I rocked forward, balancing my book on my knees and tried to ignore the yelling and chatter around me. The edge of the cafeteria bench dug into my legs, practically cutting off my circulation, but I barely noticed.
Em elbowed me, leaning over to hiss in my ear, “Seriously, Feebs, put that down. You look like a freak.”
“Uh-huh. Just one more page…it’s getting good.” I flipped the page. Maeve was about to be transported to the Otherland and the court.
“God, you are a freak.” Em heaved a dramatic sigh and turned to talk to the rest of our tablemates.
Yes. This was it. It was like magic jumped off of the page and into my fingers, travelling straight to the pit of my stomach. Aedan.
The words rolled over me and the cafeteria faded away.
Aedan held out his hand, waiting, his gold-flecked eyes meeting hers, making it impossible to look away. Even though Maeve was dying to reach out and wrap her fingers around his, she hesitated. The whole situation was insane.
“Trust me…”I whispered along with him and my heart skipped a beat.
“What the hell?” Em broke into my thoughts and I jolted back to the cafeteria and caught sight of a guy a few tables over trying to stuff an entire hoagie into his mouth. God, reality sucked.
It took a second to focus and I closed Golden slowly, holding it so tight that the corners of the cover dug into my palms. Even on a reread, it was perfect. “Em, I think I’m in love.”
“Just a tip, Phoebe,” Em said as she none-too-gently pried the book from my hands and slipped it into my messenger bag, “Normal people don’t read books during lunch, unless they have a test the next period.”
My fingers itched to pull Golden back out of the bag. My brain was still on a book high, stuck on the Hill of Tara in Ireland with an incredibly swoon-worthy guardian. The contrast between that and a South Jersey high school cafeteria was jarring. “Normalcy is overrated.”
“Normalcy is what keeps us afloat in this sea of teenage drama,” Em said in her best authoritative voice with a dramatic toss of her short, dark curls. Without missing a beat, she managed to seamlessly pop back into her conversation with Grace and Alec.
We were like four legs on a wonky table. Em and me, the band geeks…I was the bookish one to balance her drama nerdery; Alec, the sciencelete; and Grace, our resident cheerleader. Most of us, like me, kinda flew somewhere below popular and above total nerddom. Grace, with her blown-out strawberry blonde hair and designer wardrobe, was a part of the glitterati but still deigned to sit with us nobodies. If she hadn’t been a sciencelete with Alec before making the squad, she probably wouldn’t even know our names. Instead, she was the voice of reason to balance Em’s theatrics, Alec’s geekiness, and my tendency to quote fictional characters. And Em and Alec, who had grown up next to each other, were the glue that held us all together.
I unpacked my sandwich and resigned myself to the fact that I’d gone from living in a world of ancient magic to lunchtime mundane.
“Can someone explain to me why we even need pep bands?” Em said, breaking into Alec and Grace’s debate about football. “I’d do anything to get out of another Friday night of freezing our butts off in the stands and playing the stupid victory march over and over again.”
Grace was still wearing her red and orange uniform from the pep rally that morning, and even her color coordinated, beribboned ponytail screamed school spirit. “That’s assuming our team even manages a touchdown against Millbrook. Their offense has a spread-passing attack that dominates the field and their defense has given them five shutouts this season. I doubt you’ll be playing any victory marches tonight.” The words that came out of her mouth sounded like they made sentences, but I wasn’t really sure what they meant.
Em elbowed me. “Did you understand anything she just said?” Grace sometimes forgot that Em and I routinely failed the football module in gym every year, which was kind of impressive considering we were forced to sit through all the home games for credit in band.
I took a bite of my sandwich, swallowed without chewing, and twisted my nose at Grace. “Total lack of athletic knowledge here, remember?”
Grace threw a carrot stick at me. “Says Miss Wannabe Olympian.”
“Because archery is so much like football. If someone starts running at me, I don’t try to jump on them. I shoot them.” I anchored my hand alongside my chin and shot her with an imaginary arrow.
“Like that girl from that new movie.” Alec said, “Perfect Zombieism. That was so awesome how she made a bow out of that tree branch and her shoelaces.”
Not that scene again. The shoelace thing I could forgive even though it was a string made out of braided fishing line in the book, but the branch part was annoying. “That’s so not possible. She’d never get enough force and distance out of the size stave they used in the movie. I read the books and they weren’t that ridiculous. Hollywood messes up everything.”
“But the movie is still really cool,” Grace said with a shrug. “Even with its total lack of respect for the laws of physics.”
“And biology,” Alec added, which earned him another shrug from Grace. “What? All good zombie movies at least pretend there’s some kind of biological reason for their zombies.”
I pressed my hands flat to the table and sat forward. “Okay, this is something that’s been bugging me for a really long time. Did you notice that the people in Zombieism all have perfect vision? Totally not realistic.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Em mouth, “Here we go again,” to Grace.
I continued. “Will someone please tell me why no one in dystopian or apocalyptic novels has bad vision? I’m so blind without my contacts that, if we ever have a nuclear or zombie apocalypse, I’m screwed. I won’t even be able to get contact solution, and, if my glasses break, that will totally suck. If the world was ending and people were scrambling for their lives, you know there would be some people going ‘Guys? Guys? I can’t see where you are.’”
“Well, if the world is ending, we’ll just leave you behind to fend for your half-blind self.”
“Thanks, Em. Thanks so much.”
“I’ll blindly fight off the zombies with you.” Came a voice from behind me. I looked up to find Dev standing over me with his lunch tray. He pointed at his eyes. “Contacts. We can stand back-to-back and just swing at whatever blurry things come our way.”
I blinked dumbly at him. Dev usually sat on the other side of the lunchroom with some of the other theatre and band people, but this was the fifth time this month he had just showed up at our table.
“Um, I guess that might work.”
Em scooted over to make room for him next to me. “What are you doing over here in misfit land again? I don’t know if we can allow clarinets at our table. This is firmly flute territory.”
“I’m working on breaking down barriers to musical diversity, one table at a time.” He snorted at his own joke, then said, “Actually, I heard the word zombie and couldn’t resist.” Dev grinned at me. “Are you talking about Perfect Zombieism?”
“We were until Feebs started going off about glasses and stuff,” Alec told him around a mouthful of hoagie.
“I was not going off.”
“If the world were a book and my glasses were melted by a glittery dragon, I’d be screwed,” Grace said in a high-pitched mock imitation of me.
I made a face at Grace and Em patted me on the back. “It’s okay, we like the weird book-y world you live in. Makes the rest of our lives look a lot more normal.”
“Normalcy is definitely overrated,” Dev said, and I wondered if he had heard my earlier conversation with Em. Before I could ask, though, he looked past me and started a long, boring discussion about Perfect Zombieism and something about decapitation with Alec.
I let their voices blur together and thought about pulling the book back out of my bag when Kris passed our table. Kristopher Lambert. Junior class president and an exact match to the mental picture I had of Aedan from Golden. Well, if Aedan was real and not a creature out of Irish legend. Tall, aristocratic features, almost black hair that was always neatly combed into place, and golden brown eyes that I could look into forever. Time slowed and, for a second, only he and I existed. I let out a silent sigh, trying my hardest not to look like the girls who mooned over the football players.
Em reached around Dev to nudge me. “Not Kris again. What do you see in him?”
With an awful thud, time sped up again. “He’s our class president and incredibly smart,” I shot back at her, then dropped my chin into my hands and refocused on Kris, who had put on his campaigning expression and was talking to some of the guys from the football team.
Em stared at me like I had said I was going to run naked through the cafeteria. “Smart? He’s a dumbass. How he even made it to junior year is beyond me.” She poked me in the arm, a knowing grin spreading across her face. “You only like him because he looks like the guy in your book.”
“I do not.” At her look, I backed down a little. “Well, not entirely.”
“You like Kris?” Dev asked. He took my silence for a yes and shook his head. “He’s such a self-centered jerk. He only got class president because his family, like, founded this town and he’s related to half the class.”
I narrowed my eyes at Dev. “He’s smart and ambitious…”
“... and looks like a fictional hottie.” Em finished for me.
“What about real hotness? You know, like five foot ten of this?” Dev asked, pointing at himself and posing as if he were waiting for someone to take his picture. “My name does mean ‘god’ in Hindi,” he added, winking a greenish-hazel eye at me. Between his athletic build, those eyes, and the straight black hair that kept threatening to fall into them, he definitely qualified as one of the cuter guys in our class. Half of the girls in the band and, if Em was to be believed, the drama club, were in love with him. But he was just so…Dev. He’d seen me freak out over the giant spider in the band room and geek out over the book fairs in middle school and I’d seen him in his ridiculous band uniform cleaning spit out of his clarinet one too many times.
I laughed at his goofy pose. “Don’t worry, Dev. Fictional crushes pale in comparison to you. You’re so hot, you’re totally out of my league,” I said, patting his cheek in mock consolation. “I’ll just have to settle for boys in books.”
He sat back, but not before tugging on my ponytail. “And yet again, my hotness works against me.” Someone waved at him from across the room and he stood, gathering his things. “Sorry to deprive you all of this awesomeness, but my regular lunch table calls. See you in band.”
Em watched him walk away for a few seconds, brows knit together, before turning her attention back to me. “So, the homecoming dance.”
I picked at the crust on my sandwich. “What about it?”