Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
It’s official: a more perfect Friday will never exist.
My spring break has begun. The mural in front of me is turning out to be one of my all-time favorite creations. And, in just a few hours, I’ll be on the most magical date of my entire life. Does it get any better?
Days like today are an anomaly, I’ve learned in my sixteen years. Days like today will stay with me forever. There’s no other way to explain a day like today other than to say the universe must be delivering a hefty batch of good karma that I stored up in a previous life.
I am paying back said universe by featuring it on the storefront of Susan’s Stationery—and doing a pretty bang-up job, if I do say so myself. The mural is only about halfway done, give or take, but coming along much better than I anticipated, honestly. A bubble-gum-pink Saturn with rings of teal floating in cobalt-colored space; the perfect pick-me-up on a boring block like the one that Susan’s Stationery calls home.
Ms. Ritewood, the owner, handed over full creative control to brighten up the greige facade, which has been in desperate, decades-long need of an “aggressive facelift”—her words, not mine (although I wholeheartedly agree). City code would probably call for the crumbly storefront to be bulldozed and built from scratch, but with Ms. Ritewood’s limited budget, a high schooler with a big imagination and even bigger paint selection is the next best thing.
I jolt at Ms. Ritewood’s voice, nearly dropping my brush.
She floats from her store entrance to the middle of the sidewalk to get a better view of my progress. After a good five seconds of contemplation, she breathes, “It’s coming along wonderfully.”
Relieved, I take a few steps back and attempt to see it through her eyes. “You think so?”
The cheery store owner, barely five feet tall, stands beside me, eyes wide and arms folded across her belly. “The colors are spectacular, Blaine.”
She shakes her head in amazement, her sculpted, copper bob of hair unshakeable beneath a layer of hair spray. “The rings are mesmerizing.”
“They’re my favorite part.”
“And… wait a minute. Is Saturn…” She leans forward, peering at the personified planet, with its emerald eyes, button nose, and oversized dimples. “Is Saturn supposed to be… me?” She rotates her head to get my answer.
I bite my lower lip, nervous now that the big reveal has finally made itself known. “Yes.”
“Ah!” Ms. Ritewood lights up, arms shooting into the air. “I love it!” She goes in for a hug—
“Wait!” I jump back, showing the palms of my hands, which are covered with smudges of cobalt acrylic. “I don’t want to ruin your clothes!”
“Oh, that’s right,” she says, glancing at my raggedy white shirt, splattered with teal. “Smart move.” She turns her attention back to the wall with a grin and a sigh.
This moment—the thrill in her eyes, the hanging jaw, the pregnant pause filled with all the possibilities an aggressive facelift like this one could mean for Susan’s Stationery—is a big reason why I paint murals for local businesses around town. I also enjoy the aesthetic rewards of sprucing up my weathered corner of northwest Chicago, of course, and getting lost in my own fictional worlds of color is a form of therapy for me. But watching a business owner in real time taking in their new storefront? I’m not sure if there’s a more rewarding feeling in the world.
Ms. Ritewood looks up at me, cheeks flushed with excitement. “Was your—” But an L train zooms along on the rusted tracks above, rattling the liquid surfaces of my paint cans and blanketing our conversation in a deafening roar. Ms. Ritewood finishes her thought, but I don’t hear a word.
“Sorry,” I say with a grin. “You’ll have to repeat that.”
“I said”—she raises her voice—“was your anniversary dinner canceled?”
“No…?” I reply slowly, confused. “Why would it be?”
She glances at her phone. “Well, it’s already six o’clock, Blaine, and I thought—”
I gasp. “What?”
“Yes, dear.” She checks her phone again. “It’s 6:09, to be exact—”
“I’ve got to go!” I begin hammering on the lids of my paint and throwing items into my reliable utility cart—the four-wheeled metal wagon that I’ve been dragging around Chicago since my first mural.
The biggest dinner of my life is tonight, and I’m running behind.
“Can I help you pack up?” she asks, glancing around anxiously.
I consider requesting that she gather up my drop cloth, before reminding myself that Ms. Ritewood is a sixty-something-year-old with lower back pain, persistent carpal tunnel, and the agility of a tortoise. “I’ve got it!”
Once my cart is full and the cleanup is complete, I snag the cart handle and dash down the sidewalk for home. “I’m making good progress!” I shout over my shoulder. “I should be able to finish up in the next week or two!”
“Sounds good, Blaine,” Ms. Ritewood calls after me, eyeing my cart with concern. “But take it easy with that thing! I want you to make it to your dinner alive—and in one piece!”
I jog as fast as my tattered cart will allow, without its wheels spinning off into oncoming traffic. Although they’re the least efficient way back home, cozy side streets lined with brownstones are my preferred medium of travel, as the shade from the overhead trees breaks up the late-afternoon sunshine, and you’ll likely see more dogs being walked by their humans that way. But there’s no time for befriending strangers’ pets when you’re racing against the clock, so I veer right onto congested Milwaukee Avenue and pick up the pace, daring my aging cart to rebel.
I can’t be late tonight. Not for the date night of all date nights.
This dinner could very well be one of the highlights of my high school experience, after all, the one-year anniversary of—
“Agh!” I hear the terror in my victim’s voice before I see their face.
My guess is, someone turned the sidewalk corner a half second after I zoomed by going the perpendicular direction. And that suspicion is confirmed another half second later, when I feel something slam into the side of my cart behind me.
I turn around just in time to witness several paint cans fall over, and a human body, roughly my size, stumble toward the ground, dropping their plant. The plant pot slams into the sidewalk and shatters into a million pieces. Fresh, dark soil and shards of ceramic scatter everywhere.
“Oh no!” I yell, reaching down to help the victim up. To my horror, I realize that I know this very unlucky person. “Danny?”
Danny Nguyen ignores my outstretched hand. “Oof,” he huffs, popping up from the concrete on his own and glancing around to see if passersby witnessed our crash. “Maybe you should slow down with that thing, Blaine.”
“You’re right,” I say, lifting my paint cans back into their upright positions. Fortunately, none of the lids popped off in the crash. Acrylic crisis averted.
He sighs, eyes narrowed on me as he folds his arms against the front of his indigo puffer vest. I smile guiltily, unsure how to steer this painfully awkward interaction to a better place.
Danny falls (literally) into the category of acquaintance that makes a shameful disaster like this as bad as can be. He’s not a friend of mine—someone who could immediately laugh this off and agree to hang out soon—nor is he one of the three million strangers in this city who’d go on their way as I go mine, both of us eager to put the embarrassment behind us. Nope, Danny is smack-dab in the middle—a fellow junior at Wicker West High School who’s just vaguely aware enough of my existence to make this peak cringeworthy.
“Damn,” he says, suddenly aware of what happened to his little cactus plant thing (which I assume is now on its deathbed). “My aloe vera.”
“My aloe vera plant,” he says, bending at the knees to assess the damage. “I just bought it.”
“Five minutes ago.”
I gulp. “Oh. Dang. Well, Danny… I’m—”
“Sorry,” he sighs, irritated. “Yeah, I bet you are.”
“Really, though! I am.”
With no remaining pot for the plant to call home, Danny carefully holds it in the palms of his hands like he’s cradling a newborn chick. He looks up at me, expressionless, hoping I’ll say or do something that will help make this unbearable moment a little less nails-on-a-chalkboard terrible.
I check my phone, grimacing. It’s 6:20. I’m going to be so late. So, so late. “I’ve got to go!” I say, snagging the handle of my cart and darting off.
“Really?” he calls after me. “That’s it?”
“I’ll get you a new aloha plant, I promise!”
Welp, add “buy new al-uh-whatever plant for Danny Nguyen” to my running list of things to do, right after “finish Ms. Ritewood’s mural.” Alternatively, I could avoid him like the plague through graduation day, a year and some odd months from now, which—at a school as large as Wicker West—isn’t entirely out of the question.
I finally make it home—a boring brick town house not unlike the sea of forgettable apartments near Susan’s Stationery. (Maybe my next mural should be on my own block—a magenta Jupiter, floating in a turquoise solar system, surrounded by golden stars.) I drop the handle of my cart in front of the stone steps, race up, and blast through the front door.
My aunt Starr, standing a few feet away in her plush, lavender bathrobe, looks just as frazzled as I am. I open my mouth to explain how I lost track of time and then crashed my cart into a classmate, but—
“It doesn’t matter,” she cuts in, holding up a finger. “We’ve got fifteen minutes to make you sparkle. Let’s go.”