The Here and Now

by Ann Brashares

Hardcover, 242 pages, Random House Childrens Books, List Price: $18.99 | purchase

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The Here and Now
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Transported through time from a disease-ravaged future to present-day New York, 17-year-old Prenna James is forbidden to change history or become close to anyone outside her community of fellow escapees, edicts that are challenged when she falls in love and discovers an opportunity to save the world.

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Read An Excerpt: 'The Here And Now'

PROLOGUE

April 23, 2010

Haverstraw Creek

His dad had to work, so Ethan had gone fishing alone. Usually he just followed his dad through the woods to the deep bends of the creek, slapping at the prickers around his ankles. This time he was confounded by how little he knew his way even though he'd been here again and again. After today, though, he'd know.

When he finally came upon the river, it was a different part than he'd seen before, but same water, he thought. Same fish. He put his pack down, baited his hook and made a good cast. It was different when he was alone and his cast was for catch­ing a fish instead of showing his father he knew how.

He listened to the water and tended his line and considered the stillness of the air. Except for that one part over there. Downstream it seemed like the air was moving. He squinted at it, then opened his eyes wide and closed them again, won­dering if he'd wash out the strange impression that the air was rippling over the stream. But it still looked like that, more like that, air moving and scattering in a way that he could see.

He edged downstream, pulling his line along. As he walked he could see far past the bend to a footbridge. And at that dis­tance the air and the leaves were still. But here the air moved faster and seemed to quiver like the water. As he moved slowly toward it the air took on a strange texture. He squinted again and saw in amazement how the sunshine seemed to refract into colors around him. He walked a few more steps and felt the air moving faster over his skin, almost like liquid but softer. He wanted to focus on pieces of the splintering light, but it was all moving too fast.

He lost hold of his fishing rod as the liquid of the air seemed to blur and blend with the liquid of the stream, pulling him inside the brew. He lost his hold on what was above and what was below, what was sky and what was earth, what there was to breathe, or even where his body began and ended. The odd thing was, he didn't feel the urgent need to find out. It was like a lucid dream in that he occupied no part of the world he'd seen before, but he knew he would wake up from it.

He had no idea how time passed, whether there was a big cascade of it or almost none at all. But at some point the spin­ning churn of river and air coughed him onto firm ground, and slowly the elements went back to their ordinary places. He closed his eyes for a time, and when he opened them again, the river was mostly in its banks, and the air went back to being invisible and the sunshine had reassembled itself. He sat up and gradually reoriented himself to basics like up and down.

The storm produced a scoured, sparkling look through the trees, and it also produced a girl.

She was almost certainly part of his dream in that she was not quite made of regular-girl substance. The outlines of her weren't quite distinct. She was the kind of girl he would dream up because she was approximately his age, her skin was bare except for the dark wet streamers of hair around her body, and she was supernaturally beautiful, like a mermaid or an elvish princess. Because he imagined her he felt it was okay to stare boldly at her.

But as he did it dawned on him that her arms were clutched around her body like she was cold and also embarrassed. Her legs were muddy up to her knees. He could hear her rough breathing. The longer he stared, the more details she accu­mulated, the more distinct her lines became, until he began to suspect she was real and that he shouldn't keep looking at her like that.

He stood up, trying to keep his eyes mostly down. A couple more glances convinced him that, though the air around her remained oddly charged, she wasn't a nymph of his invention, but a shivering skinny girl with muddy feet and a weird bruise spreading from the inside of her arm.

"Are you okay? Do you need help?" he asked. It was hard coming back from the dream. She'd been swimming maybe, and had gotten pulled downstream by the storm. It was aw­fully cold to be swimming.

She didn't say anything. He tried to keep his gaze fixed on her face. Her eyes were big and her mouth was pressed shut. He heard the drip, drip, drips from the leaves around them. The sound of her trying to catch her breath. She shook her head.

"You sure?"

She shook it again. She looked like she was afraid to move.

She was real, but she was faintly different from anyone else, and not only because she wore no clothes. She was still beautiful.

He unzipped his damp New York Giants sweatshirt and held it out, taking a few steps toward her. "Do you want it?"

She shook her head, but she hazarded a look at it and then at him.

He took another couple of steps. "Seriously. You can keep it if you want."

He held it close to her, and after thinking a bit longer she shot out her arm and took it. He now saw that the blotch on her knobby arm wasn't a bruise at all, but a scrawl of black writing. There were numbers, five of them written by hand with a marker or something.

He looked away as she put on the sweatshirt and zipped it all the way up to her chin. She took steps backward, away from him. In his mind a dark feeling was coalescing that she had been though something difficult.

"I have a phone. Do you want to use it?"

She opened her mouth, but there was a space before any words came out. "No." Breath, breath. "Thanks."

"Do you need help?" he asked her. "Are you lost?"

She looked around anxiously. She opened her mouth again but again hesitated to say anything. "Is there a bridge?" she finally mustered.

He pointed downstream. "If you walk that way, you'll see it right after the bend," he told her. "Do you want me to show you?"

"No."

"You sure?"

"I'm sure." She looked sure. She stole one more glance at him, as though willing him to stay put, and took off toward the bridge.

He wanted to go with her, but he didn't. He watched her stumble off through the trees in his blue Giants sweatshirt, looking overwhelmed by the tangled branches and the knotty roots and the mud and the bushes grabbing at her.

Once she looked back at him over her shoulder. "It's okay," he heard her say faintly before she disappeared.

He stayed on the bank of the creek for hours before he went home. He looked for his fishing rod but didn't really expect to find it. He waited to see if the girl might come back, but he didn't really expect her to, and she didn't.

Through dinner and deep into the night he thought about what he'd seen. Finally he got out of bed and, picturing her skinny, shivering arm, copied from memory the numbers: 51714. Because he knew they had to be important in some way.

For the next two and a half years Ethan thought of that day so often his memory began to warp. So much that he began to wonder if he'd imagined the whole thing after all. Until the first day of his sophomore year, when the very girl, now clothed, walked into his precalculus class and sat down one seat behind him.

May 18, 2010 Dear Julius,

The earth sweats in the morning. Really. You can go outside here almost anytime, just like Poppy said. I like to lie down on the grass in the backyard and wait for the sun to come up. Even if there's sunshine for days, still the back of my shirt is damp, as though rain is wept from the ground.

Mr. Robert and Ms. Cynthia and a few others are in charge of most of the kids. They are trying to teach us how to fit in and always making us be EXTRA careful. Remember hearing about TV? Well, we watch it all the time to learn the right way to talk. One show is called Friends. People in the background are laughing the whole time and you don't even know why. The one I like is called Family Guy, but Mr. Robert said I'm not going to learn anything from that.

I'm worried because I haven't seen Poppy yet. Ms. Cynthia said he decided not to come at all, but I don't believe that. He wanted to come more than anyone.

Love, Prenna

ONE

April 23, 2014

We all know the rules. We think about them every day. How could we not know them? We learned them by heart before we came here, and they've been drilled into our heads by constant use ever since.

But still we sit, nearly a thousand of us, on plastic benches in a former Pentecostal church (desanctified in the 1990s, I don't know why) listening to our twelve inviolate rules recited over a crackling PA system by nervous community members in their best clothes.

Because it's what we do. We do it every year to commemo­rate the extraordinary trip we all took together four years ago: our escape from fear and sickness and hunger, our miraculous arrival in this land of milk and honey. It's a trip that almost certainly had never happened before and, based on the state of the world when we left it, will never happen again. So April 23 is kind of like our Thanksgiving, but without the turkey and pumpkin pie. It is also, coincidentally, the day Shakespeare was born. And died.

We do it because it's easy to forget amid all the sweetness and fatness of this place that we don't belong here, that we pose a danger to it. That's why the rules are critical and the consequences of forgetting them are grave. It's like any strict religious or political system. When your practices are hard to follow, you'd better keep reminding your flock of them.

I put my feet flat on the floor as the projector hums to action at the back of the hall, cutting a beam through the dark air and slowly illuminating the first face on the wide screen that hangs behind the old altar. It takes a moment for the shadows and shapes to become a person, to become someone I know or don't know. It's hard to watch this, but they always do it: as we recite the rules they show the faces of the people we lost since the last time we met here. It's like the "in memoriam" tribute you see on the Academy Awards or the Grammys, but also ... it's not. This year there are seven of them. There's no explana­tion or commentary. They just scroll through these faces again and again. But most of us have a sense of the story behind each face. We understand, without saying so, the overrepresentation of the fragile, the wayward and the incompliant members of our community up there on that screen.

My mother glances at me as Dr. Strauss stands up from the dais at the front to recite the first rule, the one about al­legiance.

The rules are never displayed, never even written down on a piece of paper. That's not how we do things. We've gone back to an oral tradition.

I try to listen. I always do, but the words have been stirred around so many times they've lost their particular order and shape in my ears. They've melted and dissolved into a chaotic mix of impressions and anxieties.

Dr. Strauss is one of the leaders. There are nine of them and twelve counselors. The leaders make the policy and the coun­selors hand it down to us and translate it into our daily lives. We are each assigned to a counselor. Mine is Mr. Robert. He's sitting up there too.

A girl near the back in a green dress stands to recite the second rule, about the sequence of time. Heads politely turn.

It's an honor to get to recite one. Like landing a part in the Christmas pageant. I was chosen once, three years ago. My mom dressed me in her gold ballet flats and her most ex­pensive silk scarf. She mashed rouge into my cheeks. I got to say the sixth one, about never submitting to medical attention outside the community.

After the girl speaks, we all turn back to the front, obedi­ently awaiting rule number three.

The black-and-white face of Mrs. Branch now takes its turn up on the screen. She was an acquaintance of my mother's, and I know she died of breast cancer that barely got treated. The photo doesn't exactly hark back to happier times. It looks like it was taken on the day she got her diagnosis. I look away. Briefly I catch the eyes of my friend Katherine a few rows behind.

I find it's hard to figure out from watching the leaders fanned out on the dais which one of them is really in charge. No one will tell you, but I think I know. I think this because of something that happened to me when I was thirteen, not long before my turn at reciting the sixth rule.

It was around nine months after we'd gotten here. I was still disoriented, still way too skinny, still watching TV to learn how to talk and act. I hadn't started going to school yet. I was having chronic breathing problems. My mom said it was really incredibly fortunate that somebody with asthma got to make the trip at all. She said something about my "enhanced IQ" making up for it, but barely. We tried to pretend it wasn't as bad as it was.

And then in February I caught a bad cold and it turned into pneumonia. My mother knew this almost certainly be­cause she is an MD and keeps a stethoscope in her bathroom drawer. A couple of other members of our community's medi­cal team came over. I was pretty whacked by that point. I was using an inhaler and they were pumping me full of antibiotics and steroids and God knows what else. There was an oxygen monitor clipped to my finger, and I know it was dipping too low. I struggled. My lungs couldn't take in enough air. It's a horrible feeling, in case you've never had it.

By the second night it had gotten dire. I was completely out for some stretches, but I saw the look on my mother's face. She was shouting. She wanted to take me to a hospital. She said a simple ventilator for one night was all it would take to save my life. I guess we didn't have one in our community clinic then; we were still pretty new here. But putting me in a regular hospital wasn't something any of them would even consider because of the danger we pose to them, to regular people who were born here, who have different immunities than we do. And because what if, in taking my medical history or getting too close a look at my blood under a microscope, a doctor or a nurse started asking questions?

"There's no need for her to die!" I heard my mother cry­ing from the next room. She was begging them, promising she would watch over everything, she wouldn't let anyone else care for me. No blood tests, no diagnostics. She would figure out a way to do it, to keep everything secret and safe.

Sometime later Mrs. Crew arrived. I could feel the mood shift in the house, even deep in my oxygen-poor brain. The screaming and cajoling stopped and there was just this lulling voice from the next room. For a few moments I was strangely alert, strangely cogent, listening as she calmly talked my mother down. "After all we have sacrificed, Molly. After all we have been through ..." My mother left the room and I heard my counselor, Mr. Robert, talking to Mrs. Crew instead. I felt like I was listening to them from a perch on the ceiling, like I was already dead, as she coolly explained to him the procedure for dealing with my body, the issuance of a death certificate and the proper strategy for handling what remained of my identity in the state and federal databases. They had created our iden­tities here; they could take them away. Finally she offered him some injection or pill or something like that. "The angel of death," she called it in a low voice, to make my passing more comfortable. She assured him she would stay until it was over.

But it wasn't over. Sometime in the early morning my lungs started to open up a little. And by the end of the day a little more. And six weeks after that I was reciting the sixth rule in this very hall.

Mr. Botts, two rows behind me, stands up to recite the third rule, about not using our knowledge to change anything. I re­member him from our early tutoring sessions. Mrs. Connor, with the thinning hair and weird orange tunic, takes up the fourth, which is kind of an extension of the third. I forget how I know her.

A guy named Mitch, who's a star because he goes to Yale, recites the fifth one, the secrecy rule. That may be the rule we think of most often. The leaders are obsessed with the minu­tiae of it, with us fitting in and never letting anything slip that might give us away. But at times I seriously wonder, if one of us did let something slip, could anybody ever guess where we are from? And if they did, could they possibly believe it?

The sixth and seventh rules, the ones about medical stuff, are recited by two people I don't really know and who, like me, probably just barely survived those rules.

I zone out on rules eight through eleven because a purple bead pops off my shoe and I scan the floor for it without ap­pearing to. I'd frankly rather look anywhere than at the big screen up front, because for the finale they've left up the photo of Aaron Green, and I suspect that's no coincidence. It's a heartbreaking picture of a confused and well-meaning fourteen-year-old who tripped over his lies so clumsily they stopped him from going to school in the middle of last year. His teacher went to his house to check on him, and two days later he drowned in the Housatonic River on a rafting trip with his dad and his uncle. There was no ambulance, no emergency room. Mr. Green quietly followed the protocol; he called the special number he was supposed to call.

I snap to attention for the twelfth rule. It is Mrs. Crew, the angel of death herself, who stands up to deliver it. She is about five feet tall and her hair looks like a cremini mushroom, but she still scares me. I swear she recites that rule staring directly at me.

1 WE MUST UPHOLD ABSOLUTE ALLEGIANCE TO THE COM­MUNITY, TO ITS SURVIVAL AND ITS SAFETY, AND ACCEPT THE GUIDANCE OF OUR LEADERS AND COUNSELORS WITHOUT QUESTION OR DISCUSSION.

2 WE MUST RESPECT TIME'S INTEGRITY AND HER NATURAL SEQUENCE.

3 WE MUST NEVER EMPLOY THE EXPERIENCE GAINED IN POSTREMO TO KNOWINGLY INTERVENE IN THAT NATU­RAL SEQUENCE.

4 WE MUST NEVER CHALLENGE THAT SEQUENCE TO AVOID MISFORTUNE OR DEATH.

5 WE MUST UPHOLD ABSOLUTE DISCRETION ABOUT POSTREMO, THE IMMIGRATION, AND THE COMMUNITY AT ALL TIMES AND IN ALL PLACES.

6 WE ARE FORBIDDEN TO SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION OR SUBMIT TO MEDICAL CARE OF ANY KIND OUTSIDE THE COMMUNITY.

7 WE MUST USE ONLY THE SERVICES PROVIDED BY OUR MEDICAL TEAM IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES AND EMPLOY THE EMERGENCY PROTOCOL IF REQUIRED.

8 WE MUST AVOID INCLUSION IN THE HISTORICAL ARCHI­VAL RECORD, WHETHER IN PRINT, PHOTOGRAPHY, OR VIDEO.

9 WE MUST AVOID PLACES OF WORSHIP.

10 WE MUST MAKE STRENUOUS EFFORTS TO FIT INTO SOCI­ETY AND NOT BRING ATTENTION TO OURSELVES OR OUR COMMUNITY IN ANY MANNER.

11 WE MUST AVOID CONTACT WITH ANY INDIVIDUAL KNOWN TO US FROM POSTREMO WHO DID NOT TAKE PART IN THE IMMIGRATION.

12 WE MUST NEVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, DE­VELOP A PHYSICALLY OR EMOTIONALLY INTIMATE RELA­TIONSHIP WITH ANY PERSON OUTSIDE THE COMMUNITY.

TWO

A bunch of us get takeout from a Chipotle around the corner from the former Pentecostal church and walk with it to Cen­tral Park. The ceremony has fallen on a Wednesday this year, so we've taken a vacation day. We eat it on the Great Lawn and kill a couple of hours between the end of the ceremony and the beginning of the semiannual "teen social." Because our spirits are so light after the Rules Ceremony, why not have a party?

It seems crazy, but that's what we do. The night of the cer­emony everybody in our community between the ages of fif­teen and eighteen gets together and tries to fall in love with each other over dumb music and soggy chicken fingers. Good luck with that.

Because if we're going to love at all, or even like or lust, we have to do it with each other. See rule twelve. And it's not just for our own safety, as the counselors are quick to point out. It's for the health and safety of the people outside our community too. It's not something you can even joke about. Not that we joke about so many things.

At the park it's me, Katherine, Jeffrey Boland, Juliet Kerr, Dexter Harvey and a few others who go to school in Rockland County. Jeffrey falls asleep in the sunshine, Dexter puts on his headphones, and Katherine and I go for a walk around the reservoir.

"So hard to see Aaron's face up there on the screen," I say slowly, glancing at the side of Katherine's face as we walk. I see the color blooming in her nearly transparent skin.

Aaron lived around the corner from her. He had a little dog, a pug mix or something, named Paradox, that used to run to Katherine's house every chance it got. Katherine wor­ried about Aaron. It was harder for him than for most of the rest of us. Maybe I worried too. Katherine gave Aaron her old Mongoose BMX bike, and you always saw him riding around on it.

I know how sensitive Katherine is, and I know she'll hide everything she can, but I want to say something. I want to say at least one true thing.

"He wasn't much of a swimmer. He never was," I add. It's a morbid point for me to make. I realize that, but Kather­ine looks relieved because it's my way of telling her that I'm not trying to be too honest here. I'm not trying to challenge anybody. I'm accepting the story of Aaron's demise, as we all must, even though we know it is total bullshit.

She smiles a tiny bit. I can see the tears welling in her eyes. I see her look up at the cherry blossoms spread like an aw­ning over the bridle path. I can see how much she doesn't want to cry.

I reach for her hand. I hold it for a moment and let it go. She is the only person I can do that with.

"They renamed his dog," she says, so faintly I can barely hear her.

"What?"

"Aaron's dad renamed his dog Abe. He doesn't come to it."

We all meet up again on the Great Lawn and head twenty blocks uptown, where we've got the big upstairs party room of Big Sister's Diner rented out. We usually have our gather­ings in New York City because we all live within a thirty-mile radius of it and there's a lot of good transportation, but even more because it's so giant and chaotic it easily swallows every­one without a burp. We prefer not to be noticed.

Tonight on the second floor of Big Sister's there are stream­ers hanging and big foil pans of food laid out buffet-style and café tables set up around the room. Right at the front I see a few chaperones I recognize from other socials.

"Prenna? Right?" A woman about my mother's age with silver-and-black hair comes over as I'm taking off my jacket.

"Yes ... Mrs... ." I feel like I should know her name.

"Sylvia Teller. From, uh ... We live in Dobbs Ferry," she says. She looks uncomfortable. My mind is leaping around nervously, and then I realize it's just the usual reason. She was a friend of my father's. They went to college or graduate school together. She is racking her brains for a contemporary connection between us, because those are the only kinds we can mention, and she can't think of one.

I know I resemble my father, who was striking-looking and who knew practically everybody. I can see that's the first thing that comes into people's heads when they look at me. I am tall like him and have his straight dark hair and wide, Asian cheekbones. I look nothing like my mother, who is small and blond, except for the silvery eyes. Nobody ever connects me with her at these events but only, uncomfortably, with a per­son who can't be mentioned.

I don't want to feel sad. I go to the bathroom to wash my face and put on some lip gloss. I nearly slam into Cora Carter coming out of the bathroom and we both take a step back.

"Hey, Prenna." She smiles.

"Cora. How's it going?"

We don't kiss on the cheek or embrace or anything. The people in our community hardly ever touch each other.

"Good." She studies my outfit. "You look great. I love your belt."

I look down at it. "Thanks. You look great too."

"Did you see Morgan Lowry's bow tie?" She looks de­lighted about it.

"No. I just got here." Morgan Lowry's bow tie is what passes for outrageous with us. "I'll keep an eye out."

"Okay. Well, see you in there."

"Okay," I say.

I realize I stay one second too long on her eyes, and it makes her uncomfortable.

I remember Cora from before. Everyone in our community came from roughly the same geographical area, and many of us knew each other in Postremo. We all have in common that we survived the plague, but none of us got through it un­scarred. I remember the day Cora's mother died. I remember her half-starved, half-crazy eyes when her aunt brought her and her brother to our house until the body could be looked after. I remember a few months later when her brother died too. I don't want to remember these things right now, but I do. I have memories like this about at least a dozen of the kids here, and somewhere in them they have memories like this about me. Since we came here, the deepest conversation Cora and I have had is about my belt.

"See you." She waves awkwardly and disappears.

I try to steel myself for a night of these kinds of conver­sations. Because these are the kinds of conversations taking place all over this room. No one talks about what really binds us together. The gap between what we say and what we feel is so big and dark that sometimes I think I'll fall into it and just keep falling.

At least, I think we feel it. I feel it. Does anybody else feel it? I don't know and I won't find out. We follow our scripts like actors in a very large, very long production. And even with no audience, none of us gives a hint that it isn't real.

Sometimes I only hear what we don't say. I only think the things I shouldn't think and I remember what I should forget. I hear the ghosts in this room, all the people we lost in our old life who are crying out to be remembered. But we never do remember them. The whispers of things we feel and don't say—I hear them too.

Jeffrey puts a bunch of the little tables together, and a crowd of kids assembles, talking and flirting. He pulls a chair out for me and I sit down. I look at the people sitting around this circle. They are my friends. I care about them. This is my life. They are talking about their belts and their shoes and the car they want to get and the show they saw, and I can't hear them because the ghosts are too loud.

Around nine o'clock the chaperones help clear the tables to the sides of the room for dancing.

Jeffrey gestures to me, so we dance to a sugary pop song. Other kids dance too. I see Katherine dancing with Avery Stone, who is a letch.

If you pay attention, you see how awkward it is, how cau­tious and fearful we are of touching each other in the most casual ways. We can't help it. We spent our tender years sur­rounded by plague. I see the regular kids at our high school al­ways grabbing at each other and hugging people left and right. Not us. We have no path to walk between physical isolation and hooking up. There's just the one and then the other, and I guess on account of the one, the other tends to be pretty jar­ring and impersonal.

Adrian Pond asks me to dance. He holds me around the waist. He is tall and good-looking, and I don't have any memo­ries of him from our old life to haunt me. The song gets slower and he gets closer. His breath is warm in my ear.

I want to feel something. I really do. But it's only the ab­sence I feel, just the wishing and wanting where there is noth­ing. I just feel lonely.

I lean my cheek on Adrian's shoulder. The lights over the buffet table blur and I close my eyes. I do something I should never, never do. I let myself think about someone else—a per­son I should never think about at a moment like this.

For a few seconds I give in. I let myself imagine it is his cheek I feel on my hair. I imagine his hands on my waist. I imagine him holding me like somebody who really knows how to hold a person. I imagine lifting my head and seeing his eyes, which really know how to look at a person, and he is studying me in the perceptive way he does, wanting stories from me I never tell him and seeming to understand me anyway.

It's wrong, I know, but I play out this dance with him, ex­quisite and slow. I play it out in my head, because that is the only place it will ever happen.

THREE

"Hey, Ghouly. What's with you?"

I keep my eyes away. I work on the loose joint of my glasses. I can feel the blood heating my cheeks. If I look at him, I'm scared he'll see everything.

He nudges my foot with his. I pretend to be studying my notes very carefully.

Mr. Fasanelli turns from the board, where he's been chalk­ing his way through a long calculus problem.

I glance at Ethan's fingers, his knee. Not his face. I should never have let myself think about him the way I did.

He's looking for something in his notebook. As soon as Mr. Fasanelli turns back to the board, he passes the notebook to me.

It's the hangman game we started last week. It's already got its head and limbs.

J? I write without looking up. I pass it back.

Ethan gives the hangman a second chin.

K?

"Pren, you can't just go through the alphabet in order," he whispers at me. He draws moobs on the hangman.

He succeeds in catching my eye. I let him hold it too long, and there passes all that I was avoiding: You okay? What's the matter? Why won't you look at me today?

Flustered, I grab the notebook. Are there ANY letters in this word? I write.

"Prenna, why don't you take the next one?"

I swing my head up. Mr. Fasanelli is staring at me. At the fat hangman. At me.

I look at the problem on the board. I rise and trudge toward it.

I can feel Ethan's eyes on my back. And from the deeper seats, I feel Jeffrey's eyes. Luckily, the bell rings to end the pe­riod before I have to do all billion steps of it.

Ethan has the nerve to be smiling at me on our way out of class.

I look down at the notebook. The hangman sprouted ear fuzz while I was suffering at the chalkboard.

"It was 'wormhole.' "

I look at him.

He points to the notebook. "The word. With letters."

"Oh. Right."

"You should start with vowels, my friend."

"Thanks."

We hit the doors to the stairwell. Jeffrey is there too.

"Can I talk to Prenna a minute?" Jeffrey says, overtaking us before we pass into the chaos of the cafeteria.

Ethan glances at me. "That's up to Prenna, isn't it?"

"Alone, I mean."

Jeffrey steers me toward the windows. "You should be careful," he says.

"I am careful." I watch Ethan instantly get swallowed up in his pack of soccer team friends. I miss his attention when it's gone. It is maybe the most astonishing thing I have. When I have it.

"More careful."

"I am more careful."

"About Ethan."

I follow him out the doors to the walkway. Cherry blos­som branches are waving along the walk, bits of flowers fall­ing like pink rain. "We are friends." I realize I don't want to say Ethan's name aloud.

"Does he know that?"

"Yes, I think he knows that we are friends." It's easy to play stupid with Jeffrey because he never really looks me in the eye.

Jeffrey takes off his glasses and wipes the lenses with his shirt. "Does he know it's not more than that?"

"It never comes up. It won't come up."

"You say that and I believe you. I'm just saying he might not see it the way you do."

I walk faster. "I can handle it," I say. "We are allowed to have friends, you know. We're supposed to have friends. We're supposed to fit in."

"We're not supposed to have friends who look at us like that."

I stop. I look at the flower bits on the sidewalk, under our feet, floating in puddles of yesterday's rain. I'm gripping my books so hard my hands are sweating. He doesn't know what he's talking about.

I can see Jeffrey feels bad. "Pren, I just don't want you to ..."

"I know," I say.

"I don't want them to ..."

"I know."

He glances around to make sure we are alone. "You know if any of these people find out the truth about us—no matter how nice and trustworthy they might seem—they will destroy you and destroy all of us."

How many times have I heard those words? "I know," I say grimly.

"Be careful?"

"I'm careful."

Excerpt copyright 2014 by Ann Brashares. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.