“You guys lucked out . . . .”
Two teenage boys sat on their beds, discussing the summer classes about to begin at Rawley Academy. They tilted their heads in the direction of the doorway as an unknown boy stepped into their large dorm room and looked around.
“I always wanted this room. It’s perfectly Feng Shui,” the stranger continued.
Blank stares told him his opener had failed. He put on a smirk and shrugged.
“If you’re enlightened enough to know what that means.”
Scout Calhoun stood up and took a threatening step toward the intruder.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Hamilton,” he said as if it were obvious.
“Is that a first name or a last name?” Will Krudski asked, standing up to take a position next to his roommate.
“The last name’s Fleming.”
Will and Scout glanced at each other. Hamilton sighed and tried to look bored.
“And you two would be?”
“Will . . . Krudski.”
“Krudski? Scholarship Krudski?”
Will nodded, unable to read Hamilton’s tone.
“My dad’s mentioned you,” Hamilton said. “Must suck being ‘the poor kid.’”
“Not as much as is must suck being ‘the dean’s kid,’” Scout countered, eager to defend his longtime roommate and best friend.
“Or a Senator’s son,” Hamilton returned.
“Didn’t the dean ship you off to another boarding school,” Will asked.
“He didn’t ‘ship me off’ anywhere. He wouldn’t let me stay in the dorms last summer so I decided to go somewhere else. And now, I’m back. I move in down the hall tomorrow.”
“Great,” Scout said with a fake smile. “Welcome back.”
Hamilton returned a smile just as fake and twice as smug.
“I’ll see you around,” was all he said as he walked out.
Will and Scout stared at the doorway for a few seconds in disbelief.
Will shook his head. “Ryder finally graduates and now this guy shows up?”
“Wouldn’t be summer session without the resident jerk-off,” Scout pointed out.
“Guess not,” Will conceded. “Oh, hey, Jake came by earlier. He wanted your help with the new student orientation session today at five.”
Scout smiled. Other than Will, Jake was his best friend. There was no other boy at Rawley quite like “Jake,” although Scout was the only student in a position to know exactly why. His smile widened slightly as he thought of his second favorite girl in the world and how he had been the one to convince her to stay past last summer and keep up her masculine masquerade.
“He said to meet up with him at the main hall if you could do it,” Will added.
Scout snapped out of his reverie. “Thanks.”
Even Will didn’t know the secret. Jake claimed she wanted to let him in on it, but kept putting it off. He always felt a little weird about that . . . but a little special, too. He glanced at his watch. 4:45. He headed out.
As he approached Jake in the empty main hall, Scout marveled for about the millionth time at how she pulled the whole thing off. It all started as a ploy to get her mother’s attention, but just as Monica Pratt was about to find everything out, Jake decided she wanted to stay.
That’s when she had let Scout in on her little secret. She explained that Rawley had turned out to be the most positive school experience of her life. She told him that she wanted to stay because crew was fun and the guys were cool.
And then she begged him to help cover for her when her mother came to visit for Parents’ Weekend. The experience of running back and forth between the two campuses all weekend as Jake switched between the roles of Jake and Jacqueline had brought them closer together. He even developed a bit crush on her.
After her mother left, the regatta ended, and they were safely in privacy of Jake’s room, she had given him a kiss on the cheek as she thanked him for his help. He always wondered if it had been her attempt at making a first move, but deep down he knew that it wasn’t like that for the two of them—that it would never be. And he definitely preferred their current friendship anyway.
When he reached her in the hall, he greeted her with an appropriately manly hug. As they waited for the dean and the group of new students, Scout filled her in on the encounter with Hamilton.
“So, basically he’s a total jerk-off?” Jake asked.
“Looks that way.”
“Too bad. He’s so cute.”
Scout gave her a curious look. “How would you know?”
“Kate has pictures of him in the art room.”
“Well, that mystery’s solved.”
“Your type. You’re obviously into pretty boys.”
“Maybe. But I’m not into jerk-offs.”
“Except Ryder,” Scout teased.
“Okay, I said he was moderately attractive, like, one time.”
“You said he was ‘hot’”
“We’ll discuss this later,” Jake said as the dean entered with an assembly of new students.
Jake and Scout took it from there, giving the group an extensive tour of the campus. Jake had been in charge of new student orientation since the start of the spring semester. The dean’s wife, Kate Fleming, had talked her into doing it. She had expected to hate the whole thing, but found that she enjoyed showing off her knowledge of the school—and that she was actually good at it. Even if she wasn’t exactly an extrovert, at Rawley, performance had become second nature for her.
For whatever reason, after having her in an art class fall semester, Kate had taken a special interest in Jake. Jake knew it wasn’t her artistic talent that had caught the teacher’s attention. She figured it for more of a sympathy thing. Kate had probably sensed a loneliness in Jake, which explained why she pressured Jake into the orientation thing as a way to make new friends.
In reality, Jake was just very careful in choosing her friends. Scout and Will were the only guys she truly trusted on campus. She preferred not to get close to people, since it only meant deceiving them. It was one thing to fool people she didn’t care about. That was fun. A rush. But with her friends, it never felt quite right.
Lying to Kate hurt the most. But it was also where she had the most to lose. For whatever combination of reasons, Jake liked Rawley Boys. Though the irony wasn’t lost on her, she found it easier to be herself there. Sure, she missed wearing dresses, but it was well worth the sacrifice to be judged by her personality and video game skills rather than her clothes and haircut. Even scarier than the fact that Kate might tell the dean and get Jake kicked out, though, was the idea that Kate might stop trusting her and caring about her.
Kate treated Jake like her own . . . son. Jake figured it was because she missed her real son so much. Over many lunches in the art room, Kate had shown Jake countless pictures of Hamilton, always accompanied by embarrassing stories told with a mother’s love—sometimes more than once—though Jake never had the heart to point out when she’d already heard one.
Still, Kate also took the time to be concerned for Jake. And she was more of a mother to Jake than Jake’s own had ever been. The loneliness Kate originally sensed in Jake hadn’t been for lack of friends, but for lack of an involved parent. And Kate filled that hole.
“He said he moves in tomorrow, but I wouldn’t advise introducing yourself,” Scout warned as he and Jake headed back to the dorms after the tour.
“He cannot be that bad,” Jake insisted. After all the sweet stories, she couldn’t imagine not liking Kate’s son.
Scout wasn’t in the mood to argue and they had reached his door. He shrugged.
“Do what you have to do, man, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He flashed a parting smile and disappeared inside his room.
Jake stood in the hall for a moment, wondering if she shouldn’t at least stop by the dean’s residence to be introduced. Always one to put off awkward confrontations, however, she decided it could wait until he moved into the dorms the next day. Maybe she’d offer to help him get settled. She knew Kate would want them to be friends and besides, she hadn’t been kidding when she told Scout he was cute. Unfortunately, she trusted Scout’s judgment, so the guy probably was a major asshole. Still, how could she not at least try to be friendly? With a shrug, she headed down the hall to her own room.
Hamilton sat alone on the dock. He couldn’t believe he was back. And off to such a winning start . . . . Why hadn’t he just been nice to Will and Scout? Why had he been so defensive? But he already knew the answer. He was jealous because his father always talked about how proud he was of Will. The same father who had never been proud of him. He was jealous because he’d heard Senator Calhoun speak in a small Connecticut town near his old school. It was a general “vote for me” campaign speech into which the senator managed to weave numerous references to his wonderful wife and son. He was quite sure that his own father never mentioned him to anyone.
He knew the way he’d treated them hadn’t been fair. His family issues weren’t their fault. But what were his options? Apologize? They would never buy it. They would think he was trying to bait them into something. He would be. Friendship.
On the other hand, being “the bully” would be easy. The groundwork was already laid. And if he didn’t do it, someone would do it to him. Just like at his old school. It wasn’t what he wanted, but he was tired of trying to fit in when he knew he never would.
The next day, Hamilton’s strategy was still undecided. He went into the art room to look for his mom. The physical distance of the previous year had actually brought them closer emotionally. They’d had countless phone conversations and he could always count on her for good advice. Besides, even with her tendency to pry, she offered him so much more than his father.
“Hey Mom, do you . . . ? Oh . . . sorry . . . .”
Jake sat at one of the high art tables, eating her lunch. She looked over at him.
“Have you seen my mom? I’m—”
“Hamilton. I know.” Jake offered a smile.
Hamilton didn’t smile back. He stared at Jake. He didn’t like that this guy knew who he was.
“I’m Jake Pratt.” She stood up and walked over to him, arm extended.
Jake Pratt. His mom had been talking about Jake a lot lately. It bugged Hamilton the way it bugged him when his father talked about Will. It was like each of his parents had found a better version of their son.
“Whatever,” Hamilton said as if the name meant nothing to
him. He ignored the offered hand. “Where’s my mom?”
“She went over to the teachers’ lounge to get a Coke.”
“So what are you doing in here?”
“Playing air hockey,” she answered dryly, indicating her lunch.
“Don’t you have any friends?” he asked with a cruelty that the friendly sarcasm of her comment did not warrant.
Jake narrowed her eyes, a biting retort on the tip of her tongue. But she checked herself and shook off his comment instead, walking back over to the table.
“More than you’ll ever make with that attitude,” Jake muttered almost to herself as she sat back down.
Clearly, Scout had been right. This guy was the next Ryder. The bully. The guy that had to make other people feel bad so he could feel better about himself.
On the other side of the room, Hamilton felt like the jerk he was playing. He considered backing off, but then his mother walked in.
“Oh, Hamilton. I’m glad you stopped by. This is Jake. I’m sure you remember me mentioning him?”
How could he forget? He tried for a smile, but it faltered a little when he glanced over at Jake.
“Jake, this is my son—”
“We’ve met.” Kate couldn’t see the glare Hamilton sent in Jake’s direction. He turned back to her. “Um, Mom, I was wondering if you . . . had a minute . . . .”
Hamilton didn’t know what he wanted to say to her exactly, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to say it with Jake around.
Kate gave him a curious, uncomprehending smile.
“We can catch up later, Munchie—”
“Mom . . . .” Hamilton whined.
Jake smiled at his embarrassment. As if she hadn’t heard the adorable nickname a thousand times already.
“Why don’t you run to the cafeteria and get some lunch? You and Jake can—”
“I already ate,” Hamilton lied. He didn’t want to leave them alone. His mother would probably try to convince Jake to be his friend. And the perfect Jake was the last person he wanted as a friend. Real friends were people you could bitch to about your parents, not people who ate lunch with them.
Jake was laughing on the inside. Hamilton was so not subtle. She knew his M.O. from personal experience. Kate was his mom and he didn’t want to share her. Too bad she wasn’t ready to give Kate up. He wasn’t about to scare her away.
But at least she knew she didn’t have to take his hostility personally. He wasn’t like Ryder, spreading malice for malice’s sake. Poor Munchie just wanted attention. Actually, she and Hamilton probably had more in common than he’d ever be willing to find out or acknowledge. In his mind, after all, “Jake” was the competition.
“Well,” Kate said with a smile for each of her boys, “I have a meeting to get to, but you two should stay and hang out. Jake, maybe you can show Hamilton around the school later.”
“Mom, I grew up here, remember? I’m your son.”
Kate shrugged off the sarcasm. “I just meant maybe he could introduce you around.”
Jake saw Hamilton roll his eyes, but it was lost on Kate who, with a last reassuring smile, took off, leaving an uncomfortable silence behind.
“You know . . . Munchie,” Jake said finally, “she talks about you all the time.”
“Ditto, Jake,” Hamilton sneered.
“I'm just saying, you have no reason to be, you know . . . .”
“No, I don’t. What?”
She refused to let his icy tone intimidate her. “Well . . . jealous.”
He didn't know what to say. How dare this smug stranger imply . . . He didn’t have to put up with this shit.
“Whatever, I'm outta here.”
“Wait . . . .” she called after him.
He stopped and turned back. “Look, you don't have to be nice to me for her sake, okay? If you really want to do me a favor, you can just stay the hell out of my way.”
He turned once more on his way to the door. “Oh, and if you ever call me ‘Munchie’ again, it’ll hurt to talk for a week.”
Before she could respond, the door slammed behind him.
“So Hamilton,” Jake smiled pleasantly at the door. “Kate tells me you're into photography . . . .”
She sighed and finished her lunch.
“Wait, he threatened you?” Scout asked.
Jake was kicking his ass at the latest X-Men battle game on the common room GameCube, but he set the controller down to look at her. He was serious about the question. She paused the game to meet his worried gaze with a reassuring one.
“I appreciate your concern. It’s sweet, but . . .” she glanced up as Will walked in, but continued, “I can handle Hamilton, okay?”
“I’d like to handle him . . . with a nice left hook,” Will said as he walked into the room. “But, seriously, who’d he insult now?”
“More like: Who’d he threaten?” Scout corrected. “Basically he’s jealous that his own mother likes Jake more than him.”
“Scout, she doesn’t . . .” Jake decided she didn’t want to get into it. “Look, he’s full of it. It’s no big deal. And I can handle it.” She gave Scout a pointed look.
Will sat down in a nearby chair and shrugged, “Probably just best to ignore him.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said.” Scout shot Jake a pointed look of his own. She ignored it and turned back to the game.
Kate Fleming’s car pulled up to the garage in town. Bella Banks walked out expecting Kate, who had called earlier to make an appointment. An unfamiliar boy emerged from the driver’s seat instead.
“Are you Bella?” he asked.
“That’s me. You must be . . . Hamilton?” Though the conclusion was obvious from other details, Bella recognized him as the “potential hottie” Jake had once described to her: the bright blue eyes, the tousled brown hair, the flushed cheeks and the adorable grin. She was unintentionally checking him out.
“You know, Bella means beautiful in Italian,” he ventured shyly, misinterpreting her perusal.
She smiled, trying not to laugh at him. As if she hadn’t heard that one before.
“I guess you knew that,” he added with embarrassment.
“Nah,” she said with a smile. “So what are we doing with the auto di Fleming today? Oil change, right?”
“Right.” He handed her the keys and she started to get in the car.
“Next time I’ll just tell you that you’re beautiful,” he complimented with a little more confidence.
This time she blushed and felt compelled to inform him, “I have a boyfriend.”
“Oh . . . sorry.” He looked down and shifted his feet.
“No, don’t be. It was sweet. It’s just that we’re kinda, you know . . . . So, I shouldn’t be—He goes to Rawley, too,” she added awkwardly.
Hamilton looked up. “If you tell me his name is Jake Pratt, I might go throw myself into the lake.”
Bella almost laughed aloud at the thought.
“Uh, no. Jake’s a . . . friend.” Her brow furrowed as she realized what he’d just said. What could Hamilton have against Jake? “It’s Scout Calhoun, actually.”
“Even better,” Hamilton muttered, but Bella missed the tone as she got in the car and started the engine.
“I’ll have this right back to you,” she told him through the open car window.
He watched as the beautiful blonde girl pulled his mother’s car into the garage hanger. Another attempt at normal social interaction had failed miserably.
When Hamilton returned his mother’s car keys, she swapped them for the one thing he had wanted as long as he could remember: the key to a Rawley dorm room. With his first genuine smile in days lighting up his face, he carried his first box of belongings across the lawn and up the steps. Walking into the Rawley dorm that afternoon, he knew for the first time what every other student felt like.
Finally, he was one of them.
Granted, his parents lived a couple hundred yards away, but in this building, he was on his own. Despite his longing for attention, this newfound independence in a place that had always felt like home seemed perfect. Maybe Rawley would turn out to be just what he needed.
He stuck the key in the door of his brand new dorm room and turned it.
“Weird.” The door was already unlocked.
“Hey, Scout, I think I’m going to opt out of—” Jake stopped abruptly when she saw Hamilton standing there. She cleared her throat and consciously lowered her voice.
“Can I help you?” she asked as she slouched slightly and shoved her hands in her pockets, adopting her masculine persona.
“Just please tell me this isn’t room three-fourteen.”
Her eyes fell on the box he was carrying and then widened as comprehension dawned.
“Oh, no . . . no . . . . No.” She held out her hands as if to ward him off. “This is not going to work. Go find your mom and tell her this is not going to work.”
Hamilton was a little startled, and hurt, by the intensity of Jake’s reaction.
“Fine.” He started to leave, but he turned back suddenly. “No, wait a minute . . . you tell her.”
“Fine.” Jake reached for the cell phone on her desk but then drew her hand back. “No, wait . . . . I can’t . . . . I mean, she’ll think . . . .”
“What? That you don’t like me? That her precious Jake doesn’t want to be friends with her one and only son?” Hamilton smiled and went to set his box down on the emptier bed.
“No! Don’t put that down!”
Hamilton’s self-satisfied smile only grew wider at Jake’s protest, but he held on to the box. She took a deep breath and attempted a cajoling smile.
“Come on, I know I’m the last person in the world you want to room with. Just talk to her. I know she’ll give you another room.”
“No way,” Hamilton shook his head smugly. “I am not going to be the bad guy here. You can either call her . . . or clear your shit off my bed.”
Their eyes locked as each tried to stare the other down. Finally, Jake shook her head and looked away.
“I’m not calling her,” she declared defiantly. “You’re not going to get rid of me that easily, Hamilton.”
Hamilton set the box triumphantly on his new bed.
Several minutes later, a frantic Jake barged into Scout and
Will’s room. Fortunately, only Scout was present to witness her panic.
“Jake. What’s wrong?”
“It’s Hamilton. He . . . he . . . .” She needed to catch her
“Oh my God. He hit you, didn’t he?” Scout leapt up from his bed. “That bastard. I’ll kill him.”
He started for the door, but Jake grabbed his arm.
“No, no, it’s not that. It’s much worse.” She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “He’s . . . he’s moving in.”
Scout looked at her as if she’d lost her mind as he carefully removed her clenched fingers from his arm.
“Jake, we knew that. I told you he was going to be living in the dorms.”
“No, Scout, not the
dorms. My dorm. He’s moving into my dorm room . . . with me.” Jake started pacing. “His mom must
have set this up. What was she thinking?
Oh, God. Scout, what am I going to do?”
“Keep him away from your underwear drawer?” Scout quipped.
Jake’s already panic-stricken face went pale.
“Jake, I was kidding. Calm down. Why are you freaking out?
Can’t you just talk to his mom?”
“Oh, yeah. Right. Wouldn’t he love that?” Jake’s expression had suddenly gone from panicked to determined. “He is so not winning this game. I can take him. You know I can totally take him, right?”
Scout was lost. “Uh, yes?”
“Damn right. He’s gonna find out that he is messing with the wrong . . . whatever. I . . . I gotta go.”
Scout stared, speechless, as she turned and rushed from the room. He wasn’t sure what exactly was going on, but he knew it was trouble.
Back down the hall, Jake stood in the center of her room and rapidly scanned her belongings. Shit. She grabbed a box from her closet and started throwing in random items. Her dresser: a bottle of Barely Pink nail polish, three Seventeen magazines, a pink razor, scented lotion. It all had to go.
She never let anyone in her room long enough to notice these little details, but now Hamilton would have all the time in the world to peruse and pry. Her CD collection: Michelle Branch, Sarah McLachlan, Ani DiFranco, The Indigo Girls. No, no, no and no. The cases clattered against each other as they fell into the box.
She stopped and did another quick survey—nothing in sight. Scout’s words echoed in her head. Underwear drawer. She paused. He wouldn’t . . . .
She shook her head and snapped out of it. Of course he would.
“All is fair in love and war,” she muttered as she yanked open the drawer. Of course, she’d need to keep this stuff somewhere in the room.
She dropped the box on the bed, knelt down and went to pull an empty backpack out from under it. Her hand hit a shoebox. Its contents—a pair of Prada heels, a brown mini-dress and a silver armband—joined the CDs.
She finally found the backpack and jumped up, emptying
everything but her boxers and tank tops into the bag. She hurriedly shoved the
bag into the back of her closet. She had to get the rest of the stuff out of
there before he got back. She grabbed the box and turned, barely noticing out
of the corner of her eye that her favorite black bra was left hanging from her
top drawer. She cursed herself for her carelessness, grabbed the bra, tossed it
into the box and hurried out of the room.
Halfway to Scout’s, she saw Hamilton hit the landing. He set his second box down and approached her.
“Moving out already?”
“As if.” Jake rolled her eyes and flashed him a saccharine smile. “Just making some space for you, roomie.”
As he stepped closer, Jake angled the box away from him. He picked up on the evasive maneuver and smiled, following the box with his body, trying to peek inside.
“Whatcha got in the box, Jake? Something you didn’t want me to see?”
“Whatever. I’m just returning some stuff to Scout.”
She tried to brush past him, but his hand snaked into the box and pulled out one of the heels. He turned it slowly in his hands.
“Oh yeah? I didn’t know the senator’s son was into Prada.”
Think fast, Jake. “It’s just some stuff his girlfriend left in my room.”
“Ah yes, the beautiful Bella Banks. But what’s she doing leaving her shoes . . . ” he began as he reached back in and pulled out another item before Jake could stop him, “and her bra in your room?”
“We’re friends. She comes over to hang out.”
“Hang out? Is that what they call it around here?”
Jake knew she should just keep walking, but she was getting defensive.
“Look,” she lied. “Sometimes I let Scout and Bella use my room to . . . you know . . .”
“Ah, well, that makes sense. Now I see why the senator’s son is slumming it with a townie . . .”
Jake was pissed. She knocked him out of her way with her shoulder. “Just shut up, Hamilton, ‘cause you’re about to cross a line.”
“So defensive,” Hamilton observed. “Poor Jake must have a crush on his best friend’s girl.”
He laughed as she ignored him.
“See you in a few, roomie,” he called to her departing back.
The smug look that had crept onto his face remained until he saw Jake enter Scout’s room. Once the door shut, he frowned in consternation. What the hell was he doing? Twenty minutes ago living in the dorms seemed like the perfect solution to all his problems. And now, he was sleeping with the enemy.
Hamilton sat on his new bed between his boxes of belongings. A suitcase full of clothes, his guitar, a few posters and his stereo were still back in his old room, waiting to be moved. He noticed Jake’s stereo sitting on her dresser. He got up and walked over to check it out. Much to his dismay, it definitely blew his out of the water. He briefly wondered what kind of music Jake was into before he remembered that he didn’t care.
Only he did. He wanted to know more about Jake . . . in the way that one seeks to gather information on one’s enemies, of course. Taste in music could be revealing. Not that he would ask. He noticed that the CD player was on pause. Curiosity got the best of him. With a quick glance toward the half-open door, he pressed play.
He stood, awe-struck as Stephan Jenkins’ voice blasted from the speakers at a deafening volume: “Planning my attack just before you come back around. Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t know how to back down. I never fit in, you know I don’t belong . . . . ”
He couldn’t help smiling. “A Thousand Julys,” Third Eye Blind. He loved this band. He loved this album. He bought it when it first came out over a year ago. In fact, it was in his stereo at home right now. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Jake yelled over the music as she ran in and hit stop. “Don’t touch my stuff.”
Hamilton was taken aback by Jake’s vehemence. He held up his hands in mock surrender.
“Sorry. Jesus. I was just curious.”
“Well, don't be,” Jake snapped.
Hamilton backed off and laid himself down on his bed, looking away from Jake. She sighed and flopped down on her own bed.
“Look, I’m . . . I mean, I didn’t mean to be such a bit—bastard. I'm just used to my privacy, that's all.”
Hamilton was silent for a moment.
“It's a good album,” he said finally.
Jake looked over at him suspiciously.
“Yeah,” she agreed at last, “but not as good as their first.”
“Exactly,” he said softly, as shocked by the exchange as she was.
They settled into an unspoken cease-fire, listening silently to Third Eye Blind as Hamilton settled in and Jake answered her e-mail. As soon as Hamilton left to take a shower that night, Jake hurried to get ready for bed.
She didn't dare remove her corset and opted for a long-sleeved shirt and sweat pants. Her bed was going to be a sauna this summer. She took small comfort in the thought that she could probably at least loosen the corset after he fell asleep.
It didn't take long to change, so she looked around for something to do. She picked up her favorite comic, the one she liked to read every time she wanted to remember how she came to be such a complete idiot.
It was the first of several issues in the Gambit series in which Gambit has his friend Jake morph into Jacqueline so they can make contact with an evil obstetrician. She’d bought it when it first came out two Februarys ago. This little comic had planted the whole cross-dressing idea in her head—and from it she had taken her alias. What the hell had she been thinking?
She was just laughing over the part when Gambit proposes to “Jacqueline” when Hamilton walked in. She had intended only a glance up to acknowledge his presence, but the glance turned into a stare. He had returned from the shower still damp, wearing only a towel draped around his hips. This image had definitely been absent from the Munchie picture collection . . . . And what a shame, she could have used some time to get used to it.
Fortunately for her, he was so intent on checking out her comic book that he didn’t notice what she was checking out.
Gambit. He had several from the series. He always thought it was pretty underrated, especially for an X-Men spin off. He glanced at the date. February 2000. The year before he left for school. That’s when Gambit got Jake to . . . Jake.
He laughed as he walked over, trying to look into the comic book.
“What?” she asked, turning it down so he couldn’t see.
“Feeling the urge to be a Jacqueline?” he asked.
Her eyes widened and she stared at him mutely for a moment before realizing he was referring to the comic book. He was familiar with it. She smiled.
“You’ve read this?” she asked in surprise.
He shrugged and sat down on his bed.
“Being a girl would suck, don't you think?”
Jake smiled. “Well, it might have some good points . . . but, yeah, I think it would mostly suck.” Like never getting to have half-naked, wet boys as roommates, she thought to herself.
“Seriously, though,” Hamilton continued, “I don't get girls at all. It's like it’s all about games, you know?”
“Can't argue with you there.”
Hamilton shifted on the bed. Jake watched the towel with interest, but this time Hamilton noticed. He got up nervously and walked over to his dresser. He couldn’t believe what he thought he’d just seen. Jake could not have been checking out his package.
Still lying on her bed, Jake silently warned herself to get a grip. She could tell Hamilton was tense by the way he was staring into his drawer without pulling anything out. She decided to give him a break.
“Oh, damn. I forgot,” she blurted, sitting up abruptly. “I told Will he could borrow this exact issue. I’ll be right back. I mean, in a few minutes. You know, like five.”
Hamilton nodded, not looking over at Jake, and reminded himself to take his clothes into the bathroom next time. Jake quickly moved off the bed and headed out the door.
Thankful for the solitary moment, Hamilton pulled out a pair of boxers and a T-shirt. He considered adding a pair of sweatpants to the ensemble. Maybe it got cold in there; Jake sure had a lot of clothes on. He opted against it, though. He was feeling a bit warm all of a sudden.
The next day, after last period, Scout and Jake walked back to the dorms together.
“Hey, I found this under our door this morning.” Scout pulled the Gambit comic from his backpack. “Is this your subtle way of trying to let Will in on your secret identity?”
“Oh. . . that.” Jake sighed and shook her head. “That is a long story.”
Scout couldn’t help laughing when she finished recounting the night’s events.
“So now he's afraid to get undressed in front of you . . .”
“I know. It was awful. I just . . . I couldn't help myself, you know. He's just so. . .
so . . . . ”
“So. . . what?” Hamilton asked, seeming to appear out of nowhere.
Scout and Jake looked at each other, not sure how much he had heard. Misreading their hesitance, Hamilton assumed the worst. His tone turned nasty.
“You guys always walk around gossiping like girls?”
They looked at each other. He had them there.
“No one invited you into this conversation in the first place, Fleming,” Scout pointed out.
Jake shot him a look, but said nothing in Hamilton’s defense. Hurt by Jake’s sudden betrayal, Hamilton turned on Scout.
“Look, lover boy, if you don't want anyone interrupting your little tryst, then don't have it in the middle of the quad.”
“Don’t push me, Fleming.” Scout took a threatening step in his direction.
Jake didn’t like the look in Hamilton’s eyes. She stepped between them and turned to Scout.
“C’mon. Let’s go.” It was not a suggestion. She walked away and Scout reluctantly followed, tossing a few glares back over his shoulder.
Hamilton was pissed. He did not need a scrawny traitor like Jake to save him from a fight.
Unfortunately, the encounter on the quad set the tone for the following week. Hamilton, though virtually mute, still managed to give off a threatening vibe, forcing Jake to keep her distance.
She understood why he was upset, but refused to apologize. Scout was her friend and he had been trying to protect her, which, though unnecessary, she appreciated. She had seen how desperate Hamilton was for some protection of his own, but what did he expect from her? He’d been acting like a jerk and she wasn’t about to turn on her best friend just because she and Hamilton had bonded over a band and some dumb comic book.
Some dumb comic book that she was reading for about the sixth time that week. She tossed it down on the bed next to her and got up. Staring into the full-length mirror, she struggled to remember what she even looked like as Jacqueline—a definite sign that is was time for a girls’ weekend. She picked up her phone.
Bella answered on the second ring, and the two of them quickly made plans to hang out on Saturday night at Bella’s place when Charlie would be in Boston on business.
“So, what are you two up to?” Jake asked suggestively, knowing Bella was not alone that night.
Bella laughed. “Just watching a movie.”
“In bed?” Jake teased.
“Possibly,” Bella answered cryptically, glancing over at Scout.
They were, in fact, lying on her bed. The movie they had cuddled up together to watch was currently on pause. Even if a bit of clothing had been shed, however, what Jake was implying was definitely not the case.
“But we’re just watching a movie,” Bella repeated firmly.
“Okay then, I guess I’ll let you get back to that. Tell Scout I said hi, and I’ll see you Saturday.”
“Okay, see you then.”
“That was Jake. She says hi,” Bella informed Scout as she turned off the cordless phone and reached across him to set it on her bedside table. “She wants to come over this weekend for a girl-fix.”
Scout scoffed. “Figures. I think she’s hot for Hamilton.”
“So what if she is?” Bella settled back against Scout and hit play.
He took the remote and hit pause again.
“Why?” Bella asked closing her eyes.
“Because Hamilton is an ass.”
“If you say so,” Bella sighed. They’d had this discussion too many times.
“I know so. Have you not been listening to me this week? If he’s not insulting her, or us, he’s ignoring her. He brought his own stereo into Jake’s room and plays it over hers.”
“Well, it is his room, too.”
“That doesn’t give him the right to act like she’s not even there,” Scout insisted. “And now that he’s ignoring her, he’s started picking on everyone else. He knows Will and I will kick his ass if he give us any of his—”
“Yeah, you two are such tough guys.”
Scout glared at her for her sarcasm, but continued:
“So now he’s hassling the freshmen. It’s so pathetic.”
“Maybe he just needs some time . . . . I really thought he seemed like a nice guy.”
“You’ve met him, like, once. And the only reason he was being nice to you was because he wanted to pick you up. Apparently, he didn’t do too bad of a job . . . .”
“Don’t be stupid, Scout. Besides, there was nothing suave about his flirting. He just seemed kinda awkward and lonely or something. Like a lost kid.”
“Yeah, a lost kid talking trash about Jake and me,” Scout griped.
“Which is why I talked to Jake about him. She just thinks he’s in desperate need of some friends.”
“I already told you, it’s because she’s hot for him. She’s not thinking rationally.”
“Right. She’s the one not being rational.”
Scout started to protest, but Bella silenced him with a kiss.
“Let’s just watch the movie, okay?”
He nodded. With a last kiss, she leaned back against him and hit play.
After her phone call to Bella, Jake felt a little better. She traded the comic book for a copy of Seventeen to bone up on her girl skills before her weekend with Bella. How pathetic. She was probably the only student on campus with girl magazines stashed under her mattress rather than girlie ones.
Relaxing on her bed, she opened to an article on how to dress sexy without showing too much skin. Got that one down, she thought. What could be sexier than cargo pants and two layers of flannel shirts? She turned a few more pages and encountered a quiz: “Does your guy friend want more?” She laughed out loud.
“Doubtful,” she said to the empty room.
Her thoughts drifted to Hamilton. Despite the fact that he wasn’t talking to her, despite the fact that he would probably never trust her, despite the fact that he was set on despising her for a variety of reasons, she couldn’t bring herself to hate him in return. She felt drawn to him. Not really in the way Scout thought—though she did enjoy sneaking the occasional peek while Hamilton changed his shirt—but on some other level. She’d never seen herself as the savior type, but his neediness was oddly appealing.
Before she could quite categorize that appeal, a knock came at her door.
“Uh . . . who is it?” she called, stalling as she hopped up and shoved the magazine under her pillow.
“Shit,” Jake muttered as she glanced in the mirror. She pushed her hair down then up, trying to achieve her usual ’do.
She opened the door and let Kate in, explaining that Hamilton wasn’t in and that she wasn’t sure where he was.
“That’s okay,” Kate smiled warmly. “I didn’t just come to see him. I wanted to visit both of my favorite dorm residents.”
Jake returned the smile, glancing around uncomfortably. This was the first time Kate had been in her room. Hamilton was one thing—teenage boys were infamously oblivious—but Kate was another. Jake hoped she wouldn’t pick up on anything.
“You know,” Kate continued, “you’re always welcome to come with Hamilton when he has dinner at home.”
“Thank you,” Jake said, though she hadn’t even known Hamilton ever went home for dinner.
Out in the hall, Hamilton was approaching the room. He paused when he heard his mother’s voice.
“So, how have things been going? Is this situation working out okay?”
“Oh, well, you know,” Jake hedged, “it’s always difficult living with someone else when you’re not used to it. I mean, I’m sure Hamilton’s used to having a roommate from when he was at his old school. . . .”
In the hall, Hamilton dreaded his mother’s response.
“Oh, no actually, Munchie didn’t have a roommate. The kid moved out early on.” His mother paused and he could practically see her frowning. “That’s funny—I would have thought he’d have mentioned that.”
Hamilton had specifically not mentioned it. He didn’t need to emphasize further what a loser he was, to Jake or to himself. Besides, he hadn’t been telling Jake much of anything since the thing with Scout on the quad.
Inside the room, Jake was considering her next words carefully. She cocked her head and spoke slowly.
“Kate, do you know if Hamilton . . . ? I mean . . . Was he happy at his other school?”
Hamilton almost interrupted then, but wanted to hear what his mother would say.
“Well, yes . . . . I mean, I think so.” Kate gave Jake a probing look. “Why? Has he said something?”
Jake shifted uncomfortably and tried to put on a reassuring smile. “No . . . nothing. Things are fine. I mean, they’ve been really . . . good.”
Hamilton took that as his cue to enter. He wanted to distract his mother and use this chance to get in her good graces.
“It sure has been,” he said as he walked in smiling broadly. “Jake is the best.”
He walked right over and put his arm around the shoulders of a very-surprised Jake.
“I’m so glad you thought of this, Mom,” he continued in his best Eddie Haskell tone.
Jake tried not too look as disconcerted as she felt. Hamilton had never been this close to her. He smelled like peppermint and dryer sheets and she had no idea why that smell should be so distracting. She swallowed and remembered the game.
“Yeah, it’s great to have Hamilton around,” she attempted, finding it difficult to concentrate on her brown-nosing.
His subtly smug expression faltered when he turned in Jake’s direction. He’d never seen his roommate up close before. It was a quick survey, but something didn’t seem right—something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
He removed his arm and stood smiling at his mother. She seemed pleased.
“Well, I’m glad you two are getting along. I knew you would.”
Jake and Hamilton glanced at each other for a second before offering Kate a pair of fake smiles. Kate beamed back at her boys. Her plan had worked.
“Anyway, I just wanted to stop in and say hi. Have a good night, boys.”
They both bid her goodnight. Hamilton walked over to shut the door behind her, not turning around right away. When he did, he looked at Jake suspiciously through narrowed eyes.
“Do you feel sorry for me?”
“Why would I?” Jake asked without rancor. “You’ve been acting like a total jerk ever since I met you.”
“So am I.”
He studied her for another long moment. She found it difficult to take her eyes from his. He could be incredibly intense.
“Then how come you didn’t tell her the truth? I mean, she asked you straight out how things were going. You could have just told her.”
“Who says I didn’t tell her the truth?”
“I heard you tell her that living with me has been ‘good.’”
Jake shrugged. “It’s like you haven’t even been here. Oh, wait, that was me.”
Hamilton considered his recent behavior and, for the first time, felt genuine regret. Jake could have told his mom everything. He had nothing on Jake. He attempted to tell himself that such was the nature of a suck-up, but somehow the label didn’t fit. Jake had edge, an authentic individuality that hinted at a rebellious streak. It was completely unlike anything Hamilton attempted to fake.
Jake watched his expression carefully. Her statement seemed to have the desired passive-aggressive effect. He felt bad.
“So . . . you didn’t have a roommate at your old school?” she ventured.
Hamilton tensed for a moment, ready to retort. It wasn’t as if Jake had a roommate over the past year either. But before he could speak, Jake continued:
“Because I haven’t had one either, you know. Not since I’ve been here. Maybe that’s why this has been so . . . ”
“Good?” he suggested with a chuckle.
“I guess you get used to the privacy,” Jake admitted, flashing a small grin as she took a seat on her bed.
“It must suck when someone comes in and invades your space, huh?” Hamilton said lightly.
“And doesn’t talk to you, and blasts his stereo . . . .” Jake smiled to take the sting out of her words. “Yeah, pretty much.”
“I never liked living alone,” he confessed, taking a seat on his own bed.
She looked at him, a little unsettled at another quick shift in attitude. Bipolar much? But she knew that wasn’t it. She knew all about trying to keep your punk up. She knew about being afraid to trust someone, about being too afraid to trust anyone.
“Why not?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he lied, his eyes downcast.
Watching as he picked at a nonexistent string on his blanket, Jake knew she couldn’t waste this opening. But before she could find the right words, he surprised her with a more honest answer.
“I guess . . . it’s just . . . being alone, you know, like, all the time.”
“Yeah, sounds like . . . my entire childhood.”
Hamilton’s head snapped up. Behind Jake’s detached sarcasm lay a hint of vulnerability.
“Dit—” He reconsidered his wording. “I mean . . . mine too.”
He realized he knew virtually nothing about Jake’s past. He struggled to recall the few things his mother had mentioned.
“Isn’t your mother, like, a famous Broadway actress?”
“Something like that. You think your dad’s attached to his work? I’m surprised that my mom hasn’t had her cell phone surgically implanted. She’s always networking with some agent or director or producer. And she never actually spends a whole lot of time on Broadway either. L.A., London, Paris, Berlin. Anywhere but home. So I got nannies, tutors, summer camps, and finally—”
“After boarding school, after boarding school,” Jake finished with a grimace. “Six in three years.”
“So what are you saying?” Hamilton asked, suddenly defensive. “My life’s a picnic compared to yours? I’m supposed to feel sorry for you because your mother shipped you all over the place?”
Jake shrugged off his change in tone.
“No need. As far as boarding school’s concerned, every stupid thing that ever happened at any school can pretty much be traced directly back to my own behavior. Sound familiar?”
“Screw you. You don’t know what it’s like—”
“What? Not to fit in? I hate to break it to you, Hamilton, but you’re not the only alienated teen in the world. Don’t you ever watch after-school specials?”
It pissed Hamilton off that Jake seemed to be mocking his pain.
“Go to hell. You think you know what it’s like to be me, but you don’t.”
He got up off his bed and stalked over to his dresser, turning his back on Jake.
“Don’t I? So tell me, then.” Jake watched the tension growing in his back and shoulders. “Go ahead. Tell me what you want, Hamilton.”
He spun around, his face distorted with anger.
“I want you to leave me alone,” he growled.
“No you don’t.” Pretending he didn’t scare the hell out of her, Jake stood up and moved toward him. “Tell me what you really want.”
He advanced, bringing his face inches from hers.
“Get out of my face.”
Jake’s eyes bore steadily into his. She wasn’t about to back down.
Suddenly, Hamilton had grabbed her by the shirt, lifting her onto her toes.
“If you don’t back off, I swear I’ll—”
Jake refused to react. She didn’t so much as blink.
“Tell me,” she repeated, gently this time.
“Friends, okay?” The words burst out of him as he released Jake and turned away. “I want friends. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
Jake circled so that she was back in front of him . . . and then laughed in his face.
“And you think that makes you different? What do you think I was looking for at all those schools? Better cafeteria food? But tell me, do you always employ the same stellar social skills you’ve displayed here?”
“Screw you,” Hamilton repeated, turning away again, but there was no anger left behind the words. He sunk down on his bed, finally losing the will to fight.
“And, no, I wasn't like this at my old school,” he answered after a moment. “I tried being myself . . . . It just didn’t get me very far. I could never find anyone who . . . .”
He stopped, wondering how they’d reached this point. A few seconds ago, he was about to punch Jake . . . and now he was admitting his deepest inadequacies to the boy who was supposed to be the enemy. But Jake suddenly seemed a lot less like the enemy and a lot more like the only person he’d ever met that actually . . .
“ . . . got you?” Jake suggested, sitting down next to him on his bed. She felt the urge to wrap her arms around him, but figured that would not be well received. She settled for a hand on his shoulder.
He nodded slowly.
“Well, just so you know, I’m definitely onto you. But there is a limit to how much of your shit I’m willing to put up with. So you’re gonna need to drop the act. And not just with me.”
“But, like, what if other people don’t ‘get’ the real me?”
“Then forget about them and find the people who do. If you have to put on an act in front of them, they're not worth your time.”
Jake didn’t stop to consider the irony of that statement coming from her.
“Trust me on this,” she urged. “It’s all about finding the right combination. The right people at the right school . . . and the right version of yourself.” Like the cross-dressing version, for example, she added silently.
He sat without saying anything, but it seemed to be sinking in. Jake decided they’d gone far enough for one night. She got up from Hamilton’s bed, put a little Third Eye Blind on the stereo on her way to her desk, and started on her assigned psychology.
The first rays of the morning sun trickled through the cracks in the curtain and washed over Hamilton’s face. He opened his eyes, then instinctively closed them and rolled over, putting his back to the window. But he didn’t fall back asleep as usual. There was something different about this morning. Stretching his arms over his head, he tried to clear his mind and put his finger on it.
The sun was coming in stronger now and he thought it might be a nice day to take some pictures. It had been over a year since he had explored his favorite places on campus.
Smiling now at the thought, he rolled over again and his eyes fell on Jake, still sleeping soundly in the next bed. Something pinkish that looked like the corner of a magazine was peeking out from under Jake’s pillow. Weird. Hamilton wished Jake would wake up so he could ask about it. Or just so they could chat about anything. Or so they could turn on the stereo and listen music together as they got ready for class.
That was the difference, he realized: waking up and actually wanting to do something. To listen to music. To take photographs. To interact. Energized by his discovery, Hamilton got up and started his usual routine.
He left for the bathroom where he brushed his teeth, washed his face and got dressed. As usual, Jake was up and dressed by the time he got back. It was almost as if his roommate waited for him to leave the room before getting up and getting dressed. But why? He wasn’t the one who’d been checking Jake out. Or had he just imagined that?
Jake had put on Semisonic’s new album. “Act Naturally” was playing and Hamilton smiled slightly to think that they were on the same wavelength.
“’Morning,” Jake ventured, seeing his smile.
“’Morning,” he answered.
He didn’t offer more as the two of them got ready for class, and Jake didn’t press him. She didn’t expect a dramatic transformation right away. For now, it looked like he might start being a decent roommate, and that was enough. If he wanted to fix the rest of his social life, she’d have to let him do it his own terms.
In fact, Hamilton was silent because he was contemplating just that: how to go about fixing his life. He had a class with both Scout and Will the period before lunch. Since they were Jake’s friends, maybe that would be a good place to start.
Putting his jealousy issues aside, Hamilton had to admit that Will was a smart guy who worked hard for his scholarship. He could respect that. But Scout was a different story. Scout seemed to hate Hamilton with an intensity that even his bullying behavior didn’t fully warrant.
What was it between Jake and Scout? Hamilton had witnessed them in more than their share of private conversations, but the fact that Scout was dating Bella kept Hamilton from drawing the most natural conclusion. And Jake’s obviously close “friendship” with that same girl only added to the enigma.
Hamilton shrugged that question off in favor of a more immediate one as a splash of pink on the floor next to Jake’s bed caught his eye.
“What’s this?” he asked innocently, recognizing it as the magazine he had glimpsed under Jake’s pillow.
Jake watched in horror as he bent down and retrieved the recent issue of Seventeen.
“Seventeen? Isn’t this a chick magazine?”
Jake took her time crossing the room and checking out the magazine as if she weren’t quite sure what he was talking about. She needed a minute to come up with something good. Saying it was Bella’s could work, but Hamilton knew Bella hadn’t been in the room lately, and the issue was fairly recent.
“Oh . . . yeah,” Jake stalled, trying to sound as if she’d just suddenly remembered she had the thing, “that.”
Hamilton looked at her with a cocked eyebrow. Her heartbeat slowed as the lie formed in her mind. She grinned and put on her act.
“Oh man, I totally forgot. I bought that for you.”
Hamilton shook his head at her, confused.
“Yeah. Remember the other night when you told me you didn’t get all the games that girls play?”
“Uh . . . yeah.”
“So, dude, if you want to understand chicks, ya gotta study their literature.”
“Riiight.” Unconvinced, Hamilton tried to hand it back to her.
“Seriously, I’m telling you, I read them all the time.” Jake managed to keep a straight face as Hamilton contemplated the Seventeen for a couple more seconds before finally tossing it down on his bed.
“Okay, I guess. I mean, thanks, man.”
Jake took one last glance at the issue, wondering if she could steal it back later. She was only halfway through with it . . . and had a sudden urge to take that quiz after all. She was smiling as she walked back to her desk, pleased both with Hamilton’s new attitude and her own quick thinking.
But Hamilton hadn’t exactly bought the story. He simply filed it away in the ever-growing mental folder of “things-about-Jake-that-almost-make-sense-but-don’t,” which he intended to think more on at a later date.
Ten minutes later, Hamilton was ready to head to class and begin his new friendship campaign. Better yet, he thought, why not start right then? He hesitated, but forged ahead.
“I’ll catch you in the art room for lunch, right?” Hamilton struggled to sound casual with his heart in his throat. He grabbed his books and made for the door.
Jake was taken off guard. Hamilton hadn’t been back to the art room for lunch since that first day, yet he was suggesting it as if it were a ritual. She stared at his back.
“Is that a no?” Hamilton paused with the door half open, but didn’t dare turn to face Jake.
“No,” Jake answered quickly. Wait, did that sound wrong?
“No, that isn’t a no,” she amended. “I mean . . . I’ll be there.”
“Cool.” He released the breath he’d been holding, turned to smile at Jake, then headed out the door.
Jake wondered why she had gotten so flustered. She should have casually pointed out that she always ate lunch in the art room. Or, perhaps, a simple “sure thing” would have sufficed.
Time to get it together, Jake, she cautioned herself. Just play it cool. She took a deep breath and released it slowly before opening the door and hurrying down the hall toward class.
Hamilton breezed through his first two classes with ever-growing optimism. He laughed off the confused looks he earned in Sociology when he offered the guys he usually picked on a simple “good morning.” They’d come around.
In his writing class, he actually did the warm-up activity, surprising both himself and his teacher. The subject was “an inanimate object that makes you feel.” He wrote about his camera and it made him all the more eager to get outside and take some pictures. That kind of inspiration shouldn’t go to waste.
But first things first . . .
From his usual spot in the back of the chemistry lab, he watched Will and Scout enter the classroom and take places in the front. They seemed so fearless. He took a deep breath. It was time for him to stop hiding out in the back muttering cheap shots at the back of people’s heads. He gathered his books and was about to join them, but sat back down when the teacher, Ms. Bond, came in and started her lecture.
Ignoring the day’s lesson, Hamilton focused instead on what to say to Will and Scout after class. He wasn’t too bad with apologies, but worried he’d come off as insincere. And the harder he concentrated on sounding sincere, the more insincere he knew he would sound, since sincerity wasn’t something you worked at. Which was precisely why he knew he needed to stop working on what to say and just say what came naturally. He’d managed it with Jake, after all. Except that, with Jake, it had felt natural—and actually, he’d almost punched Jake anyway—and this didn’t feel natural at all, which was why he was never going to come off as sincere even though he sincerely was . . . sincere.
His neurotic thought cycle was interrupted by the teacher instructing them to form groups of three for their lab assignment. He took a deep breath and, before he could overthink it, grabbed his pen and notebook and rushed up to the front of the room.
“You guys need a third?”
Will and Scout looked at him and then each other as if he’d been speaking Swahili. However, before either could register and protest, Ms. Bond came over and handed Hamilton a packet.
“Group one,” she declared firmly before walking on to the next cluster of boys.
“Well, I guess that decision is made,” Hamilton joked nervously. The expressions on their faces hadn’t exactly turned welcoming.
“What’s your deal?” Will asked. He had watched Hamilton pick on the younger kids all week. And he hadn’t forgotten their first encounter in the dorms. He didn’t trust this sudden switch.
“No deal, I swear.” Hamilton held up his hands as if to prove he was unarmed. “Just needed some lab partners.”
“What?” Scout sneered. “Afraid everyone else would say no?”
Hamilton stared at him. It wasn’t far from the truth. Only it wasn’t rejection by “everyone else” he was afraid of. It was just like that first day, only worse because now he knew these were Jake’s friends and that Jake was the only thing he had even close to resembling a friend.
It went against every survival instinct he had developed to let himself be the vulnerable one, the one begging people to like him. He struggled to bite back a nasty retort and glanced at Will, transmitting his desperation far more clearly than he’d intended.
Reading Hamilton’s look, Will couldn’t help but come to his rescue.
“Well, anyway,” he said quickly, “we better just get this done.”
As they settled at the lab bench and set up the equipment, Will and Hamilton covered Scout’s conspicuous silence with idle chatter.
“So, what other classes do you have?”
“Sociology, Writing, this, and then an English class with Finn after lunch.”
“Oh, his poetry class?” Will asked with genuine interest.
“Cool.” Will smiled, remembering last summer. “Is it still co-ed?”
“Not that I’ve noticed. Co-ed? Really?”
“Totally,” Will affirmed. His smile widened as he described the girls, the poetry and all the other joys of the previous summer.
Meanwhile, Scout looked on in disgust. Will might be buying the new nice guy act, but Scout was not fooled. Something was definitely up. He needed to talk to Jake. As usual, he was going to town to see Bella during lunch, but he would see Jake in last period. Maybe he could find out what was up. In the meantime, he wanted to finish this chemistry experiment ASAP.
“Excuse me, guys, I hate to interrupt this lovely little trip down memory lane, but can we just get this over with?” he asked.
They both turned to him, and Scout shot Will a look that accused him of consorting with the enemy. Will’s return look accused Scout of overreacting. It was a look Scout got from Will all too often and it only irritated him further.
“So, Scout, Bella seems really cool,” Hamilton said as they watched their Bunsen burner heat a clear chemical.
“Yeah, she is. So if I hear about you hitting on her again—”
“Hey, man, I didn’t know she was your girlfriend at the time.”
Scout looked to Will, wondering if he should accept the excuse. Will nodded slightly.
“Just don’t let it happen again,” Scout warned, reluctant to let Hamilton off so easily.
Hamilton nodded as he used tongs to remove the beaker from the burner and followed the instructions on how to begin the titration. He didn’t really know what a titration was, but when they finished it, all they had to do was toss in their mystery chemical and see what happened.
As he worked, he replayed Scout’s words in his head. What was with the attitude? He hadn’t intended to flirt with another guy’s girlfriend, but what was the big deal? From what Hamilton could see of the situation, he would probably be a better boyfriend than Scout anyway. Though that was Bella’s decision, not Scout’s.
“I’m sure Bella can handle herself,” he said out of nowhere.
“Excuse me?” Scout uttered in disbelief.
“It’s just that you seem really possessive. About Bella. About . . . Jake.”
“I’m not—Just shut up, Fleming. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t I? It probably drives you crazy that Jake doesn’t hate me.” Hamilton read the truth of his statement on Scout’s face. “It does, doesn’t it? And I bet Bella didn’t think I was so bad either.”
Will looked between the two of them, dreading what would happen next. Scout knew he was too possessive and needed to work on it. But he was not going to appreciate hearing it from Hamilton.
“Bella thought you were completely lame,” Scout lied cruelly. He scoffed. “You think she doesn’t know she’s beautiful?”
“Scout, chill out,” Will said quietly as several guys glanced in the trio’s direction.
Hamilton could feel his cheeks and ears burning. He knew he’d been awkward at the gas station, but had Bella really thought he was a total loser? He barely resisted the urge to bolt from the room.
Hamilton turned away from Scout and back to the experiment. “Let’s just get this over with,” he suggested in quiet defeat.
“Great idea,” Scout agreed with smug satisfaction.
Scout took the beaker of filtered liquid and added the small white crystal. The liquid turned red and started smoking. Will noted the reaction in their packet.
“Pretty violent reaction for something so small,” Hamilton observed casually, fully intending the double entendre.
Scout set the beaker down and glared at him.
“Look, Fleming, if you wanted us to like you—”
“I could not care less whether you ‘like’ me or not, Calhoun,” Hamilton lied, appalled that his efforts were so obvious.
“Well, good . . . because we don’t.”
Will could not understand Scout’s attitude. Scout had the charisma of a future senator. He could make friends with anyone and usually did. Yet Scout persisted in treating Hamilton like a threat to be warded off rather than a lonely new boy to be put at ease. Still, Will decided to stick by his best friend. Maybe Scout saw something in Hamilton that Will couldn’t.
Hamilton looked to Will, but Will remained silent—just as Jake had that day on the quad. Hamilton stood frozen, pretending to read the last set of instructions in the packet, pretending that Scout’s words hadn’t hurt and that Will’s silence hadn’t infuriated him.
He wanted to punch Scout for being such an unforgiving bastard. Scout knew he was trying to make amends. Did he expect Hamilton to get down on his knees and beg for his friendship?
And he wouldn’t mind having a go at Will either. Will knew Scout was being a dick, but refused to say anything. Just like Jake. No matter what Hamilton said or did, those two would always choose Scout over him.
“All we have to do is write this up, right?” Will asked, assuming Hamilton had just consulted the instructions.
“We?” Hamilton repeated scornfully. “You’re Mister Talented-and-Prolific-Writer. You write it up.”
He tossed the packet of papers at Will. They hit him in the chest and fell to the ground. Will bent over to pick them up, trying to keep his temper under control. Scout made no such effort.
“What the hell is your problem?” Scout asked loudly as he moved in on Hamilton.
“For starters, you in my face.”
Hamilton shoved Scout into the lab station. The beaker fell to the ground and shattered, splashing its chemical onto all of them.
“Boys!” Ms. Bond shouted as she rushed to the front of the room.
Will grabbed Scout to hold him back as the other boys gathered around with interest.
“What is going on?” Ms. Bond asked, stepping into the center of the circle. She examined the broken beaker. “Mr. Fleming?”
Hamilton said nothing. He simply glared at Scout.
Will released Scout, but he only glared back at Hamilton.
Ms. Bond gave each of the three boys her sternest look.
“The lab is no place for horseplay. Such behavior is extremely dangerous. If this hydrogen chloride were to react with another chemical . . . .”
“Boom,” Hamilton finished for her, his eyes never leaving Scout’s.
“Group one, you will all serve detention with me this Saturday. Perhaps we need to watch the lab safety video a few more times until it sinks in. Now clean up and take your seats. I think you’re done for the day . . . .”
Hamilton took his time walking to the art room after chemistry. Why had he ever taken Jake’s advice? Why on earth had he trusted a virtual stranger? He was ready to have it out with Jake once and for all. He half hoped, for Jake’s sake and his own, that his mother would be there. He didn’t trust his own emotional state.
In the art room, Jake sat flipping through an art book while she ate her lunch. She had a study hall before lunch so she always made it to the cafeteria before everyone else. She had to admit, Rawley had great cafeteria food.
She wondered what was keeping Hamilton. She was looking forward to their lunch date. She liked the guy she was discovering beneath the pretense and was pleased that he was starting to trust her. Maybe she could trust him too. With everything.
She hadn’t told anyone since Scout. Then again, she hadn’t had a crush on anyone since Scout either. She laughed out loud. These days, she couldn’t think of anything more ridiculous than the idea of she and Scout as a couple—except possibly the idea of rooming with the dean’s son while attending an all boys school. She laughed again as she flipped another page and decided it might be better not to tell Hamilton right away. Besides, it wasn’t like she had a crush on him or anything.
A few seconds later, she smiled as she heard footsteps followed by Hamilton’s voice.
“It’s about time, Munchie. I thought I was going to have to send out the reserves,” Jake joked without looking up.
“I thought I fucking told you not to call me that.”
Jake’s head snapped up at the terse response. She quickly scanned Hamilton’s face—something had upset him and he was trying to mask his hurt with anger. Great. So much for a pleasant lunch date.
“Everything okay?” Jake asked carefully.
Hamilton was momentarily thrown. It wasn’t the comeback he was looking for.
“No, it’s not okay,” he came up with finally, “because I told you not to call me that anymore, and I told you what would happen if you did.”
He was suddenly in front of her looking very menacing.
“You’re right, you did,” Jake agreed. “I’m sorry. I was just joking around.”
“Well, don’t,” Hamilton snapped.
“You were wrong,” he declared after another long silence.
“Wouldn’t be the first time.” Jake wondered what he meant, but didn’t dare ask.
The fact that Jake refused to be goaded only incensed Hamilton further.
“You think you’re so smart, don’t you? That you get it? That you get me?”
“Well, I’m trying.”
“Why?” he demanded.
“I wish I knew.”
“Because you feel sorry for me?”
“Haven’t we already been through this?”
“Yeah, so why don’t you just admit that my mom put you up to it? That she asked you to help out her poor, pathetic son?”
“Because she didn’t.”
“They why are you—”
“Look, Hamilton, I don’t know, okay? For some crazy reason, I’ve been under the quite possibly delusional impression that there’s something about you that’s actually worth ‘getting,’ all right?”
“No. I don’t buy it.”
“God, what is your problem?”
She should never have allowed him to make her lose her patience—she knew it even before he grabbed her. Something had set him off, he was trying desperately to take it out on her, and she had finally given him the opportunity. She looked down at his hands as their grip tightened on the collar of her jacket. She looked back into his eyes.
“Let go,” she said firmly.
It was the same tone Jake had used with Scout that day on the quad and hearing it enraged Hamilton.
“You think you can tell me what to do? That I’ll be your little bitch just like that idiot Scout?”
She swallowed, staring back at him. Well, now she knew with whom he was really angry, but that didn’t change the fact that he’d chosen to make her pay for it. She wasn’t strong enough to do anything but talk her way out of this.
“All I think,” she started calmly, referring to his question, “is that you need to let go.”
“Fine,” he said sharply.
He pulled her into him then shoved her hard against the art table. It knocked the wind out of her and she had to hold onto the table to keep from falling to the floor. She shook her head at him.
“This isn’t who you are, Hamilton.”
“How the hell do you know?” Hamilton growled. “Maybe this . . . ”
Without warning, his fist flew into Jake’s face.
“ . . . is exactly who I am.”
As Jake sunk slowly to the floor, Hamilton turned abruptly and walked out of the room.
Jake sat on the floor in complete shock. She reached up to touch her lip and pulled back bloody fingertips.
Once outside the art room, Hamilton began to run as fast as he could. By the time he reached the lake, he was winded. He collapsed against a tree. His hand hurt. He looked down and saw that his knuckles were red and beginning to swell. He cringed as he drew his hand up closer and noticed the blood: Jake’s blood.
Jake had been right. This was not who he was. He had never punched anyone before. It was a disgusting feeling. How had it gotten to this point? This wasn’t what he’d wanted.
He sunk down to the ground and felt the tears stinging his eyes. As miserable as he’d been over the past year, he’d never allowed himself to cry. The release was long overdue.
He stayed there in front of the lake, skipping Finn’s poetry class. He stared and stared across the glimmering water and started to wish he had his camera. What did that mean? Not a state of inspiration so much as a state of clarity.
He now remembered all of Jake’s advice on friends: Make an effort and be yourself . . . and if people don’t get it, then they aren’t worth your time. That left just one person at the school who he knew was worth his time . . . and he’d just punched that person in the face.
It was time to stop worrying about Will or Scout or anyone else. If they realized that he was worth their time, then great, but if not, he couldn’t blame them. His number one priority was to apologize to Jake, as soon as Jake got out of class.
Little did he know, Jake was also skipping her last class of the day. She took advantage of the empty dorm bathrooms to wash the blood from her lip and chin and to inspect the cut. It was small, but her lip was swelling. She sipped some water from her cupped hands and spat it back out, rinsing the blood from her gums. She swore her bottom teeth felt slightly loose. She knew it was just paranoia. No one had ever hit her before. Not like that.
She knew she should find some ice to slow the swelling, but didn’t want to risk walking around. She wouldn’t want to run into Kate. Or, would she? Wasn’t it time to get Hamilton out of her room? Why hadn’t she waited in the art room to tell Kate everything?
The answer was pride. More than the fact that she’d been sucker-punched, it bothered her that she had failed to get through to Hamilton. She returned to her room without any ice.
Will and Scout shared her last class and her absence from it didn’t go unnoticed. When the class ended, Will headed over to the library, but Scout went straight for the dorms. It was probably just some girl thing, he told himself. But he worried it might have something to do with Hamilton. In any case, he needed to tell her about what had happened in Chemistry.
“Who is it?” Jake called when he knocked on the door. Her voice sounded strange.
“It’s Scout. Are you okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be? Go away, Scout,” she yelled without opening door.
“Is Hamilton in there?” he asked leading himself to conclusions that were miles from the truth.
“No,” she answered quietly as she opened the door and let him in. “He’s not.”
Scout’s eyes widened when he saw her. Her bottom lip was swollen and broken. Her chin was bruised a light purple.
“Do you know where I can get some ice?” she asked.
“I’ll be right back,” he promised, putting his curiosity on hold.
When he returned from the cafeteria, he wrapped the ice up in a small towel and knelt in front of her as she sat on her bed. He raised it slowly to her chin. She winced when it made contact, but then closed her eyes letting it take the heat away from the wound. Scout held the ice in place as she related the story.
He slowly shook his head when she had finished. She reached up to take the ice. He let her take hold of it, but didn’t get up. He reached up and gently caressed her cheek.
“I can’t believe he hit you,” Scout said even though he had predicted it. “Who would hit such a beautiful girl?”
“Oh, stop.” A faint smile showed on her injured lips. “Aren’t you supposed to be telling me how you were right and I was wrong? How I should have just ignored him?”
“Actually, I think you might have been right about him. He tried to fix things with Will and me today, but . . . ”
“You didn’t let him,” Jake finished.
“God . . . his is all my fault.”
“Well, it’s not your fault. You know that, right?”
“You were right about him,” was all she said.
She did know that it wasn’t her fault Hamilton was a violent Neanderthal. But she was annoyed with herself for having had such terrible judgment. She was angry with herself for having trusted him. She was disappointed in him for not living up to her expectations. And, most of all, she felt like a failure for not having saved him.
Scout was reading Jake’s facial expressions. He watched her blaming herself, kicking herself for trusting a loser. Despite her protests to the contrary, he knew this was all his fault. She had been right all along, and if he had just given Hamilton another chance, none of this would have happened.
“I’m going to talk to him,” Scout said, getting up.
“Scout, no. Take your own advice. Ignore him.”
“Look, I’m not going to hit him or anything, okay? I’m going to apologize.”
“Don’t you dare,” she warned, standing up to face him. “He is so not worth your time.”
“Or yours.” Scout frowned as he glanced down at her chin.
They looked at each other for a moment.
“Look, I appreciate your concern,” Jake said finally, “but I can handle Hamilton.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Scout pointed out as he headed for the door.
“Just don’t do or say anything stupid, okay?”
Scout nodded once and left the room.
While she appreciated the big brother act, Jake couldn’t stand the idea of needing someone to stick up for her. She could hold her own with Hamilton on a mental, verbal and emotional level. But, physically, she had to accept that he was a threat. He could not live in her room anymore.
Hamilton hurried up the stairs, a bag of ice in hand, anxious to get back to his room. He hoped Jake would be there. At the top of the stairs, he almost ran into Scout.
“Just the person I was looking for,” Scout said.
Hamilton couldn’t quite read his tone and had better things to do than try to figure out Scout.
“Look, Calhoun, I’m not in the mood.”
“Too damn bad,” Scout said, moving to block Hamilton’s path.
Hamilton wanted to push past him, but the anger flickering in Scout’s eyes warned him to stay put. He knew what this was about. Scout advanced another step, backing Hamilton against the wall. Hamilton braced himself for a blow, but it didn’t come.
“Look, if you’re going to beat me up, can you just get it over with?” Hamilton requested calmly. “I’m not going to fight back, but I’m kinda in a hurry.”
Scout eyed him suspiciously. He glanced around at the empty hallway and seriously considering taking a shot. Hamilton deserved worse. Being a jerk was one thing, but striking Jake was completely unacceptable.
He drew back his fist, but before he could throw the punch, he remembered how Jake had looked with that fat lip. The image made him mad, but he knew that the pain she’d been experiencing had little to do with her own swollen jaw. She’d been hurting for Hamilton. He took a deep breath and a step back.
“If you ever hit Jake again, you’ll have a lot worse to deal with than a busted lip,” Scout promised quietly.
“You don’t have to worry about that.”
Hamilton looked down impatiently at his bag of melting ice. This conversation was completely unnecessary as far as Hamilton was concerned. He was no threat to Jake. He just wanted to get to his room.
Scout followed Hamilton’s eyes to the bag of ice.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have been such a jerk to you earlier,” he admitted, trying to avoid a direct apology.
“Look, ditto, okay? Can I go now?”
Scout wasn’t finished. “So, in the future, if you have a problem with me, do not take it out on Jake.”
“I swear, Calhoun, the next time I have a problem with you, I will punch you directly.”
Scout actually smiled at that. “Okay. Just so long as you realize: Jake is not to be punched.”
“Yeah, man, I get it.” Though he didn’t get why Scout was harping on this point. “What is it between you and Jake, anyway? Seriously?”
“It's not what you’re probably thinking, trust me. Jake's like my little si—bling. I just . . . I watch out for . . . him.”
Hamilton knew he was missing something. Something that would make all of the pieces fit. But all he cared about at the moment was getting to Jake while he still had a little ice left for a peace offering.
Catching the impatient glance at the ice, Scout finally stepped out of Hamilton’s way. Hamilton had only taken a couple of steps when Scout called after him.
Hamilton turned around with his eyebrows raised. Ham?
“Friends?” Scout asked, arm extended.
Hamilton smiled in surprise.
“Yeah. Sure. No question.”
He shook Scout’s hand briefly and then stood there another moment still wearing the puzzled smile. Scout nodded toward Hamilton’s room, and Hamilton snapped out of it. As he reached his door, he threw one last glance over his shoulder. He couldn’t quite believe what had happened.
Inside their room, Jake was flipping through Seventeen and trying to ignore the throbbing in her lip and chin. The ice Scout brought was nearly melted when it arrived and by the time he left, it was no more than a bag of water. She’d tossed it before grabbing the magazine off Hamilton’s bed.
She hit the quiz page again. “Where’s the ‘Is-my-crush-potentially-abusive-even-though-he-currently-believes-I'm-a-guy?’ quiz when you need it,” she wondered aloud.
She giggled, which caused her lip to hurt, which was why she didn’t notice the door opening until it was too late. Oh well, she’d already told Hamilton that she read these magazines and who cared what the bastard thought of her now anyway? She didn’t bother looking up.
Hamilton took the opportunity to study Jake from the doorway. He smiled. Jake was the only guy he’d ever met who would admit to reading girls’ magazines. In fact, Hamilton mused, from this angle, reading that magazine, Jake almost looks like he could be a girl.
Suddenly, it all clicked. The bra, the heels, Jake checking him out and refusing to get undressed in front of him, the delicate features, Scout’s protectiveness, the magazine . . . It all made sense.
And the comic book! Jake didn’t wonder about being a Jacqueline, she was a Jacqueline. He’d put money on that being her real name. He laughed out loud at his discovery, causing Jake to finally look up at him.
“Get the fuck out of here,” she ordered coldly.
“No, no, I wasn’t laughing at you,” he rushed to assure her. “It was just . . . I mean, I just realized that . . .”
“You're not staying here,” Jake interrupted. “If you won't talk to your mom, then fine, I will.”
“No, please don’t!”
They were both taken aback by his vehemence. He started babbling.
“I mean, I’m really sorry. Like, for everything. For hitting you . . . and for being such an awful roommate . . . . I mean, you’ve been so . . . and I’ve been such a . . . and I . . . I brought you some ice.”
He held the bag out to show her as he paused to take a breath before making his final pathetic plea.
“Please forgive me.”
She’d never seen his begging puppy-dog expression before. Now she understood what Kate used to say about never being able to deny him anything.
She tried to smile, intending to show him her forgiveness, but it made her lip hurt so she ended up wincing instead.
Hamilton felt like shit. Jesus Christ, he’d not only punched his best friend, he’d punched a girl.
He rushed over and sat down beside her on the bed. He held up the half-melted ice, meaning to offer it to her, but he found himself cupping her chin in his hand and placing the bag against her bruised skin himself. With his hand against her skin and his face so close to her features, he wondered how he could ever have mistaken her for a guy.
He tried to reposition the bag slightly and accidentally sent water squirting out the top and all over both of them.
“Jesus, man, are you trying to drown me?” Jake joked, hopping up from the bed.
Or maybe he just realized I was in need of a cold shower there, she thought to herself. What was Hamilton doing getting so close to her anyway?
He could tell she meant it, but she looked a little freaked out. Then he realized that Jake didn't know that he knew she was a girl—she was reacting to the fact that he’d stopped keeping a manly distance.
He opened his mouth to explain it to her and then closed it again. Actually, keeping his new discovery a secret might be kind of fun . . . .