Chapter One

I REMEMBER the first time I saw him.

I was walking out of the English hall, and he passed me coming in the door. I had been so busy trying to find a way to hide my useless umbrella that I almost missed him. My father had been going on about a storm that was supposed to hit us for days now, and to be honest, it was getting old. Every day I had brought this idiotic device with me, and each time, I was the only person with an umbrella on a perfectly fine day. This morning, we had actually argued over it, making me miss my bus and therefore miss Jewel, my best friend, altogether. I was trying to find a place under my arm or behind my books and happened to look up as he walked by. I was so shocked, I slammed full force into the guy in front of me. That was the most obviously gay thing I had done so far in high school, and that included my ABBA phase. In my defense, he was the hottest guy I had ever seen in person. To be honest, he was even better looking than the guys I’d seen on TV or in the movies, but that wasn’t something I realized at first. All I knew was that a demigod was wandering the halls of Peter Quince High School, and I didn’t know who he was.

He passed by me without so much as a sideways glance. In fact, he passed by everybody with the same attitude. On other people, it might have come across as stuck up, but this guy, he seemed almost aloof. It was as if he had no idea how insanely good-looking he was and, because of it, became infinitely more attractive. He had shaggy black hair and blue eyes; he looked about six feet tall and was well proportioned for his size. I apologized to the guy I had plowed into and tried to make sure I had picked up everything I had lost in the exchange. That included my books, umbrella, and dignity all at the same time. Realizing I was going to have to leave one behind, I discarded my dignity and turned to follow him.

I know that sounds completely stalkerish, but let me explain.

My name is Kane Vess, and I have lived in Athens, Iowa, my entire life.

Athens, Iowa, is a small hippie town in the middle of nowhere. Athens, Iowa, is also the weirdest place in the entire world, hands down. My parents moved here when my mom was still pregnant with me, and I have been stuck here ever since. Athens isn’t a huge place, so it’s not hard to know everyone, if not by name, then at least by face. From time to time, the odd tourist wanders through, but no one ever seems to stay.

I can’t say I blame them at all.

The fact that I didn’t know tall, dark, and insanely hot was more than a little odd. He didn’t look like the rest of the people my age, who were the loud and expressive brood of creative people who believed that labels are toxic and every child is a unique little snowflake. That translated to no dress code, a lot of long hair, and questionable body odor from time to time. It drove me crazy sometimes because it was impossible to stand out in a town full of freaks. I know I’m not supposed to use the word freaks, but I assure you, I’ve seen TV, and I know the truth. We may think we are the tiny, little center of the world and have the secret of what makes life great, but in fact, we are just another odd, little town in the middle of nowhere, populated by freaks. I was the only openly gay student in town, and the most reaction I ever got was a raised eyebrow by people wondering if I was trying hard enough to be different from everyone else.

The few normal looking people in town—yes, there are a few of us—are not shunned but, more sadly, tolerated by the rest of them. No one ever mocks or picks on people in Athens, but there is a definite cookie given to those who are the most different. People who just get up, dress normal, and do their things are considered people not living up to their life potential, whatever that means. The more adjectives you possessed, the better. For example, Mr. Podduff, who owns Donde está Da Bean, the local coffee shop, is a vegetarian/Taoist/Tantric/Indigo Child healer. I am not sure what all that means, but he does serve a mean latte. If I had ended up being straight, I would have been even more invisible than I already was. It didn’t matter anyway; I could have been a Cuban drag queen who wears fruit on his head, and I’d still be nowhere close to my dad’s weirdness.

My dad is a flautist. No, that is not what it sounds like. Instead of performing with musical farts, he is a guy who plays a flute. You wouldn’t think that would make a person weird, but my dad would shake you of that belief in seconds. He is a folk flutist. Because just playing a flute in general isn’t bad enough, he has to play only a special type of flute music that even fewer people listen to. He met my mother in San Francisco, she said he was the best musician in the nine worlds, and they fell in love. Less than a month later they were married and moved to Athens. Why, no one can tell me, but here we moved. My mom died in childbirth, and I have been raised by my dad ever since. Why he stayed here I will never understand, but nothing save zombie attack or an invasion by Republicans will ever get him to leave.

Which means I have been stuck here for sixteen years of bizarreness.

He knew my mother less than a year, but my dad has never stopped loving her. He met the love of his life and treasured every second he had spent with her. He always said she gave me to him, and that was enough. I’d love to work up the sarcasm to think it was totally lame, as all good apathetic teenagers should, but the truth is, I found it completely sweet.

I’d kill for a love like that.

The only gay people I know in town are an older lesbian couple who own Mr. Watson’s, the vegan diner on the corner, and Mr. Adler and his lover who own You Must Remember This, the antique store on Fourth Street. By the way, no one uses a normal store name in Athens. I think there’s an insane contest to come up with the cutest store name in history whenever a store is scheduled to open. It really is bizarre.

Everyone knows I’m gay, and no one cares, which is good and bad. I mean, I don’t want some homophobe jerk to throw a slushie in my face, but to be utterly alone in a town, not because people disapprove of me but simply because the numbers aren’t there, sucks.

So trust me, I know it makes me sound like a total creep following this random guy down the hall, but I was desperate to the point that was in no way attractive. I was impressed by the way he maneuvered effortlessly among people; no one seemed to notice him as he dodged between the people walking and texting. Passing by unnoticed couldn’t be easy for someone that good-looking; then again, we lived in bizzarro town and were taught from an early age that the cover is the least important part of a book.

But I don’t think anyone had seen a book this hot before.

On closer inspection, he was actually about five foot ten but looked taller because of the way he carried himself. It was as if he didn’t know how to slouch, his posture was so perfect. His raven black hair was just a bit on the shaggy side but still looked styled. His bangs hung in his eyes, framing his face, which was a true work of art. His features were slender and delicate but in no way conveyed a lack of masculinity. With his solidly defined cheekbones and skinny nose, he would have been too pretty for a guy, but the intensity about him balanced things just enough to make him handsome instead. His worn leather jacket was cut in a style that I’d never seen before. Wearing leather was a big risk in Hippieville, USA, since killing animals for their hides was cruelty, but again, no one even gave him a first glance, much less a second. He wore some kind of canvas backpack slung over his shoulder. At first glance I’d assumed it was from a military surplus store, but as I edged closer to him I could see it was handmade.

There was less than a minute before the next period, and people were now rushing down the hall before they were late. Someone’s shoulder hit me from the side, spinning me around for a second. I hadn’t been looking where I was going, and it had cost me valuable time. By the time I looked for him again, he was gone. A trick I had no idea how he pulled off. He had to have stepped into one of the classrooms, but I had no idea which one. I was pondering checking them to see which one he was in when the bell rang. I cursed and ran towards my next class. Whoever he was, finding him would have to wait. Besides, it's a small school. I’d see him again.

Lunch came and went, and I didn’t see him again.

There weren’t enough kids in our school for us to have more than one lunch period. And even if there had been enough, multiple lunch periods just wouldn’t have happened. Our parents would have complained about dividing us into arbitrary lunch periods and how one would be favored over the other, and that was fascism, man. Then there would have been an argument about what people had against fascism, since it is just another school of thought, and weren’t they just being judgmental? Which would have sparked a debate over whether they were evolving into their parents and if that was a bad thing?

In the meantime, we’d have starved to death.

So every day we all had one big happy lunch outside where we could commune with our true mother (the planet, if you don’t speak hippie) and recharge our mana or something. Some of us ate with friends; others meditated. A couple of guys who were the closest thing we had to jocks played Hacky Sack on the lawn as the rest of us tried to enjoy the perfect weather despite my father’s warnings of doom.

But no hot guy.

“Your aura is out of sync,” Jewel said as I studied the courtyard.

I looked over at her and scowled. “Stop it.”

She laughed and rolled her eyes. “You are so easy,” she said as she took another bite of her sandwich. “Umbrella again?” she asked as I nodded back. She knew me too well, since we had known each other since we were able to walk. A fellow protestor of our town’s new-age sensibility, Jewel Firebird Smith was my partner in crime. I always teased her that her parents had taken such protest in their last name being a bastion of normalcy that they had bestowed her not one but two freakish names in hopes she would escape the gravitational pull of expectations that a name like Smith carried to the rest of the world. She always countered that my last name sounded like something a vampire would say if it was haggling for a better price. “Vess! Vess!” she’d cry out with a lisp until I was crying in laughter.

We never passed up a chance to take a shot at the absurdity of Athens lifestyle. “Are you on the lam or something?” she asked as I continued to scan the crowd. “You look like you’re in witness relocation and the bad guys are after you.”

“I saw a hot guy today,” I said, not even looking back at her.

“Online?” I shook my head. “Here?” she asked, almost choking in disbelief. “In town?”

“In the school,” I clarified, which was even harder for her to believe.

“Adam Levine hot or Mark McGrath hot?” she asked.

I sighed. “Not everything in the world is defined by music, you know.”

“To you, maybe,” she muttered under her breath. Jewel’s entire world was defined by music to some degree or another. People were either Jim Morrison cool or Lenny Kravitz hip. They were Beatles classy or Rolling Stones smart. It was like being best friends with an iPod some days, but at least it was her only weird trait.

“A new guy?” she pondered aloud. “That’s hard to believe. It’d be all over school by now.” She was talking more to herself than me, but she was right.

A new arrival in our little world was usually heralded by some teacher or another making the poor sap stand up and “express himself to the class.” The twenty people in that class then went off and shared with the rest of the collective and so on and so on. I joked we didn’t need Twitter or Facebook in Athens. Plain old-fashioned gossip moved much faster.

“And yet I saw him,” I said, sounding surer than I felt. At this point in the day, word of a new student should have been all over school; whether talking about looks was superficial or not, no one that handsome could be missed for long.

“So how cute?” she asked, leaning forward in anticipation. She wasn’t the prettiest girl in the world, but I thought she was adorable. She believed herself too big to be attractive to others, but I thought that was an excuse for her to not even try.

I looked backed and admitted, “Darren Criss hot.”

She gasped, there being no higher compliment I could give anyone.

We tossed our trash into the proper recycling bin before we made our way back to class. Had I become so desperate that I was imagining guys now? How sad was that? Bad enough that I was in a state of perpetual solitary confinement, but having to wait until I went to college was driving me nuts. I mean, was I just a few bad days away from thinking I was Brad Pitt in disco glasses blowing buildings up? I wasn’t sure what was worse, going crazy or the fact that he wasn’t real.

“You coming over after school?” she asked as we began to part ways.

“Do I ever not come over?” I asked.

“Ouch. Someone is testy,” she said in mock pain.

“I’m sorry, I just…,” I began to explain.

“I’m kidding!” she said, blowing me an air kiss as the bell rang. “Later, gator.”

As I dragged my way to class, I tried not to look like I’d just had to put my dog down. I tried, but I’m pretty sure I failed kind of hard.

The rest of the day seemed dimmer than normal. I wandered through elective science, which was Athens-speak for a class describing one way the physical universe could be explained, but, hey, no pressure, man. After that was drama with Ms. Brody, a plus-sized woman who may have once wandered onstage in a theater just a few blocks away from Broadway, which made her an “actress,” a word she always said with a small hand flourish and a half bow to an imaginary crowd.

She went on and on about our spring production and how incredible it was going to be, but I wasn’t listening anymore.

I couldn’t shake the image of my mystery boy. Had I made him up? It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that it was someone else that I had seen at an odd angle and thought was someone new. But there wasn’t anyone in school close to as good-looking as this guy had been. Hippie town or not, there were a few genetically gifted guys that no unflattering poncho or unsightly Birkenstocks could diminish. But I knew them all and also knew that not one of them could have made my head turn like this guy had. Then again, I had grown up with everyone in this school, so it would have felt like being attracted to your brother or something if he was one of them.

“And you, Mr. Vess?”

I looked up, stunned, as I realized the entire room was staring at me.

I bit the inside of my cheek as I realized I had zoned out so much that I had stopped paying attention to her presentation. Not having any idea what she might have been talking about, I answered, “Um, present?”

There was muffled laughter from people covering their mouths, and I knew that was the wrong answer.

“Well perhaps right now, but you have been sorely lacking for the last”—she looked at her watch—“seventeen minutes, so maybe you can explain to us the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the great William Shakespeare?”

I could not. In fact, with a gun to my head, I couldn’t have picked Shakespeare out of a lineup with three boring playwrights and a crib sheet. Knowing there was no way she was going to let me go until I gave an answer of some kind, I took a deep breath and offered up, “A dream, that um, was in the summer?” I saw the shocked looks on the other kids’ faces and added, “At night?”

You could swear I had insulted Liza Minnelli and Rent at the same time. I hated that people thought just because I was gay I would be into drama. It was an ugly stereotype that just was not true since I loathed being on stage more than anything in the world. I volunteered for anything backstage each time we had a production, against the strong objections of Ms. Brody, who said I was a butterfly just waiting to come out of his cocoon.

A butterfly? Really?

“No, but thank you for trying,” she said, pacing the stage like she owned it. “The play is actually two stories intertwined together that come from two completely different places. The first one is about a girl who is forced to choose between marrying a man she doesn’t love or becoming a nun while the second one is about the king and queen of fairies who are having an argument over the fate of a child who is a shape shifter. The king sends his henchman, Puck, to ensorcel his wife so she may forget the child. What happens next is a wild adventure that is just—” She clapped her hands in excitement. “Oh, you will just love it!”

A couple of kids shared in her exuberance as I tried not to shake my head in disbelief.

“One of the things I want to explore in this production is the motivation of Puck throughout the play. He is a trickster and loves chaos, but what is it he is truly after?”

One of the kids called out, “Sex!” Which brought laughter to the rest of us.

“Well, not sex as much as passion…,” she began to correct him.

“Hot mothers!” another screamed.

“And Quinn!”

She tried to wave her hands to get us under control, but she was painfully Glee ignorant and had lost control of the class.

The day couldn’t end fast enough for me.

I practically sprinted to my locker to ditch my books before I met Jewel out front. If anyone could make me forget what had happened, it would be her and one of her truly awful independent bands. Screeching vocals with barely tolerable instrumentals would be the only thing that could banish the image of my imaginary boy from my mind and hopefully give me some peace.

And then he walked right by me.

My head spun so fast I swear I got dizzy. I dropped the book in my hand as I watched him examine the lockers carefully, obviously reading the numbers posted on the top of each one. He kept glancing to a small slip of paper and back to the locker as I held my breath in fear he might suddenly vanish. Never taking my eyes off of him, I knelt down and grabbed my book and shoved it back in the locker, pushing aside the useless umbrella to make room. I slowly closed my locker, trying to make as little noise as possible, as if I was watching a deer drink from a stream instead of a guy opening his locker. His face was obscured as he opened the door and removed the pack from his shoulder.

I tried to be as quiet as one can be in sneakers on a tile floor as I approached him before he could vanish again. I had no idea what I was going to say, but making sure he was flesh and blood was a good start. Maybe I’d welcome him to the school and the town. Though I wished he was gay, even if he was straight, the chance to slowly ease someone into the chaos that was Athens would increase the chance of normalcy around here by at least a small percentage.

He was wearing boots that looked similar in construction to his jacket. By that I meant they looked handmade instead of store bought. In Athens, more than a few people made their own clothes and clothes for others. All natural, homespun cloth with wooden buttons guaranteed to make even stylish people look like Amish rejects, it was a rarity to find actual fashionable clothes to wear within fifty miles. Another clue he wasn’t from around here. Mystery Boy’s jacket was sweet. It was a shade of smooth, brown leather that I had to ask how was achieved. I couldn’t guess the animal the brown leather had come from, but I wanted to touch it to see if it was as smooth as it seemed. The boots were a little too worn for my taste, but they accented his ruggedness, minimizing his innate prettiness.

I was within two steps of him when I decided to reach out and knock on his locker door. My knuckles were less than a quarter inch away when he slammed the door shut violently. I froze as he lunged at me. A blur of motion, a glint of metal in his hand. Then he slammed the metal into my chest.

I looked down in shock. The hilt of a sword stuck out where I was always told my heart was located. His face was next to mine as he hissed, “Die, assassin.”

I swear nothing in this town was ever normal.