Uncomfortable

"Let me take a picture," Mom said, waving the camera in my face as I trudged down the stairs.

"Mom, leave me alone," I groaned, shielding my face with hand as she lifted the camera to her face. "I look like shit."

"Lauren."

"Fine, I look like crap, okay?" Mornings weren't really my thing, if you want to know the truth. Definitely didn't bring out the best of me.

"You look perfectly fine. Now let me see your face!" Mom swatted at my hand with hers, frowning slightly when I didn't give in. "Come on, you only begin junior year once!"

"You're joking me," I muttered, dodging away from her. "You wouldn't come to my junior high graduation, but suddenly junior year is so important? It's supposed to be the worst year of high school, Mom."

"Oh, hush," Mom said, finally dropping her arms to her side. "I'll make you a deal, okay? One picture and I'll pick you up some ice cream for after school. Does that sound good?"

I really wanted to argue, but even 7-in-the-morning me understood the significance of such a compromise. Caramel swirl ice cream was the closest thing I had to an actual addiction, so naturally everyone else in my family detested it. Because of that unfortunate fact, Mom never bought any, unless she was trying to bribe me into something. It was her surefire way to insure that I'd do absolutely anything; I'd sell my soul for a carton of it.

I dropped my hands to my side and sighed loudly. "Fine," I drawled. "Whatever."

Mom smiled sweetly, but her eyes glinted with victory as she brought the camera up again. "Smile!" she said cheerily.

I pulled my lips back into a grimace, wrinkling my nose at her tone. People shouldn't be allowed to be so happy in the morning. It's always made me hate things more, when I should be sleeping and people are happy anyway. It's like they're taunting me.

"A real smile or you're getting chocolate," Mom warned.

I sighed again, this time much more dramatically than before, but plastered a large, muscle-aching smile onto my face.

"Happy?" I asked from between clenched teeth, carefully keeping the smile into place.

"Perfect," Mom replied slowly, focusing hard on the camera before snapping the picture.

"Look at little Lauren McCrary," a voice said from the kitchen entrance. "She's all grown up."

I turned to glare at Sidney, who was leaning lazily against the door frame. He didn't look tired. He looked absolutely infuriating, if you would have asked me.

"Who invited you?" I snapped, running a hand tiredly through my knotted hair. For some reason, it annoyed me a little more than it should have that he decided to just waltz in while my hair was a mess. I didn't want to give him more reasons to make fun of me.

Mom shot me a glare that Sidney couldn't see before turning to him. "So good to see you," she said to him, bubbling up in a way she almost never did. I swear, she was more in love with him than Dad. "Thanks so much for driving Lauren to school this year. We really appreciate it."

By we, Mom meant herself, of course. I didn't understand why she couldn't drive me to school, like she did every other year. For some reason, she was hell bent on having Sidney Reese tote me around everywhere. Given our history, I couldn't see how she thought that was a good idea.

"'S no big deal," he replied, glancing over at me idly. "It's not like I'm going out of my way. Besides, Lauren is such a gem."

Mom lit up at his words, but I couldn't help but narrow my eyes at him from behind her back. What she thought was a well-to-do compliment from the golden boy next door was obviously just another stunt to annoy me, and though she was blind to his motives, I sure wasn't. "Shut up," I mouthed, but he only grinned back, winking when my mother must have looked away.

"Would you like to have some breakfast with Lauren before you go?" Mom offered.

"I already ate," Sidney said just as I burst, "I'm not hungry."

Mom turned to raise her eyebrows at me. "Are you sure?" she asked. "I made some eggs."

"I'm fine," I said quickly, wiping my hands against my jeans. It was mostly the truth, too. I was just too nervous to eat, and part of me didn't really want Sidney to wait around as I stuffed my mouth full of food anyway.

Mom gave me a tight smile and a nod. "All right," she said, though she didn't sound very convinced. "Well, since you have a little time before you go, how about one last picture?" I was just about to argue that I'd only promised one picture when she quickly added, "This time with Sidney. I want to send it to Monica."

Jeez, did she really have to bring Sidney's mom into it? I couldn't exactly back down now, especially since I knew Mom would bring it up to Mrs. Reese at some point, explaining that I obviously wasn't as great of a daughter as Sidney was a son. Besides, Mrs. Reese was really nice, and I wouldn't want to disappoint her. God knows seeing her son and I standing side-by-side, smiling and jovial and actually getting along, would do nothing but make her heart burst with sunlight and rainbows. You know, or something like that.

"That sounds like a great idea," Sidney chimed in. "Mom would love it. She didn't get to take any pictures this morning, she was too tired from all the gardening yesterday. It's pretty tough doing it all on your own."

I knew he was just trying to get to me, but it's safe to say it worked–a wave of guilt hit me. Mrs. Reese had come by our house the day before and asked me to come out and help her weed out some of the dying plants, just as she did every year. When I was younger, she only asked because I was about the only underage girl in the neighborhood and I was constantly left out by the boys, but after a few years we'd both begun to enjoy the task, working diligently under the burning sun and throwing around comfortable small talk. When she'd come by, I had wanted to say yes–I really did want to help her–but being the coward I was, I'd politely declined the offer and spent the day watching television instead. I hadn't wanted to be anywhere near Sidney's house. Ever since the barbecue, I'd been carefully avoiding any place I knew I might see him.

Mom glanced over at me, a look of confusion on her face. She hadn't yet heard that I'd skipped out on helping, and I didn't really want to discuss it with her in front of Sidney, so I quickly said, "Yeah, sure, one more picture won't hurt."

Mom smiled at me, but it was tight-lipped and forced, as if she didn't know what else to do.

"Okay, you two," she said. "Get together."

I started to step toward Sidney, but before I could go any further he pushed himself away from the doorframe and strolled over to where I was standing. He threw his arm over my shoulder, as if it was something he did every day, but I couldn't help but stiffen under his embrace. Sidney smiled–either to my mother for the picture or to himself because of my reaction –and asked, "How's this?"

"Almost perfect," Mom replied, giving me a pointed look. "Smile, Lauren." I could hear the secret threat trailing off the end of her words: Smile, Lauren, or no caramel swirl for you.

I narrowed my eyes at her for a second, but I quickly wiped the look off my face and tried the most genuine smile I could. It was a little more difficult than it should have been, probably because I was tired and, as always, a little annoyed at Sidney for his very existence and the fact that it could jeopardize my afternoon affair with my favorite ice cream. And maybe it had to do with those little traces of TWCBN that I'd felt at the barbecue, but I wasn't ready to admit that. Not willingly, at least.

Mom looked at us for a minute, beaming, as if soaking in the moment. Was I the only one that felt so incredibly awkward? Mom was certainly enjoying the view, and Sidney didn't seem to mind it, but I just felt shifty and impatient.

After about a hundred years, Mom finally held the camera back up and pressed the button on top. We were assaulted with a flash of light as the camera recorded the picture, causing little black dots to dance across my vision.

"There," Mom said, giving us one last look. "Okay, I'm done. You guys can head out now."

Sidney grinned and patted my shoulder before moving away. "Ready, Laur-Laur?" he asked. He just loved giving me the stupidest nicknames.

I rolled my eyes and shoved him toward the door. "Lead the way," I ordered.

I knew Mom was giving me another look of disapproval, but I didn't bother to check. "See ya," I called over my shoulder as I followed Sidney out of the kitchen and out the front door.

"She's feeling oddly sentimental, isn't she?" Sidney asked as he climbed into the driver's seat of his truck, an old beaten-down Chevy.

"She's finally starting to realize that when we graduate in two years, she's going to be stuck with Kellie," I replied as I settled into the passenger's side, slamming the door behind me. "She'll want to remember the good ol' days. That kid may look cute on the outside, but she's a total monster."

Sidney made a small noise, though I wasn't sure if it was out of amusement or disinterest. He put the car into reverse and glanced at the rearview mirror before he glided out of our driveway.

I suddenly wished I was the one who got to drive. Sidney was lucky–he was distracted by what he was doing, so he didn't have to worry about what to do with himself. I, on the other hand, couldn't keep my eyes still, and I wrung my hands together nervously. I felt out of place beside him. Contrary to a few of the rumors that had buzzed around school, I wasn't exactly accustomed to spending a lot of time alone with Sidney, especially in such close quarters. We'd grown up with each other, sure, but usually with some sort of adult supervision lingering near, waiting for the moment that one of us decided to attack the other.

Sidney glanced over at me and rolled his eyes. "What are you so jumpy for?" he asked. "No matter how crazy your mom has gotten, it's just junior year. It's not like you haven't gone to the same school for the past two years or anything."

I shot him a glare, only partially grateful that I finally found something productive to do with my eyes. "Shut up," I muttered. "I'm just tired."

"Oh, that's why you're acting like you're hopped up on meth," he said in mock realization. "Should've known."

"You're acting extra douche-y today," I remarked, which wasn't necessarily true. In comparison to most days, he was only being moderately douche-y, but I felt as though that explanation might somehow take away the effect of my comment.

He rolled his eyes but didn't reply. I would have felt victorious, but I sort of wished he would have kept going. At least when we were insulting each other we weren't sitting in awkward silence.

I looked out the window and watched the town fly by. Not the best idea, considering the lovely mood I was in. If anything killed me more than Sidney did, it was probably our neighborhood. Whether it was the carbon-copy houses or the yards that I knew cost hundreds of dollars to keep polished, something about it just really annoyed me most of the time.

"It's awful, isn't it?" I said.

"What?" Sidney asked, glancing over at me.

"All of this," I replied, gesturing wildly toward the window. "I mean… jeez, what kind of bubble do we live in? We have sprinklers to water the yards and we actually pay people to clean our own messes. It's ridiculous."

Sidney snorted, and I almost expected him to agree. He loved poking fun at everything, as far as I knew. He loved his sarcasm more than he loved just about anything else. Instead, he remained quiet, almost as if I hadn't said anything at all.

"It's just…" I trailed off, unsure whether I really wanted to talk to him. But I was bored, and honestly, I felt more than a little uncomfortable, so I continued. "I mean, it's like everyone who has the money to live here gets praised for being 'such hard workers' and 'making their own way' and crap, but then once they're at home they're too lazy to actually do anything, you know? They're too lazy to even find a house that's creative enough that it doesn't look every other one on the block. It just kind of sucks."

"You realize you're talking about your parents, right?" he pointed out.

"I know," I replied. "I'm not stupid."

"Hm," he said slowly, and I was ready for the heavy dose of cynicism that I was sure he was cooking up. Instead, he said, "Either you're not a morning person or you're a lot bitterer than I've ever taken you to be. Either way, you're in an awfully great 'I hate the world' mood today, aren't you?"

"And you're surprisingly not," I replied, giving him a suspicious look. "What's wrong with you?"

"I don't take as much pleasure in bagging on everything as you do," he said, and when I opened my mouth to argue, added, "Well, you know, except for you. You know you're the only thing I could ever really love complaining about."

It was a stupid comment. I couldn't even tell if it was supposed to be a compliment or an insult, but for some reason I couldn't help but smile. Which is a little ridiculous when you really think about it. This was Sidney Reese, after all, the boy who wrote my phone number in the boy's bathroom during middle school with the note "call for a good time" scrawled next to it. If anything, I should have been coming up with a valid insult to use against him, but the school was already in view and I guess I just didn't have it in me. At least, that's what I told myself.


Lily must've decided that she wanted to pull the hippie vibe this week, because she was wearing a long colorful skirt, a slightly see-through shirt, and hemp bracelets that she probably made during a strike of inspiration that weekend. When she saw me walk into the school, she gave me a wide grin; when she noticed who was beside me, it faltered slightly, her eyebrows rocketing to the ceiling.

"Hey, Laurie," she said when I reached her, then glanced toward my chauffer. "Sidney."

He smiled slightly at her and nodded hello, pausing only for a moment to exchange niceties with her. (Hey, how are you doing? Oh really? That's great. Well I'm going to go to class before I'm late. Stupid Sidney Reese, who was he trying to kid?) He gave me one last look, something that involved a smirk, the cock of an eyebrow, and a whole lot of arrogance, before he walked past us and into the heavy stream of students heading toward their home rooms.

"He's a total pain, isn't he?" I asked, glaring after him even though I knew he couldn't see me. I was hoping he'd get the psychic vibes from me, but he was never really good at that anyway. He could be the most oblivious person sometimes.

"Why were you with him?" Lily asked, completely unfazed to my anti-Reese comments. "Doesn't seem very Lauren-like of you."

"My mom's having him drive me to and from school every day," I replied, rolling my eyes. "Apparently it doesn't matter how much I suffer as long as it makes her life easier."

"Hm," Lily said, a smile playing at the corner of her lips. "Well, I'm definitely interested to see what rumors are going to come from this. I can see it now." She waved her hands in front of her, as if mimicking a newspaper headline. "'McCrary and Reese come back from break as enemies-turned-lovers.'"

I swatted at her shoulder and made a face. "Lovers?" I spat. "Okay, gross. I don't care if you're joking, that's going too far."

"Just wait," she said sagely. "Listen to the gossip, within a few days people are going to wonder about you guys. There are already people who think you guys hook up every once in awhile, and you're definitely not helping the rumors. You're just lucky no one else saw you guys in the pool together during the block party. I don't care how many times you say nothing happened, it sure didn't look that way."

I shuddered and tried my best not to blush, even though the thought was incredibly humiliating to me. Blushing would be admitting something, and I had nothing to confess. Nothing had happened in the pool, but Lily had gotten an eyeful of me and Sydney's little water fight after she told Zac she had to use the bathroom and had instead fled to find me and squeal about what a "mega-sexy god" he was or something. In the version of the story that she told me, she hadn't expected to see me and Sidney together, which is probably the only reason she didn't barge into the pool area to begin with. Lily was bold and brash and unashamed, but she wasn't used to being caught off guard by me.

"Please, stop it," I groaned. "You're really not helping anything."

Lily held her hands palm forward, as if she were surrendering. "Sorry, boss," she said. "Just informing you on the possible consequences."

I shrugged away the comment. "Whatever," I said. "So, you have English with me first period, don't you?"

Lily looked at me for a long moment, her eyes crinkling in the corners. I tried to ignore her at first, but when she still didn't say anything, I wrinkled my nose at her. "What?" I asked.

She smiled and shook her head. "Nothing," she said.

I raised my eyebrows at her. "Seriously, what?"

She just shook her head again with that same goofy smile and said, "Nothing, really. So… English. You think Zac Wells will be in class with us?"

"In an honors class?" I asked. "With his brain? Doubtful."

Lily elbowed me. "Hey, he is really smart, even if he doesn't seem like it."

"Sure," I said, rolling my eyes. "Whatever you say."

I expected Lily to argue and defend the honor of her imaginary boyfriend, but instead her smile grew wider and she just shook her head again.

"Okay, what are you on?" I asked, giving her another weird look.

"Nothing," she said for about the hundredth time, letting out a little laugh. "I just think this year is going to be really interesting, that's all."

"Okay, pseudo-hippy Lily," I said with a roll of my eyes. "Now you're starting to sound like my mother."

But even as I said it I sort of knew that Lily was right. Just looking at how she'd transformed from her braces and little-kid hairstyles into a gorgeous, Zac Wells-loving fashionista made it obvious that we were all on the brink of something different, something I wasn't quite sure I was ready for. For better or for worse, something was going to change. I just didn't know what.


Author's note: thanks to all reviewers. You're very awesome people, do you know that? Deadkitty1, DarkStar616, and not Ross, y'all know what's up.

This is sort of a bridge chapter, but I'm hoping to delve farther into the story very soon. Drama is about to unfold with nearly everyone… ah, the beauty of love.

Sorry for the lack of updating. I'll be gone for at least another week, but I'll try to become more frequent with my chapters.

Love always,

Autumn