It was a clear, dry autumn in Artemisia, Washington, which was unusual. The weather was perfect for taking pictures of a meteor shower, though. Ainsel Madan loved the stars and she had high hopes that her best friend Zoë would be able to get some really spectacular photos with her new camera.There were, however, unexpected problems.
“How could you fall asleep again?” Ainsel demanded. She and Zoë sat in the cafeteria at Silver Pine High School. Zoë was a round-faced sixteen year old with dark brown hair and murky hazel eyes, currently downcast. She was also Ainsel’s best friend.
“I don’t know,” Zoë mumbled. “I was getting my stuff together and I just passed out.”
“Again?” Ainsel shook her head. “Well, that settles it. I’m definitely coming over tonight to help you out. Tonight is supposed to be the peak.” She opened up her packed lunch and inspected the contents. Zoë always bought her lunch but one of Ainsel’s foster mothers insisted on making Ainsel a handmade lunch every day.
“I guess you might as well.” Zoë clattered her silverware.
Ainsel glanced up again. Zoe didn’t usually like distractions when she was taking her photos. Ainsel had expected her to argue. This was worse than she thought.
Without thinking about it, Ainsel touched her friend’s hand. Sometimes, when she touched somebody who was hurt, a sort of pleasant spark zapped from her to them, and they would feel better. She’d always been able to do it, ever since she could remember. Although, since her memories only went back a few years, to the day she was found barely conscious naked by a roadside, that wasn’t saying very much.
But there was no pleasant zap today, just her best friend’s hand, warm and present. “I will,” Ainsel said. “It’ll be fun.”
“What will?” asked Tyler, leaning his hip on their table end. Tyler was Ainsel’s other friend. Other friend, because in all of Silver Pine, only two other students were willing to be seen talking to her.
“We’re going to watch the meteor shower together tonight,” Ainsel told him.
Tyler grinned. He was tall and blond and handsome, and Zoë visibly perked up when he smiled. “Yeah, the Cereids. Pretty cool, huh? The Astronomy club is having a viewing party tonight. You want to come to that?”
Zoë frowned. “And have everybody ignore Ainsel once again? No thanks.”
“Hey, I’m in with them, maybe I could work some magic.” Tyler waggled his fingers, still grinning.
“That’s what you said the last two times we crashed a party with you.”
“Third time’s the charm?” When Zoë glared at him, his smile faded. “Anyhow, it’s not crashing the party if you’re invited and you’re always invited, Zoë. It’s just…” He glanced at Ainsel.
“If Ainsel’s not, I’m not,” said Zoë firmly.
“It’s all right, Zoë,” Ainsel put in. It wasn’t all right, exactly. Every time Ainsel thought of Zoë going to one of those parties with Tyler and without her, she felt a little surge of panic. But it wasn’t right to hold Zoë back just because the whole school hated Ainsel.
She didn’t even know why. The first year she’d attended Silver Pine she’d been a little bit of a curiosity, but everybody had been nice enough. But somehow, in the last year, people had pulled away until now nobody would even talk to her. But they sure stared all right.
Ainsel tried not to let it bother her. But she was really grateful that Tyler seemed immune to whatever bothered the other students. It meant Zoë wasn’t quite so cut off. Zoë always had a bridge back.
“It’s not all right.” Zoë had that stubborn look in her eyes. “I wish I could shake every one of them. Look at Alizabeth over there. She used to eat lunch with us every day this time last year. Then she got a girlfriend and suddenly she’s too busy for us.”
Ainsel followed Zoë’s gaze. There was Alizabeth and Sam, along with a group of honors students. “They’re cute, though. It’s hard to be mad at a couple that cute.”
“Well, if you’re not coming to the Astronomy party, where are you going to watch the meteor shower from?” asked Tyler, drawing attention back to himself.
“There’s a little hill near the forest behind my house,” said Zoë. “I keep trying to set up there.”
“Oh yeah, I think I know the place. Well, you’ll definitely get a good view there. Have fun!” Tyler tossed them a little salute and moved on, continuing his popular-boy rounds. His next stop was Bradley, a solitary computer nerd. He’d avoided Ainsel even before everybody else did. Sometimes Zoë said Bradley had a crush on Ainsel. But Zoë used to claim everybody had a crush on Ainsel, back when they’d first started avoiding her. That didn’t seem very plausible now.
After lunch, Ainsel split up with Zoë for their afternoon classes. Ainsel had AP American History and Honors English, which she drifted through just like she did every day. She rarely participated in class discussions—less so now that people hated her—but she did well enough on the reading and the papers that she got good grades anyhow. Not like math and chemistry, where the homework requirement frequently bored her silly. Fortunately, she had those classes with Zoë, who had a knack for making the classes bearable.
After class, she reminded Zoë that she’d be over later, and went home. The first thing she did was kick off her shoes. She hated wearing shoes. It was one of the first things she remembered from the time right after they’d found her by the roadside. She could barely remember how to speak, but when they tried to put socks and shoes on her, she panicked. Andrea, one of her foster moms, called her a hobbit. It seemed as good an explanation as anything. Ainsel was a bit taller than hobbits were supposed to be, but she was still pretty short.
Kishar, Ainsel’s other mom, came out of her study. She was a tall, elegant Indian woman with sleek black hair and dark skin.“How was school?”
“It hasn’t gotten any worse,” Ainsel said brightly. “I’m going over to Zoë’s tonight to help her shoot the meteor shower. You and Andrea can have a nice dinner without me.”
Kishar gave her a long, steady look. “Do you want a ride over there after you finish your homework?”
Despite being somewhere in the vicinity of seventeen, Ainsel didn’t have her driver’s license. Andrea had tried to teach her to drive for a week before giving up in despair. Ainsel had been grateful when she’d stopped. Riding in cars was all right but operating them seemed awkward.She’d try again eventually but for now she was all right walking everywhere. She liked walking.
Besides, Zoë could drive, although she had to borrow her dad’s car when she did. When Ainsel had to get somewhere that was too far to walk, she was set.
But that wasn’t Zoë’s house. Zoë’s house was barely two miles away, if Ainsel cut across a few fields and a small forest. “Why would I need a ride?”
Kishar shrugged. “It’d be faster. And Andrea heard there was a pack of stray dogs causing trouble.”
Ainsel smiled at Kishar. “If any dogs bother me, I’ll climb a tree and call for help. I’ll be fine, Mom.”
Kishar made a face. “You only call me Mom when I’m stifling you. Fine, fine. Make sure to do your homework and at least eat something before you head out.”
Ainsel obediently went to her desk, where she drew pictures of flowers all over her notepad for half an hour, then typed up her off the cuff thoughts on Pride and Prejudice in fifteen minutes. They were probably good enough. After blazing carelessly through her math homework, she declared herself done, and went to the kitchen to decorate some cookies.
She wasn’t particularly fond of school, but she did really enjoy baking. Cupcakes and cookies were her favorite: tasty little platforms for sugar artistry. A few days ago she’d made some shooting star sugar cookies for the start of the meteor shower and now she decorated a dozen of them with designs inspired by the flowers she’d been doodling. Then she left four of them on a plate for Kishar and Andrea, ate the two mistakes, and packed the rest up to take to Zoë’s.
By then, the sun was setting. It was still brilliantly clear out, which was promising for Zoë’s photos. “I’m heading out, Kishar! Have fun with Andrea!”
Kishar poked her head out of her study. “Did you do your homework? Eat?”
Ainsel gave her a dazzling smile. “Of course. I also left cookies on the counter for you two.”
Kishar sighed. “I expect you back by eleven.”
Ainsel waved an acknowledgement and escaped.