Authors: Josin L. Mcquein
“So he’s a typical teenage boy?”
“Not really,” she said. “Grades or not, I doubt he’d still be here if he didn’t have Brooks to hide behind.”
“I sort of pictured the two of you teaming up against Chandi.”
“Ah. She told you about the name change? Did she tell you that she was changing Pepperidge, too? She thinks a cookie last name makes her sound like a stripper.”
“Funny, I thought it was the missing buttons on her shirt that did that,” I grumbled.
Abigail-not-Abby snorted and stole another fry. She hadn’t even touched her pasta.
“Brooks doesn’t mind people ogling his girlfriend?”
“She’s not his girlfriend. Not really. Channing thinks she is, but she also thinks no one remembers her old nose.”
She reached for my tray again; I scooped the fries to her side of the table.
“She and Brooks have been friends since primary. He puts up with her because in his head, they’re still friends. In hers, they’re destined for each other. It’s sad, really. She can hardly function without him, and he’s too nice to make her try.”
I was beginning to wonder if one of Mr. Wonderful’s hidden talents wasn’t hypnosis. Since when was issuing orders considered “nice”? If Chandi was so completely taken in that she’d transferred control of her own life to this guy, then reaching her was going to be more difficult than I thought.
I wondered if those were her scratches on his neck, which got me to thinking about the way she kept playing with her sleeve. The safe bet was that if she’d left her mark on Brooks, he’d done the same with her.
“Brooks is a light touch,” Abigail-not-Abby said. “Especially considering who he hangs around. He doesn’t ignore me, anyway.”
“He should tell her the truth,” I said, but I knew there was no chance of it happening. What guy would give up his between-hookups fallback girl?
“Why? Hoping to fill the gap?”
“Dating him is the last thing on my mind.”
“Flunk trig,” she said again, and downed the last french fry.
By last period, I’d stopped thinking of the Lowry School as Stepford and reassigned it as Wonderland. It was easier that way. No one seemed quite human if they were absurd characters in a storybook.
Channing Pepperidge was the Queen of Hearts, able to slaughter detractors with barely a look. I’d seen it firsthand in history, and in our shared chemistry class after lunch. Half the guys in the room had to have her inverse image burned onto their retinas from staring so hard.
Dex was the Mad Hatter. Pretty much everything he did made sense to him (and only him), but if he threw a party, you knew everyone would come.
Abigail-not-Abby played the White Rabbit. She was always hurrying from here to there as though she was already late before she even had a destination in mind.
The shifting chorus of extras who shared space with the group made pretty convincing Tweedledees and dums. (They could fight over who filled which role, because honestly, there wasn’t enough for me to go on.)
That left Brooks to embody the Cheshire Cat.
He was the one who, no matter how hard I looked or how long I watched, I couldn’t quite pin down. But I was always aware of his presence. When he entered a room, the air changed, and attention shifted in whichever direction he stood. He was
everyone’s friend, and someone was always repeating words he’d used or recounting something he’d done. Even when he wasn’t visible, Brooks hung around like a barely-there moon in the background that followed me wherever I went.
(I blame Mr. Tripp and his free-form English lessons for the detour down the rabbit hole.)
Drama classes in Wonderland weren’t all that different from those at my old school. We still sat in theater seats while the teacher—Mr. Cavanaugh—sat with his legs dangling off the edge of the stage into the pit. He was dressed nicer than Ms. Bonner, who was my teacher at Ninth Street, and there weren’t any cigarette holes burned into our chairs, but the room had the same feeling to it. This was where you could be anyone you wanted to be.
“There are many kinds of acting,” Mr. Cavanaugh said. “You have your dramas. You have your comedies. You have action and horror and romance.” He mimed each genre with exaggerated expressions, juggling for comedies and the doing the
stab scene for horror. “But with all of those, there are only two kinds of actors.”
“Male and female?”
Abigail-not-Abby was right. Dex was an unapologetic moron when he wanted to be.
“Not even close, Dex, but thank you for the sexist viewpoint. Don’t expect me to intervene when the young ladies attack.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Dex said. “Rescue spoils the fun.”
There was a collective groan, followed by fewer laughs than Dex expected, if his face meant anything. He pouted while those closest to him split off and switched chairs. That left
Dex alone and put Brooks one seat forward and to the left of me.
“I’m talking about those who want to be seen and those who want to disappear.”
“You mean stars and everyone else,” Chandi called out.
“That’s oversimplifying,” Mr. Cavanaugh said. “But in general, yes. There are those who slip into a character’s skin so completely, they can’t be seen underneath, and those who, no matter how they try, will always be pretending. Both are important, but which of the two is the star is up for debate.”
He had this weird auburn mustache that looked like it had been glued, slightly askew, to the underside of his nose. It bounced up and down as he talked.
“The star’s the headliner,” Chandi argued. “Everyone else is set dressing.”
“Then how do you explain scene stealers?” I asked. I hadn’t intended to engage her, but she was too annoying not to poke back. Someone needed to remind Miss Model-Perfect that hers wasn’t the only voice in the room worth listening to.
“If the star knows what she’s doing, no one will be able to steal her scenes.”
“You think it’s that easy?” Mr. Cavanaugh asked.
“For some of us.” She glared at me, a clear indication that she didn’t include me in “us.”
Fine with me.
“It seems we have our two camps,” Mr. Cavanaugh continued. “Those who will grab the audience’s attention and hold it so long as they’re onstage”—he glanced around the room, settling on Dex and Chandi—“and those who aren’t playing at all. They become the person on the page.”
His attention settled on my section for a beat before moving on, but the pause was enough to sear acid into the sides of my stomach.
“So the question is, do you want someone to look at you and say ‘That person is a real star,’ or to look
you and see a stranger who can be anything?”
Easy answer. You can’t hunt on the predator’s home turf if he can see you coming. Make him think you belong, get him so used to your presence that he misses it when it’s gone, and you’ll be able to look him in the eye when you deliver the killing blow.
“Which one makes more?”
“The headliner, loser,” Chandi said, then wadded up a piece of paper and fired it at his head. Everyone (other than Dex) laughed.
“Today, we’re going to test Miss Pepperidge’s assertion that grabbing and keeping someone’s interest is a simple matter of will and skill.” Mr. Cavanaugh hopped to his feet and clapped his hands for attention. “Everyone cinch up. No spaces. If you’re in the back rows, move forward to the middle two. If you’re in the front, scoot back.”
Up to that point, we’d been spread out wherever we happened to fall when we came in. Abigail-not-Abby had taken what she’d deemed her seat and shooed me toward the side of the room, where Brooks and Dex had settled.
I threw my bag over the seat in front of me and claimed the spot next to Brooks, as I was in the “move up” area. This was my first excuse to get near him that I hadn’t had to manufacture or needed Dex to initiate, and I wasn’t losing it to someone
else. Especially not Chandi “I don’t want to be a cookie” Pepperidge. She’d made the choice to hold court with a group of girls in the far right front, and I’d already climbed over the row into my new seat by the time she figured out where Brooks was sitting and headed his way. If she hadn’t been so hateful, I probably wouldn’t have grinned at her.
She flopped into the seat next to Jordan-from-homeroom like it was the one she wanted.
“Everyone pair off,” Mr. Cavanaugh said. “Mr. Coleman with Mr. Nieves. Miss Jackson and Miss Highview. Miss Pepperidge with Mr. Grant. Dex and Miss St. Croix … Sorry, Jordan. Next time, watch where you’re sitting. Mr. Walden and Miss Powell. Mr. Yancy and Miss Bell. Mr. Kane and Mr. Lawson, and Mr. Leung and Mr. Sanders. Is that everyone? Good.”
Me and Brooks
I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried. Now I not only had an excuse to sit close enough to get a feel for how he did things, I had a reason to talk to him that didn’t involve awkward introductions or evading his girlfriend.
Mr. Cavanaugh clapped again, letting the room’s acoustics carry the sound, and we all turned back to the stage.
“Now that everyone’s settled—no, Jordan, you can’t move—your assignment. You and your partner have five minutes to plan, then we’re going to do a little experiment. People in the back row, you’re going to attempt to get the attention of those in the front row. People in the front row, you’re going to anchor your attention elsewhere. Take out your iPhones, iPods, and all those other iThings we teachers pretend you don’t have stashed in your pockets and bags. Until the experiment is over, the ‘i’ means ‘invisible’ to me.”
“Spot me a phone, Wally?” Dex turned around in his seat.
“Only if you swear never to call me that again.” Brooks dug into his pocket and pulled out a sleek phone, then tossed it over the seat.
Dex’s face lit up with the glow from the screen as he turned back around and switched on a game that sounded suspiciously like my uncle’s brainchild.
“This isn’t fair, Mr. Cavanaugh,” one of the Tweedles whined. “How are we supposed to get someone’s attention when they’re busy? It’s impossible.”
“That’s the point.” Apparently Chandi had a thing for paper balls because she lobbed another one at the Tweedle’s head. “No one gives you attention, you have to take it.”
“Exactly right, Miss Pepperidge.”
She flashed a triumphant smile, which soured into something more sinister when she glanced my way.
“Okay, everyone. Games on, earbuds in. Planning time starts …
All around me, the room morphed into a combination of whispers and flashing lights from people’s phones. Everywhere except for me and Brooks. Neither of us said a word.
I could understand the silence on my part—there’s no icebreaker tailored toward making small talk with your cousin’s almost-murderer—but Brooks made no sense. Not only was he not speaking to me, he wasn’t even looking in my direction. He was doodling on a piece of paper, adding another tower to his Skyscraper of the Future.
“Aren’t we going to make a plan?” I finally asked.
“No need. I’ll hit Dex in the back of the head; he’ll turn around. Assignment over.”
“What about Jordan?”
“She’ll turn around to watch the hitting.”
This was not the way things played out in my head. Brooks Walden was not supposed to be ignoring me in favor of pencil sketches and notebook paper. He was supposed to be treating me like the perfect mark. A topic shift was obviously in order.
“Abigail says you’re the one to talk to if I’m failing trig,” I said carefully. Damsel in distress is an act that’s all about balance. You want the guy to think he’s rescuing you from something, but without sounding so pathetic that it becomes a pure mercy save. It needs to be a chance to impress, not pity.
“I’m going to sew her mouth shut,” he groaned.
“Was she wrong?” I asked. If Abigail-not-Abby’s jabber jaw botched this, I’d hold the thread while he stitched. “I didn’t ask her … she was sort of acting as your personal PR firm.”
“She acts as
PR firm,” Brooks said. “We call it getting caught in the Gail.”
Abigail-not-Abby had a nickname after all. She just didn’t know it.
“So you’re not a tutor?” Disappointing, but not too tragic.
“I used to be.”
“Looks good on a college app, I bet.” Ivy Leaguers were raised to think college application fodder from the time they were in pre-K.
“Just like baseball, soccer, piano, Junior Congress, the Red Cross, the Sixth Street Shelter, and Academic Decathlon all look good on a college app. People keep volunteering me for things. It’s too much. I had to drop some of them, no matter how much my dad complains.”
That last bit he grumbled in a lower voice while stabbing
holes in the paper he’d been drawing on. The Golden Boy had daddy issues—generic, predictable, but also potential ammunition. All I needed was to know whether Brooks was the type who’d knock himself out for the old man’s approval or if he was one of those who’d spite his father just to watch him twist.
“No rowing? I thought you blue-blood types were all about the team pull and throw.”
“Not when you fall into the Charles River on a family trip to Boston and nearly drown, then get rescued just in time for a bout of hypothermia to eat the rest of your vacation. And my blood’s red, thank you very much.”
“I hate that blue-blood crap.”
“I was just teasing.” Better to turn it into a tease than an insult. “Where I come from, anyone who goes to school in a place like this is a blue blood.”
“Prick your finger and prove it.”
“Hi,” I said, desperately trying to salvage the situation. I held out my hand; it looked like touching him was going to be a necessity after all.
“What are you doing?”
“New girl gets a do-over. That’s the rule—I checked the charter,” I said, co-opting Dex’s earlier line. “Hi, my name’s Dinah, and I’m trying unsuccessfully to convince you to save my trig grade from self-destruction.”
He laughed through his nose.
“Brooks,” he said, then took my hand. When he actually faced me, my eyes were drawn straight to those scratches on the
side of his neck. They couldn’t have been more than a few days old. “I’m trying unsuccessfully to dodge the humiliation of being hydrophobic by snapping your head off.”