Monday comes swiftly, and with it, the knowledge that Jackson will soon be walking the halls of Red Wolf High.
As I stand by my locker, waiting there like some unfortunate bird waiting to catch a worm, I listen to J’vonte go on and on about something she swore she heard one of the popular girls say.
“And then,” she continues, in as dramatic a voice as possible, “she said…”
“Yeah,” I reply. “And?”
“Are you even listening to me?”
“Of course!” I lie. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
My friend offers a narrow-eyed glare before closing her locker. “I take it Miss Oaklynn Smith is waiting for her boyfriend?”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I reply.
“Okay. Correction: potential, future boyfriend.”
“I just want to be here in case he gets lost.”
“That makes all the sense in the world,” my friend replies, “and isn’t stalkerish in the slightest.”
“Shh!” I whisper as the door opens. “I think he’s coming.”
“How do you—“ my friend starts.
But almost instantly, she stops.
It’s as though I have a sixth sense, a sacred foresight, the ability to tell the past, present, and most importantly, the future, because not long after my declaration, the two front doors leading to Red Wolf High open, and in walks none other than Jackson—who, with his stubble shaved down to somewhat-manageable five o’clock shadow, and his hair glimmering in the fluorescent lights, stands tall and ready, a binder under his arm and a brightness in his eyes.
J’vonte’s jaw drops.
I merely smile as he glances around. “Told ya,” I reply.
“You’re telling me,” she replies. “By God. He’s beautiful.”
“Told ya he—“ I start, then stop before saying, “Hey!”
“Gotcha,” my friend says, then smirks before slapping my arm.
“That was a cruel and unnecessary seizure of my emotions.”
“Arrest me, officer. I’ve been a bad girl.”
“I won’t, but new guy might.”
I’m just about to smack J’vonte when Jackson turned his head to look our way.
He smiles back.
J’vonte beckons him over.
“What’re you doing?” I ask.
“Calling him over,” she replies. “You do know him, right?”
“Hey, Oaklynn,” he says as he steps forward. “I’m happy to see a familiar face.”
“You’re not nervous. Are you?”
“Starting a new school, being the new guy, is always a bit nerve-racking. Wouldn’t you say?”
“I guess,” I reply, unsure how exactly to respond. I’d grown up in Red Wolf my whole life. I’ve never had to worry about being the new girl.
“Um, hi,” J’vonte says, offering a small wave.
Jackson turns to face her. “This is?”
“My best friend,” I reply. “Jackson, this is J’vonte. J’vonte, Jackson.”
“Pleasure,” J’vonte says.
Jackson smiles and considers the piece of paper in his hand.
“What’s that?” my friend asks.
“Locker number,” he says, lifting and then flicking his gaze across the rows behind me. “Looks like I’m… right here.”
Beside mine? I think, and frown.
What sort of dumb luck is that?
As he fiddles with his combination, maneuvering his fingers around the dial and onto the individual numbers, I turn my eyes on J’vonte, who merely offers a simple shrug before turning back toward her own locker.
I’m just about to open my mouth to say something when I catch sight of Easton Wells making his way down the hall.
Though I try to avert my eyes, I’m unable to.
Within moments, he’s glaring at me with his cancerous eyes, his devilish smirk.
I quickly turn away, only to nearly run into Jackson in the process.
“What’s up?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I say, shaking my head as I reach for my locker.
Jackson peers over my shoulder—at, I can only presume, Easton Wells—and frowns. “Trouble?” he asks.
“Sort of,” J’vonte offers.
“J’von,” I say.
“No point in beating around the bush, Oaklynn.”
Jackson raises an eyebrow.
I sigh and turn my eyes up to face him. “He’s… kind of been giving me a hard time,” I offer.
“Why?” Jackson asks.
“Because I did a presentation on the wolves.”
Jackson frowns—brows lowering, air hissing from between his teeth as he exhales. “I don’t understand,” he says after a moment’s consideration. “Why would he be giving you a hard time because of that?”
“Because,” J’vonte says, “he’s Easton Wells.”
“Easton Wells. Of Wells Hunting and Fishing Supplies notoriety.”
A flicker of something—though I’m not sure what, exactly—appears in Jackson’s eyes. It’s quick, like lightning flashing in the sky, but its impression is enough to startle me.
What? I wonder. Have history with the Wells family?
No, I think. That’s impossible. He hasn’t lived here his whole life like I have. Surely nothing could have happened between them? Right?
Within a moment, Jackson’s demeanor shifts. His eyes clear, his lips purse, a smile appears, revealing white teeth. He then says, “Oh,” and then adds, “I see.”
“Easton Wells doesn’t like the wolves,” J’vonte clarifies.
“I guess that’s reason enough to give someone a hard time,” Jackson replies, before turning his eyes up to the nearby clock.
I consider the smartphone in my grasp and silence it a short moment later. “Make sure your phone’s off,” I say. “They don’t like cells to be in the school, let alone on students.”
“You’re toast if one goes off,” J’vonte offers.
“I see,” Jackson says, though doesn’t make a move to reach into his pocket. Rather, he nods, looks down at what I can now see to be his class schedule, and says, “I guess I’ll see you later, guys.”
“Yeah,” I reply, and watch as he turns to walk off. “See you later.”
J’vonte waits until he’s out of earshot before leaning forward and whispering, “You little witch.”
“What?” I ask, turning my gaze on her.
“You didn’t tell me he was hot.”
“I said he was good-looking.”
“Yeah, but not movie-star handsome.”
“Okay,” I admit. “He is handsome.”
“And, you’ve already got an in.”
“I guess,” I say.
J’vonte smacks my shoulder and says, “Lucky.”
I can only laugh.
J’vonte steps away from her locker. “I’ll see you in gym,” she says. “Maybe if we’re lucky we’ll get to see Mister Hot-Stuff in shorts.”
“Maybe,” I say.
J’vonte winks, then giggles and walks off, leaving me to wonder if I’m just stupid, or completely and utterly naive.
I don’t see Jackson during morning period, or at my second, or even my third. He’s even absent during lunch, which I guess isn’t completely out of the blue, considering there’s fast food buildings positioned all around the campus.
I have just entered the gym, changed, and am getting ready to admit defeat when J’vonte draws up beside me.
“Looking blue, dude,” she offers. “What’s up?”
“I thought I’d see Jackson again,” I offer.
J’vonte nudges me. Lifts her hand. Points.
I narrow my eyes as Jackson appears out of the boy’s locker room, wearing a t-shirt that is obviously too small for his muscular frame.
J’vonte touches my arm and makes a hissing sound.
“Shh!” I whisper.
“Hot hot hot,” she replies.
I shake my head and smile as Jackson’s gaze meets mine. His response is to nod, and offer a brief wave before falling into line with the other guys in our gym class.
“I bet if he moved the wrong way it’d rip right off,” J’vonte whispers.
“You’re so wrong,” I reply.
“Well, it’s true.”
Mrs. Miller, our gym teacher, passes by us, and offers a brief huff of distraction to take our eyes off of Jackson.
I shake my head.
Our teacher straightens her posture as the bell rings and says, “All right, everyone! Listen up! We’re going to run three laps around the gym, then break off into teams to play dodgeball.”
I hear several of the cheerleaders groan in disappointment.
“Anyone who doesn’t want to participate can gladly take their F for the day.”
The sound of disappointment disappears instantly.
“Now then,” she says. “Start jogging.”
As usual, I fall beside J’vonte, and pump my legs casually while pursuing the length of the gym. Thankful for the distraction, I run the required laps, keeping my eyes front and center and my gaze focused on everything other than Jackson.
J’vonte nudges me with an elbow as my eyes fall on the young man’s back.
I nearly trip in response.
“Miss Fawn!” Mrs. Miller calls. “No touching!”
“Sorry, Mrs. Miller!” J’vonte calls back.
“What gives?” I ask.
“I saw you looking,” she whispers, and giggles in response.
I shake my head as our laps come to an end, then stretch my arms out in front of me before rolling my shoulders and setting my gaze on the dodgeballs Mrs. Miller has brought out.
“I’ll divide the teams,” she says. “Applegate. Team A. Antoniette. Team B. Baker, team B…”
This goes on and on until she reaches J’vonte’s name, then Jackson’s. Both are paired on the same team, and look on at me as the names draw closer to the S’es.
Come on, I think. Don’t pit me against my best friend and the guy I—
“Smith,” Mrs. Miller says. “Team B.”
I nearly jump for joy.
J’vonte slaps my hand as I approach, and nods as the last of the class is divided up.
“On your mark,” Mrs. Miller says, “get set…”
She kicks one ball into the center, then another.
Then the game begins.
I’ve always hated dodgeball. While most would enjoy the free-form athletics that come with it, and the supposed strategy that might have been involved on most professional teams, in Mrs. Miller’s class, dodgeball can be a bloodbath. Combined with the fact that the balls are made out of rubber and not foam means getting hit by them can be exceptionally painful. Still, I play along, dodging balls, throwing them, going to “jail” when they are caught.
J’vonte, ever the athlete, saves me more than a few times.
“Get your head in the game,” she says as I jump back into the fray.
“Sorry,” I say. “I just hate this.”
“It’s not so bad,” Jackson offers, ducking just in time to avoid getting hit in the face.
“Yeah. Not too bad,” I reply.
“Watch your head, new guy.”
He turns. Sees a ball heading straight for him. Jerks his head to the side with near-superhuman speed.
I openly gawk at the display of speed.
“Watch out!” J’vonte cries.
I turn my head just in time to see a cheerleader named Ashley Jones throw a ball at me.
There’s no way for me to dodge, no way for me to duck, no way for me to avoid it.
Instead, I brace myself for impact—
And turn my head just in time to avoid getting hit directly in the center of my face.
The impact of rough rubber against my cheek instantly causes me to go down.
“Stop!” Mrs. Miller calls, then blows on the whistle to bring the game to a halt.
My eyelids flutter rapidly as stars appear over my vision.
“Are you okay?” J’vonte asks from her place above me.
“I’m… ow,” I manage, reaching up to rub my jaw.
“Does anything feel broken?” Mrs. Miller asks.
“Nuh… ow. No. Ow.”
“Jones!” she screams. “What the hell do you think you were doing?”
“Playing dodgeball,” the cheerleader replies, prompting giggles from several of her fellow cheer squad and chuckles from the guys on the football team.
From my place on the ground, I can just make out the sight of Easton Wells staring at me from the other side of the basketball ring.
Though I am loathe to immediately place the blame on him, Ashley Jones would’ve never thrown the ball that hard unless she’d had a reason to.
Did he say something? I think.
Either way, it doesn’t matter.
What’s done is done.
I’m immediately pulled out of the game and told to sit in the bleachers to wait out the rest of gym class.