Published by Harlequin on August 1st 2015
Genres: Young Adult
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Never date your best friend
Always be original
Sometimes rules are meant to be broken
Best friends Dave and Julia were determined to never be cliché high school kids—the ones who sit at the same lunch table every day, dissecting the drama from homeroom and plotting their campaigns for prom king and queen. They even wrote their own Never List of everything they vowed they'd never, ever do in high school.
Some of the rules have been easy to follow, like #5, never die your hair a color of the rainbow, or #7, never hook up with a teacher. But Dave has a secret: he's broken rule #8, never pine silently after someone for the entirety of high school. It's either that or break rule #10, never date your best friend. Dave has loved Julia for as long as he can remember.
Julia is beautiful, wild and impetuous. So when she suggests they do every Never on the list, Dave is happy to play along. He even dyes his hair an unfortunate shade of green. It starts as a joke, but then a funny thing happens: Dave and Julia discover that by skipping the clichés, they've actually been missing out on high school. And maybe even on love.
THE KIDS WALKING past Dave seemed to be in some other universe. They moved too quickly, they were too animated, they talked too loudly. They held on to their backpacks too tightly, checked themselves in tiny mirrors hanging on the inside of their lockers too often, acted as if everything mattered too much. Dave knew the truth: Nothing mattered. Nothing but the fact that when school was out for the day, he and Julia were going to spend the afternoon at Morro Bay.
No one had told him that March of senior year would feel like it was made of Jell-O. After he’d received his acceptance letter from UCLA, high school had morphed into something he could basically see through. When, two days later, Julia received her congratulations from UCSB, only an hour up the coastline, the whole world took on brighter notes, like the simple primary colors of Jell-O flavors. They giggled constantly.
Julia’s head appeared by his side, leaning against the locker next to his. It was strange how he could see her every day and still be surprised by how it felt to have her near. She knocked her head against the locker softly and combed her hair behind her ear. “It’s like time has ceased to advance. I swear I’ve been in Marroney’s class for a decade. I can’t believe it’s only lunch.”
“There is nothing in here I care about,” Dave announced into his locker. He reached into a crumpled heap of papers on top of a history textbook he hadn’t pulled out in weeks and grabbed a single, ripped page. “Apparently, I got a C on an art assignment last year.” He showed the drawing to Julia: a single palm tree growing out of a tiny half moon of an island in the middle of a turquoise ocean.
“Don’t show UCLA that. hey’ll pull your scholarship.”
Dave crumpled the paper into a ball and tossed it at a nearby garbage can. It careened off the edge and rolled back to his feet. He picked it up and shoved it back into the locker. “Any notable Marroney moments today?”
“I can’t even remember,” Julia said, moving aside to make room for Dave’s locker neighbor. “he whole day has barely registered.” She put her head on Dave’s shoulder and let out a sigh. “I think he ate a piece of chalk.”
It was pleasant torture, how casually she could touch him. Dave kept exploring the wasteland of his locker, tossing out a moldy, half-eaten bagel, occasionally unfolding a sheet of paper with mild curiosity, trying not to move too much so that Julia wouldn’t either. He made a pile of papers to throw out and a much smaller one of things to keep. So far, the small pile contained two in-class notes from Julia and a short story he’d read in AP English.
“Still on for the harbor today?”
“It’s the only thing that’s kept me sane,” Julia said, pulling away. “Come on, why are we still here? I’m starving. Marroney didn’t ofer me any of his chalk.”
“I do not care about any of this,” Dave repeated. Liberated by the absence of her touch, he walked over to the trash can and dragged it toward his locker, then proceeded to shovel in the entirety of the contents except for the books. A USB memory stick was wrapped inside a candy wrapper, covered in chocolate, and he tossed that, too. A few sheets remained tucked into the corners, some ripped pieces stuck under the heavy history textbook.
But something caught his eye. One paper folded so neatly that for a second he thought it may have been a note he’d saved from his mom. She’d died when he was nine, and though he’d learned to live with that, he still treated the things she left behind like relics. But when he unfolded the sheet and realized what he was holding, a smile spread his lips. Dave’s eyes went down the list to number eight: Never pine silently after someone for the entirety of high school.
He looked at Julia, recalling the day they’d made the list, suddenly lushed with warmth at the thought that nothing had come between them in four years. She was holding on to her backpack’s straps, starting to get impatient. Everything about Julia was beautiful to him, but it was the side of her face that he loved the most. The slope of her neck, the slight jut of her chin, how the blue in her eyes popped. Her ears, which were the cutest ears on the planet, or maybe the only cute ones ever crafted.
“David Nathaniel O’Flannery, why are we still here?”
“How have we been best friends for this long and you still don’t know my full name?”
“I know most of your initials. Can we go, please?”
“Look at what I just found.”
“Is it Marroney’s mole from sophomore year?”
“Our Nevers list.”
Julia turned around to face him. A couple of football players passed between them talking about a party happening on Friday. She was quiet, studying Dave with a raised eyebrow. “You wouldn’t lie to me, would you, O’Flannery? I could never forgive you.”
“Gutierrez. My last name is Gutierrez.”
“Don’t change the subject. Did you really find it?” She motioned for him to hand the paper over, which he did, making sure their ingers would brush. he linoleum hallways were starting to empty out, people were settling into their lunch spots. “I was actually thinking about this the other day. I even wrote my mom about it,” Julia said, reading over the list. A smile shaped her lips, which were on the thin side, though Dave couldn’t imagine wishing for them to be any different. “We did a pretty good job of sticking to this.”
“Except for that time you hooked up with Marroney,” Dave said, moving to her side and reading the list with her.
“I wish. He’s such a dreamboat.”
Dave closed his locker and they peered into classrooms they passed by, watching the teachers settle into their lunchtime rituals, doing some grading as they picked at meals packed into Tupperware. Dave and Julia wordlessly stopped in front of Mr. Marroney’s room and watched him try to balance a pencil on the end of a yardstick.
“This is your one regret from high school?”
“There’s a playful charm to him,” Julia said, in full volume, though the door was open. “I’m surprised you don’t see it.” hey stared on for a while, then made their way out toward the cafeteria. he line was at its peak, snaking all the way around the tables and reaching almost to the door. he tables inside the cafeteria and out on the blacktop had long since been claimed. “Kind of cool that we never did get a permanent lunch spot,” Dave said, gesturing with the list in hand. “I hadn’t even remembered that it was on the list. Had you?”
“No,” Julia said. “he subconscious is weird.” She reached into her bag and grabbed a Granny Smith apple, rubbing it halfheartedly on the hem of her shirt. “How do you feel about the gym today?”
He shrugged and they walked across the blacktop to the basketball gym tucked behind the soccer field. hey had a handful of spots they sometimes went to, usually agreeing on a spot wordlessly, both of them headed in the same direction as if pulled by the same invisible string. hey entered the old building, which used to smell of mold until a new court had been installed, so now it smelled like mold and new wood. he walls were painted the school colors: maroon and gold. Next to the banners hanging from the ceiling there was a deflated soccer ball pinned to the rafters.
Julia led them up the plastic bleachers. A group of kids was shooting around, and one of them looked at Dave and called out to him. “Hey, man, we need one more! You wanna run?”
“No, thanks,” Dave said. “I had a really bad dream about basketball once and I haven’t been able to play since.” he kid frowned, then looked over at his friends who shook their heads and laughed. Dave took a seat next to Julia as the kids resumed their shooting. “I think you’ve used that one before,” Julia said, taking a bite out of her apple.
“I’m kind of offended on your behalf that they don’t ask you to play.”
“They did once.”
“Really?” Dave rummaged through his backpack for the Tupperware he’d packed himself in the morning. “Why don’t I remember that?”
“I was really good. Dunked on people. Scored more points than I did on the SAT. Every male in the room suppressed the memory immediately to keep their egos from disintegrating.”
Dave laughed as he scooped a plastic forkful of chicken and rice. It was a recipe he vaguely remembered from childhood, one he’d found in his mom’s old cookbooks and had taught himself to make. His dad and his older brother, Brett, never said anything about it, but the leftovers never lasted more than two days. “So, you’ve heard from your mom recently?” Julia had been raised by her adoptive fathers, but her biological mom had always lingered on the fringe, occasionally keeping in touch. Julia idolized her, and Dave, who’d been yearning for his mom for years, could never fault her for it.
“Yeah,” Julia said, unable to keep a smile from forming. “She’s even been calling. I heard the dads tell her the other day that she’s welcome anytime, so there’s a chance that a visit is in the works.”
Dave reached over and grabbed Julia’s head, shaking it from side to side. Long ago, in the awkward years of middle school, that had been established as his one gesture of affection when he didn’t know how else to touch her. “Julia! that’s great.”
“You goof, I’m gonna choke on my apple.” She shook him of. “I don’t want to get my hopes up.”
“Her hopes should be up. Her biological daughter is awesome.”
“She’s lived in eight countries and has worked with famous painters and sculptors. No offense, dear friend, but I think her standards for awesome are a little higher than yours.”
Dave took another forkful of rice and chewed it over slowly, watching the basketball players shoot free throws to decide on teams. “I don’t care how great of a life she’s led, if she doesn’t come visit you she’s a very poor judge of awesomeness.”
He glanced out the corner of his eye at Julia, who set her apple core aside and grabbed a napkin-wrapped sandwich out of her bag. He was waiting to catch that smile of hers, to know he had caused it. Instead, he only saw her eyes lick toward the Nevers list, which was resting folded on his knee. hey turned their attention to the pickup game happening on the court, each eating their lunch languidly.
For the last two periods of the day, Dave could feel the seconds ticking by, like bugs crawling on his skin. He reread the Nevers list, smiling to himself at the memory of him and Julia stealing the pen away from each other to write the next item. He gazed out the window at the blue California sky, texted Julia beneath his desk, scowled at the two kids in the back of the room who somehow believed that what they were doing was quiet enough to be called whispering. Next to him, Anika Watson took diligent notes, and he wondered how she was mustering the energy. He wondered how many of the items on the Nevers list she’d done, whether she was going to the Kapoor party that he’d overheard was happening that Friday night. Looking around the room, he imagined a little number popping up above each person’s head depicting how many Nevers they’d done.
At the final releasing bell of the day, Dave and Julia met up in the hallway, silently making their way out to the parking lot, where Julia’s supposedly white Mazda Miata should have been glimmering in the California sun but was barely reflective thanks to the year-long layer of dust she’d never bothered to clean off.
Before Julia said anything, Dave knew what she’d been thinking about. He knew her well enough to read her silences, and there’d been only one thing on her mind since he’d found the list. He smiled as she spoke. “What if we did the list?”
Dave shrugged and tossed his backpack into her trunk. “Why would we?”
“Because two more months of this will drive me crazy,” Julia said. She unzipped her light blue hoodie and threw it into the car on top of his backpack, then stepped out of her sandals and slipped those into the trunk, too. “We’ve got nothing left to prove to ourselves. High school didn’t change us. Maybe it’s time to try out what everyone else has been doing. Just for kicks. God knows we could use some entertaining.”
It was one of those perfect seventy-five-degree days, more L.A. than San Francisco, though San Luis Obispo was perfectly in between the two cities. A breeze was blowing, and now that Julia was wearing only her tank top it almost tired him how beautiful she was. It’d been a long time of this, keeping his love for her subdued. It’d been a long time of letting her rest her head on his shoulder during their movie nights, of letting her prop her almost always bare feet on his lap, his hands nonchalantly gripping her ankles. He’d been a cliché all four years of high school, in love with his best friend, pining silently.
He opened the passenger door and looked across the roof of Julia’s car, which was more brown than white, covered with raindrop-shaped streaks of dirt, though it hadn’t rained in weeks. “I hear there’s a party at the Kapoors’ on Friday.”
Julia beamed a smile at him. “Look at you. In the know.”
“I’m an influential man, Ms. Stokes. I’m expected to keep up with current events.”
Julia snorted and plopped herself down into the driver’s seat. “So, no Friday movie night, then? We’re going to a party? With beers in red plastic cups and Top 40 music being blasted and kids our age? People hooking up in upstairs bedrooms and throwing up in the bushes outside and at least one girl running out in tears?”
“Presumably,” Dave said. “I’ve never actually been to a party, so I have no idea if that’s what happens.”
Julia lowered the top of the car, then pulled out of the school’s parking lot and turned right, headed toward California One and the harbor at Morro Bay.
“So, we’re doing this?” Dave asked. “We’re gonna join in on what everyone else has been doing?”
“Why not?” Julia said, and Dave couldn’t help but smile at the side of her face, the way the sun made her eyes impossibly blue, how he could see her mom on her thoughts. “I’ll come over before the party so we can decide what we’re going to wear.”
“And we can talk about how drunk we’re gonna get,” Dave added.
“And who we’re gonna make out with.”
Dave turned to face the road and sank into his seat. He lowered the mirror visor and stuck his arm out the side of the car, feeling the sun on his skin. He kept smiling, too experienced at hiding to let the tiny heartbreak show.