heard him say that…and of course, this was all the encouragement he needed to keep right on thinking it. The Almighty strikes me as a Dos Equis or Tequila kind of guy. It wouldn’t take much to get wasted after a few shots of that.

San Cristobal, Nevada was a mid-size city located in the middle of…absolutely nowhere, really. Outside its limits, the land was as flat as a piece of paper, save where scenic mesas of rust-colored rock jutted out like enormous teeth. Marco had always puzzled over the fact that people would drive for days just to see them; personally, he’d always found them rather boring. Oh, the scenery could look romantic, sure…for about five minutes at sunrise and sunset. And they did nothing to make up for the lack of greenery. There were never enough trees and growing things to suit him. Everything was either dull orange, rusty red or dun-colored brown.

“Marco!”

He glanced up, grinning broadly. He knew that voice, and welcomed it. Avery Draper was his oldest—and only---real friend. They’d grown up across the street from each other, so perhaps it was inevitable. Relaxed and soft-spoken, Avery seemed to take everything in stride. Nothing seemed to faze him, which was a talent that Marcus very nearly envied. It also helped that Avery never thought much about Marco’s albinism either, if he mentioned or noticed it at all.

“Polo,” he grinned back, in a running gag that they’d been using for years. “Glad it’s Monday.”

Avery snorted. “Said no one ever. Is that paper on Shakespeare due today?”

Marco groaned inwardly. Ah, crap. “Yeah, and I forgot to do it. Dr. Barton had me working double shifts on Saturday.”

“Then we’re both screwed,” Avery said cheerily. “Why didn’t you ask him for a break? Barton's a reasonable guy. He’d give it to you if you told him you had school stuff to work on.”

That was certainly true. Marco’s boss was indeed a reasonable man. Dr. Hugo Barton had performed the surgical procedures that had corrected Marco’s vision, and had given Marco a part-time job at his optometry clinic. The supplemental income had been a welcome addition to Nana’s monthly Social Security check.

“Needed the money,” Marco said at last.

“Well, hey, at least you have a good excuse. I just stayed in bed and napped all weekend.”

“I hope Gartner agrees with you. It sounds better than ‘the dog ate my homework,’ at any rate.” Ms. Gartner was by far the longest-serving teacher at San Cristobal High, and she scared Marco to death. Privately, he suspected even some of the other teachers were intimidated by her.

“She won’t flunk you if you had to miss a paper in order to take pay for your freaking grandma’s medicine!Avery insisted. “Gartner may be tougher than old shoe leather, but she’s not cruel. Just try and explain it to her. Trust me on this.”

And Marco did trust him, as much as he could have trusted anyone. “Yeah, maybe. Like I said, Nana needs the money. Her prescriptions are gonna have to be refilled in about a week.”

“Yikes.” Avery’s voice softened. “Do you need some help?”

He meant well. Marco knew he meant well. But he hated the idea of having to accept charity. He took pride in being able to help pay the bills.

“I’m good,” Marco said finally, though he smiled to show he appreciated the offer. “Thanks anyway, though.”

“Just wanted to ask. Oh, and Mom wanted me to tell you she made some lemon cake the other day. You’re welcome to come by and have some later.”

“You had me at cake,” Marco said, miming a swoon. Then his grin turned sly. “Pity she doesn’t leave them on the windowsill anymore.”

“A pity indeed,” Avery played along, with mock disbelief. “But who knows? Someone could just walk by and swipe them, and no one would know where they’d gone!”

“Especially if that someone was short enough to walk underneath it. Two young boys, you might say.” Marco eyed his friend knowingly.

They shared a conspiratorial grin as they rounded the corner. Up ahead, San Cristobal High took up an entire city block. It was fashioned not from adobe, which was a common architectural style in this part of the United States, but from weathered white bricks. The street was choked with the vehicles of both pupils and teachers, while the crosswalk teemed with a seemingly-endless stream of pedestrians. Marco didn’t give it much thought. He’d come this way so many times before that he barely noticed. What he did think about was avoiding the attention of all those staring eyes. He felt grateful for his friend’s company then; the jests and small talk they traded helped calm his nerves.

As they waited for the light to signal their turn to cross the street, Marco hardly registered the presence of the girl standing in front of him. She was slender, with skin lightly dusted with freckles and fiery red hair pulled back in a simple ponytail. Her tank top and jeans did little to hide a shapely hourglass figure, and if Marco had paid enough attention to notice, he would have faintly heard music blaring from the earbuds she wore.

There was a lull in the traffic, and she started making her way across the street. She had a considerable stride, too, and Marco had almost started to follow her out of reflex before Avery stopped him.

“Dude, what are you doing?”

Marco opened his mouth to speak, but saw that the signal still displayed the red hand whose meaning was universal. “Oh. Sorry. Guess I spaced out for a sec. But…” His words trailed off as a sinking feeling gathered in Marco’s stomach.

Oh, no.

The girl had almost made it halfway across, still absorbed in whatever song she was listening to. She was playing it so loudly that she was all but oblivious to the oncoming car that rounded the bend. It didn’t look to be going extremely fast, but it didn’t take much to break fragile human bones.

No one else around him (except for Avery, of course) seemed aware of the impending disaster. The engine’s roar was as loud as the end of the world. He could hear his friend shouting something, trying to warn her, but the words seemed distant and far away. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, and before he knew what he was doing, he moved.

By then, it was too late. Too late to try and pull her back. Too late for him to pull back, either. He heard his shoes pounding the asphalt. Of its own volition, his hand grasped a small crucifix hidden beneath his shirt, and words rose unbidden in his mind:

Hail, Mary, full of grace…

The sun was like a furnace on his brow. All around him, Marco saw more and more horrified faces as people began to realize what was going on. Too late, too late.

The Lord is with thee…

His heart beat a deafening tattoo in his ears. Terror filled him, terror of being crushed and ground to jelly by three tons of metal, but his legs seemed to have will of their own.

Blessed art thou amongst women…

He was so close, now. So close. One good shove, and she’d be out of danger. Her red hair seemed like the color of fresh blood…

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…

He could smell the stink of the exhaust fumes from the onrushing car. Its grille seemed as wide as the Grand Canyon…

Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners…

He tried not to imagine the sound his bones would make as they shattered, or the way his twisted, crumpled body would hit the pavement. What the hell was he doing? He didn’t know this girl. He didn’t even know her name.

Now at the hour of our death, Amen.

With a final burst of speed, he tackled her with all the force he could muster, grabbing her with both hands and holding her close, unconsciously shielding her with his body.

Marco closed his eyes and prepared for the worst. He probably should have come up with something more poignant to think in his final moments, but all he could come up with was:

Well, this sucks.

But no crushing force slammed into him. The Buick missed them by such a narrow margin that Marco could feel the heat from burning rubber as its driver slammed on the brakes. He and the girl were both was carried on by his momentum, and they landed onto the sidewalk hard enough to make stars and cartoon birdies explode in his vision. His jaw clacked audibly; a second later, he tasted blood where he bit his tongue.

Someone was screaming. No, a lot of people were screaming.

Marco blinked blearily against the bright sun as he staggered upright, panting from fear and shaky with adrenaline. His body felt like one massive bruise, and there was a hot wetness smeared across the left side of his face. He touched it, and when his hand came away Marco’s fingers were smeared with crimson. Further probing confirmed that he’d acquired a nasty cut. It probably wouldn’t require stitches, but it hurt like hell.

The sun seemed impossibly bright, as bright as a flash of lightning that seemed to sear his eyeballs. Marco hurriedly fumbled for his glasses and put them on, glad they hadn’t been scratched too badly. Glasses were expensive.

The girl’s cell phone hadn’t been so lucky. The car had crushed it almost completely flat, but thankfully the same could not be said for its owner. He was relieved to see her groan and get to her feet… though that faded abruptly when he realized that everyone was staring and pointing at them.

No, not at them, Marco realized with dawning horror. At him. A few boys and girls had their cell phones out, as if to record it all, and the loud buzz of blended conversation had faded into waves of quiet murmurs. He froze like a deer caught in a pair of headlights, and felt utterly and terribly exposed.

“Hey! He just saved that girl’s life!” someone shouted.

That did it. The growing circle of stunned faces broke into a cacophony.

“Did anyone get that on tape?”

“Look at his hair! And his eyes!”

The girl stared at him too, and that was when Marco decided he’d had enough. So many staring eyes…he felt their scrutiny with a sharp, almost physical pain. She opened her mouth to say something and took a step toward him—

He lurched away from her, careening backward and then forward, all thoughts of classes and Shakespeare forgotten as he scooped his backpack and fled.

Marco didn’t head home. If he did, Nana would demand to know why he wasn’t in school, and he didn’t feel like answering a lot of uncomfortable questions. So instead he headed where he always headed when he needed to be alone: the abandoned quarry. Once it had been San Cristobal’s main source of employment, but sometime before he was born the site had been abandoned. It was surrounded by barbed wire, but most of that had grown rusty easy to squeeze through. He took a seat behind a derelict piece of mining machinery, safe in its shadow from the blistering sun, and there he stayed until four o’clock rolled around and Avery found him.

Marco knew he would. Avery was the only other person who knew to find him here.

“Yo.” Avery handed him a sheaf of papers. “Went and got your homework for you.”

“Thanks. I’m sorry to trouble you like this.”

“No sweat. You’d do the same for me. How’s your head?”

He felt the scabbed-over cut gingerly. “I’ll live. So…how bad is it?”

Avery made a face but said nothing.

“That bad, huh?”

“Worse," his friend confirmed. "Everyone is talking about you. I was surprised at how many people didn’t even know who you were before this.”

“That was the idea,” Marco said dryly, gesturing at himself.

“I know. And I can’t say I blame you.”

Marco dared to allow hopefulness in his voice, and even in his own ears it sounded pathetic, almost pleading. “But it’s over now, right? Maybe…maybe it’ll all blow over in a few days.”

“Dude, everybody saw you jump in front of a car and risk your life to save a total stranger. A pretty girl, no less. That’s some serious knight-in-shining-armor shit. You’re even on freaking Youtube, man.”

Horror rendered Marco momentarily speechless. “You…you’re kidding, right?”

“Nope.” Avery dug out his phone. “Check this out.”

He looked, and sure enough, playing on the small screen was a hastily taped video of the whole event.

 “That…how long has that been up?”

“Since about fifteen minutes after it happened. And it’s already racked up half a million views.”

Marco promptly buried his head in his hands and fought down the urge to sob. “I should have let that car hit me while I had the chance.”

Avery shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sor—”

“I know you’re just trying to help,” Marco cut him off shortly. “Better to know now than later. I get it.” But that doesn’t make it any less of a nightmare. Not by a long shot. “So who was that girl, anyway?

Avery…started laughing.

“What the hell is so funny? Didn’t you just say you hated being the bearer of bad news?”

“I’m sorry,” Avery giggled, clutching his sides. “I can’t help it. It’s just…it’s a perfect storm that could have been tailor-made for you. It’s almost absurd.”

“…I’m not going to like where you’re going with this, am I?”

“Judge for yourself. Her name is Ayla Stephens, and trust me on this, she looks even better from in front than she does from behind. I mean…wow.” Marco flushed, and Avery’s grin turned devious. “She’s got friends in high places, too. Her mom sits on the school board, and her dad’s a member of the state legislature who’s on the fast track to Capitol Hill. A thousand people in our school, and you had to go and save her.

“And you know all this…how?”

“Internet. Duh. And you have to admit, it is kinda funny. Talk about coming from different worlds! Although—"

“Save it.” Marco shook his head. “If what you say is true, she’s way out of my league. It’d probably be best—for both of us—if I just avoided her. And besides…trying to get a date by calling in favors, or saying she owes me?” He shook his head. “That’s low. Really low. She doesn’t owe me anything. I’d be happier if this whole mess hadn’t happened at all.”

“I wasn’t suggesting that.” Avery looked at him reproachfully. “If you had let me finish, I would have said that it couldn’t hurt to be friendly, because if anything she’ll probably seek you out.”

“Why?”

Avery rolled his eyes and gestured to the still-open Youtube app on his phone. “Well, generally speaking, it’s common courtesy to say ‘thank you’ when someone does something like that. Of course it might be different on the planet you’re from.”

“…Sorry.”

“Don’t sweat it. Hell, there are probably a lot of guys who would use the incident as some kind of bargaining chip, so I get where you’re coming from.”

“…You really think she’ll come looking for me?”

“I’d be surprised if she didn’t.”

“Which will only draw even more attention to me. Oh, joy,” Marco muttered.

“Don’t knock it. It might not be as bad as you think.”

Marco stood. “No offense, but I’ll believe that when I see it.”

“Where are you going?”

“Barton’s. My shift starts in half an hour. I’ll text you later.”

“Sure. Talk to you then.”

___________________________________

Dr. Hugo Barton looked over the rim of his glasses as Marco finished relating the morning’s events. “And then you ran?”

Marco shrugged one shoulder as he pulled open a file cabinet. Stacks of papers, folders and binders lay piled around his shoes, waiting to be sorted. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Is that also what you thought when you threw yourself in front of a moving car?” Barton asked. “I’m guessing it would be redundant for me to remind you that you could have been killed.”

“I know, I know,” Marco said wearily. “But the thing is, I didn’t think. I didn’t even know what I was doing until I was doing it. I just acted.”

“And you feel that if you had stopped to think, you might not have done it,” the doctor finished.

“Yeah.” Marco’s voice was small. Shame crept into his tone.

Barton rose from his chair. He was a rotund, short man in his late fifties, with a head of thinning hair and mud-colored eyes that sat above a beaked nose and thin lips.

“Don’t torment yourself over what-ifs,” he said, putting his hands on the boy’s shoulders in a manner that was almost fatherly. “You won’t accomplish anything by worrying over what might or might not have been. Neither should you feel guilty at having been afraid. Who wouldn’t be afraid in that kind of situation? The important thing is that you acted in spite of it. You saved the life of a young woman at no small risk to your own, and that, Marco, is nothing to be ashamed of.”

“But…but everyone saw it!” Marco protested, fuming at the way his voice cracked in mid-sentence. “I don’t want that kind of attention, you know that!”

“A small price to pay for a life, don’t you think?” Barton said. “And you never know. This may even be a blessing in disguise.”

Marco let out a harsh bark of laughter. “Yeah. Sure.”

“I’m serious,” the doctor insisted. “You need to begin branching out, and this could be precisely the kind of push that you’ve needed for a long time. You cannot hide from the world forever, Marco.” He held up a hand to cut off the boy’s reply. “I do not say your reasons for doing so are not valid. But it’s one thing to be shy, and another to hide away from everyone as you’ve become accustomed to doing. When was the last time you went to a movie or grabbed a burger with someone other than Avery? When was the last time you went to a party or caught a baseball game? How many other people do you know that you can really count as friends?”

The answer to all of those questions was none, of course.

“What does it say about me,” Marco asked slowly, “That what you’re suggesting frightens me more than getting pasted by a car?”

“It says that you’re human,” Barton snorted. “Stepping outside your comfort zone is never easy.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Marco said, deadpan.

The doctor chuckled. “Then allow me to take your mind off your troubles.” He gestured toward the stacks of paper. “Those files aren’t going to sort themselves.”

“Gosh, you’re a saint.”

Barton’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “I’ve often thought so,” he said with a straight face.

___________________________________

Seated in a rear booth at one of San Cristobal’s local eateries, Ayla Stephens brushed a strand of blood-colored hair away from her eyes and stared ruefully at the half-eaten burger on her plate. Normally she’d have wolfed it down with gusto. Not this time. Her near-brush with death that morning had put paid to her appetite.

She shifted uneasily and fought not to wince. The dark bruises and half-healed scrapes on her shins and forearms were still very tender despite being wrapped in gauze strips and Band-Aids.

Ayla forced the memory out of her mind with difficulty. The difference of a few scant seconds would have seen her shattered, twisted body go flying to the pavement, or worse still, crushed into a red smear beneath the vehicle’s bulk.

Goosebumps broke out on her arms, and she shivered, clutching herself.

“Ayla? Are you okay?”

The familiar voice from across the table brought her thoughts back to the present. Ayla didn’t have to look up to know who it was, but she did anyway. The speaker, a girl with dark hair and green eyes, frowned in concern.

Ayla shrugged but didn’t look at her friend. “I’m fine, Taylor.”

Taylor gave her a mildly long-suffering look. “Tell it to someone who doesn’t know you as well as I do. You’re still thinking about this morning, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.”

Taylor slid into an empty seat. “If you keep doing that, you’re going to drive yourself insane.”

“I know, I know. I just…I can’t help myself. Maybe I’m just morbid.”

Taylor smiled slyly. “Maybe. Or maybe what you’re really thinking about is that boy who shoved you out of the way.”

Ayla snorted, but Taylor was unconvinced. “Oh, come on. Some random guy you’ve never met before nearly gets himself killed like that, and you honestly expect me to believe you’re not the least bit curious? Bullshit.”

She was right, dammit. “The thought…had crossed my mind,” Ayla admitted grudgingly.

“Of course it has. You’re not the only one, either. Everyone’s talking about it.”

“I know.” And she did know. From the first bell until the bus had dropped her off, the morning’s events had dominated San Cristobal High’s grapevine. “But I haven’t heard anything about him other than rumors.”

“I’m not surprised.”

Ayla blinked. “Um…?”

“You know Mary? From second period?”

“Yeah.”

“I talked to her on the phone earlier this afternoon, and it turns out she has some classes with him. Homeroom and English, with Gartner.”

Ayla leaned forward despite herself. “What’d she say?”

Taylor warmed to her subject. “His name’s Marco De Vega. And the reason you don’t know much about him is that he keeps a low profile. Mary sees him every day, and she knows next to nothing about him other than his name. He seems to go out of his way to avoid drawing attention.”

Ayla frowned, remembering the boy’s shockingly pale skin and red-pink eyes. “I can’t say I blame him.”

“Yeah. If it were me, I probably would have done the same thing.”

“Has Mary spoken with him at all?”

“Sometimes, but never for long. She told me that he seems nice enough, but he’s really shy, even timid at times.”

Ayla shifted in her seat again as an uncomfortable realization dawned. “Then what happened today…”

“Would have been beyond a worst-case scenario, to his way of thinking,” Taylor finished.

“If I try to talk to him, do you think it’ll make things worse?”

“Because it’s you, you mean? Probably. Why?”

“Well, I think I should probably tell him something,” Ayla said awkwardly, struggling for words. “I mean, you know…”

Taylor nodded sagely. “Ah. Survivor’s guilt. You feel bad for him, don’t you?”

“…Yeah.”

“Then why not try to find him outside of school?”

“What, just show up on his doorstep? I don’t want to look like a stalker, Taylor!”

“I never said you had to find out where he lived. There have to be some other places he goes to.”

“I suppose I could ask my mom,” Ayla said hesitantly. “But I hate playing that card. It feels kind of…like cheating, I guess. Do you think Mary could ask him instead? She has a class with him after all.”

“That’s a good idea, actually. I’ll give her a call and let you know if she finds out anything. Speaking of your parents, how are they doing? After what happened…” Taylor didn’t need to finish the sentence.

“I kind of expected them to freak out like I’ve been doing,” Ayla admitted. “But I think they were so relieved that they forgot to panic.”

“Gosh, what a novel idea. You should look into that while Mary is looking into Marco.”

Ayla looked uncertain again. “It sounds really shady when you put it that way.”

“Look, it’s not like you’re staking him out with binoculars or anything. And you’re not going to be throwing yourself at him, either. Chances are the two of you won’t even exchange more than a handful of words. So stop making this out to be bigger than it actually is, all right?”

Ayla nodded and took a bite of hamburger. She hoped her friend was right, but having a mouthful of food meant she didn’t have to reply.

___________________________________

Marco picked noncommittally at the steaming plate of beans and rice. The food smelled amazing, but his appetite had deserted him.

Across the table, Nana peered at her grandson through thick bifocals. She was a plump woman with curly gray hair and a deeply wrinkled face, and hazel eyes that missed little despite her years. “Cat got your tongue?” she asked. “You’ve hardly said a word since you got home.”

He shrugged noncommittally. “I’m fine.” Even as he spoke, though, Marco knew that Nana would see right through his halfhearted response.

His suspicions were proven correct an instant when Nana gave a skeptical look. “Then why the long face?”

“…I dunno.”

“Bull crap,” Nana said crisply. She might have used a different term, but Nana never allowed swearing at the supper table.

He pushed his plate away. “…I don’t really wanna talk about it.”

“No?”

“No. It’s just…It’s a long story, that’s all.” Part of that was due to Marco’s lingering dread over what school would be like the next day, but he also wasn’t keen on having Nana find out he’d skipped school, either. He had a pretty good idea how she’d react to that news.

“Well, when you’re ready, let me know.” Nana was plainly unconvinced, but he was relieved that she didn’t seem to want to pursue her inquiry further. For now, anyway…

“Yeah. Thanks.” He gave her a halfhearted smile. “I know you’re just trying to help.”

Nana smiled back. “I’d be a poor example if I didn’t.” Then she pushed the plate back at him. “Now eat your dinner, boy. I didn’t spend all that time over a stove for nothing, and I won’t have you going to bed on an empty stomach.”

So he did, but a full stomach was little comfort compared to what Marco knew he’d have to face tomorrow. He plodded his through his homework half-heartedly until he’d finished, and as he stripped off his clothes and slipped into bed later that evening, he felt the weight of renewed dread settle around his shoulders. The feeling was like an invisible wet blanket that threatened to smother him.

He ran a hand over his face, then looked down at the pallid shade of his skin. Before today, he’d managed to avoid being ridiculed or gawked at—for the most part—by doing everything he could to not be noticed. But tomorrow…

Tomorrow, he’d have to endure the very things he’d done so much to avoid. The stares. The catcalls. The furtive whispers and pointing fingers. Being compared to a vampire or a ghost, or mocked openly for the color of his eyes.

Sleep did not come easily to him that night.

___________________________________

Morning, when it came, was cloudless and clear. Marco would almost have preferred that it rained; at least then the weather would have been consistent with his mood. From the moment his alarm roused him from sleep to the moment he left the house, dread made it seem as though he were wading through waist-deep mud. Even the reassuring company of Avery Draper didn’t help.

“Nervous?” his friend asked.

“You have no idea,” Marco muttered. His skin had gone clammy with sweat that had nothing to do with the weather. “I mean…this…” Words failed him.

“I know.”

“I mean, what am I supposed to do?” Marco’s voice was more strident that normal, a sign of his distress. “What do I say? What if someone tries to talk to me? What if Ayla tries to talk to me?” His instinctive answer to both scenarios was run like hell, but he knew that wasn’t an option this time.

“Don’t knock it. It may not be as bad as you think,” Avery said as San Cristobal High loomed into view.

Marco looked like a condemned man on the way to the chair.  “Yeah, you’re right. It’s probably worse.”

His friend glanced at him sympathetically. “At least you’re in the spotlight for doing something good. I mean, imagine how bad it’d be if you’d gotten arrested or something.”

“Well…true,” Marco admitted. He took a deep breath and paused outside the school’s front entrance. There but for the grace of God go I…

He shoved the door open, and probably with more force than was necessary. The hallway was already crowded with students, some talking with friends, others rummaging through the rows of lockers on either side.

Nothing changed, at least not immediately. Then a boy in a football jersey pointed at him, eyes widening in recognition. He nudged the young woman standing next to him and said something that was lost in the buzzing hubbub of blended conversation.

The effect was like tipping over the first in a long row of dominoes. The stares and pointing fingers spread like ripples in the water of a still pond. The hallway grew as silent as a crypt, and Marco felt a stab of pure terror, as though a dagger of pure ice had been plunged into his chest. Wide-eyed and rooted to the spot, he felt like a deer caught in the headlights of oncoming traffic.

It was all he could to force himself to breathe. They were all staring at him. They could see him, see his eyes and his hair and his skin...For one of the few times in his life, Marco stood in full view of the public eye, and it terrified him.

But the fear he felt now was a slow, creeping, unsettling thing, different from the fear that he’d felt in the aftermath of his encounter with Ayla. This wasn’t the adrenaline-filled “you’re-in-immediate-danger” kind of scared; this was the heavy, lingering, “wait-for-the-results-of-the-medical-tests” kind of scared.

Avery nudged him with a shoe, and Marco made a valiant effort to try and force his brain into something resembling a coherent train of thought.

My locker, he thought desperately, welcoming any distraction from all those staring eyes. Focus on the locker. My stuff is in there. I need my stuff.

He moved with leaden footsteps to where he knew his locker would be, but nearly bumped into the dark-haired girl. Marco blanched, flinching.

“I…um…” He forced himself to swallow, for his throat had gone suddenly dry. When he spoke again, his voice was pathetically timid. “Excuse me.”

The girl moved without a word, and he started forward again—

“Hey, you!”

A voice rang out behind him, and Marco nearly jumped out of his skin. He bit down on a rabbit-like shriek, but forced himself to turn and face the speaker…who turned out to be one of the players on San Cristobal High’s football team. The other boy’s name escaped him, but he was built like an athlete, taller than Marco by almost a foot and barrel-chested.

He forced himself to look up at him, and although he clenched his teeth, he couldn’t keep his voice from shaking. “Y-Yes?”

The athlete blinked in surprise and then looked away, clearly unnerved by Marco’s red-eyed gaze. “Nothing,” he mumbled. “Forget it.”

Marco wilted and felt his heart sink.

 “You’ll have to excuse us,” Avery interjected smoothly. “We’re going to be late for homeroom.”

 Saved by the bell, Marco thought, grabbing his books in shaking fingers. Literally.

___________________________________

Peering from behind the door of her own locker, Ayla Stephens watched him all but flee down the hallway. She’d managed to avoid being noticed when Marco had come through the door by pretending to rummage through her belongings, and now, having listened to what transpired, her face was a mask of pity.

“I should have done something,” she muttered. “I shouldn’t have let him squirm like that.”

“If you had,” Taylor said, leaning on the locker next to her, “You probably would have made things worse. You know that.”

Ayla ground her teeth. That doesn’t make me feel any better about standing there and doing nothing. Marco didn’t do that when I needed help… “Should I try to follow them?”

“And if Marco notices you? Do you think he’ll thank you for it? Being seen with him will start all sorts of rumors, you know that. I’ve already gotten in touch with Mary, and she’ll tell us if she finds out anything, okay?”

Ayla stared after Marco but didn’t reply.

“What? What is it now?”

She blinked distractedly and pushed a lock of red hair away from her face. “Nothing. Forget it.”

“Sure, sure. Seriously, what is it?”

Ayla flushed. “I said it’s nothing, okay?”

Taylor gawked. “Oh, my God…you think he’s cute, don’t you?”

“No!” Ayla shook her head vigorously. “I don’t even know him, Taylor!”

“He is kinda cute, now that you mention it,” Taylor tapped her chin and continued as though her friend hadn’t spoken. “In an icy, pale sort of way. Though he should do something with his hair instead of wearing a hat all the time…maybe gel it into those little spikes? That look would suit him, I think. Then put him in a black suit and tie…Yum.”

Ayla cursed the heat that rose in her cheeks. “Yeah. Sure.”

“Oh, come on. You know I’m right.”

That was true. Ayla knew it was true. But knowing it and admitting it were two different things. She shrugged with calculated nonchalance. “Whatever you say, Taylor.”

Taylor gave her a look that made it clear she wasn’t fooled. Ayla carefully pretended not to notice.

___________________________________

Marco was feeling nauseated from anxiety by the time he took a seat at his desk. As he did, Ms. Lydia Gartner, with whom he had homeroom as well as his English class, peered over a pair of rimless spectacles at him. Her grey eyes were piercing and disconcertingly shrewd, and her thin, angular features gave her an air of gravitas and severity. The classroom was fast filling up with students, but his teacher’s attention remained focused on him.

“Mr. De Vega,” she said wryly, “How good of you to join us. Your absence yesterday did not go unnoticed.”

He resisted the urge to slump in his seat. “Uh…Yeah.” Here it comes. She’s going to throw the book at me, I bet.

“However,” she went on, “As there seem to have been extenuating circumstances, and out of consideration for the fact that you are usually dutiful about turning in your assignments on time—albeit with usually average grades—I am willing to be lenient with you. Once. Am I quite clear, Mr. De Vega?”

“Yeah.”

Gartner’s eyes flashed, and Marco cleared his throat hastily. “Uh. Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. I’m glad we have an understanding.” She paused, glancing around the classroom. “What are you all staring at?”

Up until that point, and having been otherwise engaged, Marco had been mercifully unaware that his classmates were beginning to peer at him. Now he was confronted by it, and he didn’t like it any more than he’d liked being stared at in the hallway.

This is probably how animals feel in the zoo, he thought, feeling his face burn with embarrassment. It was an effort for him not cradle his head in his hands.

“Um…Marco?”

Someone nudged his arm and he flinched involuntarily. A second later he silently cursed himself for it, although he stopped when he saw that the speaker was the dark-haired girl who’d pointed him out earlier.

Mary. Her name’s Mary. I remember now. Then: She probably wants to get a good look at the freak like everyone else.

“Yes?” he asked finally.

“I need some help with the upcoming test for Ms. Gartner’s English class, and no one else I’ve talked to is available. Are you doing anything after school today?”

He stared. Marco wasn’t a bad student, per se, but he wasn’t what you’d call an exceptional one, either. “I…I’m flattered, but…I’m sorry. I’ve got, um, work today. Besides, there are people you could ask who are a lot better at English than me. I sometimes struggle with the grammar stuff myself, so…” he trailed off with a helpless shrug.

Mary nodded. “I understand.” But what she said next took him by surprise: “Where do you work? Are they hiring? I’ve got a friend who’s looking for a job.”

He blinked in genuine confusion. “Um…Dr. Barton’s Optometry. And, um, no, they’re not. I’m…I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” she said casually. “But I felt like I had to ask. We look out for our friends, you know?”

Marco thought of Avery and nodded. “Yeah. I guess I’d do the same thing.”

But something about the exchange didn’t sit right with him. Alarm bells were going off inside his brain.

Now if only I knew why.

___________________________________

“She’s done it!” Taylor said, grinning from ear-to-ear when she found Ayla after class that afternoon. The three o’clock bell had just tolled, and the red-haired girl was but one of many students milling outside despite the blistering afternoon heat.

Ayla blinked. “You mean Mary?”

“Yeah. I talked to her during lunch.”

“And…”

“Marco works on weekday afternoons at Barton’s Optometry.” Taylor made a triumphant fist. “He’s probably on his way there now.”

Ayla’s brow furrowed. “I think I know the place. I’ve driven by it more than once.”

“So go pay him a visit!”

“Well…”

Taylor folded her arms across her chest. “Are you saying that Mary and I went to all that effort for nothing?”

“No, but—“

“Then get going, or you’ll miss him!” Taylor gave her friend a light shove. “Go on! And call me later, okay? I wanna know how it goes.”

___________________________________

Marco had never been so relieved to get out of school. After his short conversation with Mary, things had only gotten progressively worse.

When homeroom had ended, he’d been almost mobbed on the way out the door by a trio of students who worked on the school newsletter. They’d bombarded him with questions that he’d been too terrified to answer, and if that wasn’t enough, they’d brought cameras along, so now his face (and his stunned, deer-in-the-headlights expression) would probably end up plastered all over the next issue. He’d barely managed to avoid being hounded all the way to his next class by ducking into a nearby bathroom, only to realize a second too late that it was one belonging to the opposite gender. Some of the girls had screamed, a few had giggled or openly laughed at him, and a handful had even looked at him with something approaching mild interest or curiosity.

Marco felt his cheeks burn at the memory. By this time tomorrow people will think I’m a pervert instead of a Good Samaritan.

But that had only been the beginning. His embarrassing detour had cost him time, which meant that he’d arrived to his next class five minutes late and been saddled with extra homework as punishment. When the bell rang for lunch, he headed to the cafeteria out of force of habit…only to face another round of slack-jawed stares from the students who were eating there. He recalled vividly how the deafening buzz of conversation had crashed to a halt the moment he’d stepped inside, and how their furtive whispers had followed him as he’d taken his place in line.

One of the cafeteria staff, a white-haired woman with a face that was almost grandmotherly, had given him an extra slice of pizza as food was heaped on his tray. “Your meal’s on the house this time,” she’d told him with a conspiratorial wink. But her good intentions had only poured gasoline on the metaphorical fire; some of the faces Marco had passed on the way out had become outright jealous or resentful.

He hadn’t wanted all those eyes on him as he ate, so he’d decided to eat his lunch in an empty classroom instead. The solitude had been refreshing, until some of the girls he’d seen in the bathroom earlier tracked him down and confronted him. That had both stunned and horrified Marco: stunned that they would have gone to so much trouble to find him, and horrified because he feared they were about to rip into him like a swarm of piranha. The reality, however, had been far worse: instead of yelling at him, the girls had smirked and given him a slip of paper with their phone numbers on it. Far from being offended or angry, they had instead seemed impressed by what they saw as his apparent boldness. That hadn’t made Marco feel any better about it; they had all been pretty enough to be out of his league, and he was willing to bet that more than one of them had boyfriends already. He didn’t want to make enemies if he could avoid it. And it could have just been a prank.

By the time lunch was over, he’d been praying that things couldn’t get any worse, but they had. Ms. Gartner’s English class had been a downright ordeal, for while his teacher hadn’t outright punished him, she’d still made him the center of attention again by making him read a number of passages from A Midsummer Night’s Dream aloud. It seemed like Garner’s way of punishing Marco without actually making an example of him. A subtle lesson, but one he took to heart.

He’d been so desperate to escape by the time the bell rang that he’d hoped for respite in Algebra class, but two of his classmates turned out to be two of the girls who’d found him at lunch, and so he’d spent an uncomfortable two hours enduring winks and giggles and flirtatious looks. When the dismissal bell had finally ended the school day, he was so sick of being gawked at that he’d headed out a side door rather than use the main entrance.

As he walked down the street, Marco kicked a piece of loose asphalt bad-temperedly. Worst day ever. Period.

But his spirits lifted somewhat as he neared Dr. Barton’s. The clinic wasn’t just a place of employment; for him it was a safe haven, and he’d never desired a safe haven more than he did now. The little bell that jangled when he opened the door was as comforting and familiar as an old friend.

Behind the front desk in the waiting room, Barton looked up from the file he’d been scanning and smiled warmly, but his hearty greeting faltered when he saw the look on the boy’s face. “Oh, dear. What happened?”

“School,” Marco said shortly. He went on to tell the doctor about the catastrophe that had been his day, and when he’d finished, Barton winced.

“Yikes.”

“Tell me about it.” So much for a blessing in disguise, Marco added bitterly to himself.

“Well, it’s over now, and tomorrow is a clean slate,” the doctor said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Now that you’re here, though, it’s time to get work. You look like you could use the distraction.”

“Yes,” Marco nodded with feeling.

Barton snorted. “I thought so. You can start by doing inventory on the shipment of glasses I got in this morning. I’d like you to prepare a list and categorize them, if you’d be so kind. When you’re done with that, you can take stock of how much saline solution we have left. I think we’ve got enough to last a few more weeks, but I’d like to make sure.”

“Gotcha.”

“The boxes are over there,” Barton concluded, pointing. “You can use the front desk while you go through them, if you like.”

Marco nodded and lugged the shipments over, splitting open the first one with a pair of scissors. He had just started rifling through its contents when he heard the door open.

Marco looked up. “I’m sorry, we’re…”

His voice caught in his throat when he saw who it was, and his jaw dropped.

“Closed?” Ayla Stephens asked, finishing the sentence for him. “Yeah, I…I know.” She took a deep breath. “But I need to talk to you. Do you have a minute?”

Marco’s brain promptly short circuited, and as he struggled to string together something resembling a train of thought, he felt suddenly and acutely self-conscious. How shabby he must have looked in his secondhand T-shirt and faded blue jeans that had begun to fray around the edges!

“I, uh, um…okay.” His voice cracked in mid-sentence, and he flushed with embarrassment.

If Ayla noticed, she didn’t show it. Instead of replying, she shifted from one foot to the other and took her lower lip between her teeth, as if trying to figure out what to say. Marco found that small sign of her discomfort disproportionately relieving. It helped a lot to know that he wasn’t the only one feeling awkward about all this.

“Well…firstly, I wanted to thank you,” Ayla said after a moment. “For the other day, I mean. I didn’t get to do it then and I didn’t see you at school afterward, so…” she shrugged. “So thank you for helping me out like that. I appreciate it big time. Seriously.” She paused again, and this time he noticed that she was slightly out of breath, as though she’d sprinted a short distance. That made her chest rise and fall in ways that probably would have been interesting in any other circumstance.

Ah, trusty libido, Marco thought sardonically. Even when I’m up to my ears in trouble, you are there to distract me.

“And I also wanted to say that I’m sorry. For today,” she continued at last. This time, she was the one who blushed.

His eyes widened. “…What?” Is she going to serve me a restraining order or something?

“I was there when you were at your locker this morning,” Ayla explained. “I saw what happened. And I’m sorry, Marco. I’m sorry for all the crap you probably had to put up with today, because it’s partly my fault. If it had been anyone else you’d shoved out of the way of that car, it probably wouldn’t have been so bad.” She looked away. “I…heard from a friend that you’re not the type of guy who likes a whole lot of attention, and I think I understand why. I know how…how disastrous it must have seemed. And I’m sorry.”

Marco was, yet again, at a loss for words. He hadn’t considered that Ayla would be so aware of his…situation. And he certainly hadn’t anticipated her feeling guilty about it. I mean, it’s not like I blame her or anything, but…

But what she’d said was true. If it had been another girl, then the publicity nightmare in which he found himself might not have been quite so nightmarish. Ayla was both attractive and popular, if half of what Avery had told him was true. A dangerous combination to be sure.

“I…” He rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously. “I don’t blame you, okay? I really don’t.” Which was true. “Besides, it wasn’t quite that bad.” 

No matter how truthful he’d been a moment before, that there was a thumping great lie. It had been that bad and quite a good deal worse. 

But I don’t want Ayla to blame herself for everything that’s happened, whether it’s fair or not.

She looked visibly relieved. “Thank you. I’m, uh, glad to hear that.” She did indeed look glad. In fact, he was surprised at how glad she looked.

An awkward silence fell, and Marco frantically searched for another topic of conversation. Think, you idiot! Think! “So…how’d you know I work here?”

He felt like smacking his forehead the second the words left his mouth. Great job, genius. Now she’ll think that you think she’s a stalker.

“A friend told me.” She looked almost painfully shy for a moment. “I…I hope you don’t mind. I just thought that with everything going on at school, it’d be better if I talked to you here instead.”

Marco felt a little dizzy, and he felt heat rising in his cheeks. “Thank you,” he said with feeling. “That was a, uh, a smart call, Ayla.” Some detached part of his brain flashed back to the conversation he’d had with Mary earlier. Was she asking on Ayla’s behalf? The more he thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. Not that I’m complaining or anything, though. Better here than at school, she’s right about that.

She turned a shade of pink to match his own. “It was nothing.” But what Ayla said next took him completely by surprise. “Look, um…I don’t want to intrude, but some friends and I are going to go see a movie later this week and I wondered if you’d like to…come along with us? I totally get it if you’re busy, though. Work and school come first, but I hear the movie’s good.”

If Marco had been a laptop, this would have been the point where the phrase “Does Not Compute” started flashing across his screen. Avery had told him that Ayla might seek him out, but he hadn’t been expecting this. Was she asking him out? Like on a date?

No, he decided a second later. If she was, it’d be just the two of us. She wouldn’t be bringing friends along. He wasn’t sure what surprised him more, being invited at all or the pang of disappointment which followed that conclusion. In any case, work and school come first. She’ll understand. She said so. Marco opened his mouth to turn her down---

“He’d love to!” Dr. Barton beamed, cutting him off before he utter a word. Apparently he’d overheard the last part of their conversation. “Wouldn’t you, Marco?”

“I...I…um?”

“Then it’s settled!” the doctor clapped a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll have a great time!” 

“Um…okay.” Ayla handed him a slip of paper. “Where do you want us to pick you up? Does Friday work for you?”

“Uh…yeah.” Marco wanted to answer otherwise, but couldn’t with Barton hovering over him. “Here after work would be fine. I, uh, get off at seven.”

She smiled, and it made him feel curiously tingly. “Cool. I’ll…see you then, I guess.” She made for the door. “I should probably go, though. I’m sure you’re busy. Once again: thanks.”

The little bell chimed, the door opened, and then she was gone.

Marco glared at his boss, who smiled back hugely. “Oh, don’t give me that look. You’ll thank me for this soon enough.”

Don’t hold your breath, he thought back. I’ve got nothing to wear, I don’t know what I should say to her when she comes by on Friday, and most importantly,  I don’t know any of the people she’s going to be bringing along.

Avery’s never going to let me hear the end of this.

___________________________________

Ayla was shaking a little as she left the optometry clinic. The idea to invite Marco to go along had been a spur-of-the-moment idea, and she’d suggested it before she’d fully thought over its implications.

She’d been almost as surprised as Marco.

Her thoughts unreeled like a spool of wire. What did he think of her now? Did he believe she’d invited him out of some misplaced sense of obligation, or worse, out of pity? Did he think her condescending? And for that matter, why was she so stuck on what Marco thought of her in the first place? They didn’t know each other all that well; they were barely familiar enough to be called acquaintances.

Yet the uncertainty gnawed at her all the same.

Ayla reached into her pocket and dug out her cell phone, choosing a number on her speed-dial. It rang only once before Taylor answered.

“How’d it go?” she asked immediately. Apparently she was too excited for pleasantries.

“It went okay…I think.”

“Pffft. You know I’m going to need more detail than that. Spill! Gimme the play-by-play!”

So Ayla did. When she got to the part about the impromptu invitation she’d extended, Taylor squealed in delight so loudly that Ayla had to hold the phone away from her ear.

“You asked him out? That’s pretty bold, Ayla. I wasn’t expecting that. Neither was Marco, I’ll bet. Poor guy. It’s a lot to take in in just one day.”

“It’s not a date, Taylor. I’m going with some friends and—“

“Keep telling yourself that,” Taylor snorted. “And before you ask, I am so going with you.”

“Why?”

“Are you kidding? This is going to be even better than an all-night marathon of Tom and Jerry. Besides, I want to meet him too. As your best friend, I need to make sure he’s on the level.”

Ayla’s cheeks heated. “It’s not like that!”

“Then why’d you ask him?”

“I…I don’t know. It just happened. I wasn’t thinking when I said it.”

“Of course not. Romance is funny that way.”

Taylor!

“Sorry. Couldn’t resist. But he took you up on it, right?”

“Well, to be honest, his boss did it for him. I think he was, um, really surprised. He might have been about to turn it down for all I know. And there’s a chance he might not come anyway.”

“Does Marco strike you as the type of guy who’d do that, now that you’ve actually talked to him?”

She thought for a moment. “No. No, he doesn’t.” Frustration seeped into her words. “But I don’t want him to think I’m the type who throws herself at every boy who does something nice for her, or that I just invited him because I felt sorry for him.”

 “If he’d jumped to one of those conclusions, don’t you think you would have been able to tell? He didn’t scowl at you, did he? He didn’t look angry or suddenly have to leave and go somewhere else, did he?”

“…No.”

“Then sit back and enjoy the ride! This might turn out to be a really good idea, Ayla. And who knows, Marco might enjoy himself a little by accident.”

Ayla sighed. “I…I hope so. I mean, I don’t want him to think that I’m boring or anything or—“

Taylor’s laughter boomed in her ear. “Will you listen to yourself? I’ll bet Marco’s thinking the exact same thing! You two are practically made for each other.”

“…You’re enjoying this way too much.”

“Yup!” Taylor’s voice was chipper. “And you know what? I’m not sorry, either. You could do worse than Marco.”

“I keep telling you it’s not like that!”

“Yet, you mean. Call me later, ok? I wanna know when the movie is.”

“What if I don’t?”

“Then I’ll log onto the school’s website and post ‘Ayla Stephens likes Marco De Vega’ on the message boards. In all caps.”

Ayla snickered in spite of herself. “Fine. Fine, ok?” Then she sobered. “Seriously, though…please don’t make this out to be more than it is, all right? Especially around Marco. We’re all just friends going to see a movie. Period. Besides, I don’t think he’s looking for a girlfriend anyway.” Which seemed true, although she felt a small, nasty pang of…was it disappointment? Dismay? Whatever it was, it vanished a heartbeat later, and she dismissed it.

“Maybe. And maybe, on the off-chance that I’m right, I’ll take great pleasure in saying ‘I told you so.’” Taylor’s voice held a giggle.

“And it’ll be my great pleasure to deny you that pleasure,” Ayla retorted with mock hostility. “Talk to you later.”

The line went dead, and her smile vanished as an invisible weight seemed to wrap around her. Smothering her.

She sighed. Ayla Stephens…what have you done?

___________________________________

Marco went about the rest of his shift in a kind of daze, and the rest of the evening was a fog that he never really remembered. Ayla's unexpected invitation had rocked him, of course, but an icy dread had set in once the initial shock had worn off. To be fair, Ayla had seemed almost as astonished as himself, as though the words had escaped her mouth unbidden, but the possibility that she might share his unease comforted him not at all.

Marco ran a nervous hand through his ice-white hair as he headed out onto the street, murmuring noncommittally in reply when his boss called a cheery "Good night!" after him. The evening air was pleasantly cool compared to the sweltering heat of the day, and he welcomed the absence of the searing sunlight that was his lifelong bane. But that pleasant distraction didn't last for more than a moment before his problems bubbled back to the surface of his thoughts.

Should I have turned her down? he wondered. Should I have put my foot down even after Barton cut me off? The more he thought about it, the more he wasn't sure. His first instinct to Ayla's offer had been to recoil in fear and to turn her down out of hand. Marco wasn't a social creature by any stretch of the imagination, and the idea of spending an evening with Ayla Stephens terrified him. What if someone from school saw them together? What rumors might then begin to circulate? There were already enough of those going around already. He didn't want to add gasoline to that fire.

And yet...

And yet, as he walked down the side of a busy street, Barton's words began to echo in his ears:

"You need to begin branching out..."

But did he? Did he, really? Until he'd met Ayla, Marco had gotten along just fine by doing what he'd always done. Keeping his head down. Staying in the shadows. Never doing anything to draw attention to himself.

And it had worked very well. Marco had not joined any clubs, gone to any dances, and had shunned the dating scene entirely in favor of staying within the small circle that was his comfort zone. He'd played it safe...and he'd never, ever, gotten noticed by anyone.

Marco had always been convinced that that had been a good thing. Now...

Now, he wasn't so sure.

"You can't hide from the world forever..."

But I wasn't hiding, he insisted. Not really. I just...do what comes naturally.

But was it natural? Was it?

And somewhere in Marco's mind, a nasty little doubting voice--or maybe it was just a feeling that he imagined had a voice---replied:

No. It's not. You weren't born this way. You weren't born a shut-in. You chose it.

He clenched his jaw. Only because I was afraid of--

Exactly. You were afraid. And you let that fear make your decisions for you. Let it rule you.

Marco clenched both hands into fists. But isn't that easier? What if--

What if? What if? What if? The voice replied mockingly. You live so much in the Land of What-If that you might as well have a summer home there. There is more to life than shutting yourself away! You've missed so much, deprived yourself of so much, going on the way you've been for sixteen years. And there's so much more that you'll still miss if you don't try to do things differently!

He closed his eyes tightly. Ayla--

Yes, Ayla. Now we come to the heart of the matter.

What will people think if I started hanging out with her? She's way out of my league! And she's popular and--

And WHAT? The voice demanded. Why do you care so much what other people think? You spend so much of your time dithering over it, worrying over it, that you ignore your own feelings! You've got a good friend in Avery! Go meet Ayla's friends and make some more! What's the worst that could happen?

They could laugh at me. Make sport of me. Humiliate me. It's happened before.

And it'll happen again sooner or later no matter what you try to do, so you're not losing anything by taking that leap! Ayla sought you out of her own accord! She braved her own embarrassment to talk to you. The least you could do is respect that by showing up. And there's one more reason you're so scared of going, the voice purred. Go on. It’s okay. You can say it.

Because I'm...afraid that...

You're afraid of what might happen. You might not be romantically interested in her now, but you fear that if you get to know her, if you open up to her, if you start to trust her...you might start to have feelings for her after all.

Yes.

Well, why the hell not? When was the last time you had a date? When was the last time you've ever talked with a pretty girl, period? Why deny yourself? She's gorgeous, and smart, and very considerate of others, judging from the way she's dealt with you.

She's—

—Out of your league? The voice sneered. And who, exactly, decides what is and is not in "your league?" You are the only one who makes that call. So what if she's beautiful and popular and from a prestigious family? If you're going to aim, then aim high! Why settle for less? If she really thought of you as beneath her, she wouldn't have gone to all the trouble to find you, much less invite you to the theatre! So go for it! Sweep her off her feet if you've got a mind to! Take the plunge! Come out of that shell you've fashioned for yourself and LIVE a little!

...And if you're wrong? Marco wondered.

Then even if nothing romantic comes of it--and there's still a good chance of that--you can at least say you tried.

He stopped in mid-pace and looked up at the stars, closing his eyes. A deep breath filled his lungs with cool night air, then another, then another. He tried to imagine that he was breathing in courage and exhaling fear. It didn’t help much, but it gave him a much-needed distraction.

…I really hope I don’t live to regret this.

___________________________________

“…So you’re going to do it?” Avery asked, as the two of them were walking to school the following morning.

“I guess so.” Marco shrugged. “I mean…it seems only polite.”

“Polite,” Avery repeated with a snort. “Sure.” Then he looked at his friend with concern. “Do you want me to come along?”

“Um…not this time.”

That made Avery blink in astonishment. Marco wasn’t one to go somewhere unfamiliar without his friend to back him up. “Ah. I see.”

“It’s not that. I just…I feel like I need to do this by myself. If that makes sense.”

“Oh, it does,” Avery nodded. Then he grinned. “What did your grandmother have to say?”

“She was…” Marco flushed. “Very supportive.”

“That’s one way of putting it. She must have been beside herself.”

“Yeah. From the way she reacted, you’d think I’d just told her I’d gotten into Harvard or something.”

Avery rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “This is you we’re talking about, remember? Do you think you’re going to try and talk to Ayla in school today?”

“I don’t know,” Marco shrugged, and hid his discomfort as people began to stare again. Are they ever going to stop doing—

Then his red eyes widened in alarm, and as if to confirm his fears, his friend elbowed him gently.

“Now’s your chance to find out.”

The shock of blood-red hair moving through the crowd was unmistakable, though Ayla wasn’t alone this time. This time, she was speaking with what appeared to be her friends, and he recognized one of them. Mary again, from Gartner’s class. His heart began to thud in his chest, and he fought to keep his voice from shaking.

Do I talk to her? Should I talk to her? Everyone’s watching. Or, at least, it looks like they’re watching. She didn’t talk to me before because she didn’t want to embarrass me. Am I going to embarrass her by doing the same?

And the little voice in his mind replied: You think too much, kid. Go for it.

And for a wonder, that’s exactly what Marco did next. Swallowing to clear a throat that was suddenly dry, he called in a faltering voice, “Um…Ayla? Ayla!”

She turned, saw him, and smiled in greeting. Something about that smile gave him a curious fluttering feeling in his stomach, and it was distracting as hell.

“Marco! Good morning. How…uh, how are you?”

He cleared his throat again. “I’m good. I just…” Think of something to say, dammit! “I…I really appreciated, ah, talking to you the other day. I’m, um, looking forward to it.”

“So are we!” One of the other girls said. “Ayla’s been talking about it all morning!”

“And all last night, too,” another said, smirking. “Over the phone. Couldn’t get her to shut up, either. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Some of us have met him,” Mary interjected. “We have a class together.”

The swift, conspiratorial look that passed between Mary and Ayla didn’t escape his notice. Okay, now I know Mary must have told her where I work. And Ayla must have asked her to ask me in the first place.

Yeah. Oh, yeah. Ayla’s definitely more than just a pretty face.

“You guys!” Ayla’s laugh cut into his thoughts, and the rush of color in her face seemed very real. “These are my friends I told you about, Marco: Taylor and Shelby. Mike and Landon will be coming too, but they’re in practice right now.”

“Practice?”

“They’re on the soccer team,” she clarified.

“Not football?”

That got a laugh from all of them. “Landon’s not tall or heavy enough, and Mike is always saying it’s overrated,” Shelby told him. “They’re good, though. You’ll get along fine.”

“I, um, I hope so.” Marco couldn’t help his voice from sounding very small and afraid.

Ayla’s face crinkled in sympathy. “Stop making him uncomfortable, seriously. Go on. I’ll catch up with you guys later.”

When they’d left, she let out an exasperated sigh. “Sorry…they get like that sometimes.”

“So do mine.” His smile turned wry. “Teasing seems to be part of their job description, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

A long, awkward pause ensued.

“Uh…I’m going to be late for homeroom if I don’t get moving,” Marco said when he couldn’t bear the silence anymore. His face began to grow warm. “See you, I guess.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll, um, see you later.” She looked about to say something else, but the bell rang again. “You’d…better go. Wouldn’t want you to be late.”

“Um…thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” She seemed very shy all of a sudden, intensely shy, and it was then and only then that Marco really realized just how beautiful she was. It was even enough to make him forget, just for a second, the fresh round of stares he’d had to endure.

“I’ll…call you later?” Ayla asked uncertainly.

Heat surged into his face…as well as a few other places that he hoped she wouldn’t notice. “I’d like that.”

“Uh…great! Until then!”

He waved rather lamely and hurried off himself, but when he did, Marco was surprised at how light his feet now seemed. There was a spring in his step that he couldn’t explain, although he felt certain it hadn’t been there before. 

___________________________________

Friday, when it came, seemed to arrive more quickly than usual. Marco wasn’t sure if that was due to dread or anticipation, because he felt equal measures of both, but the rest of the week seemed to go by in a blur. Even the stares and whispers of his classmates seemed to fade to white noise in the background, though they never slackened as far as he could tell. Perhaps, had his mind not been so preoccupied with other things, he would have lamented his disappointment that the passage of time did not seem to affect his new and unwanted position of attention. He still heard the whispers. He still felt the stares. It didn’t get any easier. The best he could do was just…not think about it. And that was far easier said than done.

When he opened his locker on Friday morning, it got a hell of a lot harder.

Marco noticed half a second too late that the lock had been broken. Smashed. When he opened the metal door wide, a billow of appalling stench made him gag, though it was not the smell alone that made his eyes water.

The inside of his locker had been utterly defaced. His books and papers were coated with a noxious ooze that, after a second, Marco recognized as some kind of grease. Not cooking grease, though, but some kind of foul-smelling slime that smelled like the bottom of a garbage can. Black scribbles coated the locker’s metal interior too, written in what looked like bold-tip permanent marker.

NERD! One said.

GHOST!  Said another.

SCAREDY-CAT!

PINK-EYE!

FREAK!

FREAK!

FREAK!

YOU’RE NOT FOOLING ANYONE WITH THAT ‘I’M SO SCARED’ CRAP!

YOU SHOULD HAVE LET THAT CAR HIT YOU!

WHO ARE YOU TRYING TO BE, EDWARD CULLEN?

YOU’D BETTER STOP BLACKMAILING AYLA! WHY ELSE WOULD SHE TALK TO A NOBODY LIKE YOU?

That last one made Marco start despite the unshed tears that rose in his eyes. He and Ayla had spoken several times since he’d gone out of his way to talk to her earlier, albeit only briefly. Still…he’d enjoyed their short conversations, awkward though they may have been.

But now his mind whirled. Those stares…those looks…had they been glares of envy rather than astonishment? Were people really starting to think that he was blackmailing Ayla into going out with him, or worse? Did they really think he’d begun using his small act of bravery as some kind of leverage?

Marco bit back a sob. He would not cry. Not here. Not in front of everyone. The people who did this might be watching him right now to see his reaction, and he would not give them the satisfaction of seeing him weep.

Behind him, the hallway had gone as quiet as a mortuary.

Slowly, as if in a daze, he shut the locker again and breathed in deep through his nose. Where was Avery? He’d know what to do. But Marco’s friend had already headed off to homeroom, and Ayla was nowhere in sight. He was on his own.

He fixed his red eyes on a point somewhere off in the far distance and forced himself to start walking. One step. Two. Three.

Only when he’d reached the boys’ bathroom, made certain it was empty, and locked himself into a stall did Marco De Vega allow himself to cry.

And he hated himself for it.

He didn’t know how much time went by before he finally dried his tears. He didn’t even care all that much, not anymore. The temptation to flee as he’d done when he and Ayla had first met was almost overpowering. Marco wanted more than anything to head for the door and get far away from here—

—He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, and for a long, long moment, Marco hated everything he saw. He hated the pallor of his skin and the bleached-bone color of his hair and those stupid red eyes like something out of a low-budget horror movie…

Crimson mist rose behind Marco’s eyes, and he barely suppressed the urge to shatter the mirror with his fist. It would have been satisfying to see the glass shatter, but he didn’t fancy getting a whole bunch of stitches in his hand.

I should leave. I want to leave. I’ll meet up with Ayla after school and it’ll be like nothing’s happened. I could just---

But if you do, the little voice whispered, you might as well be admitting to the people who did this that they’ve beaten you. Run like a dog with your tail between your legs, and you’ll be every bit the “nobody” they think you are. Prove them wrong! Stay, if for no other reason than to spite them!

Marco’s slim frame heaved with the rapid pace of his breathing, and he let out a snarl of frustration that turned into a curse that made up in venom and blasphemy what it lacked in creativity. Everything had been simple before. Before the oncoming Buick, before Ayla, he’d known what was what. Now, nothing seemed easy anymore. Nothing seemed simple anymore, not since Marco had begun to start questioning whether the way he’d gone about doing things before Ayla had been the right way all along.

I wish I’d never even met—

He couldn’t bring himself to finish that thought. He couldn’t say it, couldn’t think it, because it wasn’t fair and it wasn’t true. It wasn’t Ayla’s fault. None of it was. And deep down, he knew—not just suspected, but knew—that he was glad he’d met her. Ayla was…fun. He’d discovered that during the brief conversations they’d had between classes. They were casual things, spoken almost in passing, but it was enough for him to become certain that Ayla was just fun to be around. He was starting to feel as comfortable around her as he did around his best friend. More importantly, like Avery, Ayla seemed to just not care what he looked like. She was his friend.

His friend.

That category had belonged only to Avery for so many years that the realization rocked him. Forget romance. Forget the insinuations that he and Ayla might grow into something more. Just the knowledge that there was another person Marco could call a friend was like a ray of light piercing the darkness of his mood. He was still hurt, still angry, but the joyful epiphany settled over him like a suit of armor that dulled the edges of his sadness.

I’m not going to let them win, by God.

He turned on his heel and headed for the door.

­___________________________________

When Marco showed up for work that afternoon, Dr. Hugo Barton noticed right away that something was…different about him. Something about the boy had changed, though it was not an overt transformation. Rather, there were a number of smaller, subtle differences between the Marco of today and the Marco of yesterday. His posture was more erect, for one thing. He still slouched—Barton chided him about it often—but he didn’t slouch quite as much as he used to. More importantly, Marco had had an almost palpable air of timidity and shyness for as long as the doctor had known him. He’d lived most of his life in fear of ridicule and rejection, a fear that Barton suspected was not without cause. But when he walked into the door of his optometry clinic on Friday afternoon, Marco looked more…sure of himself than he had before. His characteristic shyness was still very much intact, but it was not nearly as strong as Barton remembered. Something had happened. The doctor didn’t know what it was and didn’t feel the need to inquire, but he got the feeling that whatever it was, it marked a watershed moment in Marco’s slow, reluctant emergence from the shell he’d fashioned for himself. Before, Marco had often reminded him of a turtle, or perhaps a hedgehog. Harmless, but fearful, and prone to withdrawing into himself at the slightest sign or suspicion of danger. His first instinct, when faced with an uncomfortable or unfamiliar situation, was to run. A less charitable soul might have called it cowardice.

Now though, Marco reminded him of a caterpillar in the midst of metamorphosis, and the first cracks had begun to appear in his cocoon, revealing a glimpse of something beautiful just short of unfurling its wings and revealing itself to the world.

But what emerged would not be a butterfly, Barton mused. Butterflies were creatures of sunlight, and Marco would never be able to enjoy being out in the sun like other boys his age. His skin burnt and blistered far too easily, and the harsh light of day hurt his sensitive eyes. No, from this cocoon would burst a moth, one of the large rare white ones that soared through the night on wings as pale as a crescent moon.

“You seem to be in a good mood,” he said at last. “Are you looking forward to seeing the movie with Ayla and her friends?”

Marco shrugged. “Yeah. I guess.”

“Don’t be nervous.”

“I’m not nervous,” Marco said a little too quickly.

Barton’s eyes twinkled, but he decided not to push the issue. “Will Avery be joining you?”

“Ah…no.”

“Why not?”

“He’s busy.”

Barton had a feeling that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t like Marco to be so evasive, at least with him. Had Marco asked Avery not to come along? It seemed absurd at first; the two rapscallions rarely went anywhere without each other. “I see. Well, I’m sure you’ll have a good time all the same.”

“Thanks.”

The doctor arched an eyebrow. “You don’t seem very nervous about it.”

“I am,” Marco replied with a rueful grin. “I’m just not as nervous as I expected to be, I guess. It’s…kind of a relief.”

“What brought about this change?” Barton asked in a gentle tone. He couldn’t help being curious, but he didn’t want Marco to think he was prying.

“I…had some time to think earlier today,” the boy said, glancing down at the file cabinet he’d been sorting through. Barton privately suspected that he did so in a futile attempt to hide the flush that rose in his cheeks. “And…well…I can’t back out of it now and I’ve talked with Ayla at school a few times since she stopped by the other day, and she seems…” he shifted in his seat. “…Nice. I mean, we get along, you know? And her friends seem all right too. The ones I’ve met, anyway.”

Barton barely suppressed a cheer. Marco had talked to Ayla and been introduced to some of her friends? This was better than he could have hoped! This not only gave the two of them the chance to become more acquainted, but also gave Marco the opportunity to make Ayla’s friends his friends as well.

The doctor felt his heart glow with pride. That’s my boy! I knew you had it in you!

When he spoke, however, he was careful to keep the excitement from his voice. “That’s good to hear, Marco. I’m glad the two of you are getting along.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

The sentence was innocuous enough, but there might—just might—have been a little too much agreement in Marco’s voice. Or had Barton simply imagined it? He wasn’t sure.

“Will they be picking you up here or at your home?”

“I told them to pick me up here,” he said, then looked at the clock. “They’ll be here in about an hour.”

“Well, you’re free to go when they arrive,” Barton said, and headed quietly into his office down the hall. Sticking around as Marco and Ayla exchanged pleasantries might make the boy uncomfortable, or worse, shatter his fragile new sense of self-confidence altogether.

The doctor wasn’t a particularly pious man. But as he sat down at his desk, he glanced up at the ceiling and offered a quick, silent wish for Marco’s good fortune to anyone who might be listening.

___________________________________

Marco barely even noticed his boss’s departure. It was hard for him to focus, given the way his blood was pounding in his ears. He could hear his heart thudding in his chest, though from anxiety or anticipation he could not say.

Ba-thump. Ba-thump. Ba-thump.

Marco glanced down self-consciously at himself and wondered if he should have changed into something nicer. He didn’t look bad, but he certainly didn’t have a very extensive wardrobe, either. In his mind, he began to play out a hundred different conversations with Ayla, what to say and not to say, but his mind kept coming up blank. They’d spoken before, but this felt…different. He knew it shouldn’t have, but it did.

I don’t know all her friends, either. I haven’t met some of them. What if they laugh at me? What if they go off and leave when I’m not looking? What if---

He stopped, unable and unwilling to follow that thought to its conclusion. Ayla wouldn’t do that. She wouldn’t. Other people might make fun of him because of how he looked, but not her. She didn’t care. Like Avery. She wouldn’t turn around and do something like that.

Would she?

Outside in the parking lot, the unmistakable sound of gravel crunching under tires cut through Marco’s thoughts like a knife. For a moment, he wore an expression like that of a small, frightened animal caught in the gaze of a predator. His heartbeat skyrocketed.

The door to the clinic swung open, and Ayla walked in. Marco bolted out of his chair like an enlisted man in the sudden presence of superior officer, but his mouth had suddenly decided to stop working.

Ayla frowned, and for some reason, the sight of it made him feel as though his heart were clutched in an invisible fist. “Sorry if I startled you,” she said. “Are you ready to go?”

“Uh…Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready. To go, I mean. Yeah.” He went out from behind the front desk, but didn’t move.

After a long, awkward silence, Ayla said, “Um…do you need to get your backpack or something?”

“No, no. I’m good. Sorry.” In truth, Marco had been struggling not to stare. He’d known from their first meeting that Ayla was a strikingly attractive young woman, but seemed as if he’d only now become fully aware of just how beautiful she was. She wore a dark maroon T-shirt that accentuated the color of her blood-red hair, and a khaki-colored skirt that went well with the tint of her skin. The effect of the whole ensemble made Marco a little dizzy, and he forced himself to look away, lest she think he was ogling her.

Say something. I need to say something.

“You look…nice,” he managed at last.

She beamed, though he wasn’t sure if he saw or just imagined the brief flush that rose in her cheeks. “Thanks. C’mon, everyone’s waiting.”

“Your friends?” Marco asked, though he already knew the answer.

“Yup,” Ayla confirmed brightly. “Some of them—the ones you haven’t already met—are looking forward to meeting you.”

Alarms began going off in Marco’s head. What did she tell them? After a moment, he forced a smile. “Glad to hear it.”

A red SUV lay idling in a vacant space, and Ayla began walking toward it. When she got close, all four doors sprang open, and four people piled out. Two were boys about Marco’s age, and the bigger of them—who towered over Marco by a good foot and a half—made a beeline toward him.

“So this is the guy?” the boy asked Ayla.

Ayla nodded. “Marco, this is Mike.”

Marco felt suddenly and terribly breakable, but he knew he had to reply. The name rang a bell, after all. “I…uh…remember you saying he’d be here.” Marco held out his hand and hoped Mike wouldn’t crush it. “Nice to meet you.”

Instead of clasping the proffered appendage, Mike let out a bellowing laugh and grabbed him in a bear hug that sent the breath whooshing from his lungs. “Nice to finally meet you too, man. Ayla’s been telling us about you all day.”

Good Lord, I hope not, Marco whimpered silently.

“All day?” another male voice drawled. A second boy walked around the vehicle with a mischievous grin on his face. He was shorter than Mike, and wirier. “Try all week. Name’s Landon, by the way. Glad you could make it.”

Taylor gave Marco a warm smile and held out her hand. “Aren’t we all? I’m Taylor, and that’s Shelby.”

“Uh…nice to meet you.”

“It is that. You’re even cuter up close.”

Both Ayla and Marco turned crimson. “Guys!” Ayla said, but there was laughter in her voice. “Stop it. You’ll scare him off.”

Mike gave him a longer, more appraising look. “You look like a ghost, man.” Marco cringed, but then he added, “That is so cool. And I’ve never seen anyone with red eyes before.”

“Um…thanks?” What am I supposed to say to that?

“You can get acquainted on the way,” Ayla cut in. “If we don’t leave now, we’ll miss the movie.”

As Mike and Landon piled back in the car, Ayla leaned in close—uncomfortably close, and probably closer than was necessary. Close enough that he could smell the scent of the shampoo she used, and a faint of whiff of chocolate on her breath. Maybe she’d been eating cookies or something on the way to pick him up. Marco’s vision swam, as though the scent of her was some kind of psychedelic drug, and as she drew in closer, his mind began gibbering in terror. The surge of self-confidence that he’d felt at school earlier—what was left of it, anyway—was gone, blasted out of existence by the overpowering…presence of her: her beauty, her scent, and most of all, the sheer terror of being so close to her. Some part of his brain that retained a measure of lucidity wondered if any other guys had gotten this close to Ayla or perhaps even closer, and that thought sent blood rushing to his face…among other places.

Is…what…is she going to try and kiss me? Here? Now? I’ve never kissed a girl before! I don’t know what to do! What should I do? What

But instead of pressing her lips against his, Ayla stopped short and muttered under her breath: “Don’t be angry at Mike, okay? He’s a good guy, but he can be blunt sometimes.”

Relief washed through Marco—along with a surprisingly intense feeling of disappointment. He felt…confused. Had he wanted to do it? Had she wanted to do it? Had she wanted him to do it?

He wasn’t sure he wanted to explore those questions any further.

Yet.

“Um…it’s okay,” he replied quietly. “I know he didn’t mean to be offensive or anything. And…” he shrugged. “I’ve heard worse.”

Her face fell. “I’m sorry.”

Marco gave her a lopsided grin, which was about the best he could do at the moment. “It’s okay. You sort of get used to it.” He mimed turning a knob. “I usually just ignore it by turning up the music in my head.”

Ayla chuckled and got into the car. After a second’s hesitation, so did he.

­­­­­­­___________________________________

Ayla Stephens settled back into her seat as the car pulled out of the parking lot. Marco, sandwiched between herself and Mike, could only shift uncomfortably. She understood why. After all, Mike could take up two seats all by himself.

Ayla herself felt more cramped than a canned sardine, but she was secretly grateful for it. She hadn’t had a chance to study Marco up close before, and though Ayla felt a little guilty, she couldn’t make herself not look. Marco seemed to be a magnet from whose pull her gaze could not escape, and most frustrating of all, Ayla was quite at a loss to explain why.

Perhaps it was because, from her seat beside him, she began to notice things about Marco that she hadn’t noticed before. His profile was…fit. Lean, but not muscular, and his ice-colored hair framed his face rather nicely. His hands looked smooth and soft, and Ayla noted with a start that his reddish-pink eyes turned a fiery shade of crimson in the light of the setting sun.

He also looked very, very tense. Something was clearly troubling him. But what? Not Ayla, surely. She couldn’t think of anything she might have done to make him so uncomfortable, but the thought nagged at her, and Ayla found it abhorrent for reasons she couldn’t name. She wanted to come right out and ask him what was wrong, but having become more acquainted with Marco since their initial encounter, she knew that that would only make him retreat further.

I should say something, she thought, racking her brain for possible avenues of conversation. I need to say something. I’m the one who invited him. I should make him feel comfortable.

Ayla swallowed to clear her throat, which had suddenly and inexplicably gone dry. “So, Marco…”

He didn’t quite flinch when she addressed him. “Y-Yeah?”

“Um…how was work?”

“Oh. It was, uh, pretty good, I guess. A slow day, though. Not many appointments.”

“I see.”

“How was your day?” he rejoined, turning to face her.

“Oh, you know.” Ayla gestured vaguely with one hand. “The usual. Dad came home early tonight, so my parents and I went out to an early dinner before Mike and the others came to pick me up.”

“Your dad works a lot?”

“He’s a politician, so yeah. He often works late. But it’s not like he lives in another state or anything. He just works late a lot because he takes his job seriously. He expects the same of his people, too.”

“Dr. Barton’s the same way,” Marco agreed seriously. “He expects me to work like a horse, but I don’t mind all that much because he works like a horse himself. Fair’s fair.”

“Yup.” Ayla hesitated for a moment, then changed the subject. “What about your parents? What do they do?”

A shadow passed over Marco’s face. “I dunno,” he answered after a moment, with forced nonchalance. “I’ve never met them. I live with my grandmother.”

Ayla gave herself a mental kick. Nice going, moron! Now look what you’ve done! “I…I’m so sorry, Marco. I didn’t mean—”

“It’s okay,” he said, and gave her a small smile that made a knot tighten below Ayla’s ribs. “You didn’t know.”

“And how, um…how is your grandmother doing?”

“Oh, she’s fine. She has on days and off days, but she does all right. I help her around the house a lot, though.” Marco shrugged. “I mean…she’s not young anymore, you know?”

He really is sweet, she thought. Then: “Mom and Dad both said to tell you thanks, by the way.”

Marco stiffened. “You…you told them?”

“It couldn’t be helped,” Ayla said, a little defensively. “I got sent to the nurse’s office after you pushed me out of the way of that car, and the school called them and told them everything. I…I made the mistake of saying that I’d invited you to come along with us tonight, and they bombarded me with questions.” Her breath quickened along with her words. “I felt bad about it afterward, too. I know how much you hate being the center of attention.”

His face crumpled, and it looked like he almost tripped over his tongue to reassure her. “No, no, no! I’m not mad or anything, Ayla. Really, I’m not. I wouldn’t ask you to lie to your parents, not for me.”

“…Oh.” Her cheeks turned pink. “Thanks.” Ayla couldn’t think of anything else to say until the red vehicle pulled into the movie theatre’s parking lot. An oversized screen above the front entrance advertised what was playing and listed showing times.

“Time to go!” Landon said. “Otherwise we’ll miss the preview trailers.”

“He enjoys those more than the actual movies,” Taylor explained for Marco’s benefit.

“That’s because a lot of the trailers are better than the actual movies,” Landon sniffed. “Now come on, or we’ll be last in line for tickets.”

He made a break for the ticket booth. Ayla and Marco followed him, and within three paces, their steps had unconsciously fallen into sync.

___________________________________

The air inside the theatre hung thick with the smell of popcorn. The heavy smell made Marco De Vega’s nose twitch, but he didn’t even consider the idea of buying some for himself. Most movie theatres charged exorbitant prices for concessions, he’d been surprised that Nana had been able to scrape enough spare cash together for his ticket, let alone for snacks.

It was also very, very crowded. He garnered more than few curious looks as he walked by, particularly from small children, some of whom pointed at him openly. But he did his best not to let his discomfort show on his face, not least because Ayla was walking right beside him. She got more than a few looks too, but those came from other teenage boys.

He wasn’t sure if Ayla just didn’t notice or simply didn’t care, but—to his surprise—he noticed, and he did care. The sight of other guys looking at her so covetously made Marco feel…jealous, perhaps? But why?

Ayla wasn’t his property or anything, and he certainly couldn’t dictate who did and didn’t look at her. Nor did he have the right to say who she could look at. He had no business feeling this way; it wasn’t as if they were going out or anything. He and Ayla were friends. Friends. No more and no less, despite what Avery or anyone else might insinuate.

And yet…

And yet he couldn’t help but wonder: if Ayla had returned some of those gazes, or at flashed a flirtatious grin or two, how would he have felt then?

The back of Ayla’s hand brushed against his as they walked side-by-side, and the brief touch of her soft skin blew fuses in Marco’s brain. Does she use moisturizer or something?

When they entered the dimly lit viewing room, he almost sighed with relief. Less light meant less people were less likely to notice to him, and he welcomed the reprieve. But on the other hand, the lack of illumination also gave his mind plenty of space to wander, especially when Ayla claimed the seat beside him.

Marco felt his heartbeat begin to accelerate and fought the urge to grind his teeth. Stop it! He scolded himself. It’s not like this is the first time—

But it was, he realized. He and Ayla had talked at school, yes, but they’d never spent time together outside of class before. Not until now. Was that the reason why he was getting so hot and bothered about being so close to her?

This isn’t a date, Marco told himself. This isn’t a date. This isn’t a date. This isn’t a date. She wouldn’t have brought friends along if it were a date.

So why, then, did it feel like something more than a casual outing with friends?

One explanation bobbed to the surface of his brain, but it was so terrifying, so completely outside his (admittedly small) realm of experience that he hardly dared even contemplate it. He tried to quash the idea, tried to shove out of his mind and distract himself with the previews that had begun to roll, but the more he tried, the deeper the idea took root.

Marco took a deep, slow, measured breath. I. Am. Not. Falling. For. Her.

That sounds an awful lot like denial, the nasty little doubting voice replied.

He looked down, saw Ayla’s hand, and shuddered at the recollection of how soft it was. For the briefest second—less than the blink of an eye—his rebellious brain wondered what it would feel like to hold her hand in his.

Something ignited in Marco’s chest, like a spark touching off a raging wildfire. It took him a moment to identify the feeling as…desire. A nervous sweat broke out on his pallid skin, and his breath quickened, his fingers twitching.

He closed his eyes tightly. Don’t go there. Don’t do it. It’s not worth it. You don’t like her that way. She doesn’t like you that way. You’re just friends. Just friends. Nothing more.

Are you sure? Sneered the nasty little voice. Would you have those kinds of feelings about Ayla if she were “just a friend?” Would you get so hot and bothered just being around her?

I didn’t before!

Because you didn’t know her as well before. But now you do. And so…

“Marco?” Ayla’s hushed whisper cut through his thoughts like a knife. In a way, he was grateful. It meant he didn’t have to follow that train of thought to its destination.

“Yes?” he managed, forcing the words through a mouth that had suddenly and inexplicably gone dry.

“Are you okay? For a moment, you almost looked like you were in pain.”

“Um…I’m fine. Just…daydreaming, I guess.”

“It looked more like a nightmare. You sure you’re all right?”

“Yeah.” He sagged a little in his seat. “It’s nothing, Ayla. Seriously.”

She gave him a fairly dubious look but didn’t push.

The movie had begun to play by this point, but Marco wasn’t paying too much attention. His head was a whirlpool of so many thoughts and emotions that he found it hard to identify them all. To make matters worse, he thought he saw Ayla giving him quick glances from the corner of her eye when she thought he wasn’t looking, and that raised a whole host of uncomfortable questions.

What is she thinking? What does she think I’m thinking?

He felt his face flush. Had Ayla somehow intuited the desire he’d felt, if only for the briefest of moments? Had it shown on his face?

He stewed in his discomfort and self-doubt until it grew almost unbearable, and when he simply couldn’t take it anymore, he said quietly—and cautiously— “I…I’m glad you invited me along tonight. It’s been, um, fun.”

Ayla beamed, and the sight made his heart do a little flip inside his chest. “I’m glad you could come.”

Marco felt himself flush again at just how glad she sounded, and he wondered if he’d turn as red as an apple every time Ayla spoke to him. “It’s…Well…I…” His breathing and pulse both quickened. “I’m glad I met you,” he managed at last. He said it quickly, too, as if the words were like hot coals on his tongue. “I mean, I know the circumstances were weird and everything, but you’re the only person other than Avery who doesn’t look at me like I’m a freak because of my skin or eyes or hair and that’s really refreshing—well, I mean, Avery’s cool and all and he’s a great friend too but it’s good to have someone else to hang out with and Mike and the others seem cool too.” He cringed, aware that he was starting to babble. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s, um, nice. You’re…nice.”

She seemed slightly taken aback, and this time, Ayla was the one who turned an interesting shade of vermillion. “Oh. Um…thanks.” She brushed a strand of red hair from her eyes, a nervous gesture. “You’re nice too, you know. It’s…it’s been good for me too. Becoming friends, I mean.”

Was Marco imagining things, or did he detect the slightest bit of hesitation before the word friends? He looked away, wanting to reply but at a loss for words.

The movie—and silence that descended between them like a heavy curtain—seemed to go on forever, and in truth, Marco didn’t pay much attention to it. Only when the screen went black and the credits rolled were his thoughts drawn back to the present. He rose from his chair with more haste than was probably necessary, but forced himself to slow at Ayla’s curious look.

“I, um, have to use the bathroom,” Marco said by way of explanation, and felt a stab of guilt at the small lie. Better that, though, than to have Ayla think he were anxious to be rid of her company—when in fact the opposite was true.

“It’s down the hall,” she told him, jerking a thumb over her shoulder as they walked out into the theatre’s main hallway.

“Thanks. But, um, I can wait.”

“You sure? You nearly fell over yourself a second ago.”

Marco was saved from having to respond to that by Landon and Mike, both of whom had ashen expressions.

“What’s wrong?” he and Ayla asked simultaneously. Both of them looked at each other and turned faintly pink—or red, in Marco’s case, since he had very little complexion to begin with.

Mike gave Landon a knowing look and barely suppressed a smirk. Marco didn’t have to be a genius to know what the look meant.

“The car isn’t starting,” Landon said, pinching the skin between his eyebrows. “Don’t know why. It was working fine on the way over here.”

“Might be some kinda leak,” Mike offered. “Or maybe the battery needs to be replaced.”

“Have you called a tow truck?” Ayla asked.

“Yeah, but those guys make snails look fast. They told me that it’ll be at least two whole hours before they get here. I called my sister and she said she’s on her way, but there’s only room enough in her car for five, including the driver.”

“So someone’s going to have to find another way to get back,” Mike concluded. “Question is who.”

Ayla volunteered without a second thought. Marco wasn’t surprised; taking one for the team in situations like this seemed like exactly the sort of thing she’d do. “You guys go on ahead. I’ll call my parents and have one of them pick us up.”

Us? Marco thought, feeling a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach.

 “You sure?”

“Yeah. We’ll be fine. I’ll call you guys later.”

“Thanks.” Landon sounded relieved. “Next time we do this, tickets are on me.”

She grinned. “I’ll hold you to that.”

The two boys made for the exit, but Marco barely noticed. He was too busy trying not to let fear show on his face as Ayla dug out her cell phone and selected a number from speed-dial. She spoke into it quietly, as though she didn’t want him to overhear, and though it was absurd he couldn’t help worrying about what she might be saying.

That worry faded an instant later, because when she hung up, Ayla was wearing a smile so radiant that it made the sun seem dim by comparison.

She’s…she’s even prettier when she smiles, he thought. “Uh…so how’d it go?”

“It went…um…well…” For a moment, speech failed her. “Yeah, they’re going to come pick us up, of course, but…”

“But?” A deep sense of foreboding settled on Marco’s shoulders like a heavy cloak.

“Well…when I told my mom who was I with—not like with with, just with at the theatre—she asked me to invite you over for a little bit so they could, um, meet you. Mom and Dad, I mean.”

Terror seized Marco in a crushing grip. “Uh…Uh…I…”

“I know, I know!” Ayla said, and she was sounding more than a little distressed herself. “I told her you were really shy and everything, and it’s not like you have to. I’ll understand why if you decide not to. I’m…I’m kind of nervous about it too, to be honest.”

Absurdly, that made Marco feel a little bit better…for about fifteen seconds. Every cell in his body screamed at him to take the easy way out, to just make up some excuse and get while the getting was good, to run away and hide like he’d been doing for most of his life.

But if I do that, I risk offending them, he realized a moment later. And chances are I’ll have to meet them at some point. Turning them down now could just make it more unpleasant in the future.

But…I mean, I didn’t plan on meeting her parents tonight, for crying out loud! I mean, what am I supposed to say to them? “Hi, my name’s Marco and I’m the one who shoved your daughter out of the way of a speeding car. And now we’re coming back from the movies, just the two of us, but it’s totally not what you think it is.” No way will they believe that! They’ll probably think I’m using what happened as a…a kind of leverage or something. He resisted the urge to bury his head in hands. Why does this crap always happen to me?

I could still run. Ayla would understand. She said she’d understand. She won’t judge.

And the nasty little voice whispered: I thought you were tired of running, Marco.

He took a deep breath. “No. No, it’s, um, fine, Ayla. I’ll go. It’s no problem, really. I was just…a little surprised, that’s all.”

She flashed that beaming smile at him, and Marco felt a slight quivering in his knees.

He hoped she didn’t notice.

___________________________________

Half an hour later, a sleek black Mercedes pulled smoothly into the parking lot. Its paint gleamed like the smooth carapace of some enormous beetle, and even though the sun had set, it shone like an ebon jewel. It was the sort of car that Marco had never expected to even touch, much less ride in, so of course he assumed at once that the vehicle belonged to Ayla’s parents.

That assumption was almost instantly vindicated, because Ayla clearly recognized the car as soon as she saw it.

“That’s my mom,” she said, pointing. Then, as if for his benefit, she added: “Don’t be nervous. You’ll like her, I promise.”

I’m more concerned about whether or not she likes me, Marco thought, and he felt his pulse quicken as a fresh wave of panic threatened to overwhelm him. I mean, she’s on the school board, for crying out loud! She doesn’t…the board doesn’t usually have anything to do with people like me. What if I say something to offend her by accident? A snap of her fingers, and my grades could change overnight! Nana would murder me if my GPA slipped again!

He tried to keep his fear from showing, though he knew he probably wasn’t doing a very good job. Okay. Okay, just keep calm. Ayla’s mom wouldn’t abuse her position that way, not if she’s anything like her daughter. I just need to keep from having a nervous breakdown for the next hour or so. I can manage that. I can manage that.

Yeah. Right.

He stared at the car, swallowing thickly, and followed Ayla like a condemned man on his way to the noose. Marco moved stiffly, as though his joints were sore, and she reached out, touching him lightly on the arm in a silent gesture of reassurance. Once again, Marco noticed how soft her fingers were—and how those fingers touched him, with such delicate tenderness! Archeologists had handled ancient treasures and art collectors had touched priceless paintings with less care.

A jolt of something electric, like pleasant fire, made his skin prickle, and Ayla withdrew her hand and flushed.

“Uh. Sorry.”

“It’s…it’s okay,” he muttered, equally embarrassed.

Ayla looked as though she were going to say something else, but before she could, a woman got out of the car. She was older, perhaps in her mid-thirties, and right away Marco could see that Ayla took after her mother. They both had red hair, as well as similar complexion and build, but Mrs. Stephens had blue eyes rather than Ayla’s green. More, Ayla’s hair was a true red, rather than the carroty color her mother sported.

“I hope you haven’t been waiting too long,” Mrs. Stephens said, giving her daughter a quick hug by way of greeting. “I was at a meeting when you texted me, and it ran a bit late.”

Ayla waved the apology aside. “It’s fine,” she said. “We’re just glad you could make it.”

“Speaking of which,” Mrs. Stephens went on, fixing her gaze on Marco, “This must be the young man you’ve told me so much about. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Marco.” She held out her hand, and he forced himself to shake it despite the clammy sweat that had appeared on his palms.

If Mrs. Stephens noticed, she made no sign of it. “I know it’s a bit late, but thank you. Thank you for saving our daughter.”

Marco glanced down at his shoes, embarrassed. “It was nothing. Ma’am,” he added hastily.

She smiled. “Yes, it was. And all the more so because you think otherwise. Ayla told us you were modest, you know. She said you weren’t the type to go seeking recognition or rewards, although many boys in your position would have done just that. I see now that she was right.”

“Mom!” Ayla sputtered. Her mother flashed her a wink that he probably wasn’t supposed to notice.

All the same, he couldn’t look at either of them. He just couldn’t. “Um. Thank you.”

“Shall we be off, then?” Mrs. Stephens added. “I could take you home if that’s what you’d prefer, Marco.”

There was a long, long moment of silence.

She’s offering me a way out, he realized dully. One last chance to quit. One last chance to run and hide. It’d be so easy. Just make up an excuse. Say that Nana’s expecting me. That I’ve got homework to do. I could walk away, right now, and never look back. Things might return to the way things were before.

He remembered the stares of his classmates. The horrible feeling of exposure he’d had to endure day in and day out ever since he’d shoved Ayla out of the way of that Buick. He remembered the feeling of being gawked at, and the filth that had been stuffed into his locker. The profanities that had been scrawled inside, cursing him. The hot sting of tears on his cheeks as he fought the urge to cry.

And he almost took the escape route he’d been given.

But then he remembered the other side of that coin. He remembered talking to Ayla at school. The way he’d come to feel at ease around her. How she’d sought him out at Barton’s rather than at school, out of nothing but consideration for him. The relief he’d felt when he’d seen that she truly didn’t care about what he looked like. The way she’d touched him on the arm…and the strange feelings that seemed to stir in him whenever she was around.

Walking away now would jeopardize all of that. He’d already told Ayla he’d do it. He’d already agreed. Was he willing to risk what he and Ayla had? If he went back on his word now, who knew how she’d react?

He considered those questions…and then the choice was no choice at all.

Marco smiled up at her, and when he spoke, his voice was clear, steady and calm. “That won’t be necessary, Mrs. Stephens. I’m honored by your invitation, and it would be my pleasure to be a guest in your home.”

___________________________________

Ayla’s house wasn’t quite a mansion. In fact, it seemed to have been designed and built that way: impressive and eye-catching, to be sure, but not quite extravagant enough to be ostentatious. It was a large, squat building of reddish-brown adobe, obviously modeled after a Spanish hacienda, the sort of large town house used by Nevada’s colonial Spanish overlords in the distant past. Rather than an expression of vanity or a boastful symbol of wealth, it struck Marco more as a statement of its occupants’ success, neither modest nor garish but somewhere in between.

All the same, it was a world away from the one-story house that he’d alwayslived in. Where Nana’s home was cozy and sometimes even cramped, Ayla’s had space to spare. And instead of a flowerbed brimming with riotous colors—Nana’s pride and joy—the house was flanked by slender trees that seemed remarkably well-kept despite the dry Nevada heat.

They probably hire gardeners to take care of the trees for them. The thought made him uneasy. Avery had told him that Ayla came from an influential and affluent family, but seeing it…

He looked down at himself, feeling acutely under-dressed. Would Ayla’s parents see him as beneath them, the way that European aristocrats had turned their noses up at peasants in bygone ages? Mrs. Stephens seemed nice enough, but Marco had learned from bitter experience that nicety could be faked.

He forced himself to abandon that train of thought. Don’t go there. You’ll only end up second-guessing yourself into a panic. Again.

All the same, he made sure to wipe his feet before following Ayla inside. It wouldn’t do to track in dirt on what looked like an expensive hardwood floor.

But the floor was far from the only thing in the house that looked pricey. The Stephens family had decorated their home with a strong yet rustic Southwestern flair: he could see several intricately woven Navajo rugs hanging like tapestries, and all along the entrance hall—on wooden mounts, on hooks, and in sealed containers—were displayed a variety of eclectic items, complete with labels, dates and descriptions, that would have seemed more at home in a museum exhibit than a private residence. To his left hung a pair of Spanish rapiers from the late 16th century, exquisitely restored. To his right was a small collection of Native American pottery, encased inside a clear Plexiglas shell. There was even a matching steel helmet and cuirass of the sort used by the Spanish conquistadors.

“My dad’s a bit of a history buff,” Ayla explained, seeing his interest. “These are some of his favorites.”

“I can see why,” Marco murmured. “Some of this stuff must have cost a fortune.”

She shrugged. “Not as much as you think. Most of it was in bad shape when Dad got it. He probably wound up paying more for their restoration than he did for the items themselves. Besides, he doesn’t usually keep them. Mostly he just donates them to museums and art galleries, things like that.”

“That’s…actually really cool,” he admitted.

She beamed, and he got that tingly feeling in his stomach again. “Make sure to tell him that.”

“Tell me what, now?” a voice said drily.

Marco whirled and saw a man walking toward them. Judging from the bulbous white hat and oven mitts he wore he must have come from the kitchen, though the chef’s accoutrements looked comically out-of-place—almost absurd—on his aristocratic features and commanding height. Yet even so he had a sort of magnetic presence, a way of carrying himself, which set him apart from the crowd. His eyes blazed a bright shade of emerald green, and he moved with an easy grace.

With that kind of charisma, it’s no wonder he’s had such a successful career in politics.

“I was just telling Marco about your favorite hobby, Dad,” Ayla said, rolling her eyes good-naturedly.

“And deprive me of the pleasure?” Mr. Stephens asked, scowling in mock outrage. “That’s just mean.”

“Says the politician,” she snorted.

Her father smiled ruefully. “An ignoble truth, I’m afraid. Politics in any era has never been for the faint of heart, but we strive to remain faithful to our consciences.” Then, seeming to notice his guest for the first time, he asked, “And you must be Marco. I’m glad you could come; I’ve been wanting to thank you face-to-face. What you did was very brave.”

Marco turned an interesting shade of vermillion. “Uh…it’s fine. I know she’d do the same. You, uh, don’t have to thank me.”

“Yes I do,” Mr. Stephens said firmly. “And if I said it a thousand times, it still wouldn’t be enough. If you ever have children of your own someday, you’ll understand why.”

“Can we get you something, Marco?” Mrs. Stephens asked. “Perhaps a cup of coffee or a soda?”

“Um…” Am I expected to take them up on that, or turn them down? Is it just formality? Would it be some sort of gaff if I said yes? God, this stuff is complicated!

After a moment, he nodded, a trifle reluctant. “Um…a soda would be fine, but I don’t want to impose or anything.”

“Of course you’re not,” Mr. Stephens waved his concern aside. “Please, make yourself at home.” Then, noticing how Marco had drawn his gaze back to the pottery display, he added: “Those are probably the most valuable things I own. More than three hundred years old. A gift from the Shoshone tribe, for my efforts on their behalf during the latest legislative session.”

“What efforts were those?” Marco asked, genuinely curious. He almost inquired if the jars were a bribe, but restrained himself. Mr. Stephens probably had to put up with that kind of sarcasm at work on a daily basis. He doubted Ayla’s father would appreciate hearing it under his own roof.

“A few of their leaders were concerned about a number of inconsistencies concerning mineral and water rights on their land. They feared—with good reason, I think—that outside parties might exploit such loopholes and claim those resources for themselves, so they approached me and asked me to introduce a bill that provided better clarification. The bill was passed, and they presented those pots to me as a gesture of thanks.” A lopsided grin. “I made quite a few other people very unhappy, but it was a fair exchange. The greatest good for the greatest many.”

“Better many than all,” Marco noted, “since you can’t please everyone.”

Mr. Stephens laughed. “Isn’t that the truth? But I’ve kept you standing there long enough. Please, follow me.”

He led them into the living room—with a short stop to the fridge along the way—and Marco sipped from a cold metal can as he sank into a squishy armchair.

“Ayla’s told us that you work at an optometry clinic,” Mr. Stephens began. “What’s that like? I’m curious about what your work there entails.”

It wasn’t an interrogation, Marco told himself. In fact, Ayla’s dad seemed genuinely interested. That didn’t stop him from feeling a fresh spike of apprehension, though. But since all eyes were on him, he tried to swallow his fear and answer as best he could.

“It’s nothing too complicated. I don’t run the machines or anything like that; I’m not trained to work with them. Mostly I just do secretarial work, like making copies, sending emails or answering the phone, as well as keeping Dr. Barton’s appointment schedule up-to-date. Other times I’ll reorganize the file cabinets or sort through shipments of glasses, take inventory, that sort of thing. But a lot of the time I just fetch stuff for him.”

“Including coffee?” Mr. Stephens asked teasingly.

“Dad!” Ayla sputtered.

But the joke went right over Marco’s head. “Oh, yeah. Dr. Barton needs his coffee, especially in mid-morning, right before lunch. That’s usually when he starts to slow down a bit, and he needs the caffeine.”

Mrs. Stephens nodded. “I share his pain. I need at least two cups before I go to work.”

“I’ve been to see Dr. Barton a few times,” her husband added. “I don’t know him well, but he’s always left a good impression. He’s a good man.”

“He is,” Marco agreed. “He performed the corrective surgeries that allowed me to see, you know. When Nana couldn’t pay for them all right away, he said she could do it in installments, month-by-month. And he offered me a job in the bargain as well.”

“Why did you have to have surgery?” Ayla asked.

He gestured vaguely to himself. “Albinism. Eye problems are often a part of it.”

“What’s it like?” Mr. Stephens inquired. “Albinism, I mean?”

Ayla’s face turned ashen. She probably thought her dad had touched upon a sensitive subject, and in a way she was right. Marco didn’t like to talk about his condition much, as that usually drew unwanted attention, and until very recently attention was something he’d gone out of his way to avoid. But since he already had the Stephens’ attention…Well, it’s not like I have anything to lose.

“It can be hard sometimes,” he said, giving Ayla a reassuring glance. “Dr. Barton once told me that albinism has different degrees of severity. The worst is the one where you lack pigmentation of any kind. That’s the one I have. I often get sunburned easily, and the sunlight hurts my eyes if I go outside without sunglasses on.”

“Does sunblock help?”

“Only to a certain degree,” he admitted. “Some days are worse than others, especially in summer and spring. Nana keeps trying to get me to use an umbrella, but it’d look weird if I carrying one in broad daylight, you know?”

“You live with your grandmother, then?” Mr. Stephens inquired.

“Ever since I can remember. I…never knew my parents.” He tried to sound nonchalant.

Ayla’s parents looked sympathetic. “Well, if your actions toward Ayla are any indication, she’s done a fine job raising you,” Mrs. Stephens said at last. “And we’re always glad when she makes a new friend.”

“I’m…I’m glad she’s my friend too,” Marco admitted. For reasons he couldn’t quite place, he hesitated for just a second over the word friend. “Ayla has been, um, good to me. As a friend, I mean. I’m really glad I met her.”

Beside him, Ayla’s face turned the color of a ripe apple while an enigmatic look passed between her parents. “Um…so am I,” she said at last, averting her gaze.

An awkward silence followed, and he only cleared his throat and stood when it became unbearable. “I should probably be getting home,” he said, looking at the watch on his wrist. “School night and all. Thanks for having me over…and for inviting me to see the movie with you and your friends, Ayla. It was a lot of fun.” Marco flashed her a small smile, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks again. “I’ll, um, talk to you at school, I guess.”

“It’s been wonderful to meet you,” Mrs. Stephens interjected. “We’re glad you could come. Do you need a lift home?”

“If it’s not too much to ask,” he nodded. “I’d really appreciate it.”

Some part of him hoped that Ayla would volunteer to go along, but when she remained seated those hopes were dashed. Not that I can blame her, really. My house isn’t much to look at.

“Marco?”

He halted in mid-stride, as though frozen solid. “Y-yeah?”

“I…” she took a deep breath and spoke more quickly than usual. “I had fun too, and I’m glad you decided to come. I’d, um, like it if we could do this again sometime. And if you’d like to eat with us at school or something, that’s fine too.” Ayla looked like she wanted to say more, but stopped herself. “So…yeah. This was fun.”

A spark went off somewhere behind Marco’s eyes. He couldn’t make sense of what he was feeling right now, of what he’d been feeling ever since Ayla had picked up from work, and what she had just told him was the equivalent of pouring gasoline onto a bed of simmering coals. He felt…confused. Horribly, horribly confused.

What am I feeling? Is it what I should be feeling? How am I supposed to know?

“I’m…happy to hear that,” was all Marco could think to say. His voice shook a little. “And I’d like to. Eat with you and your friends. Yeah.”

He left in a hurry. And later that night, no matter how much he tossed and turned, sleep eluded him. For whenever he shut his eyes, he saw Ayla.

And—most frustrating of all—he could not figure out why.

___________________________________

Ayla, for her part, was unusually quiet over breakfast the next morning. Sleep hadn’t come easily to her, either, and for a number of reasons—a few of which she was reluctant to admit, even to herself.

Spending the evening with Marco had been…fun. In fact, she’d been surprised at just how much it was, at how comfortable she’d felt around him, and—most confusing of all—the things she’d begun to feel as the evening had worn on. She tried to focus on other things as she spooned up a bowl of cereal, but her rebellious mind kept turning back to Marco as though drawn by a magnet.

Ayla let out an exasperated breath. Why was he so foremost in her thoughts now? This hadn’t happened when she’d spoken with him at Barton’s. It hadn’t happened before, when she’d spoken with him before at school, in the brief moments they had between classes.

Was it…had something in their relationship changed inalterably the night before? Had some sort of shift occurred, of which she was only now becoming aware?

“Marco certainly seems like a nice young man,” her mother commented as she spread grape jelly over a piece of toast.

“Yeah. Yeah, he is.”

“Any plans today, sweetheart?” her father asked.

“Not really.”

“Why not? It’s a beautiful day outside.”

“I just don’t feel like it.”

“Why not give Marco a call?” he went on in a teasing tone. “I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear from you.”

“I, uh, don’t have his number.”

“But he has yours, right?”

“…Yeah.”

“So maybe he’ll call you, eh?”

“Dad!”

Mr. Stephens put his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Okay, okay. Just teasing.”

She rolled her eyes, sighing inwardly. Marco really didn’t have a good reason to call, as far as she could tell. If anything, he would probably need time by himself. His natural shyness probably made interacting with others—especially in a social setting—exhausting.

Once the meal had concluded and the dishes had been washed, Ayla tried distracting herself with a book, but she couldn’t bring her mind to focus on the words in front of her. She tried listening to music too, but didn’t really hear it. A restless energy filled her, made it impossible to sit or stand still, and—

BRRRRING!

She started as the phone rang, and—in defiance of all reason and logic to the contrary—Ayla felt a surge of hope. She reached for it, but her father answered first from the living room.

“Hello?”

A moment of silence, then: “Yes, hello. How are you?...Good, good. No, no, she’s here. I’ll put her on. Ayla! Phone for you!”

She got up quickly and held the receiver to her ear. “Hello?”

“Hi.” Marco’s voice was unmistakable. “It’s, um, it’s me.”

“…Hey.” She couldn’t think of anything else.

“So…” he paused, and she could almost see his awkward expression in her mind’s eye. “I was wondering…Me and Avery—he’s a friend of mine—are going to hang out later, and I, um, wanted to ask if you’d like to come. It won’t be anything special; just video games and stuff. But you’re…you’re welcome to come if you’re not busy.”

“I’d like that!” Ayla’s reply was more vocal than she intended. “Um…will it be at your house?”

“If that’s okay with you.”

“Sure. It’s fine. What time?”

“About noon.” He gave her his address, which Ayla scribbled down on a slip of paper.

“See you then,” she said.

“Uh…yeah. You too. I’m, um, looking forward to it.”

He hung up.

“What was that about?” Mr. Stephens asked.

In response, her face broke into a brilliant smile.

___________________________________

“Is this the place?” Ayla’s mother asked.

“I think so.” Ayla glanced down at a slip of paper. “It matches the address Marco gave me.”

“Good,” Mrs. Stephens smiled. “I hope the two of you have a great time.”

“Three,” she corrected. “A friend of his is going to be there, too.”

“Even better. Call me when you’re ready to be picked up, okay?”

“’Kay.”

Ayla stepped out of the car and into the searing Nevada sun. It was like stepping into an oven, and she felt sweat begin to break out on her brow almost instantly. Once again, she thought how it must have been for Marco to endure such scorching temperatures, and the thought made her shudder despite the heat. It must be so painful for him…

She was suddenly eager to get inside, but Ayla did pause long enough to get a good look at the house’s front lawn. Marco’s place was…quaint, really. It was adobe, like hers, but smaller, with only one story instead of two. It had a homely aspect about it, so that it looked cozy rather than cramped: flowers grew on either side of the walk despite the heat, and they seemed to have been planted almost at random, so that the myriad different blooms and colors lent the house an air of merry discord.

Ayla reached for the doorbell—and hesitated.

Why are you stalling? He invited you. Just go on and press it.

For a terrifying second, she felt suddenly and acutely self-conscious, as though she were an intruder here rather than an invited guest. Ayla’s brain told her finger to push the innocuous-looking little button, but her hand did not want to obey.

She was still trying to make sense of it all when the door opened anyway.

Ayla started, trying and probably failing to hide her surprise. “Uh…hi. My name’s Ayla. Is Marco here? He, um, invited me.”

An older-looking woman with gray hair and thick glasses smiled kindly back at her. “Of course! My name’s Elena de Vega; I’m Marco’s grandmother and legal guardian. Please, come inside and make yourself at home.”

“Thanks.” She did, and Ayla noticed that the house smelled like cookies. Whether that was how it usually smelled or if it was because Ms. De Vega was making something in the kitchen, she wasn’t sure. The inside of the house well-worn but clean and comfortable, and had of character that only years of constant use can impart.

“It’s good to finally meet you,” Ms. De Vega went on. “He went on and on about the movie you two went to see when he came home last night. He had such a good a time.”

“He did?”

“Oh, yes,” Ms. De Vega nodded seriously. “Talked of nothing else.”

Ayla’s cheeks suffused with color. “Um…” What am I supposed to say to that?

“You’ve been a good friend to him,” Ms. De Vega continued blithely. If she noticed Ayla’s awkwardness, she didn’t show it. “Marco’s always been a quiet sort, you know. He doesn’t get out much, and of course he’s always had Avery, but he’s never really gotten to know other kids his age before. Not until he met you, that is. I’ve never seen him so happy.”

Ayla fiddled with a strand of red hair nervously. “That’s…that’s good to know.” He’s happy, she thought, a little numbly. I made him happy.

She wasn’t sure how the revelation made her feel. It didn’t make her feel bad, certainly, but…

But Ayla hadn’t really considered just how much their budding friendship might mean to him. She’d known Marco had always been a bit of an outsider, and of course she’d hoped that Marco had enjoyed being around her—as a friend, she firmly reminded herself—but imagining it was one thing. To hear it from someone close to him…that was another matter entirely.

Marco must have overheard them talking—his room, Ayla guessed, was just down the hall—because he practically came running into the kitchen to meet them.

“Um…hi,” he said, as though unable to say anything else. “Glad you could come.”

“Me too,” Ayla said, trying to keep her voice casual. “I was glad to be invited. It’s boring just sitting around the house all day, you know?”

Another boy followed Marco into the kitchen, grinning broadly. “Avery,” he said, by way of introduction. “Nice to meet you.”

“You too.”

“So…” Marco said, after a moment of awkward silence had elapsed, “Want to go play?”

“Play what?” Ayla asked, visibly confused.

“Video games, remember?” Avery told her, waggling his eyebrows. “I brought my Xbox.”

“We can do something else if you like,” Marco said quickly. “I think we’ve got some board games or something.”

“No,” Ayla said. “I think…I think I might as well give it a whirl.” She’d never been big on video games herself, but Marco had stepped out of his comfort zone twice for her: once when they first met, and once when he’d accompanied her to the movie on Friday. It was only fair that she return the favor.

“Cool,” he said, giving her a smile that sent little fluttery feelings through Ayla’s chest. “Don’t worry. I’ll show you the ropes.”

The three of them adjourned to Marco’s bedroom, and Ayla was surprised at how…ordinary it looked. The bed was just barely long enough for all three of them to sit on, and a few comic books and other novels lined a bookshelf along the opposite wall. A tiny desk and chair were situated in a corner, and a flat-screen TV that seemed too big for the house stood on top of a wooden dresser.

“Nice TV set,” she commented.

“It’s mine,” Avery said. “I brought it with me.”

“Along with your Xbox.”

“Yup!”

“So…What games do you have?” she asked.

“Take your pick,” Marco told her, handing Ayla a small binder. She flipped through it, looking at the labels on the different disks until he pointed one out. “That one’s particularly good. Lots of medieval fantasy stuff, dragons, that sort of thing.”

“I’ll try that one then,” she said, though Ayla was uncomfortably aware of how close to her Marco was sitting. She could even smell the deodorant he’d used. For a moment, she was grateful that Avery had joined them. Being alone with a boy in his room would have been….awkward…under the best of circumstances, especially if the boy in question made her feel the way she’d begun to feel around Marco.

She forced herself to abandon that train of thought before it reached its destination. Stop it. Marco wouldn’t try something like that, especially with his freaking grandma just down the hall. He’s not that kind of guy.

Avery slipped in the disc, and the game’s main menu flickered to life on the screen. Ayla couldn’t help being impressed despite herself.

“It looks…good. Realistic, I mean.”

Marco grinned. “Yeah. Neat, huh?”

“So what do I do first?”

“Well, you want to create your character first. Here, I’ll talk you through it.”

He did—Ayla eventually decided to be an elf—and although the opening sequence was impressive, she let out a cry of frustration as her avatar was beheaded by a virtual enemy’s battle-ax.

“That was…intense.”

“Want to try something else?” Marco inquired.

Her gaze hardened. “No. I’d like to have another chance to beat that guy.”

“That’s the spirit!” Avery laughed.

It took three more tries, but when Ayla finally sent her newfound nemesis careening backward with an arrow in his neck, she rose to her feet and pumped a triumphant fist. “Take that, jerk!”

“Nice!” Marco gave her a friendly pat on the back. “Satisfying, wasn’t it?”

She pursed her lips in serious thought. “…Actually, yes. Yes, it was.”

He grinned wickedly. “Welcome to the dark side.”

___________________________________

Marco watched, impressed, as Ayla cut a swathe of destruction through a horde of virtual enemies. Have to admit, she learns fast. Didn’t expect her to get quite so into it, either.

He gave himself a mental kick. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. I mean, we haven’t known each other that long, and it’s not like I know everything about her.

Still…I’m glad she’s enjoying herself. And at least I was able to clean my room before she got here.

He hadn’t been alone when he’d invited her over. In fact, he’d been reluctant to call her up in the first place, fearing that she would think him clingy or overly-attached, but Nana and Avery had both pressured him and in the end he’d relented.

He caught his friend’s eye and grinned ruefully. Okay, okay. You were right. This was a good idea.

Marco studied Ayla from the corner of his eye. They were sitting so close that a few strands of her long hair brushed against him whenever she moved, and every time that had happened he’d marveled at how smooth and silky it had felt. Does she use a special kind of shampoo or something?

For a second, a rebellious part of Marco’s brain wondered what it would be like to run his fingers through hair like that. He also couldn’t help noticing how Ayla’s jeans showed off her curves, and the images that conjured up made him start so badly that he fell over onto the floor, his face red with embarrassment and private shame.

Ayla put the controller down and hurried over to him. “Marco! Are you okay?”

“Uh…” He flushed again. “I just scooted over a bit too much, that’s all.” It’s not like I could tell her what really happened…

“Oh. Uh…sorry if I was crowding you.”

“No, no,” Marco shook his head and tried to avoid looking up at her. He couldn’t make himself meet her gaze. “You’re fine, Ayla. Don’t worry about it.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.” He stood awkwardly and tried to smile, but inside he was furious. Furious at himself, for having such thoughts about Ayla, of all people! She was his friend! People didn’t look at their friends that way, however briefly.

Then how can she be just a “friend?” Taunted the nasty little voice.

Marco didn’t have a good answer to that one. Instead, seeking a distraction, he asked, “Want to go get a snack or something?”

“If that’s okay,” Ayla said, with a small, almost sheepish smile. For a heart-stopping moment Marco feared he’d let his thoughts show on his face. But then she added, “But not too long, okay? I want to see if I can finish that dungeon before I have to head home.”

“Marco finished it in only two hours, the first time he tried,” Avery put in. “Think you can do better?”

“I know I can do better,” she declared, smiling. Her teeth seemed impossibly white.

Marco got that fluttering feeling in his stomach again.

“Uh…but no pressure or anything,” he said hastily. “There’s no need for a competition, really. I…”

Ayla snorted. “You’re just scared of getting beat by a girl.”

Marco’s face turned ashen. “No! That’s not what I meant! I—“

“—Relax, Marco,” Avery drawled. “She was only kidding.”

“…Sorry.” If anything, Ayla’s face looked even more stricken than his. “I didn’t mean…sorry.”

He couldn’t speak. His throat had suddenly gone dry.

“Don’t worry about it,” Marco managed at last, picking up a spare controller. “Been a while since I played anyway.”

Five minutes later, he regretted taking up her challenge. Ayla didn’t just beat him; she thrashed him. Avery was less than sympathetic; in fact, he’d found the outcome of the match hilarious.

He gave his friend a stare of hostility that he didn’t really feel. “Nice to know you’re in my corner, Draper. Really, it is.”

“Always,” Avery replied smartly. “Besides, it was kind of funny. You’ve been playing this game for months, but Ayla wipes the floor with you on her very first day! You should have seen the look on your face!”

“He’s kind of got a point,” Ayla said, joining in the teasing. “Wish I’d brought a camera along with me.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said, rolling his eyes good-naturedly. “Fine.”

“Say it.”

“Say what?” Marco looked confused.

Ayla smiled sweetly. “Say you got beaten by a girl.”

“No.” He folded his arms pedantically over his chest. “And you can’t make me.”

Though he appeared petulant, all three of them knew that the verbal fencing was as much a game as the one on the TV screen. And maybe more fun, too…

Avery interrupted his thoughts when he grabbed the pillow on Marco’s bed and hit him over the head with it. The blow didn’t hurt, but it startled him and pitched him forward.

“Say it, and be spared,” Avery said in a grave, somber tone. He might as well have been the commander of a besieging army, reading out terms of surrender to a beleaguered garrison.

Marco rose, grabbed a pillow of his own, and clouted Avery on the side of the face, sending him tumbling onto the floor. He pumped a fist in triumph—until he felt something hard press against the back of his skull. He turned, and found himself staring down the barrel of one of those toy guns that was designed to fire foam darts. He recognized it instantly; he and Avery each had one and had spent many an hour in mock firefights. But now…

 “Ask yourself,” Ayla said cheerily, from the toy’s other end, “Do you feel lucky…punk?”

He raised his hands in surrender, grinning. “Fine. I give. I got beat by a girl. Happy now?” He nodded at the dart gun. “That’s well-played, by the way.”

“I thought so too,” she said, her grin matching his own.

He got that quivering feeling in his gut again at the sight of that smile…but he couldn’t force himself to look away.

___________________________________

Ayla lost track of time as the afternoon waned into early evening, and it seemed like only a moment before she glanced out the window and noticed that the sun was setting.

Time to leave soon, she thought, and was surprised at how dismayed she felt. She’d discovered that Marco, for all his shyness in public, was really a lot of fun to hang out with. Going over to his house had allowed her to see a very different side of him, and she’d be lying through her teeth if she said she hadn’t liked it. At school Marco was withdrawn, taciturn and constantly uptight, like an African zebra on the constant lookout for lions. But today, he had been easygoing, chatty and even witty at times—she hadn’t expected him to have such a great sense of humor. Certainly no one at San Cristobal High would imagine Marco cracking jokes or getting into pillow fights.

I’ve never seen him so…relaxed. Does that mean he feels comfortable around me? Or was it only because Avery’s here?

She hoped the latter wasn’t the case. Ayla, for reasons she could not understand, wanted very badly for Marco to think well of her. She wanted him to feel that relaxed every time they spoke, both in and out of class. It seemed like the more they got acquainted with each other, the more he was on her mind.

Ayla felt a surge of uncertainty that hopefully didn’t show on her face. And that means what, exactly?

There was one explanation she could think of, but she couldn’t accept it. How could she? Marco hadn’t given her any indication that he thought of her as anything more than a friend—and that should have been good enough, seeing as how he wasn’t the sort to trust easily. Besides, she hadn’t even sorted through her feelings yet, let alone tried to gauge his. She should have been content, but she wasn’t. She wanted…She wasn’t sure what she wanted anymore, from him or from herself.

She bit her lip. I am not falling for him. I am not falling for him.

Yet try as she might, she couldn’t make herself believe it completely. She couldn’t even come close.

So for the first time, and in the privacy of her mind, Ayla was forced to confront the idea that she might be feeling something for Marco that went beyond friendship—at the very least, there was a possibility that she might feel such things for him in the future as she got to know him better.

But where did these feelings come from, assuming her budding suspicion was correct? Were they misplaced, borne of gratitude toward him for pushing her out of the way of that car?

No. No, they were not. She knew it on a deep, instinctive level. She didn’t get all flustered every time her hand brushed his because she thought she owed him. It’s because he’s…sweet, I guess?

But would he believe it, if she dared voice such thoughts aloud?

I doubt it. He’d probably get all flustered and think I was just saying it because I thought I owed him or something, or that I’m the kind of girl who throws herself at every guy who opens a door for her.

I need…I need to think this through. In private.

Why does this kind of thing have to be so complicated, anyway?

___________________________________

Ayla stood and put aside her controller. “I should get going. My parents will be expecting me back soon.”

Marco wasn’t sure if he was surprised more by her sudden announcement or the intense feeling of disappointment he felt upon hearing it. “Do you have to?” he asked. He tried to keep his voice level and his expression casual, but wasn’t sure if he succeeded. “You could probably stay for dinner if you want.”

“Thanks,” Ayla smiled. “But I can’t. My mom’s probably going to be taking us out somewhere, or Dad is finally going to try his hand at barbecue.”

“Oh.” Marco forced himself to smile and hoped it looked genuine. “Bye, then. Thanks for coming over. It was…fun.”

She smiled again as she headed for the door. “Yeah. Yeah, it was. I’d like to do it again sometime.”

Avery watched the exchange in silence, but when the two boys were alone in front of the TV, a grin like a peeled banana stretched across his face. “Admit it. This was a good idea.”

Marco rolled his eyes. “Fine. You were right, I was wrong. Happy now?”

“A little,” Avery tittered. “But dude…how much longer are you going to wait?”

He blinked. “Uh…what?”

“Don’t even try that,” Avery told him. “I saw it every time the two of you looked at each other, for Pete’s sake. Hell, you were even sneaking glances out of the corner of your eye when you thought she wasn’t looking—and you weren’t the only one.”

“Um…”

“You like her, dude. It’s as plain as day.”

Marco flushed scarlet. “No! That’s…that’s not it, okay? We’re just friends.”

“Hey,” Avery said slowly, “Are your feet wet? And can you see the pyramids?”

“What?”

“Earth to De Vega: you’re standing knee-deep in denial.”

“You’re…that’s not it. Really! I don’t…I don’t want to try and make it into anything else.”

“Because of the car thing?” Avery snorted. “I think you two are well past that by now.”

“But…”

“And I’m pretty sure she likes you too,” Avery went on as though his friend hadn’t spoken. “But you both seem to be denying what’s right in front of your faces.” He reached over and gently slapped Marco on the back of the head. “The two of you need to have a heart-to-heart about it. You like her. She likes you. And you both need to decide what do about it.” He stood, stretching. “But I wouldn’t dilly-dally too long. She won’t wait forever, and one of you is going to have to make the first move. I don’t think it’ll be Ayla, either—call it a gut feeling, I guess. Besides, a girl like that doesn’t stay single for long. There are probably a lot of guys who would kill to be in the position you’re in. You may hesitate, but they won’t. Seize the day, Marco. Take that leap.”

“And if I decide not to?”

“You won’t do that,” Avery spoke with perfect certainty.

“How do you know?”

His friend grinned again. “Because I know you. We’ve been friend since forever, dude. Give me a little credit, huh?”

Marco opened his mouth, but no words came out.

“I’m not saying call her up right now or anything,” Avery said. “Consider the TPO, man: the time, the place, and the occasion. Take some time to figure it out if you need it.” He squinted out the window. “And I should probably be heading out, too. I still need to do that assignment for Gartner’s class.”

Moments later, Marco was alone in his room, with the setting sun as his only company—and a maelstrom of thoughts and feelings whirling through his brain.

___________________________________

 Instead of calling her parents for a pick-up, Ayla walked home. The onset of dusk had already made it much cooler outside in any case, and she didn’t want to be around her parents because she feared they’d somehow sense her agitation—or worse, think that her distress was Marco’s fault.

Marco. It all kept coming back to him, she thought. Marco, who seemed more handsome every time she saw him. Marco, whose shyness she had come to find endearing. Marco, who’d jumped into the spotlight and made himself the center of everyone’s attention—something she knew he hated—for her.

And the more she’d gotten to know him, the more she couldn’t get him out of her mind. Ayla wanted to spend more time with him, she realized now. She wanted to get to know him better. She remembered the almost physical bond she’d seen between Marco and Avery, and felt a spike of jealousy so intense that it almost took her breath away.

She wanted to have that with Marco, too. Ayla knew that now. But whether or not that bond went further than just friendship was a question she wrestled with to no avail.

She remembered the tingling jolt she’d felt as his hand brushed hers. The way she’d felt thrilled every time she’d made him smile. The joy she’d felt when Marco had called to invite her over—the feeling of being accepted for who she was.

That was definitely part of it, Ayla realized. She was beautiful, and came from an influential, affluent family. She knew it, and like all her friends Marco knew it too—but the difference was that he just didn’t seem to care. Mike, Landon, Taylor…they were good people in their own way, but Marco was different from all of them. For him, her family or physical appearance seemed to be irrelevant, and that was so wonderfully refreshing. And he was really sweet, with a surprising sense of humor once you got past his shyness, and even pretty good-looking in his own way, and—

Ayla forced herself to stop and ran a hand through her blood-colored hair. It took her a few seconds to notice that her heartbeat had sped up a little. Just thinking about Marco had that effect on her now, apparently.

She ground her teeth. I am not falling for—

Yet Ayla couldn’t bring herself to finish that sentence. She couldn’t tell herself that. She couldn’t make herself believe it anymore, not after what she’d just experienced.

A chill of very cold, very real fear went down her spine, accompanied by a moment of perfect, utter clarity.

Yes. I am.

I’m falling for him.

Four little words that meant so much.

And then she felt the fear again, the same fear that had compelled her to leave Marco so suddenly. The fear of destroying a friendship by trying to turn it into something more. The fear of being rejected if her feelings weren’t reciprocated, or if Marco thought she was only saying it out of some misplaced sense of obligation. The fear of the unknown.

She’d been on a few dates here and there, but Ayla hadn’t actually had a steady boyfriend before. The right guy just…hadn’t come along. Not until now, at least.

Why would Marco agree to such a thing, anyway? He’d already gotten a bellyful of the spotlight when he’d kept her from being flattened, but what he’d experienced already would be child’s play compared to the amount of attention he’d get if he and Ayla started dating. Why would he put himself through that again? Why would he even consider such a thing?

He won’t, she thought morosely. And I wouldn’t blame him, either.

And that saddened her, because the more she thought about it, the more she wanted to. Ayla wanted to see if she and Marco could be something more than friends. She knew that now.

Of course, that doesn’t matter much if he doesn’t feel the same way…

So what was next? Should she simply come right out and tell him? That was the most direct route, but also the most risky. She could try to enlist Avery’s help first, maybe ask him to gauge Marco’s feelings before she came clean with him, the way she’d enlisted Mary to find out where Marco worked. But that seemed so…juvenile. Or…

She sighed and dug her cell phone out of her pocket (a brand new one, to replace the one that had been flattened). She’s never going to let me hear the end of this…

Ayla put the device to her ear. It rang only twice before someone answered.

“Hi, Taylor. Do you have a minute? I need your help.”

___________________________________

Dawn came far too soon for Marco’s liking. It always did. The sun, with its scorching rays and remorseless heat, crept over the horizon like an implacable invader. When he looked in the mirror, he had bags under his eyes—a consequence, he thought, of not getting any sleep the night before. Restlessness always seemed to follow where Ayla Stephens was concerned, and last night was no exception.

What Avery said had deeply shaken him. It was as if his old friend had given voice to the doubts and fears that had haunted his thoughts. At the time, he had wanted to refute him, the way he’d been refuting him almost since the day he and Ayla had met. Marco had wanted to say that the idea was ludicrous, that Avery was making a mountain out of a molehill and seeing something that wasn’t actually there. But a feeble denial had been all he could manage, and even then he’d known that he wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all himself. For in his heart of hearts, he’d known that Avery was right. That he had been right for quite some time, and that Marco’s feelings for Ayla had already passed beyond the boundaries of normal, platonic friendship.

And so he had finally been forced to admit the truth to himself.

I like her. I like her.

In finally facing it, in acknowledging it, he had hoped to gain a kind of power over it, as though by doing so he could somehow banish the confusion and fear that gnawed at his spirit.

But it hadn’t worked.

If anything, his inner turmoil became even stronger.

What was he supposed to do now? How was he supposed to tell Ayla? How on Earth was he going to be able to say that to her, face-to-face? The amount of courage required for such a thing was beyond him, he was certain. Avery had advised him to consider the time, place and occasion for such a thing, but how was he supposed to know them when he saw them?

For that matter, what if Ayla rejected him? Would they continue to go on as if nothing had happened?

He shut his eyes tightly and tried not to think about it. It hurt too much. It was too horrible to even contemplate. Mustering up the courage to go through with it was hard enough without bringing the possibility of catastrophic failure into the equation.

He picked at his breakfast half-heartedly. He wasn’t hungry; there was far too much on his mind for him to concentrate on complicated things like eating. Sunday Mass came and went, but he hardly noticed. The priest’s solemn Latin intonations were reduced to a buzzing background noise, like radio static. He could barely even make himself sit still long enough to make it through the service. It was as if he had ingested an inhuman amount of caffeine, filling him to bursting with a kind of nervous energy, and all the while he kept repeating those simple words to himself like a mantra.

I like her. I like her.

He turned that thought over and over in his mind, examined it, tossed it from one hand to the other like a crystal gemstone that burned with white-hot heat. And the more he did, the more entranced he became with it—drawn to it despite his fear like a moth to an open flame.

He wished that Dr. Barton here. Barton had always been there. He’d always been the one Marco went to for advice. The doctor would know what to do. He almost always did. But today was Sunday, and the clinic was closed. He wouldn’t be in his office. He might not even be home.

Marco was on his own.

He flogged his mind for ideas. He considered talking to Ayla at school, but quickly dismissed the idea. There were too many eyes and ears there. It would be impossible to open up to Ayla without someone overhearing.

And wouldn’t that delight the gossipers?

Should he try to find her at home instead? No, that posed the same risks. What if her parents overheard? They seemed like nice people, but he couldn’t help wondering if they’d approve of Ayla dating someone like him.

That left…what, exactly? He didn’t know where Ayla usually went when she wasn’t at home or at school. He supposed he could ask some of her friends, perhaps Mike or Landon, but if he did, he risked revealing his hand. It wouldn’t be hard for either of them to divine his true intentions, and he wasn’t much of a liar in any case. There was no way he’d be able to keep them from figuring out why he wanted to speak to her, and then it would only be a matter of time before Ayla heard about it.

He didn’t feel comfortable calling her, either. It would be easier to say it over the phone, true, but it didn’t seem right somehow. Some things deserved to be said in person.

So what, then? Did she have a job? Could he find her there, the way she had when they’d first met? Ayla hadn’t mentioned having a job, but then, he’d never actually asked.

He was utterly at a loss. Each option came with so many risks, so many things that could go horribly wrong. Frustration made him clench his jaw until he thought the bones might crack, but then the little voice whispered:

Didn’t you decide to stop caring so much about what other people think? You’re going to shoot yourself in the foot if you keep second-guessing yourself like this. The right time is whenever you see her next. The place and occasion is wherever you see her next.

It’s not that simple!

“Hi, Ayla. Got a minute?” What’s so complicated about that?

It…Well…it’s just…

Precisely.

Frustration made him clench his jaw, and as Mass ended, he scowled up at the ceiling.

If you’re listening, he thought, then I want you to know that you have a sick sense of humor.

___________________________________

Ayla rose on Monday morning with mixed emotions. She was both dreading and looking forward to seeing Marco again, and Taylor had been less helpful than she’d hoped. Her friend had been so jubilant over the phone—not to mention more than a little smug—that she hadn’t really given her any of the answers she’d sought. And asking her parents was absolutely out of the question. There was no point in telling them how she felt about Marco yet, not when she wasn’t even sure her feelings were reciprocated.

She felt as if she were standing on the precipice of a steep cliff, with a vast dark abyss yawning before her. Ayla dreaded the leap that would take her off her perch and send her sailing down into the unknown—and yet, longed for it. She didn’t know what would happen if she came clean with Marco and told him everything, and the uncertainty was agonizing. Though she’d run through a thousand different versions of that conversation in her mind, none of them had seemed right.

She sighed. Marco might laugh himself silly if he could see me now. Maybe he thinks that I’ve already had a few boyfriends before, so this stuff should be easy for me. I almost wish it were true. At least then I wouldn’t feel so…paralyzed.

Ayla felt a great deal more paralyzed a few seconds later, when she saw Marco and Avery on the opposite side of the street. I should have expected this. We take similar routes to school, after all.

She resisted the urge to keep her head down. Maybe they won’t noti—

“Ayla!”

The voice was unmistakably Marco’s, and he was already heading her way. Avery, on the other hand, seemed to suddenly remember that he urgently needed to be somewhere else. She could have sworn she caught a glimpse of him muttering something to Marco under his breath before they parted ways, but she wasn’t sure.

He was grinning as he fell in step beside her. “Morning.”

“Morning,” she nodded, fighting to keep her voice level. “How are you?”

“I’m doing all right. I’m trying a new brand of sunscreen, and it works a lot better than the one I used before.”

“That’s good,” Ayla said, smiling herself. “Maybe you’ll be able to enjoy the outdoors a little more.”

He grinned wryly. “That would be nice. You doing okay?”

Not even close, Ayla thought sardonically. “Yeah, I guess.”

Marco’s grin flickered for a second like a candle in a sudden breeze, and for an instant she saw in his eyes a worry that matched her own. “Is something wrong?”

“I just didn’t get a lot of sleep, that’s all.”

He made a face. “I hate it when that happens. Ruins your entire week.”

“Tell me about it.”

They lapsed into an awkward silence, and inside Ayla’s head a little voice whispered: The two of you are alone. There’s no one else around, and won’t be until you get to school. Now’s your chance! Do it! Say it! You don’t know when another opportunity like this will present itself! Nothing worthwhile comes easily or without risk!

She opened her mouth to speak, but to Ayla’s surprise, Marco beat her to the punch. He was looking even paler than usual, and his red eyes were bright with fear and apprehension. His whole body was tense, as if he were bracing himself for a physical blow, and he said the words hurriedly, almost frantically—as though he were afraid he would stop in mid-sentence.

“Um, Ayla? There’s…something I need to talk to you about.”

___________________________________

Ayla looked at him in obvious surprise, and for a second Marco felt his blood run cold. He was still shocked that he’d had the courage to open his mouth at all. He had expected the words to die unspoken, or be strangled by his fear and shyness, and yet they came. Even so, he had almost hoped she didn’t hear him, but now he knew there was no turning back. And if he chickened now, he knew he’d regret it. Rejection seemed almost palatable by comparison. Even if Ayla turned him down, at least he’d know he tried.

And yet…

And yet, not so very long ago, he would have walked to school with Ayla in silence, his tongue petrified into uselessness, crippled by self-consciousness and the all-consuming fear of ridicule that had governed his life for so long.

And the fear was still there. He could feel it in his chest like a knot even as his words seemed to echo in his ears. In all likelihood it would always be there, but the difference was that it didn’t seem as important as it had before. It still influenced his actions and his words, but it no longer dictated them. And nor should it ever.

Ayla had shown him that. One cautious step at a time, and perhaps without even realizing it, she’d led him out of the bubble that he’d fashioned for himself—an exodus he’d begun the moment he pushed her out of the way of that Buick. Even now, he knew he had a long way to go, but for the first time Marco was actually starting to anticipate the challenge. It was strange to think that Ayla had become such a central part of his world in such a relatively short amount of time, yet Marco couldn’t imagine his life without her in it. It was as if she’d filled an empty spot in his heart that he hadn’t even known was there, and it was from that place that he’d drawn the courage to speak. As he’d opened his mouth, he had remembered each moment he’d spent with her, from that awkward first conversation in Barton’s office to video game on a lazy weekend afternoon. He had sorted through them like a chest of precious gemstones, picking them out one at a time so they could catch the light and glitter like myriad stars. Marco relived each and every one of them in his mind’s eye, and the memories were like a spark in a field of dry grass, touching off a fire in his heart that swelled into a raging conflagration. The heat from that inferno had smothered his fear like a wet blanket, unclenching his jaw and allowing the words to pour forth unhindered in a torrent that was barely even comprehensible.

This, instead of spending nerve-wracking hours trying to build up his courage, trying to coax it into a feeble flame that would blow out in the slightest gust of wind. In fact he hadn’t paused to consider how he would go about doing that at all, nor had he tried to come up with some sort of plan or strategy. Marco had simply known what he wanted to do and what he wanted to say, and it had just…happened.

It was very similar to what he’d done the day they’d met, he realized. At the time Marco hadn’t really stopped to thinkabout how he was going to get Ayla out of the way of that car, or why he was putting himself in harm’s way. He hadn’t paralyzed himself with what-ifs, and the rest had followed naturally. All he had to do now was keep that fire going long enough to say what he wanted to say.

Easier said than done, though…

Ayla was silent for a long moment. When she spoke, her voice had a ragged edge that he hadn’t ever heard before. “Um. Okay.”

Marco made himself stop walking. It was all he could to stop himself from trembling visibly. His heartbeat pounded in his ears, as loud and deafening as a thunderclap. Everything else around them seemed to stop or fade into the background. Time itself seemed to slow, and for just a moment, the world consisted only of the two of them.

“Ayla…I…Um…”

She regarded him silently, saying nothing, her expression unreadable—as though she were trying to hide what she was feeling, too.

“I like you,” he finished, in a voice barely more than whisper. He felt slightly dizzy, slightly giddy, and completely terrified. He felt an odd sensation of both relief and panic wash over him, and had to suppress an absurd, half-hysterical giggle. Oh, God. I said it. I said it.

Ayla’s jaw dropped. “Marco…”

“Not like, like as a person or a friend,” Marco continued hurriedly, then gave himself a mental kick. “I mean, I do like you as a person and as a friend, Ayla, but that wasn’t the kind of like that I meant, you know?” He ran a shaking hand through his hair. Ah, hell. Might as well go for broke. “You’re the first real friend I’ve had for a long time, other than Avery,” he went on, forcing himself to meet her gaze. “You’re…you’re amazing, Ayla. It’s been…it’s been really great being able to get to know you, but…but the more I’ve gotten to know you, the more confused I’ve become. I feel things around you that I don’t feel around anyone else. Things I haven’t ever felt before in my life. And I’ve tried not to let myself and I’ve tried to deny it and I’ve tried so hard not to let this happen, but now I know…what those feelings are and I can’t keep acting like they don’t exist anymore.” He took a deep breath and felt his cheeks burn. “Ayla, when I say that I like you, I mean that I like you as…as a girl. And I want to be more than just your friend if…if it’s okay with you.” A grimace flickered across his face. “I know you must get that a lot and I know you probably didn’t expect to hear it and if you want us to just stay friends I totally get that. I don’t want things between us to be awkward, but I…I wanted you to know how I felt because…”

Marco let out a surprised gasp, cut off in mid-sentence as Ayla reached down and grasped his hand in hers. She entwined her fingers in his own, and the touch of her skinhit him like a drug.

He so stunned by her reaction that it was several moments before he found his voice. “Uh…Ayla?”

“Yeah?” she asked quietly, with a small smile.

“You’re…holding my hand.”

“I know.”

He flushed so deeply that it felt like his head was on fire. “Does—does that mean…?”

Ayla nodded. Her grip tightened a little. “I…I was actually going to try and tell you,” she said. “But I…I was so scared, you know? I mean, you’re…you’re the first guy I’ve ever really been interested in. And I didn’t know if you, um, felt the same way.” Then her face broke in a smile. “I’m glad to hear that you do. You’re one of the sweetest, most genuine guys I’ve ever met.”

Marco felt a surge of joy so white-hot that it felt like a star had gone supernova in his chest, but all he could say was, “Oh.”

“Oh?” Ayla asked teasingly. “Is that all you have to say?”

“Well…I wasn’t sure how you’d react either,” he shrugged. “I guess…I guess I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.”

Ayla turned scarlet, but she didn’t back away. In fact, she took several steps closer, so that their noses were almost touching. “Then don’t say anything,” she whispered, and pressed her lips to his.

Kissing Ayla Stephens was the warmest, softest, most pleasurable thing Marco had ever experienced. It was like being raised to the power of infinity, and every cell of his body sang with glee. A white spark went off behind his eyes, and he deepened the kiss, holding her close to him, reveling in how soft and pliant she was. He could have stayed like that forever, but eventually he had to break off the embrace to breathe.

“…Wow,” he said after a moment. “That was…wow.

“…Yeah.” She gave him that shy smile he’d come to like so much, and he was about to pull her into another kiss when her watch beeped, causing them both to start.

Ayla looked at it and gave him an apologetic glance. “We’re going to be late if we don’t hurry up.”

Marco waved a hand. “It was worth it,” he said airily.

She laughed aloud. “Yeah. Yeah, it was. C’mon.”

They resumed walking, laughing and talking all the while, but as they neared the school, people began to point and whisper. Marco knew that they recognized them both, and more importantly, recognized what it meant for the two of them to be holding hands.

Ayla nudged him with an elbow. “People are staring,” she said with a kind of nervous giggle.

Marco looked back, and for the first time he felt entirely unafraid and unashamed. He saw Avery waiting for him in their usual spot, and there was Taylor over by the bike rack too. He flashed them all a smile, friends and onlookers alike.

“Let them,” he said, and she kissed him on the cheek.



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