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Speed Dating, Page 2

Natalie Standiford

  He and Lina were sharing a bag of Raisinets in the office of The Seer, the school newspaper. They were both sports reporters, finishing up their stories before classes began for the day. Walker dipped his long brown fingers into the bag, tossed a Raisinet into the air, and caught it in his mouth. He was lanky and handsome, his black hair poking off his head in short, stiff spikes.

  Lina, medium-tall, slim, and athletic, had straight, shiny black hair and a pretty oval face. “How could anyone figure it out?” she said. “I changed our names. Maybe I should have said you have sisters instead of brothers, to throw people off a little. But, still—I don’t think anyone will guess.”

  “It’s just a little embarrassing,” Walker said. “All that neck-licking and all. It’s personal.”

  “I don’t mean to make it so personal,” Lina said. “I’m just trying to write about the state of mind of everyone at school. You know, the zeitgeist. I’m thinking of submitting these columns for the Crier’s summer internship.” The Carlton Bay Crier was a local newspaper. “They only take one high school student a year, so it’s pretty competitive. But I think I can show how well I can write and cover student concerns if I publish a regular column on the Dating Game.”

  “Why don’t you just use your clips from the school paper?” Walker asked.

  “Sports? Badminton Smackdown? I don’t know. Somehow it doesn’t seem substantial enough.”

  “And describing our dates is?”

  “That’s not all I’m going to write about,” Lina said. “You’ll see. Anyway, Autumn is applying for the internship too, and she’s using her blog for clips.” Autumn Nelson was a fellow tenth grader whose blog, Nuclear Autumn, was a school must-read. “I’m afraid my sports stories will seem bland next to her, um, colorful self-expression.”

  “You mean, totally self-indulgent whining sprinkled with mean-spirited gossip?” Walker said. “Come on, Lina.”

  “Well,” Lina said, “the Crier only has one spot for a high school student, and writers from other schools are applying, too. It’s a tough world out there. I’m going to do whatever it takes.”

  “Okay,” Walker said. “As long as I can pretend I don’t know anything about it.”

  “Be my guest,” Lina said.

  “So who are Tess and Peter?” Autumn asked. She and her friend Rebecca Hulse uncharacteristically descended upon Lina, Holly, and Mads at lunchtime that afternoon. To Lina’s surprise, Mood Swing was the buzz of the school. “Anyone we know? Obviously we must know them, if you know them and they go to this school.”

  “What difference does it make?” Lina said. “The important thing is the point I was trying to get across, the message I was trying to send to the boys—”

  “I’ve got to find out who Peter is,” Rebecca said. “I want a boy who licks cotton candy off my neck. Whoever that Tess is, she’d better look out. I’m going to swipe that boy of hers away.”

  Lina blanched, then recovered. Her identity was still safe. For now. Mads and Holly were in on the secret, but besides Walker, that was it. “You know, I might have exaggerated that whole thing, just a little. And how do you know Tess wasn’t exaggerating when she told me? Maybe the truth was he saw a little sticky stuff on her neck and wiped it off. End of story. No need for people to go around swiping other people’s boyfriends.” Rebecca—slim, blond, and glamorous—made Lina nervous. No one would want Rebecca to zero in on her boyfriend. She’d be a formidable rival.

  “Well, you said it yourself,” Rebecca said. “This place is a desert.” She was on the outs with her boyfriend, David Kim. “No water for miles around, and I’m thirsty!”

  “I know how to fix that,” Mads said. “Come to the Speed Dating party.”

  “Oh, yeah, I saw that on your blog,” Autumn said. “Do you really think you can learn enough about a guy in six minutes to decide if you want to go out with him or not?”

  “We’ll find out,” Holly said. “It’s an experiment. And I don’t mind being a guinea pig.”

  “Everybody knows you’re up for anything, Holly,” Rebecca said. “The question is, is it worth our time? We’d better get back to our table before we lose our prime real estate. Come on, Autumn.”

  They returned to their usual centrally located table to schmooze with their friends Claire Kessler and Ingrid Bauman.

  “Hello, Holly and Mads. Hello, Tess.“ Ramona Fernandez cast a shadow over the table in her corseted black dress, purple tights, black boots, and heavy Goth makeup. It occurred to Lina that Ramona and her shadow were not easy to tell apart.

  “My name is not Tess,” Lina said to Ramona. “As you know perfectly well. Unless you’ve experienced some recent head trauma. Which, knowing your headbanger taste in music, is not that unlikely.”

  “Deathzilla is not a headbanger band,” Ramona said. “Donald Death writes sensitive songs about the futility of life in this cold, cruel world. It just happens that you can’t sing about that subject without screaming a lot. Not believably, anyway.” Deathzilla was Ramona’s latest Goth band obsession, and Donald Death was its white-faced, pointy-black-eyebrowed lead singer. “But we’re getting off the subject.” Ramona dropped her tray and sat down without waiting to be invited. “I didn’t know you liked cotton candy so much. What do you do, bathe in it? Or just dab it on your pulse points, like perfume?”

  Lina glanced at Mads and Holly, who pretended to be fascinated by something on the wall across the room. Lina and Ramona were friendly, in an itchy, combative way. But Ramona wasn’t part of their circle of three. “What are you talking about?”

  “Don’t be coy,” Ramona said. “It’s obvious that Tess and Peter are you and Walker. Walker’s mother is a widow, right? So she probably dates. And he has two younger brothers. And going to the county fair is just the kind of cornball activity you’d think is cute. But here’s the clincher: You’ve got a big pink stuffed elephant in your locker. How stupid do you think people are? If they don’t know it now, it won’t be long.”

  Lina didn’t think anyone had seen the elephant. She waved this away. “I am not the kind of person who thinks going to the county fair is cute. Generally. I made an exception in this case. But anyway, nobody knows that about me. You don’t even know it about me. You’re just guessing.”

  “I still say you’ll be unmasked before you know it,” Ramona said. “And what will Walker think of that? He comes off so whipped in your column. It could be pretty embarrassing for him.”

  Lina remembered what Walker had said earlier. The last thing she wanted to do was embarrass him, or herself. But she still felt confident that their identities were safe.

  “You’re just trying to upset me,” Lina said to Ramona. “You’re not applying for the Crier’s summer internship program, by any chance, are you?” Maybe Ramona was trying to psych her out.

  Ramona grinned. “Of course, I am. After all, I’m the editor of the school literary magazine—and I’m only a sophomore. Erica Howard already told me she found that impressive.”

  “Who’s Erica Howard?” Mads asked.

  “The Metro editor at the Crier,” Lina said. “She’s in charge of the interns. They take a few college students and one ‘unusually precocious high school student.“’

  “That wording is key,” Ramona said. “’Unusually precocious.’ Not just ordinary, everyday smart. Like most people. When it comes to unusual, I’ve got you and Autumn beat by a mile.”

  “She said ‘unusual,’ not ‘freakish,’” Lina said.

  “There’s no point in arguing about it,” Ramona said. “The final results will vindicate me. I’m submitting some of my latest poems. If Erica Howard has any brains, she’ll recognize genius when she sees it.”

  “I’m sure she’ll love your latest sonnet, ‘A Worm’s Thoughts at Mealtime,”’ Lina said. “In case you didn’t read the latest issue of Inchworm,” she explained to Holly and Mads, “it tells what a worm is thinking while it gnaws on Ramona’s grandmother’s corpse.”

  “Ew,” Mads a
nd Holly said together.

  “The journal is called Inchworm, and nobody ever writes about worms,” Ramona said. “The worm takes everyone after they die. No one is exempt. Except people who get cremated. I think. Do worms eat ashes?”

  “You think I know?” Holly said.

  “You have to admit it’s unusually precocious,” Ramona said.

  “Or just creepy,” Lina said.

  “It’s better than a sappy story about the county fair,” Ramona said.

  “At least that’s of local interest,” Lina said.

  “You are going to get busted for that story,” Ramona said. “Everyone will figure out who Pete and Tess are, eventually. And then you’ll know what it feels like to weather a storm of ridicule.”

  “Like you do every day?” Lina said.


  Ramona had a knack for finding Lina’s sensitive spots—and a tendency to be negative. It’s nothing to worry about, Lina told herself. Just Ramona being Ramona. That is, a pain.


  The New Girl’s Got It Going On

  * * *

  To: mad4u

  From: your daily horoscope

  HERE IS TODAY’S HOROSCOPE: VIRGO: You will encounter a sticky romantic problem, and you won’t be able to un-stick it until you get that glue off your fingers.

  * * *

  You look so cute on roller skates,” Stephen said. Mads snuggled against him in the compact backseat of his red Mini-Cooper. She wore jeans and a red cowgirl shirt that had actually come from a kids’ store. She was petite, still small enough to wear children’s sizes, though she preferred not to, unless it was something kitschy-cool, like the cowgirl shirt. She wore a red bandanna in her dark hair and looked up at Stephen with her small, sleepy eyes.

  “Who doesn’t look good on skates?” Mads said. “Especially under a disco ball, with Jed Cheatham on the Mighty Wurlitzer. It’s the equivalent of a camera lens smeared with Vaseline—makes everybody look great.”

  They’d gone to an old roller rink Stephen had found way out of town, where instead of dance music an old man played a Wurlitzer organ while couples waltzed on roller skates. The men wore 1950s Elvis clothes, and the women wore full skirts that swirled around their legs. Mads and Stephen felt awkward in their jeans and lack of waltzing ability, but still, it was fun. The old four-wheeled roller skates they rented were clunky compared with the Rollerblades they were used to. Stephen, tall and skinny and serious-faced, grinned goofily when he tried to waltz.

  “I love the way you’re always slightly off-balance,” Stephen said. “Just when I think you’re about to fall down, you wave your arms or grab the rail and save yourself. It’s the suspense. Like a horror movie. Will she fall? Oh, no!… she’s okay… no, wait… there she goes!… caught herself again—”

  “Yeah? Well, there’s no suspense watching you,” Mads said. “You fall on your butt every five minutes. I could set my watch to it. And yet, no matter how many times I see it, it’s still funny.”

  “Funny-strange or funny-ha-ha?” Stephen asked.

  “Funny-sexy,” Mads said.

  “Funny-sexy?” Stephen repeated. “What does that mean? It doesn’t really make sense—”

  “Quiet, you.” She stared at him in the dark for a second. The streetlight made his eyes glow. “I don’t have to make sense. I’m Madison, Queen of the Wild Frontier.” She closed her eyes, and he kissed her.

  They hadn’t been going out for very long, and Stephen had been away in Europe with his mother for several weeks, so they were still shy and tentative with each other. Stephen pressed his lips against hers, and her head tilted back awkwardly. She didn’t try to move or say anything. She didn’t want to spoil the moment.

  But she felt stiff, and her mind wandered. She remembered something she’d read in Cosmo that month, an article about kissing tips. Something about a counterclockwise tongue-swirl that could drive a boy wild. She decided to try it. Maybe that would warm things up between them. She wanted to show Stephen he didn’t have to be shy with her. That she could be as wild as any cowgirl.

  She gathered up her courage and went for it. She opened her lips and pushed her tongue out, pressing against Stephen’s teeth. For a second, he relaxed. His mouth opened, and he let her tongue roam around in there. Then he suddenly snapped his mouth shut, nearly biting her tongue off, and jolted up as if he’d been electrocuted.

  “What’s the matter?” Mads asked.

  “What? Oh, nothing,” Stephen said.

  Nothing? It sure didn’t seem like nothing to her.

  “Something just poked me in the butt,” Stephen said. “I think there’s a loose spring in the car seat or something.”

  “Oh.” Mads wanted to buy it, she really did. But come on. A loose spring? In a year-old car?

  “What did it feel like?” Mads asked. “Did it feel like this?” She playfully pinched his butt. He twitched and laughed.

  “No, it was more like this.” He tried to pinch her, but she dodged him. They played around like this in the back-seat, pinching each other and slapping each other’s hands away and laughing. But the sexy mood was gone, and they never got around to serious kissing again that night. The porch light on Mads’ house started blinking, her mother’s sign that she knew Mads was home and it was time to come in or face the consequences, which involved her mother coming out there herself and knocking on the car window. Obviously, Mads would eat live spiders to avoid that.

  “There’s the signal,” Mads said, pushing the front seat up and opening the car door.

  Stephen clambered out after her and kissed her quickly before she trotted up the stone steps to her house. “Happy trails.”

  When the new girl, Quintana Rhea, walked into school on Monday morning, Mads felt it right away. Something different. Electricity.

  Quintana had long, glossy, straight brown hair that moved like water across her shoulders. She was small-chested, with a cute little bubble butt. Her lips were very red, and her teeth very white. Her hazel eyes were large and fringed with thick, black lashes. And she was wearing a chic pink-and-silver-sequined-covered peasant blouse that Mads had seen in Teen Vogue only a week before. Quintana was very pretty and very chic. But that wasn’t it.

  Mads wasn’t the only one who noticed her. Heads turned as she passed through the halls. Boys, with a helpless look in their eyes, watched her walk until she turned the corner. Girls, too, with a different sort of helplessness. She had something that couldn’t be bought. But, what? Mads turned the question over in her mind. What, exactly, was it?

  By lunch on day one, Quintana trailed a stream of boys in her wake wherever she went. All kinds of boys: lowly freshmen, hottie seniors, regular in-between guys. They didn’t seem to care that they were part of an endless stream. They just wanted to be near her. They wafted after her like perfume.

  What’s her secret? Mads wondered as she watched Quintana scan the lunchroom for a place to sit. Because Mads knew she had one. It leaked out of her pores, whatever it was. Quintana seemed to know something. Something juicy.

  “Is that the new girl?” Holly asked.

  “Yeah,” Mads said. “She was in my English class. Her name’s Quintana. She moved here from L.A.”

  “I feel sorry for her, starting so late in the school year,” Lina said.

  Quintana spotted Autumn, Rebecca, and Ingrid at their table and headed toward them.

  “This should be interesting,” Holly said.

  Quintana stood in front of Rebecca and her friends. She nodded at an empty seat, and Mads could tell she was asking if it was taken. Rebecca looked at the other girls. Then she did that thing where she showed her teeth as if she were smiling, but somehow it didn’t come off as friendly. She said something to Quintana, who didn’t seem to react. She just shrugged and walked away, as if saying, “Your loss.”

  “Those bitches,” Holly said.

  “She doesn’t look too upset about it, though,” Lina said.

  “I’ll go get h
er,” Mads said. She imagined Quintana scurrying for the door, ready to dump her uneaten lunch in the trash and spend the rest of the period in the bathroom, crying. At least that’s what Mads would have done. But Quintana just looked around for another table with another empty spot. Mads walked up to her.

  “Hey.” Mads tapped her on the shoulder. “We’ve got room at our table. Want to sit with us?”

  Quintana smiled, as if she’d been expecting this all along. “Thanks,” she said. She followed Mads back to the table. Mads introduced Lina and Holly.

  “Rebecca can be cold,” Holly said. “But she’s not as scary as she tries to make herself look.”

  “Yeah, she’s like a blowfish,” Lina said. “She puffs herself up to intimidate you, but she’s as insecure as anybody else. If not more. She just doesn’t want you to know it.”

  “That blowfish technique works pretty well,” Quintana said. “But I’m used to it. I’ve moved so many times, I’m an expert at being the new girl. This is my third school this year.”

  “Wow,” Lina said. “That’s rough.”

  “It’s not so bad,” Quintana said. “I like living in different places. Before L.A. we lived in Honolulu, and before that, Dallas. My dad’s a business consultant. He works for a new company every six months or so.”

  “I still think it would be hard to change schools all the time,” Mads said.

  “You learn to be tough,” Quintana said. “Every school has its little quirks you have to adjust to. I’ve adopted so many quirks, I’m getting to be kind of quirky myself.” She laughed, low and throaty. An oddly adult laugh for a tenth grader.

  “People are pretty friendly here, once you get to know them,” Mads said.

  “We’re a little lacking in cute boyage, that’s our biggest problem,” Holly said.

  “Oh, I don’t know,” Quintana said. “I met some pretty cute guys this morning. Let’s see, there was Mo, and Alex, and David, and this extreme hottie who offered to share his muffin with me… Sean? I think it was Sean.”