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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Chick Lit

Almost Friends

 

Come Play Studios

Almost Friends website: www.southlouisianahighschool.com

Table of Contents

Title Page

Books by E.J. Mara

Quote

Prologue – Drama Classroom Drama – August, 2014

Newspaper

Chapter One – Mia – Stalking E

Chapter Two – Kyle – Secrets

Chapter Three – Elizabeth – Back in Business

Chapter Four – Mia – Back to School

Chapter Five – Elizabeth – With Friends like These…

Chapter Six – Kyle – Dizzy Spells

Chapter Seven – Elizabeth – Mark Mire

Chapter Eight – Mia – Self-Medicating

Chapter Nine – Kyle – Singing in the Shower

Chapter Ten – Mia – Temper Tantrums

Chapter Eleven – Elizabeth – E the Graffiti Artist

Chapter Twelve – Mia – Puffs and Pills

Chapter Thirteen – Kyle – Meagan’s Advice

Chapter Fourteen – Elizabeth – Dr. Claire Hawke

Chapter Fifteen – Kyle – Imprévu et indésirable

Chapter Sixteen – Elizabeth – The Plan

Chapter Seventeen – Mia – Falling Apart

Chapter Eighteen – Kyle – Logic>Gut

Chapter Nineteen – Mia – Joshua Phillips

Chapter Twenty – Elizabeth – E Schemes like a Fiend

Chapter Twenty-One – Mia – The Truth

Chapter Twenty-Two – Elizabeth – Breaking and Entering

Chapter Twenty-Three – Kyle – Getting Help

Chapter Twenty-Four – Elizabeth – Swamp Rose Secrets

Chapter Twenty-Five – Mia – The Freak

Chapter Twenty-Six – Kyle – We should be Actual Friends

Chapter Twenty-Seven – Mia – Strength

One Month Later…

Epilogue – Kyle, Elizabeth, Mia – October, 2014

What’s next?

Acknowledgements

Contact E. J. Mara

Copyright Notice

[]

The South Louisiana High Series

Identity – Book One

Karen, Nathaniel, & Tessa’s Story

Almost Friends – Book Two

Mia, Kyle, & Elizabeth’s Story

Almost Twins – Book Three

Andy, Gia, & Via’s Story

The Other LA – Book Four

Drew’s Story

Bravery – Book Five

Gina’s Story

Almost Human – Book Six

Lanie & Silv’s Story

[They say you can choose your friends but when it comes to _]best[ friends, life chooses for you._]

-Anonymous

[]

Drama Classroom Drama

August, 2014

There’s nothing worse than spending the last moments of your summer vacation inside of a classroom. But here I am, sitting in a musty drama classroom listening to our theater teacher ramble on and on about her new position as our Cheerleading Coach.

Karin Greenich, head of South Louisiana High’s Drama Department, sits perched on top of her large teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom while my best friend Kyle and I sit across from her, on top of one of the student desks.

Normally, I totally heart Ms. Karin, but right now she’s tap dancing on my last nerve.

“As you girls know, I’m not from here and when I moved to Louisiana, I, um …” Ms. Karin’s voice trails off and she frowns.

I wish she’d quit with the pausing and get to her point. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

Ms. Karin is still stuck in a pause as she tucks a loose strand of her dark hair behind her ear. My gaze goes to the messy bun on top of our teacher’s head. Why does she always wears her hair like that? Even a ponytail would be cuter. And why, for God’s sake, are we still in here with her?! She promised she’d only keep us here for twenty minutes.

Annoyed, I reach into my purse and send my boyfriend a quick text.

Mia:Hey, wanna ride to school together tomorrow?

I drop my phone back into my purse, knowing my forever-distracted boyfriend won’t respond for at least a half hour. Hopefully, by then Ms. Karin will be finished with this dumb meeting.

“… and I have to admit that that I expected Louisiana to be a carbon copy of every other state in the south,” Ms. Karin finally continues. Sighing, I glance at the clock on the wall behind her. It’s six forty five. That means we’ve been here for an hour. Oh my God. Please. Someone. Just. Shoot. Me.

Nearly cross-eyed from frustration, I return my attention to our mousey drama teacher while she yammers on, “But Swamp Rose is so rich in culture and diversity that it’s almost like stepping into another country. Our little town not only has a strong Italian community, Vietnamese community, and rich Afro-Caribbean heritage, but …” I tune out her Colors of the Wind speech and go to town devouring my lollipop while mentally reviewing the five outfits I bought this morning. I still can’t decide which one I want to wear tomorrow. All I know is that I have to look amazing on my first day of school. Day one is always pivotal fashion-wise, but your first day as a senior is everything.

“… so my hope, Mia and Kyle,” Ms. Karin continues, excitement in her tone. “Is that as Head Cheerleader and Co-Captain, you’ll help me add more diversity to our squad this year. Swamp Rose isn’t a town of people who look exactly the same and the same ought to be true of our cheerleading squad. So, let’s make the South Louisiana High Animals a true reflection of our school’s diverse student population! What do you say, girls?” Ms. Karin pumps her fist into the air.

As soon as that balled up fist of hers jabs the air, I bust out laughing. Ms. Karin is such a dork. I laugh so hard that my lollipop falls out of my mouth. Thankfully, I manage to catch the candy before it hits the classroom’s nasty floor.

Kyle, my best friend and co-captain of The Animals, elbows me and whispers, “Be nice, Mia.”

“Ow! God!” I shove her before resituating myself on the desk we’re perched on. “I can laugh if I want.”

Ms. Karin sighs. “Alright, girls. I’m gathering that one of you thinks I’m hysterical.”

“Yup,” I agree as I take the sucker out of my mouth. “And if you could see yourself right now, you would too.”

“Right, I’m the next Sarah Silverman.” Ms. Karin offers me a weak smile. “But all joking aside, I’d like to know if I can count on your full support in diversifying the squad this year.”

The question has barely left Ms. Karin’s lips when Kyle agrees, “Absolutely,” her head bobbing up and down. I glance at Kyle and wonder if her quick agreement is sincere or if she’s just trying to hurry this never-ending meeting along. But my best friend’s blank expression gives away nothing. I don’t know why I expected anything different. Kyle’s perfected the permanent poker face, so it’s hard to tell when she’s being real and when she’s being sarcastic.

“Mia?” Ms. Karin turns her attention to me. “What about you?”

I shrug. “Duh. I’m the head cheerleader, it’s my job to support the Coach.”

Ms. Karin frowns. “You don’t sound too enthusiastic.”

“Yeah, cause my team isn’t the cast of a Disney movie and honestly, I don’t think we need to stress about looking like one.”

“What do you mean by that?” Ms. Karin asks and beside me, Kyle sighs loudly.

“I mean we’ve been sitting here listening to you talk about diversity for, like, an hour and you keep saying how it’s going to make our squad more legit or whatever. But, in all honesty, for the past three years, our carbon copy cheerleaders have gotten us to state. We’re already legit. Why change what’s been working for us?”

“Because it’s prejudice,” Ms. Karin slowly replies while Kyle simultaneously says, “Could you sound more racist right now?” With this, Kyle elbows me and puts so much effort into it that I fall off our desk. Kyle’s may be tiny, but the girl’s got some serious power in those little biceps of hers. I right myself and try to shove her. Unfortunately, she and her quick reflexes darts just out of my reach.

“Jerk,” Kyle says, with a roll of her eyes.

“Girls!” Ms. Karin claps her hands and the sound echoes against the walls of the Drama Classroom.

If I’m going to be honest, Kyle’s half-right. Yeah, I’m a jerk. I’m aware. The jerk gene runs in my family, care of my father. I don’t want it, but it’s in my blood. So, there’s that. One thing I am not, however, is racist. I’m friends with all kinds of people. It’s just that at the moment, I’m not in the mood to sit around talking about how to play nice with all the other Crayola’s because today is the last day of summer vacation and we’ve wasted an entire hour of it sitting in a mold-infested classroom listening to a newbie Cheer Coach rant about diversity!

“I’m not being racist, I’m being honest.” I take one last lick of my lollipop before tossing it into the Drama classroom’s trash can. It lands with a thump.

“Okay, Mia.” Ms. Karin sighs and runs her palm over her face. If I did that, my eyeliner would end up on my chin, but Ms. Karin is sporting her typical make-up free look so she’s all good, except, of course, for the fact that she looks like a Quaker. It’s a shame really. If she’d line those big brown eyes of hers and add a touch of blush to her cheek bones, she’d be cute. Sadly, the only half-decent fashion choice she’s made is the goth cat’s eye ring on her right hand.

“First of all, I didn’t accuse you of being racist,” she says. “And secondly, you might think you’re being honest, but what you’ve said reveals the opposite. It proves that you’re afraid.”

“Afraid?” I snort and nod to Kyle. “Look at her. She’s my best friend. How’d that happen if I’m so “afraid” of other races?”

Ms. Karin’s eyes widen. “Mia!”

“And on that note, I’m done here,” Kyle says in her deadpan voice. She slides off the student desk we’ve been sharing and grabs her purse. “Ms. Karin, I’ll see you at school tomorrow.”

“Alright, Kyle,” Ms. Karin says sadly.

My heart sinks as Kyle hurries to the classroom door.

“I’m your ride,” I call after her. “You’re not going to get very far without me.”

Kyle replies by slamming the door behind her.

“Great,” I mutter as I jump off the desk and start after her.

“Wait, Mia,” Ms. Karin says. “Hold on a minute.”

“What, Ms. Karin?” I sigh. “I need to go apologize.”

“Yes, you do. But do you even understand why you need to apologize?”

“I’m too honest and, clearly, people can’t handle it.”

“No.” Ms. Karin speaks carefully, as if she’s trying to control her tone. “That’s not … accurate.”

“Actually, I’m pretty sure it is.” I cross my arms. “And-”

“Geez Louise, Mia! Would you just listen?” Ms. Karin exclaims. Her tone is so unexpectedly sharp that I shut my mouth and listen. “If you want Kyle to forgive you, you need to understand why you upset her in the first place. And, obviously, you don’t get it.”

I hate to admit this, but Ms. Karin’s right. I’ve said much worse around Kyle and she hasn’t batted an eye. I don’t see what the big deal is this time.

“Fine.” I shift on my feet. “What is it that I don’t get?”

“For one, you shouldn’t have implied that all you see in your best friend is what makes the two of you different. Do you know how insulting that is?” Ms. Karin looks me in the eye. Uncomfortable, I avert my gaze to my recently manicured nails and pretend to check them out while she continues, “How would you feel if you were Kyle? The one person who’s supposed to know you better than anyone has just implied that when they look at you, what they see is race. They don’t see how funny you are, that you’re one of our school’s best cheerleaders, or that you’ve been a loyal friend for the past four years. All they see is an ethnicity that’s different from their own. How would you feel, Mia? ”

My mouth has suddenly gone dry. I clear my throat and say, “Yeah, I get your point. So, I’ll apologize, which is what I was going to do anyway.”

“Good, that’s a start. But hang on for just another minute, we’re not quite done here.”

I start to protest that Kyle’s likely to ditch me and take the town bus home. But Ms. Karin’s talking before I can even get my words out, “Kyle won’t leave. She’ll wait for you in the parking lot.” Ms. Karin nods to the desk I’d been using earlier. “Have a seat, this won’t take long.”

“How do you know Kyle’s not going to leave?”

“I can see her in the parking lot from the window,” Ms. Karin says, sounding weary. “She’s waiting. Would you please just have a seat?”

I glance at the drama classroom’s window. The blinds are closed and not one iota of the parking lot is visible. I frown. “You can’t-”

“Mia, would you just sit down for five minutes? Kyle’s not going to leave.” Ms. Karin tone has gone from annoyed to stern.

“Jesus. Fine.” Fuming, I plop back down on the desk and glare at her.

Believe it or not, Karin Greenich is actually the best teacher I’ve ever had. She’s one of South Louisiana High’s few teachers who treats us like we’re adults. That being said, I have absolutely no idea why she needs to yap my ear off about cheerleading for five more minutes, or even why a Drama teacher was suddenly asked to coach our cheerleading squad at the last minute. It makes zero sense.

Ms. Karin clasps her hands together and straightens her posture. Between the ugly bun on top of her head and her picture perfect posture, I guess she could sort of pass for a dancer. It’s just that dancers usually have some sense of style, and Ms. Karin’s entire wardrobe consists of drab, oversized clothes that cover so much of her you’d think she’s in training to be a nun.

“I’m usually very good at reading people, including you,” she says, and though her tone’s softened, she’s still scowling. “But lately, you’re different. You’re harder to read.”

“Um, what does this have to do with cheerleading?” I ask.

“Nothing, or maybe everything,” she says, her expression pensive. It’s the same look she has when she’s blocking an especially difficult scene for one of our school plays. “I honestly don’t know. I’m just worried about you, Mia.”

Oh, God, this is going to be one of those conversations. I look down at my nails.

“Even though you’re … a little harder to read these days, I can see that you’re going through a lot and I’d like to help. Would you at least look at me?”

“Well, believe it or not I’m fine.” I do as she’s asked and look up. The kindness in Ms. Karin’s eyes stops me from telling her to stay out of my business. Instead, I quietly say, “And you’ve met my parents, so you know why I’m not exactly Ms. Congeniality or whatever.”

There. That should get her off my back. Anyone who’s met my parents knows to give me a break every now and then.

Ms. Karin nods, but stares at me like she’s trying to see the inside of my freaking skull and I shift in my seat, uncomfortable. I’m getting the feeling Ms. Karin can see right through my old “use the dysfunctional parent as an excuse” trick.

“I’m sorry if your parents are making life difficult for you,” she finally says. “But if there’s something else that’s happened, I hope you know you don’t have to deal with all on your own. You’re not alone, Mia.”

“I know.”

“Do you?”

“Yes!”

“In any case, this is your senior year, the beginning of a fresh start. And the choices you make can virtually erase any bad decision you made last year.”

I sigh loudly and toy with the tiny jewels on my flip flops. Why is Ms. Karin wasting my time with a lecture about “fresh starts” and “erasing bad decisions?” It’s like she thinks I’ve done something terrible …

I freeze, a wave of fear washing over me.

Ms. Karin can’t possibly know about what I started doing last semester, can she?

I’m still frozen, my thumb hovering over the multicolored studs on my flip flops as I meet her eyes and ask, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

She shrugs. “I’m trying to say, keep your chin up because you’ve got a lot going for you. You’re a senior, you’re the most popular girl in this school, your classmates pay attention to everything you do and say. And if you decide to use your influence for good …”

While Ms. Karin yammers on, I realize how paranoid I’m being. There’s no way she knows what I’ve done.

I relax my posture and interrupt her mid-rant, “Thanks, but I don’t need a pep talk. I just need to apologize to my best friend. So, I’m going to go do that now.”

“Mia, we both know that something happened last semester,” Ms. Karin says. A fresh wave of fear sends chills to my arms and I meet her eyes as she continues, “It’s something you’re ashamed of and wish you could take back. Unfortunately, that’s not the way life works. We can’t change the past.”

Panic twists at my gut. She knows.

“H-how do you know?” I stammer.

Ms. Karin unclasps her hands and glances down at them. I follow her line of vision to the funky-looking cat’s eye ring on her hand. She stares at it, a strand of her dark hair falling out of its bun and landing on her forehead as she says, “I know a lot of things about my students. I know, for example, that you’re ashamed of something and that you use false bravado to hide your guilt.” She tears her gaze away from the ring and returns her attention to me. “But it’s dangerous to bury your feelings, keep doing that and one day you’ll implode.”

My heart pounding, I wipe my clammy palms on my jeans.

How did she find out? And more importantly, is she going to tell on me? I open my mouth to ask Ms. Karin who she’s going to tell, but I can’t seem to get the words out.

Ms. Karin’s expression is solemn as she just sits there, perched on top of her stupid desk, watching me squirm.

This is so bad. I take a deep breath and try to slow my pounding heart.

“Mia,” she finally says, her tone gentle. “I don’t know the details about whatever it is that’s happened. But I need you to understand that whatever it was, even though you can’t change the past, you can control your future. This is where your choices come into play …”

So, she[_ ]doesn’t[ ]know[. Thank God._]

I exhale in relief, my muscles automatically unclenching.

“… the decisions you make now will define the next few years of your life. That’s why you’ve got to choose wisely.”

I nod, barely hearing a word she’s said.

“You’re a good person, Mia. I know you don’t always see that about yourself, but you are.” Ms. Karin’s words pierce through my thoughts, forcing my attention. I glance at her and she’s watching me carefully. “You are.”

Every muscle in my body tenses and I run a hand through my hair as I avert my eyes. If she had any idea what I’ve done, she wouldn’t call me a good person.

The drama classroom is suddenly stifling hot and I want to bolt. I start to say something about needing to get Kyle home when a knock on the classroom door saves the day. Thank God!

I jump to my feet, desperate to get as far away from this conversation as possible. “I’ve got to get Kyle home, thanks for the talk,” I say, grabbing my purse.

“Mia?”

At the sound of my name, I turn to the doorway and Elizabeth O’Neal is the welcomed intruder.

“What up, E?” I grin at my second best friend, another one of our cheerleaders. E’s only a junior, but she looks and acts like she could be in college, which is how she earned a spot in my friend trifecta. Today she’s cute as usual, except for her eyes. They’re redder than my cousin’s after he’s spent an entire day holed up in his room smoking. If E were anyone else, I’d blame her scary eyes on weed, but that’s definitely not her thing. My best guess is that her allergies are acting up or something. Whatever. I just need to get out of here before Ms. Karin ropes me back into that never-ending conversation.

E wipes her eyes with the back of her hand and takes a hesitant step back. “What are you doing here?”

“Leaving. Later, Ms. Karin.” I rush past E and give her left butt cheek a slap. She jumps, wincing as I shout, “Later, slut. Text me.”

“Language!” Ms. Karin calls after me while I run into SLH’s empty hallway. Ms. Karin lowers her voice and says, “Elizabeth? What’s wrong? Have you been crying?”

Startled, I spin around, but Ms. Karin’s classroom door has already closed.

Wait a second, there’s no way those were tears, Elizabeth O’Neal doesn’t cry.

E and crying are like south Louisiana and ice storms. They just don’t go together. For God’s sake, the first time I met E she was decking a sixth grader for asking her to be his Valentine (in her defense, she was also in sixth grade and the boy didn’t exactly ask, he shouted, “You’re my Valentine,” and then tried to stick his tongue down her throat in the middle of the cafeteria).

I try the classroom door, but it’s locked. So I knock.

“Not now!” E shouts. “I’ll call you later, Mia.”

I start to yell something back and then stop myself. E probably doesn’t want me to see her cry, I can understand that.

I set my purse on the hallway floor and lean against the classroom door, trying to hear what she and Ms. Karin are saying. Unfortunately, E’s speaking in between sobs and I can barely understand her. My heart sinking, I grab my phone and text Kyle.

Mia:9-1-1. Something MAJOR is going on with E. She bust into Ms. Karin’s classroom CRYING.

Am I the good person that Ms. Karin thinks I am? Nah. Good isn’t exactly in my DNA. But am I a jerk who’ll to turn her back on a crying friend? Never.

I slip my phone into my purse and press my ear to the door. Whatever’s going on with E, I’m going to find out what it is and make it right.

[]

[]

Stalking E

“Kyle, I’ve already apologized to you, like, eight times!” I hit my steering wheel for emphasis. But even this doesn’t elicit a response from Kyle. “Are you seriously just going to sit there and pretend you’re deaf?”

Kyle doesn’t say a word.

“Fine.” Annoyed, I turn up the AC. “Be a silent turd, I don’t care. I’m going to focus on helping E.”

With this, I clamp my mouth shut and return my concentration to following the town bus E hopped on after her meeting with Ms. Karin.

Kyle listened when I told her everything I’d overheard E tearfully admit to Ms. Karin and as soon as I was done with the story, Kyle was all like, “Let’s go meet with E’s Mom and fix this.” When she said that, I thought we were good. I joked that maybe we’d finally get to see E’s house, and we both laughed when I called E weird for never inviting us over. But as soon as I pulled out of our school’s parking lot and started apologizing for sounding “racist” earlier, Kyle resorted to the silent treatment. She still won’t even look at me.

Whatever.

The dark blue bus labeled “Swamp Rose Transit” eases into the distance and Kyle shifts in the passenger seat of my Lexus. She doesn’t need to say a word for me to know what she’s thinking. She’s probably fuming to herself: Not only is Mia a racist hick, but she’s the world’s worst stalker; she’s totally losing the bus. Who loses a giant blue bus?

“We’ll catch up with the bus again,” I blurt. “I know what I’m doing.”

Kyle says nothing.

Annoyed, I shake my head.

Actually, I should be used to Kyle’s muteness. She gets like this even when she isn’t pissed off. We’ll be having a good time and then she’ll just suddenly stop talking and get crazy silent. It’s like she tunes out the world and focuses on her thoughts, refusing to share them with anyone. If you ask me it’s pretty selfish and it’s the one thing about Kyle Pham that annoys me.

Determined not to let her get to me, I tap my nails against my steering wheel and then reach for the dash, turning on my radio.

An Ariana Grande song about friendship drifts through my speakers. I glance at Kyle out of the corner of my eye.

She’s looking straight ahead, a slight scowl pulling at her brow.

I hate that I hurt her feelings, but it’s totally her choice to keep stewing about it. How many times does she expect me to apologize?

I glance at one of the cars beside us. An older Asian dude is behind the wheel and a busty blonde occupies the passenger seat. Asian Grandpa’s only got one hand on the steering wheel because Boobs is holding his free hand. They turn to each other, all lovey-dovey and lean in for a kiss. Asian Gramps has to be at least fifty billion years older than Boobs. I watch them kiss, and an idea slaps me in the brain.

I know what to say to get Kyle talking! It’s something I’ve been dying to tell her for a few days now …

I turn away from the couple and announce, “I’m not screwing Mr. Brown anymore.” A streak of nerves coursing through me, I dare a glance at Kyle. Her heart shaped face- its small features rarely changing to reflect her thoughts- remains unreadable.

She nods to the light. “Green.”

Finally, she’s talking to me again!

Relieved, I grin and return my focus to the bus we’re tailing. I floor my accelerator and roar around some slow black woman who’s talking on her phone while barely driving. Kyle tenses, grabbing a hold of the passenger door handle like she’s afraid I’m going to crash.

I roll my eyes, but stop myself from reminding her that I have mad driving skills. (I’ve only been in one accident and I was tipsy at the time so it doesn’t count.) I only just got Kyle to start speaking to me again and I don’t want to push it, especially since she’s only said one word.

“About time you broke up with him,” Kyle says.

I smile. Correction: seven words. That means it’s official: my best friend and I are back on speaking terms. Thank God.

I expertly get us right behind the bus and say, “I know, right? Earlier, when Ms. Karin was talking to me, for a second there I thought she knew. Like maybe he’d told her about us. It totally freaked me out, I nearly had a panic attack. Mr. Brown’s such a tard, he would accidently tell someone. I’m so glad it’s over.” I purse my lips and decide against adding the tiny but important detail regarding my reason for ending things with our History teacher. Mr. Brown is a boring loser, yeah, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was finding out that the douche gave me an STD.

Dude had at least a million chances to tell me he had herpes, but he never said a word. So now I’m stuck with his nasty disease.

I sigh as E’s bus comes to another stop, its back lights flashing.

“I never understood how you could be with someone you call mister,” Kyle says. “That didn’t creep you out?”

The bus doors open and a few people, most of them wearing clothes that look like Goodwill donates and their hands filled with grocery bags, exit. Watching them, I shake my head. “I liked it.”

If I ever had to ride the bus to get around town, I would D-I-E. God.

“You liked it?” Kyle’s voice is low.

The bus lights stop blinking and a streak of impatience tearing through me, I follow the huge vehicle as it turns left onto River Road. “Where’s E going on this stupid bus?” I shout, thumping my fist against my steering wheel. “We’ve been following her for an hour and now it looks like we’re headed out of town.”

“Mia, you liked it?” Kyle repeats.

The bus releases a cloud of black smoke, its brake lights appearing yet again as it comes to a stop at a dirt road. The exhaust fumes fill my SUV and I turn down the AC.

“Yeah. It reminded me why I was doing it, so I didn’t just feel like some cheating skank.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, if I’d chosen some hot guy from school, like Josh Phillips, for example, that’d be completely different. I’d be totally into Josh, you know? So, it would have been like cheating on my boyfriend. But with Mr. Brown, there were no feelings. He was just a random dude who I didn’t really like, someone I called Mister instead of an actual name. He was, like, just a means to an end.” I frown at the dirt road. What, even, is this?

E finally exits the stupid bus. She’s cute in her sky blue pants and off-the-shoulder stripped blue and white top- way too cute to be on the town bus. She adjusts the big white purse on her arm and heads down the dirt road on foot.

“She’s going to see us,” Kyle warns, her tone dry as toast.

“Yeah, Kyle. I’m not an idiot.” Turning off my headlights, I put us in reverse and back up as far as I can.

That’s the only problem with driving a nice SUV in a small town like Swamp Rose: wherever you go people stop to stare and point. “There’s Mia Reeves in her Lexus,” they whisper in jealousy or awe. I’m used to the attention so that’s no big deal, but it makes stalking someone nearly impossible.

The bus makes a U-turn, headed back to town, and E’s disappeared down the desolate-looking dirt road.

“Where’s she going? The swamp? E told Ms. Karin she was going home.” I turn to Kyle and her dark eyes meet mine as an unsettling realization grips me. “Oh my God, what if this is where she lives?”

Kyle glances at the dirt road. “If it is, then her conversation with Ms. Karin makes even more sense. Nobody who lives back here could afford to be in cheerleading and dance.”

My thoughts revert to the way E always seems to back out of going shopping with us and to the way she’s never invited us over. Sighing, I put the car in drive and ease onto the bumpy road where clusters of oak trees stand tall on either side of us.

“A lot of things make more sense now…” I murmur.

E, a hella fast walker, is already a good bit ahead of us and thankfully my vehicle is a hybrid, so she doesn’t hear us behind her.

“So,” Kyle says, her voice going up a notch, giving it a hopeful tinge. “Did it work?”

Coming out of my thoughts, I turn the radio off and glance at her. “Did what work?”

“The thing with Mr. Brown. Did it make Ran jealous?” The hopeful lilt in Kyle’s tone briefly makes an appearance in her eyes as she tilts her head, watching me.

I return my attention to the road and my mood takes a nosedive as my thoughts run to Randall Hawke III, the boyfriend that I, thanks to Mr. Brown and his diseased privates, will probably never get to actually sleep with. As much as I want to be with Ran, I don’t want to give him Mr. Brown’s herpes.

“Nope. Because Ran was too …” I grip my steering wheel so tightly that it warms beneath my palms.

My stomach turns and I can’t even finish my sentence.

Ran.

That gorgeous loser. I put myself through hell to get his attention and what happens? An itchy STD happens. And actually, depending on how you look at it, the whole thing is Ran’s fault. Yeah, Mr. Brown gave me the STD, but who pushed me into Mr. Brown’s gross old-man arms? My never-present, virginal boyfriend, that’s who.

Ran, with his all-American blonde hair, 6’ whatever height, crazy muscular frame and exotic greenish-blue eyes is my boyfriend in name only. From day one, dude treated me like I already had a disease. At first it was sweet, the way he was always so gentleman-like. But after our second date and he still hadn’t even kissed me, of course I was like, “What even is this?” That was back in Ninth grade and since then, we’ve become seniors and so far, we’ve only made out twice. I’m not kidding- twice, as in two measly times. That’s why I had to do something to get his attention.

“Ran’s too what?” Kyle asks.

“He was too distracted to notice.” I shrug. “You’d think he’d notice Mr. Brown’s suit jacket, that ugly plaid brown one he wears like every day, on my bed. But no, Ran didn’t notice. He didn’t even think it was weird when I accidentally sent him a topless pic that said, “For Mr. Brown’s eyes only.” I don’t get how Ran didn’t think that was strange. He’s just busy I guess.” I glance at Kyle.

She usually has a good answer for psychological stuff like this, but at the moment her eyes are steeped in pity and all she does is shake her head.

“I don’t know.” She returns her attention to E’s diminishing figure in the distance. “Maybe it’s time to break up with Ran. You shouldn’t have to sleep with someone else to make your boyfriend jealous. You should be with someone who likes you.”

“Ran likes me,” I snap. Returning my attention to the road, I flip my hair over my shoulder and ease onto the accelerator. On our left, we pass a small white trailer. A confederate flag hangs near its front door and two trucks with oversized tires sit in the front yard.

Beside one of the trucks, several heavily tattooed guys hang out in lawn chairs. All five of them are downing drinks as they gawk at my Lexus- and at me I’m sure. Even with my tinted windows, you can still kind of see me. One of the losers- a skinny bald guy with several tats on his neck- turns to the others and says something. They all laugh.

“The doors are locked, right?” Kyle asks.

“Yeah,” I murmur. “Don’t worry, Princess. We’re safe.”

Beside this trailer sits another. It’s small and brown with a roof made of tin. Several fake deer- the same color as the trailer- are set up in the front lawn but one of them has fallen over. It looks like a scene out of one of those depressing indie films Ran likes to watch. I don’t get why he watches that crap. It’s boring and there’s never any real storyline.

I drive on and more trailers come into view.

“Gross,” I mutter, peering into the distance, which is comprised of an entire “neighborhood” of dilapidated trailers. “I always figured E wasn’t exactly upper class, but I had no idea she lived here. How are we her best friends and we’re just finding this out?”

“Everybody has a secret,” Kyle quietly replies. “I guess we just found E’s.”

E’S TRAILER IS small and white with green trim. It’s at the very back of the park, right splat in the middle of a cul-de-sac.

I park two lots away, under the shade of a large oak tree. I kill the engine and open our windows. Thankfully, the sun’s set, so I’m sure E won’t notice us.

Her keys in hand, E reaches for the trailer’s front door but it opens from the other side and she nearly collides with her mom, Ms. Laura.

Ms. Laura’s thirty, which is exactly eight years younger than Mr. Brown come to think of it …a lot of his chest hair is gray and when I first saw him shirtless, I had to turn away so he wouldn’t see my reaction. I tried telling myself the grays meant he was older and sophisticated. When that lie stopped working, I told myself that everything I was doing would save my relationship with my actual boyfriend … yeah, not my brightest moment.

I squirm in my seat and glance down at my iPhone where it rests near the gear shift. Speaking of my boyfriend, it’s been a while since I messaged Ran. I grab my phone, hoping he’s finally replied.

Nope, no response.

“…why aren’t you at work yet?” E’s voice carries in the breeze and I set my phone back down, returning my attention to the mother-daughter duo. Actually, she and Ms. Laura look like they could be sisters instead of mother and daughter. With their long blonde hair, huge boobs, and perfect butts, they’re completely gorgeous.

Besides looking like sisters, they act like it too. For one, they talk and hang out like they’re friends, it’s the craziest. The first time I noticed this was an evening when E came to my house after practice. I’d gone to the bathroom or whatever and when I came back she was on the phone with someone, laughing hysterically. E never laughs hysterically, she rarely even smiles … unless it’s a sarcastic smile. So, assuming some guy had finally managed to break down her icy walls and get a laugh out of her, I made her tell me who was on the phone. When she said it was her mom I just knew she was lying. Turns out she was telling the truth. E and her mom randomly call each other to “chat” throughout the day. And they joke around and stuff. It’s so weird.

“I know! I know! I’m just late- geez Liz!” Ms. Laura yells, an oversized lime green purse slung over her shoulder as she runs to a tiny black Toyota that I hadn’t noticed earlier. I cringe at the sight of the thing; it looks like it belongs in a “Relics from the 1990’s” museum.

As Ms. Laura starts her clunker of a car, I start mine and roll our windows up. We follow her out of the trailer park and all the way back out to River Road.

We ride along in silence and my thoughts jump from Ran to E to Mr. Brown. Kyle, meanwhile, has fallen into one of her silent-moments and only God knows what she’s thinking about.

“Are you sure we should do this?” Kyle suddenly asks, “Maybe we could just—”

“Yeah, I’m sure. We need E on the team,” I quickly reply, glancing at the “Thanks for Visiting Swamp Rose” sign as we zip past it. “And E needs us. You saw where she lives.”

“Yeah, but I’m thinking that we’re sort of bothering her mom at her job and,” Kyle pauses. “Where does Ms. Laura even work at nearly eight o’clock at night?”

I laugh as I catch sight of the answer to Kyle’s question. “She works here.”

E’s mom has pulled into the parking lot of a windowless brick building that sits below a huge glowing sign that says, “Leon’s Ta Ta Room”.

“No way!” Kyle gasps. We turn to each other and Kyle’s eyes are wider than ever. Her cheeks grow red and she shakes her head. “Turn around, Mia. We shouldn’t be here.”

I can’t stop laughing. “No way! This is going to be classic.”

“We can’t follow Ms. Laura in here. We’ll embarrass her.”

“Too bad for her.” I pull into Leon’s parking lot and watch Ms. Laura. She runs to a back entrance, nearly tripping over her own feet as she digs a red wig out of her purse. “We need to do this for E. Besides, I’ve always wanted to see Ms. Laura’s tata’s.”

I park and open my door while Kyle mutters, “I don’t. I hope she’s just a bartender or a waitress.”

Kyle, to my delight, does not get her wish.

I lie and tell security, a huge bald dude who stares me down from head to toe, that we’re here to audition and need to changes clothes. He brings us back to a huge dressing room where there’s lots of shouting, laughing, and some snorting of cocaine (which I’ve never actually seen in real life, only on TV). I stop in my tracks, staring at one of the strippers while she gets high.

She’s cute in the face and rocking a decent body, but something about her looks …off. I study the lines under her bloodshot eyes and she coughs- a sharp, sputum-filled sound that makes me jump. As she practically hacks up a lung, the fine white dust she’s been snorting flies everywhere.

“Gross,” I whisper.

“When you’re dressed, go to Leon’s office,” the bald guy says before heading out of the room.

“Sure, no prob.” I nod.

Kyle touches my arm. “There she is, straight ahead.”

“Okay, let’s do this.” I take a deep breath and instantly wish I hadn’t as an undercurrent of body odor fills my nostrils. I clear my throat and turn my attention to Ms. Laura.

The woman’s got on nothing but a sky blue bejeweled bra and matching thong while she peers into her dressing table mirror and readjusts her long, red wig. As Kyle and I approach, Ms. Laura meets my eyes in the mirror and hers widen. Her cheeks flushing, she whirls around.

“Mia? Kyle? What are y’all doing here?” She grabs a white robe that’s slung across the arm of her chair.

This close, it’s clear that unlike E, Ms. Laura has a splay of freckles across her nose and cheeks. They give her an innocent look, which makes her all kinds of wrong for a place like this.

Uncomfortable, I shift on my feet and blab the first thing that comes to mind, “Why do you work here? It can’t pay that good.”

“Mia!” Kyle elbows me and I wince, but elbow her in return.

Ms. Laura wraps her robe around herself as tightly as humanly possible and her eyes not quite meeting mine, she says, “Did y’all follow me here or something? What are y’all wanting?”

“We did follow you, but not to embarrass you.” Kyle steps forward, all business as she looks Ms. Laura dead in the face, forcing eye contact.

I grin. I love it when Kyle gets like this, all feisty like a little Asian tiger.

She continues, “We’re here to make a deal with you.”

I follow Kyle’s lead and take a step closer to Ms. Laura. Her hairspray and cheap perfume make me sniff as I explain, “We overheard E tell coach that she doesn’t have the money to pay her cheerleading and dance fees this year.”

Ms. Laura crosses her arms and, biting down on her bottom lip, quietly says, “Yeah.”

“Sugar Puff!” A raspy voice shouts from behind us. The voice is so loud that it drowns out the dressing room noise. “Sugar Puff, you back here?”

I turn around and a small wiry woman with wrinkled skin -which is as dry as her bleached hair and gravelly voice- stands in the dressing room doorway. She wears a headset and holds a clipboard. Looking at her makes me want to shower in coconut oil and then moisturize with eight trillion tons of body lotion.

“I’m here!” Ms. Laura shouts.

I elbow Kyle and whisper, “Sugar Puff?”

Her lips twitching, Kyle tries not to smile. “Shut up, Mia.”

“You’re on in three!” The raspy-voiced woman shouts.

“Yeah, I’m coming!” Ms. Laura returns her attention to us, untying her robe as she sighs. “Like you said, we ain’t got the money this year. So, I’m sorry but-”

“You might not have the money, but I do. I’ll pay for her,” I interject and taking a note from Kyle, I look the older woman right square in the eyes. “E’s one of my best friends and one of the best things that’s ever happened to our teams.”

“No one works as hard as E,” Kyle adds.

I glance at Kyle, barely stopping myself from correcting her. “[Almost _]no one works as hard as E,” would be more accurate. As the head cheerleader, I’d say[ I_] work pretty hard. Last year alone I broke my ankle, sprained a wrist, and suffered a mild concussion all from cheerleading. But I probably shouldn’t point that out right now.

Ms. Laura gulps, her gaze shifting from me to Kyle as she drapes her robe across the chair.

“…so I poured gasoline in the bed of his pick up!” A nearby stripper bellows, her declaration followed by several belly laughs and an asthmatic chuckle that turns into a coughing fit.

Tuning her out, I rest my hand on the chair and lean towards Ms. Laura. “Tell Ms. Karin you changed your mind and found the money. Do that and I’ll make sure it’s all paid.”

“But I can’t pay you back, Mia.” Ms. Laura averts her eyes, blinking quickly as they fill.

Oh God, the woman’s going to cry. I take a step back to give her some space. If I were crying, I wouldn’t want a half-stranger three centimeters from my face.

To my surprise, Kyle moves closer to Ms. Laura and touches her hand. She lowers her voice to a gentle tone and says, “It’d be a gift.”

I watch, silenced in stupefaction. I’ve never seen Kyle this sweet with anyone.

Coming to, I quickly agree, “Yeah, you wouldn’t need to pay me back.” Ms. Laura looks at me as I continue, “Really, you’d be doing us a favor. We need E.”

“Okay.” Ms. Laura turns to Kyle and with a pleading look in her eyes, says, “But y’all can’t tell Liz what y’all are doing for her- you know how prideful she is.”

“Of course, we understand.” Kyle nods and points to the wiry looking woman with the clipboard who’s, once again, in the doorway. “Looks like you’re on.”

“Sugar Puff, come on you’re running behind!”

“Thank y’all,” Ms. Laura whispers, fleetingly glancing at me. Her posture is slouched as she backs away from us. She looks like the human equivalent of a puppy with its tail between its legs. The sight sends a pinch to my heart. Why on earth is she working in a place like this for probably nearly next to nothing? She could do so much better.

“Sure,” I say as Ms. Laura turns away and darts off. “Good luck out there, Sugar Puff.”

Kyle elbows me and I burst out laughing. “What? That’s her name.”

Kyle rolls her eyes and starts for the door. Moving quickly, she darts around a topless black woman who smacks on gum and strikes a yoga-like pose, stretching her hands high above her head. I glance at the woman’s beautiful abs, a streak of jealousy coursing through me.

So not fair. This summer I did my fair share of daily crunches and I still barely have visible stomach muscles. I guess it’s true what my Memaw used to say: some races just aren’t built for physical labor. Whatever.

“Mia, you can’t just make fun of people to their face,” Kyle says, pulling me out of my thoughts. I return my attention to the back of her head as she bounces along in front of me.

I love how Kyle moves; she doesn’t walk, she bounces like a little ball of purpose-driven energy. Without that crazy bounce in her step she’d be hot but scary, like a Vietnamese Charlize Theron.

I glance at two nearby strippers, both of them the visible definition of white trash. “Sure, I can. Especially since some people deserve to be laughed at,” I retort, continuing to watch the giggling strippers. One has bad teeth and over-bleached hair that’s brown at the roots and her friend is no better looking. “Everybody makes choices. And when you choose to be a stripper in a place like this, you choose to get laughed at.”

“Not everyone has a choice and if you took the time to-” Kyle’s reply is cut short as a scowling woman, her blonde wig askew, her purple thong torn and a long red scrape slashed into her thigh comes tearing through the doorway. Her face contorted with rage, she shoves girls out of her path.

“That pervert!” she exclaims, her face turning as red as the scrape on her thigh.

Fascinated, I stop in my tracks and watch the angry woman. Kyle grabs my arm. “Let’s get out of here.”

“But it’s just getting interesting,” I protest while Kyle pulls me out of the dressing room and through Leon’s back exit.

Kyle releases me as the door closes behind us. She reaches into her pocket and checks her phone. “It’s late; I’ve got to get home.”

“My God, you’re so Asian.” I glance up at the night sky and take a welcomed gulp of fresh air. A foot slams into my butt and I stumble forward.

Kyle glares at me. “And you’re an uneducated hick all the time.”

I should’ve seen that one coming.

I laugh and try to kick her in return, but all I manage to do is trip over my own feet and fall flat on my butt, which Kyle finds hilarious.

“Shut up,” I say while she laughs so hard her face turns red.

A smug grin on her face, she extends a hand my way. “It’s what you deserve.”

“Whatever.” I accept her hand and try to yank her down to the cement with me.

“I knew you were going to do that,” Kyle says as she parries away from me.

I get to my feet and lunge towards her, but she’s too quick. She darts out of my way and grins. “Is it just me or are you getting slower?”

“Is it just me or are you getting slower?” I mimic her in a baby voice, my gaze going to her long black hair. I imagine yanking it as hard as I can. That would wipe the smug grin off her face.

All of a sudden, Kyle loses her smile and gawks at me like I’ve just sprouted a second head. “Mia, are you wearing contacts?”

“No. Why?” Without waiting for her reply, I punch her in the shoulder and simultaneously pull her hair.

“Ouch! Geez, Mia.” She shoves me and now it’s my turn to laugh. Kyle rubs her arm where I punched her and says, “I was going to say: for a second it looked like your eyes were glowing, but maybe it was just the lighting.”

Leon’s back exit swings open and the bald bouncer who let us in pushes a bearded, denim-overall-wearing man out into the parking lot.

The man’s glasses fall to the cement as Baldy shouts, “Come here again and I’ll crush your kneecaps.” With that, the bouncer retreats into the building, slamming the door shut.

Kyle and I exchange glances. She nods to my SUV. “Seriously, let’s go.”

“Duh,” I mumble even as I return my attention to the bearded guy. He’s sort of interesting-looking. Who wears overalls to a strip club? He grabs his glasses and clumsily hoists himself to his feet, his bloodshot eyes darting in my direction.

“Mia,” Kyle warns from behind me. “We should go.”

“Hey, ladies,” he croons, obviously drunk or high, or maybe both. The weirdo points to my Lexus. “How about a ride in that fancy car your daddy bought you?”

I bristle. This guy’s probably just some illiterate meth head, but I hate it when people assume that everything I own, say, do, wear, or think has a direct connection to my douchebag of a father.

“Screw you.” I glance at his dirty overalls. “And if you want to get laid sometime this century, don’t wear overalls in public.”

“Mia,” Kyle hisses from beside me. “Come on. Let’s go.”

As the bright sign of Leon’s Ta Ta Room buzzes above us, I make myself turn around and head to the Lexus while Kyle hurries to the passenger side.

“That daddy of yours didn’t teach you manners, did he? You little Swamp Rose brat! I know your kind.” The man’s footsteps sound behind us and I whirl around.

Anger burns in my chest. Why are men such idiots? From my father, to Mr. Brown, to this hick. They’re all pests.

“You don’t even know me,” I shout.

“You know one skank, you know them all. Selfish little …” The loser’s rambling becomes mere background noise as a high-pitched buzzing grows louder in my ears. I have no idea where the sound is coming from and I don’t care. All I know is that men like this guy make me sick.

“What’cha gon do?” He laughs. “You gon cry?”

My fists clenched at my sides, I start towards him and shout, “Shut up!” My words are followed by a pungent odor that seems to emerge with my breath, and a split second after I’ve spoken them, the man’s glasses shatter.

I stop dead in my tracks.

Tiny bits of the man’s lenses crash into his eyes, as if a strong gust of wind is pushing the broken bits into his eyeballs, blinding him.

He screams and peels his glasses off. “My eyes!”

“Mia, he’s a lunatic! Get away from him!” Kyle shouts from behind me.

I gasp and chills run down the length of my body.

What just happened?

“Come on, Mia,” Kyle calls from the passenger side of my car. “Unlock the doors! Let’s get out of here.”

I let Kyle’s words push me into the Lexus and I go through the motions of peeling out of Leon’s parking lot. But as we drive away, my heart is pounding and I can’t stop replaying what just happened in my mind… I’m pretty sure I broke that man’s glasses. But how? I didn’t even touch them.

How did I do that?

[]

[]

Secrets

Never in a million years would I have guessed that E’s Mom works as a stripper at a seedy place like Leon’s.

I turn to the window and stare at the passing swampland as we make our way back to town.

Unlike my mom, Ms. Laura doesn’t make it to all of our competitions and performances. But when she does, Ms. Laura’s our loudest supporter and there’s no denying that she’s E’s biggest fan. Even if it’s a competition that we haven’t won, afterwards Ms. Laura will hug E as tightly as possible and cry. It sounds sappy, but it’s actually kind of sweet.

In fact, the way she cares about E is so distracting that I think it’s why I’ve subconsciously excused Ms. Laura’s quirks. In retrospect, there’s no hiding the Ms. Laura way is different from other parents; she peppers her sentences with words like “ain’t” and all of her clothes are a bit worn and faded. But those things pale into insignificance when she smiles at E and unabashedly tells her, “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me; I’m so proud of you.”

If my mom ever said that to me, I’d have a heart attack and after my recovery I’d demand she see a doctor to find out what’s happened to her brain.

It’s not that my mom isn’t proud of me. But her way of showing that she cares is by self-appointing herself as my biggest critic. My weight is never quite what it should be, my GPA could be better, the dance I choreographed was a tad risqué, and when my weight, grades, and dancing are to her liking, then the problem is that I haven’t been going to church as regularly as she thinks I should. It’s always something.

Sighing, I glance at the “Welcome to Swamp Rose” sign as we pass it.

What would Mom say if she knew that one of my best friends has been sleeping with her history teacher and my other best friend’s mother is a stripper?

My stomach growls and I shift in my seat, wishing I’d brought a bottle of water with me. Water’s great for controlling hunger pangs.

Trying not to think about the empty feeling haunting my gut, I let my thoughts return to E and to the little trailer she and her mom call home. It wasn’t trashy-looking like most of the surrounding mobile homes, but it was surprising nonetheless.

I think Mia was even more shocked than I was. She has yet to figure out what me, E, and every other girl at South Louisiana High already know: you can’t trust anyone with your deepest secrets, not even your best friends.

No one’s going to hear me telling my besties that I plan to be a pop star by the time I’m twenty-one and no one’s going to hear E discussing her plans to work her way out of the trailer park. That kind of information is simply too personal. Mia, however, doesn’t know the meaning of “too personal;” sure, she’s usually too self-obsessed to give a crap about anyone else’s personal stuff, but when it comes to her own private life, the girl talks non-stop.

For example, she texted me about Mr. Brown literally five minutes after their first tryst. How gross is that? Besides that, on a daily basis, she regales me with detailed stories about the terrible things her dad does behind closed doors. If I were Mia, I’d keep that kind of information under wraps. She doesn’t realize how dangerous it is to openly talk about anything that pops into her mind. If she keeps doing that, one day she’ll tell her business to the wrong person.

Ironically, Mia’s the one who taught me to keep my mouth shut. My sophomore year I did something totally out of character and hooked up with a freshman named Ben. After the heat of the moment passed, I was ashamed of myself and embarrassed and then a few days later I sort of hooked up with him again.

In my defense, Benjamin Morris is very cute. He has gorgeous dark eyes and the sexiest smile. But you can tell by Ben’s wardrobe, his choice of friends, and his vast knowledge of any movie with the word “star” in its title that he’s also a massive geek. Needless to say, we have zilch in common.

So, anyway, in my anxiety I told Mia what I’d done and for some crazy reason I expected her to empathize and maybe even give me some sort of advice. I don’t know what I was thinking.

Mia laughed until tears streamed down her cheeks and then she tweeted about what I’d done. And it’s not as if Mia only has a handful of Twitter followers; she’s the most popular girl at SLH and a whopping ninety-five percent of our classmates follow her on Twitter. So everyone who checked their Twitter account that night knew what I’d done with a nerdy freshman. Not only that, but the next day at school I caught Mia[_ flirting with Ben_]!

I like my best friend, I think I can even say that I love her. But she’s a psychotic brat and I’ll never trust her with another secret. That’s why as far as Mia knows I’ll be here in Swamp Rose until the end of time, hanging out with her until we’re both little old ladies. She has no idea that as soon as the school year’s done I’m leaving for Los Angeles.

I glance at her now. She runs her fingers through her hair and sighs. Her nails—shiny and done in her trademark French manicure—glisten in the darkness as she reaches out to turn on the radio. My favorite Lorde song streams through the speakers and moistening my lips, I twist one of my rings around on my fingers.

My stomach growls and I take a deep breath. Thank God for this song: it’ll help take my mind off of my stomach.

I tap my fingers on my kneecap, keeping in time with the beat. It takes everything I have not to sing along. Lorde’s story is amazing: self-releasing an album and then eventually winning two Grammys when you’re sixteen? That’s incredible. Even I’m giving myself a solid five years from graduation until my first Grammy.

I hum along with the song but catch myself and clear my throat. Usually, Mia’s terrible off-key singing has me laughing so much that I’m not even tempted to sing. But Mia’s strangely silent and I give her a second glance.

Her lips form their typical duck-pout, but there’s nothing typical about the look in her eyes. Her gaze, distant and marred by a frown, is unblinking and focused on the road ahead. On top of this, she’s driving at a steady speed of twenty-five miles per hour. Mia never drives this slowly.

My thoughts revert to the weird bearded guy at Ms. Laura’s job. He must have really scared Mia. I couldn’t see what happened when he started screaming and fell to his knees, all I know is that she finally took my advice and got us the heck out of there. I can’t believe I’m only just noticing that she’s still upset about all of that.

“You okay?” I ask.

Mia blinks, like I’ve yanked her from her thoughts.

“Yeah,” she replies, her voice low.

I turn my attention to the road and peer into the sky where stars are beginning to glisten like gems on black velvet. When my family lived in Baton Rouge, we couldn’t see the stars at night—there were too many city lights. But here in Swamp Rose, every night is a galactic light show. I’ve even seen the light that supposedly follows Unseen when he’s headed to a crime scene. Everyone in Swamp Rose has seen it at least once.

Mia clears her throat and sighs. I glance at her.

As much as she annoys me, I hate it when she’s sad. Actually…I think she’s always sad. It’s like how the stars were always there in the Baton Rouge night sky, they were just drowned out by the city lights. Usually, Mia’s anger drowns out her sadness, but every once in a while the anger dissipates and all you have left is this sad girl who has no idea what to do with herself.

“Liar,” I retort, my gaze going to an extra bright star that suddenly blinks and then zips across the night sky. I catch my breath. Unseen. I just spotted him again. Ignoring my excitement, I turn to Mia. “You only drive this slowly when something’s bothering you.”

At this, Mia floors the Lexus. I grab the middle armrest and door, eyeing the SUV’s speedometer as we go from fifty to sixty-five to seventy mph. Mia turns to me with an arched eyebrow. “Do you believe me now?”

“Point taken. Would you slow down before you kill us?”

Mia laughs, but it’s a weird throaty sound, not her real laugh.

“So…” I glance at her while she does as requested and slows. She tosses her hair and the recently layered locks obediently fall into place along her shoulders. “You’re good then?”

“Yeah, I’m just tired,” she says with a loud yawn.

The overdramatic yawn is fake and meant to distract me, but I won’t push the issue. Obviously, she’s not comfortable talking about why the bearded creep bothered her so much.

I twist my ring around on my finger and turn to the passenger window as Lorde’s song ends. We pass the cheap-looking office complex where I’ve started taking private singing lessons every Wednesday. Ms. Tulane, an eccentric old lady who used to sing background for Aretha Franklin, offers the lessons at a really low price. That’s perfect for me because I have to pay for the classes on my own, otherwise my parents would know I’m taking them. I love my mom and Dad of course, but there’s no way I’m telling them about my singing plans. When people don’t know your dreams, they can’t crush them.

Beside me, Mia sighs again and turns the radio up even louder.

I smile to myself.

If I know Mia, in like five seconds she won’t be able to help herself and she’ll spill the beans. Mia tells me everything and the little that she attempts to keep to herself, I figure out on my own.

We approach our neighborhood, its large wrought-iron gates and light brick security guard station looming in the distance. I steal a peek at Mia, her silence is surprising. Under the glow of the moonlight she reminds me of the Mary statue at church; her lips are a thin straight line and her eyes are full of sadness.

Actually … maybe it’s naive of me to assume I know everything about Mia. After all, she probably thinks she knows every one of my secrets.

“Please stare at me some more, because it’s not at all creepy,” she says, her eyes narrowing but remaining glued to the road.

I, likewise, return my attention to the road while we pull up to the security station. “Just trying to figure you out, Mia.” I grab my purse from the floor and hoist it up on my shoulder.

Even when you’re best friends with someone, every day that you’re with them is like the beginning of getting to know them, that’s for sure.

“CHÀO.” I BRUSH my Grandma’s cheek with a kiss.

Our house smells of lemon and basil, making my mouth water. Mom must be cooking bún riêu, a crab and tomato soup she likes to make when she’s going through one of her “I will lose weight without starving myself!” moods. Mom’s one of those women who’s on a different diet every month, and all of them end with her eating tons upon tons of the very foods that are supposed to be “light” and “diet friendly.”

But I feel her pain. It’s difficult to be serious about losing weight when your husband owns the most popular Vietnamese restaurant in the area and expects you to make all of the desserts. How can you bake all day and expect to curb your appetite? That’s like hiring an alcoholic as a bartender.

I try to ignore the deviously “light” soup’s delicious aroma and focus, instead, on my grandmother. As cute as a button, she sits on our couch with her favorite journal opened to a page that’s filled with the elegant strokes of her handwriting.

Grandma sets her pen in the book and looks me up and down. She’s my dad’s mother, so she and my mom aren’t related by blood, but they have the same way of looking at me. It’s a sweep of a gaze that assesses you from head to toe, examining every aspect of your appearance within seconds, and then commenting on it. The difference is that when Grandma remarks on my appearance, she makes me feel good.

Grandma smiles, the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes deepening as she says, “Cette couleur te va très bien.”

“Merci.” I smile and offer her a silly courtesy, which makes her laugh. “Si vous plaît pardonnez-moi?”

Grandma nods and waves me on, returning to her writing. I hurry away, headed for the stairs. I wish I had a few minutes to hang out with Grandma, but I’m already late to meet my sister so we can go to the gym. It probably sounds silly, me wanting to hang out with an eighty-seven-year-old woman from Vietnam, but my Grandma is awesome. Like a lot of native Vietnamese of her generation, she speaks fluent French and she taught my two siblings (my older brother Trey and my older sister Cam) and I to speak it. She also watches all of my favorite TV shows with me and takes up for me when Mom starts ragging on me about whatever. Dad says me and Grandma are exactly alike and he has no idea how right he is. Grandma told me that when she was a teenager, she dreamed of running away to America to become a famous singer, which obviously didn’t happen. But, still, it’s nice to know that at least someone in my family gets me.

I bound up the stairs and cringe at the sound of my mother’s voice drifting in from the kitchen. “Kyle, is that you?”

“Yeah!” I shout, continuing up the stairs.

The refrigerator door slams shut, loud enough for me to hear it all the way at the top of the stairs, and Mom’s voice is even louder as she shouts, “I made bún riêu. Come get a bowl!”

Ignoring her and the gurgling sounds of my stomach, I make my way to the second floor and scampering down the hallway before bursting into Cam’s room.

If I’m my Grandmother’s twin, then Cam Hong is Mom’s twin. They look exactly alike with their high cheekbones, cute upturned noses, and alert dark eyes that seem to catch sight of everything. A few months ago, Cam even got her hair cut in a sleek pageboy style that’s very similar to Mom’s. But their similarities go beyond physical appearance; they have the same…drive, I guess you’d call it. The way Mom and Cam go to church, you’d think they secretly want to be nuns or something.

“I’m here! Don’t leave yet!” I say.

Cam is in the midst of dressing as she frowns in my direction and if looks could kill, my body would soon be outlined in chalk.

I glare back at her, quietly wondering why so many women with perfect bodies don’t know how to accentuate their God-given assets. Tall and naturally slender, my older sister also inherited the figure Mom used to have when she was young.

Cam’s a total dime in her black spandex leggings and matching pink and black sports bra. But she quickly throws on a long, white t-shirt, covering her perfect abs and rack.

“First of all, for the millionth time, knock before barging into my room,” Cam snaps. “And secondly, you should’ve been here fifteen minutes ago.”

“If it bothered you that much, then you should’ve left,” I say. “I know it’s difficult for you to understand the concept of having friends, but there are other people I can go to the gym with. You don’t have to wait around for me.”

Cam’s lips tighten as if she’s just tasted something sour. She pouts and refuses to look at me while she grabs her purse and marches to her door. “Let’s just go, Kyle,” she says, flinging it open and stepping into the hall.

“Cam?” I follow her, but she doesn’t slow in stride. I sigh.

God help me, she’s so sensitive. How can a twenty-one-year-old have the sensitivity of a twelve-year-old? It’s so immature.

I catch up to her and, reaching up, muss her perfect little haircut.

“Kyle!” she shrieks, trying to dodge me as we scamper down the hallway.

“You shouldn’t let me hurt your feelings.” I give her a gentle shove.

“Stop it,” she whines, but I can tell she’s not really angry.

Inching around her, I make my way to the stairs and call over my shoulder, “If you don’t want to get pushed around, then stand up for yourself instead of pouting like a—” A wave of dizziness overtakes me and I grab the banister.

“What’s wrong?” Cam asks from behind me.

I can’t even answer her. My brain sloshes in my skull, making the rest of my body seasick. The stairs sway beneath me.

Cam hurries to my side. She and everything in the vicinity move like they’re on a merry-go-round.

“Kyle?” Cam grabs my shoulder. The dizziness subsides and my surroundings settle back into place. I take a deep breath and try to get my bearings.

“What happened?” Cam asks, sounding frantic.

“Nothing, I’m fine.” Gently moving her hand from my shoulder, I carefully make my way down the stairs.

“You’re not fine, Kyle,” she calls after me.

“Yes, I am. I’m just … thirsty.”

“Just thirsty?” she repeats, disbelief in her tone. “What did you eat today?”

“I don’t know. A lot. Too much. That’s probably what’s wrong. Can we go already? God.” Annoyed, I shove my hair out of my face and try to ignore the aroma of Mom’s bún riêu. If I stay here for a minute longer, the fact that I haven’t eaten all day will override my self-restraint and I’ll end up eating a bowl of soup. That cannot happen.

“Kyle, wait up!” Cam calls from behind me, but I’m already opening the door, eager for the safety of the gym.

[]

[]

Back in Business

[_“… I know they say you can’t go home again _]…” I hum along with Miranda’s voice as it drifts my way from the Country Music Channel in the den and happiness settles down on me. I haven’t been this relaxed in a long time. All summer I’d been waiting for Mom to break the news that we wouldn’t be able to keep me in cheerleading and dance next year, and then it happened. But now, I’m back in business! It’s like life is finally starting to look up.

Grinning to myself, I whisk flour, seltzer, and baking soda in the large green bowl we inherited from Grandma. My thoughts drifting to her, I glance at the bread machine on the kitchen island behind me.

Grandma’s the one who taught me to bake bread in that little sucker when I was hardly tall enough to reach the counter. Mom says we were a funny sight: Grandma rolling around the kitchen in her wheelchair, giving me instructions which I, tiny and jumping everywhere in random splays of hyperactivity, followed to the teeth. I had the energy and Grandma the wisdom, so I became her hands and legs.

“… [_I thought that maybe I could find myself _]…” Miranda croons from the television and I return my attention to the yellowish batter I’m going to dip my shrimp into. It’s whisked just enough.

Wiping my hands on my blue and pink floral apron—also inherited from Grandma—I check the oil on the stove. It’s hot enough.

I coat my shrimp and broccoli with batter, my thoughts lingering on Grandma. They often do. She died five years ago, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about her.

Setting the battered broccoli aside, I ever-so-carefully place each piece of shrimp into the sizzling oil.

If she could see me now, I think she’d be proud. My grades are good at a 3.7 GPA, I’m in almost all honors classes (which, when you go to a school like SLH, simply means they stick you in a class above your grade level and call it honors), and last time I talked to our guidance counselor, I’m was on track for at least two scholarships—one for my dancing, if I decide to go that route.

While the shrimp sizzles, I grin like a fool and slide my right foot in front of my left, extend my arms, and chassé my way into an axel turn that’s so sloppy I probably look drunk.

Stopping myself in front of the kitchen island where I’ve set my Android, I text Kyle and Mia.

E: I have some choreography ideas for dance, let’s talk about them before practice Tuesday.

Want y’all to see them before I show everyone else.

Humming along with the TV, I set my phone down and indulge in a much more decent axel turn. What I really want to text them is “Guess who’s back in dance!” but I can’t do that because they didn’t even know I might not be in dance or cheerleading this year. There was no way I could’ve told them that my parents didn’t have the money for the fees.

Grandma might’ve been proud of me, but if Mia or Kyle ever found out that I live in a trailer park with a stripper mom, and a dad who just got out of jail, no amount of scholarships or high GPAs would put me back in their good graces.

Mia and Kyle are honestly the snottiest girls I’ve ever met in my entire life, not to mention sluttier than most of the ladies who Mom works with at Leon’s, but they run our school. I need them and they need the version of me that I’ve let them see.

Nearly skipping back to the stove, I grab the tongs I’ve set up near my draining station, which is actually just a mound of paper towels on a plate, and carefully remove each of the golden brown shrimp pieces from the hot oil, setting them on the paper towels.

One of Toby Keith’s latest songs starts up in the background and I dance back to the stove to check on my soba noodles. I lift the top off of the pot and breathe in the aroma. This is great, but Dad’s not going to like it until I add soy sauce.

Mom eats whatever I make—she calls me her “personal chef”—but Dad’s much pickier. He’s your typical, “I only eat Cajun food” Swamp Rose guy.

Our front door opens and I glance over my shoulder as Dad steps inside.

“Hey,” I say, briefly assessing his appearance. He wears a baseball cap over his bald head and under his leather jacket he’s got on a dark blue shirt that’s stretched tight over his beer belly. A pair of raggedy jeans—worn at the knees—cling to his hips a little too snugly. Definitely not one of Swamp Rose’s most fashionable fathers.

My gaze darts to the stove clock. 6:14 PM.

But who cares about him being unfashionable when he’s home at a decent hour and not drunk? I’ll take him a little bit grubby and overweight as opposed to the way he used to be.

“Hey, Lizzy.” He heads my way and planting his hands on my shoulder, brushes a quick kiss on my cheek. “Smells good in here.”

“Thanks, that would be my doing.” I grin and point to the pot of soba noodles.

He lifts the lid and screws up his face. “Uh, what’s this?”

I chuckle. I knew that was coming.

“They’re soba noodles,” I reply.

“Soda? They made of Dr. Pepper or something?”

“No, sob a with a “b”.” I snort. “They’re made of buckwheat, they’re really good for you. And they’re going to taste amazing with shrimp and soy sauce- trust me.”

Dad arches an eyebrow as he resituates the lid. “I guess I trust you. Maybe.” Narrowing his blue eyes in exaggerated suspicion, he reaches for one of the cooling fried shrimp pieces and I slap his hand away. “Ouch! Geez, Liz. I just wanted to—”

“Not yet.” I pick up the tongs and move the last of my fried shrimp from the pan of oil to the draining station. “Just give me, like, eight minutes and everything will be ready. Please?”

“Yeah, yeah fine,” he says with an overdramatic sigh. Backing away from the stove, he takes off his hat and tosses it onto the island, right next to my phone. “You’re the boss.”

“So, I have good news.” I clear my throat and give the sizzling pan of shrimp and oil my full attention. Watching the battered shrimp fry, I consider whether or not I should tell Dad about my being able to dance and cheer.

Some of the oil pops up, hitting my wrist and I wince.

“Yeah? What’s that?” Dad asks with a low burp. I hear him behind me bumbling to the refrigerator. He’s not a tall guy—a few inches shorter than me, in fact—but his footsteps are heavy, shaking the entire trailer. The refrigerator opens and his two large glass Colt 45 bottles that I moved to the side door clang against each other.

I blow a strand of hair out of my face and remove the last piece of shrimp from the oil, placing it on the draining station.

Nah, I won’t tell him about cheerleading and dance. Mom’s the one who called to say she found the extra money to pay for it… I was so excited that I only cringed a little when she stumbled over the word “found.”

But Dad would do more than cringe. If the thought of Mom giving some creep a lap dance sickens me, I’m sure it does more than just sicken Dad.

“I got a part-time job. Super part-time,” I say, using my tongs to grasp the batter coated broccoli pieces I’ve set aside. I carefully placed them into the hot oil. “It’s only two days a week and every other Sunday.”

The broccoli sizzles and hisses, the smell of onion and Asian spices that I’ve seasoned it with drifting through the air and sending a pang of hunger straight to my stomach. I bite the inside of my cheek. I can’t wait to eat this, it’s going to be so good.

“Where at?” Dad’s voice lowers and the refrigerator door closes as his change in stance sends a small tremor through the trailer floor.

I glance over my shoulder and he’s frowning at me. This time the suspicion in his expression isn’t put-on and I know why: he thinks I got a job at Leon’s, just like Mom did when she was my age.

“I’m not stupid.” I roll my eyes and return to the work of getting the fried broccoli out of the hot oil. “I’m not working with Mom.” I freeze, staring down at the oil-soaked paper towel.

Cringing at my word choice, I say, “Not that I’m trying to imply that Mom’s—”

“We both know your mom ain’t stupid.” Dad sighs. He heads to the strip of counter on the other side of the stove and leans on his elbows, watching me set the remainder of the broccoli on the draining station. “She’s the one got her GED and is trying.” His voice low and taking on that quiet tone he gets when he’s emotional, he runs his palm over his bald head and continues, “I mean, look at you. She raised you while I was locked up. Everything good about you come from her. If we had a kid that stole cars or got put away for breaking and entering, that’d be my kid. You’re all hers. If anyone’s stupid in this family, it’s me.”

“Dad, no,” I say, glancing at him. I hate it when he puts himself down. “You’re not stupid. That’s all in the past. You’re different now, right?”

He looks down, his gaze going to the hot oil. “You need to turn that off, darling: it’s going to pop all over you. Maybe you’re right—a stupid guy wouldn’t know that much, eh?” He laughs weakly and I just give him a look as I turn off the oil before starting to the cabinets for two bowls. “A stupid guy would’ve burned his house down, that’s one thing I haven’t done yet.” He adds another fake chuckle to his statement and rubbing the back of his neck. “So, where you working?”

“The House of Chicken in the mall.”

“Yikes, why?”

Shaking my head, I plate the soba noodles and grab pieces of broccoli and shrimp, strategically positioning each in their respective bowls. “Money, Dad. That’s why people work. I wanted to work the fryer but the manager said they needed help in … uh, in marketing, so that’s what I’ll be helping with.” I bite the inside of my cheek and choose not to add that “marketing” means dressing in a chicken suit, and standing on a corner in front of the mall while I hold up a sign.

“Liz, you don’t need that job.” Dad stands up straighter and leans one elbow against the counter as I pour my concoction of soy sauce, lime juice, and sugar over each of our dishes.

“Here.” I hand him a bowl to shut him up and he takes it eagerly, his eyes widening as he breathes in the aroma.

Blowing that annoying strand of hair out of my face, I take off my apron and glare at him. “I shouldn’t have even told you.”

“Nah, I’m just saying.” Dad shrugs and turns to the silverware drawer. “What do I eat this with? A spoon or a fork?”

“Uh, I don’t know. The recipe I used didn’t say,” I confess, feeling somewhat dumb as I bring my apron to the tiny laundry bin near our front door. “I’ll google it.”

“Don’t worry about it; I’ll just use both,” Dad says, already slurping down the noodles. “It’s pretty good, Liz.”

“Thanks.” I drop the apron into the little blue basket and stare down at the laundry Mom didn’t get a chance to finish.

One day I won’t have to google the answers to questions like that … one day I’ll go places and I’ll have lived, like really lived. I’ll know what it’s like to cook in a real kitchen, what it’s like to sit at a table with people who know about the foods they’re eating and whose conversations are about more than small town gossip.

I turn to Dad as he—his mouth full of noodles—makes himself comfortable at the tiny dining room table on the other side of our kitchen island. “You don’t need that job; I’ll take care of us,” he says between hurried slurps.

I glance at the quickly disappearing food in his bowl. I wish I’d had the money to buy the bigger bag of shrimp; he’s still going to be hungry.

“I’ll have some money coming in soon. Your mom might even be able to cut back on her hours at that dump.” Dad shakes his head in disgust. As his words register, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

“What do you mean you’ll have money coming in soon?” Trying to control my voice, I watch Dad take a bite of his noodles and reach into his pocket, retrieving his phone.

“Buddy of mine owes me,” he says, his eyes on his phone as he sets his fork in his bowl.

I walk towards him. “You’re lying.”

He looks up, meeting my eyes. “I ain’t lying about nothing.”

“Dad.” I shake my head, bristling as I recall the middle of the night phone call and the sound of his voice, shaky and barely understandable, when he asked me to come down to the police station. “You can’t do that stuff anymore—you’re different now.”

Dad’s eyes narrow and he holds my gaze while his cell phone lights up, vibrating in his hand.

I glance at it and when I look up, his eyes are still on mine. I gulp. “Remember what Unseen did to you? And then jail? Do you want to go back to—”

“Liz, that’s enough!” Dad snaps, his eyes still on me as he answers his phone. “I’m the parent, not you. Eat your godda- your dinner. You’re too skinny as it is. Worry about that, not me. You go eat. I gotta go take this call.”

I wave him off. “No, you stay. Your lying makes me too sick to eat. I’m going to go take a shower.”

“Liz … great,” he mumbles while I flounce off to the bathroom in my best imitation of Mia. She flounces when she’s mad. It’s sort of a graceful stomp, her fists clenched at her sides and this predatorial wolf-like look in her eyes. I summon all of that and half-close the bathroom door before hurrying to turn the shower on.

Folding my arms, I lean against the wall and shake my head in disgust.

Unseen nearly killed my father last time. Dad was trying to break into some rich guy’s house when the invisible vigilante came out of nowhere and knocked Dad into a wall with such force that a nearby bookcase fell on top of him.

Next thing Dad knew, he woke up bleeding and half-dead on the floor of the police station. His hands were cuffed and footage of that night’s attempted burglary was duct-taped to his chest.

I turn to the half-opened bathroom door, slip through, and peek into the dining room.

Dad’s at the table, his back to me and his phone on speaker. That’s my doing. I set up his phone so that every time he wants to talk to someone, he can’t do it without putting them on speaker. Call me paranoid, but I want to keep an eye on him.

I inch out of the bathroom and creep into the doorway, straining to hear Dad’s conversation over the noise of the shower. It sounds like a woman on the other end. I rest my palm against the doorjamb, a stress headache forming at my temples as I listen.

“No one will offer you more. So, what do you say, Hal?” the woman asks. Her voice sounds familiar, but I can’t place her. “I think it’d be smart if you accepted my offer. Very smart.”

Dad runs his hand over the top of his head and sighs.

I bite the inside of my cheek. [Say no, Dad. Whatever it is, just say _]no[._]

“I’ll think about it,” Dad says and my heart sinks. “Let’s meet and talk details.” He clenches a fist and slowly brings it down on the table.

I retreat to the bathroom and close the door behind me. Why does he keep making the same mistakes?

Steam from the shower creeps onto the mirror as I lean against the wall and stare at the half of my reflection that’s visible.

Dad’s right, I am more like Mom.

I wipe the fog from the mirror and lift my chin, facing myself.

Every night Mom puts on an outfit she despises and does work she despises just to keep a roof over our heads. But she could do worse. She could sell drugs or steal. Instead, she does legitimate work to take care of us.

My gaze goes to the stripped shirt I’m wearing and I can’t help but remember the pinched look on Mom’s face as she tried to pretend she wasn’t glancing at the price tag after she’d insisted on buying it for me.

For years, Mom’s done whatever’s necessary to take care of us and now it’s my turn.

I’m not going to let my dad get hurt again. Whatever he’s planning on doing for this lady, I’m going to find out what it is. And if it’s illegal, I’m going to stop him.

[]

[]

Back to School

I slam my car door shut and run a hand through my hair before shaking it out.

It’s only the first day of school and Ran has already managed to piss me off. I swear to God, if Ran weren’t so gorgeous and charming and rich, there’s no way I’d put up with his garbage.

I stomp all the way through the parking lot and up South Louisiana High’s front steps, repaying every, “Hey, Mia!” with a grimace.

At SLH’s large front doors, I pause to collect myself.

So, Randall Hawke is a horrible boyfriend for ditching me to bring his pathetic and car-less “best friend,” Lanie, to school on our first day as seniors. But so what? [_I _]run this school.

Lanie Russell might have spent nearly every day of her summer with my boyfriend, but SLH is my territory. Here, I have first dibs on whatever or whoever I want, and I want my boyfriend back.

I toss my hair and reach for the door.

“Let me get that for you,” a breathless male voice calls from behind me.

I turn around and an unfamiliar pudgy brown kid—Middle Eastern, Indian, half-black? Whatever, I can never tell—is bounding up the stairs behind me. His eyes shine as he looks at me in awe, a half-smile on his lips.

I glance at his feet—Nike running shoes. New and identical to a pair that my cousin, Mark, bought last week. If Mark has the same shoes, then I guess it’s okay to be seen with this kid.

I return his smile. “Thank you.”

Beaming with hormonal glee, he puffs out his chest and holds the door open while I glide through. He asks me something, which I pretend not to hear and, without breaking stride, I survey my domain.

The school skank, Via Nguyen, and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Heath Remington, are kissing near the lockers at my right.

I roll my eyes. By next week she’ll have cheated on him with at least seven guys and they’ll be fighting about it.

Just beyond them, Josh Phillips—tall, dark, and handsome—is joking around with a few boys from the football team.

Josh is an all-state wide receiver, so we run into each other a lot. He’s super hot and we flirt hard but since he’s black nothing’s ever happened between us.

He glances at me and grins. I toss my hair and wave as casually as I can before looking away.

My gaze goes to Mr. Brown, who’s ducking out of the principal’s office and headed for the stairs, his laptop and briefcase in hand. He catches my eye and visibly shrinks.

I ignore him and shift my focus to a huddled group of our youngest members of the cheerleading team, Meagan, Rose, and some other girl whose name I can never remember.

Meagan is the first to see me and her blue eyes brighten as she waves. “Hey, Mia!”

I smile and head her way when a familiar laugh—not loud, but familiar enough to drown out every other sound in the hall—takes my attention away from the newbie cheerleaders.

My heart skips a beat as I turn to the laugh and catch sight of Ran. He’s headed to the stairs and his full lips are stretched into a grin as he stares down at retarded and always-too-nervous-to-do-anything-other-than-mumble-and-look-at-her-shoes Lanie-friggin-Russell while she yammers on about whatever lameness she’s talking his ear off about.

Lanie’s wiry hair is in a ponytail that does nothing to keep it from sticking out everywhere. Her braces catch the light every time she smiles and her drab Walmart or Kmart or Dress Barn sales rack outfit leaves everything to the imagination.

I. Don’t. Get. It. Why is Ran always with that little black troll?

“Hey, Mia!” some passing kid says, brushing my shoulder as he rushes by.

“Mmm.” Realizing that I’ve come to a complete standstill in the middle of the hallway, I flip my hair over my shoulder and start towards my boyfriend.

“… and the football should.” Lanie pauses as a grin forms on her mouth. “Well, I was thinking it could turn into a chicken and fly away.” With that, she and Ran erupt into laughter and, side-by-side, they turn to the stairs.

I sneak up behind Ran and extend a readied palm to his butt. Before I can even touch him, Ran jumps like he’s been burned and darts just out of my reach.

I retract my hand, surprised. How does he know I’m behind him?

Even Lanie has no idea I’m behind them and she gives Ran a look. “What’s wrong?”

His face turning red, Ran says, “Hey, Mia,” and turns to me.

He’s gotten a haircut since the last time I saw him. His straight blond hair is lightly trimmed at the sides and back with the top emphatically brushed up. I grin in delight. It’s perfect!

He wears a simple red and orange flannel shirt over khaki-colored suede slacks and though his outfit is simple, he’s deliciously sexy.

I meet his eyes and instantly forgive him for everything. “Hey, you.” I grab his hand and stand on my tiptoes. “Kiss me.”

“Uh.” His gaze darts to Lanie. “Lanie, I’ll catch up with you later.”

I shift on my toes. I feel kind of dumb waiting for my kiss while he’s yakking it up with black girl nerd over here.

“Okay. Bye, Mia,” Lanie says.

Choosing to ignore her, I close my eyes and pucker up.

Ran holds both of my elbows, steadying me as his lips brush mine in a gentle kiss.

“No PDA on campus! You know the rules!” our principal’s voice booms from down the hall.

Ran releases my elbows and backs away, ending the quick kiss. I grin and grab his hand. “Don’t worry: my mom gave the school a huge donation over the summer, so whatever the principal says, there’s no way he’ll actually touch us. Anyway, ready?”

In this lighting, Ran’s eyes look perfectly blue. Unfortunately they’re also glued to Lanie Russell. “You’re going upstairs too, right?” he asks without looking at me. Lanie turns around and Ran lifts his hand, giving her a wave. Her stupid face lights up and she waves back.

I hate that girl.

Reaffirming my grip on Ran’s free hand, I clear my throat. “No, we’re not going upstairs, Ran. We’re in the same first hour. It’s just down the hall.” With this, I yank him away from the stairs and towards our classroom.

We walk quietly, the sounds of the hall making up for the silence we choose not to fill on our own. I glance at Ran and his eyes, now green, seem steeped in thought as he chews on his bottom lip.

“I can’t believe we’re finally seniors,” I say. “So crazy, right?”

“Right.” He turns his attention to me. “You smell good. New perfume?”

I beam. He noticed!

“Yeah, it’s from Victoria’s Secret.” I swing our hands as we saunter along. Everyone who passes us looks at us with either blatant admiration or jealousy. “It’s called Bombshell.”

“Yo,” Blake Pianciano nods to Ran and gives his shoulder a punch as they pass.

“S’up, Blake,” Ran says.

I have to stop myself from giving Blake a second glance. That boy is like a fine Italian wine: every year he gets better-looking.

“Sweet.” Ran returns his attention to me and grins. “My mom wears the same perfume.”

I blink and turn away from him.

“Sometimes,” Ran continues. “I spray it on my wrists just so her scent lingers. I love that woman.” He sighs loudly.

I gulp, my heart crashing into the murky pit that is my stomach. Please God, please let him be joking …

I glance at Ran and he’s smirking as he watches me out of the corner of his eye, his lips twitching. I punch him in the chest, which actually kind of hurts my fist.

“I swear to God,” I say shaking my head. “Sometimes it’s like we’re from different planets.”

“This is true.” Ran nods.

“But that’s good because we balance each other,” I add. “You know? Like, opposites attract and all that.”

“Right.” He lifts his free hand to scratch his head. Adjusting his backpack, he says, “So, uh, how’ve you been?”

My thoughts dart from my brand spanking new STD to breaking up with Mr. Brown to me and Kyle discovering E’s trailer park secret to the perv whose glasses I somehow destroyed.

Everything that matters, I can’t talk about.

I fake a smile and look up at Ran. “I’ve been missing you. And I was thinking this weekend, we should totally—”

“Ran?” Ms. Karin’s voice sounds from behind us. “Can I see you for a moment?”

Ran releases my hand and practically sprints away from me. “Yeah, sure.”

While my boyfriend runs to Ms. Karin the way a trained dog runs to its master, Ms. Karin looks at me. “Hi, Mia. How are you?” She smiles warmly.

“Fine,” I reply through gritted teeth.

“I’m so sorry, hon. But I need to steal your boyfriend for a few minutes,” she says, as she backs away and gestures for Ran to follow.

“Why not? Everyone else does.” So annoyed that I can’t even see straight, I turn away from them and head to my First Hour class alone.

I like Ms. Karin and normally I couldn’t care less about nerdy Lanie and her little crush on my boyfriend, but I hardly ever see Ran, and when I do it’s like he’s only half-present!

I clench my fists at my sides and as the tardy bell rings, one lone kid remains in the hallway. A few feet ahead of me, he jogs towards our classroom. I glance back at Ran, but he and Ms. Karin are nowhere to be seen.

I shake my head in exasperation and mutter, “It’s like I don’t even exist.” The words have barely left my lips when an itchy sensation prickles in my panties and I roll my eyes.

Seriously? On top of everything else, now this has to happen? My doctor said stress will make herpes flare up and apparently he’s right. Between this stupid STD, my parents, and my absentee boyfriend, of course I’m stressed! I hate my life!

A high pitched buzzing, just like the noise I heard last night in Leon’s parking lot, fills my ears. A few feet ahead of me, a locker flies open. It hits the nearby student in the back of his head and he gasps. His hand goes to his head while the contents of the locker spill, clattering as they hit the hall floor.

The buzzing noise stops and I freeze in my tracks, my heart pounding. The kid rubs the back of his head and stares at the opened locker in shock.

I back away from the scene. What … was … that?

The kid starts to look up at me and I turn away from him. Without a glance back, I run to the nearest bathroom, find a stall, and lock myself inside.

“Via Nguyen is a whore,” are the five words that I blindly stare into. Just last year I carved them into this door myself. But now, I’m so freaked out I can barely read them.

Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath and try to calm down. Whatever’s wrong with me, I need to find a way to get it under control.

[]

[]

With Friends like These…

Mia: Save me a seat nx to u

E: K

I hit send, slip my phone into my purse, and set it on the chair of the empty desk beside mine. My new bracelets clang, creating a tiny symphony every time I move my hand. Mom and Dad gave them to me this morning before school.

I have no idea how Mom had the energy after coming home at 2 AM to get up at 6 and make waffles for us. But she did and she started getting all teary-eyed talking about how proud of me she is for making it this far.

It made me feel good to hear all of that, so good in fact that I pushed my suspicions aside when Dad handed me a jewelry box and said, “This is from both of us.”

Now as I look down at the pretty silver bangles and I can’t help but think more logically.

How can my parents suddenly afford for me to cheer and dance and get me jewelry like this? Dad’s definitely back to his old ways.

“All right, guys.” Our new English teacher’s voice pulls me from my thoughts and I look up. Tall, pale, and her frizzy red hair loose, I realize that I’m looking at our school’s librarian, Ms. Mallory. She closes the classroom door and turns to us with a hesitant smile. “I’m Ms. Mallory. Due to some budget issues, I’ll be taking over as the senior class English instructor. So … uh, let’s make this a fun year, eh?”

She indulges in an awkward little fist pump and I snort, folding my arms as I shake my head.

A few of my classmates follow my lead and Ms. Mallory’s gaze goes to me before she glances at the other hecklers. Anxiety takes over her expression and her face falls. I shift in my seat, uncomfortable.

That was mean. And honestly, if I had to teach these snotty Swamp Rose kids I’d be nervous too.

“Okay then, uh …” Ms. Mallory tucks her hair behind her ear and nearly trips over her flat, orthopedic shoes as she heads to her podium. “Let’s start by taking roll. Can someone from each row come pass out textbooks, please?”

She points to several stacks of textbooks behind her and I decide to snuff out my guilt by helping. Standing, I tug at my leather jacket and saunter to the textbooks.

“I like your bracelets,” a familiar voice to my right says.

I glance back and Samantha Pianciano is seated in the very first seat in my row. She’s one of those kids who does that in every class, gets there early and grabs a seat on the first row.

“Thanks,” I say, my gaze going to her dark, curly hair. Last year it was a mess but today each curl is defined and actually very pretty. “Your hair’s cute,” I offer.

Her grin widening, she sits up a little straighter in her seat and I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing.

Hang around with Mia and Kyle and SLH kids will treat you like a god; your every compliment becoming some answer to their prayers for popularity. If they only knew how little I have in common with Mia and Kyle. Kyle’s family owns several fast food restaurants; I [_work _]in a fast food restaurant.

I grab some English textbooks and begin passing them out when the classroom door swings open. Mia flounces into the room, pouting like she’s just tasted the world’s most bitter grapefruit.

“Mia,” Ms. Mallory says with a start. “Oh my, all right then.”

Mia pauses in stride, scans the classroom, and then turns to me. I point to the seat I’ve saved and she hurries to it, leaving a trail of flowery scented perfume in her wake. After finishing my book duties, I set an English book down on my own desk and slide into my seat. It’d be nice if Mia thanked me for going out of my way to save her a seat, but I don’t know why I even bother entertaining this; Mia never says thank you to anyone.

Ms. Mallory goes through the roll and out of the corner of my eye, I see Mia focused on her phone, furiously texting someone.

I want to ask her if she’s all right, but if I do all she’ll say is, “obviously not” and then later she’ll spill her actual guts to Kyle. That’s the way it goes with our friendship. I’m the decoration and Kyle’s the real friend.

I glance at Mia’s shoes; sleek red heels that add flair to her casual outfit of denim skinny jeans and a white off-the-shoulder blouse. Simple, but expensive. I bet the whole ensemble set her back about six hundred bucks. When your dad’s a rich a-hole, you can buy six hundred dollar outfits without batting an eye.

My gaze returning to my bracelets, I run my index finger over the small flowers that are engraved into the silver.

Rich as she is, though, Mia and I have about the same amount of problems. My dad’s got his issues and Mia’s father … well, despite the man’s wealth, I’d take my dad over hers any day. At least my dad doesn’t openly cheat on my mom or hit her and have the whole town on his side as he pretends to be such a great guy.

They all might fall for that, but I’ve seen Mia’s mom up close a million times and the poor woman’s got tons of bruises under all of her make up.

“Elizabeth O’Brien?”

“Here,” I say, glancing up.

Ms. Mallory nods and returns to her roll. “Samantha Pian—”

“Can I go to the bathroom?” Mia cuts in. With this, she stands and heads to the door without waiting for Ms. Mallory to reply.

“Uh …” Ms. Mallory watches Mia with wide eyes, like she’s a wild animal whose next move is unpredictable. “Sure.”

I shake my head as Mia leaves the classroom. Even the teachers let her family’s money scare them.

Once the roll has been taken, Ms. Mallory clasps her hands together and smiles. “All right, class. So English is—” The door swings open and Ran strides into the classroom.

Tall, muscular, and taking up nearly every inch of the doorframe, he glances at Ms. Mallory and cringes. “Sorry, Ms. M, I was in the bathroom. Sometimes I get constipated and things take longer to, uh, happen.”

Everyone laughs and I grin, my gaze going to his hair, which is a little disheveled. I wonder what he was really doing.

“TMI, Randall.” Ms. Mallory shakes a finger at him, the gesture of a little old lady even though she’s fairly young. “Just find a seat please.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He gently closes the door behind him and glances around the room, nodding a few hellos to people. Spotting me, Ran heads to my row, but pauses to pat the top of Samantha Pianciano’s curly head. “Good poodle, sit.”

“Bite me,” Samantha retorts, grinning.

He smirks and meets my eyes as he heads to the seat behind Mia’s. “What up, E?”

“Hey.” I nod, my gaze going to his book bag as it hits Mia’s phone and knocks it off her desk. It clatters to the floor and I reach for it while Ran mutters, “Good job, self. Yet another reason for your girlfriend to hate you.”

“I got it.” I chuckle, feeling sorry for him as I grab Mia’s phone. “And no worries, I’m sure it’s fine.”

“Thanks.” Ran situates himself in his desk and I can’t help but notice that the fall has opened Mia’s phone to a text message that has my name in it.

Curious, I read the texted conversation:

Mia: I’m in class with your crush. She’s looking hot in a white trash way. You’d lose it if you were here.

Mark: Elizabeth O’Brien?

Mia: Yea

Mia’s phone still in my hand, I look up, blindly watching Ms. Mallory while she explains the syllabus she’s passing out.

White trash?

I set Mia’s phone back on her desk, a headache forming at my temples and a hollow weight filling my gut. I take a deep breath and run my index finger along my left eyebrow.

“Hey, E,” Ran whispers from behind me. “Where’d you get your textbook?”

I wordlessly point to the front of the classroom.

“Oh I see ‘em, thanks.” Ran hops out of his desk and heads to the textbooks. I look at his outfit, as casual as Mia’s … and as expensive as Mia’s.

My clothes, no matter how cute I _]think they are, will never be expensive enough. Even my hair, no matter how much I wash and condition it, will never look like theirs. No matter what I do, I can’t hide my differences from them: [_they know I’m different. Even Mark knows.

Mark… I swallow, hard. Mark Mire is Mia’s cousin. He’s a year younger than her, so he and I are the same age and …I hate to admit this but he’s kind of cute. I always thought he liked me but now I know. He doesn’t actually like me, he just thinks I’m easy. I’m nothing but “white trash,” and like most of the other rich jerks in Mia’s world he looks down on me.

The guy in front of me passes back a class syllabus and I snatch it out of his hands more forcefully than necessary. Ms. Mallory begins her lecture and I try to listen, but the words “white trash” keep running through my mind.

Is that really what Mia thinks of me?

The hollow weight in my gut deepens.

Ran, headed back to his seat, glances at me and frowns as he taps the edge of my desk. “What’s with the face? You okay?”

I nod. “I’m fine.”

“She said in a tone that screamed otherwise,” he murmurs before plopping into his seat and disturbing the chairs in front of and behind him. They scrape the floor and Ms. Mallory stops talking while the entire class turns to Ran.

I glance over my shoulder. Ran’s blushing, both of his hands in the air. “Sorry, that wasn’t on purpose.”

He’s so cute …

I shake my head and return my attention to Ms. Mallory’s syllabus.

… and he should[_ so not_] be with Mia. I don’t get their relationship at all.

Setting the syllabus aside, I tune Ms. Mallory out and flip my textbook open, searching for anything interesting enough to get the words “white trash” out of my head.

Sometimes these books have pretty decent short stories and poems. I stop at a page entitled “Poems about Friendship,” my gaze going to one by Henry David Thoreau.

Indeed, indeed, I cannot tell

Though I ponder on it well

Which were easier to state

All my love or all my hate …

The hollow weight in my gut is punctured, like a pin in a balloon. Fascinated, I read the rest of the poem, its every word echoing in my head.

… yet sometimes against my will,

My dear friend, I love thee still …

I finish the poem, sit back in my desk, and stare into space.

These words are exactly how I feel about Mia and Kyle. It’s like the three of us are friends against our own will.

I grab a pen, lean forward and scribble a string of words on the edge of my desk.

Almost love

Almost hate

Somewhere between

Is our state.

Genetic blessings hide us,

Guide us to eyes that

Define us.

Together, we run amuck.

We’re a gum-smacking, six-inch-heeled trio

A sisterhood of three not-quite amigos.

I scribble a title above my string of words: Almost Friends.

Slipping my pen into the pages of my textbook, I look at the words I’ve temporarily tattooed my desk with. That’s us in a nutshell—almost friends.

[]

[]

Dizzy Spells

Since it’s only the first day of school, the gym isn’t all that noisy during P.E. There’s no loud basketball game, no sounds of P.E. teachers blowing whistles every five seconds, and no ditzy freshman talking loudly so as to attract attention to themselves. Instead, all five of the classes that share the gym this hour are seated on the bleachers while each of our respective P.E. teachers explains what we’re going to do this year.

I haven’t heard a word our P.E. teacher, Coach Jacobs, has said for the past fifteen minutes. Mia’s got my full attention and as usual, we’re talking about her relationship issues.

I’ve already told her what I think. At least a million times I’ve suggested she cut the cord and break up with Ran. But does she listen? Of course not. So here we sit, once again discussing Ran’s alleged wandering eye.

Mia shakes her head as she runs her fingers through her hair and whispers, “He basically spent every day of summer at her house, Kyle! He says they were just working on his stupid comic book series, but what heterosexual woman is with Randall Hawke every day for, like, two months straight and doesn’t try to at least make out with him? And what heterosexual guy turns down a woman- even if it’s Lanie freaking Russell?” Sighing, Mia rests her elbows on her knees and plops her chin in her hands. She sets her gaze on the back of Ran’s head.

“I don’t think he’s cheating on you,” I say.

Physically speaking, that is.

I purse my lips and choose not to add that there’s definitely something—even if it’s not physical—going on between Ran and Lanie. For example, Ran and Mia have gym together, but is he sitting with her? No. As soon as Ran got to the gym, he waved to Mia from a distance and turned away so he could plop down on the second row of the bleachers, right next to Lanie Russell. And of course, Mia’s too prideful to go down there and stake her claim. The same thing usually happens at lunch time, Ran will go off with Lanie and his other friends and Mia won’t even bother trying to stop him.

“Then why’s he always with her?” Mia hisses. One of the girls sitting in front of us, an overweight chick with frizzy red hair, turns around to glance at Mia.[_ I_] glare at her until she blushes. She quickly returns her attention to Coach Jacob’s lecture.

“I mean, look at her,” Mia’s voice goes up a notch. “She’s not even cute. And her clothes are, like, from the Walmart clearance rack.”

I follow Mia’s gaze to Lanie. Her thick hair is pulled back into a lazy ponytail and her clothes—a blue flannel shirt and mom jeans—are equally unimpressive. Ran turns to Lanie and whispers something in her ear. She laughs quietly, covering her mouth as her bright brown eyes widen and the apples of her cheeks brighten with color.

Mia’s right about Lanie’s clothes, but she’s very wrong about her not being cute. In fact, I can sort of understand why Ran would be attracted to someone like her. She’s not just pretty, she’s needy.

“Remember when me, you, Ran, and Chris went to New Orleans for Jazz Fest?” I ask.

“Yeah. How could I forget?” Mia turns to me, frowning. “Ran made us three hours late and I almost broke up with him.”

“Right,” I reply, my gaze going to the dark bags under Mia’s eyes. She’s done a good job hiding them under concealer, but sitting this close, I can definitely see them. She must not have gotten much sleep last night. “My point is the reason why he made us late.”

“That dog on the side of the road?” She brings her index finger to the eyelashes of her left eye and blinks quickly. One of her long lashes comes off on her finger as she says, “Yeah? So?”

“He just had to stop and help a lost dog that was wandering around in traffic,” I explain. “Who else would’ve done that? I know I wouldn’t have if I’d been driving. And that wasn’t the only time … remember when he hit a squirrel and his eyes got all watery and he made us bring it to the vet?”

Mia’s frown deepens. “Yeah. What’s your point?”

Oh my God. Seriously?

“Lanie’s a lost dog and Ran’s trying to help her!” I exclaim.

As the overweight chick in front of me and the girl sitting next to her both burst into giggles, I realize how loud I’ve said this.

“Kyle!” Coach Jacob barks and I wince. He arches one of his bushy eyebrows. “You girls keep it down.”

“Sorry, Coach.” I offer him my sweetest smile. Coach is all bark, no bite. Last year, I told him I have “girl problems” that don’t allow me to wear the standard P.E. uniform. He got all flustered and said I could wear whatever I want for gym. The only “girl problems” I have are how much I hate SLH’s standard P.E. uniform. Coach has to realize that; I think the poor guy’s just a sucker for a pretty face.

Now, he blushes and continues on with his lecture while Mia elbows me so hard that I swear to God my ribs are bruised.

“Yeah but—” she starts.

“One day you’re going to break my ribs, Mia,” I mutter and rub my side.

“You do the same thing to me every time you elbow me,” Mia says. “Anyway, I was saying guys don’t just help girls for no reason. They always want something in return.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about when it comes to Lanie.” I turn my attention to the girl in question. “If Ran wanted something from her, she’d have no idea what to do with that.”

“You’re just saying that because you feel sorry for me,” Mia mumbles.

“No, I’m not.” I sigh and a wave of dizziness courses through me. I close my eyes. This has been happening all day. I pause, regain some semblance of composure and open my eyes. “Think about my mom, for example. She’s super innocent, right? She never curses and—”

“She barely speaks English, of course she doesn’t curse,” Mia says with a snort.

Choosing to ignore Mia’s racist attempt at humor, I continue, “And when my dad tells a dirty joke, my mom doesn’t get it because she doesn’t think the way most people do. She’s sincerely innocent and so is Lanie. There’s no way Lanie would hook up with Ran.”

I shift in my seat, uncomfortable, as I hold back from adding, [not that Ran would _]mind[ hooking up with Lanie._]

“I don’t know,” Mia says, but a glimmer of hope appears in her eyes, which makes me sad. When it comes to her relationship with Ran, Mia really shouldn’t hope. “Maybe you’re right. I used to think Lanie and Ran were, like …”

While Mia goes on, Coach Jacobs claps his hands. “So that’s my spiel; I’m as done as a fried frog’s leg. Y’all can walk around the gym or shoot hoops until the bell.” With this he blows his whistle for no apparent reason and walks away.

Mia’s still talking about her train wreck of a relationship. “… that one time she answered his phone when I called and …” Meanwhile, the overweight chick in front of me reaches into her pocket and pulls out a Tootsie Roll.

That’s 24 more calories than she needs. My stomach tightens as I watch her unwrap it. “Hey,” I interrupt Mia and turn away from the sight of the Tootsie Roll. “Can we walk around instead of just sitting here?”

“Sure,” Mia agrees, standing. She smoothes down her outfit and follows me to the gymnasium floor.

“Y’all deserve some kind of award for making it down the bleachers in those shoes,” Ran says as we pass him.

I turn around to find him helping Mia down the last bleacher seat. He tries to let go of her hand but she grasps it even tighter and brings it to her butt. She slides his palm across her bottom, and lowers her voice to a sexy tone: “I’ll let you give me an award.”

I cringe for her.

Ran laughs weakly and I steal a peek at Lanie.

The poor girl’s looking down at her short, uneven fingernails, her cheeks flaming red.

Aww. I don’t know who I feel sorrier for … Mia or Lanie.

“Um, I’ll be on the basketball court if you need me. Catch y’all later.” Ran pecks Mia on the cheek, turns back to pat the top of Lanie’s head and scampers off. It’s like he can’t get away fast enough.

I cross my arms and begin our trek around the gym while Mia falls in stride beside me.

“Did you see her face?” Mia says with a laugh.

I force a grin. “Yep.” Lanie actually does remind me a lot of my mom and of Cam, so I can’t help but feel sorry for her. But Mia’s my friend, meaning I’m required to have her back with this relationship garbage.

As our heels click-clack against the cracked tile, I wish to God my head would stop spinning. That’s the only thing about fasting: the dizzy spells turn life into the merry-go-round from hell.

We pass Heath Remington, a junior who’s on the football team, and he utters a low wolf whistle. “Ladies.”

“Heath.” Mia glances at me, and as if of a singular mind, we simultaneously flip him off while offering him our sweetest smiles.

Giggling, I say, “A part of me is going to miss these losers next year.”

Realizing what I’ve said, I stop giggling and bite down on my bottom lip. I shouldn’t have mentioned that I won’t be here next year. Every time Mia asks me about my plans, I change the subject or shrug it off because I can’t tell her what I really want to do—not unless I want to get laughed at and doused with negativity.

“I know, right,” Mia says, but she’s got a faraway look in her eyes and it’s clear she wasn’t listening to me.

I exhale in a quiet sigh of relief. Thank God for small miracles … and ADD.

Mia clears her throat and crosses her arms, inadvertently mirroring me. “Hey, this is going to sound totally random, but I need you to be honest. Lately, have I been acting abnormal? Like, do I seem off?”

I uncross my arms. How do I answer that?

“I think you …” The gym starts to sway and waver, so I try and steady myself. I clasp my hands behind my back, and take a deep breath. “I think you have some pretty big mood swings. But I’m used to them. Do you feel abnormal?”

Mia shrugs and keeps her gaze straight ahead.

Honestly, for a while now I’ve wondered if Mia has a mood disorder. I mean, I know what it’s like to live with someone who has a temper. My dad has a massive temper. But his tantrums are nothing compared to what happens to Mia when she’s upset. She throws things, screams at the top of her lungs, turns red, and even breaks out in hives.

But it’d be insensitive of me to flat out say, “Hey, I think you need to take meds.”

We pass a group of freshman girls—a horde of frizzy-haired, acne-ridden, sales–rack-sporting specimens—who openly stare at us. Ignoring them and the dizziness washing over me, I set my gaze on the wall ahead. “You seem okay.”

“Okay, good. I guess,” Mia mumbles, her voice barely audible.

I take a deep breath. “But if you feel like something’s not right, you should talk to a doctor.” In my peripheral, I see Mia stiffen, her posture straightening. “That’s not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth. And considering that your dad’s been abusive, you should probably—”

“Yeah, I get it.” Mia’s voice goes up an octave and she waves me off. With that, she pushes her hair away from her shoulders and says, “Hey, there’s your friend. Been hitting him up for more benefits these days?” Mia nods to the bleachers and I follow her gaze to Benjamin Morris. He’s perched on the lowest bleacher seat and looking right at us. My heart stutters in my chest.

Oh God.

Every time I see Ben, I’m confronted with memories of completely losing control. And not just once, but twice. In the heat of the moment, it felt good, but I can’t be that girl. Thank God I didn’t run into Ben over the summer, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten anything done. No working out, no voice lessons, no dancing, just one mistake after another.

Now Ben’s gotten a tan and his dark hair is neatly brushed forward. I also can’t help but notice how nicely he’s dressed, comparatively speaking that is. Last year his clothes were a hot mess of ratty t-shirts advertising movies that have words like “Lord” and “Star” in their titles. Today, however, he’s wearing a gray sweater with a turned-down collar over a black button-down shirt and jeans.

He meets my eyes, his softening in shyness, and lifts a hand, waving.

“He’s waving!” Mia laughs and elbows me in my already sore ribs.

I wince as the gym goes from slow-speed merry-go-round to full-speed tilt-a-whirl. My knees weaken and for some reason, I can’t seem to keep myself on my feet.

“Kyle? Are you okay …” Mia’s voice fades and I sink to the floor.

“KYLE!”

Mia’s voice is as sharp as the open palm that stings my cheek.

“Why’d you slap her?” Ben snaps.

“Because she’s not waking up! Kyle? Wake up!”

Startled, I open my eyes and Ben is looking down at me, Mia beside him.

“Kyle! Are you okay?” Ben asks. I stare into his eyes, realizing and remembering that they’re not exactly brown. How could I have forgotten? His eyes are too light to be brown, they’re actually hazel. I forgot how beautiful they are …

“Kyle?” He frowns and Mia pushes him aside.

She plants herself directly above me. Her eyes are wide. “Kyle! Can you hear me?”

My mouth is so dry that it feels like it’s filled with sand and my heart can’t seem to slow down, but I mumble, “Yeah.”

I start to sit up and both Ben and Mia help me by grabbing each of my arms. The gym is still spinning as I ease into a sitting position and realize that Mia and Ben aren’t the only ones who’ve witnessed my collapse. A throng of our classmates surround us. They include the frizzy-haired freshman girls we passed a few minutes ago, Heath, Ran, and the other boys who’d been playing basketball. Even Lanie is among the crowd, a concerned look on her face. My face, in turn, warms.

“This is so embarrassing,” I mumble.

“No it’s okay, just—” Ben starts but is cut off by our P.E. teacher.

“Stand aside! Everyone back up! This ain’t a car accident; back the heck up, kids,” Coach Jacobs shouts. Huffing and puffing in his daisy duke length khaki gym shorts as his potbelly jiggles like a bowl of pudding that’s been placed in the middle of a trampoline during an earthquake, Coach tears through the crowd and heads my way. If I didn’t feel like such sundried garbage, I’d laugh at the sight of him.

“Kyle!” Coach shouts even though he’s like a foot away from me. “Kyle, are you all right? What happened?”

I wince at the shouting, but straighten my spine. Meeting Coach Jacob’s eyes, I speak as evenly as I can. “I’m fine. I have low blood sugar and I think I need some orange juice.”

An intense pressure grips my left hand and I realize that it’s Mia. She’s holding my hand. I look at her and she gulps, anxiety filling her eyes.

“Ben, son?” Coach points to Ben. “Would you walk Kyle to the school nurse and make sure she gets some orange juice?”

“I’ll bring her,” Mia says as she grasps my hand even harder. Before Coach or Ben have a chance to reply, she pulls me to my feet and directs me to the gym’s exit.

I glance at the surrounding kids. Their eyes lingering on us, they each slowly return to whatever they’d been doing before I made a spectacle of myself. I gulp, grateful to Mia for not letting go of my hand just yet. Attention is nice, but this is definitely not the kind of attention I want.

“How long was I out?” I ask, looking down at myself. My blouse and slacks are fine, but I feel disheveled and my body feels loose and sort of broken, like I could fall apart at any moment.

“Not long.” Mia glances at me and slows her pace, realizing that I’m having trouble keeping up with her. “I’ll get the door—hang on.” With this, she darts forward and opens the gym’s exit door, holding it for me.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mia hold a door open for anyone.

“Wow, I must have really scared you.” I arch an eyebrow at her.

She falls in stride beside me as the door shuts behind us. “Just promise me you’ll skip the orange juice and actually eat something.”

“What?” I turn to Mia, my heart still pounding. Why won’t it stop beating so fast?

Mia sucks in her cheeks and makes duck lips as she rolls her eyes. “If you keep passing out, everyone’s going to know and it’ll become a bigger deal than it needs to be. So trust me, you should just eat something. Unless you want everyone to know.”

“What are you talking about?” I take a deep breath, willing my heart to slow down. But it doesn’t, so I place my hand over my chest and ask, “Everyone’s going to know what?”

“That you’re anorexic,” Mia matter-of-factly states.

I stop dead in my tracks and turn to her. But Mia keeps walking.

“I’m not anorexic,” I call after her. “You have no idea what you’re talking about!”

“It’s not a big deal, Kyle, relax.”

I pick up the pace and resume my place beside her.

Without looking at me, Mia lifts her shoulders and lets them fall as she says, “We’re in the same boat, and so are like half the girls here. It’s fine. But you can’t completely starve yourself; you have to eat at least a little every day so no one notices. Unless you want people to notice.”

I blink back at Mia. I want to be mad at her. I want to feel anger and yell and kick her the way I usually do when we play-fight. But I can’t because my knees still feel like they might give way. So I take another deep breath and turn away from her.

Speaking in as even of a tone I can muster, I reply, “My grandmother tells me stories about how she used to not have enough to eat. How could I listen to that and be anorexic?”

Mia folds her arms across her chest and begins to walk a fraction of a hair faster than me.

“I’m not you,” I say. “Just because you have problems doesn’t mean I do. We’re not the same.”

A wave of dizziness overtakes me and I lean against a nearby water fountain. Closing my eyes, I pray that this stupid dizziness will go away. This is so annoying. Maybe I should eat something … no. I can’t. I can’t ruin everything I’ve worked for. If I eat something, I might as well eat everything and then find Ben and make out with him and forget about everything I want.

“Kyle?” The alarm in Mia’s voice sends my eyes open.

“I’m fine.” I push myself off of the water fountain and try to stand up straighter. Mia meets my eyes as she takes a hold of my elbow.

“Sorry.” Her grip on my arm feels like a vise, but her voice is soft. “I know we’re not the same.”

My breath catches in my throat and I realize I’m trembling. That must be why Mia’s grip is so tight, she’s trying to steady me.

“You’re right, we’re different. You’re not like me,” she continues, her voice breaking. With this, she releases my arm and glances down, like she doesn’t want me to see the look on her face.

“Am I really scaring you that much?” I ask.

“Oh my God, Kyle. Everything’s not always about you. Conceited much?” she mutters, her face still lowered.

I should’ve known. Mia wouldn’t start crying just because I passed out … something’s going on with her, something worse than my food issues.

I loop my arm through Mia’s and she looks at me in surprise. I take a shaky step in the direction of the nurse’s office and Mia follows suit.

“And I guess we’re the same in the ways that matter,” I quietly say. “That’s why we’re friends.”

Mia nods and gulps loudly. I glance at her out of the corner of my eye, wondering what’s going on with her and why she isn’t opening up about it. She usually tells me everything.

[]

[]

Mark Mire

“Later, Ms. Tina,” I call over my shoulder as I exit the Swamp Rose bus.

“Buh-bye now, sugar,” the older lady replies before shutting the doors and pulling away from the bus stop.

Swamp Rose Mall looms in the distance. I might be late for work; this mall’s parking lot is huge and it’ll take me at least fifteen minutes just to walk to the mall’s entrance. I quicken my pace, but I can’t stop myself from checking out the parked cars I pass. Most of them are pretty nice, nothing too fancy, but dependable economy or midsize Toyotas, Hondas, and Ford trucks.

If things go the way I’m hoping, by the end of this school year I’ll have saved enough for a used car. Nothing as new as these, but something basic that’ll help me get from place to place if I decide to move to a city like Baton Rouge or New Orleans.

I reach into my purse and grab a hairclip. As I hurriedly arrange my hair into an updo, I pass a well-dressed, heavy-set brunette on my right. According to the million and a half shopping bags in her hands, she’s been to The Limited, The Gap, and Bath & Body Works. We briefly meet each other’s eyes while she heads to a small, blue Corolla.

She pulls a face and shakes her head. “What a hike! I should’ve parked closer!”

I smile. “Yeah, this parking lot is huge.”

With that, she begins unloading her purchases and I continue on my way. But I bite the inside of my cheek. That could be me one day, if I play my cards right. If I move to Baton Rouge I could use my dance scholarship to go to LSU or I could forgo a university and register for classes at the Baton Rouge Culinary Institute. Either way, if I take my goals seriously one day I’ll be the well-dressed chick with the shopping bags and the nice car. No one will be able to look at me and guess that I grew up in a Swamp Rose trailer park.

A loud beep at my right interrupts my thoughts and I turn to face a parked, white Hummer that’s horribly out of place among the other vehicles.

“E!” A familiar male voice calls. Mia’s cousin, Mark Mire, comes into view. His car keys and a small, white shopping bag in hand, Mark’s headed from the mall.

I bristle. It’s not Mark’s expensive clothes or SUV that put me on edge, it’s that text message conversation he had with Mia this morning. At the sight of him, the shame I’d felt when I read what he and Mia called me washes over me.

I resituate my purse on my shoulder and offer him a stiff nod. “Hey.” I also make sure not to smile. Grinning at a very hormonal and very entitled fifteen-year-old boy is like saying, ‘Hey, guess what? I’m easy!’ Especially when the jerk already thinks you’re nothing more than ‘white trash.’

Mark pushes his long floppy bangs out of his eyes and blushes as he shifts the white bag from one hand to the other. Why does he have to look so cute when he blushes like that? Douche.

“You headed to the, uh …” He slows in stride but I refuse to match his pace. Instead, I glare into his dark brown eyes and his blush deepens so much that his face becomes the color of a stop sign. “The, um …”

“Mall,” I retort, passing him. “The place that you just came from is called the mall.”

Idiot.

Mark turns on his heel and follows me, calling after me: “Hey, uh, do you, I mean, would you like a lift, uh … there? It’s kind of a long walk.”

I squint into the distance. He’s right: it is a long walk, and I’m already running behind. I don’t want to be late on my first day at work.

“Sure.” I turn to Mark, whose dark eyebrows go up in surprise. I avoid eye contact and nod to the Hummer. “Is this new? I didn’t see it in the garage last time I was at Mia’s.”

As soon as the question leaves my lips, I realize that even though Mark and Mia grew up like brother and sister, I always think of their house as hers, not theirs. Similarly, even though everyone at SLH, and in town, knows who Mia is, a lot of people still have no idea about Mark. I guess he’s sort of an outcast.

“Yeah.” Mark opens the passenger door and extends his hand my way. “I’ve always wanted one, so I saved up for it.”

As soon as Mark says this, I nearly laugh out loud. Save up? Is that what trust fund kids call it when they dip into their accounts to buy fancy vehicles? I mean, how, exactly, does a trust fund silver-spooner who doesn’t even have job “save up?”

“I’m good,” I mutter, ignoring Mark’s offered hand and hoisting myself into the huge vehicle. “Is that why you parked so far away? You don’t want to scratch up your new ride?”

“Nah. I didn’t exactly go in the mall; I just met a friend in the parking lot if you know what I mean.” He opens the white bag and reveals three smaller bags of weed.

I roll my eyes. “Can you just bring me to the mall, please?”

I shut the Hummer’s heavy door and run my index finger along my left eyebrow. A headache is beginning to pulsate into life at my temples. Maybe even a sixty-second ride with Mark was a mistake.

He slides into the driver’s seat and stuffs the white bag into the middle armrest’s compartment before tugging at the collar of his shirt and saying, “So, uh, I don’t guess you’d want to come over later and hang out?”

“No. And how about you stop talking and just drive me to the freaking entrance …” The hurt in Mark’s eyes takes me by surprise and my voice trails off.

He turns away from me and starts the engine. “You got it. My bad.”

I watch Mark, waiting for a resurfacing of what I’ve just seen. But the sadness is gone, hidden. “I’m not trying to be a tool. I’m supposed to meet someone in ten minutes, so I’m in kind of a rush.”

“No worries.” Situating one hand on the steering wheel while the other rests on the middle armrest, Mark watches the road. He’s not frowning or grinning, but his jaw is tight and there’s an unmistakably lost look in his eyes.

While I watch him, my brain shifts into weird-mode. It’s like I can feel it realigning. A strange sadness takes hold of my mind and words erupt, like tiny volcanoes, in my head.

Well, this is strange.

I take a steadying deep breath while the words fly around my head, bumping into each other on purpose and forming strings of almost-sentences.

Confused, I stare at Mark in wonder. I have no idea where these words are coming from, but they’re a living force in my head and they want out.[_ ]I _have to write them down right now.

Hoping I don’t look as insane as I feel, I grab my phone and unleash the words, letting them spill from my brain to my fingers … Lost boyeyes of a child

“Hey.” Mark slows the Hummer to a crawl.

“Hm?” I grunt without taking my eyes off of my phone.

“It’s your dad and Mia’s future mother-in-law. What are they doing?”

“Huh?” I look up and follow Mark’s gaze to a secluded loading/unloading zone, between Macy’s and some other department store where my dad is wearing a stern expression as he leans against the trunk of Mom’s little black car. Meanwhile, Ran’s mom, Dr. Claire Hawke, has her hands in the pockets of her expensive, khaki-colored blazer and she’s talking while my dad listens intently.

“Whoa,” Mark says as he pulls off. My headache intensifies and the words in my brain disappear as swiftly as they erupted into existence.

I shove my phone into my purse and turn my attention to Mark’s passenger side mirror, hoping to score another look at my dad and Ran’s mom. She must be the voice I heard on the phone last night.

I bite the inside of my cheek, sifting through possibilities.

Why would a prominent psychiatrist, the head of our town’s mental hospital, have secret phone conversations with my dad? Is she offering him a legitimate job or—

“You okay?” Mark asks as we head for the mall’s entrance.

I ready my purse and book bag, my head throbbing as I lie. “Yep.”

THE HOUSE OF Chicken’s manager is a really nice guy named Mr. Tyler, and he thanks me for showing up right on time. But I can tell he’s rushed because in between greeting me he’s also shouting orders to his staff. Within minutes of his greeting, Mr. Tyler introduces me to an older lady named Debbie and tells me she’ll get me situated.

I recognize Ms. Debbie right away and my heart skips a beat. The older woman, reeking of cigarettes and her skin as dry as her bleached blond hair, is the nighttime stage manager at Leon’s Ta Ta Room. When she sees me her eyes light up. “Hey, you’re Sugar Puff—I mean, Laura’s kid, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.” I extend my hand and force a smile. “Elizabeth.”

She shakes my hand while some kid with long dreads—clad in a red and black House of Chicken outfit just like hers—darts around us shouting into his headset. The noise doesn’t seem to bother Ms. Debbie a bit and she says, “Come with me.”

With that, she coughs into the crook of her arm, peels off her own headset and leads us past the fryer and food preparation area to a white door labeled, “Employees Only.” I follow her inside and find myself in a small locker room.

“So how’s school, Elizabeth?”

“School’s good.” Clutching my purse, I trail her to a large locker and politely wait as she mumbles something about “keys” and searches her pockets. “Today was our first day back after summer.”

“Nice.” Still searching for the key, Debbie glances at me. “So, you like your classes this year? And you’re a junior, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.” My gaze goes to a small carton of cigarettes peeking out from one of her shirt pockets. “And I do like my classes; I think they’ll be pretty easy. Well, except for math.”

“Is that so?” Ms. Debbie finally locates the key and sticks it into the lock.

I glance around the room. It smells gross in here, like body odor and cigarettes.

“I’m not exactly a math whiz,” I say, my gaze going to a sign on the wall that says, “House of Chicken Employee Guidelines.” Scanning the guidelines, I add, “I’m supposed to be in eleventh grade math but I’m so bad at it that they stuck me in a tenth grade class.”

“Oh, I was like that too,” Ms. Debbie says, clearing her throat. “I hated math and it hated me.” She reaches into the locker and laughingly pulls out the gigantic head of a chicken suit. I grin at its large crossed eyes and bright yellow feathers. She holds it out towards me. “Let’s get this on you!”

I shrug off my bags and don the oversized chicken head while Ms. Debbie says, “And don’t you worry, ten years ago I started out in this chicken suit, but now I work the cash register …”

While she goes on, I close my eyes and take a deep breath, my stress headache worsening.

I know Ms. Debbie’s trying to be nice, but the possibility of ending up like her makes me want to hurl. I grit my teeth and take a deep breath.

That won’t happen. I’m going to keep working hard and one day I’m going to leave Swamp Rose and live a real life. Whatever it takes, that’s what my future holds.

[]

[]

Self-Medicating

I throw my backpack down by the front door and drop my keys on our new oak foyer table. My father broke the old one last week. Of course Mom didn’t care; she said it was time for a new one anyway.

“Nadrine,” I shout, pausing in front of the foyer’s decorative mirror and glancing at my hair. “I’m home!”

I round the corner into our sitting room, my heels clicking against the marble tile.

Our sitting room is the prettiest part of our house. When my father announced that he wanted the house redecorated, Mom was too stressed out to handle all of it. So me and some flaming NOLA decorator took care of all of the downstairs. I really like what I did with the sitting room: I decked it out in ivory with gold trim and the gay dude decided that the room should also be peppered with orchid arrangements, each sitting in a delicate ivory vase and strategically placed. I have to give him props for the idea. There’s one on the oak coffee table between two couches that face each other, another on the baby grand behind the couch that’s closest to the stairs, and the prettiest bouquet sits on the mantelpiece above the fireplace.

The only problem with my picture-perfect sitting room is that it’s the complete opposite of private. Right splat in the middle of the house, it’s situated between the kitchen, the foyer, the staircase, and the back patio. So, if you’re wanting to avoid The Walking Dead that is your family, this is not the place to be.

I duck past the sitting room and make a beeline for our staircase. Our housekeeper, Nadrine, is coming down the stairs at the same time. She’s clad in her typical black slacks and black shirt, her neat little afro resembling a small, dark cloud around her head.

She gives me a tight smile.

“My stuff’s on the floor in the foyer,” I say, running past her and heading to my cousin’s game room.

“Yes, ma’am.” Nadrine’s voice is barely above a whisper and I could be wrong but it sounds like she’s speaking through clenched teeth.

I straighten my palm over the cool of the banister.

Whenever I speak to Nadrine, I get the feeling she hates me, which is weird because Nadrine’s like forty years old. I get why certain kids at school hate me. I’m not exactly nice to them and I have a lot of the things they wish they had. But why would a middle-aged woman hate a teenager?

Maybe she wishes her daughter had everything I have, I don’t know. And honestly, why am I even wasting my time thinking about Nadrine and her issues?

At the top of the stairs, I turn away from the loneliness that is my giant room and head towards the sounds of whatever video game my cousin’s playing.

I bang on my cousin’s door, loud enough to be heard over his game. “Mark, it’s Mia. Let me in!”

I bite down on my bottom lip and cross my arms as the noise of the game is paused. Mark’s footsteps sound on the other side of the door. Seconds later, he opens the door and a fog of weed overtakes me.

Coughing, I take a step back. “Jesus, Mark.”

He laughs and fans the air around him. “Sorry.” His thick hair thick is a floppy mess and his brown eyes are bloodshot as he self-consciously tugs at the wrinkled, gray button-down shirt he’s got on over a pair of dark-super slim jeans. This is why I like my cousin: he looks like wrinkled crap but he cares enough to look like trendy wrinkled crap.

Mark’s only a year younger than me and he moved in with us when he was a baby. His mom was my father’s half-sister. My aunt and her husband were well-known scientists who died in a fire at their lab. Mark was only a few months old when it happened. So he’s lived with us long enough to know that if he wants to keep his sanity in this house, he needs to stay quiet and keep to himself.

I push past him and step into the cloud of what smells like burning skunk spray.

Wrinkling my nose at the weed, I collapse onto one of his couches and stare at the Scarlett Johansson poster above my head.

Mark’s ceiling is filled with posters, most of them half-naked blond actresses with boob jobs. Normally when I come in here, I complain about how obnoxious the posters are and how much his weed stinks, but today I’m just glad Mark lives with us.

He shuts the door and makes himself comfortable on the adjoining couch where he restarts his game.

Groaning, I sit up and watch Mark look incredibly serious as he plays a game called Everquest. He’s been playing it a lot lately—pretty much every time I’ve come in here over the past few weeks. He once pointed to some huge-chested elfin character on screen and said she looked like E. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the main reason why he plays it so much. He’s got the worst crush on E.

“Your day that bad?” Mark asks, his eyes still on the screen.

“Yeah.” I swing my legs over the arm of the couch and take a deep breath. I used to gag on the weed smell whenever I came in here, but lately I’ve gotten more used to it. Flopping backwards, I return my attention to Scarlett Johansson and mutter, “You’re lucky my mom lets you do homeschool—high school is awful.”

“Yeah right.” Mark laughs. “You wouldn’t last a week in homeschool. There’s no friends, no enemies to harass, just you.”

I cringe, thinking of the way that locker swung open and creamed a random kid in the head. I don’t understand how I did that, but I know it was my fault.

My mouth going dry, I gulp.

What if one day I get so mad I accidently kill someone? What was it Ms. Karin said the other day? She said I’d “implode.” What if that actually happens?

“You have no idea how—” I close my eyes, willing my quickening pulse to slow as I search for the right word, “like, how much it all … it’s just a lot to worry about. Sometimes too much.”

I open my eyes as Everquest’s music dies down.

“Hey, you all right?” Mark asks, his every word said so slowly that it runs into the next, forming one elongated word.

“Yeah.” I sit up and swing my legs off of the couch arm. He watches me under slightly raised eyebrows, a joint in his hand and a puff of smoke escaping his lips.

For some reason, when his bloodshot eyes meet mine, I can’t lie. I shake my head. “Actually no, I have problems. A lot.”

“Nah, really?” He laughs and offers me the joint. “You need this more than me.”

“Doubt that.” I glance at the tiny strip of rolled paper and my chest tightens. This isn’t the first time he’s offered, but I’ve never accepted. I grab a strand of my hair, considering his offer as I twirl it around my index finger. “I’m not the one with dead parents.”

Mark narrows his eyes, returning his focus to Everquest, but he doesn’t pick up the control to play. Instead, he stretches his arms out on the couch and, staring at the screen, says, “Better they’re dead than alive to beat the piss out of everyone around them.” His voice is still slurred, but he sighs and takes another drag of the joint.

Mark has a point. My father and Mark’s late mother, Jayne Mire, had the same mean streak. According to some people Aunt Jayne’s death was a good thing. But my father and his mean streak are still very much alive … and so am I.

I glance at the weed. “Does that really help you calm down?”

Mark nods. “Works for me.”

“Maybe I could.” I hesitate. “Maybe I could try a little to help me relax. But I’ll need eye drops; I don’t want red eyes. And I can’t have too much because they check our pee in cheerleading.”

“Okay.” He extends one of his long arms, his brown eyes on me as he hands me the joint.

I grab it and plop down beside him.

Quickly bringing it to my lips I take a careful drag and proceed to hack and cough more than I’ve ever hacked and coughed in my life.

CORNER MART IS the greatest store on planet Earth. I’m really glad I told Mark to drive us here!

“I’m so hungry I could eat a unicorn.” I grab a twenty-pound bag of dog food from the aisle at my right. “Hey, Mark, let’s get this instead of cereal. It’s going to taste so great with milk.”

Mark breaks into laughter as he points to our shopping cart, which is already stacked with Rice Crispy Treats, Pop Tarts, chips, and pretty much everything from Corner Mart’s candy aisle. “Put it in.”

“I can’t; it’s huge!” Laughing so hard I can barely breathe, I set it in the middle of the aisle and pat it on it’s head, or whatever you call the top of a bag of dog food. “It’ll be fine right here. Let’s just go home.”

“Okay, yeah,” Mark agrees, slowly turning the basket around.

I stroll behind him and take a deep breath, admiring Corner Mart’s country flair.

“We should totes come here every day,” I remark, grinning at a passing Corner Mart employee with oily black hair and a large, unsightly mole near her left nostril. I widen my smile. “I love your store, ma’am. It’s like a giant, Cajun hug. It’s real and dirty.” I smile brightly and she looks at me like I have two heads.

Mark snorts as she walks away and we roll our cart to the self-check-out line. When she’s out of earshot, Mark turns to me and lowers his voice. “Do you know you’re so high right now?”

I grab a strand of my hair and sniff it; it smells like Neutrogena shampoo and Lysol disinfectant spray. The Lysol was Mark’s idea.

“But I washed my hair and put on new clothes,” I hiss. “Plus, remember the Lysol?”

“Yeah, I know. But still. People can tell.” Mark shrugs and begins to carefully scan each of the billion items in our shopping cart.

“Not if I put on some perfume.” I reach into my purse for the travel sized version of Bombshell that I carry with me.

It takes 3.8 trillion years to find, but I don’t really mind. Who cares how long things take? You’re alive and all you need is life, really. Duh.

I’m starting to realize that I worry about so many things that don’t matter when all I need to do is live … it’s so simple! Live.

“Hey, Mark?” Grinning at my revelation, I spray Bombshell on each of my wrists and throw the perfume back into my purse.

He plops a king-sized bag of Skittles into a grocery bag before turning to me. “What?”

“So our parents are crazy.” I clear my throat and lift a finger. “In your case, were crazy.”

He nods.

“But, do you ever, like, miss them?” I ask and then shake my head. “Wait, no. That wasn’t what I wanted to say. Why’d I ask you that?”

Mark squints and bites down on his bottom lip. He’s super-focused on a large red and white sign that says “Fresh Crawfish!”

I look at the sign too. It’s very pretty, yet plain, ugly, and stupid. I return my attention to Mark just as our register’s automated voice asks, “Would you like to continue scanning items or are you ready to pay?”

“The register’s all like, ‘Hurry up, man!’” I laugh.

Mark scratches his head and carefully chooses the “Continue Scanning Items” option. With that, he scans a tub of Ben & Jerry’s and says, “I don’t remember my parents to miss them. But even if I could, they were so screwed up, Mia. I don’t know, dude.”

I nod and return my attention to the Fresh Crawfish sign.

The words are written in red and there’s a nice little red border around them, sort of like the border around me that makes me different from my friends. I used to think the border was our family name and the money that comes with it.

I grab a strand of my hair and stuff it into my mouth while Mark’s register asks him how he’d like to pay for our snacks.

My hair does not taste good. But realizing things does taste good. And now I realize that it isn’t my money or even my last name that makes me different from everyone, it’s my anger. When the people in my family get angry, bad things happen.

Like my father. When he’s mad he hits, and from what I’ve heard about my Aunt Jayne, when she got angry she’d put hits out on people. Then there’s me. When I’m mad I can feel the anger growing in my chest; it becomes a buzzing in my head and a weird floral scent that’s secreted from my pores and even comes out in my breath. After that, I somehow will bad things to happen.

I don’t want to think about this anymore.

I spit out my hair and turn to Mark as he grabs his receipt from the self-check-out machine.

“I don’t understand myself at all,” I say, shaking my head.

He nods in sympathy. “That’s because you’re a girl.”

“Probably.” I laugh and follow Mark as he pushes our shopping cart out of the store.

We pass a Redbox machine where a muscular guy with white-blond hair scans the New Releases menu, his back to us. He’s wearing a green hoodie over a pair of jeans and my heart skips a beat.

“Ran!” I squeal.

My boyfriend turns around and I immediately open my arms, running to him.

“Oh my God, I’m so happy to see you!” I collapse into his embrace with a bear hug and he laughs.

“Hey.” Ran grins as he rights me on my feet and looks me over. “You seem really happy.”

“Yeah, I am really happy.” I return his smile and self-consciously touch my eyelashes. After I used the eye drops I decided not to wear mascara which is basically the same as walking around topless.

“That’s good.” Ran, still grinning, brushes my hair back from my face and I fix my gaze on his.

His eyes look purple in this lighting and even as I notice this, they change colors, quickly morphing into a deep brown.

“Your eyes …” I whisper. Closing mine, I rest my head against his chest. “I miss them. I miss you. Jesus Christ Superstar, you’re so wonderful.”

Ran wraps his arms around me and I snuggle close to him.

“You’re my favorite,” I whisper. “I’m sorry I’m so angry most of the time.”

“Aww,” he says, his chest shaking as he laughs. “We’re good, Mia. You don’t need to apologize.”

I’m not sure how long I hug him but I think it’s a while because Mark taps my arm and I hear him say, “Hey, Ran, what up, man?”

Ran lets me go but I wrap one of my arms through his, linking us as he nods to my cousin. “Mark, long time no see. What you been up to?”

“Not much, bro,” Mark says as they give each other one of those handshake things black people do.

I chuckle and point to the two of them. “Y’all are so white.”

Ran wordlessly glances at me and stuffs his hands into his pockets while Mark laughs and leans against our basket, which promptly rolls backwards, making him stumble.

While he rights himself I return my attention to my super-hot boyfriend. “So, whatcha doing?”

He glances down. “I was going to watch a movie with, uh, at Lanie’s house.”

“Awesome.” I unlink our arms and peer into the New Releases list. Spotting the latest Shailene Woodley movie, I point to it and say, “I saw this with Kyle; it was really good. Y’all should watch it.”

Ran’s eyes widen and a smile stretches itself across his perfectly kissable lips. In fact, I’d love to kiss him right now but he looks so surprised that I’m surprised. I glance at Mark to see if he understands why Ran looks like this. Mark’s arms are crossed as he leans against our shopping cart and watches Ran with blatant awe.

“Isn’t he so hot, Mark?” I point to Ran arms. “Touch his biceps—they’re crazy.”

Ran takes a step back, looking from me to Mark. “Uh—”

“I’ll take your word for it.” Mark glances at our cart. “Shouldn’t we go before the ice cream melts?”

“That is true,” I agree. “Melted ice cream is basically garbage. Okay, bye Randall Hawke the Third.” I blow Ran a kiss and he looks from me to Mark, his mouth open but no words coming out.

I realize as I start for Mark’s Hummer that I should’ve given Ran a real kiss.

“Wait, Mia?” Ran calls after me.

I whirl around so fast that I make myself dizzy. Everything’s still spinning as Ran says, “Do you and Mark want to come watch the movie with—”

“Yes!” I clap and jump up and down even though this worsens the dizziness.

Ran chuckles and arches an eyebrow at me. I stop jumping and push my hair back over my shoulders. The clapping and jumping was a little over-the-top. Ran doesn’t need to know that I’m completely baked right now. Between the fact that his dad is some kind of minister and that I’ve never even heard Ran cuss, I’m pretty sure he’d get judgy if he knew I was high.

With everything that’s going wrong in my life, the last thing I need is for the man I love to look at me like I’m nothing but a pile of hot, stank crap.

LANIE’S HOUSE IS super cluttered and ugly and I think I saw a roach in the front entranceway. Fortunately though, her little office-room-thingy where she has her computer and TV is clean and it smells like roses, which is nice.

Mark sits on the couch beside Lanie, one hand on his crotch, the other hanging off of the armrest as he sleeps with his mouth wide open.

From my perch on Ran’s lap, I grin and glance at Lanie who hasn’t taken her eyes off of the television screen for the past however long we’ve been watching Shailene Woodley run around and yell at people. Lanie hasn’t laughed at the jokes, frowned during the especially action-packed scenes, or glanced back at my cousin that one time he snored. As always, she’s tense and too quiet to be normal.

Why is she always so tense? Lanie Russell probably needs a joint even more than I did this afternoon. I lean back against Ran’s chest and the computer chair we sit in emits a creak.

I look down at my legs dangling just above the floor, my pretty Jimmy Choos so perfect on my feet.

So … perfect.

I really am kind of perfect—to look at, that is. My hair is blond—all guys like blonds—my boobs aren’t huge but they’re just right for my size. So, when Ran looks at me he should feel lucky to have such a perfect-looking girlfriend.

I look up at the underside of his strong square jaw where a white-blond five o’clock shadow is creeping into existence. I lean back even further and peer up his nostrils.

He doesn’t even have any boogers. He’s perfect too.

Ran glances down at me and grins. “Are you looking up my nose?”

I laugh and give him a thumbs-up. “You’re clean—no boogers.”

He chuckles, his eyes softening as he whispers, “Glad I passed inspection.”

I let my gaze rove to his mouth.

If only I didn’t have this stupid STD. Ugh. You know what? Screw it.

Sitting up straighter, I reposition my left leg to the outside of Ran’s right thigh so I’m straddling him.

“Mia, what are you doing?” Ran asks, his gaze momentarily darting to Lanie.

Behind me, Shailene is screaming something about a fire while I move in for a kiss.

Ran’s eyes widen. “Wait, Mia, not now.”

My mouth is mere centimeters from his and I can already taste the warmth of his kiss. I close my eyes while Ran grabs my shoulders. He stands, forcing both of us to our feet.

He searches my face, a deep scowl developing above his eyes. “Mia, are you high?”

My pulse quickens and I shake my head as my eyes fill. “No, it’s just weed.”

He rolls his eyes and says not a word. He looks so mad. This is exactly what I didn’t want to happen!

“I was angry,” I explain. “I needed to feel better and I didn’t know what else to do. You’re never there when I need you and Mark had weed and he said it would help.” I half-heartedly point to my cousin and glance at Lanie, who’s still beside him on the couch. Her zombie-like gaze is finally torn from the movie and her eyes dart from me to Ran.

Ran looks down at the ugly brown carpet beneath our feet. I shift on my feet, one of my tears sliding into my mouth.

He’s not even saying anything; he must really be pissed. He wouldn’t break up with me because of this, would he?

“We should go,” Ran finally says. Sighing, he releases his grip on my shoulders and gently rubs one of my arms. “Lanie’s dad is a cop. If he walks in and sees you, he’ll know you’re high and that’d be really bad. I’ll drive you and Mark home.”

I nod, my heart pounding. Maybe he’s not as mad as I thought. I mean, he did just rub my shoulder, but it’s hard to tell.

“What’s going on?” Mark pipes up, yawning loudly.

Ran glances at him. “Get your stuff, bro; I’m taking y’all home.”

Ran starts for his keys and I touch his elbow. “Hey?”

He looks at me and my eyes fill even more.

“I’m sorry.” I blink back my tears and shift on my feet. “I didn’t mean to.”

His face softening, Ran pockets his keys and wraps an arm around my waist.

I sigh in relief, wishing I could melt inside of him as he pulls me close. He kisses the top of my head and whispers, “Mia, you never have to apologize to me.”

[]

[]

Singing in the Shower

When Mia, E, and I walk the halls of South Louisiana High, it’s fairly obvious that Mia feels like a goddess. And she’s not wrong to feel that way. At school Mia is a goddess. Her clothes dictate the way every girl at SLH dresses and, her hair, likewise, sets the trend for their hairstyles; even her word choice and cadence dictate the way the girls at our school speak. SLH is where Mia feels most in control—it’s her home.

I understand her feelings, but I don’t share them completely. Don’t get me wrong: I like school and school likes me back. But SLH isn’t my home. As strange as this is going to sound, Swamp Rose Fitness is my home away from home.

The first day of school done, I walk into Swamp Rose Fitness, and as soon as I step through the doors, it’s like a weight’s been lifted from my shoulders. The familiar scent of the AC, Lysol, and even that hint of sweat that clings to the air are welcomed smells. They remind me of my future, of what’s in store for me if I keep running at the pace I’ve set for myself. When I’m here, my destiny feels within reach.

I wave to a trainer named Zerena as she heads into a room on the left where she teaches a Hot Yoga class. I took her class over the summer and it was pretty amazing.

Eager to begin my workout, I make my way to the treadmill room. I’m still a little dizzy, but I doubt I’ll pass out again. Instead of taking me to the school nurse like Coach Jacobs wanted, Mia took me to the vending machine and made me eat six peanut butter crackers. Afterwards, she stayed with me all afternoon, watching me like a hawk to make sure I wouldn’t try and throw up. So, I’m sure I won’t pass out after having had all of that forced down my throat.

I step through the doorway and my thoughts fade, surprise taking over. My brother, Trey, is the only other person in the treadmill room. Clad in black shorts and a short-sleeved black shirt, Trey runs on one of the treadmills while the television in front of him plays an old episode of Modern Family.

I grin. “Fancy meeting you here.”

Without breaking stride, my brother turns to me and smiles. “Hey! I wondered if you’d be here.”

“You know it. This is my home away from home.” I make my way to the treadmill beside his.

I haven’t seen Trey in a few weeks and he looks good. Unlike me and Mom, he’s never had any trouble keeping his weight down. In fact, he buys protein shakes to help him gain weight. The shakes and his weight lifting must finally be working because he looks bigger.

His hair is longer than usual; it falls just past his ears and looks a bit shaggy. He’s even got some stubble on his chin, like he hasn’t shaved in a few days.

“You look different,” I say as I adjust the settings on my treadmill. “The almost-beard is very Gerard Butler-ish.”

“Okay, I guess that’s a good thing.” Chuckling, he reaches for his towel and wipes the sheen of sweat from his brow. “Everything going all right at home?”

“It’s the same. Mom and Cam nag, Dad’s never home, and you’re MIA, hiding out in your new apartment. But you already knew that last part,” I say as I start to jog.

Trey slows from a run to a jog that matches my pace. From the corner of my eye I see him glance at me. “You been sick? You look like you’re disappearing.”

Pleased, I try not to let my smile show. “No, I’m good.” I speed up and ease into a run. “Have you written any new stories?”

Trey nods. “Well, it’s not new—it’s a new version of the story I’ve been working on. I just finished it last night. This will make the third draft. And I’m not going to lie, I really like this one. I think it might be … something special.”

I glance at my brother. His eyes shine and he smiles as he slows to a walk.

“Wow. That’s really good, Trey,” I say, surprised. Trey, Cam, and Mom are alike in that they rarely say a positive word about their own achievements. So, hearing my brother confess that he’s actually pleased with something he’s created is refreshing. There’s nothing worse than a genius who lacks the courage to admit their own genius.

“If you, um … ” Trey hesitates and then glances at me rather shyly. “If you want to read it sometime—”

“Yeah I want to read it!” I beam. “I’m glad you finally asked. I’ve been wanting to read it since you started writing it. What’s it been? Like, two years?”

“Going on a year and a half.” Exhaling, he turns off the treadmill.

“That takes commitment, to stick to a project like that.” My thoughts leap to my commitment to losing weight and keeping up with my voice lessons. Maybe my brother and I are more alike than I thought.

A strand of hair slips out of my ponytail and flops down on my shoulder. I tuck it in place and ever so slightly turn to Trey. “You should tell Dad you want to be a writer. There’s no reason to pretend you want the restaurant. Be straight with Dad about what you really want.”

“Easy for you to say, you’re his favorite,” Trey replies, the brightness in his eyes fading as he steps off of the treadmill and grabs his towel.

“That’s not true.” I start to say more, but an unexpected wave of dizziness swoops down on me. Argh! Not now, not when I need to work off those stupid peanut-butter crackers.

Gritting my teeth, I steer my body through the dizziness and continue to run.

I will not let this screw up my work out.

“Yeah, it is,” Trey says as he leans against the side of my treadmill, watching me.

“No, it’s not.” Steadying myself, I glance down at my feet.

Actually, Trey’s right, but I can’t flat out admit that Dad likes me the best.

Trey laughs, lightly slapping the treadmill.

“What?”

He points to me. “You always look down when you lie. You’ve done that since you were little.”

My face warms. “Well … ” I fumble for the right words. I don’t want to sound like a douche, but Trey does deserve to hear the truth. “I bet you’d be his favorite if you stood up to him every once in a while. You and Cam are too quiet. You should try saying what you really think for a change.”

“You think you’ve got it all figured out, don’t you?” Trey gives my ponytail a tug.

“No, I know I’ve got it all figured out.” I stick my tongue out at him. It’s a juvenile gesture but I’m too exhausted to do anything more. It’s taking everything I have to run.

“All right, lil sis, I’m out,” Trey says. “But I’ll email you the story. Hey, um …”

As his voice trails off, I glance at him. He’s looking at me with a concerned expression.

“What?” I ask.

“Are you sure you’re all right? You look pale and like, really skinny.”

I roll my eyes. “I’m fine, Cam Hong. You sound just like her. She’s always telling me I’m too skinny while Mom’s always telling me I need to watch what I eat. There’s no pleasing anyone.”

“You could always just please yourself,” Trey says as he backs away from the treadmill.

“Says the guy who’s too polite to tell his dad that he doesn’t want to take over the family business,” I point out.

Trey shrugs. “You got me there. All right, later, Kyle.”

“Bye.”

Once my brother’s gone, I turn on the television that’s in front of my treadmill. Someone’s got it on the CMT channel and an old Taylor Swift music video is playing. I’m not a huge fan of country, but I’m definitely a Swiftie. She has the perfect body, not an ounce of fat on her. Watching her gives me a second wind and I pick up the pace, running even faster.

I’ll never have Taylor’s blond hair and blue eyes and that will make my career goals more of a challenge. But if I work at it, I can have her body type and I’ve already got the voice.

I watch her almost hungrily, my thoughts leaping from the present to the future and what I hope it holds.

Just like Mom and Dad didn’t understand why Trey would sit in front of his computer for hours, typing away, average people can’t understand why I work out like a mad woman and watch what I eat. But it’s all for a reason. Trey wants to write the kind of story that hooks its readers. That takes dedication.

I, similarly, want a career that requires a certain “image” and that means I’ve got to have an image worth admiring. That takes just as much dedication.

I CLOSE MY eyes and lean against the shower wall while lukewarm water courses down my back. Even Swamp Rose Fitness’ shower and locker room are perfection. It’s not like most gyms with their open shower areas where you have to parade around other women, stark naked and wet. That’s so embarrassing.

Swamp Rose Gym gets that privacy is important to some of us and they’ve equipped their locker room with twenty private shower stalls, each immaculate and furnished with shower heads that turn every bathing experience into the ultimate massage.

I take a deep breath and try to relax under the water. Actually, I do feel relaxed, but for some reason my heart won’t stop beating crazy-fast.

“Bye, Kyle, I’ll see you later,” Zerena calls as the locker room door creaks open.

I open my eyes. “Bye, Z.”

The door slams shut behind her and I’m alone in the locker room.

Relaxing even more, I duck under the steady stream of water, letting it rinse away any shampoo that’s left.

This is my favorite part of my day and it’s the reason why I like to work out right before the gym closes: I like being the last person here and having the locker room all to myself.

Once again closing my eyes, I let the water slide down the back of my neck and start to sing. I’m never sure what song I’ll choose, but my heart always knows. Without my mind’s consent, it sends the perfect song to my lips.

“Smile though your heart is aching,” I softly sing, changing the rhythm to match the fall of the water as it hits my skin, “smile even though it’s breaking.” I haven’t heard this song in forever and I’m not sure why I’m singing it, but it feels right.

I take a deep breath, lean against the shower wall and sing the rest of the song. “When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by if you smile through your fear and sorrow—” Suddenly lightheaded, I stop singing and open my eyes.

My vision is filled with dark spots and my head feels heavy, like it’s filled with lead. The rest of my body is somehow weightless.

Uh oh …

“IT DOESN’T LOOK like she hit her head.”

“I’m calling 9-1-1.”

At the sound of unfamiliar voices, I open my eyes and two of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen in my entire life are in front of me.

Despite the dark spots that mar my vision, I’m able to make out a dripping-wet, shirtless guy seated beside me. He’s frowning down at his phone and a drop of water falls from his nose to the phone. I stare, transfixed.

His olive skin is sun-kissed with a tan, and his thick dark hair is as damp as the rest of his body. Though I’m so weak I barely feel human, the sight of his defined pecs and biceps—glistening under a light sheen of water—send life to my exhausted body.

“What happened?” I ask as I try, and fail, to sit up.

Shirtless Guy’s chocolate-colored eyes widen and setting his phone down, he turns to me. “Hey, you’re awa—”

He’s cut off as the woman beside him, extremely thin, as beautiful as he is and most likely his girlfriend, turns to me and exclaims, “You’re awake! Thank God! What’s your name, honey?”

I blink back at her, confused. I mean, of course I know my own name, but I’m confused about what’s happening.

“Kyle.” I look from her to Hot Shirtless Guy. “My name’s Kyle. What happened?”

The lady touches my shoulder and offers me a kind smile as she looks into my eyes. Hers are really pretty; they’re bright blue and exotic against the backdrop of her light brown skin. Her short curly hair, unlike Hot Shirtless Guy’s, is dry and she wears a sports bra with a pair of yoga pants.

At the sight of her clothes, I remember where I am.

Swamp Rose Gym, I was taking a shower and … oh my God, no!

“You were singing in the shower and then all of a sudden the singing stopped and I heard a crash. You didn’t answer when I asked if you were all right so I decided to check on you and you were out cold.”

My face flames, and glance down at myself. One of Swamp Rose Gym’s thick, white towels has been strewn across my body and I breathe a sigh of relief.

Thank God I wasn’t naked in front of this guy.

“So I called Eric here for help,” the lady says. “And he hopped out of the shower to come give us a hand.”

“Thank you for checking on me,” I mumble and securing the towel under my pits so I don’t accidently flash Eric and his beautiful girlfriend, I once again attempt to sit up.

“No problem, Kyle,” Eric says. He helps me up and as he touches my arm, I swear to God a near-electrical current runs from his body to mine. I gulp, rather sharply, on air. He glances at me and our eyes meet, which nearly makes me pass out again, but this time for an entirely different reason.

His lips twitch and he smiles. “So, do you have any idea why you fainted?”

Cold air hits my exposed back and, shivering, I glance down at my towel as I say, “I have low blood sugar.”

“Ah, that explains it.” The lady nods and turns to her boyfriend. “Eric, do you think you could get her an orange juice?”

“Sure.” He hurries to his feet. “I’ll be right back.”

“Actually,” his girlfriend says. “Would you give us a few minutes before you come back? I’m sure Kyle wants to get some clothes on.”

Eric blushes again, but nods. “Sure thing.”

He ducks out of the stall and the lady turns to me with a conspiratorial wink. “Not that he would’ve minded if you stayed like this.”

My head still spinning, I try to smile and think of the right thing to say. I feel so … stupid. Like earlier, when I was fumbling for the right thing to say to Trey.

“Oh no,” I hesitantly say. “I doubt that. He’s your boyfriend. I’m sure he’d rather look at you than me.”

I frown at the awkwardness of what I’ve just said. What did I even just say to this woman? I sound like an idiot who’s kind of into her boyfriend and trying not to act like it.

The lady arches one of her perfectly shaped eyebrows and grins. “Eric is not my boyfriend; he’s my trainer.”

Relief settles down on me and I readjust my towel, feeling silly for caring so much about this stranger’s relationship status. The last thing I need is another guy complicating my life. So it doesn’t matter who Eric the Trainer is or isn’t dating.

The lady extends a hand towards me. “I’m Lyla, by the way.”

“Kyle.” I shake her hand and smile. Another wave of dizziness swoops down on me and I grit my teeth, trying to ignore it.

Lyla tilts her head, watching me closely. “Maybe we should get you something to eat too? With the orange juice?”

“No, the orange juice should do it.” I glance down at my towel and pretend to shiver. “But I am cold. Do you think you could help me into my clothes?”

“Sure.” Lyla gets to her feet and, simultaneously, pulls me up. “I’ll help you get dressed but I’m sure Eric will want to help you to your car.”

Puzzled, I glance at her for an explanation and she offers me a small, lopsided grin which fades as she realizes that I’m confused.

“So he can, like, get your number,” Lyla slowly explains.

“Oh!” I smile and cross my arms, self-conscious.

Her brows knitted in thoughtfulness, she offers me her arm, “Come on. Let’s get your clothes.”

“Thanks for all of this. I feel kind of out of it right now,” I say while we head to the changing area.

“No, it’s all right. Trust me I understand,” Lyla quietly replies. “By the way, you have one of the prettiest voices I’ve ever heard. You ought to be a singer.”

I grin. “Thank you, I … I am going to be a singer. One day.”

“Good for you.” Lyla smiles. “Pop, Alternative, or R&B?”

“Pop,” I say. “I want to be a pop star.”

This stranger, Lyla, is the first person I’ve ever confessed this to. Even my voice instructor, Ms. Tulane, thinks I’m only taking singing lessons for fun.

It feels great to admit the truth out loud.

“SO,” ERIC SAYS as we come to a halt in front of my SUV, “are you sure you’re good to go? It wouldn’t hurt to stop by the hospital, just in case.”

I shake my head and shift on my feet. “No, I’m great. Thanks again for all your help. This was really nice of you.”

He smiles. “Sure. I like helping people, that’s my thing.”

“That’s a good way to be.” I pause as a breeze wafts our way. It’s warm, but I shiver.

“Hey.” Eric lightly touches my arm. “You’re still shaking. It’s really no trouble if you want me to bring you to the hospital. I know the idea of going there can be scary, but it’s not so bad. They’d just check your vitals, make sure you’re okay and then let you go home.”

I smile.

He’s being so sweet. And every time I look into his eyes, I want to blurt the truth and tell him I know exactly what’s wrong with me.

Glancing down, I rack my mind for a way to change the subject. “I can tell you like helping people. What are you, um, like a volunteer at the hospital or something?”

“Oops.” He chuckles, and slides his hands into his pockets. Taking a step back, he says, “That sounds like code for, ‘Dude, you’re getting on my nerves, back the heck off.’ Sorry about that. I guess I can be a little overbearing sometimes.”

“No.” I laugh. “You’re fine. I can just tell that you, um, really care about people’s health and …” I frown, searching for the right words. But it’s like my brain has gone on vacation.

Thankfully, Eric steps in and says, “I did actually volunteer at the hospital last semester. It’s part of the PT program at S.R. Medical Training College.”

“What’s PT?”

“Physical therapy.” He sways on his feet as he says, “For a small town, you guys actually have the best PT education program in the state, so that’s why I’m here.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re here.” I grin just so I can get him to smile even more. It works and as his grin widens, a little tingle shoots through me. “And Lyla said you’re a trainer here too. That must keep you really busy.”

He shrugs. “Yeah, but it’s not too bad. I like to stay busy.”

I nod. “What class do you teach?”

“Kickboxing.” He puts on an overdramatic grimace. “And today was my first day.”

“Oh my God, I completely ruined your first day!” I laugh and face-palm.

“No, not at all.” Eric touches my shoulder. “You didn’t ruin anything. In fact, I’m glad you … well, I’m not glad you fainted, but I’m glad we met. Uh, in fact maybe you’d want to check out my class sometime?”

“Hm.” Tilting my head, I let myself look into his eyes again. Talking to Eric is really easy and looking at him is even easier. He’s so gorgeous.

““Actually,” I say. “I’m not into kickboxing.”

Eric’s face falls. “Oh—”

“But I like movies. So, if you ever want to go to the movies with me, I’d be up for that.”

He visibly relaxes and grins as he says, “That’d be great.”

I reach into my purse and grab my phone. My conscience tugs at me. My strict plans for the future don’t involve going to the movies with hot guys; all of my focus needs to be on getting my voice and body in tip-top shape before I head off to L.A. But for the first time in a very long time, I ignore my conscience.

Offering Eric another smile, I say, “Okay, what’s your number?”

[]

[]

Temper Tantrums

I slouch over my phone, yawning as I reply to some blogger named Andy who follows me on Twitter. Andy’s only a freshman at SLH but she somehow has over two hundred thousand _]followers on Twitter, which is insane. I have five thousand and I thought that was a lot. I don’t mind Andy’s tweets—they’re usually funny. But the chick can also be hella annoying when she repeatedly asks me to star in this stupid YouTube series she’s trying to make. It’s like she’s obsessed with me. But since [_she’s popular and she kind of idolizes me or whatever, her fans end up following me too, so I try not to ignore her too much.

Mark sits beside me at the breakfast nook, loudly crunching away on his cereal.

I turn away from the noise, putting my feet up on the wooden bench we share, as I glance up and get a peek of the sunrise through the window behind us. I lift my phone and snap a picture of it.

“You should eat something,” Mark says, his spoon clanging against his bowl. “Do you even ever eat breakfast?”

“Do you even ever shut up?” I automatically retort, my voice gravelly and sounding like I’ve just smoked twenty-five billion cigarettes.

Returning my attention to my phone, I caption the picture “Sunrise in Swamp Hell Rose” and post it via every social media app on my phone.

Mark’s annoying crunching slows and he sighs.

I look up, watching the sun inch up over the horizon and, all at once, everything that happened last night kind of rushes at me … everything was good when it was me and Mark talking about life and playing Everquest, but after we met up with Ran and Lanie everything went wrong.

I shift in my seat and turn to Mark.

He’s bringing a spoonful of cereal to his mouth and stops midway, his hair extra floppy and his eyes puffy as they flick my way. “What?”

In one swift motion, I reach over and grab his spoon, stealing half a bite of his cereal.

The colored puffs of crunchy whatever are way too sugary to be healthy, but they actually taste pretty good. I set his spoon back in his bowl and toss my hair over my shoulder so it hits him in the side of his face.

“Gross.” I turn away from him as I add, “How can you eat all that after last night?”

“I’m a dude,” he says.

Our doorbell rings, and I sigh, grabbing a strand of my hair as I return my attention to the ascending sun.

That’s Ran—it has to be.

Early this morning, he texted me asking if I wanted a ride to school.

That hardly ever happens and even though—considering last night’s crapfest—a conversation with Ran scares the piss out of me, I couldn’t say no.

As Nadrine and Ran’s voices carry in from the foyer, I check the strand of hair I’m holding for split ends. But of course there are no split ends; I get it trimmed every week.

“Ran’s here?” Mark asks, his voice going up a notch.

I laugh and glance at him. “Your man crush? Yeah, he’s bringing me to school. Jealous?”

“Shut up.” Mark elbows me in the shoulder and scoots off the bench, headed to our pantry.

Nadrine and Ran’s conversation, peppered with laughter, grows louder as they approach the breakfast nook. I slide off the bench, comb my fingers through my hair, and then take a quick selfie.

“… I keep telling him it’s good for him!” Nadrine says with a melodic laugh I’ve never ever heard come from her before. It’s like the laugh of a friggin angel. “If you told him, he’d listen.”

I peer down at the selfie. My hair’s good, my make-up’s good, and my earrings aren’t too much. Perfection.

Ran rounds the corner to the breakfast nook, Nadrine beside him. As I see him, my heart skips a beat.

Ran’s wearing a beige t-shirt over jeans, their cuffs rolled up to reveal his red sketchers, and I gulp. How does he make everything—even those stupid Sketchers that in no way match the rest of his outfit—look so good? It’s like he doesn’t even have to try. And somehow it works.

I drop my phone into my purse, grab my backpack, and make my way to his side.

You talk to Leonard,” Nadrine is saying, a wide grin softening her features as she gently thrusts her index finger at Ran’s chest. “All right?”

Ran laughs and nods, his pretty eyes sparkling as they fix onto hers. “Yes, ma’am, I will. But he might not listen—he’s stubborn.”

He’s so sweet. When he talks to people, he really looks at them and it’s like they’re the only person in the world. Even just a regular person like Nadrine feels special around him.

I grab Ran’s arm and he glances at me, his smile ever-so-slightly waning.

“Who’s Leonard?” I look from Ran to Nadrine.

Our housekeeper tilts her head and her grin wavers. With a slow blink, she replies, “Leonard’s my son. He goes to your school.”

“Oh.” I return my attention to Ran and give him a quick peck on the cheek as I say, “I thought you had a daughter.”

“Nope, never had a daughter.” Nadrine sighs. “I’d better get back to work …”

She retreats and Ran turns away from me, calling after her, “See you at the game, Ms. Nadrine!”

“All right, sweetheart, see you then,” she says from somewhere behind us.

“Yo, bro, what up?” Mark says, holding a piece of toast that’s slathered in red jam as he heads back to the breakfast nook, toast crumbs falling to the floor with his every step.

I lace my fingers through Ran’s while he turns to Mark. “Hey, Mark, what’s going on?”

Ran’s attention is like a tennis ball, from one side of the court to the next, never in one place. And never on me.

“We gotta go,” I announce, reaffirming my grip on his hand and heading to the front door. I might be scared of why he’s asked to bring me to school this morning, but every moment alone with my tennis ball of a boyfriend is precious, even this moment.

RAN SHUTS MY door and then runs around to the driver’s side.

I look around at his clean, but cheap, plain, and boring car.

As he makes himself comfortable behind the driver’s seat and starts to back out of our driveway, I exaggerate the curl of my upper lip and turn to him, “Bae, why don’t you buy a truck?”

His jaw tensing, he focuses on not hitting our gate while it takes about a million years to open. Ran’s voice is low as he replies, “I hate trucks.”

“How can you be born in Louisiana and hate trucks?” I glance down at his large hand covering the gearshift, and cover it with mine. “Trucks have so much power, like you. You’d look so hot in a truck.”

“Nah.” He scrunches up his nose and continues on down our driveway, through the opened gate.

As we back out into the street he puts his little white Honda in drive as if my hand isn’t even on top of his. Without looking at me, he says, “Mia, we need to talk.”

My heart, the little Olympian that it is, jumps into my throat.

“What? Why?” I remove my hand from Ran’s and leaning forward, grab my phone from my purse.

“Why?” he repeats, his voice going up an octave. I glance at him out of the corner of my eye and he’s shaking his head, his eyes widening as he watches the road ahead. “After last night, you honestly don’t know why I’d say we need to talk?”

I gulp and look down at my phone.

That kid tweeted me again.

@FutureOscarWinner: Even hell has a pretty sunrise ha ha

My eyes still on my phone, I re-read her tweet a second time and say, “When you told me I never had to apologize I thought that meant we were done talking about it.”

My mouth going dry, I type a quick reply:

@MiaSLHCheerleader: : ) Have a super great day lil sis!

With this, I shove my phone into my purse.

I don’t want to talk to this kid anymore and if she actually knew me, I bet she’d realize that she wouldn’t want to talk to me either.

“No, that meant you don’t have to apologize.” Ran’s tone drips with overdramatized patience and I glare at him. He rolls down his window as we come to a stop before our neighborhood’s gated entrance.

The old black guy who’s always sitting at the guard’s desk no matter the time of day or night grins and says, “Hey there, Ran. How’s it going, bud?”

“I’m all right, Mr. Givings, any trouble this morning?” Ran asks with his usual Prince Charming grin.

I’d roll my eyes if I could, but my heart is too … full or something. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Stuck somewhere between happy and sad, I watch Ran talk to this guy who’s name is apparently Mr. Givings and my eyes start to fill.

I cross my arms and blink my tears away. I really don’t want to ruin my make-up before we get to school.

“Bye, see you this evening,” Ran calls, rolling up the window as the gates to our neighborhood open.

He turns right onto Highland Hills Road and lowers his voice to a gentler tone. “I’m worried about you. You said you felt out of control and you needed something to make you feel better. Do you really think grass is the best way to get better? What if Ms. Karin or Coach Jacobs found out and you couldn’t cheer anymore …”

At this point, I turn to the window and tune him out. I watch the passing scenery: oak trees with moss hanging from their limbs, ghetto apartments, mansions, and crap Cajun diners.

I love Swamp Rose.

A lot of people my age hate it here; they say it’s too boring and they’re just itching to leave. But not me. I’m not some poor white trash who’s trying to get a scholarship. I don’t need to be a cheerleader; I don’t need a ticket out. All I need is to not be angry.

“My mom’s a great psychiatrist,” Ran says, barely even stopping to take a breath. “I could tell her you just need a quick session and like, uh, like … maybe some, uh, medication maybe and …”

My mouth going dry again, I moisten my lips and try to ignore the twinge of anger that’s beginning to flare in the back of my mind.

I focus my attention on South Louisiana High’s parking lot as we pull in and Ran slows to avoid hitting pedestrians, but his words don’t slow at all. “For a while I was on meds, just to help me concentrate and there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you need to take something for anxiety or …”

My gaze goes to Mr. Brown as he, head down and with his laptop in hand, scurries across the parking lot like an overgrown mouse.

The ugly, red flare intensifies in my brain. I close my eyes and I take a deep breath.

I’m not angry, I’m just sad; I’m not angry, I’m just _sad _…

“Mia?” Ran’s voice sends my eyes open as his tiny car comes to a halt. We’ve parked between Heath Remington’s huge Ford truck and Kyle’s SUV. Student’s walk in front of and behind our car, headed to the main building as they pretend not to steal peeks at us.

I turn to Ran and he’s looking at me, concern in his sparkling green eyes. “You okay?”

I shake my head. I feel like a smashed puzzle, bits of me everywhere. I shake my head again, and blink away my tears. This mascara will not run, I swear to God.

“No, I’m not okay,” I whisper, my voice sounding hoarse.

Ran’s face falls and he bites his upper lip, his eyes searching mine.

“What do you need?” He touches my hair, gently pushing it out of my face as he says, “Just tell me what you need and I’ll make it happen.”

I take off my seatbelt, lean across the armrest and kiss him.

His lips are soft, warm, and as always he smells like fresh mint and aftershave with a hint of something floral lingering in the fibers of his clothes.

Ran leans into the kiss and for once, I’m the one to pull away first.

He blinks back at me, his pupils dilating and constricting as he gulps so loudly I can hear the saliva move down his throat.

I look into his eyes and tell him the truth: “I need you.”

We stare at each other, my heart pounding as time comes to the quietest halt. Actually, there is some noise from our passing classmates because a few of them are making smooching sounds while as they walk past Ran’s car … but it doesn’t matter and so it fades; it and time quietly disappearing.

Ran is somber as his gaze goes to my lips. He nods gravely. “Then you got me. I’m here.” He wraps a strong arm around my waist and leans towards me. He brushes my lips in a gentle kiss and the flare of anger that’s been simmering in the back of my mind dies.

I take a deep breath and make myself forget about the anger, the herpes, about everything; all that matters is this moment …

Our eyes lock and Ran brings his hands to either side of my jaw while he plants slow, deliberate kisses on my mouth. He closes his eyes and his hands go to my hair.

My pulse quickens as I let his kisses cleanse and electrify me.

He’s never been this into kissing me before.

“You’re going to be okay,” he whispers, pulling away.

But I don’t want him to stop. I need more. I yank him back to my mouth and kiss him again. With this, I slide a hand under his shirt and run my palm along his rock hard abs. He shivers at my touch, his quick breaths filling my mouth.

I shouldn’t do anything else, but I have to, I need to. More than anything I’ve ever needed, I need this right now. I lower my hand to his crotch and start for his belt.

“Woah,” Ran says, grabbing my hand. “No, Mia.”

“It’s fine. Just relax,” I urge, reaching down and leaning towards him. “You don’t even have to do anything.”

His ears and face red, Ran pushes away my hand and opens his car door. When he opens the door, the Honda starts making a beeping noise and the sound jolts me back to reality.

“I said no. Why are you trying to, like, attack me in the school parking lot, Mia? Geez. Let’s just go, we should go,” Ran says without looking at me, his voice low, and his jaw clenched.

I watch him in disbelief.

“You’d rather go to class,” I say while Ran stares at our school’s main entrance as if he doesn’t know where else to look. “Instead of be with your girlfriend?”

Ran just keeps staring at the building. He opens his mouth like he’s going to say something, but no words come out.

“Yo, Ran!” some guy, Chris from the wrestling team, calls out, pounding the hood of the car with his fist as he passes us.

Ran jumps at the noise and the tips of his ears are still red as he calls out, “Hey, Chris.”

He then starts to get out of his car and upon nearly breaking his seatbelt, stops to unhook it, all the while avoiding eye contact with me.

“Get back in the car,” I say. “Right now.”

Ran finally looks at me. He moistens his lips and quietly says, “Mia, I—”

“Close the door!” I order.

His eyes widening, Ran looks around the parking lot and slowly does as told.

Once he closes his door, the annoying beeping noise stops and I push my hair out of my face as I try to separate my thoughts from my anger so I can form them into actual words.

“You …” I shake my head and laugh, unable to believe what I’m about to say as I point to him. “You never want me to touch you. And that’s why I … I drove myself crazy trying to figure out how to get your attention. Like, you have no idea what all I’ve done for you! And you never … you always … would you just tell me why you never want to touch me?”

Ran’s face is still red and his shoulders are hunched. He’s staring at the car’s glove box while he sort of shrinks into himself, like he wishes he could disappear.

“Other guys think I’m perfect,” I say, staring at Ran, who still isn’t looking at me. “But the one guy I want[_ doesn’t_]. Why? What’s so wrong with me?”

His eyebrows come together in a scowl and he finally looks at me. “Nothing’s wrong with you; it’s not you. It’s me. I just can’t do … that with you, uh, right now.”

He doesn’t want to be with me. My thoughts go to my parent’s separate bedrooms and to my father’s wandering eye.

“Wow.” I laugh but I want to cry, “I’m such an idiot.” I shake my head and turn away from Ran.

“You’re not—” he starts but I cut him off.

“You don’t want to be with me, because you’re getting everything you need from someone else,” I say, talking over Ran while he says, “that’s not true, Mia.” I shove him and say, “Look me in the eye and tell me you’ve never slept with that little black troll.”

Ran’s protests come to a stop. He’s frozen—his eyes darkening and his jaw tensing.

“Don’t call her that,” he says, his voice low.

“Tell me you’ve never screwed Lanie Russell,” I shout. “I want to see you lie.” My heart pounds and I hold my breath, watching his momentarily brown eyes turn gold as the first bell rings in the distance.

Ran’s not like other guys in a lot of ways, but especially in that he’s a Grade-A horrible liar. When he lies, he starts breathing too fast and he gets fidgety, his ADD worsening to the millionth degree.

I glance at Ran’s chest and his breathing is beginning to even out.

“I’ve never even kissed Lanie,” he says, holding my gaze. “You were my first kiss, Mia.”

I should be relieved, but there’s no ignoring the flicker of sadness that appears and then disappears in his eyes as he sighs and turns to the parking lot. It’s like he’s ashamed of what he’s just admitted; he wishes he’d been with Lanie and that she’d been his first kiss!

“Whatever,” I shrug, my eyes filling. Grabbing my purse and backpack I sling them on my arm as I open my door.

I stumble out of his crappy car and hurry away from him, ignoring the “hey” of some guy, or butch girl or whatever this person is who’s also headed towards SLH.

“Mia, wait …” Ran calls from behind me.

Tears stinging my eyes and a huge lump in my throat, I call over my shoulder, “I’ll see you later.”

With this, I zip through the thinning crowds of students headed to SLH’s front entrance.

Ran’s voice is no longer behind me and I cringe from the inside out.

He’s already given up. If he cared, he’d come after me.

I hurry up SLH’s steps, blatantly ignoring the hellos I get from a couple of people. I can’t deal with these people right now—it’s too much.

As I approach my school’s front doors, I run a quick hand through my hair and concentrate on breathing evenly.

If I breathe evenly, from my diaphragm, then I’ll be less likely to cry and ruin my make-up. Kyle once taught me that: how to breathe properly in order to get you through anything.

I open SLH’s front door and slip through.

“Hey, Mia!” A small hand grabs my forearm and Rose, one of the younger cheerleaders, is all up in my face.

Her make-up is glaringly overdone, and between her bright red lipstick and off-color bronzer, she looks like a clown. I flinch at the sight of her.

“Rose, I’ll talk to you later,” I mutter, pulling away from her and turning my attention to the hallway ahead.

I wish to God I had first hour with Kyle. If I could at least talk to her about what just happened, that’d make everything a little better …

“Mia, just really quickly,” Rose yammers on in my ear and I twitch. “I’m having a pool party at my house this weekend and—”

“Oh my God, shut up!” I shout, turning to her as I continue on towards my class. Beside me, a girl with a terrible haircut and a Batman shirt arches an eyebrow at me like I’m a huge tool but I don’t care.

The high-pitched whirring stirs in the back of my brain and my mouth starts to taste like flowers. I glance at Rose, who’s paused mid-stride and staring at me, her eyes wide.

“I can’t talk to you right now,” I say. “Didn’t you hear me say that when you grabbed my arm? And by the way, don’t ever grab my arm.”

“Mia!” An adult’s voice cuts into my tirade and I turn to face Ms. Reacher, the principal’s executive assistant. She’s as mousy as ever and frowning at me from over the huge stack of papers she’s holding as she exits the principal’s office.

Though my heartbeat thunders in my ears, it’s nearly drowned out by the buzzing noise that’s filling my head. I can barely even hear what Ms. Reacher is saying.

Actually, I don’t care what the stupid woman is saying; she has no idea what I’m going through right now.

Turning on my heel, I walk away from her. But my body’s still in the moment because my hands are shaking and the strange floral scent is springing from my pores.

I’ve only taken a few steps when a thud sounds behind me followed by gasps that spread like an wave.

I freeze as every student in front of me turns around and the whirring hiss that fills my head comes to a dead stop.

I spin around and Ms. Reacher is on the ground. The older woman’s forehead is bleeding and the office door that’d she’d just closed is wide open.

“I’m all right,” she says amidst the concerned whispers that surround her.

“The door … it just flew open.”

“So weird …”

I look around, my mouth going dry as my stomach turns.

This is bad, I need to leave … I can’t be here …

While everyone in the hallway gathers around Ms. Reacher, I back away and then hurry to the exit door just ahead.

I need to get away from people. All I do is let people hurt me and then I hurt them; it’s a pattern I can’t escape.

Tears blurring my vision, I reach out for the exit door, but it opens from the other side.

Josh Phillips stands in the doorway, a look of surprise on his face.

Tall, lean, and handsome he frowns down at me. “Mia? You all right?”

At the sight of him, I realize that even though I need to get away from people, I don’t want to be alone.

I shake my head and wipe a tear as it streams down my cheek. “Skip class with me?”

“Uh,” he blinks back at me. “Okay.”

Josh extends his hand and I accept.

I slip through the exit, crying but relieved because at least I won’t have to cry alone.

[]

[]

E the Graffiti Artist

“Despite Elizabeth and Darcy’s differing social status, they share the same character flaw.” Ms. Mallory pauses to clear her throat and I tighten my grasp on the pen in my hand, eager for her to continue.

I vaguely remember Grandma telling me that Pride and Prejudice was one of her favorite books when she was my age. For that reason in itself, I can’t wait to read it for class.

“So, when—” Ms. Mallory is cut off by the bell and I roll my eyes.

Oh well …

“We’ll pick this up tomorrow. Bye, guys,” Ms. Mallory says, but her small voice is lost among the scuffling feet and buzz of conversation.

I grab my purse and backpack, briefly shooting a glance at Mia’s empty seat. Before class I saw her take Josh Phillips’ hand and slip away with him. I’m pretty sure they’re holed up somewhere finally giving in to a mutual fantasy. Those two have been eyeing each other for as long as I can remember; it’s fairly obvious that they should be together instead of Mia and Ran.

I glance at Ran. He’s been uncharacteristically quiet throughout first hour. He’s frowning as he swings his backpack on over one of his broad shoulders. He catches me watching him and I start to ask him what’s wrong, but he’s already talking before I can get a word out.

“Do you have any idea where Mia is?” He’s still frowning and his voice is low, which is very different from his typical happy-go-lucky tone.

“No.” I turn away from Ran and busy myself with gathering my pen and notebook. “But yesterday she said something about dropping Ms. Blanchard’s Film and TV class. Maybe she’s with the guidance counselor, taking care of that.”

Briefly closing my eyes, I exhale. My God, I hate lying on Mia’s behalf. Especially to Ran. He’s a good guy; he deserves better than that.

“K, thanks, E.” Ran gives my backpack a gentle thump with his fist and stalks off, calling, “see you later,” over his shoulder.

I bring my notebook to my chest, following him with my eyes as he exits the classroom. His shoulders are hunched and there’s an unusually grim expression on his face.

As much as his relationship with Mia is killing him, he refuses to ditch her and I totally get why. At first, I assumed we stuck by Mia for the same reason: we both wanted to be popular. But the more I hung around Ran, the more I realized that not only does he have no need for Mia’s status, but the boy seriously stresses himself out about being “a good guy.” It’s actually sort of an unhealthy obsession with him: he sees someone in pain and he can’t just walk away—he has to fix it. Randall Hawke knows how deeply broken Mia is and he’s taken on the never-ending burden of fixing her. For Ran’s sake, I hope Mia realizes she’d rather be with Josh.

I glance back at my desk to make sure I haven’t left anything behind and a high-pitched shriek at the classroom door nearly scares me to death.

“Oh my God!”

Horrified, I turn to the noise and it seems to have come from Meagan Nellit, an underclassman cheerleader and member of our dance team. She’s frozen in the doorway, pointing at me and her mouth is wide open in surprise.

“Why are you pointing at me?” I demand.

She emits another one of her weird shrieking noises and then runs towards me.

You wrote it!” Meagan screeches as she totters towards me on her heels. Pointing to my desk, she says, “You’re the mysterious poet!”

Bristling, I take a step back, bristling and glance at the “Almost Friends” poem I haven’t bothered erasing from my desk.

Oh no …

“E’s a mysterious poet?” Ms. Mallory asks, pushing her glasses up on her nose as she emerges from behind her desk.

I glare at Meagan. The girl’s a bit of a ditz, but I really hope she isn’t dumb enough to think it’ll be okay with a teacher that I’ve been writing all over my desk. Now that I have a job, I really can’t afford to get an after-school detention.

The few remaining kids from first hour who are still gathering their belongings turn their attention to me and I clutch my English notebook closer to my chest.

Meagan’s eyes are bright with innocent excitement as she explains her “discovery” to Ms. Mallory: “I have second hour in here and I read this poem someone wrote on my desk and it’s short but it, like, really hit home with me and E wrote it!”

“Uh …” I take a step back while Ms. Mallory heads my way. I’m so dead. Ms. Mallory readjusts her glasses, preparing to read the words I’ve illegally scribbled on SLH property. Even though I want nothing more than to run away and hide, I shrug and put on my best I-could-care-less face as I say, “It’s not a poem; it’s just words.”

Ms. Mallory’s puffy red ponytail falls over one of her shoulders as she reads what I’ve written and Meagan stands behind her, twirling a lock of her shoulder-length blond hair.

Ms. Mallory looks up at me and I cringe.

But she isn’t frowning. She smiles, her entire face lighting up like a rich kid’s on Christmas morning. “Very nice, Elizabeth,” Ms. Mallory says, her grin widening even more. “In fact, why don’t you stop by the library after school today? There’s something you might be interested in. I’d get into it now, but I’m sure you don’t want to be late for your next class.”

“Uh, okay,” I say, so surprised that I barely know how to react. With this, I hurry out of the classroom as fast as I can. It’s cool that Ms. Mallory liked my poem, but me sticking around might remind her that I defaced school property.

Toying with the bracelets Mom and Dad gave me, I start for the stairs and just ahead, Ran is asking someone else if they’ve seen Mia.

I glance back at him before bounding up the stairs and my thoughts return to the sight of his mom outside of the mall with my dad. I still don’t know what to think about that …

I sigh loudly and some passing guy shouts, “Bet I could make you smile, E.”

“Bite me,” I shout without bothering to look at whoever the loser is.

Between Dr. Hawke’s intelligence and Dad’s fearlessness, whatever the two of them are planning must be something big. I’ve got to find out what they’re up to.

AS EVERYONE AROUND us scurries to their buses and cars, Kyle and I saunter down the middle of the hallway, headed to the library.

“Hey, Kyle! E!” A kid named Jerry waves at us, grinning as he passes.

“Hey,” we say in unison.

Kyle sighs and sniffs.

I glance at her out of the corner of my eye. Her long, black hair is pulled up into a cute and bouncy ponytail, her skin is flawless as always and her make-up—though barely existent—is just enough to enhance her small features. She’s lost a little weight, but she doesn’t look too different. Still, something about her presence feels different.

“You all right, Kyle?” I ask as we approach the library.

“Yeah.” She takes a deep breath and exhales slowly. “I’m awesome actually.”

“Liar.” I arch an eyebrow at her and grab some gum from my purse while we make our way into the library.

“Hey there!” Ms. Mallory’s excited voice startles me as I, holding a stick of gum, look up. She’s grinning and headed our way with a pink flyer in her hands.

“Hi.” I smile and pop the gum into my mouth as if I’m not breaking yet another school rule right in front of her.

But Ms. Mallory doesn’t seem to notice or care that I’m chewing gum while she hands me the pink flyer entitled, “Writing Competition” and says, “I won’t keep you long because I know you girls have practice after school. But just briefly: Elizabeth this is a poetry contest you might be interested in. Enter it and you can win either a scholarship or a cash prize of $2,000. I suggest you at least think about entering.”

“Sweet,” Kyle says from behind me. “You should do it, E.”

Apparently, Meagan took a picture of my “poem” and showed it to Kyle and a whole bunch of other people at lunch.

I scan the flyer, my eyes returning to the words, “scholarship or a $2,000 prize.”

“Thanks, Ms. Mallory,” I say. $2,000 would really help my family, and maybe even stop Dad from doing something stupid with Ran’s mom.

I grin, a surge of hope moving through me.

I never would’ve guessed that an inadvertent decision to deface school property would be the beginning of things finally starting to look up.

[]

[]

Puffs and Pills

“She does kinda look like E,” Josh says with a laugh.

I grab the joint from him and take a hit, my gaze drifting to the Everquest character he and Mark are talking about.

We share the couch in front of the TV while Mark, sprawled out on the floor below us, laughs as he waves the controller towards his TV. “Especially the hair and, like …” he cups both of his hands and shakes them up and down in front of his chest. Josh and I laugh.

I lean my head against Josh’s shoulder. He’s not bad for cuddling up to.

“Yeah,” I say. “E does have great tits. I used to think she wore some kind of super padded push-up bra until I saw her topless and, trust me, it’s all real. ”

Mark rolls onto his back, his dark eyes narrowing. “You’ve seen them?”

“We’re best friends, duh.” I chuckle and scoot closer to Josh. Closing my eyes, I link my arm through his and take his hand, holding it as tightly as I can. His clothes smell like fresh laundry and … well, and weed.

“I thought Kyle was your best friend,” Josh says, his voice gentle in my ear.

“She is.” I glance at our entwined hands. His are long and the color of coffee while mine are slender and pale in comparison, but we don’t look as mismatched as I’d expect. “It’s possible to have two best friends, you know.”

“But, wait, we were talking about E’s, um, you know. What do they … what are they like?” Mark stammers. I laugh and glance up to find my cousin looking at me expectantly.

“Bro, you seriously need to get out more,” Josh says with chuckle.

“I know, right,” I agree. “Besides, it’s not like I felt her up, Mark. I just see them every once in a when we’re changing. And no more talking about my friend’s boobs. It’s creepy.”

“Fine.” Mark blushes as he flops back down on the throw rug in front of his TV. With this, he unpauses his game and I watch his avatar enter a new terrain; some kind of forest area with huge trees.

While Mark’s avatar approaches a river, he and Josh start talking about football or whatever and I feel weird. It’s like my body is relaxed but my mind is turning into jellied panic. Like, my thoughts are still present but slowed down, as if they’re running through jello. Yesterday, the weed made my thoughts all but disappear—today it’s not helping so much. I can’t seem to stop thinking about everything.

As if on cue, Ms. Reacher pops into my head; she’s frowning and scared while a streak of blood runs down her forehead. This image fades only to be replaced with the memory of the kid I accidently hit with a nearby locker; he’s got his palm on his forehead, confusion and pain in his eyes. Last but not least, the bearded perv makes an appearance in my memory; he screams while bits of glass stab him in both of his eyes.

I shiver and Josh glances at me. “You cold?”

“I’m fine.”

Josh returns to his conversation and I try not to panic.

I’ve got to make myself think about something else! If I don’t, I’m going to literally go insane.

“A fight almost broke out in the stands,” Josh says, the low timber of his voice vibrating through me. “I was like, ‘Dude, y’all better stop before Unseen shows up and makes you stop.’”

Mark laughs. “I’d give anything to see those losers get drop-kicked by an invisible guy.”

Desperate to think about anything other than my problems, I force my focus to their conversation and ask, “So y’all think Unseen’s real?”

“I don’t know,” Josh says. He looks at me and his bloodshot eyes soften.

I can tell he’s been thinking about kissing me for the past however long we’ve been in here. I grin and turn my attention to my cousin, who’s back to playing Everquest. “What about you, Mark? You think Unseen’s real?”

“Definitely,” Mark says, his eyes not leaving the screen. “My mom probably made him.”

I stare at the back of his head, processing his words.

“Made him?” Josh asks with a laugh. “How much did you smoke before we got here?”

“Yeah, how could Aunt Jayne make Unseen?” I ask.

“I thought you knew.” Mark pauses the game, rolls onto his back, and stares at his ceiling. “My mom owned a genetic research company that specialized in making people—people like Unseen.”

Josh laughs, but I sit up straighter, my curiosity piqued. “You mean,” I say, watching Mark carefully, “they gave people abilities?”

Mark’s eyes are bleary and his white t-shirt is as wrinkled as his jeans while he stares at whatever poster he’s got taped to the part of the ceiling above his head. I follow his gaze up to a small picture of his mom and dad.

Despite myself, I laugh.

Yeah, that’s not weird at all to have a bunch of pics of half-naked girls taped to your ceiling and then bam—a picture your parents. I don’t know who’s more screwed up: me or my cousin.

“Yep,” Mark says and I return my attention to him while Josh starts to toy with my hair. I’m so focused on hearing what Mark has to say that I don’t even bother flirting with Josh. “It’s crazy. They gave people powers to make them, basically, superhuman. But in the end, it came back to bite them. That’s how my parents died; one of the ‘supers’ got mad at my mom and killed her. But they didn’t stop there: they killed everyone who worked for her—including my dad.”

I tense, my blood running cold.

What if I’m like one of those “supers?” What if one day I get so mad that I completely lose control?

“I’m dangerous,” I whisper.

“Did you just say, ‘I’m dangerous’?” Josh ask with a chuckle.

“No. Why would I say that?” Panicking, I glance around Mark’s game room looking for something, anything, to turn my attention to. “I’m hungry. Do we have food?”

“I was just thinking the same thing. We need pizza.” Mark stumbles to his feet and heads to the door, calling over his shoulder, “Don’t touch my game while I’m in the kitchen!”

Soon as the door shuts, I slide away from Josh, but retain my grip on his hand. He releases the strands of my hair he’s been toying with and we face each other. His brown eyes trace every inch of my face and he smiles, displaying perfect white teeth. At the sight of his smile, I know exactly what I need to do to calm down and get these thoughts out of my head.

I paste on a smile of my own and giggle.

“What?” Josh asks with a grin.

I bite down on my bottom lip, to attract his attention to my mouth. His gaze goes to my lips just as I’ve predicted.

“I was just …” I pause and allow myself a nice long look at Josh’s body. He wears a black sweatshirt over dark jeans and despite the thick material of his sweatshirt, it’s obvious he’s ripped. I sigh, letting my chest expand. “I was just remembering how you had braces in middle school. Anyone else would’ve looked horrible. But you were cute. Even back then you had the same sexy smile.”

“Really?” he slowly asks. It almost sounds like he doesn’t believe me.

“Mmhm.” I chuckle and give his hand a squeeze.

It’s not like I’m lying, Josh was cute in middle school and his smile really has always been heinously magnetic. These days, he flashes the same grin after scoring a touchdown and it sends audible sighs along with whispers of, “Oh my Gwaad, he’s so hot” to clustered packs of fangirls. I can’t blame the little sluts; Joshua Phillips is hot.

Now, his grin wavers and a guarded look falls over his features. “If I’m so sexy, then why are you laughing at me?”

I shrug. “Maybe because you make me nervous.”

He frowns, but a slow grin takes hold of his expression. “I make you nervous?”

I nod, my stomach flip-flopping as his gaze returns to my mouth.

Actually, Josh isn’t just hot. With his charisma and all-state status, Josh is highly datable. But that doesn’t matters because I don’t need another boyfriend; I just need a quick fix.

“You want to, um …” Josh lifts his free hand in a surprisingly clumsy gesture. “Go to your room and hang out?”

Guilt and excitement make like dance partners in my stomach. I try to push aside my guilt- it doesn’t deserve my attention.

Hooking up with Josh wouldn’t be cheating on Ran; it’d be purely physical. The only reason I’d do it is to help me fix my anger problem. So, it’ll be like taking medication … really, really good-looking medication.

I smile and inch closer to Josh. “I want you to kiss me.”

He grins and butterflies fill my stomach.

I let my worries slink away as Josh leans towards me. He slides a hand to the small of my back and when he’s centimeters from my lips, he whispers, “You got it.”

His breath isn’t all that fresh, but I don’t care. It’s not like mine is any better. I meet his lips and we kiss harshly, fighting past the awkwardness of clanging teeth and bad breath, each of us refusing to make this less than what it should be.

His body—warm, muscular, and safe—rocks against mine as he grabs my butt. He plants a row of kisses along my neck and slides one of his hands under my shirt, tugging at my bra. A euphoric sensation envelopes me, and I exhale.

This is exactly what I need. I already feel better.

Mark’s door opens behind us and footsteps enter the room.

“Let’s go to my room,” I say, pushing Josh away and tugging my shirt back down over my bra.

“Mia?” At the sound of my mother’s voice, I nearly fall off of the couch and Josh succeeds where I haven’t. While he crashes to the floor, I hop off of the couch and run a hand through my hair.

“What?” I say. “Why are you in here?”

Beside me, Josh scurries to his feet and I glance at the arm of the couch, where the joint we’ve been sharing lies on a coaster. But my mother’s glassy blue eyes remain fixed on me as she speaks quietly, her every word slow and precise: “I can’t find Nadrine anywhere. Have you seen her?”

“No,” I say, backing away from her and inching towards Josh.

Mom nods. Her skin is so pale that it’s the exact same color as the string of pearls around her neck, and her short hair—as golden as mine—is thinning but perfectly cut. It frames her face in the trendy pageboy that every 40+ woman in town has gotten after seeing it on her.

They’re all idiots. They drool over her haircut, but none of them are smart enough to notice her zombie-like eyes or the bruises beneath her perfectly applied makeup.

“Well, if you see her—” Mom listlessly replies, turning on her heel and headed to Mark’s door, “—let her know I need her help with something. I’ll be in the study.”

I roll my eyes and turn to Josh, grabbing his hand. “Let’s go to my room.”

My mother just [_had _]to pop in and mess everything up—now I feel all scattered and strange.

I run my free hand through my hair, pulling Josh behind me as I book it to Mark’s door.

“Your mom’s really chill; it was like she didn’t even care,” he says as I thrust Mark’s door open and lug us into the hallway.

“That’s because she doesn’t,” I snap, our marble hallway cold under my bare feet. Passing our staircase at my left, I continue the trek to my room. “She’s too high to care about any …” I pause mid-stride, thinking of the two white pills Mom takes every morning.

They’re some kind of super-strength anxiety meds and they’re the only way she can put up with my monster of a father.

“Hey!” I spin around to face Josh. “My mom has these really great pills; you want to try them with me?”

Josh shakes his head. “Nah, I shouldn’t have even smoked. I only did it to impress you.” His eyes soften into a sheepish expression and leaning forward, he kisses me.

I roll my eyes. Oh please.

I wish Josh understood that he doesn’t need to sweet-talk me or whatever. We both want one thing. Still, I close my eyes and go with the kiss, letting the sensation of his exploring tongue override my thoughts. But once he ends the kiss, I say, “You don’t have to pretend to be all shy or act like you like me. We both know what’s happening here.”

Josh blinks quickly and shrugs as he clears his throat. “Right. So, where’s your room?” he asks, glancing over my shoulder.

“Behind me.” I release his hand and nod to it. “Go on. I’ll be there in a sec.”

With this, I head to the stairs.

Josh is going to be great, but I want extra insurance; I want to completely erase my anger, and Mom’s pills should do the trick. They’ve basically obliterated her personality, so hopefully they’ll do the same for me. I’d rather be erased than angry enough to kill someone.

[]

[]

Meagan’s Advice

I’m an overachiever. That’s how I became a dancer. It had nothing to do with natural talent and everything to do with striving for perfection.

Now, as a bead of sweat inches down my neck, I watch E strive for perfection and hit the nail on the head. She assumes a flawless side straddle split stretch.

“Good job, E!” Ms. Thomas, our dance teacher, calls as she paces the studio, observing us. “Keep holding that position, ladies! Fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen …”

E’s entire body forms a lowercase l, her legs on either side of her in a perfectly straight line. She leans right, stretches her left arm high above her head, and lets her fingertips touch her right ankle. E’s only taken dance since her freshman year, but she’s already better than me. It’s like her body was created for this kind of torture.

I, meanwhile, exhale and lean into my stretch while my forearms tremble and my thigh muscles ache. I practiced with Ms. Thomas all summer, but I still can’t relate to the effortlessness with which E moves. If I didn’t know she lived in a trailer park with a stripper mother and convict father, I’d be completely jealous of her.

“Kyle, full attention on your movements please.” Ms. Thomas’ voice snaps me out of my thoughts and I turn away from E to focus on our warm-up.

“… and twenty. Nice job, ladies. Move it to the center now,” Ms. Thomas says. Relieved, I take a deep breath and, like all twelve of the other dancers in my class, arch my back as I stretch forward. But my body is in protest-mode; my heart pounds and I can hardly breathe.

“Nice. Hold it for another twenty seconds. And one, two …”

Sweat pours from my forehead and Ms. Thomas’ counting seems to go on forever. I hate feeling like this—so out of control. It’s as if my body’s decided to rebel against the very notion[_ _]of functioning properly. Eating something would probably help, but I can’t. Yesterday I had those crackers and I have no intention of making a repetition of that today.

“… and twenty. Very Good.” Ms. Thomas claps her hands. “Let’s get to our feet.”

A hand over my racing heart, I push myself up from the floor.

“That felt so good! I’m just now realizing how much I missed dance over the summer,” a girl behind me whispers.

“I know, right?” E quietly replies.

Annoyed with them and with myself for being so weak, I roll my eyes and wipe the sweat from my brow. With this, I turn my attention to Ms. Thomas. Her thin arms are at her side and her posture is perfect as her dark eyes sweep the classroom before settling on me. She frowns. “Where’s Mia?”

“I don’t know.” I shrug. “I haven’t seen her all day.”

“Can you text her to see if she’s coming?” Ms. Thomas asks.

“I’ve been texting her all day, and I just sent her another one a few minutes before class,” I say. “She didn’t answer.”

Ms. Thomas shakes her head and lifts both of her hands in a rather elegant gesture of helplessness. Anyone else who did this would look overdramatic, but not Ms. Thomas. Every movement she makes is graceful. Rail-thin and tall, at about 5’8”, with short burgundy hair that’s shaped into a small fro, Ms. Thomas is the most elegant teacher at South Louisiana High. Today, she wears gold leggings with a bright red and gold halter top that shows off her toned six-pack. The only way she can get away with wearing something so revealing is because dance is considered an after-school extracurricular activity. I glance at her perfectly toned abs and run a hand over my own stomach.

“Well,” she says with a sigh, “we’ll have to do this without our dance captain. Kyle, I need you to stand in for Mia.”

I snap back to reality and hurry to the front of the classroom.

“Please show the girls what we’ve practiced over the summer,” Ms. Thomas commands as she heads to the stereo.

“Which song? Bruno Mars or Bjork?” I ask.

I hope it’s the Bruno Mars song that she wants me to perform. Unlike the choreography we created for the Bjork song, it doesn’t involve a grand jet or an attempt at a pirouette, meaning there’s less of a chance I’ll start seeing spots and pass out.

“Bjork,” Ms. Thomas replies as she starts the music. “Ready?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Trying not to panic, I move into position.

While I begin the steps—my heart pounding and sweat dripping down my back—Ms. Thomas says, “For now, I want you girls to simply watch Kyle. Once you’ve watched the dance, we’ll break it down for you step by step. We’ll need to have this perfected in three weeks. So, pay close attention.”

I take a deep breath and ease into an arabesque while glancing at my classmates. A mascara-laden bead of sweat eases down my cheek. E and the girl beside her—a blond sophomore named Meagan—are both looking at me with concern.

Why are they looking at me like that?

As the arabesque comes to a close, I steal a peek at the girl to E’s left—a hefty chick named Yuan. Her dark eyes narrowed, she glares at me and folds her arms over her chest.

I know that look: she’s jealous.

Turning away from the girls in my dance class, I finish the routine.

I look fine; they’re just jealous, and worrying about their opinions is a waste of time. As of now, the only thing that isn’t a waste of time is getting my voice and body into shape.

I CLOSE MY locker and grab my dance bag.

The sound of the shower in the background is nearly drowned out by the talking and giggling of the few underclassmen who are still in the locker room—Meagan, Yuan, and a girl named Shannon. They’re discussing the meaning behind the lyrics of a Sia song and Meagan’s explanation is surprisingly clever.

“She’s talking about how we’re all, like, addicted to something,” Meagan loudly explains, “and her addiction happened to be drugs. But then …”

I lean against my locker and check my texts, hoping Mia’s finally replied.

She hasn’t.

That’s strange. Even when Mia refuses to text anyone else, she keeps me in the loop.

Despite my concern, I have to grin when I see that Eric’s texted me. Nerves and anticipation hitching my breath, I open his message.

Eric: Hey, Kyle. Just checking in. How are you feeling today? Any better?

I bite down on my bottom lip to suppress the crazy grin that’s taken over my mouth. What am I? A tween? Geez …

I make myself close his text and form another message to Mia.

Guys come and go, best friends are for life.

Kyle: Wish you were here. E asked me to drop her at the mall. I bet she’s going to walk all the way from the mall to her trailer lol. If you were here we could actually laugh about it. I can’t laugh at her all by myself, makes me feel like a huge snob.

“Don’t you think I’m right, Kyle?” Meagan asks just as I hit send.

All three of the sophomores look at me with wide eyes, which is probably as eager as I looked when I was reading Eric’s text a minute ago.

I shrug. “I honestly have no idea. When E comes out of her billion-hour-long shower, would you tell her I’m waiting in the car?” With this, I head for the locker room’s exit.

How E can shower in this ghastly locker room is beyond me. Then again, if I lived where she lives, I probably wouldn’t find SLH’s locker room so repulsive.

“Hey, Kyle, wait up!” Meagan calls, scampering after me.

I turn around only to be assaulted by Meagan’s overly cheerful grin. The girl’s smiles are more intense than a Mack truck’s brights, and even worse—she’s a close-talker.

I take a step back and try not to sound annoyed. “Yeah, what’s up?” I try to be nice to Meagan because in spite of her quirks, she’s a very sweet girl. As the human equivalent of a labradoodle, Meagan is impossibly cute, playful, and prone to surprising glimpses into what might[_ _]be above-average intelligence.

“Do you mind if I, like, walk you to your car?” she asks as she leans towards me. The scent of her perfume invading every inch of my personal space, Meagan lowers her voice and whispers, “I want to talk to you about something privately.”

“Yeah, sure.” I start towards the exit and she follows, her arm brushing mine.

I don’t understand why extraverts have this compelling need to touch the person they’re speaking to. I’m not an Apple product; [_I _]don’t come with a touch-screen, so don’t touch me.

I try to inch away from Meagan, but she continues to shadow me.

“Kyle, you’ve always been so super nice to me which is really rare around here and I’ve never actually thanked you for that.”

“Yes you have,” I reply.

Last year before the summer break, on the last day of school, Meagan gave me a basket of novelty soaps with a thank you card. The card said, “Thanks for being so super nice!” and each of the little soaps had “Thanks!” engraved in them.

“I know, but I mean I could never say thank you enough!”

“It’s fine, Meagan. Really.” I push through the locker room door and it swings shut behind us.

I head to the gym’s exit and just as I’m about to tell Meagan to get to her point already, she says, “I felt like I should say that first, because I want you to know where I’m, like, coming from. I hope you understand that I’m totally saying this as, like, a friend. Okay?”

I try not to visibly cringe. If Meagan says, “like” one more time, there’s a strong possibility I will lose my entire mind. “Sure, Meagan.”

“So, you looked really winded while you were dancing. It was like …” Meagan pauses and looks up at our hallway’s dingy ceiling as if she’s searching for the right words. “It was like you couldn’t breathe and you were sweating a lot and you look like you’ve lost a solid fifteen pounds since the last time I saw you. You’re, like, scary unhealthy.”

I stop walking and turn to Meagan. “Excuse me?”

Her blue eyes widen and she takes a step back. “I’m s-sorry. I’m just saying you look really, um … like, bad.”

My heart pounds as I lift my chin and repeat, “I look bad” through gritted teeth.

Meagan frowns and shakes her head. “Oh my Gosh, I’m saying this all wrong. But I—”

“Not that it’s any of your business, but I’m fine,” I snap.

“But, I don’t think you are,” Meagan says, speaking quickly. “Did you know you could die from anorexia?”

I bristle. There’s that word again. “I’m not anorexic. And who do you think you are to talk to me like that?”

Meagan straightens her posture, and looks me in the eye. “I think I’m your friend.”

“And you thought wrong. Back off.”

“I saw you faint in P.E. yesterday,” Meagan goes on as if I haven’t just asked her to back off. “And earlier, while you were dancing, you looked like you were going to pass out again. That’s because you’re not eating. And if you don’t start eating, you’re going to die.”

Chills run down my arms and my heart starts to pound even harder.

There’s no reason for me to stick around and listen to the human-labradoodle yap. So, I turn away from Meagan, and she grabs my arm.

“Let go!” I try to shake her off, but she’s too strong.

“Just listen to me for, like, ten seconds, that’s all.”

“No, Meagan,” I say. “You’re insane. I’m not anorexic!”

“I hope you’re right,” she says, looking me in the eye. “I really do. But if I’m not insane and you actually are, like, starving yourself then you need to know this one thing: when you stop eating and keep exercising, it confuses your body. Your body gets so screwed up that your heart stops working. And do you know what happens when your heart stops working? You die. Do you want to die?”

As if to underscore Meagan’s words, my heart begins to pounds so hard that I feel like my entire chest is trembling. I struggle to get out of her grip. “Let go!”

“Like I said, I care.” Meagan’s voice is as determined as her expression, but she loosens her grip on my arm. “One of my cousins died of anorexia and I don’t want the same thing to happen to my friend.”

I shrug her off, tear through the exit door, and stomp all the way to my SUV.

That girl has lost it. Who does she even think she is?

I reach into my bag, grab my phone and try to ignore the sound of Meagan’s warning echoing in my head. But “… do you know what happens when your heart stops working? You die. Do you want to die?” reverberates in my head and the more the phrase is repeated, the more my frustration grows.

My heart pounding and tears stinging my eyes, I compose a text to Eric.

Kyle: Hey, thanks for checking on me, I’m fine. In fact, do you want to go to the movies with me tonight?

I stare at the unsent message as Meagan’s warning continues to seep into my every thought.

What if she’s right?

The way my heart is pounding and the fainting spells … what if eventually, I pass out and I don’t wake up?

A tear falls from my eye and lands on my phone. I wipe it way and retype my text to Eric.

Kyle: Hey, I’m kinda hungry. Are you free for dinner?

I take a deep breath and hit send.

ERIC LOOKS EVEN better than he did yesterday. His dark hair is neat and combed to the side. His deep brown eyes are as bright as his smile, and the light blue button-down shirt he’s got on brings out the golden glow of his skin. He looks amazing.

I can’t stop staring at him and neither can anyone else. As soon as we walked into Bayou Boudreaux’s, my favorite Cajun fusion restaurant, every woman in the vicinity stopped what she was doing to gawk.

Now, Eric dips his fork into his bowl of shrimp masala and looks up at me. “So, is Kyle your full name or a nickname?”

“Full name.” I spear one of the tomatoes in my salad. “And it’s a traditional Vietnamese name, obviously.”

He looks at me in surprise, his fork paused midair.

I smile. “I’m joking.”

He chuckles and takes a bite of his food.

“Actually,” I say, sliding the tomato back onto my plate before setting my fork down. “Kyle is my full name, but it’s not traditional. Big surprise. The story behind it is that the doctor misread my sonogram picture. Apparently, she thought my foot was … something other than a foot.”

Eric laughs. “Well, I like your name. I think it’s pretty on you,” he says before taking another bite of his masala.

I glance at his meal, which is a fusion of Cajun-Indian spices that smells wonderful, and it’s already more than halfway gone. It’s not fair how most guys can eat whatever they want as long as they exercise. All I have to do is look at food and it goes straight to my hips.

I avert my eyes from his food and lean back in my seat. “Thanks. I used to be super self-conscious about it. In fact, I remember arguing with my mom when I was twelve. Like, I was in tears, begging her to officially change my name.”

“Aww.” Eric pulls a sad face. “But Kyle is such a cool name for a girl.”

I shrug. “I just think it’s funny that my parents were so focused on giving me an American name that they didn’t even consider getting the gender right.”

Eric grins. “They sound interesting.”

“Oh, they are. They’re crazy.”

“Do they force you to be American but make you speak your real language at home?” he asks with a chuckle.

I blink back at him. “Well, my real language is English, because I’m American.”

Eric’s cheeks turn bright red. His eyes widen and he straightens his posture. “I’m sorry, I was only asking because that’s what my parents do. We’re Cuban. Actually, they’re from Cuba and I was born here. I … I was asking because they want me to be American, but at home I basically wasn’t allowed to speak English.”

“Oh.” I smile, relief washing over me. “I get it. I just, um, well, people around here tend to assume I’m, like, not American.”

“Trust me, I understand.” Eric nods. “Back home in New Orleans, it wasn’t a big deal. But here, random strangers will stare at me and ask, ‘What are you?’”

I look at Eric thoughtfully. Before tonight, I hadn’t given much thought to his ethnicity. Sure I wondered about it, but I figured it would come up eventually … it’s weird that he has to go through the same thing I do.

I smile. “I bet most of those ‘random strangers’ are girls who just want an excuse to talk to you.”

He chuckles. “Actually, they’re usually senior citizens.”

He takes another bite of his masala while I say, “What you said about your parents—that does sounds familiar. My mom and dad don’t make us to speak Vietnamese at home, but I know what you mean about them not wanting us to forget where we come from. They’re really big on that.”

“Do you feel like they’re conflicted?” he asks, his gaze darting to my untouched salad. “Like, they want us to be different from them, but when they see the differences, it makes them feel guilty.”

“Hm …” I consider this.

I think maybe Eric’s right. My mom, for example, wants me to have friends at school and be a part of every extracurricular activity that my “American” friends participate in. But after a night of hanging out with these very same friends, Mom scolds me about remembering where I come from- as if I’ve forgotten. As if I could ever forget! I think she gets upset because, on some level, it hurts her to see that she and I are culturally different. Yes, we have the same roots, but I was raised in a different country and that affects everything about my perception. It’s like she’s simultaneously proud and scared of the way we’re different.

“Yeah.” I nod. “Maybe that’s why my mom’s so critical of everything I do and say. Are your parents like that?”

“My dad’s pretty critical of my … decisions.” Eric pauses, like he’s trying to choose his words carefully. “But my mom’s not. Of course she wants me to remember where I come from, but she’s pretty supportive of whatever I decide. Hey, is your salad not good?”

I look down at the untouched salad, wondering how to answer him.

“It’s great.” I look up at him and smile. My smile wilts as he pushes his bowl of masala my way. There are four or five heaping forkfuls left.

“You have to try this; it’s one of the best things I’ve ever tasted in my entire life.” He grins and looks into my eyes.

Butterflies fill my stomach and I find myself nodding. “Okay.”

“Tell me what you think.” He nods to the food and, resting his elbows on the table, says, “So, getting back to the parents conversation—mine wanted me to go to school for accounting. That way I could become an accountant for the family business and stay with them in New Orleans. Pretty much our whole family’s there and they all live on the same street. My dad’s still mad that I moved here. What about yours? What do they want for you? And isn’t that shrimp perfect?”

My mouth is full and all I can do is nod my agreement. The taste fills me with guilt, but Eric’s right. The shrimp, much like this evening, is perfect.

I push my guilt aside, deciding to deal with it later, and swallow the mouthful of food.

[]

[]

Dr. Claire Hawke

My every muscle aches from dance and from rushing off to the mall to put on that stupid chicken suit and hold up a huge “House of Chicken” sign at the mall’s entrance for two hours straight. I stretch my arms high above my head, working out the kinks in my neck and biceps as I round the corner to our little cul-de-sac.

Frogs croak their mating calls in the nearby grass and crickets chirp a lulling symphony. I let their music sink into me, extend my arms, and ease into a pirouette. I stumble and decide to stop before I break my neck on this terrible dirt road.

I exhale and look up into the clear night sky, my eyes going from star to star.

On a night like this, how are you supposed to know where to look?

A while back, Ran said that whenever we look at the stars we’re seeing glimmers of the past because the light that’s only just now reaching our eyes has already happened on the star’s end.

I catch sight of a falling star and stop walking to watch it. If wishing on a star actually did any good, I’d wish that I knew exactly what I should do once I graduate—there are just so many choices. And I don’t want to make the wrong one.

I could use my dancing scholarship or I could focus on a career as a chef or I could maybe do something with my writing … though I don’t personally think I’m all that good.

I sigh and as the falling star fades from view, and I continue on to our trailer.

I don’t want to make the wrong decision and end up like Mom.

I bite the inside of my cheek and shift my book bag on my aching shoulders.

It’s not that I don’t have mad respect for everything Mom does for our family, but I don’t want to end up stuck in a bad decision. And I don’t think she’d want that for me either.

Still pondering this, I turn my attention to our trailer and come to a halt at the sight of an expensive looking SUV parked out front.

My heart flip-flops in my chest.

Who’s in my house with Dad?

My thoughts return to Dr. Hawke and her little meet-up with him at the mall. Clenching my fists, I head to our front door, a stress headache already forming at my temples.

As I approach, it sounds like Dad’s already on the verge of doing what I intend to do. I pause mid-stride and listen through a crack in the partially opened door.

“Get out!” Dad shouts, his footsteps shaking the trailer as he approaches the door. “You have no right to show up here when I’ve already told you I’m done!”

“Hal.” Dr. Hawke’s voice is as calm as ever. I tense, inching towards the door so I can hear her, “No reason to be afraid. Even Unseen will react to this, trust me.”

I stare at our door, trying to wrap my head around her words.

Even Unseen will react to this. React to what?

“How do you know?” Dad snaps, his voice still raised, though he sounds less angry. “Did you test it on him yourself?”

“I can’t catch Unseen,” Dr. Hawke replies, a nearly intractable tinge of impatience creeping into her tone. “That’s why we need you. Unseen follows your every move, and I—”

“Want to use me as bait. You want me to risk my life for your little science project!” Dad says and a wave of understanding washes over me.

Dr. Hawke is asking my dad to trap Unseen.

I shake my head simply to clear it.

This is crazy. Why would Dr. Hawke want to trap Unseen?

“Not just for a science project,” Dr. Hawke says, speaking quickly. “For a half a million dollars. Think about your family, about your wife not having to work at that—”

Without another thought, I plow through the front door and Dad, who’s right by the door. He turns to me in surprise as I lock eyes with Dr. Hawke. “Get out!” I head towards her without stopping. In my heels I’m at least 5’9”, which is several inches taller than she is. And considering the surge of protectiveness that’s pushing me towards her like an unstoppable train, I don’t blame Dr. Hawke for leaping out of my way.

She rushes past me so quickly that some of her white-blond hair falls out of its messy bun as she darts out our front door.

“Stay away from my dad!” I shout before slamming our door so hard that the entire trailer shakes.

My head pounding and my ire so Level 10 that my pits are starting to sweat. I turn to Dad and his eyes are wide.

His lips twitch and he starts to chuckle. I roll my eyes as I slide my backpack off.

“Her face …” he says between uncontrollable chuckles. “Did you see her face?”

“Dad, please.” I shake my head while he bellows with laughter, the shake of his beer belly reminding me of Mr. Krabs from Spongebob Squarepants.

But I can’t laugh.

My tone deathly serious in comparison with his, I say, “Don’t do it, Dad. Don’t do what she’s asking.”

Dad stops laughing and meets my eyes. He clears his throat and folds his arms, glancing left as he says, “‘Course I won’t.” He gulps, his Adam’s apple moving up and down in his throat.

I wait for him to find the courage to look me in the eye.

He doesn’t.

I open my mouth to tell him he’s a horrible liar when he says, “And not a word to your mom about any of this, all right?”

Without waiting for my response, he claps me on the shoulder and heads to his room, his heavy footsteps shaking the trailer.

I start after him. “Dad!”

“Not now, Liz,” he says, shutting his door.

Cursing under my breath, I duck into my room and throw my things down before collapsing back on to my bed.

A half a million dollars … I know my dad. He won’t be able to pass that up.

He’s going to cave and I’ve got to stop him.

[]

[]

Imprévu et indésirable

I’m so glad I went to dinner with Eric.

Still unable to stop smiling, I hit the brakes as our neighborhood’s gate takes forever to ease open. But for once, I don’t mind that it’s so slow.

Utterly content, I lean back in my seat and close my eyes.

Tonight was, hands down, the best first date I’ve ever been on. Eric’s literally perfect.

First of all, he looks like a hotter version of Jesse Metcalfe, but he’s more than just a pretty face: he’s relatable and smart. In fact, he’s so smart that he actually has a plan for the future! I’ve never gone out anyone who knew what they wanted to do with their life. Even the nineteen-year-old I hooked up with for a hot second last January had no idea where he was going in life. But Eric’s already got it all figured out.

A car honks behind me and I open my eyes.

I accelerate through the opened gate and speed down my neighborhood’s main street, still smiling like a dork. I can’t help myself; it’s been so long since I’ve been this happy!

I turn onto our street and at the sight of an ambulance and fire truck in front of our house, my smile fades.

“MOM?” I SHOUT as I hurry through our front door.

I come to a halt and my purse slips out of my hands, falling to the floor.

Grandma’s stretched out on the couch while two paramedics kneel beside her. One of them, an older guy with salt and pepper hair, asks her questions in French. Grandma’s eyes are open, but she looks … odd, and I don’t think she’s answering him. My heart pounding, I start towards her.

“Grandma?” My voice breaks and someone grabs my hand. It’s Mom.

Words push themselves to my lips, how I don’t know. “What happened?”

Mom’s eyes are red and her voice is soft as she answers me: “They suspect she’s had a stroke, they’re going to take her to the hospital.”

Cam Hong is all at once beside me. She picks my purse up from the floor and says, “Mom’s going to ride in the ambulance with Grandma. You can come with me in my car.”

I nod, barely registering what my sister’s said. All I can do is stare at Grandma. Her dark eyes, more frightened than I’ve ever seen them, go from one paramedic to the other. The salt and pepper haired paramedic leans towards her and, speaking with a thick Cajun accent, says, “Nous allons à l’hôpital. D’accord?”

Grandma looks at him and blinks, but says nothing.

Her deep brown eyes, the same color and shape as mine, dart to me. I try to smile at her, but I just can’t.

Grandma is my link to who I really am; she’s the living history that runs through my veins, she’s what makes it real. If it weren’t for her I wouldn’t exist, and if she dies… I gulp and Mom gives my hand a hard squeeze. Oh my God, please let Grandma be okay …

[]

[]

The Plan

I spoon my mixture of chopped crawfish tail meat, Cajun seasoning, and sour cream into half of my omelet. It smells heaven-sent; Mom and Dad are going to love these.

I loosen the omelet with a spatula, fold it in half, and slide it onto the second of the two plates I’ve set near the stove.

The trailer shakes beneath my feet as the door to Mom and Dad’s room slides open and I glance at the stove clock. 6 AM already.

“Hey, Dad,” I say without turning around. I slip Grandma’s apron off and set it on the hook to the left of our makeshift pantry. “I made crawfish omelets and hash—the hash is keeping warm in the oven.”

“What, did you wake up at the break of dawn just to cook for us?” he asks with a loud yawn.

“Guess I was hungry,” I say as I grab my leather jacket and put it on over my favorite black Suck It! t-shirt.

The truth is that I couldn’t sleep. Every time I tried, I’d dream about Dad getting arrested.

“They let you wear that at school?” Dad asks with a laugh. He pats the top of my head as he pads to the stove.

I can’t look at him right now, so I keep my head down, mumble, “We’ll see,” and sling my backpack on over my shoulders before making my way to the front door.

“Thanks for the breakfast, Liz,” Dad calls after me. “Uh, have a good day at school.”

“I will,” I say as I close the door behind me, and then grab my phone.

After the conversation I overheard between Dad and Dr. Hawke, there’s no way I can just go to school. I hurry down the dirt road, headed to the bus stop at the start of our trailer park as I type:

Elizabeth: Hey Mark, I need your help with something. Can you meet me at the mall in an hour?

I hit send and slide my phone back into my purse. I hope I know what I’m doing …[_ _]Mark Mire is Mia Reeve’s cousin, for God’s sake and every time I’ve hung out with him, he’s acted the part of Mia’s cousin; he’s used to getting everything he wants and he has no idea what life is like for people who aren’t as well off as his über rich family, not to mention that he’s struggling with an addiction problem. Still though, there’s something about Mark that makes me think I can trust him.

Of course, I could be letting the fact that he’s sort of cute distort my perception, but I really do think Mark’s more honest than Mia, and maybe even more honest than I am. Like, the main thing that Mia and I have in common is the way we hide. We pretend to be bold and say exactly what we’re thinking, when we’re actually just hiding behind our big personalities. With Mark, there’s no hiding, no BS, he just is who he is. I actually kind of admire that …Geez. I admire Mark Mire? What’s wrong with me? Am I losing my mind?

I readjust my purse on my shoulder, turn the corner onto the trailer park’s main road and briefly reconsider my opinion of Mark.

Or maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe I just know that if I’m going to keep Dad out of trouble, I’ll need someone with an open schedule and a vehicle. And being that my two best friends aren’t the most trustworthy amigos in the world, that leaves Mark Mire.

I EXPECTED MARK to drag in at about ten. To my surprise, he met me at the mall’s Yogurtland stand at 7:30 AM on the dot. As I watched him approach, I couldn’t help but notice how great he looked. He stood out from the crowd with his longish dark bangs neatly brushed forward, and a black sweater under a black tanker-style jacket.

His cousin stands out in a crowd too, but in a different way. Mia always has her nose in the air, her boobs thrust forward, and a prowl-like intensity to her every step. But Mark’s nothing like that; it’s like he’s shinier than anyone else around him. Or maybe it’s just that he’s really cute and I don’t want to admit it.

Now, I tuck a strand of hair behind my ear, fleetingly wishing I’d done something other than a simple ponytail.

We walk past a lady pushing a stroller as I say, “So you know how the other day we saw my dad with Ran’s mom?”

Mark nods and slips his hands into the pockets of his coat. “Yeah.”

“I need to find out what they’re doing,” I say, my gaze going to the paused escalator as I choose my words carefully. I’ve already decided not to tell Mark the whole story about what my dad and Dr. Hawke are doing. He might be honest, but he also called me “white trash” and I’m not about to be an idiot and totally let him into my life. “And since you have a car and you’re homeschooled, I figured you’d be available to give me a hand with looking into what’s going on between my dad and Dr. Hawke.”

“Sure, I’m up for whatever you need. But, uh, honestly, you know Mia would’ve skipped school to help you,” Mark quietly says.

“Would she?” I roll my eyes.

“Yeah, she’d do anything for you.”

I laugh. “Even though I’m just white trash.”

“E,” Mark speaks quickly. “Please don’t say that.”

I glance at him, heat rising to my cheeks. “It’s what she says. I’m just repeating it.”

“Well, Mia’s a tool.” Mark meets my eyes, his softening. “I know she’s my cousin and I love her, but that’s the truth; she’s a tool and she doesn’t know how to treat the people she cares about.” He gestures towards me. “Hence, the way she treats you.”

I’m not sure how to respond and a beat of silence passes between us. I steer us beyond the escalator and towards a department store which, like most of the stores, is closed at this time of day.

“So, you’re going to help me then?” I finally ask.

“Yeah, of c-course.” Mark clears his throat and I realize that he’s nervous. I suppress a smile as we head past the department store. “Basically, you want to see if your Dad’s stepping out on your Mom.”

Surprised, I glance at Mark. He holds my gaze for less than a split second and then looks away. “He’s not cheating on my mom,” I say to the side of Mark’s head.

“How do you know?” He turns to me, a carefully blank expression on his face.

I know that look; it’s been my armor for years. It’s an “I’m too bored to care” screensaver for your face.

“If you saw him with Ran’s mom—”

I shake my head as I cut Mark off. “Trust me, my dad’s not dumb enough to cheat on my mom. If you saw her, you’d understand.”

“She’s thug?”

I laugh and Mark’s brown eyes soften as he grins.

“No.” I smile and say, “she looks like me, except prettier.”

“Impossible.”

His reply is so quiet that for a moment I wonder if I’ve imagined it. He turns to look straight ahead, his cheeks reddening, which tells me that I didn’t mishear him.

“Sure,” he says quickly. “I’m in. I’ll help.”

“Great. I’ve thought it over and we should start at Dr. Hawke’s job at Serenity Bayous. Feel like visiting a mental hospital?”

Mark blinks quickly, a fleeting look of either fear or severe discomfort overtaking his features. But it passes, and he nods. “Sure, let’s do it.”

MARK PULLS INTO the Serenity Bayous parking lot and I turn to him in horror. “Mark, you can’t park our huge get-away vehicle right splat in the parking lot.”

For some reason, this strikes him as funny. He laughs as he kills the engine and says, “Get-away vehicle? This isn’t exactly Mission Impossible.”

I tense and straighten my spine as I silently assess the boy who I, due to some kind of momentary streak of insanity, thought it’d be a good idea to trust. His brown eyes were clear earlier, so I’d assumed he wasn’t high. Now, he blinks back at me, his cheeks reddening while I continue to stare at him.

“E—”

“If you’d been listening to anything I said on the way here,” I say, keeping my voice even while I study his features, from his deep, expressive eyes to the long nose that’s situated between his well-crafted cheekbones. “Um, you’d, um …” I tear my gaze away from him and try to remember what I’d wanted to say. “You’d know this is exactly like … um, Mission Impossible.”

Mark frowns, his pointed features softened by the concern in his eyes. “You okay?”

“I’d be better if we parked out of sight,” I say, my cheeks warming.

“Trust me. I can get us in there without scaling the side of the building or whatever,” Mark says.

I glance at him and those big brown eyes crush the smart-aleck remark I’d like to make.

“Fine, let’s just go.” I open my door and jump out of the Hummer, confused not only by Mark’s plan—whatever it may be—but by the affect he’s having on me. I usually don’t have any problem keeping guys who like me at a distance.

I tuck my hands into the pockets of my leather jacket and make my way to Serenity Bayous’ glass front doors.

Mark arms the Hummer and hurries to catch up to me, his footsteps so sequential that I could use them as a beat to dance to. But picking up the pace, he darts ahead of me and opens one of the glass doors.

“Thanks,” I mumble, walking through and immediately freezing at the sight of a security guard.

The guard—a middle-aged man with a book in his hands, and a rather bored expression on his face—is seated behind a small desk with a computer. He looks up from his novel and meets my eyes.

I smile, but internally reel. Well, I guess I’m going to have to do some heavy flirting to get us past this guy. That’s not really my thing, but if hanging around Mia and Kyle has taught me anything, it’s schooled me in the art of using your sexuality to get what you want.

I take a deep breath and steel myself, but before I can flirt my way into Serenity Bayous, the guard’s gaze goes to Mark and the older man’s face lights up. He smiles and stands. “What do you say, Marky Mark?”

“Hey, Mr. Nelson,” Mark says and they slap hands like old pals.

I look from one to the other, puzzled.

“You brought a friend with you this week?” The guard, Mr. Nelson, nods to me and I move forward, approaching his desk as I silently digest his words.

This week? Does Mark come to Serenity Bayous on a weekly basis?

“Yeah, Elizabeth,” Mark says, gesturing to me. “This is Mr. Nelson. He’s been working here since dinosaurs roamed the swamps.”

Mr. Nelson laughs and extends a hand my way. “That’s pretty much the truth.”

I shake his hand and smile. “Nice to meet you.”

Mark lowers his voice and leans towards Mr. Nelson. “Is it okay if I show her my mom’s old lab?”

“Yeah, yeah. Of course, man.” The older man frowns and waves like this is a silly question. He yanks an ID badge from a key chain at his hip and hands it to Mark. “Just don’t go anywhere marked private; Dr. Hawke will have my head.”

“Yes, sir, you got it.” Mark accepts the key card and turns to me, his gaze holding mine as he nods to a door straight ahead. “Ready?”

I nod and give Mr. Nelson a quick wave goodbye before following Mark to the door, which he unlocks by sliding Mr. Nelson’s badge into a small card reader near its handle.

“Your mom,” I whisper as I walk through the door he holds open, “had a lab here?”

The door closes behind us and Mark hesitates before he says, “Yeah.”

Staring at him, I quickly sort through the very little Mia’s mentioned about her cousin. She’s surprisingly protective when it comes to Mark. All I know about his past is that he’s an orphan who came to live with them when he was a really little.

“So, she—”

Before I can finish my question, Mark leans towards me and I get a whiff of cologne as he whispers, “They have cameras everywhere; we should keep moving.”

With this, we’re on our way down a gleaming white hallway that smells like bleach and vanilla air freshener. On either side of us, large portraits of old men hang on the walls. Mark slows in stride as we approach the portrait of a dark haired woman.

I turn to it and instantly recognize Mark in her features.

The woman’s hair is super short and her eyes are the same color as Mark’s, but they’re smaller. For some reason, her lips are pinched, like she’s just tasted something bitter. It’s a shame because her small mouth would be cute if it weren’t so tense.

“That’s her—my mom,” Mark says as I glance down at the portrait’s golden frame and notice the name engraved at its very bottom: Dr. Jayne Mire.

I turn to Mark and he’s watching me, a sheepish look in his eye.

The look does something funny to my joints, the way the staccato in a song gets to you without you even noticing and before you know what’s happening you’re reacting by tapping your foot or snapping your fingers. Now, I react by shifting on my feet and grinning as I say, “You look like her, but cuter.”

Mark’s eyes widen and he looks like he doesn’t quite know what to say. But after a moment, he blinks into the distance behind me and nods towards the remainder of the corridor we have yet to traverse. “We should probably keep moving.”

“Yeah,” I agree, my cheeks warming as we make our way towards a pair of double doors.

I bite the inside of my cheek, wanting to kick myself.

Cute? Did I really just call him cute? What’s wrong with me? I don’t have time to mess with good guys, let alone an over-privileged pothead.

“Hey.” Mark touches my elbow and pauses in stride before the double doors.

I glance at him … but he really is cute.

“What?” I ask, trying to get a hold of myself.

He points right. “Dr. Hawke’s office.”

“Oh!” I turn to where he’s pointing and a wooden door is right there in front of us.

There’s no nameplate or indication of it being anything other than a janitor’s closet. I glance at the door’s card reader as Mark leans forward and knocks, calling out, “Hey, Dr. Hawke? It’s Mark.”

I tuck my hair behind my ears, my apprehension about what I’m doing waltzing with my curiosity about the boy I’m doing it with.

He knocks again and calls her name.

Mark’s got a small brown birthmark on the back of his neck that I’ve never noticed before. It’s not weird looking or anything. But it makes me wonder what else I haven’t noticed. Like, it’s crazy that his mom worked here and he knows Dr. Hawke well enough to do this.

Mark glances at me and arches an eyebrow. “Ready?”

I nod, tensing. “You have your phone, right?”

“Yeah,” he says, sliding Mr. Nelson’s badge through the card reader. With this, he opens the door and steps inside. My heart beat quickening, I follow him into Dr. Hawke’s office.

The door swings shut behind us, automatically locking. I pause mid-stride, stunned by the difference between the plain door and the elegant office it hides.

First of all, the office is huge with dark-oak floors, sandy-colored walls, and white trim. To my left is a computer station comprised of two dark-oak desks arranged in a half moon. They hold a computer with two huge monitors and a large purple and white vase that’s full of blossoming Louisiana Alyssum flowers. On the wall to the left of the desk—just above a desk chair with a large cushion—hangs a nice-sized black and white family portrait of Dr. Hawke with her husband, Reverend Hawke, and of course Ran seated between the two of them. They’re all smiles, Ran looking exactly like his mom.

Mark heads to the middle of Dr. Hawke’s office where a large rectangular fish tank serves as a divider between Dr. Hawke’s computer area and what I assume is the area where she sees patients.

Mark taps at the fish tank and one of the four small, yellow fish swims towards him. I take a hesitant step forward, my gaze going to the dark purple couch and chair at our right, each piece of furniture home to two decorative pillows with purple and white flowers.

I imagine Dr. Hawke and her psychiatric patients sitting here talking about bad childhoods, mental problems and … what it’s like to be an orphan.

My gaze returns to Mark.

He must be one of her patients.

He straightens, turning his attention away from the fish as he sets his brown eyes on me and reaches into his jacket pocket, retrieving his phone. “We should probably move a little faster.”

I blush. [_Why _]am I blushing?

“Right.” I nod and clear my throat. “She’s got a nice office; I didn’t think it’d be so big.”

Mark shrugs and turns on his phone’s voice recorder. “Yeah, but it doesn’t have any windows,” he says, his eyes on the phone.

I chuckle and shake my head. “You rich people. You always—” I stop short, realizing what I’ve said. None of my friends know where I live or just how much[_ the opposite of rich_] I actually am.

Mark looks up from his phone, curiosity in his eyes. “We always what?”

I meet his eyes and before I know it, I’m blurting, “You always take things for granted.” Embarrassed, I tear my eyes away from Mark and turn to Dr. Hawke’s computer station. “Anyway, let’s leave the phone under her desk, that way it’ll definitely pick up her phone conversations.”

I start for her desk and Mark follows. “Yeah, but when I come back to get it if she’s here, she’ll wonder why I was at her desk. I think the couch would be better.”

Mark stops talking as the click of heels approach the other side of Dr. Hawke’s office door. My heart dips into my stomach and I freeze.

His eyes wide, Mark turns to the door where the unmistakable sound of Dr. Hawke’s voice rings out like a looming threat: “No, that’s okay. Just bring Betty back to her room and let her family know we’ve found her. It’ll be fine, this happens nearly every month.”

I take a deep breath and glance at the space below Dr. Hawke’s computer desk. It’s large enough to hide two people. I grab Mark’s hand and start for the desk. “Under here!”

In the distance, the low buzz of the card reader sounds.

“Crap,” Mark murmurs, releasing my hand as we simultaneously duck under her desk. We sit facing each other, our knees pulled up to our chests. The office door opens and I cringe, closing my eyes.

If she finds us, I can only imagine how much trouble we’ll be in. While Dr. Hawke’s heels click against her office’s wooden floor, I open my eyes to find Mark looking at me. His gaze holding mine, he lifts his right hand, hesitates and then gently sets it on top of my left.

I gulp.

Maybe he’s not so bad, but will Mark not being so bad matter if Dr. Hawke finds us?

Her heels move in closer and before I know it, she’s seated behind her desk, her crossed legs mere inches from the left side of my face. My heart pounds and I close my eyes, trying to focus on the warmth of Mark’s palm against my skin.

Dr. Hawke takes a deep breath and mumbles, “Here goes all hell.”

I open my eyes as she types something before easing a few inches away from her monitors.

“Dr. Hawke.” A deep male voice, tainted by computer static, emerges from directly above our heads.

“General, hope your day is going well,” Dr. Hawke replies, a smile in her voice.

“I wish it were, but thank you. You said you have an update on the Novu situation?”

I glance at Mark and frown, mouthing, “Novu?”

He lifts his eyebrows and shakes his head as he shrugs.

“Yes, sir.” Dr. Hawke pauses and re-crosses her legs. “I’ve found a way to safely eradicate their entire population without harming their planet.”

I meet Mark’s gaze and see my confusion in his widened eyes.

Why is this woman talking about “eradicating the entire population of a planet”? And when she said, “their planet” did she mean as in an alien planet?

Chills run down my arms.

“How so?” the general asks.

“There’s a specially-designed missile that only one of our Trip-Experiments is powerful enough to activate,” Dr. Hawke replies, her voice shaking. She clears her throat. “You’ve heard of … Unseen, I’m sure.”

“The rogue mutant, yes,” the General replies. “Can you find him or do you need manpower?”

“I have the manpower and an excellent plan for trapping Unseen,” Dr. Hawke says, speaking quickly, the way Ran does when he’s nervous. “But I need more weapons. And chiatum, of course.”

“Consider it done. I’ll fly them your way this afternoon.”

“Thank you, General.”

As soon as Dr. Hawke ends the conversation, she curses under her breath, grabs her purse from a desk drawer, and leaves the office.

Mark and I remain rooted to our spots under her desk, silent and frozen, for I don’t know how long.

All I know is that I’m very confused.

THE NOISE OF the mall’s food court is comforting. Een the racket of the crying baby behind me is a welcomed sound. After hearing that insane conversation between Dr. Hawke and general-whoever, I need the normalcy of Swamp Rose Mall’s food court.

I take a sip of my smoothie and glance at Mark where he sits across from me at our circular two-seater. He’s pale while he, intermittently, takes sips of his smoothie and stares off into space.

We’ve been sitting here for a solid ten minutes and he’s barely said a word.

I set my cup on the table with a thud. “We have to do something,” I say, leaning towards him. Mark finally looks up, meeting my eyes. “We should at least tip off the cops and tell them Dr. Hawke’s planning to kidnap Unseen.” As soon as the words have left my lips, I bite into the inside of my cheek and sink back into my seat, realizing how terrible that suggestion is.

Mark shakes his head, his movements slow and his gaze lowering to the table as he opens his mouth to say something. But I beat him to it.

“I know, I know.” I touch the poorly developed graphic design of bananas and strawberries on my cup while, behind me, the baby’s screams abate. “That wouldn’t work because most people in our town, the cops included, don’t believe Unseen’s a real person.”

“It’s not that,” Mark says, his voice low. “There’s something I should tell you, um, about my mom.”

The low tone of his voice and the way he’s fixed his eyes on the table instead of on me, send my nerves into overdrive. “Go on.”

Mark rests his palms on the edge of the table and takes a deep breath. “So, my mom didn’t just work at Serenity Bayous.” He glances up, meeting my eyes. “She was the head of an organization called I.T.I.S.”

“What does that stand for?” I ask.

“The International Team of Invest—” Mark pauses, stammering as he, once again, lowers his eyes to the table. “Investigatory Science.”

“Geez.” I smile, mostly because he looks so uncomfortable that I think he needs to see a smile. “What a mouthful.”

“Yeah.” He tries to return my grin but it doesn’t quite work. He runs his palm over his face and says, “So anyway, what my mom and her colleagues at I.T.I.S. did is, uh … they secretly performed experiments on people. To give them supernatural abilities.”

All I can do is stare at Mark.

He watches me silently, a half-hopeful and painfully awkward expression on his face.

Though my old friend, The Stress Headache, is emerging at my temples and I’m actually beginning to have trouble breathing, I straighten my spine and put on my best poker face. “Go on,” I say with a nod.

“And there’s this rumor.” Mark hesitates and lifting a hand, rubs the back of his neck before once again, placing both of his palms flat on the table. “There’s this rumor that some of the people who they performed experiments on—the strongest ones—were sent to live on another planet.”

My head is pounding; the once comforting noise of the mall now a source of stress. I exhale, make myself nod, and speak as evenly as I can. “If that’s true, then Dr. Hawke’s conversation with the General makes more sense. She’s going to, somehow, use Unseen to destroy an entire planet.”

The words sink in as I say them aloud and what I haven’t said sinks in even more. She’s going to, first of all, use my dad as the bait to trap Unseen.

My pulse picks up speed and I glance at Mark to find him already watching me. “Mark, we can’t let Dr. Mire do this. We have to—”

“No way.” He shakes his head. “We can’t get involved. I.T.I.S. is dangerous.”

My mouth dry with nerves, I nod. “Yeah, you’re right.”

Mark eyes me suspiciously. “I’m serious, E. These people are killers.”

“I believe you. I’ll leave it alone.” Guilt inching into my stomach, I try not to shift in my seat as I realize that this must be exactly how Dad feels when he lies to me.

[]

[]

Falling Apart

I open my eyes and my digital clock stares back at me.

11:45 AM.

Well, I missed school again. I wrinkle my nose. Why does my room smell like bad fondue? Did Josh leave food in here? I glance around my room, but see no evidence of food.

I lift my bedsheet and the odor intensifies.

Okay, so the smell of rotting cheese is coming from me. I hope I wasn’t this ripe when Josh was here.

I sit up and rub my eyes, yawning.

Well, if I did smell this bad while we were together, Josh certainly didn’t complain about it. In fact, he was so into me it was crazy. I can’t even remember every detail of last night—for some reason I kept falling asleep and even now my mind’s foggy—but I clearly remember Joshua Phillips looking into my eyes, pushing a lock of hair out of my face and whispering, “I think I love you, Mia.”

It was classic. Like a scene from one of those cheesy CW shows Kyle likes. And as lame as it was, I’m pretty sure I’ll always remember that moment.

I frown.

Not that it matters, of course. What matters is that Josh did what he was supposed to; he made me feel better. From the moment we kissed, I forget about all of my problems.

Another yawn sneaks up on me and closing my eyes, I lean back against my pillows.

I’m beginning to think I must have accidently taken Mom’s sleeping pills instead of her anxiety meds. That’s probably why I can’t remember a whole lot of details about last night.

My phone vibrates from its spot on my bedside table. Opening my eyes, I grab it and read an incoming text from Mark.

Mark: Nadrine says u didn’t answer when she knocked, u ok? Josh was worried too, said you took a bunch of pills yesterday.

I frown.

Josh stayed over after I fell asleep? And he talked to Mark about me taking pills? It sounds like he was worried about me.

I smile to myself. It’s kind of sweet that he was worried …not that I want him to worry about me. I ditch my smile and return my attention to my phone.

Mia: I’m good, just woke up.

I start to check my other texts, but Mark’s response is surprisingly quick.

Mark: K, u gotta be careful mixing stuff.

I roll my eyes and reply.

Mia: Nah, REALLY?!

With this, I check my other messages and see that I have three missed calls and several texts from Kyle, as well as a missed call and a text from Ran. The timestamp says Ran sent it last night.

So he does give a fleck of a crap about me. I sigh and open Ran’s text.

Ran: I’m sorry about this morning, you OK? Do you want to talk?

The memory of Josh’s mouth on mine seeps into my thoughts and a pang of guilt turns my stomach. Being with Josh was an awesome distraction, but that’s all it was—a distraction. Ran is my reality.

I glance at the empty space beside me, the empty space that, a mere few hours ago, was occupied by Joshua Phillips.

Shoving my guilt aside, I type my reply.

Mia: I’m fine, tired. Mb talk later X

I hit send and stare at my phone, waiting …

It stares back at me.

When five minutes have passed and there’s still no response from Ran, I throw my phone on the floor and the battery falls out.

This is why I end up sleeping with everyone except my own boyfriend! The one guy who’s supposed to be there for me can’t even reply to my texts!

Annoyed and needing to get Randall Hawke the Third all the way out of my head, I find my favorite Pandora station and fill my room the sounds of Lady Gaga. I’m not about to lie in my bed, stinking like rotten cheese while I wait for Ran to reply. Mia Reeves is not that pathetic.

Slipping out of bed, I pad across my room to my closet and dull pains nab at the muscles in my butt and thighs. Grimacing, I glance down at my aching body.

I need to schedule a massage at that spa Mom goes to.

My thoughts dissipate as I notice what looks like a crusty patch of dried mucus between my legs, except it’s definitely not mucus.

I pause mid-stride, my heart sinking.

I was so out of it that I didn’t even make sure Josh used protection!

“Why’d I have to take the wrong pills?” I groan as I stumble to my closet.

At least I know for sure I took my birth control pills, so that should help.

I jump in the shower and work on ridding my body of the bizarre, cheesy stench. While I’m scrubbing away, my mind comes back to life, sleepiness drifting away.

It’s amazing how much being with Josh helped—well, maybe the combo of pills and weed had something to do with it too. In any case, last night I was worry-free.

As water cascades down on my aching muscles, I close my eyes and recall what Mark said about his parent’s death; that one of Aunt Jayne’s “supers” got angry and murdered everyone.

My stomach flip-flops with nerves and I cut my shower short, quickly drying off with a towel while my thoughts return to Mark’s story. Was he high and out of his head when he said that, or is there some truth to it? Supers? That sounds like comic book crap.

But if by some insane chance there really are people with superhuman abilities out there, then maybe I’m like them.

Dropping my towel on the floor, I grab my robe and study myself in the mirror.

I need to know the truth about who—and what—I am.

MOM SPRAYS HER hair for the millionth time and I glance at her hands, which are shaking.

I stand in her bathroom doorway, my arms crossed as I watch her set the hairspray down with a thud. Her eyes dart to her iPhone, it sits to the left of her sink.

I frown, studying her.

This is strange, Mom’s acting like an actual person instead of a zombie.

“You forget to take your meds this morning,” I realize.

Her blue eyes, widened in the fearful look they get when she hasn’t taken her anxiety pills, meet mine in the mirror. This startles me and I stand up straighter.

It’s weird when someone who never really sees you all of a sudden looks into your eyes.

“My psychiatrist gave me some new pills to try,” she replies. Averting her eyes, she tugs at her tennis skirt and turns around. Her small hands, dainty and each of her nails freshly manicured, are out in front of her as she looks around with a frown. “Where’d I put my tennis racket?” she whispers before zipping past me with a quiet, “excuse me Mia.”

I glance at her phone on the bathroom sink. She’ll be wondering where that is in a second.

“Hey, Mom?” I slip into the bathroom and grab her phone.

“I’ve got to go, Mia,” she replies from her room.

“Wait.” I saunter out of her bathroom as she, tennis racket in hand, heads to her bedroom door. “I need to ask you something about Mark.”

Her phone vibrates in my hand and I glance down at it.

“Follow me downstairs and ask me, I really need to go,” she says as she makes her way into the hall.

Jonah: Where were you, Carla? If this deal falls through, you’re to blame. All you had to do was SHOW UP you lazy piece of garbage.

Following my mother into the hall, I roll my eyes and close the text.

If there’s any question about where my temper comes from, Jonah Reeves is most likely my answer. My father is the source of my screwy genes, not some crazy story about Aunt Jayne creating superhumans who got angry and used their abilities to kill her.

“So, what’s your question?” Mom asks, glancing over her shoulder as she hurries past our stairs and on towards the garage. “And is that my phone?”

“Uh, yeah.” I avoid her eyes as I hand it to her. We both know what Dad’s like, we both live with him. But somewhere along the way me and Mom silently agreed not to acknowledge the things he does. I can talk about it with Mark, but not with Mom.

Mom slips the phone into her pocket and I take a deep breath. As she puts her hand on the garage doorknob, I realize I don’t have much time so I blurt, “How did Mark’s parents die? Were they murdered?”

Mom comes to a dead stop and turns to me, her eyes widening into that annoying deer-in-headlights look. Why does she always have to look so helpless?

I cross my arms. “Were they?”

Mom blinks back at me. “Why are you asking me this? Did someone say something to you about-”

Beyond the garage door, tires screech and a car door slams.

Mom closes her eyes and whispers, “Oh no.” I glance at the garage door as she backs away from it, her eyes going to her tennis racket and then to me. “Go to your room, Mia,” she quickly says. Her thinning blonde bob, sprayed to the teeth, bounces and catches the light, shinning prettily as she nods to the stairs and repeats herself. “Go to your room.”

I back away, my mouth going dry. The garage door flies open and it nearly hits Mom in the face.

She gasps as the second source of my retarded DNA, Jonah Reeves, towers over her. Tall, lean, tanned, and as blonde as the rest of us, he’s clad in a gray tennis shirt and shorts, and he’s already started in on her.

“How difficult is it to show up at the club at ten AM.? You stupid, worthless…”

I cringe as his face becomes the color of a beet while his forehead and neck veins visibly pulsate beneath his skin. Dad’s sickeningly handsome features are no longer present, even the blue eyes that I hear older ladies whisper about look horrible as they turn red and nearly cross with anger. He grabs Mom’s arm and continues to shout in her face. My heart pounds as I stare at him in horror.

This is me; this is what happens to me.

My gaze darts to Mom. She’s cowering like some kind of trapped animal. My father shoves her into the foyer wall.

“…cost me a huge deal,” he shouts, raising an opened hand as she turns away from him.

“Don’t hit her!” I cry, running their way. Surprise registers in my father’s expression as he turns to me. I’m not thinking or listening to Mom while she shouts, “Mia, don’t,” I shove my father as hard as I can and he stumbles backwards.

I start for him again, but he regains his balance and slaps me.

“Not her face, Jonah!” Mom shrieks.

My cheek stings like crazy and I automatically start to cradle it. But before I can make move, or even think, my father grabs my hand, pushes it away from my face and slaps me again.

Mom shouts at him to stop and then the world goes quiet, the way it does when you’re under water. But I’m not under water, I’m submerged in my anger.

While my father shoves me, the familiar high-pitched whirring emerges from the base of my skull, filling my brain with a quiet roar. I fall flat on my butt, our marble tile cold and hard under me. Dad starts towards me, and he’s still shouting. His face is contorted with fury and spit flies from his lips.

I glance at the foyer table to his left and take a deep breath. If I focus on the table, maybe I can make it move. I aim my full concentration on the table and what I want it to do. Meanwhile, anger zips through my body like an energy enhancing drug.

“…mind your own business,” Dad shouts. “And-”

My father is silenced as the table moves away from the wall, careens into his right hip, and knocks him down. He hits the floor with a thud.

“Oh my God!” Mom’s hands fly to her mouth and she backs into the front door.

My cheek still stinging, I get to my feet and glare down at my father. He looks back at me through widened eyes, wincing as he struggles to stand. It’s nice to see the fear in his eyes for a change. I reset my attention to our foyer’s large decorative mirror.

“Mia, no…”

I barely hear him.

A surge of electric anger simmers within my every cell as the mirror unhinges from our wall. I hold my breath, watching it, telling it to hover near the wall.

Don’t fall, hover…

My breathing labored and my mouth dryer than ever, I return my attention to my father and look into the eyes I’ve inherited. “Hit us again, I dare you.” I feel shaky and like, at any moment the mirror could disobey me and fly at my father. If that happens and it hits him hard enough, my worst fear will come true, I’ll be a murderer.

Dad, apparently having given up on standing, cradles his hip and says, “Mia, put the mirror down.”

“You don’t get to tell me what to do,” I snap. All of a sudden, a commotion behind Dad steals every bit of my attention. Mom’s eyes close as she sinks to the floor. “Mom?” I exclaim.

My father turns to her. “Carla!”

I panic. Did[_ I_] do that? Did I somehow hurt my mother? My anger is replaced by fear and the high-pitched buzzing abates as quickly as it began. I forget to tell the mirror what to do and it crashes to the floor. I jump, startling myself.

While my father drags himself to Mom, muttering, “She’s fainted,” I look from his odd display of concern for the woman he has no qualms about hitting to the broken foyer furniture.

This is insane.

I brush shards of glass from my jeans, take a step back, and try to get my bearings.

Behind me, quick footsteps run down the stairs and I hear Nadrine’s shout, “Ms. Carla? Is everything alright?”

A headache forms at my temples and I pinch the bridge of my nose between my index finger and thumb. I shouldn’t be here; I need to go.

At this, I step over broken pieces of the mirror and start for the garage door.

Behind me, Nadrine gasps and says, “Oh my Lord.”

I turn around and our housekeeper’s dark eyes are wide as she surveys the surrounding damage.

“Carla and Mia had a spat and you know Carla,” my father says with a fake laugh. “She passed out …”

I shut the garage door behind me, and my hands shaking, reach for the rack where we keep the extra keys to our cars. But before I can touch the key, the rack flies off of the wall and slams into the garage door.

My heart pounding, I grab my key from the ground and run to my car.

What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just have a normal family and be normal?

Tears stinging my vision, I get into my car and speed out of our driveway.

BITS OF GLASS are still in my hair, my eyes are red, and a bruise is forming on the cheek that Dad slapped as I sit in South Louisiana High’s parking lot, staring at the school’s main building.

Somehow, I ended up here.

I glance down at my wrinkled LSU t-shirt and a speck of glass gleams back at me. I dust it away with a trembling hand.

I look like deep fried crap. But I need to calm down and the only people who can help me calm down are in school. Being that I[_ _]left my stupid phone half-broken on the floor of my room, I have get up the nerve to walk into SLH and find them.

Tears streaming down my cheeks, I take a shaky deep breath, grab my shades from the glovebox, and step out of my car.

I stumble through the parking lot, swatting at my tears and readjusting my shades as I make my way to South Louisiana High’s back entrance, the one closest to the cafeteria.

I must look like such a freak right now.

As I slip through the doors and make my way through the quiet first-floor hallway, a locker at my right flies open and I cringe. To my left, another locker flies open, and then another.

I pause mid-stride and close my eyes. The high-pitched whirring noise is back, lower than it was while I was fighting my father, but definitely present.

I need to calm down. If I just had weed and Mom’s anxiety meds, or if Ran could be here to hold me …

A sob escaping my lips, I continue on to the exit door that leads to the cafeteria.

Another locker swings open at my right and, above me, a large “Welcome Back to School” banner is unhinged from its anchors and falls towards me.

Oh God.

I wipe my face with the back of my hand and run to the exit. Opening it, I survey the bustling outdoor lounge where my classmates sit and talk on benches, some of them running around like idiots, others lying in the grass and talking.

The sight in itself is somewhat relaxing and I take a deep breath, but another tear leaks out of my eyes. I can’t relax. Not until this anger and the weird buzzing noise that’s holding my brain hostage goes away.

Panic washing over me, I sweep the area for any sign of Ran or Kyle.

My gaze stops at Lanie Russell as she and Ran walk away from the clustered students, the two of them on their own while they head towards the front of the school. Lanie’s talking and she’s more animated than I’ve ever seen, her gestures flying every which way. Ran’s hands are in his pockets and he watches her with a curiously shy yet admiring look on his face.

Behind me, a crashing noise sounds and I wince.

I don’t even want to turn around and see what I’ve just done.

“Mia?”

The deep voice startles me and I follow it to Josh. At the sight of him, relief washes over me.

He’s lounging with some of his friends from the football team and his expression is hesitant as he says, “I was wondering where you were.”

Without a word, I lift my hand and beckon him.

His hesitance gone, Josh heads towards me and butterflies fill my stomach.

It’s weird that I’m so glad to see him.

A few of his friends glance at him and then at me, so I back away from the door and let it shut between us.

Folding my arms, I look down at my shoes and try to focus on my breathing, one deep breath at a time.

The door opens and I look up, so eager that I feel pathetic.

Josh wears a gray t-shirt over jeans and black kicks. He’s grinning, but as soon as he gets a good look at me, he frowns. “What happened to your face?”

I ignore his question and extend my hand as another tear streams down my cheek. “Let’s go. Skip with me again. I …I need you.”

Josh accepts my hand before I can even finish my stammered sentence. “Okay,” he quietly replies. “But can you tell me what happened?”

“No.” I lead us back down the hallway, the warmth of his hand already soothing me. “I just need to be with you.”

I stop short as we pass the girls’ bathroom at our right. Its door, unhinged, lies flat on the ground.

“Whoa,” Josh utters a low whistle. “This place is falling apart.”

No …

My heart plummets and I reaffirm my grip on Josh’s hand, clinging to its warmth.

I’m falling apart.

[]

[]

Logic>Gut

I glance over my shoulder as Mia and Josh disappear through the exit doors at the other end of the hallway.

What I just thought I saw—several lockers flying open while Mia walked past them—is a tell-tale sign that I simply cannot function on a mere two hours of sleep.

I probably should’ve stayed home today. Considering that my family spent the entire night at the hospital with Grandma, I’m sure my teachers would’ve understood.

I rub the back of my aching neck and push open the doors that lead to the cafeteria and patio. The sunshine is a welcomed relief after the frostbitten temperature of our school’s AC.

Some guy to my right says, “Yo, Kyle.”

I turn to the small gaggle of football players leaned against the brick wall. With their sagging pants and lecherous expressions, they look like the cover of one of those cheap CDs that wanna-be rappers try to sell in gas station parking lots.

“What?” I ask, looking at Steven, the one who’s called me.

“What’s up with your girl and Josh? They just leave together?” Steven asks.

I shift on my feet. I’m so out of it that I barely even noticed what Mia was doing. All I saw were those lockers … well, considering how sleep-deprived my brain is, I’m pretty sure I didn’t really see that.

I shake my head. “Mia has a boyfriend. And why should you care? Get a life, Steve.” With this, I stalk off in search of someone decent to talk to.

To my right, Ben Morris sits on a cement bench, eating his lunch with the Pianciano twins and I immediately turn left to avoid passing him. Just ahead, Meagan is in deep conversation with another cheerleader named Rose. Actually, Meagan’s talking non-stop while Rose looks at her phone, completely engrossed in Snapchat.

Meagan’s the last person I need to run into right now. I start to turn away, when her high-pitched voice hits my eardrums.

“Kyle, wait!”

I cringe as she runs towards me, Rose trailing behind her.

“I don’t want to talk to you right now,” I say.

Meagan nods, her eyes widening. She looks so puppy-like that I almost feel bad for her. “I know. I shouldn’t have been so blunt yesterday,” she says. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I care. If anything happened to you … gosh, I don’t know, I just care! You’re my friend.”

I bite down on my bottom lip; something inside of me softening as Meagan nervously tightens her grip on her lunch bag.

I can’t help but think about my grandma. I know what it’s like to care about someone who’s fading right in front of you. Grandma seemed so tiny in that huge hospital bed. And as we listened to the doctor explain that she may not ever speak or walk as easily as before the stroke, I felt completely helpless. If the doctor had said that all Grandma needed to do was eat and she’d get better, then I would’ve made her eat. Even if she didn’t want to, I would’ve made her. Because that’s what you do when you care.

Meagan gulps and I glance at Rose, who frowns in confusion as she looks from me to Meagan.

“It’s fine,” I quietly say. “I get it.”

Meagan smiles and sighs, loudly. “Thank God. I thought you hated me.”

“I did,” I point out. “And I still do.”

“Wait, what are we talking about?” Rose asks, leaning towards us. “Why do y’all hate each other?”

“Kyle’s just joking,” Meagan says as she opens her lunch bag.

I arch an eyebrow and start to negate this. “Actually, I—”

“So,” Meagan says while she pulls a small red apple from her bag, “do you want to eat with us? I have an extra apple.”

I tense, my gaze going to the apple. Is this what Eve felt like in the Garden of Eden?

I take a deep breath and try to reason with myself; it’s just an apple, a piece of fruit. Fruit hardly has any calories and it’s healthy.

“Sure,” I slowly agree.

Meagan beams with the most annoying glee as she hands me the apple. I take it and, ignoring the little voice in my head, bring the fruit to my mouth.

I guess sometimes doing the right thing means not going with your gut, but going with logic.

[]

[]

Joshua Phillips

I snuggle into the warmth of Josh’s embrace and the springs in his mattress emit a loud groan for the millionth time this afternoon.

“I need a new bed,” Josh says, his deep voice reverberating through me.

I smile and close my eyes, enjoying the pitter patter of rain as it falls outside of his window.

When we first got here, Josh was super self-conscious about his room. Actually before we even stepped foot in his room, he was stammering through an apology. ”Uh, compared to what you’re used to, my room’s not great, so … sorry …”

But honestly, though Josh’s room is a million times smaller than mine, it’s comfy. It’s small but tidy with a simple bed that was neatly made before we messed it up, a desk with a computer and whatnot, and nice carpet that looks new.

Besides, considering the state I was in when we got here, if Josh had brought me to a dungeon to screw on a burning bed of hot coals, I would’ve been a thousand percent okay with that. All I needed was him.

“You all right?” Josh asks.

“Never better.” Still grinning, I open my eyes and run my palm along his chest. He has great pecs—strong with not too much chest hair covering them.

Mr. Brown’s were gross—flabby like a fat girl’s tits and set above a bloated beer belly. Come to think of it, everything about him was gross. I cringe and, sighing, scoot closer to Josh.

“You were amazing,” I confess. “Like pretty much the best I’ve had.”

I don’t add that if you don’t count second base, I’ve only “had” two others: some dude who was a senior when I was a freshman, and then Mr. Brown two years later.

“Yeah, you too.” Josh chuckles and kisses the top of my head as he wraps his other arm around me in a boa constrictor-like squeeze.

I love it.

“Hey, Mia?” he says, his breath warm against my forehead. “My mom’s going to be home soon and she’s not like your mom; she’s always checking up on me, so … can we like, go to your house?”

A gentle roll of thunder sounds outside and the thought of my house sends my heart into a slow landslide.

The way Mom’s eyes closed as she slid to the floor, the mirror breaking … my father. What’s he going to do the next time we see each other? More importantly, what am[_ I_] going to do?

I try to push Josh away and he glances down at me before releasing me.

“You’re lucky your mom cares,” I mutter. I sit up and run my fingers through my wild hair. I turn to Josh and he’s staring at me the way I often catch myself gawking at Ran, enjoying the view yet trying to understand his whack opinions and sense of humor.

“We can’t go to my house right now,” I explain, meeting his eyes. “My parents … they … we just can’t.”

Josh’s gaze darts to my cheek and I remember that I’ve got a bruise there. Self-conscious, I push his bed sheet down, exposing my chest and Josh’s eyes immediately go to my boobs as I say, “Let’s just stay here for a little while, okay?”

His dark eyes return to mine and he studies my face.

I wonder what he’s thinking as he quietly takes me in with his eyes.

Finally, he pushes his sheet away and says, “Come here.”

The landslide in my chest comes to a halt. I grin and do as told.

Lying against Josh’s chest, listening to his heartbeat, my head moving up and down with his every breath—this is calm.

I close my eyes, letting peace wash over me.

Screw my anger, screw the “ability” that’s ruining my life, screw the weed and pills … this is all I need.

[]

[]

E Schemes like a Fiend

I watch a fat raindrop, one of many, slide down the bus window. Beyond the rain, the moon, though bright, is as blurry as one of those Monet paintings I learned about in last year’s art class.

It’s a perfect reflection of how I feel. I know what I have to do; I have to warn Unseen about everything Dr. Hawke and my dad are planning.

But the how—that’s the blurry part. How do you find someone who’s so elusive that their very name is “Unseen”?

Sighing, I run my index finger over my left eyebrow, a stress headache forming at my temples.

Today’s been rough between everything me and Mark heard to having to wear that stupid chicken suit for four straight hours. I don’t know if I have the brain power to come up with a plan.

The bus’s breaks squeal as Ms. Tina hollers, “Club Dixie, last stop for Club Dixie.”

She always shouts when we get to this stop, reason being most of the people headed to the club are already too drunk to notice where we are.

While the guy occupying the seat ahead of mine stumbles to his feet, slurring, “Wait, that’s me, Tina. I’m coming.” I glance out of my window.

Nestled between the south end of Swamp Rose Mall and a patch of trees that outline the border of our town’s fancy high rise apartments, Aldoph Towers, Club Dixie’s lights are bright and its parking lot is full.

I hate the place but I’m Hal O’Brien’s daughter and Mia Reeve’s best friend, meaning I know pretty much every piece of scum in there, from the lecherous businessmen to the wanna-be thugs.

While I’m watching a girl in an ugly red mini make her way across Club Dixie’s parking lot, an idea comes to life in my tired brain. Without a second thought, I grab my things and follow the drunk guy off of the bus, both of us headed to the club.

If I want to get Unseen’s attention, I’m going to need two things: one of Club Dixie’s wanna-be thugs, and the guts to do something really stupid.

[]

[]

The Truth

I glance at the time on my car’s digital clock.

9:45 PM.

I slowly take my key out of the ignition and sigh as I glance at our garage door.

I’ve been sitting here for twenty minutes, trying to decide if I should brave going in and facing the warzone that is my “family” or just drive to Ran’s.

I touch my lips, my thoughts darting to Josh.

Back in his room, safe in bed with him is where I really want to be.

But we almost got caught when his mom noticed my Lexus in front of their house and insisted on having a face-to-face conversation with him about it.

I had to hide in Josh’s closet and listen to him concoct a lie about me dropping my car there while I went off with friends. I then had to listen to Josh’s mom warn him about how I was a “spoiled rich girl” who would “break his heart ten different ways without batting an eye.”

That wasn’t fun to hear.

Mostly because it’s true. I am used to getting what I want and I’m not going to apologize for that; it’s just the lifestyle I was born into. And when it comes to “breaking Josh’s heart,” I have a feeling that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Except his heart won’t be the only one that breaks. As much as I hate to admit it, this thing we’ve got going on is more than physical. Josh makes me feel comfortable. When I’m around him, I can be me without feeling ashamed. It’s not like that with Ran. I’m always on my toes around him; I do my best not to curse or be too clingy and no matter how hard I try, I fail. With Josh, there’s no failing; there’s just us.

Frustrated, I run my thumb along my bottom lip, my gaze returning to the garage door.

Well, if I can just get to my room, I’ll be all right.

My phone’s there.

I can call Josh and maybe, like, fall asleep to the sound of his voice or whatever. As sappy as that sounds, it’d be a decent end to a crappy day.

Resolved, I slip out of the Lexus and glance down at the key rack I accidently tore from the wall when I left this afternoon.

Sighing, I slip my car key into my pocket and open the garage door as quietly as I can.

The house is dark, which is weird because Mom likes to keep lots of lights on.

Nervous, I shut the door behind me and creep into the foyer. It’s been cleaned and bears no evidence—other than the missing table and mirror—of our fight.

I start for the sitting room when two hands grab my upper arms. I scream as someone pins me, face-first, to the foyer wall where the mirror used to be. Before I can blink, something small and sharp pierces the flesh of my upper arm. A needle?

“Let me go!” I shout, my voice muffled as I struggle to free myself.

The foyer lights flicker on and I completely freak out when my father’s voice sounds in my ear. “This is for your own good; it’ll last for a week.”

I thrash against him, my anger rising in a quick tidal, only to recede as a strange, light feeling envelopes me. I stop struggling and without my consent, my breathing evens out. My pulse, likewise, slows and my anger refuses to surface. Dad must have injected me with some kind of calming medicine.

My father releases me and as I turn to face him, he slaps me.

“Jonah, don’t,” Mom pleads from somewhere behind him.

I’m so lightheaded and confused that it takes a moment for me to realize I’ve closed my eyes. I open them and my father’s scowling down at me.

“That was for what you did earlier, you little brat.” He grabs my wrist and pulls me to the sitting room. We pass Mom at the doorway. She’s got that helpless look in her eye and her hands are clenched into fists at her sides. As always, Mom’s fear is annoying to look at, but at least I know she’s all right. It was scary when she fainted earlier.

“Get in here, Carla.” Dad pushes me onto the couch and I hit it with a gasp. My thoughts as unfused as my limbs. I slowly straighten in my seat while Mom plants herself beside me.

She meets my eyes, her bottom lip trembling and her nose turning pink as she whispers, “You all right?”

“No,” I flatly reply. She starts for me and hesitates, her gaze going to Dad. I look at him too. He’s pacing between the opposite couch and coffee table, his hair askew, and a marked limp in his stride.

[_I _]did that to him.

I chuckle to myself, even though this isn’t the least bit funny.

“One day …” I say, closing my eyes because they’re filling with tears. Muted emotions pry at my heart like thieves. I can’t seem to stop laughing as I sputter, “One day, I’m probably going to kill you.”

I open my eyes and my father is lunging towards me. My entire body rocks as his hand hits my face.

“Enough, Jonah!” Mom shrieks, her voice is so tiny that it’s laughable. So, I have to laugh some more. But I stop when my face starts to sting and Mark comes running into the room yelling at my father to stop.

Mark shoves him away from me and shouts, “What’s wrong with you!”

My father is breathing hard as he runs a hand through his hair and lifts his free hand in a gesture of surrender. “I’m just trying to explain what’s wrong with Mia.”

“What are you talking about?” I ask. Beside me, Mom sets her clammy hand on top of mine. I glance at Mark, and his eyes are full of worry. His gaze still on my father, Mark slowly plants himself on the arm of the couch across from ours.

My father takes a seat on the edge of the coffee table and runs his palm over his face. “When Carla and I got married, I invested everything I had into Reeves Oil and, as you know, the other partners bought me out, they kicked me out of my own family’s company.” His shoulders hunched, he looks straight ahead and his expression becomes a perfect reflection of the rainstorm that’s begun to pound the picture windows at our right.

I glance at Mom and she gives my hand a squeeze. I gulp as the weak, light feeling that’s shuttling itself through my every vein makes me wonder if this is how Mom always feels: powerless.

I return my attention to my father. “They purposely left me near penniless. Everything I’d inherited was gone. And they knew I had a new wife and baby … so I did the only thing I could think of. I went to my sister for help.”

I look at Mark and his eyes have widened. Dad laces his hands together, glancing down at them while he shakes his head. “Jayne and I never got along—hated each other really. We had different mothers, of course; hers the mistress and mine The Mrs. Reeves. Quite naturally, Jayne was jealous of me, always had been. And when I came to her for help, she provided it with strings attached.”

“What strings?” Mark asks, his voice low.

“Jayne wanted my child,” my father replies, his face falling as he glances at me. He shakes his head. “She ran a company called I.T.I.S. where she conducted private experiments on human test subjects, most of them children. I agreed to let her run an experiment on Mia.”

“Oh my God,” Mark mumbles.

I blink back at my father, his words not quite registering in my brain. “In exchange for twenty-five million, I let Jayne inject Mia with a genetic altering drug called M-Trip.”

“M-Trip?” I repeat.

“Yes,” he says and Mom tightens her grip on my hand.

I lean forward, watching Dad and trying to focus my loosey-goosey thoughts on his words.

His gaze goes to the floor as he says, “When one of Jayne’s I.T.I.S. agents would turn against her, she wouldn’t simply have them killed as that would look too suspicious. Instead, she’d inject them with Myalofasaria, a paranoia-inducing drug that would lead them into a nervous breakdown and eventual suicide.” While Dad pauses to catch his breath, the weight of his words finally hit me.

My hands tremble as I ask, “Is that what’s going to happen to me?”

“No,” he replies without looking at me. “Jayne didn’t give you pure Myalofasaria; she gave you a blend of it, hoping that eventually it would endow you with the same telepathic abilities that one of her other mutants supposedly had. She said the ability would lie dormant and possibly show itself when you became an adolescent. But it hasn’t. Instead …” He waves his hand in my general direction, scowling. “Instead this has; this anger and telekinetic garbage that you’ve unleashed on us. That’s what we’re going to have to figure out how to fix.”

My eyes fill and I slip my hand away from Mom’s.

“Mia?” Mom says while I, still trembling, get to my feet.

Dad, likewise, stands and shouts, “Sit down!”

“I just want to go to sleep,” I hiss, my eyes nearly crossing as I stumble away from him. I don’t know what I feel right now … all I know is that I don’t want to feel anything.

“Get back here!” Dad starts for me, but Mark stops him.

“Let her go.”

“This is my house, Mark! You …”

I leave the sounds of their voices and head to Mom’s medicine cabinet. This time, it’s the sleeping pills that I want.

[]

[]

Breaking and Entering

If the town of Swamp Rose were a house, then Club Dixie would be the kitchen trash can. Out of all the trash cans in the house, the kitchen smells the worst because it’s got rotten and stale items. At the moment, rotten and stale is exactly what I need.

After showing Len—Club Dixie’s beefy but incredibly lax bouncer—my fake ID, I exhale and head into the darkened club.

Thumping techno fills my ears and I clutch my book bag behind me, hoping no one notices it. I come here a lot with Mia but I don’t want to push my luck.

To my left is the bar, which is where we’d head first thing were Mia with me. The dance floor to my right is like a live animal with its mass of gyrating bodies and strobe lights bouncing off of each of its sweaty dancers.

I turn away from the animal because that’s not what I need. Most of those people are here to dance for a hot second and then get laid. I can’t help them out with either of those needs and I certainly don’t want any of that from them. Trying to ignore my headache, I reaffirm my grip on my book bag and dart around two giggling girls—who are tripping all over their heels—before making my way to the bar.

Tim, Club Dixie’s cute red-headed bartender, moves around the center of the circular counter, busily making drinks for the twelve or so customers seated around him.

Most of them I recognize. There’s a dark-haired chick named Gina who’s here every time we come. At the moment she’s flirting with Todd, a guy from my trailer park. And beside the two of them sits Pete Melancon, sipping on a drink and staring into space.

I bite the inside of my cheek and head for Pete. He’s even older than my dad, who’s nearly forty. He’s also got a record that includes a lot of charges for breaking and entering.

While I approach Pete, Tim the bartender glances at me from behind the counter, an eyebrow raised as his gaze goes to my book bag but I ignore him.

Tim’s very cute and very strict about not serving us alcohol. Mia always has to bring her own and dump it into whatever non-alcoholic drink he makes for us.

“Hey, Pete.”

The older man jumps, and turns to me as I slide into the empty barstool at his left. Pete’s grown a moustache, which is something new. I’m not sure I like it. It makes him look even creepier. Like Tim, his dark eyes immediately go to the book bag I’m trying to hide and he smirks. “I can’t believe Len let you in with that.”

I shrug, quickly assessing Pete’s dark jeans and black t-shirt, its fit snug on his lean physique. He’s dressed as though he’s already completed a job tonight.

“You know how Len is; he doesn’t care.” I return Pete’s smile and take a deep breath as I decide to dive right in. “So, I need your help with something.”

Pete arches an eyebrow and lifts his drink to his mouth as he watches me and says, “Hal send you?”

“No.” I lower my voice and lean towards him. “My dad has nothing to do with this. I need some change, the kind that a couple of nice necklaces and laptops can get me. So, I’ve got my eye on Aldoph Towers. I know it’s not that hard to break into, but I don’t want to do it alone on my first try.”

Pete finishes his drink, but holds my gaze. My heart pounds while I wait for his reply. Please say you’ll help me, please …

“Like father, like daughter. When you want to do this?”

I try not to exhale too loudly. Ever so slightly relaxing, I lean back and say, “Tonight. Now.”

Pete sucks his teeth the way old men who smoke too much often do, and nods. “I want sixty forty of what we get since I’ll be doing most of the work.”

“Fine.”

Satisfied, he grunts as he reaches into his pants pocket and pulls out a wad of cash. He sets it on the counter beside his empty glass. “All right, let’s do this, kid.”

A shiver runs down my spine, and I try not to visibly tremble. Faking calm, I say, “Okay,” and hope to God I’ve made the right decision.

ALDOPH TOWERS IS gated and the poshest apartment community in town. But, according to Pete Melancon, the southernmost end of Aldoph Tower’s gate is far away from the security checkpoint and free of security cameras.

This is why I now find myself thoroughly drenched by the rain, and at the very top of Aldoph Tower’s ten-foot gate. Wondering what possessed me to do this, I carefully balance on the sharp metal fleur-de-lis designs beneath my feet.

“That’s it,” Pete calls from below. “Good girl, come on down now.”

Biting into the inside of my cheek and praying that my feet don’t slip on the wet metal, I grab onto one of the gate’s bars just below my left foot and ease myself down. Thank God I stayed in shape over the summer, otherwise my thigh muscles would’ve given out by now.

I shimmy down the gate, breathing hard while Pete’s whispered encouragement is nearly drowned out by the rain and intermittent thunder. Blinking quickly, I try to ignore the mix of rain and mascara that leaks into my eyes and slowly make my way down. Finally, at only a few feet above the grass, I jump. My feet slip in the wet grass and I stumble backwards.

A crash of thunder sounds as Pete grabs my elbows, righting me.

“Thanks, I’m good.” I turn to face him and he’s just as drenched as I am, his moustache glistening with rain while he squints back at me.

“All right, kid, remember what I told you in the car? This is a simple five step process. What’s our next step?” he asks, arching one of his thick eyebrows.

I shift on my feet. Pete’s actually not a bad teacher. I discovered this on the way here. He made what he and my dad do sound like this incredible five-step art form. I almost feel guilty about dragging him into this.

“Yeah.” I fold my arms, trying not to shiver in the cold rain. Just beyond Pete, Aldoph Tower’s ten story complex looms in the distance and I nod in its direction. “Next we go to the top floor.”

“Because?” Pete urges, that eyebrow still arched as a raindrop slides off of his moustache and onto his top lip.

Thunder sounds above while he wipes the rain from his mouth.

“Because it’s unexpected,” I say, repeating exactly what he explained on our way here, “people expect the bottom floor to get robbed, not the top.”

“Good girl.” Pete claps my shoulder so hard I stumble forward. Then he heads for the high rise, his every footstep making squishy noises in the muddy grass.

I scamper behind him, hurrying to keep up as the rain pushes more mascara into my eyes.

“Will we take the stairs or elevator?” I ask, glancing at Pete as he surveys our surroundings.

“Stairs.” Reaching into the thin, black backpack he carries, Pete retrieves a plain baseball cap. Slipping it on, he looks up and squints. I follow his gaze to the tenth floor. “The second to last complex on the left doesn’t have any lights on—we’ll try that one first.”

My stress headache is back in action at my temples. “Okay.”

Pete approaches a back entrance to the apartment building and after using a lock pick to open the door, slips us inside. I close the door behind us and peer down the hall of Aldoph Tower’s first floor. I’ve always wondered what it looks like in here.

I glance around at the lemongrass-colored walls and their gold trim. The floor beneath my feet is an expensive-looking, mocha-colored marble. I bet this flooring in itself costs eight times as much as our trailer. Nervous, I trail Pete while he slinks through a door labeled, STAIRS.

The thing is, even these people—steeped in luxury up to their eyeballs—don’t deserve to have their things stolen. My stomach turning, I follow Pete up the seemingly endless stairwell.

If this plan doesn’t work, I’m screwed. A couple of hours ago, I had no doubt that it would work. I’d thought about a recent article in The Swamp Rose Daily Herald that said Unseen somehow manages to intervene in and stop an estimated 85% of all attempted crimes in our town. But now, I can’t help but worry that what Pete and I are doing may turn out to be one of the 15% of crimes that Unseen doesn’t show up for. If Unseen doesn’t stop us before Pete can actually steal anything, I have no idea what I’ll do … there’s no way I can go through with taking these people’s things!

I gulp as we finally make our way to the tenth floor and Pete pauses at the door, briefly glancing at me over his shoulder. “Ready, kid?”

“Yeah,” I croak, my heart pounding. For a fleeting moment, I wish it were Mark with me instead of old Mr. Pete. Mark would be completely lost, but at least we’d be in this together.

No, that’s stupid. Mark doesn’t need to be a part of this.

I push thoughts of Mia’s junkie cousin aside and follow Pete into the tenth story’s hall.

Beyond one of the doors on this hall, a television is on. It’s loud and sounds like a sitcom, the kind with the obnoxious laugh track. Other than this, the hallway is silent.

Pete creeps down the carpeted floor and I follow him past a large painting that’s mounted near a fire alarm. Before I know it, we’ve stopped in front of an apartment labeled 1075.

My mouth going dry, I wipe the collection of rain and mascara beneath my eyes while he knocks on the door. “Hello, Ms. Waterstove?”

Waterstove? I wonder if he made that name up.

He knocks again and repeats himself. When no one answers, Pete turns to me and nods. I nod back—that seems like the appropriate response.

At this, Pete slips a tanned hand into the pocket of his jeans, retrieving the same lock pick he used earlier. In a matter of seconds, Pete opens the door and I cringe as he steps into the darkened apartment.

Surely these rich people have an alarm …

“Come on in and close the door behind you,” Pete urges.

When no alarm sounds, I follow him inside and realize that I have absolutely no clue what I’m supposed to do to get Unseen’s attention. I’d imagined the vigilante would catch us as soon as we jumped Aldoph Tower’s fence.

Silently panicking, I close the door behind me and remain rooted to my spot. Pete moves quickly, heading to a laptop on a nearby coffee table.

“Only take the smaller stuff. You want to make them think they just misplaced a few things,” Pete whispers as he scoops up the laptop and heads for an iPad on the nearby couch. “That’s the secret; you don’t let them know they’ve been robbed.”

Anxiety grips my chest and my stomach turns as I look around for some sign of Unseen. Instead, I come face-to-face with a framed picture of a brunette who’s probably just a few years older than me. In the photo, she wears a cap and gown while an older woman who looks just like her, hugs her. The girl clutches a diploma in her free hand.

I stare at the picture in horror, my thoughts drifting to my own mother. If Unseen doesn’t show up and we get caught, or even if we don’t and Pete says something to my parents about this, Mom’s going to be beyond disappointed in me.

“I get first dibs on the jewelry,” Pete announces as he slinks down the hallway, headed to this brunette chick’s bedroom.

My stress headache grabs both of my temples in a familiar death-grip and I back away from the photo.

I can’t let Pete steal anything; I have to do something to get Unseen’s attention. Without a second thought, I dart to the front door and quietly slip into the hall. I head to the large painting we passed earlier. When we ran past it, I noticed a fire alarm and at the moment, that fire alarm is the only way I can think of getting Unseen’s attention.

I approach the small red device, ignore my doubt, and pull its lever up. A loud bell sounds and I take off down the hall.

My palms sweaty, I open apartment 1075’s door and slip inside to find Pete sprinting back from the bedroom. His backpack is in his arms, half-opened and a gold necklace dripping from it as he struggles to zip the backpack closed.

“Did you see what’s going on out there?” he asks, briefly glancing at the door.

“I saw some kid running away from the fire alarm, probably playing a joke.”

“Joke or not, we’d better get out of—” Pete comes to a sudden stop and drops his backpack, its contents clatter to the floor. I freeze in terror as his eyes roll back in his head and he collapses. He hits the floor with a thud.

Oh God … I take a step back and glance around the darkened apartment. Outside, the swaying oak trees create dancing shadows on the apartment’s walls and I’m so nervous that my hands are trembling.

“Unseen?” I whisper, briefly glancing at Pete. The man’s eyes are still closed, but he’s breathing hard. “Unseen, I need to talk to you.”

A light breeze falls over my left side. My breath catching in my throat, I immediately turn towards the movement, but see nothing.

“Unseen.” My voice shakes and I clear my throat. “I’m not trying to rob this place. I pulled the fire alarm to get your attention so I could give you a message. Someone’s planning to kidnap you. I overheard a woman named Claire Hawke, um … she’s the head doctor at Serenity Bayous Mental Hospital. Anyway, I heard her say she’s going to use my dad, Hal O’Brien, as bait. She wants you to go after Hal, like you always do, except this time she’s planning to trap you.”

A woman in a black mask and bodysuit materializes out of thin air.

My blood runs cold and I take a step back. “You’re not a … you’re a woman?”

The masked woman tilts her head and it takes a moment for me to realize that her eyes are glowing in the dark like a cat’s. It also takes a moment for me to realize that she’s asking me a question.

“Elizabeth,” she repeats, her voice low, “how do you know this?”

“B-because,” I stammer, “I saw my dad talking to Dr. Hawke and I wanted to know why. So, I went to Dr. Hawke’s office and overheard her telling some General guy that she was going to use my dad as bait to kidnap you.”

In the distance, police sirens blare.

Unseen lifts her hand, motioning for me to stop as she says, “Thank you, that’s all I need to know. And, Elizabeth?”

“Y-yeah?”

Never do this again.”

“But—” I shut up as Unseen disappears into thin air.

The police sirens, even louder, are now accompanied by what sounds like a fire truck and just below their noise, Unseen says, “Get her out of here.”

“Get who out of here?” I ask, confused. When Unseen doesn’t reply, I start for the door, my hands still trembling like crazy. Throwing one last glance at Pete, I wonder if I should ask Unseen to go easy on him. All at once, a breeze washes over the back of my neck and someone whisks me off of my feet.

It happens so quickly that I barely have time to process how I’ve gone from standing to being airborne as my feet dangle above the ground and my face is pushed into what seems to be a very broad chest.

“What are you doing!” I shout, my voice muffled by whoever’s chest this is.

“Sorry. Just hang on,” a familiar male voice says. Hang on is all I can do.

With my arms around this stranger’s neck and unable to see a thing, I try to place the voice. It’s someone I know, someone whose voice I’ve heard a million times before. My thoughts come to a halt as I’m abruptly set on my feet and a cool breeze whooshes past me.

I look around. I’m in front of my trailer.

What? How …?

Confused, I look around at my street.

Wow … okay. So first of all, Unseen doesn’t work alone, she has a partner. A guy. And secondly, they both know exactly who I am because not only did Unseen use my name when she spoke to me, but she had her partner bring me right to my street.

Unnerved and my thoughts a jumbled mess, I head to our porch, trying to wrap my head around what’s just happened.

[]

[]

Getting Help

I push my sheet off of me, roll onto my side, and glance at my clock.

1:42 AM.

I haven’t had insomnia like this in forever. I sit up and glance at my computer.

In all honesty, I know why I can’t sleep. This happens anytime my brain gets overloaded with worry, and all night I’ve been thinking about what Meagan said the other day.

I don’t want to die. I have plans, things I want to do with my life … but I don’t want to eat. I really don’t. As crazy as that sounds, I’m honestly scared of eating. In my head, eating means getting fatter and getting fatter means never becoming the pop icon that I know I can be. I have a fantastic voice, but the industry is a ruthless machine and I can’t be sure that it will take me seriously if I’m not absolutely perfect.

At the same time, however, I can’t imagine living my entire life like this- passing out, feeling weak, guilty, and disgusting? Meagan’s right, this isn’t normal.

I run my hands through my hair, my eyes watering.

Just that apple I had at lunch and then the salad for dinner—even that was too much. I wanted to throw up.

Why am I so screwed up that I can’t even eat like a normal person? What’s wrong with me?

Tears creep down my cheeks and though I’m alone in the dark, I can’t help but feel ashamed of my tears. In other countries, people are starving to death and I’m sitting here crying because I can’t properly starve myself. Am I insane?

Sniffing, I ease out of bed and pad to my computer. After typing in my password, I go to Google and type, “How to get rid of anorexia” into the search bar. I click on one of the most legit-looking websites and wipe away another tear.

I can’t believe I’m still crying … good grief.

Lacing my hands together, I take a deep breath and read the webpage that fills my screen.

“When you struggle to overcome an eating disorder, you may feel as though you’ve lost control over the one thing in your life that you’ve been able to control. It can be difficult for others to understand what you’re going through, and perhaps you don’t even completely understand your own feelings. Despite this, you can beat anorexia …”

More tears form in my eyes, but this time I don’t wipe them away. Scrolling down, I scan a list of toll-free numbers that will supposedly put me in touch with a counselor.

If I let this thing defeat me, I could die. That means I won’t reach my goals or see Eric again. I reach for my phone.

[]

[]

Swamp Rose Secrets

My hair is still wet from the shower I took at 3 AM, and now a drop of water falls from it onto the picture in my hand. I brush the water away and, flopping backwards on my bed, continue to examine the photo. It’s of me cheesing wildly as I stand between Mom and Dad. We’d just bought this trailer and Dad’s smile is as wide as mine, while Mom’s is much more subdued. I was really young when it was taken, too young to realize that our new home wasn’t exactly brag-worthy.

But back then, life was simpler. I didn’t try so hard. I just did what I wanted: I cooked with Grandma, and I played with my friends at school. I wasn’t ashamed of Mom, I didn’t know enough about Dad’s “job” to worry about his welfare, and I wasn’t overly anxious about my own future. I was just happy.

But now there’s so much uncertainty in my life that I barely have time to be happy. Like everything that went down last night. First of all, Unseen is a girl who knows me; she even called me by my freaking name. And her partner—I swear that voice almost sounded like Randall Hawke’s, but I could be wrong. All I know is that I can’t stop replaying every bit of what happened.

A bird chirps just outside of my window. I tear my eyes away from the picture and I glance at my clock.

4:48 AM. I haven’t slept all night, meaning I’m going to be a zombie at school today. Beyond my door, Mom and Dad’s door slides open and heavy footsteps shake the trailer as they shuffle towards the kitchen.

Dad.

I sit up and set the old photo aside.

I need to tell Dad the gist of what happened last night; if he knows I’ve warned Unseen and that the vigilante will be expecting him, there’s no way he’ll be dumb enough to make himself the bait, no matter how much money Dr. Hawke offers him.

I’m sure this is going to be a fun conversation.

I slide out of bed and, grabbing my robe, pad into the kitchen.

Dad’s back is to me as he starts a pot of coffee. He wears a ratty old wife-beater and dark blue jogging pants that have been washed so many times they’re beginning to look gray. I bite the inside of my cheek and try to find the courage to begin.

Dad starts to whistle a cheerful Kenny Chesney song while he heads to the refrigerator. Spotting me, he stops whistling, his eyebrows going up. “Liz, I didn’t even hear you come in.”

Hesitant, I smile and take a few steps forward. I rest my elbows on the kitchen island and glance down at an unopened electricity bill from Entergy.

How do I even start this conversation?

“So,” Dad’s voice startles me as he opens the refrigerator and retrieves the pancake mix. “I called Dr. Hawke last night and turned her down.”

My breath catching in my throat, I watch Dad turn to me. His blue eyes meet mine. “I can’t say I won’t ever make a mistake, but I can promise you that I won’t work with Claire Hawke. If she wants to trap Unseen, she’ll have to do it without me.” Sincerity fills Dad’s eyes as he holds my gaze.

Relief washes over me and I grin.

“Okay.” I nod, still grinning. “Good. That’s one less thing for me to worry about.”

Dad’s face falls and he sets the pancake mix on the counter behind him before heading my way. I watch him, surprised by this reaction. He rests his palms on the island’s countertop and looks me in the eye. “Liz, honey, you shouldn’t have to worry about anything except your grades and deciding which college you want to go to. That’s all. Me and your mom, we’ll cover the other worries. Leave that to us, all right?” He reaches across the counter and ruffles my damp hair.

I nod. “Okay.”

I know I can’t really stop worrying, but I’m glad Dad cares enough to want me to. Hal O’Brien is far from being the perfect father, but if I ever have kids I hope I’ll love them half as much as he loves me.

“Good, that’s what I want to hear.” He smiles and turns back to the refrigerator. “Speaking of college, I was thinking: I know you like dance, but you ever thought about cooking? Like being a chef or whatever? I could see you running one of them fancy restaurants in New Orleans, you know?”

I smile, watching him set the milk on the counter. “Yeah,” I reply, my thoughts darting to the future and its never-ending possibilities. “I can see that too.”

Dad’s right. Whatever weirdness is going down in Swamp Rose might be a big deal right now, but soon it’ll just be a part of my past. My future lies elsewhere; one day soon I’ll be starting a new life as a dancer, or a chef, or a writer … or maybe even all three.

[]

[]

The Freak

South Louisiana High’s main hall is abuzz with activity as me, Kyle, and E stroll side-by-side right splat through its middle. I have to give our classmates props for being quick to dart out of our way while we head to second hour.

“If she really does come to school here, I bet we’ll have paparazzi hiding in the bushes,” Kyle says as she waves to a passing cheerleader.

E grunts in response and though I haven’t been listening to a word Kyle’s said, I chuckle and reply, “I know, right?” I push my hair out of my face and take a deep breath.

Kyle’s looking at me out of the corner of her eye, but I know she won’t ask me if I’m all right again. That’d make three times in three minutes.

Besides, I actually do feel a little stronger than I did yesterday.

Last night, the weakened state my father’s shot put me in left me barely able to think or move. Thank God I had my brain and motor skills back by this morning.

I still can’t “get angry,” of course, but I can sort of function. Now I just need to convince my friends that the half-covered bruises on my face are no big deal.

“Yeah,” E says and I turn to her, briefly admiring the touch of light blue eyeshadow she’s got just over her black-as-night liner. “I still can’t believe we have an actual movie star at this hick school.”

I frown. [_What! _]I wish I’d been paying attention to my friend’s conversation.

“Totes,” I agree with a nod and then tilt my head as I pretend to think. “What’s his name again?”

Kyle grins and arches an eyebrow at me as she comes to a halt at the foot of the stairs. “Her name is Drew Everett.”

I readjust my purse on my shoulder and try to think of a quick save.

“Yo, yo, yo, e’rebody move! MVP coming through!” Josh’s voice booms from the staircase and at the sound of it, a chill runs down my spine. Forgetting about Kyle and E, I look up to find Josh descending the staircase like a one man herd of cattle. He tosses a football from hand to hand as kids either laugh or roll their eyes at him. He’s also beyond sexy in dark jeans and a long-sleeved red tee. Josh catches my eye and his light up, his smile widening.

I can’t help but grin in return.

“I’m going up, so I’ll talk to you later, bubby.” Kyle’s voice tears my gaze away from Josh, but I can’t seem to wipe the stupid grin from my face as I lean forward to exchange air kisses with her.

“I’ve got to get to the T-building. I’m out too,” E says, backing away from me. “Try to give me one of those air kisses, and I will deck you, Mia.”

I roll my eyes at her. “It’s called being classy. Of course you wouldn’t know anything about that.”

“Whatever, Mia.” With this, E heads to the exit and I return my attention to Josh.

Tossing the football in the air and then catching it, he hops down from the bottom step, his smile waning as his gaze flicks to my bruised cheek. “How’s it going?”

I grin and shrug. I want to literally crash into him and just let him hold me for, like, ever … but I can’t. He leans towards me and I make myself back away.

“See you this afternoon?” I whisper.

He stops tossing the football. His eyes growing serious, he nods. “After practice. Yeah.”

“Great. See you later.” With this, I leave him before the temptation to kiss him gets the best of me, and head to my second hour.

“Hey, Mia!” a passing girl calls. Her cute shoes are ruined by the rest of her outfit, which consists of a cheap, sheer-black blouse on top of a white, strapless shirt that’s been paired with a brown skirt.

I cringe at the sight of her and force myself to say, “Hi.”

“Mia, Mia!” Just behind the fashion don’t, a girl named Megs Little greets me with a bright smile and I return it.

“Hey, girl!” I lift my hand and high-five her for no reason.

“Random high-fives all around!” Megs calls over her shoulder, laughing as we pass each other.

I saunter along, smiling and offering my classmates hellos while I try not to think about it. But everyone I pass, these poorly dressed basic losers I say hi to … they’re all normal and I’m the freak.

I comb my fingers through my hair, blinking quickly as I approach my classroom door.

“Mia?”

Ms. Karin’s voice startles me and I turn around to face her.

Her dark brown hair is pulled back into a bun as always and she looks back at me through those penetrating eyes of hers.

I chuckle. “I didn’t even hear you behind me.”

She points to my cheek. “What happened?”

“I was working on an idea for a cheer and I fell,” I reply, the well-rehearsed lie slipping from my lips with ease. “It was really bad. That’s why I haven’t been to school or practice. Sorry, I should’ve called.”

Ms. Karin looks at me for a long moment and I start to feel like maybe I’m not such a fantastic liar after all.

“Mia,” she says, speaking quietly, “if you ever need to talk about it, I’m here.”

My heart sinks.

She definitely knows I’m lying. It’s not like Ms. Karin’s just our cheer coach, she’s our theater teacher, meaning she can tell when someone’s acting, or in my case, flat-out lying.

My cheeks burn with embarrassment, but I force a grin. “Awesome! I will, thanks.” I whirl around and hurry to my classroom. I duck inside and come face-to-face with Ran. My breath hitches in my throat and for a split second I’m conflicted. Do I hug him or run away as fast as I can?

Ran pulls me into a hug, making the decision for me. I close my eyes and sigh, melting into his warmth.

“Sorry,” he whispers, kissing the top of my head. “I’m the world’s worst boyfriend.”

Our classmates make kissing noises, one of them shouting, “Get a room!”

“All right now, Randall and Mia, that’s enough,” our teacher says from behind us as the tardy bell rings.

Ran releases me and his gaze goes to my cheek. “What happened to your face?”

Tensing, I glance down at his chest and open my mouth, ready to dive into my lie, but all I want to do is tell him the truth—that I’m some kind of science experiment gone wrong and every time my father looks at me, he sees his failure.

“Mia?” Ran whispers.

“Seriously, you two, find your seats,” our teacher urges.

“Yes, ma’am,” Ran says, concern filling his eyes. He grabs my hand and guides us to our usual desks at the back of the classroom. “Let’s talk at lunch,” he whispers.

My stomach turns, but I nod and smile.

There’s no way I can tell him the truth. He’d never understand.

Ran releases my hand and we head to our parallel desks. I steal a peek at him, wondering what I’m going to tell him at lunch.

WE DON’T ALWAYS eat lunch together, partly because Ran’s friends are gross and I don’t want to be seen with them. But when we do, we usually go to SLH’s oak tree-infested front lawn and claim a bench under one of the tallest oaks.

It’s actually kind of romantic with the birds chirping in the branches above us and all of our annoying classmates far away in the cafeteria and outside lounge.

For once, I have Ran all to myself.

But now, as I dip my spoon into this crap cherry-flavored yogurt I bought from the cafeteria, and watch Ran awkwardly pretend he’s not studying the bruises on my face, I’m actually nervous.

After several minutes of silence, Ran sets his sandwich on the bench beside him and sighs. He looks up at the oak’s long branches above our heads, scowling. “So, who hit you?”

My mouth dry and the yogurt bitter, I glance down at it and read the expiration date. It’s old; should’ve been thrown out four days ago.

My stomach turns, but not because of the yogurt. I set the small container down beside me and face Ran. A light breeze rustles the leaves above us and one falls on Ran’s shoulder as he repositions himself to face me.

He’s wearing a short-sleeved white button-down shirt under his green field mechanic jacket. With his sun-kissed blond hair, bright eyes, and square jaw, I can’t help but notice that he looks like a real life knight in shining armor. I’m the princess, stuck in a curse …

Ran looks into my eyes and lifts his hand, gently pushing my hair out of my face. “Just tell me, Mia.”

“It’s more than that.” My heart pounding, I grab his hand.

Ran’s fingers curl around mine and his eyes widen as he watches me. I take a closer look at him and realize that he’s not breathing.

Oh God. He’s really going to stop breathing if I tell him the whole story.

I steady myself and without breaking eye contact, blurt, “My father. He hits my mom and the other day I got tired of it and I wanted to stop him. So, you know … that didn’t go great.” I clamp my mouth shut and avert my gaze to the zipper on Ran’s jacket. I feel fuller, like I’m made of lead and my pulse is loud in my veins.

Realizing that Ran has tightened his grip on my hands, I make myself look at him.

He releases the breath he’s been holding and his jaw tightens as his eyes grow dark. I start to explain the rest of the story, but before I can even open my mouth, Ran’s hugging me.

“Everything’s going to be okay, I promise,” he says, his breath warm against my cheek. He kisses me and tightens his embrace.

I sink into his arms and close my eyes.

I’ve said enough.

[]

[]

We should be Actual Friends

Ms. Karin, our new cheer coach, claps her hands and smiles. “That’s all for today. Thanks for going easy on me on my first day.”

“You did a great job, Ms. Karin,” Meagan pipes up from behind me. I turn to Mia and we both roll our eyes. I know Meagan’s nice, but really?

“Thanks, Meagan.” Ms. Karin chuckles.

While everyone disperses into the gym locker rooms, I hang back to walk with Mia.

I feel like we’ve hardly had a chance to really talk to each other these days. Part of it’s my fault. I’ve been busy with Eric, dance, cheer, singing whenever I have a spare moment, and then there’s the whole forcing-myself-to-eat-actual-food ordeal.

“I have to bring E to the mall but after that do you want to hang out?” I ask, glancing at Mia as I fall in stride beside her. “We haven’t talked in forever.”

She yanks off her ponytail holder and shakes out her hair. “Sorry, I can’t. I have an appointment right after this.”

“An appointment?” I repeat. “What’s that mean, like a doctor’s thing or—”

“Hey! Mia and Elizabeth! Wait up!”

At the sound of the unfamiliar voice, we both turn around.

I frown at the sight of a short, wild-haired girl who can’t be anything more than a freshman. She wears huge glasses and an even huger backpack as she runs towards us. Her clothes consist of an oversized flannel shirt that must have been lifted from her father’s wardrobe, and faded denim jeans that scream Wal-Mart. But even worse than the lumberjack wear is the excited glint in her eyes. She’s definitely got that “I just escaped from a psych ward” look.

“What even is that?” I mutter.

That’s Andy Moretti,” Mia mumbles with a tisk. “She’s been stalking me on Twitter since summer.”

“Hey, guys!” The little freshman beams.

She seems so … excited that I don’t quite know how to reply. She’s like a mix of Meagan’s crazy-sweetness and a shark or a wolf or some other kind of predatory animal.

Andy looks from me to Mia. “I have a proposition for you. I’ve already talked to Mia about it, and I’m pretty sure she hasn’t mentioned it to you, Kyle. Right?”

She’s talking so fast that I’m sort of losing my bearings. I take a step back. “Uh, no, wait … what?”

“I’m a filmmaker—” Andy pauses and, frowning, she points to the locker room. “Were you headed that way? Do we need to walk and talk? I don’t want to hold you up.”

Mia sighs. “Yeah, Andy, be quick.”

The kid looks at me as she walks sideways. “I want to make a web series about the three most popular cheerleaders at South Louisiana High: you, Mia, and E. It’ll be like the Real Housewives, except for people our age. You want this because whatever you do after High School, it’s going to be big. You’re not going to end up going to college for accounting or working at a bank or whatever, you’re going to be famous. And to get there, you need a fan base. Do this web series with me, and I’ll get you that fan base right now. Here’s my card. Call me tomorrow and I’ll give you the shooting dates.”

While I’m still digesting this, Andy thrusts her card my way.

“A web series?” I mumble. My interest piqued, I look down at Andy’s business card.

“I’ve got to go, but call me,” Andy says as she darts away. “I already have over a thousand followers on YouTube. If you want to be famous, you’ll do this.”

I grin, my thoughts churning.

I do want a fan base; this might be exactly what I need.

“Thanks, Andy!” I call after her.

“Don’t encourage her,” Mia warns.

“Actually,” I say, returning my attention to the business card, “I think this is a great idea. I want to do it.”

When Mia doesn’t reply, I glance at her and she’s looking down at her phone.

How she managed to sneak her phone into cheer practice is beyond me. I peek at her phone and get a glimpse of a text message:

Josh: I can’t wait to see you…

I shake my head. “So you’re still seeing Josh.”

“No.” She glances at me. “I’m not seeing Josh. I’m screwing him. If you’re going to judge me, at least get your facts straight.”

“I’m not—”

“Or,” she says, cutting me off, “how about instead of judging me, you just, I don’t know, be my friend?”

“Mia, I’m not judging you.”

She’s got a strange look in her eyes, like she’s confused or lost. I want to be there for her, but how can I help if she doesn’t open up to me? I start to say something to this effect, but Mia cuts me off.

“I don’t even want to change clothes anymore. I’m out. See you tomorrow.” Without a glance back at me, Mia hurries away, headed to the gym’s exit door.

“Mia, wait!” I call after her.

Ignoring me, she pushes open the exit doors and with that, she’s gone.

“SO, SHE’S WITH Josh now?” E asks as she adjusts my AC. “Geez, you keep it way too hot in here, Kyle.”

I turn into the mall’s parking lot and sigh. “Yeah, but don’t tell anyone else about her and Josh. That kind of information doesn’t need to get back to Ran, although, to be honest, he might not even care.”

“Oh, he’d care,” E says with a snort.

I lift my eyebrows and give her a “that’s what you think” look.

E laughs at my expression and shrugs. “Okay, so Ran’s not in love with Mia, but he’s a guy. Guy’s get jealous when their girlfriends cheat, even if they don’t ‘love’ said girlfriend.”

I bite my lip to keep from saying anything about what happened with Mr. Brown. E knows Mia flirted with Mr. Brown, but I don’t think E knows how far Mia went with our history teacher and how their affair affected (or, rather didn’t affect) her relationship with Ran.

“In any case, I wish she realized that I’m not judging her,” I say, recalling that lost look in her eye. “I know she’s going through a lot right now.”

“Yeah, well, who isn’t?” E mumbles and I glance at her.

My first instinct is to take up for Mia, but then … this is E. If anyone knows what it’s like to go through a rough time, it’s her.

Keeping my tone gentle, I say, “You know about Mia’s dad, right?”

“That he’s an abusive dick? Yeah, I know,” E says. But something in her eyes soften. “But honestly, sometimes I do forget. Mia’s such a brat that it makes me forget.”

“Trust me, I totally get it.” I chuckle and hit my brakes as an elderly couple cross the street, hand-in-hand, on their way into the mall. “But deep down, she’s a good person. She’s just screwed up, like the rest of us.”

“Yeah,” E turns to me and makes a face. “How about we talk about something other than Mia? I can only take so much of her, even when she’s just a conversation topic.”

“Sure.” I laugh, but immediately feel guilty for laughing. Mia is my best friend, after all. I clear my throat and try to think of something to say.

The car is silent as a graveyard, neither of us saying a word. It’s not often that E and I hang out on our own. Usually, when all three of us are together, Mia steers the topic of conversation.

“Hey, Kyle?” E finally says and relieved, I turn to her eagerly.

“Yeah?”

“I heard about your Grandma’s stroke, and I’ve been wondering if she’s any better.”

Surprised, I nod. “Oh, yeah. Thanks for asking. Um, she’s improving. Her doctor isn’t sure if she’ll ever get her speech and motor skills back to a hundred percent. They have her in speech therapy and stuff like that, so we’re hoping it’ll help.”

I know I shouldn’t be so shocked that E’s asking about Grandma. But between her tough-chick leather jacket and the way she’s always frowning at people, I tend to forget that she’s as human as the rest of us.

“That’s good. I hope the therapy helps.” E turns to her window and quietly says, “There’s nothing like a grandma.”

Doubly surprised, I glance at her out of the corner of my eye. “Yeah, they always take your side, they spoil you, and as ancient as they are, they’re always cooler than your mom.”

E grins. “Yep. When I was a kid anytime my mom would ground me, my Grandma would sneak me out of the house for ice cream and pizza. Usually, at midnight.”

I laugh. “You’re kidding.”

“Dead serious. My grandma was gangsta, well … until she couldn’t drive anymore. That cramped our style.”

E and I exchange glances and then burst out laughing.

I don’t really know why I’m laughing, maybe it’s the idea of a little old lady being gangsta, but whatever the reason, I hear myself say, “We should hang out more,” as I pull up to the mall’s entrance.

She smiles, her eyes brightening. “Yeah, that’d be good. I love Mia, but she’s not exactly the kind of person I can talk about just anything with.”

“Like your gangsta grandma?”

“Right,” she says. “Like that.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.” I grin as E opens her door and says goodbye.

I watch her hurry into the mall and I hope we really do get to hang out more. I love Mia like a sister, but sometimes she really can be a bit much.

[]

[]

Strength

Out of breath and beads of sweat running down my abs, I roll off of Josh and push his sheets away from me.

“Wow,” I whisper as I reposition myself beside him and try to catch my breath.

“Took the word right out of my mouth,” Josh says, breathing as heavily as I am.

I stare at his white ceiling, my thoughts drifting to the way Ran hugged me and promised that everything would be all right. I roll my eyes and my hands curl into fists at my side.

I’ve enjoyed every second of this, but its making me feel so guilty. I love Ran and being with Josh doesn’t change that. It also doesn’t change the fact that Ran’s my boyfriend—a boyfriend who’s finally started paying attention to me.

I turn to Josh as he, simultaneously, turns to me. “Mia, I want to ask you something.” He speaks quietly and watches me with those dark brown eyes of his. As tough as Josh is, when he looks at me with those eyes, there’s something incredibly vulnerable about him.

“Yeah?”

He starts to say something and then stops, his chest rising and falling as he takes a deep breath. He’s nervous, I realize.

“What’s wrong with you?” I ask with a chuckle.

He grins and says, “You.”

“Huh?” I laugh and helplessly return his perfect smile.

“You’re what’s wrong; you’re all in my head. I can’t think about anything but you,” he says, taking my hand and lacing his fingers through mine.

My heart skips a beat and I look at our interlaced hands, but my stomach goes to knots.

“I know you’re with Ran but …” Josh pauses, and I close my eyes in terror.

Please don’t let him say what I think he’s going to say, please don’t …

“But I really like you, and if you give me the chance, I’ll make you happier than Ran ever could.”

I can’t believe this. Well, I can. I mean, of course Josh likes me. Guys like me—that’s never a surprise. And I knew this was going to end badly for both of us … but Josh wanting [_an actual relationship _]with me? I didn’t see that coming. My eyes fill.

“Mia? Are you going to say something? Or at least open your eyes?”

What can I say?

My eyes still shut, I take a deep breath and will my tears to stop.

Can I open my eyes? If I do, I might cave. I’ll see this boy who always pays attention to me and who I’ve never had to force conversation with. When I look at the boy who doesn’t just let me touch him, but who touches me like no one else ever has, I’ll end up agreeing to a relationship that won’t be good for me in the long run.

I turn away from Josh and open my eyes, staring at his ceiling.

“Mia—”

“Are you saying you want me to break up with Ran and be with you?”

“Basically, yes.”

Chills run up and down my arms, and I bite down on my bottom lip until it hurts.

I have to end this now, but I don’t want to.

“What if I told you,” I blurt, “that I have herpes?” My gaze still on Josh’s ceiling, I feel his hand stiffen in mine. A pang hits my heart, but I do my best to ignore it and turn to Josh. His eyes are wide. “What if, from the get-go, I knew I could infect you if we were together, and I didn’t care?”

Josh releases my hand, his mouth opening, but no words coming out.

I sit up, throw his sheets off of me and slide out of his bed. “I’m exactly the kind of person you don’t want to be with, Josh. Your mom was right about me.”

“Mia, why would you say any of that? That’s not true; you’re lying.”

Wincing at the hurt in his voice, I grab my panties from the floor.

“It’s true. You have herpes and I have a boyfriend,” I reply. My eyes filling, I dress as quickly as I can. “And I love him.”

“I don’t believe you.” Josh slides across the bed and it creaks a million times as he plants himself on the edge. “You like me and that scares you—that’s why you’re making this up!”

I pull my shirt on over my head, keeping my back to him because if he sees me crying, he’ll know how right he is about one of those things he just said.

I look around for my keys and Josh’s hands are suddenly at my hips. I let him turn me around to face him and he’s scowling.

But as soon as he sees my eyes, his frown fades and he brings one of his thumbs to my cheek, gently wiping my tears away. “You’re such a liar.” With this, Josh leans towards me, his lips inches from mine. As much as I want to kiss him, I know I shouldn’t. I’ve already done enough damage to both he and Ran, not to mention to myself.

“Yeah, I know.” I push Josh away and wipe my nose with the back of my hand. “I’ve lied to my boyfriend, and I’ve lied to myself about this—you and me—being okay. But this is Swamp Rose, I’m a Reeves, and I can’t be with you, Josh! My father would … it’d just be another reason for him to hate me.”

Josh winces as if I’ve hit him and in that moment, I thoroughly hate myself. Josh drops both of his hands to his knees, his shoulders hunched, and his eyes downcast.

Tears run down my cheeks, nose, and chin as I back away from him. “The only thing I didn’t lie about was the herpes. You really should see a doctor.”

Josh looks up, his eyes widening, and I can’t take this anymore.

I rush out of his room, blindly running to the front door of his house.

I reach for the doorknob and it turns as someone opens it from the other side. I gasp as I come face-to-face with an attractive older woman who has Josh’s big, expressive eyes.

“Oh, God,” I murmur, rushing around her and running to my SUV.

I think she calls after me, but I’m not sure. All I know is that when I reach the safety of my vehicle where I sob for, like, ten more minutes, I notice that I have a text from Ran.

Ran: You OK? Where are you?

Guilt swims in my stomach, making me want to throw up. I slowly type my reply to his text.

Mia: On my way home. Why?

I start my engine and to my surprise, Ran’s already replied. I can’t remember the last time he replied to one of my texts so quickly.

Ran: Just checking on you. See you tomorrow, but call me if you need anything.

I scream, and hurl my phone into my empty passenger seat as I peel off in the direction of the place I’ve called “home.”

But in the back of my mind, I know where “home” really is. It’s the feeling I get when I’m with someone who’s brave enough to tell me he loves me and who makes me feel like I’m perfect exactly the way I am, bad decisions and all. And I just left my home… left it devastated and infected with herpes.

Way to go, Mia.

I SCREAM, AND hurl my phone into my empty passenger seat as I peel off in the direction of the place I’ve called “home.”

But in the back of my mind, I know where “home” really is. It’s the feeling I get when I’m with someone who’s brave enough to tell me he loves me, and who makes me feel like I’m perfect exactly the way I am—bad decisions and all. And I just left my home … left it devastated and diseased.

Way to go, Mia.

THE GATE IN front of our driveway is open and the path to our garage is blocked by a police cruiser and a large white van.

“What now?” I kill the engine and open my door, dread collecting in my gut.

Apparently, when it rains it not only pours but hurricanes, tornadoes, and ushers in the end of days. I slide my phone into my pocket and, slinging my purse on my shoulder, hike the bajallion miles up our driveway to our front door.

I push open our front door and two policemen stand in the foyer talking to my father while beyond them, a Hispanic woman in a Hilary Clinton-esque pantsuit occupies one of the sitting room’s couches, facing Mark and Mom. She speaks to them, nodding and jotting something down on a clipboard every now and then.

I stand in the doorway, frozen. My hair and face are a mess, my clothes are wrinkled, and I still smell like Josh.

The fear that I hate to see in Mom’s eyes—I feel it now.

Both cops turn to me, one of them a young guy with dark hair and brown eyes that slowly rake my body. Usually, that kind of thing doesn’t faze me, but now I cross my arms and mumble, “Excuse me,” as I try to hurry past the cops.

My father grabs my arm, stopping me. I cringe at his touch, wishing I could summon my dormant ability and shove one of these cops’ guns in my father’s face. That would make him let me go.

“This is our daughter, Mia; she just came from cheerleading practice at her school,” he says in his fake Dad of the Year voice.

The older police officer’s gaze goes to my father’s hand on my arm and dear old Dad immediately releases me.

“Hi, Mia.” The older man, a black dude who looks familiar, gives me a nod. “I’m Lieutenant Russell. Why don’t you go on in the sitting room and have a chat with Ms. Rivera? It’ll only take a moment.”

“Why?” I frown, inadvertently glancing at the younger cop whose eyes are now on my boobs. I cross my arms more tightly and ask, “Who is Ms. Rivera?”

“Mia!” my father hisses from beside me. Tensing, I step away from him.

Lt. Russell smiles at him like they’re old pals. “It’s all right, Mr. Reeves. My daughter’s the same way—always questioning authority. It’s what kids do.” With this, he turns his attention to me and says, “Ms. Rivera is with Child Protective Services and she just wants to ask you a few questions. I’m sure it won’t take long.”

“Child Protective Services?” I repeat, turning to the sitting room. My purse is sliding down my shoulder and I don’t bother resituating it as I slowly head to the sitting room.

Ms. Rivera—a forty-something-year-old lady with her long, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail—turns her attention to me and stands, smiling as she extends a hand for me to shake. “Hi, you must be Mia,” she says, all smiles.

“Yeah.” I shake her hand, my purse bobbing up and down with the motion. “Who called you?”

The woman ignores my question. There’s more smiling and asking me to please sit down, which I do. I glance at Mom while I take a seat beside her on the couch. She’s as white as a ghost, but sitting up straight and appearing poised, her hands neatly clasped in her lap. To her left, Mark is slouched and his eyes downcast.

I wonder if he’s high.

Ms. Rivera asks Mom and Mark if she can speak to me alone and as I avoid their gazes, it dawns on me who must have called CPS.

I grin.

Ran … he really does care.

“So, Mia.” Ms. Rivera’s voice pulls me from my thoughts. Setting my purse down on the coffee table, I cross my legs and meet her eyes. She tilts her head and smiles. “Do your parents get mad sometimes?”

I glance at her hand and nod to her wedding ring. “You’re married. Do you have kids?”

She nods vigorously, her grin intact. “Yes, my oldest, Kayleigh, just turned nineteen, and I have two younger boys.”

I mirror her smile. “I think you already know the answer to whether or not parents sometimes get mad.”

Mrs. Rivera surprises me by laughing. “True, very true. So what do your parents do when they get mad?”

I glance at the baby grand behind her and listen to my father laugh as he starts in on some lame fishing trip story the two cops are being forced to sit through. My thoughts dart to the slaps, to the way he shoves Mom, to the twenty-five million he sold me for … and I shrug.

“They go for a run to cool off or they watch TV to distract themselves.” I smile at Mrs. Rivera, my pulse picking up speed as I add a disgusting, little cherry to the top of my disgusting, little lie. “They’re great parents.”

I’M A STRONG person.

That’s obvious from my reputation at SLH. As the most popular girl in school for four straight years, I’ve proven myself to be a leader; people don’t follow the weak, they follow the strong.

But lately, between the anger that’s taken over my life and the strange ability that comes with the anger, I haven’t been the Mia I used to be.

It’s like my backbone went and fell right out of my butthole. I hate feeling so weak.

The cops have left with Mrs. Rivera, who gave me, Mark, and Mom her business card. Now our house is tense because we’re all afraid of one person.

I slip Mrs. Rivera’s card into my pocket, my gaze going to my father as he returns from the foyer and without even so much as a look at me, Mark, or Mom, passes the sitting room, headed to some other part of the house.

I release the breath I’ve been holding and hear Mom, who’s beside me, do the same. A door slams in the distance and I jump at the noise.

Mark, still seated on the other couch, mumbles, “I was hoping he’d just leave.”

Mom turns to me, and her voice is barely above a whisper as she says, “Why did you do this? Did you even think about the consequences? About our reputation? Or the fact that these people would never believe Jonah capable of anything like this?”

Surprised, I sit up straighter while Mom’s blue eyes, bright with anger, widen as she brings her half-whispered hissy fit to a conclusion. The apples of her cheekbones are reddening and I can’t help but laugh because even the woman’s anger is polite.

“Relax, I didn’t call them,” I say, grabbing my purse from the coffee table.

Mom wraps her hand around my wrist. Startled, I turn to her. A blond strand of her bob falls out of place and lands sort of half upside down on her forehead as she leans towards me and hisses, “Now you’ve made him angry. You should get your—”

“I didn’t call them,” I snap, shaking her hand off of my wrist and getting to my feet.

“Yeah, Mia didn’t call them,” Mark mutters.

I glance at him and hitch my purse up on my shoulder. Mark’s eyes are downcast, his body language fleetingly reminding me of Josh’s as he shakes his head and says, “I did.”

You called them?” I ask, my heart sinking. I sigh and glance at the huge picture window to our right. The night sky stares back at me; moon, stars, and a surrounding blackness that’s as thick as the emptiness I feel. So Ran didn’t call CPS. “Whatever,” I mumble, stepping over Mom. “I’m going to my room.”

“No, Mia. Pack,” she says from behind me. I turn around and Mom’s standing, her eyes frantic. “Pack and go stay with a friend for a week or two, just to be safe. Hurry.”

My mouth goes dry and I glance at Mark. He looks as scared as Mom.

“But she didn’t call,” he protests turning to Mom. “I …”

I leave their conversation and head to the stairs, robotically grabbing my phone from my pocket.

Should I call Kyle and ask her if I can sleep over for a few nights? Cringing at the thought of that conversation, I reach for the banister. But this is so embarrassing to have to explain and—

Heavy footsteps sound behind me and I gasp as my father grabs my arm.

“Not so fast,” he says, his voice low. I drop my purse and its contents clatter, spilling down the stairs. He pulls me into his study.

“Let go!” I exclaim, trying to shove him away. The shove only makes him stumble as he maintains his grip on my arm and locks the study door behind us.

His bloodshot eyes are full of anger as they bore into mine. I shiver at the sight, my heart in my throat. He really hates me.

“You ungrateful brat,” he speaks slowly, enunciating every word.

He raises his fist and I glance at the balled-up hand. Clearly, he’s not just going to slap me around this time.

Steeling myself, I lift my free hand to block the blow and my father grunts, his grip on my upper arm slacking. I lower my raised hand and watch as he’s hurled away from me; an unidentified force literally flinging him, headfirst, into the wall at my right.

Petrified, I lean against the wall he’d pinned me to, watching my father groan as he sinks to the floor, his eyes closing.

Except for the sounds of my heavy breathing, the study is silent. The large bookcase just ahead remains rooted in place as does the globe in front of it and the desk to my left. No whirring sound fills my ears, no floral scent comes from my lips or pores, and no anger runs through my veins.

All I am is afraid.

All I can do is stand there, gripping the wall and shaking uncontrollably.

I take a deep breath and release it as slowly as I can. I take another deep breath, my eyes still fixed on my father’s crumpled form.

Slowly, I walk towards him.

His arms are splayed at his sides like a dancer on the verge of a pirouette, his green and white plaid shirt is—for once in his life—untucked, and his blond locks wild … but his eyes are closed and I can’t tell if he’s breathing.

“Oh God,” I whisper, coming to a halt. In the back of my mind, I hear our doorbell and wonder if it’s Lt. Russell and his gross partner, coming to cart me to jail for murder- as if they somehow already know what I’ve done. I stoop over my father’s body and study him for signs of life.

The nostrils of his long nose—perfected by last year’s midlife-crisis surgery—flare while his Adam’s apple moves up and down in his throat. A jolt of fear zips though me and I stumble backwards, almost falling.

“Mia?” Mom calls in the distance.

I scramble for the door, my hands trembling so badly I can barely unlock it.

But I manage.

“Mia?” Mom repeats as I careen out of my father’s office and nearly run right into her. She glances over my shoulder, grabs my wrist, and pulls me past the stairs where my purse and its contents are spilled, on towards the foyer. “Ran’s here,” she whispers, her eyes going from my bruised cheek to my hair. “I trust you’ll be discreet.”

“Wait, what?” I glance at the foyer ahead where I can hear Mark and Ran talking. “You called Ran?”

“No.” Mom blinks back at me. “I assumed you did.”

I look down at my wrinkled t-shirt, my thoughts darting to where it was only hours ago, to where I was only hours ago.

“I’ll have Mark bring you your clothes later tonight,” Mom whispers as we approach the foyer. “I’ll pack enough for a week. After that we’ll see.”

“A week,” I repeat while we round the corner and she releases me.

“Here she is!” Mom’s voice is oddly high-pitched as she gives me a gentle shove forward.

Ran and Mark are near the door. Ran stands with his hands in his pockets and Mark, arms folded, is slouched against the foyer wall. Their conversation comes to a halt and Ran’s eyes—bright green at the moment—meet mine as his hands come out of his pockets. His jaw tenses and a flicker of a frown crosses his brow before he offers me a forced smile. “Hey.”

“H-hey.” I glance over my shoulder. “Want to get out of here?”

“Yeah, let’s go.”

Mark steps aside while Ran offers me his hand. I take it and look into his eyes, catching them mid-metamorphosis. They shift from green to gray as he secures his grip on my hand.

The warmth of his hand, the look in his eyes, the way he’s here right when I need him—it hits me like a bolt of lightning—there’s something I never said to Josh, and the least I can do now, is say it to Ran.

“Thank you,” I whisper.

Ran nods and, losing his forced smile, gives my hand a squeeze.

I HOLD MY sides, laughing at Ran as I sit Indian-style in the grass of SLH’s football field.

After we left my house and drove around in awkward silence for a while Ran turned to me and said, “Can I show you something I’ve been working on?”

I was like “yeah whatever,” and he brought me to the football field where he’s been showing me these retarded cheers that he’s obviously been making up off the top of his head. I wish I had my phone so I could upload his “performances” to YouTube—they’re hilarious.

Wiping a tear from my eyes, I laugh as Ran turns to the side, sticks his butt out and claps with an overdramatic, “Let’s go!” He lifts his hands, arches his back and dives into a perfectly executed front tuck somersault.

A cool night breeze drifts our way and I shiver as Ran turns to me. Grinning stupidly, he puts his hands on his hips and thrusts them forward and back, chanting, “Your team’s face looks like a giant no-no place.”

I roll my eyes while he turns around, jogs away from me, and all at once comes running back towards me. Falling to his knees, he slides across the grass the way a singer slides across the stage.

“You’ve lost your mind.” I laugh as he stops right in front of me.

He bites down on his bottom lip and looks at me expectantly. “Was I good?”

I shake my head. “Sorry, bae, you will never be one of my cheerleaders.” I glance up at his hair, which is a little wild. But amazingly, after fifteen minutes of solid jumping around and tumbling, he hasn’t even broken a sweat.

“You’re so perfect,” I murmur, reaching up and finger-combing his hair into some semblance of order.

“No, I’m not. So, do you feel, um …” Ran’s voice trails off and I glance at him. He’s studying my face, concern in his eyes. “Do you feel any better?”

Shrugging, I retract my hand and run it through my own hair. “I feel like a freakshow.”

Ran repositions himself to sit Indian-style like me.

“Listen to me.” Gently taking both of my hands in his, he leans forward until our foreheads are touching.

“What are you doing?” I laugh.

“Just listen. This is important.” He smiles, his ever-changing eyes on me as he says, “Everybody’s a freak show.”

I stare into his eyes, losing my grin as my thoughts skip through everything that’s happened since I broke that Ta Ta Room pervert’s glasses.

“No, Ran.” I shake my head. “I’m really not like everyone else.”

He pulls me closer and wraps me in a hug. I snuggle into his shirt, his scent washing over me as he kisses the top of my head. “You’re not a freakshow and you’re not alone. And I won’t ever let anyone hurt you. I promise.”

I hold onto him more tightly, letting his words and the heartbreaking sincerity they’re wrapped in, envelope me.

He might not be into me the way he’s into Lanie or the way I’m into Josh, but I can tell he means this.

“Thank you,” I say, my voice muffled by his shirt.

I take a deep breath and Ran releases me. We look at each other, his eyes momentarily as blue as mine. I watch them change, the colors in each of his irises swirling and shifting like the summer sky before a storm; blue to gray in seconds.

“What’s with your eyes?” I ask and Ran blinks, his posture straightening while he glances down at the grass, as if by not looking at me, he can hide his eyes. “Why do they change like that?”

His full lips turn up into a cute, sideways smirk and he leans towards me. “Because I’m a freakshow.”

“But—” I have no choice but to shut up when he meets my lips with a kiss. He tilts his head, angling his lips until they’re a perfect fit to mine. He runs his fingers through my hair and deepens the kiss. But as soon as things get exciting, Ran pulls away.

I take a deep breath while another fall wind rolls across the football field, rustling the trees in the distance. My thoughts dart to Josh and to the way his kisses linger. He understands what I need without me having to say a word.

I glance at Ran and he’s biting down on his bottom lip, a hint of guilt in his eyes.

I think I know how he feels: we’ve just kissed and we’re thinking about other people.

I quiet the jealous voice in the back of my head, sit up straighter, and tuck my hair behind my ears. “Hey, Ran?” He looks at me and I touch his hand. “We were freshman when we first started going out and back then, it was easier. But the older we get, the more adult our relationship becomes and adult relationships are complicated.”

I pause, fleetingly wondering if my parents had this kind of conversation back when they were younger and still loved each other. The thought literally makes me nauseous.

Me and Ran are not Jonah and Carla Reeves.

Squelching that disgusting thought, I say, “So being that we’re not kids anymore, I want you to know that if you feel like you need to … to be with Lanie a couple of times or whatever, I won’t hold it against you.”

Ran’s eyes widen and he stares at me like I’ve just suggested we elope and move to a goat farm in the Netherlands. While the tips of his ears turn bright red, Ran opens his mouth only to make sounds that aren’t actual words: “Uh, I, wha, I, ho—I… ”

While this continues all I can do is sit there, cringing for him.

His sputtering finally stops and becomes a weird maniacal laugh. I roll my eyes as the jealous voice in the back of my mind becomes louder. Apparently, even just the thought of screwing Lanie is too much for him to handle.

Ran looks up and scratches the back of his head. “Why, God? Why?” he suddenly shouts, startling me as he stares at the sky and then falls backwards onto the grass.

I don’t even know how to react to this. Running my fingers through my hair, I take a deep breath. “Ran, act normal, please.”

He obediently sits up, clears his throat, and looks at me. “Sorry about that.” He exhales and lowers his gaze to somewhere near my shoulder. “I’m with you, not Lanie. And—”

“That’s my point, it’s a free pass! You can still be with me and her if that’s what you need. Just get it out of your system and we’ll still be fine.”

“No.” He bites down on his bottom lip and shakes his head. Lowering his voice to a definite tone, he says, “I don’t want to do that.”

“Okay.” Relief washing over me, I clasp my fingers together and watch him frown down into the grass. “Am I really your first kiss?” I ask.

“Yep.” He arches one of his eyebrows.

“How is that even possible? You’re hot and you’re a guy. How did you not kiss a girl until we met?”

“Why are you suddenly so interested in me?” He smirks.

“I’m not suddenly interested; I’m your girlfriend.” I give his shoulder a light shove.

He screams like a girl and grabs his shoulder before falling backwards into the grass.

I roll my eyes.

Ran sits up, breathing hard and holding his shoulder like he’s been stabbed.

“So lame.” I shake my head and bite back a smile.

He brushes grass from his hair and shirt as he says, “You know how my dad is; Reverend Hawke runs a tight ship. It was a huge ordeal when I asked you out. I got grounded for a month.”

I laugh. “You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Serious. And he made me promise to save my no-no place for the girl who puts a ring on this.” He lifts his left hand, wiggling his fingers. I can’t even begin to know how to react.

“Please tell me you didn’t just say ‘no-no place’ again.” I run a hand over my face. “What is actually wrong with you?”

“So many things. You have no idea,” he replies wistfully. With this, he stands and extends his hand. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah.” I accept my weird boyfriend’s hand and we walk hand-in-hand to his car. “Are you sure your parents are going to let me stay over tonight?”

“Yeah, but you’ll have to stay in the guest room, vow not to attack me, and wear a chastity belt made of titanium. Also, our guest room is on Mars.”

“None of that was even funny, Ran.”

“I’m kidding.” He gives my hand a squeeze. “They’re fine with you staying over.” We approach his car and I start to release Ran’s hand when he tightens his grip on mine and turns to me. Surprised, I watch his expression grow incredibly somber as he places his free hand on top of mine and looks into my eyes. “Mia, I just need to make sure you understand that … I know you better than you think. I’m not blind.”

My heart sinks and I lower my gaze to the ground.

So, this is it; this is the part where he finally breaks up with me. That’s why he didn’t agree to the whole free-pass-with-Lanie deal, because he knew he’d get to be with her anyway.

“But I will always have your back,” Ran quietly says. I look up at him in shock. He searches my eyes. “No matter what happens between us, I’ll always take care of you.” He plants a kiss on my cheek and releases me.

I’m still standing there, processing the fact that he didn’t break up with me, as he opens the passenger door for me and runs around to get in on the other side.

I slide into his car and while he starts the engine, I watch him, the weight of his promise bearing down on me.

“Why?” I ask as we pull out of SLH’s parking lot.

Ran glances at me. “Why what?”

“If you know what I’ve …” I bite down on my bottom lip, thinking of the way Josh looked at me when I told him I didn’t want to be with him. Tears fill my eyes, but I blink them away. “Why do you still want to be with me? Why do you even care about me’?”

Ran keeps his gaze on the road ahead, an unusually stoic look in his eyes. “Why’d you tell me I could sleep with Lanie if I wanted?”

I clench my fists and roll my eyes. “Let’s pretend I never said any of that.”

“Seriously, Mia. Think about it. Why’d you tell me that?”

“Because I understand how you feel,” I blurt.

“There you go,” Ran says without looking at me. “You and me, we’re not that different. We both like attention, we both know what we want, and we go after it, no holds barred. We’re a little selfish, you more so—”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you’re a less empathetic version of me,” he says with a shrug. “It’s difficult to see at first, but once you see it, you can’t ignore how similar we are. I know I couldn’t. And the thing is, when I start to understand someone, I also start to care about them in a way that never really goes away. So, you’re stuck in my heart. No matter how self-centered or annoying you are, you’ll always be here.” He points to his chest.

My mouth has fallen open and all I can do is stare at him. “Did you really just call me self-centered and annoying?”

Ran cringes and glances at me out of the corner of his eye. “I talk too much. I’m an idiot. Just forget everything I said. Except the part about me being there for you. I meant that.”

I shake my head in disbelief; Ran’s description of me isn’t something I can just forget. When my boyfriend, who rarely says a negative word about anyone, calls me “self-centered” and “annoying,” it’s pretty likely that I’m going to remember that for a while.

Thinking hard, I turn to face the road ahead while we make our way to Ran’s house. He’s still talking, of course—the dude literally never shuts up—but I tune him out.

Ran’s right … like him, I know what I want and I go for it. I wanted Ran, I got him. I wanted Josh, I got him. Even when I wanted to be besties with Kyle and she wasn’t having it (the girl hated me when we first met), I got my way and now we’re practically like sisters. I see someone or something I want and I don’t question whether or not I should have it; I just go for it. That’s what makes me a strong person, but maybe it’s also what makes me “self-centered.”

Is it really so bad to be self-centered? If you don’t focus on yourself and what you want, then you’ll never reach any goals or do anything that you want to do. Then again, if I hadn’t been self-centered, Josh would’ve never been hurt-

“I shouldn’t have said all of that, Mia,” Ran suddenly says, cutting into my thoughts. I turn to him as he drives us towards the gated entrance to our subdivision. “The main thing is you’re going to be—”

“Okay,” I interrupt, nodding. “Yeah, I know. I’m going to be okay because I have you.”

Ran gives me one of his Prince Charming grins and I return it. But I silently add, ‘and because I’m strong. That’s the real reason why I’ll be okay, because[_ I’m _]strong.’

[]

[]

[]

October, 2014

Kyle: I have to go now, gotta eat breakfast with the fam. TTYL Eric : )

I hit send, slide my phone into the pocket of my jacket, and head to the kitchen.

The smell of sticky rice with egg and sausage drifts my way and I can’t help but take a deep breath, inhaling the aroma.

As I pass the sitting room and make my way to the kitchen, I hear Mom and Dad laughing and making a racket while they prepare breakfast.

I like the noise. It reminds me of the way our home sounded when I was little. Back then, we didn’t have this huge house; we lived in a regular two-bedroom in a plain neighborhood in Baton Rouge. I shared a room with Cam Hong and our family didn’t own a second restaurant on the outskirts of Swamp Rose, so that meant Dad was home at least a few days each week. He and Mom worked together like a team. It wasn’t until I was about eight that he and Mom decided to expand by building the Baton Rouge restaurant. That’s when we moved to this house and that’s when Dad started spending four to five days a week out in Baton Rouge, keeping an eye on our family’s investment.

But lately, because of Grandma’s stroke, he’s been spending more time with us and I hope he makes a habit of it.

I slip into the kitchen, unnoticed.

Leaning down, I give Grandma a peck on the cheek and whisper, “Bonjour.”

Her wheelchair has been pushed up to the table where she’s patiently waiting for her breakfast. Her glass of orange juice is nearly empty and her little journal is opened to a page that’s full of writing. I know she can’t write anymore, which is beyond sad, so I assume she’s reading something she penned before her stroke.

She gives me a smile and points to her glass of orange juice.

She needs a refill. I grab the glass and head to the fridge.

Mom and Dad are both at the stove, their backs to me. They’re so concentrated on cooking that they still haven’t noticed my presence. They speak to each other in Vietnamese. “Is she sick?” Dad asks as he adds a pinch of salt to the pot of rice in front of him. “She’s so skinny.”

“Why are you making more rice? We already have enough. And no, she’s not sick, she’s just watching her figure,” Mom says. “Something Cam Hong should be doing.”

Tensing, I clear my throat. Both of my parents jump and turn around.

“Kyle, I didn’t hear you come in,” Dad says, a sheepish look in his eyes.

I glare at him and, shaking my head, turn to the refrigerator. “Well, I’m here.”

“What are you doing in the refrigerator?” Mom asks as she grabs an orange from the fruit basket. “We’re cooking breakfast. You don’t need anything else.”

I freeze, a streak of panic flashing up in my stomach. Is she saying that because I’ve gained weight? I knew I shouldn’t have added that chicken to my salad last night.

Gritting my teeth, I take a deep breath and push my illogical thoughts into silence.

Well … sort of. They’re never really silent because the guilt that these thoughts leave in their wake is like the trail of slime left behind by a snail. The trail of guilt has developed into a gut-feeling that has yet to leave me. But thank God for Meagan and the counselor I’ve been talking to on the phone. Because of them, I now understand that what I know and what I feel are two different things.

The counselor explained it to me this way: someone who has schizophrenia may [_feel _]that the voices they’re hearing are real because that’s what their gut tells them. But after getting medical help and learning about their condition, they realize the voices aren’t real. Instead of listening to the voices or their “gut feelings,” which may tell them to stop taking their meds or to go jump off a bridge or something, they begin to depend on logic.

Similarly, at the very core of who I am—in my heart—I feel overweight. That’s why my gut tells me to stay away from food and that if I eat, I’m doing something wrong. But in this case, my gut feeling is what’s wrong. I can’t go with my gut; I have to go with logic.

I grab the orange juice and pour it into Grandma’s glass. Mom sets the orange on a cutting board and slices it in half. “And I’m going to make fresh-squeezed orange juice. It’s better than the store bought kind your father bought.”

“Dad,” I hear myself say. “To answer your question, I am sick but I’m getting better.”

“What?” Reverting to English, he stops what he’s doing and turns to me. “What do you mean you’re sick?”

I put the orange juice back in the refrigerator and glance up to find Mom eyeing me, a concerned look on her face. “Sick how?”

I didn’t plan on sharing this with my family, so I have no idea why I’m saying anything about it now. “For a while I’d stopped eating because I thought I was fat.”

“But you’re not. You’ve never been,” Dad says, frowning. He glances at Mom and she shrugs, her mouth hanging open in confusion.

“I know.” I nod. “That’s what makes my problem a sickness, because I can’t see myself the way I really am. It’s an emotional problem that becomes a physical problem; it’s called anorexia. But don’t worry, I’ve been getting better. I make myself eat even when I don’t want to.”

Other than the sounds of boiling water and sizzling sausage, the kitchen is silent. Mom and Dad stare at me, their eyes wide.

I shift on my feet, beginning to second guess what I’ve said.

I wasn’t thinking … I should have kept my mouth shut.

As smoke billows up from the stove behind them, I point to it. “Something burning?”

Dad turns to the stove and removes an overheated skillet from one of the eyes.

Mom, meanwhile, looks at me and sighs. “Kyle.” She shakes her head. “I don’t know what to do with you.”

“Take her to a doctor,” Dad says, his back to us.

“I don’t need one.” I glance down at Grandma’s orange juice.

Actually, Dad’s probably right. The counselor I’ve been talking to on the phone is great, but even she’s suggested that I get my parents to take me to a real doctor.

“If you’re sick, you go to a doctor,” Dad says.

I shrug. “Okay, fine.”

Picking up Grandma’s orange juice, I start towards the table.

“And, Kyle?” Dad says.

I pause in stride and turn back to him.

“You’re not fat,” he says, looking me in the eye.

I chuckle and shift on my feet. “Thanks.”

“And even if you were,” Mom pipes up and as she gestures, I notice that her hands are full of orange juice and pulp. “You’d still be very pretty.”

“Xuan!” Dad barks at Mom.

“What?” Her eyes widen in innocence and she wipes her hands on her apron. “It was a compliment!”

Rolling my eyes, I slide Grandma’s drink in front of her and take a seat beside her. She places her hand over mine and gives it a gentle pat. As our eyes meet, she smiles knowingly. I scoot my chair closer to hers and rest my head on her shoulder. Grandma doesn’t realize it, but in a way, she’s the one who saved me.

Eventually, Cam Hong makes her way into the kitchen and even Trey drops by for breakfast.

As I watch my brother and sister interact with Mom and Dad, it dawns on me that all this time, I’ve been silently (and not so silently) criticizing them for doing the exact same thing I’ve done.

I’ve told Cam Hong and Trey that they should be more open with Mom and Dad and all the while I’ve been hiding my eating disorder, not only from my parents, but from myself.

Deep down, I knew exactly what I was doing to my body but I didn’t have the courage to admit it to myself, let alone to anyone else. I’ve been afraid of my own weakness. And you can’t beat something that you cower away from; you have to face it.

Trey pats the top of my head as he sets Grandma’s plate of Xoi Trung in front of her.

I look up at him and he’s smiling. “Guess who’s going to get a copy of my story today?”

“Me?” I laugh. “Since you forgot to send it to me when I asked you for it, like, three weeks ago?”

He cringes. “Yeah, sorry about that and I did realize that and sent it to you this morning. But um …” Trey lowers his voice and leans towards me. “I made a copy for Dad. I’m going to let him read it and then I’m going to talk to him about changing my major.”

Grandma makes a high-pitched noise and we look at her.

She’s grinning so widely you’d have thought she won the lottery. And I completely understand how she feels.

“Trey, I’m so proud of you! That’s awesome,” I whisper before punching him in the arm and then giving him a hug. As I release him, it hits me that he’s planning to do something that I have yet to take on.

I need to tell my parents about my career goals, even if they laugh at me or think I’ve lost my mind, they deserve to know the truth about their daughter. And I deserve to be seen for who I really am.

“Kyle,” Dad’s voice cuts into my thoughts. He’s still at the stove, Mom by his side. He nods to the sticky rice that he’s moving from a pot into a small bowl. “Come get some breakfast.”

Automatically tensing, I scoot my chair away from the table and make my way to the stove.

I accept the bowl and try to ignore the deep-seated guilt that finds its root in my gut.

Mom leans over Dad and, looking me in the eye, she quietly says, “One bite at a time until you’re finished. That’s what I used to tell you when you were little.”

Surprised by the concern in her eyes, I nod. “Okay.”

With this, I head back to the table and take my seat between Grandma and Trey.

One bite at a time until I’m finished—I can handle that.

AS SOON AS the first hour bell rings, I make a beeline to the classroom door and head for my locker.

While it is the case that I need to get my books for my next class, that has nothing to do with my reasons for making like a leer jet and bolting through the door.

I need my Eric-Fix, even if it’s just a quick text.

I’ve never enjoyed talking to someone as much as I enjoy talking to Eric. Even that week that Mia spent with me and we’d stay up all night talking about her and Ran and my anorexia-issues … I liked talking to her but it wasn’t the same as when I talk to Eric. He, like … I don’t know, he just “gets me” in a way no one else can.

“Hey, Kyle.”

At the sound of Benjamin Morris’s voice, I turn around and he’s opening his locker, a few feet away from me.

“Hey.” I offer him a smile.

That’s another good thing about Eric: he makes the whole running-into-Benjamin-Morris-everyday issue a non-issue. Even though I’ll always think Ben’s cute, he has nothing on Eric and I’m not embarrassed about our little mistake anymore. Actually, it wasn’t even a “mistake,” I think it was just something that needed to happen.

“You been doing all right?” I ask, watching Ben and waiting for him to blush. The poor guy still gets all flustered around me, but eventually he’ll get over it.

Ben looks past me, his eyes widening as he says, “Uh, what? What did you say?” in a monotone voice.

Frowning, I turn around to see what’s got his attention.

A tall girl with short hair, flawless dark skin, and boobs that are big enough to get her a job with E’s mom at Leon’s walks past us.

That’s when I realize it’s not just Ben who’s staring. Everyone in the hallway has stopped what they’re doing to peer at this girl because … she’s famous.

“Holy crap,” I mutter and turn to Ben. “That was Drew Everett!”

“I know,” Ben says as he turns around, watching Drew walk down the hall. “I can’t believe she goes to school here.”

I chuckle. “Me either. That’s insane. We have a freaking movie star at our school.”

I grab my phone, snap a picture of Drew walking away, and compose a text to Eric.

Kyle: The rumors are true, Drew Everett goes to our school now!

Eric replies within seconds.

Eric: Whoa, SLH is turning into Hollywood!

I grin and reply:

Kyle: IKR? So, do you want to hang out tonight? Dinner maybe?

Eric: Sounds good. How about your family’s restaurant? I’ve never been there.

I gulp and shift on my feet. We’ve been seeing each other for three weeks and have only officially been dating for four days … should I really introduce him to my family?

I cringe and reply.

Kyle: OK, my Mom and brother will probably be at the restaurant. They’ll be working there tonight. Are you sure you want to meet my family? They might scare you off lol.

“You think I’d even have a chance with her?”

Ben’s voice startles me and I look up from my phone to find him still craning his neck and looking down the hall.

I bite down on my bottom lip, surprised by the streak of jealousy that courses through me. Why am I jealous? I’m with Eric. Ben having a schoolboy crush on a movie star isn’t my business. Pushing my crazy-feelings aside, I size Ben up as he turns to me.

He’s still got that pretty olive skin and dark hair that lets you know he’s going to be one of those tall, dark, and handsome types when he gets older. His eyes have a sweetness that makes him look charming and safe—in a good way. And his clothes aren’t half-bad anymore.

“Sure, why not? It could happen.” I grin and arch one of my eyebrows. “So is this your way of letting me know you’re over me?”

Ben blushes and I exhale, quietly relieved at the fact that I can still get a blush out of him.

“Over you? Never.” He smiles.

I grab my books from my locker and close it before elbowing Ben as I whisper, “If Drew Everett doesn’t fall for you, then something’s wrong with her.”

As I leave my locker behind, my phone vibrates in my pocket. I grab it and read Eric’s text.

Eric: Bring it on. I’ll pick you up at seven : )

I grin. I think that’s going to be my new motto: bring it on.

No matter what life has in store, I have what it takes to face it. So life might as well bring it on—I’ll be ready.

[]

October, 2014

An autumn wind whips through the front lawn’s oak trees and I glance down at a squirrel as it scurries right in front our feet and hurries towards one of the trees.

Kyle, at my side, is too engrossed in what she’s saying to notice the brazen squirrel.

“You should just get a tutor. You don’t want to let one math class ruin your GPA,” she says before biting into the chocolate chip cookie I’ve given her.

Last night, after cheer practice, I came home ready to bake something and I made a crap-ton of chocolate chip cookies. I used one of my grandma’s old recipes and they turned out perfectly. Even Kyle, who hardly ever eats anything, has already devoured two of them.

Nodding my agreement, I take a bite of my turkey sandwich and quietly revel in the homemade spicy mustard and fried egg I’ve added to give it a little kick.

“Yeah,” I agree, glancing down at my sandwich and wishing I had more than one bite left. “But asking for help with my tenth grade math class is hella embarrassing.”

“And it’d be even more embarrassing if you failed[_ _]the tenth grade math class,” Kyle says with a chuckle. She brushes cookie crumbs from her hands and turns to me. “You just gotta suck it up and get a tutor.”

I nod, quietly considering this.

Kyle’s right … I have to think about my future. A low GPA means no scholarship and no scholarship means no leaving Swamp Rose.

“Hey, look.” Kyle nudges me. “Is it just me or do those two finally seem happier?”

I take the final bite of my turkey sandwich and follow her gaze to where Mia and Ran occupy a bench beneath the shade of their favorite oak. Mia talks and gestures while Ran simply listens. I watch her toy with her hair and look up as she continues to speak; Ran, meanwhile, surreptitiously checks his phone.

“Never mind,” Kyle says, apparently also having spotted Ran’s little maneuver. “It’s just me. My God, why don’t they break up already?”

I watch Ran, my thoughts returning to that rainy night at Aldoph Towers … it’s been weeks since my Unseen encounter and now everything that happened that night feels unrealistic, like it was all just a dream.

But it wasn’t a dream; every bit of it was real. I know for sure that Unseen is a woman who works with a male partner. Is Randall Hawke her partner? That, I can’t say. If he is, he sure hasn’t treated me any differently since that night. He’s still as goofy as ever … but there is a part of me that’s almost sure it was Ran.

Decidedly turning away from Mia and Ran, I ball up the saran wrap I’d used for my sandwich and throw it into my lunch bag.

“So, I have a secret,” I say and Kyle arches an eyebrow at me.

“Is it that you put crack in those cookies? Because I’m already jonesing for another one.” She glances at my lunch bag hopefully.

“Nah, they’re crack free. Here ya go.” Pleased, I hand over my third and final cookie. I’d been saving it for myself, but I have more at home and to be honest there’s something deeply satisfying about watching someone else eat my food. It’s even better than eating it myself.

“Thanks,” Kyle says, taking an exceptionally slow bite of the cookie. She’s so funny with food; she eats everything really slowly like that. Kyle covers her mouth with her hand as she chews and turns to me. “So, what’s your secret?”

“Remember that poetry contest Ms. Mallory told us about?”

Kyle’s eyes widen. “Yeah! Did you enter?”

“I did.” My heart skips a beat as I recall Ms. Mallory’s excitement when she approached me after class yesterday. I grin. “And I’m one of ten finalists.”

Kyle emits a tiny screech, and surprised, I laugh as she shoves me. “Shut up! Seriously?”

I nod, my cheeks burning. “Yep! It’s not like I’ve won or anything, but I’m definitely a contender.”

“E, that’s incredible!” Kyle gives me another shove, her dark eyes wide, and a huge grin on her face. “You have to show me the poem.”

“Okay.” I grab my phone from the pocket of my jacket. “But you can’t tell anyone else about it or about the contest or anything.”

“I won’t, I promise,” she eagerly agrees.

I find the poem and hand her my phone. I actually know it by heart, but it’s much easier to let her read it for herself than me suffering through reciting it.

Kyle reads the title out loud: “Wendy and the Lost Boy.” She turns to me and asks, “Is this loosely based on Peter Pan?”

I shrug. “I guess.”

“Cool.” She clears her throat and pauses slightly before she begins the poem:

“He’s got a child’s eyes

He’s got a wanderer’s soul

He’s got my heart in his palm

Like soup in a bowl

He’s got a childish need

To play.

And that’s why I’m afraid.

With my heart in his palm

Like soup in a bowl,

He jumps, runs, jigs, even flies

While I slosh, spill and nearly go splat

He’s got my heart in his palm

Like soup in a bowl

Because his very essence,

Is akin to my own

Because his very shadow

Is the sun and shade to my soul,

He’s got me

Waiting at my window

Waiting to fly

He’s got me.”

Kyle grins as she hands me my phone. “Cute. I like it. And it’s about a guy, right?”

I blush, but hold my head high. “Maybe.”

“Well …? Who’s the guy?” She nudges me with her elbow.

I shut my mouth and shake my head.

No way am I telling anyone that I have a crush on Mia’s cousin. Not that I don’t trust Kyle, but I don’t want to risk it getting back to Mark that I like him. As nice as he seems, he’s got a long way to go before I’ll even consider the possibility of doing something about my feelings for him.

“E, come on,” Kyle urges. “Tell me who it’s about.”

I give her shoulder a gentle pat. “Everyone has secrets, and this one’s mine.”

Kyle’s playful expression grows serious and she nods. “Okay.”

With this, I cross my arms and enjoy another cool breeze as it makes its way through SLH’s front lawn. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since this school year began, it’s that everyone has secrets.

[]

October, 2014

Ran was right. We’re all just a mass of weird and sweaty freakshows. And this is especially evident as you’re walking through the halls of your high school. Though the two besties by your side, Asian hotness and White Trash Barbie, resemble actual humans, most of the other visuals that are thrown into your line of sight are insanely freakish in nature. Here comes one right now …

“Oh my God, look.” I elbow Kyle and point to the slit in Via Nguyen’s mini as she bends over to get something out of her book bag.

Via, I’ve decided, is basically a dumb version of me; she’s just another rich girl with daddy issues. She craves attention from guys and does whatever she can to get it. The fact that she and I are different races doesn’t even apply in our case; we’re nearly carbon copy freakshows.

“Holy macaroni,” Kyle says with a tisk.

“I see vag,” E mumbles and we all chuckle.

“She’s such a whore,” I whisper as Via stands and then glances around a bit self-consciously as she tugs at her skirt. A trace of guilt zipping through me, I add, “But I like her haircut—at least she’s a cute whore.”

E snorts. “I love it when Mia tries to be nice.”

I narrow my eyes at her. “I am nice when people deserve it.”

E shrugs. “Whatever you say.”

I glance at her shoes. She’s wearing the heels I gave her last week. Instead of going with my first instinct and giving her a shove, I pause and plant a huge kiss on her cheek.

“Stop!” E shrieks and pushes me away.

Laughing, I fall onto Kyle who rights us both on our feet and murmurs, “Y’all are insane.” I still haven’t quite pulled myself together when Kyle spots Meagan and Rose and beckons them our way.

Meagan is cute as always, but Rose … that’s another story. Even so, I make sure to give the overdone sophomore a smile and nod. It takes a ton of willpower to ignore the many horrendous make-up choices Rose has made, but by God I am trying.

“How’s it going?” I ask, exchanging air kisses with the two underclassmen.

The girls reply in unison and start talking about something that I don’t hear a word of because the sound of my boyfriend’s laugh catches my attention. I turn in the direction of the noise and catch sight of he and Lanie at his locker. Ran holds a comic book that they both stare at with ginormous grins. In fact, Lanie’s smiling so much that her face is aglow, making her look more human than freakshow-ish.

I avert my eyes and focus on taking a deep, steadying breath. I can’t get mad. I have to stay calm. Just breathe and stay calm. Reaching into my purse, I root around for my lip gloss, just to have something to focus on.

Every seven days I’ve given myself the “calming injections” my father gets from some place called Serenity Bayous. Despite this, I’m a hundred percent sure that if I get angry enough, my ability will burst through and cause all hell to break loose. After all, I threw my own father against a wall, knocking him out cold the last time he tried to hit me … and that time I didn’t even hear the whirring buzz in my head or feel the anger welling up inside of me—it just happened.

“You all right, Mia?” Kyle whispers, surprising me. Sometimes I forget how observant she is. She nudges me with her elbow. “You look like you’re getting in a fight with the insides of your purse or something.”

“I’m just trying to find my stupid lip gloss,” I reply, digging past a tampon and forcing the negative thoughts from my mind. “I swear this purse eats everything. God …”

Kyle gives my arm a gentle pat while E looks at me like I’m crazy. But this doesn’t bother me all that much because E looks at everyone like they’re crazy. And really, why shouldn’t she? Every last one of us, from the cute guy who ignores his smoking hot girlfriend and spends all of his time with a nerdy virgin, to the smoking hot girlfriend who puts up with said cute guy’s retardation, we’re all crazy and we deserve E’s arched eyebrow aimed in our directions.

As soon as I find my lip gloss, my cell phone vibrates. My heart skips a beat at the sight of Josh’s name.

Josh: My mom’s out of town for work. I hv the house to myself tonight. Come over?

Tensing, I turn around and glance back at Ran and Lanie.

He’s rolled the comic book up and is gently hitting her on the top of her head with it. She, all smiles and glowing, grabs it from him and whacks him across the head. Now he’s, for some reason, grabbing his neck as if he’s choking and falling to the hall floor. I vomit a little in my mouth and return my attention to my phone.

Mia: Maybe.

“Who are you texting so sneakily?” E asks, her voice low.

Good God. Why do I have to be best friends with people who notice everything? I can’t get away with a single thing around E and Kyle.

“I may or may not have made another mistake with Josh last weekend,” I confess.

E laughs. “Mia, you need to just go out with him.”

“I have a boyfriend.” Even as the words leave my lips, I glance down at my phone, hoping Josh has replied.

The truth is that surviving those horrible two weeks that we didn’t see each other was far crappier than anything Ran’s ever put me through. Josh was mad at me for being basically heartless when he asked me out and then there was the whole giving him herpes ordeal (which he’s still actually somewhat pissed about). And of course, I was too ashamed to face him. But after fourteen days of being Josh-less, I was desperate and horny and all like, “screw being embarrassed.” So I made a surprise visit to his house and let’s just say that it didn’t take a ton of “convincing” for Josh to forgive me.

My phone vibrates in my hand and I eagerly open his text.

Josh: Maybe? Why “maybe”? Just say yes.

Good, he’s jealous.

I can’t help but smile. He so wants me!

“What are you smiling about like that?” E asks with a chuckle. “Actually, never mind. If that’s Josh, then I probably don’t want to know.”

“Like I said,” I say as I compose a reply to Josh. “I have a boyfriend, and it isn’t Josh.”

Mia: I said maybe.

“Right,” E murmurs, obviously unconvinced.

Before I’ve barely had a second to even blink, Josh responds.

Josh: Well MAYBE I should pretend to like Lanie Russell since you have a thing for guys who spend all their time with her.

Rolling my eyes, I shove my phone into my purse and say, “And even Ran’s more mature than Josh, so I think I made the right choice.”

E shrugs. “Whatever. It’s your life to ruin, Mia.”

I give her a look. She’s so moody. Sometimes we’re like the best of friends and other times it’s like she’s mad at me for no reason. Whatever.

“I’m out, guys. Later, E.” I turn to Kyle. “Asian hotness—”

Kyle shakes her head. “Do not ever call me that.”

“Right, sorry.” I nod to the younger girls. “Later.”

I saunter off to third hour, readjusting my purse on my shoulder when some girl who isn’t watching where she’s going, runs smack into me.

The smell of Chanel No. 5 overtaking me, I step back and stare at a tall girl with flawless dark skin, hair as short as a dude’s, perfectly executed makeup, and laid back clothes that scream, “I’m richer than you and all of your friends put together.”

I come to and, embarrassed by my weird staring, murmur, “Watch it.”

She narrows her eyes and says, “Watch yourself,” before darting around me, her nose in the air.

Beyond appalled, I glare after her and before I can come up with something to yell at the back of her head, Ran’s voice sounds ahead of me. “Hey, Mia.”

“Who was that?” I demand, turning to him as he slips an arm around my waist.

“Uh, Drew Everett.” He arches an eyebrow at me, “You really didn’t recognize her? Famous actress, was nominated for a Teen Choice award, her mom—”

Jealousy stirring in my gut, I roll my eyes. “Okay, yeah. I remember now. Famous or not, she’s rude.”

“I know.” He nods. “That’s why I’m thinking y’all are going to be best friends in about two, three weeks tops.”

I elbow him and nearly shatter my funny bone in the process.

“Ouch! Jesus, Ran.” I sigh, rubbing my arm as we duck into our classroom together. Ran’s muscles are fun to look at but not to play with.

“Sorry.” Ran lifts his hands in surrender, his eyebrows going up. “You all right?”

I take a good look at my boyfriend.

He’s hot and he’s mine. I also have another hot guy begging me to come over tonight. So I think I’m going to be okay. Maybe not, like, forever but for now. “Mia?” Ran laughs, interrupting my rambling thoughts. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Uh, because you’re just, like, staring at me.”

I pat Ran’s cheek. “If a girl isn’t staring at you, then something’s wrong.”

He blushes and I walk past him into my classroom.

My friends are always asking me if I’m okay, like they think I’m made of glass. They have no idea how strong I am.

But I do. I know exactly who I am and what I’m made of. I’m Mia Reeves and I’m not perfect; I cheat, I lie, I make rash decisions on a daily basis, and I always bounce back. That’s strength: the ability to accept and consistently withstand your own flaws.

So, yeah- I make an insane amount of mistakes, but I have the strength to work through them and that’s why I’ll always be okay.

Mia, Kyle, and E may have managed to get their friendship back on track, but Swamp Rose’s many secrets remain unresolved. Who is Unseen and where did the powerful vigilante come from? In, “Almost Twins,” the third book in the South Louisiana High series, you’ll meet Andy Moretti as she takes the lead in solving the mystery of Unseen’s origins.

South Louisiana High School is full of characters and you’re welcomed to take a peek into their lives by reading each of their stories in the books below!

The South Louisiana High Series

Identity – Book One

Karen, Nathaniel, & Tessa’s Story

Almost Friends – Book Two

Mia, Kyle, & Elizabeth’s Story

Almost Twins – Book Three

Andy, Gia, & Via’s Story

The Other LA – Book Four

Drew’s Story

Bravery – Book Five

Gina’s Story

Almost Human – Book Six

Lanie & Silv’s Story

[]

First of all, thank you to readers for following the South Louisiana High series and for putting up with Mia Reeves and her cringe-worthy decisions. She’s definitely one of the most difficult characters I’ve ever dealt with. Speaking of Mia, I’d also like to thank my writing group here in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They politely listened to every chapter of this book and offered helpful insights and advice on the plot and characters. I feel fortunate to be a part of this group!

Another huge thank you goes to Melissa of Good Girl Editing for combing through each page of my story and offering much-needed advice. I’m also thrilled with the cover of the book, thanks to the wonderful work of Rebecca Berto! The interior design, likewise, turned out beautifully due to the efforts of the talented E.M. Tippetts Book Designs.

Once again, thank you to readers for taking a peek into the lives of Swamp Rose’s citizens!

Questions or comments about The South Louisiana High Series?

Contact E. J. Mara using the form here !

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright 2016 by Come Play Studios

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Come Play Studios.

www.comeplaystudios.com

Cover by Rebecca Berto

Interior Design and Formatting by E.M. Tippetts Book Designs:

www.emtippettsbookdesigns.com

First Edition


Almost Friends

Swamp Rose is a small town that’s been shrouded in mystery ever since a vigilante called “Unseen” began making headlines. Unseen uses seemingly supernatural abilities to thwart criminals and rescue their innocent victims. But Almost Friends isn’t about a superhero named Unseen, it’s about three very unheroic high school students. Mia Reeves, Kyle Pham, and Elizabeth O'Brien are the most popular girls at South Louisiana High and being a part of this mean girl trifecta is anything but easy. As the three friends embark on their junior and senior years at South Louisiana High, they find themselves facing extraordinary challenges. Mia doesn’t tell her two besties that she’s developed a disturbing super power, Kyle, meanwhile, struggles to keep her eating disorder under wraps, and Elizabeth isn’t sure she can trust her two best frenemies with what she’s learned about her father’s connection to their town’s vigilante. Clearly, Unseen isn’t the only mysterious figure in Swamp Rose. Mia, Kyle, and Elizabeth have their fair share of secrets to protect. Can their friendship survive hidden abilities, extraterrestrial discoveries, and closet upon closet of skeletons? Find out in, Almost Friends, the second book within the South Louisiana High series!

  • Author: E.J. Mara
  • Published: 2017-05-10 22:20:23
  • Words: 75784
Almost Friends Almost Friends