RIKKI

Chapter One

When I was thirteen years old, I went to my first boy-girl party.

Of course grade school birthdays don’t count. This was a party without parents present, where the point of having boys there was to kiss them.

And I by God was going to kiss one.

I was the only one of my friends who hadn’t yet. Sharon was the first, all the way back in sixth grade, and for a while she was the only one. Then it was about half-and-half, and then it was just me and Melinda on the never-been-kissed list.

Now it was just me. And since we were starting high school next year, I was determined to get this milestone out of the way. So when Sharon announced that her parents were going away for the weekend and she was inviting the entire eighth-grade class to her house Saturday night, I was in.

“But you never come to my parties. You’re always studying.”

“Well, I’m coming to this one. I want to get the whole first kiss thing over with. You just have to promise me that if nothing happens by midnight you’ll play spin-the-bottle or something.”

“Your first kiss isn’t something to get over with,” Sharon admonished me, superior in her I’ve-been-doing-this-for-two-years wisdom. “It should be special.”

The only way it would be special was if Derek were the one who kissed me, and that wasn’t happening. He’d moved away a month ago, and even if he were still here, he was way too cute to even notice I was alive, much less make out with me.

“I don’t need it to be special. I just need it to happen.”

“Fine. Spin-the-bottle it is.”

But it wasn’t spin-the-bottle—it was seven minutes in heaven.

As soon as Sharon and Melinda announced this fact, I panicked. I was ready for a simple kiss—no tongue or anything, just lips on lips—but I wasn’t ready for whatever mysterious things might go on in the dark in Sharon’s mother’s closet.

I decided to sneak away and call one of my moms to come pick me up. No one would notice—there were at least fifty kids in the house.

But just as I got up from the couch Sharon grabbed my arm. “Rikki will go first,” she said, and there was the requisite “Oooooh” from everyone as Melinda brought me the blue bowl—blue for boys, of course—with all the guys’ names in it, written on little pieces of paper that had been folded and twisted up.

I couldn’t get out of it now without looking stupid, so I put a smile on my face, reached into the bowl, and grabbed a piece of paper. Then I untwisted it and unfolded it and looked at the name.

Oh, no.

When I didn’t say anything right away Sharon grabbed the paper and read the name out loud. “Sam Payne!”

It was absolutely the worst thing that could have happened. But before I could figure a way out of it, Sharon and Melinda and a dozen other girls were dragging me to the closet—and a group of boys were giving Sam the same treatment.

Once we were inside they shut the door on us. And then there we were: Sam Payne and Rikki Eisendrath, trapped in a dark closet for the next seven minutes.

Seven minutes in hell.

It wasn’t that Sam was a troll or anything like that. He wasn’t cute like Derek was, but he was decent-looking. Not ugly, not gorgeous… sort of like me.

The problem was that he was like me in another way. He was smart and intense about his grades, and the two of us had been competing against each other for the last two years. Then, just last week, the principal had announced that Sam was the valedictorian of our class while I was the salutatorian, and we’d both be making speeches at the eighth-grade graduation ceremony next month.

I hated Sam for beating me, and I hated him even more for taking very obvious pleasure in beating me.

Of course I’d taken very obvious pleasure when I’d beaten him in our last social studies debate, but still.

“I’m sure this goes without saying, but I wouldn’t kiss you if you were the last guy on earth.”

It was pitch dark in the closet, so I couldn’t see Sam’s smug, superior expression… but I knew it was there.

“Really? Wow, I’m so disappointed. I dream about kissing you every night.”

In the dark like this, unable to see him, I was more aware of his voice than I’d ever been before. Now that it had finished changing, it was actually kind of nice—deep and rich, like good chocolate.

Not that the quality of the voice insulting you really matters.

Tired of standing, I sat down cross-legged with my back against the wall. After a moment I pulled my phone out of my pocket to check the time.

“We still have six minutes to go. God, I hate this stupid game.”

I was hoping to sound worldly, like I played seven minutes in heaven so often I was bored by it. A few feet away from me I could hear Sam moving around, and when he spoke again I could tell he was sitting down, too.

“I’m sure if Derek Washington was here you wouldn’t hate it.”

I stared at him—or at the place his voice came from, anyway. “What are you talking about?”

The only people I’d told about my hopeless crush were Sharon and Melinda, and since I hadn’t gotten teased about it in school I knew they’d kept the information to themselves.

“Oh, come on. It was obvious you liked him. It just goes to show that even a smart girl can fall for an idiot.”

I felt hot all over, and for the first time I was grateful for the darkness inside the closet. I had cherished my crush on Derek like a precious secret, only telling my best friends, and I hated the idea that Sam, my nemesis, had figured it out.

“Derek’s not an idiot.”

“Are you kidding? He didn’t know who was president during the Civil War.”

I remembered the day Derek had revealed that fact and cringed. “He’s not into history,” I snapped.

“Yeah. And he wasn’t into you. Didn’t you feel pathetic after a while, staring at him across the cafeteria when you knew he’d never notice you?”

The only thing that makes a hopeless crush bearable is knowing that it’s private. I felt like Sam had snuck into my bedroom and seen my underwear. Not the new, cute pairs, but the old, ratty ones with the bits of elastic trailing out of the waistband.

“Okay, that’s it. I’m getting out of here.”

I started to scramble to my feet, but Sam’s voice stopped me. “We still have five minutes to go. What are your friends going to think if you don’t finish the game? More importantly, what are all the people you don’t even like going to think?”

I sat back down again. “Are you saying I care too much what other people think?”

He didn’t answer me directly. “Why are you even at this stupid party? You hate parties.”

“How do you know?”

“Because you never go to them.”

“You’d only know that if you did go to them.”

“So? What’s your point?”

“Why do you go to parties if you think they’re stupid?”

I’d finally managed to shut him up. In the silence that followed, I found myself wondering—why did Sam go to parties if he thought they were stupid?

I checked my phone. Four and a half minutes to go. We were almost at the halfway point, so I might as well stick it out. Maybe Sam looked down on me because of it, but I did care what people thought about me. I did want to fit in, in spite of all the teen movies and television shows that tried so hard to convince me I didn’t have to.

And to fit in tonight, at this stupid party, I’d have to stay in this closet for four more minutes.

Oh, well. If Sam stayed quiet, it might not be too bad.

The quiet lasted thirty seconds.

“So why did you come tonight?” he asked.

“What do you care? Anyway, it’s none of your business.”

“Did you think Derek was going to fly back from California to be here?”

“Will you shut up about Derek? He’s been gone for a month. I don’t even think about him anymore.”

“I’m just trying to decide who in our class is dumb enough to take his place in your heart. Is that why you came tonight? To find a new moron to worship?”

“You know, not everyone has to be smart. Some people are good at sports, or good at music, or whatever.”

“Yeah? So what was Derek good at? Other than admiring himself.”

I clenched my fists. “Will you just shut up? We only have three more minutes.”

“If you tell me why you came to this party, I will.”

“I came to be kissed.”

Total silence.

Oh, God. Maybe I hadn’t really said that. Was it possible I hadn’t actually said that?

But I knew I had.

I had to explain. “I wanted to get it out of the way before next year. So I wouldn’t have to start high school without having kissed somebody.” I took a breath. “Okay, so… I know there are, like, a million jokes you could make right now. But you said you’d shut up if I told you. So please, Sam—just freaking shut up.”

He actually did.

For the next couple of minutes we just sat there in the dark, waiting for the game to be over.

Oddly enough, while I wished I’d kept my mouth shut, I wasn’t worried that Sam would tell anyone what I’d told him. He might be a jerk but he wasn’t a gossip.

And then, finally, we were done.

“Okay, lovebirds! Time to come out!”

I scrambled to my feet and I heard Sam doing the same. But when I reached for the doorknob, something happened.

I felt his hands on my shoulders and I jumped. “What are you—”

Then he turned me around and kissed me.

On the nose.

I started to giggle and couldn’t stop. Everything was so intense and so embarrassing—seven minutes with my nemesis in a dark closet, admitting to him that I’d never been kissed, and now his hands on my shoulders and a kiss on my nose.

“Did you mean to do that? Or did you just—”

Apparently that first miss had been enough for him to recalibrate. Because when he kissed me again, it was on the mouth.

My heart slammed against my ribs. Darkness, the smell of soap, and a boy’s lips pressed against mine.

They were softer than I’d thought they would be. I felt dizzy, and I grabbed his arms to keep from falling down.

Then, behind me, I could feel the door starting to open.

I squirmed away from Sam and turned around in time to face everyone.

“Okay, who’s next?” I called out brightly.

My voice was a little too loud and I was worried about what my face showed, but I got away with it… mostly because Sharon had chosen her ex-boyfriend’s name from the bowl and everyone was laughing about that.

While Sharon and Jerry were being herded into the closet, I managed to slip out of the house and call my moms to come pick me up.

* * *

I couldn’t sleep at all that night. Whenever I was in any danger of drifting off, I’d flash back to Sam’s lips on mine and squirm around in bed like I was trying to get out of a straitjacket.

A boy’s lips. On mine.

At first all I could think about was the kiss itself. Only I thought of it in capital letters, as The Kiss.

My first kiss.

Sharon’s first kiss had been pretty disastrous. Two sets of braces had been involved, not to mention some bad breath (his, not hers). Melinda’s, which had only happened last month, had been a little better—no blood and no halitosis—but she said it was kind of disappointing. No fireworks, no magic… and this was a guy she really liked, who was her boyfriend now. She said that the kissing had gotten a lot better since that first one, but I’d gotten the idea that kisses in general, and first kisses in particular, were more awkward than thrilling.

But my first kiss had been thrilling. Which was crazy, because Melinda’s first kiss had been with a boy she liked and mine was with a boy I hated.

Well… maybe I didn’t hate him. How could I hate the boy who’d given me my first kiss?

And just like that, I was back there again.

Sam smelled really, really good. Not like cologne or anything—just a sort of clean male smell, like soap and fresh laundry.

His hands on my shoulders had been so firm, like he knew exactly what he wanted to do. Like he was going to kiss me no matter what—even if he landed on my nose first.

I squeezed my eyes shut and squirmed around on the bed some more.

Was it possible that Sam actually liked me? Or had he just had a bizarre, sudden impulse?

The feel of his lips had been… electric. It had affected my whole body. All my muscles had gone weak, and if I hadn’t been between the door and Sam’s body I might have fallen. The minute our mouths touched a bolt of lightning went down my spine and some kind of spasm happened below my belly button.

And all I had to do was think about the kiss to bring all those sensations back again. How was I ever supposed to go to sleep?

Eventually I must have, because the next thing I knew I was waking up.

It was Sunday and I spent it thinking about Monday. What would it be like to see Sam in school again? Would he be different? Nicer? Would he ask me out?

And if he did ask me out, what would I say?

No, of course. In spite of that amazing kiss, I didn’t like Sam that way. But how could I turn him down without hurting his feelings?

By Monday morning I had decided on my hypothetical answer to his hypothetical question.

Rikki, will you go out with me?

Thanks for asking, Sam, but I’m not really into dating right now.

I was proud of this answer, and considering it had taken me a whole day to come up with it, I had a right to be. It was polite and casual, and left it sort of open as to what I meant by “not into dating.” Maybe because I was focused on school; maybe because I just wasn’t ready. But it wasn’t a rejection of him personally.

Well done, Rikki.

But in spite of the fact that I was prepared, I was terrified… and in my secret heart of hearts, a little excited… to see Sam again.

I decided to get to homeroom super early so I would be in my seat first. Students usually started drifting in around 7:45, but that morning I was there at 7:30.

It was the perfect plan—except that Sam was there before me.

I stopped short in the doorway. He was reading a book and hadn’t seen me yet, and for one wild second I thought about running away. Not just from homeroom but from school, too. And maybe the town.

Maybe the state.

But then he looked up, and our eyes met.

I don’t know what Sam’s expression was like because my heart was pounding and there was this roaring in my ears and a kind of dark mist in front of my eyes. By the time I’d stopped spazzing out and had recovered a little bit, his eyes were riveted to his book again.

But as I made my way to my desk—which, unfortunately, was right in front of his—I noticed that he was breathing hard, like he’d been running.

I sat down and got out a book of my own. We spent the next fifteen minutes like that, staring at our books in total silence.

As the minutes ticked by the pressure built up inside me until I thought I was going to explode. My eyes were moving over the words on the page but I wasn’t seeing them. Was Sam actually reading? Or was he looking at me? And why didn’t he say something to me now, before everyone else got here?

Were we going to pretend Saturday night hadn’t even happened?

Apparently so. Because for the rest of that day, Sam didn’t say a word to me. He didn’t even make eye contact.

So that’s it, I thought to myself when the last bell rang at the end of the day. I headed out of the classroom with a few friends, but just as I was leaving I glanced back at Sam out of the corner of my eye.

He was sitting in his chair with a relieved look on his face, waiting for everyone to clear out.

That look made me mad. I told my friends I’d catch up with them later, waited in the hall until everyone but Sam was out of the room, and then I marched back in and over to his desk.

He was gathering his books together and stuffing them in his backpack, but when he heard me coming he looked up.

He actually looked panicked. Panicked!

I got even madder.

“Hi,” I said, and my voice didn’t sound like mine at all. It was loud and kind of aggressive.

“Hi,” he said, looking wary.

“Do you think I’m going to attack you or something?”

I still sounded mad, and he still looked wary.

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve been avoiding me all day. You won’t even look at me.”

For a moment he just sat there. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, which was frustrating. When he finally did speak he didn’t clear up the mystery.

“We don’t usually look at each other. Do we? It’s not like we’re friends or anything.”

No, we weren’t friends. But he’d kissed me on Saturday night. He’d kissed me, and he wasn’t going to say anything about it. And even though, if I’d thought about it a little, I might have realized that this was the perfect solution to my problem—since I didn’t want to go out with him, after all—it was still infuriating.

“So that’s it, huh? You’re just going to pretend it didn’t happen?”

He opened his mouth and closed it again. I thought he might say something like, “Pretend what didn’t happen?” but he wasn’t that big of a jerk.

Instead, he didn’t say anything at all.

“Fine,” I said after a moment. “If that’s the way you want it. Just be sure you stick to the plan. Don’t talk to me again, Sam. Ever.”

I started to walk out. But I was still mad—mad all the way to my toes. I stopped when I was halfway to the door, turned, and headed back.

Sam was still just sitting there.

I don’t know what got into me. Maybe I went temporarily insane. I went right up to his desk, leaned over it, and kissed him on the mouth.

“That’s what happened Saturday night,” I told him as I straightened up. “In case you really did forget.”

I turned and walked away fast. Behind me, I heard Sam scrambling to his feet.

“Rikki, wait! Wait a second! Rikki—”

But I couldn’t wait. The reality of what I’d just done was sweeping over me in a sickening rush, and there was no way I could look him in the eyes right now.

I made it to the hallway and spotted Sharon and Melinda heading for their lockers. “Hey!” I said, hurrying to catch up with them. “Wait up, you guys.”

I don’t know if Sam saw me with them and decided not to follow, or if he changed his mind when he was still in the math room. Whichever it was, I got away from him.

As it turned out, I got away for good. Apart from school-related necessities, I didn’t exchange another word with Sam Payne for the next four years.