“Can I join you two?”

Startled, I look up to see Nate standing at the edge of our table. I’ve never seen him eat lunch in the cafeteria before.  He looks tired.

“Have a seat,” I say, moving my bag off of the stool next to me and onto the floor. “Where’s your lunch?” I ask him.

“I don’t typically eat lunch here,” he mumbles as he slumps into the seat. He puts his elbows on the table, and then holds his head in his hands.

“Why not?”

“I don’t trust the way they prepare food here,” he admits, “and my mom was never one to pack a lunch.”

“What, you can’t make your own lunch?” I tease him.

“I value my sleep too much,” he says, gripping at his hair.

“It looks like you’re dying over there,” Chris says to Nate.

“Massive headache,” he says, glaring at me.

“Ohhh,” I say, catching on. “Nate has to quit smoking.”

“This is bullshit,” he says with a slight laugh.

“What’s going on?” my brother asked.

“Remember I said we had sushi last night?”

“Yeah,” he starts, then turns his focus to Nate, “I can’t believe you got her to eat that!”

“Chris,” I start, trying to get him to shut up.

“I’m actually anxious to try some of it.”

“Chris!” I say louder.

“Wait a minute,” Nate interrupts. “Did she say she liked it?”

“Most of it,” Chris says.

“I told you I liked some of it,” I explain to Nate. “But I hated some of it, too.”

He shakes his head at me. “How did I lose this fight?” he asks.

“Because, you said you’d try to quit smoking if I hated it.”

“But you didn’t.”

“I hated some of it!” I repeat.

“Ugh, that wasn’t the deal,” he says. He knows there’s no point in arguing. We’d done it the whole way home from the restaurant. “I feel like you’re taking advantage of me,” he says, sounding utterly pitiful.

“It’s for your own good,” I tell him, patting him on the back. “Want some aspirin?”

“You have some?” I nod, digging the bottle out of my purse and handing it to him.  “Here.” I push my soda toward him, too.

He swallows the pills, giving my drink back to me. Chris looks at me, astonished when I take a drink out of the can. I never drink after people. He narrows his eyes at me, then glances back and forth at me and Nate.  I subtly shake my head.

“You had to order the octopus,” Nate says with a sigh. “I was never going to win.”

“No,” I tell him. “But you’ll thank me someday.”

“I doubt it. I’m not sure you’ll live until that day,” he says as he shoves me gently and laughs. “I don’t like you very much today, Emi Hennigan.”

I smile, a little bit proud. 

“I have those days, too,” my brother says.

“They pass,” I explain cheerily, taking a bite of the sandwich I’d ordered.

“I hope you’re enjoying your mechanically separated chicken. They scrape off every last piece of flesh from the bones of chickens and make a paste out of it–”

“I’m not listening–” I say loudly, dropping my food on my plate.  He pulls my hands away from my face before I can cover my ears.

“They add ammonia to it to kill bacteria and bugs and stuff, and then dye it so it doesn’t look like the bloody mess it is. Then they shape it into a perfect, bun-sized circle for you to enjoy.” He lets go of me when he’s finished.

My stomach turns as I completely lose my appetite. Chris wraps his sandwich back up in the foil and gets up to throw it away. I pick my soda up off of my tray before he takes mine with him. I drink the rest, hoping the carbonated beverage washes everything down for good.

“That was mean,” I tell him.

“You’re not so nice yourself,” he counters with a smirk.

“Hey, what I’m suggesting is good for you!” I argue.

He raises his eyebrows at me. “And eating ammonia-laced animal flesh with chemical dyes added is so good for you.”

“Shut up,” I tell him, wishing I had more to drink. I grin, realizing he had some of my soda. “I bet there were little chicken bits in my soda. Backwash and all,” I say, shrugging my shoulders apologetically.

He glares at me. “Want some water?”

“I do,” I tell him. We both grab our things and head to the beverage line. My brother has already had the same idea, and is chugging down a full bottle of soda before he’s even paid for it.

“You’re an ass,” Chris says to Nate. My friend looks at me quickly, his expression concerned.

“He’s messing with you,” I assure him.

“I’m sorry,” Nate says. “I should have saved that for art class. I made it up,” he adds.

“Seriously?” I ask him, slapping his back. Chris is paying for his drink, his attention elsewhere.

“No, it’s real,” he says only to me. I take the cap off of my water and start drinking immediately. The bell rings while we’re still in line. “Hey, Chris,” Nate calls out to my brother before he heads to Chemistry. “If you don’t have plans on Saturday, I’ll swing by and let you drive the car…”

My brother’s smile is quick. “Yeah, you owe me. Sounds good.”

“Yeah, I do,” Nate says, waving goodbye to Chris.

“My brother’s totaled two cars before the Pontiac,” I tell Nate.

“No he hasn’t. Wait, really?” he asks, his eyes wide.

I shrug my shoulders again as he pays for our water, keeping his eyes on me, waiting for a better response. “He doesn’t like to talk about it.”

“Emi,” he pleads with me.

“Like ya, Nate,” I state pertly, walking away. He catches up quickly, grabbing my hand to stop me. “Not in that way!” I joke with him, staring at our hands as we stand in the middle of the hallway. He lets go, then slings his arm around my neck and starts to guide me toward art class.

“If I didn’t know you better,” he says softly, his lips close to my ear, “I’d say you were a bit of a tease, Emi.”

“Well, come to think of it,” I start, turning my face toward him. My lips are only inches away from his. We’re both smiling, but our eyes both challenge the other’s. “You really don’t know me that well at all.”

“Right,” he says, obviously disputing my statement. 

“Watch it!” I hear the words just before someone slams into my left shoulder, knocking Nate and me apart. My bottle falls from my hands, spilling water on the tile floor. “Nice job, new girl.” Bewildered, I turn around and see Lauren and Misty staring back at us. Nate’s hand wraps around my forearm, pulling me forward.

“C’mon,” he says, urging me away from their provocation. “You’re better than them.” He’s not purposefully projecting his voice when he says this, but it’s loud enough for both of the girls to hear.

“I know,” I say as I smile at him. He lets go of me as we walk down the hall together to class.  “Do you think they did that on purpose?” I ask him.

“I wouldn’t put it past them. Especially Lauren.”

“I thought you were friends, though,” I suggest, trying to dig a little deeper into their relationship.  He never really answered my questions about her last night.

“Once,” he says. “I wouldn’t call her that anymore. It’s hard to be friends with someone who’s friends with your ex.”

“So you’re not over Misty?”

“No, I’m over Misty,” he comes back quickly. “I’m way over Misty. It’s not that I just don’t like her anymore… I, like, genuinely don’t like her,” he tries to explain. 

“Thanks for clearing that up,” I tell him sarcastically, leading the way into our classroom.

“As a person,” he adds.  He walks past me as I take a seat at our worktable. I get out the thick envelope that contains the project I’d been working on out of my backpack. He places a canvas, face-down, in front of his chair. “Or as a girlfriend,” he clarifies, taking a seat. I scoot past him and grab the light-box from the side counter.  He stands once more, taking the cord from me and plugging it in to the outlet underneath the table.

“Thanks,” I tell him, flipping on the light. He squints, shielding his eyes. “The aspirin isn’t helping yet?”

“Not yet.”

“Want the sunglasses?” I offer.

“I’ll be fine,” he groans. “Ready?” he asks.


“You show me yours, I’ll show you mine.” I laugh and narrow my eyes at him.

“On the count of three… one, two, three–”

I pull the thick paper out of the envelope and lay it out in front of me as Nate flips over the canvas. I stare at his painting, marveling at what he’s done.  As I look at the canvas, I feel him watching my reaction.  “It looks close in this light,” he brags, and I realize he’s been looking at my eyes.

“You added some colors,” I tell him, studying the color-block work he’s created.  “I recognize them all,” I say with a smile.  The green color of my eyes makes up most of the painting, but he’s surrounded it with a creamy pale pink color and accented a few places with a soft, light orange.

“They’re very complimentary,” he shrugs.  “It came naturally.”

“Can I have that one, too?” I ask him, greedy, already a fan of his art.

“No,” he tells me definitively.  “This one’s mine.”  I frown playfully as he nods at the beginnings of my CD cover.  “You did all that yesterday?” 

I shrug and nod.  He picks it up, squinting to take in the intricate details.  “You’ve got an eye for this,” he says.  “The spacial alignment is… fantastic.”

“I know,” I tell him.

“You know,” he repeats, looking at me incredulously.  

“Yeah, I know.”

“Nate,” Mrs. Martin interrupts up.

“Yes?”  We both look up.

“Do you know how she got so much done yesterday?”

“I, uh…” he starts, shaking his head.  “Because she had no one to distract?” he asks.

“She had no one to distract her.  Let the girl work,” our teacher instructs him.  “Not everyone can whip out a masterpiece in thirty minutes.  We’re not all prodigies.”

“Prodigy,” I repeat her term, remembering the night I called him that, remembering how he denied it.  His cheeks blush pink as his attention returns to his own workspace.

“Yes, ma’am,” he mutters quietly.

“Didn’t I tell you that you were a prodigy?” I whisper as I get back to work, stippling some of the letters in pink.

“Didn’t she tell you to get to work?” he says back quietly.

“I think she told you to leave me alone,” I clarify, looking up at him and blinking my eyes innocently.

“You don’t want that,” he says, looking at me, hard.  It’s as if he’s doubting himself.  

I shake my head.  “No, I don’t.”  He grins, then pulls out a sketchbook and a pencil and starts to jot down some notes. 

After art, I walk him to his next class, mainly to make sure he doesn’t go outside to smoke.  When I leave him at the stairway by his history room, I realize he’s in much better spirits than he was when he found me at lunch.  I have full confidence he can quit smoking.

“Hey, Em?” he calls after me.


“I’ll swing by the gym after school.”

“Sounds good,” I tell him with a smile.

“Don’t let them get to you,” he adds, turning and walking into his class.  Worrying about Misty and Lauren hadn’t even occurred to me.  Now it’s the only thing I think about the rest of the afternoon.  When it’s time for my last period, I take a deep breath before going into the locker room to change.  Both girls are at Misty’s locker, whispering to one another.  Aside from a dirty look or two, they leave me alone.

After showering and getting dressed, I take a little extra time fixing my hair and putting on a little powder and gloss.  Peer pressure sucks.  Sometimes I feel completely inadequate after seeing all the girls around me.  I know I’m not ugly, I just look… different.  Weird eyes.  Fine hair.  Pale skin.  Flat chest.  I was grateful that my hips were somewhat defined.  I like the curves I can see in the reflection.  I start to put on the sweater I’d worn all day, but decide to keep it off.  I like the way my shirt looks without it.

Just before I leave, I pull my hair back into two low pigtails.  Slinging by backpack on my shoulder on the way out, I smile at Misty and Lauren.  He’s mine, girls.

No, he’s not.  I try to shake the thought out of my head as I exit the locker room, but I run smack into him, my mind obviously elsewhere.

“Whoa,” he says, taking me by the shoulders to help steady me.  “You okay?”

“Great,” I tell him quickly.  “Ready?”

“Yeah,” he says as he turns toward the door.  I follow two steps behind him through the crowd of classmates.  He feels like he’s mine, though.  And I definitely don’t want those girls near him.  I doubt that it’s fair to want him to myself like this, if all I want is a friendship.

That’s all I want.

Yes.  That’s all I want.  I think that’s all I want.  He holds open the door for me, then follows me into the brisk air outside.

“You know, that sweater might not be a bad idea,” he suggests.

“What?  I’m fine,” I tell him, my words coming simultaneously with the goose bumps.  It’s freezing out here.  “Where’d you park?”

“Far enough out that the sweater might not be a bad idea,” he repeats, removing the backpack from my shoulder.  I roll my eyes obstinately, covering my arms with the soft, thick cotton.  I feel much better, but I’m afraid he won’t pay attention to me like I want him to, my figure hidden under the huge sweater.

Okay, this is getting really confusing.

“So, I will pay you fifty dollars if you let me have one cigarette on the way home,” he says when we get to his car.  He starts to reach for his own door handle as I reach for mine, but stops me in the process.  He runs to the my side to open the door for me.

“Thanks,” I tell him, slipping into the car and buckling myself in.  He hands me my backpack before shutting the door and returning to the driver’s side. 

“So what about it?” he asks as he settles in.

“Fifty bucks?” I clarify.  I could buy some CDs that I’ve been wanting for fifty dollars.


“You’re gonna pay me fifty bucks to endure your second hand smoke?”

“Did you want it first-hand?” he asks, producing a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from under his seat.  “I’ll let you have one.”

“Really?” I ask him.  “You say it calms your nerves?” 

“Yeah.  You nervous about something?”

“Not at all,” I lie.  “You don’t have to pay me a thing, if…”

“Here it comes,” he murmurs, backing out of his parking spot.

“If you let me have one, and if this is the last one.”

“Ever?” he asks.


“Ever for you, right?”

“For both of us.”

“You want me to quit cold turkey?” he asks, handing me the cigarettes.  I wait until he looks at me to nod my head.  “No, I’d rather pay you.  A hundred,” he tries to bargain.

“We don’t have to smoke any right now.  Or ever.  In fact, I could throw them out the window…”  He tries to grab them from me, but I manage to move my hand between the door and the seat just in time.  “You should concentrate on driving, Nate,” I tell him seriously.

“Please don’t throw them out.”  His voice is desperate.  “I’ll quit cold turkey,” he tells me, “if…”

“If what?” I laugh.  “I’m eating bacon.  I don’t care.  You can’t take that–”

“This will be my last cigarette if you forgive your dad,” he interrupts.  I study the pack of Marlboros in my lap, eventually taking out two cigarettes.  I hand him one, and he wastes no time putting it in his mouth.  He inhales and lights it, breathing it in and closing his eyes momentarily.  “So it’s a deal?” he asks, smoke streaming from his lips.

I hold the other cigarette between my fingers, mimicking how he holds it, and wait for him to light it.  I don’t want to forgive him.  He doesn’t deserve forgiveness.

“Is it a deal?”

“Will you light it already?” I ask him, frustrated.

“You’ve never smoked before.”

“No,” I admit.

“Here,” he says, trying to pass me his cigarette.  “Take this one.”

“I want my own,” I argue.

He turns into a parking lot and parks the car.  “Put it between your lips then, and inhale when I light it.  But don’t, like, gasp… just slowly, a shallow breath… don’t fill your lungs.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Your lungs would probably fight back,” he laughs.  “I mean it,” he says seriously.  “Shallow.”

“Just light it!”

“So it’s a deal,” he says first, balancing the cigarette between his lips as he talks.

“Light.  It.”

He leans back in his seat and takes another drag, blowing the smoke out of his open window.  He’s ignoring me, enjoying his first smoke of the day.

“I’ll try,” I tell him.

“Will you make a better effort than you did with the sushi?”

“I’ll avoid the octopus,” I vow to him.  “I’ll try.”

He smiles, sticking his cigarette back in his mouth and holding the lighter up for me.  I place the cigarette between my lips.  “Shallow,” he says once more.

“I know,” I respond.

“Last one,” he says as he lights it, watching me breathe in.  Immediately, I start coughing, realizing what he meant when he said my lungs would fight back.  It burns.

“First… one…” I choke out.  How can he enjoy this?!  “And definitely the last one.”

“Alright,” he agrees.  “Ashtray,” he says as he points to a receptacle in the middle console.  He takes the pack from my lap– and the lighter– and gets out of the car. 

“Where are you going?”  He shuts the door before answering, walking to a trash bin.  He turns around to make sure I’m watching before he pitches both items into the can.  I try to discretely take another puff before he comes back, but start choking again.

“If you can’t finish that one, I’d be happy to,” he says when he gets back in.

“How many packs do you have at home?”

“None,” he says.  “You can search it when we get there.”

“Well, that was easy!” I exclaim.

“Was it?” he asks, getting back on the road.  

“It looked easy.”

“I have a feeling that my end of this bargain is going to be easier than yours, Em.  And I have a physical dependence on these to deal with.  But I’m serious about it.  You get that, right?”

“Yeah,” I tell him.  I do get it.

“You may have to be my aspirin supplier for a few days,” he says.

“Gladly.  What are going to do for me?” I ask him.

“Anything you need, Em.  Whatever it takes.”

©2012 Lori L. Otto

Do you like what you’ve read so far? This is a prequel to my Emi Lost & Found series. You can download the first book, Lost and Found, for only $.99!