The Art of Losing(10)

I was headed to lunch with a few of my friends one day when we passed by the freshman lockers. Audrey sat on the floor with her back against her locker, her head in her hands. A few papers lay shredded on the linoleum floor next to her.

“Go ahead, you guys,” I told my friends and diverted my path toward Audrey.

I was still fifty feet away when I saw Mike walk out of the bathroom across from her. He did a double take and said, “Audrey? What’s wrong?”

He eased down next to her and sat, quietly, waiting for her to talk. I stopped before they saw me and hid behind an open door. Audrey used to come to me with all her problems, but since starting high school, she was less interested in my opinion. But she liked Mike. She sought him out when he was over at our house, showing up wherever we were and putting a major crimp in our plans.

“You won’t tell Harley?” I heard her say.

Mike drew an X over his heart. “I won’t.”

“I’m failing algebra,” she said quietly. “I’m going to have to go to summer school.”

“That’s not such a big deal,” Mike said. “Algebra is tough.”

Audrey took her head out of her hands long enough to look at him skeptically. “You and Harley both got A’s.”

He shrugged. “We had each other’s help,” he said. “Maybe that’s what you need, too.”

“What, like a tutor?” she said with disdain. “Believe me, my parents have tried that.”

“You haven’t studied with me, though,” he said. “Or Harley. Maybe we can help.”

“There’s no way Harley would do that. She hates me.”

The words were a punch to the gut, but she was partly right. I didn’t hate her, but I would have scoffed at the idea of helping her if she had asked.

“If you pass your final, will you pass the class?” Mike asked.

She nodded. “Barely.”

“Then we’ll do it. Leave Harley to me. She loves you. And she loves me. So I think we can win her over, don’t you?” When he flashed his straight-toothed smile at her, I knew she would agree. It was impossible to say no to that smile.

Audrey smiled back. “Do we have to?”

Mike laughed and nudged her with his elbow. “She’s better at algebra than I am. Trust me, we need her.”

Damn it, I thought. Mike was right. I’d rather watch Plan 9 from Outer Space—arguably one of the worst movies in history—than help my sister with algebra, but she needed me.

I ducked out from behind the door. “Hey, you two,” I said, trying to act casual. “What’s going on?” I dropped to the floor between Mike’s legs. He slipped his arms around my waist.

“We have a job, or better yet, a duty,” Mike said, “to get Audrey through her algebra final.”

I patted her on the knee. “Don’t worry, kid,” I said. She wrinkled her nose at the moniker, but her tears had dried. “We got this.”

Audrey heaved a relieved sigh while I fought back a wave of guilt that I hadn’t helped her before now. I hugged Mike’s knees and leaned against his chest, grateful that he was kinder to my sister than I was.

It never occurred to me to be suspicious of it.

Chapter Three

The night air was humid and stale, like a wool blanket still damp from the dryer. I was almost done with the cigarette I’d bummed from Aunt Tilly, relishing the idea of getting back in the air-conditioning, when I heard the whisper of footsteps on grass. A telltale glowing ember—the orange tip of a cigarette—floated around the corner of the house next door. I considered putting mine out, but I figured if the person was also smoking, they couldn’t give me too much grief.

He stepped into the dim light from the side porch. Definitely a “he.” I could see that he was tall and broad-shouldered, but somewhat slim. So it wasn’t Mr. Juarez, who had a belly that hung over his waistband.

My heart squeezed.

I recognized that sharp profile. It belonged to the person I’d spent every day with until I was seven. Before Cassidy, Rafael Juarez was my best friend.

Raf and I hadn’t talked in years. But he didn’t hesitate when our eyes met. He just walked up and sat down next to me on the low wall that surrounded our back garden. I tried to be discreet as I pulled my shorts down to cover more of my thighs and smoothed my humidity-frizzed hair.

“Hey, Harley,” he said. “Long time.”

“Hey,” I answered. “Yeah.”

I put out my cigarette and held the butt in my fingers, resisting the urge to cover my stomach with my arms. My T-shirt was tighter than what I would normally wear in public. It was one of Audrey’s.

“I heard about Audrey,” Raf said, as if I’d spoken out loud. “I’m sorry.”

He and Audrey had also been friends when we were little. Sort of. We always forced Audrey to be the family dog or the baby when we played house. She didn’t seem to mind; she was just happy to be included.

“Thanks,” I managed to say.

I snuck another glance at him as he took a drag of his cigarette, the brief flare of the cherry illuminating his face. I could still see the six-year-old boy I’d pretend-married. His dark hair was longer and fell in soft waves across his forehead. But his face was harder-edged now, his cheekbones more defined, and there was a dark stubble across his sharp jaw. He was bigger, too. He used to be really scrawny as a kid.

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