eight

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As I sat in Justin's apartment, I wondered what it was like to live mostly on your own, without a mother around to nag you about picking up your junk. Did Justin's uncle even know he had visitors?

As Justin and Richie threw together snacks in the kitchen, I peeked into the hamper by the bathroom door. Sure enough, not only were his clothes in there, they weren't inside out. My own dirty clothes seemed to land everywhere but the hamper.

Over in the lone chair beside the window, Zoe flipped through magazines. When she went to use the bathroom, she left them in a pile on the floor. Within seconds Justin swooped down and returned them to the bookshelf.

Nora was the last to arrive. Apparently she wasn't used to doing her homework as fast as the rest of us. Kicking off her shoes, she plopped down in the middle of Justin's bed. Zoe and Richie joined her. Personally, I didn't want to sit where Justin slept—and did who knows what else. But the only other choice was the floor. So I parked myself on the edge of the bed and leaned forward like a sprinter waiting for the starting gun.

Justin brought over a plate of homemade heart-shaped cookies. He circled the bed like a buzzard eyeing his prey, then descended beside me. The hairs on my arms tingled. I reached for a cookie before the sparks set off an explosion.

"Happy Valentine's Day," he said.

I'd forgotten all about it. No reason to remember. Mom and Dad hadn't mentioned it, maybe because they didn't want to draw attention to my seriously deficient social life. Or so they thought. I looked around the room at my new friends, my eyes lingering on Justin, the best Valentine's Day treat I'd had in a long time.

"They fixed the window in the back of the school," Richie reported. "All ground-level ones have new locks."

"That was fast," Zoe said.

"I think we should stay away from the school," Nora said. "Finish our plans somewhere else."

"Good point." Justin tapped her on the ankle, then left his hand beside her foot. I forced myself to look away. "For now, future plans will take place somewhere else."

I hated the way he looked at Nora. Beyond her eyes, into her, like he understood everything about her.

Justin hooked his elbow around Richie's neck. "This is your night, my friend. Dave Harper's next."

Richie's eyes widened. "For real?"

I heard someone exhale. Was Zoe disappointed that it wasn't her turn?

"Any ideas?" Justin asked.

"Maybe we could steal his clothes during practice," Nora offered.

"Are they practicing right now?" I asked.

"Yeah," Justin said. "Dave and those jocks are obsessed."

"What if we take their uniforms before they hit the field?" Richie said. "That would be hilarious."

Richie Morris had simple needs. That would be enough for him. But Justin said, "Think bigger."

"Maybe it should be more like a natural consequence," I said. My parents liked to throw that term around. It annoyed me to hear it on my own lips, but it did seem to fit the situation.

Justin raised an eyebrow. "Tell me more, Ari."

The heat of his gaze melted my thoughts into a puddle. I struggled to re-form them. "Oh, um, well, it seems the reason he picked on Richie in the first place was ..." I didn't know how to say it.

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