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PROLOGUE

I stayed there at my locker for just a minute longer, processing what had just happened. Joey Mitchell had asked me to the homecoming dance. Joey Mitchell, age 16, junior, varsity running back, about 5'10", dark brown hair, hazel eyes, smart, funny, gorgeous and built like a brick shithouse. He asked me. ME. On my thirteenth birthday. A freshman, Aria Marie Smithson, an average-looking, red-headed, hazel-green-eyed bookworm, skipped-first-grade freak with glasses and freckles.

"RING!" went the bell, waking me out of my dream. Crap, I needed to get to 6th period, and I needed to talk to my best friend Ester Connelly before the end of the day. I slammed my locker shut and sprinted down the hall to my next class along with the other latecomers, my wavy red hair falling out of the ponytail that looked so perfect this morning..

The rest of the day seemed to drag. I didn't want to learn about more nouns in Spanish I or help Josh Pascoe dissect an iscaris worm in Biology, even though I was quite good in my classes. Well, except math, there was no hope for me there.

I boarded the #25 yellow school bus, not remembering whether or not Ester had cheerleading practice after school that day. Luckily, she plopped down on the seat next to me as I was looking out the window, wondering what a freshman wore to her first homecoming dance, especially with Joey Mitchell. "Ree! How was your day? Where were you after 5th? I waited for you by Mr. Muller's room."

"Es, you're not going to believe this one--guess who asked me to the dance?" I asked breathlessly. Not waiting for her reply, I blurted, "Joey frickin' Mitchell!"

Her mouth must've dropped right into her lap. "What a birthday present! How'd you swing that one?"

"I dunno," I shrugged. "He's a friend of my cousin Mark, and we've talked before, but he'd never shown interest. Listen, I don't want to know why he asked me, I'm just glad he did! Now I don't have to go by myself!"

"Hey!" Ester jabbed me in the ribs. "What about me, your best friend?"

"Yeah, I guess I won't be going with you now, sorry."

"That's okay, I heard from Lizzie that Art Lemmon wants to ask me."

"What's he waiting for? The dance is on Saturday, and this is Tuesday."

"I know!" Es said pouting. "If he asks, maybe we could double."

"Yeah, that would be cool." I paused, looking down at my hands in my lap, as the bus started our journey through the streets of Tulsa. I said quietly, "Listen, Es, you've gotta help me here. This is Joey Mitchell," I said, saying each syllable slowly, like I was trying to convince myself that he had actually asked me. "And you know I've never kissed a guy. He's 16, I know he'll want to kiss me. What do I do?"

"Practice," Es said matter-of-factly, and frankly, a bit louder than I would have liked. "But not on your hand, you need a real person to practice with. Joey's a junior, he's practically a man, and he'll want a girl who kisses like a woman." She quietly opened up a can of Coke; we weren't supposed to have food or drinks on the bus, but Es usually didn't obey.

"Who am I gonna find? I have a sister who's 10 and my cousin Mark, and that's just not gonna happen, even though we both know about the closet incident when I was 9."

Es spit out her Coke. "Yeah, I still can't believe he locked you guys in his mom's closet and tried to kiss you!"

"Yeah...yuk..." I trailed off, distracting myself from that awful thought by stealing a sip of Ester's coke.

Es jumped a little as the bus driver didn't miss a pothole. "Hey, aren't you babysitting at your neighbor's tonight, the Hensons?"

"The Hansons, yeah," I corrected her. She was always screwing their name up.

"Practice on the older one! What's he, 7 or 8 or 9?"

"Es!" I said, a little shocked and grossed out. "Yeah, he's almost 8, that's disgusting," I added, wrinkling up my freckled nose.

"Well, who else ya gonna practice on?" she replied in her smart-aleck voice, twisting a bit of her long black hair around her fingers.

"Uh..." I looked out the window at a couple sophmores exiting the bus. I said, addressing no one in particular, "But won't this ruin the whole 'first kiss' thing? I mean, I've been waiting for quite a while to have my first kiss, and I'm not planning on having it be on a kid 5 years younger than me."

"Nope! Practice kisses don't count, it's when you really want to get kissed by someone you like that it matters. I practiced on my brother's best friend, and I didn't count it. Don't worry, you'll still be pure for Joey!" Ester said. We pulled up to her stop, one stop away from mine. "Bye!" she said as she got up. She got to the bus door, and turned back to me. "Good luck, Ree!" She smiled and hopped off the bus, waving back at me as the bus pulled away.

A bit later was my stop, the last stop, practically in the middle of practically nowhere. I hopped off in silence, not even saying bye to the bus driver like I usually did. I walked along, softly humming a Crowded House song and looking up at the mid-October sky and the still-green leaves, until I passed by the Hansons house to get to my own. I'd passed by that sprawling brown ranch a thousand times, but this time I wanted to just pass unnoticed. I picked up the pace as I crossed in front of their yard, but someone spotted me: the hellion-in-training known as Zac Hanson. He came barrelling down the driveway on his very new, very blue tricycle. "Ree!" he squealed as he jumped off the trike and ran to me, letting it continue its roll down the driveway into the street. Luckily, we lived on a very quiet street. Zac reached up and hugged me around my waist. "Are you babysitting us tonight?" he asked in a very high-pitched voice, smiling up at me.

"Yup, I am," I said as I got down to his eye level. "I'll be over at six, okay?"

"When's that?"

"Well, it's almost four now, so you have a couple hours--"

"NO! I want you here NOW! Stay and play with me!" he begged, tugging at my right arm. I mentally reminded myself to take a Tylenol before I came back over.

At that moment, Diana, his mother, came out to my rescue. "Is he bugging you again, Aria?" she asked, still drying a dish.

I smiled at her and broke free from Zac's iron grip, surprisingly strong for an almost-three-year-old. "No, Mrs. Hanson, I'm fine. We were just talking about how much fun we're gonna have later, right?" I bent down and looked at Zac.

"I'm gonna be three next week!" Zac proclaimed, smiling at me.

I laughed. "I know Zac, you've been reminding me for the past month. And I've already got your present." He squealed, and I saw, out of the corner of my eye, Taylor, their five-year-old son who looked like a girl, and Isaac, the aforementioned almost-eight-year-old, peeking out the front door. All three boys had the same short, light blond hair and ears that stuck out just a bit too much. Taylor ran out to me with outstretched arms, with Isaac right behind him. They were both carrying papers, which I assumed were their latest homeschooling work.

"Ree, look!" Taylor said, presenting me with his latest spelling test. "Mom gave me an 'A'!"

I corrected him, "Tay, she didn't give it to you, you earned it."

"What's 'earned'?"

Ike butted in. "She means YOU did it, goofball," and pushed him playfully.

"Clarke Isaac, don't call your brother a goofball," Diana interjected from her spot in the doorway.

"That's right, Ike, to both," I commented. "Listen guys, I gotta go now, but I'll be back in a couple hours, 'kay?"

"But I haven't shown you my paper on Egypt," Ike protested.

"Ike, I'll see it when I come over later," I said nervously, my voice cracking a bit on the word "later".

Diana called over, "Oh, Aria, do you think you could get here just a bit earlier? The boys will need dinner before Walker and I leave," she said, absentmindedly rubbing her pregnant belly. "I hope this one's a girl," she muttered, observing her three rambunctious boys playing in the yard.

"I think it will be," I replied hopefully. "You're due for one, you know."

Diana laughed. "I'll see you later, Aria. Oh, and happy birthday, your present will be waiting for you when you get here. It's not every day a girl becomes a teenager."

"Oh, thanks! You didn't have to do that...so, 5:30, then?" She nodded, and I left, walking briskly through their yard to my own house.

My house was empty. My father, a marketing director, usually got home at weird hours, and my mother, a junior high music teacher, would probably be home in a half-hour. I plopped my bag down on the kitchen table and poured myself a glass of milk. I was opening my world history textbook when the phone rang. "Smithsons."

"Ree, it's Es, are you busy?"

"Naw, I was just about to work on some homework, but I can do it later at the Hansons. What's up?"

"Ah, not much," which meant to Ester that she would keep me on the phone for a half hour. "So, how did Joey ask you?"

I smiled, ready to spill the beans, since our bus ride home was pretty short unless it was snowing. I talked quickly, rambling, like I always did when I was excited or nervous. "Well, I was at my locker before 6th period, and he just came up to my locker. He said hi, I said hi, he asked me what I was doing this weekend, I said it's homecoming, silly, I'll be at the game and the dance, he said well, do you have a date, I said no, he said what about me, and I guess I said yes because he said he'd call me tomorrow night to set up plans, and he smiled at me with that wonderful smile, touched my shoulder, and left me standing at my locker, wondering what the hell just happened. I think that's what happened, it was such a whirlwind!"

Es laughed. "Oh, Ree, that's wonderful! Oh, that's my dad in the driveway, gotta go! Can I call you later at their house? I want to see how everything went!"

I got a knot in my stomach. "Es, shut up. Call me later, bye."

After about 10 minutes of homework, and competing for table space with Melody, my 7th-grade clarinet-prodigy sharp-as-a-tack sister (but she didn't get to skip first grade--ha!), my mom came home. I was so excited to tell her the news. "MOM!" I said, running into the entryway. "You will never guess what happened today!"

"Um, you turned thirteen?" she teased, her green eyes sparkling.

"Well, yeah, but even better. I got asked to homecoming by a junior, Joey Mitchell! And I just can't wear the dress I wore to the 8th-grade dance last year, I need something new! Mom, this is a real date! We need to go shopping tomorrow!"

"Alright, alright. We'll go. When are you due over at Walker & Diana's?"

"Six, but she asked me to come a bit earlier so I can feed the boys, so now it's lookin' like 5:30."

"Well, you'd better get cracking on that homework. I'll make you a sandwich in a bit."

"Do I get to go shopping, Ma?" Melody asked, attempting to make her brown eyes puppy-dog-ish.

"Maybe, Mel. How are you doing in social studies since my talk with Mr. Ashmore?"

She muttered, "Fine," gathered her homework and stomped up to her room.

"What got into her?" Mom asked.

"I don't know...she's been like this for the past few days. We both know she never has problems academically...personally, I think she likes a kid in Ashmore's class, that's maybe why she's having trouble," I whispered.

***

After dinner, games, baths, and a bit of television, I sent Taylor and Zac up to bed, made sure teeth were brushed, tucked Taylor in, read Zac a bedtime story and hoped he wouldn't wet the bed that night, the usual stuff. I'd been babysitting for the Hansons for about a year and had lived next door to them for as long as I could remember, so I was practically family.

I walked back downstairs, walking past my coat and my present from the Hansons, a small CD player boom box (my first CD player!), and a gift certificate to Sam Goody. Ike was sitting downstairs, rifling through his parents' magazines. I couldn't believe what I was about to do. Yuk. But what else could I do? It was now or never. "Ike, if you do a favor for me, I'll let you stay up an extra half hour."

He shrugged. "Sure," not looking up at me.

I knelt on the floor next to him. Here goes nothing. I said, growing more timid, "Listen, can you help me with something? I have a date for homecoming this weekend, and...well, I really need to practice...well, kissing on someone--"

"Kissing?! Mouths and tongues and stuff? Yuk!" he replied in typical 7-year-old fashion.

"Extra half hour...and ice cream, and I'll make sure your birthday present will be much cooler than Zac's," I bartered.

"And 10% of your babysitting money from tonight?"

Sheesh! "Yes, 10% of my babysitting money. But you must promise, you cannot tell anyone, and we can't talk about this ever again."

We shook hands. Not knowing what to do next, we both sat on the couch. This was the first time I really looked at him. He had short sandy-blond hair, a bit curly (I fought him to brush it all the time), he was kinda gangly and thin, with small eyes and a large mouth, and teeth that you could already tell would need braces once they grew in. We sat there just looking at each other. Isaac said impatiently, "Okay, I'm ready," and we continued to sit there. I leaned in, and bumped his nose, and it hurt. Was this supposed to be this painful?

After several awkward attempts, I finally kissed him. Just a quick peck on the lips. We tried again. And again. I didn't feel anything except weird. I asked him, "How am I doing?" He shrugged and made an unintelligible noise. I was suddenly even more embarrassed than before; I didn't want to practice anymore. I got up and said quickly, "Okay, that was it, I guess. Thanks, Ike." I couldn't look at him, especially since I could tell my already-fair skin was red with embarassment.

He just sat there on the couch, staring at nothing, with a slight smile. I sat back down next to him. "Why are you smiling?"

Ike started laughing, which got me laughing, too. I'm not sure if he was laughing a nervous or embarrassed laugh, but I certainly was. But the laughter made me forget about my embarrassment. After watching a little television (and having the promised ice cream), I sent him to bed. Not a word was said about what had just happened, but I whispered a "thanks" to him as he walked down the hall. I'm still not sure if he heard me.


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