Need I say more?
Staring at the worn, red-bricked building of Valleyfield High School, the familiar and gut-wrenching nausea of back-to-school finally hits me. The whole process before the first day, the shopping, the summer reading assignments — preparations for another wonderful year — seemed to be a dream up until this point. The excitement and jitters of going into my last year of high school never happen and my longing for summer to never end only grows stronger. It’s the classic case of ‘summer mourning’ — and I’m in overwhelming denial that it’s over.
Well, suck it up, cupcake. This year is going to be a good one.
Then again, anything is going to be a good one compared to last year.
Plunging into the swarm of students headed for the door, I promise myself for a peaceful, boring year. No more anxiety, fights, toxic boys, or daily trips to the principal’s office — plain as can be. Plain day. Plain homework. Plain year. It’s the least I deserve.
With quick sweep across the campus, I assess the teenagers around me. It’s a habit I’ve developed over the years. When you’re in an all out prank war with your mortal enemy for four semesters straight, either you’re vigilant or covered in salad dressing. (A lesson I learned the hard way.)
But you don’t need to watch your back anymore. He’s out of your life.
That makes me hopeful. Even if it doesn’t seem real, yet.
My eyes search the sea of people – most of which consists of frenzied groups of baby-faced freshmen— for a familiar brunette. But Gabriella Hansen, my best friend and a president of the student government, is nowhere to be seen. Which is odd. I would have expected her to be parked at the door as a one-woman welcoming committee. The last time I checked, it was in her First Day of School Schedule. Yes, my best friend made a First Day of School Schedule. She’s made one for every First Day of School since kindergarten.
And there’s nothing she loves more than being on schedule. More than I love chocolate and Mexican food—which is saying something.
My gaze settles on the commotion near the large, stained-glass entrance of Valleyfield High School. A few underclassman boys shout to one another, piling through the doors to get inside as quick as they possibly can, blocking everyone’s way. There is never a thing so significant to stir up that much energy in teenagers at 7am. Not even the first day of school.
What the heck is going on?
Without warning, a catchy Mumford and Sons jingle fills the air and my best friend’s number appears on the streaky, cracked screen of my beat up Samsung.
“Hey, where are you?” I answer without missing a beat.
The squeal of chairs being pushed across the floor blares from the speakers, making me cringe. “Hello? Gabby?”
Another squeal. This time it’s followed by low grunting and curses. I open my mouth to say something only to be cut off by a very pissed-off male voice hollering, “You’re going to pay for that you little bitch!”
His words are followed by laughter until Gabby’s breathy voice comes from the other end. “Ember!”
“Gabby!” I exclaim in irritation. “Why am I being called a little bitch?”
“No, no! He wasn’t talking to you!”
“And that’s supposed to make me feel better?”
"Em,” she stresses. “Where are you? There’s a fight in the cafeteria. Oh my God, you have to see it!”
I roll my eyes. “I think I’ll pass.”
I’ve seen enough fighting and most of the time, it’s all the same. They circle each other and hurl more insults than punches. Someone gets a mediocre blow in there somewhere. And administration gets to them before anything can really happen.
Another ego-fest full of testosterone.
“No!” Gabby shouts. I pull the phone away from my ear. “You don’t understand. It’s Chad and Alex.”
“And that’s supposed to change my mind?” I snort. Someone gives me a curious look as they pass.
All her words do is produce a splitting ache across the top of my skull.
Chad Chamberlain and Alex Montenegro have been fighting for my best friend’s affection long before I knew her. This isn’t news. I love Gabby, but this toxic love triangle is getting — no, long passed – the mark of getting out of hand.
“Come on, Ember.” Judging by the excitement in her voice, she doesn’t have a problem with two boys risking expulsion to be her prom date. “It’s just the romance of the gesture.”
What romance? I want to ask. One, maybe two fights for her love could possibly fall under the category of romantic. But over fifteen?
“Isn’t that a bit pathetic?”
Unlike outside, the inside of Valleyfield High School is buzzing with energy. I’m instantly hit by the smell of freshly mopped floors, new books, and way too much body spray. With the amount of gas in the air, the school will more than likely explode if you light a match. I look ahead to the main hallway that leads directly to the cafeteria. I can see a growing ring of students eagerly watching, cellphones at the ready.
“Are you joking? It’s a teenage girl’s dream come true!” Gabby argues in a singsong voice. Another eye-roll. A second headache. She’s delusional. A teenage girl’s dreams come true?
“Huh, then I must not be a teenage girl.”
The long pause says that Gabriella Hansen is frowning at my lack enthusiasm. “Okay, Ember,” she finally says. “Whatever you—”
And then it happens. A loud crash that sounds like gunshot bursts through the school, sending my stomach into my rib cage. The tremor shakes the ground and someone screams as time slams to a complete, bone quaking halt.
What. Just. Happened. That’s my first thought. And then it’s cancelled out by an absolute panic that has my insides trembling. Everyone is in the same shock, fear, and confusion, deliberating whether to check it out or run.
No answer. My breath becomes almost nonexistent as hysteria constricts my gut. My best friend doesn’t reply. That sound —
“Gabby!” I bolt down the hall without a second thought.
A burst of adrenaline makes the uncontrollable quivering of my limbs even worse. Whatever that sound was – gunman or terrorist or a horrible, awful prank by morons with the sick sense of humor — I don’t care. I need to get to my best friend. People could be hurt.
In the crowd, nobody moves. Kids have stopped their cheering stand eerily still and I shove past as best as I can. Get out of the way, dammit!
“Gabby!” I push against the crowd. Some people turn around and make a mad dash for the principal’s office while the ring of students thickens from onlookers down the hall. The sight before us is anything but pretty. I take a step back when the scent hits my nose.
Sprawled across the floor in a sea of broken glass decorated in ribbons of red, Alex and Chad groan in pain.
There’s a lot of blood.
It gushes from their noses and cuts across their neck. Long shards of glass stick out at odd angles from each arm and leg. But the glass and the blood is the least of my worries. Gabby lies face down on the ground with her books everywhere. And a few inches from where she lays are the broken bits of a display case the size of a minivan with wood and glass jutting out like jagged spears ready for meat.
She could have been under that display case. She could have been a shish kebob.
“What happened?” I cry, running to her. She murmurs incoherently, lifting her arm and searching the air for my hand, and I gently pull her up. Gabby staggers for a moment and opens her mouth to horrible, chocking sobs.
“It’s okay.” I say, pulling her into a hug.
“Oh God,” Gabby sobs. “That thing—I—he tackled him and the next thing I know—” She clutches my arms and struggles to stay up. Whirling around, I glare at the students watching us like dumbfounded idiots. A few students snap out of it and come over to help.
“You’re alright.” I continue, leading Gabby to a table. “Deep breathes. Relax.”
I raise my eyes to see Principal Miller rushing down the hall. A few teachers and security guards are at his heels and they all have the same distress, disbelief, and outrage etched on their middle-aged faces.
Principal Miller comes to a halt in the center of the circle. ”What happened here?”
“Someone obviously got hurt on your watch, that’s what happened!” I shout at the man.
Principal Miller looks like he wants to wring my neck, eyes narrowing to where they could be mistake for forehead wrinkles. “Thank you for the obvious observation, Ember, but I don’t need you raising your voice at me. Now tell what exactly happened?”
No one else says a word. Miller huffs and puffs like he’s going to blow everyone away, demanding for someone to speak up.
“It was their crazy obsession with Gabby!” Gianna Hansen, Gabby’s younger sister shouts. She pops out of the crowd with murder scribbled across her youthful face. For a moment, I’m sort of glad Chad and Alex are in the state they are only because if they weren’t, she would have done a lot more damage to them than the wood and glass ever could. “They were fighting over her! As always! It was getting out of control and when she tried to stop it someone slammed into the display case!”
Principal Miller’s sharp gaze swings around in the direction of the boys before landing on Gabby. In an instant, the authoritative and cold administrator vanishes and a worried uncle takes his place.
“Are you alright?”
She nods with a sniffle and wipes the tears from her eyes with her light blue sweater. It’s covered in blood as well.
You know what? On second thought, let Gianna have her way with them. I’ll gladly help.
“Of course,” I add sourly, referring to the boys responsible for this disaster, “they’re not.” Principal Miller looks at me in a way that says ‘why are you still talking?’ and sighs heavily, tuning the walkie-talkie strapped to his belt.
The teachers try their best to keep more students from entering the cafeteria. An ambulance is called. The police are on their way and the boys’ parents have been notified. And I’m sure by now this is a trending topic on Twitter.
Welcome to the first day of Valleyfield High School.
“You were very lucky that case didn’t get you.” The principal’s gaze lingers on the wreckage at our feet. “This would be a lot worse.”
And I was getting a look for stating the obvious.
Of course she was lucky, no thanks to him. He should have made sure something like this didn’t happen. The man was in charge of watching the cafeteria in the first place. And Gabby! If it weren’t for her dire need to be in the center of a teenage love triangle all the time, nobody — not even the idiots who fought in the first place — would be hurt.
Stop being so harsh, I tell myself.
Gabby cradles her right arm against her chest. “I know. I’m just so glad someone grabbed me before the case fell.”
“Who grabbed you?” I ask, voice soft.
She looks down at her feet and her hesitation catches me off guard. “I dunno...”
“Are you sure?” I urge. This person saved her life. I want to give them a big fat kiss!
Principal Miller pats her arm. “Gabriella.”
“Okay.” She wipes a hand across her eyes. There is strange flash of emotion through her dark eyes. “Him.”
I turn to follow her finger and in an instant, my blood runs cold. I feel like a part of the display has impaled me.
There, standing at the other side of the cafeteria with the same irritating smirk on his face is someone I hoped I’d never see again. Someone who made this small town my personal Hell On Earth.
He was supposed to be out of my life for good. That was the deal.
Gabby squeezes my arm as I stare, speechless. “He’s back...”
Houston, we have a problem.
And his name is Hayden Cross.