Edited: 2/10/06 Grammatical errors. Slight altering of character appearance. Minor scene alterations/additions.

A/N: This is my first published fiction story. Like all my works, published or not, it's my baby. Please treat it kindly. My updates may take time, but each chapter is carefully and lovingly crafted with all my energy. I refuse to abuse my readers by publishing less-than-stellar work. I do hope you enjoy it.

WARNING: Some material may be considered offensive or sensitive. Read at your own risk.

And the joke at the beginning is NOT meant to be taken seriously. It is not a real quip against Jews in any way—I mean no disrespect to anyone. Everyone makes little jokes from time to time, but rarely have I found derogatory intents behind them. Take the jokes in a light of good humour. You have been forewarned!!,

Disclaimer: Any quotes from Paradise by Toni Morrison, do not belong to me.

Chapter One: Just Another Day in Paradise

Dedicated to all those forced to read Paradise against their will.

" 'They shot the white girl first.'" Chloe Brinkley laughed aloud, her melodious voice catching a ride on the easy breeze that blew her caramel curls across her heart shaped face, some pieces catching a bit onto her rosy lips.

Sitting in the grassy field of Greens Park—one of the two parks of Mason, Georgia—a pair of teenagers, freshly eighteen and in their senior year at Lindell High School, were beginning to read Paradise, a book recently assigned by a mutual teacher. Best friends since the ninth grade of high school, the two found that relaxing together in a park was one of the best ways to get their work done.

"What a way to start a book. That has got to be the best opening line ever," Chloe mused, flashing a grin at her companion who lay at her feet, stomach down, stretched luxuriously across the worn, baby blue quilt that covered the grassy ground. Twisting slightly to gaze in Chloe's eyes, Coltan Lane returned the smile.

"No," he joked. "It would have been better if it said, 'They shot the Jewish girl first.' Nobody likes Jews."

"Racist!" Chloe sneered.

"What if I'm talking about Jewish by religion?" Coltan challenged.

"The characters are in a convent. Have you ever heard of a religiously Jewish nun? Nuns worship Jesus," she shot back.

"So do Messianic Jews," he replied with a raised eyebrow and a smirk. Chloe opened her mouth, then snapped it shut. After a second, her green eyes narrowed.

"I hate you."

Tossing her long waves back with a fake air of disgust, she leaned heavily against the tree whose branches hid the pair from the sun. With a "hmph," she drew her knees up, wrapped a lean arm around them, and held the book in front of her face to hide any potential smiles trying to peak through her countenance. A tenor chuckle danced into her ears, and she drew her book down a bit to throw an icy glare at its source. Instead of meeting blue gray eyes, a handsome profile with a straight nose, full lips, and high cheekbones greeted her. Chestnut brown hair was swept across the forehead and tucked behind an ear as it reflected bits of the sun's rays.

As she stared at the soft tresses (which she herself had run her fingers through many a time to appease his head massage addictions), she longed to reach out again to feel the short, silky strands against her fingertips.

Coltan shifted, shaking his admirer from her reverie as he turned to lie on his side, facing her, propping his elbow on the blanketed ground to hold his head while his other hand held the book to his face.

"Stay still, wiggle worm. Read your book."

"This coming from the one who couldn't get past the first sentence without having a—" Coltan took a dramatic pause, raising his blue-grey gaze to meet a green one. "—paroxysm of laughter." He grinned. "Totally notice the word choice."

"Yeah, yeah, you're expanding your vocabulary, according to Mrs. Applegate's list." Chloe dropped her book to her side, lowering her knees into an Indian style position.

"Dang straight I am."

"Teacher's pet."

"I can't help that they love me."

"Or the pseudo-charm you exude."

Coltan shrugged, cocking his head with his trademark "I know, right?" look. Relaxing his shoulders, he flashed a dazzling grin before speaking again.

"Worked well enough to catch you, didn't it?"

Chloe's heart skipped a beat at those words, and her tongue suddenly felt too numb to hurl a snappy comeback. Thickly swallowing, she regained her senses.

"How do you know I'm not just drawn to maniacal, narcissistic liars, dripping with vicariously sweet deceitfulness?"

"If you are, then I guess we're two peas in a pod."

"Have I mentioned I hate you?

"Oooh, say it again. Venom turns me on."

"Well, then, I love you."

"So you admit it!" Coltan grinned triumphantly. Chloe scrunched up her cutely small nose and narrowed her eyes, silently shooting steel daggers at her friend's wide grin.

"So, how'd you do on the first Paradise quiz?" Coltan asked as he opened his locker. After extracting a few of his Advanced Placement textbooks, he grabbed his burgundy book bag to deposit the load. Laying the strap across his shoulder, he straightened the collar of his loose, pinstriped shirt, fixing the top of the unbuttoned shirt to fashionably display his collarbone.

"Totally bombed it. SparksNotes did nothing for me," a perky, short girl, named Marnie Mansell, replied with a pout. Gathering her own things from her locker, she moved to stand beside Coltan. "Hurry up, loser-face. Can't you get your stuff in your bag any faster?"

"Shut up, Marn," Chloe snapped playfully. Standing from her kneeling position, she lugged a bag onto her back, then leaned down to grab it's twin—a side bag, which she looped over her shoulder. "Unlike you, I have all the hard classes, meaning I have several more fat books to take home, so it takes a few extra minutes to cram it all in my bags." She stopped for a second and peered at Coltan. "Which you should be doing, buddy, considering you have all the same classes as me."

"Since when do I study and do homework?" he said. "Excluding that in AP Biology, I mean."

"Yeah, well, I'm ready to go," her shorter counterpart interjected, a spark in her golden-brown eyes. "And I can't leave you alone to walk to your car. Hey, watch it, buddy! Senior here!" Marnie barked, spinning around to threaten one of the many bodies that crowded the hallway, bumping into the locker-goers. Turning back around, she mumbled, "No respect around here, no respect."

"Why can't I walk to my own car again?" Chloe asked, as the three fell into step together, meandering towards the park lot.

"Because I'm totally your best friend. Best friends walk to their cars together," Marnie answered, matter-of-factly. Giving her friend a faked look of astonishment, she slapped a hand to her face. "What? You mean you didn't know?" Dropping her hand, Marnie grinned, her flushed apple-cheeks exaggerating her already under aged appearance.

"Okay, have I been forgotten here?" Coltan interrupted. The two girls laughed, not answering, until Marnie delivered a quick retort. Walking quietly beside her two closest friends, Chloe vaguely heard their voices, snapping back and forth, but ignored their words. She was too wrapped up in her own thoughts.

Letting her green eyes travel over the parking lot, she noted the multiple cliques, gathered together in various clumps. The brick school building stood behind the lot, worn from years of students trafficking in and out, but still homey enough for Chloe to feel a strange ache at the thought of leaving it. It was the link that brought her to many a friendship that she never thought possible—friendships with cheerleaders, geeks, punks, band members, and "under the radar" students. Her own geeky nature nudging her to take a full Honors load each year of high school, she had classes with nearly all the same people, most of whom she had never really known before as more than acquaintances. The diversity of the group at first had intimidated her. Now, strolling beside Marnie Mansell—a cheerleader with a hidden geek complex—and Coltan—an "under the radar" student turned a complete social butterfly—she had never experienced such gratitude.

Or such stupid hurt, she thought bitterly. No, don't think like that, she scolded her brain.

She and Marnie had quickly found themselves compatible when the short, pixie-haired brunette first struck up a conversation by leaning back in their American Literature class and commenting, "I think I might be the only one who actually liked The Scarlet Letter." Chloe, who had felt surrounded by Scarlet Letter haters minutes before, smiled, knowing she would come to love seeing that apple-cheeked face every day.

Coltan, however, was a different story. Reserved and slightly chubby, he sat in the back of the classroom with a few of his middle school friends, unwilling to participate in more than polite conversation with others. Chloe absently noticed him a few times in the first month, but never attempted to make a connection. She even sat two chairs down from him in the lunch room, but it wasn't until about three months after the start of school that she really talked with him. It was a strange coincidence, or a quirk of fate, but both of the people that normally sat between them were absent.

What instigated their first real exchange of words wasn't a pleasant conversation about a shared book, as had been the case with Marnie. The two had been sitting in their usual spots in the noisy lunchroom, each absorbed with their friends.

Savoring her peanut butter sandwich, Chloe chewed slowly, nodding and occasionally responding to the conversations of her companions that sat around her. Near the middle of the lunch period, she began scanning the cafeteria for no particular reason except to observe others. Turning her head to the side, she spotted Coltan, talking animatedly with his friends—and not eating. He had not bought lunch.

It took a second of shameless staring, but it was then that it struck Chloe. The newly spirited boy seemed different. Thinner—and his hair lay flat on his head, a bit dull and lifeless. Quickly thinking back, she tried to remember if he'd been skipping lunch regularly. In her memory, she vaguely recalled his vivaciousness growing down the lunch table, his voice and laugh increasing in volume daily, but she couldn't quite determine whether he had been eating or not.

Determinedly, Chloe put her sandwich down; ignoring the questioning stares of her friends, she grabbed the yellow apple and butterscotch candy drop from her lunch, and scooted down to the chair next to Coltan. He turned to look at the intruder of the empty seat next to him, raising his eyebrows.

"Hi," he said slowly, after a moment's hesitation.

"Hi," she replied.

For a few seconds, neither made a sound. The noise around them didn't disappear, and no one noticed the silent interlude the two shared. Soundlessly, Chloe plopped her food offering on the table, the pushed it towards Coltan's setting. His eyes looked at the food, looked at Chloe, then back at the food.

"And this is for…?"

"You don't have a lunch. You need to eat something."

"I'm not hungry."

"You think you aren't, but you are."

"Excuse me?" Coltan asked, an angry but astonished bite to his words. His disbelieving eyes came back up to hers, his mouth slightly open in shock at her presumptuousness. "How would you know if my body…?"

"It's a simple biological process," Chloe interrupted, with an air of patience that one would use on a two-year-old. She tilted her head so that her curtain of caramel waves fell over her shoulder. "See, your body normally growls or something to let you know that it's hungry, but when you ignore those signals long enough, you can no longer distinguish your body's warning signs. For a while, your body learns to utilize fewer and fewer calories to try and keep you from starving—an elementary survival tactic. If you quit eating for long enough, your body will eventually have no choice but to eat all muscle and excess fat until you look completely emaciated and are on the brink of death. So, to prevent that condition from progressing any further than it already has…" Chloe indicated the food with a wave of her hand.

For a moment, the dark haired boy stared at her. Then, he snickered quietly. Propping his elbow on the table, he twisted to face her. Leaning closer, he sneered, "Well, well, I think we have a regular Einstein on our hands—one who's a bit sarcastic, because I know you remember that we took the same Health class together in eighth grade. Hence, we know the same biological processes of eating disorders."

"Of course I remember. I remember even better than you do because I don't have selective attention."

"What makes you think I have selective attention?"

"Well, you obviously didn't listen to all the complications that ensue due to anorexia. Otherwise, you'd be eating rather than unconsciously starving." Chloe paused, knitting her eyebrows together thoughtfully. "Unless, of course, you're a masochist who wants to have a slow, suffering suicide."

At this, her verbal victim sat his 5'11" frame up in his seat, leaning back a little bit. He seemed to be debating within himself about something as he stared down at the food. Stealing a glance at his friends around him, turned his head slightly back to her, keeping his gaze on the apple and candy drop.

"You know, I did it because my current significant other told me I needed to get rid of my baby fat." He looked at her, as though wishing to inspect her reaction.

Taken aback, Chloe gasped. "Do what? Are you kidding me? Why are you still with her? That low-down, self-centered, ugly little slut!"

He looked at her strangely for a second, processing her words before letting a chuckle escape his lips. Laughing, Coltan elbowed Chloe gently. "Hey, now. I'm dating that 'ugly little slut.'" He rolled his shoulders back, then ticked his head from side to side, popping his neck. Looking down at his shirt, he pulled it away from him. The saggy material pulled about six inches away from his body. Then, he grabbed the back of his shirt and pulled it tight, inspecting the new flatness of his stomach. "I guess I'm skinny enough now, though. Skinny enough for you to notice, anyways. I didn't mean that in a bad way," he soothed quickly as the blonde freshman prepared to spout a retort. "I mean, I got skinny enough for you to notice I was being less than healthy. And way too hungry." Gingerly, he picked up the apple and, slowly, scraped a small layer off into his mouth.

"Yeah, that's going to help you finish the apple before the lunch bell rings," Chloe snorted. "Bigger bites, bucko." Coltan obeyed, and she didn't move, watching him until he ate both the apple and the candy drop.

"So," he said, inhaling deeply. "That was good." He licked his lips. "Um, well. Care to meet somewhere and grab a bite tonight? That is, if you're not doing anything."

She smiled. "I am now."

Coltan was single again by the next day, but he didn't care. He was too busy cultivating a new friendship to care about dating.

Always a best friend. Nothing more, she thought sullenly. Shut up! No self pity. He told you he'd never be more than that, and you accepted it. Make the best of it. He's the best guy friend you'll ever have.

"Hel-LO? Earth the Chloe?" Marnie vigorously waved her hand in her friend's face. "You do realize you're at your car, right?"

Forcing herself back to the present, Chloe bit her lip sheepishly. "Um, sorry? I was thinking?" It sounded more like a question than a statement.

An arm dropped to her shoulder and squeezed. "Well, then I take it you didn't hear my invite to go to Eaton's tonight for some crab legs, say, at about six?" His hair, in need of a trim, fell into Coltan's eyes. He quickly tossed it back with a jerk of his chin. "Marnie's done with practice by 5:45, so she can be a little late. We'll order for her."

"Cool, I'll be there. Anyone else coming?" Chloe asked, dreading his answer. She pulled at the hem of her blouse, waiting.

"Yeah, I invited…" he started.

"We'll see you there, Colt! Now, you go because I have a feminine question to ask Chlo. Go on, get outta here," Marnie interrupted, running a hand through her short locks. Tossing her things into her own car, which sat on the outside of her two friends' cars, she slammed the door shut and waved. "Buh-bye."

The handsome senior flashed another beautiful smile, opened his door, and jumped in. Giving one last wave, he drove off.

"So, babe, you okay?" Marnie questioned sympathetically. Still staring at the back of his car, Chloe swallowed. "You seem like you're out of it a bit, and I thought maybe you were thinking about it…"

"I was," she replied. "But I'm alright. I'm happy for what I have with him. Anyways, moaning over it won't help." She smiled reassuringly. "Thanks, doll. I appreciate you a lot. See you tonight!"

He…is always…late, Chloe fumed inwardlyAlmost instantly, her anger vanished, knowing that lateness was a part of his personality. Checking her watch, she noticed it was 6:10. She decided she was done waiting, and instead, she picked up a menu and begin looking for the seafood specials

"Good evening, ma'am. Would you like a drink while you're waiting for your party to arrive?"

Chloe started, not having heard anyone approach. Looking up from her menu, a red-haired waiter awaited her response.

"Yeah, I want a water. Can you bring out some extra lemon slices for me with that?" she asked, noticing an abundance of Splenda packages in the middle of the table. With a polite nod and smile, the server scribbled her drink order down on his notepad before walking to the table next to her.

Setting her menu down, having decided on the crab legs and grilled shrimp combo, she looked around the crowded restaurant again, hoping Coltan would be standing around, scanning the tables to find her. Twisting her face into a scowl, she threw a glare as a pair of blue-gray eyes twinkled at her.

"Sorry I'm late," Coltan grinned as he approached the table Chloe had been saving. His chestnut locks swept to the side and a fresh t-shirt on—fitted and fuschia, bearing the words "Models Wanted"—he looked breathtakingly fresh. He sat down beside Chloe and cocked his head charmingly to the side. "Not mad, are you? You look too gorgeous to be mad."

Her heart melting, she hid it easily with a smirk on her strawberry-glossed lips. Earlier, after she had showered, Chloe made sure to let her long curls naturally dry so they fell softly onto her shoulders and down her back. The knee length jean skirt she chose to wear flared slightly at the knees, balancing out her rather wide hips and showing off her toned calves. The blouse she wore, sheer green with pale violet flowers and forest green vines entwined on the fabric, felt light and flowing on her skin. Coltan loved that shirt on her.

"I know," she replied. Licking her lips, she raised an eyebrow, then coyly turned away and playfully inspected her nails.

"And you see, that's what it takes to be my prom date," her best friend laughed.

"Is that a reference to last year, or an invitation to this year's prom?" Chloe asked, trying to calm the sudden rise in her blood pressure with the guise of nonchalantly studying her manicure. Inwardly, she crossed her fingers and prayed for an affirmative to the latter part of her question. Before Coltan could answer, the two were interrupted.

"Sir, would you like something to drink?" The red-headed waiter had returned with Chloe's water, and he set it down on her coaster beside a small bowl of lemon slices.

"I want a Cherry Coke, and can we go ahead and order for ourselves and our friends? They'll be here soon," Coltan said, indicating the two other seats that still sat empty. Chloe paused in her squeezing of the lemon slices over her water, silently cursing the waiter's bad timing. She knew that Coltan wouldn't remember their playful banter after they ordered, and bringing the topic back up was too risky for Chloe. She didn't want to create an awkward atmosphere.

"Of course," the waiter replied.

She continued squeezing the lemon she had in her hand, then dried it off on a napkin before beginning to pick up the menus.

"We'll need a Diet Coke and a regular Dr. Pepper to drink for our friends, and…" he paused. "What does Marnie want to eat?"

Passing Coltan the stack of menus, Chloe met the waiter's gaze. "I'll order. I talked to them both earlier. We'll need a grilled chicken and shrimp combo, with a side of veggies—um, no butter on that—and wild rice. Then, we need a crab legs platter—half-sized—with a side of veggies, too. You can put butter on that one. And I want the crab legs and grilled shrimp combo. Veggies, no butter. Oh, and no salad for anyone." Reaching for her lemons again, she continued to drain the juice into her water as Coltan ordered his plate of chicken fingers and fries. When the waiter walked away, she snickered.

"You're going to have a heart attack. We'll all outlive you."

"Die young, make a pretty corpse."

"You have such macabre sense of humour," Chloe sniffed. "Oooh, touch. Me. I used an Applegate vocab word."

"And you call me a teacher's pet?" Coltan laughed. "Are you making your restaurant lemonade again? Why go to all that trouble and not just order it?"

Chloe threw the last drained lemon slice back in the bowl, grabbing the Splenda packs of the center of the table. Not replying, she clutched five packets together and tore off the tops simultaneously. As she tipped the sweetener over her drink, she answered.

"Cause this way, it's free."

"Hey, you two!" a voice said from behind.

Cringing inwardly at recognizing the voice, she tapped the bottoms of the packets to get out the last of the Splenda. Coltan had already risen from his seat, and Chloe knew she needed to turn around before she aroused suspicion. After she twisted in her seat, she allowed her eyes to examine the voice's body—the body of Jake Strong. Of medium height and thin, with a square face, short nose, and a dimple beside a bright, but rather small lipped smile, he wore a relaxed black t-shirt with fitted jeans that clung to the easy movement of his legs as he moved towards her. Chloe forced her lips to spread across her face into what she hoped was a welcoming grin.

"Hi, Jake. How are you?" The stiff politeness went unnoticed by both guys. Rather than answering immediately, Jake tossed his chin length, dark curls out of his face with a swish of the head, leaned down, and then wrapped his arms around Chloe in a casually quick hug.

"Great, sweetie. Looking sexy. You need to wear your hair down more often—wearing it like that when it's so long makes you look skinnier," he appraised. "And you…" Jake turned to Coltan, roaming his dark eyes over the body hidden beneath a fuschia shirt and barely loose jeans. "You're looking hot, too."

"Yeah, thanks. I try," Coltan replied, a strangely gentle look on his face. His tongue darted over his lips as he took a step towards Jake, leaned in, and kissed him.

"Especially for you, baby."

I'm doubting anyone found the ending a surprise. If you did, let me know. If you read this, let me know. PLEASE PLEASE REVIEW. I love all reviews--except flames, which are promptly ignored. Constructive criticism, however, is always helpful. Allow me to offer my undying gratitude for taking the time to read!!! --Muse