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My Starlight-Chapter 1

Chapter One

 

I slammed my pick down on my bass’ open E string. A deep, reverberating growl rumbled through the wooden beams of Darren Spears’ parents’ two-car garage. The instrument’s low, smoky timbre hummed inside me. As my heart beat in time with the rhythm, a shiver of adrenaline coursed up and down my whole body, from top to bottom in a vertical wavelength. I swore if I closed my eyes, I could see it.

 

I inhaled through my nose, ignoring the vague scent of gasoline and paint, and faced my guitarist, Spencer James. I nodded, giving him his cue to play the opening power chord on his cobalt-blue electric guitar. He nailed it. I adjusted my black leather shoulder strap, distributing the heavy instrument’s weight over my entire chest. My fingers danced down the neck of my onyx-black Ibanez, the thick strings stiff under my callused, dry fingertips.

 

They felt amazing. Few things are more satisfying to a bass player than those blistery, cracked hands. Proof that I’m becoming better and stronger, they’re like battle scars. A light, like a tiny pulsing star, flashed in my head. I bit my lip to hide a smile. Battle Scars…that’s an awesome name for a metal song.

 

But I was focusing so hard that I missed my note change. Scrambling to find my place in the song, my fingers hit the edge of the silver fret. A sour, nasty twang barked out of my poor beautiful bass, like a dog getting its tail stepped on. I snarled and clenched my teeth, trying to play it off, and hoped my two Crimson Anvil bandmates didn’t notice.

 

Spoiler. They noticed.

 

Spencer started overplaying his guitar to compensate for the missing bass behind him. He’s only been playing for about three months, way less time than Darren and me. His inexperienced fingers got lost. They flailed with frantic desperation over his fret board. He also hit a sour note, and completely lost his way.

 

The doubled-up notes confused Darren who, just like that, forgot which drum pad he was supposed to hit. Knowing Darren, he was seconds away from getting pissed off. Then suddenly, he clenched his mouth tight and hurled his drum sticks at the ground like a pissed-off baby.

 

Correction: micro seconds.

 

Called it, I thought, biting the inside of my cheek to hold back a laugh. The sticks hurtled toward Spencer, who leapt back so the sticks wouldn’t slam him. They missed, but his guitar edged too close to his amplifier. A loud whoop of feedback from the guitar blared through Spencer’s speaker. All three of us groaned and covered our ears.

 

Not exactly the type of heavy metal sound that Crimson Anvil was going for.

 

“Spencer, unplug that thing!” Darren called out, narrowing his dark-blue eyes. His face was twisted, all anger and disgust. “I told you already, shut it up or my stupid neighbor is going to call the Home Owners Association again. I already can’t hear my drum pads over it. You want my parents to kick us out of the garage?”

 

Spencer’s brown eyes darted over to my face for help. He’s always been the kind of quiet, unsure one between the two of us. I shrugged and reached over to my own one-hundred-watt amp, flicking it off. I don’t really take much of what Darren says too seriously, but he and Spencer are closer friends. At best, Darren tolerates me because of my relationship with Spencer.

 

“What, you’re blaming me?” Spencer pointed to his chest, his eyes wide. “Because your pads are too quiet? Why don’t you just ask your parents for a real drum kit?”

 

Darren adjusted his red bandana over his shaggy black hair. It matched his red-checkered flannel shirt, which he wore over black Dickies.

 

“Because,” he said in a tone teetering on angry through his gritted teeth. “Real drums are loud. And we have an H.O-freaking-A, man!”

 

Everyone has an HOA in Centurion, California. It’s a quiet, pleasant, northern suburb of Los Angeles where all your neighbors are nosy, a PTA board meeting is a big deal, and people live for noise complaints.

 

“Guys, seriously,” I said, leaping in between my two bandmates. “It was totally my fault. My brain was somewhere else and I hit the sour note. Blame me. I’m the one who made the bass cry like an emo kid. Come on, the band hasn’t been together long enough to break up yet, right?”

 

Spencer shot me a funny side smile while Darren glared, but they both grumbled their agreement and went back to their instruments. Darren adjusted the pads on his electronic drum kit while Spencer messed with the tuning on his blue Epiphone. I laughed and brushed the dust off my black jeans. The bottoms of my black biker boots felt sticky from the mysterious black mark on the garage’s chipped, concrete floor and my gray tank top felt wet and soggy under my boobs.

 

“I’ve got to say though,” I continued, wrapping my bass’ power cord around my hand and zipping it into its case, “Spencer has a point. Crimson Anvil is sounding pretty good, like a real metal band. It might be time for those big-boy drums, Darren.”

 

I flashed Darren the most smug, annoying grin my face could make and draped my dirty hands on my black, backwards, baseball cap. Darren rolled his eyes and focused on dismantling his drum kit, which his Dad says needs to be packed up and out of the way before he needs to park his BMW after work. Spencer shook his head, but he was smiling. He came over and nudged me with his guitar.

 

“You know, Orly,” Spencer said, “I think you should be the singer we’re missing. I can only imagine the grandiose songs you’d write for us. Tales of war on blood-soaked battlefields, the clanking of swords and steel in the night, glorious hymns that rouse the troops…and odysseys of bugging parents for drums kits.”

 

“Very funny, my condescending friend.” I shoved the guitar back into him just a little too hard, “But I’m more in tune with battle scars than battle songs.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Nothing.” I crouched down to pull my power plug from the wall. “I could never abandon my bass. Singing and playing your instrument at the same time is no joke. Way above my skill level. Have you ever tried it?”

 

“He wouldn’t be able to hear himself over his guitar,” Darren shouted with a crooked grin, pointing a new drum stick at Spencer. The old ones were still lost somewhere on the garage floor, sacrifices to the oil stains and hedge trimmers. “What the hell is the point?”

 

Spencer and I looked at each other, our expressions flat and deadpan. We’ve been a couple for almost two and a half years. At this point we are such good friends that we can do that thing where we talk without words. And believe me, two and a half years is like a hundred in dog years when you’re sixteen.

 

I’ve memorized every part of Spencer’s face: his warm, round, golden-brown eyes, his freckles going down his cheeks, the short auburn hair that catches gleams of red in the sunlight. Both of us have sort of medium, straight builds and we’re just about the same height¾five feet, eight inches. We even dress similarly in tank tops, fitted band shirts, and black jeans. But my hair is super long, sort of a dark, dirty blonde. My eyes are green and I wear a backwards, black cap.

 

“If we’re serious about looking for a singer,” Darren continued, stepping around his kit to join us, “Serena said she’d be willing to give it a try until we find someone permanent.”

 

I felt my mouth pull up into a grin against my will and I crossed my arms over my chest. Spencer raised his eyebrows and pulled his guitar case onto his shoulders like a backpack.

 

“Serena?” My voice took on a patronizing tone. “Your date-du-jour has a name, Darren?”

 

“She’s not du jour, I like her. She’s chill, and my actual girlfriend. And I can see her coming up the street from here. So, if you don’t mind, kids, try not to be jerks, yeah?” Darren stuck out his strong, angular jaw and made a face, somewhere between a sneer and a pout.

 

“Yes, sir, Dad.” I gave Darren a sarcastic salute. “Far be it from me to sabotage your relationship.”

 

“Maybe you should take notes, Orly, so you can see what two people in a relationship are supposed to do together. Like go on dates and make out instead of a constant stream of cartoons and fart jokes.” Darren shrugged and gave me a strange look, sort of a dismissive, side-eyed glance with a partial lip curl.

 

Darren’s eyes met mine, narrow and challenging. I stared back at him, my jaw hard and tight. Whatever he was starting, I wasn’t going to back down from it. My sweaty hand strangled my bass’ neck so hard I thought I was going to pop a string.

 

“Darren,” Spencer warned in a low voice. I whipped my head over to look at him so fast that my baseball cap almost fell off. Darren rolled his eyes and sneered, waving me off on his way out of the garage.

 

A minute or two later, Darren came back holding hands with a girl who I recognized from our school, Centurion High. Like me, she was a sophomore. Darren and Spencer are juniors. Really, I should be a junior, too, but after freshman year, everyone decided it was in my best interest to repeat ninth grade. I wasn’t in the headspace to care.

 

To be honest, most of the year was a blur.

 

I leaned with my elbow on my tall, bass-amp speaker, surveying the couple in front of me. If nothing else, Darren had good taste in girls. Serena was super cute, and they looked really good together. Darren is taller than me and Spencer, already closing in on six feet at sixteen years old. Whereas Spencer and I dressed like band-bums, Darren always looked a little more composed, which is all it took for girls at school to go crazy for him. In the short time we’ve been practicing together, there’d already been a rotating door of girls spinning through the garage to watch us play, but Serena was the first one he’d referred to as his girlfriend.

 

I watched her, knowing the side-smile hadn’t left my face. She was average height, with long, wavy, medium-brown hair, with really cool cascades of purple and blue streaks. The electric color that matched the sparkles on her jeans wasn’t much different from Spencer’s guitar. Her skin was pale and smooth, and she had pretty, sparkly, cat-shaped hazel eyes that glanced over at me and Spencer with a mischievous gleam.

 

I took in a sharp breath and made an effort to stand a little straighter. My attention is easily caught when it comes to girls. Most girls affect me, I can’t help it.

 

Luckily, my bisexuality has never been a secret.

 

“Hey guys!” she said in a confident, straightforward voice, slipping an arm around Darren’s waist. She looked over at him with a sly, dimpled smile that told me she was sizing up Spencer and me the same way that we were scoping her out. Her bottom teeth were a little crooked, just a little distinct feature that tied her whole demeanor together. “So…this is Crimson Anvil, huh?”

 

Spencer puffed out a laugh, but I pursed my lips and took the bait.

 

“Yeah,” I said, reaching out to shake her hand. I felt my eyebrows raise with interest over my smirking mouth. “Serena, right? I’m Orly. This guy here is Spencer, my boyfriend.”

 

“I know.” Serena’s own eyebrow raised with interest. She untangled herself from Darren and grabbed my hand, giving it a strong, firm shake. “We’re in the same social studies class, Orly.”

 

I blinked and took a step back. My hand untwined from hers and my fingers sputtered back into place, my arm dropping down to my side.

 

“We are?” I asked.

 

“Yeah, this isn’t our first time meeting each other. We were in the same English class last year, too. Remember, we were in that group project with those other two kids? We did a report on women’s roles in Victorian literature. You even came to my house and sat around my dining room table for three hours. You really don’t remember that?”

 

Spencer and I looked over at each other. I’m positive a panicky look washed over my face. He bit his lip and shrugged his shoulders, while embarrassment pulled me deeper and deeper into its dark, ravenous throes.

 

If stupidity could drown a person, consider me fish food.

 

“I’m the worst,” I said. “Sorry about that.”

 

Darren opened his mouth to say something, but Spencer shot him a dark look before Darren could speak. Serena stood on her toes and gave our drummer a kiss on his cheek.

 

“It’s okay,” she said. “At least you won’t forget me now. Besides, you were busy talking to my mom that day. You weren’t even paying attention to the group project. You told her you loved the crème brûlée she kept feeding you. And you’re welcome for the free ‘B’ you got on the assignment.”

 

“Oh man,” I said, smiling at the memory. “The crème brûlée? Now that I remember. It was so addicting. Your mom rules…she was really nice to me. And yeah…thanks for the help on the assignment. I was…well…things were weird around then.”

 

“I don’t know if you know this,” Spencer said, changing topics on my behalf. “But Darren told us that you’re dying to be our singer. Lucky for you, Crimson Anvil is on the hunt for one. And tryouts start now. Ever sang in a metal band before?”

 

“No,” Serena said with a good-humored snort that made me like her right away. The playful look left my face and I felt a warm, genuine smile creeping over me.

 

“I’m not really any good and I don’t even listen to metal. I just wanted to help you guys out if you needed it. Do you guys play anything else?”

 

“Nothing that we can agree on,” Spencer said, shifting his weight under the guitar case on his back. Darren nodded while I gave my friends a thoughtful shrug.

 

At least that sentiment was unanimous.

 

“What about you?” Serena asked, moving her arm away from Darren. Her deep, hazel eyes zeroed in on my face. “I don’t meet a lot of girls in bands. What else do you like to play, Orly?”

 

I didn’t expect all eyes on me. All of a sudden, the garage felt very small and hot, in spite of the evening breeze that was starting to kick up. A purple strand of Serena’s hair blew in front of her face and all I could focus on was wanting to move it off her lower lip. Darren looked at me with an amused grin, and Spencer shot me a warm smile.

 

“Orly’s into nerd stuff,” Spencer said before I could answer, putting a protective arm around my shoulder.

 

“Like what?” Serena tilted her head and raised an eyebrow.  “I’m into some pretty nerdy stuff, too. Sure, I don’t like metal but maybe we have something else in common.”

 

“Like not just comic books and video games like me and Darren,” he continued, rubbing my shoulder. “Super nerd stuff, more than you would expect from an adorable girl who tries to look so tough.”

 

His voice went cutesy on the last part and I literally felt my stomach roll like I was going to puke.  While I appreciated Spencer trying to help me out, I didn’t need him coming to my rescue in front of Serena.

 

“Well,” I cleared my throat, which suddenly felt very dry. I politely untangled myself from Spencer’s arm. “I’m really into anime. You know…cartoons from Japan?”

 

“Are you kidding me?” Serena’s voice squeaked upward. “I love anime! It’s totally my thing!” Excitement flashed over her face, her nostrils flared just a bit, her eyes widened, and her chest rose like she was taking in a deep breath.

 

“Heh, you don’t say.” I raised my eyebrows and crossed my arms over my chest, posing against my bass amp. “Then you know what I’m talking about. Anyway, I thought it might be cool to have a band that plays nothing but anime opening theme songs. If we got good enough, we could even play at anime conventions. Just one of those things in my head.”

 

“See what we mean?” Spencer said. “Honest-to-god nerd stuff. Orly’s big into anime conventions. She’s been going to them every year since she was like eleven or twelve.”

 

But Serena, to her credit, only looked more stoked. She lifted her fists up to her chin, leaping back and forth from one foot to the other.

 

“Yes!” she squealed, jumping up and down on her glittery pink Sketchers. “Oh my god, that is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard! Please, you have to do it! Darren, are you listening? You guys could be in an anime band!”

 

Darren and Spencer snorted.

 

“Oh, I hear it, babe.” Darren patted Serena on the head like she was a kitten or something. “Giving up metal to play weirdo Japanese cartoon songs. Sure, right on it.” Darren chuckled to himself before walking back into the house.

 

“Ignore him.” Serena reached forward and grabbed my wrists. Her eyes bore into mine with determined intensity. I tried to ignore the blush creeping up onto my cheeks. “Do you have a name for the band?”

 

“I…yeah.” My voice was quieter than I expected. I pulled my arms away from Serena’s grip and reached over to shrug my bass case onto my shoulders, the same way Spencer wore his guitar. “I thought it would be fun to call the band Otaku. It’s the Japanese word for…”

 

“Obsessed fan,” Serena said. “I’m familiar. Not too bad. But come on, you can do better.”

 

I let out a cynical puff of air and narrowed my eyes. What, she has a better name for my imaginary band?

 

“All right, out with it. What would you call it?”

 

Weeaboo.” Serena twirled a long strand of dark hair around her finger. “That’s the more updated word for people who are obsessed with things from Japan. Weeaboo.”

 

Oh, hell no, I thought, trying to stop my face from twisting up. Barf. Spencer just kind of gave me a bored look and his neck disappeared into his shoulders. Meanwhile, Darren came back from inside the house with water bottles for all of us. We thanked him, cracked them open, and slung the cold water down our throats. I could feel it rehydrating my brain, bringing it back to life and clearing the cyclones of clouds that had started billowing in my head.

 

“Well, excuse me.” I tightened the cap back on my water bottle. “So Weeaboo is all the hotness, you say?”

 

“Yeah, but I don’t care if you don’t know cool words.” Serena wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. If she detected my sarcasm, she didn’t show any signs of it. “We anime geeks have to stick together, you know. I’m just excited that I met you! Truthfully, you kind of look like some kind of crazy high school biker chick. I wouldn’t peg you for an anime nerd at all.”

 

“Hear that, Spencer?” I said, nudging my boyfriend in the ribs. “She wouldn’t peg me for an anime nerd at all. I’m incognito after all!”

 

Spencer balled his hand into a fist and gave my chin a gentle bump with it. I stuck out my tongue and pulled down on the space where my cheek and lower eyelid meet.

 

“Anime nerd doesn’t even cover what this girl is into,” Spencer said, flashing an appreciative half-lidded grin at me. “Tell her about the club you’re in.”

 

“Brace yourself.” Darren tipped back his water bottle into his open lips. “This is where the nerd crescendo really peaks.”

 

“Cosplay Club,” I said, my voice flat. I took out my phone to check the clock. It was time for me to start walking back home. Cooking dinner was my responsibility, and my eleven-year-old kid sister, Aviva, would be getting home soon from her karate class. “I’m in the Cosplay Club with my buddy, Will Ortiz. It’s his club, really. He does all the photography.”

 

“Legitimate nerd stuff,” Darren said, giving me a condescending pitiful look like I was some kind of three-legged puppy. “Cosplay Club? You know, like dressing up as characters from video games and cartoons? Before I met Orly, I thought cosplay was some kind of dorky card game. Guess I was only half wrong, yeah?”

 

“Darren,” Spencer said, his voice dropping in tone again. But I nudged my elbow against him and waved my hand in Darren’s direction. Spencer nodded and sighed, while Darren’s lip curled slightly, but he turned his attention back to Serena.

 

“I think cosplay is cool as hell,” Serena said, grazing her silver-ringed fingers against Darren’s. He sucked in a breath and moved closer to her. “Making costumes like those are amazing. And I think I know your friend, Will, too. Is he the chubby guy with glasses with the soft voice who wears emo shirts? Follows girls around with his camera?”

 

“The one and only.” I grunted under the weight of my bass amp. “It’s only natural if he creeps you out a little. Smart people feel a little uncomfortable when he’s around.”

 

“Yeah?” Serena raised an eyebrow again. “Then I must be a freaking genius.”

 

We all laughed and Serena took Darren’s hand. He shot her a warm look and the two of them followed me and Spencer out of the garage. We put our amps down on the sidewalk while we adjusted the instruments on our backs. A cool breeze cut through the hazy purple twilight and I tipped my face back to let it dance over my sticky skin. I pulled the hat off my head and ran my fingers through the damp strands, my sweat turning cold on my scalp before I returned the hat back to my head.

 

“But in all seriousness,” she said, keeping a few paces behind me and Spencer while we struggled not to drop our equipment. “I’ve always been curious about cosplay. Is that club any good?”

 

Darren’s always saying to just leave our amps at his place, but I can’t stand the thought of being without my music gear. I stopped on the sidewalk, narrowly avoiding an elevated crack looming upward out of the ground. We put down our amps again and I wiped my hand over my forehead.

 

“It used to be pretty cool,” I answered, “but when comic books became the hotness and the costume standards got higher, the club hasn’t been quite as accommodating to anime cosplayers. There’s a lot of hate and shaming in the community. Especially if your body isn’t perfect.”

 

“Which you don’t have to worry about,” Serena said, crossing her arms.

 

I gave her an apathetic shrug and lifted my amp again for the final haul back to my house.

 

“Darren, can you help Orly out with that amp? Be a gentleman.”

 

“Nah.” Darren’s face was flat as he looked me up and down and shrugged. “She’s got it.”

 

“It’s true,” Spencer said, lifting his amp and using his other hand to balance. “I don’t know anyone stronger than Orly.”

 

Serena made an aww sound and Darren snorted and wrapped his arm back around Serena’s waist. Another gust of wind blew over us, and the delicate, pink-sugar scent of Serena’s perfume wafted into my nostrils. It smelled great and made me feel self-conscious. I hadn’t reapplied my body spray since the morning, and my trademark smell of Cherry Blossom Rain had long since disappeared.

 

“Going back to cosplay, Ms. Otaku,” Serena shuffled up to walk beside me, “what anime costumes do you like to wear? Or rather, I guess I’ll ask…what’s your favorite anime?”

 

At long last, just before my screaming muscles threatened to drop my amp, we arrived in front of my house. I put down my amp and shrugged my bass off my back. Spencer followed suit and we lowered our instruments down on the front lawn. We exhaled and sat cross-legged on the grass. Serena threw down her purple Jansport and made herself comfortable by stretching out on her stomach. She kicked her legs back and forth, her chin resting in her hands while she peered up at me with big, curious eyes.

 

“I haven’t watched anything new in years,” I said, leaning back on my hands. My chest poked upward toward the evening sky and Spencer’s arm brushed against mine, tickling it. “But my absolute favorite anime of all time, without a doubt, has got to be Lovely Starlight Fighter. Have you heard of it?”

 

Serena snapped her head, like someone had poked her neck with a hot coal. She shot straight up on her knees and before any of us knew what was happening, she let out a loud, excited shriek. I hid my face as my neighbor across the street moved her curtains aside. When she saw me and my friends, she made a twisted face and snapped her curtain shut. I sneered and flipped her the bird.

 

“Have I heard of it?” Serena’s hands fluttered and fanned around her face. A noticeable blush spread across her face and I could tell she was really overwhelmed. “Have I heard of it? Orly, Lovely Starlight Fighter isn’t an anime. It’s the anime! It’s the absolute best crime-fighting-magic-hero-space-opera of all time. I’ve been watching it since I was a kid. I’m obsessed!”

 

“No way. Then you’re going to totally love this. These two jerks don’t appreciate it, but here, check out my hat.” I couldn’t control the huge, excited smile that spread over my face. I pulled my baseball cap off my head and turned it around to show Serena. “Look, look at the design stitched onto the front. Do you recognize this?”

 

Serena’s eyes shimmered with tears as her hands flew up to cover her mouth.

 

“Oh my god,” she whispered, reaching out to take my hat. I gave it to her and she ran her fingertips over the embroidered image. “I know exactly what this is. It’s the attack weapon of the Shooting Star Warriors. They were the Fighters that showed up in the show’s very last season. They were aliens that disguised themselves as rock stars in order to resurrect the ruler of their destroyed kingdom. They used this weapon to attack after they powered-up with the Asteroid Bolide Virtue!”

 

I reached my hand out and Serena put my hat back in my palm. My chest fluttered just talking about the show, the memories jogged by the simple conversation with her.

 

“Yeah,” I said, my voice hushed. “They weren’t there long…but I guess they made an impact on me. The whole show made an impact on me.” I put the cap back on my head and looked up at the sky. The stars were just starting to come out.

 

“Me too.” Serena clasped her hands in front of her chest. “It hasn’t been on TV in years but I collect all the merchandise I can find. I love it.” Her eyes raised to look at the sky with me. A small tear ran down her cheek, which she wiped away with a sniffle and a sigh.

 

Darren looked at Serena with surprise, the same expression meeting my face.

 

“You catching any of this, Spencer?” He took Serena’s hand and pulled her to her feet.

 

I hopped up before Spencer could get the same idea and wiped the grassy remnants off my jeans. Spencer pushed himself up and brushed his hands together.

 

“Nope,” Spencer said. “Not any of it.”

 

“Here, look,” Serena said, reaching for her backpack. She unzipped it and pulled out a three-ring binder. It was plastered in Lovely Starlight Fighter prismatic stickers, primarily the main character, Lovely Fighter Red. “I love drawing. Want to see my sketches?”

 

“Definitely!” I said, pushing past Spencer to scoot closer to Serena. She grinned and flipped through the pages on her binder. Our heads brushed together with just the slightest sensation, our breath warming the space in front of us as we looked at her drawings. In my mind, Spencer and Darren all but disappeared, and for the briefest minute, I felt like I was thirteen again. “Whoa…these are crazy good!”

 

“Do you really think so?” Serena tipped her face up at me with a beaming smile. I glanced up to meet her gaze and was surprised at how close our faces were. I felt my eyes relax with a comfortable heaviness and a sincere smile spread across my face.

 

“Yeah,” I said. “You’re a really talented artist.”

 

“A bassist likes my artwork!” Serena squealed and pulled her face away from mine. She tore a fresh sheet of paper out of the binder. “I’m so happy! Well, not to brag or anything, but I’m also really fast. Here, I’ll draw you as one of the Shooting Star Warriors since you love them so much.”

 

Her hand shot into an open zipper pocket of her purple backpack and she pulled a handful of gel pens out. She glanced at me, then the pens, down at the paper, and back at me before settling on a black pen with silver sparkles. Serena put the piece of paper onto the top of the sticker-coated binder and plopped back down on the grass. I sat beside her, the soft grass tickling my open palm as I watched her draw. Every few seconds she’d glance up at my face with a smile, the corners of her eyes crinkling before returning her pen back to the paper to finish her sketch.

 

“Done!” she exclaimed, no more than a few minutes later. She exploded to her feet with an excited leap, and I reached for Spencer’s hand to hoist myself back into a standing position.

 

“Guys, check this out! Isn’t it amazing?”

 

Spencer, Darren, and I all clustered over Serena’s shoulder and looked down at the drawing. She had completely nailed the costume worn by the Shooting Star Warriors, right down to the silver-studded, tight vinyl pants and high-cut black boots. They wear these specific spiked belts in a crisscross formation and a high-collared jacket, which she had rendered perfectly. But instead of their tiaras, she left my backwards cap in place. My face was recognizably me, with a sort of distant determination that I never would have been able to articulate had I not seen a drawing with the expression on my face. I felt a lump forming in my throat.

 

“Would you…would you sign it for me?” I asked, pushing down the emotions creeping up. I don’t make a habit of crying in front of people. “I love it.”

 

“You really like it?” Serena said. She signed the bottom with her name, and a little smiley face flashing a two-fingered peace sign. I nodded and held the drawing to my chest.

 

“Are these characters dominatrixes or something?” Darren asked, his blue eyes squinting at the picture. “I don’t get it. What’s with the bondage belts?”

 

Serena and I ignored him and another glance passed between us. By now it was dark, and my sister’s ride was pulling up to the curb. We blocked our eyes as the car’s headlights flooded over us. The door opened and Aviva climbed out of the backseat in her karate gi. We waved at each other, then she hurried into the house without saying anything to my friends.

 

“That’s my cue, guys.” I folded the picture and stuck it in my back pocket. “I have to get inside and make dinner for Aviva and my dad. He’ll be home soon, too. Spencer, you staying?”

 

Spencer nodded and moved closer to me. He reached for my hand and wrapped his fingers around mine. He started stroking my thumb with the side of his, but I jerked it out of the way. Something about the sensation just irks me.

 

Darren wrapped his arm back around Serena and she leaned into his chest.

 

“All right, love birds,” Darren said. “We’ll leave you to it. Catch you in school tomorrow.” He bumped fists with Spencer and shot a tilted nod at me. I returned it, watching them walk away.

 

“It was nice meeting you!” I called out. “Thanks for the drawing!”

 

“That was nothing!” Serena called back over her shoulder. “Meet me at the quad after school tomorrow. I’ll have a surprise for you!”

 

I breathed in a sudden breath and my stomach rolled with surprise, maybe excitement.

 

“I’ll be there!” I shouted back. Another full grin found its way onto my face and I felt giddy by whatever it was she had in mind. I squeezed Spencer’s hand and pulled him toward my front door. He stumbled under the weight of his guitar and amp, and I grabbed my amp off the front lawn and pulled it toward the front door.

 

The temperature was dropping by the minute and the start of a biting wind crept over the sunset’s delicate breeze. Spencer shivered, and I lowered my amp and wrapped a protective arm around him. I felt great. Like tomorrow was worth seeing.

 

Until I saw the crushed look on his face.

 

“Hey,” he said in a soft voice, just as I was reaching for the door handle. “Didn’t you say you’d come hang out at my baseball thing tomorrow?”

 

I stopped in my tracks and clasped my hands over my backwards cap.

 

“Crap, you’re right,” I groaned. “Spencer, I’m sorry. Can’t we take a raincheck? I mean, I just met Serena. I don’t want her to think I’m a flake.”

 

“But you’re flaking on...” Spencer paused and counted slowly while he let out a slow breath, a technique I’d bet he learned from one of his parents. What normal sixteen-year-old counts to ten while he breathes?

 

I turned to face him, giving him a slight gesture for him to continue. I tried to keep my face as neutral as possible. Spencer and I don’t have one of those fighting relationships that other kids I knew got off on. We never yell, we never fight. We don’t even “talk it out” even though I know he’d love that. He loves to talk about feelings, and I respect that, but it’s really not my bag.

 

Silence is my strength with him.

 

“You know what, Orly…never mind. It’s fine. Whatever she has for you is probably more fun than kicking it on a baseball field. Meet up with her tomorrow.”

 

“You sure?” I turned the door knob. “I can text Darren and tell him to tell her I can’t make it or whatever.” Inside, the house was swallowed in pitch-black darkness, save for a wash of light glowing from under Aviva’s closed door. We leaned our equipment against the wall near the door.

 

“Yeah, it’s fine. You looked really happy talking to her. Like, happier than I’ve seen you look in the last couple years. I’ve missed that big smile. It’s fine. Go play with your new Lovely Starlight anime friend.”

 

“I really appreciate that, man.” I felt around the wall for the light switch. You’d think by now I could find it in my own house, no problem, but I always felt a little lost. “Thanks, Spencer. That’s super cool that you get it. You’re a good friend.”

 

Spencer made a sound that quickly dissipated in the living room’s hushed silence. But he’s right, I thought. Talking about Lovely Starlight Fighter with her took me back.

 

Back to when I was a kid, just getting into the show.

 

Back to when I was thirteen, watching it with my friends, just drawing and hanging out…learning new things…and having fun.

 

Back to when I was happy. When I was happy.

 

I was happy, I thought, fumbling blindly through the dark. My fingers ran over the cold, ridged smoothness of the living room wall. At last, I found what I was looking for.

 

I flipped the light switch on.

 

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