I shut my eyes and winced in pain as a bright light flashed across my face. I was surrounded by a crowd of kids who were all pointing, whispering, and shooting photographs. I looked down to find in my own hands an old, dusty camera. It was the old-fashioned Polaroid kind where your picture automatically comes sliding through the slot. I lifted the camera to my eye, and standing in the center of my peephole was Trace Weston. My stomach fluttered when his eyes locked with mine. I couldn’t believe that even in my dreams Trace Weston gave me butterflies. His perfect blue eyes pinched together slightly. They were full of question and intrigue. I flexed my finger and felt a click. The camera flashed, and Trace buckled over and covered his face with both arms. The crowd around me gasped. I stood up straight, scanning my audience. Faces familiar, and some that were new, winced in embarrassment. “Why’d you do it, Gemma?” The voice from behind me was low, collected, and female. I tried to turn around and see who belonged to the unfamiliar voice, but I couldn’t move. The camera in my hands groaned as the photo paper rolled out from its holster. I waved the picture in the air, waiting for Trace to appear. But when the colors came into focus, it wasn’t a photo of Trace at all. The person that slowly appeared in my hands was someone who meant much more to me than a silly little crush. He was someone who knew me better than I knew myself. And someone whom I loved inside and out. The boy in the photo was Jess.
Crack! I was awakened by a sharp object hitting against the glass of my bedroom window. I rubbed my eyes and blinked in the darkness at my clock. It was almost midnight. I rolled out of bed and grabbed my coat that was hanging on the closet door. I flipped the overhead light on and then off again just as quickly. That was the signal that I was awake and on my way.
By the time I made it downstairs and out my back door, Jess was sitting on my porch steps with his head resting in both hands.
“Your dad?” I said after I closed the door.
Jess jerked around to look at me. “Were you asleep?”
I sat next to him on the step. “I don’t mind. I was dreaming weird tonight.”
Jess rubbed his hand over his exhausted eyes. “My dad lost his job.”
I cringed. Jess was a slightly shorter, better-looking, and much thinner replica of his father. But their personalities couldn’t be more different. While Jess never thought about himself, his father thought about nobody but himself. And as soft spoken and kind as Jess was, so his father was loud, abrupt, and downright mean.
Jess had started coming to my window at night when his dad first began drinking. And now, six years later, Jess was sitting in his usual spot on my back porch, still trying to escape him.
“Not again,” I groaned as I thought about how many times his dad had lost his job. He always drank more after getting fired.
Jess hadn’t said much since I joined him on the steps, but this wasn’t unusual. On nights like this I was the one doing all the talking. Jess didn’t want to acknowledge what was going on at his house. But he couldn’t bring himself to talk about anything of less importance either. He smiled as I rambled on about my day, telling him things that were inconsequential enough to not have been brought up on our walk home from school, but things that now—at the late hour—seemed hilarious. Somewhere in the middle of all my chatter I went inside and got us some hot chocolate. It was the early part of February, and the grass beyond our porch was still covered in gray snow.
Jess held the yellow mug of hot chocolate up to his face, letting the steam sweep around his cheeks. “So what was your dream about?”
I took a sip of my hot chocolate as I tried to recall the dream. Images of the Polaroid camera and Trace Weston skipped around in my brain. I shook my head at the memory. “It was about Trace. I did something stupid in fifth period today, and I can’t seem to get it out of my head.” I poked at the chunks of unmixed chocolate powder in my mug. “I’m surprised I forgot to tell you about this earlier.”
Jess set his mug down and leaned back on his hands. “I’m glad you saved it. I need a good laugh tonight.”
“Well, I took my camera to school today because I needed it for my photography class. We had a pop quiz in the class before, and I finished early. So I took out my camera to make sure it was working.”
Jess puffed out his bottom lip. “So far not too stupid.”
“Just wait,” I moaned. “Trace Weston sits in the row next to me and one seat up in that class.”
“Ah, Trace.” Jess nodded his head with exaggeration. “So what happened?”
“Well, my camera wouldn’t turn on, so I got nervous because we had to have it all ready for my photography class. So I’m pushing all the buttons on my camera, trying to figure out what’s wrong.” I moved my hands and fingers in a mime as though I had the camera in my hand at that moment. “Next thing I know, the camera is on and I’m accidentally taking a picture! The flash went off and everything!”
“So?” Jess shrugged his shoulders as though asking, What’s the big deal?
“The camera was in my lap, but when it flashed it was pointed directly at Trace. The whole class saw it. They were all making jokes about how I’m stalking him and was secretly taking his picture!”
Jess watched me with humored eyes as I reenacted the whole scene. As horrible as it all seemed during fifth period, it was something I could laugh about now. Because even my most humiliating moments seemed funny somehow when I told them to Jess.
Jess was trying to conceal a smile. “Well there was one good thing that came from it.”
I looked at him with one eyebrow raised. “Yeah, what’s that?”
“You got a picture of the guy you like. Now you can put it in your journal and look at it every night.” His eyes were full of humor as he took another sip from his mug. “Isn’t that what girls like to do?”
I let my head fall into my hands. “I flipped through my pictures after class to see if I had at least gotten a good shot of him. All I have to show for it is a fuzzy picture of Trace Weston’s knee.”
Jess pushed himself to standing then turned to help me up as well. “I’m sure you could sell it on eBay. There are probably a thousand girls who would give their allowance for a picture of Trace Weston’s knee.” Jess laughed softly at his joke, and I could tell he was happier now than when he had come. “Thanks for coming down,” he spoke quietly. “I always feel better after we’ve talked.”
“I’m glad that my humiliating experiences lift your spirits,” I said playfully. Then I lowered my head and asked, “Are you going to be okay?”
But of course Jess never liked the attention on him so he replied, “The question is, are you going to be okay?” He began walking away from the deck, leaving me standing alone with my arms hugging my waist. His words were fading as he joked, “If you want to stalk somebody you should really learn not to do it in the middle of a full classroom.” He waved goodbye with one hand held high above his head as he disappeared at the side of my house. And then he was gone, and I felt cold for the first time since I stepped outside.