“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a spectrophotometer has innumerable uses.” The words left my mouth just as the unmistakable and unexpected sound of the front door opening met my ears.
I glanced at the clock on my phone while carefully cloaking my confusion. Two voices sounded from the entryway. My roommate, Amelia, home from work way, way earlier than usual, had brought someone with her. No big deal. I was almost finished with today’s live video. All that remained was the wrap-up.
“For those of you who’ve tuned in before, you already know Mable.” I lifted the spectrophotometer with both hands, showing it to my audience. “I picked Mable up on eBay for a mere twenty-five dollars. She’s a Fisher Unico 1000, if any of you want to use the same instrument when you replicate this experiment with your own sports drinks at home.” The tan plastic of the spectrophotometer had scratches and dings, but it worked just fine. “Mable is an older model, but I find value in doing some things old school, you know? If old school isn’t for you, the newer ones are Bluetooth compatible and much smaller. The readouts will sync directly to the app, saving you from having to record your findings with these prehistoric tools.” Giving the live audience a wry grin, I lifted my number 2 pencil and college ruled notebook paper.
Most of my videos were done in the kitchen of the one-bedroom apartment Amelia and I shared in First Hill, a neighborhood just east of downtown Seattle. Our center-of-the-old-house-top-floor apartment only had one window (in the bathroom), but it did have several skylights. On sunny days—despite the rumors, Seattle has plenty sunny days from May to September—the kitchen had the best light.
As it was not yet May, today was not a sunny day, but the kitchen still had the best light.
“Win? Are you here?” Amelia’s voice carried to me, which meant my viewers could hear her as well.
“That’s my lovely roommate, so unless Go Direct wants to sponsor this account and send me a brand new SpectroVis Plus Spectrophotometer—which, for the record, I would name Brad and love with all my heart—I guess that’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed today’s lesson. Or—” I winked at the camera “—at the very least, you’ll think twice before picking up any red sports drinks.”
“Fred is here?”
I stiffened, unable to halt or conceal my visceral reaction. Only one person called me “Fred.”
What is he doing here? I hadn’t seen him in weeks.
The swirling in my stomach demanded I forgo my planned wrap-up spiel in favor of ending the live video as soon as possible. Lifting my thumb to the screen, I rushed to say, “’Til next time, this is the Chemistry Maven signing—”
I was too late.
Byron had jogged up behind where I stood, encircled my wrist with one of his big man hands, and pulled it away from my phone. The light, warm scent of his pine and sandalwood aftershave battered my senses. I felt my lashes flutter, but I did stop myself just short of sucking in a startled breath as his face came into view next to mine.
On my phone screen.
During my live video.
Byron bent and placed his chin on my shoulder, his clean-shaven but somehow perpetually scruffy cheek sliding along mine, his stomach and chest brushing against my back. He’d randomly started doing this kind of stuff about two years ago—brushing against me, gently pushing my hair off my shoulder, touching my hip as he passed behind—like he knew how much the benign contact flustered me when he was the one doing it. Everywhere he touched scorched my skin, incidental or purposeful, it didn’t matter how long it had been since we last saw each other or how little we actually spoke.
I ignored another twist in my stomach, irritated with my body for being entirely predictable.
“What are you doing, Fred?” The question was a rumble. A dark, thick slash of an eyebrow arched over a pale blue-green eye as he inspected the image of us captured by my phone’s screen. His hands lightly slid to my hips and he stared at us for a moment while my mouth opened and closed unproductively, mind blank, chest hot, cheeks pink.
I was a people person! I loved hugs and cuddles, and I was generous with physical affection. If a different person had come in here and placed their chin on my shoulder, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. My friends had labeled me “the touchy feely one” as I freely cried at movies, poignant greeting cards, or excellent commercials. I was good on my feet, good under pressure, good at improvising.
I knew I would spend the rest of this afternoon feeling like a goofus for being so entirely rattled and incapable of forming words the moment Byron had stepped behind me.
Darn it all to heck!
While I wrestled my brain, he squinted, flinching away at the emojis erupting around our faces. “Wait. What is this?”
The thinly veiled disapproval in his tone smacked me out of my daze and I fought against an eye roll—at myself—but I did grit my teeth. “Everyone, say hi to Byron. Byron, say hi to everyone.” My statement was met with a plethora of waves, shocked faces, and heart-eyes emojis. I quickly read the torrent of new comments as heat climbed up my neck.
Who is that?
He’s soooo hot.
He has the prettiest eyes
Wait. That’s Byron Visser. HOLY SHIT!
OMG! Is that Byron Visser??!?!
Is that your boyfriend?
How the hell do you know Byron Visser?
THAT’S BYRON VISSER!
Do you actually know Byron Visser?
I LOVE YOUR BOOKS BYRON!!
Ask him when the third book will come out. I NEEEEED IT!
Only mildly surprised by the deluge of love Byron received for saying exactly nine words, I quietly lamented my inability to obtain ten total comments in thirty minutes from the same audience. My audience. My followers.
I was jealous.
Just a little bit. I shouldn’t have been. Comparing myself to Byron Visser was like comparing an exceptionally helpful, productive, and positive customer service call to the experience of a hit Broadway show. Both might be awesome once-in-a-lifetime events, but for different reasons.
Yes, these lovely people tuned in to watch my monthly scientific experiments. Some were hobbyists, some were parents learning how to safely perform their own experiments at home with their kids, some were nonscientist science teachers looking for resources for their classroom.
But I hoped most of my audience was comprised of young women who felt curious about engineering, chemistry and physics and biology, mathematics, technology, and their everyday applications, and why science, technology, engineering, and mathematics might be relevant to them. Teenage girls and women of all ages who didn’t feel welcomed by traditional STEM academic settings were why I’d started this account in the first place. I was happy to be a resource, no matter who was watching or whatever their reason, and I knew my followers appreciated me.
That said, I doubted they’d recognize me on the street. If they did, I doubted they’d ask for an autograph.
Whereas Byron Visser was not only indisputably and enormously talented and intelligent, he was legit famous. Social media famous thanks to a fan video that had gone viral just after his first book was published, and real world famous thanks to his books being instant best sellers. And that movie deal. Plus the rumors of him dating supermodels. Also that hot shirtless photo spread of him in the one—and only one—magazine interview he’d ever done.
So, yeah. Famous.
But I knew the real Byron though. Real Byron was sarcastic and standoffish. He was not a people person. Our friend group since college—which he’d only tangentially been part of during my undergrad and then not the year after I graduated because he eschewed all group gatherings—had labeled him “the reclusive genius one.” I wasn’t sure he knew any of our names other than Amelia’s and Jeff’s. By his own admission, he didn’t like people in general.
Case in point, instead of saying hi to my live audience—which seemed like the appropriate thing to do, especially given that he’d interrupted my video and the comment feed erupted with praise for him—Byron being Byron, scowled at the screen, grunted, then walked out of view.
I exhaled slowly and silently as he departed, taking the five-o’clock shadow of his jaw and the warmth of his body with him. An explosion of LOLs and heart emojis followed in his wake.
My face heated. “Okay, thank you Byron for your truly fascinating addition to today’s conversation. Thank goodness you were here to chime in. What would we do without you?”
Byron leaned against the wall in our tiny dining room, settling in to observe and judge, glaring at me. The right side of his full upper lip always seemed poised to curl. That paired with his dark wing-like eyebrows over his oddly colored eyes gave his face a permanent dissatisfied, disapproving expression, no matter what was happening or where he was.
Ignoring his unnerving presence, I forced a smile for the camera and continued brightly, “And yes, for the record, that is the author Byron Visser, avid recluse, eschewer of shirts, and serial grunter.” Perhaps I was riding high on a wave of indignation, or perhaps irritation was an excellent lubricant for my brain because—even though I knew he was watching me—I didn’t trip over my words.
Another grunt sounded from Byron’s direction followed by a hearty laugh from Amelia. He could grunt all he wanted, nothing I’d said was untrue. I’d known the dude for over six years and he never called me by my real name and barely said anything to me that wasn’t critical.
Not allowing myself to be distracted by the tsunami of comments, most of which were related to Byron’s hotness and talent and the prettiness of his eyes—and all of which I had to wistfully admit were true—I returned my thumb to the top of my screen, letting it hover over the End Live button, and forced my hand steady.
Since he’d already interrupted the video, and since I was feeling uncharacteristically brave in his presence, I decided to deliver the spiel I’d originally planned. “Tune in next time. We’ll be talking about the naming conventions of chemical compounds, but I promise this is super interesting and relevant to the rest of your life. Haven’t you ever wondered what those ingredients are in your food and cosmetics? Leave me a comment with an ingredient that freaks you out or sounds weird and scary, we’ll be drawing out the compounds so you can see and know what’s going on. Knowledge is power, my friends. Be powerful. Oh! Also, leave any and all questions in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them during the month. Here’s your science joke for the week: What do you do with a dead chemist? You barium! Ha! Okay, okay. Sorry. That was bad. Anyway, this is the Chemistry Maven signing off.”
I ended the video, smile dropping, and gave myself a few seconds to catch my breath. Removing my phone from the stand, I clicked through screens in order to save the lesson to my account, all the while endeavoring to ignore the weight of Byron Visser’s gaze and the erratic beating of my heart. It drove me bonkers that he always put me on edge, no matter what mood I’d been in before his arrival.
“Sorry! We just got back from lunch, and I thought you’d be out.” Amelia walked past my mess of open sports drink bottles, pipettes, and test tubes scattered all over the kitchen peninsula. After lifting the lid and inspecting the water level, she flicked on the electric tea kettle.
“It’s no problem.” I waved away her apology, glancing at Byron and then immediately returning my attention to my phone. A burst of heat spread from the base of my spine to my fingertips. Our eyes had connected. I hated it when that happened.
I sensed him push away from the wall, heard his footsteps move further into the apartment. I imagined he was probably scrutinizing my paltry collection of houseplants and found them lacking. Or perhaps he’d slipped on a white glove to test the cleanliness of our shelves.
Why is he here?
I hadn’t seen him in ages. Even though he’d always been a good friend of Amelia’s—they’d grown up together in Eastern Oregon—he and I never interacted in any meaningful way. I tended to avoid him, and when I couldn’t, he was like a menacing thundercloud on an otherwise sunny day.
“Do you want some tea, Win?” The scrape of mugs being moved pulled my gaze to my roommate.
“Yes, please. I just picked up some of that Sexy Peppermint from Serena’s booth at the farmers’ market.” I motioned toward the pantry. “But I already put it away.”
Amelia and I called it “Sexy Peppermint,” but it was actually called Passionate Peppermint. Our friend had started a side hustle as a tea maker, and she branded her boxes with contemporary bodice-ripper illustrations. I also enjoyed Carnal Chamomile and Lusty Lemon & Ginger.
“Oooh, sounds good. I’ll have that too. Byron?”
“What?” His voice rumbled from somewhere behind me. My spine straightened, my stomach tensed, and I grit my teeth at the involuntary reflexes.
Placing a hand on her hip, Amelia sent a look over my shoulder. “Do you want some tea?”
“No. This Sedum morganianum needs more sun,” he said. “And if you want it to grow down vertically, you need to put it in a hanging planter.”
Working my jaw, I almost laughed. Almost. I’d been right, Byron had been scrutinizing my houseplants and he found them lacking.
“That’s the sunniest spot in the apartment,” Amelia mumbled, closing the cabinet door and then turning for the pantry as she lifted her voice with a teasing lilt, “Not all twenty-somethings can afford to buy a house in Seattle, Byron.”
“Or rent an apartment with windows, apparently,” he drawled.
Amelia merely chuckled at his comment. How she could stand him, I had no idea.
“The mysteries of the universe are vast and plentiful,” I muttered.
“What was that?” Amelia asked, placing our Passionate Peppermint tea bags into the mugs.
“What? Oh. Nothing.” Finished typing out the caption and saving the video, I placed my phone on the counter and started cleaning up the bottles and beakers littering our beige Formica countertop.
I felt my roommate track my movements as she said, “You look really pretty today. I love your hair like that.”
“Oh, thank you.” Absentmindedly, I smoothed a hand down my long auburn hair, currently worn in waves over my shoulders. I didn’t usually get a chance to do anything with it other than pull it back in a ponytail or braid, but I planned to bleach it blond soon during a live video for my channel. For science!
“Hey, how’d your video go?”
“Good. I mean—it went well.” I pressed my lips together, reprimanding myself for the use of good instead of the grammatically correct well. Byron had never corrected my grammar out loud, but I suspected he did so in his big, brilliant, pretty head.
“That’s great! I can’t wait to watch it later.”
“You don’t have to . . . watch it.” Ha ha! Take that! Who has two thumbs and doesn’t end her sentences with a preposition? This girl, that’s who.
“I want to see it,” she said, and I felt her gaze move over me, assessing.
I smiled tightly. She knew I avoided Byron whenever possible, but we’d never explicitly talked about why. I hadn’t wanted to admit how clumsy I felt around him and, really, I knew I was the problem. I knew it, but I couldn’t seem to do anything about it.
He barely spoke to me and, here I was, putting uncharitable thoughts in his mouth and brain. Why am I this way? I usually thought the best of people. Why did I have to work so hard to think the best of Byron?
“Sorry again for interrupting.” Amelia placed a mug in front of me, her eyebrows pulling together. “I didn’t know you’d be here. I thought you had something at the school.”
“Oh, no. That meeting got canceled.” Today was the Friday before the public school’s spring break. “They want us to come in tomorrow instead.”
“You work weekends?” Byron’s usual dust-dry tone held a hint of loftiness and censure.
I breathed in. I breathed out. About this one topic, I actually did know what he was thinking.
In college, I’d witnessed Byron attempt to talk Jeff Choi—Byron’s roommate, one of the sweetest guys ever, and a member of our larger friend group—out of becoming a teacher so many times I’d lost count. Byron had said teaching was an underpaid and underappreciated profession. He’d said it drained the life out of people. He’d said the system takes advantage of teachers and sets them up to fail, so why would any intelligent, reasonable person with an aptitude for science or mathematics or engineering ever willingly accept a teacher’s salary to do a teacher’s job?
Byron didn’t like my career choice. He’d made no secret about it any time the subject arose, like now. The fact that I’d chosen teaching despite having to carry a hefty student loan debt probably meant he considered me stupid.
I didn’t care what he thought. Or, more precisely, I don’t want to care. But since he was indisputably one of the smartest and most successful people I’d ever met who donated a buttload of money to charity every year and seemed to be a walking encyclopedia about literally everything, this was easier said than done.
“Yes, I work weekends,” I said finally, answering his question but not adding that every single teacher I knew worked weekends. Of course we did. When else would we get any planning or grading done?
“They pay teachers to work weekends now?”
I’d guessed the question was coming, but it still made my chest tight with embarrassment. “No. They don’t pay teachers to work weekends.”
“Then you shouldn’t,” he said, like it was so simple. “You undervalue yourself when you work without payment.”
My throat burned to say that there were more considerations than just payment, that I loved teaching. I loved my students, I cared about them and their successes and failures. Deeply. Thoughts of them kept me up at night, plotting how I might help one of them understand a tricky concept better, or what to do about a brilliant student who had a terrible home life, or how I might hint to another kiddo that they had a gift for engineering without making them feel self-conscious in front of their classmates.
A paycheck was necessary to live, obviously, but it wasn’t why I was a teacher, it wasn’t why I worked so hard at the school and on my social media accounts.
And now my heart hurt, and I was sweaty and sad, and—once again—I hated that I let him make me feel this way.
“You know what?” I wiped my hands on a towel and meticulously folded it, leaving it on the countertop. “I don’t think I want any tea. I think I’ll go for a run.”
Amelia sent me an apologetic smile and I gave my head a little shake, hopefully communicating that it was no big deal. We’d been roommates since college when we’d randomly been assigned to live together in the dorm. Even if I could afford a place of my own, I’d still want to live with Amelia. Living with her had been the first time in my life I’d felt free to be completely myself. She’d been a premed major at the time and my major had been chemistry; like oxygen and hydrogen, we were destined to bond.
I loved her. She was the best. It wasn’t her fault I allowed one of her oldest and best friends to make me feel foolish and tongue-tied every time we shared the same space. That was on me.
And so what could I do other than leave?
“Sorry about bringing Byron. He asked if he could come over, and I thought you’d be home much later.” Amelia met me at the door as soon as I was inside the apartment, holding out a glass of water. “Anyway, sorry.”
Accepting the glass, I shrugged and walked past her. “It’s fine.” Still out of breath from my run, I paced the short distance between the kitchen peninsula and the couch, needing to cool down. I should’ve walked around the block again, but the rain had gone from a drizzle to something more aggressive.
“It’s not fine. I know he irritates you.” She moved to the couch and sat, pulling a fuzzy blanket over her legs. What looked like a new mug of tea and a plate of my ginger cookies sat on the coffee table to her left.
“Only because he doesn’t laugh at my witty anecdotes. Him pretending to find me funny would go a long way,” I joked . . . kinda not joking.
Then again when had I last tried to tell Byron a joke? It must’ve been years since I made any kind of effort.
“It’s more than that, I know it is.” She picked up her mug and blew on the surface. “I need polite Winnie to take a smoke break so I can talk to honest Winnie. You don’t like him. Does he make you uncomfortable?”
“He doesn’t make me uncomfortable,” I denied reflexively despite her permission to be honest, not wanting to upset my friend.
But then I rolled my eyes at this irritating, deep-rooted need within me to avoid conflict and make everyone else happy all the time, something about myself I’d sincerely been trying to change.
“Okay, fine. He isn’t my favorite person,” I admitted with reluctance. “But he doesn’t make me uncomfortable. Besides, it doesn’t matter. You two are good friends. Period.” Are we really talking about this now? What’s the point? I drank the entire glass of water and then twisted around to inspect the kitchen. “Is there any tea left?”
“There’s still hot water. I wish you would just tell me if you don’t want me to bring him by.” She nodded toward the kettle. “Are you sure he doesn’t make you uncomfortable?” Her voice raised an octave with the question. “You grit your teeth and act like you have a hernia whenever he’s around.”
“Well, he does, kinda.” Flustered, I quickly washed out the dirty water glass and placed it on the rack to dry.
I wasn’t prepared to have this conversation, yet I knew we should. It felt overdue. Nevertheless, I was determined to measure my words carefully. The last thing I wanted was to cause trouble between Amelia and her childhood friend.
“Byron doesn’t. . . make me. . . feel. . . uncomfortable,” I said haltingly. “But I feel discomfort around him.”
I turned to find that Amelia had scrunched her face. “You feel discomfort around him, but he doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable?”
“I know, it doesn’t make any sense.” I laughed, pouring hot water into a mug while my shoulders shivered in the damp running jacket.
“What can I do to help you feel less discomfort around him?”
“Nothing.” Peeling off my outer layer and slinging it over a kitchen chair, I carried my mug to the couch and sat crisscross on the cushion, facing her. “He’s so—”
She made a face. “Perfect?”
“Yeah. He’s absolutely brilliant, self-made, hugely talented and creative. He donates all that money to charity every year and seems to know everything about everything. I guess I feel like an uninformed child whenever we’re in a room together and I don’t know how to just—you know—not be intimidated. That’s on me.” This was the conclusion I’d come to years ago.
To borrow the phrase my second-grade teacher often used, being around people “filled my bucket.” This seemed to be unilaterally true. Except with Byron Visser.
Even when we first met—before he was this famous wunderkind author, before he’d earned his double PhDs, before he’d bulked out after joining a rugby club a few years ago and people started tripping all over themselves when he walked in a room, back when he was an awkwardly adorable, tall, lanky undergrad with no degrees, wearing all black, whose head seemed too big for his body and he’d hide his face behind thick, wavy black hair that fell past his shoulder blades—something about him set me off-kilter and made my skin buzz. In my entire life, only he had this effect on me.
Actually, that’s not true. The closest I’d experienced this disconcerting biological anarchy had been during an extremely difficult time two weeks into my freshman year of high school—I won’t bore you with a long story involving white shorts, the boys’ varsity soccer team, my period, and Instagram—after which I’d felt shaky, hyperaware, and embarrassed for weeks.
Sudden hot flashes, inability to form coherent sentences, tightness in my chest, pounding heart, trembling hands—being around or near Byron had always made me feel this way. The moment our eyes had first met, I’d felt it. I couldn’t breathe. It was like being sucker punched in the stomach. I’d worked hard to ignore the inexplicable discomfort. I liked people, and Byron was, after all, just a person.
But during our first meeting, I’d said something about rollerblading over the summer at Alki Beach. I’d pronounced it Al-key instead of Al-kye. He’d immediately corrected me.
He hadn’t done it rudely. It had been very matter-of-fact, lacking in emotion. Even so, I’d withdrawn completely, and his off-handed correction had permanently flipped a switch. No matter what and how I tried, I couldn’t seem to unflip it. Almost everything out of his mouth since that moment had struck me as condescending and judgmental, even when I knew objectively that it wasn’t.
Therefore, I was the problem and avoided him.
“He makes you feel like a child?” Amelia eyes seemed to widen and narrow at the same time, it was a look of outrage. “What did he say? I’ve told him—”
“No, no. It’s not him. It’s me.” I covered her hand, trying not to worry too much about what she’d told Byron. I shouldn’t care what he thought about me, so why should I be embarrassed if Amelia talked to him about it? I shouldn’t be embarrassed. I shouldn’t be anything where Byron was concerned. I doubted I even registered on his radar. He probably called me Fred because he didn’t know or care to remember my real name. “I guess super smart people make me nervous? But, like I said, that’s my problem, not his.”
“What are you talking about? You’re super smart.”
“You know what I mean. There’s smart and then there’s smart.” I didn’t feel like this was a controversial statement. Even though Byron had existed only on the fringes of our college friend group, we all marveled at his encyclopedic knowledge during the very few times he’d shown up to a party or get-together. And when his first book had released, it had left us all breathless with effusive admiration. To put it a different way, I was very smart, but I was no Toni Morrison, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, or Byron Visser.
“And you think Byron is the latter?”
“Come on, Amelia. He graduated early with a degree in physics and holds PhDs in electrical engineering and biomedical engineering. He’s written two fiction best sellers and he’s been nominated for every major literary award for his debut novel. And he’s what, twenty-six? He’s amazing.”
“Twenty-seven. But that doesn’t—I mean—yes. His mother is some kind of genius professor who will probably invent bionic spines and win the Nobel Prize or something, but he’s just Byron. And you’ve known him forever, before he published those books, before he was anyone.”
I didn’t know that about his mother, but it made sense. “Right, but we’ve barely interacted. He’s spoken less than one hundred words—total—to me in six years. Probably closer to fifty. Even in undergrad, he never came out with us. And I’ve always felt weird around him. Perhaps I sensed his brilliance early on. But I don’t—don’t dislike him.”
“You don’t dislike him?”
I grimaced. “Okay, actually, yes.” Even though this was just me being honest, a jolt of worry made my heart accelerate.
“Finally! She admits it.” Amelia lifted her hand along the back of the couch and then let it fall, teasing, “Your ability to tap dance around the truth or ask for what you want is Olympic-level impressive.”
I gave her a wry smile. Amelia knew about my upbringing. I didn’t need to explain to her why I was so reluctant to speak uncomfortable truths. “I do dislike him. Happy now?”
“Yes!” She patted my leg. “So happy to learn you dislike my oldest friend. Yay!”
I laughed. “But it’s when he brings up how teachers aren’t paid enough, or anything at all related to my job. Or when he corrects my terrible pronunciation of common words. Or like today, when he criticized my houseplant. Or when he glares at me, saying nothing.”
“So basically every time you see him?”
We both laughed, and I shook my head at myself. Dislike wasn’t quite the right word. His general simmering disdain reminded me of my uncle. I’d been raised by my aunt and uncle after my mom passed and, suffice it to say, the best part of my childhood had been acting as a second mother to my six cousins.
Comparing Byron to Uncle Jacob likely wasn’t fair since they didn’t look at all alike, my uncle had been gregarious with everyone but a select few. Whereas Byron was gregarious with no one. And Byron had never screamed at me for making what I considered small mistakes. But they both had a habit of rarely opening their mouths in my presence unless to correct or criticize. They also glared openly, their gazes heavy with judgment.
“So you—who never dislikes anyone—dislike Byron, and you feel discomfort around him, but you think it’s you and not him?” Amelia narrowed her eyes. “Again, be honest, does he creep you out?”
“No. Like I said, he makes me nervous because of me and my hang-ups. I’m the problem.”
“It’s the staring, isn’t it? The staring makes you nervous.”
“He does stare, doesn’t he?” I deflected, even though his staring obviously wasn’t the only cause of my discomfort.
Amelia studied me thoughtfully. “He’s always stared, you know. He’s a big people watcher. He observes rather than interacts. But that’s a byproduct of him being a writer. Even when we were kids, he’d just stare at people with those creepy green eyes.”
“His eyes aren’t creepy. They’re—”
I didn’t want to say they were beautiful. I didn’t want Amelia to read too much into the comment. His eyes were beautiful, a grayish hazel around his pupil, followed by a ring of green and an outer ring of blue at the edge of his iris.
“They’re unusual,” I said slowly, as though I’d just now given the matter some consideration. “But that doesn’t make them creepy.”
“But unusual eyes plus staring does make him creepy. I’ll have to talk to him about it. I’m like his conscience, his cricket in a top hat, but for social situations.”
“Well don’t talk to him on my account.” I felt a pressing urge to change the subject. “By the way, what are you doing home so early?”
“Oh!” She clapped once and leaned forward, her eyes growing excited. “Actually, I came home to talk to you, hoping you’d be here after your meeting. You know that girls in STEM grant my company applied for? The really big one?”
Amelia had been premed in college but had changed her mind in her fourth year. She ended up dual majoring in biology and marketing with a focus on technical writing. She was set to graduate this May with her master’s degree in education and currently worked for a huge, fancy nonprofit that created STEM curricula and related content—like videos, learning games and apps—for schools.
“Yes, I remember.” I also leaned forward, on the figurative edge of my seat. If she was about to say what I thought she might be about to say, then—
“Well, we got it!”
I set my tea down so I could reach forward and give her a hug, not caring that I likely smelled like sweat and rain. “You’re a rock star! This is so exciting!”
“It is, and that’s why I rushed home. They gave everyone the afternoon off, and I wanted to talk to you as soon as possible. They’re going to be listing the community manager positions on the website the month after we receive the funds, and I want you to apply.”
“Are you kidding?” Anticipation and hope had my head buzzing. “Yes. Absolutely, you know I will.”
While the grant had been in the early planning stages, Amelia told me about the community manager positions. They were contract positions that paid influencers who already had STEM-focused social media accounts. The influencers would be expected to target girls and women with their marketing efforts, advertise women in STEM events hosted by Amelia’s company, scholarship opportunities, and receive materials and resources for encouraging women to consider careers in STEM.
Other than the advertising and scholarship part, it was a job I already did with my live videos and lessons but didn’t receive resources or get paid for. The perfect side hustle that would help me pay off my student loans, doing what I already loved while not taking up more of my limited free time.
“Good. Excellent.” She beamed. “Glad to hear it. But we also need to strategize, beef up your resumé, and work on your numbers. I talked to my boss, and she gave me the metrics and requirements.” Amelia paired her last sentence with a grimace, twisting her fingers in front of her.
My heart sank. “How many followers do I need in order to be competitive?”
“The good news is that your followers to following ratio is fine, well within the metrics. But—and don’t despair or freak out—you need at a minimum one hundred thousand followers.”
“What?!” I gasped as hard as I’d ever gasped in the entirety of my life.
“In order to be truly competitive, a follower count of five hundred thousand or more would be ideal. And an engagement per video or post of at least six percent.”
My shoulders drooped. Darn. “Well, I have the engagement at least. But where am I going to find seventy-five thousand followers in one month? Never mind four hundred and seventy-five thousand.”
“It’ll be more than a month. We’ll get the funding in six weeks, and we’ll post the community manager positions the month after.” She said this like the paltry reprieve changed everything.
It changed nothing. I’d been building my social media accounts for years. Ten weeks was a blink of an eye. “Okay, how am I going to get four hundred and seventy-five thousand followers in two and a half months?”
She steepled her hands and tapped her fingertips together, peering at me. “I have some ideas.”
My burst of a laugh sounded like a scoff. “Really? You got some college-aged, chemistry-curious women in your trench coat? Are they waiting for us outside in the hall?”
“Have some faith. We can do this. We just need to think outside the box.” Amelia tapped my knee.
“What box? The box of reality?”
She made a face. “The box of your current content and social media accounts.”
I sighed. Loudly. “You want me to spend more time on TikTok.”
“Would that be so bad? TikTok is where it’s at.”
“No. But—” I struggled to define my objections, finally settling on, “—I feel like my content, the videos I do, don’t translate well to bite-sized clips. I’m a long format person, not a thirty-second or three-minute engineering and technology person.”
“But you could be. You made that list last year of thirty-second facts, and those have done well on TikTok. I still think that list has great potential. And if anyone can make these concepts entertaining and engaging in thirty seconds, it’s you.”
“Okay.” I sighed again. “Okay, I’ll resurrect it.”
“And there’s something else.”
I peeked at her, bracing myself. “What?”
She also seemed to be bracing herself. “You should branch out.”
“Don’t say no until you hear me out.”
“Okay . . .”
“You should expand the kind of content you’re offering on TikTok and elsewhere, switch things up, do some popular challenges that aren’t necessarily related to STEM.”
I waited a beat, searching my brain for a clue as to what she meant before finally just asking, “Like what?”
“Like makeup, fashion, and romance challenges.”
I reared back. “You want me to do what?”
“Do the girly and romantic TikTok challenges.” She’d lifted her fingers and made air quotes around the word girly.
“What?” I shot up from the couch. “Makeup and fashion? Romance challenges? With who?” Before she could answer, I lifted my hand to cut her off. “And besides, I thought the influencers, the community manager accounts, were supposed to be STEM focused?”
“Yes—obviously, they should have a STEM focus—and no. They shouldn’t be just STEM videos. At least I don’t think they should. Think about it, you need to connect with your audience, make them see you as a real person they can relate to. Everyone who knows you loves you. That’s what you need to leverage.”
“By doing makeup and fashion TikTok challenges?” For some reason, just the idea filled me with a heavy, deep sense of disappointment.
“And romance challenges! You’re cute, friendly, engaging. I’d watch you kiss someone.” Amelia nodded at her own assertion, picking up her tea and taking a sip.
I waited for her to either expand on her statement further or bust out with a Just kidding! She did neither.
So I moved my finger in a circle in front of my face. “You see this? This is my confused face because I am confused.”
“Look, lots of women—in college and older, girls in high school, and even younger—are interested in how to apply makeup. Obviously, not all women. I’m just saying, you are a makeup applying master. I didn’t know the first thing about eye shadow until you taught me.”
“And many women—not all, but many—love romance and romantic stories. It’s not a mystery that if someone wants to build their following faster, they do so by posting live videos as well as challenges that are trending and sticking in the algorithms, and a lot of those sticky trends are fashion or romance-related challenges.”
“But. . . I’m a scientist. I’m a teacher.”
“So?” She shrugged, picking up a ginger cookie. “What part of being a scientist or a teacher says you can’t also enjoy makeup, fashion, and love stories?”
“Who is going to listen to me talk about magnetic fields if I’m making googly eyes at some random person in the very next video? Which, again, is still a problem.”
“What’s a problem?”
“Who would I do these so-called romantic challenges with? You? And what would Elijah say about it?”
“Tempting, but no. Besides, it would be best if you paired off with someone already on TikTok, someone who has a following.”
“Then who? You know I don’t date, I don’t have the time.” I’d gone on so many dates during the first two years after I’d broken up with my high school boyfriend, I’d lost track of the number. Just a few had made it to date three, but I hadn’t liked anyone enough to continue past date three.
Amelia, Serena, and I had made a pact our senior year to take twelve months off from dating. Now Serena was engaged to a great guy, Amelia had a super cool boyfriend named Elijah, and I was happily—and perpetually—single, not missing the emotional roller coaster of romance one bit. But even if I wanted to date, I didn’t have the time. Being a full-time teacher and managing my social media accounts and lessons, I barely had time to hang out with my friends unless it was virtually.
“Okay, first and foremost,” Amelia set down her ginger cookie and dusted her fingers of crumbs, “your audience will listen with rapt interest to your magnetic field videos because magnetic fields are fascinating, but you have to get the audience there in the first place. So just pick someone. You have a ton of guy friends, many of whom you know would jump at the chance to—oh! Wait!” Eyes widening abruptly, she leaned forward and gave the coffee table three quick pats. “What about Jeff?”
I opened my mouth to protest the insanity of her suggestion, but as soon as Jeff’s name crossed her lips, my brain stalled.
. . . Oh.
I’d met Jeff the second month of my sophomore year. Like me, Jeff had decided to be a high school STEM teacher and spend his life kindling the fire of curiosity in young people for the very same reason I had, because a STEM teacher had kindled that same kind of curiosity in him. We loved the same movies and books and art and artists and music and basically everything. He was kind and smart and so darn cute. From his thick, unruly brown hair to his smiling brown eyes to his square jaw to his corny jokes, I adored him.
But—and I swear—I’d never let myself actually think about being with Jeff because of one very huge issue. The fire of curiosity hadn’t been the only thing kindled during his freshman year of high school. Up until recently, Jeff had been with the same person—with a few on-again, off-again breakups in between—for over eleven years.
They’d gone to different colleges for undergrad, and she’d just finished law school last year on the East Coast while he’d stayed in Seattle to teach. I’d only met her a few times as she’d rarely traveled to see him, and when she did visit, she never seemed interested in getting to know his friends.
However, two months ago, just six months after she’d returned from the East Coast and they’d been making plans to finally move in together, they’d broken up. He’d been in a bad mood—well, bad mood for Jeff—ever since. I’d been waiting for him to start acting more like himself before contemplating the possibility that maybe, perhaps, this time he and I might make a connection.
To be clear, I hadn’t been contemplating it yet. Every time the thought entered my brain, I shut it down.
“Lucy was the one to break up with Jeff.” Amelia cut into my thoughts, reminding me of Jeff’s singlehood even though she definitely didn’t need to.
“I know that. I was there when Serena told us.” I suddenly felt fidgety and too hot.
Amelia was the only one among our friends who knew I sometimes struggled where Jeff was concerned, but even she didn’t know that my feelings had been growing roots for six long years. I wasn’t in love with him or obsessed or anything like that. Our friendship had always been excessively platonic. And whenever I’d found myself thinking about Jeff a little too often, I’d avoid him for a few weeks, just until I had a better handle on my inconvenient thoughts.
But now he was single.
And so was I.
Scrutinizing me, Amelia wagged her eyebrows. “Oh yeah, do it with Jeff. That’s perfect. Tell him it’s for a job—which it technically is—but then you are bound to get closer if you’re kissing each other for a few TikTok challenges.”
I scratched my neck, my heart doing erratic things. “I don’t know . . .”
“What don’t you know?”
“He’s rebounding. He and Lucy were together for years. And this feels sneaky.”
“Sneaky how?” She leaned back, her right eyebrow rising a scant millimeter. “Lucy broke up with him. I think we’ve met her—briefly—two times in six years, and she was standoffish both times. It’s been two months. Now it’s your chance. I know you like him. And I know for a fact he’s into you.”
I did like him. But even assuming he was at all interested in me, did I want to be the first person he was with after an eleven-year relationship? And did I want my first potentially serious relationship as an adult to be with Jeff Choi? And would he care that I was a twenty-six-year-old virgin? And what if—
STAAAAHP! You are getting so far ahead of yourself, you’re practically at the edge of the solar system. Chill.
“Forget it.” I waved away the idea. “There’s no use talking about this. I’m not asking Jeff for help with the romantic challenges because I’m not doing them. Nor am I doing makeup tutorials or fashion challenges because having those kinds of things on my account would undermine my credibility as a scientist.”
“But that’s my point! It wouldn’t—or shouldn’t.” Amelia leaned forward again, her eyes moving between mine as her voice adopted an earnest tone. “Yes, not all teenage girls and college-aged women care about fashion and romance. Fine. But many do, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. They have crushes, they want to fall in love, they want to have healthy and satisfying sex. Connect with them as a person who wants those same things, has their same fears, while also doing chemistry experiments, going to science centers, visiting NASA, doing badass STEM shit.”
“I don’t know. I don’t want—”
To be rejected. To be laughed at. “I don’t want to get in trouble with my school. You know that, as a teacher, I have to be super careful about what I post on social media.” I didn’t use my real name for any of my social media handles, but I did show my face. If students wanted to track me down, they could. “Nor do I want to undermine what I’ve built.”
“I’m not suggesting you post porn, Winnie. How would making fun videos about eyeshadow application or romantic challenges undermine you or get you in trouble with your school?”
“Come on, Amelia. You were premed. Bio had more women than chemistry, but it still wasn’t anywhere near fifty-fifty. If you want to be taken seriously in STEM, you have to be emotionless. You have to . . .”
“Act like a guy,” I blurted unthinkingly and then cringed, regretting the words. “Wait. That’s not—”
“Act like a guy? What does that even mean? You think guys don’t have crushes? You think guys don’t want to fall in love and have satisfying sex or care about what they look like? Just as many men marry women as women marry men. Have you seen Harry Styles in a dress? I hate to break it to you, but somatic nuclear transfer is a relatively new method for human procreation. Prior to—oh—twenty or thirty years ago, penis insertion into a—”
“Ha ha ha. Stop. You know what I’m talking about. As a woman, and maybe even as a man, you can’t be taken seriously in the scientific community if you express any interest in—in—”
“Compassion? Romance? Emotion? Beauty and fashion as a form of expression? Interpersonal dynamics and relationships? All the things many women—again, not all, but many—seem to intrinsically value and find interesting?”
“Fine.” I surrendered. “Yes, that.”
“But don’t you think that’s part of the problem for girls and anyone else with these interests?” Now her tone was beseeching. “Don’t you think that’s part of the barrier women consider as an entry into STEM fields? It’s like science and engineering, mathematics and technology careers have been roped off from them. It’s not even an option because they’ve been told they can’t be themselves and be a scientist. They’ve been told their interests are frivolous. You can’t adore pop music and be taken seriously. You can’t openly read romance novels for enjoyment and have articles published in a major peer review publication. You can’t wear clothes you enjoy and not get side-eyed. That’s a problem! Why should anyone have to bury who they are, what they look like, what they want, what they value, what they enjoy in order to get a seat at the table? They shouldn’t—girls and women shouldn’t. And you could show them that they don’t have to.”
I huffed loudly because she had a really, really great point. Darn it.
Amelia must’ve sensed her near victory because she went in for the kill. “Be yourself as a fully realized, three-dimensional woman, do the things I know you enjoy and also be a scientist. It doesn’t have to be fashion and makeup, it can be video games and running, or dancing challenges and DIY projects. You can be a person and a woman and a scientist, you can show all sides. And in doing so, you can reach an audience that never would’ve considered the fact that being both—being yourself and being a scientist—is actually possible.”
She was so good at persuasive arguments. Again, darn it.
“Okay. Fine.” I threw my hands up, sitting back down. “You win. You are one hundred percent right. I will do smoky-eye tutorials and everything else.”
She turned her head as though to look at me from a new angle. “And do the romance challenges?”
“They can’t be at all risqué. They have to be completely wholesome otherwise I might get in trouble with my school. But yes. Fine. I’ll—”
“Goooood, gooood.” She dropped her voice an octave and added a creepy British accent. “Yesss . . . Embrace your destiny.”
“Stop it. I hate it when you do your Palpatine impression.”
“Prefer Yoda, you do?” She wasn’t as good at Yoda and instead sounded like Kermit the Frog.
“Why are you this way?”
She snickered, snatching her tea from the table again and taking a big sip before asking, “When will you ask him?”
“Jeff-rey,” she sing-songed.
“Oh.” My heart squeezed.
“Ask. Him.” Amelia pointed at me. “He’s already on TikTok. He’s adorable. Your follower count will go through the roof, and that’s what you need.”
“I’d be using him.”
She shrugged. “I don’t think he’d mind.”
“Let me—let me think about it.”
“Hmm. . .” She continued to inspect me, and I could see her mind working. Which was why the next words out of her mouth struck me as suspicious. “Hey, so, are we playing Stardew Valley this week?”
Stardew Valley was an awesome throwback farming game reminiscent of 1990s RPGs in the tradition of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. With its pixelated, rudimentary 2-D graphics and wide-open gameplay, it had become a refuge for my soul during the last few years when I could’ve easily been crushed by my lingering student debt and the overwhelming nature of being a new teacher.
“Uh, yeah. I still play every Friday, so we’ll be playing tonight. But next week we’re not playing because of the camping trip. They’re leaving Wednesday.” I wished I could’ve gotten together with my friends, met somewhere face-to-face to see them in person, enjoy their company. But everyone was so busy these days with life changes and new relationships, or wedding planning and baby showers, or business trips and career advancement.
We used to be such a tight-knit group, but now we were drifting apart. I was determined to be the touchstone for everyone, the organizer of quarterly in-person events so that we didn’t drift too far. Likewise, I’d arranged the shared game server for anyone available on Fridays.
If an hour or two on Fridays was all they could fit into their busy schedules—even if some could only join our group chat for a half hour once a month or so—then it was better than nothing.
“Oh yeah, that’s right. Byron mentioned that. Jeff and them are going camping for spring break.” Amelia looked thoughtful.
“Yeah, they are. And by the way, your farm is a mess.” Initially, almost everyone would play together on Fridays. But after a few months, most people couldn’t make it consistently and it ended up being just me, Jeff, and Laura (another friend from college, computer science major who currently worked for “The Zon.”) Others would stop by randomly and play, and that was always great.
Amelia’s mouth fell open. “You haven’t been clearing away the debris? Watering my plants?”
“No. You haven’t played since last month. That’s like, two years in Stardew Valley time. Your fields are fallow, like the effs you do not give about them.”
She made a grunting sound. “Fine. I’m joining tonight.”
“Good. Looking forward to it.” My heart gave a little leap of happiness. It would be good to have her there.
Amelia narrowed her eyes, chewing on another cookie while openly inspecting me. “Will you help me plow and water my land? Fertilize my soil?”
“You supply the seeds and fertilizer, and I’ll need ten percent of your crop yield, but sure.”
Her mouth opened in a display of outrage. “That’s highway robbery.”
“I’ll throw in an iridium sprinkler.”
Giving me a hard stare, she held out her hand. “Fine. Deal.”
We shook on it. Little did she know I had a glut of iridium.
But at least that was settled. Now all I had to do was figure out literally everything else about my life, starting with whether or not I would ask Jeff to be my PG TikTok romantic challenge partner, and how to do so without becoming his rebound lady.
Just before sitting down to join the Stardew Valley game, armed with my mug of hot chocolate and plate of Swiss cheese slices, I made the mistake of checking the stats on the sports drink lab video I’d recorded earlier in the day. To my complete shock and abject fascination, it had been viewed over one hundred thousand times and counting. And I’d gained over three thousand new followers. But then I discovered that 80 percent of the comments were about Byron Visser and the other 20 percent were about him and I having “great chemistry.”
How could we have great chemistry? We’d shared the screen for exactly ten seconds.
“Why does your face look like that? You’re blushing.” Amelia sat across from me at our small oval kitchen table; she’d procured herself another cup of peppermint tea and three more ginger cookies on a white plate. Her addiction to my gluten-free ginger cookies was likely why she hadn’t abandoned me yet for a place of her own. Thank God for her willingness to share expenses, the cost of rent in Seattle was insane. Without a roommate, there was no way I’d be able to afford any place near the school where I taught. Plus, I loved her, and I would miss her desperately if—when—she moved out.
I turned off my phone and set it next to my laptop. “I’m just reading comments on my video from earlier. Are you logged in yet?”
“Yep. So is Laura, but Jeff just texted that he’s running late. I watched your video, it was really good.” Amelia picked up her phone, lifting an eyebrow at whatever she read there, then quickly typed out a response with her thumbs.
“Did you read the comments?” I asked, trying not to feel despondent, tearing a slice of cheese in half as I waited for the game platform to load.
“No, why?” Her eyes were still on her phone.
“Most of them were about Byron,” I muttered.
I wasn’t jealous this time, I swear. Of course his readers and fans would be excited to see him, and I didn’t begrudge him or them that excitement. But I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. I took a lot of pride in my STEM videos and the experiments I pulled together. I worked really hard, and I guess it felt demoralizing on some level to have my video and the comments hijacked, the conversation steered away from STEM.
If you do these romance challenges and the other videos, then you’ll be diluting your STEM-focused message all the time. Is that okay with you?
Amelia’s gaze flicked up, held mine for a few seconds, then returned to her phone screen. “Well, Byron has no social media accounts, won’t do interviews anymore, won’t go to any events or cons, doesn’t respond to fan mail, won’t sign books—not even for charity auctions—so I imagine seeing him pop up in your video was quite a thrill for fans of his books.”
“Why is he like that?” I clicked on the Join Co-op button at the prompt. “Why can’t he engage more with his readers?”
This also confused me about Byron. He had—literally—millions of loyal fans, hungry for his next book or a scrap of information about his personal life, and he never gave status updates or interviews. It seemed so strange to me.
Amelia didn’t respond, so I glanced up from the loading screen to look at her. Her lips were curved in a sneaky-looking smile.
“Who are you texting?” I asked.
My frown was immediate. “What are you two texting about?”
She tried and failed to quell a smile. “Nothing.”
Alarm shot through me. “Amelia!”
Giving into her grin, she typed out another message. “Give me a sec . . .”
“He said yes!” She let her phone fall to the table with a clack and lifted both her arms, fist-pumping the air.
I stared at her, horrified, worried, curious, and horrified again. “What did you do?”
She picked up the cell and held it out to me, a series of text messages on the screen. “Jeff agreed to do the romantic challenges with you for TikTok.”
My jaw dropped as I committed fully to being horrified, a rush of hot anxiety rolling through me. With shaking hands, I took her phone and scrolled through the messages.
Amelia: Here’s a hint, Winnie needs a favor and she doesn’t want to ask you because she feels like she’d be using you
Jeff: Are you logged into SDV yet? I’m running late. What’s the favor
Amelia: You know that community manager job? She needs to gain more followers on social media, so I think she should do romantic challenges with someone and I think that someone should be you
Jeff: What kind of romantic challenges
Amelia: You’ve seen the Sit on your best guy friend’s lap one? Or Kiss your secret crush one? She has a list of ten we’re working on
Jeff: Fuck yeah! But would Win want to do that stuff with me?
Amelia: Come on
Jeff: What? Really?
Amelia: Talk to her
“YOU TOLD HIM!” I screeched, staring at my former friend, the shock pouring from every cell of my body. “How could you do that?”
“Winnie, please.” She rolled her eyes. “As I told you earlier today, he’s into you.”
“What? No, he’s not.”
“Yes. He is.” She picked up her tea, giving me a flat look over the rim of the cup. “He asked if I thought you’d go out with him. Did you scroll all the way up to earlier today?”
The ground beneath my feet felt unsteady as I shifted my attention back to the phone. I scrolled up to the messages from this afternoon.
Jeff: Is Winnie still not dating anyone
Amelia: Depends. Why
Jeff: Do you think she’d go on a date with me if I asked
Amelia: You should ask and find out
Jeff: Any hints? Tell me if I have a chance. Help a guy out
Amelia: Here’s a hint, Winnie needs a favor and she doesn’t want to ask you because she feels like she’d be using you
I gasped, covering my mouth, then I returned my eyes to Amelia. Her grin had morphed into a smirky smile.
“I told you. Ask him to help you with the romantic challenges. He’d be perfect for so many reasons. You’re both teachers, you both have a STEM-focused social media following already. Just think, you two can document your love story in real time.”
Legs unsteady, I sat in my chair, rereading the text messages again because I couldn’t believe it. My heart expanded in my chest and I felt a squee bubbling up from the well of excited happiness inside me, but before I could give voice to it, Amelia’s phone rang.
I jerked upright, staring at Jeff’s face on her screen. “It’s Jeff!”
“Ooo-kay.” Amelia lifted an eyebrow.
“What should I do?”
“You can either give it to me or you can—”
“I’m going to answer it,” I said, sliding the bar at the bottom and bringing it to my ear. “Hello?”
“No.” I grimaced, second-guessing my impulsive decision to answer my friend’s phone. “No, it’s Winnie. But I can put her on.”
“No, no. I’m glad you answered.” Jeff chuckled, it carried an edge of nervousness. “I guess she showed you our text messages?”
“Maaaybe.” I grinned like an idiot, certain I now floated on a cloud.
“If you want me to help you with those TikTok challenges, I’m happy to. You wouldn’t be using me.”
I released a silent sigh because he was just so . . . so . . .
“He’s so cute.” Amelia chuckled, her eyes on her laptop screen.
“But I have to be up-front with you, Win,” he continued. “I just broke up with Lucy—or she just broke up with me. It was time, and it’s been two months, but it’s still fresh, you know?”
The reminder of his ex-girlfriend sobered me from my internal squeeing rainbow of happiness cloud vibes. I nodded. “I understand. And I appreciate your honesty about it. So I feel like I should tell you, I’ve had a—a—” I gulped. “Well, I’ve liked you for a while. And so you should know that before you agree to help me with TikTok.” I felt Amelia’s attention on me, and I looked at her. She was staring at me with wide eyes, clearly surprised by my sudden emotional bravery.
She knew the household where I’d grown up had punished honesty. Asking for what I needed—let alone what I wanted—would be punished by withholding whatever I’d asked for, and then I would be further punished for being greedy. If I needed something, if I wanted something, I had to figure out how to make my uncle think it had been his idea.
Since leaving for college, I’d been working really, really hard to change the ingrained habits that had become instincts, but the path had been rocky. Even with Amelia, who I trusted more than anyone else, I still felt reticent about admitting the truth of my feelings.
But if Jeff could be honest and brave, then so could I. See? I knew we’d be perfect for each other.
“Are you serious?” His laugh this time sounded disbelieving.
“Yes.” I studied the thigh pocket on the side of my green cargo pants, shoving away the panic threatening to choke me. He likes you, he wanted to ask you out, stop being a nincompoop. “But I would never have said anything if you were still with Lucy.”
He sighed, chuckling some more. “Life is so weird. I can’t believe this.”
“Do you still want to do the challenges? No pressure if—”
“No, no. I want to do it. We’re—well, we’ve been friends for a long time.” I heard him shift, like he’d gone from standing to sitting. “I would love to do them with you, and maybe we can, I don’t know, just have fun together? No pressure.”
“I’d like that.” I worked to keep my grin under control, but it wouldn’t be curtailed, it took over my face and my cheeks hurt. Ah! Best day ever!
“Okay. Good.” He sounded like he was smiling as well. “Hey, send me over the list of challenges, okay?”
“Yeah. Sure. I’ll do that tonight.” I turned back to my computer, pulling up the list Amelia and I had been working on this afternoon.
“When can we get started?” he asked. “Tomorrow?”
Now I laughed because he sounded so eager, and heck if that didn’t send my heart soaring. “I can’t tomorrow or Sunday, but how about Monday?” It was spring break for both of us. I’d planned to spend the week prepping all my assignments for the remainder of the year and getting a jump on the thirty-second videos for TikTok, but spending Monday strategizing romantic challenge videos with Jeff sounded so much better.
“I leave for the camping trip on Wednesday, but I’ll be back Saturday. We can do more when I get back.”
Amelia reached over and wiggled the screen of my laptop. “Ask him if we can shoot it at Byron’s house. He and Byron have much better light than we do.”
I nodded. I was in such a good mood, not even the thought of seeing Byron again could dampen it. “Hey, can we shoot it at your place? Amelia can hold the camera. We’ve been working on a script for the first one.”
“Yes, we want to script each one so we can get it right with minimal takes and tell a story. Let me put you on speaker phone.” I put him on speaker and placed her cell on the table so Amelia could join in on our planning conversation.
“Hey Jeff,” she said, grinning at me.
“Hey Amelia, old buddy, old pal.”
Ah! He is SO CUTE!
“Ha ha. So, listen. We want to do this right. Each TikTok challenge will build on the last and tell a story, okay?” Amelia was all business. “We want people to tune in and check back frequently on her account to see if a new romantic challenge has been posted. We’re going for viral here, a viral romance, got it?”
“Uh, I think so. Yeah.”
“So that means the first few videos will be you two as friends, creating tension—will they, won’t they—and then the later videos will be you two as . . .” Amelia glanced at me, seeming to search my face for permission to finish her thought. I nodded, and she continued, “Well, they’d be like you two are dating, even if you’re not dating. We can film them this week and next, and then release them over the next ten weeks. You might have to do some acting. Is that okay?”
“Totally fine! I’m happy to help, and it all sounds good to me.”
I exhaled a relieved breath, nibbling my bottom lip before adding quickly, “It might be a good idea for us to record as many as possible on Monday, just to get them out of the way. What do you think?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure. Sounds good. What time are you coming over?” He sounded like he was genuinely looking forward to it.
I looked to Amelia, and she shrugged. “I can get off at five at the earliest, so five thirty? Six? Then we’ll do as many as we can.”
“Okay, see you guys then.”
Amelia plucked her phone from the table, turned off the speaker function, and lifted it to her ear. “We’ll see you then. And Jeff? You owe me.”
I thought I heard him laugh on the other side. His happy sound plus how Amelia was wagging her eyebrows in my direction made me feel light-headed and giddy.
I couldn’t believe it. This was happening. After six years of not allowing myself to think about the possibility of being with Jeff Choi, this was finally, finally happening.
This couldn’t be happening.
“I think that one was pretty great.” Jeff grinned at Amelia.
The look she gave him could only be described as pained. I tried to muster a smile, but it felt tight and weird on my face. This is a disaster.
Everything had been perfect at first. When we’d initially walked into Byron’s house in the fancy section of Capitol Hill, I’d been on cloud nine. Jeff had taken our coats, offered us a drink, made us laugh, told a few jokes—just like he always did. He’d then handed me my water and sat next to me on their couch in the front room—a.k.a. the salon—putting his arm behind me, his thigh brushing mine. Both actions had felt like giant and positive steps over the platonic-friendship line.
But then Byron had sauntered down the stairs in his signature black pants and black long-sleeved shirt and strolled into the salon. My stomach had tensed and my heart had taken off at a gallop. He’d given Amelia a quick chin lift as a hello. His eyes then drifted over to me, narrowing on Jeff’s arm placement. They’d seemed to narrow further as they slid to where our legs touched. He’d halted midstride.
“You two, this is happening?” he’d asked, looking between us, tone flat.
My neck heated. The way Byron had looked at me—chin angled down, that right side of his lip barely curling, the blue-green intensity of his eyes darkening—I felt like I’d been caught, like my hope of something with Jeff made me foolish.
It’s all in your head, Winnie. Byron barely knows who you are, he’s not thinking about you, he doesn’t care about you and Jeff getting together, he doesn’t care about you at all. Ignore him.
Jeff had laughed and squeezed my shoulder. “Come on, man. I’m helping Winnie with those videos. I told you they were coming over.”
Byron had leaned his back against the wall and folded his arms such that the black Henley he wore stretched over his broad shoulders. His eyes had seemed to darken further as they’d locked with mine. “Oh yeah. Mind if I watch?”
My heart had gone from a gallop to warp speed.
Mind if I watch?
I’d fought a shiver.
If I’d felt comfortable being honest, I would have said, Yes, I mind. But that’s not how I’d been raised. I’d been taught that admitting to being bothered by a person—especially when I was a guest in their house—was rude, because it was rude.
So I’d choked out “Of course not” while my insides twisted and tightened.
After that, everything had gone horribly wrong.
We’d moved from the salon to the family room to get the best light. Byron’s house had one of those glass accordion patio doors running along the entire back wall off the combo kitchen and family room area, leading out onto an amazing deck with a built-in firepit and Jacuzzi.
The plan Amelia and I had worked out for the scene was as follows: Jeff would sit on the family room couch, pretending to play Super Mario Bros.; I’d step into the camera frame and lift a finger to my lips and grin mischievously, as though telling the audience to be quiet (Amelia said this would make them feel like they were part of the video, in the room with us); I would then crawl on the couch over to Jeff on my hands and knees; he’d do a double take, ask me what I was doing, I’d sit on his lap and tell him I wanted to sit there; he’d be surprised but pleased; and then the video would end with me laying my head on his chest and smiling softly at the camera. End scene. Very PG. Very sweet. Solid challenge video.
That’s not what happened.
“No, it wasn’t great, Jeffrey.” Byron’s full upper lip that always seemed on the precipice of curling with disgust actually did. Arms still crossed, he stepped away from the wall. “You’ve been acting like a dick for two months. Can’t you stop thinking about yourself for ten minutes?”
Yikes. That was harsh.
Amelia lifted her hand in a placating gesture. “Byron—”
“He’s feeling sorry for himself,” he cut her off, not quite shouting, “and none of this helps Fred.”
Confused as to why Byron was taking this so personally, I said weakly, “It was fine.”
But it wasn’t really fine. I couldn’t post that video, or any of the other five we’d just filmed. I knew Jeff was trying to help by being spontaneous and goofy, and I adored him for it, but I wished he’d just follow the script.
Making matters worse, Byron had been present for each and every disastrous take: the one where Jeff had broken out into a fit of giggles; the one where Jeff had elbowed me off the couch; the one where he’d whacked me playfully on the butt with the game controller; the two where he’d licked my face and cracked up after; and this last one where he’d shoved his tongue down my throat in a truly ridiculous stage kiss.
Byron hadn’t said a word—just quietly seethed in the corner, the right side of his lip inching higher, his eyes narrowing into blade-like slits—until the last video. And now it seemed he was primed to unleash his ire.
“But you need better than fine, don’t you?” Byron swung his glare to me. When I hesitated, he repeated, “Don’t you?”
Flustered by his directness and confrontational tone, I turned to Amelia for help. She looked tired and exhausted. The sun had set, we hadn’t eaten, and she’d been at work all day. Guilt plucked at my heart. We should just go.
“Here.” Flicking his wrist, Byron motioned that Jeff should move out of the way. “Let me show you. Go stand over there, out of the frame.”
“You’re going to show me how to kiss Winnie?” Jeff looked between us.
“No. You shouldn’t have kissed her,” Byron ground out, his jaw working. “Or licked her face.”
“Why not? If given the chance, I’m pretty sure you’d lick her face.” Jeff joked, dutifully leaning against the wall where Byron had stood earlier.
“I could tell you weren’t playing a video game, that part looked obviously fake.” Byron ignored Jeff’s statement, casting his frown around the room, his tone distracted. “And that was a terrible kiss.”
Jeff put a hand on his chest, like Byron had injured him with his words, but his mouth quirked with a small smile. “Bro—”
“You’re wasting everyone’s time.” Byron was not smiling. He pushed his fingers through his longish hair, visibly agitated. “Do it right or not at all.”
The conversation continued around me as I tried not to be disappointed in Jeff. He said he’d help, but it seemed like he was more interested in being the center of attention than being part of a team. Maybe I could just do the makeup tutorials, dance challenges, fashion trends, thirty-second STEM, throw in some video game duets, and forget about the romantic challenges.
“Win, was that a bad kiss?” Jeff’s question had me looking at him. His eyes sparkled like this was all good fun. The two men could not have been more different, and not for the first time I wondered how they’d managed to be roommates for so long.
“If any of those are posted, you would ruin the story arc, deflate the tension before it had any momentum.” Byron glared at Jeff, his tone quiet and accusatory. “The entire narrative lost, boring.”
“And there is no greater sin than a boring narrative,” Amelia said with a small, tired smile.
“Exactly.” Byron sat in the spot Jeff had occupied, picking up the game controller. “Okay, watch this. Fred!”
I stiffened. I’d only been half listening, trying to figure out how to leave without being rude. Amelia needed to eat, and I needed to rethink this whole romantic challenge thing.
“Do the”—without looking at me, Byron flicked his fingers in my direction, motioning that I should come over—“do the thing.”
In my confusion, I looked at Jeff and then at Byron. “The thing?”
“Crawl over and sit on my lap, like you did with Jeffrey. I’ll show him what to do.”