Chapter 8: James Bond
The following day at school, the entire hallway went dead silent as soon as Parker walked through the double doors. I sucked in a breath, surprised at how dark the mark was on his eye. I knew Harrison had hit him, but I hadn’t think he’d socked him that badly. Richel was nowhere in sight, but she at least had managed to send me a text message the previous night before. Her and Parker had managed to clean everything up, leaving no traces of evidence that a party had even occurred, much less a scuffle in the backyard. As for the bruise on Parker’s face… well. You couldn’t exactly hide that.
“He definitely got busted for that,” Richel had told me through a quick phone call the night before. “But my dad will take care of it. Him and my mom already talked it out.”
I had chosen to stay silent on the other end, unsure of what exactly to say in return. How long would Parker carry the burden of his parent’s divorce alone? How long was I supposed to go along with it and leave Richel in the dark?
“Boo,” a voice whispered from behind me. They placed their hands on my shoulders, and I jumped, startled. I turned around, only to see Harrison, with bright eyes and a slightly less swollen lip. His eyes drifted past mine to Parker, who was still walking down the hallway with his head held high, his eyes looking straight ahead. The video was already running its course around school, a thirteen second clip of Harrison socking Parker near the swing set. They had both fallen down dramatically, but risen back up. I had even seen a blur of my face in it, too quick for anyone to truly recognize that it was me, but I knew. I had been there.
“This is not going to end well,” I groaned into my locker. Harrison chuckled, pulling me out of it.
“This is going to blow over in a matter of one week, tops,” he reassured. His hand was on my shoulder, and my arm was tingling. Then I spotted Leslie walking down the hall as well, heading straight towards us at a fast speed. Her heels were clacking against the floor, and her eyes seemed to be pinned on me. I gulped. By the time she reached us, she let out a breath, turning to Harrison.
“Someone just showed me a video on their cell phone of two boys punching each other, two boys that look a lot like you and Parker. Please tell me it’s not real,” she begged, her brows furrowed. Harrison turned around slowly, and Leslie slapped a palm against her forehead, gasping. “Christ, Harrison! After I drove you there to check on her-”
It dawned on me then that this meant Harrison had been with Leslie that night. He hadn’t been properly dressed, which could only mean that Leslie had been at his house, which could only mean… It could mean several things. I felt my cheeks heating up. It also meant that Leslie had known where I was enough to drive Harrison there. The second thing that dawned on me was that I was the “her” she was referring to.
“Her mom called me,” Harrison reasoned. I reeled backwards, almost as if I had been slapped. “What did you expect me to do?”
“I expected you to come out with her in less than five minutes, no fuss. But instead, you took your sweet time and got into a fight with a senior who is twice your size! I was waiting in the driveway for nearly twenty minutes! How did you two even get home?” she exclaimed, practically in hysterics. I slammed my locker door shut, slowly turning to Leslie. Something unexplainable was bubbling up inside of me, something that was dying to tear itself out. She narrowed her eyes at me. “What?”
I took a deep breath, swallowing. I wasn’t the type of girl who yelled. I wasn’t the type of girl to talk back, to stand up for myself or others. I was the type of girl to let things slide. But this time was inexcusable.
“It wasn’t his fault,” I said. “It was mine. Harrison just thought he was protecting me.”
“Yeah, and now he’s going to look horrible for our Spring Formal photos,” she snapped, clearly irritated. My face fell.
“You guys are going to spring formal together?” I asked in a small voice. She folded her arms, and Harrison’s eyes shifted uncomfortably to the ground.
“Look. I don’t know what’s going on here, but I would appreciate it if you didn’t drag Harrison into your experimenting with Parker.”
“Parker and I weren’t experimenting anything,” I shot back, my hands balling into fists.
“Leslie, come on,” Harrison said, placing a hand on her wrist. He shot me a sympathetic look. “Quit it.”
“No, I will not quit it. You don’t have to protect her like that all the time,” she said, shooting me a nasty look. I flinched.
“I do,” Harrison replied in a hard voice, staring straight at me. “She’s my best friend.”
I sent him a slow small smile, and the bell rang just in time before Leslie could get another word in. She took one last moment to shoot me a glare before storming off to class. I stubbed my sneaker into the ground, pulling the sleeves of my gray jacket over my knuckles. I leaned my head against my locker, shutting my eyes.
“I’m sorry she said all of those things,” Harrison murmured. “But like I said, this will all be old news in at least one week.”
“Great timing, since that’s when I’ll finally be ungrounded,” I sighed, opening my eyes and pulling my hair up into a bun. I could really care less about how I looked today.
“One week?” Harrison repeated, wincing. He slung an arm over my shoulder, the warning bell beeping in the background. “Don’t worry. After your sentence is up, I’ll make it up to you. I’ll take you-”
To the dance? my heart pathetically whispered.
“-to see that new movie in theatres, the action one.”
I grimaced, trying to hide my disappointment behind a faded smile. “Right,” I sighed, tightening the strap of my backpack onto my shoulders and trying, for what seemed to be the millionth time in the past couple of days, to keep it together.
My mind was racing as I bent my knees a bit, extending my arms out. It was the first practice of volleyball for me and I hadn’t hit the ball, not once. At least not properly.
“Come on, Gregory!” Coach Tracy yelled from the sidelines, flipping through pages on her clipboard with a pen tucked into her bun. I had always envied people who could do that with their hair. “Just one!”
The other girls on the team snickered, particularly the tall ones. The shorter girls, including Faith, looked at me with pitiful eyes and drooping mouths. The tall girls were known as the Spikers. A spike was apparently when you “served” the ball with the palm of your hand, throwing the ball just above your head before letting it come back down in time, swinging your arm back in an arch, and bringing it forward. It was a satisfying smack that echoed throughout the gym walls, and it felt good to me. I pretended the ball was the problem I wanted to conquer, or the problem that kept me awake at night tossing and turning, and I just hit it. I practically punched it in the face, only not with my knuckles. Doing an overhand serve with your knuckles is not a pleasant feeling; I had to learn the hard way.
“You alright?” Faith mumbled to me, swiping at the bead of sweat dripping down her forehead. I nodded, sending her a weak smile. One of the tall girls, Michelle, was eyeing me in an indecipherable way. I couldn’t tell if she hated me like the rest of the Spikers, or if she felt sorry for me, like the other eighty percent of the team. Either way, Michelle, a senior who stood at a whopping six feet and two inches, walked over to Faith and I. Coach didn’t even take it into attention because she was too busy penciling in different formations and rotations for the upcoming game.
“Hey,” Michelle said. I had seen Michelle on campus before. Michelle was a dark haired brunette with nicely shaped eyebrows that made her face seem much older than it was. The most I knew about Michelle was that her parents owned the biggest house in Melway, in a neighborhood that exclusively held only five three story houses. It was gated and everything.
“Hi,” I slowly replied. I adjusted one of the knee pads that Faith had let me borrow, which kept moving to the right instead of staying straight. Faith crossed her arms, glaring at Michelle.
“Cool it, Faith,” Michelle said straight away. “I’m not here to act like a giant bully to your friend.”
Faith’s shoulders sagged, but only a little. She lifted her chin up at Michelle, mostly because she was much shorter than she was and therefore really did have to look up in order to make direct eye contact. It was a height requirement, unfortunately.
“It’s Nina, right?” Michelle asked, turning towards me. I nodded. “I’m not sure why you chose to join our team since you don’t seem like the athletic type-”
“I thought you said you weren’t going to act like a giant bully, M,” Faith cut in. Michelle held up a patient hand before continuing.
“Our home game is coming up, and it’s against Trinity,” she stated, placing her hands on her hips.
“Trinity?” I questioned.
“Only the most snotty private school in the next town over. All girls. All bitc-”
“Did I tell you all to move from your positions?” Coach barked, and I scurried back to my spot. Michelle idled for a bit, staring at me, before slinking back to her spot like a cat. I still hadn’t been sure what she’d meant to say. Had she meant to say: “Hey, better play well at our home game or else you’re going to pay?” Or perhaps: “Don’t mess it up for the rest of us?” Whatever the implication, I could already feel myself shrinking. It was clear that the only people who wanted me on this team were Faith and Coach Tracy. Faith was biased only because she was my friend. Coach needed to fill up a spot. If I thought about it, technically only one person wanted me.
“Don’t pay any attention to her,” Faith said, rolling her eyes. “She just desperately wants to beat Trinity.”
“But why?” I asked.
“A girl on that team stole her boyfriend a couple of months ago. Michelle wants revenge. What better way than through sports?”
“Alright, everyone huddle up!” Coach yelled, and all of the girls moved to the center of the gym, huddling around in a circle. I looked around, realizing that I was a part of this now, even if it was only temporary and an advantage for the beauty pageant. “Our Trinity game is coming up this Friday. I know you’re all nervous, some of you more than others.” She flashed a glance at Michelle, who was biting her nails. “But there is nothing to be nervous about. We’ve been practicing. We’ve got a new addition to this team.” I felt myself perk up at that statement. “We can only go up from here. You guys can head home early.”
The girls whooped, pumping their fists in the air and clapping, grinning as they raced towards their gym bags. Clearly, they were eager to leave, perhaps to head on home and take a nap. I was sure it had been a long day for them. I tried to send a friendly smile to each and every girl I came into contact with, but they didn’t seem to reciprocate as much as I had hoped. I attempted to reassure myself, to remind myself that it was probably just their initial reaction to a new face. Everyone invited the unfamiliar in their own personal ways; this just happened to be their way.
“Do you think Coach is right? That we can only go up from here?” Faith asked, frowning and staring at her cellphone screen.
“Sure,” I mumbled, distracted. I watched as Michelle stared aimlessly at the ground, her palms fidgeting with the hem of her shirt. She stood in front of her gym bag, looking at her cellphone with both disdain and longing. I had always seen her as this tall giant with a menacing glare roaming through the hallways, but perhaps she was going through something she and I surprisingly had in common: wishing we could have someone we couldn’t have.
“I was wondering if-” The man in front of the counter abruptly stopped speaking as soon as the bell above the shop door rang. I stopped in my tracks, the door shutting softly behind me, looking from the man to my mother, who was standing behind the counter with flushed cheeks and her fingers behind her ear, tucking back a strand of loose hair from her bun. I tugged my earphone out, turning off my music. The man sent me a small smile.
“Nina,” Mom greeted, resting a hand on her hip. “How was school?”
“Fine,” I slowly replied, taking tentative steps towards the counter before I let my backpack slide off my shoulders with a thud onto the counter. I turned to the man. “Hello.”
It wasn’t that he seemed creepy. He didn’t. He was dressed in a decent manner- a white button up shirt, blue tie, and pressed black pants. His hair was clean cut, and he smelled of aftershave. He was a man that had seemingly walked out of a James Bond movie, which gave me full reason to eye him suspiciously.
“Hi there,” he said, his tone smooth and easy going. “Is this Nina then?” He had a British accent. This man was a living and breathing replica of Pierce Brosnan.
“Yes,” Mom replied, shifting uneasily on her elbow. I shot her a questioning look before turning back to Pierce Brosnan II. “Nina, this is Mr. Klein.”
And his last name was similar to the Calvin Klein underwear collection. How reassuring. “Um, hi,” I muttered. He extended his hand out to me, his handshake firm.
“Very nice to meet you. I was just telling your mother what a lovely store she had running here. She told me her daughter was a great help,” he explained, then shot me a grin. “That would be you.”
British lingo, check. Charming British grin, check. “Mom, are the roses doing alright in the greenhouse?” I asked instead.
She blinked, holding back a grimace. “Yes. Thank you for moving them.”
I was dumbfounded, standing there with my arms slack, my lump of a backpack sitting on the counter. Yesterday she had grounded me for one week, which was perfectly understandable, considering the fact that I had lied to her both directly and inadvertently. But now, she was standing here before me, obviously trying to hide something. The fact that I wasn’t a good liar? I got that from her.
“I guess I’ll just go to the refrigerators and check on the other flowers.” I picked up my backpack, hauling it over my shoulder. She nodded.
“Alright.” She turned back to Mr. Klein slash Pierce Brosnan II slash British Try Hard. Her eyes seemed glazed and in a trance. I hadn’t seen her stare at a man like that in ages. It was unnerving. What was even stranger was that it made me hate the man, the man who knew nothing about our family. He was probably some tourist who was making our flower shop a pit stop, and he was blinded by my mother’s beauty, like everyone else. The distinction that angered me was that this man was good looking, from head to toe. My father wasn’t. Sometimes in the back of my mind I wondered if…
If Mom had fallen out of love because Dad wasn’t physically appealing. A pretty person could only stare at an ugly thing for so long, right? People had been doing it to me my whole life. I was only glanced at before, and even then it would be by accident, never on purpose. Only now was I being seen because I looked different, better. I had thought it would make me feel whole, maybe even satisfied.
As I went to the back to the refrigeration section to check on the flowers being stored, my phone vibrated in my front jacket pocket. My eyes widened as I scrambled to answer it.
“Hello?” I asked.
“Hi there, this is Jane Lee calling with the Melway Beauty Pageantry. May I please speak to Nina Gregory?”
One, Jane Lee was calling me on my phone. Two, I was speaking to Jane Lee. Three, I was on the verge of having a mini heart attack. “This is Jane speaking,” I quickly replied, then took a deep breath to calm myself.
“Oh, well hi Nina!” Jane exclaimed, sounding a lot more cheerful. “I’m just calling to congratulate you on doing so well in our panel interview. You had thoughtful answers and you really sent us a genuine vibe, which is what we’re looking for.”
“It is? I mean it is!” I corrected. “Thank you.”
Jane laughed. Celebrities’ laughs always sound like they belong on the radio, or even set as a ringtone. “I also wanted to congratulate you on making it to the Top Twenty. You’re in the competition, Miss Gregory.”
I let out a loud squeal, attracting the attention of all the nearby customers, who shot me astonished looks. I covered my mouth but couldn’t stop myself from grinning. I had made it. I had actually managed to come one step closer to my goal. Maybe winning this pageant wasn’t so impossible after all. If I could pass an interview, I could strike a pose for a camera. I could strut down a stage. I could do this. I could.
“Wow, I… thank you… I don’t know what to say,” I stuttered, my cheeks beginning to ache from smiling.
“You are very welcome. You’ll be emailed the following itinerary for the upcoming events this week, so make sure to be on the look out for that and plan accordingly. And Nina?”
“Continue being yourself,” she said.
My shoulders wilted. Myself. But who was that anymore? Now that I looked different on the outside, was the Nina on the inside supposed to change, as well? “Of course,” I said. “Thank you.”
As soon as I hung up, I went to save the number into my phone (who wouldn’t save Jane Lee’s phone number if they got the chance?), but it was Unknown. There was no point in saving it, which was highly disappointing. I had always felt a strong connection to her character Mia on Starcrossed. It would have been fun to have a celebrity’s phone number in your contacts and just be able to call them and chat with them like normal people. I heard loud footsteps clomping along the ground and looked up. Mom came rushing over to me, her eyebrows raised. I peered behind her. Mr. Klein was gone. Good.
“Nina, is everything alright?” she asked, breathless. “I heard a shriek all the way from the front of the store.”
I grinned, nodding my head. “It is! I just got a-” I stopped, slowly closing my mouth. I couldn’t tell her. I wanted to tell her, but I didn’t want to tell her. I was grounded. I wasn’t supposed to be participating in anything for at least one week. She would be furious that I joined behind her back and lied about it being a school activity. But of course, I was also afraid. What if she was happy that I had gotten in and then started coming with me to competitions? No one would see me as me. They would recognize me as Flora Gregory’s daughter, and after they came to that conclusion, they would hone in on Flora Gregory herself. I wanted to do this on my way and win on my own terms.
“A what, honey?” she asked, smoothing the baby hairs down on my head.
“A good grade on my Math test. I passed,” I said, sending her a small smile. Technically, this was true. I had gotten a good grade on my Math test the previous day.
“Of course you did, Nina, you’re a genius,” she teased, kissing me on the cheek. “But really, that’s wonderful. Keep up the great work!”
I nodded, my smile fading as I watched her walk away. If there was another goal that I hoped to accomplish by the end of this competition, it wouldn’t just be to become pretty. It would be to stop feeling so afraid.