“If anyone tries to pick you up in the air,” Joel warns, “kick them in the nuts, okay?”
I laugh. “But crowd surfing looks so fun!”
He shakes his head and shifts me in front of him, locking his arms around my shoulders. “The guys in this crowd would eat you alive . . .” His arms hug me tighter. “And I really don’t want to have to go to jail tonight.”
My giggle is drowned out by the collective scream of the crowd when the banner at the back of the stage unrolls to reveal the name of a huge, hardcore rock band. Joel’s arms unwrap from around me so we can both throw our hands into the air and cheer along with everyone else, and a second later, the band comes out and people lose their damn minds. The pushing begins even before the music does, and Joel and I surge toward the stage along with hundreds of other people. The music starts, blaring from stacks of speakers bigger than I am, and I’m laughing but can’t even hear the sound. I jump in time with everyone around me, singing familiar lyrics at the top of my lungs but hearing only the collective voice of the crowd and the roar of the lead singer onstage.
Crashing waves of people knock me from side to side and forward and back with each and every jump I take, but Joel manages to stay fixed at my back. His strong hands periodically wrap around my waist to steady me or tug me this way or that while I lose myself in the music, the jumping, the crush of everyone around me. I’m part of a living, breathing ocean, surfing waves that flood my body with chemicals that make me feel like I could sing at the top of my lungs every second of every day for the rest of my entire life.
By the time the band finishes its set, my throat is raw and my muscles are spent. Joel takes my hand and leads me out of the dispersing crowd, and once I have the room, I launch myself onto his back. With my arms wrapped tightly around his neck, I press my face against his shoulder and smile against his fire-hot skin.
“Joel?” I say as he hoists me up and carries me through the shallow pools of people that the performance left in its wake.
“Thanks.” I squeeze him tighter, earning envious stares from every girl who had her eyes on him.
“For what?” he asks.
For everything. For the tickets, for the fun, for making me forget real life for a few hours. For catching me when I need to be caught and carrying me when I need to be carried. “For today.”
He glances over his shoulder at me, and I resist the urge to kiss him.
Smiling, he says, “I think the sun is getting to you.”
He walks me to the outskirts of the festival and drops me in the shade of a big oak tree, and we sprawl out next to each other on the dry grass, listening to the distant sounds of music being carried on the wind.
“What’s it like?” I ask, focusing on the leaves rustling in the branches above us. A kaleidoscope of green and yellow shifts in the canopy, dropping patterns of light and shadow all over our skin.
“What’s what like?”
“Being onstage. Performing in front of all those people.” When I glance over at him, Joel is staring up toward the sky, his face bathed in a glowing patch of sunlight. His blond mohawk cuts a line into the grass, his skin still flushed from the heat and exertion.
He takes a moment, and then his voice drifts toward the leaves. “Have you ever done something, and in that moment, you know you’re doing exactly what you’re meant to be doing?”
He says it with a surety I’ve never felt before, and in that moment, I ache for it. “Not really.”
“When we go onstage,” he continues, “and the kids sing our songs back to us . . . that’s what it’s like. That’s when I know I’m doing exactly what I was put on this Earth to do, because there’s no better feeling than that.”
I close my eyes, wishing for that kind of moment, wondering how it would feel, and doubting I’ll ever know. Rowan, my dad, guidance counselors, my academic advisor—they’ve all tried to help me discover what I want to do with my life, but maybe there’s nothing to find.
“Sorry,” Joel says after a while, “that was corny as shit. Adam can probably explain it better.”
My eyes are still closed when I shake my head. “That was perfect.”
When I sense him shift beside me, my eyes open and I find him propped on his elbow next to me. My gaze drifts to his lips, and mine begin to tingle with memories: him, kissing me inside Mayhem, outside Mayhem, in my car, on a truck, in a hallway.
He hasn’t made a move on me since Monday, and even though I’ve loved hanging out with him, I miss when we couldn’t be together for more than an hour or two before sneaking off somewhere to fool around. Now, it’s like the heat between us is gone, and all that’s left is his friendly smile and adorable laugh, which should be enough but isn’t.
I want to ask him why he isn’t kissing me, why he’s just hovering over me with his gorgeous lips and beautiful eyes, but then those lips open and he says, “Have you ever performed in front of a crowd before?”
“I had a few dance recitals,” I reluctantly answer, looking back to the leaves above us while remembering my dad with a video camera in his hand and my mom with a proud smile on her face. I only ever saw those smiles when I was dressed up like a plastic doll for recitals or parties or pictures. I never realized I was just a plaything to her until the year that she outgrew me.
“You dance?” Joel asks, and I shove my emotions back into the catacombs of my heart.