Three Years Ago
I sit stiffly in the metal foldout chair in the middle of the crowded auditorium. Freshman orientation. I snort at the thought of such a mundane event. The crowded room feels more like a meat market—or what we called “the bowl” in juvie. Freshman kids crowd the front, encroaching the stage, while the upperclassmen sit in the back, silently studying the crowd, observing the weak.
I sneer in the direction of the older students; they certainly have another thing coming if they believe I’m an easy target. No one gets the jump on me. I might be a freshman, but I’ve already been incarcerated, and at six foot one, I can hold my own against anyone trying to make a name for themselves.
I hunch lower in my chair, causing the metal to screech loudly, attracting unwanted attention. I glare at anyone who appears to look my way.
A small voice whispers, barely audible among the roaring crowd, “You aren’t gonna make any friends with a look like that.”
I stiffly turn, enraged at the audacity of the voice, ready to spit at ’em.
I freeze, frozen by a pair of impossibly blue eyes. She’s a skinny little thing, not usually my type … but those eyes.
“Maybe I’m not looking for any friends,” I say curtly, but I give her a slow smile to show I’m not completely serious—or at the very least, implying that she would be the exception to that statement.
She frowns, eyeing me skeptically and obviously trying to figure me out as she lowers herself next to me. Like a fly caught in my web … I’m gonna have fun with this one.
It’s been a while since I’ve had some fun.
Raising her brows, she leans forward and whispers again, “Sometimes, you have to know when to fake it,” before turning in her seat to face the front, abruptly ending our short conversation.
I’m more than a little shocked that this girl, who happens to look like a little nun in the making, would presume to tell me what to do. But the more I think about what she said, the more I realize she’s quite possibly right.
And that pisses me off.
Stupid girl. Doesn’t she know who she’s talking to? What does she know about life? About the real world? About how cruel people can be? And she wants me to fake it and play nice? I close my hands into fists, controlling the rage I can’t expel here.
As much as I hate to admit it, she has a point.
I look around the room at the yuppie puppies from the Golden Coast and think, Hell, I’m smart enough to fool them. Definitely smart enough to fool my parents, who are under the naive impression that they can buy their way into fixing their youngest son.
As the dough-faced principal takes the stage to commemorate the start of our high school careers, I ignore him completely; instead, I contemplate the blue-eyed girl’s words and mull them over, letting them roll and flow in my mind.
Play the part of a good boy.
Not be … me? The troubled kid from a “good” family, who secretly covets the destruction of life and the power I feel when I dominate another completely. The control. Faking it would be a challenge for sure. I happen to like the thought of playing a role, catching them off guard, wearing a mask.
A person can have many faces … many masks.
The mask of a good boy who does what everyone wants him to do. Is who everyone wants him to be. Become the tall, athletic wonder boy who makes his father proud. I softly chuckle at that thought.
I like this plan. And the pretty girl sitting beside me gave me this plan. I’ll have to think of a way to thank her.
Crying. I am crying at the top of the stairs. I look down at my chubby baby arms and my chubby baby tummy, and I wail. I look up at the man holding my hand. Mommy’s friend is holding my wrist while alternating between looking fearfully at me and screaming at my mother, who happens to be lying on the couch in the living room.
Why is she sleeping there? I wonder as tears burn my eyes. Why is she looking at him like she’s mad? Mommy, why are you mad at me? Look at me, Mommy!
And she does. Only there is nothing but anger in that look. Disgust. I shrink back behind Mommy’s friend while he is screaming at her. I hear nothing though. I can’t make out any sound actually. All I know is that my skin stings.
Mommy, why does my skin hurt? I look down at my naked body, and I see colors. Why are there so many colors? Why are there prints on my tummy?
Mommy, make it stop burning.
I jolt straight out of bed, startled. My heart races inside my chest, pounding so loudly that I am sure the sound will wake someone up. My thick hair sticks to the back of my damp neck.
Don’t panic. It was a dream, I tell myself, but I know that’s a lie. My dream was a memory, one that replays over and over in my sleep.
Will I ever sleep without nightmares? I stare at the ceiling, haunted by the look on her face, her eyes completely indifferent—almost inhuman.
I groan while palming my eyes. I might as well get up because there is no way I can fall asleep now.
It’s too early, and there isn’t enough coffee in the world to make six fifteen worth it. But, mmm, a café au lait sounds so good after the night I just had. I take a long drink of the hot coffee I made myself before making my way toward the bus stop. I relish the burn as the liquid slides down my throat.
I climb onto the bus with earphones in. I blast some of what my best friend calls “screamo-emo” as I sit and look out the window, watching the morning pass by in a blur as the school bus moves its hostages closer to the better parts of town.
The morning is uncomfortably hot already; my legs are sticking to the seat. Yuck. Shouldn’t fall be … fall? Brisk? Breezy? Trying to think of fall-ish words fails to bring about a breeze. Apparently, that’s not gonna happen in California today. I let my head fall back because my temples haven’t stopped pounding from the lack of good sleep, and my morning dose of caffeine hasn’t kicked in yet. The headache could also be from my stinging backside—my mother’s punishment for my latest misdemeanor.
She’s always preferred the belt for solving problems. Luckily, today, I can hide it easily.
I refuse to think about her today of all days. Today is the first day of senior year—and only one year before freedom. Freedom.
Ignoring the pain, I distract myself by making a mental checklist of everything I need to do this year before college. Lists help me keep my sanity, and as I finish the list, I feel content, knowing that I’m capable of accomplishing it all.
Although I feel better momentarily, I am still weary. Somehow, I’m just barely awake enough to put on my game face when we pull up to the next stop.
“At least the bus doesn’t smell like a hobo taking a shit today!” I hear someone shout over my music.
Jemma’s speech continues to amaze me after all these years. I feign shock as she pulls out my earphones and lowers herself onto the bench next to me, simultaneously retrieving her makeup from her backpack. Jemma, or Jem, has always been my best friend, the storm in my life, partner in crime, and confidant. I look at her with practiced patience.
“So, is that supposed to be a good omen or something?” I notice she is going for a glamazon appearance. I smile up at her, glad for the distraction she brings. “Dude, are you wearing enough eyeliner today?” I ask.
She gives me an incredulous glare while refreshing her already-perfect makeup. I wish I could say I had her porcelain skin or her platinum-blonde hair that naturally falls perfectly to her shoulders in ringlets, but I can’t. For all her pale skin and blonde glory, I am a stark contrast with my golden skin and dark hair. She is tall with mysterious, come-hither, dark eyes, and I am short with wide blue eyes. She somehow looks somewhere between a country star and the girl next door while I look a little too beach-fried.
If I didn’t love her so much, I would hate her.
“Good morning to you, Ms. Danielle Lee. I guess someone woke up with her panties in a twist. And don’t call me dude.” Jem uses my full name, as if I were a child needing scolding, while giving me her signature wink as we pull up to High Ridge High.
I suppress a laugh. Always so polite, this girl.
She asks, “Sooo, did he call again?”
“Hmm?” I reply, letting out a sigh as I roll my eyes. “Of course he did.”
“I love you, but I’m not gonna talk about him with you.” I stand up forcefully, ending the conversation as we make our way off the bus. Luckily, she lets me.
My boyfriend of two years suddenly decided to break up with me at the beginning of summer before he left for college. He wanted to “date other people” and “see what’s out there.” Bastard. Jett also happens to be Jem’s older brother, so I tend to avoid talking to her about him or his occasional drunken phone calls.
Note to the wise: when you are drinking, don’t make phone calls. Put the phone down and just say no.
After two years of him trying to convince me he was “serious” while declaring his devoted love, the relationship abruptly ended. Jett, out of the blue, started the typical end-of-the-relationship tells—not returning my phone calls, lying, and outright ignoring me.
What a cliché.
Everything got way out of hand when he started hassling me in front of his jock-head friends, calling me a variety of colorful names—slut, whore, crazy, clingy—nothing very original, honestly. Finally, it ended with an obnoxiously drunken fight, him being the one drunk—over the phone, no less. After two years of my life, all I got was a phone call. The end.
So much for true love.
Jem nudges me out of my thoughts. “At least you can check get duped by a douche bag off your proverbial life-lessons list.”
True. “Thanks for that. Now, I have happily conceded my love life to singleness.” I smile through the tightness in my chest. “I’m just disappointed with all the wasted time.”
“Me too.” Jem squeezes me from the side but bounces back quickly. “Do you want some?” she asks, holding out a compact as we approach our locker wall. “As your best friend, I must intervene and prevent you from going to class, looking like you just rolled out of bed,” she declares, hand on hip, eyebrows raised.
Oh dang, I think she means business.
Ignoring the fact that I practically did just roll out of bed, I hesitantly look down at my cutoff shorts and white T-shirt, my satchel hanging across my chest, filled with nothing but a pen, sunglasses, and an old copy of Persuasion—all a true Cali girl needs, in my humble opinion. But my thick, dark hair falling in natural waves, adding to my beach-bum persona, happens to be my favorite asset, though my ensemble leaves a lot to be desired.
I look around, realizing I probably do look less than stellar compared to the other students. High Ridge High School is just like you’d picture a school in California’s upper-middle-class suburbia. Nestled in the beautiful foothills of Sierra Nevada is a quaint town called El Dorado Hills, home to the Bay Area commuters and housewives addicted to plastic surgery. I happen to be an El Do native, one of the few who wasn’t born to the San Fran business class, which has gained me untold ridicule—by my not being a “city kid.” High Ridge High is brimming with spoiled rich kids, as evidenced by the parking lot filled with Beamers and Navigators. The image is finished off, of course, with an open quad, populated by teenagers who look more like walking designer-clothing ads than students.
Screw it! I roll my eyes as I shuffle through the throngs of my peers. Deep breaths, Dannie.
Turning to her again, I ask, “Who am I gonna impress, Jem, really?” I slowly shake my head from side to side.
Since I have pretty much sworn off all men, who cares? I might be one of the few brunette students who choose not to bleach their hair blonde—but regardless of what I look like, I will undoubtably be ridiculed today. Being dumped by one of the most popular guys who graduated this school can draw attention to a girl. I can’t say that I care much at this point.
I give Jem my biggest fake smile, which I know she hates.
“Very funny. Ha-ha. Well, at least let me put some mascara on you.” She tilts her head to the side while giving me her most impatient look.
I wink at her.
“Fine, but I’ll have you remember, once upon a time, I was the one who taught you everything you know concerning hair and makeup.” I hold still while she swipes mascara on my eyelashes and blush across my cheeks, infusing life back into my skin.
“The student has now surpassed her master!” Smiling, she starts waving another brush across my eyes as fast as she can, happy now that she won our duel and probably worried I will change my mind.
I used to be all into my hair and makeup, but I quickly lost the motivation.
Looking in the mirror hanging in my locker, I see my face, which, I’ll admit, looks much better now that Jem has fixed me up a little, and begrudgingly accept that this is my life. This is the stage where I am pretending to be what I know, deep down, I am not—normal, as in the good girl with good grades, who is never a troublemaker and never late to class, and a chronic list-keeper because control is somewhat of an issue for me. No real surprise there. I fly under the social radar with my nose buried in a book as often as I can get away with it. I’m probably the only high school student who gets in trouble for reading in class. Such a rebel I am. But I have always been good at keeping my secrets with a smile on my face—my personal mask. No one notices the girl who is always happy, right?
“Your blue eyes stand out so much more with mascara, Dannie,” she says while she gets her gloss out and starts making my lips look shinier than what is natural.
Whatever will keep her happy.
Jem tends to win most arguments—okay, all our arguments. She is my best friend, and I love that she honestly doesn’t care at all what other people think of her, that she is willful, stubborn, and always knows what she wants out of life. I wish I were as self-assured, but I am not. Not even close.
“Knock ’em dead, girlie.”
“Love to!” I laugh.
“Puh-lease don’t go emo on me. I can only handle one at a time,” she says, referring to our friend Melody. She finishes with a, “Gotta run, lady,” and walks away in a hurry while the bell sounds, signaling the official start of the last year of high school.
Got to keep it together for one more year. I put on a small smile that I don’t feel as I walk into first period.
The morning was filled with class syllabi and lectures, so many that they all blurred into one very long class. By the time I made my way to the quad for lunch, Jem was already sitting with Melody, the newest member of our group, therefore completing our trifecta of awesome.
Melody transferred here from Santa Cruz right before our junior year, but we instantly hit it off over seasons of Heroes, Peet’s Coffee, and our love of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream—not to mention, her colorful tattoos make enough of a statement in a school like High Ridge High and immediately caught my attention. Talk about flying a freak flag in wonderland. She is as fabulously strange as Jem and I are, so of course, we love her.
I grab my food and make my way over to our table, glad Melody’s boyfriend, Jay, doesn’t have lunch with us this year. Last year’s lunch period was hard enough to get through without Jem punching him in the face for being an ass. Just us girls now.
Melody also has platinum-blonde hair that falls perfectly straight to her lower back. Surprise, surprise. But where Jem is glam-country, tall, and curvy, Melody is a glam-rocker, petite, and sporting not only many tattoos, but bold facial piercings as well, topped with a bright purple streak in her hair that fades to hot pink. Somehow, it only makes her look more beautiful.
We are just about the most random group of girls at High Ridge, but it works for us.
As willful and confident as Jem is, Melody could not be more opposite. She is the queen of compromise, consideration, and peacemaking. They are my sassy diva and gentle lady on opposing shoulders, so to speak. Angel and devil would be going a little far … even for them.
“Miladies,” I say, greeting the girls. “So, how has the gossip been today? Anything interesting?” I sit and patiently wait to see what people have circulated from the summer’s happenings.
Melody gives me a tight-lipped half-smile, knowing that I am worried about the gossip about Jett and me and the rumor-worthy split. I might fly under the radar, but my ex certainly never has, and after the breakup, he celebrated with a constant stream of rumors he started spreading all over town. In a relatively small suburb like El Dorado Hills, rumors get around fast.
“That bad, huh?” I try to sound casual, but inside, my stomach feels like someone is slowly squeezing it. What did he say this time?
“Screw ’em!” Jem says, giving no one in particular the bird.
Kendal and her group of gossips happen to be walking past at that moment, making it painfully obvious that they are conversing about me.
Kendal suddenly smirks while flipping her fiery-red hair over one shoulder. “Did you have a good summer, Dannie?”
Wow. What a sad, sad little girl … a real grade-A bitch.
“As a matter of fact, I did. Thank you so much for asking.” I give her a glorious smile.
“I heard Jett finally dumped you. I’m glad he came to his senses.” She raises one eyebrow while slowly looking over me from head to toe.
Compared to her with her immaculate clothes and hair, I look like a troll.
Suddenly, I’m frozen in place, not knowing how to respond to her observation. She turns to her friends, smiling as they walk away, whispering to one another again.
“Kendal has always had a thing for my brother. Don’t let it bother you,” Jem whispers.
Honestly, I feel a little sorry for Kendal. No one should be jealous over a dickhead. But I’ll admit that I’m more than a little wounded by the insinuation that I’m a social pariah.
Quickly, Melody and Jem begin chatting about their mornings, obviously trying to distract me. I try to listen in contemplative silence, occasionally giving a nod or smile at regular intervals. Being the quiet one of the group has its advantages. I can mope without drawing too much attention to myself.
Is it bad that I just want to take out my book and ignore everyone? Or is it not acceptable? Okay then.
Does every guy in California wear skinny jeans?
I’m all for clothes that fit well, but these guys are too much. It takes all I have not to shake my head in disbelief. I can’t take a man seriously who looks like he is wearing jeans my sister might wear.
My mental rant is over. Although I can’t seem to stop laughing in my head.
First day is about as cliché as you can get. Blonde girls who wear next to nothing in this heat—my father would be appalled. Guys—that’s being generous, considering their choice of jeans—with long hair who say dude and hella a lot. Going to school in California really is just like I thought it would be—something out of a teenage angst-filled movie.
What bothers me most is how people pass by without saying hello and how no one looks you in the eye unless they personally know you. The practice seems really rude to me, but maybe city kids were never taught proper manners.
Shaking my head, I walk to the cafeteria because food is beckoning. I’m starved but also a little anxious to see what a cafeteria even is. My school back home was so small that we didn’t even have one. I have to say, I’m curious as to what to actually do during the hour break.
I walk through the doors into utter chaos and freeze. What. The. Hell?
People are everywhere. They are sitting at tables, on tables, benches, or chairs. Lines to different lunch counters weave between tables full of people. Holy cow, there are more people in this cafeteria than in my entire hometown. I feel my face redden as someone pushes me from behind, propelling me forward toward the herd of teenagers.
I manage my way to a lunch line where they are selling burgers. Burgers. At least some things are familiar because all these people are honestly freaking me out, and I’m suddenly contemplating walking out the door. I hate crowds. As I wait in the line, impatiently shifting from one foot to the other, hands in pockets, I look around at my classmates. Some are freshman. It’s painfully obvious. It’s hard to imagine I was that short once—although probably not since fifth grade. Some people I recognize from classes, some are clearly the cool kids, and some are so strange. I have never seen Goth kids in real life.
The sight makes me feel like I lived under a rock. But really, I have never seen a person in all-black leather, and in this heat, it seems weird.
I spot a group of guys, all wearing letterman jackets with their hair perfectly spiked exactly alike, making me think that they all must be on the same team. Football? Soccer? I’m not sure, but they must use a hell of a lot of hair crap between the ten to fifteen guys standing together. The amount of hair gel makes me question the use of the word guy again.
Aside from that, is every Californian girl blonde? Or do they all change their hair? Girls who change their hair are beyond me. I don’t understand it, and I certainly don’t want to. It doesn’t make them look better if their skin is so brown that they look like a leather sofa and their hair is so fake that it’s practically straw.
Girls. I roll my eyes. It’s a good thing I’ve always preferred brunettes anyway.
Stop being so judgmental, Reed. Everything is new and different, but there is no sense in being a dick.
I am distracted from my self-reflection when I notice a secluded table with only three girls sitting around, chatting with heads together. They seem nice enough.
Maybe they want some company? Perhaps they wouldn’t mind a stranger sitting with them because they look a little random themselves.
I’m nervous even considering it because Californians have so far seemed less than friendly, and it’s really starting to piss me off. Two of the girls are blonde—of course—but they actually seem naturally blonde, so that’s not so bad. One of them has tattoos all over, and from here, it looks like she has a lip piercing too.
Is that even legal at this age?
Wow, I guess I really did come from under a rock.
The third girl has long, dark hair though—pretty hair, the color of dark chocolate. See, why don’t more girls just keep their hair the way God made it to be? I shake my head, looking back at their table, interested in what the dark-haired girl looks like from the front. From the back, she looks small but not deathly skinny, like some of the other girls I have seen today in class. The memory of their sunken faces makes me want to buy a bunch of burgers and start passing them around.
I find myself chanting in my head, Turn around, turn around, when she finally turns her head as some redhead says something that catches her attention, and although she isn’t looking at me, she is looking in my direction.
My mouth hangs open, and my heart rate increases uncomfortably. Beautiful.
Close mouth immediately, idiot.
Her eyes are what I notice first. They are such a light color of blue that they look unreal—not a true blue, but a blue green. They are so bright that even though I’m a couple of yards away, they are beautiful enough to notice. I start to shift my eyes away because, now, I am obviously staring. This is going to be embarrassing if I don’t get control of myself, but this girl is seriously beautiful. I slowly look at her again because I can’t seem to help myself. It’s like gravity. I notice a dimple on her left cheek when she smiles, but I don’t see one on her right side.
Now, I close my eyes, lean my head back, and breathe slowly in and then out. Keep it together, Reed. Keep it together.
Unfortunately, as I look around, it seems that I’m not the only guy to notice the beautiful brunette. Guys check her out as they pass by. One tall blond guy wearing a letterman jacket seems to be staring at her quite intently. His possessive expression pisses me off. I feel like I should say something, but that would be completely ridiculous, considering I don’t even know her.
I look back to the mystery girl, but she has already turned away. It doesn’t matter because I am pretty sure her face is forever burned into the backs of my eyelids.
Her eyes, her dimple, her smile with those pale pink lips that I definitely remember. Lips.
Stop! Or I really will have to get some fresh air.
I take a deep breath and start going over different trucks I like in a sad attempt to try and not be the creepy guy staring from across the room.
After getting my burger, I realize there is no way I can eat across the table from that girl, so I go outside, hoping distance will help. Maybe I can sit with them another time—if I decide I can man up instead of acting like I’ve never seen a girl before. I have been in this overcrowded room for too long, and I’m feeling a bit claustrophobic.
Pause period is apparently when you have finished too many elective classes and you have no required classes offered at that time, so you have to stay in the library to do homework. I can’t say I have been in a library too many times, only when forced by assignments and projects because I don’t particularly like to read books.
Newspapers, yes. Books, not so much.
When I walk through the door, I look around. An older lady with short white hair is behind a counter. I safely assume that she is the librarian.
I scan the room and freeze. Yes! I feel like cheering, perhaps clapping at my dumb luck.
The beautiful girl from lunch is sitting at a table, unloading book after book from her bag. I stand there for a moment, transfixed by her.
Wow, that’s a lot of books for one girl.
I swallow hard, and as if of their own accord, my feet head straight for her. I see the moment she notices me because she tenses, as if startled. I walk a little slower.
Maybe she wants to be alone? Or she thinks I’m a creep because I am staring straight at her, as if I know her? I should say something.
“Hey,” I breathe out.
Wow, that was it? Nice going, loser.
I can’t help the small smile on my face when I catch her looking at me from head to toe. I’m elated. It feels like I just won the freaking lottery, knowing she’s checking me out. Me! I try to smile a little to make it more comfortable for her, maybe a little less uncomfortable, but she looks away like she is frightened of me.
Do I really look that intimidating?
Either way, I’m committed now, so I pull out the chair across from her and sit.
I try to make things less awkward because, let’s face it, this is super awkward. I take out my homework and start organizing papers, assignments, and requirements from each class, laying little piles around me, but I can’t help but be very aware of the person right across from me. I am close enough to smell her perfume, and she smells like warm vanilla or cookies.
This girl is gonna kill me. Seriously, she’ll be the absolute death of me.
Against my better judgment, I decide to look at her just once now that I am sitting across from her and I can study her more closely. Oh God, I do sound like a creeper. I raise my eyes regardless of my personal chastisement, and I am glad that I do.
She is reading like a bat outta hell. She must read super fast, or maybe my awkwardness is freaking her out. I hope not. She has such thick, dark hair falling in waves around her face and shoulders. I just want to reach out and see if it’s as soft as it looks.
Again, being creepy.
I look away before she notices and realize she never said hello back. Did I scare her? Damn. I’m hoping that it’s not because she is rude, like almost every other person I have met today. I’m beginning to think California has a very inconsiderate culture.
Looking again, I see she has a little bit of a frown, like she is concentrating so hard that she doesn’t realize that her eyebrows are drawn together in a serious expression. The look is adorable. Her lips are moving slightly as she reads, drawing my attention to her mouth. It is going to be difficult not to think of it every time I see her, which I hope will be a lot if we both have this period free. I try my hardest not to lower my eyes to her body, but I’m a guy. I know that’s no excuse for being a tool, but I think she’s breathtaking.
I glance up at her face again just as her blue eyes flash up to my face.
Holy hell, she caught me.
I’ve officially screwed this up, and this might be my only chance. Crap! I feel myself get red. Is it hot in here? Shouldn’t someone do something about the heat? I hate California heat. I’m internally rambling as I look around, knowing that the sudden heat is just me blushing like a schoolboy caught with his pants down.
I clench my jaw and then take a deep breath, trying to concentrate on the work in front of me. All I see is a math problem while I try not to think about the beautiful girl across the table from me and the embarrassing, uncomfortable way my body has reacted. I try to think of anything that will keep my mind preoccupied from all those things until the bell rings. I pack up my backpack and walk away without looking back.