"You never really understand a person…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." – Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
The continuous buzzing of my iPhone in my pocket alerted me to the fact that I was receiving notifications. The fact that Nikki's head was conspicuously cast down at the desk next to me made me suspect she had something to do with it. Sure enough, when Ms. Boland, our art teacher, turned her back on the class for a moment to look up some information about the impressionist movement on her tablet, Nikki vigorously gestured for me to check my phone. I gave my head a quick shake, as getting caught using your phone in class was a surefire way to land yourself in detention.
"Is there something you need to share with the class, Nikki?" Ms. Boland asked, her tone dry.
Nikki met our teacher's eyes, weighing her options. We went to a strict school, but Ms. Boland was more relaxed than other teachers. Nikki was obviously relying on this leniency, as she replied. "I had to tag Sam on some important information I just learnt from instagram."
"Which is?" Ms. Boland pressed.
"That contouring is out, and non-touring is in."
I bit my lip to keep from laughing, admiring Nikki's brazenness. I would never have her nerve. The entire class watched Ms. Boland survey Nikki over her black-framed glasses with baited breath, awaiting her response.
"Non-touring," she repeated, apparently unimpressed. "I assume this has something to do with makeup?"
"Yes!" Nikki replied. "And makeup is art, Ms. Boland. So its entirely relevant to class."
Ms. Boland raised her eyebrows, and was quiet for a moment. "Undoubtedly. But we are in the middle of discussing Renoir. Put your phone away or lose it forever."
Deciding not to push her luck, Nikki nodded compliantly. She shot me a grin as Ms. Boland continued her lecture, and I rolled my eyes at her. Only Nikki could get away with a stunt like that.
"Am I, or am I not, more hot than a surfboard?" she asked that day after school as she lay stretched on the beach, her head resting on her arms.
I turned my eyes from the boats on the bay to give my best friend a sympathetic look.
"You know I think so. But boy's brains are much more muddled."
She nodded vehemently in agreement. "Amen to that, sister. He was a guy I could actually stand to be around for longer than a month, without feeling completely trapped. And he chooses a Hawaiian surf tour over staying here with me!"
I could sympathize with why Brad would choose to leave and chase his ambitions, but I had to allow Nikki her mourning period, so I gave her a nod of solace. He'd only left a week ago, after all.
"Of course, it was just too good to be true. A hot, older, immensely talented guy chooses me? There had to be a catch. My life sucks. At least I have you."
I smirked. "I hope I'm a satisfactory consolation prize. But I actually have to go cook dinner now, I'm sorry."
"Ah, of course, the weekly family dinner. Sure thing, Sam."
We stuffed our possessions back in our beach bags, and headed over to the bus stop. She got off the bus several stops before me, whilst I rode it to the final stop in my quiet corner of the town.
When I arrived home, my mother's car wasn't in the driveway, so I figured she was still out. I unlocked the front door, stamped the sand off my feet, and quickly walked through the house to the kitchen. Deciding that our regular staple of spaghetti bolognaise would suffice for dinner that night, I put some water on the stove to boil. I looked out the window at the creek for a moment, appreciating the view I always found there.
We lived in a small town called Taylors Cove, close to the coast. The centre of town was located on the bay, where there was a large marina and yacht club. It also housed most of our wealthiest residents, with their extensive views of the bay and private boat ramps. Our home was located next to a small creek, on the quiet outskirts of town
Taylors Cove was still classified as part of Sydney, but as it was at its northern most point, and isolated on a peninsula, it functioned as its own corner of the world. It was an ideal place for summer holidays and the few power families who were permanent residents of the town. It was a somewhat different existence for the rest of us.
When Mum finally arrived home, I was relieved to see she was alone.
She kissed my cheek as I asked. "How was the Grandmonster?"
She smiled tiredly as she took off her jacket. "About how you remember her, honey. Where's your sister?"
"She said she'll be home in time for dinner. So, what was it like to see her again?"
Mum sighed, and sank onto her armchair in the living room, which was located in our small open living space on the other side of the kitchen counter.
"Tiring. I haven't seen her for a couple of years, but she was on her way down from Newcastle to visit a friend in the city, so she insisted on seeing me, and you know she doesn't take no for an answer. She seemed disappointed you girls weren't with me."
"Well, I don't want to see her," I replied nonchalantly,
"I know you don't. But that's not your battle to fight."
I shook my head as I dumped a bag of spaghetti into the saucepan on the stove. "She blamed you for everything that Dad did, as though it was impossible for her precious son to do any wrong. And if you mess with one James girl, you mess with them all, right?"
Mum grinned reluctantly. "Right. Anyway, so after I rebuffed her attempts to come home with me and see you girls, we had a pretty quick coffee. I told her a little about how you girls are doing, then she left."
"So, you avoided the third degree about Chloe and I changing our surnames?"
"I'm not sure she knows. But no, I avoided that particular issue."
After my Mum changed her surname back to her maiden name, I decided to wipe the last remnant of my Dad from my life, and took James as my last name. My younger sister Chloe didn't want to be left out, so she followed suit.
Chloe arrived home as the sun was setting and dinner was being laid on the table.
"Impeccable timing," I said dryly, and she grinned.
"I can sense when the food is near." She sat down at the table and hungrily dug in.
"How'd your Geography assignment go?" I asked through a mouthful of dinner.
She smiled at me. "Swallow, sis. It was good, I think. It's an assignment on 'being a productive member of the community', and Gabby insisted we have our group meeting at her house. She wanted to do the assignment on her Dad, saying that the size of their house shows how productive he is. Emma managed to talk her out of it."
I smirked, glad for Chloe's best friend's diplomatic skills.
"We decided that being productive meant giving back, so I suggested that we all take on practical examples. Emma's going to do her Mum's grocery shopping for a week and Gabby's going to make sure her family recycles. Since I already volunteer at the retirement home, I'm just using that. Then we'll write a report on our experiences."
"That's a great idea, Chloe," Mum said.
"Well, duh, I thought of it," she said with a grin.
"My modest sister, ladies and gentlemen," I said wryly.
She made a face at me. "Oh, and miss scholarship student doesn't have a big head? Please."
"Duh? Please. My, what an impressive vocabulary."
"Ok, that's enough, I already have a headache from your grandmother," Mum interjected tiredly.
Chloe turned her attention at once to Mum, her memory sparked. "That's right, you saw her highness the Grandmonster today. How's her reign of terror going?"
Mum furrowed her brow as she took a sip of water. "I don't know where this animosity of yours came from, girls. You should still respect your grandmother."
"I'm just being led astray by my older sister," Chloe said, giving me a deceptively sweet grin. "I think she coined the term 'Grandmonster' first. Oh hey, by the way, I know it's my turn to cook tomorrow night, but I have netball training, so dinner will be a bit late."
"You have training already? But the netball season doesn't start until Term 2," Mum commented
"I know, but our coach wants us to get half a term's training in first. Besides, it's just for the first team, so Sam won't have to worry about training until next term," she smiled at me sweetly, baiting me over the fact that she was in the top netball team, and I was not.
"You're in the junior firsts," I replied scathingly. "Not the senior firsts. There's a difference."
She grinned sweetly, and I rolled my eyes. Sisters.
Mum was rushing out the door as she usually was when I was getting ready for school the next day. I packed the lunches she'd left for us onto the kitchen counter into our bags as Chloe was ironing her uniform with a piece of toast shoved in her mouth. I greeted her and she glowered at me. She was definitely not a morning person.
"The bus comes in ten minutes," I reminded her. She just grunted.
As usual, we rushed out the door just in time, her scraping her dark, shoulder-length hair into a ponytail on the way to the bus stop. I was always jealous at how easily her straight hair co-operated with this hurried maneuver. My wavy hair was much more stubborn, and I settled for wrestling it into a messy bun.
I used to always wear it down when I was younger, but as it was a requirement at Taylor's Cove College for girls with long hair to tie it up, a ponytail had become my habitual style. Plus, my Dad had always loved when I wore my hair down, so I saw that as another reason to wear it up.
Chloe's quips became quieter as we got on the bus. She was much more introverted at school than at home, only really opening up to people she felt comfortable with. Ever since she'd started high school she'd seemed intimidated by the grandeur of her surroundings. She was comfortable in her sphere of a small group of friends, and concentrating on netball, which she was immensely talented at. Now that she was halfway through her first term in grade nine, I hoped she'd be more at ease soon.
We went our separate ways after entering the ivy-covered gates, and I headed to the grade eleven locker rooms. Taylors Cove College was a ridiculously expensive co-ed private school with about fifteen hundred students from grades seven through to twelve. Most students were from Taylors Cove, with a few students from surrounding suburbs. Since most of Taylors Cove residents' were wealthy, a sizable chunk of the students had parents who would barely notice the hole the school fees left in their pockets. There were a handful of students from middle-class families, and then those with parents that spent every penny on their school fees, to buy their children the best education. I was on a full academic scholarship, and to pay for Chloe's school fees, Mum spent basically everything she earned.
I climbed up the heavy oak spiral staircase to my locker, and encountered a friendly face along the way. "So, sometime between last night and this morning, your head changed colour?" I asked Nikki.
She grinned, running her fingers through her formerly dark blonde hair, which was now streaked with copper. "Yeah. I wanted to go bright red, but since Claire Thomas got suspended until she washed that purple out of her hair, I thought I shouldn't risk it. Do you like it?
"I do. When did you decide to do it?"
"I needed a change. It's time to move on from Brad! And you're joining me on this fresh start. We are only in the first term of grade eleven, and you're already bogged down in homework. I know you're a freak who loves studying, but you need to chill sometimes."
I started putting the books from my backpack into my locker. "And when does this fresh start come into effect?"
"This afternoon. You, Tara and I are going to the beach."
"Nice idea. But I'm working on Monday and Wednesday afternoons at the receptionist job now, remember?"
"Do you mind?" came an impatient voice.
I glanced over my shoulder. A girl was trying to shove passed Nikki on her way to her locker.
"Not at all," Nikki replied coldly. "Repeat after me, Holly: 'please move.' That's not so hard to ask, is it?"
Holly rolled her eyes at Nikki, before glancing over at me. "Figures. Some things never change," she muttered under her breath. She strode past us, leaving the lingering scent of Chanel No. 5 behind her.
"What was it you were saying to me the other day, about how the girls in our grade seem to be maturing, and getting over their bitchiness? It seems like she missed that memo."
I gave her a rueful smile as I shut my locker. Our school was mostly full of privileged kids. I tried not to buy into any stereotypes too quickly. I maintained that you didn't have to be rich to be a pretentious snob, but it could be a contributing factor. But some of the wealthiest kids in school were the nicest. Nikki's family was well-off, and our good friend Tara's Dad owned the yacht club, meaning her family was very rich. But as with every school, there was the popular crowd, the cool kids. The popular groups in our school weren't solely restricted to the kids of the wealthiest and most influential families in town, but they were almost always a part of it.
Holly was part of the upper echelon of the popular group in our grade, and she would never let you forget it
"I'm so glad we get to slack off this lesson," Nikki announced after recess that Wednesday.
Every Wednesday the grade elevens and twelve's were clumped together in classes for Personal Development. Most students used this lesson to perfect the art of sleeping with their eyes open.
Nikki and I found our usual desks near the back if the classroom just as our teacher, Mr. Rogers walked in. He was one of my favourite teachers at the school. He was a man in his late forties who also taught my mathematics class, and he had the uncanny ability to make the subject mildly interesting.
"I'm glad to see you're all here for your favourite lesson of the week," he announced by way of greeting. We're starting a new topic today: Drugs and Alcohol."
The class groaned collectively.
"Before you all start cheering," he continued wryly, "I know you think you've heard it all before, in your earlier years at high school. But as the seniors of the school, we expect you to know better by now, to be able to think for yourselves, and not conform to peer pressure. But a lot of you are at parties every weekend, so now is when this topic applies to you the most."
As he continued, I allowed my mind to wander. The popular kids mostly threw parties at our school, so I was rarely invited. Occasionally, Tara would drag Nikki and I along to one. We'd sometimes go to parties thrown by the 'Switzerlands' – a label given to them by Nikki to indicate student's neutral statuses, those people who were neither popular nor geeky. But I didn't ever find drugs or alcohol tempting, so I wasn't very interested in the topic Mr. Rogers had raised.
I was I the middle of a Captain Jack Sparrow daydream when I was rudely interrupted.
"I've never caught you gazing out the window so intently in maths, Sam That's quite a rarity for a student, to enjoy maths more then personal development. Would you like to share your thoughts on the matter at hand?"
"What matter would that be, Mr. Rogers?" I asked for clarification, ignoring the snickers around the room.
"The role that peer pressure plays in drug taking," he replied, loosening his tie.
I pondered a moment. "It seems to play a big one, with people seeking comfort and familiarity in doing whatever their friends do," I replied, personally unimpressed with such mindless conformity.
"You say that like it's a bad thing," came a voice from the corner of the room.
I looked around, curious. The back corner of the room was where the popular grade twelve boys sat, and they never participated in class discussion.
"Do you have an opinion to voice, Simon?" asked Mr. Rogers.
I focused on a vaguely familiar face, as he continued, "yes, sir. I just wondered why Sam spoke about people doing things in groups for comfort with such disgust. It's natural for humans to crave a sense of belonging."
"That's a lot of big words for a footballer," Nikki whispered, and I bit my lip so I didn't laugh.
"Of course its natural," I replied. "And it can be helpful when you're talking about friendship, to share experiences, and all that. But I think its pretty stupid when people feel compelled to do drugs just because their friends are."
"Why?" he asked, his eyes fixed on my face.
I raised my eyebrows, wondering if he was genuine. "Because you let yourself get pressured into doing something you know is harmful. You let what other people are doing speak louder than the voice in your head that tells you it's wrong."
He looked at me quizzically. "It sounds like you're speaking from experience."
'Well, you're lucky," he replied. "Lucky that you don't feel the need to use drugs to escape, and that you've got enough conviction to be able to say no. But sometimes peer pressure is a something that lots of people can't stand up to."
I looked at him curiously for a moment as Mr. Rogers interjected on our discussion. "You've touched on another good point…" His voice trailed off as I returned to the land of Jack Sparrow.
As we left the room to walk to English, I said to Nikki, "do you think we'll get our essays back today?"
She laughed out loud. "You're probably the only girl in the school that could think about schoolwork after having the hottest guy in the school talk to you."
I rolled my eyes. "Is it Jane Austen that says 'he wouldn't be quite so handsome, if he were not quite so rich?'"
"Are you talking about me?" came a voice behind us.
I turned to find Simon looking down at me, his usual crew following him. Wondering why he was bothering to speak to me after so many years, I shrugged. "Sorry to disappoint, but no."
"My loss. You know, that lesson was almost interesting with the prospect of a debate, but you went back to daydreaming."
Nikki grinned wickedly. "She has an unhealthy obsession with Pirates of the Caribbean, so no offense, but I think Johnny or Orlando won over you."
"If it was Johnny, I kind of get it. Or even the new dude who has replaced Orlando, Brenton what's-his-name. But if Orlando beat me, that really bruises a guys ego. I mean, did you see him in Lord of the Rings, and the Hobbit? So feminine."
"Aragorn wins in Lord of the Rings," I countered, wondering why exactly he was choosing to banter with us between classes.
"None of us have been able to compete since Aragorn came along. By the way, you're a bad liar. I know you weretalking about me."
With a wink, he rejoined his friends as they turned down another corridor.
"Arrogant ass," I muttered as we walked into our classroom.
"Oh, he's got a great ass. Haven't you ever been to a school rugby game? Those shorts do wonders for the guys," Nikki quipped in reply, earning her an elbow in the ribs.
I arrived at work in a rush that afternoon. It was always a struggle to get there by 3.30, as school ended at 3.15. I sat down behind a desk in the foyer, and answered the phone that immediately rang.
I'd worked at Reeves Public Relations since the beginning of the year. They had a main receptionist, but were usually so inundated with calls and administration that they had secondary receptionists that came in near the end of the day to help with the extra administration work. I was that second receptionist on Mondays and Wednesdays.
The Reeves family was the most powerful family in town, and one of the wealthiest families in Sydney. Jonathan Reeves was a media mogul. His company, the Reeves Group owned the local television stations, several newspapers, and a book publishing company.
His wife, Melissa Reeves, was the CEO of Reeves PR, which raked in a small fortune of its own.
Mum used to be the Reeves' housekeeper. To be housekeeper and head of the household staff in a home that size was no small feat. Melissa must have noticed my Mum's hard work ethic, and took a shine to her. After a string of failed personal assistants at the firm, she offered the job to Mum four years earlier. It meant that Mum could actually afford, if only just, to send Chloe to the same school as me.
So I got the job at Reeves PR through Mum. I enjoyed it, as far as work went. It was decent pay, and I really liked Alice, the receptionist. The shift was only for two and half hours. Best of all though, it ensured me a certain level of self-sufficiency. Money was always tight at home, and I helped ease some of Mum's burden, by paying for my own clothes, and other necessities. Combined with my regular Saturday baby-sitting job, I was earning good pocket money for a sixteen-year-old.
I led a significantly different existence to my fellow students, but I felt lucky. Mum taught me from a young age to try to overcome prejudice, to not judge a book by its cover. I always tried to look at the value of people beyond their social status. "If you don't want to be boxed, why on earth would you do that to other people?" she'd ask me.
I learnt, often through hard life lessons, that the value of people should be measured by their decency to other human beings, their values, and their ability to make good choices.
That afternoon's work was fairly boring, but things were always more bearable on Wednesdays. Nikki, Chloe and I did a hip-hop dance class every Wednesday. So, when 6 o'clock came, Mum was waiting to take me to class. I changed in the car as we drove to pick up Chloe and Nikki before she dropped off at the dance studios.
I was energized after the hour-long class. I tried to sustain that energy as I did my homework until past midnight. I was making a cup of coffee when Chloe got up to go to the toilet. "Geez, you still at it?" she asked, rubbing her eyes. Being a scholarship student has its obvious financial benefits, but it meant I was under added pressure to keep my grades high.
"I'm almost done."
"Ok. Night sis. Go to bed soon."
I gave her a tired smile before I turned back to my English homework, sounding dumber as every sentence was typed. Tiredly, I finally tumbled into bed an hour later and feel asleep immediately.