Some people live their entire lives without changing their perspective. For Allison Dennis, all it takes is 180 seconds…
After a life spent bouncing from one foster home to the next, Allison is determined to keep others at arm’s length. Adopted at sixteen, she knows better than to believe in the permanence of anything. But as she begins her third year in college, she finds it increasingly difficult to disappear into the white noise pouring from her earbuds.
One unsuspecting afternoon, Allison is roped into a social experiment just off campus. Suddenly, she finds herself in front of a crowd, forced to interact with a complete stranger for 180 seconds. Neither she, nor Esben Baylor, the dreamy social media star seated opposite her, is prepared for the outcome.
When time is called, the intensity of the experience overwhelms Allison and Esben in a way that unnerves and electrifies them both. With a push from her oldest friend, Allison embarks on a journey to find out if what she and Esben shared is the real thing—and if she can finally trust in herself, in others, and in love.
I throw my unread book into my backpack and forcefully zip the bag closed. I pound across toward a trash can to dispose of my iced coffee, which I have now lost the taste for. I toss it toward the bin, but it ricochets off and explodes in a mess of liquid and ice that smatters against the sidewalk.
“Nice shot,” someone says rudely as he passes by.
“Thanks! So much!” I call to his back.
I sigh at the coffee disaster. I can’t just leave ice cubes all over the walkway, so I crouch down and start to collect them, cursing under my breath as more than one slips from my hold.
“Slippery little guys, aren’t they?” A pair of legs appears next to me, and I glance only for a second at ripped jeans and red Converse sneakers.
I don’t say anything as I continue my desperate attempt to clean this mess. Without looking up, I manage to locate a few napkins in my backpack and do what I can to blot up the liquid.
The person bends down next to me, and I watch as he deftly picks up every stupid ice cube that has fallen through my fingers and plunks each one smoothly into the cup in my hand. His forearms are tan, toned, with leather cords and thin rope bracelets around each wrist. Like superhero cuffs or something. He probably thinks he can deflect bullets. My head involuntarily turns a smidge, and I catch sight of a bicep peeking out from the hem of his white T-shirt. Quickly, I look away. I wish this guy hadn’t stopped.
I wish I wasn’t instantaneously having lurid thoughts.
I wish he didn’t smell like cookies and love.
When he gets the last of the ice cubes, I manage to toss the cup successfully into the trash bin without catastrophe. “Thanks for the help. I assume nine million ants will soon be here to celebrate Sugar Fest,” I mumble.
Cookies-and-love boy smoothly begins pouring water from a stainless canister and washes the pavement clear. “Not to worry.”
It becomes obvious that I must acknowledge this person who is being unnecessarily kind. It feels like a burden to do so, for which I’m ashamed, but I put on a smile and face him. Well, actually look up to him, given that he’s got a good half foot on my five-feet, four-inch stature.
This boy looks at me. He really looks at me. I shift a bit to avoid eye contact, and while I would love to turn away completely, his soft, deep brown hair frames his face in a way that prevents me from doing so. His curls are too long, the shorter ones framing his face, others tumbling recklessly over his ears, almost touching his shoulders. I suspect it’s been a few days since he’s shaved, but the scruff suits him, and it takes all of my will not to get drawn in by his unusual amber eyes that pierce through me. I am entirely discomfited and displaced by this person. And yet . . . I stare. Only for a short spell. For a matter of seconds, I let myself follow the shape of his face, the way his cheeks are full and how they lead into a jaw that makes me want to insist he shave so that I can see it more clearly.
This is bananas. I’m bananas. Some sort of psychotic hormonal surge has temporarily engulfed me, and I will knock this nonsense away now. Like, right now. Really.
Finally, I avert my eyes and throw away a soggy napkin. “Thanks again. Gotta get to class.”
I sense he is about to say something, so I pivot and slip into the flow of students heading toward the other side of campus. As if I’m not already out of sorts, Carmen walks by, heading in the other direction, and waves. I wave back politely and say nothing, yet I’m actually dying to scream about what a hot mess I am after spilling coffee and having some unknown, sexy boy help me.
My Social Psych class is held in one of the biggest lecture halls on campus. Even though the class is huge, there are still plenty of empty seats, and I take what’s become my usual spot at the end of a middle row. Immediately, I flip open my binder and make as if I’m intently studying notes from the last class. Most students take notes on their laptops, but Steffi told me she’d read that writing things down makes you learn them better. I put in earphones and play my white-noise app for added security from interruption while the room slowly fills.
Someone taps me on the shoulder, and I jump. It’s just a girl wanting to get past me to take a seat. I nod and stand, and it’s then that I hear voices that pass the sound in my earbuds and make me glance up. The boy who helped me with the ice cubes is walking into the room. My stomach drops. Poised on the steps that run up alongside the rows, he is surrounded by students, all animated and talking effusively, and—it’s clear—fussing over him.
Without thinking, I mute my app and slowly sit back down.
The boy smiles as someone pats him on the back in greeting, then lifts up his chin to acknowledge the clapping coming from a row of students. Who is this guy?
Students begin chanting, “Esben! Esben! Esben! Hashtag rock yourself! Hashtag rock yourself!”
So, his name is Esben. Ice-cube plucker is named Esben. Huh. Well, whatever.
I frown and shrink lower into my seat. I don’t know what is happening, but it’s making me horribly agitated. This Esben boy laughs and waves away the attention. A girl in the third row calls his name loudly enough to be heard over the ever-growing chanting and beckons him to a free seat next to her. He’s clearly some kind of überpopular campus icon.
I’ll just ignore him. It’ll be easy. We have nothing in common.
Yet, I find myself staring at the back of his head for the hour-and-a-half class, and I have to work hard to stay on top of my note taking. Against my will, I’m intrigued when the professor raises the concept of charismatic leadership and then gestures toward Esben, eliciting laughter and applause from the entire room. By the end of the class, my heart is pounding, and I practically leap out of my seat the second the professor finishes assigning our reading. I reach the door in mere seconds, pushing through the flood of exiting students to get outside.
God, I need air. I need air.
About Jessica Park
Jessica is the author of CLEAR, The Left Drowning Series (LEFT DROWNING and RESTLESS WATERS), the New York Times bestselling FLAT-OUT LOVE (& the companion novella FLAT-OUT MATT), FLAT-OUT CELESTE, and RELATIVELY FAMOUS. She lives in New Hampshire where she spends an obscene amount time thinking about rocker boys and their guitars, complex caffeinated beverages, and tropical vacations. On the rare occasions that she is able to focus on other things, she writes.