Chad chuckled mischievously as he balled up his taco wrapper around wilted lettuce shreds and left over sour cream.
“Hey guys, check this out.”
He tossed it over his shoulder, his smile growing when a disgusted shout cut through the cafeteria chatter. It had landed in Alex Scull’s lap, the gray-eyed brunette and the rest of her small table glaring hatefully at him. They were the only ones besides Eric who still took Stephanie seriously, at least most of the time. The group’s laughter died down as they noticed Lena’s silence. She was staring blankly at her tray, slowly stirring her plain, lumpy mashed potatoes with a white plastic fork.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Ty asked. “You’re usually the loudest when we screw with them.”
“Hm?” she looked up, her eyes glazed like she was half asleep. She forced herself to swallow a small bite, then nibbled on the tines. “I was just thinking about a dream I had last night.”
Chad got up and threw out the rest of his trash, then took the empty seat on her other side.
“You mean the one I overheard you and Autumn talking about this morning?”
She nodded, taking another tiny forkful.
“Jason was in it,” she started quietly. “And I’m pretty sure Stephanie was, too.”
Lena and Jason were on the dirt path next to the school, immersed in a pleasant conversation. He whirled when an engine roared behind them, a powder blue Porsche convertible skidding to a stop inches from where they stood. He stepped between Lena and the girl climbing silently from the driver’s seat, her face hidden by the abnormally thick shadows of the trees that towered overhead. Her eyes stood out, though, pools of ice that cut to the core.
“You made a mistake when you went against me,” her low voice burned with anger, hatred. She brought her hand out from behind her, her fingers clasped tightly on the grip of an old pistol splashed with rust. Jason moved further in front of Lena, meeting the other girl’s glare with his own.
“You’ll have to get through me first,” he snapped at her. Lena’s blood froze when she giggled manically.
“Thanks for making it easy for me, sweetheart,” she raised her hand and pulled the trigger. Lena hadn’t thought it fired until Jason lurched, a ragged, bloody hole in his shirt. He pressed his hands to the wound, and Lena screamed as a second round slammed into his thigh.
“Stop it!” she helped him to the ground as his strength faded. The tears running down her face mixed with the blood leaking from his ashen lips. “You’re killing him!”
The other girl laughed again, taking aim at his shuddering chest.
“Don’t worry, I planned to.”
The shot echoed; Lena held his head in her lap as the last of the light faded from his eyes. She leaned down so her forehead touched his, her tears soaking his warm, still face. The murderess stood there and watched, tapping the smoking muzzle slowly against her cheek.
“I was going to kill you, too,” she said carelessly, her lips curled in a smirk. They were red as blood. “But I think I’ll let you live. It’s too much fun watching you suffer.”
She climbed in her car and drove away, her crazed laughter dancing mockingly on the wind as the sun faded behind heavy gray clouds.
“It was just a dream,” Lance said when she’d finished. He’d never been the best at comforting people. “It’s nothing to worry about.”
“He’s right, Lena,” Heather stopped at their table. “I know it’s hard sometimes, but you can’t let that stuff get to you.”
She bit her lip, and Chad straightened in his chair, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“I know that look,” he said worriedly. “What’s going on?”
Heather tugged on a long pigtail.
“I’m surprised you haven’t heard yet,” she said. “But Stephanie’s spent most of the day bragging about how she got an email from Jason, that he was tired of ‘the little nobody’ that’s been trailing him everywhere. Give you one guess who she means.”
She leaned closer, her frosted pink lips in a worried frown.
“Most of us don’t even listen to her anymore,” she told Lena. “But I thought you’d want to hear it before she tried wasting your time with it.”
Lena nodded faintly, got up and dumped the rest of her lunch in the trash. That dream had been stuck in her head all morning, her stomach tied in knots. It didn’t help that dealing with Stephanie’s crap always made her lose her appetite.
Why do I still let it get to me?
She went to the hallway, debating whether to head right out the front doors and spend the rest of the day hiding from the world in the clearing.
“It’s all that little slut’s fault!” Stephanie yelled from inside a classroom. Lena stopped by the door, her morbid curiosity getting the best of her. “She took you away from me, Jason!”
Jason groaned, sounding fed up.
“Look, I don’t know what I did to make you think I like you, but I don’t, I never did,” he added vehemently. “Your mom pays me to tutor you, and I just quit.”
Stephanie gasped, her voice full of tears. Lena ducked back when the door flew open, the other girl running out as she sobbed into her hands. Jason stopped in the doorway, watching as she fled outside, then shook his head.
“She’s lost it,” he muttered. Lena chuckled weakly.
“I think the whole town knows that by now.”
“No kidding,” he turned to her. “What’s going on?”
“Heather told me Stephanie’s been bragging about an email she got from you,” she rolled her eyes. Seeing Stephanie like that had oddly lifted her mood. “I figured she was just blowing hot air again.”
He laughed, leaning against the jamb.
“I know,” he smiled at her. “That’s one of the things I like about you, you don’t let her get to you.”
She giggled. No point in correcting him there.
“What else do you like about me?”
He actually blushed, the last thing she’d expected from him.
“Well, pretty much everything,” he put a hand on her waist, the warmth of his touch shooting up her back. “And you know that party Autumn’s been talking about?”
She smoothed a swath of hair over her shoulder.
“You mean the charity thing your grandma throws every year?” she smiled at him. “What about it?”
He flashed that smart smirk of his.
“Would you like to go with me?”
“Hmm,” she tapped her chin, pretending to think about it. “I’ll have to check my calendar, but I think I can make it.”
He chuckled again.
“Great,” he took his hand away, then brushed her cheek. “So I’ll see you next Saturday, then.”
Stephanie didn’t try to muffle her sobbing. She’d gone straight out the doors after her fight with Jason, following the front sidewalk until it branched onto the dirt path beside the building. A circle of painted stones sat at the end under a small canopy, each one honoring a student who’d died, going back to 1910. As if that stupid wall of plaques in the library wasn’t enough for them.
She fell to her knees, scanning the names and dates without really seeing them. She’d been drawn to this place since her freshman year, though she’d never been sure why. None of these people mattered now, most not even when they’d been alive. It was all just a big waste of time, trying to honor people who wouldn’t even know if they’d been forgotten.
She wiped her eyes, running her fingers over the one by her knee. Each stone was the size of her fists put together, some smoother or more rough than others, she guessed to reflect what the person had been like in life. This one was smooth, painted to look like part of a coral reef, the bright colors and thin, crisp black lines under the shiny varnish blurring through her tears.
‘For Jonathan Priceton,’ she could barely make the words out, written in tiny, perfect black cursive: ‘A short, shining life with an ever-lasting presence, 1983-1997’. She’d heard about him from one of her old tutors—he’d been the late vice principal’s youngest son and had died instantly when his family’s car had been T-boned. But why was she wasting time thinking about him?
I don’t care about these people, she shook her head. The only one that mattered was Jason, and she’d come so close to snagging him more than once, only for some worthless bitch to swoop in and ruin everything. Not that it had taken long to make those girls change their minds about him.
Her nails dragged through the damp, freezing soil as her fists clenched, fresh tears welling in her burning eyes.
It’s going to be different this time, she vowed silently. No one can have him but me!
Her resolve hardened, she got to her feet, not bothering to brush off her jeans before turning her back on the memorial. She had some planning to do, and she knew just where to start.
Enjoy it while you can, bitch, she laughed quietly. Because now, I’m coming for you!
“Oh, I can’t wait!”
Autumn skipped down the hallway without a care in the world. Lena grabbed her arm and tugged her back against the wall by a row of lockers.
“Calm down,” she snapped quietly. “Everyone’s staring at you like you’ve lost it!”
Autumn just hopped eagerly in place.
“Oh, I can’t help it,” she squealed softly. “Ty wants us to go to the party together!”
Lena stared at her, then dropped her wrist, figuring she might as well let the girl stay on cloud nine.
“How’d you guys get together, anyway?”
Autumn blushed, giggling.
“I’ve always volunteered to show new kids around,” she explained. “But I didn’t expect him to be so cute when he showed up!”
Lena chuckled. Ty was attractive in his own way, but she’d always seen him as a brother, rather than boyfriend material.
“He asked me out his first day here,” Autumn went on, nearly exploding in joy. “And we had our first kiss under the mistletoe last Christmas!”
“Wow…” Lena followed her springy steps with sullen ones. Andy had pushed himself to the front of her mind again; she stared down at her hands, unable to forget the day they’d been covered in his blood.
Lena snapped back to reality, gently untangling the auburn strands that had caught in her necklace. Autumn turned to her with an expectant look. Lena blinked.
“I said, ‘so is Jason your first boyfriend?’. You were spacing out again,” she added with concern. Lena sighed.
“First off, he’s not my boyfriend, and he wouldn’t be my first one,” she swallowed, glad that, for once, tears weren’t threatening to spill. “Andy and I ended…pretty badly, I still hate thinking about it.”
She fidgeted as Autumn kept watching her. She really had a sick fascination with some things.
“I didn’t exactly get to date much,” she continued nervously. “I was the girl most guys didn’t touch unless they wanted to make someone jealous.”
Autumn gaped at her.
“You didn’t,” she almost whispered it. “…did you?”
Lena glared at her.
“What do you think?” she demanded. “You really think I wanted that reputation? I don’t even know how it started!”
Autumn winced, then shuffled her feet, glancing around awkwardly.
“Uh, listen, I’d love to stay, but I…have to get to the animal shelter!” she flashed a big, fake smile, then rubbed the back of her neck. “So, I’ll see you later?”
Lena’s low spirits fell through the floor.
“Y-Yeah, okay,” she muttered, her eyes glued to the big cream tiles. “Sure…”
Autumn smiled again, then hurried off. Lena slumped against the wall, wondering where she could go so no one would hear as she bawled her eyes out. Did Autumn really think less of her now that she knew all of that? Was Washington High destined to become the next Ford Academy?
I can’t go through that again, she thought helplessly. I just can’t!
Her vision blurred by tears, she didn’t notice Chad until he was right in front of her, dressed in navy sweats and a long-sleeve white shirt with a black sports bag hanging off his shoulder.
“Hey,” the usual hint of a grin on his lips faded when she looked up at him. “You okay?”
She rubbed her eye.
“H-Hey, Chad,” she hiccuped. “Yeah, I’m good.”
“You don’t sound like it,” he hitched his shoulder to adjust the strap, gazing at her with worried blue eyes. “Feel like talking about it?”
She shook her head, then turned away from him. He blew out a breath.
“Look, I know I’m an asshole sometimes,” he scratched at a small scar on his cheek, nearly identical to Jason’s. “Okay, a lot, but it doesn’t mean I don’t care about you.”
She bit her lip.
“It’s not you,” she assured him weakly. She crossed her arms, slipping toward the floor. Why wouldn’t these feelings just leave her alone? “It’s not any of you…”
“What is it, then?” he asked. “Maybe I can help.”
She shook her head again.
“Not unless you have a gun I can borrow.”
“I don’t like where this is going,” he sounded wary. She pushed away from the wall.
“It’s nothing like that,” she looked at him. “I wanted to see if there was a shooting range somewhere, but I don’t have a gun.”
“Oh,” he glanced down the hall, still on edge. “I’ve got track now, but if you can stick around, I’ll take you after.”
“No problem there,” she gave a weak shrug. “I have to talk to the counselor, and that’ll take a couple hours at least.”
“Uh, okay, cool,” his voice cracked; he cleared his throat. “I’ll meet you in the parking lot when I’m done, see you then.”
Chad looked on while Lena aimed, the laser sight trained dead center on the target. His father and uncle were co-owners of the range, a repurposed warehouse on the outskirts of town. He hadn’t fired a single shot, content just to watch her.
“So why’d you want to come here?” he adjusted his protective headphones, he could never get them to fit right. She fired, missing the bullseye by a quarter of an inch.
“My mom used to take Michael and me, she was actually one of the best shots in the state,” she shifted her grip. “The first time I shot was my sixth birthday, but I haven’t touched one since she died.”
He went to grab the box of ammo he’d left on the table behind them.
“So this reminds you of your mom?”
“Yeah, but it’s not just that,” she took a deep breath, firing after each word. “There’s also Kara…Stephanie…”
The gun clicked empty, and she turned to glare at him.
“And boys that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
He cringed, he definitely deserved that one.
“That’s not why I’ve been acting like that,” he explained quickly, going on before he lost his nerve. “I’m doing it because I know Jason likes you, and I’m hoping that getting him jealous will make him act on it.”
She looked incredulously at him.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
He grinned sheepishly, flashing his silver tooth.
“I didn’t think you’d play along.”
She pulled off her headphones and set them next to the gun, putting her hands on her hips.
“When did you come up with this little ‘plan’ of yours?”
“A while ago,” he took off his, messing with them as he talked. “We were working on something for chem and he let it slip. I knew he wouldn’t do anything about it, so…I decided to help him out.”
She kept staring at him, making him squirm.
“And I’m pretty sure Autumn already told you,” he went on. “But J doesn’t really trust easily because of his sister. She and their brother almost killed him when they were kids.”
Her jaw dropped; she blinked several times, then shook her head.
“No one really knows, and everyone was too scared of them to try looking into it. They disappeared years ago,” he added. “And to this day, no one knows where they went.”
His phone went off as he finished, the obnoxious chirp bouncing off the reinforced concrete walls. He pulled it from his shirt pocket, his eyes widening when he saw the number.
“Uh…I have to take this, be right back.”
He hurried outside and circled behind the building. It was in the middle of an overgrown field, one of the largest open areas on the island.
“Your timing sucks,” he hissed in annoyance. “I’m already with her.”
“I don’t care about that right now,” the voice was heavily distorted, as always. “What I want to know is, is she catching on?”
He thought back to every conversation he’d had with Lena, as muffled gunshots sounded from inside. She was either laughing or pissed at him, but she never acted like she knew he was hiding something.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “She doesn’t seem suspicious of anything, at least.”
“Good, keep it that way,” the person laughed, sending chills down his spine. “We don’t want her spoiling our little game just yet.”
“But what about…him?” he bit his lip, knowing how much trouble he could get in just for mentioning it. “He’s bound to catch on sooner or later.”
“Leave him to me,” any trace of laughter was gone. “You just take care of the girl.”
He opened his mouth, then closed it, suddenly feeling unsure. Was this really the right way to go about things? Likely not, but he knew it was the only way they could go about it, if they expected to fix anything. He swallowed.
The line clicked, and he stared at his phone. In all the time he had done this, he’d never seen things move so quickly. Was it possible someone else was involved? He shook his head.
Whatever, he shoved it back in his pocket. Doubt was a luxury he couldn’t afford, now that the stakes were sky high. I have my orders, that’s all I need to worry about.
Jason fell back on the bleachers with an exhausted sigh, grabbed the hem of his loose white uniform shirt and swiped at the sweat trickling down his face. His PE class had been split down the middle, engaged in a game of full-court basketball. The painkillers he’d downed before school had worn off, and the fluorescent lights buzzing incessantly overhead just made the pounding at his temples worse. He’d been in such a rush that he’d forgotten his sunglasses on his desk at home, and the cheap spare pair he kept in his locker had snapped in half after getting knocked off by a fumbled rebound.
He buried his face in his hands, trying to block out the noise as he counted down the minutes until the bell. It only worked until Chad plopped down on the row above, planting his filthy sneakers less than an inch from Jason’s face.
“Might as well give it up, J,” he sounded more smug than usual. “That hottie’s good as mine.”
Jason scoffed, keeping his back to the blond as he stood. Chad chuckled and jumped to the floor.
“You really think you still have a shot?” he asked arrogantly. “You haven’t even made a move on her yet!”
Jason rolled his eyes and crossed his arms, blowing a loose lock of hair off his cheek.
“Doesn’t mean she’d be desperate enough to date you.”
He went stiff as Chad walked up behind him—what the hell was up with the guy today?
“I think we both know what your problem is,” he said, his voice low. “You chickenshit.”
He tensed, fists tightening at his sides as he glared over his shoulder.
“What did you just call me?”
He didn’t like Chad’s laugh then, quiet and almost nasty.
“You heard me,” he said slowly, his cut lips turning up in a smirk. The rest of the class had stopped playing, every eye in the room glued to them. “Chicken…shit.”
The lights flickered as Jason snapped around, grabbed the blond’s shirt and hauled him up, so only the tips of his toes touched the floor.
“No one calls me that,” he snarled. “And gets away with it.”
His grip tightened, and Chad gulped.
“You don’t have the balls,” the words shook a bit. Jason glowered at him, then shoved him away, the lights above rocking on their thick wires. Chad landed flat on his ass, but got up quickly.
“I’m not wasting my time,” he said. “Now piss off before I change my mind.”
Chad seemed to hesitate, then snatched the ball from one of their classmates; Jason grunted in pain, staggered back a step when it hit him full-force in the face.
“What the hell is wrong with you, man?” Jason stared at him, a hand pressed to his nose. Chad caught the ball when it bounced back, his nails digging into it before he threw it aside.
“You’ve been top dog for too long,” he was suddenly angry. “It’s time you gave it up.”
Jason gaped at him, feeling a trickle of blood drip from his left nostril.
“What the hell are you talking about? What’s gotten into you?”
He was caught off-guard when Chad sprinted toward him, throwing a fist at the side of his head. It missed, caught on his nose and made the bleeding worse. Jason fell back another step, the lights rocking again as he stared open-mouthed at his friend, the blond panting through clenched teeth. He caught Chad’s next punch easily, reacting instinctively with a sharp blow to the temple. Chad crumpled like a rag doll in his arms, and Jason was surprised how hard it was to fight the urge to just throw him to the floor.
“I still don’t know what the hell happened back there,” Jason said now. He and Chad had just finished a week of detention for the fight, and had avoided each other since. “I don’t know what was crazier, how he acted, or how much I actually liked punching his lights out like that.”
He shivered, making it clear how much the thought bothered him. Ty glanced past him at Lena, her fingers tight on the straps of her backpack as she stared at Jason through the curtain of her hair. Chad had finally explained his little plan to the rest of them, and Ty wondered how far the guy would go to get Jason to admit everything to her. He hoped it happened before the bonehead ended up dead.
“What happened after that?” Lena asked quietly. Jason reached to scratch the back of his neck.
“I got a couple guys to help drag him to the nurse’s office, then I ran out of there and didn’t look back. I was pissed at him for coming at me out of nowhere,” he continued. “But I think I was more pissed at myself because I didn’t walk away sooner. I could’ve really hurt him!”
Ty winced. Lance and Autumn had told him about other incidents Jason had been involved in, how quickly things always got out of control if he didn’t take off running first. He wondered if it had anything to do with how much Jason hated being called a coward, one of few things guaranteed to set him off.
“Remind me how the hell you guys are friends again,” he snorted. “Because it seems like you’re either fighting or competing at something.”
Jason shrugged, but didn’t give a real answer. There were times they could get along, when it didn’t involve girls or sports, though those moments had become rare once Lena had shown up. He wondered, did Chad have a crush on her, too?
Wouldn’t surprise me. He stopped to pick up the crumpled wrapper of a giant Hershey’s bar, likely bounced off the rim of the trash can and left there. He blinked when a shadow passed quickly by the corner of his eye, then shook his head, tossing it in the bin. She was pretty popular back in—
He stopped when he saw the shadow again, turning to scan the empty hallway behind him. He huffed a sigh, then hurried to catch up with Jason and Lena. The three of them were supposed to pick up Autumn on their way to Heather’s place for a study night, and it was his turn to get the food.
It’s probably nothing, anyway.
Alex waited a moment before sighing silently in relief, taking off from her hiding place by a bay of lockers. She cut through the back parking lot on her way to the football field, where Heather was leading the cheer squad through their newest routine—a series of moves that would probably make anyone who liked girls forget there was a game going on.
“Stephanie,” she waved excitedly at the older girl, sitting on the sidelines with a sketchpad as always, engrossed in another of her ‘masterpieces’. She was one of the best artists in town, though her work made most people feel like they’d walked right into a nightmare. She barely glanced up when Alex jogged over to her.
“Did you find them?” she sounded almost disinterested. Alex nodded.
“Yeah, I followed them just like you said to.”
“What’d you hear?” she dipped her brush in the ink pot sitting on the grass beside her, an authentic piece from eighteenth century Sapporo. “And don’t leave anything out!”
Alex sat down in front of her, trying and failing to keep her eyes off the picture—a heavily shadowed white rose in a tangled field of black vines, the thorns inverted so they cut into the delicate stem. She went through everything she’d overheard the past few days, her stomach tightening as Stephanie’s brush gradually came to a stop. At last, she looked up, her mouth slack in disbelief.
“You’re sure he said all that?” she asked. Alex nodded.
“And that’s not the worst of it,” she said. “He asked her to his grandma’s charity thing next weekend.”
The brush clattered to the page, ink spattering across the picture like black blood. Alex gulped, inching back as Stephanie’s fists tightened, her eyes burning with utter hatred.
“That…little…bitch,” she growled through clenched teeth. “Who the hell does she think she is?”
Alex watched as she kept fuming, brightening as she remembered the idea that had popped into her head that morning.
“Um, Stephanie?” she cowered when the girl turned that pale gray glare on her. “I-I know I shouldn’t say anything, since I’m sure you have a plan already, but—”
“What is it?” Stephanie demanded. Alex rubbed the front of her neck.
“I don’t know how good it is, though.”
She outlined the plan, adding details on the fly, her own smile growing when she saw the wickedly gleeful grin on the older girl’s face as she finished. Stephanie laughed, leaned forward and gripped her shoulder.
“I think you just moved yourself up a notch, Alex.”