Authors: Josin L. Mcquein
I made the mistake of eye contact with Abigail-not-Abby, which she took as an invitation to replace Dex as my personal valet when we reached the door. Her hair had completely subdued the evil headband, drowning it somewhere inside her curls.
“Ready for lunch?”
Food was the last thing I wanted, but I was too fried from the history of hallucinogens to protest.
The trip to the cafeteria was quick, filled with Abigail-not-Abby’s voice as she bounced from subject to subject, running down people and teachers and classes like she assumed I knew everyone involved. Names rattled off like roll call at camp, so fast I barely snagged five of them.
“Which one’s the food line?” I asked. If I gave her something to think about, I was sure she’d stop talking long enough for me to catch up.
“All of them,” she said.
“Why are there four?”
We only had two at my old school. One for the day’s official menu, and one for the people who would rather eat hamburgers.
“We have a salad bar,” she said, and pointed to the first line. Chandi was picking through apples at that one while complaining to Jordan-from-homeroom. I couldn’t hear her, but Chandi’s face was so twisted-up furious that it was hard to believe she was the same model wannabe I’d seen all day.
Jordan started to put a hand on her arm, but Chandi jerked away, stopping to adjust her sleeve where it buttoned over her wrist.
“Line two is for people with dietary restrictions. No wheat, no dairy, no meat, no pork. That kind of stuff.”
That line was vacant, except for the woman at the cash register.
Abigail-not-Abby kept prattling about food, as though there wasn’t a predator close enough to use for a pitching target. I had to stifle a laugh (okay … a cheer) when I gave Brooks the same mental treatment I’d used on Dex earlier, only instead of Abigail-not-Abby and a swift kick, it was Chandi’s ninety-five-mile-an-hour speed apple.
“Line three is fish today, because it’s Friday. And line four is for people who don’t want any of the other stuff. I’m going four—the pasta’s pretty good.”
“I think I’ll have fish.” I don’t actually like fish, but I didn’t want to wait in line with Abigail-not-Abby or Chandi, and I didn’t trust the smell coming from the “restricted” line.
For that span of five minutes, it was a normal school day and nothing more. Cafeteria ladies with hairnets and blue aprons, little bowls of chopped-up peach bits, and the familiar sound track of voices blending into a soothing thrum.
If I closed my eyes, I was simply at lunch, about to sit down with my friends.
Dex spotted me and waved me over, but that would have involved sitting with Brooks. There was no sense risking health or appetite by inhaling brimstone at the devil’s table. So instead, I pointed to Abigail-not-Abby and shrugged at him, mouthing “sorry” as though I’d already agreed to sit with her. He gave me a double thumbs-up and forgot I existed.
Brooks sat cattycorner, to face both sides of the table at once. He leaned his chair back a bit. (No cheap bench seats bolted to folding tables at Lowry.) Even though he had the spot
at the top of the table, no one’s attention was really on him. Dex had them all mesmerized.
I couldn’t see him clear enough to know what he was putting in his mouth, but the instant reaction from Chandi and Jordan as they sat down said it probably wasn’t food. Chandi flicked something off her arm, like he’d sprayed her, then moved her chair closer to Brooks so that any additional volley would hit him first. Jordan scowled and took her tray to the far end of the table to sit with Hayden Leung.
I pulled out my phone, hiding it under the table so no one would see, and started my list.
Brooks went into the enemy category. Chandi and Dex I put in limbo. I didn’t know enough about either of them yet, but I had the feeling Chandi was going to fall in line under Brooks’ name. Even if I told her about Claire, she had no reason to believe me over a guy she’d probably known and crushed on for years. Dex was inching closer to the friend category, but I wasn’t ready to slide him over yet; it would depend on how wrapped up he was in Brooks’ lies.
Abigail-not-Abby went on the list as a friend. She couldn’t be anything else; the girl wore her whole life on her face. Jordan, Hayden, and the few others I’d seen enough times to learn their names went down as bystanders. They were possible minions, but without a reference, I couldn’t list them that way.
A quick check of line number four showed Abigail-not-Abby close enough to snag a tray. That gave me a minute or two before she reached the register. I closed my list and scrolled to one of the IMs Claire had sent me over the summer. I’d saved them all to my phone so I could read through them if I needed to double-check something.
She always started conversations that way, to make sure I knew it was her, and not someone using her phone or computer.
Poison Poet: dong-ding
Just like I always answered back in the reverse for the same reason. My mom got it into her head one day that impersonating me by IM would be as simple as using my computer when I was logged in, which was stupid even for her. Claire wrote back in her best middle school French German–ish and made a string of posts about how to best prepare a poodle casserole.
Clarity_Dawn: <—haz news.
Poison Poet: I’m waiting.
Clarity_Dawn: New guy! Is YUM!
Poison Poet: What happened to Nick?
I’d known Nick wasn’t going to last; Claire was way out of his league. He was the sort of guy you’d expect to show up on America’s Most Wanted someday, either as the person at large or the actor playing his part.
Poison Poet: Who’s Mr. New?
Clarity_Dawn: Lowry guy.
And that should have been my first red flag. Claire had gone to the Wilson Peete junior high, like me. And people from
Lowry didn’t mingle with people from our school. Even the pretty ones.
I understood it better once I was on the inside, but there was no way a kid from Wilson Peete could act like one from Eleanor Lowry. It would be like learning to speak English in some random Midwest town in America versus learning it in London. You might be able to hold a conversation, but the words wouldn’t sound the same, and you wouldn’t know the slang.
Poison Poet: Meet at Lowry registration?
Clarity_Dawn: Nope—my secret. He thinks I’m a townie. And … he’s a jr!
Even if she had told him she’d be starting Lowry this term and he’d assumed she’d moved up from a private day school, Claire must have had “new money” flashing across her forehead in giant block letters. She was a gazelle at the watering hole being stalked by a lion.
Poison Poet: You’re fourteen, girlie.
Clarity_Dawn: Only for two more weeks.
Poison Poet: Does he know?
Clarity_Dawn: Doesn’t care.
Claire was too trusting. She always had been.
This should have been red flag number two. Yes, there are guys who are juniors who will date freshmen because they actually like them, but a random summer hookup? The rules are different, and Claire didn’t know that. I should have told her,
but sometimes it was hard to remember that she wasn’t as mature as she sounded in my head.
If Mom hadn’t made us move, I’d have known. There was no way to look Claire in the eye and not see the innocence there. She believed everyone.
Poison Poet: SPILL. I want a name.
Poison Poet: 1st name, loser.
Poison Poet: Cuckoo dates grl :/
Clarity_Dawn: BrookS <—No “e,” has “s”
Poison Poet: Cuckoo dates two girls :-D
In person, Claire would never flip someone off. She never cursed, and blushed if she said “butt.” She might work up the nerve to use “backside” or “rear.” The girl looked eighteen, wasn’t even fifteen, and in many ways still acted like she was eight. Danger wasn’t real to her, and she was far too easy to tease.
Poison Poet: Details, girlie. Tell me about your girl-boy.
Clarity_Dawn: BROOKS IS A BOY!
Poison Poet: Give me his address.
Poison Poet: I’ll kill him if he hurts my Cuckoo.
At that point, it was a joke, because I believed her when she said he was her guardian angel and not a devil in disguise.
Poison Poet: I’ll make your Brooks into a Brooke?
Poison Poet: Can I stomp his big toe and make him limp? No—give me photos. I’ll maim him by Photoshop!
Poison Poet: Be careful, girlie.
Clarity_Dawn: I’m not stupid.
Poison Poet: No, you’re Cuckoo.
Clarity_Dawn: I’ve got a shadow in the door.
I hated the idea of someone reading over my shoulder, but I couldn’t help but think that if Uncle Paul or Aunt Helen had been close enough to read what she was saying, maybe it would have made a difference. No way would they have let their fourteen-year-old daughter date a seventeen-year-old without some serious parental interference. Just knowing someone was paying attention could have been enough to scare him off to easier prey.
What if …
If only …
My life had been nothing but questioned actions and second guesses since Claire fell.
Brooks hadn’t meant for things to go so far.…
she’d told me before things got so bad she had to take a razor to her own wrists?…
she had fallen straight to the floor, or sat down, instead of bouncing her skull.…
A person could go crazy with enough what-ifs; I was very nearly proof.
I cleared my screen and stared at Brooks across the cafeteria—another room full of windows. So much glass made up the building, it was a wonder it could even stand. I propped my phone up and took a quick burst of pictures, then squirreled it away back in my bag.
Abigail-not-Abby dropped her tray across from mine and took her seat.
“Fail trig,” she said again. “Take my word on this—you want to.”
“Not that there isn’t a distinct possibility of that happening, but why would I want it to?”
“Because the inhumanly gorgeous bit of eye candy you just snapped a photo of isn’t merely a pretty face.”
“I wasn’t taking a picture of Dex.”
“Dex? No.” She made a face like she’d swallowed sour pickle juice. “I meant Brooks. If those pictures are of Dex, we have bigger issues to discuss than your math grades.”
“Brooks is good at trig?”
“Brooks is good at everything. It really isn’t fair that so much talent gets packaged in so much pretty.”
“And because of this I should fail?”
She stole a french fry off my tray.
“I think I’m missing a few steps in your thought process. Back up.”
“It’s simple. If you fail trig, then you get a tutor. Brooks has been the go-to since ninth grade.”
All girls, too, I bet. Tutoring sounded like the perfect way
for him to find out who was and wasn’t a viable target. He’d get to be alone with them for at least an hour at a time—they probably let him into their houses, assuming he didn’t invite them to his to get a home field advantage.
“I’ll think about it. Thanks.”
“Anything to pry Channing off his arm.”
“Not really. I just hate her with every fiber of my being and feel the need to vomit whenever she’s within ten feet.”
Abigail-not-Abby nicked another french fry, so the nausea couldn’t have been too bad.
“She didn’t seem so bad to me.”
“In the hall?” she asked.
“Meet her in a room without Brooks. Bring a flak jacket.”
I hadn’t noticed it before, but Abigail-not-Abby’s whole appearance was a blatant imitation of Chandi’s—from her not-quite-the-right-color shoes to the drugstore knockoff of whatever makeup she wore. The same colors that worked on someone like Chandi didn’t go well with Abigail’s coloring.
“I skipped a grade to get here,” Abigail-not-Abby said. “She treats me like a little kid, others follow her lead.”
Chandi slipped over the line to “enemy” in my head.
“Why would she do that?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I try to make myself look older, but when you’re competing against sixteen-year-olds who can walk into a bar and not get carded, managing to look sixteen when you’re fifteen doesn’t count for much. No one wants to sit at the kiddie table.”
I lost another french fry.
“She makes fun of you?”
“It’s mellowed into more of a maintained avoidance scenario. She’s progressed to pretending I don’t exist, and in return, I systematically obliterate every curve on every test I can while making sure she never gets her photo in the school paper or the spotlight pages of the yearbook.”
Say what you will about teenage hormones and angst, but there’s no better source for data mining than the kid shuffled to the fringes who does nothing but watch everyone all day.
“And Jackson Dexter, who you will avoid, is a complete idiot. It’s odd, considering he’s a scholarship case and probably the smartest guy in school.”
“He hides it well.”
Just then, he was hiding it by engaging one of the posters on the wall in a heated (and one-sided) argument. He scolded the “healthy living” bicycle rider—loudly—for insulting Chandi’s choice to wear a shirt that was two sizes too small and therefore required open buttons. She pulled her blazer tighter and hunched her shoulders when she realized most of the room was listening in.
“Complete loser, by choice,” Abigail-not-Abby said. “He spends all his time trying to distract people because he’s afraid they’ll remember he sleeps on the couch since there’s only one bedroom in his house and his mother and sister have to share it.”
“Why should I avoid him?”
“Because he’s weird, and he gets ideas that turn into disasters for everyone involved.”