Authors: Josin L. Mcquein
“You think being afraid of water is more embarrassing than calling it hydrophobia?”
“Pretty much anything sounds better than implied rabies.”
He gave me the nose snort again.
“Fine. I’m afraid of water. I don’t go on boats. I can’t even use a bathtub. Rain freaks me out if it means puddles.”
“Interesting bit of information,” I said. “Very
“Blame Abigail. She can incite random moments of TMI from across the room.”
“So that’s why I feel compelled to blurt out that I used to wear enough metal to set off security systems and potentially die inside an MRI?”
“You are a randomness rookie. I know my height in Smoots.”
“You made that up.”
“You’ll never know unless you Google it.…”
I refused to laugh because he was charming or funny. I chose to laugh because it was what he expected. He absolutely was not easy to get along with. It simply wasn’t possible.
“I’ll find another tutor,” I said, building the perfect impression of desperation: cast-down eyes focused on my hands, where I picked at my fingernails, and a strategically chewed lip. “It’s just … I really need the help. My old school wasn’t as …”
“Advanced as this one?”
. Take your pick.” I could play the grateful, fawning sycophant if he wanted to rub it in and put the poor kid in her place. “And my mom’s already betting
I’ll fail within the week. I don’t want to give her another excuse to gloat.”
My attempted pout was interrupted by Mr. Cavanaugh and his inconvenient need to continue our class.
“Time’s up,” he announced. “Let’s see what you’ve come up with.”
Not much, with nothing on the side.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Brooks said. “Ace this, without touching him, and I’ll do it.”
“You don’t know Dex and his ability to tune out the world in favor of Empyrean Meta-Craft. He forgets to eat. You could dance naked on the stage with Cavanaugh and he wouldn’t notice.”
“Wanna bet?” I asked.
“I thought I just did.”
This had possibilities.
“Mr. Cavanaugh, what are the rules?” I called out. The room had become a garbled mix of shouts and motion as each pair attempted to secure the attention of someone determined not to give it.
“There aren’t any,” he answered. “I told you, for the duration of class, I don’t see anything.”
I shoved my bag into Brooks’ lap, then pulled off my blazer and dropped it over the seat in front of us. Dex didn’t even flinch.
“Dinah, I was kidding. What are you—”
Next came the tie and the button-up shirt. Brooks sank down in his chair.
“This was not my idea, Mr. Cavanaugh!”
“Coward,” I said. “I’m not naked.”
As if he wasn’t watching through his fingers …
The tie and shirt had no more effect on Dex than the blazer.
“Told you so,” Brooks whispered.
“Shush, you, I’m not done.” By that point, I think everyone
Dex was staring at us. “I still have my secret weapon.”
I pulled my arms inside my shirt, unhooked my bra in the back and slipped it out through one of the armholes. Yes, it was humiliating. No, it wasn’t Victoria’s Secret. Mr. Cavanaugh probably would have said something to stop me before that point, but he seemed to have lost the ability to form words. His face turned as red as his hair until he hid it behind his hands. (He needed a little more help not noticing things. It wasn’t like I was the only girl in the school not wearing a bra.)
I flicked my discount cotton bra with the purple hearts on it over the back of Dex’s chair, and let it hang from my fingers next to his face. After a second, I bounced it up and down and was finally rewarded with a bit of movement.
Dex turned sideways, staring at the bra. Then he glanced at Jordan, who had her own head ducked into her hand, laughing. He looked down to where my discarded clothes lay in a pile on both their laps, and nearly plowed over the back of his chair as he turned around.
“We win,” I said, then slipped my bra back on the same way I’d taken it off. “Boys will always notice naked. Even if it’s only in their imagination.”
“Yes, well …,” Mr. Cavanaugh started. He looked everywhere but at me and couldn’t get his eyes to stop moving. “I suppose that’s a part of the lesson we haven’t yet covered.”
“Sex sells?” Dex asked.
Brooks smacked him in the back of the head as he snatched his phone out of Dex’s hands.
“Know your audience,” Mr. Cavanaugh corrected. “Nicely done, Miss Powell.… Please never do that again.”
“Yes, sir,” I said over the final bell.
“I want you each to develop a short monologue to perform next week. Make the voice clear, and do your best to completely embody the character you create … while remaining dressed,” Mr. Cavanaugh shouted over the end-of-period clamor. “Class dismissed.”
“You’re my new hero.” Jordan bunched up my clothes and passed them over the seat as a still-scowling Chandi sidled up to Brooks and slid under an arm he didn’t offer to put around her shoulders. She laced her fingers through his to hold it in place.
“Walk me to my car?” she asked him while staring straight at me.
Brooks handed me my bag back.
“So?” I asked.
“I concede victory. Text me your address.”
We switched phones to add our numbers to each other’s call list.
“Is Sunday okay?” he asked. “I have to be at Five Points tomorrow morning, and I’m not sure how long I’ll be there.”
“Thanks,” I said with as much cheer as I could force into the word. As soon as I reached the door, Chandi lit into him. Too
bad there was no way to stay and watch. School was officially over for the day; I had somewhere more important to be.
Just the same, it was nice to know it didn’t take much to trouble the waters of Brooks’ calm existence.
“Marry me.” Dex fell in step with me outside the theater doors. “Marry me. Or date me. Or whatever other arrangement will get me another look at your, um …”
His attention dropped from my face to my chest.
“Yes. Pretty unmentionables, and maybe matching other unmentionables.”
Dex was such a drain. And he was totally blocking all my attempts with Brooks. Their brains must have been cross-wired.
“You don’t have to beg.”
“Really?” His eyes lit up, and I’m not entirely sure I didn’t see drool.
“Sure. Walmart. Women’s underwear aisle. I usually shop off the end cap.”
“You’re trying to kill me, aren’t you?” he asked. “It’s a game, right? See how long it takes for the new girl to drive one of the rich kids completely insane.”
“Ah, but you said you weren’t a rich kid.”
“A minor technicality. You can’t disqualify me for that.”
“It’s no fun driving someone crazy if they’re already over the line.”
“She thinks I’m crazy,” he lamented to a random piece of yard art. I think it was probably a rabbit at some point, but it hadn’t held up as well as the fountain on the front drive. “Tell her, Cottontail. Tell her I’m perfectly sane.”
“You didn’t actually expect the marriage proposal to work, did you?”
“It could have.…”
We turned onto the main walk and headed for the front of the school. After the day’s horrible, trig-contaminated start, and all the assumptions I’d had about what I’d be walking into when I entered Lowry, it was nice to find someone normal, even if he did turn out to be one of the devil’s friends.
“Okay, the line sucked, but it’s all I could think of. It’s not my fault—all those purple hearts scrambled my brain. And what’s the deal with you and Brooks?”
“You saw how lost I was this morning. He’s going to help me catch up with what I missed in trig.”
“I could do that.”
“I don’t think I’m
pathetic enough to need two tutors.”
“Maybe, but Brooks may not be in any shape to run numbers for a while.”
Under one of the trees, Brooks stood beside the open door of a silver BMW as though he was getting in. Unfortunately, Chandi had followed him from the theater and was still going strong. Dex waved, which only ratcheted the fit up another notch.
It was one of those moments where I was happy that telepaths don’t exist. No need to share the mental touchdown dance playing out in my head. Dex wasn’t the only one going on an unmentionable-free streak.
“If he falls through, let me know, okay?” Dex dropped the goofy edge from his voice and ran off.
Leaving Lowry felt surreal, I guess.
I’d accomplished my one concrete goal—locating Brooks—but had no idea what to do next. I’d charged in without any real plan to speak of.… Maybe I thought I’d fail, so there was no point in planning. I don’t know. Evil was supposed to be an abstract, yet in meeting Brooks, I’d managed to find proof of its existence.
A low rumble of commotion and whispers drew my attention to the line of waiting cars in the pickup area. It was the same as this morning, a monochromatic stretch of neutral colors but the standout this time was my ride home, sitting just outside the security guard’s stand. I left through the “walk-in” gate (another ivy-covered iron monster, which locked behind me, lest someone unauthorized sneak through on foot) and approached the passenger’s side.
“Hey, Tabs,” I said.
Tabitha Guthrie had been my best friend since we’d conspired to dig a hole large enough to trap Kyle Smith on the playground. He was a year older and had been picking on a friend of ours during recess. We’d seen the “dig-a-pit” thing on TV with tigers and figured if it could hold one of those, it could hold Kyle. He was nowhere near as smart as your average tiger.
Of course, we got bored after about ten minutes, so instead of tossing Kyle into a tiger pit, we jumped on him and did as
much damage as a couple of five-year-old girls armed with toys were able. Kyle never picked on our friend again, and maintained an irrational fear of My Little Pony well into junior high.
Even after the forced march to Oregon, Tabs was the first one I’d thought of to help with my deconstruction-of-Brooks-Walden scenario. With me on the other side of the continent, she was Claire’s cousin by proxy, and had reacted to her hospitalization about as well as I had—mainly because she took Claire’s condition as a personal defeat. It was a crazy idea; none of this was her fault.
Tabs had known Claire since she was little, but she couldn’t read Claire like me. She was a friend, not family, and Claire wouldn’t have told her about Brooks even if Tabs had known to ask. But knowing that didn’t help her guilt. I had to talk her out of looking up every B. Walden in the county and chasing them down with Grimace, her purple beast of a car. My way meant he suffered longer; hers meant forensic evidence on her bumper.
“You look like a cupcake,” she snarled.
“Nice to see you, too.”
Tabs stood against Grimace wearing a T-shirt that declared “I’m the evil twin” in a bloody red font. Baggy black pants set low on her hips were pulled lower by the weight of steel studs on her belt. She had her arms crossed and was glaring at anyone who dared make eye contact.
Ninth Street let out at three-fifteen, which gave her just enough time to make it to Lowry and become the center of attention before I made it out the door. (Yes, I was pretending I didn’t know she’d skipped last period to make it with time to spare.)
“A cupcake with frosting and extra sprinkles.”
“They’re laying bets on whether or not you’ll burst into flame if the clouds break.”
“They wouldn’t let me in without the code.
they took my picture.”
“You won’t show up.”
She flipped me off as she circled to the driver’s side.
“Get in before all this sunshine fades my interior.”
Tabs gunned the engine, which, considering most of the parents’ cars were hybrids, actually sounded like an engine, and drew the attention of the few who weren’t already looking as she spun us into the line of exiting cars.
“Subtle.” Perhaps I should have picked someone more inconspicuous to be my ride home.…
“Oops.” Tabs grinned, and the green stud below her bottom lip bobbed up. “I’ve got real clothes in the back if you want to shed the secret identity, Lois Lane.”
“Lois Lane didn’t have a secret identity,” I said.
“No, but you tend to maim anyone who calls you Diana, so Wonder Woman was off the list. How’d it go?”
I crawled over the seat into the back and found the paper sack of “real” clothes—jeans and a T-shirt made to look like faded lace.
The tint on Grimace’s rear windows was jet black, meaning you could pretty much do anything you wanted back there and no one could see unless they wanted to press their face against the glass. And the way Tabs drives … no one’s that suicidal.
“Not bad as in you found the guy who trashed Cuckoo, or
not bad as in you’ve already been brainwashed, like this place, and can get out and walk the rest of the way in your underwear?”
“The first one,” I said, wriggling into the jeans. It had been so long since I’d worn a skirt, I’d forgotten how weird it felt not to have anything on my legs.
“Good. I’d hate to think I wasted the gas driving over here. Which one is he?”
We’d stopped while the line bottlenecked at a red light before allowing us to turn onto the main road from the private one that belonged to the school. Our position placed Brooks and Chandi’s sparring match squarely in the rearview mirror.
“Dark hair, blue blazer,” I said.
“Maybe a bit more vague would help.”
“Student parking, silver Beemer, getting gnawed on by the model behaving badly.”
Tabs reached up and adjusted her rearview mirror. In it, Chandi’s gestures and flailing grew more erratic the longer she ranted, until Brooks grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her.
Watching Chandi fall apart, then crumble, was disgusting.
“Nice,” Tabs said.
“It wasn’t that hard. He’s easy enough to approach, and has a girlfriend with a short temper.”