Authors: Josin L. Mcquein
“Being around so many people who come from a completely different place even though they live in the same zip code?”
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“Money uncomplicates a lot of things,” I said. “I didn’t have the bloodline or the grades to get in here. My uncle made one phone call and the next thing I know … Prep School Barbie.”
“Your choice or his?” Dex asked.
“Mine. I thought it would be worth it.”
“It can be. Just think of Lowry as a stepping-stone. Things aren’t all that different here.” He pushed the gate open and held it for me. “If you watch where you’re going.”
“Sure they aren’t.”
I glanced back at a parking lot full of Porsches and BMWs; I was sure I spied a Lamborghini near the edge.
“There but for the grace of God and a seven-figure trust fund go I,” he said.
As promised, Mr. Tripp didn’t make me give a speech or stand in front of the class to introduce myself. He scribbled my name in his ledger, handed me a book out of his crate on wheels, and told me to find a seat with everyone else.
Dex didn’t give me a lot of choice about where that would be. After he’d dragged me up to meet Mr. Tripp, he led me back the other way to an empty spot on the ground next to a pair of girls who were too absorbed in their own giggles to notice they had company. He opted for the “make a pallet from your blazer” approach; I flopped down on the bare grass and stretched my legs out, while double-checking to make sure English lit was free of people I wanted to flay alive. I could only hope Brooks was saddled with the Gargoyle and thoroughly miserable—preferably in a room where the ceiling dripped asbestos-tainted water on his head.
“So what’s in Oregon?” Dex asked.
“Sky.” I picked at some of the pricklier shoots of grass and let the breeze blow them off my fingers. “Mountains. Rivers. Lots of open space.”
“Yeah, it does sound that way, doesn’t it?”
The sound of pain, very appropriate. Oregon was beautiful, but so are most deadly creatures. And for the few months I’d
lived there, I existed in a vacuum. No air, though I was surrounded by it. I could shout and scream, and all I’d get for my trouble was my own echo mocking me.
“Is it safe to ask about your cousin,” he asked, “or does that look on your face mean something’s about to burst out of your thorax and kill me where I sit?”
Old movie references. He sounded like my friend Brucey.
“She’s in the hospital,” I said, just like I had in not-trig. I pulled my knees up under my chin so I could rest my head against them.
“Does she have cancer or something?”
There were ways to treat cancer. Claire would have fought cancer. Cancer wouldn’t have left her in a bloody mess on her bathroom floor with a razor still clutched in her hand. What got Claire was subtler than cancer. It had rotted her from the inside out and left no trace of itself behind.
“An accident?” Dex guessed again.
Not at all. It was intentional, and malicious, and selfish. Evil, like the devil himself.
I mulched another handful of grass. Too much that time; it left green splotches on my hand that wouldn’t wipe off.
“What happened to her?”
Claire met Brooks; he was evil—the end
Dex finally took the hint that it was a subject best dropped, and moved on.
“Look, I get that you’re in a bad place. You got tossed into a new school that you obviously don’t like—”
“I like it fine.”
“If this is fine, I’d hate to see you angry.”
“You’ve known me all of fifty-five minutes.”
“I’m good at reading people.”
“Then maybe you should try another translation. I’m—”
“Fine?” he asked. “I won’t argue with you, but sometimes it helps to get an outside perspective.”
But what do you do when you
the outside perspective?
I was the intruder. I was the one who didn’t fit, and apparently all my effort at remaking myself into a typical prep-girl had flamed out. Starting conversations wasn’t something I did naturally. I stuck with the friends I’d had since grade school, even after I moved out of state. Tabs, Brucey, and I talked more online than I did to anyone in Oregon (despite my mother’s best attempts to pair me off with every new acquaintance she deemed worth my time and hers).
Why couldn’t I do this? People did this every day. Claire did this—easier than anyone I’ve ever seen. I just had to figure out the mechanics and apply them.
“What do you want to know?” I asked.
“Anything,” he said. “Something simple. I know you don’t like pink, so what else are you hiding under that blazer?”
“I refuse to be held responsible for my actions if you ask me my favorite color.”
I didn’t get to find out if he thought that was funny or not. The bell rang, signaling the start of class, and Mr. Tripp called for attention. At least he was interesting to watch; male teachers with ponytails certainly weren’t the sort of people I assumed I’d be stuck with at Lowry.
“Tell me why you got rid of the nose ring,” Dex whispered
while Mr. Tripp was busy trying to set up a large easel for his whiteboard.
“Because it’s against the dress code.”
“But why didn’t you keep the metal and go back to Ninth Street? Wouldn’t you have been happier there?”
Dex had this way of talking that made it impossible not to pay attention to him. He wasn’t what I’d call handsome, but he was …
. Maybe that’s the word. The tone of his voice was like listening to someone with perfect pitch. I know it sounds stupid to say it like that, but it’s true. You couldn’t sit close to him and not feel better.
Most people look at you, or past you, when you speak to them, but Dex looked me straight in the eye. We must have blinked at the same times, because I never noticed him move at all. It was unnerving, and after a while, I didn’t have to pretend all those butterflies were flitting around in my stomach. I could have puked monarchs.
“What does it matter?” I asked.
“It doesn’t.” He shrugged and took up my habit of picking grass. “I just wondered why your parents sent you here.”
“They didn’t mail me—I asked to come back.”
“You didn’t want to move to Oregon in the first place, did you?”
“I begged them to let me stay with my aunt and uncle.” If we hadn’t moved away, I’d have been here when Claire needed me. I dug my heel into the ground until the dirt showed through, ruining the green perfection of the lawn. “Claire’s the closest thing I have to a sister.”
“Claire’s your cousin?”
“Pretty name. I like it.” He smiled as though there were a good memory attached to his words.
“You’d like her, too.” Everyone did. “When my uncle called about her being in the hospital, Dad flew me back, first thing.”
“Just your dad?”
“Mom doesn’t do well with hospitals.”
Dex nodded idly, as though he understood, but he couldn’t. The only way to understand my mother and the poison cloud that rises from her presence is to experience it firsthand. Dex didn’t deserve that for being nice to me.
I obliterated a flower that had the misfortune of growing close enough for me to reach. It was a weed, so I was sure no one cared.
“Dad said I could stay here if I wanted, and my aunt and uncle had already paid Claire’s tuition for the year, so I asked if I could come to Lowry instead of Ninth Street. Going to school here makes me feel closer to her.”
“She was a student here?”
“This was supposed to be her first year. Uncle Paul came into some money, and she’s definitely smart enough to fit in here. He thought she’d like it.”
As much as people didn’t fit with me, they would have clicked with Claire in an instant. She would have had thirty new numbers in her contact list by the end of the day, easy.
My thoughts turned sour, picking up the thread of all the things Claire should have been doing besides lying in a hospital bed, and I became acutely aware of the fact that I was wearing her clothes. Her itchy skirt and the stabby headband she would have found a way to love, and her white knee socks picking up grass stains. It should have been her sitting there on the ground,
chatting with a guy who wasn’t Brooks Walden and wouldn’t send her into a tailspin because he got bored. She should have been the one getting guided tours and flirting in Eleanor Lowry’s family cemetery, not me.
When Mr. Tripp finally won his battle against the whiteboard and started class, I tried to pay attention, but it was no use. It didn’t even matter that the lesson was a darkly ironic reading of
Alice Through the Looking-Glass
. I couldn’t get my thoughts to settle down; it took all my energy and concentration not to start crying right there in front of everyone. That would have meant looks and whispers and questions I didn’t want to answer.
If Dex spoke again, I didn’t hear him. He was a distraction, and I’d let him knock me off my goal too easily. I’d offered up too much information. The more specifics people knew about Claire, or me, the more likely it was that Brooks would figure out that my presence had something to do with her. I’d almost said as much to Dex. He was too easy to open up to, and I wasn’t familiar enough with the phenomenon to know how to counter it.
So I went on autopilot. I set my inner alarm to ignore and coasted through class; then I drifted to gym, following Dex as he once again appointed himself my escort. I changed my clothes and lined up obediently with the rest of the girls the way Coach Blackwell told us to. I played basketball. I shot. I ran. I even scored six points.
All while wearing a burgundy T-shirt with “C. Reed” stenciled on the back.
As my body was guarding a girl named Brooke (who should be happy I didn’t hit her in the face with a ball for that fact
alone), my mind was back on point. I had a purpose for being at Lowry. One that didn’t involve things like trying to make friends or flirting for the fun of it when someone else started the game. Forget the fact that under normal circumstances, Dex was a guy I might have actually liked to talk to, or that his personality reminded me of friends I already had. I was there for Claire, not me. And by the time I was finished, things like friends and chitchat wouldn’t matter anymore.
Dex was a traitor.
Worse—he was a minion. I’d spent the better part of my morning being grilled by the devil’s right-hand demon and hadn’t even realized how dangerous he was. After he took me to the door of my history class (which was next to his), he spent the last five minutes of the passing period cutting up with Brooks and trying to get me to participate.
“I found a stray puppy and brought her in out of the rain,” he said.
“It’s not raining, idiot,” Channing spat. She stood leaning close to Brooks in what I assumed was a move to mark her territory. I should have known the leech would be attached to the beauty queen.
“Hi,” Brooks said with the sort of smile I’d have thought charming if I hadn’t known better.
“Hi,” I said back.
A one-syllable test word to prove to myself I could speak to him without any sort of crackle or rise in my voice. Thankfully, his fingers were once again occupied with his pen, so he couldn’t shake hands or anything else that required skin contact. Speaking, I could force myself to handle. Touching, not so much.
“What’s that?” I angled for a better look at the paper he was holding on top of his book.
“Nothing, really. Just something to fill the time when Greystone wasn’t watching.”
“That’s an awful lot of ink for nothing.”
“It’s a high-rise,” Channing supplied. “Brooks designs buildings, but his plans are too complex for anyone to actually build.”
“They won’t be someday.” Brooks slid his paper into his book. “You’re Diane, right?”
“Dinah,” I corrected, mentally cheering that Mr. Perfect had screwed up.
“Oh … sorry. I’m usually better with names.”
“ ’Sokay. You’re only about the eighth person to say it wrong.
.” I turned to the girl beside him. “You’re Channing, right?”
“Chandi,” she corrected. “I’m changing it. Channing’s too long for a stage name. Plus, there’s a guy already using it and I don’t want to end up androgynous.”
Oh. My. God
I had found my mother’s real daughter.
“You’re an actress?” I asked. I could chat the girlfriend up if it meant maybe getting information out of her later.
“She thinks she is,” Dex said.
Chandi straightened from where she’d been leaned against Brooks’ shoulder; her face hardened.
“I’d tell you to bite me, but you’d only take it as encouragement.”
“Not worth the risk,” Dex said. “I might catch something nasty.”
If Brooks hadn’t caught her, Dex would have ended up with a perfectly sculpted french tip embedded in his eye socket.
“They’re always like this,” Brooks said, still hanging on to Chandi. He tried to laugh but couldn’t quite cover the annoyed expression on his face. Personally, I didn’t find anything funny in the way his hands were dug into her skin deep enough to turn it white. “But they hardly ever draw blood. I think they’re showing off for company.”
I was more interested in what Brooks was showing off. We’d been so far apart in not-trig that I hadn’t gotten a decent look at anything other than the side of his face nearest my seat. But when he made the grab for his girlfriend, he exposed the other half—along with the nearly healed gouges below his jaw and down his neck. Someone with long nails had taken a swipe at him and left their mark.
Too bad I knew it wasn’t Claire. She hadn’t fought back, because she hadn’t known he was the enemy.
The warning bell rang, splitting our conversation. Chandi followed me into one room while Brooks and Dex went into the other. She snapped her teeth together as she and Dex crossed paths, and I wasn’t quite sure whether it was a joke, a threat, or a near miss on an actual attempt to bite him.
History was an experience best forgotten as soon as it was over. You don’t need the details other than to know I achieved a state of semiconscious lucid dreaming that should only be possible when illegal drugs are involved. I was seriously considering turning our teacher in to the DEA for testing. The only problem was, the woman (who had one of those Jones/Smith/Davis names that a billion people have) was so nondescript I couldn’t even remember what she looked like when I left the room.