series of shivers danced along the base of my skull.
From the entrance, everyone spread out in different directions. Smaller students who were roughly around my height, but were definitely much younger, speed-walked over the red-and-blue Viking painted on the floor, their book bags thumping off their backs as they dodged taller and broader bodies. Others walked like zombies, gaits slow and seemingly aimless. I was somewhere in the middle, moving at what appeared to be a normal pace, but was actually one I’d practiced.
And there were some who raced toward others, hugging them and laughing. I guessed they were friends who hadn’t seen each other over the summer break, or maybe they were just really excitable people. Either way, I stared at them as I walked. Seeing them reminded me of my friend Ainsley. Like me, she’d been homeschooled—still was—but if she wasn’t, I imagined we’d be like these kids right now, hopping toward one another, grinning and animated. Normal.
Ainsley was probably still in bed.
Not because she got to goof off all day, but because our mutual instructor did summer break a little differently. She was still on break, but once her year got going again, her homeschooling hours would be as strict and grueling as mine had been.
Shaking myself from my reverie, I took the stairwell at the end of the wide hall, near the entrance to the cafeteria. Even being close to the lunchroom had my pulse spiking, causing my stomach to twist with nausea.
Oh, God, what was I going to do about lunch? I didn’t know anyone, not a single person, and I would—
I cut myself off, unable to really think about that right now. If I did, there was a good chance I might turn around and run back to the safety of my car.
My locker was on the second floor, middle of the hall, number two-three-four. I found it with no problem, and bonus, it opened on the first try. Twisting at the waist, I pulled out a binder I was using for my afternoon classes and dropped it on the top shelf, knowing that I was going to be collecting massive textbooks today.
The locker beside mine slammed shut, causing me to jump and tense. My chin jerked up. A tall girl with dark skin and tiny braids all over her head flashed a quick smile in my direction. “Hey.”
My tongue tied right up and I couldn’t get that one, stupid little word out before the girl with the short hair spun and walked off.
Feeling about ten kinds of stupid, I rolled my eyes and closed my locker door. Turning around, my gaze landed on the back of a guy heading in the opposite direction. My muscles tensed again as I stared at him.
I didn’t even know why or how I ended up looking at him. Maybe it was because he was a good head taller than anyone around him. Like a total creeper, I couldn’t pull my eyes away. He had wavy hair, somewhere between brown and black, and it was cut short against the nape of his bronzed neck, but was longer on the top. I wondered if it flopped on his forehead, and there was an unsteady tug at my chest as I remembered a boy I used to know years ago, whose hair always did that—fell forward no matter how many times he pushed it out of his face. A boy it kind of hurt my chest to think about.
His shoulders were broad under a black T-shirt, biceps defined in a way that made me think of someone who either played sports or did a lot of manual labor. His jeans were faded, but not in the expensive way. I knew the difference between name-brand jeans that were designed to look well-worn and jeans that were simply old and on their last wear. He carried a single notebook in his hand, and even from where I stood, the notebook looked about as old as his pants did.
Something weird moved through me, a feeling of familiarity, and as I stood in front of my locker, I found myself thinking of the one bright thing in a past full of shadows and darkness.
I thought about the boy who made my chest hurt, the one who’d promised forever.
It had been four years since I’d seen him or even heard him speak. Four years of trying to erase everything that had to do with that portion of my childhood, but I remembered him. I wondered about him.
How could I not? I always would.
He had been the sole reason I survived the house we’d grown up in.
One thing I quickly learned after my first period was that the row of seats in the back of the classroom was prime real estate. Close enough to see the chalkboard, but far enough away that there was a good chance the teacher wouldn’t call on you.
I got to each of my AP classes before anyone else and snagged a desk in the back, blending in before I was even seen. No one talked to me. Not until just before lunch, at the start of English, when a dark brown–skinned girl with sloe-colored eyes sat in the empty seat next to me.
“Hi,” she said, smacking a thick notebook on the flat surface attached to the chair. “I hear Mr. Newberry is a real jerk. Take a look at the pictures.”
My gaze flickered to the front of the classroom. Our teacher hadn’t arrived yet, but the chalkboard was lined with photos of famous authors. Shakespeare, Voltaire, Hemingway, Emerson and Thoreau were a few I recognized, though I probably wouldn’t recognize them if I didn’t have endless time on my hands.
“All dudes, right?” she continued, and when I looked back at her, the tight black curls bounced as she shook her head. “My sister had him two years ago. She warned me that he basically thinks you need a dick to produce anything of literary value.”
My eyes went wide.
“So I’m thinking this class should be a lot of fun.” She grinned, flashing straight white teeth. “By the way, I’m Keira Hart. I don’t remember you from last year. Not that I know everyone, but I think I would’ve at least seen you around.”
Sweat covered my palms as she continued to stare at me. The question she was throwing out was simple. The answer was easy. My throat dried and I could feel heat creeping up my neck as the seconds ticked by.
Use your words.
My toes curled against the soft leather soles of my flip-flops and my throat felt scratchy as I forced the words out. “I’m... I’m new.”
There! I did it. I spoke.
Take that, everyone! Words were totally my bitch.
All right, perhaps I was exaggerating my accomplishment since I technically only spoke two words and repeated one. But I was not going to rain on my own wow, because talking to new people was hard for me. Like as hard as it would be for someone to walk naked into the class.
Keira didn’t seem to notice my internal dumbassery. “That’s what I thought.” And then she waited, and for a moment I didn’t get why she was looking at me so expectantly. Then I did.
My name. She was waiting for my name. Air hissed in between my teeth. “I’m Mallory...Mallory Dodge.”
“Cool.” She nodded as she rocked her curvy shoulders against the back of the chair. “Oh. Here he comes.”
We didn’t talk again, but I was feeling pretty good about the sum total of seven words spoken, and I was totally going to count the repeat ones. Rosa and Carl would.
Mr. Newberry spoke with an air of pretentiousness that even a newbie like me could pick up on, but it didn’t bother me. I was floating on a major accomplishment high.
Then came lunch.
Walking into the large, loud room was like having an out-of-body experience. My brain was screaming at me to find a quieter, easier—safer—place to go, but I forced myself forward, one foot in front of the other.
Nerves had twisted my stomach into knots as I made it through the lunch line. All I grabbed was a banana and a bottle of water. There were so many people around me and so much noise—laughter, shouting and a constant low hum of conversation. I was completely out of my element. Everyone was at the long square tables, huddled in groups. No one was really sitting alone from what I could see, and I knew no one. I would be the only person sitting by myself.
Horrified by the realization, I felt my fingers spasm around the banana I clenched. The smell of disinfectant and burnt food overwhelmed me. Pressure clamped down on my chest, tightening my throat. I sucked in air, but it didn’t seem to inflate my lungs. A
I couldn’t do this.
There was too much noise and too many people in what now felt like a small, confined area. It was never this loud at home. Never. My gaze darted all over, not really seeing any detail. My hand shook so badly I was afraid I’d drop the banana. Instinct kicked in, and my feet started moving.
I hurried out into the somewhat quieter hall and kept going, passing a few kids lingering against the lockers and the faint scent of cigarettes that surrounded them. I dragged in deep, calming breaths that really didn’t calm me. Getting farther away from the cafeteria was what calmed me, not the stupid breaths. I rounded the corner and jerked to a stop, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with a boy not much taller than me.
He stumbled to the side, bloodshot eyes widening in surprise. A scent clung to him that at first I thought was smoke, but when I inhaled, it was something richer, earthy and thick.
“Sorry, chula,” he murmured, and his eyes did a slow glide from the tips of my toes right back up to mine. He started to grin.
At the end of the hall, a taller boy picked up his pace. “Jayden, where in the fuck you running off to, bro? We need to talk.”
The guy I assumed was Jayden turned, rubbing a hand over his close-cropped dark hair as he muttered, “Mierda, hombre.”
A door opened and a teacher stepped out, frowning as his gaze bounced between the two. “Already, Mr. Luna? Is this how we’re going to start this year off?”
I figured it was time to get out of the hallway, because nothing about the taller boy’s face said he was happy or friendly, and the deep scowl settling over the teacher’s face when Jayden kept walking made him look like he wanted to cut someone. I hurried around Jayden and kept my chin down, not making eye contact with anyone.
I ended up in the library, playing Candy Crush on my cell phone until the bell rang, and I spent my next class—history—furious with myself, because I hadn’t even tried. That was the truth. Instead I’d hidden in the library like a dork, playing a stupid game that only the devil could’ve created, because I seriously sucked at it.
Doubt settled over me like a too-heavy, coarse blanket. I’d come so far in the last four years. I was nothing like the girl I used to be. Yeah, I still had some hang-ups, but I was stronger than the shell of a person I’d once been, wasn’t I?
Rosa would be so disappointed.
My skin grew itchy by the time I headed to my final class, my heart rate probably somewhere near stroke territory, because my last period was the worst period ever in the history of ever.
Otherwise known as Communications. When I’d registered for school last spring, I’d been feeling all kinds of brave while Carl and Rosa stared at me like I was half-crazy. They said they could get me out of the class, even though it was a requirement at Lands High, but I’d had something to prove.
I didn’t want them stepping in. I wanted—no, I needed to do this.
Now I wished I had employed some common sense and let them do whatever it was that would’ve gotten me excused, because this was a nightmare waiting to happen. When I saw the open door to the class on the third floor, it gaped at me, the room ultra-bright inside.
My steps faltered. A girl stepped around me, lips pursing when she checked me out. I wanted to spin and flee. Get in the Honda. Go home. Be safe.
Stay the same.
Tightening my fingers around the strap of my bag, I forced myself forward, and it was like walking through knee-deep mud. Each step felt sluggish. Each breath I took wheezed in my lungs. Overhead lights buzzed and my ears were hypersensitive to the conversation around me, but I did it.
My feet made it to the back row and my fingers were numb, knuckles white, as I dropped my bag on the floor beside my desk and slid into my seat. Busying myself with pulling out my notebook, I then gripped the edge of my desk.
I was in speech class. I was here.
I’d done it.
I was going to throw myself a freaking party when I got home. Like an eat-fudge-icing-straight-out-of-the-freaking-can kind of party. Hardcore.
Knuckles starting to ache, I loosened my death grip as I glanced at the door, sliding my damp hands across the top of the desk. The first thing I saw was the broad chest draped in black, then the well-formed biceps. And there was that tired notebook that looked seconds from falling apart, tapping against a worn-denim-clad thigh.
It was the boy from this morning, from the hallway.
More than curious to see what he looked like from the front, I raised my lashes, but he had turned toward the door. The girl from the hallway, the one who stepped around me, was walking through it. Now that I was sitting and sort of breathing, it was my turn to check her out. She was pretty. Very pretty, like Ainsley. This girl had pin-straight, caramel-colored hair that was as long as mine, past her breasts. She was tall and the tank top she wore showed off a flat stomach. Her dark brown gaze wasn’t focused on me this time. It was on the guy in front of her.
The expression on her face said he gave great full frontal, and when he laughed, her pink lips split into a wide smile. Her smile transformed her from pretty to beautiful, but my attention swung away from her as tiny hairs rose all over my body. That laugh... It was deep, rich and somehow familiar. A shiver crept over my shoulders. That laugh...
He was walking backward, and I was rather amazed that he didn’t trip over anything, actually somewhat envious of that fact. And then I realized he was heading toward the last half circle. Toward me. I glanced around. There were only a few seats open, two on my left. The girl was following him. Not just following him. Touching him.
Touching him like she’d done it a lot.
Her slim arm was extended, her hand planted in the center of his stomach, just below his chest. She bit down on her lower lip as her hand drifted farther south. Golden bangles dangling from her wrist got awful close to the worn leather belt. My cheeks heated as the boy stepped out of her reach. There was something playful about his movements, as if this dance was a daily routine for them both.
He turned at the end of the desks, stepping behind the occupied chair, and my gaze tracked up narrow hips, over the stomach the girl had touched, up and up, and then I saw his face.
I stopped breathing.
My brain couldn’t perceive what I was seeing. It did not compute. I stared up at him, really saw him, saw a face that was familiar yet new to me, more mature than I remembered but still achingly beautiful. I knew him. Oh my God, I would know him anywhere, even if it had been four years and the last time I’d seen him, that last night that had been so horrible, had changed my life forever.
It was too surreal.
Now the reason why he’d popped in my head this morning made sense, because I’d seen him, but hadn’t realized it was him.
I couldn’t move, couldn’t get enough air into my lungs and couldn’t believe this was happening. My hands slipped off the desk, falling limply into my lap as he dipped into the seat next to me. His gaze was on the girl who took the seat next to him, and his profile, the strong jaw that had only been hinted at the last time I’d seen him, tilted as his eyes moved over the front of the room, across the wall-length chalkboard. He looked like he had back then, but bigger and with everything more...more defined. From the eyebrows darker than the mix of brown and black hair and thick lashes to the broad cheekbones and the slight scruff covering the curve of his jaw.
Goodness, he’d grown up in the way I’d thought he would when I was twelve and started to really look at him, to see him as a boy.
I couldn’t believe he was here. My heart was trying to claw itself out of my chest as lips—lips fuller than I remembered—tilted up, and a knot formed in my belly as the dimple formed in his right cheek. The only dimple he had. No matching set. Just one. My mind raced back through the years, and I could only think of a handful of times I’d seen him relaxed. Leaning back in the chair that s
eemed too small for him, he slowly turned his head toward me. Eyes that were brown with tiny flecks of gold met mine.
Eyes I’d never forgotten.
The easy, almost lazy smile I’d never seen on his face before froze. His lips parted and a paleness seeped under his tawny skin. Those eyes widened, the gold flecks seeming to expand. He recognized me; I had changed a lot since then, but still, recognition dawned in his features. He was moving again, leaning forward on his seat toward me. Four words roared out of the past and echoed in my head.
Don’t make a sound.
“Mouse?” he breathed.
No one but him called me that, and I hadn’t heard that nickname in so long, I never really thought I’d hear it again.