It was New Year's Eve when I got my chance to confess my feelings. Cameron and I were the only two at the townhouse. The rest of the gang had gone out partying. Cameron, lounging on the couch, holding both a beer and a cigarette, appeared to be in a decent mood. The timing couldn't have been more ideal for me to confess my feelings—and to ask him the question which was persistently gnawing at the back of my mind. I felt strangely nervous. The words were stuck in my throat. I paced back and forth, trying desperately to muster up enough courage. It'd be harder than I thought it would.

"What's with you?" Cameron asked. "You're acting really weird." He couldn't really talk; he kept looking at the clock at least once every other minute. I walked over to him.

"Gimme a cigarette." (Lately I needed to smoke when I was really nervous or stressed—like now. Of course, it was kind of hard not to when you had been living in a house full of smokers).

Cameron held his cigarettes out of my reach. "You're trying to avoid the subject…"

"There's nothing to talk about…I'm not avoiding anything!" I spoke more sharply than I would've liked. Cameron gave me a meaningful look and surrendered the cigarettes. I fished one out and stuck it in my mouth. I picked up a spare lighter and resumed pacing. Why was it so difficult to say those three simple words? I love you. I'd said it to my parents; why couldn't I say them to Cameron?

…The clock struck midnight and Cameron flopped back on the couch, completely relaxed. He looked as if a huge burden had just been lifted. I sat down on the edge of the couch. "What put you in such a good mood?" I asked. Cameron stuck a new cigarette in his mouth and rested his arms behind his head.

"I never have to see Bill or Angie again," he said brightly. "Could you gimme a light? I'm comfortable." He wore a huge grin. His nonchalant remark and behavior made the knot in my stomach tighten.

"Does that mean you're not coming back with me?" I asked timidly, ignoring his request.

Cameron looked up at me incredulously. "Yeah," he said. "Why would I? I was dragged there against my will. My life's up here. Besides, I've been waiting years to finally get away from them. I hate them. I'm not going back." "I'm 18," Cameron added, seeing my confused expression. "They're not in charge of me anymore. I can do whatever I want. Now come on," he urged. "The cig's not gonna light itself." I felt my heart sink. So that was why he kept staring at the clock. He was counting down the time until he turned 18—until he was granted his freedom.

"Oh," I managed weakly.

I sat there in stunned silence for a minute. I knew I couldn't just give up on him that easily. "So that's it?" I asked. "You're just going to stay here and be a gangster until you get shot and killed?"

"Works for me," Cameron answered. There was a slight note of anger beginning to make its way into his voice. Telling him what he should do with himself never failed to get under his skin.

"Grow up," I said. "You can't honestly think that you can spend the rest of your life doing this."

"I don't see why not," answered Cameron. "It worked fine for Darryl."

"Look how he ended up though," I wheedled. "He had a promising future and he gave it up for the gang. It cost him his life. I don't want you to end up like him…" (I had long since heard Darryl's biography). I didn't want anything to happen to Cameron, especially not dying at such a young age.

Cameron got to his feet. His temper was wearing dangerously thin. "He was like an older brother to me and I'd do anything to even have a shot of being like him…Besides, it's none of your business what I do with my life," he snapped. Wasn't it partially because of me he still had a life? There was no reasoning with him when he got pissed off.

"I know it's not," I said, "and I admire your loyalty to him. But there are so much more beneficial things you could do. Like, if you finished high school…"

"You two-faced bitch!" Cameron exploded. "That's the only reason why you came up here. I should've known. You fed me all that bullshit just to try and build my trust. But you never actually cared about me. It was just a trick to get your way. All you care about is school…"

He was talking crazy. Hadn't I proved anything to him? I had done a complete makeover—exterior and soul—but no one saw any difference. "It may have started out like that, but things have changed…I've changed…"

"Why did you come here then?" demanded Cameron.

"I came because I…" Once again the words I longed to say stuck in my throat. "Because I…" My courage failed me. I just couldn't say it. I sighed. "Okay, I did come up here to get you to come back to school." The toughest words I ever had to say. It was difficult to determine if Cameron looked more hurt or angry. "I'm sorry," I said softly. "But it was all for the sake of trying to help you improve your life…"

"If you want to improve my life, get out of it."

He stormed down the basement stairs, banging the door behind him. Things rattled from the force of the slam. Over that, I heard the roar of music.

I left New York within the hour. I didn't even bother with my bags. I just wanted to get away. I could find other clothes. Almost blinded by tears, I snatched up my keys and ran out to my car. I jammed the keys into the ignition and floored the gas pedal. I probably drove into every trashcan on that block and the next two blocks, but I didn't care less. All I could focus on were Cameron's last poisonous words. My heart felt like it had been torn to shreds. Again.

I drove all night long without stopping. Once I was back in the refuge of familiar surroundings, rather than going home, I went to the bar and decided to get as drunk as I possibly could.

"Wow," remarked Ryan, as I chugged down my third bottle of beer, "I've never seen you so… thirsty."

I tipped the bottle so the last possible drop fell into my mouth. I slapped the counter and another bottle coasted over. "Not going into detail. Just got back from New York and I'm tired as hell. Happy… fucking… New Year."

"So you've been in New York. That's why you actually look hot."

"Compliments aren't going to work. You're not my type."

"Please. You think I'm that desperate?" Here Ryan ran his fingers through his hair. "I have ladies all over me." This behavior screamed desperate.

"Reality check. They were into Cameron and they settled on you as second pick."

"Yeah, well…" Ryan slumped forward, unable to think of a comeback. "Well, where's Casanova himself?" he finally retorted, way too late.

"In New York," I seethed, slapping the counter again. He's being a stupid asshole with his friends, his stupid, asshole friends. They're all assholes, the lot of them. People are assholes. Men are assholes." Ryan looked awed as he tried to count the number of times I said "asshole". Now he looked offended

"I'm not!" he argued. "I treat all my ladies good. I give them the respect they deserve…"

"Really," I said. "If that's the case, I'm sure you should have no problem looking me in the eye and not at my chest."

"You wouldn't have them hanging out in the open if you didn't want people looking," answered Ryan. "Now, quick. Act like you don't know me."

"With pleasure," I answered. A girl was approaching.

"Hey, Monique baby! What's up?" Ryan said with what he thought was a winning smile.

"Who's Monique?" the girl seethed, striding over to him. "My name is Erica." She poured her drink over his head and stalked off. "If you want him, you can have him," she said to me. "Ugh. Asshole." She flounced off. My point proven.

"Well, I'm not seeing too many ladies on you, but their drinks sure are," I smirked. Perhaps I had had one drink too many, but Ryan was starting to look attractive. Generous of her to give me Ryan… I decided then and there it was time to go home.

…My homecoming wasn't particularly pleasant, nor the last few days of my Winter Break. My parents kept making remarks that "their daughter had been replaced by a New York stripper" "I looked like a tramp" "I had destroyed myself" and several other things. I didn't even get a "welcome home" or a "how was your trip" when I got back. Every other second they seemed to be on the phone with a different relative, venting. I would listen in and some pretty hurtful things were said. God. I was still their daughter.

It was nice to have such supportive parents. (It got even better when they discovered my tattoo). Nevertheless, I kept my new look. And just for that, I went out and got another one: a star on upper arm. I felt like I looked good and looking good was the only thing I had at the moment. I also completely stopped responding to Jennifer. It was 'Mel' or Melissa on occasion or I wouldn't reply. Of course, I was getting so distant with my parents, I often wouldn't reply at all.

I was an emotional wreck after what happened between me and Cameron. But he had been right. Cigarettes did help you cope with a stressful home life. (My parents also loved that new habit). Needless to say, I tried to spend as little time home as I could. If I was at home, I would stay locked in my room, updating my wardrobe or thinking about New York, the gang, and Cameron. I hadn't had it in me to get rid of the black bandana that I unknowingly kept as a souvenir. Right now it was the only thing that kept me tied to it all.

…I was jostled awake by the ringing of my alarm clock. I slid reluctantly out of bed and started rooting around my room for something to wear. As quietly as I possibly could, having no desire to wake up—much less talk to--my parents, I took a shower and got dressed. I quickly applied some mascara and eyeliner and headed downstairs. I grabbed my keys and backpack and slipped into the garage. I drove off to a Starbucks to get a latte.

I sat on a stool, sipping the latte and staring aimlessly around. I noticed a guy who looked a lot like Cameron sitting a couple tables away. I shook myself. Judging from experience, a lot of people looked like Cameron. Either that or my feelings for him were just making me delusional. But still…he did look remarkably like Cameron. I strained to get a better look. It was hard; he was reading a newspaper, so his face was half-hidden behind it. He got to his feet and turned to leave, expertly walking with the paper hiding his face. At the door, he crumpled it and threw it on top of the stuffed trashcan. I leaned further over, straining for one more glimpse…further…and further.

Crash! My stool and I fell over in a heap. I immediately scrambled to my feet and righted the stool. Ignoring the strange looks everyone was giving me, I dashed over to the trashcan and took out the newspaper. (What was wrong with me? I was looking at his paper first!) Cameron surprisingly liked and was good at the crossword puzzles and sudoku in the paper. I opened where the guy left off. Job ads. Cameron never expressed an interest in finding a job. Doubt was beginning to cloud my mind.

Now I raced out to the parking lot, looking around hopefully for a black Hummer. There was none. Tears teetered on my eyelashes; I was just so disappointed. I brushed them away. I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up so high—it was blatantly obvious I was never going to see or hear from Cameron again. I sighed and headed for school.

I pulled into the parking lot. For a few minutes I just sat in my car, listening to my radio and looking around. All of the cheerleaders were clustered around a tall blonde guy, presumably a new student. Clearly Cameron was out of all their thoughts, but why couldn't I get him out of mine? Slipknot's "Wait and Bleed" came on the radio and I turned it off. It had played when Cameron and I were going on a leisurely drive. I trudged into the building.

Mr. Green noticed me. "Hello," he said pleasantly. "You must be the new student we were expecting." I allowed myself to smile. I knew he was kidding around with me, considering I hadn't been in school for a good while. He escorted me to his office. He took a seat at his desk. "So what did you say your name was again?" he asked.

He was beginning to take the joke a little too far. Enough was enough. "You can stop at any time, Mr. Green," I said. "It's not funny anymore."

"What's not funny?" Mr. Green looked so puzzled that I realized he hadn't been joking at all. Did he really think I was someone else?

"You… do know it's me, right?" I asked timidly.

Mr. Green gasped and fell out of his chair. He stared up at me, in complete shock—and horror. "J—Jennifer?" he managed. "What in the world did you do to yourself?!" Not him too. The way he said "do to yourself" sounded as if I had completely maimed myself to past the recognizable point. It left me feeling very indignant.

"It's Melissa now and I've grown up," I said simply, a note of bitterness in my voice. "I wouldn't consider that destroying myself—as you so blatantly seem to think."

"Grown up? If anything you've done possibly some of the most childish things I can think of!" spluttered Mr. Green.

It amazed me how absolutely little Mr. Green's opinion now meant. I couldn't begin to imagine having ever found him so awe-spiring and influential. Right now, he struck me as nothing more than a blind, closed-minded windbag.

"I'm going to class," I announced, before he could further badger me. Deaf to Mr. Green's stammers, I slipped from his office and closed the door behind me. The only thing left to do was go to class. I felt, as I walked down the hall, like I was being watched. I wasn't being watched; I was being gawked at, to be precise. A freshman was walking along, and then he stared at me and smacked into a locker door. I shook my head, smiling slightly—for the first time in days. Stupid freshman. Several guys whom I openly knew had a very little opinion of me now actually smiled in my direction. A number of girls who had had no use for me watched me, awestruck.

I wandered into Calculus, retrieved my stack of make-up work, ignored all of the remarks made about my disappearance, and sat down at my desk. The new guy was sitting in the desk next to mine. The seat that had once belonged to Cameron. It just made me realize even more that he was never coming back. The guy smiled flirtatiously and started to say something.

No guy could come close to Cameron. I held up my hand. "Not interested." I looked down at my work and started writing. I never remembered class being so long. I couldn't concentrate on the assignment in front of me, so I looked up at the clock. Either it was broken, or every second just felt like an hour. I tried to get back to work, but my brain was elsewhere: In New York with Cameron. I wondered what he was doing… I looked down at my paper. I had scrawled Cameron for the first few answers. I sighed and erased it. It was amazing how incomplete, pointless even, my life felt without him. I was in love, and I had fallen hard. Finally, I just gave up on my Calculus papers. I'd do them at home. Mrs. Henderson, seeing that I appeared to be finished, asked if I could go make her copies of tomorrow's assignments.

"I don't feel like it," I replied disinterestedly. I wasn't intending to be rude; I just honestly didn't feel like it. I had more important things—and people, namely Cameron—to concentrate on. The classroom became deathly silent. Everyone stopped what they were doing, and once again all eyes were on me.

Mrs. Henderson looked both shocked and annoyed that I'd disobeyed. "Well," she said crossly. "I need copies made for my next class."

I wasn't her slave. She was every bit as capable of doing it as I was. "Go make some copies then," I answered serenely, not moving from my seat. "You know where the Copy Room is."

My classmates looked awed but somewhat pleased by this remark. Mrs. Henderson looked as if she wanted to kill me. I stared calmly back at her. "What's that look for?" I asked. "I haven't done anything wrong."

"You must certainly have! I asked you to do something for me and it is expected that you do it."

"It is also expected of you to make your own lesson plans, but that never stopped you from making me do it." I felt surprisingly calm. "You clearly slack off on your job, so how can it be expected that your students not?" Goading her on was making me feel better about my disastrous Winter Break.

Mrs. Henderson was struck dumb. She was amazed that I had the mordacity to challenge her—and she couldn't argue because I was right. The scathing look she gave me too clearly told me that I was no longer her favorite and that I had only been because I was stupid enough to let her walk all over me. That would never happen again. "Get…out…of…my…classroom!" she snarled.

As I left the room, I noticed a very preppy-looking girl, yet another new student, jump eagerly to her feet. "I'd be more than happy to make copies for you, Mrs. Henderson." She shot a look of disgust in my direction and happily accepted the papers—almost as if it was some huge treat….poor idiot…she was allowing herself to be lured into slavery…

"That's alright, Jennifer," Mr. Green said as soon as I entered his office. "I don't need anything. Phoebe's already taken care of everything." The preppy girl was standing in the office, excitedly awaiting his next request. I gave her a pitying look. How could she honestly enjoy running errands? "You can go back to class," Mr. Green said to me. He seemed to have altogether missed out on my speech earlier this morning. Well, I couldn't argue with him there. He didn't need to know that I'd been sent there as a punishment. I left the office.

I heard Phoebe say to Mr. Green, "Sir, why would you want someone like her running your errands?" I felt like a huge burden had been lifted as I walked down the hall. I felt almost as if I'd just become a normal person. It felt good, much better than being like Phoebe…. Like I used to be….

I walked into 3rd period. Mr. Wolfe launched into one of his rants as soon as we entered the classroom. I collected my large pile of make-up work and sat down at my desk. I did my best to tune him out and start working. I found it to be just as meaningless as Calculus. I honestly just didn't care anymore about something as trivial and useless as Physics or Calculus.

I heard loud heavy metal music all of a sudden. I tried to tune it out too: it was distracting me from distracting myself from Mr. Wolfe's lecture. I suddenly sat bolt upright. This seemed oddly familiar… Mr. Wolfe thought so too, because he suddenly stared out the window and his face blanched.

"Not him again!" he whimpered. Naturally his reaction made everyone run to the window. Only Phoebe and I remained in our seats, but for completely different reasons. My hopes couldn't be any higher. But I didn't want to be crushed again.

"He's back!" someone yelled, almost disbelievingly. I couldn't take the suspense anymore. I stood up on my chair to see over the crowd.

…A black Hummer was being driven into the parking lot. My heart soared. It was Cameron… it had to be.

Phoebe tried her hardest to capture everyone's attention. "There is nothing amusing about some idiot trying to make himself deaf. Now, could everyone kindly get back to their seats, so we go on with our lesson?" She turned to me. "Get off the chair," she nagged.

"Mind your own fucking business," I answered, my eyes still glued to the window.

"Mr. Wolfe, are you going to let her get away with behavior like that?" whined Phoebe.

Mr. Wolfe looked like he wanted to hide under his desk. "Screw Jennifer!" he exclaimed. "It's Cameron I'm worried about!"

"Who?"

While Phoebe was distracting Mr. Wolfe, I slipped out of the classroom and ran out to the parking lot. My heart was beating madly as I approached Cameron. There were so many things I wanted to say. Shockingly, my voice came out rather cold as I said, "What are you doing here?"

"Going to school," Cameron answered in an equally distant manner.

"Why are you here?" I repeated contemptuously. "Why didn't you stay in New York? Obviously, your whole life is there."

"I thought I made it inexplicably clear when I said my life is none of your business." I was both insulted and appalled. He didn't come back just for school, did he? Wow, growing up could clearly change a person. Just look at me…Cameron disdainfully slung his fraying backpack over one shoulder and started to walk off…

…The next second, he'd whirled around and was kissing me—rather forcefully. He pulled back and stared intensely me. "I can't keep lying to myself," he said, "or you."

"What do you mean?" I asked, unsure of what to expect.

"I love you," Cameron burst out. "I have since…I don't even know when." There was another moment of frantic kissing.

…By now, nearly the entire school was peering, with great interest, out at us. Cameron pulled back. "I'm so sorry," he said breathlessly. "This has got to be weird for you. Some asshole just confessing his love after barely knowing you four months… especially after I treated you like shit all that time….I'm sorry…I didn't want you to know how I felt…I just thought you were so out of my league…" Say what?! How the heck was I out of his league!? "…You're beautiful…and smart…just all around the most amazing girl—person—I've ever met…" I was beginning to think there was something seriously wrong with Cameron. He was telling me everything I was hoping to hear—but that wasn't the Cameron I knew. Could he have been taking lessons from that evil slime ball Damien?

"Can you stop spacing out for one second and listen to me?!" Cameron demanded, turning right back into his old self.

"Sorry?" I said meekly. I hadn't realized I had been doing anything wrong, much less, zoning out.

"See? I'm doing it again!" Cameron groaned, scrubbing his hand down his face. I was beginning to think he had multiple personalities. "I know you probably think I'm a total bastard and you'd have every right to never talk to me again, to hate me even, but I just have to get this off my chest. I couldn't tell you how I felt…I wanted to…every day…but someone like you with someone like me…who was I kidding? You probably don't even have any use for someone who isn't as gifted as Damien…" Cameron was being to get nervous and he was starting to talk faster, the cool guy image all but fading. So that was the insecure, self-conscious Cameron Alicia had told me about. I always thought she had been making him up to get me to like him more. (She told me a lot of things about Cameron). If you read him the wrong way, Cameron could easily off as arrogant. His anxious blabbering was kind of cute and I felt much less intimidated by him now.

I held up my hand, causing Cameron to stutter to a stop. "Don't worry about it," I soothed. "Any of it. Especially not Damien. Kissing him was like making out with a dog! And…and I didn't sleep with him!"

Cameron had looked tense, almost to the point of being petrified, as he had awaited and listened to my response. He gave a very heavy sigh of relief. "His loss," he said, managing a feeble smile.

Since the cards were on the table, I figured it would be best to tell it how it was. "And I have no clue where you got the crazy idea that I hated you. Remember when I said I came to New York to get you to come back to school? It was a lie. I came because I loved you. I love you."

Cameron's grin was a mixture of ecstasy and triumph. "You know, you really have come a long way from that nerd I first met."

I thought about it for a few seconds, not sure if this was meant to be a compliment. I wore normal clothes, I had gotten a tattoo and piercings, I talked back to my parents and teachers, I wasn't obsessed with good grades anymore, and I had the love of an amazing guy. I was… normal. I smiled. "I…guess I have…"

Cameron put his arm around my waist. "Come on," he said. "Let's go give 'em hell…"