Lena paused on the sidewalk, running a hand along the top of the schools waist-high brick sign. Washington High was even smaller than her old school had been, a single building surrounded by neat square hedges. Oak trees were scattered across the trim green lawn, some with a simple bench resting in the half-circles of shade beneath them. She walked closer, seeing the frosted glass doors had been propped open, mottled sunlight mingling with the harsh glare of fluorescents. She mounted the short stone steps, stumbling when a boy shoved her. Aside from a few mocking chuckles from him and his friends, no one seemed to notice.
The hall was more crowded that she’d thought it would be, students lounging by their lockers as they waited for the day to begin. She glanced at one of the numbers she’d scribbled on her palm that morning: 316. She’d just found it when a tall, tanned blonde leaned against the next one, smiling as he smoothed a hand over his short, spiked hair.
“Well, howdy there, miss,” he started. It was the worst Texan accent she had ever heard. “How’s it going for ya?”
Lena ignored him, glancing at her palm again. The last digit in her combination was smudged, but still clear enough. She’d barely touched the lock when he ran a nail down her spine, making her shudder. She glared at him, smacking his hand away. He cringed slightly, quickly going back to his charming smile.
“Aw, c’mon, now,” he lowered his voice, leaning closer. “Y’all know you want me.”
She put a hand on his chest, pushing him back.
“I don’t even know you.”
“Wouldn’t take long,” he slipped an arm around her waist. “What y’all say?”
She scowled again, twisting out of his grasp.
“I’m not looking for trouble,” she said testily. “So how about you leave me alone?”
He chuckled, taking her wrist.
“How cute,” he brought her close again, grabbing her chin. “Y’all think you can hurt me.”
She growled softly, kneeing him hard in the gut. She’d expected his grip to loosen, her bravado fading somewhat when it tightened, even as he groaned in pain.
“Y’all got spunk, I like that,” he straightened, his hazel eyes growing darker. “But that doesn’t mean I’m gonna let you-”
“Hey,” a lean brunette, slightly shorter, grabbed him from behind, his fingers digging into the blonde’s shoulder. Lena quickly took in the newcomer’s features, gasping quietly. Was it really him? “Ley off her, Chad.”
Chad sneered at him, flashing a silver canine.
“Want her for yourself, huh? Sure,” he released her, the accent gone as he backed away. “Too big a mouth for me, anyway.”
The brunette watched him go, sighing before turning to her.
“Hey, you okay?”
“Y-Yeah, thanks,” she couldn’t hold it in any longer. She hugged him tightly, almost breaking down in tears. He was really here, she wasn’t alone anymore! “It’s so great to see you again, Ty!”
“You, too, Lena,” he held her in return, blushing when he felt just how much she had grown up. “How’ve you been?”
“It’s gotten better,” reluctantly, Lena drew back. She bit her lip, remembering everything they had been through together. “At least, I think it has.”
The bell rang, the hall quickly emptying as students filed to their classes. Ty touched her shoulder, giving it a brief squeeze.
“Listen, I’ll see you later, okay?”
She nodded, glancing behind her. Why did it suddenly feel like someone was staring at her? She sighed softly, turning back to him and flashing a small, weak smile.
“Yeah, see you, Ty.”
Unconsciously, Lena’s grip tightened on the edges of her tray. She stared out across the crowded cafeteria, hoping to spy an empty table. The day so far had been almost identical to one at her old school; girls shoving her aside in the halls, guys smacking her ass and laughing if she dropped her books. All that had been missing were the whispered comments about how she was screwing team captains behind their girlfriends’ backs.
Well, at least it feels like home.
She jumped at the shout, Autumn waving excitedly before walking briskly up to her. A fellow sophomore, the bubbly redhead had volunteered to show her around that morning. Though nice enough, the girl had a habit of speaking too loudly, making it almost impossible to ask questions she didn’t want everyone around them hearing the answer to.
“C’mon,” Autumn smiled, motioning with her head. “I’ll show you where we sit.”
Lena followed her, recalling the only question Autumn had refused to answer. It had concerned the teacher’s aide in their chemistry class, who had gotten things rolling so quickly they’d been able to start their homework before the hour was up.
Lena took the seat Autumn pushed out for her, burying her face in her arms after setting down her tray. Two periods had passed since she’d seen that boy, yet she still couldn’t get him out of her mind. She lifted her head slightly, playing with a loose corner of her sandwich wrapper.
“Who is he?” she muttered. Autumn sighed, sitting across from her.
“His name’s Jason,” she brushed a curly lock of auburn hair from her bright brown eyes. Her pale skin was scattered with freckles. “He’s a junior.”
Lena lifted her head further.
“Yeah, but that’s all I really know about him,” she opened her chocolate milk and took a sip. She thought a moment. “You know, my boyfriend’s in his band, he should know more.”
“Know more about what?”
Ty plopped down next to her, draping an arm around her and pecking her cheek.
“That guy your friends with,” she swatted his hand away when he reached for her milk. “We wanna know more about him.”
“You mean Jason?” Ty reached for the milk again, Lena giggling when he got his hand smacked. “You could just ask him yourself, you know.”
“I don’t think that’d be the best idea,” Autumn twirled her hair. “There’s something I just don’t trust about that guy.”
“Probably because you’ve never talked to him,” he pulled his arm away, unwrapping his sandwich and taking a large bite. “He’s not as bad as you think.”
She crossed her arms.
“You can never really know someone,” she said stubbornly. He shook his head.
“What am I gonna do with you?”
Autumn looked over her shoulder when one of the doors slammed shut, groaning softly before turning back.
“You’ll have to figure it out later,” she said softly. “Because here comes trouble.”
That trouble took the form of a tall, slim girl, her black ponytail swaying as she sauntered toward them. Her cloud grey eyes were devoid of the smile plastered to her lips, the look turning venomous as she stopped at their table.
“You, new girl,” she focused on Lena. “What was your name again? Whoreina?”
“Just Lena,” Lena tilted her head. “Who’re you?”
“The name’s Stephanie,” she answered shortly. “And you better respect it.”
Lena tilted her head the other way.
“Really? Why’s that?”
Stephanie stared at her, then gave a scornful laugh.
“Because I rule this place,” she sounded proud, too proud. “And everyone knows it.”
“Everyone except me,” Lena grinned innocently. “I’m new here, remember?”
Stephanie laughed again, the sound fading quickly.
“I know, and that’s why I’m telling you,” she leaned closer. “So you’ll stay in your place.”
Lena gazed at her for a moment before giving an exaggerated yawn.
“I’ll let you know when I give a crap,” she stood, tossing her uneaten lunch in the trash; she’d been feeling sick lately, anyway. “Now, if that’s all you wanted, I have things to do.”
“I’d suggest changing that outfit first,” Stephanie eyed Lena’s tie-dye halter dress and flip-flops. “Or do you want everyone to know you’re a loser?”
“Better a loser than a poser,” Lena walked past her, then smirked. “By the way, love the tail!”
Autumn giggled, pointing to the limp trail of toilet paper hanging from Stephanie’s skirt. Stephanie glared at her, her face growing red as the laughter started spreading. She turned back to Lena, ripping the paper away and crushing it in her fist.
“You better enjoy this, bitch,” she said quietly. “Because I am going to end you.”
Lena shrugged, turning away. She threw a small wave over her shoulder.
“Have fun with that!”
Kara was drunk again, an occurrence that was becoming more and more common. Lena sat under the open dining room window, trying not to laugh as the woman failed to slur various curses. A second later, an empty bottle sailed above her head, smashing to the ground less than a foot in front of her. She shuddered, rubbing her arms as a chill shot through her.
Home is not where I wanna be right now.
She stood, going to the narrow path she’d spotted from her window shortly after they’d moved in. This was the first time she’d followed it to the end, smiling when she saw it led to a clearing. The grass was scattered with late summer flowers, a large stone resting on the bank of a clear pond. Across the water, a doe and her two fawns sprinted away.
It’s so peaceful here…wait, where’s that music coming from?
She followed it, peaking around the edge of the stone. The energetic track faded into a calmer one, flowing from an iPod speaker placed on an old stump. Though was caught her eye most was the boy standing near it.
It’s that guy from my chemistry class, she couldn’t grasp his name. But what’s he doing out here?
She figured he must have been swimming earlier, because his clothing was soaked. His white shirt clung to every contour of his sculpted torso, dripping dark hair falling past his broad shoulders. She recognized the graceful movements he performed, the undiluted power evident in each one. Tai-chi, one of many things her father had been obsessed with.
She turned away, leaning back against the stone. The sudden heat of a blush burned across her face, but why? She didn’t know anything about this boy, she couldn’t even remember his name. How could he already have this affect on her?
Hopefully it won’t lead to anything, she thought. She hadn’t been able to forgive herself for what happened to Andrew before the fire, the guilt from both events twisting together, still threatening to drag her into the abyss. She couldn’t go through that again, she just couldn’t!
She barely acknowledged when the music stopped, the chill from the wind biting through her daze. The barest sliver of sun remained above the tree line, the sky above already tinged with stars. She looked around, seeing the boy had already left.
How long have I been out here?
She jumped when her phone vibrated, the alarm telling her there was only ten minutes until her curfew. It had taken her almost twenty to reach the clearing. She gulped, hoping Kara had already passed out on the sofa.
“Well, look who it is,” Stephanie said cheerfully. Her mouth was twisted in its usual fake smile, her eyes colder than ever. Lena glared at her, slamming her locker shut. She’d had several weeks of almost no contact with the girl, she’d hoped she was finally done with her.
“What do you want?” she asked flatly. Stephanie’s grin faded; she leaned closer, dropping her voice to a whisper.
“I know you’ve been asking about Jason,” she said angrily. “And I want you to stop.”
Lena scoffed. That had been over a month ago, why was Stephanie only bothering to bring it up now? She crossed her arms, meeting the taller girl’s stare.
“Can I at least know why you’re asking?”
“You’re the one who’s going to stop asking,” Stephanie returned sharply, her voice still quiet. “Because Jason is mine.”
Hearing that, Lena smirked. Time to ruffle some feathers.
“Then you don’t have anything to worry about, Steph,” she copied the girl’s sarcastically happy tone, flashing her own smug grin. “I’m not interested in guys stupid enough to want you.”
Stephanie glared at her, then huffed, turning and walking quickly away. Further down the hall, she shoved a girl aside, who looked amazed the queen of the school had touched her. Lena scoffed, hearing someone laugh behind her.
“Been a while since someone stood up to her.”
Across the hall, Jason shut his locker, still smiling. She turned to face him, surprised to see he was even taller than she’d thought; she barely hit his shoulder.
“How long have you been listening?” she asked. He shrugged, running a hand through his perfect raven hair.
He started walking, motioning for her to follow him. She hurried to catch up with him.
“Why the sudden interest?” she questioned him. He glanced at her.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been here over two months already,” she clarified. “And I don’t think you’ve even looked at me.”
He didn’t answer, instead holding open the door to the library. It was a lot better than having to push the heavy slab of wood out of the way herself, but why had he led her there?
“Uh, thanks,” she said quietly. “Now, are you gonna answer my question?”
“I don’t really know,” he said simply. “Guess I just got curious.”
They sat at an empty table near the back wall, about as far from the librarian’s desk as they could get. It was one of few places where even the lowest whispers were safe from the bat-eared old stickler. Lena sighed, tucking a loose lock of hair behind her ear.
“Let me guess, you overheard a skinny blonde guy named Chad bragging about how he got me to screw him my first day.”
He chuckled again, dark red braces flashing across his teeth.
“You’re name’s Lena, right? Ty told me about you, said you guys were friends.”
“Yeah, we are,” she lowered her head. “He’s pretty much the only one who wasn’t scared off…”
She clenched her teeth as a spattering of memories flashed across her gaze, feeling the long-absent tears suddenly rush to the surface. Jason leaned forward, looking concerned.
“Everything okay?” he asked softly. She blinked.
“Yeah, sorry,” she shook her head slightly, putting a hand to her forehead. “Just got a little dizzy for a second.”
“You sure that’s all it was? You looked pretty upset.”
He watched her jaw tighten again, wondering what could’ve happened to her. She glared at him.
“I don’t talk about it,” her voice hardened. “Especially with people I just met.”
He looked down at her hands, flat on the table, seeing the edge of a fresh bruise on her left wrist. She noticed him staring, tucking her hands quickly in her lap.
“M-My stepmom was drunk,” she muttered. “I-It was an accident.”
“I used to say the same thing about my family,” his coal-black eyes sparked in anger. “It’s never an accident.”
She cringed. He actually sounded kind of scary when he was mad. The next minute, however, it was gone, replaced with a soft, comforting tone.
“I might be able to help you,” he said. “But you’d have to tell me what happened.”
She hesitated, glancing up at him. It sounded like he genuinely wanted to help her, but could she really trust him? According to Ty, she could, but Autumn’s doubts had wormed their way into her mind, leaving her stuck on the fence. Thinking it over, she realized nothing good was coming from keeping it to herself, that shutting people out was what had caused half her problems back home. She swallowed, then decided to take the plunge.
“Okay, but it’s a long story,” she said. “And it started when my dad met a woman named Kara…”