Fiction: Secrets to Keep

By Kat Kovalevska

Chapter 1

Hazel had woken up a few minutes ago. It was still early, but soon she’d have to get ready. The sun shined through the blinds; she got up and opened them. Hardly a cloud drifted through the sky; sunny weather had continued into September. From her window, Hazel could see the dorm’s backyard—a lawn with benches situated around a flower bed.
The school was further away, next to a lake. It wasn’t just an ordinary school but Performing and Creative Arts Academy. In addition to regular classes, the students hadmusic, performance and arts subjects. 
Hazel had just transferred to the school. In fact, she had moved from Sea Cliff, her hometown, to Small Lake, the town where the school was located. Small Lake was a separate town but also a suburb of a city named Maplewood.Hazel had been there a few times but didn’t go often. Its skyscrapers, freeways and noise disconcerted her. 
Hazel applied to the school and got accepted. She had also come to Small Lake to audition for the music and dancecourse. The auditions were easy though, and it wasn’t surprising when she got accepted. 
Coming to The Academy meant leaving Sea Cliff, her parents and friends. All of them were in Sea Cliff; she barely knew a soul in Maplewood. Dorms were available for students who came from other places, and so Hazel moved into one of them.
She only had one roommate, and she was grateful for that. She didn’t think she could manage living with more girls.Her roommate’s name was Lucia, and she was pleasant enough. They didn’t share bedrooms, just the living area, the kitchenette and the bathroom. 
Lucia’s course was visual arts with a focus on fashion design. She clearly loved it. She often sat on the floor in their dorm, making sketches. Hazel, on the other hand, didn’t practice singing or dancing when lessons were over.
Hazel had an acoustic guitar which she frequently took with her when going outside. She liked sitting by the lake, under the birches that grew around it. Recently, she had been dabbling in songwriting. Occasionally entire songs came to her and sometimes just melodies or something that could be verses or choruses. Most of her songs were far from great but that was OK. She knew she had to write a lot to craft a songthat was actually good.
Today was Monday, the beginning of a new school week. Hazel took a shower, brushed her teeth and walked into the shared area. It consisted of a kitchenette next to a window, a few chairs and not much else. The part by the entrance was bare except for pillows on the floor. Lucia had bought them at a flea market, and they regularly sat on them.
Lucia stood by the kitchenette, next to the window. Water boiled in the kettle.
“Morning,” Hazel said. 
“Morning. Hey, are you going to have dance classes today?”
“Yes, the same as every day.”
“You know what it means, right?”
“Right, I do . . . I don’t, actually. What does it mean?”
“That Milo will be there!” Lucia said. “His mentorshipstarts today.”
Milo. Who was Milo again? “You mean Milo, the singer?”
“Yes, Milo the singer! Milo the huge celebrity. Who else?”
Milo was indeed a famous singer. Not astonishingly famous like Lucia made it sound but well-known enough. He had graduated from the Academy a few years ago and was only a couple of years older than the current students. Having successful graduates come back to be mentors was one of the Academy’s tricks. 
“Well, OK,” Hazel said. “I don’t really know much about him or his music. So I’m not that excited about him being our new mentor.”
“Personally, I’d love to have someone successful in the fashion industry come tutor us.”
When Hazel reached the school, she learned that Milo was the day’s topic of conversation. Abigail and Matilda, two girls who were in the music course with Hazel, wouldn’t shut up about him. Even the history teacher mentioned him. 
Apparently, he had been spotted at the school. 
“He’s even better looking in person,” Abigail said.
Dance was always the last lesson of the day. Today, the same as every day, they gathered in the studio—a spacious room with a mirror that covered the entire wall. Their instructor, Ms. Jones, stood in front of them.
“Hi, girls and boys. Today we have a special guest. He’s going to stay with us for a while. He’s one of the most successful graduates in recent years. Get ready to welcome Milo. Come in now!”
Then the door opened, and he walked in. Most of thegirls screamed or gasped. Milo was tall and had a lean, proportionate body. Blond hair tumbled over his eyebrows and eyes. It was evident that his hair was at least partially bleached. He was wearing black pants and a white shirt with a jacket over it. A razorblade necklace hung around his neck. An earring sparkled in his ear. He looked like a person who was often the center of attention and therefore cared about his looks.
“Hi, everyone. I’m Milo. Most of you already know who I am and that I graduated from the Academy not that long ago. I’ll be with you for the foreseeable future. I will be coming and going because I still have other commitments.”
Subsequently, he talked about being a student here and how much it had helped him in his career. It bored Hazel as it sounded like whoever had asked him to come here had told him to say these things.
Hazel and Lucia spoke in the evening. Lucia was sitting on the floor pillows with her sketchbook when Hazel walked in. She was tired from the practice and slumped down next to her.
“How'd it go?” Lucia asked. “How was Milo? I saw him today, but you actually got to meet him, right?”
“He was at the practice, yes. I didn’t speak to him individually, so I’m not sure if we actually met.”
“What was your impression of him?”
Hazel shrugged. “A typical pretty boy singer in expensive clothes and with bleached hair. He was like, most of you already know who I am. I barely knew who he was because I don’t listen to that type of music.”
Hazel didn’t say anything more about him.
School life continued as normal. Hazel couldn’t say that Milo’s presence changed the dynamic of dance lessons all that much. Also, she didn’t get starstruck by him like the airheads Matilda and Abigail. 
Being a student at the Academy was going well; however, she was becoming increasingly frustrated with singing lessons. What annoyed her specifically was their teacher, Ms. Stanley. She wanted them to learn how to usetheir head voice and dedicated entire lessons to it.
Hazel liked using her chest voice as that suited the type of music she wanted to make if she ever became a real singer. Whenever she was strumming her guitar or attempting to write her own songs, she saw herself singing rock music or at least music with elements of rock. And that went with having a deep, raspy, low-register voice. Head voice was for people who made saccharine pop songs. Moreover, everyone who had heard her sing said that they liked her raspy voice. 
Ultimately, Hazel ended up arguing with her teacher. Hazel openly told her that she didn’t want to learn using her high register. Ms. Stanley replied that if that was so, she could simply not participate. As a result of that, Hazel spent the rest of the lesson sitting down on a chair in the choir room while others were practicing.
Dancing came after the vocal lesson. Hazel ran away from the choir room and stormed into the dance studio. She was alone here. How wonderful it’d be to alleviate her anger somehow. She proceeded to do just that by kicking the wall.
“I don’t know what made you mad but there’s no need to take it out on the wall.”
Hazel spun around. She wasn’t alone after all. Milo was here. He was sitting on the floor next to the entrance. She hadn’t seen him because she had run so fast. Hazel was flustered and turned away. This was embarrassing.
“I didn’t know you were here,” she said.
He then got up and came up to her. 
“Hazel, is it? So what happened?” he asked. “If you feel like telling me, of course.”
He knew her name? He must’ve heard her being called that. Maybe she could tell him. He used to be a student here only a few years ago after all. And sometimes it was easier to tell stuff to someone who was essentially, well, a stranger.
“I had a fight with my teacher. She wants me to change my voice. Well, not to change it, but to use my head voice more. But I don’t want to use that part of my register. I think it’ll ruin the low, raspy voice that I prefer. It’s suited for the kind of music I want to make, you see.”
“You know, I used to not like my vocal teachers for the same reason. Then I realized that they wanted me to improve my singing and use my entire capacity.”
“But I don’t want to use my high register all that much.”
“Neither did I. But vocal training is about learning howto use the totality of your voice. A lot of singers don’t realize that they can massively improve their singing and stretch their voices to new heights. And also, you might not realize now but teachers want to impart lessons that’ll benefit you. I realized how important lots of classes were only after I left the Academy.”
Then a group of students walked in. Milo stepped away from her. The lesson was about to start.
When school was over and Hazel was back in her dorm, shetold Lucia about talking to Milo. “You won’t believe what happened today.”
“What?” Lucia asked.
“Milo talked to me. Like, one on one.”
Lucia’s eyes widened. “He did? What did he say? And how were you alone with him?”
“I was upset because of Ms. Stanley. You know, the singing teacher. She wants us to learn using our high register which I don’t like doing. I stormed into the dance studio, and he was there. It was just him and me. He asked me why I was so mad, and I told him. He said that doing different vocal exercises can open your voice to its full capacity. I hate to admit it, but he’s right.”
“Interesting. What else did he say?”
“That was all. Then the lesson began.”
“So how was it, talking to him?”
“It was normal, I guess. He’s this famous person, but, if you talk to him, he seems like, well, just an ordinary guy.”
“That’s good, actually. I hate people who are full of themselves.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Sun continued shining throughout September, and Hazel often spent time outside with her guitar. Ordinary lessons as well assinging and dancing practices were going fine, and Hazel and Lucia had become fast friends. Hazel hadn’t gotten to knowanyone else all that well.
She tried to follow what Ms. Stanley said, knowing that it would be good for her singing abilities. She also diligently learned all the dance routines while having no real passion for dance as an art form. But it came easily to her; she learned quicker than almost anyone else. Then one day, she sprained her ankle during practice.
It happened when they had to perform a jump. Upon landing, Hazel turned her heel the wrong way, and that led to her falling. She was told to rest and not participate in dancing for a week. She spent her free time outside, playing her guitar. She either went to the lake and sat under the birches or stayedon a bench by the flowerbeds.
On Thursday afternoon, Hazel sat on the bench, her fingers pressed to the strings. Usually, she played until amelody came to her. She had some lyrics, and she hoped that the music would come. Replacing dance lessons with guitar playing meant her fingers had become sore. Her index finger also bled a bit last night, so she tied a Band-Aid around it and continued playing today. 
Luckily, the weather was still sunny, and a few other people were in the yard with her. Soon, it’d get too cold and rainy to spend a lot of time outdoors.
“That guitar of yours needs tuning.”
Hazel turned her head around. Milo stood by the bench. He was wearing a denim jacket with rhinestones. His messy bleached blond hair looked even lighter in the sunshine. Why was he here, talking to her? But he was here, waiting for a response.
“I know. I’m just reluctant to tune it because the strings usually break when I do that, and then I need new ones. Also, I always hit myself in the face with them. How come you’re here? School is on the opposite side.”
“I live in one of the buildings in the newly constructed area.”
Hazel knew the area. Its tall buildings towered above the rest of Small Lake. 
He sat down next to her. This was unusual. Here was this celebrity right by her side. And yet, there was no fanfare. Nobody seemed to care or even notice them. 
“How is your ankle?”
“It’s much better. I’ll be dancing again next week.”
“That’s good. So you also play the guitar. Do you do that a lot?”
“Recently quite a lot. I’m also attempting to write my own songs, but I haven’t written anything noteworthy yet.”
“It’ll happen eventually if you don’t give up,” he said.
“That’s what I think too.”
Following that, they sat in silence for a bit. But it wasn’t awkward. It was actually kind of nice in an unusual way. He then got up. “I have to go now. I have to be in Maplewood tomorrow, so I need to get ready. Life of a famous person, always stuff to do. I’ll be back next week.”
He got up and strutted away. Hazel followed him with her look.
Hazel spent some more time in the yard and then returned to the dorm. She walked into her room, opened her laptop and looked up Milo. Was that even his real name? It turned out that it was: He was born with a name suited for stardom. The blond hair was dyed of course. His natural color was also lightbut closer to chestnut—a warm earthy tone.
She then read what she could find about him. He was from Maplewood, born and raised there. He signed a record deal as soon as he graduated from the Academy. 
And he had a reputation for dating girls who were fans. Nothing had been confirmed officially as he had never been in a relationship publicly. But Hazel read a few accounts from girls who claimed that he had been involved with them. Apparently, he had pursued them specifically because they were his admirers and easy to get. Was this entirely true or only somewhat? Either way, it upset her, and she didn’t know why.
She shut the laptop and curled on the bed with her guitar. She strummed the strings that needed to be tuned as Milo had pointed out, hoping that a song would come.

Chapter 2
Following their interaction in the yard, Hazel continued talking to Milo in the studio. She often came early, and he was already there. 
In that way, they repeatedly had a few minutes of privacyfor a small conversation. They also saw each other outside of school. Hazel either sat on the bench with her guitar or took walks up to the river and the birches. Milo was frequentlythere after school was over or early on Saturdays or Sundayssince he lived nearby.
None of that seemed like a coincidence. On the contrary, they seemed to seek each other out and knew when and where they’d be. And that short period that they spent together each time always seemed meaningful. What did all of that mean, if anything? She didn’t know yet.
Still, the weather was getting more and more fall-like. When October came, temperatures dropped, and the amount of daylight decreased rapidly. Rain came more often, and Hazel wore her big gray coat and boots. 
Milo frequently went away on the weekends and sometimes on weekdays too. Hazel knew that he had to do photoshoots for various brand endorsements, film music videos and fly to other places, sometimes countries. A few times he had told her this, and on other instances she read about it on the internet.
When Milo left the Academy and Small Like, his life seemed to be much more hectic. He had paparazzi following him as well as bodyguards—Hazel had seen the pictures. 
Once on a Saturday morning when they were having a warm spell, Hazel sat by the lake. She had her guitar with her and began playing it. Luckily, it wasn’t one of those days when gloves were necessary.
She heard footsteps and turned to look. Milo was walking up to her. He moved with that typical casual gait, and he sported a coat embellished with studs. It was made by a specific fashion house and was featured in their new collection; she had seen ads with it. Milo had to wear theirclothes as part of an endorsement. He looked a bit like a model on a catwalk.
But he still looked good with the studded coat and the blond hair, always so messy. Her heartbeat quickened when he came close. He had been away for a while, and she had missed him even though she tried not to.
He sat next to her. “Let me tune it for you,” he said instead of hello. “I can’t listen to that off-key strumminganymore.”
Hazel looked at him. “Do you know how?”
“I play both the guitar and piano,” he said while taking it from her. “I just don’t do it when performing.”
He then tightened the strings, one after another. Hazelcould tell that he had done it before. He soon finished and returned it to her. 
“There,” he said. “It should sound much better now.” His lips curled into a smile.
Hazel looked at her newly tuned guitar. “So, can you play something for me?”
He laughed. “I can try. That’ll make you one of the few people who’ll hear me play an instrument. Consider yourself privileged.”
Then he took the guitar and played one of his songs. She had listened to his every song once but had only listened to a few of them on repeat.
“Did you write this one?” she asked when he finished and handed the guitar back to her.
“Yeah, I wrote most of the song. It’s about not letting fame change you. My co-writer altered some of the lyrics. And the producers added glossy production, the kind that’s supposed to make songs into hits. But in essence, it was about me and my feelings.”
Did this mean that this manufactured pop star was a songwriter at heart? It looked like they actually had quite a lot in common. 
“And you don’t play instruments when performing?” she asked.
“Well, no. I dance together with my backup dancers and jump around and put on a show. I play instruments when no one’s around.”
Now that he was close to her, she could pay more detailed attention to his androgynous features. He had a delicate jawline and lips. His ears were small and unusually shaped—kind of elfish in a way.
They continued looking at each other without speaking. Then Hazel turned away as it seemed like the moment had elongated.
“I like how the lake looks right now,” she said.
The birch foliage had turned bright yellow, and leaves had fallen on the lake, making it colorful.
“So do I. There’s something about fall that other seasons don’t have. Anyway, I have to go now, Hazel. I have stuff to do as always. But I liked catching up with you.” 
He then got up and put his hand on her shoulder, making her tremble. But a moment later he removed the hand and walked away, his long coat swinging.
Hazel walked into the dorm, still dizzy from what had transpired. Lucia was on the floor with different fabrics, scissors, a multitude of rhinestones and a glue gun. It looked like she had been given an assignment to bedazzle clothes. 
“Hi, Hazel,” Lucia said without looking at her.
Hazel put down the guitar. A burning need to speak to someone, to tell someone about what was going on hit her. If anything was going on, that is. Could she trust Lucia? She was Hazel’s closest person here. “I want to tell you something.”
Lucia looked up, the glue gun in her hand. “Sure. What is it?”
Hazel then told Lucia about all the interactions between her and Milo. Hazel revealed that he seemed to seek her out. And that today he had touched, almost caressed her.
Lucia’s face gained a thoughtful expression. “Well, based on everything, I would say he likes you. Or in the least finds you interesting. A guy wouldn’t talk to you if he didn’t. And he does seem to deliberately wait for you. You couldn’t see each other that often coincidentally.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” Hazel said. “But I don’t know if I like him liking me.”
“What do you mean? Most girls would be flattered.”
“I do think it’s flattering. But also distressing. You know, he has this reputation. For pursuing girls who are fans. I don’t know if it’s true, but I think rumors must come from somewhere. Basically, maybe he sees me as another conquest.”
“Well you’re not some screaming fangirl.”
“I guess not. But that could be the reason why he’s interested in me. Because I’m not ready to jump on him like some of these girls. That makes me a challenge in his eyes.”
“I’d suggest waiting and seeing where your interactions lead. See if he unambiguously shows that he likes you. Up to now, he’s only shown it indirectly.”

Chapter 3
Hazel continued talking with Milo at the dance practices and occasionally outside, in the yard. But the weather gotincreasingly wetter and colder as the days became shorter.
Hazel longed to be alone with him for longer and get to know him better. Who was he exactly, behind the shiny veneer?
In the meantime, she continued struggling with school. On one hand, everything was going well. The regular studies weren’t difficult, and she appeared to be gaining knowledge and developing skills in music and dance. But, at the same time, a lot of that seemed pointless. 
She ended up having arguments with both her music and dance teachers on the same day. Something happened that made Hazel want to voice her opinions. Sometimes she snapped and couldn’t keep her thoughts to herself.
By the end of the day, following the arguments, she was in a foul mood. Instead of going to the dorm, she decided to take a walk.
Clouds gathered in the sky, and wind breezes blew on her face. She had received a notification about rain coming. But Hazel cared little about the weather not being suitable for being outdoors. She was sad and moody and wanted to walk, even if she’d get soaked. She had left her umbrella at home since there had been no rain in the morning.
Hazel walked up to the lake and watched the rain that had started falling drizzling down on it. It landed on the water, forming splashes and circles. Looking at it soothed her agitated nerves.
Someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned to look. It was Milo. Once again, he had sneaked up to her.
“How did you find me? Did you know I was here?” sheasked.
“Only because I followed you. After that quarrel you had with Ms. Jones, you seemed understandably upset. And I wanted to see if you were OK.”
Rain fell on their faces. Milo didn’t have an umbrellaeither. But they were finally alone, and she wanted to get things off her chest.
“I think I’m better now. It was my fault anyway. I often put my foot in my mouth. I know I shouldn’t speak like that to people in positions of authority. But can I tell you something? Sometimes I hate this place. I look at Lucia, my roommate, and it’s like she belongs here. Me, on the other hand . . . Now and then I wish I’d stayed in Sea Cliff. That’s where I’m from.I miss it, you know. I miss the seaside and the forests and how peaceful it is. My friends are there and my parents. I’m not sure if being in a performance school is right for me. I’m not much of a performer, you see.”
“I get it. You have to decide if it’s ultimately suitable for you. But hey, you don’t need to do it straight away. Right now, just try not to think about it. There’s no need to be upset because of it. Or argue with teachers. It’s just school. Real life starts after.”
“I guess so,” Hazel said. 
The rain intensified. 
“You’re going to get drenched by the time you get to the dorm,” Milo said.
“But what should I do? I can’t stay here,” Hazel said. The rain fell behind her collar, sliding down her back.
“Come to my apartment.”
“Your . . . what?”
“You heard me. It’s really close. Come.”
Milo then grabbed her by the sleeve, but she wasn’t moving.
“Milo, I’m not sure I should—”
“I just want to get you warm. And dry. That’s all. Let’s go now.”
They walked until they reached the high-rise buildings. Milo walked up to one of them. “We have to go all the way to the top floor,” he said as they entered it, wet from the rain. They took the elevator until they reached the top. Then they walked into the apartment.
“Welcome to my humble abode,” Milo said, turning on the light. White was the dominant color here. Light fittings shaped like branches with leaves hung from the ceiling. The room they were in was a large living room with a kitchen as a part of it. The windows were big and square. A couch stood in the middle, and a glass door led to a balcony. It also had a fireplace.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I like it. It’s not too luxurious. Kind of minimalistic, actually.”
“I don’t like to cram my space full of stuff I don’t need. Besides, I’m only staying here temporarily. Wait, I’ll turn on the heating.”
Hazel took off the coat and boots while he did that. Milo sat down on the couch, watching the rain splatter against the windows. 
“Come, join me,” he said. 
Hazel stayed on the spot. 
“Don’t look at me like I’m some predator. I’m not going to do anything to you. I promise, OK?”
Hazel stepped closer. She then sat down. They were quite close, but still had a distance between them. They stayed like that, watching the rain splashing against the panes.
“I like it when it rains,” Milo said. “Or I like watching it from the inside. I don’t like it when it gets you wet. Are you warm enough? If not, I can get you a blanket.”
“OK,” Hazel said. He was caring, and that was nice. 
Milo brought the blanket, and she covered herself with it. Soon, Hazel was warm and cozy.
“So, you’re from Sea Cliff?” Milo asked. “I’ve only been there for concerts, didn’t get to see much of the city. Can youtell me about it?”
And so Hazel spoke about Sea Cliff, and what she loved about it. She said that she liked being from a coastal city because she was always surrounded by the sea and nature. She talked about her childhood—she was constantly on a beach or in a forest. “I miss it, that connection with Mother Earth.”
They continued talking about other subjects. Milo told her that he was often unable to relate to people because of his fame. “Others see you as special in some way. I have toremind them that I’m just human, the same as everyone else.
“Also, you never know when someone is genuinely interested in you as a person or if they want something from you. Certain individuals only want to associate with you because you have some type of influence.”
“That’s understandable. But then you value people who do care about you more.”
“That’s what I was about to say,” Milo said.
Soon Hazel’s eyelids became heavy with sleep. Maybe it was the exhaustion from a long week or the fact that it had already gotten dark. But she was definitely sleepy. The rain had calmed which meant that she could go now. And yet, she didn’t want to. “I don’t feel like going back to the dorm,” she said, not meeting his eyes. 
“Then stay here. I have a spare bedroom.”
Hazel thought about it for a bit. “OK,” she thenwhispered.
Soon she was practically falling asleep. 
“I think I’ll take you to your room now,” Milo said. “You’re like this cat I used to have when I was a kid. Did you know cats spend more time awake than asleep?”
“I did know that,” Hazel said and then yawned. 
“Let’s go. You can take the blanket.”
Milo walked up to a door next to the fireplace and opened it. “I’ll leave you here. Good night.” He then walked away.
Hazel looked around. The room was spacious with a huge bed in the middle. Everything was white, the same as in the living room. She slumped on the bed. She then took off her clothes and curled up underneath the thick blanket. She was soon drifting into sleep.
When Hazel woke up, it was still dark. She’d just wait for dawn to come. She lay in the huge bed, her arms spread. Had Milo slept in this bed before? And what would it be like to be in this bed with him, underneath the blanket that seemed to be stuffed with feathers? On the couch, she didn’t want to get too close to him. Now she longed for him to be here with her.
She had gone from wondering if Milo liked her to spending the night at his apartment. And yet, he hadn’t attempted to kiss or touch her. He hadn’t even flirted with her. It was reassuring in a way. Maybe he really did like her on a level that went deeper than superficial attraction.
It was getting lighter. She got up, opened the blinds and looked outside. The entirety of Small Lake spread out in front of her. The outline of Maplewood’s skyscrapers appearedfurther in the background against the bluish sky.
Dawn came, followed by sunrise. Hazel got dressed and tiptoed into the big room. Was Milo still asleep? Surprisingly, he was here, sitting at the table.
The light shined into the room through the big windows. 
“Good morning,” Milo said. “Did you like sleeping in the big bed?”
“I loved it. Very comfy,” she said. She was then momentarily embarrassed about her disheveled clothes andmessy hair. She wasn’t crazy about Milo seeing her like that. “I’m surprised you’re awake. Didn’t take you for an early bird.”
“What can I say? I can be surprising. Anyway, you want to eat something?”
“I think I should go,” Hazel said.
“You were away for the night. Nothing bad will happen if you spend some more time here.”
“No, I better go. Lucia must be worried. I didn’t tell herI’d be spending the night away.”
Spending the night here was already awkward. Eating breakfast with him would increase the awkwardness level. She liked being with him, but she also wanted to get away.She couldn’t quite explain it; both attraction and aversion battled in her.
Milo smiled. “All right then, you can go. I won’t hold you here against your will. But I hope you liked my apartment. You should come over again. Next time, I can burn the fire in the fireplace.”
Soon Hazel was back in the dorm. She hoped to sneak into her room unnoticed. But when she was about to creep into her room, Lucia came out of hers. She was in an oversized sweatshirt, and her hair was unbrushed.
“I heard you walk in,” she said. “Where on earth have you been? And not answering messages too?”
“My phone died. I could’ve charged it I guess, but I was doing other things.”
“What were you doing exactly?”
“I . . . I was with Milo,” Hazel said. It was best to tell the truth. Lucia already knew about them spending time together. 
“You spent the night with him?”
“I spent the night at his apartment. Nothing happened, though. We just sat together, talking and watching the rain. Then I slept in the spare bedroom.”
“How did you even end up there?”
“It was raining when we were outside by the Academy. He told me to come with him to get dry.”
“Tell me everything that happened!”
Hazel then related all the events of last evening and this morning to Lucia.
“What do you think about it?” Hazel then asked.
“I think he definitely likes you. Especially because he didn’t try to do anything. He just wanted to spend time with you.”
Hazel was pensive. Many thoughts swirled through her mind. 
“Will you accept his offer to come once more?”
“I think I will. I wouldn’t mind hanging out at that place again. And I loved finally being able to be alone with him and away from everyone else. It was so liberating—not worrying about being seen or overheard.”
“Anyway,” Lucia said. “Maybe just let me know where you are next time so that I don’t wonder. I think I’m going to go back to sleep.”
Lucia then shuffled back to her room. Hazel walked intohers. She lay on her bed, hugging the pillow, contemplating the events of yesterday and this morning.
Hazel and Milo next spoke at the Academy. After lessons were over, she stood by the information board. Milo walkedthrough the hallway and came up to her. “What are you looking at?”
“Just reading about the upcoming events,” Hazel said. “The musical that the musical theater students have been working on is coming soon.”
Milo came closer to her and breathed on her neck. If only he would touch her too. But they were in the school’s hallway, so he wouldn’t do that.
“So, have you thought about coming to my place again?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t mind coming again, no.”
“Come on Friday, in the evening. I’ll buzz you in.”
When she came to the apartment on Friday night, a fire was already burning in the fireplace. “I started it around half an hour ago. I knew you should be coming soon,” Milo said.
Hazel took off her coat and boots and came up to the fire. “You know, I’ve always wondered what it’s like to have a home with a fireplace.”
“Go ahead, sit down on the rug,” Milo said. “I have some takeout food I ordered.”
The noodles that he had ordered came with chopsticks, and so Hazel tried to eat with them. But she was inept at it and dropped them all the time, making Milo laugh. Sitting by the fireplace with him and eating was easy and comfortable, almost like she had known him for a long time.
After they had finished with the noodles, they talked while the fire burned. Soon it was only a flicker, not even creating any warmth.
It wasn’t long before they ran out of things to talk about. They just sat next to each other in the dimmed light. Milo looked at her with an intent look. His eyes focused on her lips, then slid down her neck. Did he want to kiss her? In fact, Hazel was certain about that. But his look was also apprehensive. There had to be something holding him back. And certain things were holding her back too.
“I think it’s time for me to go,” Hazel said, looking away. “It’s late and dark outside.”
“That’s fine. Thanks for coming. I hope you liked the fire and the food.”
“I did. I’m just not good with the chopstick thing.”
She then got up, and they walked to the door together.
“Walk fast and stay in well-lit areas,” he said.
“I will.”

Chapter 4
Hazel spent the weekend lost in thoughts and fantasies. It seemed like something was drawing her and Milo close but also pulling them apart. For her it was the fact that he was famous and attractive to many. What were his reasons?
She ached to see him during the next dance practice. But, when the practice came, Ms. Jones told them that Milo wouldbe absent until the second week of December. “He’s gone to do some celebrity stuff,” she said.
From then on, time dragged, and Hazel missed himterribly. She hadn’t anticipated that. But every morning, the first thought on her mind was Milo and those delicate featuresof his. She yearned to press her lips against his and ruffle his untidy blond hair.
To deal with his absence, Hazel listened to his music and watched his interviews. It was odd. All of a sudden, she was having this one-sided relationship with him, like one of his fangirls.
Lucia was one person who knew how she felt. Hazelspoke to Lucia about missing him, and Lucia kept saying that he’d be back before she knew it. “And he’ll want to see you again once he is.”
And then he was back. He walked by her at school and smiled at her. He looked even more gorgeous than before. The blond hair, messy as always, had grown longer and fell overhis forehead, eyebrows and eyes. And then there were thoselips and the straight nose, and that refined jawline. Hazelfound it hard to believe that she used to like masculine-looking men. Milo had changed that. Or maybe he was an exception.
They spoke before the next dance lesson. Hazel hurried to the practice early, hoping he’d be there. And he was. 
“Hi, Milo,” she said, coming up to him. 
“Hazel,” he pronounced in that honeyed way of his. She had never particularly liked her name. But he said it melodically, making it sound different. “I missed you. I wanted to see you. I have something to tell you.”
Hazel’s heartbeat quickened upon hearing these three sentences.
“Come over to my place. Friday evening, the same as before? You can, right?”
“Wonderful. See you then.”
On Friday evening, Hazel got ready to see Milo. She combed her long brown hair until it was perfectly straight and wore a blue blouse and ripped jeans. She applied a bit of lip gloss and then was ready to go.
Lucia, who knew where Hazel was going, was in the common area, sitting on one of the pillows on the floor.
“I’m going to go now,” Hazel said. 
“How are you feeling?”
“A little nervous. He said he has something to tell me.”
“I’m thinking he’ll finally tell you how he feels about you. But no need to be nervous about it. Just hear him out.”
“You’re right,” Hazel said and then headed toward the door.
“See you later today. Or tomorrow if you spend the night.”
Hazel then left the dorm and walked to Milo’s place. It was already dark. Milo buzzed her in. She then knocked on his door. “Come in,” Milo said as he opened it.
The fire crackled; the lights were once again dimmed. That created a kind of romantic atmosphere. 
“Look at what I brought from Maplewood,” he said while gesturing at the kitchen counter. 
Three bottles stood on it. Hazel took one and inspected it. It was whiskey.
“It was a gift from an event I attended. When you’re famous, people give you all kinds of things. Apparently, it’s some exclusive, rare edition stuff. I haven’t tried it yet. Do you want to try it with me?”
Hazel was apprehensive, holding the bottle and eyeing it. 
“Wait, I forgot you’re not old enough to drink legally.I’m not trying to get you intoxicated, don’t worry. I can mix it in a way that’s not strong at all. But you don’t have to drink it if you don’t want to.”
“No, I can drink. I mean, I have before. I just haven’t in a while. Me and my friends in Sea Cliff were always doing whatever we wanted, not caring about being underage. So yes, I can try your exclusive whiskey with you.”
“OK, I’ll prepare it for us.”
Milo grabbed two glasses and poured the whiskey into them. He then added ginger ale and ice. Milo took the glasses to the fireplace, and they sat down on the rug.
He took a sip from his glass. “When you’re famous, people give you free stuff all the time. I’m grateful for that perk, but I often don’t know what to do with it. I’ve regifted so much stuff, you have no idea.”
He then lifted his glass. “What should we toast for?” 
“For this moment. Sitting here in this top-floor apartment by the fireplace, drinking whiskey. It’s pretty dope, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I would. I like this moment too. Mostly because you’re here, and we’re back together.”
Hazel didn’t say anything back. She looked away and lowered her eyes. She then drank from the cup. It had an oddtaste, but she liked it. The combination of whiskey and ginger ale tickled her taste buds.
“So how was Maplewood?” she asked.
Milo took a chug from the cup. “Same old. Lots of noise, pollution, events, attention, people wanting to take pictureswith you. Sometimes I feel like the only place where I can be left alone is my home, hotel rooms and, well, Small Lake.”
“That’s what intimidates me about being a singer and a songwriter. I’m not sure if I can handle that level of scrutiny.”
“Don’t get me wrong; there are many positive sides. But sometimes I get overwhelmed and want to be on my own. Because of that, I was looking forward to coming back here. I never used to like the suburbs. But I missed the calmness of this place. And I missed you.”
His eyes peered into her face. She didn’t look away this time. His cheeks were flushed. Was it the alcohol? He had almost emptied his glass.
“You know, I kept thinking about you while in Maplewood. Thoughts about you refused to leave me. No matter what I did, you were always there.”
A slight dizziness hit her. He didn’t know, but the same thing had happened to her while he was away.
“Is that what you wanted to tell me?” she asked.
“Yes, about that. You know, since we’re drinking, I might as well be candid with you. Call it drunk confession time. I’ve been with quite a few girls before. A couple of them werefans.”
She remembered reading those stories. But this didn’t sting like it had in the past. He was a young guy with the perks of fame. Of course, he’d make use of the fact that girls found him attractive.
“And yes, I know it’s unethical. But I didn’t care about that. I kept it a secret as much as I could. Some of it got out but not enough to cause damage to the image that I was supposed to have.
“But then I met you, and something new happened. You weren’t a fan and weren’t losing your mind when around me. Instead, you were just yourself, and I liked that about you.
“And so I wanted to get to know you better. And then when I did, I developed these feelings. This was uncharted,scary territory for me. And I didn’t tell you or show you how I felt.
“But in Maplewood, I kept thinking that this isn’t me. I’m not someone who hides how he feels. I’m someone who goes after what he wants. And then I thought I had to let you know.”
Finally, she understood. He liked her much more than those other girls. She wasn’t just another conquest. That was why nothing had happened between them. He then moved closer to her. If he was tipsy and honest with her, she could be as well. 
“I kind of felt the same way about you,” she said. “I didn’t care much about you in the beginning. It didn’t matter to me that you were famous. But then we started talking, and I got to know you. And I learned that you wrote your own songs, like me. And when you were gone, I missed you and thought about you. I even watched your interviews.”
His gaze traveled from her eyes to her mouth, like it had before. He was very close, and his breath smelled of whiskey. He then closed his eyes and pressed his lips against hers. It had happened many times in her daydreams. Now it was real.His kiss was warm and wet and made her shiver. She kissed him back.
He put his arms around her and then pushed her against the floor while continuing to kiss her. It was unexpectedly forceful, but she loved it—all the pent-up feelings being released. The smell of his perfume mixed with whiskey tickled her nostrils.
They were now on the rug. He opened the first few buttons of her blouse. Milo covered her body with kisses, pressing his lips to her face, her neck, her chest and her stomach. And he caressed her body, touching her in such a tender way. It was an incredible feeling.
But then after a while, they weren’t kissing or touching anymore. It seemed that their make out session had come to an end. Hazel didn’t want to go further. Apparently, he didn’t either.
They just lay embracing, the fire warming her exposed body. His head was pressed to her shoulder—it fit there perfectly. She buried her fingers in his hair. He then lifted his head. They looked at each other. They stayed like that for a while, gazing into each other’s eyes as if looking for something.
“I like your perfume,” Hazel said. 
“I’m getting paid to wear it.”
“I knew it. So, what’s going to happen next?”
He continued looking at her. “Let’s date. I mean, if you want to. But there’s one condition. It has to remain a secret.”
Hazel contemplated this. So far, she had liked the fact that only the two of them plus Lucia knew about this whole thing. Hazel wasn’t ready for the attention that came withdating someone famous. Were those the same reasons why Milo wanted to keep it a secret?
“Why?” she asked.
“First of all, my management wants me to appear single and available for the fans. Secondly, the media and the paparazzi will go crazy over a relationship. I wouldn’t want you to go through that. Luckily, I know how to hide. You can’t hide all the time, but I’ve become quite good at hiding when I want to.”
“What about our age difference?” she asked. 
“That’s another reason to keep it a secret. Although you look and act more like a grownup, you are still a child under the law. Not that it bothers me personally.”
“It doesn’t bother me, either. I feel so mature sometimes, and then I have to remind myself that I’m technically still a kid.”
So, was this the right thing to do? There were reasons to say no. Keeping secrets was fun but exhausting.
But he was right here and holding her and looking at her with those eyes full of yearning. And this evening had been ecstatic; him telling her how he really felt, and them finally giving in to the simmering attraction. His kisses and caresses were even better than she had imagined. This being a constantaspect of her life would make her happy, no doubt about that.
“Yes,” she then said. “I want us to date.”

Chapter 5
December came and brought frequent snowfall. Thick layers of it covered the willows, and the surface of the lake turned into ice.
Hazel and Milo secretly met at his apartment. They talked and ate takeouts on the floor while the fire flamed and crackled. She often spent the night. Sometimes they fell asleep on the couch. Other times, they lay entwined in his bed.
Keeping it a secret was exciting and difficult like she had thought it would be. A few times, they were almost caught. People from the school’s administration came to the apartment when she was there, and Hazel had to hide.
A bunch of girls from the Academy also found out where he lived (that included Abigail and Matilda). One evening, they stood by the building, apparently waiting for him to come out. Hazel waited for them to leave while hiding nearby. The next day, Abigail said that they learned where he lived by following him home.
Hazel was also spotted sneaking into the dorm early in the morning. On one of these mornings, a girl who lived across from her and Lucia asked her where she’d been. “Did you spend the night somewhere else? Were you with someone?”
Hazel smirked. “Maybe I was.”
“I can tell you were by the way you’re grinning.”
Lucia was the only person that Hazel had told. She was happy for Hazel while warning her to be careful about it. “Imagine what’ll happen if any of the girls who want him find out,” she said. “Or one of the teachers?”
But so far, no one had a clue. 
When it was almost Christmas time, Hazel and Milowere at his place as usual, by the fireplace with empty noodle boxes and chopsticks. Hazel had yet again tried eating with them, and Milo had once again laughed about it.
“You’ll get time off for Christmas and New Year, right?” he asked. “They’ve told me I don’t have any classes scheduled for that time.”
“Yeah, the school will be closed for a week and a half. It’s our winter break.”
“Come with me to Maplewood. You can stay at my house. My family will be over, and you can meet them. They’re not going to tell anyone about you, don’t worry. Also, you can come to the New Year’s concert that I’ll be performing at; I can get you a special pass. And we can walk around the city. I’ll show you my favorite spots. I know you’re not crazy about Maplewood, but that’s where I’m from.”
Hazel had been planning to visit Sea Cliff during the break. But this was more appealing. She loved the idea of seeing Maplewood through his eyes, especially since she had always disliked it. This was a chance to see it in a new light.And meeting his family would be great too. It looked like he really cared about her if he wanted to do all that with her.
“Yes,” she said. “I’ll come with you.”
Milo smiled, then leaned closer and kissed her on the forehead.
Hazel told her parents that she was too busy with schoolwork to come home. She also said that she didn’t miss Sea Cliff. Neither was true, of course. A sense of guilt bothered her because she had lied, but she tried to ignore it. This wasn’t the right time to tell them about Milo.
Instead, they went to Maplewood together. The city was a lot like she remembered it from when she’d last been here. Here were the towering buildings of the financial district, the river that divided the city into two areas, the gaudy neon billboards and signs. However, this time Hazel craved seeing his favorite places.
Milo’s house was in a gated community. Hazel wasn’t used to massive, luxurious houses. But she liked the privacy of it. 
“Your house is huge,” she said when they first arrived. They were in the dining room that led to the hallway with abig staircase. “But you probably like it that way.”
“Not always. You get lonely here all by yourself. But it’s different when folks and my brother come over. You’ll get to meet them soon.”
“Your house looks kind of bare for Christmas,” she said.“Do you think we should decorate it?”
“Yes, good idea. But we’ll need to get some decorationsfirst. I don’t have any here. We can do that when we go shopping. Let’s go shopping, by the way.”
And so they embarked on a shopping spree. Occasionally, people recognized him. Quite a few people on the streets looked at him as if speculating if he was Milo the singer or just someone who looked a lot like him.
A couple of times people who could clearly tell it washim came up to them. He then talked to them and posed for selfies. But overall, nobody bothered them too much. And no one asked Hazel who she was. It didn’t seem like anyone cared.
They bought Christmas decorations first. Hazel was excited about putting them all over the house.
“There’s another store I wanted to take you to,” Milo said.
“What’s that?”
“Let me just tell you that it’s where you’ll get to pick your Christmas present.”
As it turned out, Milo took her to a musical instrument store and the guitar section. Hazel didn’t want to get anything at first. She liked her old guitar. She had come across it at a thrift store and had just enough money to buy it. She had then written all her first songs on it. She told Milo this.
But he insisted. “You might have a sentimental attachment to your guitar, but it’s old and sounds wrecked.Even after I tuned the strings, it still had that wheezy sound. I want you to have a new one so that you can develop your skills on a better instrument.”
She then chose a new guitar, and they left. When they returned to the house, Hazel decorated it. After that, she tried playing the guitar. It would take a while to get used to it, but the sound was much cleaner, and she liked the way it fit in her hands.
“Folks are coming over tomorrow,” he said while she sat in a plush chair, holding the guitar.
“I’m a little nervous about that. Just hoping they’ll like me.”
“Don’t be nervous. I’m sure they will.”
“By the way, I’m not sure what to give you as a gift. It looks like you have everything.”
“You being here is the gift I wanted,” Milo said.
His family came over the next evening, and they had aChristmas Eve dinner. His mom and dad were friendly and warm. His younger brother seemed shy and didn’t speak much. Milo introduced Hazel to them as his girlfriend and told them about how they met at the Academy. They didn’t seem to care about the age difference. Or maybe they thought she was already eighteen. 
The next day, Milo showed her his favorite places in Maplewood like he had said he would. They went to a hilly park that had kids sliding down the icy inclines on toboggans. “I used to do that when I was little,” he said. They walked to a bridge that went over a canal in the same park. Many locks were attached to it. It had to be one of those bridges where lovers wrote their names on them and then threw the key into the water. Hazel and Milo took pictures of themselves on it.They hugged, and she kissed him on the cheek for the pics. 
They also went to Milo’s former school. “That’s where I went to middle school before I moved to Small Lake to attend the Academy. So many memories here.”
They continued strolling through the city. It soon got dark. They reached downtown and walked along the river. Milo showed her the billboards that advertised the New Year’s concert where he was one of the acts.
“The pass that I’ll give you will grant you access to the area right in front of the stage,” Milo said.
“I’ll be your biggest supporter,” she answered, smirking.
She looked at Milo while they strolled, holding onto each other. He was wonderful after all. Had she really thought he was a conceited, self-absorbed celebrity in the beginning? He was the opposite of that.
The day after, Milo took her to his recording studio. It was deserted—they were the only ones here.
“This is where the magic happens,” he said as they stepped into it.
The studio was surprisingly small and ordinary. It had engineering equipment, loudspeakers and various musical instruments. Pictures of musicians that had recorded here adorned the walls. Microphones, amplifiers and more instruments, including drums, stood in the isolation booth.“I’ve recorded most of my stuff here,” Milo said. 
He then walked into the booth and sat behind a keyboard. He started playing, just improvising. Once again, his playingwasn’t amazing but still quite good. 
Hazel didn’t know why, but she itched to snap a photo of him. She took out her phone and did just that.
Milo didn’t seem to mind. “Are we having a mini photo session?”
“I guess so,” she said. “I just liked the way you’re sitting behind it, with your hands on the keys. An artist at work.”
She then took photos of him with various instruments, as well as him pretending to sing in front of the mic. Milo gladly went along with what she suggested. She also took a photo of him lying down on the studio floor. In the photo, he lookedaway rather than into the camera, a dreamy expression on his face as if he was longing for something.
“This one’s my favorite,” Hazel said while showing him the picture. “You have so much pining and sadness in your eyes.”
“I’m an actor too, remember? As in, I’ve acted in commercials.”
She then sent him the photos. “In case you want them,” she said.
In the period after Christmas and before the New Year, they spent most of their time at home. Hazel liked seeing Maplewood with Milo, but that didn’t change the fact that the cold outside was biting, and it got dark quickly. Moreover, snowfall had started again. It fell in clutches and covered the streets.
But then Milo told Hazel to grab her new guitar and come with him.
“There’s one more place I want to take you to,” he said.
“In this weather?” she asked.
“Well, yes. Just dress extra warm.”
Hazel wore two sweaters and a huge scarf underneath her coat. She then clutched the guitar, and they went outside. Snow continued falling; Hazel watched it twirling in the air before landing on the ground. They walked through the city, surrounded by piles of it. Milo led them to a narrow street.They stopped in front of a door and a sign above that read The Semitone.
“This is the place,” he said.
“Is it a music club?” Hazel asked.
“Yep. They have a stage where anyone can get up and sing. I used to come here when I was younger.”
They walked in. Darkness swathed the club. The placewas all but abandoned; Hazel counted only five people altogether. But right after Christmas wasn’t the busiest timefor any business.
“Do you want me to get up there and sing?” she asked.
“That’s the idea, yes. But, more than that, I want you to sing your songs. To be yourself: the girl who likes to write songs and play the guitar. Not the girl who’s forced to learn choreography.”
“But . . . I’m not sure my songs are good enough. They’re more like first drafts.”
“That’s not important. What’s important is getting yourself out there and presenting your own material in front of an audience. You know, I believe in life you have to do things before you’re ready.”
Hazel looked at the stage. He was right. She had to gather her courage and get up there. Hardly anyone would see her anyway. 
Milo came up to the man behind the bar. In a few seconds, lights illuminated the stage.
“It’s all yours,” he then said.
Hazel got up, clutching her brand-new guitar close to her chest. 
“Hey, everyone,” she said. The few people who were present turned toward her. She could see them; the lights weren’t blinding. “My name is Hazel. I’m an aspiring singer and songwriter. Here are a few songs of mine. They’re unpolished, so please don’t judge too harshly.”
She then sang and played five songs that she had written. They were rough around the edges, and her singing wasn’tamazing—maybe the cold weather had affected her voice. But overall, it wasn’t that bad. The people in the club seemed to like it. When she finished, Milo clapped and cheered. 
“See, you weren’t terrible,” he said when she had come back down.
“No, not at all. But I want to go back now. I want to be in the warmth and coziness of that huge house of yours.”
They were soon back in the snow-covered streets. 
“Thanks for making me do that,” Hazel said.
“I remember being freakishly scared of performing in front of an audience. But when you overcome that fear once, it gets easier every time.”
They walked back to his house. Milo made her hot chocolate to keep her warm. She drank it while looking out the window at the snow falling.
A few days later, it was New Year’s Eve and time for the concert. It was set to happen in Maplewood’s central square in the evening, close to when the celebrations would begin. Milo did as he promised and got her tickets in the golden circle, right next to the stage. Before the concert began, a couple ofpeople were interviewed for the live broadcast. Hazel was one of them.
“What’s your name and what do you do for a living? Who are you excited to see perform?” the interview lady in a red coat asked Hazel while sticking a microphone in her face.
“I’m Hazel; I’m a student at the Performing and Creative Arts Academy. And Milo. I’m excited to see Milo.”
Soon the show began. It featured three other acts in addition to Milo. It ended at about ten in the evening. Aroundan hour later, they were back at his house.
“So, how do you want to celebrate?” Milo asked. “I think I have champagne somewhere. People are always giving me free alcohol for some reason.”
He then looked for it until he found a bottle. He opened it and poured the champagne into two glasses. “They always have fireworks in the city on New Year's Eve. If we go up to my bedroom, we can watch from there.”
“Yes, why not.”
They went up and sat on the windowsill, waiting for the fireworks. Then they came, illuminating the night sky. Hazel and Milo clanked the glasses, wishing each other a happy new year.
After that, they lay in his bed. He put his hand around her waist, played with her hair and slowly kissed her neck. 
“We’re leaving tomorrow,” he said.
“I know. You’ll never believe this, but after a week and a half here, I’m kind of sad to be leaving Maplewood. I like itnow, especially since I know you grew up here. Seeing the places where you spent your childhood was pretty cool.”
“Now we have to go back to everyday life at the Academy. And be a secret again.”
“We’re good at that though,” she said. “The whole secret love affair thing. Nobody knows except for a few people.”
He held her tighter and placed his face somewhere between her neck and shoulder. It was so easy and wonderful—just being with him, intertwined like this. 

Chapter 6
A day later, Hazel and Milo returned to Small Lake. 
Hazel had mixed feelings about being back. She didn’t feel like returning to the rigorous dancing and singing practices, but she was happy to be surrounded by the quietness of the suburb. Maplewood had been overwhelming at times.
And she was happy to see Lucia since she had missed her. They spent Saturday, their first day back in Small Lake,talking about their breaks. They sat next to each other on the floor pillows. Lucia painted her toenails while Hazel sipped tea from a large mug.
Lucia had gone to her hometown to celebrate the holidays. “It was mostly quiet time with the family,” she said. “How about Maplewood? How was it?”
“It was amazing,” Hazel said. “I got to see the city from a whole different point of view. And Milo, he’s just . . .” she then looked away, shy all of a sudden. “He’s incredible. He took me to all these places. And introduced me to his family. And got me a guitar as a gift. He’s so sweet and thoughtful. The best secret boyfriend in the world.”
“That’s because he cares about you.”
“I think so,” Hazel said.
On Sunday Hazel didn’t have anywhere to be either. She took a long bath, filling the bath with bubble liquid and blowing the bubbles. She then walked out, wrapped in a bathrobe. 
Lucia was by the window, looking at her peculiarly.
“Are you OK?” Hazel asked. “You look a bit distressed.”
“Well, I kind of am. But not for myself.”
“What are you trying to say?”
Lucia placed her phone in Hazel’s hands. Hazel stared at it. A news article was on the screen. Milo’s new romance exposed! The piece said that the singer Milo had been spotted around Maplewood with a mystery female. Photos and videos were included. 
The female in question was of course Hazel. The photos and videos showed them together in Maplewood at nighttime. Here were photos of them on the bridge in the park when they were lovey-dovey, by the billboards downtown and in the snowy streets.
“There are more pictures here,” Lucia said, opening another set of photos. Milo’s new lady friend comes to support him, said the caption. The pictures showed Hazel at the concert, standing close to the stage.
Hazel lifted her eyes from the screen and stared into Lucia’s concerned face. This was awful. It felt as if someone was stabbing knives into the pit of her stomach. Not only had they been followed, but these people had obtained footage of them for everyone to see and scrutinize. This was an invasion of privacy. Maybe not for him but for her. She was a private citizen after all.
“I had no idea we were being followed,” Hazel said. “Do you think it’s obvious that it’s me in the pictures? Could be any girl with long brown hair, right?”
“The thing is that they know it’s you. There’s anotherarticle exposing you.”
Lucia showed it to Hazel. The mystery girl seen with Milo revealed to be a student of the Academy in Small Lake.
Hazel’s hands started shaking. How on earth did theyknow this? But then there had been that short interview she had given at the New Year’s concert. Hazel had said her name and that she was a student attending the Performing and Creative Arts Academy. And that she was excited to see Milo.
She read the article, and it turned out that she was correct. Milo’s new flame seen at the New Year’s concert. The brown-haired girl who was photographed with Milo a few days earlier was seen in recent photos at the New Year’s celebration concert in one of the first rows. She was also interviewed. She said that her name was Hazel, and she was a student at the famous performance academy, the same one Milo graduated from.
They had also found pictures from the Academy’s social feeds. The photos posted by the Academy featured the current groups of students. Hazel was there too.
The people who had written it knew that she and Milo met at the dance lessons where he was a mentor. And, certainly, they knew that she was underage.
Where had the pics and videos come from? A few of them looked like they were taken with long-focus lenscameras, the kind professionals and, well, paparazzi had.
But she was certain that a few of these were taken by people who had wanted selfies with Milo and seemingly didn’t care about who she was. They had followed them to obtain footage of them together. They later shared them for the world to see. How could she not have noticed? But the thought of anyone following them had never occurred to her.
The room seemed to spin. Hazel was woozy and nauseous. She slid down on the chair, the phone still in her shaking hand.
“Are you OK?” Lucia asked. “But then again of course you’re not.” She then patted her back. “Do you want anything?”
Hazel shook her head. “How will I go to school tomorrow? Everyone will be staring, talking about me.”
“I’ll stay with you as much as I can. I won’t let them taunt you.”
Hazel spent the rest of the day in her room. She didn’t go on the internet. Her phone kept lighting up with notifications. Her parents and friends in Sea Cliff wanted to know what was going on. Was she really dating Milo? 
Hazel didn’t give specific answers. She only said that she’d speak about it when ready, and that for the time beingshe wanted her privacy.
The next day, Hazel woke up early. She peeked through the blinds. What if paparazzi were hiding somewhere out there?
But no, they couldn’t possibly be here. Or could they, now when they knew that not only Milo but also his new girlfriend was in Small Lake? And what if any of the school kids would take pictures of her and then post them or sell them or whatever? All sorts of terrible scenarios spun in her head.
But today, she could no longer hide in her room. She’d have to face her schoolmates and teachers. Lucia said she’d stay with Hazel as much as possible. Hazel got ready, and then she and Lucia headed to the Academy together.
As soon as they walked in, a sea of eyes followed them. Thankfully, Lucia was by her side, like she said she’d be. But when lessons began, they had to go their separate ways since they had hardly any together.
“You’ll be OK,” Lucia said. “Just keep to yourself. Don’t engage with anyone who tries to talk about it.”
At lessons, Hazel did just that. Nonetheless, the whispers and stares followed her. Everyone, even the teachers actedawkwardly around her.
During lunch, she sat by herself and away from everyone. Nevertheless, Abigail and Matilda still found her. They came up to her and glowered at her.
Hazel looked back defiantly. “I’m guessing you know.”
“Everyone knows,” Matilda said. “And to think that all this time, you acted like you didn’t care about him. Turns out it was a cover-up.”
“That’s not entirely true,” Abigail said. “I’ve seen them talking, both in the school and the yard. I just didn’t know that they’ll be going to Maplewood together and having smoochfests out in the open, for everyone to see.”
“It turns out she’s not different from us,” Matilda said. “Ready to hook up with a boy because he’s rich and famous.”
Hazel got up, grabbed her schoolbag and dashed out of the canteen. She had no desire to listen to any of this. But their words stung. She hadn’t just hooked up with him. And it wasn’t because he was famous. And they hadn’t done things out in the open to be seen. They had expected privacy just like everyone else. Well, she had, at least.
When the last lesson of the day was over, the principal’s assistant was waiting outside the classroom. She stopped Hazel as she was about to exit the classroom.
“Hazel,” she said. “The principal wants to have a word with you. Could you please come to his office?”
A knot tightened in Hazel’s stomach. Could this day get any worse? But she wasn’t about to show her distressed state of mind. Instead, she calmly walked to the principal’s office.
Hazel walked in and sat in front of him. He cleared his throat while looking at her, his eyes narrowed. “It has come to our attention that you’re in a relationship with Milo, our guest mentor.”
“How do you know we’re in a relationship? The photos and videos aren’t a confirmation.”
“Well, maybe not, but you were spotted together. You’re obviously somehow involved.”
“So, am I going to get disciplined?” she asked.
“Mildly, yes. Since you’re a minor and a student at the school, we don’t see this as your fault. You were taken advantage of by someone in a position of authority.”
Again, this stung. It seemed that everyone had to misinterpret what had happened between them.
“But Milo will have to leave. His mentorship will be terminated immediately. You’ll just get an official warning. As a matter of fact, I’ll give it to you right now.”
He passed an envelope to her, and she took it. She’d open it later. She wasn’t really interested in what it had to say.
“Can I tell you something?” she asked.
“Go ahead. I’ve heard from your teachers that you don’t like keeping your thoughts to yourself. Yes, I know about your spats with them.”
“What can I say? I’m outspoken,” Hazel said, annoyed that he brought it up. “Anyway, I just wanted to say that it was intended to be private. This was never meant to affect anyone else.”
“You’re just a girl who likes a boy, so that’s what you think. But you didn’t consider the possible consequences of it becoming public knowledge. We’re a high-profile school, and we’ve got a reputation to protect.”
She left his office. Later, when Hazel entered the dorm room, Lucia was sitting on the chair by the kitchenette. Hazel dropped the envelope in front of her.
“What’s that?” Lucia asked.
“A warning. About what happened with Milo. But I still got treated with kid gloves. It’s worse for him. He has toleave.”
Lucia looked at her, her brows furrowed. “How do you feel about this?”
“I feel bad, of course. How else can I feel?”
“But what about you two being an item? You think thatcan continue?”
Hazel didn’t say anything. She walked up to the window and looked outside. This was tearing her up. She wasn’t sure she even wanted to see Milo. And she wasn’t sure if she could be dating someone in the spotlight.
But she also missed him so much. If only she could go back to Maplewood when they were at his house. Or be with him at his apartment here. If they could go back to being in that cocoon of privacy and safety when no one knew about them. 
“I don’t know right now,” she finally answered.
Hazel then walked into her room and lay on the bed,pressing her head into the pillow. Her phone vibrated, and she looked at the notification. It was a message from Milo; he wanted to see her.
Hazel walked to Milo’s apartment early on Saturday morning. The streets were empty; that had to mean that no one was hiding anywhere, ready to take photos or videos of her.
Milo let her into the building, and she took the elevator to the top floor. For a bit, everything was the same as the last time when she was here. The white walls, the light fittings that looked like leaves on the ceiling, the fireplace that didn’t have fire burning in it this time. Here was her boyfriend. He was still hers, right?
Milo stood in front of her. Bags hung under his eyes. He looked sleep-deprived.
“Come in,” he said.
The desire to talk about it straight away chewed at Hazel. She didn’t want to spend time on small talk.
“About what happened,” Hazel began. “I shouldn’t have come to Maplewood. If I hadn’t, nobody would know.”
“No, it’s my fault. All of it. I don’t know why I thought getting involved with you was a good idea. Not just because of your age but also because you’re a student at the school.”
Hazel’s insides twisted in a knot. This was the last thing she expected him to say. He was confirming the principal’s words. 
Milo saw her pained expression. “I didn’t mean it like that. You’re wonderful and the best person I’ve ever been with. But I should’ve waited. Until you graduated. Until I no longer was your mentor. Until you turned eighteen.”
“That’s what the principal said. They think you took advantage of me and my youth or whatever.”
“Maybe I did in a way. I’m used to having my privacy invaded. But I didn’t think about how it’ll affect you.”
They both stayed silent for a bit. Milo looked away and out the window from which most of Small Lake could be seen. “I have to leave as you probably already know.”
Hazel sat down on the couch. She remembered being here the first time—the day when the rain was pouring, and they sat watching it. “So what happens next?” she asked.
“We have to break up. There’s no way my management team will be OK with this. They’ve already told me. Trust me, it’s the last thing I want. But we can’t be together anymore.Besides, I know that you’re not comfortable with the attention. You didn’t ask for it after all.”
Hazel had to admit that the last part was true. Maybe one day, when she’d be an established singer and songwriter, she’d be ready for life in the spotlight. But not right now when she was still finding her path and herself. For the time being, she was just a teenage girl. 
He sat down next to her and pulled her close, hugging her. She loved being in that familiar embrace, with that comforting smell tickling her nostrils.
“I wish we could stay together,” he whispered. “If circumstances were different. If only you were older.”
“Do you think we’ll get back together in the future?”
“I’d like to think we’ll find each other again when the time is right.”
She then hugged him back, not wanting to let go.

Chapter 7
In a week or so, Milo had left Small Lake and gone back to Maplewood. Hazel and he weren’t in touch. They decided it’d be better that way. It’d only make it harder to end things completely if they continued interacting.
Milo had a couple of interviews scheduled, and Hazel watched them. He didn’t address the pictures and videos directly, only said that he wasn’t seeing anyone and wanted to focus on his work. Hazel suspected that his managementhoped everyone would forget about the scandal eventually.
Quite a few people reached out to Hazel on the internet. A few of them wanted to interview her, have her tell her sideof the story. And others just wanted to mock her or express feelings of jealousy. She blocked or ignored everyone who attempted to talk to her. 
The students at the school still whispered about her when she walked by, and a few times when she was out in Small Lake, people stared at her in recognition. Other than that, she was left alone and never spoke to anyone about it, Lucia beingthe only exception.
The truth was that Hazel missed him terribly. But, not being the most emotional person, she didn’t spend hours crying. Instead of that, she carried a numbness, a hollowness in her gut. Occasionally, she would look at the pictures they had taken and reread their messages. But then it hurt more, so she had to put her phone away.
Lessons seemed even more pointless now. Previously, she had anticipated the dance practices because he’d be there. Now she dragged her feet to the studio, asking herself what she was doing with her life. Learning singing and music theory seemed worthless as well. She knew how to sing after all. And she knew enough about music to write songs.
A month or so after Milo had left, Hazel sat on the floorpillow with her laptop when Lucia came in. “Hey, Hazel. What are you doing?”
“Writing my resignation letter. I’m leaving the Academy.”
“You what?” She sat down next to Hazel. “Is it because of what happened with Milo? It doesn’t mean you have to leave the school and go into hiding.”
“It’s not because of that. This school, this course . . . it’sjust not for me.”
“What are you talking about? You have an incredible voice. And you learn dance routines so fast.”
“Yes, but none of that is stimulating to me. I’m just going through the motions. I don’t want to be a singer that sings someone else’s songs. What I want to be is a songwriter. I want to write songs, also for others, not just myself. And I miss Sea Cliff. I miss my parents. I miss walking by the coast and in the forests. If I go back, I think I could heal, get over everything that happened. Nature is healing and so is being home.”
“Are you sure this is the right thing to do?”
“I’m pretty certain. I’ll enroll in a regular high school. A local school will take me because my grades are good.”
They looked at each other for a bit. 
“Can I come visit you in Sea Cliff?” Lucia then asked. 
“Yes, for sure. Come during spring break. Or in the summer.”
And so Hazel left the Academy and Small Lake and returned to her hometown. Her mom, dad and friends were happy to see her. Mom and Dad understood that she wasn’t happy at the Academy and supported her decision to terminate her studies there.
With regards to Milo, Hazel told them that she was no longer involved with him and that they didn’t talk. Nobodyasked too many questions about him. They understood that it wasn’t a subject she wanted to discuss.
She enrolled in a local school. She was a good student and was friendly with everyone. However, she didn’t fully open to anyone and didn’t make any new friends. Hazel was fine with that. She spent time with her old friends and talked to Lucia.
It was still cold, so she couldn’t spend too much time outside. Still, she went out for walks. She often went to her favorite nature park, walked down the steps that led to the rugged coast and sat looking at the sea. 
Thoughts and memories of Milo no longer hurt so acutely. Now it had turned into a kind of dull ache. She still missed him, and occasionally he visited her in her dreams.Sometimes when she was in her bed, she longed for him to be there with her. For them to be tangled together like they used to be in the past.
Time went by. Soon enough the weather turned warm and sunny. Daffodils and cherry blossoms popped up aroundSea Cliff, making it pretty.
In April, Milo’s new album came out. Hazel’s jaw dropped when she saw the cover; it was a picture of him that she had taken back when they were in the studio together. The one with him lying on the floor and looking in the distance with that wistful look.
The entire artwork consisted of those pictures—Milo bythe microphone with the headphones on, him in front of the keyboard and pretending to play the drums.
It had six songs—not a huge amount. She listened to the record while sitting on a bench underneath the cherry blossoms. Immediately, it was obvious that every song was about her. Milo captured the joy and thrill of a new and secret relationship—the first song was filled with references that only the two of them would understand.
Two more happy songs followed. Then the record turned melancholic for the next two. They talked about therelationship souring and coming to an end. The last song was hopeful; he sang from the perspective of meeting a former flame years after things had ended and rekindling the romance.
Listening to the album from start to finish made her so emotional that she started crying. A girl who was passing by even gave her a tissue. In the closing song, Milo reiterated that he hoped they’d get back together when the time was right. She wished for the same.

Kat Kovalevska is a writer who lives in London, United Kingdom. She has always loved literature and has been writing starting from a young age. With her work, she attempts to transport readers to new places, introduce them to compelling characters and have them follow intriguing plots.