Chapter 1: Don't Talk To Strangers
“You’re a fake and a phony and I wish I never laid eyes on you!” Olivia Newton-John’s character, Sandy Olsson, snarled on the large TV screen before tossing her red and white pom-poms furiously at John Travolta’s bad boy character, Danny Zuko.
“But you’d still do him,” Penny Lou, my best friend, remarked, looking bored and sleepy. She yawned for the hundredth time and stretched out on her stomach on the bed between me and my other best friend, Adam.
That night was my eighteenth birthday and after blowing out the candles, slicing the red velvet cake my father baked, and a few glasses of wine my mom brought from work, it was finally movie time. And since it was my birthday, I got to decide on what movie to watch.
We had seen the Grease. Several times already. But it’s John Travolta! And since it was my birthday, my two best friends in the world, Penny and Adam, didn’t dispute and watched the movie with me in my room.
“You would, Adam, right?” Penny turned to Adam.
“I would what?” Adam asked, mouth agape and downright confused at her question.
I couldn’t suppress the snicker that escaped my mouth. The question didn’t surprise me as it did Adam. Despite the fact that all three of us grew up together and had literally seen each other scratch our butts and smelled our farts, Penny and I had different opinions on Adam’s sexuality. She was pretty convinced, and with absolute certainty, that he’s gay.
But Adam’s normally messy black hair, grungy attitude, and his personal attachment to dark denim jeans and graphic t-shirts spoke nothing of him being queer. And although gifted with amazing blue-green eyes, he was usually anything but cheerful and merry.
Or perhaps I’m just uninformed?
“Do John Travolta,” Penny answered casually and turned her gaze back on the TV screen, flipping her naturally blond locks behind her shoulder.
“Ha-ha! Hilarious.” Adam’s tone hung somewhere between sarcasm and annoyance.
“Okay, enough with this foolishness. It’s time to talk about something important.” As John Travolta and his gang laughed on the screen, Penny grabbed the remote from the bedside table and hit the pause button.
Adam sat up. His eyebrows creased from indignation. “Like what?”
Penny took her last slice of my birthday cake and grinned at both me and Adam. “Well, since she’s 18 now, things gotta change.”
I got up from the bed and sat on the chair next to my study table. “I’m not a werewolf or something. Nothing’s got to change.”
Unlike many other eighteen-year-olds, I wasn’t really that ecstatic about being eighteen. I mean, along with the privilege to purchase cigarettes and alcohol, and even get married without parental consent in some states, and people start treating you like an adult -- well, sorta -- I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about.
The look on Penny’s face told me that I had to be kidding her.
“You’re a loser, you know that? First of all, you refused to have a party and invite anyone else from school. You shamelessly chose to celebrate your eighteenth birthday with us—” she pointed to Adam and herself”—your friends, your family, and John Travolta.” She pointed at the frozen screen behind her.
In my defense, I wasn’t close to that many people at school. Penny and Adam were my only real friends.
“Hey, I just wanted to celebrate this milestone with people who are genuinely dear to me.” I winked at Adam, suggesting him to back me up.
“And that’s why I love you, Wendy. You’re low maintenance.” He took the hint immediately. “Buy her a book, and she’ll be the happiest girl in the world,” he told Penny.
Penny got up from the bed and foraged for her leather flip-flops. “I just did.”
I grinned at her and grabbed the paperback copy of The View From Venus. “That’s why, right now, I’m the happiest girl in the world.”
Adam laughed. “She didn’t need the party that you wanted so much. She’s not as zealous as most people in celebrating birthdays. You don’t have to glorify the moment you got evicted from your mother’s womb. I, for one, don’t think it’s necessary.”
“How sweet... and how about those virgins you kept in your basement as sacrificial lambs for when you turn eighteen?”
“Haha! You’re so funny. Are you sure you want to be a tattoo artist and not a comedian?”
Penny rolled her eyes and sighed in annoyance. “Look, I didn’t want the party so much. I’m just saying that every teenager would have wanted a party, and would have invited interesting people—other than their best friends—and have fun. You only turn eighteen once.”
“But she can have that party at any age.”
“Where are you going?” I asked this time as soon as Penny put on her pair of flip-flops that she located under the study table.
“It’s a Friday. You have a full shift tomorrow,” I told her because telling her she should stay a little longer because it was my birthday could only backfire.
“You know how mom told me she and dad won’t spare me even a dollar for our Nepal trip. And I didn’t steal that book, you know.” She pointed at the gift in my hand. “I need to take extra shifts for some extra cash.”
Adam grimaced. “Jay asked me to tell you—”
“Tell your boyfriend—”
He frowned. “Jay’s not my boyfriend.”
Penny rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Tell him to beat his stick with Megan Jones. I’m not interested.” She walked to the door.
“I noticed that Megan’s breasts have significantly increased. Did you guys think she had done something with it over the summer?” I asked.
Silky blond hair, undeniably mesmerizing blue eyes, shapely tanned legs, and captain of Pinecrest High’s volleyball team and leader of the school’s popular group, Megan Jones was every guy’s dream girl, every guy with emerging hormones at least.
Penny whirled back around to face us. “Her boobs are as fake as her smile.” She tossed out as she grabbed the knob and opened the door. “Okay, see you on Monday, freaks.”
Adam waved as she closed the door behind her. “Why does she always insist that Jay and I have something romantic going on?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.” Of course, I did know, but I didn’t have to bother him with Penny’s silly assumptions. “Do you beat your stick with Megan Jones, too?”
I didn’t know what had gotten into me, but the question just kind of flew out of my mouth. Not that I was really interested in knowing whether my best friend thought of Megan whenever he did his guy thing. Or maybe I was . . . curious to know.
His jaw tightened. “No! Listen, shut up about Megan and her boobs already.” He fished something from the side pocket of his dark denim jeans. “Here.”
In his hand was a tiny, blue box with a tiny boy tie on top.
“What’s that?” I asked as I carefully took the box from him.
“Open it to know, silly.”
I quickly opened the box and smiled as I saw a cute blue hair tie inside.
“To keep every disobedient hair strand on your head together,” he said with a wide smile on his face.
Instead of smacking him for making fun of my unruly hair, I returned his smile. For some reason, I found the gesture cute and . . . thoughtful.
“Thanks for the reminder that I gotta make sure I keep my shit together, huh.”
He chuckled lightly and nodded. “I can’t wait for school to be over and then… off to Nepal we go.”
“Same here. But if I get accepted, then off to Chicago I go.”
He pouted. “Why don’t you just take a gap year? You could learn from a lot of those travel or volunteer programs and maybe get some inspirations for your next great project.”
“Adam, we’ve already talked about this and I’ve already talked about this with my parents.” I finger-combed my hair and tied it up in a ponytail with my new tie. “How do I look?”
“You look fabulous,” he replied, pulling a few strands sticking out in all directions.
I laughed at his mocking tone then grinned at him. “So . . . why not?”
“Why not what?” he asked, looking a bit perplexed with my question.
He scowled. “Oh, we’re still talking about her — again.”
“Come on! She’s foxy. I’m sure you feel something whenever you see her in her tight shorts and shirt, parading her sweaty body after volleyball practice. Obviously asking for attention.” By the time I have finished the sentence, I noticed how irritated I had become at the thought of Megan.
“I’m not interested in her.” Adam got up from the bed and stuffed his feet into his sneakers.
“You don’t have to actually be interested in her to think of her when you do your thing. Adam, it’s the most natural thing that every human being with a penis does.” I pushed further, hoping he’d finally cave in. We’re best friends. I wanted him to feel that he still could tell me anything like when were kids. Like telling me about his personal business was still a no big deal.
He looked at me like I was I just grew horns. “Seriously, Wednesday Elizabeth—”
“Don’t call me that.” I pouted at him.
He laughed and headed for the door. “Wendy, give it a rest, okay? Frankly, I’ve more important things to do than . . . beat my stick with Megan or any girl for that matter.” He smirked and winked at me before opening the door and leaving me with John Travolta on my TV screen.
Or any girl for that matter. His last words hang in the air for a few seconds. What if Penny’s right?
Whatever. If Adam’s gay, then great.
I hopped on my bed, hit the rewind button and stopped at the scene where Olivia first met John. They looked so very much in love with each other already. I wished someone would look at me the way John’s character looked at Olivia’s; like how my dad’s eyes lit up whenever my mom’s in the room.
Yeah, right! Keep dreaming, Wendy!
Saturday finally rolled in and our sleepy, little town bustled again with tourists browsing in the shops and locals doing their weekend shopping and lunch buffets. Mom and dad gave Belle, my younger sister, and I the liberty to do what we would like to do with our Saturdays—Sundays were strictly meant family time—and I chose to work additional extra hours at Brown’s, Pinecrest’s first-ever book store.
Adam’s grandfather built the shop and was passed on to his dad when he died of old age. We used to spend most of our Saturdays between shelves, reading Hardy Boys and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And when Adam’s dad died from a heart attack, a month after his thirteenth birthday, we started helping his mom run the store. And as we grew up, our interests began to change: he started to spend more time reading comic books while I fell in love with classic romance novels.
“Heathcliff was an asshole. He was an asshole to everyone.” Adam stood behind the shelf, removing few travel books that had somehow got mixed in the adult classic section.
“No, he’s not. He’s a tortured soul. Misunderstood and definitely not an asshole,” I disputed, standing next to him and arranging books in alphabetical order.
It wasn’t the first time that we had argued over Wuthering Heights’ devilish character, Heathcliff. The poor guy needed constant defending from people like my best friend who only saw his exterior attributes.
“He’s obsessive and violent.”
“Hindley bullied him. He was abused. Okay, he may be a monster, but blame it on the mean and nasty people around him. And Catherine saw something in him, okay.”
Adam hissed. “Excuses. He loved her but then he hurt her.”
I had enough. I never had convinced him to shed a little sympathy over Heathcliff before. There was no way he’d change his mind now. “Look, just stick to your comic books, okay?”
When his usual smirk graced his lips, and his eyes sparkled, I knew he wasn’t ready to stop annoying me with his bashing, but, before he could utter another word, a female voice interrupted us from the counter. “Hello?”
“Go. I’ll finish this,” I quickly told him.
He smirked again and pointed his finger at me. “We’re not done yet.”
I should have known better and not bring comic books into the topic. I’m pretty sure we would spend the entire day arguing now.
“Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!”
I whirled around to look for the voice that prompted my heart to beat faster than it should.
There was no one.
I turned again and, this time saw a guy, taller than Adam in a corner. He was smiling at me and in his hand was a hardbound copy of Oliver Twist.
“I like Bronte, too. Wuthering Heights is one of my favorites.”
Scruffy, short blond hair. Dark brown eyes. Athletic build. Plain white shirt and denim jeans. No. He didn’t look like he was the type to read Bronte or books in general.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop either,” he added quickly when I remained quiet and still as a tomb.
Did he just quote one of my favorite lines from Wuthering Heights out of nowhere? Who does that?
“That’s okay,” I assured him when my brain finally able to put words together again. “I’m sure you couldn’t help it. Adam and I were pretty too loud. So, you like Bronte, huh,” I said, trying to sound and look casual.
But who was I kidding? He had knocked me down a feather. I mean, it’s not every day that someone would walk in the shop and quote a line from a classic novel. The moment felt like a scene straight from a romantic movie. It felt so weird yet, without a doubt, cute.
“I used to get paid to read Bronte... and other classic novels.” The guy smiled.
Wow. Whatever his job was, I wanted it.
Cool? What the hell?!
He wasn’t exactly my age, but he didn’t look that old either. And in the small town like Pinecrest, our humble bookshop had been frequented by tourists from all walks of life, but never an adult who looked like someone from an H&M catalog.
“I’m new in town. I arrived two days ago, and the first thing that got my interest was this store. I heard that this is the oldest bookstore in Pinecrest.”
He got that right! Because being the first-ever bookstore that was built automatically made Brown’s the oldest, although it was only built some thirty years ago. Built with traditional bricks and wood, shelves of hardcover books, it even appeared on the town’s postcard which Adam detested for over a month during its first print-run. To him, Brown’s was more than just Pinecrest’s gem to charm tourists, it was his family’s bread and butter.
“Welcome to Pinecrest then. I hope you’re enjoying your stay.” First of all, I had never welcomed tourists with such zest before. In fact, I never really welcomed them. I just asked them the particular book they’re looking for and get their money without even saying anything after.
“I am actually. Nice, unspoiled town.”
I smiled at the guy which he promptly returned. I didn’t know how long I stood there with the silly smile on my face, but as soon as I heard Adam’s fake cough, I quickly looked away to hide my blushing cheeks while every corner of my body started to sweat.
Sadly, I sweat quickly whenever I feel awkward, confused, excited, and nervous. And that very moment, I was all of the aforementioned.
And before I could drown myself in the pool of my own sweat, something rang and the guy hurriedly dug something from the front pocket of his jeans.
“Hello, Mrs. Norris . . .Yes, she came to my house this morning . . .” He laughed, glanced at me, put Oliver Twist back on the shelf, and then left the store without saying another word.
Just like that.
I let out a deep breath and leaned on the shelf for support, discreetly so as not to spark Adam’s curiosity. The last thing I needed was for him to tease me for the rest of the day about it. I didn’t like being teased. It felt so childish and immature.
“Who was that guy?” he asked.
I shrugged. “You know every single person in my life, Adam.”
“Didn’t your parents tell you not to talk to strangers? He could be Dexter for all you know.” He looked slightly pissed.
I shook my head. “That’s highly unlikely. He’s just probably a tourist. Just a friendly, nice tourist. Okay?”
“Most serial killers are friendly and nice.” He sounded overprotective and slowly becoming annoying now.
“What would you have me do?” I volleyed back. “Not say anything and walk out on him like a tongue-tied idiot?”
“Maybe?” And with that he stormed back to the counter, leaving me even more annoyed. I didn’t want him to catch me blushing, but I certainly didn’t want him to be hypercritical of everything I did or would do in my life. I was a few months older than him. He shouldn’t be treating me like I didn’t know any better.
I hissed and continued arranging the books on the shelves. Whatever.
Pinecrest High looked like any small-town school that offered the same kind of quality education like any school. And like every small-town school, it provided its student a beautiful green lawn where kids could hang out before and after school — and a huge vintage clock above the main entrance of the three-story red brick building.
I loved that clock. When I was a kid, I used to think that it would secretly allow people to time-travel. It did take me to scary castles and let me meet a handsome prince trapped in a tower on top of a really dark and thick cloud. My imagination did use to run wild with no limits.
I made my way across, ignoring half of the soccer team spilling over the lawn, flirting with half of the girls ’volleyball team, and the couple kissing under a nearby tree. Out in the corner of my eye, Megan Jones running her fingers through Mason’s hair, our school’s soccer team captain, like the rest of the world didn’t exist.
I wonder whether they’d still be together after graduation.
Shoulders down, I climbed the wide steps up to the main door and suddenly wished it was Saturday again. I was already tired just by thinking about the long day ahead of me.
Just like any normal school day, I went about my daily routine: met with Penny and Adam, went to our classes, met them at lunch, and then walk with Penny to Creative Writing. We were still in the middle of the first semester, but my mind was already screaming for the holiday vacation to come sooner.
Penny and I watched Brinson, our school’s unofficial clown, goof around at the front of the classroom with a book on his head while we waited for Ms. Miles. When Brinson’s antics no longer entertained us, I grabbed the book Penny got me while she started doodling on her notebook, working on some new tattoo designs for future use, maybe.
Halfway through chapter two of The View From Venus and more kids streamed in, taking empty seats around us as the final bell rang.
I loved Creative Writing and had deliberately chosen the second-row seats to avoid any distractions. Since it was my last year, I had finally taken all the little courage I had in my system and decided to join Melissa behind the curtain in our annual play and submit an original play I wrote to Ms. Miles.
Adam used to tell me my story was more ingenious than the ones Melissa had written. Although I know that he was, of course, only trying to feed my ego and self-esteem because Melissa’s plays had garnered standing ovations for the last three years, and if there was someone at Pinecrest High to succeed in Hollywood, it would most likely be her.
“I can’t wait to talk to Ms. Miles about the play.” I put I told Penny who looked bluntly uninterested.
She yawned and looked at me with her tired face. “Don’t get your hopes high. She’s not coming in today.”
“What do you mean? Did something happen to her?” Ms. Miles was one of my favorite teachers, and I didn’t know that she wasn’t coming.
What’s wrong with me?
“She’s on ‘indefinite leave.’” She air-quoted and yawned again and tossed her doodle notebook into her bag on the floor.
But before I could even ask her further questions, I was struck dumb and my jaw dropped when Mr. Plain-white-shirt-and-denim-jeans walked through the classroom door.
Yes, way! He’s actually here—the good-looking stranger that showed up at Brown’s on Saturday. I shut my eyes and opened them again. No. He was still there, in slim-fit denim jeans, blue cashmere V-neck sweater over a shirt-and-tie combo this time. Again, looking like a cut-out from a men’s catalog.
What on earth is going on?
I looked around and noticed that every single pair of eyes was already on him as he headed towards the desk, and quietly put his brown messenger bag down on it.
“Hello, class. My name is Benjamin Scott, and I’ll be handling this class until Ms. Miles comes back from her leave,” The stranger, or Benjamin Scott rather, told the class with the same voice that had quoted Bronte, only this time, there was nothing sexy about it.
He sounded like . . . a teacher.
“Welcome to Pinecrest High, Mr. Scott.” Megan Jones didn’t waste any second and flirted with him almost immediately. The rest of her cronies followed and giggled loudly.
“Good lord. I guess everyone will be paying attention now,” I heard Penny said dryly from under her breath.
And she was right.