Seventeen-year-old Zach Wilson is not a moral crusader. He’s a snarky, well-liked stoner who attends detention about as often as Algebra. Unfortunately, he’s also a closeted bisexual in a town where even the potheads are conservatives. Even worse, in detention he falls hard for Gabe Novak, a teenage firebrand whose only passion seems to be doomed political causes. When Gabe suggests they pretend to date in order to take the heat off two female students who are actually in love, Zach knows right away it is the stupidest idea he’s ever heard—offensively, terrifyingly, almost mind-bogglingly stupid.
Then, of course, he does it anyway.
What starts as awkward-handholding in the cafeteria becomes a vital united front against a hostile student body, homophobic pizza guys, and Zach’s long-buried anxiety issues. Suddenly, a fake relationship is starting to feel like the realest thing in Zach’s life.
Read the first two chapters below.
If anyone asked, Zach Wilson would say his best subject is detention. That person would probably assume Zach was just being a little shit, because, well, Zach. The thing is, it’s also pretty much the truth. Anybody can get written up—hell, the briefest glance at his high school transcript will tell you that—but when you’re held after enough, you start to get the hang of it.
“Sup, Miz P,” Zach says as he takes his usual spot in the back. “How’s business?”
Mrs. Peterson doesn’t look up. Fair enough. Zach rubs his eyes, yawning until his jaw cracks. He rests his head on the desk and stretches the knit hat over the top of his face. He’s spent the last three years honing the ability to sleep anywhere. If you play your cards right, detention is just an hour-long nap.
Apparently, fate has other plans. Or, more likely, fate doesn’t give a shit.
“Hey,” says someone. A guy’s voice, not familiar. “Hey,” it repeats, louder.
‘Somebody answer him already, Jesus,’ Zach wants to say, except the longer the pause, the more he suspects the stranger is talking to him. He pulls himself upright, tugging up his hat to crack one eye open against the fluorescent light. From his peripheral vision, he registers blond curls, a red hoodie, fierce eyes. Zach swallows and glances down at his hands. It’s reflexive, like looking away from the sun.
“…hey,” Zach mumbles. “What?”
“How does this work?” says the new guy.
“It’s a desk,” says Zach slowly.
“No, this. Detention.”
Sun-staring be damned, Zach turns to face him. New Guy seems to be a junior or a senior. Normally, when people are first-timers at this point, they’re nervous about being in trouble. New Guy doesn’t seem worried at all, just focused. Extremely focused.
“Uh, we sit here quietly for an hour.”
“Then what?” says New Guy. The focus is not diminishing. It’s like being in a very small lightning storm. There’s that same charge, that sense of something interesting about to happen.
“Um. We go home?”
New Guy frowns. “That’s it? An hour of sitting?”
“They take our phones, too?” Zach offers. New Guy looks confused until Zach thinks to add, “I mean, we get them back when the hour’s up, but.”
“What,” says New Guy, “is the point of this?”
“Uh, are you familiar with how high school works?” Zach says. New Guy doesn’t seem to hear. He takes the desk in front of Zach and pulls out a notebook, like he’s all set to write an angry letter to the president. Apparently, their conversation is over.
Zach raises his eyebrows, although there’s nobody to see it. “Dude,” he says, “What’d you do?”
“What?” says New Guy, hand stilling over the page.
“To get detention. What did you do?”
New Guy turns around, but instead of answering, he says, “Does this school really not have a single gender-neutral bathroom?”
Zach tries not to goggle at him. He fails pretty hard. “What?”
New Kid leans in. The lightning storm feeling returns. “Over two thousand kids go here every year,” he says. “The odds that not a single one of them is transgender—”
“So, that’s why you’re here? You used the girls’ bathroom?” Zach raises his hands at the resulting nuclear-level glare, placating. “Hey man, whatever, no judgment.”
“It’s the twenty-first century,” says New Kid, “you shouldn’t need to be transgender to see what an unsafe environment that’s gonna make for anyone who falls outside the, the traditional gender binary.” His voice has an edge like he’s said it several times today. Mentally, Zach translates this to, ‘I didn’t use the girl’s bathroom, I just harped about it until my teacher got super uncomfortable.’
Columbus High is not a haven of love and tolerance. Last week, Zach’s Government class debated gay marriage. Middle ground was somewhere around ‘Sure, gays are an abomination, but maybe we shouldn’t compare them to axe murderers.’
Zach had spent the period drawing on his hands with a felt tip pen. When he ran out of room, he kept going down his wrists. The teacher sent him to wash it off, but he couldn’t get it all and for the rest of the day, whenever people noticed, they shot him a sly smile, like, ‘How high were you?’ and he smiled back until his lips hurt.
New Guy is still talking. “—and a U.S. History teacher, of all people, should realize—”
History, that narrows things down. “Was it Walker?” says Zach.
Other kids have started to filter in. A football player named either Matt or Mark sees Zach and grins, miming a joint with his eyebrows raised. Translation: ‘Are you here for smoking up?’ Zach shrugs back broadly: ‘Who can even say at this point?’ Matt-or-Mark (Mack?) laughs.
“That’s rough, man. Walker’s a dick,” Zach tells New Guy. “Listen, word of advice,” he adds in an undertone. “It’s what, your first week here? Still making impressions and stuff. Uh, yeah. Maybe you don’t wanna be known, right outta the gate, as like, Bathroom Kid, y’know?”
The resulting glare is terrifying, both in intensity and in how it actually doesn’t make Zach want to stop talking. All that attention feels like being zapped with electricity, or chugging a Red Bull.
Zach tugs at the edge of his hat. “No, sorry, free country and all that,” he says. New Guy turns to face the front again, but Zach can’t seem to shut himself up. “What am I saying, you’re gonna do fine. Stay gold, Ponyboy, or whatever. Maybe the rebel thing gets you girls—”
At the word ‘get’, New Guy’s shoulders tense. He whirls back around. “Women aren’t Pokémon, asshole,” he hisses, just as the surrounding noise dies down.
“Gabriel Novak!” says Mrs. Peterson. “We do not allow that language in here.”
So that’s how Zach learns New Guy’s name, and how Gabe gets his second-ever detention.
“Damn fucking straight, Miz P,” says Zach, and that’s how Zach winds up joining him.
Gabe Novak believes in the separation of church and state. He maintains that both the two-party system and the campaign finance system need aggressive overhaul, and that America’s shrinking middle class is creating “what’s basically neo-Feudalism.” He is horrified that Columbus High has no recycling program, and he still has a lot of feelings about the bathroom thing.
All this Zach learns as they wait for the start of their second detention together. And all of it springs organically from the one question Zach had asked, upon slipping into Mrs. Peterson’s room six minutes early and finding Gabe already there, which, for the record, was “…’Sup?”
(Zach ran most of the way to detention. He may have leaped over a freshman at one point, details are hazy. Zach hasn’t even power-walked since sophomore gym last year, and he’s got a stitch in his side that’s making his usual slouch hurt.)
(For the record: totally worth it.).
He lasts about five minutes into detention before he starts kicking the back of Gabe’s chair. It’s barely Zach’s fault. Every kick makes Gabe turn around and look at him again, and every time that look gets even more intense, like Gabe’s about to set something on fire with his mind.
This wasn’t the initial plan, Zach’s just keyed up. And there’s no outlet, because he didn’t bring anything to occupy himself. His homework and sketch pads are all chilling in his locker. He never needs them in detention. By this point, he’s always asleep.
Somehow, though, it’s harder to drift off with those distractingly soft-looking curls in the middle of his sightline. Why did Gabe choose the same desk as before, the one right in front of Zach’s usual spot? Rookie mistake.
Gabe is doing homework, or trying to. He’s got a textbook open, something with maps. History, maybe. World politics. Zach gives the chair another kick. Gabe doesn’t turn, but his shoulder blades visibly tense under his hoodie. Zach tries very hard to track only the motion, and not the shoulder blades themselves, or the shoulders, which are—well. Anyway.
‘This is so stupid,’ he thinks, because it is. But the thought is so familiar that it blends into the background noise of his brain, so it doesn’t have much bearing on his actions.
His actions are to kick the chair again.
Gabe twists around to deliver another glare.
‘Bored,’ Zach mouths with a shrug. Gabe glances towards Mrs. Peterson’s desk. He opens his mouth, probably to say something like, ‘We’re not supposed to talk in here,’ realizes the inherent paradox, and turns forward again.
Zach kicks the chair. No response.
Zach grabs a scrap of paper, scrawls “entertain me,” and scoots it onto Gabe’s desk. He taps his fingers. His hands are twitchy, like he’s just run across the school again, or lit a stick of dynamite.
No wonder. Gabe whirls around, eyes wide. Along with the satisfying flare of outrage, there’s a questioning, incredulous look to his face, like, ‘How could you possibly have the nerve to—’ but Zach chooses to interpret it as ‘How?’ and shimmies his shoulders in a rough approximation of dancing. Gabe just snorts and turns away again.
Zach’s still pondering his next move when a book is thrust into his face. He looks up. Gabe is—kind of forcefully—handing him a faded paperback. His expression is triumphant, a man calling a bluff. Zach squints down at the cover: Grapes of Wrath.
He has no idea what it’s about, vaguely recognizes it as one of those things people drop when they desperately need you to know how fancy they are. (Zach takes a dim view to the classics. He still has Great Expectations trauma from his time as a freshman. It’s been two years; some wounds don’t heal.)
But lacking anything better to do, he flips to the first page.
He’s almost to the end of chapter four when detention lets out. Three more lines.
“Hey,” says Gabe. “I need that back.”
Two and a half. Zach shakes his head without looking up. “Lemme finish this paragraph, dude, hang on.”
“You’re actually reading it?” says Gabe, with palpable surprise. Zach snaps the book shut.
“Try not to shit yourself, but yeah, I can read,” he drawls as he surrenders the paperback.
“I didn’t mean it like that.” For the first time, Gabe looks uncomfortable.
“Did you like it?” Gabe asks. It’s polite, stilted. A gesture of apology, maybe, or pity.
The guy clearly thinks Zach is an idiot. Zach can’t imagine anything worse than getting trapped in some pretentious literary discussion where, he knows, he will flop around trying to sound smart, fail to sound smart, and only end up proving Gabe right.
“I dunno, man,” says Zach. He buries his hands in his pockets. He’s carrying two quarters, a crayon, three cigarettes, and a permanent marker. “It’s rough going. Doesn’t even have any pictures. Or, well,” he pulls the marker from his pocket and twirls it meaningfully between his fingers, “it didn’t.”
Gabe’s eyes widen dangerously. He sucks in a sharp breath and flips frantically through the book, like each page is about to let him down personally.
Zach cracks up. “No, man, I’m messing with you. Your book’s fine.”
Gabe storms out of the room.
“Bye, Gabriel,” says Mrs. Peterson mildly. “See you tomorrow.”
Zach swivels around. “He has detention again?”
“He has detention for the rest of the week,” says Mrs. Peterson.
‘Jesus,’ thinks Zach, ‘what did this guy do?’ And then, right on its heels: ‘What can I do to get three more detentions?’
In the end, all it takes is sneaking into the first floor men’s faculty bathroom before school and filling it floor-to-ceiling with packing peanuts.
If anybody asks, it’s a political statement.