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An excerpt from "Charlie's Song"

Matt pushed through the cafeteria doors and headed across the room, hoping to find Shannon. She usually sat by the windows, near Alessa’s table. Alessa, Kristen and Yen, along with their boyfriends, always sat together, ignoring everyone else and carrying on as if they were the only kids in the cafeteria.

He spotted Sam, a friend from Computer Science, who was getting up to leave. Shannon was nearby, her nose in a book, with her blonde hair spiked in all directions. Matt liked the look. He liked everything about Shannon, especially her eyes. They were warm and dark, like chocolate, and when she looked at him, his knees buckled, and he had to sit down before he fell down.

Shannon was the only girl in the entire school who could turn him into a pile of mush. He wished Charlie were at school. She usually kept the conversation moving back and forth between Shannon and him. There were no awkward silences when she was around. She probably knew he liked Shannon, although he’d never said a word. He wasn’t ready. He still didn’t know if Shannon felt the same way about him as he felt about her, and if she didn’t, and he opened his big mouth, he’d look like an idiot.

Matt climbed over the bench and placed his tray on the table. Suddenly his appetite was gone but he’d eat anyway. It would give him something to do. “Hey, Shannon.” Shannon lifted her eyes but only for a second before returning to the book. “Hi, Matt. How’s it going?”

He bit into the end of his taco. Tomato, ground beef and green pepper oozed out of the shell like toothpaste and plopped on the front of his shirt. With his cheeks burning, he snatched a napkin and rubbed the stain and then tried to keep Shannon’s attention from the mess with intelligent conversation. “Have you heard?”

“Hmm . . .” Shannon lifted her head but stared past him to Alessa’s table. “Heard what?”

“Have you heard about Teen Idol? You know, the singing competition.”

Shannon put down her book and snorted. “Like, yeah. Like, it’s all over the school. You’d have to be living in a cave not to have heard . . . Ah, what’s that on your shirt?”

Matt choked, his throat dry. “Mrs. Dale’s food. She always fills the shells too full.” “Gross.”

“Yeah, gross.” He wished the floor would open up and swallow him, taco-stained shirt and all.

“Want some water?” Shannon slid her glass across the table. “I haven’t touched it. Have it.”

“Thanks.” Matt took a sip.

“Are you trying out for Teen Idol?” she asked.

“Nope, but I hope to use one of my songs in the competition. I’m going to get Charlie to sing it.”

“Oh? Bet Miss Perfect tries out.” Shannon stared at Alessa. She was laughing hysterically at something her boyfriend, Tyler, had said, her blue eyes bright. “She’ll charm the judges, I’m sure.”

“Charlie’s got a better voice,” Matt said, giving up on his food and pushing his tray to the side.

“Is she trying out?”

“Hope so. I haven’t heard from her lately.”

“I haven’t heard from her either. She called from the hospital about Nicholas, and well, I tried to phone her later, at home, but there wasn’t any answer.”

“I think she’s helping her mom with Nicholas.”

“Oh.” Shannon twirled a strand of hair around her finger, or tried to – instead her hair stuck out like a stick. “Charlie doesn’t stand much of a chance in Teen Idol with Alessa in the picture. Alessa will strut her stuff, you’ll see, and walk away with first place.”

“Maybe she’ll . . . ” Matt was cut off as Alessa appeared at his shoulder.

“Did I hear my name?” She was all smiles as she stuck her face in Matt’s. “My ears were burning.”

“Well, I . . .”

Her voice was soft, her eyes big and round as she shifted her gaze to Shannon. “How’s Charlie?”

Shannon was speechless. Alessa had never asked about Charlie. Alessa had stayed clear of Charlie as well as anyone connected with her. “Um, okay, I think.”

“I noticed that she’s been away a lot. Hope she’s not sick or anything.”

“I think she’s been helping with Nicholas. He just got out of the hospital,” Matt said. Alessa scrunched up her face in concern. “I heard about that gang thing and the beating and all. How awful.”

“Yes, he’s better but not ready to go back to school,” Matt replied.

Alessa glanced over her shoulder at her table. Tyler and Yen and Yen’s boyfriend, Mark, were packing up their backpacks and getting ready to leave. Kristen and her boyfriend had gone. “Guess I better get going.” She turned back. “I’ve got music now. See you, Shannon, and I’ll see you, Matt, in class. Bye.” With a grin and a wave, she dashed off.

There was dead silence at the table. Mouth open, Shannon followed Alessa with her eyes; Alessa ran back to Tyler and tucked her hand in the crook of his arm, then slid closer. Shannon eyed Matt. “What do you think that was about?”

“Not sure.”

“What an act! As if she cares about Charlie.” She let out a groan. “Like Charlie was her best friend or something. Does she think we’re stupid?”

Matt shrugged.

“Hmm . . . she’s up to something,” Shannon said, resting her chin in her hands. She watched Alessa disappear through the cafeteria doors behind a throng of kids. “Just you wait and see.”

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