"No," I said. "It's just—"
"Because I am. Everyone wanted me to be their mother in group."
I just looked at him. "I just… It's weird."
"No, it's hard. But not impossible. Just try it."
A week earlier, I hadn't even known what color his eyes were. Now, we were family. At least temporarily. I took in a breath.
"Okay," I said. "So—"
"Mom," he said.
"The more accurate the exercise, the more effective it is," he explained. "Go all out, or don't go at all."
"Okay," I said again. "Mom."
This is so weird, I thought. Out loud, I said, "The thing is, I know that the modeling thing is really important to—"
He held up a hand in the stop position. "R and R. Rephrase and Redirect that."
"Thing. Like I said, major placeholder, super vague. In confrontations, you have to be as specific as possible, to avoid misunderstandings." He leaned a little closer to me. "Look, I know it's weird," he said. "But it works. I promise."
This was little comfort, though, as I proceeded to cross over from simply uncomfortable to borderline humiliated. "I know my modeling is very important to you," I said, "and that you really enjoy it."
Owen nodded, gesturing for me to go on.
"But to be honest…" I reached up, tucking a piece of hair behind my ear. "It's just that lately, I've been thinking about it a lot, and I feel like…"
The thing was, I knew this was just a game. Practice, not real. But even so, I felt something seizing up in me, like an engine sputtering to a stop. I had too much at stake here— failing would not only reveal my weakness about confrontation, but embarrass me in front of him, as well.
He was still waiting.
"I can't do it," I said, and looked away.
"You so had it, though!" he said, slapping the wall with the palm of his hand. "You were right there."
"I'm sorry," I said, picking up my sandwich again. My voice sounded tight as I said, "I just… I can't."
He looked at me for a moment. Then he shrugged. "All right," he said. "No big deal."
We sat there, both of us silent for a second. I had no idea what had just happened, but it did feel like a big deal, suddenly. Then I heard Owen take in a breath.
"Look," he said, "I'm just going to say this: It's got to suck, you know? Keeping something like that in. Walking around every day having so much you want to say, but not doing it. It's gotta make you really mad. Right?"
I knew he was talking about modeling. But hearing this, I thought of something else, the thing I could never admit, the biggest secret of all. The one I could never tell, because if the tiniest bit of light was shed upon it, I'd never be able to shut it away again.
"I should go," I said, stuffing my sandwich back into the bag. "I… I have to talk to my English teacher about this project I'm supposed to be doing."
"Oh," he said. I could feel him watching me, and made a conscious effort not to look back. "Sure."
I stood up, grabbing my bag. "I'll, um, see you later."
"Right." He picked up his iPod. "See you around."
I nodded, and then, somehow, I was walking away, leaving him behind. I waited until I was at the main doors to look back.
He was just sitting there, head ducked down, listening to his music like nothing had happened at all. I had a flash of my first impression of him—that he was dangerous, a threat. I knew now he wasn't, at least not in the ways I'd thought then. But there was something frightening about Owen Armstrong: he was honest and expected the same from everyone else. And that scared me to death.
When I first walked away from Owen, I felt relieved. But it didn't last.
The real truth, I realized as the day wore on, was that even though I hardly knew Owen, I'd actually been more honest with him than anyone else in a long time. He knew about what had happened between me and Sophie, about Whitney's illness, and that I hated modeling. This seemed like an awful lot to reveal to someone who, in the end, I couldn't even risk being friends with. But I didn't know it for sure until I saw Clarke.
It was after seventh period, in the hallway, and she was opening her locker. Her hair was in two spriggy pigtails, and she had on jeans, a black shirt, and shiny Mary Janes. As I watched, a girl I didn't know passed behind her, saying her name, and Clarke turned, smiling, and said hello back to her. It was all totally normal, just another moment in another day, but something in it struck me, and I found myself going back, back, all the way to that night down by the pool. Another time I'd been afraid of conflict, afraid to be honest, afraid even to speak. I'd lost a friend then, too. The best friend, really, I'd ever had.
It was too late to try and alter what had happened between me and Clarke, but there might still be time to change something else. Maybe even me. So I went to look for Owen.
In a school of over two thousand students, it was easy to lose yourself, not to mention someone else. But Owen definitely stood out in a crowd, so when I couldn't find him or the
Land Cruiser, I figured I'd missed him. When I got into my car and pulled out onto the main road, though, I spotted him. He was on foot, walking down the center of the median, his backpack over one shoulder, earphones on.
It wasn't until I was right up to him that it occurred to me this might be a mistake. But you get only so many do-overs in this life, so many chances to, if not change your past, alter your future. So I slowed down and lowered my window.
"Hey," I called out, but he didn't hear me. "Owen!" Still no response. I moved my hand to the center of my steering wheel and pushed down, hard, on the horn. Finally, he turned his head.
"Hey," he said as someone behind me beeped angrily before whizzing past. "What's up?"
"What happened to your car?" I asked him.
He stopped walking, then reached up, pulling the earphone out of his left ear. "Transportation issues," he said.
This is it, I told myself. Say something. Anything. Just spit it out.
"Story of my life," I told him, then reached over, pushing open my passenger door. "Get in."
The first thing that Owen did when he got in my car was bump his head on what I hadn't realized—until that particular moment anyway—was a pretty low ceiling. "Oof," he said, reaching up to rub his forehead just as one of his knees whacked the dashboard. "Man. This is a small car."