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On A Balcony In Summer Air

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Stella could think of a thousand ways for being in trouble to be agonizing, but this one was quite a new one to her.

Earlier in the day, bored out of her mind in geometry (not her best subject- the artist in Stella seemed to have a deep resentment of acute and perpendicular angles being something she had to measure instead of feel out on her canvas), she had dared to pass a note to Jolene Meyer, who sat to her left and had been sort of an almost-friend for most of the school year. Stella was not usually a note-passer in class, and the lack of skill had been her downfall- Mr. Lawrence had spotted and swiped it. The detention had probably been punishment for the note-passing itself, but the phone call to her father- an overreaction, in Stella's opinion- was, she suspected, a punishment for the note's content. ("Have you ever noticed that the way he combs over his bald spot gives him a little duck tail in the back?")

For all that it had been a first offense, her father had ordered her down to the bank to wait for his day to end so he could read her the riot act immediately. He didn't want her going home to her mother alone, where she could possibly wheedle herself an ally before he got in. Stella was to stand in the bank's lobby and not move a muscle, was that clear, young lady. He was not paying a fortune for her education so that she could blow off her classwork and make fun of her teachers. Stella was to stand in the lobby until close of business. She was not to sit, she was not to leave, and she was not to take one of the cookies from the coffee station by his office.

Stella was getting anxious, bored and stiff, and watching the clock, willing it to move faster. She really wanted it to just be over already. It had taken her no more than a half hour of being rooted to this spot to wish she hadn't even considered passing a note.

She was drafting a begging apology in the back of her mind when the boy (whom she'd noticed had been waiting here as long as she had) decided to talk to her.

"Hey," he said, in a tone carrying a strange amount of bravado for such a simple greeting.

Stella looked at him nervously. While she hadn't been forbidden to talk to anyone specifically, she thought that her dad probably wouldn't see it that way if he caught her talking to a boy. She scuffed her feet and picked a little at the hem of her sleeve. "Hi," she said.

The boy seemed about her age, or maybe a little older, and was nearly but not quite as tall as she was. He had a mop of blond hair, darker than her own in a way that suggested he didn't spend much time out of doors, and a pair of thick brown glasses that magnified his eyes to two or three times their actual size. (She sort of liked it- glasses maybe weren't the coolest thing ever, but without that magnification, she doubted she'd have been able to tell that they were about the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. They were pretty.) The shirt he wore was a buttonfront in a dark blue that didn't flatter him, and the coat he wore seemed unseasonably warm for the second to last week of June. Stella thought that probably it had been chosen because he had need of the pockets.

He gave her a lopsided grin that seemed lost somewhere between friendly and leering, a grown-up kind of smile that looked practiced and made him seem younger than he was just by its contrast with his face. She tried and failed to stifle a giggle.

"So do you, uh, come here a lot?" he asked.

Stella wondered who in their right mind would come to the bank a lot (loyalty to her dad forced her to amend, at their age), but before she could ask, he gave her that grin again and she was trying to suppress another giggle. "I guess," she ventured, not sure if it was the best answer. She wondered if she should tell him that she was here waiting for her dad to get off so he could ground her forever. Would that make her seem cool, or would the nature of her crime make her seem dumb? She decided to skip it and ask instead, "What about you?"

He gave an exaggerated shrug, a shrug that said Maybe-I-do-or-maybe-I-don't, whatcha-gonna-do-about-it. "Only when I got business," he said.

"Business?" Stella asked.

"Sure," he said. "Like when I gotta drop in a deposit after a gig with my band."

"Your band?" she repeated. "You have a band?" She looked him up and down, trying to imagine him with an instrument. She couldn't think of one that looked like he could lift it. Maybe he sang.

"Yeah," he said. "The Beastie Eagles. Ever heard of us?"

She hadn't. She shook her head.

"We're on the edge of being discovered for real," he confided. "We might go to Detroit and see what they make of us. That is, if it doesn't interfere with my football."

Stella looked him over again. "What position do you play?"

"All of 'em," he said. "You know, just whatever the team needs. My coach likes to see what I can do. He thinks I've got a pretty good shot at varsity when I get older. Might even go pro someday."

Stella thought this was unlikely. While the all-girls school she went to only offered sports like field hockey and track, she was pretty sure that players were confined to the same position all the time. Maybe public schools were different, though. Or maybe, she thought, he was trying to impress her. She wasn't sure which seemed more unreal. "I don't know much about football," she said eventually. "I don't really like it much."

"Yeah," he allowed. "I don't think I really want to go pro. I want to do something cooler when I grow up."

Stella hadn't given much thought to what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she kind of was impressed that he'd given it enough thought to rule out the long term possibilities of football. "Like be a rock star?"

He grinned again. "Yeah," he said. "Or maybe a spy."

She laughed, unsure if it was because of the grin or the profession. "A spy?"

"I could be good at that," he said. "Last week, I followed around the gang guys in my neighborhood to see what they was up to- you know, selling their reefer and stuff- and they didn't see me at all."

"There are gangs where you live?" she asked.

"Yep," he said. "I'm from Back of the Yards. It gets kinda rough down there."

Back of the Yards was the neighborhood that had sprung up around the meatpacking district over the last century, from what Stella remembered from school and the newspaper. It was kind of rough down there, especially over the last few years, since the plants had closed. "Wow," she said.

He gave a more modest shrug.

"I live in the Gold Coast," she admitted sadly. "Nothing cool ever happens out there. It's where they live... you know, all the yuppies."

If her origins amongst the boring and snooty struck the boy as uncool, he didn't show it. "I'm Ray," he said. There was a confused moment where he tried to figure out what to do with his hands- first putting them on his ribs as he struck a pose with his arms across his chest, then on his hips as he tried another, better pose. At last, one hand combed back through his hair while the other reached across and seized one of hers. His palm was warm but clammy, in a sweaty sort of way that hadn't entirely wiped off during his shuffle.

She felt her face flushing with surprised pleasure. "Stella," she said. Conditioned reflex made her add, "How do you do?" The flush in her cheeks quickly turned to one of mortification. She sounded like such a dork.

"Do what?" he asked, giving her his grin again, except this time it looked more natural. Like he really was pleased with her and himself for how the conversation was going.

Stella offered a more sheepish grin of her own. "I don't know," she said. "It's just what my mom says to say."

Ray looked curious. "Your mom tells you what to say when you meet people?"

"Always," Stella said, rolling her eyes for effect. "And how to say it, too." She shook her head. "She and my dad used to send me to classes for etiquette and elocution."

"Electrocution?" Ray asked, looking dumbfounded.

Stella giggled. "Elocution," she corrected. She thought for a moment, then added, "It might as well have been electrocution, though. It was that much fun."

Ray shook his head. "Parents, man."

Stella felt a little guilty for making fun of her mom and dad (it wasn't their fault they were yuppies, after all, and if some of the things they had her do were stupid, it was only because too many people cared about stupid things and they wanted her to be prepared for it), but at the moment, she had the more urgent matter of keeping Ray's interest at hand. "Yeah," she said. "Do yours make you go to dumb classes?"

"Nah," Ray said, shaking his head. "My parents don't make me do much of anything." He quirked his eyebrows. "I don't like people telling me what to do."

"Not even your mom and dad?" Stella asked.

"Especially not my mom and dad," Ray said. He rubbed the back of his neck and lowered his voice a little. "I mean, it's not like they're around all that much anyway. They both got jobs, you know?"

"Don't they get anybody to stay with you?" Stella's parents sometimes had office parties or business dinners to go to, but she wasn't left alone. On those occasions, their housekeeper Eva made sure her dinner was served and her homework was done.

Ray looked perplexed by the question. "My Grandma Babruscz came one time when my mom went with my dad to the hospital overnight," he offered. "It's just me and my brother, though, if they're working late."

Stella tried to picture that, but she couldn't. Her dad was home promptly at five thirty pretty much every day and her own mother was practically always in the house, knocking at Stella's door every hour to ask if she needed anything or if she'd like to come watch television with her. She'd been brought to as many of her dad's office parties as she had been left at home for them with Eva. She wondered what it'd be like to be left alone to see to her own dinner, with only a sibling for company. Stella didn't even have brothers and sisters to judge what that'd be like.

"That's cool," she said.

Ray grinned and shrugged at the same time. From his look, she guessed that he didn't see how it was cool, but he was pleased that she thought so. "I'm kind of a lone wolf," he said. "I look after myself. And my brother. He's older, but he's kind of a dumb fuck."

Only the strictest self control prevented Stella's jaw from dropping at that word. She'd never heard another kid say it- she had never heard anyone say it, really, save for one time her mother had said it under her breath when she couldn't figure out their washing machine on Eva's day off, unaware that Stella had come up behind her.

Ray swept his hand through his hair again, preening a little because he could tell he'd shocked her.

"I can help the next person over here," an officious voice called, drawing both Ray and Stella's attention. It was Tandy, one of the newer tellers, a youngish black woman who always had a smile and kind words for Stella, but at the moment looked as if she wasn't impressed by Ray.

Stella colored a little and looked to him. "I think she means you," she said.

"Oh yeah," Ray said. He grabbed Stella's hand again and tugged her along with him to Tandy's line. She was so surprised by his grip that she nearly jumped out of her skin.

Tandy handed Ray a deposit slip while he began fishing through his pockets for whatever money he was planning to deposit. He had to let go of her hand to do it, but Stella could still feel the warmth of his skin on her palm. While she had been able to write off his handshake before as just part of a proper introduction, this was definitely different. Ray had grabbed her hand because he wanted to touch her, because he wanted her to come with him. The thought made Stella squirm with happiness. She didn't know what she'd said or done that had caused him to like her, but Stella was nearly sure he did. He liked her.

"Aren't you supposed to be waiting for your daddy over there?" Tandy reminded her, drawing her back to earth.

Stella bit her lip guiltily and shrugged, rather than answer. She'd forgotten all about that while Ray was talking to her.

Tandy tsked and shook her head, but devoted her attention to Ray's deposit. He was still pulling odds and ends and various coins from his pockets. Stella wondered what would happen if she grabbed his hand.

She was just beginning to consider it- glancing around the bank to see if her dad would choose now to pop out and check on her- when she noticed the man behind her.

He wasn't right behind her, exactly- not in a way that suggested he was waiting in line, anyway- but he was close enough that Stella could smell him. He was a big, ugly man- hairy, greasy, teeth broken, face covered in scratchy, unkempt beard stubble. Though he looked unwashed, he didn't smell like he was. He smelled... dangerous, somehow. Like he was planning to do something bad. Maybe it wasn't so much a smell as a vibe, Stella thought. Could a vibe have a smell?

She tried to dart her eyes away from his face, which looked sullen and mean, when she realized that what she was smelling was the thing in his hand, just under his coat, down by his hip.

Her eyes widened and her heart started to pound and before she even knew what she was doing, she found herself whispering to Ray, "I think that man has a gun."

Tandy didn't hear her, and for a second, it seemed, neither had Ray. He was counting his pennies with a quiet determination that seemed to demand all of his focus, until he dropped one and jerked his head in her direction, like what she had said had only just sunk in. Ray looked at her and then looked at where she was looking. The man noticed the pair of them and pulled his hand from his coat, making what he was holding plainly visible to everyone else.

Everything that happened next seemed to happen at the speed of light and in slow motion at the same time. The man's gun hand rose into the air in a delicate arch, pointed towards the ceiling. Ray's face lost all of its color so rapidly that Stella nearly looked at the floor to see if his blood had puddled at his feet. Tandy gasped and stumbled back from the counter. Ray pointed straight at the man and yelled, for everyone to hear, "Gun!"

It happened so fast that Stella was never sure afterwards if it was Ray's shout or the thunder-loud crack that exploded in the air that caused everyone else to start diving and screaming.

"Down on the floor! Now!" The man screamed, in a voice that sounded as mean and dirty as he looked.

All around her, no one had to be told twice. Tandy disappeared to the floor behind the counter while Ray flattened himself like a corpse on the floor by Stella's feet. The hippie in the sunglasses dropped by the line next to Mr. Denning, the balding loan officer who had given Stella a treasury bond for her last birthday. On Ray's other side was a blond lady in kitten heels who looked old enough to be their mother, and by one wall her father's secretary Mrs. Merot was clutching a strange girl a few years older than Stella and Ray. There were strangers and people she knew alike all around her, like in a nightmare about taking a test naked, and all of them were huddled down on the floor. All of them, that is, except Stella.

She couldn't move. She tried to tell her body to get down, get down now, but it wouldn't do it. Her legs held stiff beneath her, locked into place by her shaking knees and calves that wouldn't bend no mater how hard she tried. Her hands hovered uselessly in the air by her sides, locked somewhere between raising in the air like a mugger on TV and dropping straight down in her front of her as if to catch herself if she could unlock her legs enough to dive for the floor. She was utterly frozen in place. She was scared stiff.

The man looked at her and her inability to move with a calculating fury, as if he were trying to decide whether to order her down again or just shoot her right now and set an example for the others. The gun in his hand was wavering like it was in a game of spin the bottle, wobbling between her and the floor. Stella held her breath and felt faint. Somehow, one of her hands managed to get a death grip on the counter, so she could hold herself up.

A muscle was ticking in the man's jaw, like he was grinding his teeth. Finally, he jabbed the gun in her direction. "You," he said, "little girl. Get over here."

On the floor, a protesting noise choked its way out of Ray, as if he were trying to decide between screaming at the man to leave her alone or screaming at her not to go, and both sounds had tripped each other on their way out of his mouth.

Of their own accord, Stella's feet began walking in the man's direction. She felt so disconnected from them and from her whole body that it seemed like she'd floated over there, the man pulling her through the air through sheer force of will.

"Get over here," he snapped again, grabbing hard onto her shoulder once she'd drifted into his reach. He jerked her close, one arm wrapped across her chest, like a vise that could snap closed and crush her between his wrist and elbow at any moment.

Stella hated her body more than ever. She was even more scared now than she had been a moment ago, something she wouldn't even have thought was possible, all because it had walked her over here and betrayed her. Her face hurt, like any second now, she would start to cry.

From somewhere- Stella couldn't see where- the man dropped a large bag, and as if he had decided to make a clean go of tormenting them both, he kicked it across the floor to Ray. "Kid!" He shouted. "Fill that up with money!"

Ray stayed on the floor, still as a stone, his cheek pressed against the linoleum so that his glasses were askew. He had tilted his head enough to watch them and his eyes were desperately locked on Stella, frantic with worry for himself and for her. Stella wondered if he was laid out on the floor still because he, like her, was so scared he couldn't move, or if Ray- budding rock star spy from Back of the Yards, used to rough living- held so still as a way to say no. To tell an armed opponent four times his size to fuck off and let her go.

Stella kept her eyes on his and wanted to tell him something like It's okay, Ray, do as he says, like a signal from her was all he would need to get up instead of staying on the floor to get killed. But Ray's eyes looked so desperate, as if he were telling her, No, Stella, don't- he'll kill you if we help him. He'll take you out of here and kill you.

The man waved the gun back and forth between Stella and Ray, as if he was going to shoot one or the other any second now. "Get up and fill it up," the man repeated, his voice coming out growly and impatient. He wasn't playing around. "Get up!"

Ray gave Stella a long, frightened look, like he wanted to tell her something. Then he looked away and screwed his eyes shut tight, and Stella knew that he was fighting his body, as she had a moment ago, trying to make it do something.

"Now!" The man shouted. He squeezed her like he was going to break her neck, and instinct overrode her common sense- she twisted in his arms, trying to breathe.

Ray's face suddenly lost all expression, becoming... calm. Like he had a plan and this was part of it, and he knew for certain what was going to happen next. He rose to his feet slowly, taking his time about it, and keeping his back to them. Stella didn't know what he was going to do, but she thought she knew what he wanted her to do- he had slackened when she struggled. Her struggling was part of his plan. So she kept doing it.

The man seemed to sense that they were working in concert somehow, and he jabbed his gun against the side of her face. "Turn around!" he shouted at Ray, and was it Stella's imagination or did he sound a little frightened?

Ray kept his back to them, staring at the wall, not moving. Stella tried to pull her head away from the gun barrel.

The man's fingers twitched on the gun at her cheek and he growled, low and deadly and all out of patience, "Turn. Around."

Ray's head dropped a little, like he was preparing to pounce, and slowly he turned to them, like a jewelry box ballerina, in delicate rotating steps. The front of his pants was soaked.

He had peed himself.

Stella's heart began to race with fear and a little pity- he was as frightened as she was, and maybe he didn't have a plan after all. The bank robber was beginning to laugh.

But Ray's hands stayed loose by his sides, his head bowed just a little. He was looking at her over the rims of his glasses, his eyes full of pleading, like he was begging her to understand. Like he was trying to tell her something.

Stella stood still, trying to decipher what he wanted, what he was trying to say, while the bank robber continued to laugh. Other people were looking up now, wondering what was amusing their captor so much. Stella looked at them all in turn. Mrs. Merot and the teenage girl were staring in shock, and so was the hippie with the sunglasses. The woman near where Ray had been looked both frightened and disgusted, trying to inch away from the puddle he'd left behind on the floor.

"The kid pissed himself," the bank robber said, like he was sharing a joke with the rest of his hostages. Out of the corner of her eye, Stella thought she saw Mr. Denning shake his head, like Ray was an untrained puppy who'd just embarrassed them all in front of company.

A protective urge welled up inside her- what were those cowards doing that gave them the right to laugh at Ray? If she had had anything to drink since lunchtime, she'd probably be losing it right now, too.

She looked back at Ray, who was still giving her that pleading look, like there was something he needed her to understand. She looked around at the rest of the bank again and then- it clicked.

Everyone was looking at Ray. No one was looking at her. Not even the bank robber. Ray had done the only thing he could that would get everyone to look at him.

Stella looked at his eyes again- at the pleading there- and understood what it was he was trying to say. He's forgotten about you, Stella. Go. Go now!

With strength she didn't even know she had, Stella drove an elbow into the bank robber's gut and shoved his arm away at the same time. He let out a soft oof of pain and surprise, and nearly dropped his gun.

She ran.

She wasn't sure if she imagined hearing Ray scream her name or not.

---

At the police station, Stella felt bad for Ray. While no one was making fun of him, no one was offering him any fresh clothes, either. She was tempted to go ask the laundry across the street if there was anything she might borrow for the boy who saved her life. Her father would be willing to bring them straight back after giving Ray a ride home.

She still had trouble thinking that sentence. The boy who saved her life. There wasn't a doubt in her mind that the bank robber (who wasn't under arrest in another room, to her disappointment and Ray's vocal outrage) would have kidnapped and killed her if anything had gone even a little differently. She could be dead already by now, left behind in a dumpster somewhere with her head on backwards and blood dripping from her mouth, eyes glazed and glassy. Stella shuddered a little and scooted closer to Ray.

Ray startled in his seat and turned to look at her, as if he'd forgotten she was there.

"Scary day," Stella said, hoping that explanation would be enough.

Ray looked at her for a second, as if trying to figure out if she was okay or not, then wrapped an arm around her shoulders. All the breath went out of her at once. A boy had never done that before.

She dropped her head to his shoulder and nestled her weight against his arm as best she could. It was a little awkward- his shoulder was a little too high for her head when his arm was up like that- but it was nice, too. Even if the smell of Ray's plan earlier was getting kind of strong.

"That was a really brave thing you did," Stella said.

She left Ray's whole body do a little jump, like he was startled again. "What?" he asked.

"What you did," she repeated, too uncomfortable to voice the sentence peeing yourself. "It was brave. I don't think I'd have thought of that."

Ray was silent. Stella wondered if he was used to anyone noticing it when he was brave, or if it was just one of those things people took for granted where he came from. He seemed like he wasn't sure what to say.

"Well," he said after a while, giving a shrug that made her head bob, "it was all I could think of."

Stella could believe that. She doubted she would have been able to think of anything either, if their places had been reversed. Maybe screaming a lot.

"I wasn't sure you'd figure it out," Ray added. "You know, what I was going for there."

Stella laughed. "I almost didn't," she said. She decided to give teasing him a try. "Who thinks of peeing their pants to distract a bank robber?"

Ray giggled. "Me," he said. "I guess I do."

Stella smiled. "You saved me," she said.

Ray gave her another one of his cool-enough-to-be-modest looks. "Yeah, well," he said. "Don't make too big a deal out of it, okay?"

"Okay," she said. She nestled against his shoulder again. Ray rubbed his hand up and down her back- a little too vigorously, but that was okay. Maybe Ray was still shaken up, too.

Stella was just beginning to contemplate wrapping her arms around him when a loud voice caught both her and Ray's attention.

"Where is he?!" someone cried out. "My baby! Did something happen to my Stanley? No one would say on the phone--"

"Oh, no," Ray muttered.

"What's wrong?" Stella asked.

"It's my ma," he said, looking for all the world as if he wanted to die right here.

"There you are!" The woman cried. She rushed over to them while a few police officers stared. She did make something of a picture- she seemed a bit older than Stella's mother, and far less prim. Her hair- the same shade of blond as Ray's- was short-cropped and wildly askew, like she'd been nervously ruffling it the whole way to the police station. She wore navy blue slacks and a white blouse that had something of a uniform air to them, like they wouldn't normally be her thing, and she was carrying a half-finished dress in one hand, like she'd been working on it and been in such a rush to leave that she'd forgotten to put it down. She was wringing and swinging it about, like a semaphore flag trying to signal down God, the mayor and anyone else who might have news on her son. She dropped to her knees on the floor in front of Ray, flinging her arms around his neck, heedless of Stella, and began chattering so fast that it was like she was trying to talk over herself. "Oh, Stanley- look at you, what ha- oh, Lord, what is that- you need a bath- are you all right? Of course not, you're in a police station- oh, baby, what- definitely a bath when I get you home- who do I talk to? Are you hurt? Oh, Stanley!" She showered kisses all over his face and hair.

Ray made a face and groaned. "I'm fine, Ma- no, don't- Ma--"

Ray's mother halted her kisses and began looking him over head to foot. "Are you hurt? Are you bleeding? And what is that smell? No, never mind- tell me what happened! I got here as fast as I could- took two buses and a cab- I was frantic! Aw, honey, are you okay? Talk to me! What happened?"

"Some guy tried to rob the bank," Ray said, trying to squirm out of his mother's grip. "Nothing happened. I'm fine."

"Oh, thank God," she said. "What were you doing at the bank by yourself? Where was Ken? He's supposed to go with you if you're going to be going anywhere that far--"

"He never does," Ray said with a glare. "I don't want him to, anyway. I can get around just fine by myself."

"Oh, Stanley," she said, shaking her head. "I know you're a big boy now--"

"Ma," Ray groaned.

"--but you don't need to be out on your own all the time. Look what happened! If anything had happened to you, I'd have dropped dead on the spot!" She clutched Ray's face in her hands and looked at him like she was just about to start kissing him again when he gave her a sharp look.

"Ma," he said quietly through clenched teeth, "you are embarrassing me."

His mother laughed. "What are you talking abo--" She cut herself off as she finally noticed Stella.

"Hi," Stella said, a little nervously.

Immediately Ray's mother looked chagrined. "Oh, honey, I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't see you there. Are you one of Ray's friends?"

"We just met today," Stella said. "He saved my life."

His mother's eyebrows shot up to her hairline. "You're kidding!" She looked at Ray, impressed. "Stanley!"

"It's not a big deal," Ray said.

"I'm sure it's a big deal to her," his mom said. She looked to Stella again. "What was your name, honey?"

"Stella," she said.

"Stella," she said. "Well, I'm Mrs. Kowalski. And I guess you already know my son." She looked back at Ray. "Stanley, what happened?"

Ray looked trapped and embarrassed. Stella thought she understood- she wouldn't want to tell her mom she saved the day by peeing herself, either. She tried coming to his rescue. "He distracted the bank robber so I could get away."

Mrs. Kowalski gave Ray a look of mounting tenderness and pride. "Oh, honey!"

Ray sank a little lower in his seat, too late to avoid being swept up in another hug and covered with more kisses (which were leaving more and more streaks of pink lipstick all over his face).

"Oh, baby, I'm so proud of you!" Mrs. Kowalski said. "I can't believe you did that! My little hero!"

Ray shot Stella a helpless look over his mother's shoulder. Stella shrugged, just as helplessly.

Just behind them, Stella heard a familiar little cough. Her father had finally finished talking to the police.

"Hi, Daddy," Stella said. Remembering her manners, she made quick introductions. "This is Ray. He's the one who saved me at the bank. And this is his mom--"

She let go of Ray to shake Stella's dad's hand. "Barbara Kowalski," she said.

"Barry Dubois," he replied. "A pleasure." He looked from one Kowalski to the other and said, "It seems I owe your young man here a huge debt of thanks."

"Yeah, they were just telling me," she said. "I couldn't believe it myself. Don't get me wrong, Stanley's a good boy, but- it's not every day somebody tells you that your thirteen-year-old thwarted a bank robber, you know?"

"Distracted a bank robber," Ray corrected, still embarrassed.

Stella's father chuckled. Both he and Mrs. Kowalski looked uncomfortable, though Stella didn't understand why. Awkward, sure, but shouldn't they be mutually swept up in the thrill of their children being alive? (A little jealously, Stella thought that her father hadn't seemed as happy as Mrs. Kowalski had. She certainly hadn't gotten the same relieved outpouring. His relief had been palpable, but his hug had been stiff. Her father just wasn't very good at being affectionate.)

"I am very grateful," her dad said again. "I don't know what I would have done, if anything had happened to Stella."

"Oh, I understand," Mrs. Kowalski said. "I've been hysterical since the police called. The officer who called me couldn't even get a word in edgewise."

"Yes, it's all been quite a shock," her dad said. "I'm ready to take Stella home for the night and get started putting the whole business behind us."

"Oh, my goodness," Mrs. Kowalski said, suddenly looking abashed. "Of course you are- and your wife must be losing her mind. I'm sorry to take up any of your time."

"Not at all," he said. "I truly am deeply grateful to your boy. May we offer you a ride home? My car's out back. It's the least I could do."

"Can we, Ma?" Ray asked. Stella had the feeling Ray didn't particularly want to sit on a bus in his current state.

"Please?" Stella asked Mrs. Kowalski. She didn't particularly want to be parted from Ray.

"Oh," Mrs. Kowalski said, "oh, kids- no, please. We couldn't impose."

"Not at all," her dad said. "Please, let me show my appreciation."

Mrs. Kowalski hesitated. "It's just we don't live in the best neighborhood," she said. "And, really- your daughter should be home with her mother. I'd be worried sick if something like this had happened and my daughter was out of my sight for even a minute."

"Ah," Stella's dad said, looking embarrassed. Stella could read the look on his face with practiced ease- it'd be churlish if he didn't make some kind of gesture to thank the Kowalskis, but at the same time, he didn't particularly want to drive through Back of the Yards with his preteen daughter, either. He smiled as he seemed to have an idea. "Then I insist your family join us for dinner this weekend."

Mrs. Kowalski's eyes went wide. "Oh, but we couldn't--"

"I insist," he said, with the same impossible-to-argue with vibe he used on the tellers at the bank.

"Oh... all right," Mrs. Kowalski said, with an uneasy smile.

"Say Friday at seven?" He asked.

"Could it be eight?" Mrs. Kowalski asked. "Only I don't get off until seven and with getting changed and getting the boys ready and trying to get a bus when it's rush hour—"

"How about seven-thirty and I send a car around?" Stella's dad offered.

Mrs. Kowalski looked overwhelmed by this generosity, but didn't try to argue this time. "All right," she said. "That's so nice of you. I guess we'll see you then."

"I look forward to it," her dad said. He turned. "Come along, Stella."

Stella hesitated, then gave Ray a quick impulsive hug. Ray hugged her back quick and tight, like he would have lost his balance if he hadn't grabbed on as hard as he could.

"I'll see you Friday," she whispered into his ear.

"Yeah," Ray said. "Yeah, okay." He kept holding onto her. "Hey, Stella?"

"Yeah?"

"Do you believe in love at first sight?"

Stella could feel her face growing hot with a blush, and was glad that Ray couldn't see her face. "I don't think so," she said.

"Oh," Ray said. "Me, neither." He let go.

Stella gave him a small smile and bent forward to kiss his cheek. Ray looked at her, stunned.

"I'll see you Friday," she said again, and walked out the door with her dad.

---

Stella had never worried about picking out a dress before in her life. Clothes were clothes, and her mother had always made sure that everything she owned was nice. It shouldn't matter which one she picked, as long as everything matched.

Today, however, she seemed to have woken up with some kind of illness that made what she wore to dinner with Ray's family very, very important. (Neiman-Marcus flu, perhaps? She wasn't sure.)

Her mother had watched her try on a dozen different outfits, and was beginning to look as though it was taking all of her self-control not to laugh at her.

"What do you think of this one?" Stella asked, of outfit number fourteen.

"Very nice," her mother said. Stella peered at her suspiciously. The compliments had been more elaborate with earlier dresses, which meant that either Stella needed to go back to the beginning or her mother was running out of things to say. Her mother looked back at her face and admitted, "But all of the other ones were very nice, too."

Stella groaned. "Mom," she said. "I don't want to just look nice. I want to look..." Pretty. Mature. Beautiful. Perfect. "...really nice."

Her mother smiled at her. "Stella," she said. "What are you getting yourself so worked up for?" Her smile took on a more conspiratorial edge, like she was gearing up for the two of them to spill secrets. "Is it because of the boy?"

Stella made a face at her own reflection. She loved her mom, but she didn't really appreciate how lately, her mother had taken to trying to act like they were best friends. The gap between "mom" and "best friend" might seem small to her mother, but it was huge to Stella, and she just didn't know how she was supposed to talk to her about something like this. She sighed, and gave it a try. "Yes," she said. "I guess so."

Her mom gave her a wide, beaming smile, excited to be allowed entry into Stella's interior life. "So you like him?"

Stella watched her cheeks flush bright red in the mirror. "Mom."

"Oh, come on, darling," her mother said. "You may not believe this, but I was your age once."

Stella didn't have trouble believing it at all, seeing as her mother reminded her of this fact almost daily. But still. "I know," she said. "But it's just kind of weird."

"Liking a boy?" she asked, her impeccably shaped eyebrows arching upwards. Stella's mother was a youngish woman, or at least took great pains to seem so to everyone. Her skin looked teenager-smooth, between moisturizers and make-ups, and her light brown hair was always turned up perfectly, without so much as a single hair out of place. She always smelled of Dior perfume, even when she was dressed down for bed. But her crowning feature was her nails- long, curved, French-tipped and shiny. Enchanting was the word her dad always used to describe her to people. Diana's enchanting. You'll love her.

Stella gave a weak sort of shrug. If that answer worked without hurting her mother's feelings, that was good enough for her.

Her mother's smile looked that much more conspiratorial. "He isn't the first boy, is he?"

Stella wanted to squirm in utter mortification. Yes, in fact, he was. Stella had always gone to girls' schools, with girl extracurriculars. Boys her own age were practically an alien species to her, and whose fault was that, anyway?

"It's nothing to be embarrassed about, you know," her mom said.

Stella disagreed, but said nothing.

"When I was a kid," her mom said, "I wanted Seymour Kleinman to give me his class ring more than anything in the world." She shook her head with a fond, nostalgic smile. "The things you'll do when you're that age. Why, I actually--"

To Stella's great relief, the ring of the doorbell spared her the rest of the story. (Not as great a relief as she would have liked, since she still wasn't at all sure about the dress she was wearing, but it was too late to do anything about it now.)

"They're here," she said, biting her lip.

"You look beautiful, darling," her mother replied.

Stella squinted at her mother, trying to decide if she meant that or was only saying so because that's what mothers were supposed to say. (Along with embarrassing anecdotes about boys with names like Seymour Kleinman.)

The look her mother gave her back was nothing but warm reassurance, with a slight edge of buried excitement. Whatever else she was, she was happy for her.

At the last second, Stella leaned over and hugged her. Her mom laughed and hugged back, rubbing her back between her shoulder blades.

"Thanks, Mom," she said.

"Any time, darling," her mother said softly. "Now don't be nervous."

Easier said than done, Stella thought, but she nodded anyway. Her mother shifted them so she could wrap her arm around Stella's shoulders and walk her down the stairs.

When they reached the landing, the door had already been opened, and the company driver her dad liked to hire for special occasions was standing there with Mrs. Kowalski and a pair of boys. (Stella could only assume that one of them was Ray- it was a bit hard to tell from this particular part of the staircase.) Her father had come out to greet them personally, but seemed to be having trouble getting a word past Mrs. Kowalski.

"Thank you so much again for having us," she said, "I'm so, so sorry my husband couldn't make it. It's been hard, you know, since the plants closed- meat men can be had for the asking, you know, so my Damien just has to put in the extra hours when he's asked. He really was sorry he couldn't make it. I had a suit all picked out for him--"

In fact, from what Stella could tell as she and her mother continued descending the stairs, Mrs. Kowalski had put just as much thoughtful agony into choosing clothes as Stella herself had. She wore a freshly pressed dress that looked a little out of style, as though it hadn't left the house for anything short of a family wedding in ages, and both Ray and the other boy looked uncomfortable in suits that only just fit. Ray was fidgeting with his tie like he would do anything to get it off his neck, and his face was turning a bit purple from the effort. The other boy- who looked like an older Ray, minus the glasses and with the addition of a far more unfortunate nose- had managed to loosen the knot in his and was taking big gasping breaths to telegraph to Mrs. Kowalski just how much effort it had taken. He was holding some covered dish that Stella couldn't identify.

Stella's mother rounded the foot of the stairs, her grip on Stella's shoulders tightening ever so slightly, as she cut Mrs. Kowalski off with a smile. "Please," she said, "think nothing of it. We're happy to have you. Make yourselves at home. I'm Diana Dubois." She offered Mrs. Kowalski one of her perfectly manicured hands.

"Oh!" Mrs. Kowalski cried. "You must be Stella's mother!"

Stella felt a little pleased that Mrs. Kowalski had remembered her name, and she wondered if Ray had been talking about her.

"I am," her mother said with a laugh, shaking Mrs. Kowalski's hand. "How do you do?"

"Listen to me prattling on," Mrs. Kowalski said, shaking her head and Stella's mother's hand a little too vigorously. "So sorry- I'm Barbara Kowalski." She let go of her hand to wrap her arms around the boys' shoulders and give them a squeeze. "And these are my boys!" Both boys squirmed like kittens being carried by the scruff, eager to be put down. Mrs. Kowalski let go to indicate each one with a hand on top of his head. "Marlon." The older boy made a face. "And Stanley."

Ray and his brother groaned in unison. "Ma!"

Mrs. Kowalski slapped one hand against her forehead. "Oh, excuse me!" she cried. She indicated each one again as she corrected herself. "Ken and Ray."

Ray looked embarrassed. "Hey, Stella," he mumbled.

"Hi," Stella said, suddenly becoming very preoccupied with the toes of her shoes.

Rightly interpreting the shyness as an indication of just which boy her daughter liked, Stella's mother pounced on Ray like a lion on fresh meat, seizing his hand. "So you're the hero of the hour," she said. "Stella's told me so much about you." She gave Stella a humiliating wink.

Ray stared with wide eyes at her, as if her presence had overwhelmed his powers of speech.

"Stanley," Mrs. Kowalski admonished, giving him a gentle little shove at the small of his back. "Manners. Say hello."

"It's nice to meet you, Mrs. Dubois," Ray said automatically, as if he had practiced it.

Stella's mother was nothing if not a fan of both effort and etiquette, and she rewarded him with one of her wide, starlet smiles. "Thank you, Ray. It's a very great pleasure to meet you, too. And I'm very thankful to you for what you did for my Stella."

Ray tried to swallow, but seemed to be stopped by his tie. "You're welcome, I guess," he said, sounding unsure. He looked at her over her mother's shoulder, and Stella gave him her best "Welcome to the jungle"-style grin, which made him snicker.

Stella's mother didn't know what he was laughing at, but manners dictated that she didn't have to. She released Ray's hand, straightened her posture, and said, "Shall we all repair to the living room? Now that you've arrived, Eva will be starting on dinner soon, but I can have her bring us drinks first--"

All three Kowalskis' eyes went a little wide before Ray's mother took charge. "Oh, no, no- please, don't trouble your help on our account. Why don't you just show me where your kitchen is?"

Stella's mother looked puzzled by this question, so her dad had to fill her in. "Mrs. Kowalski's brought dessert," he said.

"Oh!" Her mother beamed again, normalcy restored. "How thoughtful!" She took the dish from the older boy, Ken, and looked to Mrs. Kowalski again. "I suppose we had better put this down, then. Does it need to be refrigerated?"

"Oh, no," said Mrs. Kowalski. "It should be fine. It'll keep all through dinner. But I thought I'd help you get started." She looked fretful now, as if she had blundered in some way. Stella had the feeling that Mrs. Kowalski was used to helping her hostess in the kitchen, and wasn't prepared for visiting one who didn't do her own cooking.

Stella's mother looked caught between awkward horror at the thought of trying to cook herself (as far as Stella knew, her mother hadn't done so since before her parents had met) and stark terror of making her guest uncomfortable. "Well, we could try that," her mother said, looking as unsure now as Ray had before.

Mrs. Kowalski looked just as caught- she wanted nothing more than to avoid being a burden on her hostess, and had somehow trapped her by accident into performing a household chore that clearly wasn't part of her routine. "Oh, but if--"

Mrs. Kowalski's awkwardness seemed to steel Stella's mom and she shook her head. "I haven't gotten a chance to cook in years," her mother said, now looking as if she were nothing short of delighted to find herself in this position. "Come with me, the kitchen's this way. Stella, why don't you show the rest of our guests around?"

"Okay," Stella said.

Her mother began dragging Mrs. Kowalski and her dessert to the kitchen in as mannered a way as she possibly could, while Mrs. Kowalski resumed chattering at sixty miles an hour. "My goodness, your house is gorgeous- did you pick out this paneling yourself? We've got paneling at our house and--"

"Well, this shall be interesting, won't it," Stella's dad said, his face frozen in a smile.

Ray's brother raised his hand, as if he were in school.

Stella's dad raised his eyebrows. "Yes, young man?"

"I gotta use the can," Ken said.

Ray groaned and stepped on his brother's foot.

"Ow! What?" Ken elbowed Ray hard in the shoulder.

Ray looked as if he was about to deliver swift retaliation when Stella's dad stepped in. "Why don't I show you where the rest room is while Stella shows your brother the living room?"

"Thanks," Ken said. He gave Ray a death glare. Ray shot him one back, rubbing at his arm with visible resentment.

The two of them took off and Stella felt her stomach doing flip flops. She hadn't expected that she'd have Ray to herself at any point, and now here it had happened, within the first fifteen minutes.

Ray looked just as surprised, and as if he wasn't sure what to say.

Stella lifted her chin and tried to act cool. "This way, please," she said, in her best imitation of her mother's hostess voice.

Ray followed her silently past the lounge, the library and her dad's office before blurting out, "Your house looks like a movie star lives in it."

Stella felt caught off guard. She had never given much thought to whether her house looked like a movie star's or not. "Thanks," she said, unsure if that was a good thing or not.

"Not that it doesn't work," Ray added. "Your mom looks like a movie star."

That was more familiar territory. Stella shrugged. "She was gonna be," she said. "She went to Carnegie Mellon for acting. She did Luther and Henry VIII and King Lear off Broadway, and she was discovered by a director who took her to Italy to make a movie. But it didn't work out, I guess. She went back to Pittsburgh and married my dad instead." Stella was used to rattling off the list of her mother's theatre and near-film credentials.

"Your folks are from Pittsburgh?" Ray asked.

"No," she said. "They just both went to college there. That's where they met."

"Oh," Ray said. "My parents didn't go to college. They met 'cause my dad was buddies with my uncle and they worked together one time on my mom's car."

"Oh." Stella wasn't sure she had ever met an adult who had never been to college before. Save for maybe the tellers at the bank and a couple of the teaching assistants at school, anyway; she realized she hadn't asked around much.

"Are you gonna go to college?" Ray asked.

"I'm supposed to," Stella said, then cringed at herself. That sounded so dumb. She tried to sound a little cooler by adding, "So, maybe."

"But not in Pittsburgh, though, right?" Ray asked. "Pittsburgh's like a million miles away."

"Well, I wouldn't be going tomorrow," Stella said. "That's a long time away."

"Yeah?" Ray looked at her over his glasses. "How long?"

"A long time," Stella repeated. She wasn't sure why, but she found herself suddenly embarrassed of the idea of admitting to Ray how young she was. She didn't want him to think she was a baby.

"C'mon, tell me," he said, nudging her foot with his foot.

Stella wasn't sure what was normal when being around boys, but she was pretty sure it was silly to get tingles all the way up her leg just from having him prod her with the toe of his shoe. Nervous, she tucked her hair behind her ears and tried to swallow. "Eleven," she said, not looking at him.

There was a beat.

"Wow," Ray said.

Stella's face flushed hot with another blush. "But not really," she said. "I'll be twelve in three weeks, in the summer." She risked looking at Ray. "It's not like I'm a little kid or something."

Ray gave her one of his grins, the one that fluttered her stomach and sent tingles down her spine. "That's not what I was thinking," he said.

Stella looked harder at him. "What were you thinking?" she asked.

Ray's grin only broadened. The flutters and tingles grew more and Stella found herself looking down at her feet again. She didn't know what he'd been thinking in exact details, but he hadn't thought of her as a little girl. She had the feeling she had succeeded at looking mature.

Ray wandered away from her in the living room, dropping down onto her mother's sofa like he owned it. He bounced a little in the seat, squeaking the rubber slipcover that was fitted onto it to protect the white fabric from spills. "Nice," he said. He bounced a little more. "Springy."

Stella laughed a little. "My mom would kill you if she saw you do that," she said. She mimicked her mother's more admonishing tones. "There is no bouncing on the furniture."

Ray made himself sit still. "Why would you get a cushy setup like this if you're not allowed to really enjoy it?" he asked.

Stella blinked. She had never really given thought to why the rule was in place, let alone to the reasons her mother had chosen a living room set that called for rules on how to use it. "I guess because it looks pretty," Stella said.

"So do you and your mom," Ray said. "What idiot's looking at the couch?"

Stella thought she could feel her heart beating right up against her ribs. "You mean that?" she asked.

Ray looked at her as if this should have been obvious. "Yeah," he said. "Nobody really cares that much if couches are pretty."

"No," Stella said. "Not about the couch being pretty. About- about me being pretty."

Ray's look didn't change. He seemed to think he was speaking simple and obvious truth. "Well, yeah," he said.

Stella couldn't stop herself from smiling, any more than she could stop the way the tingles had broken out over every inch of her skin.

---

Stella was not sure what they were having for dinner, and by the look of it, neither did anyone else at the table.

Ray was eyeing his plate with a dog-like curiosity, his head tilted sideways. He poked at his food with the edge of his fork, like he thought it would bite him if he got too close. Stella would never admit it to anyone, but she would have been doing the same thing if she had had less rigorous training in etiquette. (While it had never been specifically covered, Stella was sure that poking uncertainly at a meal was something her mom would consider rude.)

"It's a bit well done," her mother was saying. "And we did have to improvise a bit with the ingredients, since I was doing them from memory. But it's eggplant parmesan, like I used to have in Italy."

"I'm sure it'll be delicious, Diana," Mrs. Kowalski said, louder than necessary. They were eating at the formal dining room table, which was big enough for twenty, and their distribution around it was wide enough that Stella suspected Mrs. Kowalski wasn't sure that either of Stella's parents- at the head and foot, well away from each other and everyone else- could hear her.

Stella's father frowned at his plate, looking grumpy. He didn't care for what he called "foreign food," and his distaste with it was plain on his face. It was lucky that between being on opposite sides of the table and having the centerpiece in the way, her mom couldn't see him.

Mrs. Kowalski prodded each of her sons with her elbows. "Come on, you two, eat up," she whispered.

Ken eyed his plate with horror, and Stella found it hard to blame him. The mess on each plate looked like a mix of purplish-brown plant matter and burnt cheese, and it smelled like a cross between way too much oregano and the Bloody Mary mix Stella's dad used to make drinks for her grandma when she visited. Stella felt a little dizzy and sick just looking at it.

Ray, on the other hand, didn't look at all worried. He pulled the knot in his tie a little looser, picked up his fork and dove in with a relish. He took four bites without pause until his cheeks were puffed like a chipmunk's, and chewed as hard and fast as he could, as if he couldn't wait to swallow what he had in his mouth and go back to the plate for more.

Encouraged, Stella and Ken turned back to their own plates and each tried the first bite.

It took every ounce of good breeding and self-control Stella had not to spit it back out again. The cheese was overcooked almost to the point of being crunchy, and the eggplant had the flavor and texture of rubber dripping with glue. The tomato was bland and inoffensive, at least, but the oregano felt like peppery pencil shavings on her tongue that scorched until her eyes watered.

Ken's eyes bulged while his complexion went purple, and he bent his head over his plate. A furious glare from Mrs. Kowalski restrained him from spitting it out as violently as he wanted to, so that he grabbed his napkin and hid his mouthful in it with as much stealth as he could manage.

For her part, Mrs. Kowalski was very slowly eating impossibly tiny bites she cut with the side of her fork. That's a pretty good idea, Stella thought. She cut the smallest sliver she could and put it as far back in her mouth as she could without choking.

On their sides of the table, Stella could see her parents picking at their food, but that was to be expected. Nothing short of torture was going to get her dad to try it, and her mother ate so sparingly in every day life, anyway, that Stella doubted she'd be trying it, either.

Ray was still eating with such speed and determination that you'd think he'd waited his whole life to eat badly made eggplant parmesan. He looked delighted, even blissful, and said nothing when Ken sneaked a few dollops of his own portion onto Ray's plate.

Stella couldn't help staring. What was wrong with him? Was he crazy?

The room was silent save for the sound of forks scraping plates and Ray eating, and the tension seemed to be getting to Mrs. Kowalski. Stella didn't know how she'd been picturing this dinner, but she had the feeling it hadn't looked much like this.

"You're gonna have to tell me what your secret was, Diana," Mrs. Kowalski said eventually. "Stanley never eats like this at home."

Stella's mother beamed with pride. "Thank you," she said. She craned her neck to look at Ray. "I'm glad you're enjoying it."

Ray swallowed. "Thanks, Miss D," he said. "It's great. Really."

"Want the rest of mine?" Ken asked, too quietly for Stella's parents to hear.

Wordlessly, Ray grabbed Ken's plate and scooted it onto his own place setting.

"I haven't had eggplant parm in years," Mrs. Kowalski tried again. "When I was a little girl, my best friend was an Italian girl, Peggy Corelli. Her mother used to make this kind of thing all the time."

Stella doubted sincerely that whatever Mrs. Corelli used to make was anything like this if Mrs. Kowalski had any fond memories of it.

"That sounds wonderful. I've always loved Italian food," Stella's mother said.

"It's true," her dad put in. "She would hardly eat anything I could pronounce the first year we were married." He prodded his food. "Though she never did cook it before."

Stella sneaked another look at Ray. He had finished his plate and was now working his way through Ken's, and showed no signs of slowing down. She was starting to get worried. What if he got food poisoning from eating this stuff, and eating it in such large quantities? What if he ended up in the hospital? He'd probably never want to see her again. And that was assuming he lived.

"Maybe you should slow down a little," she whispered to him across the table.

Ray shook his head. "Nah," he said. "I'm fine." He took four more rapid bites.

Stella put down her fork. Ray was really starting to worry her and she didn't feel like pretending to enjoy this anymore.

"I remember when Peggy turned thirteen," Mrs. Kowalski said, "her mom made the most amazing tiramisu."

Stella's mother made another beaming expression. "Oh, I love tiramisu!" She looked at Stella. "Darling, we should have that for your birthday."

"Uh-huh," Stella said, not really paying attention. Ray had now moved on from Ken's plate to his mother's, which Mrs. Kowalski was pretending not to notice. How was he still doing this? His tongue must be going gangrenous in his mouth as she watched.

"Oh, has she got a birthday coming up?" Mrs. Kowalski asked.

"She's going to be twelve," her mother said. "Just before Independence Day."

"Oh, it's coming close!" Mrs. Kowalski said. She looked at Stella. "Are you excited?"

"Sure," Stella said, wondering how on earth the two of them could talk about her birthday when Ray was trying to commit suicide by eggplant right in front of her.

"We're inviting all her friends from school," Stella's mother said. "A nice gathering of just girls."

"That sounds lovely," said Mrs. Kowalski. She gave Stella a warm smile. "I hope you have a great time."

Stella tried to smile back at her and say "thank you," but she just couldn't. Ray had managed to clear the contents of all three plates.

"Why don't we move on to dessert," Stella's dad suggested.

"Good idea," said Mrs. Kowalski.

Ray gave Stella a bright grin. Stella tried to give one back. He was still cute when he smiled, even if he was completely crazy.

---

After dinner, Ray took Stella by the hand and dragged her around the side of the house to say his goodbyes. He hadn't been able to eat any dessert, even though everyone else seemed to eat nothing else. He had gone a little pale and sweaty a bite or so into the cake his mother had brought, even while her mother had declared it one of the best things she had ever tasted.

"I'm glad you came, Ray," Stella said. "I had a nice time." For most of the evening, anyway.

"Cool," Ray said, looking sick. "I really wanted to see you, Stella. Maybe--"

But Stella didn't hear what he was planning to say, because Ray started wobbling unsteadily, became a shade paler, and vomited all over his shoes.

"Ray!" Stella cried, grabbing his arm so he wouldn't fall over. "Are you okay?"

"No," he admitted with a moan. He bent double at his waist and began retching again.

"Hang on," Stella said. "I'll get my mom, she'll--"

"No, don't," Ray said, grabbing tight on her wrist. He looked desperate and pleading, like he had at the bank robbery. It tore at Stella's heart and all she wanted to do was grab him close in a hug, even though he was starting to smell.

"But you can't just stay here and be sick," she said. "C'mon, Ray, please--"

"It's just the eggplant crap," Ray said. "I almost puked it up before, but I didn't wanna hurt your mom's feelings."

Stella stared at him. "Is that why you ate so much of it?"

Ray gave her an exasperated look. "Did you have any of it? Who could like that stuff?" He made another miserable moan and dropped his head down so he could puke again.

"That's what I thought," Stella said, cringing as he heaved. "But you had three plates of the stuff."

"Your mom said she hadn't cooked in a really long time," Ray snapped at his shoes, sounding a little defensive. "I didn't want anybody to make fun of her for getting it wrong."

Against her will, Stella found herself smiling and trying to hold in a laugh. It would be mean to laugh at him with the misery he'd put himself through, but there was just something so funny about Ray diving on a food grenade to spare her mother's feelings.

The contents of Ray's stomach landed around his feet again with a wet noise, and, panting, he continued, "'Sides, I thought maybe she wouldn't let me see you again if she thought I was rude or something."

The earlier flutters and tingles she had gotten when Ray called her pretty were back again, running ten-fold along her arms and legs and warming her down to the tips of her fingers and her toes. Ray was sick as a dog from food he'd known would do this to him, and he'd done it all for her.

She decided she didn't care if he threw up on her. Stella hugged him as tight as she could, burying her face in his shoulder. He really didn't smell that bad, now that she was holding him. Or maybe Ray had something so special about him that Stella didn't care. She was beginning to think he was the bravest and sweetest person she'd ever met. And for some reason, he cared this much about her.

This was the best night of Stella's entire life.

Ray held her close and patted her back. Even as sick as he was, he didn't seem to want to let her go.

"You're amazing, Ray," Stella whispered into his neck.

"Not as amazing as you," Ray whispered back. Then he shoved her away and fell to his knees, heaving everything up again with renewed vigor.

Stella stifled another inappropriate smile, and wondered if she and Ray would ever be able to have an encounter where he didn't nobly sacrifice his digestive system out of devotion to her.

"Wanna come to my birthday?" she asked.

---

Stella was still on Cloud Nine when Monday rolled around, starting the final week of school. Ray had accepted the invitation to her birthday ("You kidding? Of course I do!") and though it had taken some wheedling, her mother and father had decided to allow it. While she didn't know what Mr. and Mrs. Kowalski would have to say about it, Ray had assured her he'd handle it and there was nothing to worry about. Stella had already chosen her dress for the party, and her mother had hinted that she could perhaps be persuaded to let Stella wear a little make-up. She felt alive and ecstatic, and for the first time, very, very grown up. It didn't even matter to her that Ray was probably the only person coming that she liked very much. (Having peeked at the guest list, she learned that by "Stella's friends from school," her mother had meant "Some of my friends' daughters, who also happen to go to Stella's school.")

Life felt pretty good to Stella. She went through classes taking very little notice of what the teachers had to say, and failed to hold up her end in every conversation she was invited to. She was too busy lost in daydreams of her birthday, and how this summer marked the last that anyone would think of her as a little girl. Her mother was willing and even eager to embrace the idea of Stella the Young Woman, and if she exasperated her friends by getting lost in her own head, at least they were understanding when she admitted her thoughts were attached to the boy who'd made himself puke on her behalf. They were all as inexperienced with boys as she, and not one had made himself puke for any of them. The consensus was that Ray must really like her.

It was weird, Stella thought. In some way, she was almost grateful for the bank robbery. It had been scary and she wouldn't do it again for a million dollars. But just the fact that it had happened seemed to have shocked her out of her childhood. She felt herself a woman grown, with a tragedy under her belt, and best of all, she had Ray to show for it. She didn't know what to do with him, exactly, or what she ought to call him when describing him to her friends. But she knew she liked him very much, and that she wanted him to keep liking her. Did that make him a friend, or- something else?

She was pondering this question so intently as she walked out of school that she almost missed the voice calling out to her, "Stella! Hey, Stella!"

Ray was riding a bicycle along the edge of her school's wrought iron fence, waving one arm at her to get her attention.

Stella froze, staring. While she didn't know the exact distance between Back of the Yards and the Gold Coast, she knew it was far to make on a bicycle. Even if his school day ended earlier than hers, he would have had to cut a class or two to make her ending time. Her stomach gave a nervous flutter and she ran to meet him.

Ray beamed at her. "Hey."

"Hi," she said. "Ray, what are you doing here?"

"I came to see you," Ray said. "What are you doing here?"

Stella snickered. "Ray."

He grinned. "C'mon. I went to your place. I wanted to see if you wanted to see mine."

"Oh," Stella said, casting her eyes about with a little worry. While she was sometimes allowed to take the L by herself, it was a rare thing, and she was supposed to ride home from school with Mrs. Petersen. She wanted to go with Ray, but she didn't want to get in trouble for ditching her ride, either.

Ray gave her a teasing, conspiratorial look. "C'mon," he said. "You can't be the good girl all the time."

Stella tried to glare at him, but her face didn't seem to want to do it. Before she knew it, she was relenting. "Okay," she said. "But just for a little while."

"Fine by me," Ray said. He wheeled around the gate. "Hop on."

Stella gave his bike a dubious look, but climbed on the handlebars. "Can you see past me okay?"

"Yeah, don't worry about it," he said. "Try to hang on." He made an about face that felt unsteady to Stella and began pedaling back the way he came.

It wasn't a very comfortable ride- Stella felt sure she would fall off at any second, and a light rain was beginning to fall that battered her in the face. The wind and the traffic were loud enough that she and Ray couldn't really talk to each other, either. All the same, she felt very excited. The day was cool without being cold, she was in trouble without being caught yet, and Ray had ridden miles across town to sneak her away. She had that sense again of growing up all at once, more and faster than all the time she'd been alive already.

Stella didn't have much sense of the time, but from what she could read upside down on Ray's watch, they'd been at it for nearly an hour when he pulled up in front of his house.

Ray's house was an older place on South Emerald that had a kind of squashed appearance. It looked like a two-flat that had lost its upper floor in a disaster of some kind (maybe a fire?), and a new roof had just been put on where it used to be. Around the side, Stella could see the old staircase that went up to nowhere. She could see a basement with windows at the foundation, which stuck up high enough to emphasize that the house used to be taller. Stella wondered if Ray's parents had been the ones to survive its decapitation, or if it had come like this when they bought it.

There was a slightly rusty chainlink fence, about chest high on Stella, that ran around the yard, and there was no garage, which might explain the cars in the driveway that looked like they were in the process of being fixed.

Ray caught her staring, and they both dropped their gazes sideways in embarrassment. Ray was probably comparing his house to hers in his head, while Stella felt bad that she'd given a look that invited the comparison. It may have been a little rough-looking, but she liked the place. It looked lived in, compared to the museum quality of her own home.

"Can we go inside?" Stella asked.

"Yeah, sure," Ray said, looking a little relieved. He took her hand and led her in.

The inside was a bit more inviting than the outside had been, with brightly colored afghans spread on nearly every piece of furniture, and lots to look at on the walls- everywhere Stella looked, there was either a big poster for an old movie or a family picture in a frame that didn't match any other on the wall. She spied dozens of Rays grinning at her from the walls, little baby Rays and Rays in years and years of school pictures. They distracted her so much with their friendliness that it took her a minute to realize there wasn't anybody else in the house.

"Where's your family?" Stella asked.

Ray shrugged. "Parents are probably working. Dunno where Ken is."

"Oh," Stella said. She'd never been in a house without an adult before. Save for the rare ride on the L, Stella had never been anywhere without adult supervision in her life. It rekindled some of her earlier excited feeling of doing something forbidden, and set her stomach to back flips. Ray had actually gotten her alone.

"Aw, geez," Ray said, looking embarrassed. "Do you want a towel or something?"

Stella reached up to touch her hair. She'd forgotten until now just how wet it was from the rain. Looking at him now, she realized Ray was just as soaked, with drops of water spattered all over his glasses. "Get a big one," she suggested. "We can share."

Ray rounded the corner and went to fetch one, and Stella looked around a little more. She could see most of the house just from standing in the living room. The hallway Ray had run down had four doors in it, one of which went to the linen closet he was rifling through, and she guessed the other three went to the bathroom and bedrooms. Through a passthrough in the wall, she could see an eat-in kitchen with a table that was about a third the size of the one the Kowalskis had eaten dinner at in her house. With a squirming sense of embarrassment, she realized that probably the whole house could fit in her parents' dining room. Yuppies, she thought, for the first time since the bank robbery. Her parents were definitely yuppies.

Ray came back with a towel she recognized from one of his family pictures of what looked like a day trip to Hollywood Beach, and offered her one end. He looked a little awkward, and Stella could feel a blush spreading across her face. Sharing had seemed like a less weird idea until they actually tried to do it.

Ray tried to dry his face and glasses while Stella wrung her hair out on the edge he'd held out. Even with the towel's length, they still had to stand so close to each other that Stella could feel Ray's breath on her cheek. Her heart was beating so fast she felt a little dizzy, and Ray's knees looked a little wobbly.

Stella tried to keep herself from giggling, but it was no use. She felt silly and fluttery. Ray started laughing, too, and she smiled and grabbed the towel to begin ruffling it through his hair. Ray followed her lead and took up the other end, running it vigorously against her scalp, like he was trying to give her noogies.

"Ack," Stella whined, still giggling. "Quit it!"

Ray grinned and rubbed his knuckles against her scalp even harder.

Stella laughed. "You jerk!" She adjusted her grip on the towel so that she could rub her own knuckles along his head just as hard.

Before she knew it, they'd abandoned the towel all together in favor of wrestling around the living room. She scratched wildly at his scalp while he tugged on her hair, careful not to hurt her but still determined to win. The struggle to pull away from each other kept landing accidental elbow strikes on each other's shoulders, and they kept stamping on each other's feet.

"Ouch!"

"Sorry! Will you--"

"Ha!"

"Ow!"

They went around and around each other, bumping into things as they went; they knocked picture frames askew and cleared the contents of an end table all together, until they both collapsed on the sofa, panting and laughing, and rubbing at bruises.

"Man, you're strong for a girl!" Ray said, fumbling to get his glasses back into place. One side kept slipping, like it was too wet to stay behind his ear.

"Thanks, I guess," she said. She reached over and straightened his glasses for him. Ray gave a little gasp at the feel of her fingertips on his ear, and closed his eyes tight.

Stella's heart began to pound again. She wasn't sure how or when, but it was like all of the air in the room had changed. They'd been playing only a second ago, but this seemed a little more real. She leaned forward and planted an experimental kiss on Ray's ear.

He jerked his head away from her, opening his eyes and looking surprised.

Stella bit her lip. "That's okay, isn't it?"

"Yeah, sure," Ray said. "Kinda weird, but it was kinda nice." He rubbed a little at his ear, brushing her fingers with his as he did.

Stella nearly jumped out of her skin. So that was what "kinda weird, but kinda nice" meant.

Ray wrapped his fingers around hers and held her hand there, half on his ear, half in his hair, and watched her, like he didn't know what to do next.

Stella wanted to say something cool, or flirty, or grown up, but what came out was, "I've never kissed anybody before."

Ray licked his lips a little nervously and kept looking at her. "Me, either," he said.

And there it was. Neither of them had said it, but it hung in the air just as thickly as if they had: You can kiss me if you want.

Stella ran her thumb along the edge of his ear and tilted her head. Ray pushed his glasses up onto his forehead and bent his, leaning towards her.

They were in the middle of slowly bridging the distance between them when the front door opened, and Ray leaped backwards on the couch like Stella had caught on fire. Stella scooted as far away from him as she could and tucked her hair behind her ears, her face going hot, and she stared at the floor while Ray fixed his glasses beside her.

Mrs. Kowalski had come in wearing a bright yellow waitress uniform, a man beside her in blue coveralls that could only be Ray's father.

Whatever the elder Kowalskis had been talking about before they came in, it was instantly forgotten as Mrs. Kowalski gave her a wide, friendly smile. "Hey, look who's here!" she said.

"Hi, Mrs. Kowalski," Stella said, trying to make herself smile at her even while a voice in her head screamed, You're in for it now!

She cornered around the couch and gave Stella a hug. "I didn't think we'd be seeing you again so soon, honey," she said, looking at Ray over Stella's head.

"It was a surprise," Ray said, trying to sound as casual as he could.

"I bet," said Mr. Kowalski, looking amused. "So you're Stanley's mystery girl." He offered her his hand. "I'm his father."

Stella squirmed her way out of Mrs. Kowalski's hug so she could shake his hand. "It's nice to meet you," she said.

Mr. Kowalski laughed, gave first the couch, then Ray, a pointed look, and said, "Yeah, sure."

Stella didn't know it was possible to blush more than she already had been, but it seemed she was.

"Don't you live out in the Gold Coast?" Mr. Kowalski asked.

"Yes," Stella said. "Ray met me at school."

"You took her straight from school?" Mrs. Kowalski said, giving Ray a shocked look. She turned it on Stella and asked, "Does your poor mother know you're here?"

Stella cringed. "Not exactly," she said.

"Oh my God," Mrs. Kowalski groaned. She shot her husband a pleading look. "Damien--"

"I'll handle it," he said.

"Thank you," she said. "Ugh. I gotta get changed." She maneuvered to Ray's end of the couch to smack him lightly upside the head.

"Hey!" Ray rubbed his head. "C'mon, Ma!"

"Don't 'c'mon, ma' me," said Mrs. Kowalski. "You don't kidnap girls from the Gold Coast! It's not right next door! Her parents probably have the police scouring the whole city for her by now!"

"He didn't kidnap me," Stella said.

Mr. Kowalski laughed. "Yeah, well, we'll see how your parents feel about that. You got their number, hon?"

"On the fridge," Mrs. Kowalski said. She looked at Ray again. "We're talking about this when I get off work."

Ray made a face. Stella frowned. "I thought you just got home from work?" she asked.

"Day job, sweetie," Mrs. Kowalski said. "I still got an evening shift ahead of me." She headed down the hallway to her bedroom.

"And don't think you're not cleaning up this mess before she gets back," Mr. Kowalski said.

"Yeah, yeah," Ray muttered, glaring at the floor.

"I'll help," Stella said, leaving out the part where half the mess was her fault.

"Don't worry about it, kid, you're probably not going to be here for long," Mr. Kowalski said. He moved into the kitchen and took a phone from the wall, eyeing the refrigerator for any unfamiliar numbers on the list stuck to its surface. He looked to Stella. "Hey, you got a name? No one's mentioned it to me."

"Stella," she said.

Mr. Kowalski's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. "Say that again?"

"Stella," she repeated. "Stella Dubois."

Mr. Kowalski gave her a stunned look, laughing a little like she was telling a joke. "You're kidding, right?"

"Dad," Ray groaned, glaring at him.

Stella didn't get why her name was funny and she made a haughty expression she'd seen her mother use when she felt like she was being made fun of. "Not at all," she said.

Mr. Kowalski laughed louder this time, slapping one of his knees. "I'm standing here with Stanley Kowalski and Stella Dubois."

Stella gave Ray a questioning look. He shrugged. He didn't get it, either.

Mr. Kowalski shook his head, still laughing. "This better be one hell of a remake, you two," he said. "With a whole new ending." Then he turned to the phone, matched her name to a number and started dialing.

"I'm sorry if you get in trouble, Ray," Stella said quietly.

Ray looked stubborn and defiant. "You're worth it," he said.

Stella stood there, torn between fear of their impending punishment and delight that he thought she was worth whatever happened to him now. She wished his parents had come home just a minute later.

"Hello, Mrs. Dubois?" Ray's dad said to the phone in the kitchen. "Hi. This is Damien Kowalski- Barbara's husband? Ray's dad? Yeah, that's me. Are you missing a kid? No, we figured. I'm real sorry about this, but my son brought her over. No, no, we were real shocked, too."

---

By a miracle of her mother's patience (and willingness to keep her father out of the loop), Stella wasn't grounded. Nor was she forbidden from seeing Ray.

"Just come home and ask first next time, darling," her mother had said. "I don't mind if you see a boy at your age. I just prefer to know where you are." Stella didn't hug her mother often these days, but she gave her a tight, clinging one for that.

The even better miracle, Stella found in her follow-up phone call, was that Ray hadn't been, either.

"They yelled for a while," Ray told her. "But I straightened 'em out." Honesty forced him to add a minute later, "I promised 'em I'd never nab you again without calling your ma first." Had they been in person for the phone call, Stella would have hugged him, too.

Stella finished the week in school and began her summer spending the two weeks she wasn't grounded for obsessing about her birthday. Warm but mild weather came to Chicago, and she worried about whether or not she should consider having the party outside. She wanted to ask Ray's opinion on the matter, but she worried about seeming too "girly." Much like her clothes, Stella had never dwelled on the subject of a party before Ray had gotten involved. She both wanted to impress him and hesitated over the possibility she'd embarrass him like she had when she'd seen his house. (A secret phone call to Mrs. Kowalski told her that at least she didn't have to worry about Ray's birthday being upstaged by hers. He'd turned thirteen a while back in April.)

Her mother thought Stella's anxiety over her first party with a boy was adorable. She kept petting Stella's shoulders and reassuring her, "Darling, just leave the details to me. I promise, it'll be wonderful." Stella didn't know how to tell her that wonderful was all well and good, she just didn't want it to be embarrassing.

"Embarrassing" didn't seem to be in her mother's vocabulary. Stella had to beg her not to do anything over the top, from hiring a band to booking a ballroom.

"Please, Mom," she said, over and over. "Nothing too big. Just something nice."

"All right, darling," her mother said every time. "But you'll only be turning twelve this once, you know."

"I know," Stella said. "But please."

"All right."

---

When Stella's birthday arrived, she was pleasantly surprised to discover her mother had managed to restrain herself. She had decorated their patio with lanterns and streamers, and dug up a record-changing turntable that had been her dad's in college. Half of Stella's records had been moved out of her room for the occasion, and some of her parents' were mixed in.

True to her word, her mother had ordered tiramisu, which made Stella wonder if Mrs. Kowalski would be coming or if Ray would be bringing himself.

Please, God, please, let this go okay, Stella prayed. I will never ask for anything again as long as tonight goes okay.

All through the day, Stella felt as if she were being eaten up by her nerves. For all that she'd chosen the blue maxi pinafore well in advance, she wondered if it was ugly now; everything her mother tried to do with her hair made her stare at her reflection until her eyes hurt, trying to decide if it was pretty enough. The make-up looked all right, at least, but halfway through applying it, she had started to wonder if she wasn't going overboard. She felt like she was trying to get ready to go into battle with all this preparation.

Her mother kept hiding a laugh and wrapping her arms around her, amused and enjoying herself. "You're so nervous, darling," she said. "You don't need to worry so. It's only your first crush on a boy. You'll probably like a whole new one next year."

Stella tried for a minute to absorb the sensible sound of the advice, but she resented it. Even if she did like another boy next year, next year wasn't now. And even still, the possibility seemed so remote and infuriating. A new boy wouldn't be Ray. Young they might be, but- Stella felt sure already that Ray was going to be important to her for the rest of her life.

"I guess," Stella said, unconvinced.

Her mother tried again to get Stella's hair to conform to a style. "Maybe the next one will be someone you have more in common with," she said.

Stella jerked her head away and turned to look at her. "What does that mean?" she asked.

Her mother looked taken aback. "Nothing," she said. "Well. It's only--"

Whatever it was, Stella didn't get to find out. The first guests chose then to begin arriving.

Stella tried to be patient and polite with each girl that her mother had invited, but she couldn't keep an interest. The various girls present- Molly Janzen, Janelle Warren, Sally Hammersmith, the Curtis twins- were girls she'd socialized with for most of her life, but they'd never been friends. Stella had learned early on from her acquaintance with them the adult concept of People To Be Friendly With Even If You Didn't Like Them All That Much. She didn't particularly dislike them, either, of course. But they were sort of like relatives you saw once or twice a year and didn't bother with the rest of the time.

And they were the sort of people her mother thought she had more in common with. A boy of this type was what she was predicting Stella'd want in a year. For the first time, very much against her will, Stella found herself judging her mother. She just didn't get it.

Nor did anyone else, it seemed. The party happened around her, almost as if it didn't need her, while she wandered the patio and fretted.

Just this one thing, she prayed again. Please just let me have tonight.

She took a cup of punch from where Eva was serving them and sipped it, trying not to be nervous and not to give away that she was still waiting for the only person she cared about to show up.

Stella was starting to worry a little. What if Ray hadn't been allowed to come after all? Thinking back on it, her mother had told Mrs. Kowalski she was only having girls; she may have decided it would be inappropriate for Ray to go to a social function where he would be the only boy. Or maybe he hadn't had anyone to bring him and had gotten badly lost trying to remember where her house was and wouldn't find it in time. Maybe, she thought with sudden disappointment, he forgot.

Stella was beginning to consider hiding herself in her bedroom, where it was possible no one would miss her for the rest of the party, when a hand brushed her spine, startling her so she yelped and jumped nearly a foot in the air.

"Sorry! Sorry!" came the reply from Ray Kowalski, who was standing behind her looking very handsome and a little helpless. He had recycled his suit from the dinner weeks before for the occasion. He'd also Pomaded his hair and left his glasses at home.

"Ray!" Stella tried, she really did, not to sound a million times happier to see him than she had been to see anyone else, but it was a lost cause. She threw her arms around his neck.

"Stella?" he asked, sounding unsure as to whether or not he recognized her. Then he patted her back and corrected his tone. "Stella!"

She felt her smile growing wider and hugged him as tight as she could. "You came!"

"'Course I did," Ray said, indignant. "I said I would, didn't I?"

"I know," she said. "Still." She pulled back to look at him. "What happened to your glasses?"

"I left 'em at home," Ray said, as casually as he could, and apparently to her nose. "They're not party glasses, y'know?"

Stella tilted his chin up with one finger so that his gaze was pointed more in the direction of her eyes. "I think they look okay."

Ray shrugged a little, and it was his turn to go, "I know. But still."

Stella giggled a little with embarrassment. Her mother had been right that she didn't need to worry so much about her appearance. It looked like Ray couldn't actually see it. Oh, well. At least she didn't have to worry now about whether she had gotten it wrong.

Ray bent his head to whisper by her ear, "I might need to hang on you a little."

Stella knew she probably shouldn't be ecstatic about that, but she couldn't help it. A valid excuse for him to lean on her all night was all right with her. "Cool," she said, and she was thankful he couldn't see her blush.

Ray grinned at her and slung his arm around her shoulders. "So show me around," he said.

Stella smiled at him and walked him over to the rest of the party.

The other girls were clustered around each other near the table her mother had set up for refreshments. Though they weren't really friends with Stella, some of them were friends with each other, and they had been whispering amongst themselves since Ray had showed up.

"Guys," Stella said, trying to get their attention and feeling very awkward, "this is Ray."

Ray gave them his best beaming smile, looking a little like he was trying not to seem as awkward as Stella felt. "How are ya?" he asked.

As one, the entire group burst into giggles. Stella shuffled her feet and realized she had worried too much about her mother embarrassing her and not enough about maybe being embarrassed by the other girls.

"Hi," Janelle said, since she seemed to have been elected the leader while Stella was avoiding talking to them. "You don't go to our school."

"Of course he doesn't," Stella said, making a face. What a statement of the obvious.

Ray, however, did not seem to get why it was obvious, and said, "Hey, I could."

The girls all started giggling again. Stella wished it was possible to make them all disappear with her mind. She'd be wishing them all into the cornfield right about now.

"I go to a girls' school, Ray," she whispered in his ear, hoping that he wouldn't be mortified.

Ray didn't seem to mind. "Yeah, so?" he asked. He grinned at her and the other girls without missing a beat. "I think I'd dig going to a girls' school, if you get my drift."

The others were giggling again. Stella wondered if they ever did anything else. She also wondered if they goggled at all boys like they were zoo animals, or just the ones with more accent and less grammar than they had. She was starting to feel defensive on her own behalf, and protective of the boy beside her. If they made fun of Ray, she would take him by the hand and walk out, and they could just see how they felt about that.

"Where do you go, then?" Chrissy Curtis asked. She had always been one of the shyer girls, and it surprised Stella a little that she would actually talk to Ray.

"Dewey," Ray said, sounding casual but getting some of the look he'd had when Stella saw his house. Stella was beginning to understand that Ray may not have been embarrassed over being poorer than her in general, but it bugged him to have it brought up.

Perhaps to his fortune, the other girls gave him blank stares. It wasn't a school they'd heard of.

"Where's that?" Janelle asked. "Streeterville?"

"Yeah, sure, near it," Ray said.

Stella tried to supress a snicker. Well, she thought, every neighborhood of Chicago was nearer to each other than any neighborhood outside Chicago, so it wasn't exactly a lie.

"So what are you doing here?" This from Cathy Curtis, who was much less shy and much more spoiled than her sister.

Ray gave her a look of immediate dislike. "I came to see Stella," he said. "You know, wish her happy birthday?" He inflected it so that he sounded as if he thought Cathy was an idiot who didn't know what birthday parties were for.

That set the girls off giggling for about the millionth time, save for Cathy, who looked angry and sulky.

"Is he your boyfriend, Stella?" Chrissy asked, looking shy and a little hopeful.

Stella froze a little at the question. The truth was, she'd been wondering that herself ever since the day Ray had brought her to his house. Ray had been wonderful to her right from the day they'd met; she knew she liked him more than a friend and since the eggplant incident, she was sure he felt that way about her, too. But she'd never asked him and he'd never asked her, and what did one near-miss on his sofa really mean, anyway? Were they really going together, or were they friends who just liked each other more than average? She didn't know, and by the way Ray wasn't rushing to answer the question himself, she thought maybe he didn't know, either.

Or maybe, she thought, feeling his arm tighten on her shoulder while he waited for her to answer, Ray wanted to hear what she said.

Stella wanted him to be her boyfriend. She hadn't really let herself think the word before, but now, she really, really did. She wanted him to be her boyfriend and quite possibly be her boyfriend forever. Really, she thought, she wanted him to be something more and better than a boyfriend. Something she didn't have a word for. She didn't know what that would be, but she had enough of an inkling of it that she thought she knew how to answer the question.

Stella shrugged Ray's arm off her shoulders so that she could grab his hand, twining her fingers through his so she could hold on. "He's my hero," she said.

The girls stared at her in confusion, but Ray was beaming down at her like she was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Stella smiled and squeezed his hand and tried to tell him with her eyes, You are, you know.

Ray gave her an uncertain smile, and Stella realized with embarrassment that without his glasses, he couldn't even see her eyes, let alone read secret messages in them. She settled for giving his hand another squeeze.

Across the patio, someone- probably Molly, Stella thought, she was usually the one who took over the music on these occasions- was changing the record. Stella hadn't paid much attention to the music so far, but this song caught her attention. The pizzicato on acoustic guitar sounded more like something off one of her mother's records than one of her own.

Her suspicion was confirmed a moment later when Jim Croce began crooning, If I could save time in a bottle, the first thing that I'd like to do--

Stella stifled a groan. It was a pretty song, but it wouldn't have been her first choice for the soundtrack at her birthday party. She shot a nervous look at Ray, worried he'd be put off by the selection.

Ray didn't seem bothered at all. He bobbed his head just a little along with it for a second, then asked, "Hey, you wanna dance?"

Stella's heart gave a nervous flutter. Distantly, she remembered standing on her dad's feet while he danced at someone's wedding reception back when she was five or six. Unless shimmying around her bedroom when she was alone counted, she hadn't really danced since then, and not at all with a partner. She bit her lip. "I don't really know how," she said.

"C'mon, it's easy," Ray said. "I'll show you."

"Okay," Stella said. She looked around the patio for a nice empty spot and tugged Ray in that direction. He followed her, unconcerned, and pulled her close the instant she stopped. She gasped a little.

"Here, like this," Ray said, putting one of her hands on his shoulder. He raised their joined hands until they were about level with her shoulder and put his free hand on her waist. "Now you just kinda..." He looked down and squinted hard at their feet, and started moving them around, lightly pushing her along. "Left, together. Right, together," he muttered. "Back- sideways- forward."

Stella followed his directions, looking down at their feet, too, to make sure she was going the right way and not stepping on his toes. It wasn't too bad- there was an easy rhythm to it that she picked up quickly, and Ray was a pretty good partner. He followed along with whatever she did without messing up his own steps, keeping them moving together, nice and slow.

"You're pretty good," she said.

"My ma used to send me to classes," he explained. He turned them around. "You're not so bad yourself."

"Thanks," she said. She could feel herself really getting the hang of it, and wondered if she had just discovered something she was naturally good at. Or maybe Ray was just that good of a teacher. She drew herself a little closer to him so she could lay her head on his shoulder.

Ray stumbled a little when she did, surprised, but he caught himself quickly and kept them moving. She could feel his pulse pounding in his throat against her forehead, and grinned to herself. She couldn't think of much of anything that was as nice as knowing that she made him just as nervous and excited as he made her.

Jim Croce was still singing, I've looked around enough to know that you're the one I want to go through time with, and Stella had the unsettling, grown-up feeling that she knew what he meant. She knew that she hadn't really done much in her life yet, but she felt like she had been waiting for Ray all this time. She felt like she had known him forever, and like there was no other person alive who could ever matter to her as much as he did.

In her arms, Ray gave a content little sigh and murmured in her ear, "Hey, Stella?"

"Yeah?" she asked, not lifting her head away from his shoulder.

"Can we tell people that this is how we met?" he asked. "You know, for the future."

Stella fit dizzy with a heady kind of joy. She didn't know why, but it thrilled her to hear him refer to them as a "we," and in the same sentence as mentioning a future. She rubbed her cheek againt his shoulder, and said, "Sure, Ray. If that's what you want to do."

Ray's hand at her waist moved just a little, warm fingers rubbing a circle into her lower back. "Thanks," he said. A silent beat passed between them as they danced and listened to the song winding down. "Hey, Stella?" he asked again, quieter this time.

"Yeah, Ray?" she asked, barely above a whisper, to match his tone.

"I think I wanna marry you someday," he said.

Tingles broke out along her scalp and flowed all over, from the ends of her hair to the tips of her toes. She felt electric and alive, and like she was dancing down the path to where her future would unfold. She felt herself turning traitor already to the night of the eggplant and thinking that no, this was the best night of her life.

She closed her eyes and inhaled the warm scent of his neck. She tilted her head away from his shoulder and, as easily and free of nervousness as if she had been born to do it, she kissed him.

He didn't jump or pull away; he kissed her back as if he had known his whole life that this would be the moment this would happen. His lips were warm and soft, and when she opened her mouth, his tongue on hers felt and tasted just as perfect as she had imagined it would.

They kept dancing, kept kissing, and Stella's heart beat frantically in her chest; she felt like she'd never really lived before right now.

The song ended, and slowly, Ray drew his face back from hers so he could gasp for breath.

Stella took a breath of her own and smiled at him, not even caring if he couldn't see it. She smiled with all of her heart behind it and murmured a promise. "I think I'd like that."