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Breaking Up is Hard to Do

“Last Stand” by Niki Burnham

Chapter One

I am, without a doubt, the luckiest guy in the entire West Rollins High School junior class. Here’s why:

1. I almost have the ’rents talked into ponying up half the cost of a car.
2. I made the cross-country team.
3. I have an extremely gorgeous girlfriend, Amber.
4. She is also stacked.
5. She’s totally into me, quirks and all.
6. I have a shot at becoming first-chair sax. Which means I’d look straight across the room at the first chair clarinet . . . who is almost certainly going to be Amber.
7. I scored Mr. Daniels for Chemistry. Hello, easy A.

Of course, such a list requires clarification. First, I realize that for many people, making a sports team is a given. Not for me. Because participation in sports furthers my quest to maintain a bare minimum level of social acceptance—a tough thing when you’re the class brain—this is an event that causes great frivolity and rejoicing. When no one is watching, of course.

And the stacked thing? I understand that this is a totally sexist thing to say. So shoot me. They’re THERE. You can’t help but notice. If I were really sexist, I’d have put this item first on the list.

I met Amber DeWitt in kindergarten when we were at the same station—the water balloon toss—on field day. I didn’t really notice her, but she claims that I told her I thought her striped shoelaces were cool. I’m not so sure. If I did, it would’ve been because she specifically asked me what I thought. Spontaneously complimenting a girl on her shoelaces isn’t something I’d do. Plus, we’re talking kindergarten. No way was I more interested in some girl’s shoelaces than in the chance to lob water balloons with no repercussions.

The first day I do remember Amber clearly was in second grade. I was at Britton Field, waiting for my Little League game to start. She was sitting in the bleachers watching the end of her younger brother’s T-ball game. She hopped off the bleachers, walked over, and leaned against the fence with a hand on her hip, watching me and my friends toss the ball around in the grassy area outside the left-field fence. She had one side of her face all squinched up and her eye was closed.

I asked her if she had something stuck in her eye and wanted us to go find her mom or something. She had bruises on her legs and a couple of scabs like she’d fallen off her bike, so I figured she was a klutz and did something to herself climbing off the bleachers, and was standing there hoping we’d get a grownup to help her with her current injury.

Her face went red; she stopped doing the squinchy thing and mumbled that she was fine. A minute later, she went back to the bleachers and left us alone. I chalked it up to weird girl behavior and didn’t think about it again.

Last year, after we’d been together for about seven months and we were sitting in those same bleachers watching her little brother playing shortstop on his traveling team, she admitted to me that she’d been trying to wink at me that day. She said she’d wondered for the longest time whether I’d known what she was doing and was being mean, or if I was simply clueless but nice. She kissed me and told me she was glad to realize I’d just been clueless but nice.

I was a total sappy dork and told her I couldn’t believe it took me eight years to get a clue and ask her out. It wasn’t like I was asking out tons of other girls—and none at all until about seventh grade, when I learned pretty fast that it’s not fun unless you know for a fact they like you already—but that sappy statement earned me an even better kiss later, when we weren’t sitting in view of Little League parents.

Now that it’s the first day of junior year, and the one-year anniversary of the first time I ever kissed Amber, I’m hoping a little of that sentimental stuff earns me even more mouth-to-mouth gratitude. Not that I’m a scumbag who only wants you-know-what from a girl. So not the case. Amber expects the sap and the kissy stuff that follows. Who am I to deny her?

“Hey, Toby!”

I look over my shoulder, through the crowd in junior hall, trying to see Griff. Griff Osterman’s been my best friend since we were seated together in first grade, so I’d recognize his voice anywhere. A moment later, he emerges from behind a knot of seniors with a huge smile on his face. His dark brown hair juts in every direction at once. In an effort to maximize his sleeping time, Griff clocked his morning routine last year. He told me it takes him exactly ten minutes to take a leak, brush his teeth, shave (right), and put on his clothes, and then eight minutes to get from home to school. He gives himself two minutes of cushion when setting his alarm clock, just in case. When I asked him where deodorant and flossing fit into his twenty-minute routine, he shrugged.

Girls don’t seem to care, though. He makes disheveled look Calvin Klein–model cool. Jerk.

“I’m wiped, man. Didn’t get back from Texas ’til yesterday morning,” he says once he reaches me.“My parents were stupid enough to want to drive instead of fly. So how’d cross-country tryouts go?”

“Fine. Hot.” I set my sax case down on the floor. Can’t wait to get the thing into one of the band lockers so I don’t have to schlep it through the halls. “It was in the high nineties all week.”

“I meant how’d it go for you, dumbass.”

I almost died from heat exhaustion. I shrug. “Made it.”

“Sweet.” He says it as if it’s no big thing. Of course, he made the team without even attending tryouts. He was one of our top runners last year (yes, as a sophomore), so when his mom explained to Coach Jessup that Griff would have to miss tryouts to attend an out-of-state family wedding—and that they’d be gone the entire week— the coach didn’t care.

Told him to have a great time and watch out for the bridesmaids.

“How’s Amber?” he asks. “I think I saw her maybe twice all summer.”

“You’re not the only one.” I step sideways to let a group of gumcracking senior girls walk by. “She was working fifty hours a week at Friendly’s. More, sometimes. Made good money, though.”

Griff looks past me and grins. “Yeah, and she put some of it to good use. Damn, she’s smokin’ in that shirt. It’s gotta be new, ’cause I’d have noticed that.”

I turn to see Amber threading her way through the hall, eyes focused right on me. Be still, my heart, ’cause Griff is right. She looks frickin’ fabulous. She’s wearing a pair of loose, cocoa-colored shorts that hit just above her knees, and a short-sleeved pink T I’ve never seen before, one that shows off her assets, but in a casual way that makes you wonder if she realizes just how well fitted a top it really is—at least from a guy’s perspective. I elbow Griff. “Eyes to yourself.”

“Like you could stop me. Catch you at lunch?”

“Sure.” He says hi to Amber as he passes her in the hall, then looks back and mouths a “hot damn!” to me. I ignore him.

Junior hall runs along the back of the main building. One side is lined with lockers, and the other with windows that start at waist height and go all the way up to a very high ceiling, so there’s tons of sunlight in the morning. As Amber approaches, I decide that the architect must’ve been thinking of exactly this moment when he designed those windows, because the way the light is streaming in behind her makes her dark hair look like it’s ringed with a halo.

Hot damn? Oh, yeah. But not in the do-me-baby way Griff thinks. There’s something ethereal and fragile about her, something that makes me want to take care of her, yet at the same time always has me questioning deep down inside if she’s for real. That’s what makes me think hot damn.

She stops a whisper away from me, nearly kicking my sax case. “I have something for you.”

“Yeah? I have something for you, too.” I lean in to kiss her, but she giggles and pushes on my chest with one hand.

“That’s not what I meant, dork boy.” She eases her camo backpack off her shoulder, unzips it, then pulls out a gift wrapped in sparkly silver paper. “I know I should wait ’til after school, but I’m dying to see what you think. Happy anniversary.”

“You didn’t have to get me a present.” Even though I got her one. I’m not the total dumbass Griff says I am.

“Open it already!”

I hike my backpack farther up my shoulder and take the gift. I prop it on the windowsill and she cuddles in beside me, watching as I start to unwrap. Within seconds, I see the cover of the book. Correction: The Book. Capital T, capital B.

“Hour by Hour: The True Story of the Alamo,” I read aloud.

“You didn’t buy it for yourself already, did you?”

I shake my head. It came out this past Saturday; I know because I’ve been waiting for it for months.

“Oh, yay!” Her arm is around my back, just at the top of my shorts. I can smell her perfume. Or shampoo. I’m never sure which, but it’s delicious. I’ve missed that smell. Lately, she’s reeked of old grilled cheese and dried-up ice cream. Eau de Friendly’s.

She says, “I know it’s the kind of thing you love—famous last stands and all that. Keira said you’d been talking about getting some Alamo book, and the woman at the bookstore told me this one is brand-new. The guy won a Pulitzer for his book about Pancho Villa, so I figured that even if this wasn’t the right Alamo book, you might like it.”

“It’s exactly the right Alamo book.” I’ll have to remember to thank my sister later. I turn so Amber and I are hipbone to hipbone, right there against the row of windows. “Thank you.”

“Happy anniversary, Toby.”

The warning bell for first period rings, but I just smile at her perfect, freckled face and kiss her. This time she kisses me back.

Yep. I’m officially the luckiest guy in the building.

Someone yells at us to get a room. Amber pulls away, but she’s still smiling, and it’s the same lovesick-happy grin she had at the beginning of the summer, on the night we almost did it. Capital I and T. The night before she started her incarceration at Friendly’s. “Time for band, I guess.”

“Yep. Let’s go.” She gives me a final kiss, then slides her hand into mine for the walk outside and across the quad to band.

Man, am I glad to be back at school and done with summer. I need my Amber.

• • •

During sixth-period American History, I feel a vibration in my pocket just as Ms. Lewis finishes going over page three of the mind-numbing seventeen-page class syllabus. I wait until her back is turned, then pull out my cell phone. Careful to keep it under the desk, I read the text message from Keira:

know you’re in class but stewie sick . . . daycare called . . . need to pick him up then take him to doc. pls pls pls cover for me for hour or so after practice? appt at 4:45 will try to be fast . . . will pay you.

Crap. I’ll have to go straight from cross-country to the coffee shop, which means no time for homework if I want to go to Amber’s later. But if Stewart’s sick, I gotta help. Mom still doesn’t get the difference between a cappuccino and a latte. Plus, Keira feels bad enough about having to live at home; asking Mom or Dad to fill in for her at the coffee shop would border on self-torture. Under the desk, I text back an okay. Between classes, I text Amber to tell her I might not be able to make it over tonight, that my sister needs help.

I slide into seventh period just as the bell rings and hope like mad that Amber’s not too pissed.

• • •

“Toby, you so rock,” Keira says as she whips off her green Fair Grounds apron. She looks twice as tired as I feel, and I’m fresh off a three-mile run.

I hope I don’t look that wiped and old at twenty-two.

“I have ten minutes to pick up Stewart from daycare or they charge me an extra fifty bucks. They can only keep him so long once it’s determined that he’s running a fever.”

“Go.” I slip the apron over my head, then wave her toward the door. Thankfully, it’s slow at this time of day—just a few people huddled over laptop computers, coffee already in hand—because I haven’t showered yet and therefore have no desire to interact with customers. Hopefully the smell of freshly ground coffee beans will disguise my stink until she gets back.

“You’re the best,” she says, grabbing her car keys and purse from under the register. “I should be back in time to close up at six. It’s probably another ear infection. They can diagnose that and get me medicine fast.”

“Really, it’s no problem.” Especially since she promised to pay me, which brings me that much closer to automobile ownership. If it stays quiet, maybe I can get some of my American Lit reading out of the way, start on Trig, and still try to meet Amber. Not that she’s acknowledged my earlier text.

I check my text messages one more time. Finally, a reply:

no prob. catch u later . . .A.

Yep. She’s pissed. Otherwise, there’d be a “love, A.” at the end. I start to dial, then remember that she stayed after school to get a head start on some work for her Model U.N. class. I hang up, deciding it’s better to call when I know I can talk to her, not her voice mail, and tell her I think I can get to her place tonight. I should probably bring her something from the coffee shop as an apology gift, just to cover my bases.

Unfortunately, within ten minutes of Keira’s departure, I’m overwhelmed by the entire junior varsity volleyball team, who all decided to grab iced coffees post-practice. When Keira shows up at five minutes after six, with Stewart crying in the crook of her arm, I’m only halfway through wiping up the tables and have read exactly zero pages of The Great Gatsby. The volleyball girls left black mystery sludge on the table nearest the TV, and I’m trying to soften it up with a wet rag. Soaking is the solution to all messes, isn’t it?

“I can get that, Toby,” she says.

“And put Stewart where?”

Keira glances down at Stewie, who nestles in closer. “You have a point.”

My nephew loves me like crazy—who wouldn’t love good ol’ Uncle Toby, the guy who sneaks you pieces of French fry when your mom’s not looking?—but when Stewie’s sick, he’s all about Mommy. He’ll scream like mad if she sets him down or hands him off to me now. I use my fingernail to pick at the edge of the black stuff. Don’t those girls care that they made a mess on such nice tables? Keira shopped forever to find them, hoping to give Fair Grounds just the right combination of comfort and class. It hacks me off when people have no respect for others’ property.

“So what’d the doctor say? Another ear infection?” The kid’s only eighteen months old, and he’d had at least six or seven already.

“Yep. And strep.”

I stop working on the table and look at Stewart. His cries have settled down to hiccups now that he knows his mom’s going to keep cuddling him. “Isn’t that pretty serious?”

She smoothes his hair back from his forehead and smiles at him. “Nothing modern drugs can’t cure. Problem is, no daycare for a couple of days. They won’t take him back until he’s fever free for twenty four hours so the other kids don’t catch it. Of course, daycare’s probably where Stewie got it, but whatever.”

I go back to chipping away the table gunk. The soaking must’ve worked, because it peels off in one big sticky strip, like frozen maple syrup, leaving the table unmarred.“So what are you going to do about the shop?”

“Beg one of the morning people to pull a double shift. I can’t keep Stewie here with me, even in his high chair. Don’t want to expose customers or staff, you know?”

“What if they can’t do it?”

“Close up early.” She says it like it’s no big deal, but I know it’s a huge deal. She’s open from four-thirty in the morning until six in the evening. She has two people who come in and work the early half of the day, while she’s giving Stewie his breakfast and getting him to daycare, but she’s always here from eight ’til six—and all by herself after two, when the lunch rush ends. If she has to close at two for a few days, it’ll hit her profits hard. The afternoon guys—the ones with the laptops—can nurse one coffee for hours, which is how Keira handles the shop by herself then with no problems. But boy, do the laptop folks spend money. They’re the ones who buy the fancy coffee mugs, take home bags of shade-grown organic coffee by the pound, or grab a dozen muffins on a whim to take back to the office. The stuff with good profit margins.

I go behind the counter to rinse out the rag in the sink. “I could try—”

“No, you can’t. You have cross-country and homework and other responsibilities. I’m not so far out of high school that I’ve forgotten. I’ll swing it.” She walks to the door of the shop and flips the sign to indicate the place is closed.

I want to tell her that Pete should be swinging it, too. But they broke up, he joined the Army and went to some post in Georgia, and she’s stubborn enough not to accept anything from him. Says she doesn’t want a dime, doesn’t want to deal. No ties.

She claims she’s ecstatic about this arrangement. I’ve programmed my brain and mouth to issue a “Whatever you say, Keira” autoresponder whenever she tells me this.

I think she doesn’t remember what she was like pre-Stewie anymore. She was totally into sports in high school, had lots of friends, and did a decent job on the academic front. She met Pete, who’s from Northglenn, at a high school football game and they hit it off. Things were even better when she got to college in Boulder. Pete was there, too. She loved her classes, raved about her professors. She even claimed to love her dorm. But after two years, she was back home again, pregnant and single. She said it was fine, that she’d manage, and promptly used the rest of her college savings to put a down payment on Fair Grounds.

To everyone’s surprise, Keira got the place in shape in only three months. Within a week of opening, it became the popular place to be, despite the fact she looked like she’d swallowed a basketball at the time. I know she’s proud of how Fair Grounds has done and claims she’s happy beyond words with her life.

But she’s not the same Keira anymore. Always tired, always serious. She doesn’t talk about her friends from high school or college, and I don’t think she ever sees them, even when they’re in town during school breaks. It’s all about Stewie.

Not that it shouldn’t be all about Stewie. It just strikes me as a lonely life, no matter what she says.

She grabs the drawer from the cash register and sets it on the counter with one hand, balancing Stewart against her chest with the other. He’s completely quiet now; he probably loves the smell of coffee and the relaxed atmosphere of Fair Grounds as much as I do.

I take off my apron and toss it on the counter.“Want me to help tally?”

“Nah. Go do your homework. Don’t want to screw things up on the first day of school.” She pauses. “Isn’t it a big day for you and Amber?”

The one downside of my first-ever kiss with Amber? My sister walked in on us. It’s not like we told everyone that today’s the one year anniversary of that event, but since Amber mentioned talking to Keira before buying the Alamo book, I’m guessing Keira put two and two together.

I brandish my cell phone. “I’m going to call her on the walk home.”

“That’s not good enough, Toby. Girls remember the first kiss. Even if that kiss happens to occur in a garage.”

“I bought her a gift, all right?”

“A good one?” Why unromantic Keira focuses on this is beyond me. Females are a mystery, my sister most of all.

“So how’s Pete doing these days?” I ask. “Gonna fill him in on Stewie’s strep? Guys like to know that kind of thing.”

She rolls her eyes and laughs out loud. “Now, was that necessary? You could have just told me to leave it alone, mind my own business.”

“Coulda. Didn’t.” She’s so used to me making comments, she doesn’t even get annoyed anymore. I grab my backpack from under the counter and ask her one more time if she wants me to tally the receipts. On her assertion that she’d prefer to handle it herself, I tell her I’ll see her at home, then slip out the front and down the stairs, holding my cell phone above my head so Keira knows I’ll call Amber ASAP.

Chapter Two

I’m dialing Amber’s number when I hear her calling my name.

I turn and display my cell phone while she jogs to catch up to me.

“I was just calling you.”

“Saw the lights still on at Fair Grounds and had Meghan drop me off on the way home to see if I could help you close up. Keira told me you’d just left.”Amber’s out of breath, but smiling. She weaves her fingers through mine, and we head up the road, toward the gates of Rocky Knolls, the development where we both live. Saying “the gates of Rocky Knolls” makes it sound fancier than it is. They’re two generic stone pillars with a sign that says “ocky Knolls”;we lost the “R”my freshman year. It’s a source of constant amusement for the kids who don’t live in Rocky—or “ocky”—Knolls.

As we walk, I apologize for the text, but she says it’s cool, that she’d have done the same thing for Keira and Stewie. We talk a little about Model U.N. She thinks she and her best friend, Meghan, may actually get to be ambassadors this year, which is why they stayed after school to help out. I gather being an ambassador is a good thing, so I say all the appropriate supportive boyfriend stuff. After that, we’re quiet, just enjoying each other’s company. Eventually, my mind drifts to my homework. How long could it take to read thirty pages of The Great Gatsby and do twenty Trig problems?

“You’re not going to come over tonight, are you?” Her voice is soft, but there’s a pouty undercurrent to her words. She’s forgiven me for the text message, but she’s unhappy about it jeopardizing our time together. And she knows me well enough to know that when I’m quiet, it’s usually because I’m making a mental to-do list instead of thinking about her.

“I’ll try to after I shower and eat. I need to see how bad the Trig homework is.” I can’t screw up the first week. I had a teacher in middle school with a reputation for being super strict. I was so nervous about impressing her that I vomited at my desk on the first day. Not only did my friends tease me for weeks—they still bring it up, so to speak, from time to time—but I swear the teacher held it against me the whole year. Thought of me as the strange vomit kid.

It’s never, ever something I’d admit out loud, but I want to make a good impression on my teachers this year. They’re the people I’m going to need to write college recommendation letters for me. I stop walking and tug on Amber’s hand to stop her, too. “Think you could stop by my place for a few minutes right now?”

She shakes her head. “I promised Mom I’d get home by six-thirty for dinner.”

“Just for a sec? We’re nearly to the gates already. You can still get home on time.” I have to find a way to give her the necklace today. She’s big on celebrating events on the exact day. No party for her on Friday night when her birthday’s actually on Thursday, no attending Fourth of July fireworks on any day other than the Fourth.

She turns and starts walking again, but doesn’t let go of my hand, so I follow along. When we get to the intersection where I usually go left to my house and she goes right, heading uphill to her family’s two-story French colonial, she stops and looks up at me.“You know if I come to your house, I won’t make it back by six-thirty and I really need to get home. Just come over later and bring your Trig. All right?”

I know I should say no. Just stay home, wash off the cross-country stink, finish my homework, and then do a lightning-fast run to her place to deliver the necklace before she goes to bed. But I want so, so badly to go to her place, to curl up with her on the basement sofa, like we did before summer and Friendly’s got in the way, that my mouth overrides my brain.

“Fine,” I tell her.“But we actually have to do homework.”

“No problem. I have a bunch, too.” She gives me a quickie kiss goodbye, and I tell her I’ll try to be there in an hour.

 • • •

“You kids all right down here? Need anything else to drink?” Mrs. DeWitt is standing halfway down the basement stairs, leaning over the railing so she can see Amber and me on the sofa in front of the television. I’m sprawled at one end, with my Trig book open, calculator out, and fifteen problems finished. Amber’s at the other end, feet tucked under her, reading her American History assignment.

“We’re good, thanks,” I assure her. Amber adds a “yep.”

“Holler if you need anything.” She turns and heads upstairs, then shuts the basement door behind her. We listen as her footsteps sound on the hallway floor above us. Seven steps, then the sound deadens as she hits carpet in the family room. Amber looks at me. We both know this is the signal that we’re being left alone for the evening, that her mother expects us to keep working on our homework.

We also take it as the signal that we’re good for at least an hour if we feel like making out. There will be seven more steps, the sound of the door opening, and five steps down the stairs until she hits the visual danger zone. But she probably won’t be back, and Amber’s giving me the look.

“How’re you doing on that?” I ask, shooting a pointed look at her history book.

“Almost done.”

“Me, too. Only five more Trig problems.” Of course, I still have to do the Gatsby reading. But if I can just finish this—

Amber’s feet tangle with mine on the sofa. I move a little closer, trying to focus on the next Trig problem.

No dice.

My papers slide off onto the floor as Amber grabs my ankles. In a matter of seconds, she has her hands beside my knees, then around my waist, and we’re lying on the sofa kissing like we haven’t kissed in months.

Screw Trig. Screw F. Scott Fitzgerald and impressing teachers.

I want Amber’s weight on top of me, my hands in her hair, the warm, fulfilled feeling I get whenever my arms are around her. The headiness of being so close, I can inhale whatever it is that makes her smell like her.

Amber’s hands slip under my T-shirt, and I’m all too happy to reciprocate, sliding my fingers under the sides of her bra, then slowly forward, feeling the soft curve of flesh right at the edge of the cups. It’s our usual routine, her pushing my shirt up and me pushing up hers, so we’re skin to skin on the sofa as we kiss, but in a way that allows us to yank our clothing back quickly if there are footsteps in the hallway above.

But tonight, instead of letting her hands continue to explore under my shirt, Amber reaches down and slides her hands along the waistband of my shorts, first on the outside, then along the inside.“One year,” she whispers as her lips move toward my ear.“One year since you kissed me in your garage. I thought you never would.”

We’d been dancing around our connection for months, becoming friends through marching band, then hanging out together whenever we practiced outdoors. She was going out with Connor Ralston most of the year—one of those superjocks who are good-looking and at ease in every situation—and she started confiding in me about the ups and downs of their relationship. First, in bits and pieces during those outdoor hours in band, then in more depth via IM and late-night cell phone calls when she and Connor had a particularly dramatic day.

In other words, I’d happily relegated myself to the same pitiful role all average, somewhat geeky guys take when they’re around a gorgeous, out-of-reach girl: I became her sounding board just so I could spend more time around her. I never in a million years thought I’d be anything more than a friend to her, but neither did I want our symbiotic relationship to be put on hold just because school was out for the summer. So when freshman year ended, I asked her on a whim if she wanted to get together to practice over the summer.

She shocked me and said yes, even though no one really expected us to practice.

When Connor dumped her in early August for a girl from another school, her girlfriends assured Amber she’d get Connor back. It bugged her, she claimed, because she wasn’t even sure she wanted Connor back if he wasn’t going to treat her the way she deserved to be treated. I told her to ignore her friends and go with her gut, that if she got back with him, fine. But if not, when she was ready she’d find someone better. Someone who’d spoil her.

I even gave her names, I was so pathetic. (And I thank God she laughed out loud and said, “Too full of himself!” when I suggested Griff.)

The day before sophomore year started, when her mom took her to pick up new reeds for her clarinet, she called and offered to grab some for my sax. She dropped them off a few hours later as I was sweeping out the garage, trying to earn car money. We flirted a little, talked about band and whether she could possibly make first chair as a sophomore, and then I was kissing her. Just leaned over the push broom and did it without letting myself think about it first.

And it was perfect. At least until Keira walked in with a garbage bag full of dirty diapers, yelled, “Whoa! Um sorry!,” dropped the bag on the floor, and hurried back into the house laughing her head off. One year ago today.

I remember the necklace I got for her and whisper, “Hey, I forgot. I have something in my backpack.”

“Really?” She eases back, and the grin on her face is downright heartstopping. I forgot how much I like the way she smiles at me while we’re kissing and no one else is around. Like I’m the only person in the world who makes her feel this happy.

I reach to the floor and unzip the bag one-handed, keeping my other hand in its comfy location, tucked under the side of her bra, and pull out the box containing the necklace. I slide it so it’s on my chest, right between us.“Happy anniversary, Amber.”

Twin lines furrow the area between her eyes, like she was expecting something else, but they disappear when she smiles. “You got me a present! Um . . . you want me to open it now?”

“Yeah. Is there a problem?”

“Of course not!” She sits up, letting her rear end slide into the space between my thigh and the back of the sofa, so I push myself upright and pull her onto my lap. She eases a finger under the tape, then peels off the wrapping paper without tearing it.

My heart nearly stops at her sharp intake of breath as she opens the box from the jeweler. “Toby, this is gorgeous!”

“You like?”

She nods, fingering the gold-dipped aspen leaf and the small round opal set in its center.

“I thought you might like something outdoorsy,” I explain. “When I saw this one, with your birthstone, it seemed like something you’d wear.”

She doesn’t say anything. She just stares at the necklace lying against the fuzzy blue velvet inside the box.

“If you don’t like it, I can take it back and you can choose something else.”

Could I sound like a bigger dweeb? I can just hear Keira’s reaction. She’d say, If she already told you it’s gorgeous, why in the world are you offering to return it? Take a girl at her word!

Amber blinks, then smiles at me.“Never. It’s perfect. I’ll wear it all the time.”

She takes it out of the box and asks me to hold her hair out of the way while she fastens it. Once it’s on, she wraps her arms around my neck and kisses me, long and slow and soft. It’s quiet; I can’t even hear the television upstairs. Just me and Amber and the low hum of the DeWitts’ air conditioning. Like no one could ever disturb us down here.

She must have the same feeling, because she slides her hands down my back, then eventually around to the front to play with the button on my shorts again.

I want to stop her, but I don’t want to, either. The sensation of her fingernails running along my waist, then lower, just below my belly button, is driving me nearly over the edge. I think I’m going to combust, but in a very, very good way.

I know she can tell, since she’s sitting in my lap, but it’s not stopping her. I swallow hard and try to think of something else. Cars I might be able to afford. Ms. Lewis’s stupid syllabus. Ms. Lewis herself. But nothing’s easing the problem.

Then she maneuvers my shorts down a few inches, so they’re barely covering me, and pushes me backward on the sofa so she can get them the rest of the way down if she wants.

“Amber, we can’t,” I tell her between kisses. “If you keep . . .any more and I might come.”

She smiles against my lips and moves her body—with her porno mag–worthy breasts—against me. Then she slips her fingers into the waistband of my underwear.

“Really, Amber. We need to stop.” I can’t believe I’m saying what I’m saying to her—it’s bad enough I just used the word come in a sentence out loud—but what’s my alternative? “If . . . well, it’ll make a mess. Your parents are gonna know.”

And I don’t want to.

When it gets right down to it, no matter how good this feels physically, my brain’s telling me it’s wrong. I can’t get a hand job in her parents’ basement. It was bad enough that she gave me one at Sophomore Blast last year, when we were hidden away in her tent. Well, good, as in how it felt, but bad in the sense that we could have been discovered—by Meghan, who was sharing the tent, by one of the chaperones, by anyone who happened to stumble away from the annual sophomore class lakeside party. And bad in that when I realized what she really wanted then was to have sex, that the hand job wasn’t the destination but a prelude to what Amber considered the main event, I squirreled my way out of there before she could say the words. I cut her off mid–I want to and told her Griff was going to come looking for me because I’d promised to play on his team in the flag football game.

“We’ll figure something out.” Her eyes lock on to mine, but her hands stay right where they are. “Toby, it’s our anniversary. I . . . I think today should be the day. I’ve been thinking about it for months, and Toby, we’re ready for this. We are.”

“So you really . . . ?” I can’t say the words, but it’s plain from her face that she’s planning on way more than a hand job tonight. That in her mind, we’re picking up where we left off in the tent.

It felt all out of whack then. It feels out of whack now. Surreal.

“That’s a big step,” I say.

She’s a virgin. Connor pushed her, but she never went all the way with him. I know because she gave me all the details back when I was just her friend, hoping I could give her, in her words, “the guy’s perspective.” (Like I’d have the slightest insight into a mind like Connor Ralston’s. Just because I’m male doesn’t mean we’re the same species. But I wasn’t going to admit that to her.)

A blush creeps across her cheeks. “I, um, actually thought, when you went for your backpack earlier, that you might have a condom in there. Maybe.”


“But the necklace was okay,” she adds in a rush.“I just thought, after having virtually no time together this summer, and with it being our anniversary, it’d be perfect. I’ve missed you so much.”

“Your parents are upstairs.”

She laughs. “You know they won’t check on us for a while. Their favorite show’s on, and there’s no way they’re leaving to check on us. We’re focusing on homework, remember?”

What I remember is that I’m supposed to be doing my homework instead of my girlfriend.

I reach up with one hand to push her hair back, looping a long strand behind her ear. Man, she looks cute like that, with her hair hanging down on one side of her face and tucked back on the other.

“I really want to, Toby. I think it’s time to take our relationship to the next level, don’t you?”

I know I should make an excuse, like I did in the tent. Say that the timing’s not good since it’s nearly nine p.m. on a Tuesday and I have to get home. Point out that I do not have a condom, not in my wallet or backpack or even at home in my nightstand.

Tell her I think she’s too special to lose her virginity on a basement sofa.

A dozen gentle letdowns run through my head, but what do I say? “No.”

Chapter Three

As soon as the word leaves my mouth, I know I’m screwed, and not in the way Amber originally intended.

Her eyes widen for a moment, like she’s unsure whether I’m kidding around, then fill with tears as she realizes I mean it.

“I don’t believe this,” I think she says. It’s more to herself than to me, so I’m not sure. She shoves at my shoulder, unable to get off me fast enough.

I sit up and grab her hand to stop her from getting off the sofa. “It’s not that I don’t want to keep going, Amber. I mean, this is fantastic. I just didn’t think tonight . . .” I swear, I must be insane. “I’m not ready.”

She glances down at my shorts. “All evidence to the contrary. Unless you mean you’re not in love with me enough yet.”

I scoot so one of the pillows from the back of the sofa gives me some cover. “It’s not that, either. Definitely not that.”

I can’t imagine being as into someone as I’m into Amber. Who else in the world would tell her friends that it’s cute when I describe the hand-to-hand combat that occurred during the sea battle marking the final defeat of Blackbeard? Who else would appreciate how much I want to be first-chair sax? And I can’t imagine anyone else calling me at exactly midnight on February 28 to wish me a happy birthday, telling me she’s thought of me on this date since she first saw my Leap Day birthday posted on the hall calendar outside my kindergarten classroom and thought it was cool.

I cup her face in my hands, forcing her to look at me, to see how serious I am.“Amber, I love you. I hope you know that.” It’s not like I haven’t told her before.

“Is it . . . is it a protection issue, then?” she asks.

“I don’t have any.” I can tell from the lift in her expression that she’s about to tell me she does, but I don’t want the discussion to go down that particular road. I let my hands drop into my lap. “But that’s not it, either.”

“A religious thing? I mean, I completely understand if that’s it.” She gives me a lopsided grin.“It didn’t stop Keira from doing it, obviously, but she did tell me she doesn’t believe in abortion, that it was part of her Catholic upbringing.”

“You talked to Keira about us?” Who asks a guy’s sister about this kind of thing?

“No! I stopped in for coffee on my way to work last week and she mentioned that Stewie loves his new daycare. So I asked if it was hard for her sometimes with a baby, or if she ever worried about how she’d handle it all when she first found out she was pregnant. And she told me not handling it wasn’t an option; she knew that she could never have an abortion as a good Catholic—those were her exact words—and said she knew she’d have to find a way to make it work. That’s all.”

“Oh. For a minute there, I was wondering—”

“No way! I would not talk to your sister about sex! Geez. ”She smiles when she says it, but quickly gets serious again. “I just figured that if Keira feels strongly enough about being Catholic . . . I dunno. But if sex before marriage is out of the question for you, I assume it’s something you’d have told me by now. Is . . . is that how you feel?”

There’s a look in her eyes I know cold. It’s the look that tells me to tell her what she wants to hear, which in this case is along the lines of how I want her bod in the worst way, that I’m tempted beyond words but am worried about going against a deeply ingrained religious principle.

It’s the perfect out. If I take it, though, will she think I never want to have sex with her? Because I just don’t know. Simply having that thought in my head—sex with Amber DeWitt—is enough to blur my vision. And even though it’s true that I’m Catholic—my parents definitely get me to Mass every Sunday and I pay attention for the most part—I’m not against sex before marriage. So it’d be a lie.

And I can’t lie to Amber about who I am and what I believe.

“Amber, it’s not any of that. I’m just not ready.” I try to think of the best way to explain this to her. I want to say,“It’s not you, it’s me,” but it sounds so clichéd, she’ll think I’m hiding something else. Finally, I go with “Look, we’ve been apart for most of the summer. Let’s try to ease—”

“Geez, Toby. Just say it. It’s because of me. You’re just not that into me. ”There’s a finality to her words, one that scares me.

“No, that’s nuts! If anything, it’s the opposite. You’re—”

She focuses on me, and the hurt in her eyes makes my chest feel like it’s being physically crushed. “Just stop, Toby. I know better. Back in June, at Sophomore Blast, we had the whole night together up by the reservoir. There was nothing to stop us; no one would have noticed if you stayed in my tent all night. Meghan knew we were in there, so she’d planned to crash with Christy Daggett or Joely Wiedermeier. And the chaperones were focused on the kids they thought would sneak in alcohol. We were completely under their radar.”

Amber’s voice gets higher the longer she talks, her tone going from one of mild upset to full-on rage. I’m afraid Mrs. DeWitt’s going to hear us and come downstairs, so I try to quiet Amber down by putting a hand on her knee. The gesture only gets her more riled. “You said you thought it’d be better to wait, to make the night special. To wait until there was no chance Griff would walk in on us to grab you for flag football or whatever. And I believed you. I thought it was just a timing thing. Well, Toby, no one else is around tonight, and what the hell’s more special than our anniversary? Than celebrating the fact that I’m done with Friendly’s and we’ve made it to junior year, and the fact that we love each other? Or don’t we, really?”

“Are you kidding me? Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said?” I can’t believe this. How’d we go from making out to fighting so fast?

“It’s all words, Toby.”

“You’re out of frickin’ control, Amber.” Anger bubbles up inside me. I know her feelings are hurt, that she’s probably lashing out because she’s feeling rejected. But my feelings are hurt, too. Does she think I’m stringing her along? Or that I’m like Connor, who—at least in my opinion—didn’t respect her enough? “Look, Amber, I told you I loved you. You can believe it or not.”

“Then why? It’s not like half our friends aren’t doing it. And they aren’t in relationships nearly as tight as ours.” When I don’t respond immediately, she adds, “And it’s not like we’d be stupid like Keira and not use protection.”

How she knows that is beyond me, since I never asked Keira if she and Pete skipped protection, a condom broke, or what. I figured it wasn’t my business. But maybe Amber’s just tossing it out, trying to convince me.

Or maybe she’s bringing my sister into this—and referring to her as stupid—to try to get me to lash out the way she is. It seems like she wants to fight. In the calmest voice I can muster, I ask, “Since when did anyone else’s relationship become our yardstick?”

She just arches an eyebrow. It’s the same thing I’ve seen her do when she argues with Meghan and knows she’s in the right.

Screw this.

I run a hand through my hair. It’s still wet. I practically sprinted here when I got out of the shower, so I could give her the time she wanted, and it’s pissing me off that I knocked myself out just so she could pick a fight.

I’m afraid if I stay any longer, she’s going to get one. And that’s not me.

I let out a deep breath, hoping I sound less angry than I feel. “Look, we’re arguing and we don’t need to be. With all your work hours and the stress of being apart all summer, maybe we’ve put too much importance on school starting and on the anniversary. You think?”

She stares at me for a few long seconds. I have no idea what she’s thinking, so I make an effort to keep a positive expression on my face.

“Maybe you should go home and we can take a break for a day or two,” she finally says.

“If that’s what you want, sure,” I tell her. I don’t really want to, but maybe it’s better if we talk later when we’ve both had a little while to settle down.

She stands up, then gathers her books and stacks them on the coffee table.

I take the hint and pick up my Trig papers, shoving them into my backpack. I sling it over my shoulder, then look at her. I move to kiss her goodbye, to ask her if she’s all right and tell her again how much I love her, but her arms are crossed over her chest and it’s clear that—in her mind—our break is starting now.

“See you in band?” Tryouts are tomorrow during class, so we’ll know if the practice time this summer paid off and we each get picked to be first chair in our sections.

She nods, but more to the coffee table than to me.

“I’ll be cheering for you,” I tell her, then take the stairs in twos. Things will look better in the morning, after she’s through her tryout. I’m sure of it.

Excerpted from BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO © Copyright 2011 by Niki Burnham, Terri Clark, Ellen Hopkins and Lynda Sandoval. Reprinted with permission by Graphia, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Children’s Book Group. All rights reserved.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do
by Niki Burnham, Terri Clark, Ellen Hopkins and Lynda Sandoval

  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Graphia
  • ISBN-10: 0547014996
  • ISBN-13: 9780547014999