My house is at the bottom of the hill, just past the little grove of trees that was planted when the park first opened about t

My house was at the bottom of the hill, just past the little grove of trees that was planted when the park first opened about thirty years ago. Back then, the park was well out of the town, but now only about a quarter of the mile and a road separated it from the rest of Belmont, much to the dismay of many newer townspeople.

The house itself was a larger trailer, but after Tina was born I moved into a small tow-behind appropriated from Tobe who lived behind us. It was basically just a small metal room, and I still had to leave it to take a shower, but at least I could get away from the screaming and whining. Most of the time.

When I got home, Amy had the door open and High School Musical blared out across the yard like it had done everyday for the past three weeks. Ever since Holly had borrowed it from the library in a last-ditch effort to distract Amy from her new throwing-things-in-the-air-and-making-high-pitched-noises phase, Amy had become like a woman possessed, begging me to curl her long brown hair like Vanessa Hudgens, and asking me endless questions about high school, disappointed that there was no Zac Efron equivalent, singing and dancing around with his ridiculously short basketball team and just dreaming of being himself.

The world is, like, totally unfair.

Normally, "Getcha Head in the Game," wouldn't put me in such a bad mood, but Matt Larkin had taken it upon himself to injure both of my ankles in separate "freak hockey incidents" in gym, followed inconspicuously and completely un-suspiciously by cheering and high-fives all around. The bus stop was about two miles from my house, so I had double-limped my way home, in no mood for shenanigans.

So when Amy came leaping out of the trailer, long hair twirling behind her brightly-clad body, getting ready to show me the dance she had choreographed, I was less than pleased, and far from eager to see it.

"Not now, Ames," I slung my backpack off my shoulder as I opened my door.

"But you promised me this morning!" Amy crossed her hands over her chest and pouted a champion pout, lower lip doing an Oscar-worthy performance.

"And I'll make good on it, Ames, but not now," I said, trying not to take my temper out on her, because it really wasn't her fault that the entire student body of Belmont High had inflated visions of their own importance with an alarming dearth of actual importance to season the atmosphere with a little bit of the unexpected. I disappeared into my room before Amy could say anything else, or call Holly into the mix.

Once inside, I settled onto my bed, swearing vigorously as my ankles complained from the abuse. When I took off my shoes and rolled up my jeans, I could see clearly the blood bruises and scratches Matt Larkin had left as his calling card. Apparently it was every bit as easy for an ex-boyfriend to mess with me as it was for the rest of the school.

Then again, I had dated Matt in the seventh grade, so the close and extremely advanced and mature relationship we had had then, similar to all seventh-grade relationships, had probably lost all its magic by now. I massaged my war wounds gingerly and turned on my radio, trying to find a channel that was playing actual music and not mindless talk shows or commercials. I finally found something suitable and flopped down on my bed, staring up at my ceiling.

My meditation didn't last very long. Halfway through some only slightly better than sub-par song about a girl whose boyfriend cheated on her, Holly knocked her customary double-knock and walked in.


"Yo. Sup?"

"Seriously? 'Sup?'? That bad, huh?"

I stretched my leg up and pulled on my jeans, exposing my ankle. "Today was not the best of days, no."

"Jesus! Bastardinos!" That was one thing I loved about my sister—she never swore unless it was in Spanglish.

"Whatevs, man. Just stings a little."

"Amy's pissed you're not watching her dance." It was a gentle rebuke, but I was in no mood for it.

"Amy choreographs a new dance to those songs every other day. Do I really have to watch every single one? They're all jumping up and down and twirling, anyway."

Holly sighed and leaned against the door. I could just see her out of the corner of my eye, but I could tell she hadn't taken her work clothes or apron off yet. I felt a twist of guilt at my domineering, world-devouring bitchiness.

"Better High School Musical than that song you did when you were little. What was it—'Baby One More Time?'"

"That was the nineties—we didn't know any better then."

"Oh, blargh."

"Blargh back, missy. Can I get a few minutes to myself?"

"Sure, but then you're coming outside and watching her stupid dance." She turned to leave.

"You know, don't you?" I called from the bed. "About him?"

She stopped, her foot on the step, her hands on either side of the door frame. There was a second or two of relative silence, with only the sound of Vanessa Hudgen's voice in the background.

"I heard, yeah," came the cautious reply.

"You could have told me, so I didn't have to find out from Dot at lunch today."

"Sorry. That must have been so embarrassing for you." To those with more delicate constitutions, Holly's tone might have been fatal. I, however, am born of tougher stuff, and persevered.

"Be careful, Holly."

"Go be alone for a while, Tess." The door slammed behind her, and I sighed, staring up at the plastic glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to my ceiling, finally and blissfully alone.

The only thing I hated about Chem was that it was in the morning. Sorry, the only things I hated about Chem were that it was in the morning and that McNamara taught it. Other than those two baby problems, Chem was my favorite subject in the history of classes mandatory for graduation. It explains so much, like why you need to drink milk after you eat spicy food, and as a bonus you get to turn things colors.

Which is what we were doing that day, ostensibly. McNamara, the afore-mentioned demon head of the science department, had set up titration units around the room, with big Erlenmeyer flasks set up underneath and little stoppered bottles of methyl orange indicator arranged on the front counter. I felt the familiar rush of excitement at doing something cool and new the second I stepped into the room. I was, might I add, an inordinately huge science nerd.

Before I even sat down, though, McNamara was on my case.

"Miss Oldowsky, why are you always late to my class?" He sniped from his desk in the front corner of the room.

"Saving the rainforest, sir. Sorry to inconvenience you." As a comeback, it wasn't very imaginative, but at seven thirty in the morning I wasn't about to waste one of the two brain cells I had allotted for that day on giving McNamara an opus. I walked over to the station I always used by my onesies, only to realize that there was someone already sitting in my spot. I stood stupidly for a second while my brain tried and failed to kick-start itself into proper working order, and then walked around the counter, brushing by Em Markanovitz and nearly choking on her perfume in the process. The whole process was awkward enough to have McNamara and a few others snickering at my expense. I threw my bag down next to the stool that was across the table from my usual seat, and I plopped myself down with as little grace as was humanly possible, prepared to glare at whoever it was who had decided to mess with me this morning.

It was someone I had never seen before in my life, which brought me up a little short. Considering Belmont's student population of a whopping three hundred and seventy-three students, it was almost impossible that I had never seen the guy throwing an awkward little smile across the counter as I stared like a complete and total moron. There was literally nothing about him that I recognized, and for a second it completely threw me.

But they wheels, they kept a-turnin', if a little slowly. There was in fact a perfectly reasonable explanation for this, as a matter of fact. And I really was a moron. I returned his smile with a rueful one of my own, and looked away, cursing silently and eloquently in my head. I was sitting directly across from Amber Leigh's prospective step brother.


And he was beautiful.

Double fuck.

It seemed too much to ask that Amber Leigh's life be touched by just a hint of physical ugliness. I was willing to wager that Mr Leigh's bride-to-be was smokin' as well. Well, whoever was responsible for the kid who was at this point playing with his pencil in his hands would have to be a work of art themselves.

He was blond, and very fair. Instead of that white-blond, however, his hair had a real pale golden sheen that was completely natural and totally unfair. His pale, peach-tinted face and body seemed built to play sports, but he wasn't wearing a varsity jacket or ostentatiously striped polo. His hair was not artfully arranged to look like he didn't try to make it look like he didn't try to make it look good, and his eyes, of which all I could see was that they were light, weren't scoping out the rest of the class. Instead, he was focused on writing the date on the top right hand corner of the first page of a five-subject notebook. He seemed completely aware that everyone in the class, including me, had their eyes trained on him, but he didn't seem to want or care about the attention, and so was ignoring it completely.

Triple fuck.

After the brief interruption, the class began relatively normally. McNamara began the lecture by glaring at me, Em scooted her stool away from me and shared a conspiratorial glance with her neighbor that had me fighting to contain chuckles.

McNamara always gave us notes for the first ten minutes of class, exactly. He'd been teaching in Belmont for the past twenty years and so had streamlined his lectures to only the necessary information, leaving you to synthesize any real-life understanding for yourself. No questions were asked, no answers given, and no talking took place during the lecture. Grades were based solely on the accuracy of the lab reports, due every Friday.

McNamara stood at the front of the class, reading word for word the notes he had written on the blackboard in the perfect script that to judge by his demeanor had almost certainly been beaten into him by angry nuns. I meant to pay attention, because I always paid attention to science, but the Step Leigh across from me proved to be very distracting. Halfway through copying the concentration calculation, his pencil tip broke. I caught it in me peripherals, and turned my head toward him, watching as he felt through his pockets to find something to write with. Failing this, he began to scan the room for a pencil sharpener, to no avail. I felt sorry for him when he tried to settle for holding the broken tip gingerly between him pointer finger and thumb and scribbling the notes in a painful-looking scrawl. I must have laughed a little too hard through my nose, because he looked up to see my raised eyebrows and none-too-helpful smirk. Clearly, Amber had not warned him to only use pen at Belmont High. I shook my head, reached into my bag, and took out my extra pen, sliding it across the counter to him. He looked surprised for a second, then reached out and picked it up himself, nodding a thank-you. I grinned and winked at him, turning my attention back to the board to scribble all the notes I would need later.

The entire class saw the exchange. How could they not, when they'd been watching so closely? I should have seen what was coming, should have been expecting it. And I guess I did expect it, to be honest. But I just wasn't prepared for the universality of it.

By the time third period rolled around, even the kids who sat in the library during lunch were looking at me suspiciously. Between first and second, Anna Smith, the girl who sat diagonally from me in Chem, hissed "slut" at me as she hurried past, elbowing me in the kidney. Matt Larkin mimed raunchy sexual acts to me across the cafeteria as his friends looked on and roared with laughter. Dot did not sit with me that day. Amber watched all of it with an unfathomable expression. I could only imagine how torn she was feeling right now, with the rumors about me coming on to her Step in Chem that morning, and the elevation of hostilities toward me. A little give, a little take.

By the time I got to Math, the whole school seemed to have heard that I had offered the Step a blowjob from my herpes-ridden mouth in the janitor's closet for the low, low fee of twenty dollars. I walked into the classroom, knowing that Mr. Wayne would be his invariable five minutes late. The Princess of Darkness was in her usual seat, and this time there was no empty seat behind her. Step Leigh was, to my surprise and approval, on the other side of the classroom, against the far wall with the extra chalkboard. There were no empty seats near him, either.

I might have laughed in looking at the set-up. I almost did laugh, to be honest, because it was so priceless. Yesterday, everyone had been trying to get close to Amber, boys and girls alike. Today, Amber was surrounded by guys and the Step was surrounded by girls in what could have been concentric circles, like ripples in a pool or something, with the most fervent the closest, and the most unlucky farthest away. It was vaguely surprising that no girls had chosen Amber over Step, considering that Amber supposedly held to the keys to their future happiness and physical beauty. No honor amongst bimbos, I guess.

I was the last person there, which seemed to be a trend today. The class glared at me as a unit as I walked in, smirking in amusement, and sat down in the very last seat available: directly front and center. I was ready for what was coming now; all day before this had been a warm-up. As I unslung my bag and put it down next to my desk, Anna Smith, with whom I had the good fortune to share all my classes, and who just so happened to be sitting directly in front of Step Leigh, her forearm resting on his desk, said, "So, Tess, I saw you last night," her eyes sparking nastily.

I straightened, eyebrows raised. "Yeah?"

"Yeah, you were down on Pier by the bus stop," she gestured vaguely with her hand, "getting in some guy's car. You know, you really shouldn't wear skirts that short anymore. I don't care that the sequins get you johns, they're still really nineties. That's so tacky."

I couldn't help it, I smiled a big, warm, laughing smile, and hopped up to sit on the surface of my desk, my feet resting on the chair. "Oooooh, so that was yougetting into the other car! I knew it! But dude, seriously, if you're gonna be in the biz, you have to be a little more choosy with your guys. I mean, that man was seriously seventy-five, which means he's been around the block, which means you might need some shots sooner rather than later."

I was so focused on smiling Anna down that I almost missed the smile that barely flickered across the Step Leigh's face. He looked down at his desk, his fingers playing with the pen I still needed to reclaim from him. Anna folded her arms in disgust, and crossed her legs tightly. "I wasn't there," she snapped, her eyes promising murder and dismemberment.

I grinned even wider, "The how could you have seen me?" I asked, then banged my hand down on Pete McCaulay's desk, making the poor thing jump a little. "Case closed!" I slid into my seat proper and folded my hands on my desk, waiting for Mr. Wayne to come in and teach us a thing or two about sines.