FAMOUS PHOTOGRAPHS WALLPAPERED MR. OAKLEY’S journalism classroom. Behind his desk, Martin Luther King Jr. waved to thousands who’d crowded the National Mall to hear his “I Have a Dream” speech, with the Washington Monument towering in the distance. Over by the windows, a lone man stood defiant in front of four Chinese tanks in protest of the Tiananmen Square massacre. On the wall directly above my computer screen, a World War II sailor impulsively kissed a nurse in Times Square on the day Japan surrendered.
Mr. Oakley had told us a picture was worth a thousand words, and these posters were his proof. He was right. Descriptions in my history textbook read like old news, but these photos made me want to stand up for people, like Dr. King did, and protest injustice, like Tank Man did.
And be swept away by romance, like that nurse.
My gaze fell from the poster to my computer display, which was full of my pictures of Brody Larson. A few weeks ago, on the first day of school, our senior class had elected the Superlatives—like Most Academic, Most Courteous, and Least Likely to Leave the Tampa/St. Petersburg Metropolitan Area. Brody and I had been voted Perfect Couple That Never Was. Brody had dated Grace Swearingen the whole summer, and I’d been with the yearbook editor, Kennedy Glass, for a little over a month. Being named part of a perfect couple when Brody and I were dating other people was embarrassing. Disorienting. Anything but perfect.
And me being named one half of a perfect couple with Brody made as much sense as predicting snow for Labor Day next Monday in our beachside town. He was the popular, impulsive quarterback for our football team. Sure, through twelve years of school, I’d liked him. He was friendly and so handsome. He also scared the hell out of me. I couldn’t date someone who’d nearly lost his license speeding, was forever in the principal’s office for playing pranks, and had a daily drama with one girl or another on a long list of exes. And he would never fall for law-abiding, curfew-obeying, glasses-wearing me.
So I hadn’t gone after him as my friend Tia had urged me to.
I only found excuses to snap photos of him for the yearbook. For the football section, I’d taken a shot of him at practice in his helmet and pads. Exasperated with his teammates, he’d held up his hands like he needed help from heaven.
For the candid section, I planned to use a picture from my friend Kaye’s party last Saturday. Brody grinned devilishly as he leaned into his truck cab to grab something. I’d cropped out the beer.
For the full-color opening page, I’d taken a close-up of him yesterday in study hall. His brown hair fell long across his forehead. He wore a green T-shirt that made his green eyes seem to glow. Girls all over school would thank me for this when they received their yearbooks next May. In fact, Brody had implied as much when I snapped the picture. He made me promise I wouldn’t sell it to “a porn site for ladies,” which was why he was smiling.
In short, he was the sailor in the poster: the kind of guy to come home from overseas, celebrate the end of the war in Times Square, and sweep a strange girl off her feet.
I only wished I was that girl.
“Harper, you’ve been staring at Brody for a quarter of an hour.” Kennedy rolled his chair down the row of computers to knock against mine. I spun for a few feet before I caught the desktop and stopped myself.
“You’re not taking that Perfect Couple vote seriously, are you?” he asked. “I’ll bet a lot of people decided to prank you.”
“Of course I’m not taking it seriously,” I said, and should have left it there. I couldn’t. “Why do you think we’re so mismatched? Because he’s popular and I’m not?”
“Because he’s a local celebrity and I’m not?”
“No, because he broke his leg in sixth grade, trying to jump a palmetto grove in his go-cart.”
“I see your point.”
“Besides, we’re the perfect couple.”
Right. I smiled. And I waited for him to put his arm around me, backing up his words with a touch. But our relationship had never been very physical. I expected a caress now because that’s what I imagined Brody would do in this situation. I was hopeless.
I said brightly, “If I was staring at Brody, I was zoning out.” I nodded to the Times Square poster. “I get lost in that image sometimes.”
Kennedy squinted at the kiss. “Why? That picture is hackneyed. You can buy it anywhere. It’s on coffee mugs and shower curtains. It’s as common in the dentist’s office as a fake Monet or a print of dogs playing poker.”
Yes, because people loved it—for a reason. I didn’t voice my opinion, though. I was just relieved I’d distracted Kennedy from my lame obsession with Brody.
When Kennedy had bumped my chair, he’d stopped himself squarely in front of my computer. Now he closed my screen without asking. I’d saved my changes to Brody’s photos, but what if I hadn’t before he closed them? The idea of losing my digital touch-ups made me cringe. I took a deep breath through my nose, calming myself, as he scrolled through the list of his own files, looking for the one he wanted. I was tense for no good reason.
I’d known Kennedy forever from school. We’d talked a little last spring when Mr. Oakley selected him as the new editor for the yearbook and I won the photographer position. Back then, I’d been sort-of dating my friend Noah Allen, which made me technically off limits. Kennedy was a tall guy who looked older than seventeen because of his long, blond ponytail and darker goatee, his T-shirts for punk bands and indie films I’d never heard of, and his pierced eyebrow.
Sawyer De Luca, who’d been elected Most Likely to Go to Jail, had taunted Kennedy mercilessly about the eyebrow piercing. But Sawyer taunted everyone about everything. I’d had enough trouble screwing up the courage to get my ears
pierced a few years ago. I admired Kennedy’s edgy bravery. I’d thought it put him out of my league.
We hadn’t dated until five weeks ago, when we ran into each other at a film festival in downtown Tampa that we’d both attended alone. That’s when we realized we were perfect for each other. I honestly still believed that.
I crushed on Brody only because of the Perfect Couple title, like a sixth grader who heard a boy was interested and suddenly became interested herself. Except, as a senior, I was supposed to be above this sort of thing. Plus, Brody wasn’t interested. Our class thought he should be, but Brody wasn’t known for doing what he was told.
“Here it is.” Kennedy opened his design for one of the Superlatives pages, with BIGGEST FLIRTS printed at the top.
“Oooh, I like it,” I said, even though I didn’t like it at all.
One of my jobs was to photograph all the Superlatives winners for the yearbook. The Biggest Flirts picture of my friend Tia and her boyfriend, Will, was a great shot. I would include it in my portfolio for admission to college art departments. I’d managed to capture a mixture of playfulness and shock on their faces as they stepped close together for a kiss.
Kennedy had taken away the impact by setting the photo at a thirty-degree angle.
“I have the urge to straighten it,” I admitted, tilting my head. This hurt my neck.
“All the design manuals and websites suggest angling some photos for variety,” he said. “Not every picture in the yearbook can be straight up and down. Think outside the box.”
I nodded thoughtfully, hiding how much his words hurt. I did think outside the box, and all my projects were about visual design. I sewed my own dresses, picking funky materials and making sure the bodices fit just right. The trouble I went to blew a lot of people’s minds, but sewing hadn’t been difficult once I’d mastered the old machine I’d inherited from Grandmom. To go with my outfit of the day, I chose from my three pairs of retro eyeglasses. The frames were worth the investment since I always wore them, ever since I got a prescription in middle school. They made me look less plain. If it hadn’t been for my glasses and the way I dressed, everyone would have forgotten I was there.
As it was, my outside-the-box look and the creative photos I’d been taking for the yearbook made me memorable. That’s why Kennedy had been drawn to me, just as I’d been intrigued by his eyebrow piercing and his philosophy of cinematography. At least, that’s what I’d thought.
I wanted to tell him, If this design is so great, tilt the photos of the chess club thirty degrees, not my photos of the Superlatives.
Instead I said carefully, “This layout looks a little dated. It reminds me of a yearbook from the nineties, with fake paint splatters across the pages.”
“I don’t think so.” Turning back to the screen, he moved the cursor to save and communicated how deeply I’d offended him with a hard click on the mouse.
I kept smiling, but my stomach twisted. Kennedy would give me the silent treatment if I didn’t find a way to defuse this fight between now and the end of journalism class. Tonight was the first football game of the season, and I’d be busy snapping shots of our team. I was the only student with a press pass that would get me onto the sidelines. Kennedy would likely be in the stands with my other sort-of ex-boyfriend, Quinn Townsend, and our friends from journalism class. They’d all be telling erudite jokes under their breath that made fun of the football team, the entire game of football, and spectator sports in general. After the game, though, Kennedy and I would both meet our friends at the Crab Lab grill. And he would act like we weren’t even together.
“It’s just the way the picture is tilted,” I ventured. “The rest of it is cool—the background and the font.”
In answer, he opened the next page, labeled MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED. I hadn’t yet taken the photo of my friend Kaye and her boyfriend, Aidan, but Kennedy already had a place
for it. He selected the empty space and tilted that, too, telling me, So there.
“When are you going to turn in the rest of these photos?” he asked me. “The deadline to send this section to the printer is two weeks from today.”
“Yeah,” I said doubtfully. “It’s been harder than I thought. I mean, taking the pictures isn’t hard,” I clarified quickly, before he reassigned some of my responsibilities. “It’s tricky to get out of class. We’ve had so many tests. And convincing some of our classmates to show up at a scheduled time is like herding cats.”
“Harper!” he exclaimed. “This is important. You have to get organized.”
I opened my lips, but nothing came out. I was stunned. I prided myself on my organizational skills. Kennedy should have seen the schedule on my laptop. My arrangements for these photo shoots were difficult but, in the end, impeccable. If the people who were supposed to pose for my pictures didn’t meet me, how was that my fault? I couldn’t drag them out of physics class by the ears.
“I need these shots on a rolling basis so I can design the pages,” Kennedy said. “You can’t throw them all at me on the last day. If you make us miss the deadline, the class might not get our yearbooks before graduation. Then the yearbooks
would be mailed to us and we wouldn’t get to sign them.”
My cheeks flamed hot. What had seemed like a fun project at first had quickly turned into a burden. I’d been trying to schedule these appointments during school, around my classes. At home, I selected the best photos and touched them up on my computer. But I also had other responsibilities. I’d signed on to photograph a 5K race at the town’s Labor Day festival next Monday. And of course I had to help Mom. She ran a bed and breakfast. I was required to contribute to the breakfast end of it. I didn’t see how I could produce these finished pictures for Kennedy any faster.
“Is everything okay here?” Mr. Oakley had walked up behind Kennedy.
“Of course,” Kennedy said. From his position, Mr. Oakley couldn’t see Kennedy narrow his eyes, warning me not to complain. Mr. Oakley had said at the beginning of school that he wanted the yearbook to run like a business, meaning we students reported to each other like employees to bosses, rather than crying to him about every minor problem. That meant Kennedy had a lot more power than a yearbook editor at a school where the advisor made the decisions.
For better or for worse.
Mr. Oakley looked straight at me. “Can you work this out yourselves?”
“Yes, sir.” My voice was drowned out by the bell ending the period.
As Mr. Oakley moved away and students gathered their books, Kennedy rolled his chair closer to mine and said in my ear, “Don’t raise your voice to me.”
Raise my voice? He was the one who’d raised his voice and caught Mr. Oakley’s attention.
The bell went silent.
Kennedy straightened. In his normal tone he said, “Tell Ms. Patel I’ll miss most of study hall. I’m going to stay here and get a head start on the other Superlatives pages, now that I know we’re in trouble.”
“Okay.” The argument hadn’t ended like I’d wanted, but at least he didn’t seem angry anymore.
I retrieved my book bag and smiled when I saw Quinn waiting for me just inside the doorway. His big grin made his dyed-black Goth hair and the metal stud jutting from his bottom lip look less threatening. Most people in school didn’t know what I knew: that Quinn was a sweetheart. We wound our way through the crowded halls toward Ms. Patel’s classroom.
“I overheard your talk with Kennedy,” Quinn said.
“Did you see his designs?” I asked. “I understand why he’d want to angle some photos for variety if the pictures themselves were boring. Mine aren’t.”
“He’ll change his mind when he sees the rest of your masterpieces,” Quinn assured me. “Speaking of the Superlatives, Noah said Brody’s been talking about you.”
I suspected where this was going. Noah and I hadn’t been as tight this school year, since I’d started dating Kennedy. In fact, if I hadn’t checked Noah’s calculus homework every day in study hall, we might not have talked at all. But last spring when we’d gone out, he’d told me what great friends he and Brody were. Brody’s dad had been their first football coach for the rec league in third grade. They’d played side by side ever since. Now Noah’s position on the team was right guard. His responsibility was to protect Brody from getting sacked before he could throw the ball. Friends that close definitely shared their opinions of the girl one of them had been teamed with as Perfect Couple.
Brody must have told Noah it was ridiculous that he and I had been paired. He would never dream of wasting his time with a nerd like me. I should have told Quinn that whatever it was, I didn’t want to know. And still I heard myself asking, “What did Brody say about me?”
“Yesterday in football practice,” Quinn said, “Brody told
the team that you two aren’t the Perfect Couple. You’re the Perfect Coupling. And then he expressed admiration for your ass.”
“Oooh.” I was thrilled at the idea of Brody noticing my body and wishing he could have sex with me. But I quickly realized I was supposed to feel insulted. I turned that “Oooh” into a more appropriate “Ewww. He shouldn’t kid around like that. Somebody’s bound to tell Kennedy.”
“Yeah, but . . .” Quinn looked askance at me. “Do you care, after the way Kennedy treated you just now? Why don’t you stand up to him?”
“Kennedy has a point,” I explained. “He needs my pictures for the Superlatives. If I miss a deadline and make him miss his, it doesn’t matter why. An excuse won’t fix it. And he doesn’t want me to argue with him in class, because it looks bad to Mr. Oakley.”
We’d reached Ms. Patel’s doorway and stopped outside to finish our talk. Sawyer was in our study hall. Sawyer and private conversations didn’t mix.
Quinn put one hand on my shoulder, something Kennedy rarely did. “I’ve worried long enough about keeping up appearances. I’m done with that today.”
I nodded. Quinn was making a big announcement at the end of the period.
“Come with me,” he said. “Come into the light. Stop worrying about how things look.”
I frowned. “We’re not in the same situation, Quinn. And how things look—that’s everything I care about.”
“You’ll be sorry.” He spun on the heel of his combat boot and disappeared into the classroom.
Perplexed, I turned to frown at the end of the slowly emptying hall. My senior year was supposed to be the time of my life. Two weeks in, all I felt was anxious about my photo assignment. And thrilled that a random hot guy, who would never ask me out, had made a joke about hooking up with me.
Tia leaned against the lockers outside Mr. Frank’s room next door. Will propped his forearm above her and leaned down to say something with a grin. She laughed. I was glad they’d gotten together earlier this week. Will had just moved here from Minnesota. After a rocky start, he seemed to be adjusting better. And Tia, a comedian, finally was genuinely happy.
She noticed me watching them and must have read the expression on my face. She stuck out her bottom lip in sympathy.
I shook my head—nothing was wrong—and dove into Ms. Patel’s room.
“Hey, girlfriend.” Brody grinned at me as I walked toward him between two rows of desks. His green eyes were bright, but the shadows underneath were visible despite his deep tan. He’d always had the circles under his eyes. When we were in kindergarten, Mom had wondered aloud whether he was getting enough sleep. In middle school, guys had teased him about being a drug addict. Now the shadows seemed like a part of him, permanent evidence of his rough-and-tumble life—and love life. He held up one fist toward me.
I fist-bumped him. “Hey, boyfriend.” The way we’d reacted to our Superlatives title underscored how different we were, and how imperfect a couple we would have made. I never could have admitted this even to Tia or Kaye, but I’d puzzled endlessly over what our classmates saw in us that led them to think we’d be good together.
In contrast, Brody called me his girlfriend and teased me. The “Hey, girlfriend” and the fist bump had been going on for the full two weeks of school. Every time we did it, I was afraid someone would mention it to Kennedy. He would pick a fight with me because I looked like I was flirting behind his back.
Brody didn’t seem concerned that someone would mention it to his girlfriend, Grace. The idea of me threatening their relationship was that far-fetched. Although—and
this thought had kept me awake some nights—Brody never called me his girlfriend and fist-bumped me when Grace and Kennedy were around. He did it only in moments like this, a period without Grace, with Kennedy missing. Aside from twenty other students and Ms. Patel, we were alone here.
And if Brody had progressed to telling my ex-boyfriend, Noah, what he’d like to do with me when we were really alone, he was getting too close for comfort.
After dumping my book bag beside my desk, I asked Brody quietly, “May I talk with you?” I nodded toward the back of the classroom.
His eyebrows rose like he knew he was in trouble—but just for a moment. “Sure.” He jumped up with a jerk that made the legs of his desk screech across the floor. Four people in the next row squealed and slapped their hands over their ears.
He followed me to the open space behind the desks, next to the cabinets. In the sunlight streaming through the window, I noticed his slightly swollen bottom lip and a faintly purple bruise on his jaw. He must have been hit in the mouth by another football player—or punched by an irate girl. Leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, he was back to looking as flaked out and heroin-chic as usual. I almost laughed, because he was so handsome and he’d said something
so stupid to get himself in hot water—except that the person he’d said it about was me.
“I heard you were talking about me in football,” I began.
He gaped at me. I couldn’t tell whether he was horrified that I’d found out, or fake-horrified. He didn’t say anything, though. He eyed me uneasily.
“What if Grace hears?” I asked.
He gave the smallest shrug as he continued to watch me, like he hadn’t considered the possibility and couldn’t be bothered to care very much.
Well, here was something I cared about. “What if Kennedy hears?”
This time I got the reaction I’d been dying for, though I would never admit it. Brody narrowed his eyes at me, jealous of Kennedy, frustrated that he couldn’t have me for himself.
Of course, I could have been interpreting his expression all wrong. But in that moment, the rest of the noisy classroom seemed to fall away. Only Brody and I were left, sharing a vibe, exchanging a message. His green eyes seemed to sear me. He was gazing at me exactly the way I felt about him.