Virtually in Love Chapter One
I glanced up at Kazuo Aratani’s grinning face, which had just popped into view over the top edge of my music stand. As usual, his black hair was sticking up in random tufts, making him look like a Muppet with better cheekbones.
“Sure,” I said, already salivating at the thought of the amazingly greasy fries at our favorite diner. “We’ve got time before the S&D meeting. But give us a chance to put our instruments away first, okay?”
My other best friend, Vanessa Bennett, giggled from her seat across the way. “Seriously, Kaz,” she said. “Did you even take your trumpet apart, or did you just shove it into your backpack?”
I grinned as Kaz stuck out his tongue at her. Everyone says I’m pretty peppy, but when it comes to excess energy, I’ve got nothing on Kaz, the world’s most hyper tenth grader. At least that’s what our science teacher, Ms. Farley, always calls him.
Me? The teachers just call me Chloe Bell, Spaz Girl. Okay, kidding. Only a few of them actually call me that. The rest are probably thinking it, though. You crash into one little tower of donated food cans in the school lobby freshman year, and you’re branded forever. For a while Vanessa called me the Tiny Tornado, but thankfully, that one didn’t stick.
In any case, I figured the ten seconds or so since rehearsal had ended was plenty of time for Kaz to break down and put away his trumpet. And check his e-mail. And possibly cure cancer. You just never knew with Kaz.
“Okay, I’m ready. Let’s eat,” Vanessa said. “We’ll need extra energy to deal with the S&D kids, right?” She snapped her flute case shut, then stood up so fast, she almost knocked over her music stand. Kaz caught it just in time.
But not before our band director, Mr. Graves, noticed the commotion. He glanced at Van over the tops of his wire-rimmed glasses. Or, rather, his spectacles—that’s what Vanessa calls them, since they’re so old-fashioned and proper looking, just like Mr. Graves himself.
“Everything under control, Ms. Bennett?” Mr. Graves asked in his dry, dusty voice. He might be a pretty good music teacher—and a freakishly great tuba player for such a skinny guy—but he looks and acts more like a librarian from an old movie.
“Fine, yeah,” Vanessa said, blushing bright pink. Van is an open book. Every emotion she feels is painted right there on her pale cheeks and reflected in her big blue eyes. She’s also crazy shy—always has been. I don’t get that. She’s smart and sweet and artsy and talented, not to mention beautiful—tall and willowy, with wavy blond hair that always behaves itself, unlike my own unruly mop of brown curls. But no matter how many times I point out her perfection, she just waves her hand and changes the subject.
Mr. Graves swept his cool grayish-blue eyes over the three of us. We smiled innocently back at him. Finally he turned away with a soft harrumph, returning to shuffling through his stack of sheet music.
“Okay, hurry up.” Kaz started dancing from one foot to the other, his battered canvas shoes squeaking on the linoleum. “I’m starving to death.”
“Yeah, right.” I carefully tucked my mouthpiece into its velvet slot in my clarinet case. Spaz or not, I’m always careful with my instrument. “Mr. Graves might not have seen you scarfing those Cheez Doodles during the movie medley, but I did.”
“Seriously.” Vanessa glanced up and down Kaz’s lean form. “I don’t know how you eat so much and stay so skinny, Kaz.”
“Look who’s talking, skinny girl,” Kaz shot back with a laugh.
I didn’t hear whatever Van said next, because just then my cell phone vibrated in my pocket. I’d turned the sound off during band practice, which meant no hints from the ringtone—I have a different one programmed for just about everyone I know.
When I pulled out my phone, I smiled at the name on the screen. “Hang on,” I told my friends. “I just got a text from Trevor.”
“Uh-oh, it’s Chloe’s almost-boyfriend.” Vanessa rolled her eyes dramatically. “Hope you’re not really starving to death, Kaz. Because this might take a while.”
“I still don’t think this Trevor dude is even real,” Kaz commented. “I mean, we’ve never seen him in person, right? Maybe it’s like one of those romantic-comedy movie situations where she’s trying to act all cool by sending lovey-dovey texts to herself from some alleged out-of-state dream guy, or . . .”
I didn’t hear the rest. My attention was on the tiny screen of my phone.
Hey, Chloe, what’s up?
Okay, it wasn’t exactly a Shakespearean sonnet. But that was okay with me. Trevor and I were way past the point of needing to impress each other with clever texts. My thumbs flew over the touch screen as I responded.
Hi! Just finished after-school band practice. How was your day?
Vanessa peered over my shoulder. “Just send a few kissy lips and heart emojis already and let’s go, okay?”
“Hang on.” I waved her away, my eyes trained on the phone as I waited for a response to pop up. Moments later it did.
Good. Just wanted to check in before rehearsal. Might be late since we need to figure out what to do about our drummer situation.
I nodded. Trevor is in a band—not a concert-and-marching high school band like mine, but a supercool indie rock band he started himself. It’s called Of Note. Clever, right? There are five members—or at least there were until a couple of weeks ago, when the drummer’s family moved back to Puerto Rico.
Cool, I typed back. Have fun, and text me later!
Def. Bc I might have something big to tell u. More later maybe.
What do u mean? Something big like what?
LOL, be patient, impatient girl! Don’t want to tell u until I’m sure it’s happening. Gtg. Catch u later.
I sighed with frustration and smiled at the same time. Trevor knew me so well! He was probably cracking himself up, knowing I was already going crazy wondering what his big news might be. Meanwhile, he was probably just going to tell me he’d bought some new guitar strings or something.
Then again maybe not. He’d said he wanted to wait until he was sure it was happening. Could there really be any doubt about new guitar strings? Maybe he really did have big news. But what? My thumbs hovered over the keypad, tempted to demand more right then and there.
But I knew better. I’m pretty good at wheedling what I want out of people, but Trevor is no pushover. Besides, he always turns his phone off when the band is rehearsing. Which meant I could send him the most charming and persuasive text in the world, and he still wouldn’t see it until later. I’d just have to wait and wonder.
Okay, have a great practice, I typed, then turned off my phone and tucked it away.
Only then did I look up at my friends. Most of the other band members had left by then, and Mr. Graves was carefully sliding some papers into his battered briefcase as he prepared to leave too. Kaz was tapping his foot and watching me. Vanessa was scrolling through messages on her own phone.
“So, what’s up with Mr. Wonderful today?” Kaz asked. “Did the Rolling Stones beg him to join yet?”
“Get real. Like he’d really want to jam with those old geezers.” I smirked, knowing that would bug Kaz. He loves classic rock—the older and moldier, the better. Then again he also loves bluegrass, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and hardcore punk. That’s Kaz for you. He’s interested in everything, even stuff nobody else cares about. It’s one of my favorite things about him, even if it means I have to put up with his creaky old music sometimes.
Vanessa looked up from her phone. “Oh good, you’re finally done. Can we go already?”
So we did. I quickly finished packing up my clarinet, and soon the three of us were in the quiet hallway, which as usual smelled like a combination of bleach and dirty sweat socks. Just one of the joys of a school where the gym and the music wing are right next to each other.
Kaz was whistling as he walked, juggling two instrument cases along with his overstuffed backpack. He plays three instruments in the band—trumpet, oboe, and clarinet. But there are plenty of other good clarinet players, including yours truly, so he doesn’t even bring his clarinet with him much anymore. He’d started out as first chair clarinet in the elementary school orchestra, and I’d been second chair. But we’d goofed around so much that the music teacher ended up separating us by introducing Kaz to the oboe. It’s similar to the clarinet but much harder to play, so she probably figured it would keep him busy enough to stay out of trouble. Little did she expect him to master it in about a week and a half—okay, I’m exaggerating, but only a little!—and start using it to make fart sounds during the slow parts of songs.
Anyway, in fourth grade Kaz went through a brief phase where he got all self-conscious about hanging out mostly with girls—that would be me and Vanessa, who’d joined our little nerd clique when her family moved to town in second grade—and took up the trumpet. He’d been switching around ever since.
“So, what did Trevor want?” Vanessa asked.
“He was just checking in.” Thinking about Trevor made me smile, as always. “He’s off to rehearse with his band.”
Kaz stopped whistling. “Let me guess. They’re going to perform variations on that lame pop song you like so much.”
“You mean the totally awesome song ‘True Romance’ by the Sly Guys?” I said. “Possibly. Of Note already covers it, and their version is even more amazing than the original.”
Vanessa giggled as Kaz let out a snort. “Come on, Kaz,” she said. “You have to admit, it’s a pretty catchy song.”
“I suppose it’s okay musically, if a bit derivative.” Kaz swung his oboe case back and forth. “But the lyrics? Lame and full of clichés.”
“If you say so.” I checked my watch. “Come on. Let’s hurry. We don’t have that much time before the meeting.”
• • •
Aesop’s Diner doesn’t look like much from the outside. Actually, it doesn’t look like much from the inside, either. The floor is dingy, the seats battered, and the lighting bad. But the place has the most extensive menu I’ve ever seen, and almost everything on it is good.
“Who wants to go first?” Kaz asked as he slid into our favorite booth, sitting across from me and Vanessa.
I reached for the stack of menus the waitress had dropped on the table before she’d hurried off. “Me!” I sang out. “Here goes . . .”
The menu is enormous, like I said, but whoever designed it apparently didn’t believe in wasting paper. So the print is tiny, cramming hundreds of choices onto just two large, laminated pages. Kaz opened one of the menus flat in front of me and then started slowly spinning it around on the table. Closing my eyes, I waited a moment. Then I stabbed downward with my finger.
When I opened my eyes, Vanessa was leaning forward to see where my finger had landed. “Lemon meringue pie,” she read.
Kaz looked pleased. “Great, I’m in the mood for a serious sugar rush right now.”
“Me too,” Vanessa said. “My turn next?”
“Go for it.” Pulling my finger away, I took over spinning duty from Kaz. That’s an important part of our game—we’ve been to Aesop’s so often that we all pretty much have the menu memorized. The spinning keeps us from cheating by aiming in the general direction of the food we want.
Vanessa’s finger came down on a line near the bottom corner. “Ugh,” I said. “Decaf coffee.”
“Nice going, genius.” Kaz rolled his eyes. “Let me at it. I’ll get us some real food.”
“Be my guest.” Vanessa pushed the menu toward him.
As I started spinning it again, Kaz flexed his fingers and cracked his knuckles, making a big show of getting ready. Finally he closed his eyes.
“Round and round she goes,” I intoned.
“Where she stops, nobody knows,” Kaz finished, jamming his finger down on the last word.
I leaned forward, grabbing his finger to move it aside. “Mushroom and cheese omelet,” I read. “Gross. I hate mushrooms.”
“Want to pick one more, then?” Vanessa offered.
I nodded. That was part of the game. We had to order everything we chose at random, but if we wanted to, we could pick more than three things. This time my finger landed on onion rings, and I smiled.
“That’s more like it,” I said, looking around for the waitress.
After we’d ordered, I shot a wadded-up straw wrapper at Kaz. “So listen,” I said. “Birthday boy, we need to figure out what to do for your party.”
“Definitely!” Vanessa’s eyes widened. “I can’t believe it’s coming up so soon.”
“I know, right?” Kaz leaned back in his seat and sighed. “I’m already feeling so much older and wiser than you two.”
I laughed. “Older, maybe. Wiser? I think not.”
“Ah, the arrogance of youth,” Kaz said in a mock-serious tone, shaking his head.
I rolled my eyes. Kaz is exactly two months older than I am, which means we’d been going through variations of this same exchange forever. Or at least before we could walk, because Kaz and I have been friends since we were in diapers—literally. I inherited my energy from my mother, who can’t sit still for more than two seconds at a time. So when I was born, it took Mom about a week to get bored sitting around on maternity leave, taking care of one baby. She was used to running a whole company, so I guess changing my diapers and feeding me strained peas or whatever wasn’t that much of a challenge. Anyway, she decided to bring in a little extra money by starting an in-home day care, and Kaz was one of her first customers. His mother died when he was, like, six months old, and his dad works long hours as an orthodontist with his own practice.
Actually, Kaz’s dad is so busy that he tends to forget little details, like his son’s birthdays. So there was definitely no surprise Sweet Sixteen bash in the works at that end. Which stunk, since if anyone deserved a big blowout party, it was Kaz.
Then again what are best friends for? I figured Van and I could come up with something fun, even if it didn’t look much like the fancy Sweet Sixteen parties on TV.
Vanessa seemed to be thinking along the same lines. “So, how are we going to celebrate such a momentous occasion?” she mused.
“It needs to be big.” I drummed my fingers on the table. “I mean, now that he’s so old and all, who knows how long poor old Kaz has left to party?”
He snorted with laughter. “Right. They might not allow parties at the old folks’ home.”
“Maybe we should have a movie party,” Vanessa suggested. “Play all Kaz’s favorite monster movies or whatever.”
“We did that two years ago,” I reminded her. “I can’t sit through Creature from the Black Lagoon yet again. Besides, turning sixteen is a big deal. We have to do something special.”
“Are you saying Creature from the Black Lagoon isn’t special?” Kaz protested.
Any response was interrupted by the waitress, rushing over with our coffee and onion rings. “Resta yer order’ll be out in a sec,” she mumbled, dropping the onion rings platter and extra plates in front of us and sloshing half the coffee out as she slammed down the mug.
“Thanks,” Kaz called to her departing back.
Meanwhile, I grabbed the biggest onion ring in one hand and my phone in the other.
“What are you doing?” Vanessa asked, dabbing at the spilled coffee with a napkin.
I snapped a photo of myself chomping on the deep-fried goodness. Then I inhaled the rest of the ring, wiped my fingers on my napkin, and texted the picture to Trevor. “I like to give Trev a taste of my daily life,” I explained as I hit send.
“Then you should send him a picture of you loading the dishwasher,” Kaz suggested.
Vanessa giggled. “True. Or maybe one of you snoring in history class.”
“You two are a laugh riot.” I stuck my phone into my pocket. “But back to party planning.”
Kaz helped himself to an onion ring. “Seriously, my birthday doesn’t have to be a big deal,” he said. “It’ll be cool with me if Chloe just promises not to spend half of it texting Mr. Big-Time Rock Star.”
As if on cue, my phone buzzed. Grabbing it out of my pocket, I smiled. “Speak of the devil,” I said. “It’s Trevor calling. Better take this—be right back.”
I grabbed another onion ring and slid out of the booth, hitting the button to answer the call at the same time.
“Hi,” I said as I hurried down the hallway leading to the restrooms, where I’d have a little privacy. “I thought you were practicing all afternoon?”
“I thought so too.” Trevor has the best voice—soft and sweet but sort of gravelly and gruff, too. Totally rock star. “Zach forgot he had a dentist appointment, so we had to reschedule.”
“Sort of,” he agreed. “At least there’s a silver lining—now I get to talk to the cutest and most talented girl I know.”
“That is a bonus,” I agreed, trying not to let on how much his compliments always made me melt.
“Cute picture, by the way,” he said. “Makes me wish I were there.”
“Me too,” I said with a smile. “Unfortunately, I can’t talk long right now, though. My friends and I are just at the diner, fueling up for our S&D meeting—it starts in, like, ten minutes.”
“Song & Dance?” I prompted. “It’s that volunteer group I’ve told you about.”
“Oh yeah.” He sounded a little uncertain. “Something about poor kids and music, right?”
“Uh-huh.” Thinking about the group made me smile. “Our whole pep club volunteers with them—we’re even doing a fund-raiser for them soon. Didn’t I tell you about that?”
“Maybe,” he replied. “Is that what your meeting’s about?”
“No, this is just the regular monthly meeting.” I leaned against the wall, twirling a stray curl around my finger. “Some people from the group’s main office in the city gather up a bunch of kids and bring them out to our community center, and—”
“Oh right. And you guys teach them music. You did tell me about that. Sorry, guess I’m so distracted by this drummer thing, I can’t keep anything else in my head.” He gave a little self-deprecating laugh. “I remember now, though. It always sounded pretty cool.”
“It is.” I stepped to the end of the hallway, peering across the diner to see if my friends had polished off all the food yet. “Anyway, I should probably go, I guess. Sorry. Maybe we can talk later?”
“Sure. Have fun, Chloe. Later.”
As I hung up, I suddenly remembered his mysterious text from earlier. What had that been about? He hadn’t even mentioned it just now. For a second I was tempted to call back, but then I checked the time and realized it would have to wait. Hurrying to the booth, I slid back in next to Vanessa.
“How’s Mr. Wonderful?” Kaz asked, grabbing the last onion ring off the plate.
“Hey!” I protested.
He grinned, leaned his head back, and opened his mouth, dangling the onion ring over it. Just before it touched his lips, he relented, tossing it over onto my plate.
I smiled and popped it into my own mouth before he could change his mind and take it back. “Thanks,” I mumbled with my mouth full. “And since you asked, Trevor is great. I just asked him if his band can come play at your party, and he’s totally on board.”
Obviously, that was a joke, and they both knew it, since Trevor lives, like, three hours away. But while Vanessa laughed on cue, Kaz faked a look of horror. “No boy bands allowed!” he said, making a little X with his fingers as if warding off a vampire.
That made Vanessa laugh even harder. I just rolled my eyes. “Hey, what can I say?” I cracked in return. “I figured live music would be the best way to get people to actually come to your party.”
Kaz just grinned and grabbed the coffee from Vanessa to take a sip, not looking too worried. He might be a classic nerd in some ways, but Kaz is surprisingly popular at school. And everywhere else, come to think of it. Oh, things hadn’t started out that way. Back in early elementary school, he got picked on by some of the bullies now and then. But he was such a nice guy that even the worst of the jerks seemed to feel kind of bad about it. It didn’t hurt that his cousin Maya is a popular cheerleader who’s a grade ahead of us. Or that I’m like a Chihuahua—always willing to bark in the face of a bigger, tougher dog, especially if that big dog starts messing with one of my friends.
“So, back to your birthday,” I said after swallowing the onion ring. “What do you want for your gift this year?”
Kaz took a noisy slurp of the decaf and then pushed it over to Vanessa. “You guys don’t have to get me anything.”
I picked up a fork and helped myself to some pie, which the waitress had delivered while I was gone. “You say that every year. Can we drop the charade this time? You know Van and I are getting you something. So what do you want? A year’s supply of oboe reeds? Tickets to that weirdo Gilbert and Sullivan group you like so much?”
“No, I’m serious. You don’t need to buy me anything like that. Just the party is enough.” Kaz reached across and picked a mushroom out of the omelet, which Vanessa was in the process of devouring. “Besides, you definitely shouldn’t spend any more money on me than you have to. We need to save up our spare cash so we can sponsor each other at the dance marathon. It’s only a couple of weeks away now, you know.”
He had a point. The fund-raiser I’d mentioned to Trevor was rapidly approaching. Song & Dance was such an incredible group that our pep club had voted unanimously to have a fund-raiser to support them. At first we’d been looking at doing something like a bake sale or maybe a concert, since most of the school band was in the pep club. But then Kaz had come up with something much more fun—a dance marathon. He got the idea from some old movie.
“Okay,” I said. “But if you don’t want us to spend money, what are you expecting? Homemade dandelion bracelets?”
“Nope. Just the pleasure of your company.” He grinned at both of us.
Vanessa and I traded a dubious look. “We’ll see,” she said, scooping up one last bite of egg. “But for now, we should get going. We don’t want to be late.”