Authors: Laura McNeal
Table of Contents
For Sam and Hank,
and in memory of Christine
Besides, there was truth in his looks.
Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen
The north wind doth blow
And we shall have snow
And what will the robin do then, poor thing?
The door opened, and a tall boy Audrey Reed had never seen before entered the room. It was early November, clear and mildâthe season's first snow wouldn't fall for another two weeks. Through the windows of the second-story classroom, the midmorning sun lit up Audrey's fingers and the edges of her book, and when the boy stepped into this light, it gave his face an artificial radiance.
He had dark hair, a little on the long side and wavy, and he wore a heavy black sweater and faded khaki pants, the whole look loose and slouchy but in a put-together kind of way. He was so different in appearance and yet so at ease with himself that Audrey wondered if he was a foreign exchange student from some place like France or Italy, or wherever it might be that people grew up feeling okay about themselves. He wasn't embarrassed by his tallness or his newness, the very things Audrey herself had been embarrassed by when she'd enrolled as an incoming junior at Jemison High two months earlier.
Mrs. Leacock twisted the ring on her left hand, stared at the documents the new boy handed her, and let a look of weary exasperation cross her face. She was one of those adults Audrey could least imagine becoming, a middle-aged woman with hair-sprayed curls in a style that belonged exclusively to old women. Whether she was reading announcements or passing out tests, the creases in her face made her look like she was scowling. She began going through her file drawer for a series of papers that she handed the boy, one after another, while speaking to him in a low, businesslike tone. The boy stood easily, without any of the impatience to find a seat to sink into that Audrey herself would have felt. He merely stood there and nodded at Mrs. Leacock, and smiled, and lazily scratched the back of his neck.
Audrey glanced up at the wall clock, then opened her green composition book. In its back pages, where she put notes to herself, she wrote:
11:13 a.m., Nov. 2. Something
happening. Something definitely happening.
She put her pen down. Up front, Mrs. Leacock twisted her ring and gave the room a long scan before fixing her gaze on the empty desk behind Audrey, and suddenly the boy was looking her way, too.
Audrey lowered her eyes, and a few seconds later felt his approach and saw his shoes pass byâsoft leather loafers a man would wearâand took in the faint, sugary smell that swept along behind him. She wasn't sure what the smell was, but it reminded her of Christmas. She heard the boy slip into the metal desk behind her and shuffle some papers. A few seconds later, Mrs. Leacock walked up the aisle to give him a worn copy of their physics textbook.
“Chapter seven,” Mrs. Leacock said in a low, tired voice. “I don't suppose you've heard of Heisenberg?”
The boy let out an easy chuckle and said, “Oh, you'd be surprised the folks we manage to hear about down there in South Carolina.” He spoke in a low, gentle, bemused drawl that Audrey suddenly craved hearing again.
Mrs. Leacock seemed to feel differently. “It would behoove you not to guess what might surprise me, Mr. Hill,” she said stonily, and without waiting for a reply returned to her desk.
As she went, the boy drawled under his breath, “It would also behoove me not to think you're a peabrain, lady, but there it is.”
Audrey found herself grinning, not because Mrs. Leacock was peabrainedâshe wasn'tâbut because she was rude to students and indifferent to anything not strictly related to her lectures. Audrey liked the idea of someone having the spunk to say that tall, rigid, imposing Mrs. Leacock was peabrained.
In a stage-whisper drawl and to no one in particular, the new boy then said, “So who the hell is Heisenberg?” and Audreyâshe couldn't help herselfâlet slip a small laugh.
At the Tate School, where Audrey had spent the previous four years, a new student was cheerfully introduced to the entire classroom, and then (the Tate School was hopelessly and, to Audrey's mind, endearingly fogyish) the new student was assigned an “Honorary Helpmeet” to initiate him or her into the Tate School's intricate ways. But that was Tate, and this was Jemison.
Still, it didn't mean you couldn't be polite.
Audrey composed herself as best she could, turned in her seat, and prepared to introduce herself. She wasn't, however, prepared for what she saw. He'd looked handsome when he was at the front of the room, but seeing his face up close, she felt a little dizzy.
In a low, shaky voice, she said, “Hi. I'm Audrey Reed.”
In a whispery drawl, he seemed to say his name was Wiggim Hill.
“Wiggim?” Audrey whispered. It was the oddest name she'd ever heard.
“Wickham,” he said, and made a turned-down smile that seemed almost to imply the name was a mystery to him, too.
Audrey didn't know what to say next, but she knew she had to say something. She whispered, “Are you here for good?”
This time he broke into a loose smile and fixed his eyes on hers. “As opposed to evil?”
She laughed. She shouldn't have, but she couldn't help it.
Ten minutes later, Audrey was sitting with C.C. Mudd and Lea Woolcott, her best and only friends, as they ate their lunches where they always ate their lunchesâon an isolated knoll far from the lunch quad. They were wearing their sweaters without coats, and Audrey could feel the faint heat of the sun on her back and the crown of her head. Audrey ate currants from a cardboard carton and looked up at the blue sky while Lea and C.C. talked about a teacher who'd made some mistake in class, one that Lea had wanted to correct but had decided not to.
“Good thinking,” C.C. said. “Everybody already suspects we're freaks. If we start correcting the teacher, it'll only confirm it.”
C.C. had thick, dark hair, black eyelashes, brown eyes, and what she called the body of an inflated gymnast. She had been short and narrow at eleven, short and voluptuous by thirteen. Audrey thought she was pretty, but C.C., of course, disagreed.
Lea was the quietest of the three. She wore glasses but still seemed to squint, so that you didn't notice, until you'd known her for some time, that her irises were faceted, and blue like quartz. Her face was fine-boned and recessively attractive, and she had a soft way of talking. Her hair was white-blond and utterly without interest to herâshe wore it in a ponytail unless C.C. or Audrey insisted on fixing it for her.
The three had been best friends since starting sixth grade at the Agatha Ingram Tate School, a tiny private school in Cazenovia, New York. C.C. had been the bold, flashy, wisecracking one; Lea had been the pale, bookish one with two parents; and Audrey had been the one who wanted to be a bold, wisecracking girl with two parents.
The Agatha Ingram Tate School went through tenth gradeâas far as its only teacher, Edie March, felt she could go in math and science. It was a one-room school with eight students, an upright piano, a parquet floor, and a fireplace. You couldn't possibly get lost there. Whereas on Audrey's first day at Jemison, she couldn't find anything and was late to every class. The one time she'd asked for directions, a girl wearing a skimpy T-shirt with
inscribed across her breasts said, “Like I would know.” No one knew who Audrey was, no one said hello, and when she'd searched for a place to eat at the lunch quad, three girls looked up at her, then looked at one another, and one of them said something that made the other two break into harsh, stinging laughter. Audrey had turned and staked out the remote, deserted knoll, where Lea and C.C. had found her.
Their first morning had been as bad as Audrey's, and as they ate their lunch together that first day, they were quiet for a long while. Then Lea had squinted at the massive cafeteria building and said, “We're like pet rabbits released into the wild. This is supposed to be our natural habitat, but it's not.”
Since then, they had made the knoll their habitat. They met there at lunch to discuss whatever freakishness they had detected in others or had been accused of themselves, and to bolster one another for the rest of the semi-terrifying day.
Today, Lea and C.C. had rearranged themselves so they were sitting back to back, like bookends, grilling each other for a trig quiz. Audrey had closed her eyes and was thinking idle Wickham Hill thoughts when she sensed that someone was looking at her.
she hoped (preposterous as she knew that was), but when she flicked open her eyes, she found she'd been both right and wrong.
someone staring at her, all right, but it wasn't Wickham Hill. It was a tall boy in black pants and a pinkish shirt, possibly that semi-creepy, semi-handsome boy she'd caught staring at her once or twice in World Cultures. Now, caught staring again, he readjusted his gaze and pretended not to have been staring, which was kind of embarrassing for them both. He turned and walked hurriedly away.
Audrey closed her eyes again and when, within her imagination, the face of Wickham Hill presented itself with perfect clarity, she kept them closed.
C.C.'s brother, Brian, approaching from below.
Brian Mudd was a sophomore, small for his age, but with big hands and feet. He'd been in the public school system for three years now and liked it. For him, the Tate School hadn't been a serene island. He liked computers, and Edie March had liked fountain pens. Every time Edie had asked a question he didn't know the answer toâwhich, as he put it, “was like a gazillion times a day”âhe felt himself getting squished. “That wasn't a schoolroom, dudes. It was a trash compactor.”
Today Brian was cradling something against his neck, something brown, spiky, and reptilian.
Lea seemed alarmed. “What is it?” she said. C.C. looked at the reptile, then at her brother, and said, “Where did you get that? And don't you dare bring it home.”
Brian nuzzled the creature and gave it a nibbling kiss. “Found it sitting by a bush,” he said. The lizard had a flat triangular head with gold eyes, and spikes ran down the ridge of its spine. It seemed designed for gladiatorial work.
“Bearded dragon?” Audrey asked.
“Well done, Miz Reed!” Brian said, mimicking Edie March; then he loosened the enormous lizard from his neck and held it out in his big hands for general presentation. “So how stellar is this?” he said.
“Not very,” C.C. said, “and don't you dare let loose of that thing.”
Which of course Brian immediately did. The reptile blinked, looked around, and then began slogging very slowly downhill, through the dirt. “Lookit 'im scoot!” Brian said.
Audrey didn't share Lea's and C.C.'s aversion to reptiles. She got up and followed Brian and the lizard until, perhaps twenty yards along, Brian reached down and scooped the bearded dragon back up. The reptile seemed pleased, and nestled restfully against Brian's neck.
“Wanna hold it?” Brian asked. “He's totally gentle.”
Audrey handed her box of currants to Brian and took the animalâit was a strange combination of roughness and plumpnessâand it seemed to relax against her neck, too.
Brian was nodding his head and smiling. “Blissing out. Animal's blissing out.”
“That's its name? Animal?”
“If you say so,” Brian said.
Like C.C., Brian had thick, dark hair. He wore it mostly uncut, which meant he occasionally had to push it aside with his fingers in order to see. When they had all met at the Tate School, he'd been a skinny little kid with teeth too large for his mouth. Now that he had grown into his teeth, he wasn't bad-looking, but he was still Brian, and normal conversation with him was impossible.
“Is it male or female?” Audrey ventured.
Brian gave a who-knows shrug. “Before you came up with Animal, I was thinking of going with a gender-neutral name. Pat or Terry, or maybe Kiki.” Brian's grin suddenly broadened. “Did you know that male lizards have two penises? Technically, one penis split in two. It's called a âhemipenis.' But it takes some real effort to expose it.”
Audrey paused, her hands on the lizard. “Then let's not,” she said.
Brian smiled and shrugged. He took one of Audrey's currants and popped it into his mouth. “What are these things, anyway?” he said. Brian was six inches shorter than Audrey and had to look up, which made Audrey feel enormous. She wished they could sit.
“They're like raisins,” Audrey said, “only more exotic.”
“Ah,” Brian said, and then he did something he occasionally did. He smiled and let his eyes settle gently on Audrey. “Raisins with snob appeal.”
Audrey laughed, but it was a laugh cut suddenly short.
From behind them, C.C. was reading aloud, in a reciting voice,
“11:13 a.m., November 2. Something happening. Something definitely happening.”
Audrey turned abruptly. “What're you doing, C.C.?”
C.C. flipped the page of Audrey's green composition book and read:
“Here's the fortune I got last night at Ming Garden with
Dad. âFor you the time is auspicious for romance.'”
“Give me that, C.C.!” Audrey said. She shoved the bearded dragon back into Brian's hands and hurried up the knoll. “That's spying!” she said, and after grabbing her composition book, she said to C.C., in a softer voice, “You're terrible.”
C.C. grinned her pleasant grin, and in an exaggerated Asian accent said, “For you, time velly auspicious for romance!”
“That's not funny, C.C.,” Audrey said.
Brian, standing aside and smoothing a finger over the dragon's flat head, said, “Yeah, well, you know what they say. The taller they are, the farther they fall.”
C.C. gave her brother a deadpan glance and said, “Nobody says that, Brian.”
Brian gave the lizard a little kiss and said, “Evidentially untrue. I just did.”
“Bye, Brian,” C.C. said, and her brother, shrugging, shambled off with the bearded dragon happily cradled against his neck.
“So, Audrey, honey,” C.C. said after Brian was gone. “What does that mean
ââSomething happening. Something definitely happening'
Audrey felt her skin pinkening. What was she going to say? That at 11:13 this morning she'd had oddly ardent feelings about a boy she'd just laid eyes on and hadn't even talked to? No, it was too embarrassing, so she said, “I've been trying to figure out the days when my period's starting, and I wrote that down when I thought I felt it.”
C.C. gave Audrey a dubious grin. “Really, or maybe?”
The bell rang. A smile broke across Audrey's face. “Maybe really,” she said, and waved good-bye.