My mind lingers on Mrs. Brown. She knows me. She’s seen me. And in minutes I’ll be in violation of curfew. I’m obviously not going to the burning; I should be home. The hard knot in my stomach grows.

I remember a lesson from my psychology class about an experiment in which volunteers were asked to torture people who were in another room by pressing a button that supposedly delivered an electric shock. It didn’t really, but the volunteers didn’t know that; all they heard were screams. Some resisted at first. But most of them pressed the button eventually, even when the screams got louder.

David is waiting for me at the pool house in his neighbors’ yard. They’re on vacation in Hawaii. Vacation. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be able to go on vacation right now and not worry about being stopped by the TSA for a secondary search that could lead to being handcuffed to a wall for hours. Or worse.

David is taking a risk, too, though we both know it’s not the same for him. He may be brown, almost browner than me, and Jewish, but right now, it’s my religion in the crosshairs. We were suspended for two days from school for kissing in the hall, in the open, where everyone could see. We weren’t breaking any laws. Not technically. But I guess the principal didn’t want to look like he was encouraging relationships between us and them. Apparently, PDA is against school rules, but I’ve never heard of anyone pulling suspension for it. Even worse, although David got booted, too, only my parents and I were called in for a lecture about how I should know my place at school, keep my head down, and be grateful for the privilege of attending classes there. I was gobsmacked. My dad nodded, took it in stride. My mom did, too, even though she wore a scowl the entire time we were in the office. Then, when I started to open my mouth to say something, my mom shook her head at me. Like I’m supposed to be thankful to go to the public school where I’ve always gone, in the town where I’ve always lived.

Why were they so quiet? Especially Mom? She’s almost never quiet.

I left school that afternoon, and my parents were too scared to let me go back.

The pool house door is ajar. I catch my breath for a second before stepping inside.

“Layla,” David whispers, touching my cheek with his fingers. David has his dad’s gray-blue eyes and his mom’s deep-golden-brown skin. And a heart bursting with kindness.

A single candle glows at the center of the coffee table. He’s drawn the curtains in the small studio space—a white sofa piled high with navy-blue pillows, some with appliquéd anchors on them; a couple of overstuffed arm chairs; lots of faded pink and ivory seashells in mason jars; and, on the wall, a framed poster declaring LIFE’S A BEACH against white sand and cerulean sky and sea.

We’re alone. I imagine that this is what it must’ve been like decades ago, before the cold lights of computer screens and tablets and phones permanently eliminated the peace of darkness from our lives. Without saying a word, I walk into David’s arms and kiss him. I pretend the world beyond the curtains doesn’t exist. Being in his arms is the only thing that feels real right now. It’s the only place where I can pretend, for a moment, that we’re still living in the Before, in the way things used to be. I pretend that David and I are making plans for summer, that we’ll play tennis some mornings, that we’ll go to movies. I pretend that I’ll be graduating in a few months and going to college, like my friends. I pretend that David and I will exchange school hoodies. I pretend that high school relationships last into college. Most of all, I pretend that this magic hour is the beginning of something, not the end.

We sink to the sofa. While we kiss, he runs his fingertips along my collarbone. A whisper-light touch that makes me shiver. I nuzzle my face into his neck. David always smells like a nose-tickling combination of the floral laundry detergent his mom buys and the minty soap he uses. I know his mom still does his laundry. She babies him. I tease him about it—about how in college all his white clothes will come out pink because he won’t remember to separate his wash. I sigh. I brush my cheek against his, feeling the odd patch or two of uneven boy-stubble. We hold each other. And hold each other.

It would be a perfect moment to freeze in time and make into a little diorama that I could inhabit for an eternity. But I can’t.

I rest my chin on David’s chest. “I wish I could stay here forever. Is there a magic portal that will transport us to some other dimension? A Time Lord, maybe?”

“Should’ve stolen the TARDIS when I had the chance.”

My dad badgered us into watching Doctor Who, starting with the old-school episodes, and we got hooked. Since then we’ve had on-and-off binge-watching sprees. Despite the sometimes ridiculous production values, the monsters can be terrifying. It’s one of our things.

I give David a small smile. He could always make me laugh, but humor stabs now. I miss dumb banter. I miss laughter that doesn’t make me feel guilty. I miss laughter that is simple joy.

Everything about being with David feels natural, like the crooked, happy smile he’s wearing right now. Like the comfortable moments we can pass in silence. Like our ability to just be with each other. We’ve known each other since grade school, but it was last year at the homecoming bonfire that we had our first kiss. David sat next to me and took my hand, intertwining his fingers with mine. It felt like waking up to a perfect sunrise. Around us, everyone was drinking and rowdily mock singing the school fight song and making out, but all we did was sit there, holding hands. And as the crowd started to thin in the shadows of the dying embers, I turned to look at David. And when I wiped a bit of white ash from his forehead, he brought my hand to his lips and kissed my fingertips. I reached up and kissed him, my heart pulsing in every cell of my body.

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