Authors: Kate Larkindale
uess what?” Mel bowled up behind Hannah and me, startling us so much I dropped the books I had in my arms.
“What?” Hannah asked as I scrambled to rescue the books kids were already starting to skate on.
“Did Livvie tell you?” Excitement brightened Mel’s words so they glowed like hot embers. Her cheeks blazed the same red.
“Tell me what?” Hannah elbowed a girl whose foot was planted squarely on my history text, scooping it up when she deigned to move.
Mel jiggled impatiently. “Eddie Fletcher asked me out!”
“Seriously?” Hannah’s gaze slid my way, and I shrugged. Maybe I should have told her. But it wasn’t the most pressing thing on my mind. My copy of
lay splayed on the floor, and I dodged a pair of football players to get it.
Hannah jumped up and down. “That’s awesome. But… I thought you didn’t like him? Not like that, anyway.”
All around us people chattered and shrieked, lockers clanged open and shut. The individual noises blurred into one, throwing a muddy veil across everything. I swiped at my eyes, trying to clear them. Some days fighting the colors exhausted me.
Mel flushed. “I didn’t, but he kind of grew over the summer. And he’s had his braces off. It’s just one date.” It sounded like she was trying to convince herself. Still. I’d spent until nine last night listening to her list the pros and cons of going on a date with Eddie Fletcher. It was better than listening to my mom’s icy silence.
“That’s awesome,” Hannah repeated, and I heard the relief in her words.
“…we’re going to a party,” Mel was gushing. “Livvie’s going to come too.”
“I don’t think I can,” I said. “I told you that already.” Why did no one ever listen to what I said?
Mel carried on. I followed my friends down the hallway, feeling as invisible as I did at home.
The door to the art room swung open, and Bianca slipped out, whipping it shut behind her. I wondered what she’d been doing in there. Art wasn’t until after lunch. She peeked around, as if checking to see if anyone had seen her. When she caught me watching, she glared, such intensity in her blue eyes that I had to take a step back to escape the sourness that flooded my tongue. What was up with that girl? I shook my head to rid myself of the uncomfortable feeling crawling over my skin, a gritty residue left by her stare. Why could this random stranger see me when my best friends couldn’t?
“Think the freak’s been sniffing paint or something?” Mel’s voice by my ear shot pink and yellow sparks through my skull.
I laughed, but it sounded high-pitched and false even to me. “Probably.” I didn’t think you’d get much of a high from snorting the acrylics we used in Art, but some people would try anything for a fix.
“I’ll see you guys later.” Mel said as we reached her homeroom and paused by the door.
“Yeah, see you.” Hannah and I chorused, re-joining the torrent to get to our homeroom, four doors down.
“What is going on?” Hannah glared at me. “Did you tell her about Sam asking me out?”
I shook my head. “Didn’t have to. He asked us for your number.”
“Oh, shit.” Hannah’s delicate features creased as she thought, dark grooves appearing between her eyes. “Mel really likes him, doesn’t she?”
We’d reached our homeroom, and she stood by the door, people slamming into her hard enough to make her rock on her heels.
I stopped by her, trying not to get knocked to the ground by the stampede racing to get to class before the last bell rang. “Yeah. She does. But it kind of looks like he likes you.”
“Is she going to get all snippy if I go out with him?” Hannah pressed herself against the wall to let a couple of guys squeeze past. “I mean, she has a date now. She can’t get too mad about it.”
I shrugged and walked into the classroom. If I was Mel, I’d be plenty mad, date or no date. No one wants to settle for second best. But I wasn’t Mel. I didn’t even have a second choice to settle for. Or a first. I wondered if that should bother me more. Was it weird that I was more concerned about how these boys might affect our friendship than the fact no boy ever spoke to me?
The lunchroom was so crowded it took me several minutes to get to our regular table. Scanning the crowd to see if Hannah and Mel might have got there first, I sat down and draped my jacket over the seat on the left. I tossed my backpack over the one on the right and fixed my eyes on the door, waiting for them to come in. Sam strode in, followed by Jason Davis and three or four other boys. They paraded to the table by the door and stared at the kids who sat there until they picked up their lunches and scurried away.
“Some power, huh?” Mel dumped her tray onto the table with a clatter that sent forest green lightning bolts blazing before my eyes.
“Yeah. Some power.” I looked away from the royal table and turned back to my food. “Where’s Hannah?”
“Coming. You know she has to scrape every calorie off her lunch before she can eat it.” Mel grinned, but her attention wasn’t on me. Her eyes roved the room, searching for something. Someone.
“Yeah, I know.” I caught sight of Hannah’s auburn head in the queue and watched her argue with the lunch-lady. Ms. Garden was not known for her flexibility. Or her culinary skill. The pungent scent of old smoke filled the room, and I could see tell-tale wisps still clinging to the ceiling. That explained the burnt flavor in the gravy that smothered my overcooked meat.
“Jesus!” Hannah flung herself into the chair with my backpack on it, knocking it to the floor. “Why is it so difficult to get a salad without that fattening goop on it?” She scraped creamy white dressing off a lettuce leaf with her finger, then stared at the finger with such distaste I almost laughed. It was like she thought the calories could be absorbed through her skin.
“Dare you to lick it off,” I challenged.
She threw me a withering look, pulled a tissue from her bag and wiped her finger clean. “Amanda Gallagher told me her brother saw Ms. Garden pick her nose over the hot-line last week. You’ll never catch me eating that crap.”
I shrugged and sawed off another mouthful of leathery meat, not bothering to look up when a shadow fell across the table. We were out of cereal at home, and milk, so I’d skipped breakfast. I was hungry.
“So.” The deep voice rumbled through my back and chest, dark and smoky. “Do you like scary movies, or funny ones, Han?”
My head shot up. Sam Taylor stood by the table, one hand resting on Hannah’s shoulder as he bent to talk to her.
“Look, Sam.” Hannah tried to shake his hand off. “About that… I… Um. Look, I don’t know if I can make it.”
Beside me, I felt something move. Mel sat upright, eyes wide, everything about her taut as a wire. I thought if I touched her she might snap. So, she wasn’t dealing as well with the situation as she wanted us to think. I didn’t blame her. Maybe Sam was oblivious to how much she liked him, but Hannah wasn’t.
“Seriously?” He swung himself into the seat on Hannah’s right that had just been vacated. “I thought it was a date.”
Hannah looked like she wanted to drop through the earth’s crust. “Yeah… Well… Something came up, you know?” She glanced around, desperation showing in her face. “I… I have class on Saturday. Early. So…” Her voice quivered with the electric blue lie, but her eyes were hopeful.
Good one, Hannah. Before Eddie had asked Mel out I would have encouraged Hannah to turn Sam down. Now it would make things worse. I flicked my heel back, giving Hannah’s shin a good kick along with a look I hoped appeared stern.
“I promise to have you home early.” Sam leaned toward her. “You’ll be fresh for your class.”
“Well, okay.” She smiled, her face brightening. “But nothing scary. I get nightmares.”
“Awesome. I’ll pick you up at seven.” Sam grinned and strutted away, ensconcing himself back amongst his tribe at the table by the door.
“That’s okay, isn’t it?” Hannah turned anxious eyes onto Mel. “You don’t mind?”
Mel shrugged. “Doesn’t matter if I mind, does it?” She glanced down at her tray and pushed it away. I wouldn’t have touched it either. The lumpy mashed potatoes didn’t look appetizing even before Hannah’s story about Ms. Garden’s nose picking. Mel leaped to her feet, and before I had a chance to do anything more than register her reaction, she was gone.
“She’s pissed, right?” Hannah’s eyes were huge.
“Disappointed, I guess.” I looked toward the doors.
“But she has a date with Eddie. She’s excited about it.”
I sighed. Didn’t she get it? Eddie was the consolation prize, not the first place ribbon. And Mel liked to win.
Hannah frowned and picked at her salad.
“Maybe I should go see if she’s all right.” Without waiting for an answer, I tossed my nearly full tray onto Mel’s abandoned one and followed her out of the room.
I looked up the empty hallway, searching for Mel. Behind me, doors opened and shut, letting out bursts of gray-blue noise. Where had she gone? After a moment’s thought, I turned left and headed to the heavy fire door that opened onto the quad. It was instinct that led me. For all I knew, she’d gone home. Watching that exchange between Hannah and Sam had to have hurt. I wouldn’t blame her. But I knew how much Mel hated her home.
I wandered out into the quad, the intense sunlight forcing me to squint. So much for fall. I longed for last night’s chill as sweat sprang out on my back. I squirmed as it tickled its way down my spine. With no clear destination in mind, I wandered along the path between buildings until I reached the athletic fields. A few groups of people were dotted around—the classes who had gym while we had lunch, I guessed. From the far side, the shrilling of a whistle sent bolts of angry red shooting through my head. I turned that way and saw the cheerleaders bouncing around, their short skirts flapping around their legs.
Jules should have been there. I watched Jenna march down the row, pulling girls into the proper formation. Her mouth was wide as she yelled orders. My stomach clenched. It should have been Jules. I pictured her, red-faced from screaming, the whistle swinging arcs from her neck as she demonstrated what she wanted. In full drill sergeant mode, Jules was more than intimidating. A dark cloud of anger dropped over my head. It wasn’t fair. Jules had already suffered through this once. What kind of world would make her do it again? My teeth ground together so hard my jaw ached. Forcing myself to look away, I took a deep breath.
I wiped stinging sweat from my eyes and focused on a single figure running around the track.
Whoever was doing the running was on the far side of the track, too far away from me to see properly, but I was sure it was Mel. She wasn’t dressed for running. As the figure drew nearer, I became certain. I hurried toward the track, reaching it just as Mel sprinted by. Her sandals made a slapping sound on the rubberized surface.
“Mel!” I yelled her name, but she appeared not to hear me, dashing past, face scarlet, breath huffing in and out in audible puffs. I watched her pass by. Her pale blue T-shirt clung to her back, sweat staining it darker in large blotches. Her jeans hampered her stride, and she ran without the grace she usually displayed. “Mel!” I called again, hurrying after her. It was too hot to run, and even if it hadn’t been, I knew I could never catch up with her.
But I ran anyway. I didn’t know what else to do.
Before I made it a quarter of the way around the track, I had to stop. I doubled over, gasping, my clothes glued to me. How did Mel do this day after day? How was she doing it in sandals and jeans?
“Mel!” I screamed as she passed me. This time she hesitated, her foot stuttering on her stride, her pace slowing a fraction. I took advantage and pushed off again, joining her on the weird rubbery surface. I wouldn’t be able to keep up long, so I hoped I could get her to stop.
“You’re going to kill yourself,” I gasped. “Or me.”
“You didn’t have to come after me.”
“Yeah? You didn’t have to run off like that.” The words came out in disjointed puffs of ragged breath. I was in such bad shape. When had that happened?
“I did.” Mel stopped and turned, hands on her hips. “I’m mad at her, okay? And at Sam. But I shouldn’t be.” She gave a wry smile and made a helpless gesture with her hands. “I just felt like running.”
“Does it help?” I used the hem of my shirt to mop sweat off my forehead.
“Sometimes.” She grinned.
“Guess maybe I should take up running, huh?” I watched the cheerleaders leap and flip-flop across the field, the pain in my jaw sharper now.
Mel followed my eyes. “Maybe.”
I heard footsteps behind us and turned, just in time to see Eddie approaching us.
“Hi,” he said, his gaze edging past me to rest on Mel. “I thought I saw you out here.”
Mel straightened her shoulders and brushed hair off her forehead. Even sweaty and red faced from running she looked gorgeous. “Here I am.”
“What’s your next class?” Eddie fell into step beside her, forcing me off the path. “I’ll walk you.”
I trailed after them, invisible once more. I pictured the smoky cloud of fury that clung to me as something real, obscuring me from view. I held onto the image. I could paint it.