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Instead of You

By:Anie Michaels

Chapter One

Cory's Sixteenth Birthday

McKenzie

Like any other day of tenth grade, I spent my lunch break sitting on the brick wall that lined the school property. It was only four feet tall and easy enough to hop onto, and that's where we sat, every day, and ate our lunch. Except today. I was alone. Today was January 10, and Cory was noticeably absent because his brother had taken him to get his driver's license. Well, assuming he passed. If he didn't pass it would be ridiculous as I'd taken the test two days earlier, on my sixteenth birthday, and told him all of the questions and answers. I'd also spent the last month studying with him. He had to pass.

Halfway through lunch, Hayes's familiar Mustang pulled into the parking lot. As it drove closer I could make out both Hayes and Cory in the front of the car, Cory in the driver seat. I tried not to get too excited-just because he was driving didn't mean he'd passed. The tinted windows wouldn't give me any more clues, so I waited impatiently for the car to pull all the way up the circular drive, my heart thumping wildly as it came to a stop right in front of me.

When Cory's door flew open and his smiling face popped up over, I knew he'd passed.

"I did it," he said, one fist pumping into the air above his head.

"I knew you could," I said, trying to match his smile.

Cory came around the hood of the Mustang, practically bouncing. It never really got too cold here in the winters, which was why we could eat our lunch outside even in January, but Cory was wearing his signature brown leather jacket that only intensified the blond of his hair. Surely the Florida sun had something to do with his hair color, because he was a stark contrast to his brother.

Hayes stepped out of the Mustang, and I was looking at Cory's antithesis. Where Cory was on the shorter side, Hayes was close to six foot two. Where Cory had light blond, short, manageable hair, Hayes's hair was dark, longer than it needed to be, and quite unruly. Cory was lean and light, running track and swimming the backstroke for the high school swim team, and Hayes was, well, built. Hayes was not wearing a jacket and even though I tried desperately to avoid it, my eyes always seemed to find his biceps.

"Hey, Kenzie," Hayes called as he walked around the front of his car.

"Hi," I replied, smiling. I'd known him my whole life, but I didn't know him nearly as well as I knew Cory. "Did you come home for Cory's birthday?"

"Yeah. Mom would have killed me if I missed my little brother's sweet sixteen." His smile was playful and knowing.

"Only girls have sweet sixteens, Hayes." Cory rolled his eyes, obviously irritated by his older brother.

"Was yours a sweet sixteen, Kenzie?" He'd stopped outside his door, arms folded on the roof of his Mustang, biceps bulging.

"Yeah" was the only thing I could say in response. I was afraid if I said anything else it would be, "Yeah, biceps." Hayes gave me a knowing grin and I felt my cheeks heat, so I looked down at my sandwich.

"Bye, Hayes," Cory said with irritation.

"Later, kids." I watched as the Mustang roared out of the parking lot, and I couldn't help but give a relieved sigh. Recently, Hayes always managed to put me on edge. It was unnerving. Luckily, I only saw him when colleges were on break. He was twenty now and attended Central Florida University two hours away. About the same time he started making me nervous was when he left for college. I remember, sadly, being glad when he finally left for good. Being around him and Cory was confusing for me.

Cory hopped up onto the wall next to me and held out the brand-new shiny plastic license that looked exactly like the one I'd earned two days previously.

"I can't believe we both passed." His words were quiet but full of wistfulness. "We're both sixteen, we both have our license, it's like the one day we've been waiting for since, well, since we were twelve."

Sixteen was a big deal to most teenagers. But sixteen for Cory and me held an unprecedented weight. To say our mothers had built a fantasy around Cory and me dating would have been a massive understatement. It was expected. A forgone conclusion. However, when Cory and I hit a certain age, my father stepped in, forbidding me to date until I was sixteen.

I was so thankful for his rule. Grateful that the decision to date Cory would be put off for a few more years, that I wouldn't have to worry about how I felt until then. But now, it was then. I was sixteen and so was Cory.

"I was wondering," he said, bouncing the heels of his Converse against the brick of the wall, "do you think you'd like to go with me to my party tomorrow?"         

     



 

I tried to hide my reaction, to keep my breaths even, not let my body show how tense I'd become at his question. He was my absolute, hands down, best friend. But I wasn't sure he was who I wanted to be my boyfriend.

"Cory, of course I'll go with you. I've never missed one of your birthday parties." I made my words light and airy, the exact opposite of how I was feeling that moment.

"No, Kenzie, that's not what I meant. I want you to go as my date."

It was suddenly one hundred degrees hotter than it had been just seconds before and my lungs decided to work overtime. Cory apparently didn't notice my freak-out, as he kept talking.

"I know we've been waiting, but we're both sixteen now. I don't want to wait anymore. I want to be with you." He reached over and took my hand. This wasn't a rare occurrence; we held hands every now and then. He was my very best friend and I loved him. But a lot of the time I wasn't sure if the only reason I loved him was because I'd been trained to do so. But on that afternoon, as we sat on that wall, when his fingers slid between mine and gripped me tightly, I knew he wasn't thinking about our friendship. He wasn't holding Kenzie's hand, the girl who he'd pushed over in the sand box when we were five. No, he was holding Kenzie's hand who he wanted to be romantic with.

God.

Be romantic with.

I couldn't even fathom it, let alone try to put it into words.

How could I tell my best friend in the whole world, on his birthday, that I had no idea what I wanted? That even though we'd basically been primed for this our whole lives, I wasn't sure it was something I wanted? If he was something I wanted?

Easy: I couldn't.

I just smiled at him, gave his hand a squeeze, and let him come to whatever conclusion he would, fully knowing I was taking the coward's way out. When his smile widened and eyes sparkled, I knew I'd started something I wasn't sure I had the power to stop.



Mr. and Mrs. Wallace hadn't spared any expense when it came to Cory's birthday party. They'd rented the ballroom at the local golf club, complete with DJ and dance floor, photo booth, and a wait staff walking around with silver platters of finger food that most of the kids attending couldn't have identified if they'd tried. It was, in a word, fancy.

My birthday party the weekend before had been much more my speed. My parents had let me take five friends to Busch Gardens. We'd ridden roller coasters until we couldn't walk straight. It was awesome. Cory had come, along with my friends Becca, Holly, and Todd. Becca and Holly were my best girlfriends, and Holly practically begged me to invite Todd. I figured it couldn't be bad to have another guy there so Cory didn't feel too out of place. It was a lot of fun, and nothing like the formal affair I was currently observing from my strategically scouted spot where I was doing a fantastic job of holding up the wall.

I watched as my classmates and friends danced in the middle of the room, colorful lights flashing around them. It looked as though they were having fun, but I knew I wouldn't feel comfortable out there like them. My body had always been a mystery to me and I'd never figured out how to properly control it. Sure, I could walk around just fine, but trying to coordinate so many limbs to move at the same time and make it look smooth? I would never be good at that.

Cory was in the middle of the crowd, dancing as if he'd been practicing his whole life for this performance. He'd always been so good at things like that. He was entertaining, confident, and fun to be around. Everyone wanted to be his friend and nearly everyone was. Every person invited to his party coveted their invitations and knew he'd treat them all as if he were genuinely pleased they'd managed to make it. He was a people person, through and through.

I saw my parents in the far corner, only lit by the flashes of light coming from the DJ table, talking with Cory's parents. Our moms were talking to each other while our dads did the same. It was a vision I'd seen my entire life. It was comforting to a point-something I could always count on. But it was also redundant. I wondered if the people I was friends with now-Cory, Holly, and Becca-if that was it for me. I loved them all, but would I ever have more connections with different people? I hated feeling trapped at sixteen, but it was something I was experiencing more and more each day.

I pushed off the wall and started walking toward the doors leading outside, needing a little air. Cory caught my eye and gave me a questioning look, and then signaled that he would come with me. I waved my hand to stop him, then held up all my fingers, mouthing, "five minutes" at him. He nodded, but looked confused. Regardless, he didn't follow me and I couldn't help but feel guilty that I was glad to leave him behind. I just needed a moment.         

     



 

I walked outside and shut the doors behind me, hearing the music quiet, but not the thumping of the bass. I could still feel the beat vibrating through my feet, still hear it as the windows rattled from it. I continued for about ten steps until I was at the edge of the patio, then took in a deep breath, letting it out slowly.

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