AN: Yeah, I'm back. I was on vacation, then I've been dealing with some medical issues. Then again, when am I notdealing with medical issues? Ha. Bitter, moi? Anyway, Chapter 6 is finally up. Pretty long one, 30 pages. Had a helluva time completing it.

Chapter 6

The following morning—at our instruction—Uncle Rob dropped Hannah and I off in the parking lot behind Building Two once again; the quad was located directly in the middle of our respective classes and was the most convenient route to get to our designated buildings. Hannah, as predicted, immediately upon the Mustang pulling into a space, grabbed her bright plastic knapsack, bid our uncle farewell, and scampered out of the automobile. She gave a little wave to me and met a small blonde girl—I figured this to be the infamous Tinsley Stratford, my sister's newfound "best friend" whom she hadn't ceased prattling about the evening before at dinner—at the end of the quad, where they linked arms and exchanged European air kisses as if they were thirty years old instead of nine and started to walk toward Building One.

I found myself shaking my head just slightly as I climbed out of my uncle's car, adjusting my (much more cumbersome) knapsack on my shoulder.

"Goodbye, Uncle Rob," I bid as I started to walk away. "Have a good day at work."

"You too, cupcake. Hey," he called, and I turned around curiously. "Knock 'em dead today, huh, babe? I know you've got it in ya."

Not hardly, was my automatic mute response. But I smiled anyway and nodded as my uncle flashed me another of his significant glances and sped out of the quad.

I sighed and began the trek to Building Three amongst the other similarly dressed, brand-name knapsack-carrying adolescents not anticipating a new day of school at Saint Katharine's.

I began my day by fussing with my insolent locker once more before the official start of homeroom. There were books that I required for my first few periods, and others in my knapsack that needed to be stored away until after lunch. I hadn't had much homework to finish the night before, seeing as it was the first day back from summer break, but my new English teacher, Mr. Parker, had assigned us the generic five-paragraph essay on what everyone had done over break. It hadn't taken me long to complete, but I would've been finished quicker if I hadn't spent an inordinate amount of time silently pondering why educators still found it necessary for students beyond grade five to write that stupid essay.

At the fifth attempt to coerce the contraption open to no avail, I cursed aloud and resisted the urge to just kick the obstinate locker until it released. I'd already missed homeroom yesterday because of my appointment with Ms. Nguyen and I wasn't about to be late on only the second day of school simply because I had a defected locker.

So, I tried the combination once more, making sure that the numbers lined up exactly, and when the door still didn't budge, I groaned and actually did kick the bottom of the aging metal flap. I didn't think that I jerked it too hard but my toes began to throb inside of my black dress shoes and I winced.

Waving my metaphorical white flag, I began to turn around in the hope of seeking out a janitor to assist me and ended up squishing my nose into a hard, yet warm, barrier. My trigonometry notebook slid out of my grasp and clattered to the floor.

"Aw, crap," I muttered instinctively and bent down to reclaim the notebook.

"My sentiments exactly," an oddly familiar baritone voice replied to my mumbled grievance.

"What—ow!" I had jerked my head up in surprise at the sound of the recognizable voice and, not knowing that he was crouched down as well and only within mere inches of my forehead, smacked mine into his.

My exclamation was muttered in kind by my companion and I glanced up to see Brandon—the boy from yesterday who I'd almost plowed over—rubbing his forehead with the tips of his fingers, yet grinning incredulously (most likely at his ill luck) all at once. He reached out a grasped my fallen notebook before I could do the deed myself and passed it to me while he stood on his own two feet once again and continued to massage the tender skin of his forehead.

I reciprocated in kind, tending to my own light injury and offered him a reflexive sheepish expression. "Thank you," I mumbled, grasping my notebook once more. "And sorry," I added with a slight shake of the head. "Again."

Brandon's ironic grin morphed into a sort of half-smirk, half-grimace and nodded with a self-deprecating laugh. "It's ok—again." Another chuckle. "It was my fault, really. Probably shouldn't have been standing, you know, right there."

I bobbed my head, and he continued. "I was walking by and I saw ya struggling with your locker. My sister had that one last year, and I know it's a pain in the ass."

"You could say that," I agreed wryly. "I was about to go look for a janitor to get it open with a key or something."

Brandon's smirk grew and he said confidently, "No need."

He moved to stand in front of my defunct locker as I observed dubiously. First, a quick glance up and down the hall, then a wink at me—all for effect, I assumed. Then, he placed a balled fist in the space just above the combination lock and pounded on the frail metal in two swift movements. I remained skeptical for another moment until the locker door actually creaked open with a weary groan. My eyes grew wide as Brandon eased it fully ajar with his foot, then he stepped away and leaned against the nearby wall with his arms crossed over his chest arrogantly.

My eyebrows shot up of their own accord, and my visage morphed into a slightly wry expression as I moved to place any unneeded supplies on the bottom shelf and replaced them with my texts for the next few periods. Brandon continued to stand a few inches away with a pleased look on his face.

"So?" he asked, holding his hands out palm-up.

"Thank you," I replied dryly, snatching my English notebook from the second shelf. Brandon's smile grew. "I hope you don't expect me to clap or anything," I added, surprising myself.

Brandon threw back his head and laughed heartily. "No, that's all right," he said through his chuckles. "Though maybe you can get, like, a Brandon Rules tattoo or something. That would be pretty cool."

"I'll keep that in mind," I answered wryly with a slight roll of the eyes. It was odd, but a part of me actually felt…well…somewhat normal at the moment. I didn't overanalyze it, though. Occasionally, I would have moments like these, where everything just disappeared and my old self shone fleetingly through my stoicism.

At that moment, the bell sounded, enveloping the congested hallways with its deafening screeching. It was a warning, of course. Homeroom is about to begin. Everyone in your desks in five minutes or face the consequences. I always thought that the phrase would be more suitable in place of the omnipresent bell.

"Oh, hell," Brandon grunted now, hauling his obviously quite weighty navy knapsack over his shoulder. "My homeroom's on the fourth floor and if I'm late again, Sister Harriet will fry me."

A grin ticked on my face of its own volition. I had Sister Harriet for fourth period French, and I'd gathered that she wasn't the most pleasant authority figure at Saint Katharine's.

"I swear that woman would happily welcome back corporal punishment," he continued, muttering. "Anyway, see you around, Lydia."

As I bid him goodbye, I remained standing in front of my locker for another few seconds, still in quiet, yet pleasant, surprise. Of course, I'd remembered Brandon's name—for every person I became acquainted with, however briefly, as of recent times, their every knowable detail became deeply ingrained in my mind (I attested this odd tidbit of my physiology—or was that merely personality?—to the fact that I just simply did not know many people)—but I never assumed likewise. It was especially startling that a boy (and, admittedly, a modestly attractive one at that) who I'd figured that I hadn't made a very spectacular an impression on—being that our only interactions thus far included me nearly bowling him over and appearing a hapless idiot trying to coerce open a flawed locker—retained my own name in kind. Now, it might not seem like such a significant detail to anyone else, but I considered myself to be a mostly unremarkable person, so the idea that anyone could remember anything about me (even my name) was astounding in its own right.

It occurred to me as I headed to my own homeroom—room 3105—that Brandon and I were at least the mildest of acquaintances. People strictly indifferent toward each other didn't help the other with an obstacle, no matter how slight it might be. Right? Or was I reading way too much into things, which was also a distinct possibility? I'd been out of the social loop for so long that I was almost completely ignorant of how things worked inside, in the real world. It was a peculiar notion.

I crossed the threshold to room 3105 with a few minutes to spare and immediately darted for an open desk in the back, keeping my head down and my gaze on my feet. I could feel the burning stares of my classmates on my cheeks and neck, but instead of caginess and even disgust and annoyance, I only detected mild curiosity. Yet, my eyes remained firmly fixed on the floor, avoiding the understandable—but still no less discomforting—gaping.

As more students poured themselves into the classroom, I feigned preoccupation by leafing through my binder and organizing my folders. Maybe if I looked busy, the students' passive interest would dwindle once they realized that I was no different from the rest of them. Just another teenager checking over her homework. Nothing to see here.

When the final bell rang, my homeroom teacher—a tall, pale-skinned woman by the name of Ms. Phelps—closed the heavy wooden door and clapped her large hands loudly in order to get everyone's attention. Gradually, the students' light chattering ceased and all eyes—including mine, though I made sure to keep my head lowered—turned to the gray-clad teacher in the front of the room.

"Welcome back for your second day," Ms. Phelps intoned with absolutely no inflection in her voice at all. There were grunts and the occasional good-natured groan, but she was having none of it; she didn't even crack a smile. "I have some forms that I want you all to take home for your parents to sign. Insurance forms, school policies, etcetera. I expect to have everyone's back by Friday." The way the teacher spoke assured everybody that there were no other options.

As Ms. Phelps began distributing the forms, the wooden door at the front of the room creaked open, and with a flourish—as if she had no qualms, nay, as if she actually reveled in being tardy—a faintly recognizable girl sauntered over the threshold and into the classroom. There was a bounce in her step as she wove through the aisles in search of an empty desk, slightly smirking at all of the attention she was amassing from the students. It seemed as if no one strolled in late to Ms. Phelps's classroom.

"Miss Creswell," the teacher's dry voice flooded the room, her steely gray eyes tracking the girl's movements narrowly. "Late again. What a surprise."

From her tone, I assumed that she was rather familiar with Miss Creswell.

The girl smirked, lightly adjusting her untucked starch-white uniform blouse and grasping her few school books loosely in her thin arms. She turned to regard the teacher and replied, "Sorry, Ms. P. Couldn't find a parking spot. You know, we should do something about that—a bigger quad behind Building Two. You've got a lot of clout with Dean Hendricks, right? Maybe you can do us a little favor and hike up your skirt for him, bat those eyelashes?"

The class tittered in what was probably grudging amusement. Ms. Phelps's unyielding expression remained etched onto her severe face, but was it my imagination, or had faint blotches of red bloomed onto her white cheeks?

It wasn't my imagination, because the girl's blatant grin grew wider as she glided through the desks to the back of the room where I was seated. And that was when I realized why she appeared somewhat familiar: she was the girl in a few of my periods who always seemed to wander into class a few minutes after the final bell rang.

The only open desk was the one directly in front of mine, so she plopped herself into the thin tan chair and set her books on top of the small table with a loud thwap.

"Before your interruption," Ms. Phelps began again once she had efficiently recollected herself. I was silently shocked that the girl seemed to have gotten away with her droll remark. "I was just telling the class that I have some forms for you to take home to your parents. They need to be signed and brought back to me by Friday." And she resumed passing out several piles of printing paper to the class.

"After thirteen years, you'd think we'd all know exactly what to do with those forms already," "Miss Creswell" muttered, and my lips quirked up in response.

"What was that, Miss Creswell?" Ms. Phelps inquired, raising a perfectly plucked dark eyebrow.

The girl's shoulders squared as she replied, "I said when's the bell gonna ring already?!" She exhaled loudly for effect and crossed her arms. "I'm just so anxious to get to English!"

More hushed snickering ensued from her proclamation, and Ms. Phelps rolled her eyes in annoyance.

A glance at the ticking clock overhead informed me that there were fifteen minutes left of homeroom, so I folded open a notebook and began idly doodling on a blank page, attempting to kill time. I could've perused my English essay homework instead but I'd done just that about fifteen times since the night before. When Ms. Phelps's forms reached my desk, I placed the multicolored sheets of paper in a folder and quietly continued with my doodling.

Until, seemingly out of the blue, the girl I only knew as Miss Creswell turned around in her seat with an airy sigh and nonchalantly slammed her elbows on top of my desk, causing me to drop my pen and glance up at her in reflex. Her wide eyes rested on my notebook without really seeing it, and she blew a piece of dark hair away from her face. I, of course, remained stuck motionless, wondering insanely if I'd done something to offend her even though I'd never spoken a word to her or if popping other people's personal bubbles was just her forte.

"Oh," she mumbled with another exhalation. "I hate this. I can't believe we're back in school so freakin' soon."

I wasn't completely sure that she was indeed talking to me and not just to herself, so I stayed silent.

Then, as if levered by an unseen pulley, her head jerked up and she stared straight into my eyes. I swallowed, hoping that it wasn't audible.

"I mean," she continued, obviously exasperated. "How is it that two months in this hellhole drag on like piss in snow but during the summertime, it's like…blink and gone!"

I blinked, opened my mouth a little then closed it again. Even though she was looking directly at me as she unleashed her tirade, I still didn't know exactly if she was addressing me at all or if she was lost in her own world or something. But when she didn't expound on the diatribe, I realized that she was, in fact, waiting for me to reply.

"Uhm," I responded intelligently.

Apparently the utterance was enough for her because she went on. "Like, think of it this way," she said. "Aren't January and March the two slowest months on the calendar? But July and August? Forget it. One, two, three and—" A snap. "—they're over just like that."

It appeared that intelligible words were just not coming to me, so I stupidly found myself muttering, "Time flies by when you're having fun?" As soon as the words left my mouth, I developed the extreme urge to slap myself.

The girl sighed again and cupped a cheek in her hand. "That's true," she agreed, as if my idiotic drivel actually made sense. "It still sucks, though."

I had to nod. Yes, she was right about that.

"Anyway," she continued, her mood abruptly changing with a wide, beaming smile. "Hi. I don't think I know you."

I allowed a small smile of my own to tick onto my face. "I'm new."

"I figured," the girl said, nodding. "Our year's graduating class isn't very large, comparatively speaking. I've known most of these assholes since kindergarten." She waved an arm around in a semicircle, assumedly indicating "these assholes". She hadn't bothered to decrease the timbre of her voice, so a few students in nearby desks turned to glare at her momentarily.

"Oh, piss off," she grunted to her spectators. "It's not my fault you're all assholes."

"Takes one to know one, Creswell," a lanky red-haired boy to my right shot back at her.

"Real mature response, Scott," she hissed, and the boy rolled his eyes and spun away.

"Ugh. In any event," she stressed, turning to face me once more. "Hi. I'm Casey Creswell—short for Cassandra, but don't call me Cassie or else I'd have to hurt you." She grinned to show that she was kidding and stuck out a hand for me to shake.

I did so and replied, "Lydia Wechsler." Casey beamed once more and began to prattle on about how dull and staid Ms. Phelps could be but she just knew that lying underneath that hardhearted exterior was a party-animal just itching to claw itself to the surface. I smiled and nodded along, taking the opportunity to examine Casey more thoroughly. At first glance, she appeared to be rather plain, but upon further inspection, it became obvious that she quite beautiful—just in a different way than most of the other sleek and primly polished female students that frequented Saint Katharine's hallways. She had shoulder-length dark brown hair—kind of wavy and wild, definitely not the pin-straight heavily ironed tresses of our classmates—and deep blue eyes immersed inside of a small-boned round face. Her skin was pale (not as pale as mine of course, but light enough to be considered odd amongst the spray-tanned masses) and she stood about an inch shorter than I. Her forehead was high and her brows thin and arched artfully. On the whole, Casey possessed the air and guise of a young woman who should've been seventeen at the turn of the twentieth century.

Just then, the bell for first period sounded, and the students began to climb out of their chairs and head for the door. A tall blonde girl—the cheerleader I recognized from the Student Council assembly—swished by Casey's desk with three of her friends, and they each gave her seat an odd little kick with their black pumps.

Casey rolled her eyes as they passed by. "Potentially damaging school property! I don't think your precious Castigation Panel would appreciate that!" she shouted after the foursome, who scoffed in return. She shook her head and faced me again. "Stupid bitches. They probably don't even know what 'castigation' means. Just joined it so they could put it on their college transcripts. Stay away from them, Lydia, they're evil beyond redemption."

I bobbed my head with a smile and she resumed. "So," she breathed with a grin, her disposition readjusting once more. "Welcome to Saint Katy's, Lyds. You mind if I call you Lyds?"

I blinked. No one had ever called me 'Lyds' before; by and large, I was just Lydia—generic, tedious, uninteresting Lydia. Admittedly, the name itself was rather pretty, but connected to me, it meant nothing. Lydia: it stood for pale, lifeless, introverted—everything that I was, and had been for the past year. Occasionally, the moniker took on a more playful note by means of the nickname 'Liddy', which only my sister deigned to call me these days. Before—prior to my bout of acute depression and subsequent suicide attempt—'Liddy' had been the only handle that anyone close identified me as; 'Lydia' only popped up intermittently from my parents whenever I did something they deemed wrong.

But this newfound epithet was completely novel, and, after a few seconds of deliberation, I discovered that I rather liked it. 'Lydia' was dry and serious; 'Liddy' was a childhood pet name that no longer applied in everyday life. 'Lyds' resonated differently to the ear—it sounded happy, appealing, and even spunky.

It wasn't me, but I could pretend.

"Lyds is fine," I finally informed Casey, and she beamed assuredly.

"Good," she said with a sigh. "I'd hate to be one of those people who just automatically dub someone with a nickname that they don't even like. See, Cassie." A smirk. "So, what do you have first period?"

"Uhm, English with Mr. Parker."

Casey grinned wider and clapped her hands happily. "Me too! I can't believe I didn't notice you yesterday. Where do you sit?"

"In the back of the room," I replied. It was where I always sat, if I could help it. At the end of the room, no one could stare at you unless they made a real effort to do so, so I blended into the background.

Casey nodded understandingly. "That explains it. My teachers are always putting me in the front of the class. Something about wanting to keep an eye on me or whatever." Another sigh.

A corner of my mouth quirked up. I could definitely see all of Casey's teachers assembling together at an after-school meeting and dictating that she would always be put up front. While at the back of the classroom, you blended in, in the front, you couldn't get away with any deviousness. And Casey unquestionably struck me as such.

"Well, screw it. I'm gonna make up an excuse to sit in the back, too," she exclaimed, pounding her fist lightly on top of her desk. "I hate the front. Can't get away with anything."

I smiled and absently checked my mother's bracelet and watch; it had become a sort of habit now. Even though I knew well that the bands adequately kept the scars concealed, I was compelled to verify the fact anyway—over and over again. Upon glimpsing the time, I began to collect my things and climb out behind the desk.

"Where are ya going?" Casey inquired, seemingly earnest.

I raised an eyebrow. "English," I said. "We have to be there in three minutes."

Casey scoffed and snorted rather unladylike and pushed me back down into my seat. "Relax, Lyds," she cajoled. "If you're gonna hang out with me, be prepared to be tardy a few times."

Normally, I would've gone ahead anyway, naturally afraid of confrontation and breaking the rules. But Casey had intimated with her careless throwaway words that we could be friends. And, in spite of the voluntary isolation I'd immersed myself in for the last year, I found myself greatly yearning for some form of companionship—outside of my suffocating family circle. Before we'd moved here, Home was my sanctuary, the place I could always go to escape. Now, it felt more like a prison—a form of cruel torture. With the tension between my parents escalating, it left Hannah and I feeling trapped in the crossfire, and I was relieved to discover that my sister had made a friend whom she could disappear with. But what about me? Selfish as it sounded, I felt like I desperately needed some form of reprieve from the asphyxiation of my family and its problems.

A real friend could be that reprieve.

So I remained in my seat, allowing a small smile to flicker on my lips. I had a genuine impression that 'hanging out' with Casey Creswell would earn me more than just a few tardy slips.

After English, Casey waited outside the classroom for me in the hallway. Upon approach, it was impossible not to notice the self-satisfied gleam on her face and the sparkle in her almond-shaped eyes. She'd exhausted the whole of our first period tormenting poor Mr. Parker, our lanky, dark-skinned, and generally docile English teacher. Oh, she hadn't done nor said anything to purposely hurt him, of course; Casey wasn't like that, I was starting to discover. She just liked to, in her words, "spice things up", but avoided anything that could potentially harm someone, whether emotionally or physically.

For example, throughout the class, she'd cracked quite a few wry comments and was exceptional at ultimately getting what she wanted. It only took a minute of cajoling and doleful puppy-dog eyes to convince oft-proclaimed "pushover" Mr. Parker that it was absolutely necessary she accompany her "new friend" in the back of the room because, being a recent addition to the Saint Katharine's family, I was still so inexperienced and gullible and the teachers wouldn't want me to get myself hurt, would they? At this, Mr. Parker sighed and bestowed upon Casey an unexpectedly fond smile and eventually acquiesced, allowing her to claim the desk next to mine in the back; the other students didn't even try to disguise their contempt and blatant disapproval of Casey getting her way once again, it seemed. And, as she transferred her things to her new desk, Mr. Parker shot me a significant glance not unlike Uncle Rob's, only softer somehow, and I intensely hoped that no one else caught the gesture.

So, throughout the period, Casey continued to playfully rattle our teacher—asking questions not pertinent to the topic of discussion, pleading with Mr. Parker to please elaborate on some throwaway detail he'd unfortunately uttered absently, and telling random stories that only vaguely had to do with class (however amusing they were). But, when Mr. Parker—a heart-attack survivor, she later informed me—began to sweat and appear truly flustered, Casey abruptly ceased her interruptions and diligently took notes as he dictated them. Toward the end of class, she even shot me a guilty look and muttered something about sometimes going a wee bit too far. But when Mr. Parker came to collect her homework, he smiled warmly at her and all was forgiven.

The only obvious exceptions to Casey's self-imposed "foot-in-mouth rule" were our classmates. And while they were unabashedly candid of their disdain of her, the sentiment was apparently mutual. Whenever a student deigned to interpose one of her stories or comments with a biting opinion of their own, she shot the verbal censure right back with an icy glare or raised eyebrow and a remark about either her target's physical appearance or sub-par intelligence without a moment's hesitation. Throughout the period, I found myself absently pondering the reasons for our peers' detestation of Casey Creswell; I figured that it had to do with much more than her seemingly innate ability to smooth-talk her way out of anything and everything, but I decided to reserve that query for if and when the two of us became closer.

As I emerged completely from the classroom, her satiated grin grew wider as she cackled gleefully and, much to my surprise, linked her arm through mine. I straightened on impulse and had to squelch the inclination to abruptly pull away from her friendly gesture.

"Oh man," she exclaimed. "That was fun."

I glanced at her and tried not to smile too widely. "Which part?" I questioned dryly. "Where our teacher practically let you get away with murder, or when you told that girl in front of me to 'please shut up and close your maw, your halitosis is offending the rest of the class' after she made that remark about you…"

"Screwing the dean?" she finished for me, still grinning. I nodded with a blush and she laughed. "Just a rumor, m'dear, and a pretty pathetic one at that. Besides, that's Ms. Phelps's job, not mine."

I cocked an eyebrow. "Is that true? About her?"

Casey snickered again. "Oh yeah," she said, obviously enjoying the topic. "It's no big secret either. They've been hooking up for over a year now; they even got caught in the girls' locker room last year with his hand up her blouse."

My eyes widened in surprise and Casey emitted another pleased cackle. It was an odd and unexpected sound coming from her, if you didn't know her. Casey comprised the façade of innocent and fragile, with her small-boned features and porcelain skin, yet, of course, she was anything but. It was an amusing notion.

"So," she said now as we walked down the crowded corridor, Casey shooting venomous glares to anyone who turned up their noses at her. "What's your next class? Can I see your schedule?"

I leafed through one of my folders and pulled out the white sheet of printing paper that listed all of my classes. She snatched it from my hands and began to peruse its contents.

"Let's see," she muttered, her eyes scanning my schedule. "Ok, you have gym with me next period. Ugh, don't you hate it when it's in the morning?" Without waiting for a reply, she continued. "Trig with Mr. Bower, good luck with that. I had him last year, he's the devil incarnate. We both have French for fourth, awesome. Then lunch, we always sit in the courtyard, FYI." I wondered who the "we" included she was referring to. "Fifth, chem., also with me. And photography. That's cool," she commended, glancing at me. "You wanna be a photographer?"

I shrugged sheepishly. "I don't know," I admitted. "It just seemed like the simplest option."

Casey laughed and bobbed her head in understanding. "I hear that. I chose Business 101 for my elective." Upon my surprised look, she rolled her eyes and huffed. "Believe me, not my own decision. My father 'suggested' the idea. He wants me to follow in his footsteps, he's incessant with it. If I had my way, I would've picked Ceramics and Painting."

Surprise, yet again, flickered on my face. "You paint?"

She nodded. "Yeah, when I have some downtime at home," she told me. Then, with a wink, "I'm good with my hands."

I laughed as we made our way to the gymnasium.

The gym at Saint Katharine's was not unlike the average school physical education center, except for the fact that it was more equipped and much larger than the one back at Woodward. The floors were light wood and polished to a shine with Ly-Sol or some other similar disinfectant, but it still didn't mask the odor of sweat and feet. Matching wooden bleachers were situated against each of the four walls, which were painted in a bland gray hue. On either end of the gym, suspended from the ceiling, were two identical basketball hoops and—nailed to a wall on the far left side—was a black electronic scoreboard that emblazoned the school crest. Gymnastics equipment—such as rings, vaults, beams, etc—was spread about the expansive space, along with sit-up mats and pull-up bars.

A small doorway at the right side of the gymnasium led to the girls' locker room, which smelled of a combination of sweat, urine, and flowery perfume. The rectangular lockers were painted crimson and between each row was an ancient faux-wooden changing bench. An office for our female gym teachers was stationed at the front of the room, and, on the opposite side, was a tiny bathroom that only housed three stalls and two sinks. And, of course, the stall doors weren't equipped with locks, so whoever used one had to keep one hand firmly on the door at all times.

Our gym teacher, known simply as Coach F. (though my schedule defined her as Ms. Farkas) seemed to embody the generic female physical education instructor that had gradually become a pseudo cliché over the decades. She had ratty brown hair and leathery suntanned skin, and her upper lip was lined with a prominent mustache. She donned the same outfit I'd noticed her wearing the day before: red athletic swish pants and an oversize gray t-shirt tucked into the band. "She's a lesbian," Casey informed me as we were getting changed into our gym uniforms. She appeared to be savvy to every piece of juicy gossip on everyone—students and faculty alike—who roamed Saint Katharine's halls. "It's common knowledge. She lives with her girlfriend somewhere in Brentwood."

Now, we all were lining up alphabetically in five distinct columns. Unlike back home—where the classes were so small—the boys and girls were separated; Coach F. taught the girls, while a painfully thin bearded man called Mr. Jenkins was responsible for the boys. The gymnasium was divided by a red detachable pullout wall that split the girls' class from the boys' class. It was now closed, much to the females' dismay. Apparently, they were disappointed over not being able to witness the guys in their gym uniforms.

Casey and I were on opposite sides of the gym, of course, but it didn't hinder her from shooting me disenchanted grimaces as the girls stretched. She was not a fan of physical education in any form, it seemed.

Coach F. emerged from the girls' locker room a moment later, clipboard tucked under one arm and hoisting a sizable net bag of basketballs over her shoulder. There were mixed reactions to this; both groans and muttered excited exclamations were emitted.

"Ok, ladies!" she boomed in a deep, masculine voice as she dropped the bag of basketballs in a corner and moved to stand in front of the five lines. "We're gonna start with exercises." More groans. I recognized Casey's timbre as the loudest. "You all know the drill. Everyone must participate or it's an automatic zero. That means you, Miss Creswell."

Casey made displeased face while the other girls snickered.

"Ready?!" Coach F. bellowed. "Jumping jacks. Begin!" And she blew the whistle around her neck with a piercing screech.

All at once, the girls began bouncing up and down, stretching their arms in the air—some with much more enthusiasm than others. As had been my custom for the last two years or so, I hung back, leaning against the nearby bleachers, and simply watched my classmates. After a minute, Casey glanced in my direction, noticed my lack of participation, and crinkled her eyes in confusion. I swallowed, but at that precise moment, our teacher ambled up to where I stood in a masculine apelike gait. Her omnipresent whistle jostled against her chest with each step she took, and she reached me in half the time it would've taken anyone else in the vicinity.

But, in spite of her vaguely threatening bearing, her face was otherwise open and even kind. Her eyes were sympathetic but lacked the stifling pity that I loathed. Once she reached me, she bid me to sit down on the lowest bleacher. I did so, and she soon followed.

"Hello, Lydia," she greeted in a much warmer tone than the one reserved for class. I smiled slightly in response and she continued. "I'm Coach F. You can call me Abigail if you want." A wink and a grin. Abigail. Not exactly the moniker I would've linked with a woman like Coach F. "Ok, I know all about your…situation—" (That was all these fading scars represented to my teachers past and present—a "situation". So, in essence, the entirety of the last year could be wrapped up in a neat package in shiny gift-wrapping with Situation! emblazoned sporadically about.) "—and you don't need to explain anything, of course," Coach F. added hastily. "I've spoken to your father and Sister Eleanor; you don't have to participate in anything that you don't want to. In fact, I could easily just send you to the library to study or something, if you'd like."

My immediate response was to say yes. Last year at Woodward, the school library had been a sanctuary of sorts; not many people used it (which was quite telling of the average intelligence level of the student population), and it wasn't a rarity to discover myself completely alone for hours at a time, with the exception of the librarian, naturally. But now, things were different. I was in a whole new school three-thousand miles away from my previous one; no one knew me here, they didn't know what I was about, or why I'd even transferred in the first place—and they most assuredly didn't know what lay under my mother's expensive jewelry. It wasn't necessary for me to hide here.

Plus, there was Casey, who I noticed glancing in our direction every few minutes with perplexity plainly written on her pale face. With a possibly burgeoning friendship growing between us, the thought of driving her away with my oppressive baggage caused a great feeling of dread to ebb inside of me.

So, against my gut instinct (and more than likely, my better judgment), I shook my head and replied, "No, thank you. I'll be able to do some things." This was the truth. After all, idly bouncing a basketball around wouldn't take much out of me.

"But you'll let me know if you need to sit out," Coach F. said; it was a statement, not a question.

I nodded. "It's mostly the exercises," I lied. And softball, soccer—pretty much anything that requires me to run.

"All right," she answered with a nod of her own. "I'm about to call time. We're just shooting the basketballs today, shouldn't be much of a problem. Ok!" she cried suddenly, making me start. The whistle around her neck sounded yet again; she'd been blowing it in continuous, but low, spells between each physical task.

"Time's up, ladies!" Coach F. exclaimed, and most of the class exhaled in relief. She then moved to stand once more in front of the five lines, plucked an orange basketball from the bag at her feet, and bounced it thrice. "Today, we're gonna be playing with balls."

The girls giggled at our teacher's unfortunate double entendre. Casey's cackle was the most obnoxious and deliberately raucous of the group. Even I had to smirk a little.

"Now that's my kinda game, Coach," Casey cracked, and more (reluctant) chortles ensued.

"Ha-ha, Miss Creswell," Coach F. intoned whilst trying to quell the amused smirk that appeared on her lips at Casey's comment. "No, we won't be playing with those balls. Save that for Friday nights with your boyfriends, ok, ladies?" More chuckles and some embarrassed blushing. "We're gonna be shooting baskets. You know how it goes. Pair up—one ball per pair. And don't say a word, Miss Creswell." She held up a tanned hand palm-out the exact moment Casey opened her mouth.

Pair. The moment the word left Coach F.'s lips, my body stiffened in mild dread—it was a habit more than anything else, and a well-earned one. While to most students, the phrase "in pairs" is generally very well-received with the knowledge that they could accomplish a mandatory task with a friend by their side, for me, it meant that, as of recent times, I had to stay rooted on the sidelines—alone and ignored—while my peers rushed over to their friends with glee, at least somewhat excited about the impending assignment. Then, as if that weren't mortifying enough, the teacher would, without fail, inquire loudly as to who didn't have a partner. I'd raise my hand, and nine times out of ten, I'd find myself attached either to the meek, "nerdy" boy with the terrible sinus problems or to the teacher herself. Occasionally, I was allowed to complete the project on my own, but it was rare.

Now, of course, there was Casey, but that wasn't guaranteed. What if there was someone else that she'd rather partner up with? It was true that she didn't seem to have many close friends at Saint Katharine's (being that our entire graduating class seemed to dislike her for whatever reasons), but it was certainly very possible that there was another girl she'd rather choose.

But, I realized just as I was getting myself really worked up, it seemed that my fears were unnecessary, because it was difficult not to notice the white face that shockingly intermingled with the myriad of tan as Casey pushed—literally—her way through the congested crowd of giggling girls, cursing and rolling her eyes, an orange basketball clutched in her arms. When she reached me standing in front of the bleachers, she huffed and uncaringly turned her back on our incensed classmates.

"I hate them," she said simply when she arrived at my side.

"I figured," I replied with a small grin.

Casey smirked, then grabbed my arm, pulling me out onto the basketball court. I didn't have my mother's jewelry on; it had to be removed and kept in my gym locker, according to the school rules. But, thankfully, my gym uniform included a long-sleeved shirt for chillier days, so I'd donned that instead of the light gray t-shirt that most of the girls were wearing. When Casey had inquired about the choice, I'd just mumbled something about being cold and slipped it on quickly over my thin camisole.

"Come on," Casey said now as she led me across the gymnasium. "I want to get to my spot before someone takes it and I'll be forced to kill somebody."

Casey's "spot" turned out to be a small area near the red double doors that led out into a nearby hallway. It wasn't hard to decipher why she'd chosen this space as her "spot"; it was shrouded in shadow from the looming nearby bleachers and the lack of any sort of lighting. The teacher wouldn't be able to easily notice if she were, say, texting on her cell phone instead of participating in class.

Fortunately (for the other girls' wellbeing, if nothing else), the slight expanse of wooden floor was unoccupied—if I were to hazard a guess, some other students had tried to claim the spot for themselves in the past and were met by much more than hostility from Casey, it appeared that she had 'trained' them well—so we planted ourselves a few feet apart from the others and began idly bouncing the basketball between us, with much less fervor then some of the other, more athletic, girls.

After an uncomfortable moment of silence between us where I could feel the curious beams shooting from Casey's eyes, I managed to crack, "This is a real workout."

Luckily, Casey snorted with a grin and replied, "Yeah. I try to get away with exerting the least amount of effort possible while still technically doing the assignment."

"Is that your mission statement?" I asked with a smirk.

She nodded earnestly. "Pretty much." A shrug. "I mean, come on. 'Physical education' is a complete quack. It's just the school trying to shove more hours into their daily schedule. If I want to workout, I'll hit the nearest Bally."

I smiled once more, and that same distressing quiet descended upon us again. While I tried desperately to think up some more possible topics of conversation, Casey cleared her throat semi-awkwardly, and I knew that I'd run out of time.

"So," she began the inevitable question. I shifted where I stood. "What was up with before? With Coach? Don't tell me you're in trouble already! 'Cause, that would totally break my record." She grinned, obviously trying to detract from the discomfiture of the topic.

I struggled to return her easy smile in kind and, after a few quick seconds of uneasy contemplation, I decided to reveal the half-truth. "I have asthma," I supplied, avoiding Casey's eyes. "It can get pretty bad, so there aren't many things that I can participate in. The nurse has my medical note on file, and Coach F. just wanted to remind me to tell her if I need to sit out or something."

Casey nodded, at first hesitantly (thump-thump-thump) then with more vigor and an 'Oh, ok' expression on her face. She bobbed her head side to side and curled her lip like she thought the information interesting. She seemed earnest in her belief, but I couldn't be one hundred percent positive; Casey was quite good at keeping her innermost thoughts from reflecting on her face.

"Oh," she said, bouncing the ball once then passing it to me. "Well, that's cool. Well, not 'cool' like it's awesome you have asthma, because that part sucks. But you have a 'Get Out of Gym Free' pass with that medical notice! Kids pay for knockoffs of those here, and you have a legitimate one! Color me green."

I laughed, relieved to discover that this bit of information was easily taken in stride on Casey's part. Of course, she remained oblivious to the other basis for my exoneration from the dreaded gym class typed out on that notice, and I wasn't about to enlighten her anytime soon.

But, as we continued in that slight invisibly cordoned-off section of the gymnasium, indolently passing the ball between us, I couldn't prevent the thoughts from venturing to unwanted notions: if I was to seriously attempt to build a friendship with this girl I'd known all of a few hours, how was it going to be possible to keep my demons in the dark where they belonged?

Photography was my last class of the day, then I had a free period because my last school's day timetable had consisted of eight periods, while at Saint Katharine's, there were only seven. Thus, I'd accumulated more than enough credits on my record, so my class schedule included a "study hall", which—according to Casey—was code for "Do whatever the hell you want, just don't leave the school grounds while doing it."

Mrs. Hampton was my photography teacher. She was a rather large woman with bright red hair and steely blue eyes hidden behind thin wire-rimmed glasses. Upon first glance, her face reflected a distinct hardness, but once she started the class, her demeanor transformed drastically into one of cheerful and even mischievous enthusiasm; it seemed that she was quite passionate about photography, a tidbit that I hadn't picked up on the day before because all we'd done was go over class requirements.

While I'd only chosen this particular elective for its individualism and independence, with Mrs. Hampton manning the reins, I could find myself truly enjoying the class.

We were to start our first official project tomorrow; the direction sheet our teacher had distributed stated that everyone was to complete a still life, wherein we would scour the school grounds for any inanimate object that—in her words—'spoke to us' in some way. We were expected to experiment with different angles and heights, and different forms of lighting. I was actually kind of looking forward to implementing this assignment.

The classroom itself was dissimilar to most of the others in Building Three; in fact, room 3326 was located at the end of a corridor that had been dubbed the Art Wing, a thin, gray hallway that housed all of the upper school's (that's what they called it—'upper school'; never 'high school') arts and crafts programs, such as painting and jewelry design. Instead of the stationary desks I was used to, there were large round tables scattered about the space—six in all. And each table seated about seven students. But even so, there weren't many empty places; apparently, photography with Mrs. Hampton was a rather popular elective. It wasn't difficult to discern why—the teacher herself often broke discussion to indulge in a tale of her own, or that of one of her students'. And she allowed food and drink to be consumed in class as long as everything was discarded at the final bell. There was even a yellow cabinet near the front door that stocked various brands of candy; Mrs. Hampton was one of the Student Council faculty representatives, so the foodstuffs were for fundraising. Any student was allowed to purchase a snack to munch on in class, of course.

Unlike in some of my other classes, Mrs. Hampton hadn't employed an alphabetical order rule, so I'd randomly chosen a table near the back of the room, close to a pair of sinks. As the class had started to fill up, I found myself seated amidst five other students—two of the shaggy-haired boys I recognized from the assembly the previous day (Mrs. Hampton had identified them as Thomas and Andrew), a tall blonde girl who wore a red and gold Saint Katharine's Lyons volleyball uniform (Samantha or Sarah or something that began with an S), a witty African-American boy by the name of Michael who seemed to very much enjoy being the center of attention, and an overeager brown-haired girl in a light blue polo shirt instead of the stationary white uniform blouse who enthusiastically introduced herself as Becky Taylor.

With the close setting of the tables and chairs, I immediately felt discomfited, my looming social anxiety reaching up to strangle me in a vice grip as soon as my five classmates took their seats around me. I'd been able to handle it yesterday because we'd spent most of the time on our feet while Mrs. Hampton demonstrated the usage of the equipment, but today was a different story. However, as the period progressed, I was surprised to discover the level of my restlessness decreasing; it was difficult to be totally ill at ease in the likes of the three boys at least. They joked around way too much to be in any way offended by them.

Yet, what did cause to exacerbate my anxiety was the table across the room, near the yellow cabinet. There, three girls sat huddled together, alike in their fake tans, glossy straight hair, and crisp school uniforms with matching black pumps encasing their feet. I was familiar with two of them: the blonde cheerleader from the Student Council assembly, and one of her auburn-tressed friends from homeroom. The girl in the middle, though, remained unknown to me. She had sleek, ultra-straight black hair and eerily matching dark eyes sheathed inside of a fine-boned and highly arched face. With her perfect posture and stunning looks, she positively radiated confidence and superiority. While the other two girls were very pretty in their own rights, this one put them both to shame. She was beautiful, but oddly sinister-looking.

And she, along with her companions, kept repeatedly staring at our table all throughout the period. It made me feel incredibly uneasy, but the others didn't seem to notice the three's constant perusal, except for in the middle of class when Michael idly turned in his seat to expand upon a yarn of his, caught the brunette's eye, and rolled his own in response. The other four nodded in agreement but said no more on the topic.

When the period ended, one of the girls from my table—the effervescent Becky Taylor, who, unsurprisingly, was a member of the Pep Club—walked beside me through the halls until we reached the gymnasium. I tried my best to keep up with her constant happy chatter, but the girl seemed to be a pseudo volcano of good spirit and cheerful babble, so after a few minutes, I found myself just idly nodding my head with a bemused smile of my own while she rambled on. When we parted at last, she mentioned something about me possibly joining the Pep Club, to which I uttered an unconvincing "we'll see" whilst attempting not to burst out laughing at the suggestion.

Once Becky departed for her final class of the day, I headed straight for the girls' locker room. I knew from Casey that most students opted to spend any free periods in the courtyard gossiping or indulging in a mid-afternoon snack, but I deduced straight away that that option wasn't for me (even though I'd once again skipped lunch and prayer in favor of meeting with Ms. Nguyen and her assistant; I was just hoping that this wouldn't turn into an everyday occurrence) and decided to use the extra hour to make good use out of Saint Katharine's famous Olympic-sized indoor pool that I'd glimpsed in the Welcome Guide before school started. According to Dean Hendricks, as long as the swim team wasn't utilizing the pool for practice, it was free for student use until six o'clock.

Inside the now-deserted locker room, I fiddled with my gym locker, got undressed, and pulled on the simple navy blue one-piece swimsuit that had come with my school uniform and donned a matching blue robe over the suit. I pulled back my long ebony hair into a messy bun at the nape of my neck, grabbed a fluffy white towel with the school's crest embroidered in the middle from a nearby stand, and ambled out a wooden door with the sign "Pool Entrance" nailed to it.

The pool was housed in a different location than the main gymnasium; the building was a wide rectangular room equipped with long windows to let in light. It was predominantly blue with painted walls and matching floor tiles etched around the edges of the pool. On the far right side was a white low diving board, and next to it, a matching one that was a couple of feet higher in length. And the opposite side was lined with professional divers' stands for the swim team; at current, they were covered in red waterproof jackets.

The structure itself was connected to the gym by a mere thin corridor and a pair of bulky metal doors. Once I stepped through these doors and into the pool room, the overwhelming scent of chlorine hit my nose. The air inside the space was thick and humid, so I reached for my inhaler tucked inside the pocket of my robe and squeezed thrice. Then, noticing a cluster of metal hooks nailed to the wall nearest me, I disrobed and hung up my towel on a hook. I removed the black rubber flip-flops I kept in my gym locker, pulled a pair of cheap plastic goggles on over my head, stepped atop the low diving board, and dived into the massive pool without bothering to check the temperature first.

I did a few laps, stopping between each to reach for my inhaler left on the side of the pool when needed. Once I exhausted myself, I just idly lay on my back in the blessedly vacant water, stretching out my arms and legs. As I listlessly floated, my eyes closed and a sigh escaped my lightly parted lips. I loved to swim, especially when no one else was around. Back in Connecticut, my family had belonged to a private pool club, and I'd always asked my father to please take me on Sunday afternoon, when the place was typically deserted. That way, not only did I have to worry about other people gawking at me, I could forget—just for awhile—about reality and just…drift. When it was crowded, there were too may distractions—kids playing games, mothers yelling at their offspring for running too close to the edge, lifeguards blowing their whistles. But alone and solitary like this, I could escape. When my asthma had gotten too bad and I had to quit laborious sports (such as soccer; I'd played from age seven to fifteen), swimming became the next best thing.

I remained in the water for about another hour, until the final bell for the day sounded. The swim team had a practice scheduled for 3:30, so I needed to vacate the premises before they arrived. I swam to the nearest ladder and pulled myself out of the pool, dried off swiftly with the towel, and slipped my feet into my rubber flip-flops. I contemplated throwing the robe on over my wet bathing suit, but I didn't want to soak the garment, so I hefted it over my shoulder and started for the door to the girls' locker room. The only noise that reached my ears was the soft thwap-thwap of my shoes against the floor and the muted hum of the pool filter.

Not paying enough attention to my surroundings and still coming off of the natural high from a relaxing swim, I was circling the pool and halfway to the exit when my wet body collided with something warm and hard and I found myself flailing helplessly in the humid air. I would've splashed headfirst back into the water if a pair of strong arms hadn't hurriedly caught me around the waist not a second too soon. My breath caught in my lungs, and I gasped for air, scrambling inside the robe for my inhaler.

"Oh my God," the recognizable voice exclaimed, his hands now clutching my hips loosely to keep me from falling again. "Lydia, are you all right?"

"Inhaler," I gasped. "N-Need my inhaler."

"Where is it?" Brandon asked calmly but distinctly.

I tried to swallow, but my mouth had taken on the likeness of sandpaper. So, instead of answering, I just fervently patted the pocket of my robe.

Brandon nodded and reached inside the indicated pocket. He plucked out the gray contraption and swiftly pressed it into the palm of my hand; I haphazardly raised it to my lips and sucked thrice. When my airways cleared and I could breathe normally again, I replaced the inhaler in the robe pocket and took a deep inhalation.

"Are you ok now?" Brandon questioned, dipping his head slightly to look me in the eye.

I nodded, swallowing harshly. "Yeah," I replied. "I'm ok."

"I'm sorry," he said with a sheepish expression. "I didn't see you." A self-deprecating chuckle. "Again."

A smile ticked onto my face involuntarily. "It's all right," I assured him. "I wasn't paying attention either. I was just headed back to the locker room."

Brandon bobbed his head once again. "Yeah, me too. The boys' locker room, that is," he added with a laugh. "I was gonna take a shower—just came from the weight room." He gestured to a glass door on the opposite side of the building, one in which I assumed led to the aforementioned weight room. The Welcome Guide had listed the room under its student activities section, but I hadn't known where it was stationed until now.

I nodded. "I was just in the pool," I said, stupidly waving a hand toward the massive body of water, as if we weren't standing two feet away from its edge.

Brandon smirked. "I could tell," he replied, taking in my drowned rat facade and staring pointedly, albeit amusedly, at the giant damp spot that had seeped into his thin white tank top after he'd grabbed me.

"Oops," I muttered, blushing. Should've worn the robe after all.

He laughed. "Don't worry about it. It'll dry in a minute. Besides, if I hadn't caught you, you would've gone tumbling into the pool and I would've had to rescue you. And I've never taken a lifeguard's test."

I smirked in kind and responded, "I'll have you know that I'm an excellent swimmer. I wouldn't have needed your help."

Up went an eyebrow. "Oh, is that right?"

"That's right," I agreed, setting my chin defiantly.

Brandon chuckled again. "All right, sorry, Miss Mermaid." He spanned his arms wide and held out his hands palm-up in mock surrender, and I laughed. Then, his visage softened once more and he asked, "You are you're ok? I didn't know you had…"

"Asthma?" I filled in for him, quirking my own eyebrow.

He shrugged awkwardly. "Yeah."

I smiled. "It's ok, really. I'm fine. Believe me, I've had worse." My eyes widened of their own accord once the thought had escaped my lips. I hadn't meant to let that slip.

Brandon returned my smile. "Good. Uhm, not that it's good that you've had worse, just that…uh…" He trailed off, stumbling.

I laughed and dipped my head. "I know what you mean."

"Good," he replied, relieved. "Whew! Sorry. Sometimes, I don't know when to shut my trap. Things just seem to leap out of there without my consent. It's like, word-a-rrhea."

My brow furrowed. "'Word-a-rrhea'?"

"Diarrhea of the mouth," he supplied.

"Ah." I nodded in understanding.

"Well," Brandon said, making an odd yet humored face. "This is the third time we've literally bumped into each other, Lydia."

I chuckled. "That's true."

"Do you think it means something?" he asked faux-seriously. "Maybe it's fate. Maybe we're just destined to almost knock the other onto the ground for the rest of our lives."

"Maybe so," I agreed with a grin.

"So, maybe we should—"

Brandon never got the opportunity to finish his sentence, because at that precise moment, the double metal doors leading into the pool area were pushed open dramatically and a familiar white face topped with dark brown hair peeked itself over the threshold. It was Casey, of course. She'd asked me before we parted ways for lunch—her to the courtyard, me to meet with Ms. Nguyen for the second time—what I was planning on doing during my free period, and I informed her that I'd most likely be here. She said she wanted to talk to me once school let out—about what, I couldn't be sure.

But, being that she was Casey, it could've been about anything.

When she noticed me standing with Brandon—me dripping wet in my bathing suit, him in a tank top and athletic shorts, sweaty from his workout—she cocked her eyebrows with interest, and I felt my face heating. Certainly, everything between us was completely innocent, but the way we were positioned—only a few feet apart (mostly so that one or both of us wouldn't go plummeting over the edge into the water in the limited space between the deep end of the pool and the wall) —could suggest something that didn't exist. And Casey seemed like exactly the kind of person to come to such conclusions…or at least pretend to do so in order to further her own amusement.

"Well, well, well," she drawled, purposely taking slow and deliberate steps toward us. I ducked my chin, but Brandon only rolled his eyes. "What do we have here?"

Brandon scoffed, but the sound contained an oddly affectionate note to it. Were they together? Casey hadn't mentioned anything about a boyfriend, but it was certainly possible that she had one. She was a very pretty girl after all, and we had only known each other for a few hours. Unbidden, I could feel my heart sink just a little inside my chest—which, naturally, was very, very idiotic. Stupid emotions, I thought with annoyance.

"Nothing," he said. "Lydia and I just happened to bump into each other…again." He glanced at me and grinned.

Casey's eyes widened in suspicious recognition, and I warily took a step backwards. "Oh my gosh!" she exclaimed, approaching the two of us more quickly. "This is the Lydia?!"

I blinked. What did she mean by the Lydia?

Brandon's brow crinkled in confusion. "There is more than one Lydia?"

Casey shook her head, as if clearing out the cobwebs. Then, she threw back her head and laughed, and the sound echoed off the hallow walls surrounding the three of us. "I can't believe this. This is Lyds, the girl I told you about in Physics?"

Brandon's jaw dropped comically, and he glanced between Casey and I with surprise. I, obviously still in the dark about…something…continued to hang back awkwardly.

"Oh, man!" Brandon exclaimed, laughing. "Small world, eh?"

"Yeah!" Casey cried, her eyes crinkling in amusement. "But, Jeez, you'd think we'd have put two and two together. I mean, Lydia's not an uncommon name, but how many new girls could there be sharing that moniker?"

"I know," Brandon agreed. "I feel like a dope."

Casey rolled her eyes. "Well, that's because you are a dope."

"Hey, you didn't realize either so that makes you—"

"Excuse me!" I finally butted in, not able to take it anymore. They were discussing me as if I weren't standing right before them. Now, of course, I was used to this kind of behavior by now, but there was some kind of conspiracy going on and if it concerned me, I wanted to be let in.

Both heads snapped to attention, and Brandon and Casey turned to face me with slightly guilty expressions. "Can someone please tell me what's going on?" I asked, exasperated and confused.

My companions shrugged in tandem, which was kind of weird. But I shrugged it off as Casey replied, "Sorry, Lyds. I guess we were caught up in the moment here." She grinned. "You see, Brandon here mentioned something last night about bumping into this new girl—whose name happens to be Lydia—then brings up the subject again at lunch, how the same thing happened this morning. And earlier today, I told him about meeting you in homeroom. I told him your name was Lydia, but I call you Lyds, and you were new. But like the dolts we are, we didn't realize until now that you are one in the same. Now we feel like idiots." A laugh.

Well, that cleared up part of my puzzlement. "But how do you two know each other? Are you friends or….?" Are you dating? I honestly did not get that vibe betwixt the two. They hadn't touched or embraced or anything since Casey made her appearance, but there was a sense of warmth that radiated from their auras when they spoke to each other.

"Kind of," Brandon supplied with a smirk. "It all depends on how often she gets me into trouble with Mom."

Mom? My eyes widened. "So, you're—"

"Brother and sister!" Casey interrupted, throwing her arm around Brandon's neck. He must've stood at least a foot taller than she, though, and she had to stand up on her toes and stretch just to complete the action. "I'm older," she added cheekily.

Brandon rolled his eyes. "By six minutes."

"Older is older," Casey replied, crossing her arms.

Twins, I deduced, somewhat shocked. Casey hadn't mentioned a brother, but then again, the subject of family had not been brought up throughout the day. But, I briefly remember Brandon referencing a sister this morning—one who'd unfortunately claimed my locker before I did. It definitely explained the strange affection that linked them, and their easygoing attitude with each other. But still, it was most assuredly a surprise.

"Wow," I muttered. "I didn't know you had a brother." This was directed at Casey.

She nodded. "Yep. Two as a matter of fact. Good ole Brandon here and our younger brother, Simon. He's in the fourth grade."

"My sister, Hannah, is in the fourth grade," I supplied.

Brandon and Casey exchanged mischievous glances and smirked. "Well if that's the case, then they probably know each other," Brandon said. "He's probably hit on her by now."

My eyes bugged, and Casey giggled. "Yeah, he's a little mini-Casanova. It's both cute and demented at the same time."

There was a moment of silence, and my friend clapped her hands loudly to interrupt it. I was quickly getting the impression that Casey had no patience for beating around the bush. "Well," she exclaimed. "I just came here to invite you to my—our—house after school. My two best friends will be there. Then we're gonna head to the mall. You should come!"

Unbidden, my heart began to pound inside my chest, and my throat dried up. Needless to say, I hadn't been invited over a peer's house in…well…quite a long time. Honestly, I'd completely forgotten how to act in social situations, and knowing that Casey's friends were going to be present as well made my hands start to sweat. They were her best friends, she said. What if we didn't get along? What if they didn't like me for whatever reason? What if they thought I was a "loser"? By the end of the day, I'd probably say or do something incredibly moronic and Casey would be left wondering why she even bothered befriending the weird new girl in the first place.

"Oh," I stuttered intelligently. "I-I don't know."

"Oh, come on!" Casey cried. She reached out and grasped my wrist in her hand and I froze instinctively. Luckily, she didn't seem to notice. "It'll be fun! We go hang out at the mall and spit venom at all the other adolescent idiots that frequent the place. It's a blast!"

I laughed. I couldn't help it; Casey had the oddest sense of what was entertaining.

"Yeah," Brandon agreed with a snicker. "You haven't lived until you've told everyone in school to fuck off beyond school grounds." He lightly and affectionately slapped his sister's shoulder.

Casey glared at him and kicked his foot. "Ow," he whined jokingly. "Stop doing that! I had a nasty bruise last year on my ankle because of you."

"Ah, memories," Casey replied wistfully. Then she turned back to me and said, "Come on, Lyds. Please come? My friends will love you, you'll see. They're awesome. Believe me, I wouldn't waste my time with losers. Which explains why I hate most of our graduating class."

It was like she'd hit the nail on the head. I wondered if I was an open book or Casey was just good at reading people. I sincerely hoped the latter was the answer. "Ok," I finally relented with a shrug. "Why not? I'll come along."

"Yay!" Casey exclaimed, jumping up and down. My eyes drifted to the swirling water and the very few inches of space between her and it.

"If you fall in," Brandon began, as if reading my mind. "I'm not jumping in to save you."

"Nyah!" His sister stuck out her tongue and flipped him off. I was shocked, but Brandon just laughed. "Ok, let's go!" she said, and began leading me around the pool and to the exit. "Do you need to call your parents first?"

Crap, I thought with a grimace. Of course, it wasn't as if either my mother or my father would turn me down. I hadn't gone out with friends in over a year, and, prior to December, they'd been on my back constantly to leave the house and have fun with my classmates. So, the fact that their isolated and solitary daughter was finally getting out with people her own age was bound to bring them at least a bit of contentment. But…the questions that would ensue from such a change. Dad would want to know everything about Casey and her friends—who they were, where they lived, who their parents were, if they had a curfew, what they were going to eat for supper, if their grass was green, who their proctologist was, etc.—and Carolyn would just pepper me with queries and see way too much into everything. In reality, I was just going to the mall with a few girls, but to her, it meant that her eldest child and borderline sociopath was finally becoming "normal", and she could rest easy once again.

But, obviously, there would be no "resting easy"—not for my parents. And that was my other issue with calling them. They were so steadfast in their never-ending quarrelling that I only tried to speak with them when necessary. It was doubtless that, whoever I called, I would get dragged into their incessant arguing—or worse, their "non-arguing"—and I didn't think that I could handle it today.

"Yeah," I replied to Casey's query. "I'll…need to call my mother."

"You can use my cell phone," she said, somehow guessing that I didn't have one of my own. "It won't work in here, but I'll give it to you outside."

I nodded as we made our way to the girls' locker room. Brandon started to follow jokingly, and Casey laughingly punched him in the gut, saying that no, he could not watch me taking a shower. I blushed (and it was probably only wishful thinking, but I was pretty sure Brandon did too), and the three of us went out separate ways—Casey and I to the girls' locker room, Brandon to the boys'.

It was only after I'd climbed into one of the rusting crimson shower stalls that were stationed in a corner of the locker room that I realized that, during the whole time with Brandon and Casey in the pool room, my wrist scars had been exposed.

AN: I'm going to try to get the chapters out more quickly but unfortunately, Real Life tends to interfere with my writing. Which sucks major monkey butt, because writing is pretty much all I have right now. Sigh.