Cameron Carson has a secret. A secret with the power to break apart his friend group.
Cameron Carson, member of the Geeks and Nerds United (GANU) club, has been secretly hooking up with student council president, cheerleader, theater enthusiast, and all-around queen bee Karla Ortega since the summer. The one problem — what was meant to be a summer fling between coffee shop coworkers has now evolved into a clandestine senior-year entanglement, where Karla isn’t intending on blending their friend groups anytime soon, or at all.
Enter Mackenzie Briggs, who isn’t afraid to be herself or wear her heart on her sleeve. When Cameron finds himself unexpectedly bonding with Mackenzie and repeatedly snubbed in public by Karla, he starts to wonder who he can truly consider a friend and who might have the potential to become more…
“It’s a simple, undeniable truth,” Jocelyn said matter-of-factly, “if you watch dubbed anime instead of subbed anime, you are garbage.”
She flicked her hot-pink hair as she leaned over the 3D printer, which was about two-thirds of the way through making the barrel of her buster rifle.
“Bullshit,” D’Anthony fired back from the beanbag he was lounging in. He licked his lips and pushed his glasses back into place without looking up from his Game Boy Color, the one he’d borrowed (or perhaps stolen) from one of his older brothers. He’d been on this vintage game kick for the past few months; he was working his way through Pokémon Yellow now. “Watching subbed anime doesn’t make you more sophisticated, it just makes you more pretentious.”
I glanced at my phone for about the eighth time since Jocelyn and D’Anthony had started their argument five minutes ago. Those two were always bickering about something; their tastes were what you could call diametrically opposed, especially when it came to anime. Ordinarily it was my job to end the debate by choosing a side, but right now I was too preoccupied to keep up.
Still no messages.
I set my phone down on the table in front of me, screen down, and started thumbing through my worn copy of Trigun, a space Western about a legendary peace-loving sharpshooter set in a semi-dystopian future. It was one of my favorite manga, but right now I couldn’t even concentrate enough to read the words.
From 1:15 in the afternoon until 2:10, the third-floor tech lab belonged to G.A.N.U.—Geeks and Nerds United, Hilltop High School’s one and only nerd culture club. Jocelyn, D’Anthony, and I were its founding members. The room was a makerspace, the walls lined with workbenches, the interior dotted with hexagonal workstations and multicolored stools, chairs, and beanbags. There were a pair of 3D printing machines in the back, where Jocelyn had set up shop. The wall next to the door was a projection dry-erase board.
The text I was waiting for should have come by now, and I was only growing more anxious by the minute. I closed my book and checked my phone again.
“Hey, Cam, are you alright?” asked Jocelyn. “You look like you need to take a shit.”
The pink hair was new for her. Up until last week it had been cotton candy blue. Her look lately was what she called “Kawaii Wednesday Addams”—today she wore black overall shorts and a floral print high-collared shirt. She was hardly five feet tall, but her chunky black boots gave her an extra four inches of height, not that she needed it. She had one of those personalities where she just seemed taller, somehow.
“You do seem a little keyed up,” D’Anthony added, again, without looking up from his Game Boy. He was a firm believer in the fact that high school was not a fashion show and that he wasn’t here to impress anyone, and so he usually opted for comfort, like rugby shirts and old skate shoes. Although, he always had a pick with him to maintain his immaculate afro.
“I’m fine,” I said.
I hated lying to my friends, but this wasn’t something they’d understand.
The PA system crackled, and Principal Standish’s nasally voice rattled through the speakers. “Good afternoon, Hilltop Hawks!” he proclaimed. “I want to wish everyone a safe and happy Friday. Get out there and enjoy this beautiful weather before the snow hits. And now, just a quick message from our student council president, Karla Ortega.”
I released my viselike grip on my phone. That explained that, at least.
“Hey, everyone,” Karla said in her usual chipper voice, “just a few quick reminders. Yearbook Committee starts at the end of the month. Seniors, it’s time to start thinking about your senior pictures.” She paused between sentences, and you could feel the smile she punctuated them with. “Also, if you’ve got an idea for a superlative, be ready to turn it in to any member of the committee or student council. We love to hear from you.” Another smile. “Lastly, this year’s winter production is Jane Austen’s classic, Pride and Prejudice. If you’d like to be considered for a role, auditions begin Monday after school in the auditorium and will be held until that Friday. Thanks, guys, and have a great weekend!”
“Ugh. Karla,” Jocelyn muttered. “Could she be any more fake? And did you guys see what she was wearing today? Those tights, and that skirt? She’s definitely appealing to a very specific demographic ever since she won the election.”
“What, the every-allosexual-person-ever demographic?” D’Anthony laughed. “Yeah, of course I saw her. She’s living, breathing fan-service, and that’s why she won the election. Hell, I voted for her and I don’t even like her. I may not care for sex, but I do understand sex appeal. Sometimes. I think.”
“Guys, can we not?” I groaned. “Gross.”
“Right, I forgot, Cam hates Karla,” Jocelyn said teasingly.
“Remind me again what you have against art?” D’Anthony asked with a smirk.
If there was one thing those two could agree on, it was teasing me about Karla. They liked to do this bit anytime she came up in conversation or in real life, and seeing as she was Hilltop High School’s premier golden girl, she came up a lot. “I don’t hate her,” I explained for about the thousandth time. “I just don’t see the hype. Yeah, sure, she’s good-looking—”
“Understatement,” Jocelyn interjected.
“But, people act like she walks on water when she totally doesn’t. Not to mention, she’s super conceited. Every year she gets more and more selective about who she deigns to speak to.”
“Maybe because everybody she speaks to is trying to jump her sexy bones,” Jocelyn pointed out.
I scoffed, but before I could respond the door burst open, and Mackenzie Briggs sauntered in like a cowboy stepping into a saloon. “Sorry I’m late,” she announced in a tone that made it clear she was not at all sorry. She dumped her backpack on the ground, slumped into a chair at the workstation across from mine, and kicked her feet up. “What’s up, dork?”
That part was directed specifically at me.
Mackenzie had transferred to Hilltop High from some art magnet in Minneapolis, which, if you asked me, was an egregious error on the part of her parents, her advisers, and whoever else was involved in making that decision.
“Hello, Mackenzie,” I said coolly. “I see you got dressed in the dark again.”
It could very well have been true, that or she just threw on the first thing she yanked out of her closet. Today she had on high-top red Converse, green camo pants, a black hoodie, and a weathered jean jacket. She looked like a homeless hipster.
She sat up, curling her legs underneath her, and sniffed the air. “Hey, Cameron, did you know you’re supposed to wear your deodorant, not eat it? It works better that way. Although, with all the shit you talk I guess you could do both.”
I closed my book and set it down.
Here’s the thing. I did not like Mackenzie. I didn’t like her big curly hair or her pointy nose or the way the edges of her lips were always curled just enough that she looked like she was smiling at some secret joke and you were the punch line. I didn’t like the languid, I’m-so-over-it way she walked, like she was so much cooler than everyone else, and even though she was sort of G.A.N.U.’s fourth ranger, floating in and out of our meetups whenever she felt like it, she made no secret of the fact that she didn’t like me, either.
“Wait a second,” I said. “You know what deodorant is? That’s strange—do you put yours on before or after bathing in the blood of innocent virgins?”
“If I bathed in the blood of virgins, I would have killed you for yours a long time ago.”
“Goddamn,” Jocelyn said under her breath.
“Flawless victory,” D’Anthony added.
My phone finally buzzed. I snatched it off the table faster than I should have.
Meet at our spot? XOXO
I was up before I’d finished reading the text. “We’re still on for movie night tonight, aren’t we?” I asked as I made for the door.
“I’m busy tonight,” Mackenzie said.
“No one cares. You never show up anyway.”
“Where are you going?” Jocelyn asked, eyeing me suspiciously.
“I, um, gotta take a shit.”
“Gross,” Mackenzie said, but I hardly heard her, because I was already halfway out the door.
The only two things you needed to know about Hilltop High School were:
The school was not, as its name implied, on a hill. If anything it was a knoll, and barely that.
From above (or on any campus map) the school, with its rectangular main building that connected to a pair of smaller, circular buildings, looked like a giant penis. It was common to hear someone say they had to get to their class in the shaft, or to meet up on the third floor of the southeast testicle—much to the consternation of our principal and the handful of teachers who didn’t have a sense of humor.
The tech lab was near the base of the shaft, south of the gymnasium. I headed south, through the enclosed breezeway that connected the dick and the balls, then hit the stairwell and descended to the basement level, where the lights were dim and the air was always just a little dank, and it usually smelled like cheese and old socks. I made my way deeper into the bowels of the building. That’s where the old library was. It hadn’t seen much use since the new media center had been built; the stacks were covered in dust and the old reference books on them were ratty and moth-ridden. But I couldn’t wait to get there. Each step I took sent a surge of electricity coursing through me, and I was drawn like a magnet toward my destination, and who was meeting me there.
I meant what I’d said about Karla. Thing is, Karla’s crowd and my crowd didn’t exactly mix. Her friends were the overachievers. Student government types, theater snobs, the kids who thought they were better than everyone else because they could quote Shakespeare and had perfect 4.0 GPAs and took AP courses. It was a very exclusive club, almost like a cult, or a hive mind, where who your friends were, who you dated, and who you were seen with were all dictated by the group. Karla wasn’t mean, per se, not like some of the others, but if you weren’t part of the group she was happy to pretend you didn’t exist.
Which was why I still had no idea why we had been hooking up since this summer.