Publicity Stunt

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one: the invitation.

THE MAIN CUP is our university’s misleadingly named “hole-in-the-wall” coffee shop. They serve Starbucks coffee, but they don’t actually qualify as a location, which means they can only make pretty basic drinks and renders the gift cards I’ve accumulated as presents over time essentially useless. Regardless, it’s one of my favorite places to sit and get some work done.

Although it’s typically pretty empty in here, because it’s raining outside, once the next set of classes are let out, students roll through in droves, all various degrees drenched. The Dunkin Donuts on the grounds is like the Mecca of campus, but no one wants to trek it that far for a caffeine boost and shelter. The commotion of voices and squeaky shoes against hardwood are enough to distract me from the reading I’m doing, and I welcome it. I’d been losing focus anyway. There’s only so much about apoptosis that I can mentally take, and I don’t need to have the assignment finished until my lab next week.

I push the packet to the side and survey what I have, trying my hardest to avoid my phone. Instead, I pick up my pen and open up my planner. As I trail my eyes across my schedule for the day, I twist the one spiral curl I have out of my ponytail around my finger.

Physics II

Cell Biology

Immunology

Biomedical Ethics

I’m looking through each of my assignments laid out for my classes, trying to figure out what to tackle next, when two hands are suddenly thrown over my eyes.

A curse tumbles out of my mouth as I jump and jerk my elbow back. It narrowly misses whoever’s ambushed me. They laugh, and that, in combination with the scent of body wash that I know too well, is enough to give them away before they even speak.

I feel my body relax, though my heart’s still pounding.

“Guess who,” the person says close to my ear, even though I’m sure they know I’ve figured it out by now too. Their breath is warm against my skin.

“Hm, I wonder,” I say as a smile breaks across my lips.

I hear another chuckle, and then I’m given back my sight.

As I blink against the new influx of light, the perpetrator takes the seat across from me. Alex has an infectious grin on his face, as he shakes out his mop of light brown hair. He’s been telling me he’s ready to cut it, but I’ve been insisting that he doesn’t. For some reason, he listens.

I have to bite the inside of my cheek to keep myself from beaming too wide. “You got my glasses all gross,” I tell him, removing the frames from my face. I start to clean them with the bottom of my shirt, feigning irritation. “Your dirty fingerprints are all over them.”

“My fingers are clean, thank you very much,” Alex says, throwing his hands up and wiggling them around.

“Apparently not.” I hold my specs up to the light so he can see the smudges on the glass. “See. A perfect print.” I bring them back down to finish polishing. “I could probably frame you for murder.”

Alex snickers. “Wouldn’t put it past you.”

He leans forward and picks up my reading packet. As he squints at the title, he mouths it to himself, before saying, “There are so many words here.”

I put my glasses back on. “It’s basically this is how and why cells die and now we’re going to screw with them in the name of science.”

Alex raises his eyebrows and purses his lips, as if he’s actually interested in the article’s premise—which I’m sure he isn’t—and puts the packet back down where it was.

He takes a breath before asking, “What are you doing tonight?”

And there it is.

Like he actually cared about what I was doing for classwork.

I smirk and start filing through my papers, playing aloof. “It’s Thursday.”

“So. . .” Alex trails off as he gives it some thought. “Girls’ Night?”

I nod. “That’s correct.”

In my peripheral, I see him slump in his seat. “Victor’s going back home for the weekend tonight. I thought we could. . . hang out.”

My toes curl in my sneakers, and I cross my legs. Hanging out is, of course, code for something else, and despite the fact that “something else” sounds like exactly what I need for some stress relief as the semester continues to weigh on me, I know I can’t.

“You know Girls’ Nights are sacred,” I say.

Alex puts on a fake pout and leans on his hand. “But every Thursday?”

I look up at him, looking adorable as ever, and tilt my head. When I open my mouth to repsond, another voice quickly cuts in.

“What about Thursday?”

Both of us turn to find my friends and roommates, Faye and Lorelei, coming towards us. Both of them are wet from walking here from where the shuttle probably dropped them off. Lori’s flimsy coat is dotted with soaked patches, while Faye’s gleams with unabsorbed droplets. I remember her being excited for it to be raining today so she could finally show off her new designer jacket (an expensive guilt gift from her parents, who, from the sounds of how she described it, are gearing up for a divorce).

“It’s Girls’ Night,” I answer Lori.

“Yes. It. Is!” Faye sings, pumping the umbrella in her hand up and down like she’s leading a parade. Beads of water from the rain fall off of it and splatter in various places, including myself, Alex, and the person sitting at the table in front of me. I watch as they run their hands over their headphones to collect the moisture on their fingers and seem pretty disoriented as they search the ceiling to find the source.

I sigh.

Most of the time, Faye lacks understanding of social etiquette.

She catches Alex throwing his head back in agitation. “What’s your problem?”

I know he cares less about the drops that have fallen onto his jacket and more about what we’d been talking about before they got here.

Alex seems to consider something, before asking, “Can I take Kallie for the night?”

Faye looks like he’s just shot her. She scoffs. “Uh, no.”

Alex kisses his teeth. “Why not?”

I look between the two of them before furrowing my eyebrows.

Faye, like Alex, is a business student at the school, so she technically has known him a little longer than I have as they frequent many of the same classes. The two of them have an odd dynamic. I can’t tell if they’re actually friendly or just tolerating each other half the time.

Realizing what’s happening, I wave my hand in the air to cut them off. “Uh, hi. Kallie’s not someone to be bartered,” I say, before holding my head up indignantly. “I will be spending tonight with my girls.”

Lori reaches over to me for a high five. “That’s my girl.”

A look of pride washes over Faye’s face. She averts her gaze from us and back to Alex.“Yeah, so screw on your own time, Hutchings. Girls’ Nights are sacred.”

I cringe and look around to see if anyone heard her. Sure, we’re in our twenties and I’m not a “blushing virgin”, but I don’t want my escapades broadcast to the entirety of the cafe. I let out a breath and lean forward to rub my temples.

Alex rolls his eyes. “Fine, fine. I’m outvoted.” He briefly glances at the line waning at the counter, before turning to me and pointing at my empty iced coffee cup. “Do you want a refill?”

“No, I’m good,” I say, half because I don’t want him wasting money on me and half because I don’t want to get used to two coffees a day again since I’ve been budgeting myself.

Alex sees right through it and gives me a deadpan look.

“I’m good, seriously,” I continue, but after a few more seconds of him staring at me doubtfully, and the afternoon crash that had been teasing me beginning to hit, I’m too weak to resist. I shoot him an innocent grin. “Fine. Yes, please.”

Alex nods, a bit triumphant, and looks at Faye and Lori. “Do you guys want anything?”

For some reason, the fact he asked makes my heart flutter. Lori wants two chocolate chip cookies, and Faye asks for a green tea. As soon as he gets out of his seat and walks away, Faye takes advantage of the opportunity to snatch it. Lori, who’d been moving towards it too, gives her a small glare.

Faye pats her own knee. “C’mon, Tiny.”

Without hesitation, Lori happily sits down.

I can’t help but smile as I look at them. There’s always this strange feeling of exhilaration whenever they show up to be with me outside of our living quarters, which is sad when I start to think hard about it and try to ponder why that may be. I’m so used to feeling on the outs after things that had happened before I met them that it’s hard to think that people actually, voluntarily want to be around me for as long as they’re forced to be every day.

Even if Faye has terrible foot-in-mouth disease, and sometimes Lori is too nosy for her own good, I love them more than anything. If it weren’t for them, I don’t think there’s a chance I would’ve made it this far to my junior year.

“So. . .” Lori begins slyly, looking quickly over in Alex’s direction. “You two are getting couple-y.”

Her words cause a chill to go up my spine, making me giddy and slightly terrified at the same time.

I press my lips into a thin line and play it coy. “What? How?”

Lori flashes a know-it-all grin at me. “Well, I wish my friend with benefits got me coffee.”

“You don’t have a friend with benefits,” Faye says to her as she takes out her cell phone.

Lori shrugs. “Well, when I get one she or he better get me coffee.”

Faye scrunches her eyebrows. “If one of the benefits isn’t coffee, what’s the point of a friend with benefits?”

Once again, we’re approaching a conversation I don’t feel like having in public.

I lean closer to them and whisper, “Can we stop talking about friends with benefits, please?”

Both of them get to my level too, though Faye does it because Lori does and isn’t really paying attention to me. Her eyes are still glued to her screen.

“Why?” Lori whispers back. “Is that not what you are?”

“Well, yeah, it is, but—”

A scream suddenly rings through the air, effectively cutting me off—and it’s Faye.

“Oh my God!” she shrieks, causing both Lori and me to jump back. “Oh my God, oh my God!”

As stares from others in the coffee shop fall upon us, Lori sticks one of her bony fingers in her ear to clear it out. “What the hell, Faye?”

Faye doesn’t seem to care about blowing out our friend’s ear drums.

“We got seats for a taping of Bela Porter!” She throws her arms up and almost punches Lori in the head. “Do you know how long I’ve been trying to get in a taping? I love her!”

My confusion mixes with emotions of shock, fear, and excitement—just from feeding off of Faye’s energy—before what she’s saying finally starts to register for me.

Bela Porter is the host of a daytime infotainment talk show. Faye always rushes back to our apartment around lunchtime to watch her whenever she can. While Lori feeds off of any type of gossip, Faye is a fiend, specifically, for the celebrity kind, which Bela dishes out in spades.

It’s what she’s known for, yet celebrities still flock to her show like dumb sheep because she’s high profile and has great ratings. They talk, they laugh, they have a good time, but then a few weeks later, when one of her previous guests finds themselves in a minor sticky situation, most of the time one that was meant to be kept private, she has no problem exposing them and blowing it up and out of proportion.

I’m not necessarily her biggest fan.

“Okay, okay,” Lori says in an attempt mollify Faye. She doesn’t care for Bela Porter either, but she, like me, seems to be effected by our friend’s exuberance. “When is it?”

“When is it?” Faye repeats the question, as if it hadn’t dawned on her. She looks like she’s going to explode as she frantically scrolls through her phone, muttering ’when is it’s under her breath on a loop. When she finds what she’s looking for, she squeals again.

“March 29th!” She reaches across the table and grabs my arm. Her movements are so fast and wild, they’d be scary if they weren’t so amusing. “Kallie, holy shit!”

March 29th is my birthday.

“We can all go, and then have your 21st in the City,” Faye offers. “This is perfect!”

For a second, I’m impressed, and I feel my own stomach start to bubble with excitement. Even if I’m not a massive Bela Porter fan, going through Times Square with my friends sounds fun. But reality promptly smacks me in the face before I can get too far gone.

It’s going to be the end of the month.

I think of Jordan and Clara.

I clear my throat and subtlety pull myself out of Faye’s grasp. “You know, New York City’s kind of expensive,” I say warily, hating myself for being such a downer.

To my relief, Lori echoes my sentiments. “Yeah, and not all of us get the same weekly allowance you do.”

Thankfully, the two of us are in the same boat being tight for funds, but Lori more so because she doesn’t have a job. Most of the money that I earn working at the library and tutoring centers on campus goes straight to my siblings.

“We’ll strategize, and I can cover a lot because I’m bringing you guys and it’s Kallie’s birthday. I’m sure my parents won’t have any problem giving me one of the credit cards.” Her last sentence has some bite to it, and an angry look briefly crosses her face. But just as quickly, she wipes it away and clasps her hands together. “Please, please, please, we have to go.”

The corner of Lori’s lips tick upward, as if she’s already been sold on the idea. Still, she asks, “Is her guest any good?”

Faye’s eyes widen, before she looks back down at her phone. “Oh, who is the guest? Please don’t be shitty. . .” Her gaze wildly darts around her screen, searching for an answer. For what feels like the hundredth time today, she screams. “Oh my God!”

Both me and Lori wince again.

“Fuck it, sitting ain’t worth it,” Lori says and jumps up from her spot on Faye’s knee just as Alex gets back with our drinks and desserts. She plucks her cookies from his hand. “Thank you.”

Alex mutters a “you’re welcome” while eyeing Faye carefully. He puts our drinks down on the table, and when he looks at me, nods his head towards her. “What’s up?” His voice is soft, like he’s afraid to draw her attention.

“She got tickets to Bela Porter,” I explain, before stabbing my straw into my coffee. Eagerly, I begin to drink it down. The sweet bitterness is welcomed and gives me some more motivation to finish up my work. But first, I have to deal with Faye and figuring out the logistics of this supposed trip to New York.

Maybe it could work. Just no more iced coffees this month, pick up some extra hours, eat more from the dining hall, maybe ask Jordan if I can give him a little less. . .

“Jackson West!”

At the proclamation, I choke on what I’m drinking and spit some of it out over my notes. Even though I’d briefly forgotten what Faye had been looking for, the name itself is enough to make me jolt. And when it finally begins to click, I feel like I’m about to have a heart attack.

“I’m sorry?” I say, and then realize I should really be apologizing for spitting everywhere. As I started falling into a coughing fit, I feel Alex start rubbing my back. But his touch doesn’t soothe me like it should, instead it makes me more uneasy.

This can’t be real.

I had to have misheard her.

“Jackson fucking West,” Faye screams again, before twisting her phone around to show me.

I lean forward and see it for myself, right in the email in bold print, and it feels like someone’s just shot me in the stomach. My mouth falls open.

“You okay, there, Kal?” Lori muses.

Faye takes my stunned silence as a “pro” to her plan. “See, don’t you want to go now? I bet he’s even more gorgeous in person.” She gasps. “And maybe you can meet him!”

I snap my eyes towards her.

Meet him?

I never want to see him again, let alone meet him.

I’m looking at Faye like she has five heads, and I’m trying hard to ignore Lori and Alex’s concerned and confused stares. She doesn’t understand, none of them do, because they don’t know.

Before he was Jackson West—the guy frequently ranked in the “Top Hottest Men in Hollywood” and one of the “Biggest 25 Under 25”—he was just Jackson Westfield. . . or Jack, as most called him.

The obnoxiously arrogant, beautiful boy who used to walk the halls of my high school with a chip on his shoulder.

The boy who sent my world spinning from the first moment he introduced himself when we were teens.

The boy who’d caused me more trouble in the span of a year than I’d ever gotten into in my life.

The boy I had loved more than anything.

And the boy who absolutely shattered my heart.

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