Covering up the bruising on my cheek is nearly impossible, and draws stares from almost everyone the following morning.
“You should’ve gone a shade darker,” J’vonte offers as she considers my reflection in the mirror. “Or at least bought some spray tan.”
“And what? Look like a reality TV star?” I shake my head and step away from J’vonte’s locker. “It’ll go down. I’m not worried.”
“I’m not worried about the bruising so much as I am the rumors that might start as a result of it.”
“And who are they gonna say hit me?” I ask. “You?”
“I do have a mean right hook,” J’vonte offers with a wink.
I laugh and push her aside before spinning my combination.
I have no sooner than pulled the handle when something falls out.
“What’s that?” Jackson’s familiar voice asks.
I nearly jump out of my skin as the young man comes up behind us. “I don’t know,” I reply, frowning as he crouches down. “A note?”
His eyebrows fall as he narrows his eyes at it. “Yeah,” he replies, then lifts it over his head for me to take.
I stare at its surface for less than a moment before opening it.
The three words that stare back haunt me.
You’re toast, Oaklynn.
Toast, I think, and shiver.
Normally, this wouldn’t be such a big issue. But with Easton seemingly declaring war on me, it sends tendrils of panic throughout my chest.
“What?” J’vonte asks. “What is it?” She rips the note from my hand and reads it in less than a second. “Bastards,” she whispers.
“What?” Jackson asks.
“Someone’s gunning for her.”
“Is this about what happened in gym class?”
“Apparently.” J’vonte turns her head to face me. “Oaklynn? Are you all right?”
“Fuh-Fine,” I manage, and inhale a deep breath.
“Hey hey hey,” my friend says, spinning to take hold of my shoulders. “It’s okay. Nothing’s gonna happen. Just breathe.”
“One, two, three,” my friend instructs. “One, two, three.”
“One—“ I breathe “—two—“ I breathe again “—three.”
“There.” She pats my shoulders. “Is that better?”
“That’s not how panic attacks work, J’von.”
“Damn,” Jackson says, turning his head about to survey the area. “Should we tell someone about this?”
“No!” J’vonte and I say.
Jackson takes a step back.
My friend sighs and turns to face him. Then, in a lower voice, she whispers, “She’s already been made a target. You don’t want to put the bulls-eye on her head.”
“I’m just not sure what to do,” Jackson offers.
“Doing nothing is better than something,” J’vonte says. “This kind of stuff always blows over. We just have to wait for the storm to pass. Right, Oak?”
“Right,” I manage, though can’t help but grimace as J’vonte balls the note up. “What’re you doing?”
“Throwing this away. Stripping them of their power.”
“Are you sure that’s—“
She tosses the note in a trash bin standing on the corner of the hall before I can finish. “Yeah. That’s fine. It’s not like they’d be able to tell who it was anyway.”
Jackson lifts his eyes to the black, 360-degree security camera above us.
J’vonte shakes her head. “They wouldn’t bother,” she says.
“You don’t think they would?” Jackson replies.
“No. It’s not like it said, You’re dead or something.”
“Toast is close enough,” I offer, but shake my head before pulling my binder out of my locker. I shut it with a little too much force. “Either way, I can’t let this bother me. I have a math test to worry about.”
“Ugh. In Mr. Peters’ class?” J’vonte replies, then waits for me to nod before saying, “Double ugh.”
“Yeah.” I step back from the lockers. “See you guys around?”
“For sure,” J’vonte says.
Jackson merely nods before I turn and begin to walk down the hall.
The whole while I walk, I can only think of two words:
I try not to think of the note and what its implications might mean as I go about my day, but find myself doing just that regardless. Knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that someone is out to get me, is unsettling enough. But understanding that they would go to such lengths to threaten me? That is something I could not have even begun to imagine.
Just remain calm, I think as I make my way through the halls of Red Wolf High. Everything will be fine.
I can’t help but laugh.
Everything is not going to be just fine. Someone, and I don’t know who, has threatened me—and while they’d only gone so far as to leave a note in my locker, it’s enough to confirm that they are serious enough to risk their identity being discovered just to scare me.
If they mean to just scare me.
For all I know, they could mean to hurt me.
They already have, I am quick to remind myself. Don’t think they won’t do worse.
They say boys are bad enough, but high school girls: they’re mean. M-E capital mean. Look at one the wrong way and they’ll metaphorically gut you like a fish.
As I approach my final, and most loathed, class of the day, I can’t help but feel as if I am a goldfish in bowl—one whose walls are closing in.
The door to Mrs. Ledger’s class stands before me.
I can only imagine the horrors that wait within.
The cheerleading squad.
The football team.
I inhale a quick breath through my nose and expel it through my teeth in quick succession—hoping, to whatever kind God looks upon schoolgirls, that everything will be perfectly fine. However, something tells me that won’t be the case.
The door to Mrs. Ledger’s classroom is wide open; and while her students are still filing in, I can just make out the silhouette of the one who has started this whole game.
Normally, he would be attractive, as with sharp cheekbones and pretty eyes he could make any girl swoon. But with his hawkish gaze, and his wicked disposition, it’s impossible for me to find him attractive, especially considering who his father is.
Cruel. Callous. Cunning.
These words echo through my mind as I enter the classroom, and follow me down the aisle of desks that divide the room until I reach my own.
A voice says, “Hey.”
I turn my head. Find Jackson Meadows sitting beside me. Smile.
He returns the smile in kind and says, “How’s your day been going?”
“All right,” I offer, trying my hardest not to think about the anxieties that the note has caused me. “Yours?”
“It’s been fine,” he replies. “I’m starting to get to know the place.”
Someone snorts behind me; and though I don’t fully turn, I can just make out Easton in my peripheral, shaking his head and rolling his eyes as I flick my gaze toward him.
“Just ignore him,” Jackson says.
Though I nod, a part of me wonders if I truly can ignore him, given the way recent events have played out. I haven’t even explained the situation to Jackson and J’vonte in full, so they don’t know his cunning, his intent, his cruel and utter malice toward me and my family.
His hatred runs deep—far deeper than I could’ve ever possibly imagined.
“Hey,” J’vonte says as she settles into the seat beside mine, drawing me from my thoughts of what Easton could and could not do.
“Hey,” I reply.
“How’re you feeling?”
“Fine,” I reply, turning my head just slightly so I can take note of Easton’s expression at the back of the room. “Why do you ask?”
“I was wondering if you’d caught wind of anything about…” She leans forward. “The note.”
I shake my head.
Jackson nudges my shoulder as Mrs. Ledger rises from the back of the room and makes her way toward the door. She smiles his way—a rarity that I know comes from not knowing who he is or what he might stand for—and nods at me and J’vonte before shutting the door. “I hope you all are ready for your test today,” she says.
Several of the students nod. Some groan. Jackson looks a bit bewildered.
“Don’t worry, Mister…”
“Meadows,” Jackson offers.
“Don’t worry, Mister Meadows. You won’t be graded on this test. I would like you to complete as much as you do know, however.”
“All right,” he says. “Thank you, ma’am.”
“You’re welcome,” she replies, before sliding to the front of the room. “Miss Jones, will you please come forward and pass the papers out?”
Ever the suck-up, Ashley Jones rises from her seat and does as instructed, going from row to row, person to person, counting and then handing out stacks of tests. When she comes to J’vonte’s row, she smiles; and when she comes to the one I’m in, leans forward and says, “Sorry about yesterday” in as cheery and annoyed a voice as possible.
“Yeah,” I reply, taking the stack of tests from her. “It’s fine.”
She openly smiles at Jackson, then leans down far enough to reveal her cleavage through her blouse to him. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Jackson.”
“We met yesterday,” he offers.
“Oh. Right.” She stands. “I guess we did.”
“Stop chit-chatting and hand out the tests, Miss Jones.”
Ashley rolls her eyes and passes the final stack of papers to Jackson before returning to her seat.
The whole while she walks, I wonder if Jackson would really be interested in a girl like Ashley Jones.
She’s pretty enough, I think, but God is she annoying.
A half-smile crosses my face as I lean forward to examine the tests.
The minute my eyes meet the first question is the minute I begin to feel a sense of hopelessness.
Crap, I think.
All the studying in the world couldn’t have prepared me for this.
Still—there’s nothing I can do now.
So, with that in mind, I draw a pencil from my binder, then commit myself to doing as best as I can.
At least in this period I won’t have to worry about what will happen next.
The test takes an impossible amount of time. Seemingly never-ending, I go through page after page, hoping beyond hope that I will at least do decent enough to pass. I note that J’vonte speeds through it, though whether or not she’s actually aware of what she’s writing down I can’t be for certain. And Jackson? I’m guessing he’s mostly just thumbing answers in, though I can’t necessarily blame him. Mrs. Ledger’s tests are known to be ruthless.
At least he’s not getting graded, I think.
Still—the fact that he appears to be so lost doesn’t settle my confusion over the matter any, and is enough to make me feel that subtle twinge of anxiousness that often comes when I’m stressed.
Thankfully, I only have one answer left when the bell rings. I’m able to circle my response in just in time.
“All right,” Mrs. Ledger says. “Time’s up! Turn your papers face-down and pass them forward.”
We do as asked, and wait for Mrs. Ledger to formally excuse us before rising and making our way toward the door.
“How’d you do?” J’vonte asks.
“I don’t know,” I reply, in a tone I hope doesn’t sound too much like a moan. “I hate taking tests.”
“So do I.”
“But you make it look so easy.”
“Still,” J’vonte says. “I get bad test anxiety. You know how that is.”
Jackson holds the door open for the two of us and then follows us out. He waits until we’re halfway down the hall before asking, “You were studying the wolves?”
“Ecology,” J’vonte says. “Mostly conservation and stuff.”
“You’ve heard that they’re supposedly back. Right?”
“We have,” my friend replies. “Sort of odd, considering that you just moved back and all.”
“What do you mean by that?” he asks, a twist of confusion lighting his face.
“Oh, nothing,” J’vonte says. “I just thought it was weird, that was all.”
Why? I think, and frown.
Jackson, nor my friend, seem to notice my expression, however. Rather, they continue forward—J’vonte nonchalantly, Jackson with that same weird look. A part of me wonders why he looks that way, but another leaves me too hesitant to question it.
Maybe it’s for the same reason he got upset about the wolf, I think. Maybe he just has a soft spot for animals. Or maybe… just maybe…
I’m immediately cut-off by the sight of several people standing before a series of lockers—not only pointing and murmuring amongst themselves, but taking pictures with their smartphones as well.
“What’s going on?” J’vonte asks.
“I don’t know,” Jackson replies, drawing forward. “I don’t—“
He pales almost instantly.
Given her height, J’vonte struggles to see over the crowd. When she turns her head to see Jackson’s face, she frowns and asks, “What? What’s going on?”
“Don’t look,” Jackson replies.
“Why? What’re you—“
A moment later, I see why.
Painted, in bright red lipstick, on the tarnished white lockers, are the words Oaklynn Smith’s a slut!
The sight makes me physically ill.
“Oaklynn?” J’vonte asks.
“What’s wrong? Why are you—“
I can’t help it.