I prop myself up on my elbows and peer into the toilet bowl. Bloodshot brown eyes glare back at me between chunks of floating vomit, light glinting off the metal toilet seat. Bile runs down my chin, stuck in my stubble. When I reach for the toilet paper roll, I find it empty. I wipe my face on my crusty sleeve. Flies guard the toilet, flanked by a million tiny ants. So much for using the park bathroom to puke and take a piss. I don’t need anything on my dick or up my ass.
Last night’s chunky dinner rises up my sore throat. The chunks stick, choking me. I cough and cough, but only greasy spit dribbles out. I grip the empty toilet paper holder for support, accidentally yanking it out of the wall. When I uncurl my fingers, it drops into the toilet, splashing water onto my shirt. I stagger into the sink and twist the rusty faucet. Nothing comes out. Of course. A place to shit would be a shitty place.
The pressure in my bladder increases. Flies buzz around the toilet. Screw them. I unzip, only for them to fly closer. Little fuckers! I zip back up and shove the door open, stumbling into some bushes. I unzip again and piss on them. Once I finish, I zip my pants up, my teeth chattering. Goosebumps pop up on my skin, and I rub my arms.
Click! A flash blinds me, and I shield my eyes. Someone’s walking closer to me. After heavy blinking, I’m able to see the culprit’s wide gray eyes. Brown-haired ponytail swishing and lips twitching in amusement, she pockets her bright orange digital camera. I don’t know her. Why is she taking a picture of me?
“What was that?” I step out from behind the bush.
The girl blinks twice. “I was getting blackmail.”
Blackmail? She doesn’t even know me! “Delete that. Now!” My stomach riots, my vision still blinded from the flash. Who takes pictures of random strangers? Who takes pictures of random strangers peeing?
The girl ignores me and hops in place, her smile so wide it should fall off her face. “This is perfect!”
“I told you to delete it!” I reach out and try to snatch the camera from her, but she lowers her arm at the last second. My arm drops as she finally looks up.
“Calm down, Max.” She smiles and pockets her camera in her coat. “What’s up?”
Did she just say my name? “Do I know you?”
She frowns. “Yeah. We’re in the same chemistry class.”
Chemistry. Cassy’s in my chemistry class. I’d nudge her with my knee under the table while the teacher droned on. But I can’t do that anymore. She belongs to him now. Asshole girlfriend stealer.
The girl’s stare is still on me.
“I’m Melly.” She holds her hand out. I don’t shake it. She lowers her hand, continuing to stare. This is really awkward. A quick glance is normal. Staring is just creepy.
I narrow my eyes. “Do you need something from me?”
“Actually, yes.” She grins, revealing braces. What’s a high school sophomore doing still wearing those? Braces are so middle school. “I need you to be my photo model for the next three hundred and sixty-five days. Well, three hundred and sixty-four now, since I’ve already taken a picture of you today.”
I stare back at her. When the smile doesn’t fall from her face, I laugh, breaking the silence. “Model? For you? For an entire year?”
“I’m serious!” She looks at the ground. “Your hair is really awesome, since you change it so much. That’s why I’d like to photograph you.”
My hair definitely isn’t “awesome” today. It’s still oily because I didn’t take a shower this morning and the wind’s blowing it everywhere. Sometimes, girls pet my hair after I changed it even though it pissed Cassy off.
Is that why Cassy broke up with me? Or is it just because Jaxon is so much better for her?
She looks up. I shake my head. “No.”
“Aw, come on.” She frowns. “It’s not like you have to do a lot of work.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But we’re not friends.” I shrug. “I don’t see why I should do this for you.”
Melly rolls her eyes. “This is why I didn’t ask for permission before taking your picture. I expected this from you.”
“Then why’d you take it anyway?” And how does she know so much about me?
The smile never leaves her face. “Here’s the deal. I’ll pay you. That photo is for a scholarship. I have to photograph something that’ll change over the course of a year.”
I scoff. “And you thought of me?”
“Well, no.” She scratches her head. “I mean, I was wandering around the park trying to come up with some ideas, and then I saw you.” She exhales. “So … yeah! Come on, Max! Please? I’ll pay you! Even if I don’t win, it’ll be a fun project.”
“Fun?” I groan. “Maybe for you.”
She steps a little closer. “Don’t you want to know how much I’ll pay you?”
A little money never hurt. “Hmm. How much?”
“A dollar a day.”
I snort. “Two.”
She grins. “Sure. So, you’ll do it?”
Way to jump to conclusions. “I never agreed to anything.”
“True.” She raises an eyebrow. “Still. Seven hundred and thirty dollars. Not bad, if you ask me.”
“I guess not.” She must be hoping for a lot of money if she’s willing to pay me so much. “What do you get if you win the scholarship?”
She scoffs. “Like you care. Focus on what you’re going to get. Seriously. It’s not bad.”
“I guess it’s not.” Just one more thing. “What about the picture?”
“Oh, right.” She adjusts the camera around her neck. “I won’t show it to anyone but the scholarship people.”
“And if I say no?”
“Then I guess your lovely ex-girlfriend Cassy Carlson would love to see it.”
How does she know about me and Cassy already? “You can’t be serious.”
“I am.” She folds her arms across her chest. “So? Will you do it?”
If she puts it that way, I really don’t have a choice. Besides, money is nice. “This isn’t gonna take a lot of time, is it?”
She shakes her head. “It shouldn’t. So, it’s a deal, right?”
I hesitate; the frogs in my stomach seem to have died for now. My throat, however, continues torturing me. I cough. “Seven hundred thirty dollars?”
She shrugs. “If you want. I think it’s worth it. I’d do it if I were you.”
“Mm-hmm.” Should I? It’s not like I have anything better to do. But do I really want some chick taking pictures of me every day? I should tell her to get lost and suck a dick. That might knock the smile off her face. But if I take her up on it, I’ll have some money for a drum set.
“Max?” She waves a hand in front of my face. “Yes or no?”
This is gonna be a long year. “Fine. I’ll do it. But only because you’re paying me.” And Cassy doesn’t need to see a picture of me hung-over and pissing in bushes.
Her forehead creases. “Are you sure? Don’t commit if you’re not going to cooperate.”
“I said yes, okay?” Great. I’m already regretting this. “Just stop bothering me.”
Melly grins as if she’s just been declared homecoming queen. “Awesome! Thanks, Max!”
“Yeah, whatever.” I stand. The frogs resurrect their leaping contest, and I steady myself on a nearby bench. Cassy and I used to come here and make out a lot: a private world in a public place. “Have fun with your project. Use me as little as possible.”
“Of course.” She twirls some hair around her finger. “So, when are we meeting tomorrow?”
She can’t be serious. “Huh?”
“Well, I need a picture for every day of the year. That means I need you tomorrow too.”
What have I gotten myself into? “Can we just come here tomorrow?”
She nods. “Sounds good to me. I’ll see you here at ten. Don’t forget to come.”
Hmph. “And if I do?”
“Your loss.” She shoves her hands into her pockets. “I’m not paying you until this time next year.”
“Fine.” This has been enough perkiness for a day. She smiles enough for both of us.
“Well, I’m gonna go now. Guess I’ll see you here tomorrow.”
She smirks. “You better.” She steps even closer, smile widening. “Try to be a little nicer though, okay? Also, I’d appreciate it if you were sober tomorrow. Just saying.” She tilts her head and narrows her eyes. “Looks like you had fun last night. Nice shirt.”
“Fun?” I chuckle without humor. “Sure, if that’s what you want to think.”
She frowns. “What happened last night?”
What did happen? “Shit.”
“Oh.” She raises an eyebrow. “What kind?”
“Nothing.” Who cares that my girlfriend dumped me less than a day before our anniversary? Who cares that I caught her making out with my supposed best friend only five minutes later? No one. No one’s ever cared. And no one ever will.
“Fine. Don’t tell me. See you tomorrow.”
With that, she walks away. Finally. I shake my head and check my phone. It’s about noon. Time to go home. I don’t want to be there either. But it beats being photographed by random strangers, even if I’m getting paid.
I still need a drink. There’s a fountain across the street. Even from here, it looks rusty. I’m about halfway across when a horn blares and brakes screech. I dive forward, glancing behind me to see a car’s bumper. One of the front wheels is inches from my shoe, another almost planting into a tree. I crawl across the street, peering at the window. A middle-aged driver flips me off. The horn’s blare is like a dozen hammers slamming into my skull. I laugh, almost wishing he’d hit me. Almost. He shakes his head and drives off. My stomach churns again. For a moment, I think vomit will burst out of my throat, but I force it back. I pant as I glance around me, then brace my hands on the ground and stand slowly.
Blood roars in my ears as my heart pounds. That was close. Okay. It’s official. My New Year’s resolution is to not let that happen a second time. For now, I’m getting my ass home.
So much for sleeping. Screw hangovers. I roll onto my side and shut my eyes tighter. Someone knocks on the door. I jerk backwards into the headboard. Shit. My skull throbs.
Knock. Knock. Who’s there? If it’s him, he’s not supposed to be here until after school starts. Besides, he usually just barges in. Is that really him?
The door rattles as the pounding becomes louder, shaking the room. I bury my face into the pillow. “Go away.” The door creaks open anyway. Thanks for listening to me, asshole. My brother would’ve slammed it open, so it can’t be him. I poke my head out of the covers. The figure has long, dark hair. Cassy? I blink, rubbing dust out of my eyes. “Cassy,” I croak. She steps into the room, and my heart speeds up. “Please, listen to me. I’ll be a better boyfriend, I prom—”
Click. Light sears my eyes. I blink and shield them with a hand. The girl has brown hair, not black, and is holding a camera. That’s not Cassy. My cheeks burn as Melly puts her camera away. This girl really can’t leave me alone, can she?
“What was that for?” I block my face from the light.
She scoffs. “What do you mean? You didn’t show up! What happened?”
“What happened to manners?” I blink as my eyes adjust. Why did she have to wake me up? I should’ve just ignored her.
“Hey, I knocked.” She leans against a wall. “That should be good enough.”
I groan. “And I told you to go away. Did you? No.”
She crosses her arms. “Do you have any idea how hard it was to find your address? There’s at least thirty Prescotts in Paradise!”
She stalked me and found my address for a project? Nerd. “Whatever.” Did I ever get that chunk out of my throat? I hack, spit in the general direction of my trash can without checking to see if I made it in, and drag my arm across my mouth. “Why are you so obsessed with photography anyway?”
She shifts her feet. “None of your business.”
“You’re using me as your model and it’s none of my business?” I scratch my chin. I should shave. “Are you ever gonna show me those pictures?”
“Probably not.” She pulls a cell phone out of her pocket and starts texting. Is she even listening to me?
I sit up. “Why not? Give me one good reason.”
“Shut up!” She bites her lower lip. Her hair falls around her face, hiding her eyes. Fine, then. Be a bitch. She sniffles. Oh shit.
I rub my eyes and squint at her. She presses a shaking hand to her mouth. My gut clenches. Did I say something I shouldn’t have?
“Melly? Everything okay?”
She slides the phone shut, clenching it in her fist. Then she throws her phone on the floor, covering her face with her hands as she bolts out of the room, bright red jacket whipping around the corner. What’s her problem? Groaning, I stumble out of bed. Once on my feet, I grab the phone and run downstairs.
“Melly!” Dammit. “Melly!”
The front door slams. What did I do? Maybe not having friends actually is a good idea. I scratch the back of my neck. What do I do now? The hand holding the phone clenches. I don’t want to hold on to this. I have to find her.
I fling the door open and sprint down the street. Cold air bites my skin. I shiver but keep running. Two blocks over, I find her leaning against a light post covering her face with her hands. I walk over to her. Should I hold her phone out to her? Tap her shoulder? I don’t want to touch girls right now.
Her head snaps up. “Why did you follow me? Go away!” Her puffy eyes well with tears again.
I hold my arm out, palm open. “Isn’t this yours?”
She snatches her phone from me and takes off running again. Crazy bitch. I groan and start walking back home. Is every single day going be like this? Is this really worth what she’s paying me? Maybe I should back out while I can.
It’s only been two days and Melly is already wearing me out. Why all the drama? Maybe something’s going on with her and her friends? That would require her to have some in the first place, but I haven’t seen her around. Maybe she got bad news of some sort? I wince. At least Cassy broke up with me to my face.
I scribble “Cassy is a bitch” in several different handwritings, poking holes through the paper. Next thing I know, it’s dark outside and my head is on the table, a page of my sketchbook stuck to my face. Prying it off, I squint at the kitchen clock. It’s just past six. My pencil has rolled onto the floor, and I bend down to pick it up. After tapping my pencil on the sketchbook, I draw an oval.
A few hours later, crumpled sketches litter the floor. Cassy’s face, which looks more like an ugly dog, is everywhere. My stomach rumbles. I ball up yet another sheet of paper. As I pick my pencil up again, my phone buzzes. One new message.
From: Tina at 9:24 a.m.
You coming today?
I grin. At least I still have her.
From: Tina at 9:26 a.m.
Cool. See ya.
Hold on. It’s 9:26 a.m., not p.m., of January third. Not having school really messes up my sleeping pattern. Was ten o’clock supposed to mean something? I think Melly told me to meet her at ten. But that was for yesterday. She didn’t tell me where to go today. Should I assume she wants me at the park?
If she really cared about her project, wouldn’t she be here by now? But she also ran out crying yesterday. Maybe I should head over there before she comes barging into my house again.
Putting my pencil down, I run upstairs and head to my closet. I pull out the first shirt I see and sniff. After determining that it’s clean enough, I yank it over my head. After pulling basketball shorts on too, I check my phone. Nine thirty. I can still make it.
In the fridge, I find pizza. I made it for Cassy last week, but she just threw it back at me. I kept it, thinking it was probably edible. It’s all I have, so I throw it in the microwave and set it for a minute. Just before I can turn around to use the bathroom, sparks light up inside. Dammit! I left the foil underneath! I stop the microwave and clench my fists. When I think about Cassy, I can’t do anything right.
Screw it. I can’t eat like this. Grabbing the pizza, I toss it in the trash can, then bolt out the door, sprinting to the park for exercise. Melly’s probably not even there. I shouldn’t actually be worried about being late. But since I’m out, I might as well sketch something decent outside my hellhole of a house.
When I get to the park bench, Melly’s already sitting there. She looks up and waves. Guess I might as well sit next to her. She smiles, takes her camera out, and places it in her lap. Looks like she’s okay, apart from dark circles underneath her eyes. No need to ask about yesterday.
“Let’s get this over with,” I grumble.
“Come on. There’s no rush.” She fiddles with a leaf, shredding it with both hands. She smiles too wide, eyes still red. “I didn’t expect you to show up.”
Nice to see you too. “Oh yeah? Well, here I am.”
“I know.” She rolls her eyes. “Give me a moment. I need to decide what picture to take of you today. You know, since you’re probably going to change your hair later.”
She knows I change my hair on the third of every month? “Whatever.”
She snaps her fingers. “I have an idea! Can I get a picture of you from the back?”
“I guess.” She stands and turns on her camera, but I don’t move. I clear my throat. “Do you want me to stay here?”
Melly bites her lip. “How about you pretend to walk away?”
“Whatever gets this over with faster.” I turn. There’s a familiar figure on the other side of the park. I freeze, my heart racing. It’s Cassy. Only she would leave her stomach exposed to show off her belly button ring in the middle of winter, even if it’s a warm one. It glints in the sunlight. She’s not alone. Jaxon runs up behind her and grabs her waist. She squeals. So much for thinking Cassy and I were “cute” together, huh, Jaxon? My fists clench. Melly chooses that moment to snap the picture. I turn to face her again. She doesn’t need to know I was watching them. She laughs as I walk back to the bench.
“What were you staring at?”
“Nothing.” I keep walking. “I’m gonna leave now.”
Melly chuckles. “Okay. When are we meeting tomorrow?”
Good question. I turn back around. “I have work from seven to ten.”
“Where do you work?”
At least she didn’t know that. “I’m a lifeguard at the recreation center.”
“I see.” She tilts her head. “Can I visit while you’re working?”
“No.” Visitors could get me in trouble. No need to risk being fired, especially over someone I barely know.
She sighs. “Fine. I’ll just take pictures of you at school. Is that cool?”
I grit my teeth. “Sure.”
She stuffs her camera back into her purse. “If I don’t get a picture, I’ll call you. And we’ll have to work out something for the weekends, so … yeah. Can we figure that out now?”
I frown. “You don’t have my number.”
“The directory does.” She shakes her head. “Don’t you ever learn?”
A spasm leaps down my back. My shoulders stiffen. She has my number too? Why would she stalk me, of all people? If she’s going to keep doing this, there are some things she doesn’t need to know. “Wait!” She stops, turning to face me again. Maybe Cassy’s right. Maybe I’m just desperate. “Don’t call that number.”
“Okay, really?” She folds her arms across her chest, narrowing her eyes. One hand plays with a button on her shirt, which isn’t in a hole. I’d mention it, but she seems pissed, so I don’t say anything. “What’s your problem? What did I do to make you hate me?”
Hate her? Maybe she pisses me off, but I don’t hate her. At least, I don’t think I do. “I have my reasons! What do you not get about that?”
“Well, excuse me for trying to be nice!” She takes a few steps closer to me, raising her hand. I flinch as she moves some hair out of her face. “Fine,” she says. “You have your reasons. Tell me some of them, and I’ll leave you alone.”
Why does she need a reason? I kick a rock. “Just don’t call that number, dammit!”
“Would that make you happy?” She juts out her lower lip as if to taunt me, holding up her camera with her thumb and forefinger.
I throw my hands up in the air. “Let’s just get this over with!”
She sighs. “Fine. But this is actually important to me, Max. How am I going to contact you if I don’t get your picture? Sneak into your house?”
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t do that again.” I rip a piece of paper out of the back of my sketchbook, scribble my cell phone number on it, and hand it to her. “Don’t call unless you have to.”
“Fine.” She exhales. “I’m leaving now. Bye.”
I don’t watch her leave. Instead, I shove my hands in my pockets and glance over my shoulder for a second. Jaxon has turned towards Cassy; their lips are connected. With Jaxon always third-wheeling us, it was hard for me and Cassy to get much alone time. With me out of the picture, that’s no longer an issue for them. I shake my head and walk away, hoping they haven’t spotted me spying. I already looked pathetic enough at the party. There’s no need to throw the rest of my pride down the drain as well.
Why was I even with her? Her looks? Because she was the one who asked me out last New Year’s Day after our supposedly only friendly midnight kiss? Or was I just bored?
It’s not like I know how to love anyway. Isn’t that what they say? “It’s impossible to love someone if no one loves you?”
They’re heading my way. I should definitely leave. As Melly mentioned, it’s the third, so I head off to the local hairstylist, kicking a small rock as I walk. It doesn’t take long to get to Tina’s Trims. When I push the door open, a bell chimes. Tina Hawthorne, who always does my hair, grins at me behind a magazine. She puts it down, revealing long hair that is now brown with blond streaks. I sit down in a chair as she heads to the back for supplies. She returns a few seconds later.
“Good to see you!” She places her hands on my shoulders. “Where have you been? I was getting worried.”
I grin even though she’s probably exaggerating. “You had nothing to worry about. I’m right here.” I try not to breathe in too much; the shop has a floral scent I hope doesn’t cling to my clothes later. “Did you get my message?”
“Of course I did!” She pats my back. “What happened? You sounded stoned over the phone.”
Huh? “I didn’t call you.”
She smirks. “Just making sure you really aren’t stoned. Wouldn’t want you to get into more trouble at school.”
Fuck. I have school tomorrow. At least I still have today to dick around. I laugh as she gets ready. “My life’s gotten shittier, if you can believe that.”
“Well, then tell me about it. Tilt your head back for me, will you?”
I grin to myself and follow directions. She’s the only person who actually listens to me ramble about my life and my family, the only one I’m willing to share my thoughts with. And now, I have Cassy to complain about too.
Of course, I wonder about Tina’s life too, but she refuses to talk about it. Instead, I spew out some word vomit, knowing I’ll be walking out soon with newly bleached hair and, hopefully, feeling much better.
Blitz-wide giveaway (INTL)