CHAPTER ONE

The bell rings.

Desks are pushed back in the hurry to stand up, teachers move out of the way, papers are dumped in trash cans and the hallways are packed with people shouting and couples making out.

There's nothing like the last day of school.

"I didn't think it would ever come." I crumple a piece of homework and chuck it at Rock's head.

He laughs and ducks. "I didn't think you would ever pass."

I grin and punch him on the shoulder.

Melissa meets us by the doors and throws a handful of hand-shredded confetti over us. "To freedom!"

I laugh and hug her, brushing the bits of paper out of my hair. It makes a mess, but all the hallways are cluttered by now. Any kid's holiday is a janitor's nightmare.

My arm around Melissa's waist, I push open the doors and we walk out into the harsh sunlight. Kids are everywhere, now that they don't have an excuse to linger inside, saying goodbye to friends, flipping off the school building, and breaking what rules they can while they can't really get in trouble.

We start walking home. The bus would be way too hot and noisy today and besides, this way we can take our time and go to the park.

"Man, I am so glad that's over," Melissa rests her head on my shoulder. "We had, what, six finals?"

I make a face. "Don't remind me."

We both look at Rock.

After a second, he notices. "What?"

I lift an eyebrow. "You're not going to brag about how good you did?"

"How well," He corrects automatically. "And no."

We let out sighs of relief.

"Anyone could gotten that question about organic compounds."

I roll my eyes. He knows I got that one wrong. "Shut up, Dexter."

The rest of the way, we talk about what we're not going to miss about school – evil teachers, impossible subjects, disgusting lunches, clueless administrators – it makes it all so much sweeter to realize it's over. For this year, anyway.

Tanya's waiting for us outside my building, wagging all of her tails. It's still so great to see her out in the open and not have to worry about anyone seeing her. She bounds up to us, rubbing against Melissa and dropping a red and white ball at my feet.

We're still not sure what to call Nonextants. We try to avoid calling them Nonextants, because we want people to know they exist and names for individual species are kind of popping up, but nothing for all of them as a whole. In the meantime, we've just been giving them names like any other pets.

I pick up the sphere and press a button in the middle. Immediately, there's a small flash of light and my second animal is standing in front of me. I'm not sure how that works…something to do with data. Wood tried to explain it to me once.

Red lets out a little squeal and hugs my leg. Technically, he's orange – looks like a little upright salamander except for the flame at the end of his tail – but I named him the same way I named Tanya and he liked Red.

I grin and rub the top of his head. He's sweet, if a little clueless.

Rock shakes his head and bends down to pick him up. "One of these days, you're going to burn down the whole building, you know that?" Red nestles into his arm.

We keep walking towards the park. Rock and Melissa would have brought their animals too, but Red's not too good with them. Either one of them hurts him or he hurts the other one.

When we get to the park, we pass another couple of kids coming out. They opened it to the public earlier this month, got rid of the chain across the entrance and everything. It's nice that we're actually allowed to go there now, but I do kinda miss having it all to ourselves.

We sit down by our usual tree, shrugging off our backpacks. Tanya starts sniffing around the long grass, raising her head every so often to check on Red. Like I said before, he's a little clueless and she watches out for him.

Rock fold his arms behind his head. "So what do you guys want to do to celebrate this momentous occasion?"

I dig out an old worksheet from my backpack and burn it over Red's tail, watching the corners blacken and curl up. "I'm already doing it."

Melissa giggles and burns one of her papers too. "I would say we could hang out in my pool, but it's still not really open yet."

I blow on my worksheet, putting the flames out before they can reach my hand. "What, did your fish get out?"

"Nah." She folds her legs. As the weather's gotten warmer, she's been wearing less and less. Today, she's wearing a tiny yellow shirt that doesn't even cover her stomach and the shortest jean shorts I've ever seen. But believe me, I am not complaining. "Tadpoles, mostly. Big ones."

"I have an idea," I wad up what's left of the paper and throw it at Rock. "How about one day where I can eat what I want?"

He rolls over and props himself up on one elbow, thinking hard. "Well…okay, one day."

I do a fist pump "Yessss!"

"You're gonna hate yourself tomorrow though."

"Who cares!"

The Joto County Marathon is next month and Rock had been training me hard ever since I got out of juvie. It's been really tough and completely exhausting, but I can't say it hasn't paid off. I'm in the best shape of my life and it definitely shows. People notice me more in school and girls flip for my muscles. Especially Melissa.

Right now, she's leaning against me, running her finger over my bicep and murmuring just loud enough for me to hear. "You are so hot, you know that? You are so hot…"

I smile and kiss her forehead. "Wanna go get some cookies?"

It takes her a second to tear her eyes away. "What?"

I give her a look that says I would so kiss you if Rock wasn't looking.

I can't figure out what her look says, but it's very…tempting.

I pull her to her feet and whistle for Tanya. Rock picks up Red again, carefully avoiding his tail and gives me a stern look. "Just to be clear, only a little bit of junk food. No binging."

I wave a hand. "Yeah, yeah, Mom."

The word creates an uncomfortable silence as they try to think of something to say. Sometimes, it really sucks to be an orphan.

We walk down to the grocery store. They converted it from the old liquor store and it looks a lot better now. It's a small store, but it's surprising how much stuff you can buy in there. I grab a couple of bags of chips and a pack of cookies, ignoring Rock's protest.

"Look, I'm only going to have a little, okay?" I tell him, handing the money to the cashier in the pink apron. "Just wanted some variety, that's all." I notice Tanya looking hungrily at the treats on the counter and I buy some as an afterthought. It's nice that they allow her and other animals in here. Ever since they became legal, Tanya follows me around a lot.

We open a bag of chips and munch on it on the way to my house. Man, they're good. I haven't been banned from junk food entirely, but Rock gives out strict rations.

"So…" I lick my fingers to get the last little bit of cheese dust. "How stuff with Whitney?"

Rock crinkles the bag as he grabs a handful. "Brittney."

Dang. I was almost sure I had that right. "Sorry."

"It's okay," He tilts his palm to his mouth and crunches noisily. "We broke up last week."

"It barely lasted a month..." Melissa mutters under her breath. Then to him, she says "Why, what happened?"

He shrugged. "She was really pretty, but she was…I dunno…too normal, I guess. Not adventurous. It got kinda boring after a while."

Melissa and I roll our eyes at each other. He's gone out with five people since they broke up and he flirts almost constantly. And he still has perpetual crushes on Gina and some girl from the vet's office. It's okay though, I guess…no one gets hurt except his pride when he gets turned down (which is more often than he'd like to admit).

When we reach my building, I put Red back in his ball – he's not allowed inside, not with an open flame on his tail – and we climb the stairs. Wood and Amelia aren't home, so we make ourselves comfortable on the couch and turn on the TV. There's some superhero movie on, some sister-brother duo, one's blue, one's red…it's not that bad. We talk through most of it though, and I miss a lot of the plot.

Suddenly, the door slams open, making Tanya yelp, and Wood is there, a bundle of joy and energy. He rubs Tanya's head, turns off the TV and sweeps all three of us into a huge bear hug, all in the same motion.

Melissa giggles and squirms out of his grip. "Whoa, whoa, what is it, Wood?"

Amelia steps into the room, more slowly and quietly than Wood, but her smile is just as big.

Wood straightens up and stands next to her, putting his arm around her shoulders. "Kids, I have just received the best news of my entire life and I'm glad you're all here to hear it."

We exchange glances. "What?"

They look at each other and then back to us, both grinning wide.

"We're getting married!"