"Hadley, you little bitch!" My eldest sister CeeCee's shriek was loud enough to shatter glass.
I had been lying in my bed for the past half-hour, feeling nervous about my first day at Thornton. Now, I sat up, safely ensconced in my room as my family started another one of their fights. Those meaningless, pointless fights that had now become almost as regular as brushing my teeth.
"Screw you," Hadley, my stepsister, spat back defiantly.
"Girls, please…just calm down…" My stepmother Ann's tired voice just couldn't match the volume of their shouts.
"Who the hell do you think you are?" CeeCee demanded of Hadley. "Walking around my Dad's house like you own it?"
"You Dad's married to my mother, whore!" Hadley raised her voice even further, refusing to back down.
"Don't call your sister a whore…" Ann's voice dropped almost to a whisper.
"Stepsister!" Hadley and CeeCee rounded on her together. At least they agreed about something.
Erica, Hadley's little sister, chimed in. "This is our house, too!"
"Yeah," Hadley said, sounding smug. "Your Dad's screwing our Mom, Ward. We have rights here!"
Once upon a time, I'd been glad that my family was one of the weirdest in Manhattan. Having a gay artist dad run away to Vermont, like Rachael did, was common enough. But having a billion stepsiblings you actually liked? Not so much. My mom had died when I was about two. I had met Ann three years later, when my father started dating again, and I'd loved her immediately. I was thrilled when she married Dad – and so had been CeeCee and Michael, my brother – even though she'd come with three kids of her own. We'd become a large and crazy, but incredibly happy, family.
CeeCee was the eldest – she was nineteen and had just finished her freshman year at NYU. With her silky blond hair and green eyes, she'd been the Prom Queen of Wodehouse High. Ann's daughter, Hadley, was eighteen, and once upon a time, she and CeeCee had adored each other, even though they'd been each other's opposites in every way. There was seventeen-year-old Michael, done with his junior year of high school. After him, there was me, and after me, there were the twins – blond, dark-eyed, twelve-year-old Eric and Erica. Neil, who was just five, was the youngest. I'd always thought he was what kept our family together. Now, I wished that hadn't been true.
"You don't have a right to smoke pot in my bathroom, you dyke!" CeeCee yelled. I winced, imagining Hadley's outraged face – she did have a girlfriend, and she'd dropped out of school her junior year to work in a music store in Queen's, but it had never been a bone of contention between her and my family before – it had never been an issue. There was a thud as her foot connected with the bathroom door.
"Who's smoking pot?!" My Dad's earth-shattering roar from his study stopped CeeCee, Hadley, and Ann in their tracks for a second. But nothing and nobody could stop Hadley for long anymore, even though my father had once been able to.
"Fuck you!" she screamed, and I heard the sound of something being thrown against the wall.
"Hadley, put that slipper down," Dad commanded. From which I deduced that Hadley had picked up something else to throw at the wall.
"Or what?" Hadley said sneeringly.
"You're not being rebellious, if that's what you're imagining, Hadley," said Dad sternly. "You are being extremely childish."
"Fuck you!" Hadley screamed again. "You, too, Mom!"
"Oh, Frank…" Ann's voice trailed off helplessly.
"GODDAMMIT, ANN!" Dad exploded. "Can't you learn to control your kids?"
The entire house shook from the force of three doors slamming collectively.
I sat very still on my bed, frozen. We had worked so hard to be a family. How had things changed so much? Why were we falling apart? Dad had promised that moving to Linbury would be a fresh start for us, that it would give time a chance to heal the gap in our lives. But that wasn't what was happening. What was happening was that things were actually getting worse.
Somehow, the idea of school didn't seem so bad anymore. At least I wouldn't be spending the days watching and listening to my family fight. To Hadley throwing beer bottles at CeeCee, to CeeCee throwing words at Hadley that somehow seemed to me to be even more hurtful. I didn't even want to hope for things to get better anymore – it was just too disappointing.
I remembered an evening back in Manhattan, before the summer had started. It had been Ann's birthday, and Neil had stolen Erica's journal and hidden under the living room couch with it, refusing to come out. Then Hadley, bold, sarcastic, loving Hadley, a dramatic figure in her black Ramones t-shirt and crazy orange-and-pink tights, her green-and-purple hair a jarring contrast to the rest of her clothes, had waltzed in and managed to extract Neil from under the couch, return Erica's journal, and restore calm to the house. After that, we'd gone for ice-cream and a romantic comedy and talked and laughed for hours, all of us. Those days seemed so far away now, the time when we'd actually liked each other, and done nice things for each other. Now all I ever did was watch everyone change completely and try to stop Hadley from drinking too much.
"Can you believe her?" CeeCee muttered furiously, tossing her blond hair over one shoulder as she strode into my room and sank into my bed. "I mean, just because she's a fucked-up lesbian bitch. Why the hell did I even come home, Summer? Why didn't I just stay in NYU for the summer?"
I shrugged, not wanting to argue with her. "Maybe you should go back, CeeCee."
"Oh, so you want me to go back now?"
I shook my head. "Of course not."
"You know what? That's actually a brilliant idea. I should go back to Manhattan." She pulled her NYU t-shirt over her head and flung it into her open suitcase. Normally, on vacations she shared a room with Ann, but this summer, for obvious reasons, she was sharing mine. "I'll crash with Kate for the summer. Maybe even for my life. It's got to be a hell of a lot better than home sweet home, right?"
I tried to smile. "Sure."
CeeCee drew her knees up to her chin. "You want a ride to work?"
"No work today," I reminded her. "At least, not till the evening. I have school, remember?"
"Right," CeeCee recalled. "Your first day at that fancy new school. I never did congratulate you for getting in, did I?"
I sat back on my bed. CeeCee had been one of the prettiest, most popular girls in Woodhouse High. Cheerleader, Homecoming Princess, Prom Queen, She of a Thousand Athletic Would-Be-Brokers Boyfriends…you know the drill. Everyone had been surprised when she'd decided to go to NYU, which was kind of an alternative school. Maybe she'd know how to deal with the people at Thornton. "I wish I hadn't gotten in. CeeCee, it's got really sucky mean kids, and I have no idea how to deal with – "
CeeCee cut me off by dropping on my pillows with a dramatic sigh. "My life is so horrible right now. I really can't listen to you going on about yours, okay? I won't be able to concentrate, and what's the point of listening if I can't do that? Look, I'll drop you off because your school is on the way to the highway anyway, right? Then I'll just drive off. I'm sure Kate will take me in – she wouldn't even be married to Russ right now if I hadn't hooked them up. Get into your uniform in three seconds and I'll take you. You call me when I'm in Manhattan to talk."
I bit my lip. I trusted CeeCee, and I wanted to confide in her, but it didn't seem like she wanted to listen. What could I do but agree? "Sure, CeeCee," I said softly.
Unlike on that sleepy August morning four weeks ago, the school gate was wide open when I scrambled out of CeeCee's car, and boys in their black pants and white shirts and girls in their tunics and shirts milled around, making out, talking about their vacations in Europe and Asia, laughing, and hugging. I watched as a guy lifted a girl on his back and stumbled around as she whooped, then as a gaggle of laughing girls with French manicures whispered and pointed at a good-looking guy in a lacrosse uniform. Standing in the crowd, on the outside looking in, I felt lonelier than I'd ever felt before.
And intimidated. Each and every student on the grounds, besides being impeccably groomed, tanned, and supplied with designer backpacks, looked like they belonged on a runway in Paris. In other words, they were all drop-dead gorgeous. It seemed as if one of the requirements for getting into Thornton was looking like models and movie stars. A requirement I didn't fulfill, because when Hadley had seen me in my school uniform of a black tunic, white shirt, and black boots that morning, she'd sniggered and made a snide remark along the lines of, "You forgot your potatoes, human veggie bag," from which I'd concluded that it looked like a sackcloth on me.
"Thinking you don't belong?" a voice purred softly from my right.
I turned my head. Roxanne Cartwright, in all her power-filled glory with her uniform fitting her like a condom and every inch of her face and body flawless, was standing there with a smug smile on her glossy mouth.
"Roxanne," I said evenly. My mouth felt slightly dry, but I refused to display fear.
"It's Miss Cartwright to you," Roxanne said sweetly. "That's what all the losers call me. Only my friends and equals call me Roxanne."
I crossed my arms over my chest, subconsciously registering how small my boobs were compared to Roxanne's perfect C-cups. "I see."
"So." Roxanne flipped her silky dark hair over her shoulder, her smirk growing wider. "Did you have fun at our end-of-summer reunion, Summer? Did the squirrels and trees give you good food? Was the empty air good company?"
"Roxanne, babe!" A tall, impossibly handsome guy with cropped blond hair and blue eyes came running up to swing her off the ground. He kissed her hard, still holding her up in the air. "Did you miss me?"
"How could I not, Derek? All those hot, steamy, lonely nights," Roxanne purred. Her eyes met mine over his shoulder. I knew what the warning in them meant : mention Nathan and you're toast, bitch. I shrugged. I had no intention of destroying Roxanne's lust fest with her gorgeous-but-probably-lacking-brain-cells boyfriend.
"Hey, Roxy," guys called, as they passed the macking couple, who were slowly making their way towards the main school building.
"I love your skirt," one girl gushed as Derek put Roxanne down and wrapped his arm around her waist.
"It's really not wise to make her angry, you know," said a prim, perfect female voice behind me. It was Evelyn Priscilla Fitzgerald, Chris's sister, who seemed to glow with her incredible, breathtaking beauty as I turned to look at her. Her face and eyes were expressionless and cold as she stared back.
"Excuse me?" I was certain I'd misheard.
"Roxanne." Eve cocked her shimmering golden head towards Roxanne, who was now surrounded by a crowd of beautiful people. "It's not intelligent of you to have angered her."
"It was never my intention to do so," I said formally. Eve spoke a lot like someone out of the old British novels by Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell, and I couldn't help imitating her. I loved those books.
"You need to try to control circumstances, then," Eve said softly. "Roxanne is not – always easy to deal with."
I smiled wryly, thinking that it was the understatement of the year. But Eve was clearly one of Roxanne's best friends; why was she warning me about Roxanne? I turned back to Eve to ask, but Thornton's personal Aphrodite was gone, sauntering elegantly up to Roxanne and her boyfriend and taking off into the school building with them.
But then I forgot to care, because my cell phone was ringing, and the screen was flashing my boyfriend's name.
Curtis and I hadn't parted on the best of terms. In fact, we had seen each other only once before I'd left Manhattan, and he hadn't seemed to know how to treat me. He'd monitored every word he'd said so that he wouldn't hurt me, even accidentally, and that had hurt me most of all. I hadn't wanted his pity, his uncomprehending sympathy. I had wanted him to let me rest my head on his shoulder and confide in him. I had wanted him to show me somehow that the three years we'd been together had allowed him to get to know what I needed more than anyone did. But that hadn't been the case. He'd seemed to be afraid that I'd fly off the handle if he so much as said that I looked pretty.
He'd promised to call me and take me out on a proper date later, but I'd known just as well as he had that he was afraid of me, afraid that what I'd gone through with Neil's death had changed me so much that he wouldn't understand me anymore. Or perhaps he'd just been afraid that it would make it harder for him to even pretend to have ever understood me or known me at all.
And yet, I'd loved him and longed for him even at that moment with an intensity that had surpassed all bounds. How could I not? Three years of loving and longing couldn't have been eliminated by just one moment of sadness and awkwardness. More than anything, in my whole time at Linbury so far, I'd just wanted a sign from him that he loved me and wanted to be with me and hadn't forgotten me in the three months we'd been apart.
"Curtis?" I answered on the first ring, not caring how desperate and breathless I sounded.
"Hey," he said softly. "It's you."
Of course it was me. Who had he expected, Ashlee Simpson?
"Long time no talk," he said, when I didn't respond.
I wanted to ask him whose fault that was, but I didn't want to waste time on accusations when I wanted him to be with me so much. "I know," I said. "I missed you."
"You left so suddenly," Curtis said. "We didn't get a chance to talk."
You could have called me. "I know. But Dad wanted to do it quickly." I would never reproach Curtis; it wasn't like me to do that. He was the one who initiated the fights, the conversations, the dates, and the sex. I hadn't really wanted to lose my virginity to him on my fifteenth birthday, but by then we'd been dating for over three years, and when we'd gone up to the terrace of my apartment building after I'd cut the cake, things had gotten further than they ever had before. We'd found ourselves half-naked on the blanket I'd brought up, with his hand up my bra and mine dangerously close to his boxers.
That was when he'd asked me if I wanted to go all the way; and because I'd loved him and wanted him desperately, and the fooling around had felt so good, and because I wasn't the kind of girl who made a big deal about sex being sacred or about finding soulmates – about anything at all, really – I'd said yes. And I'd never regretted it, either. Truthfully, I'd been relieved to get what would probably be the most painful sexual encounter of my life over and done with.
Besides, it had been worth it, because it had made Curtis happy.
"I've missed you," Curtis ventured hesitantly.
"What's up with us, Curt?" I asked, wondering if my longing for him was penetrating through the phone.
"I don't know." He heaved a sigh. "What are we now, Summer?"
He was asking me? That was like the sun rising in the west. "What do you want us to be?"
"I want us to be a couple. I want you to go on being my girlfriend."
The happiness that was rapidly filling my chest threatened to choke me. "I want that, too. But we haven't talked in months, Curtis. You can't just call me and think we can go back to where we were – it's been three months, Curt, three months, and –"
"I was scared to call you," he interrupted.
I stopped talking. Wasn't that what had stopped me from calling him, too? Fear. Doubt. Uncertainty. "Honestly? Me, too." It was liberating to admit the truth. "I tried to call you – last month – but your Mom said you were out – "
"I haven't spent a whole lot of time inside this whole summer, Sum. I've just been outside, shooting hoops and trying to decide what to do with us. And today – I don't know, I was talking to my grandmom, and she got me thinking. Maybe we can work things out."
"I want to," I whispered.
"That means a lot to me."
"But, Curt, you can't treat me like I've changed, just because – "
"I won't. I realize that you're still the same, even if things have changed. I want us to try again, Summer. I can't be undecided anymore."
I closed my eyes. I wanted to ask him a million questions, tell him a million things, but I just didn't have the courage to. "Say thanks to your grandmom for me."
He laughed, a warm laugh that made me feel choked with happiness. "Okay. She's been pretty bored lately."
"How's your summer going?" I asked, even though chit-chat about our lives seemed irrelevant when we had a relationship to discuss.
"It's okay. It's boring."
I smiled, clutching my phone tightly. "I know what you mean."
"We have a lot to catch up on if we're going to make this long distance thing work, Summer."
"But I want to," I said, my breath catching in my throat. "I really, really want to."
"I'm glad we agree." He cleared his throat. "I love you, girl."
"I love you, too," I said. "So that's the verdict, right? We're going to work on our relationship?"
"I call you on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, and you call me on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays."
I let out a small laugh. "Works for me."
Thornton didn't have lockers, just antique desks with hollows in them for storing books that were assigned to each student in every homeroom. Another tradition I wasn't used to was Assembly every morning; all four hundred and eighty students assembled in the Adam Foley Memorial Auditorium, which was a large, sweeping room on the second floor with a raised wooden platform, ancient wooden walls, and portraits of the school's founder and the names of the Principals and students who had made the Merit List engraved on plaques hanging from the walls. A marble bust of Jennifer Thornton, the guy who'd converted Thornton from a military academy to a school, stood next to the platform.
Each homeroom had twenty-four students; six sophomores, six freshmen, six juniors, and six seniors. When I arrived at Mrs Montgomery's classroom near the Student Council Lounge, I had an unpleasant surprise awaiting me – Roxanne, her boyfriend, Chris, and Eve were all sitting there.
"Stalker," Roxanne mouthed as I took my assigned seat at the back. I tried not to take it personally and bent over my desk, putting my new books inside it carefully.
"Well, well, well," said a deep, sexy male voice that I unfortunately recognized immediately. "What are the odds?"
I looked up. It was him, all right. Blond, green-eyed, unbearably gorgeous Nathan Alexander Wellington, who'd said arrogantly that his father had everyone in town working for him. Who had been making out with Roxanne and who had tried to flirt with me and who was most definitely not Roxanne's boyfriend…
He jerked a thumb at the desk next to me. "Wellington, Ward. It's alphabetical. Small world, huh?" He flashed me his trademark dazzling grin and slid a strap of his backpack off one of his broad shoulders.
I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping that when I opened them again, he'd be gone. No such luck.
"Hey, man." Chris Fitzgerald, the nice guy who'd stood up for me in the Principal's office, materialized next to Nathan and gave his shoulder a casual bump with his fist. "Where've you been?"
So. Nathan was evidently a part of Chris and Roxanne's 'Champagne Gang'. I wasn't surprised, because he was easily the hottest guy in the school, and that seemed to be a criterion for being in the gang.
"Spain," Nathan said, still grinning. "I ran into Roxy. After that, hockey camp."
Chris rolled his eyes. "Good for you." He looked at me and smiled. He had a cute smile, I couldn't help noticing. "Hi, Summer."
I steadfastly avoided Nathan's gaze. "Hey," I murmured.
"You two know each other?" Nathan's green eyes held a hint of curiousity.
"Uh, yeah. Met on Registration Week." Chris looked at him. "How about you two?"
"Oh, Summer and I go way back," Nathan said easily, upping the wattage of his grin as he placed a hand on my shoulder. It was just my shoulder, but the way he did it made the slight gesture an intimate thing. I wriggled away from his touch, feeling my cheeks heat up a little.
"Nathan!" Roxanne, who'd been sitting on her boyfriend's desk, flung herself off and walked over, perching on Nathan's desk instead without sparing me a glance. Her boyfriend – Derek, she'd called him – followed her, and so did Eve, who kissed Nathan coldly on the cheek before drawing back and standing regally next to Chris. I was surprised to see that she wore the red ribbon sophomores had to wear on their blazers, and that Roxanne wore the yellow one of the juniors; I'd expected both of them to be seniors. "Barcelona was great, wasn't it?"
I didn't miss the way Roxanne's boyfriend Derek's eyes flicked to Roxanne, then dwelled uncertainly on Nathan. I was sure he suspected there was something between them, though he probably didn't know how right he was.
"Nathan knows Summer," Chris said. "I'm trying to find out how. Anyone else curious?"
"Do tell, Nate," Roxanne said, flicking imaginary dust off Derek's blazer. Her boyfriend looked confused – he had no idea who I was – but then settled into contentment at the way she was touching him.
Nathan leaned back in his chair and laced his hands through the back of his head, grinning comfortably. "Why don't you ask Summer?"
Roxanne looked directly at me. "He picked you up in some nightclub, right? He can be such a sleazy man whore." I didn't miss the veiled insult.
"Hey," Nathan protested. "I can't help it if girls decide to flock to me."
I got the hint; I was supposed to pretend that I was one of Nathan's cast-off fuckmates. I looked at Derek, who had a vein pulsing in his forehead; at Chris, who looked as if he already presumed that Roxanne was right; at Roxanne and Nathan, who were smiling confidently, challenging me to dare to tell the truth. They didn't expect me to stand up to them. I'd been the meekest girl in Woodhouse High because I hadn't cared enough to fight for petty little things I'd kind of wanted, but now, the gorgeous duo were pissing me off.
Besides, everyone here hated me anyway. It was like cats hating dogs – it happened on principle.
"I saw him making out with Roxanne by the riverside a few days ago," I said quietly. "He came after me to ask me not to tell anyone, and I guess he thinks we have a bond now because I've kept his secret all this while."
There was a stunned silence. All around us, kids talked and laughed and caught up on each other's lives, but Chris, Eve, Roxanne, Derek and Nathan sat rooted to their spots, staring at me in astonishment. It made me feel kind of powerful, which wasn't something I was used to.
Then two livid spots appeared on Roxanne's face, and the powerful feeling disappeared, to be replaced by a sudden sense of foreboding.
"Dammit, Roxanne!" Derek yelled, slamming his fist into Nathan's desk.
"Derek, baby, I – " Roxanne placed a placating arm on his shoulder.
He flung it off. "How can you go around pulling shit like that? We're supposed to be goddamned exclusive! You're supposed to be in love with me!"
"Derek, I am – " Roxanne flung me a furious glance.
"And you, Wellington. You're supposed to be my man, dude. You're not supposed to be screwing my girl behind my back!"
"Kettering." Nathan unfolded himself to his full height, which was impressive. "Cool down, man."
I sneaked a glance around; the rest of the classroom had quieted down and were staring avidly at the drama unfolding before them, thrilled to be getting the gossip first-hand.
"Cool down?" Derek said incredulously. "How many times have you fucked around with each other, huh? All those times you couldn't go out with me because you had to study – you were with him, huh, Roxanne?"
"God. I knew there was something going on behind my back. You're way too slutty to be a one-man guy." He moved towards the door.
"Derek, please – "
He stopped and flung Roxanne a disgusted look. "I don't want to hear it, Roxanne. We're over." He walked out, slamming the ornate oakwood door behind him.
Roxanne stood in the middle of the room, fists clenched, staring at me like a crazed tiger.
Eve moved forward and touched her shoulder gently. "Roxy – "
Roxanne pushed her away impatiently and thrust her face in front of mine. I inhaled the scent of her hair involuntarily; it was vaguely strawberry-like. Curtis loved strawberries; he said it was the most aphrodisiac fruit ever. I bet that if he and Roxanne had been dating, he wouldn't have taken three months to call her –
"You bitch," Roxanne hissed, breathing heavily.
I pushed back my chair slightly, feeling my heart rate speed up in spite of myself. Shit. What on earth had possessed me to try to stand up to Roxanne Cartwright, knowing full well what she could do to me? I didn't do things like that. I stayed in corners and hid from the world.
"You are so dead." Abruptly, Roxanne straightened, then turned and made for the door, her hips swinging gracefully. Eve and Chris followed her as if hypnotized.
The class exhaled collectively. All at once, a loud, excited buzz broke out. I slumped in my seat, feeling drained. My first day had barely even started.
"Interesting," said Nathan.
I looked at him; he was watching her contemplatively, eyebrows raised. "You deserved it," I said rudely.
He shrugged. "I thought you said you wouldn't spread it around."
"You weren't supposed to make me look like one of your desperate groupies to get me to keep your pathetic little secret, Nathan."
"I'll be careful to watch the implications of what I say around you from now on," he said, giving me a lopsided grin.
Impossible. The guy's friend had just been dumped by her boyfriend because of what he'd done, and he was still composed enough to flirt with me. Could he be any more callous?
Petite, Versace-wearing Mrs Montgomery entered the room and started taking roll call, cutting off any further conversation. Which, to me, was an enormous, colossal relief.
"So how was your first day?" Jazz asked as she mopped up the counter at Big Happy Family.
"Fine," I said briefly, not wanting to get into the gory details.
"Fine?" Jazz placed her free hand on her hips and raised her eyebrows. "That's all you're going to tell me?"
"Well, that's what it was," I persisted. I didn't trust Jazz enough to tell her the entire story of how, on my very first day, I'd managed to break up one of the most powerful couples on campus and extract a death threat from the Queen of the school. Sure, I liked my bubbly, yellow-haired coworker enough. But it wasn't like Jazz herself volunteered any personal information, so why should I? "I liked my creative writing class, and my homeroom staff supervisor – "
"Listen to you, Summer. I liked my creative writing class. As if that's what makes or breaks a life."
I arranged brownies on a plate. "Well, education is important."
"And it's something that's about as boring as it's easy to deal with."
I looked at her, frustrated. "I don't know what you want me to say."
Jazz's frown softened. "Look, I know what it's like out there. I feel for you, Summer. I'm not some adult you have to be all perky and positive with. I know that – "
"What do you know, Jazz?" My temper, normally pretty stable, flared. I'd had a long, horrible, tiring day, and I just wasn't in the mood to deal with Jazz's hints and insinuations. "You just keep throwing out little half-formed hints, but you never tell me what you're talking about when I ask you to explain."
Jazz held my gaze for a long minute. Then she sighed and looked away. "You know I want us to be friends, right?"
My first impulse was to protest loudly and earnestly that we were friends. My second impulse was to keep my mouth shut. The second impulse won out.
"I mean, we have to hang out a lot every day," Jazz went on. "I just want you to trust me."
"Wouldn't that be kind of one-sided?" I said evasively. "When you don't trust me?"
"I do trust you, I just – there are some things I don't want to talk about." Jazz looked somber, her brown eyes half-lidded.
"Okay," I said, shrugging. There were things I didn't want to talk about, too…for example, my life. And my feelings. And anything else that involved essaying information about myself and my personality.
"But you're a cool kid, and you're all on your own in a pretty tough world. It would be cruel of me to just stand by and watch you struggle when I can at least give you some warning about the shit that can happen to you."
I smiled ruefully. "I doubt that's going to make for pleasant listening."
"So here's what I want us to do. You tell me how your day went, and in exchange, I'll tell you what I know about Thornton and how I know it."
I hesitated, not sure if I could confide in Jazz without staying up all night worrying about it.
"Come on. That doesn't sound fair to you?"
I took a deep breath. "It does. But you have to go first."
Jazz shrugged and vaulted up on the counter. It didn't really matter, because Big Happy Family was always deserted on weekdays, and there weren't any customers except the guy at Table Four who was too busy devouring the ice-cream that Androvich had served him to care that an employee was sitting on the counter. "I went to Thornton for a while."
I felt my eyebrows shoot up. "You went to Thornton."
"Why is that so surprising? You think I can't get the grades?" Jazz looked miffed.
"No, of course not," I hastened to say. "I just…didn't know."
"Okay, whatever. Anyway, I did my sophomore year there. I thought it was the most amazing place in the world. All the beauty and the motivation and the burning ambition of the place, you know? And the people were all gorgeous…and they seemed so nice…"
I felt skeptical. It didn't seem possible that Roxanne Cartwright had ever even seemed nice.
"There was this little group of kids on campus that everyone used to worship. They were practically celebrities. They were the kids everyone wanted to be and know about, the kids everyone feared, the kids with all the power – "
"The It-kids," I interrupted. "I get it."
Jazz nodded. "I told you about Roxanne Cartwright. She was just a freshman then, but she was still more adored than many of the senior girls. Then there was Nathan Wellington – he was in my class. They were that year's It-Couple – they'd rule the school – even the juniors and the seniors wanted to break them up so they'd be fair game for everyone else."
I tried not to look surprised. I had somehow assumed that Nathan and Roxanne had never been together – there was sexual tension between the pair, but not in a way that suggested they'd explored the tension. Not in a way that said they'd gone to movies and held hands and told each other they loved each other.
"But they'd just hooked up when I got there," Jazz continued. "They used to be best friends before. They and a bunch of other kids they'd grown up with. They were the tightest gang you'd ever see – infiltrating their clique was tougher than, I don't know, going to war with Bush or something. There was Lindsay Albright and her boyfriend Vance Argyle, they were seniors. There was Derek Kettering – he was a freshman, too, I think, and Denise Washington, a junior. Then Chris – Fitz-something, he was the only nice dude in the whole group. He was dating some chick from Lincoln Central, probably still is. Then there was this guy called Jean Flaubert, this really hot junior from France, and, yeah, Zach Gellar – "
"Zach Gellar?" I echoed. "The guy in the café who wanted a hotter waitress?"
"The one and only," Jazz confirmed. "He went to boarding school at the end of the year, though. He was creating too much trouble at home or something. Anyway. Those kids weren't all that nice to me, but they weren't mean, either – I don't think they noticed me, really. But then Jean Flaubert, the French guy, asked me to the first dance of the school year, and I was like totally fascinated with his hotness and popularity, you know? It turned my head. I would do anything he asked me to, even sexually, and I guess he liked that, because he wanted me to start going steady, and I said okay, even though I knew he was just this brainless sex maniac – "
"So that's what you want me to be careful of?" I chewed my lip. "Dating guys at Thornton?"
"Would you let me go on, dude? Denise Washington was getting tired of her boyfriend, and she up and decided that she wanted Jean for herself. Which would accomplish two things at once – the It-kids only dated within themselves, and they couldn't stand that Jean was dating a scholarship kid with no pedigree, so they'd love it if Jean and Denise went out, and Denise would get a new hot guy into the bargain. Roxanne hated me for daring to date Jean anyway, so she decided to help Denise out." She paused and stared at her nails, kicking the counter with her heels.
"What did she do?" I said softly.
"She asked me to a sleepover with the rest of the girls. I was gullible enough to think she was starting to accept me, so I went. We talked about stuff – Roxanne made up lies about how she was insecure about her weight, so I told her about my insecurities – about how I was mortally afraid of being called a slut because I'd been brought up to think it was slutty to lose my virginity before marriage, and how disappointed my parents would be if they found out about me and Jean." Jazz was starting to speak quicker and quicker, seemingly forcing the words out determinedly.
I shook my head. I'd never have been gullible enough to trust Roxanne Cartwright. I didn't know where this story was going, but I had a feeling it wasn't going to have a happy ending.
"Then they took me to a club and got me drunk. I'd never done that before, so the effects were pretty lethal. Long story short, I got polluted and made out with some girl I didn't know because Roxanne asked me to and it sounded outrageous enough to be fun in that state of mind. Next morning, there were pictures all over school. Only I wasn't just kissing the chick – Roxanne paid one of the computer geeks to make it look like my clothes were off, too." Jazz's face was expressionless, her tone calm, but a kind of bitterness flickered in her eyes that had nothing to do with having dated a brainless sex maniac.
A stunned silence followed her words. Sunlight flooded the room from the large bay windows, people on their way to the check-in counter talked and laughed as they passed the café, the lone customer at Table Four sipped his coffee and read a newspaper. It was just a normal weekday at Big Happy Family, but I felt as if I'd been transported to an alternate reality, a horrifying one in which the cruelty of young girls and of class and money politics surpassed all bounds.
"Wow," I whispered finally, because there was really nothing else to say.
"Yeah, well." Jazz sounded cheerful again. "My parents made me go back to Linbury High, and it turned out to be the best thing in the end – I hadn't really been prepared for Thornton's curriculum. I was failing calculus and Latin."
I had a strange urge to reach over and give Jazz a bone-crushing hug. Her sanguine spirit and the way she seemed to have picked herself up and moved on was really kind of remarkable.
"So, anything else you want to know?"
"Yeah," I said quietly. "What does Zach Gellar have to do with this? Why'd you call him a fucking son of a bitch that day?"
"Oh, him. Right. Well, he sent one of the pictures to my parents. Put it into a large white envelope marked 'Mary-Jane's report card – very satisfactory for Thornton!' and sent it to them. I had to go for counseling and spend hours convincing the pastor at my church that I wasn't a lesbian. Oh, and Zach did all sorts of other shit – like putting one of the pictures on a porn website with my address on it so that random guys started turning up at my house asking for a show, locking me in the broom closet when I had an important English test, stuff like that."
I let out a small, shocked laugh. "I don't even know what to say."
"He didn't recognize me that day at the café. He's probably here on summer vacation or something. I used to have brown hair, you know. And I dressed like a cheerleader. And didn't call myself Jazz."
I sighed. "I'm sorry, Jazz."
"Dark days," said Jazz lightly. "Okay, your turn to lay it on me."
I couldn't back out of our agreement, especially since Jazz had been so open about what had probably been the worst days of her life. So I sat down on the counter next to Jazz and told her every detail of my encounters with the Champagne Gang, starting with meeting Chris in front of the school and finishing with Roxanne's little death threat. Some parts, like Nathan flirting with me in homeroom, and how nice I found Chris's smile to be, I left out.
"Oh, my fucking God," Jazz said when I had finished, her eyebrows hitting her hairline. "You have got to be kidding me."
I shook my head ruefully. "God, I wish."
"Nathan always wanted to screw every bitch, slut, and virgin in town, even back in the tenth grade, but – God, I can't believe he and Roxanne broke up. They seemed like one of those couples who would always want each other desperately. Figures that she moved on to Derek, though – he's Nathan's dumber, younger carbon copy. I bet it would have been Zach if – "
"Jazz?" I interrupted. "I don't really care about their love lives."
"Right. Of course you don't." Jazz looked at me respectfully. "You, my girl, are my new idol."
I frowned questioningly. "Meaning?"
"Hello! You got Roxanne's boyfriend to dump her!" There was awe in her voice. "Have you any idea how big that is? You declared war on bitches everywhere!"
"Jazz. Aren't you listening?" I felt frustrated with the yellow-haired eighteen-year-old. "I don't want to declare war. I want to keep a low profile. Roxanne said she would kill me."
"And she probably would," Jazz said comfortably.
"Hear me out before you freak. Roxanne's biggest weapon was, and probably still is, manipulating, getting-you-to-trust-her mind games. But you – you're forewarned. You can defend yourself. Better yet, you can get her back. Zach is gone. The impact of her powers is less without him around."
"I don't want to fight back," I pointed out.
"Summer. Dude. Girl. You have got to fight back. I can help you."
"No," I insisted firmly. "I plan to reserve myself a hiding place until Roxanne forgets all about me."
Jazz smiled confidently. "You'll be eating your words soon."
"I'm not interested in vendetta, Jazz." I held up my hands with a sigh. "I just want to survive here, okay? What happened today was regrettable, but shit happens. I just have to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Jazz's smile vanished. She looked at me gravely. "And what if it does happen again, Summer? What if Roxanne doesn't forget all about you?"
To that, I had no answer, much as I wished I did.
I walked home from work. The path from the airport to Rochester Cottage took about an hour to walk, but it was through the park, and I liked the park. I stopped at one of the slides to call Curtis, but it went straight to voicemail, so I moved on without leaving a message, feeling out of sorts.
I turned. It was Chris Fitzgerald, sweaty in shorts and an Arsenal t-shirt, carrying a soccer ball tucked under his arm and wearing an uncomfortable smile. "Hey," I said cautiously. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm getting my ass in shape." Chris gestured to his soccer ball. "I didn't play a whole lot during vacation, and Coach is just about – anyway, what about you?"
I looked at him doubtfully, then realized that it wasn't like he couldn't find out my address from the school directory. "I'm on my way home. Rochester Cottage." I didn't bother to say where I was going home from, and thankfully, he didn't ask.
Chris shifted his ball to his other arm. "So, um. I heard Roxanne invited you to a non-existent party in here over the summer."
I nodded. "The best party of my life," I deadpanned.
Chris started walking alongside me. "I'm really sorry. I swear, I had nothing to do with that, and I didn't even know about it until this morning."
I didn't usually trust people, but I trusted my instincts, and my instincts were telling me to believe Chris. His earnest face seemed genuine, and I was pretty sure he wasn't faking it. "It's all right," I said formally.
Chris sighed. "I love Roxanne, really I do – she's one of my best friends – but she can be a real bitch sometimes. But she's got her reasons. I mean, I've known her since birth, and she doesn't exactly have the world's easiest life – "
"Poor little rich girl." I was startled by the scorn in my own voice.
"I know it's a cliché, but there's no smoke without fire, and some stereotypes are actually true – "
"Okay, Chris?" I stopped and faced him. "You seem like a nice guy, and I hate to say this to you, but you don't know dick about a hard life. And a hard life doesn't give people a right to act like Rox – like shit."
Chris looked defensive. "Hey. You're the one who broke them up – "
"Roxanne's the one who cheated on him," I pointed out.
Chris sighed. "I know. I'm sorry. But she's a cool person when you get to know her, I swear."
I almost felt sorry for him. "Maybe you just want to see the best in everyone," I offered, trying not to sound quite as hostile as usual.
"Thanks." Chris smiled, looking guilelessly pleased. "It turns out practically everyone in school knew about it except us." He shook his head. "How could we have been so blind?"
A quote from somewhere popped into my head. "If love is blind, then friendship could use some glasses." I looked at Chris. "For what it's worth, I wasn't planning to tell anyone."
"No, it's good that you did." Chris ran a hand through his messy brown curls, giving me that sweet, nice smile. "Derek Kettering – that's Roxy's ex-boyfriend – is a decent guy. He didn't deserve to be duped like that. But anyway. Nathan and Roxanne stopped being a couple a long time ago, they just fool around a bit, so if you're interested in him –"
"What?" I stopped in my tracks.
Chris looked confused. "Nathan says you interest him, so if you're interested in him –"
"Okay, whoa, wait a minute." I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. "What on earth gave you that idea?"
Chris frowned. "So you're not?"
"First of all, Nathan isn't my type at all. Second of all, I have a boyfriend back in Manhattan, and –"
"You're from Manhattan?" Chris's eyes lit up. "Really? That's so cool! I went there once, and I couldn't blink." He smiled, looking like a three-year-old who'd been handed a lollipop. "So you're a sophisticated city girl, huh?"
I had to laugh. Chris was so – so innocent. Like he was terribly confused about the big bad ways of the world, but he still loved living in it. "Not me. I was a dork back in my old school. You should have seen my friend Rachael. She's an awesome dancer."
"You must miss her," Chris said, smiling.
His obvious interest brought me back to earth with a bump. What was I doing, bonding with Christopher Raymond Fitzgerald? He might seem nice, but all I knew about him was that he was a spoilt rich kid and that his girlfriend, who I hadn't seen but had heard the Champagne Gang talking about in the Principal Cartwright's office, was one of Roxanne's best friends. I clamped my mouth shut, letting indifference settle over my face.
"Yes," I said quietly. "I have to hurry – I'm late already. Tell Nathan I'm not interested. I'll see you in school tomorrow, okay?"
Chris looked kind of disappointed as I hurried away through another path, but that wasn't really my problem. I wanted to go home and call Curtis. Sure, my day for calling was tomorrow, but a little extra diligence wouldn't hurt, would it?
But when I called from my room, his mom said he was out again, shooting hoops. It confused me a little, and hurt me a little – why wasn't he as eager to talk to me, as eagerly thinking about me, as I was about him?
Downstairs, the door crashed shut and someone staggered up the stairs. Something shattered and I heard Hadley let out a string of curses. She was evidently drunk again.
I lay back on my bed and stared at the ceiling, wondering what, exactly, I was doing wrong.