Strange things happen to Hannah. Is her past haunting her? Or is someone settling a score?
|Copyright © 2017 by Tara St. Pierre
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the author.
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> Chapter One <
I don’t like the way the reflection in my bedroom mirror judges me. I try not to look at her too closely, but I know I have to now and then or I won’t be able to brush the tangles out of the mousy brown hair hanging past my shoulders. To avoid direct eye contact, I give her only a sideways glance. The eyes are the windows to the soul, they say, and it’s not that I refuse to look at hers, but I don’t want her looking into mine. She knows me too well, and I know that when she glares right back at me, she’s at her most judgmental.
So when I finish with my hair—it’s the straightest it’s going to get, but I know there are strands out of alignment anyway—I stay frozen for a moment and simply breathe in and out. My palms are planted flatly on the dresser, and I keep my focus away from the glass and on the mahogany surface instead. It’s a family heirloom that belonged to my grandmother and her mother before it. The nicks and scratches show its age, and when we moved to the townhouse, my mother insisted it be placed in my room. Either she wants its history to persuade me I come from a caring family, or she wants the large mirror, with finely carved leaves around the frame, to taunt me.
“Hannah,” my mother calls from outside my door before she knocks twice. “I can’t be late this morning.”
I imagine her standing there, sighing in contempt and checking her sparkling silver wristwatch. It’s all about keeping up proper appearances with her, although I really shouldn’t complain. The townhouse is in much better shape than our old house, which had been in disrepair from years of my father’s neglect before he left us. I’m still surprised at how my mother managed to sell it, and I credit that to her impressive skills as a real estate agent. Our new neighborhood is somewhat secluded—as closed off as several rows of adjoining townhouses can be. And I guess I’m in a better school now.
Glancing at the mirror to avoid any glimpse of my face, I see the trade-off for the supposedly improved education. A uniform: a black pleated skirt with its hem just above my knees, a stark white button-down blouse, and a silly black and gold plaid girly short necktie thing. Fashion choice has been taken away from me also, but I can impose some individuality with shoes and tights or socks. I’m opting for black combat boots and leggings today, only because there’s still a chill in the late-April morning air.
“I’m serious, Hannah.” She knocks again, three times, each one louder than the one before. I can hear her tapping her black patent-leather pumps on the hardwood floor in the hallway. “I’ve got an early closing.”
I groan and reach to the right to grab my phone. Even though it’s a couple of years old and the screen is cracked, it’s the one luxury I’ve been allowed to keep. But my hand comes up empty, and my knuckles rap the dark wood. Shaking the sting away, I stare at the spot where I’ve left my phone every single night since moving here, but it’s not there.
Ready to storm out and confront my mother about confiscating my phone, I turn toward the door, but I see it face down on the left corner of my dresser. Snatching it up, I enter the passcode to check for any messages. Nothing since Grace rescued me from my late-night AP U.S. History homework meltdown. Maybe in my exhaustion, I dropped it in the wrong place. I’m not as well put together as my mother, and I probably never will be, no matter how she thinks she’s trying to fix me.
I sling my school bag over my shoulder, its weight pulling me down a little, and I trudge through the door. My mother stands in the center of the hallway, focused on the oval wall mirror above the small table where a vase of fresh flowers sits. She preens herself, doing one final check that her hair bun is secure. Her dark brown hair has a slight auburn sheen to it, and as some of my hair drifts in front of my eyes, I’m convinced her hair looks younger and healthier than mine. All for appearances.
“You were up late last night,” she says, never looking away from her reflection.
“Senior year,” I mumble. “Tough courses.”
“No excuses. It’ll all be for the best.” She finally turns to me and cups my chin and cheeks in her palms.
I fake a smile because that’s what she wants to see, and I tell her she’s right because that’s what she wants to hear. We’re about the same height, but I can’t look her in the eyes. They’re the same green as mine.
She turns to the mirror to finish putting on a pair of pearl earrings to match the string around her neck that plunges into her meticulously calculated amount of cleavage. In her blue business suit and skirt, she’s the model of professionalism, a woman who threw herself head first into her career and left me to fend for myself for the first three years of high school. Our ultimate upgrade to the townhouse included moving almost halfway across the state and transferring me to a private school for senior year. Does she think that giving me a different life and different friends will create a different me?
In one fluid motion, she starts down the stairs and opens her purse to remove her keys. She holds the front door open for me while I slouch past her and out to the car. It’s a white two-door coupe with a sunroof, and if the three-story townhouses weren’t in the way, the reflected sunlight off the car would blind people. I swear she gets it washed at least once a week.
I slump into the passenger seat—the closest she’ll let me get to driving—and buckle myself up. The car’s almost a year old, but it still has that nauseating new smell as if she uses an air freshener with that scent. I plug in my earphones and am about to put them on, when my mother enters the car, spots me, and slightly shakes her head. “You know the rules, Hannah.”
Dropping the earphones into my lap, I stifle an audible groan by taking a deep breath. Mom and her car rules. She has no problem with an occasional informational text sent, like if I have to ask Grace for a ride home from school because she can’t pick me up, but otherwise, devices are off-limits while she’s driving. She especially forbids me to tune her out with music, explaining that we should use the drive time for mother-daughter bonding rather than spend it in two different worlds.
I release the breath and turn toward my window. I’d rest my head against it, but she doesn’t want me dozing off on the way to school either. She backs the car out of the driveway carefully and then drives slowly to the entrance of the townhouse community with only the occasional speed bump to provide any variety.
“What homework was keeping you up last night?” she asks once she turns right onto the main road.
“History.” I squirm at the small talk. “I don’t get why we even have to learn it.”
“History’s where we’ve been, Hannah. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
I roll my eyes. My history teacher has said the same thing several times in class, but when my mother says it, there’s a lilt of condescension in her voice. I can’t shake the feeling that she’s talking about me—about my own history that I might be doomed to repeat. Whether I’ve learned my lesson or not, she’s doing everything to make sure it couldn’t possibly happen again.
She stops at a traffic light, and there’s a large yellow house at the corner of the street. A white picket fence runs the perimeter of the property. Hanging from a post in the front yard is a For Sale sign with my mother’s photo on it. She’s in a red framed area in the corner, her arms folded across her chest and her smiling face tilted ever so slightly to the side. With the agency name and telephone number, the sign’s like an oversized business card combined with the glamor shot of an actress. She’s attractive and successful—I can’t deny that, nor am I bothered by it—but my heart sinks when I’m reminded of the name she goes by. Kathryn Reed, not Kathryn McCauley. She reverted to her maiden name, under the guise of it sounding more professional. I know it was to distance herself from my father, but it also distanced herself from me.
“But you are passing the class, correct?” she asks when the light turns green.
“With Grace’s help, barely.”
“I like Grace. It’s a good thing that the two of you met and became friends.” She pauses while she turns the car right, and I know exactly what she’s thinking. She wants to remind me that Grace has been a positive influence on me, but she surprises me with her actual words. “I know how difficult moving before your senior year has been, but it really is all for the best. For both of us.”
Her statement is more declarative than sympathetic. This isn’t the first time she’s acknowledged it’s been hard, but it’s been months since the last time. I wonder if she really understands what I’ve been going through. I don’t really miss that much from my previous school; I actually have better teachers now, and I care even less about some of the immature popularity games of school, but I miss Nikki more than I let on.
“You know she’s doing fine, right?” asks my mother, as if she’s reading my mind. She sure knows me too well.
“Yeah.” I shrug.
“The two of you were headed down different paths. Anyway, you’d go off to college, where you’d be exposed to new ideas and people, and you’d eventually outgrow her. It happened a year earlier. Look at it that way.”
Gritting my teeth, I hold back a swear-filled outburst. Nikki was my best friend, and she doesn’t deserve to be marginalized by my mother or anyone else. People get to choose their own friends, right? Although my mother never approved of Nikki, she doesn’t understand how badly I needed someone of my own to help me deal with the split. My father was gone, and my mother was coping by working more, but at least I had a friend who could relate. Unlike here and now, where I wouldn’t be surprised if somehow behind the scenes, my mother had handpicked my friends.
I shouldn’t complain about Grace because she’s a genuinely kind person, and she’s done nothing but support me. I don’t know if I would have made it through the year without her, even if she seems more tailor-made for my mother’s personality instead of my own. But she doesn’t know my real personality any more than I think I do.
My mother pulls up in front of the school, and we exchange saccharine goodbyes as I climb out of the car. I blend into the sea of black and white clothes and drift toward the entrance under the gilded letters that spell out Eastfield Academy. Without looking back, I know my mother is still parked at the curb and watching me, making sure that I pass through the front door. I haven’t skipped school since I came to Eastfield, and with just over a month left, I’m not going to start; the punishment for it is much more strict than at my old school, and I won’t do anything to ruin either of our reputations.
That was the promise I made her.
> Chapter Two <
Grace Ling meets me in the school’s main lobby. She flashes a full, bright smile at me before skipping over, her black Mary Janes clacking on the tile floor. Like all the girls at Eastfield, we’re in the same shirt-tie-skirt combination, but she accessorizes her braided pigtails with color-coordinated school-spirit gold ribbons. “I’m sorry you were up so late,” she says in her high, bubbly voice as I cover a yawn.
“Thanks for talking me off the proverbial ledge.” I keep walking like I’m on autopilot toward my locker, and Grace matches step beside me. “I wish I had gotten more sleep.”
“Got that covered. Zo’s bringing us coffee.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without you two.” I put an arm around her and squeeze her close to me. She lets out a squeak, and I let her go. “You’re like a godsend.”
“Nope, just your saving Grace.” She giggles at the pun, fully embracing the nickname she earned from her ability to organize and troubleshoot for the Student Council.
We navigate the halls and a stairway until we’re outside our homeroom, where a few lockers separate us. Everything’s assigned and alphabetical each year, and because I moved in the summer, the school must have adjusted their locker list in time for me to fall into place. Grace became my friend somewhat by default because we were seated near each other in the homeroom containing our last names. Suddenly, I feel hypocritical, still reeling from seeing my mother’s different last name on the real estate sign but grateful for the difference that brought me two dependable friends: Grace Ling and Lorenzo Lincoln.
The five-minute warning bell rings, and Zo struts through the door, which is on the side of the room closest to my row of seats. In one hand, he balances a coffee-shop take-out drink holder near his head like a waiter at a fancy restaurant. Even following the same dress code as all the other guys, he’s impeccably dressed and coiffed. He must get his shirts and pants professionally pressed because there isn’t a crease, fold, or wrinkle to be found. His full-sized men’s tie, black and gold diagonal stripes, stays perfectly in place with a gold tie clip that matches his cufflinks. I can’t help but smile when he leans against his desk, right next to mine.
On the first day of school, I met Zo about three minutes before I met Grace. When you’re the new girl at an insulated private school, especially one with somewhat of a checkered past, you stand out. I didn’t know the proper way to wear my tie-thingy, so I had it around my neck like a loosely fitted choker. Zo stood tall, half a head higher than me, and dragged his sunglasses to the tip of his nose. “Nuh-uh, new girl,” he said. “You need some help from the Eastfield fashion patrol.”
Before I could say a word, he whisked the tie from around my neck, spinning me a three-quarter turn in the process. He flicked the tie in the air, snapping it like a wet towel, and then delicately placed it under my collar until both sides were even before intricately knotting and fluffing it out.
“Mission accomplished.” He bowed. “No need to thank me; I know I’m the best at this. You should see how it looks so you can attempt to replicate it tomorrow.”
Before he could produce a mirror, Grace bounced over to her seat and asked, “Who’s the new girl?”
He placed a hand on his chest and feigned embarrassment. “In all my haste to prevent a fashion faux-pas, I neglected to ask.”
“Well, I’m Grace, and this is Zo.” She extended her hand, and I cautiously offered mine as I introduced myself, intimidated at first by her overt friendliness. It wasn’t a firm handshake, but at least neither of us suffered from a limp-finger grip. “I can show you around. The Student Council gives tours and other assistance to new students. Zo, you can tag along if you want.”
“You know I don’t play second fiddle.” He put his sunglasses back on and turned away, his arms crossed in front of him.
Grace took a pencil out of the bun of hair behind her head and opened her glittery planner to scribble on a sticky note. “This is my cell. Text me after school or whenever, and I’ll show you around.” She handed it to me, and I noticed the smiley face after her name.
For the first few days of the school year, I was the new kid, and I received more attention than I wanted. A few guys tried asking me out, but I turned them down gently. At my old school, the guys would have probably called me all sorts of derogatory names for rejecting them, but at Eastfield, there was an honor code including expectations about treating each other respectfully. I guess no one wanted to find themselves in trouble for talking smack.
After a couple of weeks, everyone other than Grace and Zo lost interest, which was perfectly fine with me. My mother’s not crazy about the idea of me dating anyone, even with her permission, and at the start of the school year, I wasn’t going to do anything to cross her. It was only one year left of high school, and afterward, I could live my life however and wherever I wanted.
Zo removes the first cup from the holder and hands it to the much shorter Grace. “Herbal tea for our little Saving Grace.”
“Xièxie.” Even though Grace and her parents were born in America, they say their pleases and thank-yous in Chinese.
“Mocha latte with chocolate drizzle for my fabulous self.” He takes a sip and licks the foam off his lips before offering me my cup. “And super-hot, super-strong black coffee, no sugar, for our Hannah-Banana.”
I thank him and lean my head back while I take a gulp. The hot liquid scalds my tongue, but the aroma perks me up long before the caffeine reaches my bloodstream. Nights are long with homework, days are long with school, and I need to stay awake and afloat.
As I lower the cup, I find myself looking straight at Lorenzo in his seat beside me. “Goodness gracious, girl,” he says, leaning forward and scrutinizing my face. “What on Earth happened to your eyes?”
“Rough night,” I say and turn away.
Having taken AP U.S. History the previous year, Grace offers up further information. “Mr. Hodgkins’s infamous End-of-the-Cold-War concept map.” This year, she’s taking Advanced Placement Psychology, hoping to become either a therapist or social worker when she finishes college. I’m in a history class with mostly juniors because not all my credits from my old school lined up with Eastfield’s course offerings.
“Say no more.” Zo remains focused on my eyes. “But you are aware that you can fit a pair of thigh-high boots in those bags, right?”
Grace slaps him on his shoulder. “That’s not a nice thing to say! Hannah’s super pretty.”
“Of course she is.” He gently takes hold of my chin and turns my face to one side and then the other. “Nothing a little dab of makeup can’t fix.”
As he takes another sip of his latte, I say, “I can’t. My mother doesn’t let me—” My objection is cut off when he slams his cup on his desk. Then he starts digging through his makeup case.
Zo is the hair and makeup coordinator for the school’s drama club, and he wants to work on Broadway someday. I haven’t yet seen a show at Eastfield, but I was impressed by his portfolio of pictures of the characters from last year’s production of The Wizard of Oz. He spent the entire fall trying to convince the drama director and anyone else who’d listen to do Cats—his dream show—this spring, but instead, they’re producing Grease, and I hope my mother will let me go see it next weekend. Though he’s enthusiastic about the 1950s hairstyles, he doesn’t think the makeup is challenging enough for his talents. But getting me to wear makeup has been a challenge he’s been trying to accomplish all year.
This morning, I don’t resume my protest. I’m too tired to argue, and I’m sure I look like crap, so I let Zo do his magic. Only some of it though, as I limit his work to my eyes. I’m going to have to wash it all off before I get home anyway, but I grant him permission to apply just enough to make me look alert and presentable.
He’s quick and gentle, efficiently spreading some concealer where the dark circles are and then a light coat of green eyeliner. He says it’s to make my eye color pop, and I crack a smile, which Grace immediately points out and applauds. I haven’t worn makeup in a long time, and it’s both familiar and foreign; it’s cool on my skin, and as it reminds me of the old me, I suddenly and unexpectedly feel hot.
“You’re totally smokin’, but would you expect otherwise from me?” Zo leans back in his seat to admire his handiwork. “You’ve got to see this, Hannah.”
He reaches into his case and takes out a mirror. Like an animal acting on self-preservation instincts, I turn my head to the side, catching a quick flash of light. But it’s not from the reflection of the overhead fluorescents; it’s from Grace’s phone snapping a photo, and my heartbeat goes into panicked overdrive.
“Please don’t tag me or send that to me,” I say to her. I think about my phone, slightly misplaced on my dresser that morning. As much as I want to convince myself I absentmindedly put it there, I can’t shake the suspicion that someone else moved it. If my mother is sneaking peeks at text messages or photos, I wouldn’t want her to find one of me wearing makeup.
“You’d better be sending it to me. For my portfolio, of course.” Zo takes another sip of his latte and twirls his finger, pointing from Grace’s phone to my face. “Now show Hannah how gorgeous she is.”
Grace hands me her phone, and I stare at the screen. She caught me in mid-turn, so my glance wasn’t directly at her, but enough of my profile is shown to see the emerald green on my eyelid. I don’t have a problem looking at photographs of myself because they don’t always look right back at me. They’re also static, showing a captured moment in the past, and what I see is a muted version of my former self.
The bell rings, which officially starts homeroom and the school day, and Miss Mendoza finishes writing the assignments for her Spanish classes on the front board. With the obsessive order at Eastfield, it wouldn’t surprise me if the teachers were assigned homerooms that matched the ranges of their students’ last names too.
Zo ignores the morning announcements on the intercom, instead confirming that his alternating dark and light streaks of hair all swoop in parallel from the part on the right side of his head. Meanwhile, Miss Mendoza scans the class to take attendance. Only the front corner seat on the opposite end of the room is missing its occupant, so she asks if anyone knows where Cole Kirkland is today.
“Right here,” says a voice from the door, and my head reflexively whips in his direction.
Cole is tall and still appears so as he leans against the door frame, and it’s hard to look away from him. His sleeves are rolled up, making his biceps look even thicker, and his shirt is untucked with the top button undone, and his tie knotted loosely below his collar. There’s a hint of stubble to define his square jaw, and his short dark hair is a mixture between windswept and deliberately unkempt. And his dark, sunken eyes…are looking right at me.
Miss Mendoza clears her throat, distracting him enough for me to turn toward Zo, who is also watching Cole. “Señor Kirkland,” says our homeroom teacher, “this is your third tardy this month.”
“You know what they say.” Cole’s voice is deep but melodic. “Third time’s the charm.”
He strolls across the front of the room, handing Miss Mendoza an admittance slip as he passes her. While my insides churn and my skin tingles, I keep him in my peripheral view. Since the start of the school year, before I had settled into whichever version of me I am now, I’ve been thinking about him. He’s the kind of guy—well-built, with a mysterious and rebellious reputation—that Nikki and I would have flipped a coin to determine who’d have first flirting dibs on him. But she’s unfortunately not here to see how attractive he is, and I’m definitely not here to date. I’ve been trying all year to push thoughts of him aside, and I’ve never shared them with Grace or Zo.
“He may be eye candy.” Zo has been checking out Cole almost as furtively as I have. “But Grace’ll say that much candy is bad for you, darling.”
“Zo’s right,” whispers Grace. “Don’t even think about him.”
My secret crush, or whatever Cole is, is revealed to my closest friends, all because I reacted when he acknowledged my existence for the first time. He noticed me today because I looked different, because I did something I wasn’t supposed to do. I shouldn’t have let it happen, and I can’t let anything further happen. I can’t let myself think about Cole.
Homeroom lasts a total of five minutes, and when the bell sounds, I launch out of my seat and dash toward the door like I’m responding to an emergency siren. Before I can escape the room, Zo whistles and calls, “Don’t forget your coffee.”
I groan and head back, meeting Zo at the front of his row, where he hands me the warm cup. As I turn, I almost collide with someone, and when I look up, I’m mortified to see Cole standing there.
Half of his mouth is curled upward into a half-grin. He holds his gaze on me for a split second, but before he walks away, he says, “Nice eyes.”
His words slice right through me, and I simultaneously approve and regret my decision to put on makeup.
> Chapter Three <
As Grace and I walk to AP English Literature together, I keep my head down, knowing she won’t lead me astray. Cole noticed my eye makeup, and now I’m terribly self-conscious about it. I don’t want any other guys—or anyone else, for that matter—to see me like this. I don’t want any attention at all. I just want to focus on school and pass all my classes.
Even with my gaze focused on the hallway floor, I feel like I’m being watched. Being judged. I need to clean my face, wash it all away, and get on with my day.
Fortunately, English is my best class and the easiest to get permission to go to the bathroom. Mr. Temple is an older gentleman, probably no more than a few years from retirement, and the mere mention of “feminine issues” is enough to make him squirm. It’s a tactic that Nikki and I regularly employed to meet up somewhere and cut our respective classes. I don’t like that I lied to him, but I need to get the makeup off because it feels like a second skin suffocating me.
In the empty girls’ bathroom, I hunch over the sink, running my hands under the water until it’s neither too cold nor too hot. Once it’s the right temperature, I cup some in my hands and splash my face. It’s warm but refreshing and cleansing. I close my eyes and scrub, rigorously enough to get the offending makeup off, but not so hard that I’m poking myself. I rub the water down my cheeks as well because I don’t want any green streaks to make me look like a melting wicked witch or something.
I close the faucet and flick droplets off my hands before reaching for a paper towel. Water drips off my chin, and I hear it plop into the sink while I wipe my face. Finally, I stand straight, vigorously wiping my eyelids to get every last smudge off them. As I slowly lower the paper towel from in front of me, I find myself looking directly at my reflection.
She’s scowling at me.
I back away, alarmed at the look on her face. Is she that angry with me? I know I did something wrong, but I wasn’t deliberately trying to defy the rules. I was tired and vulnerable, and it wouldn’t have been friendly to refuse Zo one more time. It was a temporary lapse of judgment—a moment of weakness—and definitely no reason to get that upset, right?
I find myself recoiling in the corner by the outside wall of a stall. I want to make sure she’s forgiven me, so I glance at the mirror. She’s glancing back, her arms folded across her chest. Has she moved on to contempt? I look down at my arms, also across my chest, but I believe I’m clutching them there out of shame. And then tears trickle down my cheek.
Am I crying? I tilt my head and cautiously stick my tongue out to the corner of my mouth until I catch one of the drops. It’s not salty, so it’s not a tear, just nothing more than leftover water. I feel only slightly reassured as I turn to get away.
The door creaks open before I take a step, so I hide in an open stall.
“Hannah?” asks Grace’s voice. “Are you okay? Mr. Temple sent me here to check on you.”
“I’m fine,” I say meekly, stepping into her view.
“Oh, silly girl. You missed a spot. Let me get it.” She reaches into her purse and takes out a moisturizing face towelette. Grace is always there for me—not always in the same ways Nikki was, but more often than not in ways that anticipate my needs like Nikki never could. Perhaps she is my saving grace in ways I never considered.
I turn to her, keeping my back to the mirror. She gently wipes my eyes and cheeks and then gives me a final once over. “There. Good as new.”
“Thanks,” I say, releasing a deep, calming breath.
“Bié kèqì.” Grace giggles, which makes me smirk, and then she puts her arm around me to lead me to the door.
I’m compelled to glance back over my shoulder, and I watch my reflection leaving the bathroom as well. She’s glaring at me, and I wonder if she’ll ever forgive me.
The rest of the morning goes about as normally as my life usually does at Eastfield Academy. I tune out Mr. Temple’s uninspired lecture about Shakespeare’s sonnets. Even though I usually understand most of what’s going on in second-period calculus, I sit there baffled by some of the new equations on the board. Grace leaves me for two classes while I first struggle to keep up with the workload in AP U.S. History and then go to the gym for another day pretending to enjoy volleyball.
It’s lunch when we meet up again, and she hands me a two-inch-thick red three-ring binder practically overflowing with papers. “I dug this out after you texted last night,” she says, sitting next to me. “I meant to give it to you in homeroom, but why make you lug it around all day?”
I push my sandwich, chips, and bottled water aside to open the binder, and I instantly recognize the content from the start of the school year. She’s giving me her notes from when she took Mr. Hodgkins’s history class last year. “I don’t…I don’t know how to…” I stumble over my words into a mumbled thank you. That’s twice in one day that Grace has come to my rescue, and I feel awkward, almost like I’m some kind of community service project, but I know she doesn’t look at me that way. She’s genuine—perhaps the only friend I’ve ever had without any ulterior motives. “Are you sure you can give this to me? What about the school’s honor code?”
“It’s only notes and assignments.” She flips through the pages to show off her color-coordinated section dividers. “He collected back his tests anyway, so as long as you use this as a backup reference book, there shouldn’t be anything wrong.”
“Thanks. I promise I’ll return it when I’m done with it. I won’t even take the pages out of order.” I’m flattered beyond the words I’ve said, and maybe with the help of her notes, I can bring my grade up to at least a B-minus. Mom’s okay with me getting an occasional C because of the sharp difference between general college prep classes at a public school and almost all AP classes at a private school. She legitimately sees me struggling to keep my grades up, which in her eyes must be better than coasting through school and getting all Cs without barely even trying.
I stuff Grace’s binder into my backpack while she opens up a plastic container of lo mein noodles and vegetables. She digs in with a pair of chopsticks, and the aroma of ginger and soy tickles my nostrils. I’m sure the meal is homemade—Grace’s mother is a fantastic cook—and I unenthusiastically take a bite of the dry sandwich I made myself last night.
Zo and his friend Ashleigh from the drama club sit across from us. He scrutinizes my face almost the same way he did in homeroom, but this time his voice is tinged with disappointment instead of concern. “Hannah-banana, what did you do to your face?”
“I just wasn’t feeling pretty this morning, I guess.” I shrug apologetically.
“You ruined a potential masterpiece.” He squeezes my cheeks in one of his large but smooth hands. “Promise me that someday you’re gonna really let me tart you up, okay? Let me paint your face like a canvas.”
Something about the phrase tart you up rubs me the wrong way. Nikki and I used to wear makeup regularly—a lot of it at times—but never in a tarty way. Or, at least, we never looked at ourselves that way. We were doing it to have fun, to express ourselves, and to be seen.
“Hey, that’s what you say to me,” says Ashleigh in her soprano voice. She’s starring in Grease in the role of Sandy. “I thought I was your muse.”
“You’re my theatrical muse, darling.” Zo strokes the straight blonde hair hanging past her cheek. “You’ll look fabulous next weekend, I promise, but tarting you up at the end of the show is different. That’s your character arc. Not the same as what I’ve longed to do with Hannah here.”
“Seriously, you don’t have to do anything with me.” I shake my head and take a sip of my water.
“You’ll need to find a prom date soon. A little lipstick, eyeshadow, definitely mascara. You can bat your eyelashes, darling, and make any straight guy swoon.”
Grace sets down her chopsticks. “Hannah doesn’t need to make the guys swoon. College first, then career. A woman defines herself before finding a good man. That’s what my parents encourage.”
My mother believes something similar, but that may be because she met my father early in college and had me only a year or so after graduation. Even though she finally has the career she always wanted, I know she’s somewhat bitter about how it all played out. But I’m not thinking about a career, or college, or even a guy, so I turn away and focus on the opposite side of the room. Right at Cole Kirkland.
Grace follows my gaze across the cafeteria, and she gasps when she realizes where I’m looking. “No, no, no! I said a good man, not a bad boy.”
“Hush up,” says Zo, flailing his hands in front of our faces. “I think he’s talking about you.”
Zo squints, and Grace ignores his antics and returns to her lunch. He claims that he can read people’s lips—a skill he supposedly learned doing quick makeup changes offstage where everyone is required to be silent. We’ve put him to the test before, and even though he’s surprisingly accurate up close, he’s terrible at it from across a crowded room.
Purely for overdramatic purposes, Zo hunches over and whispers, “All-righty, he’s saying the school lunch sucks.”
I take a bite of my bland sandwich, primarily using it as a shield to hide that I’m still looking toward Cole. He doesn’t seem to be in any kind of conversation with the other two guys at his table, and therefore the only thing Zo got right was that Cole bought his lunch today.
“He’s not saying that!” Ashleigh playfully slaps Zo on the arm. “Besides, the food’s pretty good here.”
“Wait, I got it wrong.” Zo stretches out his words. “It’s not the lunch he’s saying sucks. It’s the company. He wishes he could be sitting with a hot chica like Hannah.”
I cough while I’m swallowing my food, and Grace shoots up behind me, probably ready to administer the Heimlich maneuver. Reaching for my water bottle, I give her a thumbs-up and wave her back into her seat. After a generous sip, my breathing resumes, strained at first before slowly returning to normal.
The incident has garnered the attention of classmates around us. I scan their faces and grimace, hoping they’ll understand I’m okay and lose interest. From across the cafeteria, Cole is looking my way. In one of those half-nods meaning what’s up, he tilts his chin back. My throat tightens, this time from nerves, and before I can start hyperventilating, I gulp more water. I just want to disappear.
“You know, Hannah.” Ashleigh twirls some strands of her long hair. “I have a friend whose sister is an ex-girlfriend of a friend of one of the guys sitting with him. If you want to go to the prom with Cole, I can talk to her and see what she can do.”
The offer shocks me, and it takes all my concentration not to spray out the water in my mouth like I’m in a slapstick movie. Before that morning, an association between Cole and me wasn’t on anyone else’s radar, but now there’s talk of trying to fix me up with him. I can’t let it happen, I can’t let anyone make it happen, and I can’t let anyone know the part of me that secretly wants it to happen. The only thing I can do is flee.
“No arranging dates for Hannah.” Grace wields her chopsticks like daggers toward Ashleigh’s protruding chest.
“I gotta go,” I say, grabbing my trash and backpack. Running would cause a bigger scene, so I walk briskly away from the table and in a direction away from Cole.
For the second time today, I use a girls’ bathroom as a kind of sanctuary. The few people in the hallway who see me don’t give me any odd looks, so there’s no reason for them to suspect why I’m really going inside. The room is empty, so no one watches me lock myself in the center stall.
Only my reflection could have seen me, and as I sit on the closed toilet lid whimpering, I can imagine the derisive glint in her eye. I’m grateful the glass is as thick as it is; otherwise, I’d probably hear her snickering at me.
- - - - -
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