I woke up in my bed the next morning. I blinked, momentarily disoriented by the sun streaming across my face.
Then I remembered. I sat up quickly, throwing the covers off of me, padding quickly and quietly out of my room and into the living room. My hands shook with anticipation as I prepared myself for the fight I would have with Javier over what had happened the night before. I took a deep breath before going into the kitchen, steeling myself.
But the kitchen was empty. Javier wasn't there. I looked around to see if, by some chance, I had missed him. But I hadn't.
It's a small apartment, Pen, I told myself, trying to calm down. You can't have missed him if you can't see him. He had left. I had disappeared for hours last night, and he hadn't cared enough to do anything more than carry me to my room and leave me without a word in the morning. For a moment, the impulse to cry like I had last night rose in the back of my throat, but I crushed it.
Shut up, Pen. Crying isn't going to do anything, in case you hadn't noticed. I reached my hand out and picked up the small brown bag that had been left next to the sink. Lunch. I upturned the bag on the counter and let the contents spill out. A chicken and salsa wrap, baby carrots, milk, and… I wrapped my hand around the apple as it rolled over the clean countertop, the light
bouncing off the crisp red surface. I raised my weepy five-year-old face to see Javi's arm and body attached to the outstretched hand. I had been crying for twenty minutes over the destruction of some toy or other, and Javier, the perpetrator, had known how to get me to stop.
Apples had always been a currency between us. An apology, a bargaining chip, an inside joke. From that first day when he soothed me out of a tantrum in the middle of our carpet, we had used this silent method to communicate. After every fight he had with our parents, or every time I got a good grade on a test, an apple would materialize for me. So
now I was confused. Was he apologizing? Or was he just feeding me? Both would mean that he liked me enough to try, but I wasn't sure. He hadn't sent me apples after I'd left, he hadn't even done it in the bad times before my parents died. So why now?
He must not have remembered. It was impossible that someone so completely focused on forgetting everything he had ever done would let himself regress. He was just feeding me. I sighed, rearranged my lunch bag, and went to go get dressed.
"So, what I'd still like to know, Pen," said Illya, leaning against the locker next to mine with the air that he belonged there, "is why you don't talk about yourself."
"Oh, would you?" I retorted, my head almost completely enveloped by the locker. I wasn't in the mood to talk at the moment, and had thought it pretty obvious from my expression. If Jackson had seen my face two minutes ago, he would've known—
Stop. Right. There. Don't think about it.
"But you're not going to, are you?" came Illya's voice.
I slammed my locker shut and arranged my backpack straps. "Brilliant deduction, Waston. Now if you don't mind, I'm going to go class. Maybe you can crack deeper into my psyche at some other time." I walked away, angry now at the one person with whom I had not been furious this morning. This was stupid. I didn't have the energy for any more anger, but here it was, and it was remarkable refreshing feeding off of it. Before, I had been more resigned to what had happened. Now it felt good to be legitimately angry.
He's the one friend you have, Pen, I thought. Except Gavin, but it's not like you can talk to him all the time. Wouldn't it be better to be angry at the people who are supposed to care for you and don't?
I told my brain to shut up. It wasn't worth it. My brain was none too happy about it, but complied nonetheless.
I plopped down in my chair in Bio. A note, the word "my" is used loosely here. I was fully aware that I had probably offended someone in this godforsaken school by my choice of seat, but at the moment, I didn't really care. If they wanted a piece, they could come and try to take it today. I wanted to fight.
Wanted a piece. Jesus, I'd been here for all of three days, and already I was saying stupid stuff like "wanted a piece." That was cool. Whatever. I could lose my self-respect, while I was at it. Why not? I seethed a little bit more, grinding my teeth together in a way that would have worried dentists the world over. I was completely aware that I wasn't helping myself with this, but it did give me something to do while the class was flipping idly through drawings of different kinds of cells. Really? What was I, back in middle school?
"Hey," a voice to my right broke through my sulking. I turned my head slowly, ready to stare whoever it was down with the force of my laser vision. I needn't have worried. It was a girl, white, with dark brown hair pulled into a high, tight ponytail, big hoop earrings, and landing strips of blue eye shadow over her gray eyes. She was curveless in a way only white girls and Asians seemed to be able to accomplish, and was looking at me in a friendly way that immediately had me dropping my initial walls. She smiled a little at me, and it took me a second to fight back the urge to return it. Instead, I nodded. "Hey."
"You're new here, right? I haven't seen you before."
I raised my eyebrows at her assumption, but I answered her straight. "Yup. I'm new."
"Carlie," she waved her hand in a little flutter. Her pen almost rolled off her desk as a result, and she caught it just in time.
"Nice," I said, appreciative of her speed. "I'm Pen."
I turned back to the board when the teacher raised her voice, aware of the conversation in the background. Carlie and I didn't speak until after class was over. I was hiking my bag up on my shoulder, pushing it outward with my elbows so I could fix the waistband on my jeans, when Carlie said, "So, where are you from?"
I turned to look at her again, suspicious again for no good reason. She hadn't given me any reason to believe she wasn't trustworthy. Then again, she hadn't given me any indication that she was, either. She could have her own reasons for getting me to give her information.
Pentea Ventura, what is this? She's not asking for your papers, or something. You need to chill out. For reals.
So I shrugged. "I'm from here, but I just didn't go to school here."
"Where were you before?"
I paused. Should I tell her about private school? What would she think about me, if she knew about that? I didn't want her to think I was a stuck-up bitch, even if that was what I was. I was open to all possibilities.
So I shrugged again. "I was living near Northbrook for awhile."
"Damn." She snorted a little, clearly in disgust of places like Northbrook. I totally agreed with her assessment, so I felt no shame in saying, "I know. Hell."
We left the class together, and walked down the hall together. I noticed she had a habit for moving her hands in small, fluttery, circular movements. She walked with a slight duck foot, and her nervous habit seemed to be to smooth imaginary pieces of hair behind her ears with her middle fingers. Talking to her was weird, because I felt the need to be nice to her, and was worried about offending her with everything I said. I had never been worried about that with my female friends before. All two of them.
We were talking about something stupid—breakfast, I think—when it happened.
"My brother likes to cook, so I don't really have to worry about it," I was saying. She nodded, then rolled her eyes and sighed.
"That would be nice. I gotta go home and make a crap load of mac and cheese for my family, cause my mom can't make anything."
I laughed a little, still trying to feel out how to talk to her, and whether she would resent me laughing at her or laugh along. It turned out the be the latter, for which I was thankful.
"If I tried to cook," I said, barely aware of someone coming up on my right, "Javier would probably throw a fit. It's better that way, I think." It was strange, talking about Javi as if we had a normal brother-sister relationship. But I laughed nonetheless, fiddling with my lock and turning to look at Carlie. But she wasn't looking at me anymore. Instead, she was looking over my head (it wasn't hard) at the person who was leaning against the locker next to me, his arms crossed, an unfathomable expression on his face.
"Carlie," was all Illya said.
"Uh…hi, Illya," I looked between the two of them, nonplussed, and more than a little annoyed with him. Could he just leave me alone for two seconds?
"Good, so you two know each other," I said, giving Illya the evil eye. He smirked at me, and I resisted the urge to punch him in the mouth. Calm down, Pen. Not a good idea, and you know it.
"Oh yeah, we're old friends," he said casually, but not casually, and Carlie blushed, looking away from both of our watching eyes. "How's the family?"
"Good," she said quickly. "Thanks." She fiddled with more imaginary hair, then adjusted her bag. "Listen, guys, I should go. I need to get something from my locker. I'll talk to you later, Pen!" she threw the last part over her shoulder as she walked away, head down, staring at her shoes.
I turned my glare to Illya in full. "What the hell was that?" I wanted to go off on him a little better, but I wasn't about to lose my cool here, in the middle of the hallway, on my second day of school. Easy, action.
"What was what?" Illya asked innocently, but there was the shadow of something in his eyes, and I narrowed my eyes at him. At his moment, he was getting closer and closer to receiving the entirety of my bad mood, and if he didn't admit to something soon, I was going to enjoy cutting him out completely. Maybe it wasn't a smart idea, considering what had happened in the cafeteria yesterday, but I didn't really care about being smart at this point. I just wanted to not have drama around me for once. Was that so much to ask?
"That. That, with Carlie, that," I snapped, hands on hips, eyes flashing.
"That was nothing. Just a reminder to watch it. That's all." His answer was cryptic. I was unsatisfied, and my face told him so. I slammed my locker, walking away from him in the direction of my other class.
"So your brother's Javier Ventura?" he said, catching up to me easily. He said it like he was commenting on the weather, or telling me that he had had waffles for breakfast. I stopped abruptly, glaring my eyes up at him. He stopped, too, and with a look of insufferable patience on his face, he looked down at me.
"What's it to you?" I asked quietly, which, if he had known me, would have told him didn't bode well. But he didn't know me, so he shrugged.
"Not much. Just surprising. You don't look like you're cut from the same stuff, is all."
A fierce urge to protect my brother rose in my throat, taking me totally by surprise. I hadn't had a sisterly feeling in a while, but all of a sudden my hackles were raised. No one got to say anything about my family but me, apparently.
"What does that mean?"
"That means that you don't seem like the sister of a gangster drug lord." He crossed his arms.
My nostrils flared. I could feel them, but I didn't care, as my hands clenched into fists. "Because I'm not. He's not a gangster, and he isn't a drug lord. And you are seriously out of line. Back the hell off, Illya." I resisted the urge to cuss him out. That probably wouldn't go over well. I was glad that Javi wasn't there then. I didn't want him commenting on how much I'd changed tune from before. I was fine with being a hypocrite, just as long as he didn't catch me at it.
"Sure. No problem. Since you can so obviously take care of yourself." His voice dripped with scorn.
"I can, actually. Thanks for all the chivalry, but this isn't going to be one of those white knight on a white horse deals," I turned away, glad he couldn't see my face as I remembered Jackson's comment to Gavin. I didn't need all these memories right now.
"Fine. Whatever you want, Senorita Ventura," he said, moving his arms out as if he was washing his hands of me,
What the hell had happened? What, besides being my usual upbeat, positive self, had I done wrong? And why was he so against Javi?
And why the hell did I care so much?
The bell on the inside of the door rang clearly when I stepped into the restaurant. The place was busy for a weekday at three o'clock, and I could see Gabino hurrying from one table to another. Over the heads of the guys sitting at the counter, I could see Javier stirring various things in various cooking implements. He didn't look up until one of the guys from the nearby table wolf whistled at me. Then he caught my eyes for a second, and I read something that looked like relief, anger, and exhaustion there. Immediately, I felt bad for being upset at him for disappearing this morning. Of course he had had to leave; he had to work. And then I felt like a traitor to myself, because he hadn't been concerned for my feelings the day before, and he hadn't been welcoming. The relief that I wasn't dead in no way equaled familial love. It just meant he was glad he didn't have to clean up after me. Though if I was gone, he could go back to the way he had been before.
I threw my backpack down in the stock room, and threw on an apron, and washed my hands. When I got back out, Javi said one word, his back still to me. "Tables."
I nodded, even though he couldn't see it, and went to clear the two empty tables, ignoring the ass who had whistled at me, who noted my passing again by reaching out toward me. I evaded his arm and got to work, trying, and failing, to work the anger out of my muscles by wiping down the poor abused tables.
No friends. Check. A brother who didn't give a shit. Check. A long way to go before I could get the hell out. Check.