Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley

Chapter One

The stars above me danced in the cool, black Mexico sky. So I started dancing, too.

My body buzzed with the lingering vibrations from all those hours of flying. The music poured through my headphones and straight into my soul. I twirled, I soared, my head tipped back as I watched the stars.

I’d never seen a sky like this one. All my life I’d been surrounded by cities. Lights had shone on every side of me, drowning out the world.

I never realized that before. Not until I came here.

Here, in the middle of nowhere, all the light came from above. The sky was pure black with a thousand dots of white. Millions, actually, if I remembered Earth Science correctly. The air above looked like one of those lush, incomprehensible oil paintings my mother was always staring at whenever she dragged us to a museum back home.

I wanted to float up among those stars.

Nothing to think about. Nothing to do but soak it in and watch them shine.

The song’s beat pulsed through me. It was my favorite—well, one of my favorites. It was the one I’d never told anyone about because I didn’t want to deal with the looks I’d get.

Listening to it without dancing was impossible.

With my headphones on and my eyes on the sky, my body in constant motion, I was oblivious to the world on the ground. So I didn’t know how long Lori had been trying to get my attention before I felt her sharp tug on my arm.

“Hey!” I lowered my gaze to meet my best friend’s. She winced.

“You don’t need to yell.” Lori rubbed her ear. “I’m right here.”

“Sorry.” I pulled off my headphones.

“You always shout when you wear those. One day you’re going to do it in the middle of church and get kicked out.”

“I never wear headphones in church. Mom would slaughter me.”

“Yeah, well, I’m going to slaughter you right now if you keep acting so antisocial. What are you doing out here all by yourself?”

“Oh, uh.” I glanced back across the darkness toward the courtyard I’d abandoned. The house where the party was being held was on the far edge of town, backing up into the empty hillside. Behind me I could hear the sounds of voices and laughter and faint faraway music floating out over the walls. “Sorry. I guess I forgot.”

Lori laughed. “You’re lucky you’re hot, because you can be a total weirdo when you want to be. Come on, we should mingle.”

Right. I was supposed to be trying.

I followed Lori across the hills and through the courtyard’s tall, swinging wooden door. We passed a few people gathered along the back wall and went up to a table where some chips were set out next to flickering decorative candles.

At least half the party was gathered around the table, talking and rubbing their eyes. We hadn’t all taken the same flights, but everyone had been on at least two planes today, and most of the group looked like they still felt dizzy.

Someone had set up their phone to play music through its little speaker. The melodies were tiny against the open dirt and dotted sky beyond the courtyard walls.

I said hi to the people I knew from church. Lori chattered at everyone, flirting with the guys and fiddling with the bracelet that dangled from her wrist. It was one I’d made. Our allowances were pathetic, so Lori and I made jewelry to sell at school.

I wasn’t sure if saying hi to people and following Lori around officially counted as trying. Maybe it was something close, though. Something closer than dancing by myself under the stars.

But, God, those stars. I had to fight not to let my gaze drift back out into the open air.

Trying wasn’t optional, though. Not this summer.

Because, well. I had this theory.

Granted, all I ever had were theories. That was the whole problem. My life, all fifteen years of it, had been all about the hypothetical and never about the actual.

I was a hypothetical musician (I hadn’t played in more than a year). I was a hypothetical Christian (it wasn’t as though I’d tried any other options). Despite the age on my birth certificate, I was essentially a hypothetical teenager, since real teenagers did way more exciting stuff than I ever did.

But as of this summer, there was one particular theory that was taking up way more space in my brain than I had to spare.

To be honest, my theory was mostly about sex. But it applied to life in general, too. If I wanted to have an interesting life—which I did—then there was no point sitting around debating everything in my head on a constant loop.

If I wanted my life to change, then I had to do something. Or at least try.

And it was now or never. This summer, the summer we’d come to Mexico, was the time to test out my hypothesis.

The problem was, I was really good at sitting around and debating things in my head. Trying stuff? Actually doing it? That wasn’t really my jam.

Lori was different, though. She wasn’t any better than me at doing things, but she sure loved trying.

“We’ve got to go to the welcome party tonight,” she’d whispered to me that afternoon, seconds after the bus dropped us off at the church. “How else are we going to meet all the new guys?”

“I am absolutely not in the mood for a party,” I whispered back as I helped her haul her stuff inside. I’d already decided that, due to jet lag, my theory could wait at least one more day for testing. “I’m all woozy. Like I’m still on that plane, the one that kept shaking around.”

It had taken three different planes followed by a four-hour bus ride to get from home, in Maryland, to this tiny town somewhere way outside Tijuana. I’d never flown before, and now that we were on steady land all I wanted to do was put on my pajamas, go to bed and sleep until noon.

Except it turned out we didn’t have beds. Just sleeping bags lined up on the cement floor of an old church.

I didn’t have pajamas, either. The airline had lost my suitcase.

So I gave up fighting it. My theory was getting tested, jet lag or no jet lag.

“The new guys are going to be incredible,” Lori had whispered to me as we walked to the party with the others.

“They’re going to be exactly the same as the guys we already know,” I whispered back.

“Not true. These guys are way cooler. Much less boring.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Look, I’m an optimist, okay?”

For the next month, the youth groups from our church and two others would be working together on a volunteer project. All Lori cared about was that we’d be spending four weeks with guys who weren’t the same seven guys we’d been hanging out with since we were kids.

I didn’t see what was so bad about the guys at our church. Sure, most of them thought of me as a dorky, preacher’s-daughter, kid-sister type, but, well, that was pretty accurate. And I’d never been great at meeting people. I wasn’t shy or anything. It was only that sometimes, with new people, I didn’t know how exactly to start a conversation. I liked to listen first. You could learn a lot about someone that way.

The welcome party was at one of our host families’ houses. The local minister’s, maybe. But all the adults—my dad and the other ministers and chaperones, plus our Mexican host families—spent the whole time in the living room, which meant the forty-or-so of us from the youth groups had the outdoor courtyard to ourselves. That was a good thing, since whenever the adults were around I could hardly understand what anyone was saying. I’d gotten an A in freshman year Spanish, so I thought I’d be able to get by in Mexico all right, but we hadn’t even made it out of the Tijuana airport before I’d found out the truth. The woman at customs had asked me a question and the only part I understood was por favor. So I stared at her with my head tilted helplessly until Dad whispered for me to unzip my purse so the woman could check it for bombs or whatever.

Along the back wall of the courtyard, where the adults couldn’t see them from inside, a handful of people had started dancing. I turned back to Lori and stole a chip out of her hand. She pushed her long, curly blond hair out of her face and raised her eyebrows at me.

“See, aren’t you glad we didn’t skip this?” Lori lowered her voice. “The guys on this trip are already way more interesting than our usual crowd.”

She meant that they were older. Lori and I were the only two sophomores who’d been allowed to come on this trip. The others were mostly going to be juniors or seniors in the fall. Some, like my brother, Drew, were already in college. Lori and I got special permission because my dad was our church’s youth minister, and he and Lori’s aunt Miranda were both chaperones on this trip.

“Why are you so into meeting new guys, anyway?” I asked Lori.

“I don’t know. I just want to expand my horizons. Have something new, something that’s all mine. You know what I mean?”

I nodded. It sounded like Lori was testing a theory of her own.

We fell into silence. A new song had come on, one of the big songs of the summer that had been playing in every store back home for weeks. Half the group was up and dancing. One of the guys from our church and his girlfriend were swaying slowly with their arms wrapped around each other, even though the song was a fast one.

“Do you want to go dance?” Lori asked.

I gave her a weird look instead of answering. Lori knew very well I never danced in front of people.

I tilted my head back to get another look at those stars. They swam dreamily in the sky.

“Stop looking up so much,” Lori whispered. “Your neck is already freakishly long. People are going to think you have no face.”

“My neck is not freakishly long,” I said, but I lowered my chin anyway.

Two white girls I didn’t know were half dancing, half standing in the darkest corner of the courtyard. One girl had hair so short you could see her scalp and leather cuffs with silver buttons on both wrists. The other girl had dark hair that curled around her ears, heart-shaped sunglasses perched on her head, a tiny silver hoop in her nose and a quiet smile that made me want to smile, too.

“Aki, you’re staring,” Lori said.

“Sorry.” I looked away from the girls.

“Do you like one of them?”

“No.”

“It’s okay if you do. You can tell me.”

“I don’t. I was distracted, that’s all.”

Last year I told Lori I thought I might be bi. Ever since, whenever she saw me looking at a girl, she asked if I liked her. Lori didn’t get that sometimes it was fun just to notice people without having to think about whether you liked them or not.

The girl with the sunglasses turned toward Lori and me. Oh my God. She wasn’t that far away. Had she heard us? I was going to kill Lori.

The girl was still smiling, though.

She was cute, but she made me nervous. I wasn’t used to looking at girls that way. Being bi, just like the rest of my life, had always been mostly hypothetical. I scanned the crowd, trying to look for a guy who was equally cute.

“Is there anyone here you might like?” I asked Lori.

“Maybe.” She nodded toward a super-tall blond guy drinking from one of the frosted glasses our host family had set out. “What do you think of him?”

I studied the guy. He had to have been a senior, at least. He had a T-shirt with a beer company logo and he was laughing loud and sharp at something his friend had said, his mouth open so wide I could see the fillings in his back teeth.

“He looks like a tool,” I said.

“Whatever, you think everybody looks like a tool.”

The girl with the sunglasses was coming toward us. She was even cuter up close.

Oh, God.

“Look who it is,” Lori whispered.

As though I hadn’t already seen her. As though she wouldn’t see Lori whispering and think we were incredibly obvious and immature.

“Hi.” Somehow, the girl was now standing in front of us, her head tilted at a startlingly attractive angle. “You guys seem cool. I’m Christa.”

I had no idea what to say. I shoved a chip in my mouth.

“Thanks.” Lori glanced over at me. “I’m Lori.”

“Hi, Lori.” The girl turned toward me, expectant, but I was still chomping on my tortilla chip. I probably looked like the biggest tool in Mexico.

But Christa didn’t seem bothered. “What church do you guys go to?”

“Holy Life in Silver Spring,” Lori said. I swallowed, nearly choking. Lori ignored me. “What about you?”

“Holy Life in Rockville,” Christa said, her eyes still on me. Then she turned back to Lori. “Does your friend talk?”

Lori nudged me.

“Um. Hey.” I was positive there were chip crumbs on my face. Would it look weirder to leave them there or to wipe them away? What if I was just paranoid and there weren’t chip crumbs on my face, and it looked like I was wiping my face for no reason like a total loser? “I mean, hi.”

My face must’ve been bright red. Why was Christa still looking at me?

“What happened to your girlfriend?” Lori asked, tilting her head toward where Christa had been dancing before.

“She went out around the back to smoke.” Christa lowered her voice and added, “And she’s not my girlfriend.”

“Smoking is revolting,” I said, because I didn’t want to say anything about whether Christa did or didn’t have a girlfriend. Or whether she might want one.

“For real, right?” Christa said. “I try to tell her, but some people, you know?”

She smiled at me. I smiled back. There was a pink streak in her shoulder-length hair that I hadn’t noticed before. She was wearing jeans and a yellow tank top, and her sneakers had red hearts drawn on the sides with a marker. I’d never known it was possible for a person to look as cute as Christa did.

“I’m gonna go get more salsa,” Lori said.

I shook my head at her frantically. I couldn’t do this by myself.

Lori only grinned and left. Christa stayed where she was. Damn it.

“So, what’s your name?” Christa asked me.

“Aki.”

“That’s pretty.”

It was so hard not to giggle. But I managed to keep my face relatively composed as my insides jumped for joy.

“It’s short for Akina,” I explained.

“Akina.” I liked how she said my name. She pronounced it slowly, as though it was some spicy, forbidden word. “That’s even prettier.”

Was this flirting? I’d never really flirted before. Sure, I’d hung out with guys, but they never told me my name was pretty. Instead they made stupid jokes and then looked really happy when I laughed.

Was it even okay to flirt with a girl here? If someone saw us, would they be able to tell we were flirting from across the courtyard? Or did flirting just look like talking?

And if Christa was flirting, what made her think I wanted to flirt back? Was it something about how I looked? What I was wearing? Did she know I wanted her to flirt with me?

Did I want her to?

If she was really gay, she probably had a girlfriend back home. I didn’t know if I was ready to have a girlfriend. I’d never even had a boyfriend for longer than a couple of weeks.

“Wait... Aki?” Christa cocked her head, as if she was studying me. “Aki from Silver Spring. I’ve heard about you.”

“Yeah?”

Oh.

My stomach tensed. This cute girl, the first girl ever to flirt with me, knew exactly who I was.

Of course she did.

I was the black girl with braids. I was Pastor Benny’s daughter. Everyone in all of the Holy Life community knew who I was. I was one of a kind.

But then she said, “You’re like a really talented musician, aren’t you?”

And my stomach didn’t know whether to twist tighter or do flips in the air.

“I. Um.” I didn’t know what to say.

“I’ve definitely heard about you.” The smile spread wider across Christa’s face. “You play a bunch of instruments, right? And you write music and you sing? My friend went to a service at your church where the whole choir sang something you wrote. He said it was gorgeous and that everyone cheered and talked about how amazing you were.”

That had been during Advent in eighth grade. The piece we performed was the same one I’d used for my audition for MHSA. Even thinking about it made me want to throw up.

But this girl. God, this girl was so amazing.

And she was staring at me as though she thought I was amazing, too.

So I nodded. “Yeah, that’s me. It’s not that many instruments, though. Mainly I play guitar. And a little piano.”

Okay. So that wasn’t totally true.

But it wasn’t really a lie, either. It was just an inaccurate verb tense. I used to do that stuff, after all. If I’d said played instead of play it would’ve been a 100 percent accurate statement.

Either way, it totally didn’t count as lying.

Either way, I was glad I said it the way I did when Christa beamed at me in response.

“Oh, wow! That’s so cool.” Christa nodded over and over again. “It’s so neat to meet someone else who’s seriously into artistic stuff. I’m not anywhere near your level, but I’m an artist, too. I do photography sometimes.”

“You do?” I seized on the chance to talk about something that wasn’t me and music. “What kind of photography?”

She took out her phone. “Most of it’s on my Instagram, but...” She sighed. I understood. We’d all gradually realized on our bus ride into town that our phones didn’t work here. No service. We could play games and take photos, but no internet, no texting. It was like missing an arm.

Christa swiped through the photos on her phone. I tried to crane my neck to see them, but she held it out of my reach. “No, no don’t look at that one, that one’s awful. That one I need to crop. That one’s not—hey, actually, you can look at this one. This one’s good.”

I leaned in until my face was only inches from hers. I had to force myself to focus on her phone screen instead of the soft, warm scent of her skin.

I didn’t know anything about photography, but even so, I could tell it was a good photo. It was better than any pictures I’d ever taken with my phone, anyway. It showed a kid’s bare feet hovering in midair over a pool of water on a bright green lawn, as though the kid had been in the middle of jumping into the puddle when the phone was taken. You could see individual ripples and the reflection of the kid’s toes in the water.

“I really like that,” I said. “Are those your little brother’s feet?”

“Yeah. At least the little demon is good for something.”

I laughed and reluctantly stepped back from her phone.

“Do you go to King?” I asked her.

King was the big public high school in our area. My brother had gone there, but Lori and I went to Rowell, a tiny private school. There were only twelve people in our grade.

Christa nodded. “I do.”

“Do you know Eric?” I asked. “He’s the president of our youth group. He goes to King, too.”

Crap. I should’ve just stayed quiet. Things had been going great when we were looking at her phone, but now I was asking her the most boring questions ever. Why couldn’t I think of something cool to say? Christa was going to think I was boring with a capital B.

But she didn’t look bored.

“Sure, I know Eric. He’s okay.” She tilted her head to one side. “For a straight, privileged white guy, you know?”

She laughed. I did, too.

Her saying that had to mean she was gay. Or bi, at least. She must be into girls one way or another. Right?

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, trying to be clever and praying it was working. “I have lots of friends who are straight, privileged white guys, and I’m totally okay with them. I think they should have equal rights, just like the rest of us.”

Christa laughed again. Her eyes crinkled up, as though she actually thought I was funny. “As long as they don’t flaunt it, right?”

I laughed again. Christa slid her shoulder up against the wall right next to me and leaned forward until her face was only inches from mine.

My heart thudded in my chest. I was too nervous to look back at her.

I did it anyway.

Maybe this qualified as doing something.

I could barely remember what we’d been talking about, so I was halfway relieved when a smiling black guy I didn’t know came up to us. “Christa, are you bothering this nice young girl?”

I wished he hadn’t called me young. Or nice. Those two words added up to the opposite of sexy.

“I don’t know.” Christa turned toward the guy, then looked back at me. Her light brown eyes glimmered in the dim light. “Am I bothering you, Aki?”

“No,” I breathed.

The guy and Christa both laughed, and she introduced us. His name was Rodney. He went to the same church as Christa, and they were both going into their junior year at King. I was surprised Christa was only one year older than me.

The three of us sat down on the tile patio and Rodney grabbed a pile of chips for us to share. I took an inventory of the courtyard while Rodney and Christa talked about their friends from school. I counted only five black people, including Rodney, my brother, Drew, and me.

I wondered if that was why Rodney had come over to talk to us. There were plenty of black people in our part of Maryland, but most of them went to all-black churches. Only a handful of black and Hispanic families went to our church, and I figured the same was probably true at Christa and Rodney’s, too. The other church who’d sent their youth group on this trip was in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. I didn’t know much about West Virginia, but from what I did know, I had a feeling that church was all white, all the time.

Rodney wasn’t bad-looking. I probably should’ve been excited that he wanted to talk to me. But all I wanted was to be alone with Christa again.

Other people came over to sit with us. Christa kept saying stuff that made everyone laugh, me especially. Then the group got so big that a bunch of different conversations were going on at once.

A short white guy came over and sat down next to me.

“Hi.” He waved awkwardly. “I’m Jake. I go to Holy Life of Harpers Ferry.”

“Hey, Jake.”

Jake, it turned out, was really, really chatty. He kept trying to ask me questions about the people who went to my church and about the national conference that was coming up at the end of the summer for all the Holy Life churches. I knew absolutely nothing about the conference, so I mostly nodded while Jake talked.

It actually turned out to be kind of cool hanging out with new people—people who didn’t automatically see me as a music-dork preacher’s kid—but even so, I couldn’t focus. I wanted to talk to Christa again. She was funny. And I liked how her eyes caught the light.

Lori came over and motioned to me, so I apologized to Jake and got up. It was good to have an excuse to get away. It was hard to think clearly with so much happening around me.

I followed Lori through the courtyard’s tall, swinging wooden door. A patch of gravel ran behind the row of houses and faded into dirt as the hills rose up behind the edge of town. Lori and I walked out a few yards past the gravel into the pitch-black night so we could talk without anyone hearing us. It took all my energy to focus on Lori instead of those stars again.

She wanted to tell me about the blond guy she’d spotted earlier. She’d found an excuse to talk to him. It turned out his name was Paul, and he went to Christa’s church in Rockville.

“He’s going to be a senior at King,” Lori said. “He has a car and everything. A Toyota.”

“Do you like him?”

“Uh-huh. He’s really cute and funny. Plus, older guys are more mature, you know?”

“Do you mean mature, like, emotionally, or mature, like, he’s done it?”

“Oh, shut it.” Lori giggled. I did, too. “I took a picture of us goofing around. Want to see?”

Lori took out her phone and showed me a poorly framed photo of her and Paul sticking their tongues out at the camera. It made me think of Christa and her gorgeous photography. I flushed, glad it was dark so Lori couldn’t see.

“Do you think you’ll ask him out or something?” I said.

“I don’t know. What is there to even do around here? Maybe we’ll just hang out at the volunteer site. And find someplace to sneak off to when the time is right.”

We both laughed again.

We were supposed to start work tomorrow. None of us were sure exactly what that meant. We’d come here to do construction on a church that the local congregation had already started building. None of us knew the first thing about construction, but my dad and the other chaperones said they’d teach us. I only hoped they didn’t make me climb ladders. I was afraid of heights.

My back felt stiff from sitting on the ground, so I stood on my tiptoes and stretched my arms over my head, arching my spine so my braids hung straight down. This time, I couldn’t resist gazing up at the stars. They were closer out here than they were within the stone courtyard walls.

In that moment, it felt like we were the entire world. Just me and those gorgeous stars.

It was colder out here, too, away from the lights of the houses. We weren’t really in the desert, even though that was what I’d expected when I signed up to come to Mexico. Here there were trees and stuff, and it had been hot during the day but not that hot. Now that it was dark, it was only sixty-something degrees.

I lowered myself back down from my toes and rubbed my bare arms, wishing I’d worn more than my T-shirt and jeans. Then I remembered my missing suitcase. I didn’t have anything else to wear.

“We’re going into town on Saturdays, right?” I asked Lori. “Maybe you and Paul could do something while we’re there.”

“Or maybe you and that girl could.” Lori smirked.

“Oh, whatever.” But I couldn’t help smiling.

I wasn’t sure if lesbians even went on dates. Did anyone, really? I’d been on one official date in my entire life, to a dance at a school I didn’t go to with a blue-haired guy who threw up because he drank a beer.

I’d wondered what it would be like to have a real boyfriend. Maybe a girlfriend, too. Someday.

Just the idea of a girlfriend seemed like it was from a whole different life. I mean, even if Christa had been flirting with me back in the courtyard, that didn’t mean she actually wanted to go out with me. She must’ve been able to tell I didn’t know anything about being gay.

Heck, she probably thought I was straight. I might as well have been, for all I’d done so far.

Was Christa bi, too? Maybe she was into Rodney. Or someone else. Maybe she hadn’t really been flirting with me at all.

“So do you like her?” Lori asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe?”

“I knew it!” Lori pumped her fist. “I could so tell when you were looking at her before.”

“It doesn’t matter. She isn’t interested.”

“How do you know?”

I shrugged. There was no reason someone like Christa would want someone like me. I’d never even kissed a girl.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to. Lately, kissing was all I thought about. Boys. Girls. My daydreams didn’t discriminate.

That was where my theory had really gotten started.

Christa had probably kissed tons of girls. And done more than kiss.

I’d been daydreaming about that a lot lately, too.

“You’re smiling again,” Lori said.

“Oh, shut it. Hey, do you think—”

Before I could finish, Lori clapped her hand over my mouth and held her finger to her lips, her eyes bulging. Now that we were quiet, I could hear it, too. Gravel crunching behind me, then footsteps on the dirt.

“Hi, you guys,” a voice said.

I turned. It was too dark to get a good look from this distance. But I knew it was Christa.

“Hey there.” Lori was grinning, as usual. “I’m glad you came out here. I wanted to ask you something.”

Oh, no. I was too far away to elbow Lori, so I glared at her. She ignored me.

“Shoot.” Christa was close enough now that I could see a design on the inside of her wrist. It looked like a tattoo, but I could’ve sworn it wasn’t there when I’d seen her in the courtyard earlier. It was purple. Some kind of complicated knot.

Lori lowered her voice. “You’re into girls, right?”

My eyes jerked up. I couldn’t believe Lori said things like that. I would never say something like that to someone she had a crush on. But Christa didn’t seem to mind.

“For sure,” she said. “But don’t tell my parents, okay?”

“Deal.” Lori laughed. “So what kind of girls do you like? You know, generally. Tall, short, long hair, short hair...”

Christa glanced over at me. I tried to smile, but my face felt all wobbly. I shifted from one foot to the other. Why did Lori have to be this way? Why?

“I think,” Christa said slowly, “right now, if I were to describe exactly the kinds of girls I like, I’d say...tall, with long hair, in braids. With big dark eyes and pretty smiles. Oh, and I especially have a thing for preacher’s daughters who wear vintage hip-hop T-shirts.”

I beamed and tugged on one of my braids. I’d worn my favorite Usher shirt on the plane. It was only three years old, so it didn’t exactly qualify as vintage, and Usher wasn’t so much hip-hop as R&B with some light hip-hop influences. But I did not care even the tiniest bit about those things right then.

“And I like girls with nose rings who draw stuff on their wrists,” I said. It wasn’t the cleverest thing I could’ve come up with, but the truth was, just saying “I like girls” took so much out of me, I didn’t have energy left for cleverness. It was the first time I’d admitted it to anyone but Lori.

Now I was definitely doing something.

Christa took a step toward me. Someone else was coming through the swinging door, but I didn’t look to see who it was. I didn’t want to see anyone but Christa.

“That’s truly excellent news,” Christa said. “Because I happen to believe that the process of creating is what makes people interesting. Any kind of creating, I mean, but let’s be honest—music is the best art there is. It’s the purest. And, well, I’m actually a little obsessed with musicians. It’s kind of my thing.”

My stomach tightened again. I could tell from her voice that Christa was joking, at least sort of. But now I really wished I hadn’t messed up my verb tenses earlier. I’d already promised myself to never again create so much as a single note.

But with the way Christa was looking at me now, I knew there was no way I was ever going to tell her that.

And that meant I was now most definitely lying to her. About something she seemed to care about a lot.

I swallowed and dropped my gaze down to my feet.

“Er, I mean, sorry, Lori, no offense.” Christa turned her still-joking voice to my best friend. “I don’t know if you’re an artist. It’s totally okay if you’re not.”

“I make jewelry,” Lori offered.

“That totally counts!” Christa turned back to me, smiling. I met her eyes, folding my shaky hands behind my back. “Anyway. I have to go, because I promised my friends we’d go back early to claim the best spot for our sleeping bags. But can I come find you tomorrow?”

“You most definitely can.” My palms felt all tingly. I couldn’t believe I was talking this way, as if this conversation was no big deal at all.

“Excellent,” she said. “Maybe you could play me something, if you have anything recorded? Or even just sing something? Is that weird of me to ask?”

“Um.” I could feel Lori’s quizzical eyes on me. I silently begged her not to give me away. I hadn’t sung since my MHSA audition, not even in the shower. Not even in church when the rest of the congregation opened their hymnals. But how could I tell Christa that now, after she’d just said you had to create art to be interesting? “I, um—”

“You coming, Christa?” someone said behind us. It was the girl with the short hair Christa had been hanging out with at the beginning of the party.

“Yeah.” Christa smiled at me, then ducked her head. I smiled back at her goofily. Then she turned around and was gone.

“Wow.” Lori was already by my side as Christa and the other girl disappeared through the swinging doors. “You were wrong. She definitely likes you.”

“I guess.”

Lori let out a mini squeal. “And you like her.”

I shifted again. “I guess.”

Lori’s eyes shone. “And what was all that about you singing for her tomorrow?”

I scrubbed my face with the heel of my hand. “That part is...actually kind of a problem. She’d heard I did music stuff, and I didn’t tell her I’d quit, and somehow it turned into this.”

“So you’re, what—pretending you still do all that stuff?” Lori’s forehead wrinkled. “I mean, there’s no way she won’t find out. Everyone from our church knows how obsessive you are about not ever singing or anything. Your brother talks constantly about how he wants you to get back into music.”

“I know.” I scrubbed my face with my hand again. “Listen, promise you won’t say anything.”

“Yeah, of course.” Lori’s lip quirked upward. “Wouldn’t want the truth to stand in the way of true love. Or true hooking up, at least.”

I forced a laugh. Yeah, I wanted to hook up with Christa. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to. In fact, standing in the dark, watching her walk away, I realized exactly how much I wanted to.

But was she only into me because of a lie? Because she thought I was some amazing artist, when in reality I’d proven to be anything but?

I didn’t know what to think. I’d never dealt with anything like this before.

There was only one thing I knew for sure.

What I’d done tonight definitely counted as doing something.

So far, my theory was proving 100 percent correct. Doing stuff was a lot more fun than not doing stuff.

And, yeah, maybe some of the stuff I was doing wasn’t completely honest. But I’d deal with that later.

First, I needed to focus on testing out my theory some more.

Because now that I’d met Christa, there was suddenly a lot of stuff I wanted to do.

Chapter Two

“I can’t believe we have to sleep in there.” My paintbrush glided down the back wall of the church, leaving a thick wet trail of primer. “For a whole month.”

“I know,” Lori said. “I feel stiff all over.”

“The adults totally get to sleep in beds. And take showers. In houses, even.”

“My aunt said we’re staying in the church because we’re young and our backs still function. I told her my back wasn’t going to be functioning after this, but all she did was laugh.”

The night before, we’d slept on the floor of the town’s old church. The pews had been stacked along the walls to make room for the mats and sleeping bags we’d brought from home. My suitcase full of clothes was still somewhere in the Dallas airport, so I was stranded in Mexico with nothing but my duffel with my sleeping bag, a toothbrush, and some underwear, plus the clothes I’d worn on the plane. Lori had lent me an old pair of track pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt to wear today, but I was a lot taller than Lori, so my ankles, wrists and part of my stomach were bare.

Plus, we had to shower outside in these camp shower things the chaperones had brought. They were basically really small tents with a bag of tepid water at the top that sprinkled on you if you pulled a cord. That morning I’d showered for about sixty seconds while a line of girls huffed and waited for me to finish. The experience had left me feeling decidedly unfresh.

Not that it mattered, given that our agenda for the day consisted of manual labor in an un-air-conditioned cement building. We were painting the town’s new Holy Life church. When it was done, this one would replace the old building where we were camping out.

“Is this how we’re supposed to do it?” I lowered my brush and frowned. The church walls were tall, probably twenty feet high, so we were only painting what we could reach. Our little patch of white primer looked kind of pathetic.

“Who knows?” Lori dabbed her brush in the paint tray. “Just keep going.”

I’d tried to pay attention during that morning’s painting lesson, but I’d been standing toward the back of the group, and Christa was at the front. I kept craning my neck to get a better look at her.

I hadn’t seen her after the party. By the time we got back to the old church someone had hung up a tarp to separate the boys’ half of the floor from the girls’, but the single lightbulb that lit the whole room was on the boys’ side. Our side was a strange dark cave, quiet except for a few people whispering and swarms of mosquitoes buzzing past the windows. There was no way to spot Christa in the dark. Plus, every time I saw a shadow move I was positive it was a snake. (I had a thing about snakes.)

“So, question.” Lori painted another slow, uneven line. “Regarding your new paramour.”

“She’s not my paramour.” I smiled.

“Only a matter of time, babe.” Lori glanced at me with her eyebrows raised. “But what’s your dad going to say about you being gay? I mean, bi?”

I’d carefully avoided thinking about that. I returned my focus to my paintbrush. “I don’t know.”

“What about your mom? And your brother?”

“Come on, they don’t all have to know everything. Mom isn’t even here.”

“Ooh, so you and that chick are going to sneak around Mexico having secret liaisons under preacher daddy’s nose? Gnarly.”

“Liaisons?” I laughed. “Gnarly? What is this, 1980?”

Lori laughed, too. “For real, though. If you’re not having secret liaisons, what are you going to do, lesbian it up right in front of everyone?”

I shifted again. “I met this girl five seconds ago. Nobody’s lesbianing anything yet. Besides, I still like guys.”

Lori tried to arch one eyebrow, but she couldn’t do that very well, so her face just wound up amusingly strange and contorted.

“You know what I really want to do this summer?” she said. “Have a fling.”

I laughed. “What kind of fling?”

“You know, where you have a boyfriend, or a girlfriend or whatever, but only for the summer. You hang out, you hook up, and at the end of the summer you go back to your regular life. Short, meaningless, but fun.”

“What’s the point of that?” I said. “Don’t you want a regular boyfriend?”

“Yeah, sure. But this summer is our perfect fling opportunity. Most of the guys here go to other schools, so we’ll basically never see them again. The girls, too.”

Hmm. “I sort of see what you mean.”

“I know what we should do.” Lori put down her paintbrush and grinned at me. “We should both have a fling. Let’s make a pact.”

I laughed again. Lori and I used to be really into pacts. When we were younger we’d make pacts to eat the exact same number of conversation hearts at the Valentine’s Day party, or to include the word hickey somewhere in our fifth-grade Life Science reports. In middle school, Lori was obsessed with having her first kiss, and she got me to make a pact that we’d each kiss someone before the end of the school year. But when I kissed Tim Mayhew at the school Chrismukkah party that December, she’d been furious. I’d actually forgotten about the pact by that point—I only kissed Tim because he came up to me at the party wearing one of those mistletoe headbands all the guys had that year and I liked the way his green eyes locked on mine when he smiled—but Lori remembered everything. She said I’d violated the pact because we were supposed to have our first kiss at the same time, even though I didn’t remember agreeing to that part at all. It turned out to be fine because Lori kissed Barry Tuckerton at his New Year’s Eve party the next week, but I still felt kind of bad. Barry Tuckerton’s breath smelled like cheese.

“We should do it,” she said. “For real. Come on, it’ll be fun.”

I thought about Christa’s face again. Her voice. I especially have a thing for preacher’s daughters...

“Yeah. Let’s do it.” I was getting excited now. “Okay, rules. We’ll each hook up with someone—um, how about three times? Three’s a good number.”

“Okay,” Lori said. “And it doesn’t have to be that girl and Paul—it can be anyone. Also—wait, how are we defining hookup, exactly? Is kissing enough, or does it have to be more?”

I acted surprised, even though I’d been wondering the same thing. “Wow, that’s—um. Do you really think—”

She started laughing. “Kidding. Of course kissing counts. I mean, that’s all either of us has done before, right? But whatever we wind up doing, we have to tell each other every last, sweaty detail, the way we always do. So, are we both in?”

She held out her hand, her little finger curved up, for our standard pact-agreement pinkie swear.

I glanced around the cavernous space of the church. I didn’t see any sign of Christa now, but I remembered how she’d smiled at me in the dusty shadows the night before.

I’d have given anything just to have her smile at me that way again.

I grinned and linked my finger with Lori’s. “I’m definitely in.”

“Hate to interrupt your girl talk, ladies, but you have too much paint on your brushes, there.” Lori and I turned slowly. Dad’s voice had come from far enough behind us that I was pretty sure he hadn’t heard anything, but still, when a parent sneaks up on you, it’s almost never a good thing. Especially when you’ve just finished making a pact that involves kissing other girls. “When you load paint onto your brush, you need to tap off the excess on the edge of the pan, this way.”

Dad took Lori’s brush and demonstrated. Globs of paint dripped off the brush. I could tell he was right, but I rolled my eyes anyway. Dad loved nothing more than telling me I was doing something wrong.

“Thanks, Benny.” Lori smiled as he handed her back the brush. She never understood when I complained about my dad. Her own dad had moved out when she was in elementary school, and she hardly ever saw him. She was supposed to spend a few weeks with him every summer, but her summers were always so packed with activities that it usually only wound up being a weekend trip. Maybe she didn’t realize how annoying dads could really be.

“You ought to be using rollers, though.” Dad stroked his chin. “I’ll see if I can pick some up in town. By the way, Aki, want to come talk to me for a sec?”

I groaned under my breath and followed Dad outside. The sun charged straight into my eyes, so I pulled on my baseball cap. My brother, Drew, and bunch of people were digging a ditch for the new fence, and they all had giant sweat stains under their armpits. I was glad I’d gotten an indoor job. Our whole family sweated a lot, me included, but Dad and Drew got it the worst.

“How are you liking Mexico so far?” Dad asked me, wiping the back of his neck.

“It’s okay. You didn’t tell me we’d be sleeping on a cement floor.”

Dad chuckled. “Why did you think we told you to bring sleeping bags?”

“I thought we’d go on a special camping trip or something. For, like, one night.”

“Well, don’t worry. Sleeping on the floor will build character.” Dad chuckled again.

“Whatever.” Mom and Dad both loved to say anything Drew and I complained about would “build character.”

“Listen, there was something I wanted to talk to you about,” Dad said. “You remember that our first Holy Life national conference is coming up?”

I nodded. Jake, the guy from Harpers Ferry, had said something about that at the party last night.

Some of my friends at school thought our church was weird, but it wasn’t, really. Holy Life started out in Maryland after a couple of nondenominational churches decided to start doing some activities together. Then some churches in other states joined in and even a few in other countries, like this one here in Mexico. Holy Life churches aren’t the kind where preachers talk constantly about how abortion is evil and how we should all vote Republican or anything, though. I mean, some people at my church probably do vote Republican, but mostly we don’t talk about that stuff. Instead we get together for picnics and ice-cream socials, and on Sunday mornings we sing hymns and listen to sermons about whatever Jesus did that week.

But now the different churches were trying to get more officially organized. Everyone had been talking about the conference since Christmas, but I’d sort of tuned it out. Usually, if I paid attention to church stuff, it was because I’d done something wrong that week and knew I should pray about it so I wouldn’t feel guilty.

“Well, the delegates who’ll be at the conference are very interested in this trip,” Dad said. “It’s the first time we’ve brought multiple churches together for an overseas mission project.”

“We didn’t come over the sea to get here,” I said. “It’s more of an overland project.”

Dad ignored me. “I’ll be giving a presentation about this trip at the conference, and one of the things the delegates want to hear will be how we worked with the local congregation. Since you volunteered at that clinic last summer, I thought you and some of your friends might want to take on a side project here with the local kids.”

A side project? Dad wanted me to do more work? “What kind of project?”

Dad shrugged. “Whatever you think they might enjoy. Could you teach them a praise dance or a worship song?”

“Dad.” I side-eyed him. After a moment he gave up and looked away.

My parents knew very well that I’d stopped all that. I didn’t sing in the church choir or the school chorus anymore, and I’d dropped out of the dance class I’d enrolled in the summer before.

I was done with music. After what had happened with MHSA, there was no way I could ever go back. Mom and Dad may have thought they were dropping subtle hints when they asked me to lead a worship song or left a brochure for my old music camp on the kitchen table, but I knew exactly what they were trying to do, and it wasn’t going to work. I’d made up my mind.

No more spending hours with my stupid guitar. I played lacrosse now, and I’d joined the math team, too.

No more music camp, either. I’d signed up to come on this trip the same day our church’s lead pastor announced it was happening. Mainly so my parents would stop bugging me about music camp.

“Well, maybe you could all do a presentation together at the end of the summer,” Dad said.

“Ugh, do we have to?” That would be even worse than doing a song. I hated standing up in front of people and just talking. In class, whenever we got assigned to do a presentation, I begged the teacher to let me do a separate extra credit project instead. In church I always kept my head down when they asked for volunteers to read Bible verses.

I didn’t want to present. I wanted to perform. But I wasn’t good enough for that, apparently.

“Well, it could be anything to keep the kids engaged,” Dad said. “What did you do at the clinic?”

“Crafts, mostly.” Last summer, after I’d dropped out of music camp at the last minute, I’d wound up volunteering at a health center in downtown Silver Spring for people who didn’t have insurance. I’d thought I was going to learn how to bandage people’s cuts and test them for viruses and stuff—I’d signed up to work there because I was into math and science, after all—but instead I was a glorified babysitter for the little kids in the waiting room. On my second day I brought in craft supplies from home and the next thing I knew, I was the most popular volunteer in the place. All the kids wanted me to show them how to make my special paper airplanes that were guaranteed to fly in loop-di-loops. “But I don’t have any craft supplies here, except for the jewelry materials Lori and I brought. Those are for us, though.”

Lori and I had been making jewelry since middle school. I’d found some bead patterns online and gotten obsessed with them. I loved anything that involved neat, orderly rows and following a bunch of steps to get it right. Lori and I started wearing our jewelry to school, and soon people were asking if they could buy it. We wanted to sell it online but our parents were afraid people would try to take advantage of us. Parents had no idea how the internet actually worked.

“Well, we could reimburse you for the materials,” Dad said. “I guess it’s my fault for not mentioning this before we left home. I thought you could do a dance or something that didn’t need supplies.”

“Dad.” I groaned.

Dad rubbed his neck again. “For the jewelry, do you think you could have them make Christian-themed pieces? You know, cross necklaces, that sort of thing?”

“Sure.” I didn’t know if we had any cross-necklace supplies, but Dad would probably forget he’d asked me that anyway.

“Good. Well, this is an excellent plan. You can start today after lunch. I’ll talk to Carlos about rounding up some of the girls and I’ll swing by to take photos of you for my presentation.”

“Today? Wow, okay.” It was a good thing we’d brought the jewelry stuff in Lori’s suitcase and not mine.

I went straight back in to tell Lori while Dad stayed outside to help with the fence work. I was trying to figure out how many supplies we’d brought with us and how we were going to teach jewelry making to a bunch of kids whose language we didn’t speak when I saw that a girl in a bright pink hat had taken my spot by the wall. She and Lori had their backs to me, and they were talking and laughing as they painted.

It was Christa. I recognized her by the pink streak in her hair. Which clashed horribly (and, somehow, adorably) with her hat.

I stopped walking. Suddenly I was...what? Afraid? Nervous? Jealous?

What was I supposed to do, exactly? What should I say? The night before everything between us had just sort of fallen into place, like magic.

But that night had been special. That night, I was special. Today I was regular old Aki, with too-short track pants and smears of white paint on my hands.

Lori bent to dip her brush into the pan and saw me. She waved. “Aki! Look who came to help!”

Christa’s face broke into a grin as she turned around. Her heart-shaped sunglasses dangled from a string around her neck. “Sorry! Did I steal your brush?”

She reached up to adjust her hat. There was a speck of white paint on the side.

That’s when I realized it wasn’t a hat. It was a beret.

A raspberry beret.

Wow.

Not only did Christa own a raspberry beret, she’d brought it with her to Mexico.

I didn’t know a single fellow Prince fan who was younger than my mother. It was as if Christa had been custom-made for me.

Just like that, things were easy again.

“Yeah.” I grinned. “But I guess I’m willing to share.”

“Okay.” Christa held out the brush to me. “I’m a big fan of sharing, myself.”

I took the brush from her and smiled when my fingers met hers on the handle. It was the first time we’d touched.

And I was certain it wouldn’t be the last.


We hope you enjoyed this sample of Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley. 

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