AUNT LOUISE CAME to our trailer at dusk, bearing a huge bowl of steamed rice and a covered pot. She removed the lid and a sweet spiciness filled the living room.

“That smells delicious,” Mom said. “What is it?”

“Panang chicken.” Aunt Louise set the dishes on the table and got some plates and chopsticks. “C’mon, sweetie, let’s eat.”

Normally, I would have leapt because I loved her exotic cooking. But appetites have a way of dying when you’re wondering how the hell you’re going to get through the last three weeks of school without getting lynched. I stayed parked on the threadbare green couch. “I’m not hungry.”

“What’s the matter?” they asked in unison.

“Nothing,” I grumbled. I wasn’t about to admit the shameful truth that I was a fugitive now because someone had seen written proof I liked a boy.

“Suit yourself.” Mom dished up food and got to talking about a damn-near-midget she ran a keno ticket for. She swore up and down she saw him the next day on America’s Most Wanted.

I heard a noise outside and peeked through the living room window. Something was being dragged. I searched the shadows beneath a blazing red sky and spotted Troy lugging a pair of trash pails down his driveway. He set them on a curb underneath a streetlamp, crossed his arms, and gazed at our trailer. Oh shit, go back inside your double-wide. He didn’t and my armpits got to tingling real bad. What the hell was he going to do? I jumped off the couch when he started toward our trailer.

“I’m not here.”

I ran to the bathroom and locked myself inside without flipping on the light. I rubbed my armpits, pressed my ear to the door until my lobe hurt, and strained to hear what was going on.

Aunt Louise said I wasn’t home. I knew she wouldn’t blow my cover—she never thought the things I did were strange. I waited for the front door to close but instead I heard Mom ask if he was hungry. I couldn’t believe she was inviting him inside. Surely he’d decline. But no—I heard them all introducing themselves.

“I see you and your dad all the time,” Mom said, “but I never see your mom.”

“She’s not in our lives anymore.”

“That’s too bad, sweetie. I’ll give you some extra curry for your dad.”

“What’s your dad do?”

“He paves freeways. We move around a lot. Last place we lived was Georgia.”

“I’ve wanted to go there since the first time I saw Dukes of Hazzard.”

“You’re not missing much—unless you like bugs.”

“There you go, sweetie.”

“It smells great. You all are really nice, thanks.”

I focused on a glint of light captured in the mirror. Maybe Mom and Aunt Louise had worked a little magic out there. If he hadn’t already blabbed, maybe he’d like the food so much he’d keep his mouth shut. Maybe he’d move away before senior year started, and I’d escape being mobbed. I relaxed, changed ears, and waited for them to say good-bye.

But he said, “I need to tell you something. I found a paperback of Neil’s in the library today.”

My heart raced. How could he be so cruel?

“He’s always misplacing something,” Mom said.

“I wasn’t very nice when I gave it back to him. Will you tell him I’m sorry?”

“You can tell him yourself. Neil, stop being silly and come out of the bathroom.”

Crap, how could she? The bathroom window was too small to climb through, and I knew she’d pound if I didn’t open the door. I had no choice but to face him.

I stepped into the kitchen and crossed my arms.

“I’m sorry I threw that book at you.”

“Forget it.” I had to get him out of the trailer. “You better hurry before that stuff gets cold.”

Mom gave me a dirty look. “Let him tell you what he came to say.”

“You want to come over and watch a video tomorrow?”

Why, so you can gawk at me like I’m a circus freak? And then tell all your track buddies? “No way,” I wanted to yell. But Mom gave me her arm-twist look, and I knew if I didn’t say yes fast she’d launch into how I hadn’t had a friend in the trailer court since Rebecca Mooney moved away a hundred years ago.

“Sure.”

“Come over around one?”

I gave him a surly nod.

Soon as he was out the door, Mom wanted to know what was going on.

“Nothing.”

“Don’t tell me that.” She dished herself more rice. “Is there a girl involved?”

“No, Mom, there’s no girl.”

“Let him be, Elle.”

“I’m just checking—you know how boys are. I don’t want him running over there tomorrow and getting into a tussle.”

“Trust me, I won’t.” I went to my bedroom and flopped on the bed. What the hell did she know about being a boy? I was one and I couldn’t even figure them out. Especially not Troy. Why the hell was he inviting me to his trailer? Maybe he hadn’t read my notes and actually wanted to be my friend. But what if he had read what I’d written about him? What if he liked me too? Yeah, right. Britney, Maria, and me, how delusional! I was simply a strange boy to be observed and made fun of later with friends. No way was I going to reveal anything else he could use against me. I spent the rest of the night running through all the topics that were off limits tomorrow. No Madonna, Designing Women, Gloria Estefan, or Tootsie. I couldn’t mention that cool cheerleading championship on Channel 5 last week or Aunt Louise’s clothes and makeup either. Star Trek was probably suspect too, as well as any movies with cute actors. I finally decided I’d just keep my mouth shut and race home as soon as the video ended.

Enormous white clouds mushroomed over the valley and a rare humidity permeated the hot desert air. I resisted the urge to wear shorts and a sleeveless tee shirt, and instead broiled in jeans and a long-sleeved button-down. The last thing I wanted was Troy telling everyone at school I came over looking like a sexpot.

As I crossed the trailer court, a single raindrop hit my sweaty forehead, rolled down my sweaty nose, and dripped onto my sweaty shirt. A lightning bolt zigzagged across the southern sky, and I hoped a flash flood would strike and knock out power so I could go home early. I stopped in his driveway and tied a shoelace that had come undone, wiped my wet face with my sleeve, and waited until my Timex said exactly one o’clock.

I braced myself and knocked on his door.

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