A group of Southern Californian teens learn pivotal lessons about sexuality, friendship, love and life.
It was different this time; we weren’t acting on a dare. I knew our motive; we were practicing the act, hoping to impress the right boy when it came time. But then something happened in the mix of the moment, in the mix of the alcohol. It wasn’t planned, but somehow our kissing experiment turned into something else. Things went further . . . and once they had, once I returned to earth from the euphoria . . . I wrestled with my feelings at that frank realization, questioning whether our said objective was entirely true.
When fourteen-year old Krista McKinley transfers from Catholic school in Ohio to California’s public Crestmount High, she discovers she has a lot to learn. Luckily, she is befriended by Carrie and Brandon and things start to look up. But when a simple dare tests Krista’s values, it sends her entire world spiraling into a confusing series of events that leaves her questioning her identity as well as the people around her.
Krista McKinley doesn’t realize what awaits her when she’s uprooted from an Ohio convent school and placed in a California public school her ninth grade year. Carrie is the first to befriend Krista and soon after she becomes friends with the enigmatic Brandon. The three quickly form a close friendship.
But when a harmless dare to kiss Carrie on Homecoming night escalates into something beyond her expectations, Krista questions her feelings and her sexuality. Unhappy in her uncertainty and on a quest to determine her sexuality, Krista asks an unlikely question of Brandon: will he take her virginity? The experience leaves both with feelings deeper than wanted for the other.
While still struggling with her friendship with Carrie, matters become more complicated when Krista manifests an unhealthy infatuation with Daemon, a religious mentor far older than she in order to escape her desire to date the romantically unavailable Brandon. Krista and Brandon’s night together was an experiment, nothing more, and worse, an experiment that hurt and betrayed many of their closest friends.
Ultimately, Krista has to decide where her heart will lead her. Because when Brandon and Daemon both reveal their own secret feelings the week before Christmas, Krista realizes it isn’t only her heart that’s at stake.
If Sister Augustine’s fiery depiction of hell hadn’t been so vivid, I swear I would prefer that to what lay ahead. It’s not that I hate school or anything, at least not as much as some of my friends, but I’m not exactly excited about starting high school in the public system.
My brother Marc’s always been cool but he used to be way stuffier before he moved to England to study. He’s always wanted to be a pediatrician and right now he’s working as an intern at Hoag hospital and staying with me and my other brother Josh while my Mom is gone for a year on a church mission. Marc and I have always been tight as peas so I’m just glad he’s back.
“Krista—I’m not going to tell you again.”
Except when it comes to getting up for school.
“Fine already,” I say and rise to my elbow. “I’m getting up.”
The only thing worse than waking up at 5:30 A.M. is walking half a mile to school in the freezing cold at 6:00 A.M. I am not looking forward to it. Zero period should be outlawed. Why’d I select a class that meets an hour before school normally starts? For God’s sake, it’s still dark outside! People always think that just because this is Southern California that every minute of the day is perfect and warm, but sometimes like this morning, the fall weather can be colder than the winter. I tried to explain that to my best friend Lindsay after my family and I moved out here from Ohio but she’s not buying it. And she’s convinced that everyone in California is either an actress or a model and that someday I will be too.
The idea of public school scares me. At least at Our Holy Sisters I never had to worry about kids bringing guns to school and acting like hit-men. Even though my transferring to public school was mom’s idea, I’d bet every dollar in my piggy bank that Marc voiced his opinion on the matter too: I remember the day they told me.
Mom’s decision is a sound one, he said. Mom approached the topic with me while I was eating a heavenly Cinnabun at the kitchen table, which now looking back at the matter was probably her way of buttering me up.
Out of nowhere she says, “Krista, you’re just too sheltered at Our Holy Sisters. I think you need to experience the real world and you’re just not going to be exposed to it there.” This is the last thing I ever expect to hear coming from mom.
One of mom’s favorite sayings is, “Never forget, the people you associate with say everything about you. Steer clear of riff-raff.” From what little I’ve learned about him through Marc, I wish mom would’ve followed her own advice before she hooked up with my “dad.”
I definitely remember Marc, casually leaning against the kitchen counter, adding with a smile, “Try making a few friends that are boys before you start dating . . . better that than decide that they’re a foreign species altogether.”
Dating . . . now there’s something I don’t get. Some of my smartest friends from Our Holy Sisters—they’re allowed to date boys on the weekends—act like half-wits whenever they’re around boys. What’s that all about? Why do girls get so . . . it’s as if every girl who kisses a boy loses her brain while they’re kissing. Yuck! That’s just . . . yuck. I don’t want to be seen that way—clinging to a boy like the world will end if he excuses himself to use the restroom.
Now I have to figure out what clothes are “in.” And I thought algebra was stressful! Last night I spent an hour trying to decide on an outfit to wear and got a zit for my troubles. Usually I don’t have to worry about zits; unless I’m super nervous or something, I never get them so I don’t have anything to treat them with. That’s another reason I know how major today is. I usually always have a clear complexion so I know something is up. I run into Josh’s bathroom, grab one of the Stridex pads I always see him using, then start scrubbing my blemish. Thing is, it seems like it’s only making my pimple redder.
Anyway, I did study Seventeen magazine but almost every page had pictures of girls wearing skin-tight tops that show their stomach. The problem is I don’t have many regular clothes to choose from since I used to only need them on the weekends. Except for those velour sweat suits that came out last year which I practically live in because mom bought me one in every color. Even though Josh offered to take me shopping, I said I didn’t want to buy anything yet until I can see for myself what everyone’s wearing.
Boy I miss mom, but she is in Nicaragua. I talk to her all the time, but talking to her about my zits and clothes doesn’t seem the same over a satellite phone.
So I finally decided that I’d go casual: jeans and a conservative white button-up shirt seemed the safest choice. Something straight out of a GAP ad.
I stare at my reflection on the closet door mirror. At least my hair is cooperating today; no static-cling in the air to make my hair dull. If I get any taller this year I might reach five-foot-five. That’d be great. I want to be tall. The taller you are the more regal you look. At least that’s my opinion.
In the reflection I can also see my bedroom. This year I think it’s time for a change. I’ve outgrown the frilly lavender bedspread, the clouds on the wallpaper and the matching clouds and rainbows decorating my room. I don’t know what I want next exactly, I just know I want something different.
I wish I could say that clothing and décor are the most of my concerns but that would be a lie. Fact is, the thing about Crestmount that scares me the most is having to deal with . . . boys.
Just the thought of them has my nerves in a racket. It doesn’t matter that I have two half-brothers. Marc isn’t exactly a boy; I still have no idea what to expect. How am I supposed to act around them and what are they going to be like? Are they bullies or will they act like the sex-crazed freaks that are always on MTV? I don’t even have a girl friend to eat lunch with so I don’t know how I’ll spend my time.
If I could make one wish, the only thing I’d hope for is that there’s at least one nice person who wants to be my friend. Even a single conversation would be an encouraging sign. I just want to feel accepted. If I don’t have to spend lunchtime sitting in a corner by myself, that’ll make my day.
The warning bell rang and I ran across the street. I had five minutes to locate the gym.
Few students were on campus this early. I whisked through desolate corridors in search of the dance class that was about to begin. As I turned the corner, a boy barreled into me, slamming me against the hall lockers without apology as he joked with his buddy. I glimpsed varsity jackets—just a flash before my head crashed against corrugated metal and my vision gave way to disorienting bursts of light. I pushed myself off the wall of lockers. The metallic taste of blood filled my mouth; my lower lip began to smart, and my entire head throbbed.
Breathe—don’t cry. I straightened, then resumed my search for the school gym. The second bell shrilled above my ears. I was officially late to my first day of school.
The gym sat at the opposite end of campus; the smaller dance room, reserved for our class, was an adjoining room the size of a typical classroom. When I finally walked into the mirrored room where a large group of girls sat patiently on the floor, I was some five minutes late. Luckily the dance teacher was easygoing—so much so that she introduced herself as Bree—as in we were supposed to call her by her first name—how weird. “Why don’t you put your bag down?” she brushed off my apology.
Silence filled the room as I quietly walked to the back and placed my dance bag in the corner.
When I turned around, she said, “Take your place behind Carrie, here in the front.” She indicated the unclaimed space on the floor behind an attractive girl.
Our eyes met briefly, hers reflected indifference. The fair-haired waif was diminutive compared to the other students. She wore a black unitard accented by an exotically tasseled tangerine wrap, tied around her waist. Unlike the casual clothing worn by her peers, her mysterious style piqued my curiosity.
I wordlessly took my seat.
Class began, and each girl practiced her technique against the teacher’s. They were surprisingly good—accomplished in ability, individual in style. One was exceptional: a petite brunette with Indian eyes.
Carrie came up for her turn. She flipped back her sun-gold mane, and it fell loosely around her shoulders, cascaded down her back. Her pale sapphire eyes focused on an invisible spot in the distance. It was almost disquieting, the way she danced; her slender frame seemed too fragile to execute such powerful moves with such fluid grace.
As I sat there watching, I realized that, in spite of my predawn regrets, I had made the right choice. The familiar, addictive draw of mirrored walls and expansive flooring just begging to be danced upon. A rush of excitement coursed through me, and I imagined my own music, a new beat, and exhilarating moves. Dance class would be fun.
It was almost 7:30; first period would begin soon. Everyone adjourned to the dance team locker room, a special room full of floor-length mirrors and standing lockers, reserved for the privileged few. I could definitely get used to this. The corner locker I’d been assigned was just perfect for me.
I stashed my dance bag in my locker and looked over my shoulder. Carrie was three lockers away.
She pressed a towel to her hairline, curtailing beads of perspiration. She looked over at me, acknowledging me with a single raised brow. “You look like a sacrifice. Upperclassmen are gonna have a field day with you.”
Is this California’s equivalent of a greeting? “Thanks for sharing,” I said, my tone flat. “I don’t suppose you’d have any useful advice?”
She eyed me skeptically, taking her time. “You new to this district?”
“I’m from Ohio.”
“I guess that’d explain the Plain Jane look you’ve got goin’ on.”
I turned my back to her, slammed my locker shut, and tried to ignore the nagging ache in my throat as tears threatened.
When I turned back, she had moved to the locker beside me. “You’re lucky you’re in the dance program. You just saved yourself from being a social outcast.”
“The first blessing of the day.”
“Gotta do something about your wardrobe, though. You can’t pull that off for long.”
“If I make any friends, I’ll be sure to ask for their advice.”
Her eyes narrowed, scrutinized me; then she hesitated as if making a life-altering decision. She lowered her towel, and extended her other hand toward me. “Carrie Stevens.”
I accepted her handshake tentatively at first, then relaxed when she finally smiled.
“I usually don’t befriend newcomers, but . . .” She shrugged. “If you stick with me and my friends, you’re as good as in.”
The corridors of Crestmount are so confusing! Seriously, it’s ridiculous. I have to check my class schedule for like the fiftieth time because I have to know where I’m going before I even attempt to squeeze through the mass of students roaming the campus. The bell shrills above me warning that there’s only five minutes left before next class starts. I head that way, past the sounds of lockers slamming and clips of conversations from the confusion of voices around me.
A couple of students stand by the lockers on the other side of the court. Carrie is one of them. She’s talking to a boy who looks at least a foot taller than her. He must be her boyfriend. What’s strange is that he looks more preppie than the boys from Ohio prep school. I can’t imagine what they’d have in common. They’re laughing now and he gives her a hug—not a polite hug but a lingering, full body contact kind of hug. I can feel myself staring as he kisses her. This isn’t just some peck on the lips; it’s totally blatant and lingers as long as their hug. But what really gets me flustered is this: this guy, still kissing Carrie—I kid you not—looks right at me while they kiss then actually squeezes her butt. He pulls back from Carrie, licks his lips at me as if she’s not even there.
It’s the first day of actual practice and I’m still not sure what to expect. Bree hadn’t been too specific when telling us what to wear. I decide to wear my dance clothes under my regular clothes. That way I won’t be so nervous and I can kinda get an idea of what’s to come next. How everyone interacts, what they’re wearing. In Ohio everyone had to wear white tights and black leotards so the teacher could see the lines of our bodies and correct our posture, so that’s what I’m wearing today. I imagine Bree has to correct us too; how else will we get better? The strange thing is, I’ve just learned that our dance group is more of a mix of dance and cheerleading. Nothing like we had at my old school because this squad includes boys, as I’ve just discovered today. This throws me off a little since they weren’t at our earlier practice and I’m not used to working with boys in such close proximity. I’m not exactly happy. Right now everyone is gathered outside of the dance room.
The excitable one—a thin boy with short, spiky hair bleached nearly white—was surrounded by a group of girls, engaged in a conversation about hair dying. He was distressed by his black roots, which were already showing after only a week.
Hmm . . .
I decided to forgo that circle for the moment, and joined a different group of girls.
Was that Carrie?
She noticed me approaching and smiled wryly. “Welcome aboard.”
Carrie introduced me to the other girls, including her two best friends, Chloe and Joy.
But it was another boy who truly held my interest. He seemed strangely out of place as he sat in solitude on the edge of the school’s field. He seemed unusually withdrawn, which made it hard to believe that he would be involved in the sport at all. The sunlight accentuated his coloring, turned his mocha hair and toffee-colored skin to a flattering golden-bronze. A single dandelion held his attention, and he plucked it, twirling the stem between his finger and thumb.
“Oh, that’s Nick,” Carrie said. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to him.”
When he saw us approaching, he self-consciously dropped the flower behind him and stood. He had engaging green eyes—eyes the cloudy color of green tea ice cream, soft and unassuming. He had exceptionally high cheekbones, and a pair of the fullest, poutiest lips I’d ever seen.
“Hi, I’m Nick.”
“Krista’s new here. I’m taking her under my wing,” Carrie said.
He nodded. “Great. Glad to have you on the team.”
I smiled, relieved by their acceptance, but feeling awkward nonetheless.
“Did Aeleise bring you to school today?” Carrie asked him.
He nodded, his gaze diverting to something behind us.
“How is the happy couple, anyway?” she asked.
Nick looked as if he’d been catapulted back into reality. He blinked. “Oh—Aeleise. We’re fine . . . everything’s great.” He smiled, lips together.
Carrie turned to me. “Aeleise is a sophomore on JV cheer; Nick likes his women older.”
Nick’s cheeks flushed at her comment.
She looked at him again. “How long have the two of you been together now?”
“Uh . . . I don’t know.”
He began chewing on his thumbnail.
They’re totally making out again; kissing six inches in front of me, making these sounds that make my stomach drop because I can tell they wish they were doing more. I swear, if you’ve never had this happen in front of you before, it’s worse than embarrassing.
He has her back pressed against the lockers; his hands are on either side of her.
I slam my locker shut and turn to leave. Carrie’s boyfriend says, “Hey—”
The last thing I want to do right now is to look at either of them, but I make myself turn around.
“Do you have any idea where I could find a backpack like yours?” he says. All nonchalant like, as if two seconds ago they weren’t trying to make babies between layers of clothes. “We were hoping they’d have them in black or burgundy instead of sparkling bubblegum pink with faux angora.”
“Well, I don’t know if—”
“Forget the bag for now,” he says and peels his body off Carrie’s. “Carrie tells me you’re in her dance class; you’re not half bad either. I’m Brandon,” he says and then lifts my hand until the back of it brushes his lips. I freeze, then pull my hand back.
“Actually he’s more like Lucifer in the Flesh,” Carrie says.
Brandon ignores her. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
I open my mouth to speak but Brandon says, “My eyes are up here.”
I don’t even know him, but I hate Brandon right now; hate how he makes his voice sound like he’s naked or something when my cheeks are already burning. I meet his gaze; he’s got the most amazing amber eyes. “Ohio originally,” I manage to say.
Brandon’s smile is more like a smirk. ”So what’s with the K-mart Jaclyn Smith collection?”
“Brandon’s always teasing,” Carrie says.
Brandon reaches out and runs his fingers through my hair. “Is it naturally straight?” he says.
Carrie swats his chest. “Lighten up, Brandon. You want to scare her away already?”
“Heavens, no. So what’s your story?” Brandon asks, his eyes still focused on me.
“I don’t think I have one.”
“We’ll change that,” he says. “We’ll get together tomorrow. Show you around.”
Finally. Someone to talk to. Even if Brandon and Carrie do seem a little off I’m not about to be picky. Anything is better than hanging out alone.
Brandon looks at his watch. “I’ve gotta split if I’m gonna catch the swell.” He looks at Carrie. “Call you tonight?”
He kisses her cheek then turns to me. He puts his hand on my shoulder then slides it down my arm to my elbow. I freeze. He’s smiling like he knows a secret I don’t. “Krista . . . a pleasure.”
I’m just standing here, stunned. He vanishes into the crowd. I hear Carrie behind me say, “Sorry . . . sometimes he comes on kinda strong.”
Kind of? Why does she let her boyfriend get away with that? I want to tell her to make him keep his paws to himself, or at least not let them stray beyond her. Instead I say, “Is he always like that?”
“Only if he likes you. Brandon won’t give the time of day to most people. But he’s a total flirt otherwise. You’ll get used to it.”
I turn to face her. “Isn’t flirting something reserved for times when you’re single?”
“Depends on who you are.” Carrie’s busy studying her hair for split-ends. “I thought you were really good at technique today,” she says.
She stops fussing with her hair and looks at me. “So tomorrow. Let’s meet at these lockers come lunchtime.”
“Uh, sure,” I say.
Carrie turns away, starts walking toward the field. “See ya, manana,” she says.
“So, what are you?” Carrie says.
What are you? I hate that question. I squirm in my skin, actually itch. I can never find an answer I’m comfortable with. I’m a doll, I’m a mouse, I’m an orangutan, I’m a bunny hopping away, I’m a kid being dragged here on a slave ship, I’m human but I sometimes feel less-than, and I’m the misfit girl sitting across from you. My name is Krista McKinley and I hate it when you ask me that. I can already hear the progression of questions, the never-ending tape recording that plays in my head: Who’s black—your mom or your dad? What do they do? Where is he? Have you ever met him? Do you want to? . . . and so on and so forth. It gets old. Really, really old.
“You’ve got this exotic look happening . . . sorta Mariah Carry-ish,” Brandon says. I open my mouth to speak but Brandon adds, “She’s part black, I believe.”
At least he saved me from saying it. I hold up my finger and sing, “Ding, ding, ding.”
“Really?” Carrie says.
“Guilty as charged.”
Actually, the truth is a little more profound. My father did not marry my mother. Marc and Josh are sons of my mother’s husband Phillip. After she divorced him she hung out with my father. He disappeared, the usual. Phillip still shows up to see Marc and Josh but I have only Mom and Mom has a thing about God and the church.
“There are better things to talk about,” I say.
“Suggest one,” Brandon says.
“No offense, but you two make an odd couple.”
Brandon laughs. “Did we ever tell you we were a couple?”
“It’s pretty obvious.”
“Wow—I owe you five bucks, Carrie.”
She grins. “Cash only, please.”
“Did I miss something?”
“I suppose saying yes is a credit to us,” Brandon says. “Ball’s in your court, Carrie.”
“I’m trying to decide whether to tell her,” she says.
“If it’s something about dating, don’t worry,” I said. “I have brothers. Anything you tell me, I won’t be shocked.”
Gay? “He’s . . . gay? What do you mean gay? As in homosexual gay?”
“Is there any other kind?”
“But you two were just all over each other—he practically made you swallow his tongue! That didn’t look very gay to me.”
Carrie’s laughing, first time I’ve seen her smile. Maybe this is her way of telling me she thinks I’m stupid, that I’m gullible down to the last.
“What are you talking about? He had his tongue down your throat.”
“Boy, you have a lot to learn. What do they do to you in Catholic School, sew it up?”
“What’s so funny?” I say. I could’ve choked on the intensity of Brandon’s presence—nowhere in his masculinity did I pick up any hint that he was gay.
“Should I have kept my mouth shut?”
“I don’t know yet,” I say. “It’s still soaking in. You’re telling me that he’s not interested in girls at all?”
“Sure he is . . . as friends.”
I’m searching for something to say. Something that’s not too offensive but doesn’t say much. Right now the best I can come up with is, “Interesting . . . Wow. That’s like . . . interesting.” So I could’ve chosen better words . . . I’ll have time to work on that. I shake my head. “I never would have thought . . .”
“Most people don’t.”
Brandon’s leaning casually against the hall lockers, hands hidden inside his pant pockets, one leg crossed in front of the other.
“Hey,” Carrie says, “You told me I could tell her.” She’s touching up her face with the assistance of her mirrored compact.
Brandon gives me this lingering look, almost like he’s sizing me up. My heart skips a beat.
“And yes . . .” he says, and then his arrogance melts into something silky and toying, “I’ve had sex with girls. Why?” I can’t believe his lazy smile, or how his voice and eyes charm like the snake’s in Eden. “Do you want to come home with me—play doctor in my bedroom?”
Talk about direct. My gaze drops and my cheeks respond in rose. “No—I mean . . . that’s not what—”
He crackles with laughter. “She falters. Relax—I’m just giving you shit.” He softens his manner some. “Really, you shouldn’t let me get away with that. Carrie will tell you. She hassles me all the time.”
“It’s true,” Carrie says.
Brandon pushes away from the lockers. “So our charade is finie. Well done, Carrie.”
At this point, there’s only one thing I want to know. “Does this mean the make out sessions come to an end?”
“Disappointed?” he says and smiles.
“I gotta go,” he says, “I’m meeting up with Ryan.”
“Say ‘hey’ to him for me,” Carrie says.
“Done.” Brandon starts walking away without as much as a goodbye.
On the way home all the queasy spots disappear in my stomach and I realize I have met two people who make me feel comfortable. How can that be? “What are you?’ the question everyone asked. So maybe it was good to be around other people who were a little hard to pin down.