- Published: 4 August 2020
- ISBN: 9781760895402
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $19.99
I always thought the moment you met the great love of your life would be more like the movies. Not exactly like the movies, obviously, with the slow-mo and the hair blowing in the breeze and the swelling instrumental soundtrack. But I at least thought there would be something, you know? A skipped beat of the heart. A tug at your soul where something inside you goes, “Holy shit. There she is. Finally, after all this time, there she is.”
There was none of that when Grace Town walked into Mrs. Beady’s afternoon drama class ten minutes late on the second Tuesday of senior year. Grace was the type of person who made an impression on any room she walked into, but not for the kind of reasons that generate instant and undying affection. She was of average height and average build and average attractiveness, all things that should’ve made it easy for her to assimilate into a new high school without any of the dramatic tropes that usually inhabit such storylines.
But three things about Grace immediately stood out, before her ordinariness could save her:
1. Grace was dressed head to toe in guys’ clothing. Not the tomboy, skater-girl kind of look, either, but legitimate dudes’ clothing that was way too big for her. Jeans that were meant to be skinny were held on her hips by a belt. Despite it being only mid-September, she wore a sweater and a checkered shirt and a knit cap, and a long leather necklace with an anchor on the end.
2. Grace looked unclean and unhealthy. I mean, I’d seen junkies that looked in better shape than she did that morning. (I hadn’t really seen that many junkies, but I’d seen The Wire and Breaking Bad, which totally counts.) Her blond hair wasn’t brushed and was badly cut, her skin was sallow, and I’m almost certain if I’d smelled her at any point during that day, she would’ve reeked.
3. If all this wasn’t enough to really screw over her chances of fitting in at a new high school, Grace Town walked with a cane. And that’s how it happened. That’s how I first saw her. There was no slow-mo, no breeze, no soundtrack, and definitely no skipped heartbeats. Grace hobbled in ten minutes late, silently, like she owned the place, like she’d been in our class for years, and maybe because she was new or because she was weird or because the teacher could see simply by looking at her that a small part of her soul was cracked, Mrs. Beady said nothing. Grace sat on a chair at the back of the black-walled drama room, her cane resting across her thighs, and said nothing to anybody for the entire class.
I looked at her twice more, but by the end of class I’d forgotten she was there, and she slipped out without anyone noticing.
So this is certainly not a story of love at first sight.
But it is a love story.
The first week of senior year, before Grace Town’s sudden apparition, had passed by as uneventfully as high school possibly can. There’d been only three minor scandals thus far: a junior had been suspended for smoking in the girls’ bathroom (if you’re going to get suspended for something, at least make it something not cliché), an anonymous suspect had uploaded footage of an after-school fight in the parking lot to YouTube (the administration was freaking out over that one), and there were rumors going around that Chance Osenberg and Billy Costa had given each other an STD after having unprotected sex with the same girl (I wish I was making this up, dear readers).
My life had remained, as always, entirely scandal-free. I was seventeen years old, a weird, lanky kid, the type you might cast to play a young Keanu Reeves if you’d already spent the majority of your budget on bad CGI and craft service. I’d never so much as secondhand-smoked a cigarette, and no one, thank God, had approached me about doing the no-pants dance sans a prophylactic. My dark hair skirted my shoulders, and I’d grown particularly fond of wearing my dad’s sports coat from the eighties. You could say I looked something like a male Summer Glau crossed with Severus Snape. Subtract the hook nose, add in some dimples, and hey presto: the perfect recipe for one Henry Isaac Page.
I was, at the time, also uninterested in girls (or guys, in case you were wondering). My friends had been in and out of dramatic teenage relationships for close to five years now, but I had yet to even have a real crush. Sure, there’d been Abigail Turner in kindergarten (I’d kissed her on the cheek when she wasn’t expecting it; our relationship rapidly declined after that), and I’d been obsessed with the idea of marrying Sophi Zhou for at least three years of elementary school, but after I hit puberty, it was like a switch inside me flipped, and instead of becoming a testosterone-driven sex monster like most of the guys at my school, I failed to find anyone I wanted in my life in that way.
I was happy to focus on school and getting the grades I needed to get into a semi-decent college, which is probably why I didn’t think about Grace Town again for at least a couple of days. Maybe I never would’ve if it wasn’t for the intervention of one Mr. Alistair Hink, English teacher.
What I know about Mr. Hink is still very much confined to what most high schoolers know about their teachers. He had bad dandruff, which wouldn’t have been half as noticeable if he didn’t insist on wearing black turtlenecks every day, the color of which clearly displayed the fine white dust on his shoulders like snow falling on asphalt. From what I could gather from his naked left hand, he was unmarried, which probably had a lot to do with the dandruff and the fact that he looked remarkably like Napoleon Dynamite’s brother, Kip.
Hink was also fiercely passionate about the English language, so much so that on one occasion when my math class was let out five minutes late and thus ate into our English lesson, Hink called up the math teacher, Mr. Babcock, and gave him a lecture about how the arts were no less valuable than mathematics. A lot of students laughed at him under their breaths—they were mostly destined for careers in engineering or science or customer service, I suppose—but looking back, I can pinpoint that afternoon in our sweltering English classroom as the moment I fell in love with the idea of becoming a writer.
I’d always been decent at writing, at putting words together. Some people are born with an ear for music, some people are born with a talent for drawing, some people—people like me, I guess—have a built-in radar that tells them where a comma needs to go in a sentence. As far as superpowers go, grammatical intuition is fairly low on the awesomeness scale, but it did get me in with Mr. Hink, who also happened to be in charge of running and organizing the student newspaper I’d volunteered at since sophomore year in hopes of one day becoming editor.
It was about midway through Mrs. Beady’s Thursday drama class in the second week of school when the phone rang and Beady answered it. “Henry, Grace. Mr. Hink would like to see you in his office after school,” she said after chatting for a few minutes. (Beady and Hink had always been friendly. Two souls born in the wrong century, when the world liked to make fun of people who still thought art was the most extraordinary thing humanity ever had or ever would produce.)
I nodded and purposefully didn’t look at Grace, even though I could see in my peripheral vision that she was staring at me from the back of the room.
When most teenagers get called to their teacher’s office after school, they assume the worst, but like I said, I was tragically free of scandal. I knew (or hoped I knew) why Hink wanted to see me. Grace had been an inmate at Westland High for only two days, hardly long enough to have given another student trichomoniasis and/or handed out any after-school beatdowns (although she did carry a cane and look angry a lot).
Why Mr. Hink wanted to see Grace was—like much else about her—a mystery.