PrologueSmoke breaks. They were the only times I had just to myself. The feeling of the smoke as it filled my lungs when I inhaled centered me like nothing else could. They were also very good ways of escaping when I desperately needed to get away. Just like any other day during lunch I would escape from the table out the side door for just a reprieve. Sneak away from my friends who just didn’t understand the peace that came with inhaling a bunch of smoke. That’s where I found myself the day my life changed, but I just didn’t know it at the time.
My legs screamed at me from the squatted position I held as I inhaled from the white stick. My boots crunched against the concrete as I turned to sit with my back against the red brick building. Closing my eyes, a grin spread across my lips. Despite how much both my mother and Alisha, my current girlfriend, hated my smoking, it was the only thing that I had that even remotely calmed me. I hated when that moment was interrupted. Just as that thought ran through my head, the other side door burst open, banging against the side of the building.
I huffed, swearing under my breath. I pinched the cigarette in my hand trying to hide it. If I had to guess, it was probably Mr. Shaw who taught who taught one of the AP math classes. After having detention with him last week, he was covering for Mrs. Weathers, I happened to find a pack of Marlboro under his stack of papers. I could already feel the heat of the smoke against my palm as I lifted my head and glanced around the corner.
It wasn’t a teacher. Instead it was another student. She was covered up by a parka, but her blonde hair poured out over the back. Her back was turned toward me as she scraped her light blue converse against the concrete. I heard her huff as she swiftly turned around. The moment she turned around, I knew I had never seen her before. Trust me when I say I would have recognized those dark brown eyes. She hadn’t noticed me yet as she used the wall to sit down on the concrete. I pulled my gaze away once she was fully seated and I continued to listen to her huff. I knew in that moment that she was a freshman. Kids at this forsaken school were enough to drive absolutely anyone insane and they were even worst to the newbies. Higher grades were supposed to be smarter, more grown up, but in reality, we were the ones at the top, making it bad for the newbies.
Since she wasn’t a teacher, I placed the cancer stick at my lips once again. We sat in silence mostly as the smoke gathered around us, filling wind. My eyes had drifted closed again, thinking how I was going to get out of the date with Alisa tonight, to check on my mother, when I heard heard the mystery girl cough. It reminded me of my mother’s coughing. She had smoked since she was sixteen, my mother, and stopped a month before she had me. Of course before the accident, she started back up again and my father’s bad habits made her smoke twice as much. Combined with injuries from the accident, mom hacked almost every night, but it still didn’t steer me away from my bad habit. Yet when she coughed, for the first time, I felt a sting of guilt in my gut. The only person that ever received any feeling of guilt from me was my mother. She didn’t deserve half the shit my father had put us both through.
Pulling the cigarette away from my lips, I rubbed it out against the concrete watching as the fire turned into smoke. When I looked up, at her again, she was staring at me. The intensity of her brown eyes ran up my spine and latched there, as if becoming a part of me. No one had ever stared at me like that before. Her eyes were the most beautiful shade of dark brown I had ever seen and I wasn’t normally the sappy type. The familiar cocky grin spread over my lips. She wasn’t as immune to my charm as the pink tint rose in her cheeks.
“Ashford,” I said, lifting to squat, feeling the burn in my calves. “Ashford Rocks,” I continued, “in case you were wondering.”
She didn’t say anything, just stared at me. Part of me wanted to know her name but another part wanted her to remain a mystery. If she were a mystery, I couldn’t hurt her as I had all the others in my life. Maybe it was that feeling I hurting someone that kept me from doing the same to Alisha. Her leash had come and gone a long time ago, but I still kept her around, maybe hoping there was something else under that dark brown hair and black heart. Suddenly the bell rang, echoing through the walls and windows from the cafeteria courtyard. Walking over to her, I reached down offering my hand. She stared at it as if it were a foreign object, but then after another moment, she took it allowing me to pull up to her feet.
“See ya later, mystery girl.”~*~
It became a routine. She would always show up in the last fifteen minutes of smoke break. I started to make it a habit. The first good habit in a long time. Thankfully neither Nate or Clyde thought it suspicious of my regular breaks during lunch. Alisha hated my smoking almost as much as she hated my current table at lunch. According to Alisha, the first time her father smelled smoke on her, would be the day she subsequently went missing.
Then again her parents were about as intuitive as a box of tools in their shed. Neither of them really knew their daughter, at least the Alisha Carter the entire school knew. If she or the boys found out about my mystery girl, I knew what would happen and I couldn’t let it. She was safe as long as she was a mystery. As much as I hated Alisha, I hadn’t kicked her to the curb yet. Nate kept riding me that I needed to get rid of her, she was becoming a pain in the ass.
What could I do? She was about as popular as I was. Our school was a little messed up. The bad boy that threw pranks, smarted off to his teachers was the most beloved of anyone on campus. Alisha was popular for her athletic ability on the cheer team. It was logical that we were together, but even the school was abuzz that after a month we were still together. Though I couldn’t say for how much longer. Her cattiness had begun to get on my nerves and that was what I was trying to protect my mystery girl from.
After almost two months, I had yet to learn her name as I sat down in my usual spot. She surprised me today by already being her place. There was a plastic baggie next to her with a half eaten sandwich and apple beside her. Her face was buried in a book on her knees. This wasn’t the first time I had seen her reading. I had spotted her in the library a week previous reading a back table while her class worked on the computers. Sometimes she reminded me of myself, we both preferred to work alone. I immediately squatted as usual lighting up the only cigarette I’d smoke in her presence. She usually didn’t mind the one, but if I carried on with more, she’d begin to cough.
After five minutes of smoking, I lowered to sit with my knees against my chest. I heard the crunch of her apple and I looked at her. There was a tiny smile on her light colored lips. She was different than most of the girls I was always around. I actually liked that about her. She never wore makeup. As the temperature rose, she also stopped wearing the parka and beanie on her head. Yet, she never dressed overly girly and stuck to her own unique style.
“Are you ever going to tell me your name?” I asked her.
I only had another month at the school. Graduation was right around the corner. It had taken me another year to graduate, but I was finally going to walk across that stage.
She froze and turned to look at me. Her brown eyes stared at me and then she tilted her head. I had never once heard her voice. I knew she could speak, I had seen her in class talking but it was through a door. She never spoke to me. I didn’t know if it was because I made her nervous or if there was something even worse. I knew her quirks and it was obvious what she was asking.
“Why now? I guess?” I asked and she merely nodded. I licked my lips and sighed. “Don’t know if you know it or not, but I’m about to graduate. I won’t get to see your face next year. College isn’t my thing. Thinking about getting out of this town. You, mystery girl, are the only thing in this rotten town that could convince me to stay.”
The wind picked up and blew her dark brown hair around. She looked down at her book. A moment later, she pulled out a red ink pen along with a small notebook. It reminded me of the detective shows, the kind that flipped over the top. She folded the piece of paper in half and handed it over to me. I reached for the paper, a tingle spread along my arm at the touch of her skin against mine. Unfolding the paper, I stared at the words, my eyes tracing the curves of her name.
“Brooke Baker.” I tested out the words on my lips. My mouth curved up as I looked at her. There was a small smile on her lips as she looked at me. Though her eyes had suddenly brighten as she looked at me. “It was nice meeting you, Brooke.” The look in her eyes had warmed my heart and I knew she’d remain with me for years to come.
I just didn’t know it at the time, that I would stay with her too, for an entirely different reason.