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Sneak Peeks

Read a sneak peek of AS YOU WALK ON BY by Julian Winters

The Breakfast Club meets Can’t Hardly Wait with an unforgettable ensemble cast in another swoony YA contemporary from award-winning author Julian Winters. Start reading As You Walk on By, coming this January!

Seventeen-year-old Theo Wright has it all figured out. His plan (well, more like his dad’s plan) is a foolproof strategy that involves exceling at his magnet school, getting scouted by college recruiters, and going to Duke on athletic scholarship. But for now, all Theo wants is a perfect prom night. After his best friend Jay dares Theo to prompose to his crush at Chloe Campbell’s party, Theo’s ready to throw caution to the wind and take his chances.
But when the promposal goes epically wrong, Theo seeks refuge in an empty bedroom while the party rages on downstairs. Having an existential crisis about who he really is with and without his so-called best friend wasn’t on tonight’s agenda. Though, as the night goes on, Theo finds he’s not as alone as he thinks when, one by one, new classmates join him to avoid who they’re supposed be outside the bedroom door. Among them, a familiar acquaintance, a quiet outsider, an old friend, and a new flame . . .

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The Rules of a Dare
Rule number one to accepting any dare: never agree to something you’re not 99.5 percent positive you can complete.
It’s the easiest rule to honor.
Never ask a random peer an invasive question if they look like they’ve had a bad day and could potentially murder you on the spot. Don’t agree to eat a ghost pepper if you have a low tolerance for spicy foods. Absolutely no streaking in a neighbor’s yard if you can’t outrun their usually playful but extremely protective Akita.
On second thought, no streaking. Period.
I know all this by heart. I also know the second Jay Scott opens his mouth to say, “Theoooooo, you’re up!” at the beginning of lunch, I’m doomed. As if this never-­ending week of studying and exhausting track practices weren’t enough.
Now it’s a Dare Day too.
Since freshman year, Friday dares have been a staple for me and my two besties, Jay and Darren. Back then, we were awkward, hormonal nobodies. The self-­appointed TNT—­The Nameless Trio. As juniors, we’re a tight, debatably corny crew who’ve become the heart and soul of the boys’ varsity track-­and-­field team. But the dares were the gateway to breaking out of our shells here at Brook-­Oak.
Jay started it all. On an arbitrary Friday in November, he crowed, “Someone dare me to do something!” It’s as if he knew we were all tired of trying and failing to find our footing in a new environment. Out of the three of us, he’s always been the most outgoing. Ready to jump into a fire without looking.
So I did.
“I dare you to run around the quad three times, as fast as you can . . . shirtless.”
Not my most creative effort. What can I say? I’m not my best when put on the spot. He did it anyway because, of course. It’s Jay.
A month later, he dared Darren to eat three packets of sriracha with no water. Then Darren dared me to propose to Brianna Matthews using only Taylor Swift lyrics. Once a month, on a Friday during lunch, Dare Day rolls around. It’s an established tradition. And no matter how much we’ve grown out of it, none of us have the heart to disrupt the status quo. Least of all me.
There are some unspoken rules to this: Nothing illegal. Nothing that’ll cause too much bodily harm. Only things that’ll earn us weird looks or gauche laughs. Oh, and the occasional after-­school detention after jumping on one of the quad’s tables to sing Mariah Carey’s classic “Always Be My Baby” for all to witness.
Not bragging, but I nailed that performance. Even added a little falsetto at the end to noisy applause.
That’s another bonus: the attention from other students. I can genuinely say I’ve made several acquaintances—­authentic friends too—­from the stunts Jay or Darren have challenged me to do.
The dares solidified our group. We find ways to get in trouble together so no one takes the fall alone. All for one, one for all or whatever. Like last month when Darren had to reenact a scene fromMagic Mike . . . shirtless.
(Seminudity is a recurring theme.)
Anyway, Jay and I stood shoulder to shoulder with him as we all got scolded by Vice Principal Clarke for disrupting the lunch period.
But none of our history prepares me for Jay’s challenge.
“I dare you to ask Christian Harris to prom.”
“Oh. Shit.”
In my periphery, Darren’s thick eyebrows shoot up his forehead.
We’re outside. Early April in Louisville means the weather hasn’t turned violently hot yet, but my face is on fire. My breath catches uncomfortably in my throat.
It’s not an unreasonable dare. Public humiliation is very on brand for us.
It’s just that . . . 
Okay, I swear I’m not a serial crusher.Anymore. But briefly, I was a seasonal crusher. Fall of freshmen year, I was all about Jonah and his football-­camp calves. Post-­winter-­break, it was nothing but Danesh and his sweater obsession.
Then came sophomore year and Christian Harris.
Brook-­Oak is a magnet school. Christian’s enrolled in the Young Performers of Tomorrow program. I’m in the High School University program. But all general academic classes are taken in the main building. That year, I randomly selected the desk behind his in language arts.
Fine, it wasn’t coincidental.
Christian was one of the rare out kids in our grade. I was too. It’s not always the wisest thing to crush on thefirst queer person around your age you meet, but I couldn’t help it. My strategic desk choices resulted in us being partners on a mock trial project. I still daydream about his radiant expression whenever I misquoted a passage or asked for his help.
Even now, my eyes are drawn right to him.
The body count in the quad is scarce today. It’s the Friday before spring break. Most students are either holed up in our school’s glass-­enclosed cafeteria or the library, studying for last-­minute quizzes.
Christian’s surrounded by his usual cartel of band geeks, talking animatedly with his hands. There’s this old song—­“Brown Skin” by India.Arie—­that my pops loves. It reminds me of Christian. Warm sepia complexion. Baby-­faced with a wide smile, crinkled eyes when he laughs. It’s not just the thirst talking either. He’s genuinely friendly to everyone.
A true prom prince in the making.
Across from me, Jay patiently sips on a glacier cherry Gatorade, smirking. He’s got a severe case of Confident White Boy Syndrome. Blond topknot, gray-­blue eyes, mostly clear skin.
I chew the inside of my cheek.
Why did I ever mention my crush on Christian?
On my left, Darren says, “Give him time to think, bro.” He stuffs a handful of spicy cheese puffs in his mouth. Luckily, Coach Devers isn’t on lunch duty today. She’d annihilate him for breaking diet.
I’m not one to talk since I smashed an entire cup of soft pretzel bites ten minutes ago.
Darren chases his food with his own Gatorade. Jay always brings a six-­pack from home for us on Fridays.
“What’re your terms?” he asks Jay. “What’s the reward?”
Another implicit stipulation of the dares—­incentives. Little rewards. Since Darren and I aren’t typically as . . .bold as Jay, he’s found ways to encourage us to play along. Free iced coffees for a week. An extra pizza pie after a track meet. New cleats spikes.
“Glad you asked.” Jay unlocks his phone before scooting it across the stone table. The open tab is our school’s prom page.
This year’s theme: When You Wish Upon a Fairy Tale.
Cheesy? Yes. Is every junior and senior making a big deal about it? Hell yeah.
“If you pull it off, I’ll front your whole prom experience, Theo. Tickets. Car service. Dinner. Suit and shoes. All of it.” Jay reaches over to brush nonexistent lint off my shoulder. “Can’t have my boy looking weak when he scores a date with his dream partner.”
I roll my eyes.
First off, Jay’s family has that old money wealth. As in Scott Boulevard is named after his great-­great-­grandfather’s contributions to the city. They could afford our squad’s prom package, plus a fresh SUV just for Jay’s shoes to arrive in. I’m not hating—­his mom and my pops go way back to their days at this very high school. It’s just facts.
Second . . . “dream partner”? Really?
Jay’s levels of trying too hard are infinite.
“Think about it, bro,” says Darren, nudging my elbow. “Picking up Christian wearing a sick Gucci suit for the night of your life.”
I know Darren’s overselling the idea because he’s dying to witness another wild dare. But he doesn’t have to.
Something my best friends don’t know is, I want this. Badly. I’m not as economically blessed as Jay, Darren, or 75 percent of the Brook-­Oak students. Prom is a barely attainable goal for me. I’ve found an off-­brand tux online. New shoes don’t even enter the equation. Dad volunteered his semi-­dented, two-­door Civic for the night. Dinner wouldn’t be more than a trip to a cheap, inauthentic Italian restaurant with stale breadsticks at best.
Between that and tickets, Dad would have to work a week’s worth of overtime. He refuses to let me get a job before I’m eighteen, which isn’t until November. I can’t stomach him doing all of that just forjunior prom. Not with college app fees on the horizon.
Selfishly, though, I can’t stop thinking about prom night. Getting dressed up. All the selfies. Kissing a boy in the middle of a dance floor. After prom . . . 
I want it all.
Using some of that Scott family money to fund my dream is high-­key incentive enough.
“Wait.” I tilt my head. “What happens if I fail?”
At worst, a failed dare has included detention and being shamed by the group. Sometimes, one of us is the latest victim of #BOHSFail on Instagram. The hashtag has its own unique following—­mostly Brook-­Oak theater kids, students from nearby schools. None of us have ever opted out of a dare.
But the prize has never been this large either.
Jay’s mouth curls up on the left side, the way it does when he knows he’s about to win at a round of Mario Kart.
“If you fail, then you have to wear MV High gear to our first practice after spring break.”
My spine locks, shoulders pulled up to my ears.
Mountainview High is our rival. An equally competitive college prep school on the other side of Wilder Park. We’re pretty much neck and neck in academic achievements. It’s athletics where things are imbalanced. MVH owns us in football, softball and baseball, and soccer while we continuously destroy them in basketball, swimming, volleyball, and cheerleading.
The sport that could tip the scales: track-­and-­field.
In two weeks, we meet in the conference finals.
Coach Devers unapologetically despises our rivals. Since her days as a track star at BOHS. Four straight years of finishing second to Mountainview in all the major events.
Not a single W against them.
If I’m caught wearing their apparel at a practice, she’ll bench me. “Support whoever you want outside of my lanes,” she tells us every year. Coach is strict about her rules. If dress code is broken, that means no conference finals, where a dozen or so college scouts will be in the stands. As the anchor of our 4×400 relay team, this is my chance to stand out. Senior season is too late to chase scholarships from the top colleges. I’d be missing an opportunity to hit an asterisk on Dad’s plans.
I can hear his voice in my head: All we have to do is follow The Plan. Stay focused. Your bright, unstoppable future is right there . . .
“Damn!” Darren’s howl pulls me back to the moment. “That’s . . . harsh.”
Jay shrugs listlessly. “Our boy Theo can handle it.”
I purse my lips. We’re both good at this—­ego-­boosting. While playing video games, during practices, before a dare.
“Coach will slaughter him,” Darren notes.
Yes, thanks for confirming my worst fears, D. In our group, he’s the Jiminy Cricket. Our conscience. The “hold up, this might get us arrested” voice of reason.
Every squad needs one.
“She’ll think it’s a joke,” Jay insists, laughing. “Wearing MVH gear right before we crush them at finals? She’ll send pictures to that dick-­breath Mountainview coach.” He turns back to me. “Besides, how hard is it to ask a guy to prom?”
Very, actually, a concept Jay will never comprehend.
My eyes flicker over to Christian.
Despite being out since I was fourteen, I’ve never approached a crush before. But something about the way the sun brightens the brown of Christian’s eyes, I’m certain of this:
I want him to be the first.
I want his laughter against my lips as we kiss at prom.
“I’m in,” I say.
Darren nearly flails out of his seat. Jay’s eyebrows rise slowly like he’s simultaneously shocked and impressed. I don’t know why. Making bad choices is in my genes.
Exhibit A: Theodore Jamal Wright, my full government name.
For seventeen years I’ve lived with the knowledge that my name’s an amalgam of Dad’s favorite childhood TV character—­Theodore Huxtable—­and the actor who portrayed him—­Malcolm-­Jamal Warner. Clearly, tragic decision-­making is inherited.
“Just . . .” I whisper, feeling the adrenaline tripling in my system. “Gimme a sec.”
“Sure,” says Jay. “Take all eight minutes you have left.”
Darren, all smooth light-brown skin and undercut showing off his sharp jawline, holds up his phone to indicate the time.
12:52 p.m.
Another rule: all dares must be completed before the end of lunch. Since we’ve rarely shared classes at BOHS, a built-­in prerequisite to prevent cheating was needed:At least one member of the squad must be present to witness the dare.
Scrambling, I open my selfie camera.
Overall, I don’t look like a complete disaster. My sponge twists could use a touch-­up. Glowing brown skin with gold undertones. No leftover pretzel mustard around my mouth. Plain black T-­shirt and matching joggers. An old pair of Jordan 1 Retros in Smoke Grey.
Simple and classy.
“Ticktock, TJ,” sings Jay.
I lower my phone to give him an unobstructed view of my middle finger. I don’t do nicknames. Surviving years of teasing from my elementary school classmates—­hello, Theodore Roosevelt! Ted! Teddy Bear!—­earned me that right. Only Dad is permitted to call me TJ now.
“I’m going, Jayson,” I shoot back with an equally taunting grin.
Jay’s face reddens. Only his mom calls him that.
As I’m leaving, Darren narrates, “This is really happening. Way to lean into your confidence, Theo. Get yours. Step right into that big, bright, romantic—­”
“Added commentary not helping, D.”
Darren throws a hand over his mouth, nodding.
When Jay’s eyes meet mine, he lifts a brow as if to say,Well? Are you gonna punk out?
Nah, I’m not. I’m Theo Wright, soon to be conference champion in the 4×400 relay. Christian Harris’s future prom date.
Across the quad, Christian and his friends are packing up. They toss their trash in the proper bins. Other students pivot toward the main building. I cut through a pack of senior cheerleaders, nearly knocking Makayla Lawrence over.
“Sorry, sorry,” I mutter, quickly helping her reorient.
As far as cheerleaders go, Makayla’s harmless. She’s pretty much sociable with everyone at Brook-­Oak. According to rumors, she’s extra friendly with the guys.
“Be careful,” she says with a sigh, running to catch up with her friends.
Right. Find your chill, Theo.
How can I when Christian slings his canvas messenger bag over his chest? He beams at the short, curvy Black girl beside him. They turn in the direction of the stairs. He’s leaving, along with all my prom dreams.
I hop, swerve, and wiggle through another group of students.
I’m close enough to hear Christian’s cool voice among the noise.
“Whatever, Keyona.” He snorts. “Don’t get mad at me ’cause I have better plans than mainliningGilmore Girls with you this weekend.”
The girl, Keyona, tosses fruit snacks into his messy, dark curls.
“Like what? Masturbate?”
Christian’s light-brown cheeks instantly go dark red. I almost choke. Suddenly, my joggers are much tighter.
“No,” Christian blurts. “Studying.”
“Practicing the new Lizzo song for spring tryouts?”
“More deception.” Keyona tosses another fruit snack at him. “You know that song better than anyone on the drumline.”
It’s true. Christian is the star of our school’s marching band. All eyes are on the way he goes in while playing the snare drums.
“A party,” Christian finally concedes.
“I knew it!” Keyona swats his hip. “You’re gonna be all over—”
Christian shushes her before she can finish.
I pause. All over . . . who?
Thing is, Christian, as charming as he is, hasn’t ever dated anyone at Brook-­Oak. Our school is far from ground zero for homophobia. The zero tolerance and brook-­oak welcomes all signs posted around the halls say so. We even have a QSA—­sixteen members deep, not that I’m one of them. Still, our small, openly out queer community seldomly does the whole hand-­holding, kissing-­between-­classes thing.
But most people know Christian’s gay and available.
I just need to make a move.
Beyond Christian’s group I spot Aleah Bird. Her head is lowered, body curled inward as an impatient Coach Hollingsworth talks to her. My stomach flips. I keep waiting for Aleah to look up, scowl my way. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen. Instead, she walks in the opposite direction.
It takes a beat to clear the last ten seconds from my brain.
Then I see Christian is five feet away. I lick my lips, willing confidence into my gait and—­
I collide with another student. It’s a slow-­motion disaster. Papers fly. Index cards spill across the pavement. My arms flap wildly before we both thud against the ground.
The first “Ooooh” is the worst. Gasps and high-­pitched laughter follow. A small crowd forms around us as I roll to my side.Please don’t let Christian be one of them. Phones are out, even while Coach Hollingsworth threatens confiscation and suspension as she intercepts the crowd.
It’s too late, though.
#TeddyBearEatsCement is probably already trending.
“Are you—­”
Before I can fully ask the person I smashed into if they’re hurt, I hear a clipped “I’m fine.” The other student adjusts crooked glasses, scrambling to collect the items I sent airborne across the quad. All I see is the back of a shaggy, copper-­brown head. Woven bracelets running up a forearm. A collage of anime stickers on a backpack before they’re lost in the wave of people fleeing to the main building.
Christian and his friends are gone too.
“You okay, Theo?” Darren asks between chuckles.
He and Jay stand over me. Without meeting his eyes, I give two thumbs-­up. It’s all I can do with the weight of failure pressing on all my limbs.
“That deserves a do-­over,” says Jay, reaching to help me up.
Once I’m standing, he slides an arm around my sagging shoulders. He leads me back toward the building. Darren falls into step next to us.
“How am I gonna get another chance?” I mumble.
The lunch rule was established for a reason. We won’t see each other again until after school. Chances of me being in the same space as Christian on the Friday before spring break are also slim to none.
“Trust me,” says Jay, his grin at Cartoon Network–­villain levels of mischief, “I’ll think of a plan.”

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