Authors: Kate Larkindale
needed to dress carefully for school on Monday, in clothes that would barricade me from the prying looks and questions I knew would bombard me as soon as I walked through the gates. My friends would be there, but nothing could protect me from the frenzied curiosity. For a moment, I thought about crawling back into bed and hiding out there for the rest of the day. That wasn’t an answer though. I’d just lie there and worry. School would distract me, if nothing else. Maybe.
I grabbed my favorite jeans off the floor and tugged them on before going to the closet to see what I could wear on top. After trying on every one of my T-shirts—too tight, too revealing, too baggy, too lame—I settled on a long-sleeved cotton blouse. It hung to mid-thigh and was a brilliant shade of salmon pink that tasted oddly of caraway seeds. It reminded me of the dark bread my grandfather used to make. I found that comforting for some reason. That’s why I bought it, even though pink—any shade of pink—wasn’t my color. Pink was Jules’s.
The kitchen was silent and empty. Mom must not have come home. Again. Apart from the hour and half yesterday afternoon—long enough to grab a shower and a few things for Jules—she’d been at the hospital since Friday night. I pulled the orange juice carton out of the fridge and poured what was left into a glass. I drank the trickle of juice. The clock on the microwave flicked from seven thirty-two to seven thirty-three. I needed to go. The bus would be at the corner at seven forty.
I sat alone on a torn vinyl seat and stared out the window at the lawns and houses of suburbia that soon gave way to a light commercial area. The school sat on the edge of this, the athletic fields edging out toward the rows of warehouses that marked the beginning of the city’s industrial sector. I bit my lip and watched the throngs of kids moving toward the building like messy columns of ants. I’d arranged to meet Mel and Hannah at the top of the stairs, and I strained to see them through the shifting masses. A gaggle of girls in short cheerleader skirts walked by, and my heart sped up. Jules should’ve been in that crowd, right in the middle of it. Instead, she was stuck in a hospital bed.
I climbed the stairs slowly, trying not to look to either side of me. I didn’t want any of Jules’s friends to catch my eye. I had no idea if she’d called any of them and didn’t want to be the one to explain. I doubted any of the other cheerleaders knew she’d ever had cancer. It wasn’t something she talked about.
“Hey, Livvie!” Hannah leaned over the railing. “Get up here!”
Mel’s head appeared beside her. “Yeah, move that skinny ass of yours.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m coming.” I hurried up the steps and joined them at the top, leaning against the sun-warmed bricks. “So, what’s going on?”
“Look!” Mel jutted her chin across the broad landing, and I saw a group of boys lounging on the far side, Sam Taylor amongst them. “Is it just me, or does he get hotter every day?”
I brushed my hair away from my eyes, trying to be inconspicuous as I studied him. Tall and blond, Sam rocked restlessly back and forth on his heels. His hands moved as he talked, the gestures extravagant. “I guess…” I said. I wasn’t sure I thought he was handsome, but there was something about him that drew my eyes in his direction. A glow or halo-like aura. Anyone standing near him seemed to fade into the background.
“Should I go over and say hi or something?” Mel dug a mirror out of her backpack and ran her fingers through her hair, squinting at her reflection. “We’ve been back from vacation a week, and I still haven’t talked to him.”
“Make it casual, if you do,” Hannah warned. “Liv, we have to walk with her.”
“What?” I’d already lost the thread of conversation. The boys must have noticed us watching, because they got louder, started shoving one another harder. I looked away, Sam’s glow fading as the others crossed into his space. Why were boys such idiots? “Okay. Now.” Mel took my arm and tugged me, Hannah trailing along behind. We slowed as we approached the boys. I recognized some of them, but only knew a few by name.
“Hi, Sam,” Mel purred, her voice all creamed butter and sugar. “Did you have a nice summer?”
Sam stumbled against Jason Davis and would have fallen if Jason hadn’t pushed him back. “Uhh… Yeah. I guess so. What about you?”
“Pretty good.” She nodded. “I had a couple of weeks at the beach. That was good.”
“Lucky you.” Sam’s eyes slid over Mel and rested on Hannah. “Hey, Hannah. How was your summer?”
She shrugged. “I went to a summer school. You know, dancing? It was cool.”
He nodded, then turned his attention back to his friends. “Dude, you should’ve seen this guy on Friday night at the pool—”
I poked Mel until she started walking again. If I hadn’t, she probably would’ve stood there all day, staring at Sam. She said nothing until we were inside the building, the clash of lockers opening and shutting creating a bruised purple cloud.
“How could you?” She turned on Hannah.
“How could I what?” Hannah’s delicate features creased in confusion.
“You know I like him! How could you?”
“What did I do?” Hannah’s eyes left Mel’s distraught face and came to rest on mine. “Livvie?”
“Come on, you guys.” I sighed. Mel was making way too much of this. Yes, Sam called Hannah by her name, but that didn’t mean anything. At least, I didn’t think it did. I was no expert at this stuff. “You can’t fight over something this stupid. He talked to both of you.” He hadn’t spoken to me, hadn’t even acknowledged me. But boys never talked to me. I don’t think they even saw me. I was just a blur behind Mel and Hannah, or a shadow trailing after Jules.
“But—” The bell rang then, a sharp yellow interruption that sent a tsunami of kids plunging down the hallways. I grabbed Hannah’s arm to keep her from being swept away, watching as Mel was carried along toward her homeroom.
By lunch, Mel appeared to have forgotten her anger. I found her and Hannah already at our usual table in the lunchroom. I grabbed my tray and hurried across to them. We weren’t in any of the same classes, so I hadn’t seen them since this morning.
“Hey, what book are you doing in English?” I slid into my seat across from them. “Mr. Hamilton assigned short stories by Edgar Allen Poe. They’re so totally creepy.” I shivered.
Hannah groaned. “Don’t even ask.” She and Mel were stuck with Miss Halsey, the same English teacher we’d all shared last year. “You’re so lucky. We got Shakespeare. And not even a good one like
Romeo and Juliet
. We have to read Henry the Fourth or the Fifth or something. Can you believe that?”
I nodded. I planned this year to pull something higher than a D+. In English. Well, maybe. I sucked at school. It was so hard to concentrate on Algebra or Shakespeare when I never knew what sound or phrase might change the color of the world around me.
“Bummer! That’ll be—” My cell-phone vibrated in my pocket, and I jumped. Pulling it out, I flipped it open and saw
on the display. “My mom,” I mouthed at their curious faces. “Mom? What’s up?”
“Livvie? Look, I’m so sorry to call you at school. Are you at lunch?” Mom’s words wobbled all over the place, unstable jelly the color of a robin’s eggs.
I clutched the phone harder. “Yeah. What’s going on?”
“Oh, Livvie. It’s Jules. The tests came back this morning. It’s not good news, honey. The leukemia’s back.”
My heart plummeted into the pit of my stomach. My head whirled, and for a moment I couldn’t even breathe. I sensed my friends’ stares and dropped my eyes to the tabletop, tracing my fingers around and around a word gouged into the wood: S-U-C-K-S.
“Oh, Mom. That’s… That… That sucks.” My face burned. Did I just say that to my mother? I jerked my hand away from the graffiti. I hadn’t lied. It did suck. It worse than sucked. “Do I need to come home now or something?”
“No, nothing like that. I just thought you should know. We’re going to talk to the doctors this afternoon about treatment options. Maybe you could come down here after school?”
“Uh… Sure. Okay. I will.” I looked down again, my eyes drawn to that word once again—
? The phone went dead and I dropped it back in my pocket. I slid my tray away, the smell of food making me nauseous.
, I read. Yeah. That’s about right. Too true, my vandal friend.
“Hey, where’s Jules?” I looked up and found myself staring into the perky face of Jenna Malone, a small posse of cheerleaders standing behind her. “We have to organize tryouts for the team. She choreographed all the routines last week, so we’re ready for the newbies to come on board.”
“Sick,” I managed. It felt like a lie. Sick was a cold. Sick was a puking stomach flu. I wished that was all Jules had.
“Oh, that’s a bummer.” Jenna frowned and stared around, stopping when she caught sight of Hannah moving around the table, her still-full tray in her hands. “What’s your name?”
“Mine?” Hannah stopped. “Hannah. Why?”
“You move well. You ever thought about trying out for the squad?” Jenna’s relentlessly perky voice sent crimson ribbons splattering across the table. I wanted her to shut up.
Cheerleading isn’t important. Tryouts aren’t important. Your best friend is lying in a hospital bed. But if she hasn’t told you that, well, I’m not going to be the one to do it.
“Livvie?” Mel’s voice was right by my ear. Her hand on my arm was cool. “C’mon.” She led me out of the lunchroom, down the hall, and out one of the side doors. The sun blinded me for a moment, reflecting off the pristine cement. I closed my eyes against it and let myself sag against the building. When I opened them again, I saw someone staring at me. Bianca Mattheson sat in the shade of a tree a few feet away, her black skirts spread in a circle around her. Blades of ebony hair slashed across her forehead and down onto her face, and peeking out between them, her blue eyes were fixed unwaveringly on me.
“Stare much, freak?” Mel crossed the path and glared down at Bianca. She didn’t even blink, just kept staring at me as if Mel wasn’t even there. I shivered despite the sun’s intense heat. What did she want? It was like she could see into my soul, was reading my innermost thoughts and secrets. I wanted to know why.
I peeled myself away from the wall and grabbed Mel’s arm. “I’m okay, Mel,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.”
Mel hesitated for a second, then turned away. “That girl has something seriously wrong with her.”
“Yeah, maybe.” I shivered again. “Let’s find Hannah. The bell’s going to ring any minute.”
“What’s your first class after lunch?” Mel dug through her bag for her schedule then groaned. “I have gym.”
I checked my own. It always took me about three weeks to memorize it. “Art,” I said. My shoulders relaxed a little. After that lunch hour, I needed the hour of peace Art could give me.
When I walked into the art room ten minutes later, I just about walked straight back out again. Sitting right in front of me was Bianca Mattheson. I groaned inside. Of course. I’d forgotten. How could I be expected to open up, express myself in a creative way with her spooky presence flapping blackly around my consciousness? I’d hardly noticed her last year, but suddenly, she seemed to pop up around every corner.
I’d stopped right inside the doorway when I saw her, and people started pushing me from behind. I managed to shuffle into the room and find a space as far away from Bianca as possible. Arranged in a horseshoe, the seats all gave me a view of her, and her of me, but at least I didn’t need to sit near her.
I snuck a peek at her as Mrs. DeWinter entered the room. Everyone focused on the chaotic whirlwind that became our teacher, but I only saw Bianca. Her wrists, protruding from the long, draped sleeves of her dress, were pale and delicate, leading to small, long-fingered hands that flashed with silver rings. Her hair fell around her face in sharp, inky slices. She wore heavy boots despite the heat outside and their silver buckles gleamed under the florescent lights. I could feel her; I could taste her the way I tasted colors. I expected bitter or sour, but the flavor she exuded was sweet, almost fruity, reminding me of raspberries, my favorite berry.
“Now that I’ve seen what you can do, for the first part of the semester,” Mrs. DeWinter was saying, “we’re going to focus on still life. I know many of you prefer a more abstract style.” She looked right at me, a small smile at her lips. “But it is important to master representational art as well. Once you have the basics of realistic perspective and lighting, you can explore the infinite variations in your imaginations.” She walked toward a table in the centre of the room and whisked off the plum colored cloth that covered it. Underneath was an arrangement of fruit—apples, oranges, bananas and limes—with a few flowers nestled amongst them for contrast. The colors tasted like smoke with a sharp bite of peppermint underneath. Mixed with Bianca’s berry flavor, the combination made me feel sick. Maybe it had been a bad idea to skip lunch.
“Today, I would like you to focus on sketching the still life. Once you have a serviceable sketch, we will move on to painting. Get to work.” Mrs. DeWinter raised her arms and let them fall again, as if she were waving a flag to start a motor race. I took a deep breath to calm my roiling stomach, pulled out a sketchbook, and began to draw. The dull scrape of pencil on paper soothed me. It was a peaceful sound, pale peach. I fell into it and let it swallow me for the rest of the hour, grateful for the escape.