Backstabber

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Break the Silence

Lena stopped short by the waist-height gray brick sign, running her hand slowly along the rough, curved cement top. Washington High School, Est. 1905, stood out in thick letters etched and painted black in a polished brass plate. It was even smaller than her old school, a single building of mixed red and gray brick, green hedges with dark, shiny leaves squared off neatly beneath the white trimmed windows on the first floor. Several on the second had faded purple plant boxes hanging from them, filled with flowers or herbs. The wide front walk was lined with pink and yellow pansies, a simple wood-and-iron bench resting in the shade of a tall oak tree on either side. The frosted glass front doors had been propped open, cloud-mottled sunlight streaking in to mingle with the fluorescents that lit up the lobby.

She stayed by the wrought-iron railing as she climbed the short concrete steps, jumping when somebody smacked her ass. She glared at the boy smirking back at her, his friends cracking up further when she whipped him the bird. That was one thing she hadn’t missed the last few weeks.

The hallway was more crowded than she’d thought it would be, kids grouped by their lockers or against the walls, chatting and laughing as they waited for the first bell. Lena glanced at the numbers she’d scribbled on her palm that morning—her new locker and combination. She’d just found it when a tall, tanned blond leaned casually against the next one, smiling brightly as he smoothed a hand through his short, straight hair.

“Well, howdy there, miss,” he started in the worst Texan accent she’d ever heard. A silver eye tooth flashed behind his lips. “How’s it going for ya?”

She snickered, shaking her head as she went for the lock, going stiff when he ran a slow finger up her back, making her shudder.

“Get off me, you creep,” she snapped, smacking his hand away. He winced, then went back to that slickly charming smile.

“Aw, come on, now,” he lowered his voice and bent closer. “Y’all know you want me!”

She pushed him back, all but choking on his body spray.

“I don’t even know you!”

“That wouldn’t take long,” he chuckled and put an arm around her. “What y’all say?”

She scowled, pulling out of his grip.

“I’m not looking for trouble,” she said testily. Of course this would happen on her first day. “Just leave me alone, all right?”

He laughed again, snatching her wrist when she tried to leave. She turned and kneed him hard in the gut, then grabbed his wrist with the hand he held and twisted, stepping back out of his reach when he was forced to let go.

“Y’all got spunk,” he groaned in pain, then straightened. The almost teasing glint in his sky-blue eyes had gone dangerously dark. “I like that, but it doesn’t mean I’m gonna let you—”

“Trust me, Chad,” a lean brunette, thinner and an inch or two shorter, grabbed his shoulder. “You do not want to go there with her.”

Chad glowered at him, then rolled his eyes.

“Ah, forget it,” he pulled out of the other boy’s grip, the accent gone. “I’m out of here.”

Lena watched as he stormed off, then turned to the brunette. He smiled, the same one she had seen so many times before.

“It’s about time you got here!”

He laughed when she jumped at him, staggering a bit before returning her tight hug.

“It’s so great to see you again, Ty!”

She was almost in tears, she really had her best friend back! He chuckled, then stepped back, keeping his hands on her shoulders. He was taller than her now, his dark hair longer, and he’d finally outgrown his baby face.

“It’s awesome to see you, too, Lena,” he put his hands in the pockets of his tan cargo shorts, a staple in his wardrobe since fifth grade. His thin lips turned in a worried frown. “How’s it been?”

Her smile dropped, too, and she bit hard on the inside of her cheek.

“Not good,” she started quietly as she hugged herself. “There’s so much we have to—”

She gasped when the bell rang, having expected the electric chime her old school had used. He touched her shoulder again, giving it a brief squeeze.

“Hey, I’ll see you at lunch, okay? We can talk then.”

She nodded, then glanced behind her, scanning the quickly emptying hall. Why did it suddenly feel like someone was watching her? Sighing, she turned back and flashed a small, weak smile.

“Yeah, see you then, Ty.”

Lena’s fingers tightened on the hard edges of her metal tray as she stared across the packed cafeteria, hoping to find either Ty or an empty table. The day so far had been no different to one at her old school—girls either glaring jealously at her or laughing and whispering behind their hands. Guys grabbing or smacking her ass, asking if she wanted to get to know them better. All that was missing were the accusations she was screwing every athlete on campus, though she was sure it wouldn’t take long for those rumors to start.

Well, at least it feels like home.

“Hey, Lena!”

She jumped at the shout, seeing Autumn waving frantically at her. A fellow sophomore, the bubbly redhead had volunteered to show her around the school, and was her assigned partner for study hall. The only problem was that she’d apparently never learned how to whisper, making it impossible to ask anything Lena didn’t want the entire room hearing the answer to.

“Come on,” Autumn ran up to her, still beaming. “I’ll show you where my friends and I sit!”

Lena followed mutely, thinking about the only questions the girl had refused to answer. The teacher’s aide in their chemistry class had gotten things rolling so quickly that they’d been able to start their homework before the hour was up. She slumped in the seat Autumn had pushed out for her, pushed aside her tray and buried her face in her arms. Two classes had passed since she’d seen the guy, and she still couldn’t get him out of her head—his flawless dark skin, cool gaze and high, neat ponytail. He’d only spoken as necessary, his voice even and deep, and he’d had an assuring, yet commanding presence. She sat up and propped her chin in her hand, playing with the loose corner of her sandwich wrapper. She was surprised Kara had given her lunch money at all.

“Who is that guy?”

She looked up when Autumn sighed, the only unenthused noise she’d heard the girl make.

“He’s a junior,” she said, brushing a curly lock of auburn hair from her warm brown eyes. Her pale skin was scattered with freckles. “His name’s Jason Vetra.”

Lena looked at her. A junior, and he was already an aide? Autumn nodded.

“That’s all I know for sure, that’s why I couldn’t answer your questions,” she opened her chocolate milk and took a sip. “My boyfriend’s in his band, though, he’ll know more.”

“More about what?” Ty sat down next to her, put an arm around her and kissed her cheek.

“That weird guy you’re friends with, the quiet one,” she swatted his hand away from her milk. “Lena was asking about him earlier.”

“You know his name’s Jason, and he’s not weird,” he sounded like they’d had the disagreement before. “You’d know that if you actually talked to him, instead of listening to all those dumb stories.”

He pulled away, unwrapped his sandwich and took a large bite. She twirled a lock of hair around one slim finger.

“There’s just something I’ve never trusted about him,” she argued, taking her milk out of his reach. He shook his head, then swallowed.

“He’s nowhere near as bad as you think,” he told her, then looked over her head toward the east doors. “But speaking of untrustworthy…”

“Oh no,” Autumn followed his gaze, groaning as she turned back to the table. “Not her again!”

Lena turned to see a tall, slender girl sauntering toward them, her long, artfully curled black hair bouncing with each step. Her cloud gray eyes lacked the smile plastered to her full red lips, the expression turning venomous when she reached their table.

“I heard we were getting a new girl today,” she focused on Lena, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “What was your name again? Whoreina?”

Lena snorted, was that really the best this girl could come up with?

“It’s Lena,” she tilted her head. “Who’re you?”

The girl leveled a haughty stare at her.

“The name’s Stephanie Carter, newbie,” she answered flatly. “And you better remember it.”

Lena tucked some loose hair behind her ear.

“Why’s that?”

Stephanie laughed scornfully.

“Because I rule this place,” she said with too much pride. “And everyone knows it.”

“Everyone except me,” Lena grinned innocently. “I’m new, remember?”

Stephanie laughed again, the sound fading fast.

“I know, and that’s why I’m telling you,” she leaned over the table. “So you’ll learn your place.”

Lena stared at her, then let out an exaggerated yawn.

“How about you just give me your number? Then I can call you when I care.”

She got up, tossed her uneaten lunch in the trash and slid the tray in the rack on top of the can. She’d been feeling sick lately, anyway.

“Now if that’s all you wanted, I’ve got better things to do.”

Stephanie huffed.

“I’d suggest changing that outfit first,” she side-eyed Lena’s tie-dye halter dress, cropped denim jacket and white sandals. “Or do you want everyone to know you’re a loser?”

Lena scoffed.

“Better a loser than a poser,” she swept past her, then snickered. “I’m loving the tail, though!”

Autumn and Ty started laughing, Autumn pointing to the limp trail of toilet paper fluttering at the back of Stephanie’s skirt. Stephanie glared at her, her face flushing red as the laughter spread. She ripped the paper off, crushing it in her fist as she whirled back to Lena.

“You better enjoy this, bitch,” she snapped menacingly. “Because I am going to end you!”

Lena shrugged, throwing a small wave over her shoulder as she twirled away.

“Have fun with that, Steph!”

As Lena had expected, Kara was already drunk when she got home that afternoon. She skipped going inside, slipped around the back and sat under the open dining room window. Kara wouldn’t spot her there unless she leaned over the sill and looked down, and Lena knew she’d be long gone before the woman stumbled to the kitchen door and got it open. She stifled a laugh as her stepmother failed to slur various curses, choking on it as an empty bottle sailed over her head, shattering when it hit a rock sticking out of the overgrown grass. She swallowed, rubbing her arms as a chill shot through her.

I can’t risk her finding me while she’s like this.

She waited until a door slammed further inside, then got up and sprinted to the trail curving into the woods that backed the street, wondering briefly why none of the yards were fenced in. She’d spotted it from her window a few days after they had moved in, but this was the first time she’d followed it. It led to a quiet clearing, the grass scattered with early fall wildflowers, a smooth boulder dipping on the bank of a large pond. Across the clear, still water, a doe and her fawn were heading back into the trees.

It’s so peaceful out here. She pulled in a deep breath of fresh air. Wait, where’s that music coming from?

She followed it to a stand of towering pines that nearly cut the clearing in two, peeking around one to see an iPod speaker set on an old stump.

That’s the guy from my chemistry class, she thought. But what’s he doing back here?

He wore loose black sweatpants and old sneakers, his damp white shirt clinging to every curve and contour of his body. His long black hair was tied back as usual, his tan skin shining with sweat. Her jaw dropped when he performed a flying spin kick, his landing nearly silent. The heavy rock track that had been playing faded out as he caught his breath, replaced with a soothing instrumental that reminded her of her father’s tai-chi music. She was surprised when he switched to it, undiluted power clear in every graceful move.

She ducked behind the tree before he noticed her, leaning heavily against the trunk. Feeling the blush burning across her cheeks, she bit her lip, the memories flooding back. She still couldn’t forgive herself for what had happened to Andy, not long before the fire. The compounded survivor’s guilt twisted and roiled in her gut—she couldn’t go through that again, she just couldn’t!

She hardly noticed when the music stopped, the chill in the wind biting through her thin jacket. The sun had dipped past the tree line, the sky overhead tinged with the first stars.

How long have I been standing out here?

She jumped when her phone went off, a reminder that there were only five minutes until curfew. It had taken almost twenty to reach the clearing. She gulped, hoping Kara had already passed out on the couch or somewhere else, and that she’d been too drunk to remember to set the alarm.


“Well, look who it is!”

Stephanie’s lips were twisted in her usual fake smile, her eyes colder than ever. Lena glared defiantly back at her as she slammed her locker shut. Two weeks had passed since she’d had to deal with the girl, she’d started hoping it would stay that way.

“What do you want now?” she asked flatly. Stephanie’s smile dropped.

“I know you’ve been talking about Jason,” she continued angrily. “And I want you to stop.”

Lena crossed her arms, meeting the taller girl’s scowl.

“Can I at least know why you’re asking?”

You’re the one who’s going to stop asking,” Stephanie spat. “Because Jason is mine!”

Lena smirked.

“Then you’ve got nothing to worry about, Steph,” she stepped back and flashed her own smug grin. “I’m not interested in guys stupid enough to want you.”

Stephanie growled in frustration, then stormed down the hall, shoving aside anybody who got in her way. Lena shook her head, turning when someone laughed behind her.

“About time someone else stood up to her.”

Jason was smiling as he shut his locker. Lena noticed he was taller than she’d thought—the top of her head barely hit his shoulder. He wore a blue baseball shirt, dark jeans and square-toed black boots; a thin gold chain peeked out from his collar.

“How long were you listening to that?” she asked, thankful he hadn’t tried to step in and save her. She was sick of people thinking she couldn’t fight her own battles. He shrugged, running his fingers through his arrow-straight hair, worn loose today. She’d never thought much about the five o’clock shadow thing, but he definitely made it work.

“Long enough.”

He started toward the front doors, motioning for her to follow.

“Why the sudden interest?” she asked once she caught up. He looked at her.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been here for over a month,” she clarified. “And you’ve barely even looked at me.”

They turned onto the old dirt path that ran next to the school.

“I don’t know,” he stuck his hands in his pockets. “Guess I got curious.”

There were a pair of benches halfway up the trail, made by former wood shop students. Lena pulled off her headband as they sat down, rolled it up and shoved it in her pocket.

“Let me guess, you heard a skinny blond guy with a big mouth bragging about how he got me to screw him my first day.”

He chuckled again.

“Your name’s Lena, right? Ty said you guys grew up together.”

She nodded, a little surprised. Ty had spent most of the last week telling her about Jason, and now they’d all been talking about her, too?

“We were best friends from daycare,” she started, her eyes glued to her lap. Her skirt was wrinkled. “He was about the only one who wasn’t scared off somehow…”

She clenched her jaw as a spattering of memories ran through her mind, feeling the tears she thought she had buried rushing to the surface. She looked up sharply when Jason touched her hand, his skin rough and warm against hers.

“Everything okay?” he asked softly. She did her best to blink the tears away. She hated it when boys saw her cry.

“Y-Yeah, sorry,” she touched her forehead. “Got kind of dizzy for a second.”

“You sure that’s all it was?” he pressed gently. “You looked pretty upset.”

Her jaw tightened again, his worried gaze burning into her.

“I don’t talk about it,” she snapped. “Especially with people I just met.”

She noticed he was still staring at their hands, the edge of a fresh bruise peeking out from her sleeve. She pulled away, shoving her fists in her pockets.

“My stepmom was drunk,” she muttered, barely looking at him. “It was an accident.”

He visibly tensed.

“I always said the same thing about my family,” his coal-dark eyes hardened. “It’s never an accident.”

She swallowed hard. He was kind of scary when he was mad.

“But maybe I could help you,” he went on, his tone soft and comforting again. “Though you’d have to tell me what happened.”

She hesitated. It did sound like he wanted to help, 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 hanging on the fence. She told herself that nothing good had come from keeping quiet about it all back home, not that anyone had been trying too hard to listen, and that shutting people out had caused half her problems, anyway. She swallowed again, deciding she might as well take the plunge.

“Okay, but it’s a long story,” she looked up at him, taking solace in the warmth of his gaze. “And it started when my dad met a woman named Kara.”

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