FIREPOWDER is tentatively entitled AFFINITY now…here’s my reworked opening chapter!
Ay me! for aught that I could ever read
Could ever hear by tale or history
The course of true love never did run smooth
–A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare
Soulmates, they both thought.
It was a word she associated with silly girl fantasies, but now came to mean so much more. The existence of both a soul and a mate pointed toward something she never before believed in and she struggled to find explanations, definitions, and facts that would reconcile everything she knew to be true.
Still, no other word applied.
He sat with his head hung low, at peace with everything that was happening. He already knew that this was beyond the extraordinary. He didn’t need to know what it all meant or what it all implied. He just knew one simple fact: they had to be together. Anything else was madness.
Another revelation dawned: those who claimed to have found their soulmates were all wrong.
Diana slammed her hand against the berating alarm clock. Fuck! 5:45 in the fucking morning! I’d like to know which fucking official thought it was a good idea to start high school at 7:20 in the fucking morning! A good round of cursing, the heels of her hands pressed against her forehead, another four hours of sleep, and MAYBE Diana would be ready to start school. But in order to catch the bus at 6:55am, she’d have to roll out of bed immediately if she wanted to shower and look halfway decent for the first day of school.
She walked into her bathroom, trying to keep quiet. Normal people, like adults who have to work in the morning, don’t have to get up before dawn every single day! Diana could keep the rant going all the way to school. It was motivating. She turned on the bathroom light and stared at herself in the mirror. Ugh. Waking up this early was worse than a hangover. No one, let alone kids, should be forced to function this early.
She hopped in the shower, hoping the hot hot water would wake her up rather than scald her, and tried to mentally prepare for a day full of boredom. She would have to pick up her schedule in homeroom and then make her way through shortened classes designed to pass out syllabi and books before a beginning-of-the-year welcome speech by the Principal at the end of the day. Diana was thoroughly unexcited for school to start.
This is gonna be your year! she reminded herself as she stepped out of the shower to towel off. Diana glanced at her watch. Shit! She quickly put on some mascara and eyeliner, and ran back into her room without blow-drying her hair.
As she made her way back to her room to get dressed, she could smell the coffee brewing. Thank God! She had convinced Bill last year to buy a coffee maker with an automatic timer in it. She had become hopelessly addicted to coffee early on thanks to her father’s habit and how grown up and cool it was to go to Starbucks with your friends. But she couldn’t stand things being too sweet so while her friends would order frappuccinos and caramel what-nots, Diana just ordered the strongest coffee she could and added a bit of milk. Coffee became a necessity two years ago when she started her freshman year at Whitman. Bill would get up with her back then, and even he couldn’t function that early without coffee. He finally caved on the coffee maker right before sophomore year started.
What?! It’s 6:40?! It would take Diana over five minutes to walk to her bus stop. Just a couple more weeks and then I’ll pass my driver’s test and drive myself to school. She ignored the little voice that reminded her that she didn’t actually have a car at her disposal. Bill had hinted at the possibility of buying Diana a car for her birthday so she was just going to hold out hope.
Diana tried four shirts and three bottoms before deciding on a double tank top over Capri jeans and wedge shoes. She opened the door with the plan to run downstairs, throw coffee in her travel mug, and book it to the bus stop. She didn’t need any food. Who could eat that early in the morning, anyways! Her stomach revolted at the idea.
As she headed down the stairs, Bill’s bedroom door cracked open, startling her.
“Sorry, just wanted to wish you good luck, first day back.” Bill’s face was covered in shaving cream and he held a rectangular barber’s blade open in his hand, about to start his own morning ritual.
Diana looked at her watch. She needed to be out the door now!
“You’re up early?” Diana asked as she restarted down the stairs.
“Meeting downtown,” Bill explained. “See you tonight! Love you!” He called out, then shut the door.
“Love you too!” Diana called back from the kitchen. She grabbed the coffeemaker pot and pulled it out to pour into her mug. AHHHH! She got splashed by the burning liquid still brewing. She replaced the pot carefully, added her milk, grabbed her super-light backpack which would be filled with books by the end of the day and run-walked out the front door, trying not to slam it behind her.
It took her a half-second to realize she had forgotten something essential. This day just isn’t going to get any better, is it? She turned around and walked back a few yards to where the newspaper sat. She hated taking the whole thing in her haste but Bill would find a newspaper somewhere if he absolutely needed it and she’d bring it back with her after school.
She crested the hill of Overlea Road and saw the bus coming into view down at the bottom. Fuck, fuck, fuck! She broke out into a run, praising whoever invented spill-proof coffee mugs, and tried to catch the driver’s attention so that he would wait for her.
Luckily, Mrs. Smiths was backing out of her driveway in her huge Buick, driving as slow as possible, and blocking the bus’ path forward. The bus screeched to a stop. Thank you, crazy lady! Diana thought. Mrs. Smiths was the neighborhood Boo Radley. Not as reclusive, but just as weird.
Diana climbed onto the bus, heading to the very back. Jesus, these kids get smaller and younger every year! she thought as she passed by the new crop of freshman. Surely, she never looked that young. She tried to not feel embarrassed by their equally horrified stares at her for being the oldest kid on the bus. Soon, soon, she promised herself, she would be free of the bus route. She slumped into her seat and pulled out the newspaper from its plastic wrap.
It was hard to read because the driver, no doubt recognizing the freakishness of the hour, kept the lights dim, but Diana couldn’t start her day without knowing what to expect. She went immediately to the Style section, disregarding the horror stories of the day blasted on the Post’s front page. She’d read her horoscope first, then Dear Carolyn, Dear Amy if it was there that day, and follow up with the celebrity news.
Virgo (August 23 – September 22)
A fork in the road. A new calling. You will have little choice in the matter at hand. Rely on your strengths, Virgo.
That sounds…ominous. Diana looked out the window catching a glimpse of the dawn through the trees before they turned west on River Road. Yearning for a glimpse of fall, a slight yellowing to the leaves, she tried to see into the future. Forks in the road. A new calling. She was about to turn sixteen, the year she had always felt would be the beginning of her life. More than eighteen or twenty-one, sixteen felt like the year when a girl became a woman. It was junior year, so Diana was well aware that this year would also mean a ton of school work, SATs and all that, but it was all in preparation for college, the future. Her horoscope only reinforced her belief that this would be her first year as her own person, no longer a child.
But why the warning about having no choice? And what are my strengths anyways?! Diana slumped into her seat feeling more unsettled than she wanted to on her first day back at school. It was hard enough she’d spent the last couple of weeks out of town with her mother. This would be the first time she’d see Greg since the party when she almost lost the big V. He was going to be a senior now, would he break up with her, sending her on this new path with little choice? She hadn’t even been able to talk to him while she was away now that football practice had started for him. Ugh! Now she was officially stressed.
Diana checked in at homeroom and started heading toward first period English. She hadn’t seen anyone yet, but kept feeling like she was about to see someone she knew. A mass of kids pushed against her, and she gave up, sliding to the lockers and closing her eyes. Breathe.
Large, strong, hands slid against her face and Diana jumped.
Diana shivered. Greg. She lightly touched his hands and brought them around her body, pulling him close behind her. She realized that she genuinely missed him. He leaned down and kissed the base of her neck. Diana nuzzled into him. It had been a long two weeks away during which she couldn’t stop thinking about the next step with Greg. She smiled to herself as she remembered Michelle and Jenn playing devil and angel on her shoulders. Michelle didn’t understand the big deal, “Get it over with already!” Jenn was going through the same drama with her boyfriend Jimmy, though Jenn didn’t feel ready at all.
Diana turned around to give Greg a proper hello, wrapping her arms around his neck, but was distracted by someone standing right next to them. Midway up on her toes to kiss Greg, she stopped short and couldn’t help but turn her head toward the stranger. The look on this kid’s face was like he was waiting for this teenage mating ritual to end so things could return to the regular broadcast. Greg was left hanging, but held Diana close to him as he extended a hand to clap the newcomer on the shoulder.
“Babe, this is Caleb. He’s the new running back on the team,” Greg started the introductions. The boy named Caleb smiled, suppressing a laugh.
“Babe?” Caleb extended his hand to Diana as if he were some kind of professional.
“Diana.” She bristled, irritated by the mocking in his voice. The odd contempt to be near Diana and Greg. Worse, she was completely, inexplicably, and uncontrollably drawn to this boy. Tall with lean muscles that pushed against his dark shirt. A shock of black hair that stood in stark contrast to his fair skin. And those eyes. Piercing blue that cut Diana through to the core. Rimmed with long dark lashes, they glowed in the dim light. Diana couldn’t stop staring.
She placed her hand in his to return the handshake and Diana felt instantly tethered to Caleb. Somewhere, somehow, she had just veered off course into uncharted territory. A soft, slow, burn filled her up and she could see a change in Caleb’s eyes. He was feeling the same thing. She was certain.
“Dee! Oh my God! You didn’t tell me you were back!” Jenn’s high-pitched enthusiasm interrupted the moment. Overly tall at nearly 6 feet, Jenn was all arms and legs and little coordination. She pushed through the crowd of kids awkwardly, boyfriend Jimmy in tow, to where Diana, Greg, and Caleb stood.
Diana noticed she was still holding Caleb’s hand and found it difficult to let go to give Jenn a hug. Jenn then reached out and took her boyfriend’s hand again. “Hey, Jimmy,” Diana added. Jimmy managed a nod in Diana’s direction, perfectly in time with the beat blasting through his ear buds.
Jenn said hi to Greg and finally noticed Caleb standing there.
“I’m Jenn. This is my boyfriend Jimmy.”
“I’m Caleb.” He offered his hand again. Jenn shook it awkwardly. “Sorry, habit,” he explained. “I move around a lot, meet a lot of people.”
Diana noticed there didn’t seem to be any apparent lingering or overly forceful handshake there so why did she feel that her own handshake with Caleb had lasted too long? Her hand still felt enclosed in the warmth of his. She couldn’t help but steal a glance at him again. Caleb carried his body with ease, as if he was permanently relaxed without compromising good posture. He had put both hands into the pockets of his khaki cargo shorts and just seemed to be taking it all in. He had a great smile and perfect lips. Perfect for kissing. Diana wanted to literally slap herself in the face. You have a boyfriend, hello! She nestled into Greg a bit more, surrounding herself in his protection, but something was different. It felt all wrong. Greg’s arms felt like a trap; she couldn’t breathe.
“Did you just move here?” Jenn asked.
Thank God she always asks the polite questions, Diana thought. This way, Diana could get all the information she had already started to list out without giving away her interest.
“Yeah, my family just moved here from Ohio. My dad got a new job, so here we are!” Caleb answered.
The first bell rang, giving Diana an excuse to extract herself from Greg’s grip.
Greg gripped Caleb’s shoulder and shook him. “We’re gonna be unstoppable this year! The Vikings are gonna be undefeated with you as my back!”
“Oh! You’re on the team?” Jenn asked.
Mind pushing overload, Diana tried to collect herself by staring down at her schedule. She could not let herself get distracted by this new stranger, no matter how beautiful his eyes were, no matter how connected she felt to him, no matter how much she just felt the need to find a quiet room with him and….and what? Greg had been really sweet and patient and she felt safe with having him be her first. But now just the thought of Greg touching her made her cringe. In that moment that she held Caleb’s hand, she had felt something stirring within her. Unlocking. There was more meaning in that brief touch than in all the experiences she had had with Greg or other boyfriends of Christmas past.
Diana didn’t like it. The words from her horoscope “You will have little choice in the matter at hand” floated through her mind. She looked at Caleb. He seemed so at ease, so casual. No sign of panic or anxiety over what had passed between them. He didn’t seem to even notice Diana now, as everyone discussed where they were heading before the late bell rang.
“I’ve got English with Mr. McKinley?” Caleb was saying. It echoed in Diana’s head as she read the same words on her schedule.
“Me too!” Jenn said.
“Me three! Bitches let’s go!” Michelle had joined the scene. Pulling Diana into a bear hug, the smallest Asian-Latino girl ever managed to man-handle everyone and handle all men.
“I’m out,” Greg hollered as he slapped Caleb once more. “History.” He kissed Diana quickly, thank God, because she barely survived her overwhelming nausea as he came toward her and whispered “I missed you” with a sweet smile before loping off.
“I missed you too,” Diana weakly whispered. It was true. Was.
Caleb seemed to suppress a smile as he pulled out a folded piece of paper from the back pocket of his nicely-fitted jeans. Now, he was staring at Diana.
“You in a lot of honors classes?” Michelle asked, too much like an accusation. Although, at least now Diana would know what she was in for.
“Yeah, I think all honors. What about you guys?”
Caleb seemed to ask everyone, but he was still looking right at Diana.
“Diana’s all-honors, I don’t have the math or science” Jenn said off-hand. “There aren’t very many honors classes so they’re all together. I think English is the only class offered at another period.”
Caleb laughed. Laughed! Like this is some kind of freaking joke. Could this get any more complicated right now? Diana just stared at Caleb. Until she noticed Michelle and Jenn staring at her like they suspected her of something. You guys are making this SO much worse!!! Stop looking at me like that! PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!!! Ugh, now he’s looking at me and I know he can tell something’s strange. Michelle and Jenn are being so UN-helpful!
Diana was starting to resign herself to the fact that Caleb was going to be around. All honors, on the football team with her…boyfriend. She took in a deep breath and tried to exhale slowly without anyone noticing. She felt like it would be better if it were just her and Caleb talking without an audience. Michelle and Jenn were making her feel so abnormal. She tried to think of Greg again, trying to see Caleb as just some hot guy that she could appreciate from afar.
Although, I have the feeling we would be great together. That thought stopped Diana short. She looked at Caleb and was certain of the fact that they would be great together. It was all of a sudden very hot in the hallway. Diana’s breath quickened, she tried to slow it down, take deeper breaths, but she was starting to silently hyperventilate.
Diana could feel their eyes on her. Michelle cocked her head questioningly, Jenn squinted in confusion, and Caleb’s eyes burned with validation. Diana met his gaze. It was simply a confirmation of what was already obvious. What could not be ignored. An intense heat wave rolled off of him onto her and she felt like she was melting on the spot. Caleb suppressed another chuckle. Why did he have to enjoy her self-destruct in front of him?
Michelle came up and looped her arm through Diana’s, tugging her back to reality. A new reality. It’s all going to be different now. It has to be.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Michelle explained. “Girls?” Michelle turned Diana around to march down the hallway, Jenn trailing behind. Diana didn’t need to turn back to look at Caleb, she knew he was still standing there, watching them leave.
The door to the bathroom slammed against the wall as Michelle powered through and checked to make sure the stalls were empty.
“WTF, Dee, you are on another planet,” Michelle began.
Diana looked at herself in the mirror. She turned on the water and got a paper towel wet, brushing it against her face. She had never lost it like this before, not even close. She realized that it was freaking the girls out, but she was more worried about how freaked out she was. Pull it together, Diana!
“Are you alright?” Jenn was trying the soothing approach. Someone always had to be good cop against Michelle’s bad cop. Jenn placed her hand over Diana’s forehead as if she were taking her temperature and then smoothed down Diana’s hair.
“I don’t really know how to explain it,” Diana tried to start. She tried to laugh it off unsuccessfully, then rallied. “And you two were SO subtle. Thanks a lot!” She turned to face them.
“It was just weird, okay?” Michelle said, trying to be friendly.
“I know. It was weird for me too, okay?” Diana retorted.
“So is Greg available?” Michelle asked, a wicked grin spreading across her face.
“Greg is great,” Diana said. They could smell the lie.
Michelle wasn’t going to let it go. “So what’s the deal with the newbie?”
“His name’s Caleb–” It was weird saying his name aloud, like she had spoken something holy, and Diana was thrown again. She would have to stick to details. “He’s on the football team with Greg, and he just moved here from somewhere.” That was pathetic.
“Ohio, I think he said,” rescued Jenn.
“He’s hot,” Michelle goaded, smiling again. Diana tried to fight back her own smile. “Come on, why you all gushy?”
“With Greg I feel safe and warm and taken care of. He’s gorgeous and sweeter than you’d expect, and he has that kind of manly feel to him. But with…Caleb,” she rushed through the rest of her thought, “I felt like I could spend the rest of my life with him and never think twice.” Diana squinted at Michelle and Jenn, waiting for the backlash.
“Whoa,” was all Michelle could say.
“Yea, whoa. I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Diana backtracked. They heard the bell ring outside. “I mean it’s the first day of school. His first day here. It’s nothing, right?” Diana was suddenly not sure about that. “I mean, he might not even like me!”
“Baby Girl, he likes you,” Michelle said. She and Jenn burst out laughing.
“That’s for sure,” Jenn concurred.
Diana rolled her eyes at her best friends. “Come on, we’re late!” She grabbed her backpack and with a nod to her girlfriends, she headed to Caleb. I mean, English.