Copyright © 2009 by Centre 58 Dance Arts Ltd.  All Rights Reserved.

   WARNING:  This book is not about vampires, werewolves or fairies.  But don’t stop reading… it’s still a really good book.  And do you know what else is really popular right now?  Dancing.  Yes, consider So You Think You Can Dance and the massive viewership that show pulls in each week.  This book is for that audience.  I’ve done my research you know.  There is no fiction based literature in the dance genre for today’s generation.  Not like mine.

memoirs of a dancer
book 1: ballet

Monday, September 8th (morning)

    Okay, so I was pretty average, five foot six, and if I was being really honest, one hundred and thirty pounds.  If I wasn’t, maybe I’d cheat and say one twenty.  Who wouldn’t want to cheat when surrounded by a room full of slender willowy ballerinas?  But I was good; I knew that about myself at least.  Maybe I couldn’t developpe my leg to one hundred and seventy degrees the way some of the girls could do.  The way Sasha could do.  But I had more than that.  I could dance, from the inside. From deep down.  
    Miss Bridget had told me as much of course, on more than one occasion. She was just about the greatest teacher anyone could ask for, one of those people that come along once in a lifetime – the person that you want to be best friends with because she makes you smile even when she’s not there.  
    She was young too.  She had been a principal dancer in one of the ballet companies up north but two years into her contract she fell during a performance of Giselle and twisted her knee.  It wasn’t a bad injury, but it was enough for her to re-evaluate her goals and think a little further down the line.  Thank goodness she chose to become a teacher.  I probably wouldn’t be dancing if she hadn’t been there to encourage me.  
    So she moved to Cedar Ridge and opened up her very own dance studio.  Yup, Enigma School of Dance – ESD for short… because Miss Bridget always says that dance is one of the greatest mysteries of life.
    I started dancing when I was four.  At that time, my dad had just died and my mom was looking for a way to get a traumatized and needy child out of her hair while she dealt with losing the love of her life.  We had been such a happy family and when my dad died, our family died too.  My mom went into autopilot, basically just going through the motions of everyday living until that’s all she knew how to do.  
    I hated dancing at first.  It seemed too loud, too crowded compared to my tiny three person family.  But the longer I attended, the more I loved it.  While I began to blossom and recover from the pain of losing my one and only father my mom became more reclusive, shunning her friends and what little family she had left.  Eventually, dance became a sanctuary for me, somewhere I could go to escape from the monotony of living with a mother that wasn’t even really alive.  Anyways, I was looking for a new studio because Mrs. Davis, the elderly owner of my studio, was retiring.  And as fate would have it, that summer Miss Bridget moved to town.  I’ve been at ESD ever since.
    Miss Bridget is big into “studio unity”.  She feels that everyone should be supportive of each other, no matter the skills and talents we bring with us.  Well, that was all great on the surface but when it came right down to it, we weren’t unified.  Honestly, with friends like Sasha and her bunch, who needed enemies?  
    Seriously though, I wasn’t going to let the thought of them bother me today.  It was a brand new start, every day holding untold promises.  The possibilities were endless—
    “CAROLINA!!!  Get out of bed NOW!”  Ugh.  I groaned as I rolled over and tried to ignore the increasingly insistent tone in my mother’s voice.  Why did she have to interrupt my daydreaming with something as trivial as—
    “You have five minutes to get down here if you want a ride to school!  Otherwise, you’re on your own!”
    My mom is not a morning person.  In fact I think that’s one thing we actually have in common.  I hate mornings, Monday mornings especially.  So much for my bright outlook.  Right, well why should today be any different?  Even though I’d just promised myself it could be.  But then I wasn’t the best at keeping New Year’s resolutions either.
    With a heavy sigh I rolled out of bed and prepared myself for another day of adolescent prison.
    My high school sits almost on the eastern edge of town, surrounded by a large and well maintained football field.  Come on, it wouldn’t be high school if there wasn’t a football team.  Although I don’t know if you can call the Cedar East Rams an actual football team.  They are pretty bad, not having made it to the playoffs in seven excruciatingly awful seasons.    
    This is my third (unfortunately only just beginning) year at Cedar East.  Actually, it’s Eastern Cedar Ridge High School, but ECRHS is a bit of a mouthful.  There is a Western Cedar Ridge High School as well, on the other side of town.  Original, huh?  Okay, I’ll admit the people that thought up the names of our two main schools wouldn’t win a prize for creativity or anything.  
    I do have to say though, walking into Cedar East this year wasn’t going to be as intimidating as it used to be.  Up until last year I went to school with all the girls from my studio.  I reflected on how much things had changed as I stepped through the freshly painted doors into the familiar blue hallway.  
    Last September I had been just one of a gaggle of girls, Sasha leading the way, imperious as always.  I shuddered as I remembered how devoted I was to Sasha, and how noxious we were to others.  I could still hear her voice, as though the walls remembered and sent echoes back to me.
    “Carolina!  Kiss, kiss!  So glad to see you!”
    Every comment was carefully modulated so I would believe we were friends.  But, as is the way with girls, jealousy was always there waving its big, fat green head.  Too bad I was the last to see it.  If I had known they were laughing at me behind my back the whole time we knew each other, I would have told them to go screw themselves and gotten some better friends.  At least, that what I tell myself when I think back on what happened.
    I knew that Sasha and Bennett didn’t like that I was friendly with some of the other kids at school.  They just didn’t approve.  Is it just me, or can dancers be the snobbiest class of elitists on the planet?  But seriously, I never believed things would get as bad as they did.  Once Bennett heard that a new performing arts school was opening up in the area, everything changed.  
    Didn’t I know?  Everyone was going to Carter next year.  Oh yeah, Carter Performing Arts Academy.  The place to be if you wanted a future as a dancer – at least that’s what all the brochures intimated.  And if I wasn’t going, I wasn’t anything.  
    No one could understand why I wanted to stay at Cedar East.  It wasn’t that I didn’t think the teachers at Carter were good, I just knew that no one was as good as Miss Bridget.  And that was the end of our friendship.  All because I wasn’t going to CPAA, and wanted to stay with my friends here.  I had to live with that decision for the last four months of school, and they made those months hell.
    Aargh, just the thought of that whole scene last year made my blood boil.  I realized that this pondering was not a good way to start my day.  Come on, Carolina, snap out of it.  They’re gone, remember?  Yeah I still have to see them at dancing, but I can handle that.
    The thought of dancing reminded me that I hadn’t had my first ballet class yet.  Ballet on Mondays, that had always been my schedule.  I pulled my long brown hair back into a ponytail, vaguely pondering which bodysuit I would wear tonight.
    “Carolina!’”  I turned to see Holly trying to get my attention.  She raced down the hallway trailing papers and blonde, curly hair.  She arrived panting, and rested her hands on her knees as she tried to get her words out.
    “Have – you – seen – him – yet?’”  I continued walking as she struggled to keep up.  
    “Oh my gosh, who are we talking about?”  I got as L.A. Valley as I possibly could.  “Like, is there a new boy in school?  Teacher, janitor, lunch-lady?  Who?”  
    I rattled this response off quickly, and with a big smile on my face because I knew Holly would be aggravated at not getting to interrupt me due to her, um, shortness of breath.
    She straightened and glared daggers at me.  Okay, not enough to cause a mortal wound, but it was enough to shut me up.  Holly was a great friend to me, even if she wasn’t a dancer, which SOME people seemed to think was an essential prerequisite if you wanted their friendship.  I had to force myself to stop that train of thought as a red haze began to obscure my vision.  I glanced over at my exuberant best friend, feeling guilty.  Slightly shorter than me, and maybe ten pounds heavier, she was one of the best people I knew.  We’d been friends since Grade One when she told me I was pretty and asked to hold my Barbie.  
    I relented, “Oh come on, tell me!  I’m sorry for ruining your fun.  Please?  Pretty please, Holly?”
    She huffed, still angry.  I gave her my very best lost puppy dog impression.  I knew she couldn’t resist that one.  Yes, just one of my many charms.  I batted my eyes at her and interlaced my fingers as if to plead guilty to being a mean friend.
    Giggling, she relented and fell into my arms.  “Fine.  I’ll tell you.”  She looked at me with narrowed eyes.  “But you have to promise not to interrupt.”
    “Okay, okay!  It’s a promise!”  I continued to class with my arms held up in surrender, Holly trailed behind getting ready to spill.  CRASH!  I went down hard in a flurry of arms, legs and backpacks.
    “Look out!”  Holly’s warning came a little too late.  I had been walking backwards, oblivious to where I was going.  That wasn’t anything new.  But the boy I landed on certainly was.
    “OH CRAP!  I’m soooo sorry!”  I was standing before I knew I had fallen.  Before me, surrounded by my books and his lay the most beautiful boy I had ever seen.  He looked stunned, vaguely aggravated and… perfect.
    Holly starting babbling apologies and grasping at every book and paper she could find.  I couldn’t focus on what she was saying.  My face was flushed and I could feel the mortification creeping down my neck.
    I should be helping her.  I should be apologizing.  I should be helping him up.  Come on Carolina, MOVE!
    The boy slowly sat up and got to his feet.  He was tall and slim, maybe four inches taller than me.  But I could tell there was strength there.  He had the look of an athlete.  Lean face, thick brown hair falling over his warm brown eyes.  He looked at me warily, as though he was worried about me getting too close.
    I stood there wide-eyed, the humiliation become more intense just seeing him look at me that way.  Please, kill me now.  Let me die right here in the hallway!
    Holly handed him his backpack, complete with books intact.
    “Look, we’re really sorry!  We weren’t watching where we were going.  Are you okay?”  She was breathless as she nudged me in the ribs, expectantly waiting for me to stop drooling and chime in.
    I snapped my mouth shut.  “Yeah, really I am sorry.  Sometimes I don’t watch where I’m going.”  I grabbed Holly’s arm and pulled her away from his piercing gaze.  I couldn’t stand it anymore.  For once she co-operated and let me rush her down the halls.  I didn’t stop until we charged around the corner.  Letting her arm drop I threw my back against the wall.  
    “Well Carolina, I guess you just met the new boy.”  I glared at her, wondering how she could find this funny.
    “You mean I just almost killed the new boy?”  I banged my head against the wall a few times, hands covering my scarlet face.  I could hear Holly laughing.
    “Well it was kind of funny.  Did you see everyone staring at you guys?”  Her laughter continued unabated.  She obviously didn’t care that my life was officially over.
    “No way Holly.  All I saw was him staring at me like I was a freak.”  I peeked out from between my fingers.  “It was really bad, wasn’t it?”  I didn’t want to hear her answer.  But Holly was a true friend.
    “Nope, not bad at all.  Everyone will have forgotten it even happened by lunchtime.”   Trust Holly to lie to me, even if it was just to make me feel better.  “Come on, I’ll take you to class.”  Holly looped her arm though mine and gently guided me away from the wall.  
    “Oh, by the way,” she added casually, “your stuff is totally all over the floor back there.”  My laughter echoed off the walls of the hallway as I headed to class with my best friend.

    Monday night.  There were two and a half hours of ballet ahead of me.  I stood outside the studio, anticipation quivering through my body.  This is exactly what I needed to forget all about the horrible day I just endured.  I knew that ballet would hold its own challenges, but nothing could be as bad as my meeting with the new boy this morning.
    Thank heavens I hadn’t seen him again.  Well, not up close at least.  I saw him a couple of times down the hallways, and once during lunch, but I tried really hard to look like I wasn’t looking.
    Although I knew she wouldn’t be watching for it, I gave one last half hearted wave at the retreating end of my mom’s car, then took a deep breath and stepped through the glass doors.  I had specifically planned this moment, arriving with barely enough time to spare so I wouldn’t be caught in any awkward situations.
    The lobby looked the same as always.  It was filled with girls that I would never have to go to school with again.  No one looked up as I walked to my usual spot and dropped my bag.  There was the typical chatter but for once I couldn’t join in because we really had nothing in common anymore.  They attended Carter, I attended Cedar East.   
    I could hear Sasha dramatizing over in the corner.  “Mr. Craven’s class was so amazing today, didn’t you guys think?”
    I could see the other girls nodding their agreement in a most lemming-esque manner.  Ugh, I just wanted class to start so I didn’t have to hear them anymore.
    I stepped into the studio and stood at the barre wondering if anyone was going to talk to me.  Guess not.  Well that’s okay with me; I’m just here for the ballet anyways.  I watched them all file in, some singly, some in groups, their voices dropping to whispers as they saw me standing there.  Rolling my eyes I turned to the barre and began to warm up.  The girls gravitated towards the back of the studio, leaving a clear bubble of space around me.  I could see them all awkwardly milling around out of the corner of my eye as I continued my warm up.  Every so often one of them would toss a furtive glance my way.  
    There was a very clear line drawn, apparently it was going to be me against them after all.  I began to wonder where Miss Bridget was.  It wasn’t like her to start a class late.  I took another peek at the girls standing towards the back.  They were all staring at the door, frozen in comic unison.   It look me a moment to turn my head.  Then I saw her.  Standing at the doorway.  With a boy.  Dressed for class.  It took my stupid brain a few seconds before I realized that he was a new student.  The new student.
    I felt my jaw drop and eyes widen.  Oh please, not him.  He was a dancer?  And attending my studio?  I was positive that Sasha, Lily and Bennett would try to find some way to stake a claim.  I could see them eyeing him greedily as he took in the studio around him.  Some of the other girls giggled nervously at the thought of a BOY in their dance class.  At least he wasn’t wearing tights – who knows what they would have done.
    My cheeks flushed and I barely heard Miss Bridget as she introduced him to the class.  Charlie.  Of course his name would be Charlie, something sweet and different and handsome.
    “Now girls, I want you all to make Charlie feel welcome at ESD.”  She smiled as she spoke but I could see the warning in her eyes.  Uh oh, I think that was meant for me and Sasha.  Okay, we can pretend we’re all friends for one night at least.  And I’m sure Sasha will try and make Charlie feel more than welcome.  Who me, sarcastic?
    My attention was pulled back to the fact that HE was all of the sudden in my ballet class.  My one special place!  Of all the people and all the studios how did he end up here?  I felt like fate was playing a really mean trick on me.  I contemplated the troubles I’d had last year and just barely gotten over and now, this?  But as upset and embarrassed as I was, I couldn’t help but notice that he didn’t even look in my direction.  
    I was feeling very grouchy as Miss Bridget went to prepare her music and everyone scattered to find a spot on the barre.  Charlie had to walk past me to find a spot since I had stupidly decided to stand right at the front.  Holy crap, he smelled good.  I closed my eyes and prayed fervently he wouldn’t stand right behind me.  Thankfully though, he ended up about halfway down the barre and my galloping pulse slowed.
    We began with our warm-up exercises.  Plies, tendus, rond de jambe, always the same.  She put on Chopin, one of my favorites, and the melody drifted out of the speakers.  I could feel the tinkling notes start to envelop me.  It was no use trying to stay mad, I was spellbound. The tension of the last few minutes pulled down and away.  Aah, this was why I was good, I knew.  Not because I was the most flexible or had the best turnout.  It was because I could be the music. I let everything fade away as my body followed the familiar barre routine.  
    Normally nothing could pull me out of this reverie, but suddenly I felt – it was hard to explain – but I felt focused on.  I glanced around but everyone seemed to be concentrating on the work at hand, listening to Miss Bridget’s corrections.  She was over by Bennett, trying to get her to turn out from the hip instead of the knee.  
    Snickering to myself I tried to return to my silent communion with the music.  But I just couldn’t shake the feeling I’d had moments before.  I surreptitiously glanced at Charlie in the mirror, wondering how he was picking up the syllabus.  My jaw almost dropped as I watched him toss up the most gorgeous grande battement I had ever seen.  Then he did another one, and held it aloft, his muscles like tempered steel.  He slowly and carefully rose to demi-pointe, took a balance, and held it for like, nine millions seconds.  I realized I was just standing there, staring in awe at this gorgeous boy I didn’t even know but had crashed into only this morning.  How had I not realized he was a dancer?  He was so obviously a dancer.  But believe me, I wasn’t the only one staring.  
    Feeling ridiculous, I whipped around and tried to get back into the exercise.  I immediately began wondering where he had come from.  He obviously had a good teacher, and he picked up extremely quickly.  I desperately hoped that he wasn’t going to be one of those people that was good at everything.  Beautiful and talented??  So not fair.  That was just too much for one person when some of the rest of us only got bits and pieces—
    My eyes refocused as I realized that Miss Bridget was calling me.  I could hear whispering from the corner, Sasha and Bennett no doubt.  So much for us being friends for the day.  But Miss Bridget wasn’t really surprised that I hadn’t been listening.  I could get kind of involved in ballet class.  Apparently we’d made it through barre and were moving to the centre.
    “Could you please demonstrate the first port de bras?”  I knew the syllabus from last year so I was more than ready to demonstrate the exercise, even though it was the first class of the year.  “Charlie doesn’t know this exercise yet, so we’ll have you demonstrate before I go into details.”  I wanted to look at him, but I just couldn’t do it, my stomach twittering at the thought of making eye contact with him.
    I walked into the centre of the room feeling the expectant stares of some and resentful glares of others.  That was typical, even without the CPAA battle.  Jealousy, remember?  But I was completely unprepared for the intense gaze I suddenly felt directed at me.  It felt like burning coals on my bare shoulders.
    Oh crap, it’s him.  He’s watching me!  He’s probably wondering why I got chosen.  He must think I’m awkward and repulsive and hideous and—
    “Ready, Carolina?”  Miss Bridget was watching me with a slight note of concern in her eyes.
    Right, I could understand that.  I was the girl that always knew the exercise.  Nothing could ruffle my calm.  But did she not realize that having a boy in the class changed everything?      My thoughts were racing even as my body gracefully and mechanically moved into place.  Sometimes repetition could be a good thing – especially for someone that dreams as much as I do.
    I smiled and nodded at Miss Bridget indicating that my mind had caught up with my body.  But inside I felt like everything had gotten tangled.  I’d never had to deal with something like this.  Nothing had ever gotten in the way of ballet.  Nobody had ever made me feel so – self conscious.
    I blinked and gave myself a mental slap upside the head.  Settle down, Carolina.  Brand new start, remember?  So what if you crashed into him in the hallway?  Whatever, no big deal.  He probably doesn’t even remember it was you.  Come on, you can dance.  So dance.  Just dance.
    I let the mantra wash over me.  I felt my muscles relax, one by one, while still remaining alert for the first strains of music.  It began, and then – as always - I was swept away by the magnificent phrases surrounding me. I left my captive audience to gaze or glower, but by then I no longer cared who did which.

    An hour and a half later, ballet class finished much the way it started.  My cheeks were burning as I listened to my classmates rave about how wonderful, beautiful and amazing Charlie was.  All I could remember was my moment of insanity.
    “I haven’t seen him at Carter yet.”
    “Did you see those pirouettes?”
    “He’s gorgeous, of course… I wonder how he ended up in Cedar Ridge?”
    The words were hushed as the girls huddled at one end of the lobby while Charlie packed up at the other.  Their conversations tumbled out and over each other as they giggled and gushed.  I rolled my eyes and turned away to fold up my pointe shoes.  It was amazing how quickly I had been forgotten.  I supposed I should be grateful to him though, because for once, the attention was off of me and onto him.
    I could see Sasha out of the corner of my eye.  It looked like she was trying to decide whether to make her move.  Tall and beautiful, her honey blonde hair was still in its perfect bun.  She had stepped away from the other girls as if to separate herself from their childish fluttering.
    I finished packing up my stuff and wondered how successful she would be.  I mean, there is a stigma about boys that dance.  Gay, or not gay?  Wasn’t that what every girl wondered about every male dancer?  She was poised to take her first elegant step towards that answer.  I was resigned as I realized that Sasha was probably the best of us to find out.  Yeah, I don’t like her, but I can admit that she’s the prettiest of all of us.
    “All right girls,” Miss Bridget called as she stepped out of the studio.  She was carrying a clipboard in hand.  Immediately the frivolous atmosphere in the lobby turned serious.
    “And Charlie,” she added as she turned and winked at him.  “Please don’t forget that company auditions are this Friday.”
    I turned to see Sasha slinging her bag over her shoulder.  She looked faintly chagrined at not being able to stake her claim on Charlie, but company auditions were more important to her than a new boy in class.
    Miss Bridget moved to the bulletin board and hung up the audition sheet for all to see.  The girls started buzzing with excitement as they debated over which pieces we would be performing this year.
    As soon as Miss Bridget stepped away, the girls clustered around and started signing their names in a myriad of swirls and squiggles.  I turned away from the crowd and started to head out the door.  It’s not like I wouldn’t be back at the studio this week to sign up when certain people weren’t watching. Besides, it was just easier this way.  And my mom was waiting for me.  Ugh, coward.  I hated feeling like I had to sneak around at my own studio.
    I slowly walked to the waiting car trying to leave the last few hours behind and focus on my homework for the night.  My mom didn’t say anything as I tossed my bag into the back seat.  
    Well, what’s new?  Better try to keep her in a good mood since she was already annoyed about having to come pick me up.  I settled in for a silent ride.  As thoughts of Biology began swimming through my head, the vague image of Charlie’s face that had been lingering in my mind completely vanished.

Tuesday, September 9th (morning)

    One Biology class and an entire morning full of mind-numbing lectures later, I slumped down at my table in the cafeteria and pulled out my lunch.
    Someone tell me when I’m ever going to need to know about genetic continuity?  You know, people always say that if you don’t work hard in school then you’ll amount to nothing, but seriously.  The only time I’m ever going to need to remember Mr. Blake’s zombie lecture on genetics is if I become a Biology teacher in some crazy parallel universe and we all know that’s never going to happen—
    “Carolina?”  The musical tenor of an unfamiliar voice startled me.  I wrestled to pull my thoughts back to the present.
    “Carolina?”  He said it again, insistent yet uncertain.  I looked up to see Charlie standing across the table from me.  He was wearing a navy blue sweater, and he looked gorgeous in it.  Well, a little apprehensive too.  Maybe he thought I was mentally incompetent or something.
    I’m such a dork.  “Oh hey, Charlie, right?”  Take that, nonchalance.  “Sorry, my thoughts have a tendency to wander sometimes.  Do you want to sit down?”  I was shocked as the words so easily left my mouth.  I had never asked a boy that question, and certainly never thought I would ask this boy.
    “Yeah, thanks,” he sighed in relief as he tossed his backpack down and dropped into the seat across from me.  I had to force myself to stop staring at him.  
    “So, how do you like Cedar Ridge so far?”  I thought my question was casual enough, delivered without too much interest coloring my voice.
    “It’s ok, I guess.”  His eyebrows drew together, which instantly started my heart beating a little faster.  Did he not like it here?  Did he not like the dance studio?  Was he going to try and find another teacher?  I tried to pull myself back to the moment at hand.  Charlie had continued speaking as I went on my mental rampage.
    “I really like Miss Bridget though.  I think I’m going to like ESD.”  Immediately my heart settled as I saw the grin on his face.  It amazed me that I was actually sitting here with him.  So, I don’t sit with boys.  Ever.  There’s nothing wrong with that, right?
    I tried not to be distracted by the dimple in his cheek.  I was desperate to find something really interesting to say, something that would erase yesterday’s utter humiliation.  Come on, Carolina… think.  What do boys like to talk about?   
    Just then I heard loud footsteps stuttering up in a wild frenzy.  I could see Charlie’s eyes widening at the spectacle behind me. I whipped around in barely enough time to get crushed by a huge bear hug.
    “ADEN!!”  I hugged her back as hard as she was hugging me.  Aden had taken an extended summer and had only just returned.  She jumped back and narrowed her eyes critically.
    “You call that a tan?”  She scoffed and gestured at my pale arms.
    “Aden, you know I didn’t go anywhere this summer.  Not all of us can spend three months in Spain!”  Thanks for the painful reminder of me and my mom not talking all summer by the way.
    But I could see that her attention had already been drawn to the boy sitting politely behind me.  I was kind of miffed that my Aden time was already over, but I really couldn’t blame her for being drawn to the beautiful face that was right there.   I knew I should get the introductions over with but I felt like I’d barely been introduced to Charlie myself and selfishly, I didn’t want to share him.  Aden, however, would not give up easily.
    I sighed in resignation.  “Aden, Charlie.  Charlie, Aden.”  I was hoping she’d take the abrupt introduction as a hint and go find some other friends to bother.  
    Come on, Aden, leave… I love you but go away.  
    Aden’s emerald eyes peered at me and a slow smile spread across her face.  She must have seen something because she immediately whirled back to Charlie and ruffled her hand through her short black hair.  Either that or some Spanish gypsies had taught her how to read minds over the summer.
    “Great to meet you, Charlie.  Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude but I’ve gotta run.  You know, people to see, schedules to change – first day and all that!”
    Aden dashed off with a quick wink in my direction before Charlie could even get a word out.  Good girl, Aden.  Magical mind powers to the rescue!  I turned back to see how Charlie was dealing with hurricane Aden.  
    He looked slightly windswept, but then I suspected we all did after Aden passed through.  I laughed at the look on his face.   His beautiful, lean face.   And that dark hair… falling over his eyes—
    “Why did that girl call you an arrow?”  I jumped as Charlie pulled me out of my reverie.  My cheeks flushed under his warm chocolately gaze.  
    “Not arrow!”  I giggled… WHOA… giggled?  I seriously needed to rein this in.  I took a moment to choke back the hysteria that was threatening to erupt.  
    “Not arrow,” I began again.  “A-R-O, like, short for Carolina.  Although if you spoke to some people around here they would say I am sort of like an arrow, given my propensity for running into things.  I always fly straight and true.”
    I looked away, suddenly embarrassed.  Way to bring up the past, Carolina!  Stupid stupid stupid—
    I heard him chuckle from across the table.  “Oh, that was you?”  His eyes were wide with mock astonishment.  
    “Yeah, sorry about that.”  I was completely mortified.  I gazed at my half eaten sandwich so I’d have something to stare at other than his face.
    “I saw you in ballet last night.  You’re very good.”  I looked up in surprise at the sudden topic change.  That was something I wasn’t used to hearing from my classmates.  You know – studio unity – not our strong point.
    “Oh, thanks,” I mumbled, still feeling a wash of embarrassment from the memory of yesterday.  Suddenly I realized something.  “That was you watching me in ballet last night!”
    “Yup.  I was just checking out the talent.”  He cocked his head and raised his eyebrows.  There was no trace of discomfiture or awkwardness when he made this admittance.  
    Then I decided if he could be confident, so could I.  “You’re very good too you know.”  I looked at him sideways, wondering how he would take my compliment.
    “Thanks, I’ve been dancing since I was six.  But I’m only good because I had a great teacher.”  Hmm… not cocky at all.  Interesting.  
    Charlie continued,   “So, Miss Bridget told me last night that she’s going to add a pas de deux to the company show.”  
    Aah, the company show.  It was actually a big deal.  Not only did the company perform pieces at the end of the year for our family and friends, but it was also a huge fundraiser in our community.  Every year, Miss Bridget donated two dollars from every ticket to the Celia Franca Foundation.  The event was always covered by the media, the story too good to pass up.  Miss Bridget, youthful ingénue of the stage turned inspirational educator; helping the young dancers of the world achieve their most sought after goals.  Being in the show was a guarantee of being on the local news, and the better your part, the better the coverage.  Sometimes we’d even have local artists and dance troupes come and perform as well.  Yeah, it was a big deal.
    I rested my chin in my hand as I pictured the sign up sheet I’d avoided last night.  I was suddenly curious about his last name.  No!  Focus, Carolina.  Okay, well we’d never had a pas de deux.  That was something interesting.  I guess because we’d never had a boy before.
    He was smiling at me, a big cheeky grin that started my pulse fluttering again.  “I hope Miss Bridget picks you to be my partner.  That is, if you’re even auditioning.  I noticed you didn’t sign up last night.”  He delivered the last line very seriously, folding his arms and leaning forward to rest them on the table.  
    “Of course I am!” I quickly inserted, sitting up and dropping my hands to my lap.  I didn’t bother explaining why I hadn’t signed up last night.  It was just petty girl stuff.  There was no need to explain that one of the many reasons the girls at the studio didn’t like me was because I usually got chosen as the lead in the final ballet.  They assumed it was because I was Miss Bridget’s favorite.  Of course it had nothing to do with the fact that maybe I was the most qualified.  But me, dance with him??  Somehow I couldn’t picture it.  I mean, he wasn’t small, but neither was I, really, and—
    “ARO?”  He snapped his fingers in front of my eyes a couple of times to catch my attention.  I started laughing as he used my nickname like we’d known each other forever.  That was the first time a boy had ever referred to me as Aro.  It sounded so funny coming from him, but it suddenly felt like we’d always been friends and had always sat together for lunch bantering like this.  How I wished that were true.  I might have been spared a lot of heartache.  
    As I watched the virtual stranger in front of me, I wondered how he could be so extroverted.  He was totally opposite from me.  It was a testament to how reclusive I was that I had exactly two people I could count as friends in this school.  Acquaintances sure, but friends?  Two.  Well, I amended, maybe three after today.
    “Yeah, that could be cool I guess.”  I returned his smile.  It was really hard not to be happy with Charlie around.  He obviously didn’t care that I wasn’t the smallest girl in class.  That honor belonged to Lily, one of Sasha’s groupies.  She was a tiny little fairy with long chestnut hair and big blue eyes.  She really wasn’t that bad, but association with Sasha automatically put her and me on opposite sides of the fence.
    I picked at my sandwich as Charlie dove into his backpack to pull out his lunch.  I watched out of the corner of my eye as he shined an apple on the sleeve of his sweater.
    I was still hungry but I didn't want to open my bag of chips with him sitting right there.  What if he thought I was a pig or something?  Ballerinas aren’t supposed to eat things like chips and hamburgers and ice cream, or anything other than lettuce for that matter.  I bet Sasha only eats lettuce for lunch.  That thought made me laugh out loud.
    “What’s so funny?” questioned Charlie, putting his apple down.  I belatedly realized that he hadn’t been following my thoughts since he wasn’t psychic.  Obviously.
    Drawing on my newfound confidence I blurted, “Well I was just thinking that I shouldn’t eat these because dancers aren’t supposed to eat chips… or at all.” My voice got smaller and smaller as I realized how stupid I sounded.  So like – a girl.  
    Charlie exploded with laughter.  “Oh you girls!  You’re all the same!”  He snatched the chips up from beside me and popped them open.  
    “I didn’t say I wasn’t going to eat them,” I grumbled as I glared at him from under my eyelashes.  
    “So what do you guys do for fun around here?”  I watched him munch on my stolen chips as he turned in his seat to glance around the cafeteria.
    A quick jolt pulsed through me.  Suddenly I was terrified that he was going to make friends, people more popular and interesting than me.  Charlie was cool and confident and the laws of high school dictated that popular people hung out with popular people, band geeks hung out with band geeks, and friendless people hung out alone.  I could feel my heart pounding in time with my racing thoughts.  I envied him that he was already so comfortable in a brand new place.  Really, I envied him because even I wasn’t truly comfortable, and I’d been here my whole life.
    I thought I should make the most of my probably one time never to happen again lunch with Charlie, so I opened up my mouth to expound the wonders of Cedar Ridge when I glanced over to the caf door saw Holly waving at me.
    “Crap, I gotta run!”  I hadn’t realized it was that late already.  Charlie looked confused at my sudden flurry.
    I felt the need to explain.  “I’ve got Keaton next class, and he’ll kill me if I’m late.”  
    “It’s only the second week of school and you already have death threats from teachers?”  Charlie looked doubtful.  
    I rolled my eyes in exasperation.  “No, I had Keaton last year.  And I kind of have a reputation for being a bit… vacant sometimes.  You remember yesterday, right?”   Darn my stupid blushing!
    I saw Charlie looking down at his class schedule.  “So we’re talking about English with Mr. Keaton in room 34B?”  
    I stared wide eyed at him until he continued without looking up.  “Because that’s where I’m going now too.”  
    He looked up and smiled so devastatingly that all logical thought stopped in its tracks.  He jumped up and grabbed his backpack, leading the way to the cafeteria doors.  It was all I could do not to take hold of his hand as I followed behind.  The rest of the day passed in a blur.  Charlie and I only had English together, which was probably a good thing considering… well let’s just say I had a hard time concentrating when he was around.

    Friday finally arrived in a bright, crisp blaze.  Fall in Cedar Ridge was my favorite time of year, not only because dancing started up again.  The trees changed so rapidly, I felt like if I blinked I would miss it.  It was like living in a multi-hued wonderland.  I loved how the gold and crimson leaves gathered along the curbs and in every nook and cranny.  Sometimes, if I knew no one was looking, I would dance through the crunching leaves in delight.  
    I’d been to the studio a couple of times since ballet for other classes.  I promised myself I wouldn’t, but when I put my name on the sign up sheet, I snuck a guilty glance.  Okay, I couldn’t help it; I just wanted to know what his last name was!  Anyways, his name is Charlie Masterson.  
    I just assumed Charlie would be taking other classes, like the rest of us.  But when Charlie didn’t show up for contemporary on Wednesday, Miss Bridget told me that he was only taking ballet.  When I asked Charlie about it, his eyes hardened and he changed the subject.  Hmm.
    Charlie joined Holly, Aden and I every day for lunch that week and he was so friendly that I stopped worrying about him finding a new crowd to hang with.  For some reason I couldn’t understand, he actually seemed to like hanging out with a bunch of girls.  When he and Aden got going, we could barely force our food down we were laughing so hard.
    Charlie wasn’t very forthcoming about why he’d moved to Cedar Ridge, nor would he tell us much about his family.  It wasn’t like he was rude about it, but he would subtly steer the attention back to one of us by asking a question about this or that.  Kind of like when I asked him about taking more classes at the studio.  
    But, we did manage to force out a few interesting facts.  Like, for instance, Charlie had broken up with his girlfriend before his family moved.  (Yup, not gay.)  My heart expanded a few inches when I heard that news.  
    Oh, and he wasn’t enrolled at CPAA because he didn’t think school and dance should mix.  I seem to recall him rolling his eyes and muttering something about ‘catty girls’ under his breath, maybe in an effort to keep from offending Holly, Aden and myself.  He seemed surprised when we chimed in with fervent accord.  
    “A story there, I assume?”  He inspected our faces one by one.  If I had to guess, he would have seen me looking irritated, Holly looking like a ferocious bunny rabbit and Aden looking like she wanted to smash someone’s face in.
    “I had some issues with a few girls last year.  Holly and Aden backed me up.  No big deal.”  I shut down the conversation with my hasty reply.  I was determined to let Charlie make up his own mind about Sasha and the others.  The last thing I needed was to stir up trouble – and inevitably – more heartache for me.
    It seemed like we were settling into a comfortable routine and I obviously wasn’t going to do anything to shatter my own happy bubble.  Sometimes I would feel that odd sense of focus again, the same as in my first day of ballet, only to catch Charlie watching me with his big brown eyes.  He never looked away when I caught him, the way normal people do.  Instead, he’d narrow his eyes and press his lips together like we were in the most spectacular staring contest that had ever taken place.  Then he’d inevitably snap his fingers in my face, or flick something at me so I’d flinch, and declare himself the winner.  I didn’t care though.  It gave me a great reason to stare right back at him on a daily basis.  Or sometimes if I caught him he’d roll his eyes and loudly announce to the table that I should stop staring at him, no matter how good looking I thought he was.  There was so much truth to this that I always blushed as I reached out to smack him.  You never knew what to expect from Charlie, that was part of what made him so fun, and I watched as he adeptly charmed everyone around us.
    It’s amazing how quickly you can feel like you know someone.  We’d only been hanging out for a week and yet he felt like one of my best friends.  In fact, he was like everyone’s best friend.  He already knew more people in the hallways than I had met during my entire last year.  But he had secrets, that much was obvious.  And the better I got to know him, the more curious I got.

Friday, September 12th (evening)

    Company auditions were just like every other year.  We all lined up in the studio and performed a short piece of choreography for Miss Bridget.  It was a formality, really.  We all knew we’d have a spot in the show.  The only difference was that now we had to fit a boy in somewhere.  Of course I’d already heard that Miss Bridget was adding a pas de deux but was going to be a huge surprise to everyone else.
    “All right girls, good job today.”  Miss Bridget was still making notes on her clipboard as she moved to the front of the room.
    “I have some news for you.”  Yes, I could feel it coming.  
    She continued, “Since we have Charlie here now, I think it would be an opportunity wasted if we didn’t use his talents.”
    Charlie stood nonchalantly in the corner, like he was as oblivious as the rest of us.  I snuck a look over at him only to see a devious grin creep across his face as our eyes met.  Geez, Charlie.  Why do you do that?  My heart skipped a couple of beats.
    “I’ve decided to add a pas de deux to the show.”  The reaction to Miss Bridget’s words was instantaneous.  These girls weren’t stupid, no matter how many times I said they were.  Every one in the room was now looking at Charlie in a brand new way.  I wanted to laugh because I knew what they were thinking.  The winner of this contest would rule the studio forever.  
    You know, competition is fierce at a dance studio.  When it’s only girls, it can get pretty bad.  No duh.  But when there’s a boy involved, it can get downright evil.  We all knew that whoever Miss Bridget picked as Charlie’s partner was unofficially the queen bee.  Especially since at the company show the media attention would undoubtedly be focused on Charlie, and by association, Charlie’s partner.
    “Do you all remember the Sleeping Beauty choreography we worked on during the summer?”  Of course.  Well I did, at least.  I may have a horrible memory when it comes to economic structures or chromosomal deficiencies, but I never forget choreography.  Miss Bridget always played the male part, since she thought it was important that we knew how to partner even if there were no boys around.  Okay, well she didn’t do the lifts, but she did everything else.  Once again I thanked the heavens for Miss Bridget.
    She continued.  “Charlie knows the Prince’s role.  We’re going to do this now, so get ready please.  We’ll go through it once together and then we’ll start.”  My heart soared.  I glanced around the room already knowing who my main competition would be.
    Sasha.  Ugh, why does it always come back to Sasha?  
    The music began and I let my mind wander while I ran through the variation.  
    Okay, so Sasha has the best technique in the class, she has the best extensions, and she’s the prettiest.  What do I have that she doesn’t?  Pull it together Carolina.  Charlie already told you he wants you to be his partner.  But he’s only seen you dance once.  Maybe he’s changed his mind.  Maybe he sees that she is better than you?  Oh crap, has this week only been a sweet dream?  Please don’t let it have been a dream—
    “Great, it seems like most of you have it.”  Miss Bridget drew me back to the present with her assessment.    
    “Okay, ready Charlie?  You’re up, Lily.”  I stepped to the side of the room as Lily danced to the centre.  She was good, very delicate actually.  And she looked so petite next to Charlie’s strength.  My eyes moved to Charlie.  He was completely oblivious to the seven sets of eyes that rested upon his moving form.  Geez, I can’t blame everyone for staring at him.  He really is amazing.  And only sixteen?  It seemed unbelievable to me that someone could be so accomplished at such a young age.
    Charlie and Lily finished their audition.  He bowed to her, which was really quite adorable.  Lily blushed and moved back to the safety of the perimeter.  Charlie danced through a few more auditions and I got more and more impatient as I waited for my turn.
    Finally I was called into the centre.  
    “Are you sure you can keep up with me old man?”  I raised an eyebrow at the sweat beading on his forehead.  Yeah, that was a low blow.  He’d only done the variation like, four times already.  
    “No problem, Aro.”  Immediately I saw the challenge in his eyes.  He moved to his opening position, the dare apparent.  Hmph.  What an annoying boy.  And yet this was what I’d been waiting for all week.  I quickly moved to my first pose, excitement welling up in my chest.
    The first notes began and I was immediately hyper aware of him moving towards me.  Oh crap, I think I love him.  No!  Shut up, stupid!  The internal smack down brought me back.  I focused on his eyes, and he didn’t break the contact as we circled around each other; me, grace in motion; him, strength in movement.  We were a perfect match.  I felt every touch of his warm fingers on my body, saw every emotion cross his face, and reacted to every gesture instinctively.  In all my fantasies of this moment I never imagined it would be like this.  
    All of the knowledge Miss Bridget had imparted had never prepared me for the connection I felt with Charlie.  I had been happy in my fantasy world, completely blind to the fact that I was only half of a whole, completely unaware that dancing is so much more when you have someone to share it with.  I’ve just found my other half!  I exulted in my newfound awareness.
    As the music reached its crescendo, Charlie and I moved in perfect synchronicity.  His strength was the perfect compliment to my elegance.  He made me feel beautiful as he looked at me tenderly, playing the part of the prince with the utmost style.  I was enraptured; Sleeping Beauty in actuality, waking up from a long dream into an authentic reality.  Our eyes remained locked as the music gradually faded into oblivion, each of us caught up in the rarity of this union of souls.
    The final moments of the pas de deux complete, I took his hand at the ending pose conscious that my dancing had just moved to a whole new level.  I could tell from the utter silence in the room that everyone else knew it too.  I didn’t want to look away from him for fear that the beautiful moment would be lost forever.  
    Charlie gently disengaged his fingers from mine, took one step back and very formally bowed to me.  All the mischievousness had disappeared from his eyes.  It had been replaced with something deeper.  Was that… was that respect?  Well I hoped he could see the respect in my eyes reflected back at him.
    I took a step away and dropped into a gracious curtsey, even though I really felt more like giving him a big hug.  
    Charlie straightened up and raised his eyebrows appraisingly.  “Not bad.”  Pfft.  Not bad?  It was a lot better than not bad.  Fine, if Charlie’s going to flippant so am I.  Why are boys so annoying?
    “You too.”  That was all I could manage.  If he wasn’t going to say anything about what just happened, then neither was I.  But I wanted to throw myself at his feet, worship his divine skills and follow him forever.  
    Miss Bridget cleared her throat. “Okay, wow.  That was really good.  Um, do you two know each other?”
    The room echoed with our sudden laughter.  The moment was just too much.  It felt good to release some of the intensity.  
    “Yeah, we go to school together.”  I was still trying to smother my giggles.  “We’ve been hanging out all week.”  I put my hand over my mouth to try and gain some control.  It just seemed so funny all of the sudden.  I looked around the room only to see awe in some eyes, daggers in others.  The hilarity wore off real quick after that.  
    “Okay, let’s move on.  Sasha, you’re next.”  
    Charlie glanced my way apologetically.  I shrugged my shoulders and gave him a quick smile to let him know things were okay.  But really, things are WAY more than okay.  Sasha will never be able to top that, no matter how hard she tries.  
    I didn’t notice Lily shyly sidling over to me as I leaned against the barre.  I was too busy watching Charlie and Sasha.  She was trying way too hard, desperate to impress Charlie, Miss Bridget, and a room full of girls looking for every fault, and unfortunately, finding them.  There was no subtlety in her performance; she just tossed up her legs and threw out her arms with no internal purpose.  Charlie was very gallant, I’ll admit.  He was an extremely good partner, compensating flawlessly when Sasha over rotated her triple pirouette.  I rolled my eyes.
    “Hi Carolina.”  I jumped as I heard Lily whisper at my side.  Her pale cheeks stained a faint pink.  She seemed nervous, but determined to finish.  “That was really beautiful.”  
    ‘Thanks Lily.”  I’m sure I sounded surprised.  But we had been friends once upon a time.  Maybe this was a good thing.  I took a deep breath thankful that she had made the first move.
    I continued, “Your audition was very pretty too.  You and Charlie looked great together.”
    The rose stain on her cheeks deepened.  
    “Oh gosh, it was nothing compared to what you two just did.”  She hesitated.  “Even Sasha can’t keep up with you.”  She made a vague gesture to the centre of the room where Charlie and Sasha were just finishing up.
    Is that a white flag I see?  Okay Lily, I’m in.
    “Well, thanks.  Charlie brings out the best in me, I guess.  So how’s Carter this year?  It must be different going to a new school.”  I saw Sasha eyeing us suspiciously as she moved back to her spot on the other end of the studio.  Her cheeks were flushed too, but I suspect it was more in embarrassment at the lackluster audition than anything else.
    “It’s good, I guess.  It’s harder than I thought it would be.  I mean, we dance all day and then we come here and dance some more.”  Poor Lily got even more nervous, like she had snuck out for the night and was afraid of getting caught.  
    She glanced warily over her shoulder and I could see Sasha virtually ordering Lily back to her spot in the ranks of evil robots.  Her eyes burned us both to cinders.  Not literally obviously, but we both got the message.
    Lily sighed.  “Well, good luck Carolina.  I’m sure you’ll get the pas de deux.”  
    With one last apologetic look, she edged off to join Sasha at the other end of the barre.  I watched her go with a small smile on my face.  It’s a start, at least.  
    I turned back to see Charlie finishing the last of the auditions.  He looked totally wiped.  I grinned as he moved over to join me against the barre.
    “I’m impressed, Charlie.  Seven auditions later and you’re still standing!”  Secretly I really was impressed, but I wasn’t about to tell him that.
    “Gee, thanks, Aro,” he responded sarcastically.  “Man, that was brutal!”  I laughed as I patted his arm in sympathy.
    Miss Bridget dismissed us with a warm thanks and a promise of final decisions by Monday.
    “Come on, let’s get out of here.”  I pulled his arm to follow everyone out of the studio.  Internally, I was ecstatic that Charlie was still sticking with me.  Me, out of all the girls in the class.  He still chose me.  It was a silly thing, but I still felt special.
    He stepped in front of me to stop me from leaving.  “Carolina, I wanted to tell you that I’ve never danced with anyone like you before.”  His brown eyes bored into mine.
    “Thanks.  Is that a good thing?”  I raised an eyebrow hoping for a positive review.
    He rolled his eyes.  “Of course.  What we just did, that comes along once in a lifetime.  You’re the person that I’m meant to dance with.”  His sudden seriousness caught me off guard.  I wasn’t used to Charlie being so earnest.  He didn’t stop there.  “When I saw you in class on Monday, I knew you were good, but I didn’t know if we’d be good together, you know?”
    I giggled.  “Well, I guess now we know!  I’ve obviously never danced with a boy before, you were my first.  And it was amazing.”
    Charlie laughed.  “I’m your first huh?  Lucky me!”  
    I punched him in the arm.  “Don’t be so gross!”  
    Charlie was still laughing; probably more so at my weak punch than anything.  “So, what are you doing tomorrow?  Do you want to hang out or something?”  He raised his eyebrows and flashed a playful grin.  “Or, we could work on our English essays…”
    “Gosh, as much as I want to waste all day doing homework, no thanks.”  His face fell.
    “Oh!  That’s not a no to you!  That’s just a no to spending the day trying to figure out the world through Holden Caulfield’s eyes.”
    “Yeah, no kidding!”  He snorted as turned and walked towards the studio door.  “Hey, meet me outside okay?”  He winked and began to thread his way through the girls and bags littering the lobby.  I saw a few of the younger dancers from Miss Bridget’s next class swoon as they watched him pass.
    I watched him too, shaking my head in amusement.  I reluctantly turned away to get my bag.
    CRAP.  I’ll give you three guesses as to who was standing right behind me.  
    “Oh, hey Sasha.”  I shifted my eyes from her to my bag that she was so unfortunately blocking, and back again.
    “How’s Cedar East, Carolina?”  The venom in her tone was unmistakable.  I heaved a sigh, knowing this was not going to be an easy conversation.
    “It’s fine, Sasha.  Same as last year.”  
    Actually, it isn’t.  Because you’re gone, you ugly cow.  
    I tried to keep my face neutral even as I pushed past her and hastily began packing up.  The sooner I could get out of there, the better.
    “Yeah, well Carter is amazing.  The teachers there are so good.   It’s really too bad you didn’t transfer.  You’re missing out on so much.”  She spoke low, so no one would be drawn to our conversation.  Her eyes were narrowed with malice, her tone mocking.
    I picked up my bag and moved past her towards the door.  She seized my arm with her long fingers.   I was poised to run, half turned away from her but unable to break from her grasp.  I could see Charlie starting to make his way through the maze of people towards the exit.
    “What do you want Sasha?  I’ve gotta go.”  I tried to move forward but she was unwilling to let it drop.
    “You think you’re so great?  You and Charlie don’t even look good together.  There’s no way you’ll be his partner for the pas de deux.”  Her envy was apparent, I could almost see her eyes turning green right there in front of me.  Nastiness radiated from her in long deliberate waves.  I could see girls beginning to turn our way, drawn to the scent of a good cat fight.
    “Yeah, well you can think whatever you want.”
    Sasha paused a moment before continuing.  “You know, if you really want the part, you might want to think about dropping ten pounds.  I don’t think he’d even be able to get you off the ground.”  
    Gasp.  I felt like I had been stabbed in the stomach.  Gasp.  I couldn’t catch my breath.  Gasp.  The hot tears welled up in my eyes and I furiously brushed them away.  I’m not going to let her see me cry!  WITCH! I screamed inside my head but outside my face felt frozen.  I ripped myself away and ran for the door.  As I pushed through the throng, I saw a few faces mirroring my own shock and disbelief.  Charlie was standing right by the door, his eyes ablaze with disgust.  I felt a hand brush my arm briefly, and then I was outside.
    Breathe, Carolina.  Don’t cry yet.  Wait until you’re home.  Don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry.  I repeated the words over and over again but underneath it all I could hear the screams welling.  Why was my mom not here YET?
    I heard the door bang open behind me.  Whirling around, I was completely prepared to unleash my fury and hurt.  Charlie stood there, breathing hard and looking anxious, but I could see the fire burning in his eyes.
    “Carolina?”  He strode over to me in two lithe steps.  He placed his hands gently on my shoulders as if afraid I would shatter into a million pieces.
    “Carolina?”  He asked again, cautious and waiting for a reaction.  Well what did he want?  I was mortified that he heard Sasha say that, a small but insistent part of my brain blaring that he probably agreed with her.
    “She’s a hag Carolina!  She’s just jealous because she knows she’ll never be as good as you.  I mean, did you see her audition?”  Charlie moved closer to me, joking, trying to look into my eyes to make it better, but I didn’t think I could stand it right then.  
    I couldn’t slow my breathing down and the screams were beginning to build again, this time with more intensity.  My throat was burning with silent effort.  Fight, Carolina!
    Charlie stepped forward and enveloped me in a warm hug.  I lost all semblance of self control.  The hot wash of tears erupted and my body shook with anger and humiliation.  All I could do was stand there sobbing, my arms hanging at my sides while Charlie held me up.
    “It’s okay, it’s okay.”  His voice was soothing as he rubbed my back softly.  “Forget it.  She’s totally not worth it.”
    No one else exited the studio while we stood there.  I don’t know if they were scared, or embarrassed or what.  But at that moment I was just glad that no one disturbed us.  They’d already heard the worst of it; I couldn’t bear for them to see me cry over it too.  I didn’t need anyone else witnessing another humiliating moment in my life.  Why had I ever thought things would change?  How could I have convinced myself that Sasha would leave me alone now that she was wrapped up in the little dramas of another school, with new people to torture?  It seemed like she couldn’t be happy unless I was miserable.
    I wiped my eyes as I pulled away from him.  I couldn’t even find words to say.  Anger scrabbled to escape, trying to force its way out and beat every one of those girls down in punishment for their viciousness.  I stood unmoving with my hands clenched.  I realized I was biting down hard on my lip to keep from – well I don’t know what.  
    How could none of them come to my defense?  How are they all just standing in there with her?  I’ve never done anything to any of them!  
    The tears threatened to erupt again, so I twisted away before they could make their appearance.  I started walking down towards the street, hoping Charlie would follow but still unable to say a word.
    I felt a heavy arm settle around my shoulder.  I turned my head to see Charlie walking beside me, eyes forward as if he didn’t want to intrude on my privacy.  After a couple of steps he turned his head slowly to meet my watery smile.  
    “Are you okay?”  Charlie sympathetically squeezed my shoulder.  
    “Yeah, I guess.  Or at least I will be.  I just need to go home.”  I sighed in relief as I saw my mom’s car turn the corner and pull up in front of me.  I turned into Charlie’s chest and wrapped my arms around him.  He lightly hugged me back and then held me away so his eyes met mine.
    “Call me later if you want to talk okay?”  
    “Thanks.  I’ll see you.”  I opened the door and dropped into the front seat.  Charlie watched us as we pulled away from the curb.  My thoughts were turbulent.
    My beautiful day has just been stolen from me.  It was ripped from me by the most evil girl on the planet.  And every girl that stands behind her is an evil malevolent robot—
    “How much homework do you have left to do?”  My mom’s question interrupted my bitter thoughts.  Groan.  Back to the real world.  My mom was nothing if not practical.
    So, you know how some moms are stage moms?  They’re the ones that complain when the judges don’t give high enough marks.  And they’re the ones that call the studio because “Suzie” looked at her daughter the “wrong way” during class.  And they’re the ones that have to be involved in every little, teeny facet of their child’s life.  
    Yeah, no.  I don’t have a stage mom.  In fact, my mom thought I danced way too much.  My mom didn’t ask me about class on the way home from the studio.  My mom thought I needed to study more.  My mom didn’t think I should be involved with boys.  My mom wanted me to go to university and become a doctor or lawyer or scientist or something.  My mom thought that dancing was frivolous.  That’s why we didn’t speak.  Because dancing was my life’s ambition, and taking it away from me was hers.
    She probably didn’t even realize that my eyes were red because the most horrifying moment of my life had just occurred.  And yet, the most wonderful moment of my life had also happened in the same night.  Ha.  Real funny, kismet.  I thought I should shape some response before she asked again.
    “Not much.  Homework sounds good right about now.”  Silence ruled the car for a few traffic lights.
    Okay, this is good.  Hopefully she’ll stay focused on my homework and not ask about—
    “Who was that boy that you were with?”  Shoot.  Just tell her Carolina.
    “He’s a new boy at the studio.  We go to school together.”  Should I continue?  Her silence was making me fidget.  I felt like I needed to say more.
    “He was just giving me a hug because I had kind of a rough night.  It was nothing.”
    I turned to see her eyebrows rise, her mouth twisted in disapproval.  I couldn’t tell if it was me that she didn’t trust, or him.  She always saw the worst in every situation.
    “It’s nothing,” I repeated.
    But it’s not nothing.  Charlie just totally and completely rescued me.  He’s like my knight in shining armor.  And he just did something that no one has ever done for me before.  I felt some of the pressure in my chest release.  Only the thought of Charlie could overcome my rage towards Sasha.
    And he wanted to hang out, remember?  Just me and him, all alone.
    A thankful smile lingered on my face as I dropped my head back and closed my eyes, remembering those final moments of our perfect pas de deux.

Saturday, September 13th (morning)

    Cool sunlight streamed through my curtains way too early the next morning.  I’d had a really horrible sleep, mainly because my own low self esteem kept shouting accusations I didn’t want to hear.  Whether it was true or false, what Sasha said to me yesterday only mirrored my own darkest fears.
    It’s funny, because confidence always comes down to what other people think of you.  I mean, I can do well in school, I can be a great dancer, and I can have friends that love me just because I’m me.  But when one girl makes a lone little comment, my self-worth is completely shattered.  I knew she certainly wasn’t wasting time worrying about it.  So why was I?  Not for the first time, I wished that high school was over and I was living far away from everyone I’d ever known.  
    I could hear my mom rustling around in the kitchen.  There was no chance that she was making breakfast for me.  Our family just didn’t work like that.  
    It had been a long time since I’d expected anything to be done for me.  I guess that was kind of our compromise.  She allowed me to dance, and I took care of myself.  She never had to ask me about my homework, even though – annoyingly — she always did.  I just got it done.  I had learned throughout the years that good behavior made getting to dance a lot easier.  What I really needed was a frigging license, but I knew that wasn’t happening anytime soon.  
    In an effort to shake off the dismal mood I could feel myself spiraling down into, I rolled off my bed and thumped to the floor.  I loved lying on my floor, the grainy hardwood cool beneath my body.  I stretched my arms overhead and luxuriated in the release of tension that I had obviously built up during my waste of a sleep.
    Yawning, still a little bleary eyed, I picked myself up off the floor and grabbed the towel hanging from the back of my door but before I could get out of the room, my cell phone rang.  I hesitated for a moment, then turned back to the door.  I had a sneaking suspicion that it was Charlie, because Holly and Aden knew I liked to sleep in on Saturday mornings.
    How can he be awake already?  Oh crap, please let him not mention yesterday’s catastrophe.  Maybe we can pretend that it never happened.  Ugh, I really need a shower.
    I left the room, my phone still singing its insistent little song.

    BEEP.  “Hey Carolina.  It’s me, Charlie.  Uh, I don’t know if you’re awake yet, but I thought you might want to get together today.  You know, rob a bank maybe, or throw rocks at some ducks or something.  Yeah.  Call me back.  Talk to you soon.  Bye.”
    Oh Charlie.  He did have a way of making me feel better.  I thought I should do the right thing and call him back instead of making him wait any longer.  I didn’t think he should be alone with thoughts of bank robberies and fowl abuse swirling through his head.
    I laughed quietly as I dialed his number.
    “Hello?”  Stupid morning people.  He sounded way too cheerful for this time of the day.
    “So you want to rob a bank huh?”  He laughed as he realized who it was.
    “Well, only if you’re up for it.”  He was solemn now.  “I don’t want to force you into anything you’re not ready for.”
    “Yeah, well maybe throwing rocks at ‘ducks’ is more my speed this morning.”  Both he and I knew I was talking about more than ducks.  But I didn’t want to dwell on it.  I just wanted to spend the day with him.
    “I do have somewhere I need to go, if you’re man enough.”  I thought there was enough of a dare there for him to bite.
    “Oh, I’m man enough for anything you have planned.  Unless it’s like, the spa or something.  Then I’m out.  Definitely out.”
    My voice pealed out in laughter.  “Actually, it’s worse than the spa.  I need you to come with me to the…MALL.”
    I heard a loud groan from Charlie’s end.  I didn’t know how hard I was going to have to fight, but I had one piece of ammo left.
    “Please Charlie?  I have to go find a present for Holly.  Her birthday is coming up.  I know you want to help me with that, right?”  I didn’t even need to wheedle him into it, I knew he wouldn’t be able to say no once I involved Holly.  Charlie’s way too nice for that.
    He grumbled, “Great, just the spot all guys love spending their Saturday.”  I could tell that he was in though.  
    “Awesome!  I’ll meet you in an hour.  I’ll text you when I get there.”
    “Whatever.  But next time we hang out, we’re doing something I want to do.”    
    “Sure.  Talk to you soon.”  I hung up, my heart thrilling at the thought of the words he’d just said.  Next time.  Yes!

    Once I met up with Charlie, I realized he was not a mall person.  I could see a slightly panicked look in his eyes as he contemplated the ample merchandise surrounding him.  It was almost comical to see his eyes dart from store to store, wondering which he wanted to avoid more.
    “So, what are we getting for Holly?”  He kept his eyes on mine, as if he didn’t look around, the mall and its wicked conformist policies wouldn’t exist.
    “We?  Hey, I’m here to get Holly something, but you don’t need to.  You’ve only known her for a week.”  I wanted him to be here with me, but I hadn’t meant to guilt him into a present.  Don’t get me wrong.  Holly would be thrilled that another package was being added to her glittering pile of goodies.
    “No, really.  I want to get her something too.”  He did look quite earnest.  Okay, he asked for it.  I dragged him down the crowded mall in our quest for the perfect gift.
    Later, we sat on a bench surrounded by squalling children, frazzled parents and gossipy teenagers.  We had found the perfect thing for Holly.  I knew she’d be thrilled that it was being given by the both of us.  
    Holly really likes Charlie.  I mean, not likes, likes.  Just in a friendly kind of way.  I know she wants him to like me too.  Holly had her first real boyfriend last year – grade ten.  But she knows I’ve never had one.  I think she wants him for me.  I want him for me too.  But I don’t know how to do this.  I’ve never spend time with any boys.  Holly’s boyfriend last year was a hockey player, and he was barely ever around so that was no help.  All I knew was that Charlie liked me already, so I just needed to keep being myself, right?
    “So…”  We said it at the exact same time, which got us both laughing.  I gestured for him to go ahead.
    “Well, I was just remembering the day you guys asked me about not going to CPAA.  The way I recall it, you seemed pretty vehement about the catty girl syndrome.”  He was watching me closely, proceeding carefully.
    “What happened to you last year?  Does it have anything to do with what happened yesterday?”  I cringed even though I knew he meant no harm.
    I didn’t know how much he actually wanted to know so I decided to give him the abridged version of events.  “Let’s just put it this way.  I love to dance.  But I also love life outside of dance.  I like to spend time with my friends, I like taking walks by the river, and I like to hang out at the mall.”  I pretended to ignore Charlie’s grimace.
    “But those girls – they can’t see past their own stupid competition.  They couldn’t accept that I didn’t want to transfer to Carter.  They told me it’s because I think I’m better than them.  Ugh, they don’t know anything.  They passed judgment on me and ostracized me for the rest of the school year.  It was bad.  It was really bad for a long time.  But I thought that the summer might change things.  I guess I was wrong.”
    Charlie was sitting quietly beside me, wrapped in his own thoughts.  “Wow.  Well that sucks.”  
    I chuckled under my breath.  No kidding, that’s the monster understatement of the year.
    Charlie continued, “But I know exactly what you mean.”
    I turned to him in confusion.  His mouth was pulled down at the corners as if he was reliving an unpleasant memory.
    I kept my voice soft.  “Well, you listened to me.  Do you want to tell me your story now?”  We hadn’t known each other long enough to know what his boundaries were, but I sensed I should be patient.
    I jumped as I heard someone calling me.  I was so intrigued by Charlie’s experience that I had totally forgotten where we were.  Chagrined at the interruption, I reluctantly turned away to see who it was.
    “Hey, Carolina!”  I could see Sarah and her boyfriend Scott threading their way towards us.  She was waving with one hand and pulling Scott’s arm with the other.
    “Wow, he looks as happy to be here as I am,” I heard Charlie murmur beside me.
    “Have you met them yet?  They go to our school.”  Charlie shook his head in response.  I whispered quickly, “Okay, I’m going to try and make this quick.  They’re definitely not my favorite people in the world.”  
    I turned just as they reached us.  “Hey Sarah!  Hey, Scott!  What are you guys doing here?”  
    “Oh, just doing some shopping.  Nothing exciting.”  Sarah glanced at Charlie appraisingly, then looked to me for an explanation, chin cocked and eyebrows raised.
    “Oh, sorry.  Guys, this is Charlie.  He’s new in school.”  
    Charlie stood and greeted them with a smile.  “Hey, what’s up?”
    Scott looked impressed by Charlie’s height.  “Hey man, do you play any sports?  You should try out for the basketball team this year.  We could use someone like you.”
    “Actually, I did play basketball at my old school.  But I don’t anymore.”  Charlie raised his arm apologetically.  “I broke my hand during a game and I haven’t played since.”
    Sarah and I oohed in sympathetic refrain while Scott frowned in response.  Like he’d broken his hand a million times but that had never stopped him from playing.
    “Huh.  So what do you do now then?”  
    “Actually, Charlie’s a dancer.”  I inserted.  Like I was proud of him or something.
    A strange look crossed Scott’s face.
    “What?  Are you queer?”  Scott grabbed Sarah’s hand and pulled her away.  I could hear them laughing as they disappeared into the crowd.
    Charlie and I dropped to the bench in shocked silence.  Then I whirled to him and grasped his arm with both hands.
    “I’m so sorry, Charlie.  I didn’t mean…”  I blurted, then stopped because I couldn’t find words to say.  
    Oh crap!  What did I just do?  
    “It’s fine, really.  People were going to find out eventually.  And I’ve dealt with a lot worse than Scott.”
    I turned away from him, my hands covering my face.  Charlie laid a hand on my knee.
    “Look, I did play basketball, that wasn’t a lie.  But I only did it to keep my dad happy.  My mom didn’t care what I did, as long as I kept up in school.  But my dad… he could never understand why I wanted to dance.  He often told me that having me as a son was no better than having a daughter.”
    He stared blindly into the crowd and crossed his arms tightly across his chest.  I slowly lowered my hands from my face as my eyes widened in horror.
    “Then last year he told me I had to make a choice.  Basketball or dancing.  But it was no choice.  I was threatened enough to know that I had to give up dancing if I couldn’t find some way out of basketball.  So I broke my hand.”
    I sat pondering his words, something tickling in the back of my brain.  He broke his hand?  HE?
    I turned to him.  “You mean… like on purpose?  I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with pity for what he had gone through.
    Charlie shrugged it off.  “Yeah, it really wasn’t that hard.  There are a lot of collisions during a basketball game.  I just made sure my hand was in the way.”
    Geez.  I was beginning to realize that what Charlie had endured was way worse than my little teenage drama.
    Charlie continued.  “So after that, it was over for basketball.  By the time I recovered, the season was almost over.  Of course, I couldn’t do any lifting in ballet for a long time, but I could still dance.”  He smirked at the thought of getting one over on his dad.
    “The guys on the team were sympathetic at first.  But I made the huge mistake of telling Therese what really happened.”
    “She was your girlfriend?”  I questioned timidly.
    “Yeah.”  He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.
    “So I don’t get it.  Why would telling her be a mistake?  I mean, how much contact could she have with the boy’s basketball team?”  
    “You don’t understand, Carolina.  Therese wasn’t a dancer.  She was on the girl’s team.  That’s how we met, actually.  I thought my dad would be happier if I was dating a basketball player instead of a dancer.  And I guess school pride was more important to her than keeping my secret.”
    His girlfriend was on the girl’s basketball team.  Her name was Therese.  And she had done something to hurt Charlie.
    “So what did she do?”  I kept my voice small knowing what the answer would be.  I had lots of experience with how nasty girls can get.
    “Well, she went to the team and told them that I broke my hand on purpose.  She told them that I would rather spend my time prancing around in tights than playing basketball.”
    “Holy crap.  What a cow.”  He shrugged his shoulders and laughed cynically.  I didn’t like it.  I wanted my happy Charlie back.
    “Yeah, well we were together just to keep my dad happy.  I don’t think we even really liked each other.  Sad, huh?  Everything just fell apart after that.  My last four months at school were torture.”
    Wow.  The similarities of what we had gone through last year were surprising.  It was no wonder he hadn’t wanted to tell us about it.  I knew it must still be painful for him, because I still felt it too.  And no wonder he didn’t like to talk about his family.  They sounded even more screwed up than mine.
    “Sorry, I didn’t want to annoy you with all this.”  He sounded apologetic.
    I gasped in mock surprise.  “Honestly Charlie, I know a lot of annoying people and you don’t seem to be one of them.”
    His face lit up.  “Good, because I think you’re going to be stuck with me.”
    I was still curious about something.  “So, is that why you’re only taking ballet?  I mean, there are a lot of really great classes at ESD.”
    Charlie rolled his eyes and explained, “Yeah that was our compromise after we transferred here.  My dad said I can continue to dance, but only ballet.  I think he’s just resigned to having a daughter instead of a son.  I’m sick of trying to make him happy.  Anyways, it’s better than nothing at least.”
    Then Charlie wrapped his arm around me and rumpled my long hair playfully.      
    “Come on, let’s go get some food.”  My stomach was fluttering as we jumped off the bench and headed for the food court.  But I’m pretty positive it wasn’t because I was hungry.
    As I walked through the halls at school on Monday morning, I couldn’t help but think ahead.
    Miss Bridget’s posting the audition results tonight.  If I don’t get the pas de deux, I’m going to die.  If Sasha gets the pas de deux, I’m going to die.  
    It was literally painful for me to think about Charlie dancing with anyone other than me.  I felt someone squeeze my arm.  “Hey Carolina!  How was your weekend?”  
    I looked into Holly’s bright face and couldn’t help but smile back despite the anxiety I was feeling.  “Hey, Hol.  Not bad.  I might have gone to the mall to pick up a present for a certain someone.”  I had a wicked gleam in my eye.  “How was your weekend?”
    Holly groaned.  “Ugh, I worked on my English paper all weekend.  Who cares about Holden Caulfield anyways?”
    I laughed with her as we navigated through the busy hallways.  Ahead of us, I caught a glimpse of Charlie waving at us.  We waved back before he disappeared from view.
    Holly tossed her golden hair behind her shoulder and raised her eyebrows.  “So…you and Charlie huh?”  
    I know I blushed.  “No Holly, it’s not like that.”  Even though I want it to be.  “We did hang out this weekend though.  He came shopping with me.”
    “Really?”  Holly’s eyes glistened with amusement.  “Tell me everything!”
    The memory of Scott came back with a slap.  “Actually, something happened.  You know Sarah and Scott?”
    Her reply was immediate.  “Eww.  Yeah?”
    I laughed at her honesty.  “Well, I kind of told Scott that Charlie goes to my dance studio, and Scott called him queer.”
    “WHAT?  Ooh, he’s a scumbag.  He’s calling Charlie queer when he slaps guy’s butts on a daily basis during basketball practice?  I can’t believe it!”
    “I know,” I replied.  “It was pretty brutal.  He seems okay though.  I’m going to talk to him at lunch.”
    Holly nodded.  “Okay, well I’ll see you guys then.  I’ve got to get to my Chem class.”
    “Sure Hol.  See you later.”  I waved as she darted away.  Then I headed off to subject myself to another stimulating Mr. Blake sermon.

    Charlie was already sitting at our table when I got to the cafeteria for lunch.  He was halfway through a banana and glaring at it like he wanted to murder rather than eat it.
    “Whoa, take it easy Charlie.  What’s wrong?”  He answered my question by nodding his head to Scott and a group of his friends a few tables down.  My heart dropped as I knew instantly what was happening.
    Aden slid into the seat beside me and looked at us with apprehension.  Teddy was only a few steps behind.  Teddy was Aden’s sometimes boyfriend.  They had their moments of ardent passion which could turn into fiery hatred the next.  Today they seemed to be together.  He dropped into the seat beside Charlie and laid his hands on the table.
    “So guys, I’ve just heard some very distressing news.”  Charlie turned to him silently with pained eyes.
    Teddy looked at us all very gravely.  He moved his hands up so his elbows were on the table, fingertips together and tapping against his bottom lip.  “I’ve just heard a rumor that our boy Charlie… wait for it… is a dancer.”  
    Aden spat out, “Oh shut up Teddy.  You’re such an idiot.”
    Teddy burst out laughing and held up his arms.  “Hey, I just know what I’m told!  No worries!”
    Charlie’s eyes remained locked on Teddy.  “So, you don’t care?”
    Teddy was still laughing.  “Hell, man.  I could care less.  Scotty Charters and his boys have nothing I want.  Hey, if it makes you feel better, sometimes I write poetry.”
    Aden reached across the table and slapped him in the arm.  Charlie surprised us by joining Teddy’s laughter.
    “I’d like to see that sometime,” Charlie sniggered, brown eyes twinkling.
    Teddy roared at that.  “Yeah, I’ll show you my poetry when you show me your dancing!”
    “Deal!”  They shook hands and I was grateful that Teddy was here to lighten the mood.   Holly plumped down beside us all looking like she’d missed the joke, which, of course, she had.
    “Hey guys,” she offered tentatively.  We were in such a good mood now that when we chorused our welcome in unison it started us all laughing again.
    We got down to the business of lunch, no longer worried about what anyone was saying.  It seemed like Charlie’s charisma was drawing people to us.  Since the disaster of last year, no one had sat with me except for Holly and Aden, and that was only part of the time.  Now we had Charlie, of course.  And Teddy, when he and Aden were getting along.  I was truly happy, when I thought I could only be happy in the studio.
    Teddy suddenly muttered under his breath, “Guys, I think we might have a situation here.  Scotty wants to play.”
    I peered over my shoulder, only to see Scott sauntering over with a couple of his teammates.
    “Oh great.”  I rested my head in my hand.  Then I looked up in fierce determination.
    “Listen to me; we all stick together, okay?”  Everyone nodded their quick assent as we prepared to meet Scott’s barrage.  He was looking for a fight, that much was clear.
    “Hey, guys.  Hanging out with the queer boy?”  He sneered as the monkeys behind him chuckled in support.
    I shot up off my chair like a bullet.  “Shut up, Scott.  You don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
    Before I knew it, Holly and Aden were flanking me.  “No kidding jerk.”  “Why don’t you just get lost?”  Their voices overlapped in their effort to distract Scott from Charlie.
    Scott peered around my shoulder to look at Charlie calmly sitting in his seat.  
    “What’s the matter, queer?  Are you going to let your precious girlfriends do your fighting for you?  The sissy doesn’t want to break a nail?”
    We heard a loud smack on the table.  Teddy was standing with his fists clenched on the flat surface, leaning forward to look Scott in the eye.
    “Who’re you calling queer dude?  I hope it’s not my friend Charlie here.  Because I’ll take you down.  You know I can.”
    Maybe I should explain a little more about Teddy.  He’s spent the last ten years of his life playing hockey.  That’s what the good athletes do around here.  They either play basketball or hockey.  The basketball guys are tall and lean.  The hockey players… well you get the picture.  When Teddy says he can take Scott down, it’s not an exaggeration.
    Scott stepped back holding his hands out by his sides.  “Whatever man.  I don’t have a problem with you.”
    I watched as Charlie slowly stood up.  “That’s because you’re a freaking coward.”  There were six sharp inhalations.  Teddy laughed instead.  Charlie stood still, holding his ground.
    “What did you say to me?”  The menace in Scott’s eyes was apparent.
    “I said you’re a coward and you’re jealous.”  Charlie spoke slowly and clearly, so no one could mistake his words.  He continued.  “You come over here calling me queer?  Do you realize that I am always surrounded by beautiful girls, girls you would never have a chance with, not in a million years?  I get to hold them close, carry them, touch them.  While you’re busy slapping his butt after practice,” Charlie gestured at the guy standing behind Scott, “those girls you dream of are dreaming about me.”
    Scott’s face was turning a mottled red.
    “I don’t dance because I’m gay, Scott.  Quite the opposite, actually.  I’m in it for the girls.”
    The silence was broken by Teddy’s snickering and Scott’s uncertain muttering.  He was looking for a way to escape without losing face.  Finally, one of his teammates grabbed his jacket and started to pull him away.
    “Oh, and Scotty?”  Charlie was mocking now, knowing he was the victor in this clash.
    “What?”  Scott tried to muster some false bravado.
    “I could kick your butt in basketball too.  Don’t tempt me.”  Charlie turned his head away in dismissal and sat back down.
    We joined him, shocked that it was over so easily.  Suddenly we all started talking over one another.
    “Oh my gosh, that was amazing!”
    “Ha, ha, ha!  Did you see his face?”
    “Charlie, you’re devious!”
    A huge grin spread across his face.  Then he got cavalier.  “Whatever.  You have to shut guys like him down before they get a chance.  Oh, and by the way, I didn’t actually mean all that stuff, about the girls.”  He smiled at us sheepishly.  “I just had to put it a way he would understand.”
    The lunch bell rang.  We all jumped up and started collecting our gear.  Charlie grabbed my hand before I could follow Holly and Aden.
    “Hey Aro.  You’re not dreaming about me, right?”  He winked.
    “Ew, Charlie!”  I wrapped my fingers around my neck and pretended to gag.
    Teddy ran up and grabbed Charlie in a headlock.  They roughhoused towards the door, breaking up groups of teenagers as they went.
    I followed them out the door but I couldn’t get his question out of my head.  What’s that supposed to mean?  Does he like me?  Or is he just being Charlie?  Sometimes it was really hard to tell, because Charlie was very physical with everyone at school.  He punched the guys, he hugged the girls… we were all treated to the same, great Charlie.  He was outgoing to the extreme and super confident.  I was proud of how he’d stuck up for himself at lunch.  After what had happened to him last year, it couldn’t have been easy.  Ugh, why were boys so difficult to figure out?   

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