The Secret Language of Boys (Chapter 1)


“‘How to tell if a boy likes you.’”

I sit up taller, clear my throat, and speak in my most authoritative, official-sounding voice. “‘One: You catch him looking at you a lot. Two: He goes out of his way to sit with you. Three: He tries to make you laugh, maybe even making lame jokes.’”

I glance up from my phone to make sure Harper is paying attention. She’s sitting next to me on her bed, bent over her sketch pad, green marker in hand, completely absorbed in her latest drawing. She hasn’t looked up even once. “Harper,” I whine. “Did you hear anything I just said?”

“Mmm-hmm,” she says distractedly, which I know is her code for “Sort of.”

“It’s confirmed. Elliot Phillips totally likes you. It says so right here!” I tap the screen where I have my favorite quiz app open and am reading from a checklist that’s supposed to help you decipher the confusing behavior of boys. In my opinion, they don’t have enough information on this subject. Why aren’t there entire libraries filled with this stuff? Why waste time with legal thrillers and true crime stories when boys are humanity’s greatest unsolved mystery? Or more specifically, the boys at our school. I swear, they’re all cryptic, aliens from another planet where they speak a completely different language. Sometimes they don’t even use actual words. I’m serious. One time, I witnessed Garrett Cole and Jason Sanders have an entire conversation in snorts and grunts. It was utterly baffling. And also really disgusting.

“So,” I continue, turning my phone back around. “According to this, it’s time to take action. Tonight, I’m making it my mission to get you and Elliot together.”

Now Harper does look up. And her face is about as green as the marker in her hand. “What? No. No way. Are you crazy?”

“I’m serious. Harper, you totally like him. And he likes you back. All the signs are there. And . . .” I waggle my eyebrows teasingly. “He’s going to be at the carnival. It’s the perfect opportunity.”

Tonight is Highbury Middle School’s first-ever carnival fund-raiser. That’s why I’m at Harper’s house right now. I’ve assigned myself the job of helping her pick an outfit. She doesn’t know this yet, but I’ve got big plans for tonight. Ever since I heard about the carnival, I’ve been devising the perfect, foolproof strategy for getting Harper and Elliot together. Now I just have to convince her to go along with it.

“He doesn’t like me.” Harper shakes her head and returns to her sketch pad. I can’t see what she’s drawing but knowing Harper, it will be another amazing cartoon. Just like all of her drawings.

“Yes, he does!” I insist, pointing at my phone again. “The proof is all right here. The horoscope app I downloaded last month said your birthdays are a perfect compatibility match. And this quiz confirms it.” I scroll back up to the first item on the checklist. “‘You catch him looking at you a lot.’ Remember the assembly at the start of the semester when we had that boring guest speaker? I caught Elliot looking at you three times!”

“Well, the speaker was pretty boring. He was probably just dozing off.”

I ignore her and scroll down to number 2. “‘He goes out of his way to sit with you.’ Remember two weeks ago? At the eighth-grade football game? When he practically shoved me off the bench to sit next to you?”

“He got there late, and the rest of the seats were full.” Harper caps the green marker and reaches for the red. “And you only dragged me to that game so you could ‘observe boys in their natural habitat.’” She makes loose air quotes with her fingers.

I harrumph. “I just thought if I went to one game, I could finally understand what those football players talk about at lunch.”

“Which you still can’t.”

“‘Heisman’ doesn’t even sound like a real word!” I complain. “It sounds like something you do when someone is choking.”

“That’s ‘Heimlich.’”

“Whatever,” I mutter. “It’s a stupid game, and—” I stop when I suddenly realize what Harper has just done. She’s sneakily changed the subject by getting me all riled up about football. “‘Number three,’” I say pointedly, returning my attention to my phone. “‘He tries to make you laugh, maybe even making lame jokes.’ Remember what he said Monday at lunch? ‘Why did the scarecrow get an award?’”

“‘Because he was outstanding in his field!’” Harper cracks up at the memory of Elliot’s joke. She even snorts a little.

“See?” I say. “You think it’s funny! You two are totally meant for each other.”

“It was funny.”

I shake my head. “No. It most certainly was not funny. I’m sorry, Harper. That joke belongs firmly in the lame department.”

“Come on, it’s a total dad joke. You know dad jokes are always funny.”

I grow quiet as a chill settles over the room. Harper realizes what she’s just said and claps her hand over her mouth. “Oh gosh, Emmy. I’m so sorry. That was totally rude. I didn’t mean—”

“It’s okay,” I rush to tell her, trying to wave away the awkwardness that has filled the space between us. It’s rarely awkward between Harper and me, except when she accidentally says stuff like that. I guess it’s hard for someone with a dad to remember that not everyone has one. At least, not one who stuck around. But the best thing about me and Harper is that it never stays awkward between us for long. And even when we do fight—which is hardly ever—we always make up within a day.

“Emmy . . .” She looks like she’s going to apologize again, so I cut in.

“It’s fine! Don’t worry about it.” But even as I tell her this, a part of me is just the slightest bit worried. Is it possible that I don’t get lame “dad jokes” because I didn’t have a dad around to tell them? I mean, it’s been eight years. I’m totally over it. That box is closed. But questions like this niggle at me. They slowly pry open the lid of the box and make me wonder what’s inside.

I brush off the feeling with a shake of my head and refocus on my phone. “‘Number Four. He goes out of his way to compliment you.’”

“He does not do that,” Harper says as she returns to her drawing.

“Um, hello?” I switch to the SnipPic app on my phone, click on Harper’s feed, and show her the screen. “He’s liked almost every single photo you’ve posted in the past month!”

“That’s not the same thing as a compliment,” Harper argues.

I grunt in frustration. “It’s called a ‘like’ for a reason. A like is a compliment.” Why does she have to be so difficult? Why can’t she just see what I see? “Harper, there are ten things on this list, and I’ve been able to check all of them. It’s time to do something about it. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I have a plan.”

Harper’s eyes flash to me and I immediately see the panic written all over her face. “No. No plans. No schemes. No ‘projects.’ We’ve been over this. Remember in fifth grade your big plan to set up your babysitter with the pizza delivery man? He stepped on one of the fireworks and it singed his eyebrows off.”

I lower my phone and sit up straighter. I will not let Harper derail me with reminders of the past. Besides, I’ve learned a lot since fifth grade. And I’m pretty sure no one is going to lose their eyebrows tonight.

“This plan will work,” I assure her, and then, when I’m certain I have her attention, I continue. “Okay, so you know our first middle school dance is coming up in a few weeks. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you and Elliot could go together? Like, as a couple?”

“No.” Harper’s voice is firm. “Absolutely not.”

My face falls. “You mean you don’t want to go to the dance with Elliot?”

“I mean I don’t need of your elaborate schemes to make it happen. If Elliot and I are meant to be, it’ll happen on its own.”

I sigh. I can tell it’s time for one of my pep talks. “Harper,” I begin earnestly, like I’m giving a speech to the entire nation. “This is the twenty-first century. We have cars that park themselves and apps that can do your math homework for you. Right now, I’m in the middle of an online Monopoly game with someone who lives in France. You can’t rely on destiny anymore. You have to make things happen for yourself.”

“Or have your best friend do it for you?” Harper asks with a smirk. My pep talks never fail to make her smile.

“Exactly! Think of me as your . . .” I reel my hands around, searching for the perfect title. “Love Coordinator.”

Harper snorts. “‘Love Coordinator’?”

I give her a proud salute. “Reporting for duty.”

She can’t help laughing at that, and I feel giddy. Harper has the best laugh in the world.

She plucks a black marker from her case and resumes drawing. “I don’t know, Emmy. What if you’re wrong? What if he doesn’t like me? What if the whole thing backfires and I look totally stupid?”

I sigh again. This is so Harper—she can be overly cautious sometimes. Okay, that’s putting it nicely. She’s a total coward. Me, on the other hand, I like to take risks. My motto is No Risk, No Reward. Harper’s motto is Be a Turtle and Keep Your Head in Your Shell and Only Come Out When It’s Safe and Always Move at the Slowest Pace Possible.

Okay, not really, because what a lame motto that would be. But that’s pretty much how she lives her life. Which is why she’s lucky she has me as her best friend. It’s the best friend’s job to recognize the other person’s flaws and help her move past them. And Harper has liked Elliot since the second week of seventh grade. He’s the reward. And it’s time for her to take the risk.

“You’re not going to look stupid. You need to trust me.” I scoot to the edge of the bed and hook up my phone to the speaker on Harper’s nightstand. I put on one of our go-to “Get pumped!” songs and then head to Harper’s closet. I pretty much have this whole song memorized.

As Berrin James, our favorite singer, belts out the chorus to “Every Heartbeat,” I rifle through Harper’s clothes before plucking a rust-colored corduroy skirt from its hanger and laying it neatly on the bed.

“Okay, I think this with your black-and-white-striped scoop neck shirt and that denim jacket with the little stars on it would be perfect. Super cute but not trying too hard, you know? Elliot will love it.”


I look up to see Harper has closed her sketchbook and placed it on her nightstand. Her eyes are now locked on me and she’s got this kind of anxious expression on her face. “Yeah?”

“Why are you doing this?” she asks after a long moment.

I turn back to her closet and locate the denim jacket to go with the skirt. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, ‘Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires. Know of your youth. Examine well your blood—’”

I scrunch up my face. “Huh?”

Harper laughs at my baffled expression. “Haven’t you done the homework for Language Arts yet? A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 1?”

I groan. “Don’t remind me.”

“It means, think about what you really want and why.”

I throw my hands up. “Then why doesn’t Shakespeare just say that? Why does he have to be all cryptic about it? Oh, right, because he’s a boy.” I toss the jacket onto the bed. “I’m so failing Language Arts this semester.”

“No, you’re not,” Harper assures me. “But you still haven’t answered my question. Why are you going through all this trouble to get me and Elliot together?”

“Because the horoscope app said—”

“No,” Harper cuts me off. “Not the app. Why does this matter to you?”

I spread the sleeves of the jacket out on the bed and run my fingertips over one of the little white stars. “Because it’s you,” I say, emphasizing the same word. “You’re my best friend.”

But for some reason Harper doesn’t look convinced by my answer.

“Think about it this way,” I say, returning to the closet to fetch Harper’s black fringe booties. “What’s the one thing that I want more than anything in the world?”

“To launch the most downloaded app in history,” she says automatically. She doesn’t even have to think about it.

“Exactly. And wouldn’t you do anything to help me accomplish that?”

Harper bites her lip. “I guess so.”

“You totally would! Why? Because we’re BFFs and that’s what BFFs do. We help each other achieve our goals.”

“But that’s different,” Harper argues. “My lifelong goal is not to go to a middle school dance with Elliot Phillips.”

I wave this away. “You know what I mean. I want you to be happy. And you’ve had a crush on him for the past month. It’s time to do something about it. It’s time to launch that app.”

Harper scrunches up her face. “Ew! That’s gross!” Then her disgust turns to confusion. “Wait, is that gross?”

I tilt my head. “I’m not sure. Maybe?”

We both break into fits of giggles and fall onto our backs on the bed. The song comes to an end and another Berrin James classic comes on over the speaker. When we finally catch our breaths and the room is quiet again, Harper clasps my hand in hers and gives it a squeeze. “When you do launch your app, I get to design all the graphics, right?”

“Of course!” I say with a smile. “I wouldn’t hire anyone else in the world.”

“Sweet.” We stare up at Harper’s ceiling, where a giant poster of Berrin stares back down at us, his dark eyes all smoldering, his smile all mysterious, like he has a secret he’s keeping from the entire world.

When I peer over at Harper, her brow is crinkled the way it always is when she’s thinking hard about something.

“Do you really think he likes me?” she asks in a tentative voice.

I squeeze her hand. “Absolutely.”

“He is cute,” she says, and I can tell she’s starting to get excited about the idea. Harper is usually hesitant about my plans at first, but she always comes around eventually. It’s just the way Harper is.

She draws in a deep breath. “Okay. What’s the plan?”

I stand up and do a celebratory jump-kick on the bed. “Woo-hoo! Hi-ya! Omigosh, it’s going to be ah-mazing! You’ll see! You and Elliot are so totally soul mates! You’re going to kiss and fall in love and get married!”

Harper jumps to her feet and grabs for a pillow, wielding it at my head. “Stop! We are not!”

I dodge the pillow and keep jumping. “And have babies and drive a minivan and grow old together and play dominos in the park!”

Harper makes another swipe with the pillow. “Shut up!”

“Just don’t forget to thank me at your wedding!” I stop jumping and breathlessly press my hand against my heart, turning my voice all sweet and syrupy. “‘If it weren’t for my very best friend in the whole world, Elliot and I never would have fallen in love.’”

Something lights up in Harper’s eyes and she hops off the bed and reaches for her sketch pad. “I almost forgot! This is for you.” She grabs a marker and quickly scribbles her signature at the bottom of the drawing. Then she rips out the page and hands it to me. I turn the paper over, and my mouth drops open. As predicted, it’s amazing. Beyond amazing.

Harper has drawn a cartoon version of me as Cupid, with wings on my back, a bow and heart-tipped arrow in my hand, and a mischievous smirk on my face. All around me are floating red heart bubbles and at the bottom of the page, right next to her signature, Harper has written, “Emerie Woods: Love Coordinator.”

“Do you like it?” she asks nervously.

My smile grows to the size of the sun. “I think it’s your best yet.”