Chapter 16

There was something genuinely stupid about the way I felt, riding in the backseat of the car, like I was back in grade school biting my nails at the end of summer. I felt nervous, and I wasn't really certain why. Maybe it was the time I had spent in the real world that was doing strange things to my head. Now I would have to go back to the all consuming atmosphere of high school life- where some kids thought they would die if they didn't get straight A's in every subject, while others thought they would die if they showed up to school in second hand clothing and still others seemed to think they would never die at all.

Maybe I had an unhealthy obsession with it, but at the very least I felt that I understood what death actually entailed.

I picked up my phone as it vibrated and read Hex's text.

For the record, I hoped for a giant freak snow storm.

Hex, as usual, had nothing outstandingly reassuring to say about my return to public education. Even so, it made me smile.

"Hex again?" my sister drawled from the front seat. I looked up to see her casting a glazed expression of boredom back at me. She was different today. No headphones, for one, and her typical style of shy punk gone hooker was missing. Where were the knee high neon socks and the denim cut off short shorts that had defined her sheer apathy to words like 'wind chill' and 'below zero'? Today she was dressed in black slacks and a gray cardigan- almost like a younger, brattier version of Mom. "Why do you keep talking to him?"

"Dunno, Ellie," I rolled my eyes at her. "Maybe because he's my friend."

"You barely know him," Ellie scowled. "He seems like a creep to me. Why else would he be hanging around?"

Mom drove, garbling work jargon into her phone obliviously, so I kicked Ellie's seat. It seemed fair.

With a withering glare and a shake of her head, Ellie said, "You're so immature." Then she flipped her hair over her shoulder and turned to face the front of the vehicle again.

I would be glad when I wasn't so handicapped and my parents trusted me enough to drive. Dad would crack before Mom, but it would take them awhile to agree on.. well, anything. Until then I would have to try to endure this ride daily and hope Ellie didn't make a habit out of talking to me.

Crowded, loud, manic and an uninspiring gray- school was just like I had left it. Only some people were kind enough not to shove into the girl with the broken arm and a few people even welcomed me back and asked about it. I gave them vague unspecific answers and told them I had class when they bothered to ask more. They wouldn't understand and it really wasn't their business.

Mr. Baker's classroom had a big periodic table painted on the floor. I found my desk, in the back, where my friend Gloria was already bent over - furiously scribbling answers down on an assignment that was due this morning.

"Quick, what's the answer to number seven?" she asked, not bothering to look up. It was as if she had never noticed I had been gone. She looked like she had climbed out of a clothing magazine this morning, straight cooperative blond hair, complimenting shades of blue clothing and not a stray thread or piece of lint to be seen. The same couldn't really be said for me, but I was used to this. I always looked like a mess next to Gloria. Most people did.

"Chlorine," I sighed.

She jotted it down and then looked up at me, sharply. Gloria and I had once been what some people call 'best friends forever'. That was way back in grade school. By middle school it was pretty clear that we were never gonna last. She was always the pretty girl and I was always.. well, kind of weird. The only reason boys ever used to approach me was to ask if she was single, or if I had her number, or if I could introduce them. Sure, I had been jealous once or twice, but that's not what ruined us.

It was the people she kept up with. Before she met them, she liked bugs, and she knew what the difference between an ape and a monkey was, and she wanted to be a biologist. Now? Well..

"What is Fe on the periodic table?" she asked.

I looked down at the floor. Our desks had been sitting over the Fe square since the fall. Any time she wanted to, Gloria could have looked down and seen the answer for herself. But that was just it, Gloria didn't want to see the answers any more. She didn't care. Biology? That was for the science nerds.

"Iron," I told her, sitting down. It was difficult not to be completely disheartened by her. I had a valid excuse for being bad at this stuff. I hated school. She just hated the idea of people thinking she was smart- like it would destroy her figure and reputation.

Despite our differences, we habitually still sat together at lunch and in our shared classes. Maybe we were still waiting for some blow out fight to really cut off ties, or maybe finding new people to be so casual with was just too much work.

She finally set down her pencil and honestly looked me over.

"Whoa- ... when Ellie said you broke your arm skiing she never said anything about breaking your face!"

Skiing? Apparently Ellie was trying to protect her reputation by keeping mine nice and normal. Gloria was still staring at the remnants of the cut on my forehead.

"I didn't even know you skied," she continued, finally looking away.

Neither did I. I wish Ellie would have mentioned this little fib. I wondered how many people thought I had broken my arm skiing?

"Erm.. Yeah," I said, dragging the chemistry book out of my backpack gingerly. "I'm not that good."

She snorted like that was an understatement, as if she even knew. I sank in my seat and wrestled the chemistry book out of my backpack.

Class went by slowly. I didn't understand anything the teacher, Mr. Baker, was talking about and everything that was written on the white board looked like extraterrestrial hieroglyphs. I found myself looking at the wall to my right, because we had no windows, and wondering what might happen if I just got up and walked out instead. We had a test and I guessed at most of the answers. As usual, Gloria didn't seem to have any actual trouble with hers. Or, if she did, she hid it well.

At the end of class I still had a mountain of homework to return to Mr. Baker. As other kids filed out of the room I made my way to his desk reluctantly.

He looked up and smiled. That was weird. Usually when I approached teachers they had to struggle just to look interested. I wasn't exactly the most inspiring student, after all, especially when it came to math and science. Even so, Mr. Baker's round face didn't show even a hint of irritation. His smile was a little crooked and with his big, bug eyed glasses it made him look like a cartoon.

"Maggie," he said, in a soft spoken voice. "It's good to have you back."

"Thanks Mr. Baker," I replied dutifully, resting the papers on his desk.

He reached for one, looked it over and asked, "How are you?"

"Fine." The response was automatic. And then, "Good."

His fingers continued to pinch pages while he scanned my homework. It made me feel uncomfortable, like he was going to suddenly spot my stupidest mistake and have me personally expelled. But then there was still that unnerving smile that offset the balance.

"I know it's not great, It's just all this trying to catch up- I really will try harder," I hurried. That wasn't true, but it felt like the sort of thing I should say in this situation.

Mr. Baker grabbed a pen from the cheesy 'world's best teacher' mug that sat on his desk and drew an 'A' in the upper corner of the page in front of him. My own, reluctant smile fell off of my face so quickly I half expected to hear a crash. Part of me wanted to believe that I had really earned it, but the smarter part already knew that I hadn't.

"Jumping back into things can be stressful," he offered.

"I'm not stressed," I insisted, cautiously. "Mr. Baker- are you sure you read that test right?"

He ignored my weak attempt to do the right thing and said, "It's just, I was speaking with Ellie the other day and she seemed worried."

"She's not," I insisted, getting a little annoyed as I recalled Ellie's disdain from the car ride here. Why was Ellie even speaking to this guy in the first place?

He kept nodding in that 'I'm listening' sort of way that made me want to hit him in the face. If all the teachers were going to act like this today I would consider becoming a drop out like Hex.

"If you ever need to talk-"

"I'm fine," I said, more firmly. Clearly Mr. Baker wasn't buying the story of a skiing accident. If I knew anything by now it was how to spot the pity on an adult's face when they looked at me and saw the word 'troubled'. But even when I earned their pity, I had never earned a fake grade for it. Something was seriously off about all of this."I should get to my next class."

"Of course," he said. But I didn't like the way he kept watching me, like he thought he knew me. I tried to shake that feeling of being watched as I scurried to my next class but there was no denying that I would just be glad when this day was over.