Carswell’s Guide to Being Lucky
By Marissa Meyer
CARSWELL DUNKED THE COMB BENEATH THE FAUCET and slicked it through his hair, tidying the back so that it was neat and pristine, and the front spiked up just right. Boots sat on the counter, watching him with her yellow slitted eyes and purring heavily, even though it had been nearly ten minutes since he’d stopped petting her.
“Today’s goal,” he said to the cat, he supposed, or maybe the mirror, “is eighty-four univs. Think I can do it?”
The cat blinked, still purring. Her tail twitched around her paws as Carswell turned off the water and set the comb beside her.
“I’ve never made that much in one lunch hour before,” he said, pulling a skinny blue tie over his head and cinching the knot against his neck, “but eighty-four univs will put us at a total of 7,500. Which means—” He flipped down the shirt collar. “—the bank will upgrade my account to ‘young professional’ and increase the monthly interest by 2%. That would trim nearly sixteen weeks off of my five-year plan.”
Carswell reached for the tie tack that lived in the small crystal dish beside the sink. The school uniform only allowed for personal style to show through in the smallest of accessories, which had led to a trend among the girls of tying little gems onto their shoes, and the boys of splurging on diamond stud earrings. But Carswell had only this tie tack, which he’d dipped into his own savings for rather than ask his parents, because he knew his mom would insist he buy something tasteful (code: designer) instead. It hadn’t been much of a setback.
The tiny steel tack had cost merely fifteen univs, and it had since become his signature piece.
A tiny spaceship. A 214 Rampion, to be exact.
His mother, as expected, had hated the tie tack when she’d noticed it for the first time nearly two weeks later. “Sweetheart,” she’d said in that adoring tone that just bordered on condescending, “they have a whole display of spaceship accessories at Tiff’s. Why don’t we go down there after school and you can pick out something nice? Maybe a racer, or a fleet ship, or one of those vintage ones you used to like?
Remember all those posters you had on your walls when you were little?”
Returning her sweet smile, he’d responded simply, “I like the Rampions, Mom.”
She’d grimaced. Literally grimaced. “What under the stars is a Rampion ship, anyway?”
“Cargo ship,” his father had jumped in. “Mostly military, aren’t they, son?”
“A cargo ship!” Exasperated, his mom had set her hands on her hips. “Why would you want a tie tack of a cargo ship, of all things?”
“I don’t know,” he’d said, shrugging. “I just like them.” And he did. A Rampion had the bulk of a whale, but the sleekness of a shark, and it appealed to him. Plus, there was something nice about a ship that was purely utilitarian. Not flashy, not overdone, not luxurious. Not like every single thing his parents had ever purchased.
They were just . . . useful.
“Presentable?” Carswell said, scruffing Boots on the back of her neck. The cat ducked her head in a way that was almost authentic, and purred louder.
Grabbing the gray uniform blazer off the door handle, he headed downstairs. His parents were both at the breakfast table (as opposed to the formal dining table in the next room), all eyes glued to their portscreens while Janette, one of the human maids, refilled their coffee mugs and added two sugars to his mom’s.
“Good morning, young captain,” Janette said, pulling his chair out from the table.
“Don’t call him that,” said Carswell’s father without looking up. “You can call him ‘captain’ after he earns it.”
Janette only winked at Carswell while she took the blazer from him and hung it on the back of his chair.
Carswell smiled back and sat down. “Morning, Janette.”
“I’ll bring your pancakes right out.” She finished with a silently mouthed “Captain,” and another wink before drifting toward the kitchen.
Without bothering to look up at his otherwise-engaged parents, Carswell pulled his book bag toward him and removed his own portscreen. Just as he was turning it on, though, his father cleared his throat.
Carswell glanced up through his eyelashes. He probably should have noticed an extra layer of frost sitting over them this morning, but really, who could tell anymore?
“Would you like a glass of water, sir?”
As a response, his dad tossed his portscreen onto the table. His coffee cup rattled.
“The school forwarded your status reports this morning,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect, before adding, “They are not up to standards.”
Not up to standards.
If Carswell had a univ for every time he’d heard something wasn’t up to standards, his bank account would be well into ‘young investor’ status by now (interest rate: 5.2%).
“That’s unfortunate,” he said. “I’m sure I almost tried this time.”
“Don’t be smart with your father,” said his mom in a rather disinterested tone, before taking a sip of her coffee.
“Math, Carswell. You’re failing math. How do you expect to be a pilot if you can’t read charts and diagrams and—”
“I don’t want to be a pilot,” he said. “I want to be a captain.”
“Becoming a captain,” his dad growled, “starts with becoming a great pilot.”
Carswell barely refrained from rolling his eyes. He’d heard that line a time or two, also.
A warm body bumped into his leg and Carswell glanced down to see that Boots had followed him and was now nudging his calf with the side of her face. He was just reaching down to pet her when his dad snapped, “Boots, go outside.”
The cat instantly stopped purring and cuddling against
Carswell’s leg, turned and traipsed toward the kitchen— the fastest route to their backyard. Carswell scowled as he watched the cat go, its tail sticking cheerfully straight up. He liked Boots a lot— sometimes even felt he might love her, as one does any pet they grew up with— but then he would be reminded that she wasn’t a pet at all. She was a robot, programmed to follow directions just like any android. He’d been asking for a real cat since he was about four, but his parents just laughed at the idea, listing all the reasons Boots was superior. She would never get old or die. She didn’t shed on their nice furniture or paw at their fancy curtains or require a litter box. She would only bring them half-devoured mice if they changed her settings to do so.
His parents, Carswell had learned at a very young age, liked things that did what they were told, when they were told. And that didn’t include headstrong felines.
Or, as it turned out, thirteen-year-old boys.
“You need to start taking this seriously,” his dad was saying, ripping him from his thoughts as the cat-door swung closed behind Boots. “You’ll never be accepted into Andromeda at this rate.”
Janette returned with his plate of pancakes and Carswell was grateful for an excuse to look away from his dad as he slathered them with butter and syrup. It was better than risking the temptation to say what he really wanted to say.
He didn’t want to go to Andromeda Academy. He didn’t want to follow in his dad’s footsteps.
Sure, he wanted to learn how to fl y. Desperately wanted to learn how to fly. But there were other flight schools— less prestigious ones maybe, but at least they didn’t require selling six years of his life to the military so he could be ordered around by more men who looked and sounded just like his dad, and cared about him even less.
“What’s wrong with you?” his dad said, not taking his eyes from Carswell, even as he swiveled a finger at Janette. She began to clear his place setting. “You used to be good at math.”
“I am good at math,” Carswell said, then shoved more pancake into his mouth than he probably should have.
“This report suggests otherwise.”
He chewed. And chewed. And chewed.
“Maybe we should get him a tutor,” said his mother, flicking her finger across her portscreen.
“Is that it, Carswell? Do you need a tutor? ”
He swallowed. “I don’t need a tutor. I know how to do it all. I just don’t feel like doing it.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that I have better things to do,” he said, setting down his fork. “I understand all the concepts, so why should I waste whole days of my life working through those stupid worksheets? Not to mention—” He gestured wildly— at everything, at nothing. At the light fixture that changed automatically based on the amount of sunlight that filtered in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. At the sensors in the wall that detected when a person entered a room and set the thermostat to their own personal preferences. At that brainless robotic cat. “ We are surrounded by computers all the time. If I ever need help, I’ll just have one of them figure it out. So what does it matter?”
“It matters because it shows focus. Dedication. Diligence.
Important traits that, believe it or not, are usually found in spaceship captains.”
Scowling, Carswell grabbed the fork again and began sawing at the pancake stack with its side. If his mother had noticed, she would have reminded him to use a knife, but she was far too busy pretending to be at a different table altogether.
“I have those traits,” he muttered. And he did, he knew he did. But why waste focus and dedication and diligence on something as trivial as math homework?
“Then prove it. You’re grounded until these grades come up to passing.”
His head snapped up. “Grounded? But mid-July break starts next week.”
Standing, his dad snapped his portscreen onto the belt of his own uniform— the impeccably pressed blue-and-gray uniform of Colonel Kingsley Thorne, American Republic Fleet 186.
“Yes, and you will spend your vacation in your bedroom doing math homework unless you can show me, and your teacher, that you’re taking this seriously.”
Carswell’s stomach sank, but his dad had marched out of the breakfast room before he could begin to refute.
He couldn’t be grounded for mid-July break. He had big plans for those two weeks. Mostly, they involved an entrepreneurial enterprise that began with sending Boots up into the fruit trees on his neighbors’ property and ended with him selling baskets of perfectly ripe lemons and avocados to every little old lady in the neighborhood. He’d been charming his neighbors out of their bank accounts since he was seven, and had become quite good at it. Last summer, he’d even managed to get the Hernandez family to pay him 300 univs for a box of “succulent, prize-winning” oranges, having no idea that he’d picked the fruits off of their own tree earlier that day.
“He’s not serious, is he?” Carswell said, turning back to his mom. “He won’t keep me grounded for the whole break?”
His mom, for maybe the first time that morning, tore her eyes away from the portscreen. She blinked at him and he suspected that she had no idea what his father’s doled out punishment was. Maybe she didn’t even realize what the argument had been about.
After a moment, just long enough to let the question dissolve in the air between them, she said, “Are you all ready for school, sweetheart?”
Huffing, Carswell nodded and shoved two more quick bites into his mouth. Snatching up his book bag, he pushed away from the table and tossed his blazer over one shoulder.
His dad wanted to see an improvement of grades? Fine. He would find a way to make it happen. He would come up with some solution that gave him the freedom he required during his break, but didn’t include laboring away over boring math formulas every evening. He had more important things to do with his time. Things that involved business transactions and payment collections. Things that would one day lead to him buying his own spaceship. Nothing fancy. Nothing expensive. Just something simple and practical, something that would belong to him and to him alone.
Then his dad would know just how focused and dedicated he was, right as he was getting the aces out of here.
JULES KELLER HAD HIT HIS GROWTH SPURT EARLY, making him a full head taller than anyone else in the class, and he was even sporting the start of peach-fuzz whiskers on his chin. Unfortunately, he still had a brain capacity equivalent to that of a seagull.
That was Carswell’s first thought when Jules slammed his locker shut and Carswell barely managed to get his fingers out of the way in time.
“Morning, Mr. Keller,” he said, calling up a friendly smile. “You look particularly vibrant this morning.”
Jules stared down the length of his nose at him. The nose on which a sizable red pimple seemed to have emerged overnight. That was one other thing about Jules. In addition to the height and the brawn and the fuzz, his growth spurt had given him a rather tragic case of acne.
“I want my money back,” said Jules, one hand still planted on Carswell’s locker.
Carswell tilted his head. “Money?”
“Stuff doesn’t work.” Reaching into his pocket, Jules pulled out a small round canister labeled with exotic ingredients that promised clean, spot-free skin in just two weeks. “And I’m sick of looking at your smug face all day, like you think I don’t know better.”
“Of course it works,” said Carswell, taking the canister from him and holding it up to inspect the label. “It’s the exact same stuff I use, and look at me.”
Which was not exactly true. The canister itself had been emptied of its original, ridiculously expensive face cream when he’d dug it out of the trash bin beside his mother’s vanity. And though he’d sometimes sneaked uses of the high quality stuff before, the canister was now full of a simple concoction of bargain moisturizer and a few drops of food coloring and almond extract that he’d found in the pantry.
He didn’t think it would be bad for anyone’s skin. And besides, studies had been showing the benefit of placebos for years. Who said they couldn’t cure teenage acne just as effectively as they could cure an annoying headache?
But Jules, evidently unimpressed with the evidence Carswell had just presented, grabbed him by his shirt collar and pushed him against the bank of lockers. Carswell suspected it wasn’t to get a better look at his own flawless complexion.
“I want my money back,” Jules seethed through his teeth.
“Good morning, Carswell,” said a chipper voice.
Sliding his gaze past Jules’s shoulder, Carswell smiled and nodded at the freckled brunette who was shyly fluttering her lashes at him. “Morning, Shan. How’d your recital go last night?”
She giggled and ducked her head. “It was great. I’m sorry you couldn’t make it. Um. I just wanted to say hi, and . . . you look really nice this morning.” Blushing, she turned and darted toward a group of friends who were waiting near the water fountain. Together they broke into a fit of teasing chatter as they flitted down the hallway.
Jules pushed Carswell into the lockers again, yanking his attention back. “I said—”
“You want your money back, yeah, yeah, I heard you.” Carswell held up the canister. “And that’s fine. No problem. I’ll transfer it over during lunch.”
Harrumphing, Jules released him.
“Of course, you’ll lose all the progress you’ve made so far.”
“What progress?” Jules said, bristling again. “Stuff doesn’t work!”
“Sure it works. But it takes two weeks. Says so right here.”
He pointed at the label, and Jules snarled.
“It’s been three.”
Rolling his eyes, Carswell tossed the canister from hand to hand. “It’s a process. There are steps. The first step is—” He respectfully lowered his voice, in case Jules didn’t want the sensitive nature of their conversation to be overheard. “— you know, clearing away the first layer of dead skin cells. Exfoliation, as it were. But a really deep, intense, all-natural exfoliation. That takes two weeks. In step two, it unlocks all the grease and dirt that’s been stuck in the bottom of your pores. That’s the step you’re in the middle of right now. In another week, it’ll move on to step three. Hydrating your skin so that it has a constant, beautiful glow.” He quirked his lips to one side and shrugged. “You know, like me. I’m telling you, it does work. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s skincare products.” Unscrewing the cap, he took a long sniff of the cream. “Not to mention . . . no, never mind. You don’t want it. It’s not worth mentioning at all. I’ll just take this back and—”
“Not to mention what?”
Carswell cleared his throat and dipped forward, until Jules had lowered his own head into their makeshift huddle. “The scent is proven to make you more attractive to girls. It’s practically an aphrodisiac, in aromatherapy form.”
A crease formed in between Jules’s brow and Carswell recognized confusion. He was just about to explain what an aphrodisiac was when a third form sidled up beside them.
“Hey, Carswell,” said Elia, the pep squad captain, slipping her hand into the crook of his elbow. She was easily one of the prettiest girls in school, with thick black hair and a per sis tent dimple in one cheek. She was also a year older and about four inches taller than Carswell, which wasn’t particularly uncommon these days. Unlike Jules, Carswell hadn’t seen even a glimmer of a growth spurt yet, and he was really starting to get fed up with waiting, even though none of the girls had seemed bothered by the fact that they’d been outpacing him in the height department since their sixth year.
“Morning, Elia,” Carswell said, slipping the canister of facial cream into his pocket. “Perfect timing! Could you do me a favor?”
Her eyes widened with blatant enthusiasm. “Of course!”
“Could you tell me, what does my good friend Jules here smell like to you?”
Instant redness flushed over Jules’s face and, with a snarl, he pushed Carswell into the lockers again. “What are you—!”
But then he froze. Carswell’s teeth were still vibrating when Elia leaned forward so that her nose was almost, almost touching Jules’s neck, and sniffed.
Jules had become a statue.
Carswell lifted an expectant eyebrow.
Elia rocked back on her heels, considering for a moment as her gaze raked over the ceiling. Then—“Almonds, I think.”
“And . . . do you like it?” Carswell ventured.
She laughed, the sound like an inviting wind chime. Jules’s blush deepened.
“Definitely,” she said, although it was Carswell she was smiling at. “It reminds me of one of my favorite desserts.”
Jules released him and, once again, Carswell smoothed his jacket. “Thank you, Elia. That’s very helpful.”
“My pleasure.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I was wondering if you’re going to the Peace Dance next week?”
His smile was both practiced and instinctual. “Undecided. I may be cooking dinner for my sick grandmother that night.” He waited expectantly as Elia’s gaze filled with swooning. “But if I do end up going to the dance, you’ll be the first I ask to go with me.”
She beamed and bounced on her toes. “Well, I’d say yes,” she said, looking suddenly, briefly bashful. “Just in case you weren’t sure.” Then she turned and practically skipped down the hall.
“Well,” said Carswell, pulling the canister back out of his pocket. “I guess our business is all concluded, then. Like I said, I’ll return your payment in full by this afternoon. Of course, the retail price on this stuff just went up twenty percent, so if you change your mind later, I’m afraid I’m going to have to charge—”
Jules snatched the canister out of his hand. His face was still bright red, his brow still drawn, but the anger had dissolved from his eyes. “If nothing’s changed in another three weeks,” he said, low and threatening, “I’ll be shoving the rest of this cream down your throat.”
Well, most of the anger had dissolved from his eyes.
But Carswell merely smiled and gave Jules a friendly pat on the shoulder just as the anthem of the American Republic began to blare through the school speakers. “So glad I could clear things up for you.”
HE WALKED INTO LITERATURE CLASS FOUR MINUTES
late, his book bag over one shoulder as he deftly buttoned his blazer. He slid into the only remaining seat— front row, dead center.
“So nice of you to join us, Mr. Thorne,” said Professor Gosnel.
Crossing his heels, Carswell tipped back in his chair and flashed a bright smile at the teacher. “The plea sure is all mine, Professor.”
He could see her refraining from an eye roll as she punched something into her portscreen. The screens built into the classroom desks lit up with the day’s assignment.
Great Dramatists of the First Century, Third Era, was emblazoned across the top, followed by a list of names and which of the six Earthen countries each dramatist had hailed from.
“For today, I want everyone to select one artist from this list,” said the teacher, pacing in front of the classroom, “and choose a drama from their body of work that appeals to you. At half past, we’ll split into pairs and you can take turns reading the dramas you’ve found with your partner and discussing how the themes in them relate to our world today.”
A finger tapped Carswell gently at the base of his neck, the universal symbol for “I choose you.” Carswell struggled to remember who had been sitting behind him when he took this seat, and if it was someone he wouldn’t mind being partnered with. Had it been Destiny? Athena? Blakely? Spades, he hoped it wasn’t Blakely. Once she started talking, it was difficult to remember what peace and quiet sounded like.
He slid his gaze to the side, hoping he could catch his mystery partner’s reflection in the windows before committing to the partnership, when his gaze caught on the girl beside him.
His eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
Despite having been in the same grade since toddler primaries, he doubted that he and Kate had spoken more than fifty words to each other their whole lives. He didn’t think it was anything personal. Their paths just didn’t cross much. As evidenced at that moment, she preferred to sit in the front of class, whereas he did his best to end up somewhere near the back. Instead of coming out to sporting events or school festivals, Kate always seemed to rush straight home when classes were over. She was at the top of their class and well-liked, but by no means popular, and she spent most lunch hours with her nose buried in her portscreen. Reading.
This was only the second time Carswell Thorne had stopped to ponder one Kate Fallow. The first time, he had wondered why she liked books so much, and if it was similar to why he liked spaceships. Because they could take you somewhere far, far away from here.
This time, he was wondering what her math score was.
There was a thud as Carswell settled his chair legs back on the floor and leaned across the aisle. “You probably know who all these artists are, don’t you?”
Kate’s head whipped up. She blinked at him for a moment, before her startled eyes glanced at the person behind her, then back to Carswell.
She blinked. “Ex-excuse me?”
He inched closer, so that he was barely seated on the edge of his chair, and dragged the tip of his stylus down her screen. “All these dramatists. You read so much, I bet you’ve already read them all.”
“Um.” She followed the tip of his stylus before . . . there it was, that sudden rush of color to her cheeks. “No, not all of them. Maybe . . . maybe half, though?”
“Yeah?” Settling an elbow on his knee, Carswell cupped his chin. “Who’s your favorite? I could use a recommendation.”
“Oh. Well, um. Bourdain wrote some really great historical pieces. . . .” She trailed off, then swallowed. Hard. She lifted her eyes to him and seemed surprised when he was still paying attention to her.
For his part, Carswell was feeling a little surprised, too. It had been a long time since he’d really looked at Kate Fallow, but she seemed prettier now than he’d remembered, even if it was the kind of pretty that was overshadowed by the likes of Shan or Elia. Kate was softer and plumper than most of the girls in his class, but she had the largest, warmest brown eyes he thought he’d ever seen.
Plus, there was also something endearing about a girl who seemed entirely floored by no more than a moment’s worth of attention from him. But maybe that was just his ego speaking.
“Is there a certain type of drama you like?” Kate whispered.
Carswell tapped his stylus against the side of his mouth. “Adventure stories, I guess. With lots of exotic places and daring escapades . . . and swashbuckling space pirates, naturally.” He followed this up with a wink and watched, preening inside, as Kate’s mouth turned into a small, surprised O.
Then Professor Gosnel cleared her throat. “This is supposed to be individual study, Mr. Thorne and Miss Fallow. Twenty more minutes, and then you can partner up.”
“Yes, Professor Gosnel,” said Carswell without missing a beat, even as the redness stretched to Kate’s hairline and a few students snickered near the back. He wondered if Kate had ever been reprimanded by a teacher in her life.
He slid his gaze back to Kate and waited— five seconds, six— until her gaze darted uncertainly upward again. Though she caught him staring, she was the one who instantly turned back to her desk, flustered.
Feeling rather accomplished, Carswell took to scanning through the names. A few sounded familiar, but not enough that he could have named any of their works. He racked his brain, trying to remember what, exactly, he was supposed to be doing for this assignment anyway.
Then Kate leaned over and tapped her stylus against a name on the list. Joel Kimbrough, United Kingdom, born 27 T.E. His list of works spilled down the screen, with titles like Space Ranger on the Ninth Moon and The Mariner and the Martians.
Carswell beamed at Kate, but she had already returned her attention to her own screen, without any sign of her blush receding.
The next twenty minutes were spent scanning through Joel Kimbrough’s extensive body of work, while his mind churned through different scenarios in which he could get
Kate Fallow to help him with his math homework— preferably, just to let him copy off her so he wouldn’t need to put any more time into that wasteful venture.
When Professor Gosnel finally told them to choose a partner, Carswell scooted his desk closer to Kate’s without hesitation. “Would you like to work together?”
She gaped at him again, no less surprised than the first time. “Me?”
“Sure. You like histories, I like adventures. Match made in heaven, right?”
“Um . . .”
“Carswell?” hissed a voice behind him. He glanced around. It was Blakely behind him after all, leaning so far over her desk that her nose was practically on his shoulder. “I thought you and I could be partners.”
“Er—one second.” He lifted a finger to her, then turned back to Kate and plowed on. “Actually, there’s something I’ve kind of been meaning to ask you for a while now.”
Kate’s jaw hung, as Carswell feigned a sudden onslaught of uncertainty and scooted his chair a bit closer. “You know how we’re in the same math class?”
She blinked, twice. Nodded.
“Well, I was thinking, if you’re not busy, and if you wanted to, maybe we could study together one of these days. Maybe after school? ”
Kate could not have looked any more stunned if he’d just proposed that they move to Columbia State together and become coffee bean farmers. “You want to . . . study? With me?”
“Yeah. Math, specifically.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m not doing that great in it. I could really use your help.” He added a drop of pleading to his expression and watched as Kate’s eyes widened and softened simultaneously. Those pretty, enormous brown eyes.
Carswell was surprised to feel a jolt behind his sternum, and suddenly, he was almost looking forward to his studying time with Kate Fallow, which was a rather unexpected twist.
Because, of course, she would say yes.
Although it was Blakely who spoke next. “Carswell. We should get started on this assignment, don’t you think?” There was an edge to her tone that Kate must have noticed. Something that hinted at jealousy.
With a glance back at Blakely, Kate looked more flustered than ever. But then she nodded and gave an awkward shrug. “Sure. All right.”
Carswell beamed. “Great. And also— I hate to ask this— but would you mind if I took a look at today’s assignment? I tried to do it last night, but was completely lost. All those equations . . .”
“Mr. Thorne,” said Professor Gosnel, suddenly hovering between him and Kate, “this is literature class. Perhaps you could use your time to discuss literature.”
He tilted his head back to meet her gaze. “Oh, we are discussing literature, Professor.” Clearing his throat, he tapped the screen, pulling up Kimbrough’s 39th published work, Marooned in the Asteroid Labyrinth. The explanation bubbled up as smoothly as they always did, a skill he’d been cultivating since childhood. “As you can see, dramatist Joel Kimbrough often played on themes of loneliness and abandonment, in which the protagonist is forced to overcome not only external obstacles like space monsters and malfunctioning spaceship engines, but also the internal devastation that comes with complete solitude. His works often employ the vast emptiness of space as a metaphor for social isolation. In the end, his protagonists overcome their feelings of insecurity only after they accept the help of an unlikely assistant, such as an android or an alien or . . .” His mouth quirked to one side. “. . . a pretty girl who happens to be a skilled marksman when she’s handed a high-powered ray gun.”
A wave of tittering rolled through the class, confirming Carswell’s suspicions that he now had an audience.
“So, you see,” he said, gesturing again at the screen, “I was just telling Miss Fallow that the themes in Kimbrough’s work are symbolic of my own personal struggles with math homework. I so often feel lost, insecure, confused, completely abandoned . . . but, by joining forces with a pretty girl who understands the problems I currently have to work through, I may yet overcome the obstacles laid out before me, and achieve my ultimate goal: high marks in math class.” He gave a one-shouldered shrug and added, for good measure, “And also literature class, naturally.”
Professor Gosnel stared down at him with her lips pressed and he could tell that she was still annoyed, although simultaneously trying to hide a twinge of amusement. “I somehow doubt you’ve ever felt insecure about anything in your whole life, Mr. Thorne.”
He grinned. “I’m a teenager, Professor. I feel insecure all the time.”
The class chuckled around him, but Professor Gosnel sighed. “Just try to stay on task, Mr. Thorne,” she said, before turning her back to her own screen and listing some of the literary terms students should be using to discuss their assignments— words like themes, metaphors, and symbolism. Carswell smirked.
Then a voice broke out of the mild chatter, loud enough to reach Carswell, but quiet enough to make it seem like it wasn’t intentional. “If it’s a pretty girl that he needs to help with his ‘problems,’ it’s a shame Kate Fallow is the best he can find.”
Someone else guffawed. A few girls giggled, before putting their hands over their mouths.
Carswell glanced back to see Ryan Doughty smirking at him— a friend of Jules. He shot him a glare, before turning back to Kate. Her smile had vanished, her eyes filling with mortification.
Carswell curled his hand into a tight fist, having the sudden, unexpected urge to punch Ryan Doughty in the mouth. But instead, as the class quieted down, he ignored the feeling and once again scooted his chair closer to Kate’s.
“So, like I was saying before,” he said, teetering on the line between casual and nervous, “maybe we could eat lunch together today, out in the courtyard.” He would have to cancel the afternoon’s card game, which would put him behind schedule, but if he could submit today’s homework during math— complete and on time— it would be the fastest way to start turning around his marks. And he only had a week to show his dad that things were improving before mid-July break started. “What do you say?”
Kate’s jaw had dropped again, her blush having returned full force.
Sighing, he didn’t hide his glare as he turned back to Blakely. “Yes, Blakely?”
Her glower put his to shame. “I thought you and I were going to be partners today.”
“Uh—I’m not sure, Blakely. I’m afraid I already asked Kate, but . . .” He grinned in Kate’s direction. “I guess she hasn’t given me an answer yet.”
Blakely harrumphed. “Well then, maybe we should call off our date to the dance, too. Then you two can go fight obstacles and achieve goals together.”
He sat up straighter. “Huh?”
“Last week,” Blakely said, curling her fingers around the edge of her desk, “I asked if you were going to the Peace Dance and you said I’d be the girl you asked if you did. I’ve been planning on it ever since.”
“Oh, right.” Carswell was losing track of how many girls he’d said some version of this line too, which was probably bad planning on his part, but at the time Blakely had asked, he’d been hoping to get her to invest in his Send Carswell to Space Camp fund.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “it’s looking like I may be babysitting my neighbors’ toddlers that day. Two-year-old triplets.” He shook his head. “They’re a handful, but so blasted cute, it’s impossible not to love them.”
Blakely’s anger fizzled into warm adoration. “Oh.”
“But if they end up not needing me, you’ll be the first to know.”
She squinched her shoulders up from the flattery. “But do you want to work together today?”
“Ah, I’d love to, Blakely, but I did ask Kate already . . . er,
Kate had her head down, her hair falling over her face so that he could only see the tip of her nose. Her body had taken on a new tenseness, her knuckles whitened as she gripped the stylus.
“It’s all right,” she said, without looking up at him. “I’m sure the teacher will let me work on my own. You can work with your girlfriend.”
“Oh—she’s not— we’re not—”
Blakely grabbed his arm. “See, Kate doesn’t mind. You said that you chose Joel Kimbrough?”
Clearing his throat, Carswell looked first at Blakely, then back up at Kate, now hidden behind her wall of hair.
“Um, fine.” He leaned toward Kate again. “But, are we still on for lunch? So I can, you know, check out that homework assignment?”
Kate tucked her hair behind her ear and leveled a look at him that was both annoyed and intelligent. It told him that she knew exactly what he was doing, or trying to do. To her. To Blakely. To every girl he’d ever asked a favor from. Carswell was surprised to feel a tingle of shame down his spine.
Her jaw twitched. “I don’t think so. And we probably shouldn’t study together after all.”
Turning away, she fitted a pair of speaker-plugs into her ears, and the conversation was over. In its wake was a feeling of disappointment that Carswell couldn’t quite place, but he didn’t think had very much to do with math.
“SEVEN CARD ROYALS,” SAID CARSWELL, DEALING another hand of cards. “Aces are wild. Triplets beats the house.”
“Why don’t we ever play that doubles beat the house?” asked Anthony, picking up his cards and rearranging them in his hands.
Carswell shrugged. “We can play that way if you want. But it means the pots will be smaller. Not as much risk, not as big a payout.”
“Triplets are fine,” said Carina, needling Anthony in the side with her elbow. “Anthony’s just afraid he’s going to lose again.”
Anthony scowled. “It just seems like the odds are a little biased toward Carswell, that’s all.”
“What do you mean?” Carswell waved his hand over the pot. “I’ve lost the last three hands in a row. You guys are bleeding me dry over here.”
Carina raised her eyebrows at Anthony as if to say, See?
Do the math. Anthony duly fell quiet and tossed his ante into the pot. They were playing with markers scavenged from the school’s lunch bar— olives were micro-univs, potato crisps were singles, and jalapeño slices made for fivers. The trick was to keep Chien, who was seated on Carswell’s left and had the appetite of a whale, to keep from eating them in between games.
At the end of every school day, Carswell— as “the house”— would divvy up the wins and losses between the players’ real savings accounts. He’d based his system on the same odds that the casinos in the valley used, allowing him to win about 60% of the time. It was just enough to turn a consistent profit, but also to give players frequent enough wins that they kept coming back. It had turned out to be one of his more profitable ventures to date.
Carina took the next hand without much competition, but that was followed by a round in which no one could beat the house’s required triplets-or-better, ending Carswell’s losing streak. He kept the grin from his face as he raked the pot of food scraps into his dwindling pile.
He quickly did the math in his head. He was up from where he’d started the lunch period, nearly fifty-five univs. Just twenty-nine more would put him at his goal for the day and push him into the next bracket of his savings account.
Twenty-nine univs. Such a small thing to just about anyone in this school, just about anyone in the entire city of Los Angeles. But to him, they equaled sixteen weeks of freedom. Sixteen weeks of being away from his parents. Sixteen weeks of total in dependence.
He brushed his thumb over the Rampion tie tack for good luck, and dealt another hand.
As the betting began, he glanced up and caught sight of Kate Fallow sitting against a palm tree at the edge of the courtyard, the pleated skirt of her uniform pulled snugly around her knees. She was reading from her portscreen— no surprise there— but it was odd to see her out here at all. Carswell had no idea where she normally spent her lunch hour, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t in this courtyard, where he could always be found.
The betting ended and Carswell began to dole out replacement cards, but now he was distracted. His gaze kept flicking back to Kate. Watching how she smiled at something on the screen. Mindlessly tugged at her earlobe. Seemed to sigh with a hint of longing.
Maybe she came to the courtyard every day and he’d never noticed. Or maybe she’d come here today because he’d suggested it, even if the offer had ultimately been declined.
Either way, it was clear from the faraway look in her eyes that she wasn’t in the courtyard right now, not really, and he couldn’t help wondering where she was.
Holy spades. Was he developing a crush on Kate Fallow? Of all the girls who smiled and swooned and giggled, all the girls who would have handed over their math homework for nothing more than a flirtatious compliment, and he suddenly couldn’t keep his eyes off one of the most awkward, isolated girls in the school?
No, there had to be more to this. He was probably just confusing his desperation to raise his math grades and lift his dad’s punishment with something that bordered on romantic interest. He didn’t like Kate Fallow. He just wanted Kate Fallow to like him so he could swindle her out of her math homework.
Just like he swindled everyone.
There it was again. That peculiar tingle of shame.
“Ha! Suited triplets!” said Chien, laying out his cards. The other players groaned, and it took Carswell a moment to scan the hands and determine that, indeed, Chien had taken the round. Usually he could pick out the winning hand in half a glance, but he’d been too distracted.
As Chien scooped up his winnings, Carswell determined that he probably should have quit while he was ahead after all. He was back down to thirty-eight univs won for the day, forty-six behind his goal.
Boots would not be impressed.
“Well done, Chien,” he said. “One more hand?”
“There won’t be time for it if our dealer goes out to space again,” said Anthony. “What’s wrong with you?”
He cringed, the words reflecting his father’s question from just that morning. “Nothing,” he said, shuffling the cards. “Just had something on my mind.”
“Oh, I see what he was looking at,” said Carina. “Or should
I say who.”
Chien and Anthony followed Carina’s gesture. “Kate Fallow?” said Anthony, with a curled lip that said he highly doubted she was the person who had caught Carswell’s interest.
Ducking his head, Carswell redistributed a new round of cards, but no one picked them up.
“He was flirting with her in lit class this morning,” said Carina. “Honestly, Carswell. Do you really need to get every girl in the whole school to fall under your spell? Is this some sort of manly conquest you’re on or something?”
Cupping his chin in one hand, Carswell leaned toward Carina with a suggestive smirk. “Why? Are you feeling left out?”
Rolling her eyes, Carina shoved him away, at the same time that the speakers announced the end of lunch hour. A groan rose up from the courtyard, but was hastily followed by the sounds of footsteps padding back into the buildings, and friends bidding each other good-bye for the whole ninety minutes they were about to be separated.
Carswell gathered up the cards he’d just dealt and slipped them back into his bag. “I’ll tally the winnings,” he said, shooing away a fly that was buzzing around the pile of food.
“How do we know you won’t take a little extra for yourself?” asked Chien, with unhidden distrust.
Carswell only shrugged. “You can stay and count up your own if you’d prefer, but then we’ll both be late to class.”
Chien didn’t argue again. Of course, a lost univ or two was nothing to any of them, so what did it matter if Carswell skimmed a little off the top?
By the time he’d entered the balances into his portscreen and put in a reminder to shuffle the money between their accounts when he got home, the courtyard had emptied but for him and the seagulls that were creeping in to pick at the scraps of abandoned food. Carswell slipped his portscreen back into his bag beside the deck of cards, and heaved it over one shoulder.
The second announcement blared. The halls were abandoned as Carswell made his way to second-era history. He would be a couple minutes late for the second time that day, but the teacher liked him, so he couldn’t bring himself to be worried about it.
And then, through the quiet that was laced with the padding of his own footsteps and the hushed conversations behind closed classroom doors, he heard a frustrated cry.
“Stop it! Give it back!”
Carswell paused and traced his steps back to the hallway that led off to the tech hall.
Jules Keller was holding a portscreen over his head, grinning, with Ryan Doughty and Rob Mancuso surrounding him.
And then there was Kate Fallow, her face flushed and her hands on her hips in a semblance of anger and determination, even though Carswell could tell even from here that she was shaking and trying not to cry.
“What do you keep on this thing, anyway?” said Jules, peering up at the screen and scrolling through her pages with his thumbs. “Got any naughty pictures on here?”
“She sure does stare at it a lot,” said Rob with a snort. Carswell’s shoulders sank, first with embarrassment for Kate, then with that inevitable feeling that something bad was about to happen. Bracing himself, he started down the hall. No one seemed to have noticed him yet.
Kate squeezed her shoulders against her neck and held out a hand. “It’s just a bunch of books. Now give it back. Please.”
“Yeah, sleazy books, probably,” said Jules. “Not like you could ever get a real date.”
Kate’s bottom lip began to quiver.
“Seriously, there aren’t any games on here or anything,” said Jules with apparent disgust. “It’s the most boring portscreen in L.A.”
“We should just keep it,” said Ryan. “She’s obviously not using it right.”
“Hello, gentlemen,” said Carswell, at the same moment that he reached up and snatched the portscreen out of Jules’s hand. He had to get on his tiptoes to do it, which he hated, but seeing the flash of surprise and bewilderment that crossed Jules’s face made it worthwhile.
Of course, the look didn’t last long.
Carswell took a few steps back as Jules’s hand flexed into a fist. “What a coincidence,” he said. “I was just coming to look for Kate. So glad you found her for me.” He raised his eyebrows at Kate, then quirked his head back down the hallway. “Come on.”
She swiped at the first tear that started down her cheek. Wrapping her arms around her waist, she dodged around the boys to come stand beside him, but Carswell hadn’t taken two steps away before Jules grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him back around.
“What is she, your girlfriend now or something?” he said, nostrils flaring with, if Carswell hadn’t known better, a hint of envy.
Which just blasted figured. Mocking and bullying a girl would be the way that Jules attempted to show interest. It seemed to fit with that completely messed-up head of his.
Carswell stifled a sigh. Maybe he could start an afterschool Flirting 101 class. There were a lot of students who could really use the help.
What could he charge for that? he wondered.
“Right now,” he said, drawing his attention back to the numbskull in front of him and placing a hand on Kate’s arm, “she’s the girl I’m escorting back to class. Feel free to spread whatever rumors you want from that.”
“Yeah? How about the rumor that I gave you a black eye because you wouldn’t mind your own business?”
“I’m honestly not sure people are going to buy that one, given that—”
The fist collided with Carswell’s eye faster than he’d have thought possible, sending him reeling back against the row of lockers with a resounding clang.
The world tilted and blurred and he thought Kate may have screamed and something clattered on the ground— her portscreen, falling from his own hand— but all he could think was, Spades and aces and stars, that hurt.
He’d never been punched before. He’d always assumed it would be easier to bounce back from, but now he had the instinctive desire to curl up into a ball and cover his head with both arms and play dead until they all went away.
“Carswell!” yelled Kate, seconds before Rob grabbed him by the elbow and yanked him away from the lockers, and then Jules’s fist was in his stomach and he’d probably broken a rib and Carswell was on his knees and Ryan was kicking him and all his senses were made up of pain and grunts and Kate’s shrieks and he really would have thought that he’d have lasted a lot longer than this, but . . .
A gruff voice bulleted through the haze of fists and feet and Carswell was left blessedly alone, curled up on the school’s tiled floor. He tasted blood in his mouth. His entire body was throbbing.
As his senses began to register his surroundings again, he realized that Vice Principal Chambers had broken up the fight, but Carswell was too woozy to make sense of his angry words.
“Carswell?” said a sweet, soft, horrified voice.
His left eye was already swelling shut, but he peeled open the right to see that Kate was now crouched over him.
Her fingers were hovering just off his shoulder, like she was afraid to touch him.
He tried to smile, but felt it probably looked more like a grimace. “Hey, Kate.”
Her eyes were filled with sympathy, her face still flushed, but she wasn’t crying anymore, and Carswell liked to think he’d put an end to that, at least.
“Are you all right? Can you stand?”
Flinching, he forced himself to sit up, which was a start. Kate helped a little, although she still seemed hesitant to touch him.
“Ow,” he muttered. His entire abdomen was throbbing and bruised.
Aces, how embarrassing. He would be investing in some good martial arts simulators after this. Or maybe boxing. Outnumbered or not, he’d never be on the losing side of a fistfight again if he could help it.
“Are you all right, Mr. Thorne?” asked Mr. Chambers.
Squinting upward, Carswell saw that they’d been joined by two of the tech professors, who were standing with their arms folded over Jules and his friends. Everyone was scowling. Rob even looked a tiny bit guilty, or maybe he just hated that they’d been caught.
“I’m grand,” said Carswell. “Thank you for asking, Mr. Chambers.” Then he cringed and rubbed at the spot on his side where the jolt of pain had originated from.
Mr. Chambers sighed. “You know that all fighting is against school policy, Mr. Thorne. I’m afraid this calls for a one-week suspension. For all four of you.”
“Wait—no!” said Kate. Then, to Carswell’s surprise, she laced their fingers together. He blinked at their hands, then up at her profile, and doubted she even realized she was doing it. “Carswell was defending me. They’d taken my portscreen and wouldn’t give it back. It’s not his fault!”
The vice principal was shaking his head, and though Carswell could tell he felt bad about the decision, he also had an expression that suggested there was nothing he could do about it. “School rules, Miss Fallow.”
“But that isn’t fair. He didn’t do anything wrong!”
“It’s a no-tolerance policy. I’m sorry, but we can’t make exceptions.” Mr. Chambers glanced back at the other boys. “Mr. Keller, Mr. Doughty, Mr. Mancuso, you can follow me to my office so we can comm your parents. Miss Fallow, why don’t you assist Mr. Carswell to see the med-droid.” He attempted sympathy when he met Carswell’s one-eyed gaze again. “We’ll comm your parents later.”
Chin falling to his chest, Carswell cursed under his breath.
“Miss Fallow, I’ll ask your teacher to forgive your absence for this period.”
“Thank you, Mr. Chambers,” she murmured, full of resignation.
As Jules and his friends were escorted away, Carswell allowed himself to lean against Kate and push himself onto his wobbly legs, with another handful of curses and groans.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered as he draped an arm around her shoulders and she began escorting him toward the med-droid office.
“Not your fault,” he said through his teeth. Although, now that he had the strenuous effort of walking to focus on, the pain almost seemed to be dulling. Almost. “You get your portscreen?”
“Yes. Thank you. And I have your bag.” Then she huffed. “I can’t believe they’re suspending you. It isn’t fair.”
He tried to shrug, but it came out as a vague flopping of his free arm. “I was already grounded for mid-July break. A suspension can’t make it that much worse.”
“Grounded? For what?”
His gaze flickered to her, and he couldn’t avoid a wry smile, even though it pinched his throbbing cheekbone. “Poor math grade.”
She flushed. “Oh.”
Carswell pressed a hand against his ribs, finding that by applying a slight amount of pressure he could relieve some of the jarring as they walked. “Yep, I’m grounded until I bring my score back up. Of course, that’s not going to happen now that I can’t even go to class.” He tried to laugh as if it didn’t bother him, but quickly realized what a bad idea that was and the sound turned into something of a pained cough. “Oh, well. Just more time to catch up on my Joel Kimbrough reading, I guess.”
She tried to giggle, maybe to make him feel better, but it didn’t sound any more authentic than his laugh had.
“When you’re done,” she said, “I’m sure you could write an amazing paper that explores the parallels between the dangers of space travel as compared to navigating school hallways and social status and . . . and . . .”
Her laugh was less forced this time. “And parents, of course.”
“I suspect that Martians have always been a metaphor for parents in those books.”
“They must, being that they’re so . . . otherworldly.”
This time, her laugh wasn’t forced at all, and it gave Carswell a warm, tender feeling somewhere under all the bruising. He wished he could have laughed with her, without it causing a flash of pain in his chest.
“Think Professor Gosnel would give me extra credit?”
“I’m sure she would,” said Kate. But then her sympathy was back. “It wouldn’t help with your math grade, though.”
“True. If only studying algebra formulas was half as much fun as corny space adventures.”
“If only.” Pursing her lips, Kate glanced up at him through her cascade of hair. Then she took in a deep breath. “I’ll let you copy my math homework.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Until . . . until your grade is up. And when we come back from break, I can help you study, if you still want me to.”
“Thank you.” He smiled, and he didn’t even have to fake his gratitude, even though the relief came with that peculiar undercurrent of shame again. He knew that she felt guilty, that she felt as though she owed him something. He knew he was taking advantage of those feelings.
But he didn’t even think to reject her offer. Because in the back of his head, he was already counting up the hours this would save him, the money he could earn with that time. He was already moving past Kate and her portscreen and her gentle laugh and the lingering pain from his first fight.
Already, he was thinking of the next goal, the next dream, the next obstacle. Carswell grinned, just to the point to where it started to hurt, and rubbed a thumb over his tie tack.
For good luck.