First time I saw her was in the mirror on my locker door. I'd kicked my swim gear onto the bottom shelf and was reaching to the top for my calc book when she opened her locker across the hall. She had a streaked blond ponytail dangling out the back of her baseball cap.
Great. Now I was obligated to rag on her for violating the new dress code. Forget it, I decided. My vote – the only dissenting one in the whole student council – still counted. With me, anyway. People could come to school buck na**d for all I cared. It wasn't about clothes.
We slammed our lockers in unison and turned. Her eyes met mine. "Hi," she said, smiling.
My stomach fluttered. "Hi," I answered automatically. She was new. Had to be. I would've noticed her.
She sauntered away, but not before I caught a glimpse of her T-shirt. It said: IMRU?
Am I what?
She glanced back over her shoulder, the way you do when you know someone's watching. That's when it registered – the rainbow triangle below the message. My eyes dropped. Kept her in sight, though, as she disappeared around the corner.
I shifted my attention to my schedule. Brit Lit, calc, U.S. History, then art and econ after lunch. Was I out of my mind? Why was I taking a full load my last semester of high school? Weren't we supposed to revel in this time, embrace our friends, screw around until graduation? At some pivotal point, of course, we'd decide the direction our lives were going to take. A derisive laugh might've escaped my lips. Like I got to decide anything about my life.
I headed down the deserted hallway, clutching my books to my chest. This is insane, I thought. I don't even need the credits. I'd gotten to choose the early track - first class at seven, last class at one - but then I added econ at the last minute so I'd be finishing the day with everyone else. I drew a deep breath – and coughed. Who needed to get stoned before school when you got a free ride from the carpet-cleaning fumes?
Morning was a blur. As I stumbled to lunch, my head reeling from the volume of homework I'd already accumulated, my anxiety mounted. I'd be up till midnight, easy.
"Babe!" Seth called across the crowded cafeteria. He loped to the double doorway to meet me. Kiss me. "We're over here." He thumbed toward the vending machines, snaking an arm around my waist and steering me along.
"Hi, Holland. Hey, Seth," a few people greeted us as we weaved between tables. I assumed my oh-so-happy face. Plaster-casted smile. What was wrong with me? I loved school. I couldn't wait to get back after winter break.
"Holland, did you see Mrs. Lucas? She was looking for you," Leah said as she cleared a place beside her for me to sit. "She said to tell you to drop into the career centre sometime today."
Today, tomorrow, never. Popping the top on a can of Pepsi Twist that Seth had set in front of me, I said to Kirsten across the table, "How was Christmas in Texas?"
Leah kicked my shin.
Kirsten sighed theatrically. "You had to ask." She launched into a psychodrama about how her mother was a raving lunatic the whole two weeks and all they did was scream at each other.
Seth split his fries with me and I zoned. He said in my ear, "You want ketchup?" I must've nodded because he got up and left.
Leah and Kirsten began to talk about college – again. Could we get through one whole day without bringing up the subject? Kirsten said, "Mom wants me to commute to Metro Urban and live at home. Like that's going to happen." She rolled her eyes. "All I want to do is graduate and get the hell out of this rat hole."
I checked out again. At some point Seth returned with the ketchup and I swabbed a greasy fry through the watery blob. Round and round it goes; where it stops, nobody know. Seth nudged me. "You okay?"
I glanced up to find everyone staring at me. Was I chanting out loud? I relinquishing my hold on the mutilated fry, I crossed my eyes and said, "I got Arbuthnot for Brit Lit."
They all went, "Eeooh." Leah added, "Don't ever be late. She'll ream you out in front of everyone."
I grimaced. I hated when teachers did that. "You know," I said, picking up my cheeseburger, "all these anti-bullying policies should apply to teachers. I mean, corporal punishment is illegal." I chomped into my burger and cewed. "Public humiliation," I said with my mouth full, "is a form of psychological abuse."
By their bobbing heads, I assumed they all agreed. What were we going to do about it? Nothing. Even though I was president of student council, I felt powerless to effect change on any social significance at our school.
I take that back. We now had a pop machine in the hall.
Drawing Level I was, as Seth referred to it, a bullshit class. But I needed to fill time between lunch and econ. As I wandered down the arts wing, feeling totally out of my element, I wondered what mental aberration had possessed me when I chose an art elective. Drawing, no less, which probably required talent. More than doodling in notebooks.
The assigned studio, 212A, had four rows of tables set end-to-end with chairs arranged haphazardly. No semblance of order. I slid into a plaits-seat in the back. My uneasiness grew as I studied the crowd clogging the doorway and milling around the display cases. Not the kind of people I usually associated with - which was okay. I didn't have a problem with diversity. It was just… I don't know. I felt weird. I decided to drop the class. Maybe add another study hall. I was going to need it.
A man's voice in the hallway herded everyone inside. As people filed across the threshold, I caught height of her. The baseball cap was gone; now her hair flowed around her shoulders. Her eyes darted across the studio and stopped on me. I wanted to look away, but couldn't. She held me somehow, spellbound.
The instructor bustled in and broke and connection. Oh, God. He looked like Einstein on ecstasy. "Just find a seat anywhere," he said to the stragglers. As he hurned to write his name on the board, I flipped open a spiral. When I glanced over surreptitiously, she'd slipped into a seat up front. Another girl slid in beside her. I knew that girl - Randi or Brandi.
She was on swim team last year for about a week. Right about the time Seth and I hooked up. Brandi.
"I realise you can't read this," the instructor said as he ran a palm over his cotton candy hair, "but it says 'Jonathan McElwain." He was right. His handwriting was gorgeous, all loopy and bold, but you'd need clearer vision than mine to decipher it. I squinted through my contacts - that was an M? He brushed chalk off his hands and added, "You can call me Mackal."
I wrote down. Mr. McElwain. Then drew a line through it and printed, Mackel.
"If I want to get paid, I have to turn this in," He flapped a computer printout at us. Hopping onto the desk, he curled cross-legged and uncapped a Flair. "Anderson, Michaela."
"Present." A girl at the end of my row raised her hand, And Mackel scratched a checkmark.
A few people I did actually know. It's inevitable when you've lived in the same pace your whole life. The guy with the serious orange spike and nostril ring was in my calc class. Winslow Demming. I remembered him from computer science sophomore year, except back then Winslow was a geek. Brilliant, thought. And sweet. Another reminder why people shouldn't be judged on appearance.
Mr. McElwain – Mackel – progressed through the list. For some reason I was focusing on the back of the blond girl's head, only half listening for my name. "Cecelia Goddard," Mackel read. Her hand shot up and she said, "It's Cece."
I wrote it down. Cecelia Goddard. CC? Cece?
Cece, I decided and drew a box around it.
A couple of heads swivelled. "What?" I blinked up.
"Oh, here." I raised my hand. Added in a mutter, "Apparently not all here."
She twisted around and smiled. My stomach lurched. I shielded my face with my hand and pretended to scribble notes.
Mackel handed out a supplies list. It was long. There were pencils, ink, charcoal, erasers, markers, pens, two sizes of drawing tablets. God, I'd have to work a month of overtime to afford all this stuff. Mackel said, "I know it's a short week, but I'd appreciate it if you could get your supplies in the next couple of days. Go to Hobby Lobby or Wal-Mart for the best prices. If anyone has real financial need, come see me after class. That doesn't mean you'd rather spend your money on a kegger." He eagle-eyed the room. "But I have a starving artist fund, so don't be shy."
I liked that. He was understanding. Maybe I'd wait to drop.
At two-fifteen the bell rang and I gathered my books and notes from Econ, feeling brain-dead. Lockers banged open and closed as I trudged down the hall. "Hi, Holland. Have a good break?" someone called.
"Great, thanks." I waved, plastering on The Smile. Get me out of here, I thought. Static cracked in my head like a radio stuck between stations. The halls began to clear and my locker materialised – finally. As I twisted the combination lock, I heard across the way, "So, you just transferred? Where'd you go before here?"
I opened the door and captured Brandi and Cece in my mirror.
Cece said, "Washington Central."
Brandi said, "Oh, yeah? Do you know Joanie? She's one of us. Joanie Fowler."
"Doesn't sound familiar."
"You have to know her."
"I said I don't." The sharpness of Cece's voice made me turn around. Brandi caught my eye and I turned back. In my mirror I watched as Cece shoved a book into her backpack and removed a fleece vest off the hook. She let out a long breath and said, "Sorry," to Brandy. "It's been a rough day."
"I can imagine." Brandi smiled knowingly. I wondered what she know. Brandi held the backpack while Cece put on her vest. Their conversation muted as a herd of people stampeded past. I caught the tail end of Brandis "… go for a Coke or something?"
"I can't," Cece said. "I have to work." She retrieved the pack from Brandy and slung it over her shoulder. I realised I was eavesdropping shamelessly and squatted to unzip my swimming duffel.
"How come you transferred?" Brandi asked.
"Health reasons." Cece slammed her locker. "My car wouldn't start this morning and I don't really want to wait here for my brother to pick me up. Do you think you could give me a ride to work?"
"Sure," Brandi chirped. "Now problem." They headed out together.
Brandi had said, "One of us." Did that mean she was gay?
Huh. I didn't think we had any gays in our school. Until now.
I loaded up my backpack and grabbed my duffel, thinking, I guess it pays to advertise.
As I dragged in the back door at home, Mom called, "Holl, is that you? I need you." I dumped my stash on the landing and followed her voice to the living room. "Oh, good," Mom said. "Could you finish feeding Hannah for me? I have got to pee."
I relieved her of the baby and the bottle. "Hello, Hannie," I cooed, lifting her in the air so she'd grin dimples at me. So cute. Settling her in the crook of my arm, I inserted the nipple between her gooey lips, then crossed the room to sprawl on the sofa. I propped Hannah against my bent knees. She suckled and flapped her chubby arms, making me laugh. God, she was precious. Sometimes it felt as if she were mine.
Mom padded in, breathing relief and refastening the jaw clip in the back of her hair. Flopping into the armchair, she asked, "How was your day?"
"Good." I let Hannah's tiny fingers curl around my thumb. "How was yours?"
"Exhausting. Did you stop in to see Bonnie Lucas? I asked her to get you a few more catalogs and applications – just in case."
"Oh, damn." My head fell back against the armrest. "Sorry, I forgot." "In case" meant in case Vassar and Brown rejected me like Harvard had. Those colleges were way out of my league, but try to tell my mother that. She forced me to apply for early decision, even though I could've told her what the decision would be Early or late.
"The deadline for filing applications at most other schools is February first, Holland," she said. "That doesn't give us much time. And you don't want to settle for some in-state school like Metro Urban." She wrinkled her nose.
"I'll go in tomorrow. Would you toss me that towel?" Hannah's drool was stringing to her chest.
Mom got up and handed me the towel off her shoulder. "Faith is coming this weekend."
"Again? We just got rid of her."
"Holland," Mom chided.
"Well, I'm sorry but –" I bit my tongue. She'd heard it all before.
Faith was my wicked stepsister, if I had to claim her as a relative. She was a walking freakshow. Currently, she was into Goth, which was just sick after Columbine. We'd bonded like repelling magnetic poles. Neal, my new stepdad, introduced us only a few weeks before his and Mom's wedding, and I knew instantly we weren't going to be playing one-big-happy. I could tolerate Faith, barely, every other weekend, but after Hannah arrived and Mom converted my bedroom into a nursery, Faith and I had to share bedroom space downstairs. At my murder trial, the jury would find that the defendant had a case for justifiable homicide.
Not a lot of people got under my skin, but Faith did and she knew it. Knew it and used it.
I ran my knuckles across Hannah's silky cheek, wondering if I'd ever had such flawless skin.
Mom perched on the sofa arm, fanning her fingers up through my bangs. "I know how you feel about Faith, but she's young."
"She's fifteen." Under my breath, I added, "Going on six."