“It’s just—it’s not my world.”

“Not your world,” he says after a pause. “But you’re in the Game, aren’t you?”

“Well, yeah, but I’m not one of these people. I’m not?—”

“Not a geek?”

“Right,” I say, and then realize I’ve said the wrong thing. His eyebrows go sproinging up like rubber bands.

“Not a geek?” he says. “I know how much time you’ve spent messaging with Ben online. Not a geek?”

“There’s nothing geeky about messaging people,” I protest. “It’s just a form of communication. That’s like saying telephone calls are geeky.”

“It’s geeky when you’re pretending to be a fictional character while you’re doing it,” he says. “There’s nothing about being someone from a book, even a classic book, that makes you less geeky than someone from a movie. Or a TV show. Or whatever.”

“Or whatever?” I’m starting to get mad, which hardly ever happens. “So what are you, then? Who do you play?”

“Mr. Kool-Aid,” he says without missing a beat.

“Mr. Kool-Aid? You mean the big red pitcher from the old commercials? The one who bursts through the wall and says ‘Hey kids, who wants Kool-Aid’”


“Wow.” I’m not even trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “So what drew you to that character particularly? Were you just really thirsty one day?”

“Mr. Kool-Aid spreads happiness and joy through the world. He’s a party guy. I like that.”

I snort. “No offense, but you don’t really seem like a party guy.”

“And you don’t really seem like a geek,” he says, “and yet you are one.” So we’re back to that. “Besides,” he adds, “people aren’t always like the characters they play online.”

“Do you mean me?” I blink at him, and then, suddenly, realize what he actually means. I feel my face flush. “Or do you mean Ben? Are you saying he’s not like his online character?”

Noah holds his hands up. “Look, I’m not saying anything like?—”

“I want to go back to the house,” I say, and turn around abruptly. I can hear Noah calling my name but I’m already hurrying up the path to the condo, the cold wind stinging my eyes.

After the fresh air, the smell in the living room hits me even more intensely. It’s equal parts booze and BO. Everyone’s sprawled on the floor in groups—Ben is in the middle of a crowd of girls, one of them Lisle. There are bags of chips open on the floor and someone’s torn open a packet of M&M’s and scattered them everywhere. M&M’s sit melting on the coffee table in bright green, red, and blue pools of spilled booze. The effect is pretty and gross at the same time.

Ben doesn’t seem to see me come in, so I go over and sit back down on the couch next to Jack and Ennis, who still aren’t talking to each other. The boys who were arguing about Captain Kirk before are now arguing about some particular point of their role-play game. “But you can’t be an anthropomorphic bat,” Luke Skywalker is explaining patiently to Sherlock Holmes. “This isn’t a monster campaign.”

Xena, Warrior Princess, claps her hands together loudly, silencing the room. “Okay, we’re all here now, so how about some icebreaking games? Charades?”

Oddly, the idea appeals to me. In Victorian times, before there were TV and video games and the Internet, people were always doing things like playing charades and putting on amateur theatricals to amuse themselves. I figure nobody else will be into the idea and get ready to look like I’m not interested either, when Jack pipes up that we should act out scenes from movies and TV shows and see if everyone can guess what they are.

“And books,” I say before I can stop myself.

Jack blinks at me. “What?”

“And scenes from books,” I say, and add, “You know, BrokebackMountain was a book. Before it was a movie.”

“Actually,” says Noah, coming in through the door, “it was a short story.” Cold has reddened his cheeks and his eyes are bright behind the glasses. He grins at me while he hangs up his jacket, but I don’t smile back.

“I know that!” Jack looks furious.

“I think charades are a good idea,” Lisle says hurriedly, standing up and brushing crumbs off the legs of her skinny jeans. “I’ll go first.”

Lisle hurries up to the front of the room and starts acting out a scene I know perfectly well is from Buffy. Big shock there. I slink lower in the sofa, then feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s Ben.

“Come on,” he says, jerking his head toward the hallway. “No one will notice.”

Like I care if they do notice. I’m up and off the couch so fast I feel like I ought to leave smoking tracks behind, like the Road Runner. Lisle is acting out Buffy’s death from the fifth season of the show, toppling into the void as I follow Ben down the corridor and into one of the beige bedrooms off it. I close the door behind me and turn to face him. I have to lean against the door a little because I feel weak in my knees. He’s so handsome right now, his eyes startlingly blue under all that dark hair.

“You all right?” Ben asks. “You looked a little weird in there, like maybe you felt sick.”

“No,” I say. “No, I’m all right.”

He looks at me more closely. “You’re not upset with me, are you?”

“No, it’s just—” I swallow hard. I can’t believe I’m even going to say this. I would never normally say this to a boy. But Cathy would. Cathy always said exactly what she thought. “I thought we’d get to talk alone, just you and me.”

“I know. I told you, I promised—” He gives a shrug, a lopsided smile. “Anyway, I’m here now.” He moves over to me, puts his hands on my shoulders. “I know, I’m the reason you came here, right?”

“Well…” His cockiness is unbelievable; but then again, it’s just like Heathcliff to be that way. Online, that arrogance he could imitate so perfectly made me laugh, made my heart race. In person, it’s sort of—annoying. Maybe because I’m not so sure he’s just imitating someone else anymore. “Lisle’s the reason I came.”

“Right, sure.” He has his face in my hair, is nuzzling my cheek through it, my neck. His hands slide down to my waist, then back up again. I don’t want to do this right now—I want to talk, the way we talked online, the way we could talk about anything and everything. My mind races, trying to think of a topic to distract him, and meanwhile his hands race up my shirt, his fingers clamping down on the clasp of my bra.

“Stop that.” I push him away.


I suddenly wish he wouldn’t call me that. But that seems unfair—I never minded him calling me Cathy online. I liked it, even. But it’s weird to have him look me right in the face and say it. Like he’s looking at me, but not seeing me. He presses up against me, harder. He says her name again, in a breathy voice. “Cathy.”

There’s a loud banging on the door. Ben jumps, banging me in the chin with his shoulder, and we move apart. I’m pulling my shirt down as the door opens. It’s Noah, framed in the hallway light. “Xena wanted to know where you were,” he says. “She wants everyone in the living room. We’re playing I Never.”

Ben raises an eyebrow at Noah; he’s giving him that look, that look boys give each other when they’re trying to communicate that they just got some action. Noah doesn’t look very happy. “Duty calls, I guess.”

Everyone in the living room is sitting in a big circle now, with bottles of booze in the middle, and shot glasses lined up. I squeeze in next to Lisle as Xena explains that I Never is a drinking game. We go around the circle and each person makes a true statement starting with the words ‘I never,’ like ‘I never have been to the Ice Capades.’” Then everyone who has been to the Ice Capades has to drink. That way you find out what everyone in the room has done. “It’s an icebreaker,” Xena explains. “Now, who wants to start?”

The statements start off pretty tame—“I’ve never flown in an airplane”—“I’ve never broken the speed limit”—and practically everyone has to drink to those. I’m happy to find out that whatever’s in my shot glass doesn’t contain diet chocolate soda. When it’s Lisle’s turn, she grins wickedly. I can tell she’s pretty drunk already—she’s listing to the side like a damaged sailboat, her hair extensions trailing. “I’ve never worn a rubber chicken suit,” she announces, and takes a big swig from her glass. She’s such a show-off—just because she once spent the summer working as the mascot at El Pollo Loco.

After a second, everyone else breaks up laughing, too. Suddenly people are yelling out I Nevers. I never kissed someone in a moving car. Made out on a plane. Had sex in a plane bathroom. Fooled around in public. All the statements are about sex now, and I hold my drink nervously, twirling the stem of the glass between my fingers. I have hardly anything I’d drink for, and even if I did I wouldn’t do it in front of all these people, these strangers.

I’m watching Ben out of the corner of my eye, seeing when he drinks. It’s a lot of times. He has his hand on Lisle’s knee. After a few minutes she brushes it aside.

“I’ve never slept with two guys at once,” announces Xena, chortling, and takes a big drink. Everyone’s suddenly quiet. Only the thoughtful-looking woman with the knitting gazes serenely into the distance and takes a small sip from her cup. I wonder what that means? Maybe she slept with two guys, but she only did it once? Xena seems to notice everyone staring at her, and shrugs. “What? I’m polyamorous!”

Noah is looking down at the ground, clearly trying not to laugh. It’s Lisle who speaks into the silence, as usual. “I’ve never,” she says slowly, “gotten turned on while I was role-playing online with someone.”