This is first draft material from a story I’m working on during a two week hiatus before I start editing Insurgent. It’s a departure for me, because it falls under the “new adult” genre.You can find the beginning of the story, discussion of what NA books are, and contents of the story, here.
The last time I saw Alex… or at least her image on Skype… I took my laptop and smashed it. When that didn’t do sufficient damage, I took it outside the tent, out to the edge of the camp, and fired a thirty-round magazine through it. Needless to say, that attracted some unwanted attention.
Sergeant Colton convinced the old man not to court-martial me. I did, however, get confined to the barracks for thirty days, a moot point since we were in the middle of the boonies in Afghanistan, and extra duty, which was most definitely not moot, since that mostly meant filling sandbags.
In any event, it didn’t matter much, because three days later I was in the passenger seat of our hummer when we rode over a bomb, and I didn’t need a computer much for a while after that.
Point is, Alex always evoked, um, strong emotions, from the very first time I laid eyes on her.
We met almost three years ago: my senior year in high school and her junior year. And to be blunt: it changed my life, in ways I can’t really measure.
But to understand that, you have to understand how we got there in the first place. For me, it’s kind of a backup problem. I was at Columbia because I got blown up, and I got blown up because I volunteered for Infantry when I enlisted in the Army, and that happened because of the first time she broke up with me, which was… you get the point. So to have this make any sense at all to you, I have to work my way back to high school.
I was a lousy student, but I’m not stupid. I can add, and when my mom kicked me out of the house, I had to add minimum wage to minimum wage, and it didn’t come up to nearly enough to pay rent on an apartment, much less rent an apartment and actually do anything crazy like eat. Plus, the guys I was hanging out with… let’s just say, they weren’t shining lights of humanity.
So I cleaned up my act. I quit drinking. Quit smoking dope. I still smoke cigarettes, but everybody’s gotta have one vice. And I went back to high school. Problem was, I was behind, way behind. When I registered for school again, I went to see the principal of my high school and explained my situation.
The first question he asked me was, “Where are you parents?”
I sighed. “I’m sort of homeless at the moment,” I replied. “But that’s not permanent. Look… I don’t want to involve them in me going back to school. I guess I need to prove to my mom that I can do this on my own. Maybe I need to prove it to myself, too.”
He understood. And backed me, all the way. And much to my surprise (and my mother’s) I got nearly straight As.
At the end of the year, he called me into his office.
“Listen,” he said. “I want to tell you about a program we’ve got. Every year, the city sends half a dozen students as part of a national program to visit several other countries. Sort of an ambassador, exchange program. You’ve been nominated.”
I was in shock. Me?
“Isn’t that for the smart kids who didn’t get in trouble?” I asked.
“You are one of the smart kids, Dylan.”
I noted he didn’t address the trouble part.
“Look, Dylan, all I’m saying is… it’s a hell of an educational opportunity. I think you should apply.”
“Okay,” I said, not really believing it. “What do I do?”
“Write an essay. Here’s the application packet. Explain in your essay why you should have the opportunity.”
I took the packet home, and read over it. To be honest, I was terrified. Seriously. I came from a blue collar family, with a drunk for a dad, and a recovering drunk for a mom, and well… I was a screw up. I’d be competing with kids with 4.0 grade point averages, kids who were planning to go to Harvard and Yale and other places I couldn’t dream of. But, I wrote the essay. I wrote about growing up with drunks, and becoming one myself. I wrote about putting myself back into school, and catching up with my class. I wrote about how important getting an education was, from the point of view of someone who’d worked the stupid no-skilled minimum-wage jobs just to keep myself in food while I was in between homes.
And you know what? Somehow, I got accepted into the program. Next thing I knew, I’d been selected as one of half a dozen kids from Atlanta who would be traveling to Israel for two months.
And that is how I met Alex.
The first time I saw her was right before we left for Israel. I guess there were about forty of us, sitting in a big room at Hunter College on Staten Island. She was clear across the room from me, and that first sight of her is etched in my memory forever. Long brown hair, parted in the middle and flowing down her back. Green eyes that caught me from across the room. Slightly olive skin, full lips. I’m not exaggerating to say that she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She was so far out of my league that I didn’t even bother to approach her. The fact was, all of these kids were out of my league. Some of them downright brilliant, all of them studious, hard working kids who had busted their ass for the chance to take part in this program. Frankly, I felt like an impostor.
Not that that was going to stop me from going. When we got on the plane for Tel Aviv the next morning, by lucky chance that would change my mind, I ended up seated next to the beautiful green eyed girl I’d watched the night before.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Dylan.”
“Alex,” she responded.
Alex. I rolled the name around in my head. I liked it.
“Where are you from, Alex?”
“San Francisco,” she said.
“Really? Wow. I’m from Atlanta, Georgia. Never been out west.”
She smiled, and I did my best to remain nonchalant. Which was difficult. Really difficult, because her eyes were just… entrancing. It was like getting drunk, but the good kind, with no hangover. “This was my first trip east, actually,” she said.
“Tell me about yourself, Alex.”
She sat back. “That’s a pretty open ended question.”
“I guess. Let me start over. I’m Dylan, and I have lousy social skills. I’d like to get to know you by asking stupid questions. How’s that?”
She giggled, and I almost died.
“Tell you what,” she said. “I’ll ask a question. Then you ask one. Then I’ll ask one. Got it? They have to be specific. And you can’t lie.”
I tried my best to look wounded. “Do I look like someone who would lie?”
“Silly, your questions are supposed to be about me.”
This time I laughed. “All right. Hmm… you’re from San Francisco… do you ever ride on those silly street cars?”
“Never,” she said. “Those are for tourists.”
“Ahh,” I said. “Figures. Your turn.”
“Okay… hmm… what’s your favorite subject in school?”
I had to think about that one for a second. “Well … it used to be drama, but I’m not taking any electives any more. I’d have to answer English. I love writing.”
“Really? What do you write?”
“That’s two questions. It’s my turn.”
“Oh,” she said. She grinned. “Fair enough. Your turn.”
I tried to think of a good question, but it was hard. For one thing, she kept looking at me, and those eyes! Plus, I kept smelling a hint of strawberry. Why the hell did she smell like strawberries? Was it her hair? Whatever it was, it was tantalizing. This girl scared the hell out of me.
“What’s your favorite memory?”
She sat back and thought, then a beautiful, huge smile came across her face. “Easy,” she said. “When I was ten, we were living in Moscow. And my father let me go for the first time to an official function. It was … glamorous. All the men and women were in ball gowns and tuxedos, and my mom took me out and got me fitted for my own gown. When the dancing started, my father took me out and danced with me.”
“Moscow? Holy shit! What were you doing there?”
“My dad was foreign service. And no fair, that’s an extra question.”
Her dad was in the foreign service, she said casually. Holy shit. Way out of my league.
“Oh, rats, sorry. Okay… you get two questions.”
“All right… what scares you more than anything else in the world?”
You do, I almost said.
I took a deep breath, then I said, honestly, “Ending up like my dad. He was a drunk.”
Her face took on a look of… sadness? Pity? I didn’t want pity. She changed the subject.
“What’s the best thing you’ve ever done?” she asked.
“The best thing? Hmm…” I had to think for a bit. I slowly mulled it over, then said, “I was homeless for a while. Dropped out of school. Anyway, sometimes I didn’t know where I was going to sleep, or get something to each. One night I was riding on MARTA… that’s our subway… just back and forth, trying to get some sleep on the train before they shut down for the night. They shut down the train at 2 am, and I was stuck downtown, and I ran into a family. All of them were homeless, like me. Parents, two kids. The dad had lost his job. And I was working, and had a little bit of money. So I treated them to dinner at Waffle House. It wasn’t much … maybe twenty dollars. But you could tell the kids hadn’t been eating much at all. They were so… grateful.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. Those kids were … overwhelming. Overwhelming in their need, and in their love for their parents, and … just overwhelming.
Alex looked at me like I was from Mars. “You were homeless?” she asked, very quietly.
“No, that was already two questions. My turn.”
I thought, then blurted out, “Why do you smell like strawberries?”
She blushed, a deep red. Oh. My. God. Why did I ask that? Idiot!
Finally, she spoke, a shy smile on her face. “It’s um, my shampoo. I like strawberries. I wear strawberry lip gloss too.”
My turn to freak. Because the thought of her, and strawberry lip gloss, was too much to contemplate.
“My turn,” she said, turning toward me. She had a mischievous look on her face. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
Alarm bells were screeching in my head. I said, “Um… not exactly. I’ve been seeing a girl, but not sure where it’s headed. If anywhere.”
“What about you?” I asked. “Is there a boyfriend?”
“Sort of,” she said. “I’m dating a guy, his name’s Mike. I don’t know if it’s serious or not, either.”
I swallowed. She had a Mike back home. I had a Hailey back home. And this trip was only two months anyway. My brain was telling me, Stay the hell away, Dylan! But let’s be honest. I’ve never been that smart anyway.