Her eyes wondered around the cafeteria. Touching on everyone at least once. One of the things she loved most about her school was how everyone could eat lunch at the same time. The lunchroom was large enough to accommodate everyone, but just to make sure there was an outside eating area as well.
In middle school, she’d went two years without having lunch hour with her best friend.
Westbrook High was large but not so large that she couldn’t tell you the name of just about everyone here. And their story. At least bits and pieces of it.
There were four elementary schools that empty into two middle schools, that all came to Westbrook high.
It was the same across the river at Eastbrook High.
The whole town mostly comprises subdivisions. Everyone lived here but everyone worked in the city.
Close enough that you could commute. Far enough away you didn’t have to put up with a lot of noise or crime.
Her dad was born and raised here, and her mom had gone to high school here. They never thought to raise her anywhere else.
They wouldn’t get any complaints from her. She loved it here. Loved knowing everyone by name. Loved feeling safe. Unhurried. You couldn’t pay her to live in the city.
Her warm grey eyes came to rest on the table across from her. Stacy and Stacey. They’ve been dating about a year now. Both on the swim team. Both blond hair and blue eyes. His just a shade darker.
Here lately she’s been watching them a lot. The way they lean in close to each other. Eyes only for each other. No one else ever needed. They were in their own little bubble.
“Sarah Jane, I feel like you’re not listening.”
“That’s because she’s not.”
“I am.” Not necessarily a lie. She didn’t have to be listening to know what they were talking about.
As head cheerleader, Chloe would be all about the big game on Friday. Treat bags needed to be made.
Madison would be trying to figure out this year’s project. She was all about her college application. She was smart. Her parents were rich. She was in every club imaginable. When it came time for college, schools would beg her to join them, but that never stop the girl from worrying about it. Her mother had gone to Harvard. Her father to Duke. It was a lot to live up to.
Attie would be studying for next hour’s quiz. Out of all of them she had to work the hardest for her good grades.
Aubrey would be stealing glances at Luke Davenport.
She knew what her friends were doing. What they were thinking. She just didn’t know her own self right now. For weeks, she hasn’t been feeling like herself.
Stacy and Stacey were not helping matters. Their closeness caused a longing in her.
Or maybe it was realizing that what they had, is not what she had with Jax. It wasn’t what her parents had anymore.
A giggle a couple tables away caused her to look that way.
Gibby Gibson’s cheeks were rosy as she handed Ayden Scott a cupcake. Those two have been together longer than she could remember. Every day for lunch Gibby always had Ayden a special treat and a special smile just for him.
Smiling, she looked back at Madison. “I know. We’ll think of something. We always do.”
“Nothing that will top last year.”
Probably not. Last year they’d somehow managed to get the money for three new homes built and donated to three families who were in need.
The school board had made a big deal about it.
Yes, it would look good for a college resume but that wasn’t how all of this got started. It was supposed to be about doing good. In ninth grade, the five of them donated four days a month to a needy person in town.
She had loved spending those days with Mr. Akins. Listening to all his old stories. Even after the year was up, she still went to visit him. Then he passed away. She cried all summer over losing him.
Tenth grade year they’d been all about keeping the town beautiful. Hours picking up trash. Helping wherever they could. Cleaning yards. Washing town windows. They’d gotten enough money donated that a new town sign was put up. It was big with lights and said, ‘Where everyone wished they lived.’
It would be hard to top last year. Last year hadn’t been as hands on as the other years but the outcome had been amazing. Seeing how happy those three families had been was worth going from business to business begging for money.
“Somebody better think of something. This year counts the most and I’m out of ideas.”
Chloe’s eyes grew wide. “That’s a first.”
Laughing, Madison slapped at her.
“Here come the boys.” Aubrey whispered.
The football team ate together but as soon as they were done eating, they headed off in different directions. Most headed to the cheerleaders, but a few headed their way.
Three out of five of them were cheerleaders. Chloe was the captain but if you asked anyone in the school, there was the cheerleader table and then there was the queen bee table.
Sarah Jane never cared for them being called that. Chloe adored it. Madison and Attie never said as much, but she knew they liked it as well. Aubrey was the only one who never seemed to notice that everyone acted like their group was some type of royalty.
Which was why Sarah Jane hated it.
She didn’t want to be thought of as better than anyone else. She wasn’t anywhere close to better than anyone.
As soon as Jax headed in her direction, Sarah Jane tensed. Silently, she said a little prayer that he wouldn’t sit next to her.
When he did, she prayed he wouldn’t reach for her hand.
She felt Attie’s eyes on her.
Travis sat next to Chloe but reached around her to close Attie’s book. “Ladies, did you miss us?”
“Always.” Attie flirted back but her eyes stayed on Sarah Jane.
Attie and Chloe were the flirts. Aubrey was very shy, but she was beautiful and sweet, so Ian and Chase were practically sitting on her trying to get her to smile. Which she did.
Sarah Jane tried to take back procession of her hand without making a big deal out of it.
Jax gave her hand a warning squeeze while keeping up his conversation with Grant and Sean.
This time she thought she’d gotten through to him.
What did you do when you were trying to break up with someone who wouldn’t let you break up with them?
Her best friend said there was only one thing left to do. Do it publicly. God, she hated to do that but what else could she do?
She’s tried talking to him. She’s even tried being stern. He hadn’t even looked up from his Xbox.
They’d been dating two months. Two months too long. Everything had been perfect the first couple of weeks then he started having more bad moods than good moods. Every time he got into an argument with his father his moods became unpredictable. And he had arguments with his father a lot.
One last time, she tried to pull her hand away from his.
He squeezed her fingers tight.
That was something he did often. They’d known each other forever but until they started dating, she hadn’t believed he had a mean bone in his body.
Across the table, Attie stood up giving Sarah Jane the encouragement she needed. He had left her no choice.
Sighing, Sarah Jane accepted what she had to do and sent up another little prayer that he wouldn’t cause a big scene.
“Jax, I’m sorry but I’m breaking up with you. I hope we can still be friends.”
Surely it was her imagination that the whole cafeteria stilled at her words. There was no way everyone had heard her soft reply. For a moment she worried he hadn’t heard her, then he gave her hand another hard squeeze before throwing it away from him.
“You really just did that?”
Her only thought was on making a getaway, but he wasn’t letting that happen.
His fingers bit into her arm as he yanked her to him. “You’ve got to be shitting me. We’ll talk about this later.”
“No. No more talking.” She winced when his fingers dug deeper.
If everyone hadn’t been watching before, they were now.
Stacey stood up. Ayden was on his way over, but not one boy on the football team made a move to help her. She was friends with most of them, dated a few of them, but Jax was the captain of the football team. He was important to them.
In about five seconds things would get out of control. Madison looked like she was about to throw her lunch tray at him, and soon a boy who wasn’t afraid of him would make him take his hands off her.
“Jax, don’t do this.” She said, more for his benefit than for hers.
“Whatever. I was tiring of you, anyway.”
As soon as he turned away from her, Attie grabbed her and drugged her into the nearest restroom. “See! That wasn’t so bad.”
Sarah Jane blinked back tears. “Are you kidding? That was straight out of a nightmare.”
“Could have been worse. I was about to smack him upside the head with my book.”
Chuckling, she believed her. Attie always had her back.
Pushing up the sleeves of her shirt, her friend surveyed the damage. “I might go out there and hit his pretty face, anyway.”
“Please, don’t. It’s over. Let’s leave it at that.”
Attie looked in the mirror and gave her curls a fluff then started to reapply her lipstick. With Attie’s complexion, she didn’t need makeup, but she always carried lipstick in her pocket.
Her own reflection needed a lot more work. She was pale. Paler than usual. Her eyes pale grey. Thank goodness for makeup.
“Are you going to have a problem if I want to date him?”
Sarah Jane couldn’t have been more shocked. Or worried at the thought.
Not just because they’d just broken up like five seconds ago but because Attie knew what she’d been going through with Jax. She just didn’t know how bad it had gotten.
“Our rules are we can date anyone who wasn’t in a relationship with one of us for longer than four months.”
Any relationship she’d hoped to have with Jax was long gone. He wasn’t who they thought he was.
“Don’t look so stun. You know how much I liked him last year.”
True but he’d been dating Sara Lungberg then, only breaking up with her when she graduated. Attie had met Chris from Eastbrook High. She’d been crazy about him and completely over Jax.
Sarah Jane had made sure of it before agreeing to go out with him.
That was before Chris was caught messing around with a girl from St. Thomas prep school.
“It’s not a good idea. You saw how he was in there.”
“I’m not worried about that. He just needs someone who can be just as handsy and loud as he is. Someone who gives as good as she gets.”
“Attie, you don’t know . . . .”
“The only thing you could say that will change my mind is that you still have feelings for him. And I already know you don’t.”
They faced each other. “I don’t, but I love you to death. I would never forgive myself if he lays a hand on you.”
“He won’t. Don’t worry so much.”
“Obviously, you don’t know me as well as I thought. That’s all I will do.”
“It’ll be fine. You’ll see. Who knows, he might not even give me the time of day.”
Yeah, right. Attie was beautiful. Curvy in all the right places. Fun. And after today, he would be needing a rebound girl.
“Attie, please. . . . “
“I’ll be fine. Trust me. Have you ever known me to take shit from anyone?”
“Damn straight. You’re the nice one.”
“Aubrey’s the nice one.”
“No, she’s the shy one.”
“They sexy one, of course.”
Out of the two of them, Attie was the more experienced one, and she knew how to take care of herself. “Promise me. One bruise and you end it. Then we’ll all taking baseball bats to his precious car.”
That promise didn’t make her feel better when she watched Attie and Jax drive off together after school.
Aubrey gave her a nudge. “She’ll be fine.”
Sarah Jane managed a small smile, but Aubrey already had her eyes back on Luke. Him and three of his pals were piling into his truck.
“You can do better, sweetie.”
Luke Davenport was the captain of the basketball team. The best-looking guy in the school, if that ballot cast last year by the cheerleaders was right. He was also a man whore. And proud of it.
He never gave Aubrey the time of day because she wasn’t what he was looking for in a girl. Fast and easy.
That didn’t stop her from being head over heels for him.
“I better go. Mom wants me to go to yoga with her.”
Sarah Jane waved as the other girl got into her white Lexus and pulled out of the parking lot.
It was already getting late. The only ones still inside were the slow movers on the football team, the art class that met on Mondays, and Addison.
Yearbook had let out nearly an hour ago, but Addison was always the last one to leave. And he always had a few who needed a ride home.
Didn’t have a ride? Call Addison. He’d drop everything.
Unless Attie had the keys.
The balm of their whole lives was that they had to share a car. Neither understood why since their parents had enough money to buy another one. Attie’s theory was that they were afraid she’d be parking way too much.
Addison’s theory was that they just loved the hassle this caused their kids, they loved the moaning and groaning.
Sarah Jane would put her money on Attie being right.
Not that her friend slept around a lot. She didn’t. Her parents just wanted to help keep it that way.
Attie loved her twin, but they had absolutely nothing in common.
Addison was only a step away from being Sheldon Cooper. A hot Sheldon Cooper.
Yes, they were as different as twins could be, but she wouldn’t change one thing about them. Even if that meant standing out here waiting forever because he couldn’t walk and talk at the same time. He also never texted and could go days without checking his phone.
When he finally emerged, she rolled her eyes. Beth, Jennifer, Cole and Annetta all followed after him. Annetta also just happened to live the farthest away. She also had a very nice car she’d probably left at home just so she could have sometime alone with Addison.
Poor girl, he wouldn’t even notice how much trouble she’d gone to.
Before he could start her way, she held her hand up to her ear like it was a telephone. He was smart, he’d know she wanted an update on Attie as soon as she got home.
Finally able to, Sarah Jane got in her own car and headed home.
A dark empty home.
Four bedrooms, a tv in every room. Swimming pool. Hot tub. A huge kitchen even though her mom never cooked. A dining room with a table big enough for ten people. But there was just her.
They’d never had a big family. Her mom’s parents died when her mom was only seven. Her sister had never recovered from that same accident and died less than a year later. From then on, her mom was raised by a crazy uncle who adored her.
They travelled around the world and a tutor homeschooled her mom until she was in high school. Then he had bought her this huge house and had made a home for her.
Sarah Jane could almost remember him. A small, fleeting image. He’d died in a fishing accident in Alaska when Sarah Jane was five. More than anything, she remembered how still her mom had gone when she got the news of his death.
Her own eyes had filled with tears and had ran down her pudgy cheeks, but her mom had gone still and once she could move again, she was different. It was like something inside of her had turned off that day. It was a very long time before she was turned back on again.
She had looked and sounded like her momma, but she hadn’t felt like her momma anymore. She’d once asked her dad where her real momma was, and he’d told her she’d went where it didn’t hurt anymore. He said that’s all you could do when you’ve lost too much.
He’d told her not to worry that she’d find her way back to them and she had.
The three of them were everything to each other.
Dad lost his parents six years ago. He cried silently, holding her tight while she cried, but he reassured her that he was okay. He was sad, but he had her and mom so he would be okay.
He was okay.
She couldn’t pinpoint when he had left them. She’d gone over it and over it in her head and she just didn’t know when she’d lost him.