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'cause when it comes to acting up

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The last dregs of Shermer's student body are strewn about the parking lot by the time Andrew gets to school.

He takes a moment to compose himself, sucking in the dry morning air and scanning the crowd from afar. Then he spots her, hunched against the railings at the top of the school’s front steps.

Allison is a bundle of dark clothes and eyeliner against the building’s pale paint job. His thumping heart drops into his sneakers, the pink of his cheeks spreading rapidly throughout the rest of his body.

He tries to approach at a reasonable pace, give a semblance of composure, but his chest tightens at the sight of her exposed face. She kept the headband. Her shaggy brown hair is poking out from behind her ears and he can see her eyes in all their striking intensity.

She couldn’t stand out more clearly if she tried, yet none of the students streaming in through the front doors so much as glance her way as they pass.

Their eyes meet. Andrew glimpses a faint blush spread across her face but she doesn’t look away, chewing the inside of her cheek as he ascends the steps towards her.

“You waiting for me?” He asks when their faces are level. The hustle and bustle of the crowd almost drowns him out. He bites his lower lip to stop his smile from getting too big.

“No,” She says defensively. “I always sit here… I brought your hoodie.”

There it is on her lap, haphazardly folded and flattened beneath her sketchbook. The page has three swooping lines on it, but the pencil she’s clutching in her hand is gnarled and deformed with bite marks.

Neither of them makes a move to retrieve the mess of fabric.

“I wanted you to keep it,” Andrew says. Someone bumps into him on their way up the stairs. “The patch, too.” Allison's face breaks into a grin. She chuckles slowly, throatily. Infected, Andrew laughs too, tension leaving his shoulders. She still wants to be with him. “Can I… walk you to your locker?”

She shoves her things unceremoniously into her bag, rising from the stone steps with surprising speed and grace. Nods.

He offers his hand in a fleeting moment of bravery and she takes it without hesitation.

*

A couple of stares follow them through the halls, focus on their intertwined fingers, but mostly their peers are more interested in getting to homeroom on time than Andrew Clark's dating life.

For the time being, anyway. Thankfully. He readjusts his grip on her hand. This is harder than he’d expected.

“Hey! Clark!” He hears, and suddenly Jacob and Ben are in front of them.

They're both blond - one tall and muscular, the other short and stocky - and their letterman jackets are the same as Andrew's. Their wrestling patches are still in tact on their sleeves, though, so not identical.

The last time Andrew's had matched Larry Lester had been squirming beneath him, his whimpers nearly drowned out by the sounds of Jacob and Ben cheering him on. Nearly, but not quite.

“How’re you doing, man?” Jacob says as Ben asks, “Who’s this?”

Allison shuffles closer to him imperceptibly, her grip tightening.

“Allison,” is all she says. Her mouth is a firm line curved upwards at the ends, but her eyes are wary, unsure beneath their gazes.

Ben doesn't seem to notice. “Hey, nice to meet you, Allison. You new here?”

“Dude, she’s been in our year since eighth grade,” Jacob says, shoving him playfully but giving Andrew a confused look. Questioning. What are you doing with her?

“We met in detention Saturday,” No point in lying. Andrew tries to keep it light, natural. Because it’s the most natural thing in the world to him, being with her.

“Radical,” Ben bumps knuckles with him, but his eyebrows are quirked like he’s not sure what he really thinks yet.

Jacob laughs. “Okay, Burnstein’s totally gonna bust my ass if I’m late again. See you ‘round, Andy.”

“See you,” Andrew calls after them but they’re already gone. Jostling through the crowd, talking exaggeratedly about something, saying hi to people they know.

The final bell for homeroom rings and people push past them more forcefully. Andrew feels light and heavy at the same time.

“Could’ve been worse.” He tries to shrug it off.

Allison rests her forehead on his shoulder, only for a moment, before saying, “My locker’s in the science corridor. See you at lunch, Sporto.” Her tone is breezy. She drops his hand and sets off down the centre of the near-empty hallway.

At the end she spins, throwing him a coy smile before turning the corner.

All he can do is wave.

*

Avoiding the topic of Him And Allison until the final bell ends up being pretty easy. Andrew jumps in with questions about homework, wrestling meets - anything - before anyone can bring it up.

There’s an uneasiness in the air that gnaws at the pit of his stomach.

After the Larry Lester thing... it feels as though his friends are hesitant. Not like any of them haven't ragged on dorks before, but it's like they don't want to push him. Like he might flip his shit and do it to them, too. It's weird. They were laughing along, jeering, patting him on the back afterwards, unaware of how sick he felt.

At lunch he sits at his usual table, surrounded by his teammates and a few of their cheerleader girlfriends. Allison is next to him but, even though their lunch table is circular, she feels distanced, removed.

Ben gave up his seat for her when they arrived - his mom is always telling the boys how she raised him right - but after that, no one acknowledged her. Neil and Kyle are discussing the nuances of the perfect meal from G.D. Ritzy's, asking everyone's opinion but hers.

Andrew turns to her, offers over his fries. He isn't hungry anymore.

“How was class?” he asks. Her eyes are a cool brown flecked with the same darker tones as her hair.

“So fun,” she says dryly, popping one in her mouth. “I saw John and Brian on my way here.”

“That's great. Did they say hi or-”

“Andy?” Tina calls over. He turns in time to catch everyone’s eyes dart away from Allison. “Can you tell this idiot that hot sauce has no place anywhere near fries and strawberry milkshake-”

Neil throws a piece of lettuce at her and she shrieks, laughing.

Mark nudges him from his right. “When you've, uh, finished, coach asked me to go through the stuff you missed from track Saturday.”

The way he says it - finished - like Andrew had been shooting boogers at people through a straw or something equally disgusting and immature hits him in the chest.

“Could we do this later? I’m talking to Allison right now,” Andy replies, probably harsher than necessary. Or maybe not harsh enough. He doesn't know. Warmth floods his face and he can't help but glance at Allison.

She locks their eyes, holding him in place long enough for him to catch a breath.

“It’s all right,” Allison pinches the sleeve of his letterman and sits up straighter as she regards Jake with a calculated nonchalance, as though they’ve been part of the same friend group for years. “I just remembered I’ve got calculus homework due next period, anyway.” Standing, she packs up the brown paper bag she’s barely opened since lunch began.

“No, wait, you don’t have to-” Andy tries. The eyes of everyone at the table dance across his skin like prickly heat.

“Really, Andy, it’s okay. Can’t have you miss coach’s really important track tactics on my account. It was nice meeting you all.”

Only her first sentence sounded genuine, the rest hinting at that seductive sarcasm she’d used on Claire in the library. Somehow this makes him smile, seeing all his friends' dumbstruck faces as she pats his shoulder with a hand covered by his hoodie’s sleeve. Her hoodie’s sleeve.

“Oh- um, okay-” he doesn't know what to say and Allison isn’t there anymore. It's just him and his friends. Three days ago that would’ve been a non-issue.

“So, yeah,” Neil coughs and, just like that, everyone goes back to their own conversations.

Mark launches into a multitude of exercises Coach had apparently saved for the one day Andrew didn't attend class. Everyone is friendly and familiar again, like last Friday, as though Allison had never been there at all.

Andrew can feel himself getting pissed. He sets his jaw, listens, forces out the occasional “mmm” and “yeah” until the bell for next period finally rings.

*

He doesn't see Allison for the rest of the day.

Sitting at the back of the school bus, he likes to think he could find Allison easily in the crowd of students swarming the lot, but he can’t.

Maybe he’s overestimating the power of his feelings, or maybe the fact he’s trying so hard to find her is a sign he’s too far gone already.

Until Saturday she’d existed in the periphery of his world. He'd known of her - or rather, of what people said about her, glanced off her skulking figure in the hallways - but he’d never really seen her before. It feels ridiculous to him now.

She and the rest of the ‘Breakfast Club’, as Brian had so affectionately named their group, are the only people who know who he really is. And she’s the only one of them whose absence he feels like the sun disappearing behind a storm cloud at the height of summer.

The library. Weed. The therapy circle. Dancing. “They ignore me.”

He rests his forehead on the glass and lets the engine’s vibrations shake his brain around his skull. It borders on painful, but he needs to get used to that if he wants to keep his resolve.