Thanks for all the kind reviews, everybody. As for the question about ethnicity – Keegan is mixed race (white and Filipino). The only white main character is Skeezie. Another fun fact is that I stole his name from a YA book I read when I was young that helped me come out of the closet.


ii. 'cause you just never, you never know

You know that dream people always have in sitcoms? The one where they show up to school, or a big audition, or a stage performance, and they realize that they're stark naked? I've never had that dream, but walking into the choir room for the first time felt like living its reality.

I wasn't naked, obviously. But all eyes were on me regardless – and this time, it wasn't my paranoia. All the eyes in the room Nehemiah had lead me to were literally on me. My heart was beating so hard I thought I could feel my ribcage vibrating. The sudden fear of saying something wrong, or even just breathing the wrong way, was trapped in my throat and had my jaw clenching down. The arm around me was the only anchor keeping me from disintegrating entirely. I resented it.

Nehemiah, whose name I had learned as he steered me through the halls of my new school, raised his free arm to air trumpet our arrival.

"Good morning, ladies and gentleman," he announced to the five other people in the room. Their eyes burned holes through me, but not as badly as Nehemiah's arm was singing my shoulders. I flickered my gaze around the room to the décor, figuring file cabinets and keyboards would be less likely to object to my stare. "Look what I found."

"People aren't whats, they're whos," a voice insisted. I followed it with my eyes, out of curiosity. She was pretty, with the shiniest, waviest black hair I'd seen short of a Pantene commercial.

"Besides, didn't I ask for a puppy?" The guy to her right. He had a septum piercing and an undercut, which, for some reason, only made him seem more intimidating.

"Look at this kid's face," Nehemiah exclaimed, touching my chin with his hand. I ducked out of the way instinctively, but he didn't seem apologetic regardless. "Is this not the closest thing?"

"Thing," the girl stressed again, rolling her eyes.

"Miah, you're really fuckin' up, dude." Another person, of indeterminate gender, who was seated at the top of the choir risers and wearing a particularly cool pair of combat boots.

"Okay, okay, okay," Nehemiah relented, his arm squeezing me tighter. "This is my new friend, who is a human being with his own thoughts, feelings and autonomy."

"It's not Autumn, it's Spring," said the undercut. I fidgeted with my hands and considered the state of public education to distract myself from the fact that I was on fire.

"Honey, I apologize. Nehemiah doesn't realize how rude he is 'cause he's messed up in the head. Who else dyes their hair green and thinks they look good?" This girl had her hair in box braids, wound up into a bun on the top of her head.

Nehemiah was smiling a toothy grin. He had perfect teeth.

"Regardless," the original girl, with the shampoo commercial hair, "it's nice to meet you. I'm Dorinda."

"Keegan," I said, because standard greetings were social interaction 101 and basically the only thing I could manage. My voice cracked like it hadn't been used in eons.

Nehemiah muttered, 'oh shit,' under his breath, which my brain quickly tried to analyze. In retrospect, it was likely he'd just realized he had forgotten to ask me my name.

They went in a round robin. Makoto ("Makoto, MK, Mr. Tanaka if you're nasty.") had the undercut. Rochelle ("Or, Ro, or whatever.") had the boots. Madison had the braids. There was only one person left, but he was sitting on top of a bookcase with big, puffy headphones over his ears and he had largely not been paying attention.

"AND THAT'S SKEEZIE," Nehemiah said loudly, presumably to reach through whatever the guy was listening to. His brown, curly hair fell over one eye, though it didn't seem purposeful. He had freckles, a Mr. Rogers cardigan that seemed way too hot for March, and old, peeling stickers all over his shoes. I briefly wondered how I had managed to find myself in the midst of what must've been a strange kind of fashion club, but then he was sliding off his headphones.

"That your new boyfriend?" Skeezie asked, the sarcastic tone not betrayed by the softness of his voice. Nehemiah's arm dropped from my shoulders and suddenly the room seemed ten times smaller. The walls were closing in. My skin was so hot it must've been reducing to ash by then.

"Miah has been hard up lately," MK said as he chuckled. "If you wanna get laid, my man, you know I have the in with fine-looking mamacitas everywhere. You only had to ask."

Dorinda rolled her eyes. "You disgust me."

"Didn't know prep school was your type," Ro joined in.

"This week's inside investigation on RFOX news – what those bougie Milkwaukee parents really pay for." Skeezie's laugh was breathy, so unlike Nehemiah's, but I was sure there was no oxygen left in the room.

"Gaaaayyyyy!" MK shouted out, cupping his hands around his mouth to sound like a sports announcer.

More laughing.

A group of strangers laughing at me while I stood right there. It was my worst nightmare. I could hear my blood rushing through my body to almost a deafening extent as I glanced around the room, cogs in my brain working overtime to dream up a plausible escape. How humiliating would it be to just run out? Or would it be more humiliating to calmly and politely excuse myself? If I jumped into traffic and got grievously injured, would Mom make me ever come back to this stupid place?

Nehemiah was saying something, but I couldn't pay attention. Breathing was starting to take up most of my energy. The room was so hot, and air wouldn't fill my lungs despite my best efforts. My palms kept sweating so I rubbed them on my shirt, I felt dizzy, I felt panicked, the burning was worse, all over, and I had to get out, I really just had to get out of there, I had to make my legs move, I couldn't get them to, I couldn't even breathe, and everything was –

A hand on my shoulder. Nehemiah's hand, because he couldn't ever keep it to himself. I flinched away, rubbing furiously at my eyes which had apparently started crying without my consent. Running away was really the only thing that would save me at this point, so I used the grounding moment of being touched to get my legs working again.

They didn't work for very long. I got down the hall and around the corner before I slipped, in a spectacular addition of injury to my insult. No one was around to see, but my brain conjured images of security guards uploading camera footage to YouTube and 'Idiot Teenage Crybaby Falls Flat on Face' becoming a viral hit. I slid into the nearest corner, bringing my knees to my chest and trying to remember how nice it was to just breathe.

All the old feelings crawled up inside of me; remnants of words I'd heard before, from classmates and parents and myself, late at night. I didn't consider myself very sensitive – I had grown a thick skin, I thought. It was just something about being in a new place, and letting myself suffer even a glimpse of hope that things could be –

"Keegan."

The greenness of Nehemiah's hair contrasted against the dull grey of the school hallway felt sharp and distinct in my chest. All the muscles in my body braced themselves for impact as he approached.

"I get it, okay? I'm a faggot, I'm a nerd, I'm ugly... I know all of those things already, so you don't have to remind me. I'd really like to get through this day without..." I sighed, losing the word in the scrambled mess that was currently my head. Trouble? Injury? Pain? I just let Nehemiah MadLib it for himself.

"They were just, like... kidding around," he tried, as if that helped. I slumped further down the wall, attempting to hide my face with my knees in a silent invitation for him to leave. He didn't. Instead, he walked over to me and sat so close, our arms touched. "Skeezie is a dick sometimes, and I'm a dick sometimes, and MK's definitely a dick all of the time... And we're not funny and sometimes we make jokes that are a little less than PC, but we're cool. I promise."

I couldn't tell whether I was more anxious or confused. Even if I had overreacted, wasn't that just as embarrassing as being mocked?

I didn't want to get into either way. I didn't want to argue, didn't want to dwell. This apology was... kind, and unexpected, and I appreciated it but I didn't entirely want it to be happening. I let it go. My legs slid out away from me, and Nehemiah seemed to move closer. I didn't know how it was possible.

"Has anyone ever told you that you have a personal space issue?" I asked him. His eyebrows perked, as though it were possible that no one ever had. He didn't move away.

"They usually tell me I'm charming."

I laughed, and it felt like relief washing through me, even if the ever-present discomfort still bristled underneath my muscles.

"They should be telling you that your breath smells like Doritos."

He chuckled, but checked his breath behind his hand all the same. The revelation that he possessed the ability to feel ashamed about something relaxed the tension in my spine.

"Too lazy to make breakfast," he explained quickly, with a shrug. "So what class do you have first? I was gonna take you on a tour."

His friendliness was relentless. I felt like I'd never get him to go away, no matter how hard I tried. I wasn't sure why, but I also wasn't sure I wanted him to.

"English," I answered, pulling my folded-up schedule from my pocket. "With Mr. Kepler."

He made a disapproving noise, then said a few choice words about you that I won't repeat here for respectability purposes. You must admit, sometimes you deserved them.

"If it wasn't your first class on your first day, I'd suggest skipping," was his main point.

"Skipping. Right." I made a slightly pained face. "An activity not exactly up my alley, but I appreciate the offer."

"No worries. I'll get to you sooner or later, prep school," he commented absent-mindedly as he perused the rest of my schedule.

"How do you know I'm from a prep school?" I asked, a little defensively. "You didn't know my name ten minutes ago. I could be from prison."

He looked me up and down. I fidgeted, but his eyes didn't burn this time.

"Unless you went there for white collar crime, I'm a non-believer."

"I killed eight men and none of them deserved it," I insisted.

"Were you wearing those Sperrys when you did it?" He motioned toward my feet, which I clacked together self-consciously.

"They don't intimidate you?" I asked, ignoring the heat crawling up my neck.

"Nah, you've gotta be wearing a blazer," he said. "It's the blazer that screams, 'I could kill you and get a sports scholarship after the trial.'" He slid a finger down my class list, and it was only then that I realized his nails were painted a chipped black. "Well, Skeez and I will be in English with you. I'm also in your World History class. The rest of this blows my mind. How're you in AP Calc II as a junior?"

I shrugged. "I'm decent with numbers." Numbers made sense. There were clearcut rules, definitive answers. A squared plus B squared was always C squared. I preferred the simplicity of equations to the messiness of everything else.

"I'm more of an art guy." He wiggled his fingers. "Good with my hands."

The bell rang before I had a chance to reply, and in a moment, the halls would be flooded with students. I lifted myself from the floor and from Nehemiah's side.

"Time to face the executioner," I said. I had a brief thought to hold my hand out, to help him up, but my hand stayed firmly at my side.

"See, it's like you know Kepler already." He stood up by himself. I cursed myself for a missed opportunity, but I was also still tiptoeing around the embarrassment from earlier. "Shall we?"

He walked with me to class, telling me stories about closed doors and explaining the meaning behind flyers on corkboards and high-fiving so-and-so only to tell me about the time they puked on his lawn. The empty halls had filled so fast, but I wasn't as bogged down by the weight of everyone's judgment as I had been earlier. Something about walking beside Nehemiah gave me what wasn't quite courage so much as a reprieve from my normal cowardice.

It was new. Definitely new. But it was a newness I could get used to. And if Nehemiah could transmit some of that natural confidence of his through osmosis somehow, the rest of the year wasn't looking so dreadful after all.