I'm on my hands and knees, crawling across the front lawn of Eliza Prep. My new high school has mandatory uniforms, and I'm wearing one of their uncomfortably short skirts. My bare knees sting. All I really want is to get up, go home, and cry. But I'm way too freaked out—way too desperate—to stop.
"Are you bleeding?" His voice makes my heart leap. It's so familiar, and yet so achingly different after the five years we've spent apart. I revel in its deep timbre, savoring this moment that I've been dreaming of since I first found out we were moving here.
A few seconds pass before his actual words register. 'Are you bleeding?' Not 'Ash? Is that really you?' or 'I can't believe you're here, Ash.' Definitely not 'I missed you so much, Ash.' or 'I never stopped loving you, Ash.'
The worst part is that he doesn't sound excited. He doesn't even look surprised. There's no flash of recognition. There's no reaction at all.
Of course, Ethan doesn't know my family moved here. I made sure both our parents were on board and didn't ruin the surprise.
I know years have passed since we've seen each other, but I've been so sure that Ethan would know me anywhere; that he'd feel the same way about me as I do about him.
I guess I was wrong.
I'm not twelve anymore—I'm seventeen—but I haven't changed all that much. I'm still the chubby redhead I'd been back then. It's Ethan who's different.
When I've daydreamed of this moment, I always pictured an older version of the boy he'd been at thirteen, not the football player staring down at me.
Even from my crouched position, I know that Ethan is way taller than me, instead of a head shorter. He was skinny then, but now his broad shoulders fill out his football jersey and his round, childish face has turned lean and angular. The shoulder-length brown hair I remember is cropped short and littered with golden highlights.
The only thing that's still the same about Ethan is that twinkle in his eyes—the one he always gets right before he smiles. The moment I see it, I can't tear my eyes away.
I'm so busy staring at Ethan that it takes me a few seconds to realize that he's holding something between his fingers; something that glistens in the sun and reflects a familiar emerald green.
"You found it!" I cry, scrambling to my feet.
"Found what?" Ethan raises an eyebrow.
"My ring!" I almost say our ring, but stop myself at the last second.
Ethan closes his fist around it and smirks. "Is your ring green?"
He's messing with me. He has to be. There's no way he'd forgetting sitting across from each other on my bed, passing that ring back and forth as we shared secrets.
Ethan shrugs like that memory isn't as much a part of him as it is of me.
The ring is the reason I'd been crawling across the school lawn on all fours. It's still a too big on me, even after all this time. I should have known it would fall off—I should have left it at home, or kept it in my pocket or on a chain around my neck—but I couldn't imagine not wearing it when I finally saw him.
"Yes, it's green," I whisper.
How could he forget the moment he gave me that ring and told me he loved me?
"Does it have a starfish on it?" Ethan asks.
"Yes!" I cry.
I'd been holding onto that ring when I told him I couldn't bear losing him. When we both sobbed our eyes out and said our final goodbye.
"Then yes, I found your ring." Ethan smirks like he doesn't remember any of our history and tucks it in the front pocket of his jeans.
"What are you doing?" I gasp. "Give it back."
"Finders, keepers." Ethan grins like he hasn't just taken back the one thing that means the world to me.
"What are you, ten?" I shout at him. Except ten-year-old Ethan would have recognized me in an instant. He never have stolen something that belonged to me.
"Do I look like I'm ten?" Ethan asks seductively, his voice dropping a few octaves.
I don't know how to answer. I have a feeling that this new Ethan isn't just hot, but experienced, too. He's probably been with dozens of girls, which explain why he's forgotten all about me.
"By the way, I'm Ethan." He extends his hand as irrevocable proof that he really doesn't recognize or remember me.
It hurts more than his leaving had hurt. More than I thought anything could hurt, ever again.
Suddenly, I don't want Ethan to put two and two together and realize who I am. I don't want him to know that I'd grown into an average-looking girl while he'd become confident, hot—and, if his new attitude is anything to go by—popular. I don't want him to realize that he still means the world to me and that I'm slowly breaking on the inside because I mean nothing to him.
I don't give him my name. Instead, I extended my palm, face up. "Give. It. Back."
The moment I have my ring, I'm getting out of here. I'm going home and crawling into bed and never coming out.
"Tell you what." Ethan smirks. "I'll give you your ring back, if you let me show you around."
"Around where?" I ask. If I didn't know any better, I'd think Ethan was hitting on me. Does he seriously not recognize me? Does he think he's hitting on the new girl, a complete stranger he hasn't had a chance to bang?
Why would he even be interested in a girl like me? I've looked in a mirror. I know I'm still plain, even after fixing up my hair and putting on lip gloss so I'd look pretty when Ethan first saw me.
"School." Ethan gives me a very obvious once-over, and my cheeks flood with color. "We'll start with the nurse's office."
"The nurse's office?" I ask.
Ethan raises an eyebrow and glances down at my right knee. My very dirty and very bloody right knee.
Suddenly, I remember Ethan's first words to me. 'Is that blood?' They echo in my head, and my cheeks flame.
"You really should get that looked at." Ethan turns toward the school building. "Come on."
I follow. I don't have a choice. Not when Ethan's holding my ring hostage.
We enter the school. I've already gotten a tour this morning, and I've been navigating these halls all day, so I know where I'm going. I've passed the nurse's office half a dozen times at lunch and in-between classes, when I'd been looking for Ethan.
"After you." He grins now and steps aside so I can go in and see the nurse.
I knock tentatively, and when I don't get a response, I try the door. Locked.
"Alright, I have an idea," Ethan takes my hand in his and starts leading me down the hall.
Holding hands with Ethan is something I've done hundreds of times. But we were kids then, and it feels different now.
His touch sends my pulse racing. Butterflies take flight in my stomach, my fingertips tingle, and I struggle to catch my breath.
"Where are we going?" I breathe.
"You'll see." Ethan's grip on my hand tightens.
When I realize where he's leading me, I gasp. "You can't go in there."
"Sure I can." Ethan laughs as he pulls me into the girl's bathroom. He doesn't let go of my hand until we're inside, and when he does, it's so he can grab my waist.
"Ethan!" I shriek, my pulse racing as he suddenly lifts me onto the counter, next to the sink. "What are you doing?"
I place my palms on his muscular chest and try to push him away, but Ethan doesn't budge. He places a hand on each side of me and smiles.
My heart skips a beat.
Ethan's gaze drifts down from my eyes to my lips and I draw in a sharp breath. We've kissed before, when we were kids, but it feels different with this new Ethan. Thrilling and terrifying at the same time.
He leans in and his breath grazes my lips. "You're knee's still bleeding."
"What?" I stare at him uncomprehendingly.
"Your knee. Stay still while I clean it." He grabs a paper towel from the dispenser, soaks it under the tap, and squeezes out some excess water.
When he presses the wet clump gently against my bare knee, I jump.
"Does it hurt?" The concern on Ethan's face makes me want to cry.
"No. I'm..." I swallow hard, "fine."
Ethan slowly wipes away the blood and dirt coating my knee. Some stray water escapes, dripping onto my sock, but I can't bring myself to care. I'm too caught up being this close to Ethan. My Ethan.
"There." He gives me a slow smile, throws the paper towel in the trash, and wipes his hands on his uniform pants. Then, he places them on my waist. "Now how about I walk you home?"
Before I can reply, Ethan picks me up and set me down on the floor like I weigh nothing. Then, he takes my hand in his like it's the most natural thing in the world.
He leads me back out of the bathroom, and as we walk down the hall, my mind races a mile a minute.
What's going on here? Is Ethan playing some sort of game? Why is he checking me out and leaning in to kiss me, only to back off like it never happened? Is he just messing with the new girl? Has the sweet, caring boy I've loved all my life turned into a total jerk?
The old Ethan I remember would never have done something like this. If there's still a piece of that guy left, then maybe Ethan is just being nice? Making the new girl feel welcome?
Except, the old Ethan wouldn't smirk, or tease, or pick girls up and set them on bathroom counters. He also would never hold their ring hostage.
I pull my hand out of his. "Give me back my ring."
We're only halfway down the hall, but I refuse to go any further until I get it back.
Ethan gives me a cocky grin. "Now why would I do that?"
"Because it's mine."
He smirks. "Then why don't you come and get it?"
I take a step forward, but I can't just stick my hand into his pant pocket. Which means I'm not getting my ring back unless Ethan gives it back. What if he throws it out? Is this it? The end of us?
My lower lip starts to tremble and I struggle not to cry.
"I was just kidding, Red," Ethan reaches into his pocket and takes the out the ring.
"What did you just call me?" I swallow hard.
When we were kids, Ethan always called me Red. Does he call all redheads that now? Or does he remember?
"Red," Ethan whispers, stepping closer. "Because of your hair." He trucks a strand gently behind my ear. "It hasn't changed one bit."
"You remember?" I whisper, my eyes flooding with tears.
"Of course I remember, Ash." Ethan hands me back my ring and pulls me into his arms. "How could I ever forget?"