My first day back at Lakebrook High seemed innocent enough. I walked toward the beginning of my junior year in a fine spirit, scuffing my combat boots along the hot pavement. I was happy for a simple reason. For once, I wouldn’t be the new girl, and I had friends. Sometimes being able to scrape a hard red chair up to a lunch table with the handful of people who accepted me was all I wanted. It was my second year at the same school. It was a personal record.
Little did I know that someone would try to take this and so much else away from me.
I liked Lakebrook. Sure, suburbia is soulless, but Lakebrook is a thirty-minute train ride from Chicago, with its skyscraping steel and wide pavements that feel like freedom. And, very important, Marsha had agreed to renew my stay with her for another year. This decision might have been inspired by the money the state sent to keep me clothed and fed. I wasn’t complaining. Marsha was a little kooky, but she was also the only foster parent who hadn’t gotten rid of me at the first opportunity.
I followed the yellow buses wheezing their way into the Lakebrook High parking lot and watched students swarm by the entrances. The air was heavy with the tarry smell of fresh asphalt as I walked up to my little clan.
“Daaaarcy!” Jims waggled a pack of Slim Jims—hence the nickname—stuck one tube of beef jerky in his mouth, and offered the rest to me. “Want some?”
“Um, gross,” I said. “Vegetarian here, remember?”
“I thought maybe you’d come to your senses over the summer.”
Lily lit a cigarette, inhaled, exhaled, and passed it to me, lipsticky pink. “Want some?”
I rolled my eyes. I hate, hate, hate smoke, and Lily knows it.
“Want some of this, then?” Raphael rested one finger on his chest in deliberate imitation of the Spanish soap operas we watched at his house. He looked the part of a lead: cinnamon skin, wavy dark hair. But the gesture was a joke. A bluff.
I stared him down. “Why do you all insist on giving me things I don’t want?”
Raphael pretended to look wounded, Lily shrugged, and Jims said, holding his Slim Jim like a cigar, Groucho Marks style: “Because no one knows the square root of pi, because a stegosaurus is no match for a tyrannosaurus, because we always tease the ones we love, and you, Sunshine, we love. Some things are universally true.”
Lily tilted her head, inspecting me. “Darcy doesn’t look like sunshine. More as if someone drew her with pen and ink. Straight black lines. Pale features.”
“I was using irony,” Jims said. “It’s meant to be inappropriate. The opposite of what you expect. You know, like getting hit by an ambulance. Or like a hot dog vendor drowning in a vat of ketchup.”
“Your mind lives in strange places,” I told him.
“True. But you all enjoy visiting.”
“I also enjoy a jaunt through a haunted house once a year, come Halloween.”
Lily tapped her Hello Kitty watch. “Ten minutes till the bell. Time to get down to business.”
Raphael reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a folded white card. “Here’s mine.”
We passed around our schedules, except for Jims, who, being a senior, shared no classes with the rest of us. I was taking Art II and Biology with Lily and Pre-Calc with Raphael. PE, European History, and AP English were wide, vast deserts with nobody.
Right before the bell, when the noise of hundreds of people laughing, talking, squealing, and bickering had swelled into waves, I felt the back of my neck prickle. I was being watched. I knew this even before I slowly turned around, knew it like I knew I had ten fingers and ten toes.
There was a boy standing in the shadow of an oak tree. His stance seemed easy, even lazy. But his expression was electric, tense, taut as a corded wire I could tightrope-walk across.
He was dressed simply. Jeans and a white T-shirt. If he intended to blend in, he utterly failed. His beauty wasn’t my type, but it was undeniable. A cool, angular face. Hair the color of golden wheat, shorn brutally short. Lips so defined they could have been carved by a deft knife.
He lifted his chin a little, acknowledging that I had caught him mid-stare. A smile flickered at the corner of his mouth. Some might have interpreted this as flirtation. I knew better. It was a warning. The smirk of a gunslinger in one of those old orange-brown westerns, as if tumbleweeds were skittering down the parking lot between us and he was daring me to fire the first shot.
Anxiety twisted in my stomach. I had no idea why I had caught his attention. But whatever the reason, it meant trouble.
Text copyright © 2012 by Marie Rutkoski
Marie Rutkoski is the author of The Kronos Chronicles, including The Cabinet of Wonders, The Celestial Globe, and The Jewel of the Kalderash. She is a professor at Brooklyn College, where she teaches Renaissance Drama, children’s literature, and creative writing. She lives in New York City.