Playing With Fire

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PHONE NUMBER

The book was still in my hands when I opened my eyes to the sound of the alarm. It was laying across my chest, opened to the page it was at when I'd lost consciousness. I quickly found the bookmark that I'd passed in the pages last night and moved it to the place I was at, then set the book down on the nightstand and switched the alarm off.

It took a bit of nerve to force myself to open the closet door and look at the clothes. Because I'd never looked in here- that I remembered- it felt like I was prying on someone else's things. There were a few different bras, and they all looked better than the one I'd been wearing the past two and a half weeks. I grabbed the first one on the hook, noticing it had B cups, and slipped it on. Unable to shake off the feeling of snooping, I grabbed the first clothes I saw. Quickly, I pulled on the blue jeans (that fit perfectly), and wiggled into a formfitting white shirt with buttons that ran up my front on the top half. The sleeves were long, so I didn't take a sweater.

It didn't take me long to find the kitchen, and I noticed there were scrambled eggs in a pan on the stove. Sydney came in moments later and was thrilled about the eggs. I guessed Tarry had made them. Silently, I dished some out for the both of us, then sat down in the empty seat across from the little girl. Sydney smiled and decided to start the game she'd mentioned yesterday, where she basically told me everything she knew about herself and Tarry. She even mentioned some things about myself that I didn't know.

Just after we'd finished eating, the doorbell rang, and Sydney ran to answer it. I didn't stop her, mainly because I didn't want to confront whoever was there if I didn't have to. There was talking, and then Sydney raced into the kitchen.

"Kate is here!" she announced. "I have to go now. Are you going to say high to Kate?"

"No, not right now," I said, busying myself with the dishes. "You go on now. Do you have a lunch?"

She gave me a funny look. "Daddy always packs my lunch the night before so you have more time to get ready."

Embarrassed, I pretended to know what she meant. "Right. Okay, have a good day."

"Bye Ellie! You have a good day at school too!" She grabbed her backpack and rushed out. I waited until I heard the door close before I opened the fridge. There was a whole lunch sitting inside, and there was a note on top. I carefully removed it and opened it. It read:

~Good morning Ella. You usually pack your own lunch, but I decided to do it for you today. I know this is hard for you, and school might be rough today, so I thought I would at least do this for you. Have a good time,

Dad.~

I put the note down on the counter and took the lunch. There was a bag on the counter I guessed was for me, so I packed it and put on the boots and coat that were left out for me. I saw a key on the table next to the door and used it to lock the door. Kiera hadn't come yet, so I wiped away the thin snow and sat on the porch steps to wait for her.

She arrived minutes later, and I got into the passenger's side.

"You're actually early!" She flashed a smile. "That's got to be a first."

I buckled my seatbelt. "I'm usually late?"

"Always," she grinned and backed the car out of the driveway. She chatted on the way, and I mostly listened. It was nice to just listen, to not have to try to answer questions or understand things I didn't.

The school was large, and I sucked in a breath. "This is it?"

Kiera nodded. "This is it." She got out and I followed. It was hard not to notice the people that looked at me. Their faces seemed to sneer at me, and I knew they were whispering.

"Ignore them," Kiera muttered in my ear. "They're all idiotic assholes looking for someone to bully." She caught the eye of a girl that was staring at me and crossed her eyes at her. The girl frowned and turned away.

"This is your locker," she opened one of the skinny metal doors. "And I picked up a school map for you at the office yesterday, so you shouldn't have too much trouble finding your way around." I took the folded paper from her. She took out one of the binders in my locker and handed it to me. "Your first class is history, then physics. I'll see you at lunch, okay?"

I nodded and studied the map as she turned to leave for her classes. The absence of her made things worse. I noticed everyone even more, and couldn't help but feel self conscious. They all thought I was weird, because I couldn't remember anything. The problem was: they were right. I was weird. And clueless and alone.

Swallowing hard, I started down the hallway, keeping my eyes on the map and looking up only to see where I was going. Footsteps behind me caught my attention, and I turned my head just as a boy with dark hair and eyes to match slowed beside me.

"Hi Ellamae," he smiled and nodded at me.

"Ella," I corrected him, then turned my eyes back to the map in my hand, unable to decide what else to do. Was I supposed to know him well? Was he a friend?

As if to answer my question, he said, "I'm Nicklaus Botchmen." He hesitated. "I know you lost your mind, so I just figured I'd remind you of my name and-"

"I did not lose my mind," I snapped, offended.

He swallowed. "Sorry, I meant your memory." We walked in silence for a few minutes. I made a few turns, hoping I was going the right way, and secretly wondering why he was still following me. "We have the same first two classes," he said, and I almost wondered if he'd read my mind or something. "I usually walk with you. So at least you'll have someone to hang out with, huh?"

I glanced at him. "I already do have someone."

"You do?" He sounded almost... disappointed.

"Yes. Kiera."

"Oh, you mean Kiera Crowe?" Relief was evident in his voice.

Was he a friend? Or what was his deal? "Yes," I stated, no longer worried about anyone else, and more concentrated on getting into class and losing him. Silence would be nice right now. As if an answer to my prayers, I came to the classroom I'd been searching for. I checked the map one more time to be sure before entering the room.

"Come on Ella, you sit here," Nicklaus pulled out a chair for me, and I set my books down.

"Thanks," I muttered.

He smiled and winked. "Anytime, babe."

I frowned and watched him as he practically skipped down the row to another empty seat. Babe? I sighed and turned toward the front, working desperately to block all the staring eyes from my mind.

By the time lunch came, I was ready to run away from Nicklaus, and from everyone else. Kiera was waiting for me by my locker, and she walked with me to the cafeteria. She introduced me to three other girls in the cafeteria, and I sat next to her. All the girls were similar to Kiera, in the way that I didn't feel stressed out when I was around them. They all accepted me and didn't snicker or roll their eyes when I did something that they'd never seen me do before. I was glad Kate had been the one to take Sydney to school. She seemed responsible, and I liked her eased behavior.

After lunch, I followed Kiera to biology. "You'll like Mr. Harder," she assured me as we entered the classroom. "He's really happy all the time."

She was right. Mr. Harder helped me forget the stares while I was seated in his class. He seemed to be liked by pretty much everyone.

Kiera showed me the rout to chemistry, our last class as soon as Mr. Harder dismissed us.

"Is this teacher anything like Mr. Harder?" I asked, following her through the door.

She turned and gave me a fake smile. "Not likely. Mrs. Ringler is so angelic." She rolled her eyes playfully. "Or in other words, no. She's not nearly as fun as Mr. Harder, but you get used to it." Kiera lead me to an empty seat. Each table had two seats, most of which were already full of chatting teenagers. "This is your spot," she pulled out the chair. "I sit over there," she pointed across the room. "Your partner," her hands slapped down on the back of the empty chair beside mine, "should be here soon. If he decides to show up."

I put down my binder and sat in my seat. "If he decides to show?" That sounded a little out of place.

Kiera rolled her eyes. "Yeah, if. Sometimes he doesn't come. I think he just ditches." She shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly. Well, I'm going to go and arrange my things, okay? Are you good here?"

"Yeah, sure," I nodded and smiled. "Go ahead."

"Okie-dokie." She turned and walked to her seat, slapping her binder on the table and opening it in front of her.

I opened mine and stared at all the notes I didn't remember writing. There were a lot. A moment later, someone thumped down in the chair next to me. I instinctively turned my head to see who it was. I was struck with the sudden exhilaration of my heartbeat. Geez, what's my problem? The boy now sitting next to me had darker than dirty blonde hair, but not nearly as dark as my own. His eyes were much darker, but they accented... everything. He was surprisingly well muscled, and he wore a black T-shirt and dark jeans.

"Hi," I said, not even sure why I had. I hadn't said hi to anyone without being introduced to them even once.

He turned his dark eyes on me and grinned. Trouble! my head screamed. He's trouble. That smile is trouble! But I ignored it. "I'm Ella."

He nodded and sat back in his chair, a notch above a slouch.

"And you are..?"

The bell rang just then, and the teacher marched in. She picked up a text book and began writing frantically on the board. I had to rush to keep up. It didn't help that the boy next to me seemed relaxed, and that he hadn't said a single thing to me yet. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye as soon as Mrs. Ringler paused, and was surprised to see that he was looking at me, a flawless sideways grin sneaking up the left side of his face.

"Okay. Right this down, do the math," Mrs. Ringler ordered, snapping my attention back to the front. I quickly jotted down the question, then worked through it, forcing myself not to glance sideways. After a few minutes, Mrs. Ringler told us to switch papers with the person next to us, and correct theirs. She began doing the math to give us the answer which we'd mark right or wrong on the other's paper.

He slid his paper over to me, and took mine from my hand. I looked at his work, then at the board. His work was perfect. I was sure I didn't get it right. "How did you get this?" I asked, leaning slightly toward him and showing him his own paper.

His grin snuck back onto his face as he passed me back my paper; one part of my answer was circled. "Nice work. Almost perfect," he commented, taking back his paper from my hands.

"So you do speak," I said sarcastically. "So how did you do it?" I repeated my question.

He shrugged and nodded at the board. "She's the teacher."

I rolled my eyes and tried to ignore him. It was harder than I thought. His knees kept bouncing, and occasionally the one closest to me -his left- bumped mine. I glanced at him and he was still smirking, but facing the board.

Near the end of the class, Mrs. Ringler scribbled down a few more equations and told us to complete them. I was positive I wouldn't be able to finish them all before time was up, so I jotted them all down. That way I could bring them home.

"They'd better all be done," Mrs. Ringler thundered. "No exceptions."

Okay, so she was nothing like Mr. Harder. I felt slightly threatened. I looked helplessly across the room to Kiera, but she was bent over her work, her hand moving light lightning across the page. My eyes automatically turned the extra few notches to settle on my table partner. He was writing, but looked completely slack. I stretched my neck to see how much he'd done. Over half of it.

Nervous about getting it done, I turned to my own paper and worked through the first six questions. There were still nine left by the time I looked up at the clock and realized class would be over in a minute or less. The next question made no sense to me at all.

I leaned closer to the boy next to me, noticing he smelled like mint and smoke, and I whispered, "Can you help me? I can't figure this out."

He turned his head and glanced at my paper, then raised his eyebrows at me and let out a low chuckle. He was making fun of me! I frowned at him as he pulled my paper toward him and wrote something along the top. The bell screamed, making me jump just as he slid the paper back to me. Before I'd even gotten the chance to look at what he'd wrote, he was up and out the door. Everyone else followed just as quickly. I looked down at my paper and stared at it. Seven numbers were scribbled across the top.

"What?" Kiera's voice made me jump. "Did he just give you his phone number?"

I looked down at my paper again. "Looks like it."

"Oh my word. Like holy crow, Ella!" She took the paper out of my hands, a huge disbelieving smile planted on her face. "Hawkins gave you his phone number! Why on earth would he do that?"

I took the paper back. "Is it that hard to believe?"

Her face was wild. "Well no. But yes! Ella," she jabbed her finger at the paper, "Do you realize how many idiotic girls would do anything to have his number?" I shrugged. She opened her mouth as if I was crazy. "He's only been here like three weeks or something." Her face took on a serious look that shocked me at first. "But you can't call him."

"Why not?" There was no reason, was there? Not that I was going to anyway.

Kiera swallowed. "Umm, because you aren't allowed."

I frowned. "Not allowed? What kind of rule is that?"

"It's not just a rule!" Kiera grabbed my books and lead the way out the door, looking flustered. "It's the rule."

"The rule?" Confusion was becoming my best friend. What kind of rule didn't allow a person to phone up a table partner for help with homework?

She dropped my books in my locker and helped me gather my backpack, then lead the way to hers'. "Yes. It's the rule of our culture I guess. We've known it since we were little."

"And what exactly is that rule?"

"'To choose who you will love as long as you live is not allowed. A trail of the heart that can be avoided must be protected. Love is not allowed.'" She sounded like a robot quoting something.

"What does this rule have to do with me phoning him?" I couldn't help but ask.

Kiera stared at me in disbelief. "How do you know if he follows the rule or not? I think he's hitting on you."

I rolled my eyes. "Please. He's been rude to me all class."

"So? He's unpredictable. I've seen guys like him." She shrugged, "Sure none of them ignored everyone, are completely oblivious to all the girls gawking over him, or nearly as freaking good looking." Her hand slapped over her mouth. "Holy crow. I can't believe I just said that."

"Okay, so he's a little different," I turned with her and we exited the building. "What's so bad about me phoning him?"

A panicked expression claimed her face. "You're not seriously thinking about phoning him, are you?"

"No," I blurted.

She sighed in relief. "Good. Because I know you don't remember, but that rule is like our absolute law. You'll get back into it, don't worry."

We got into the car, and she pulled out of the lot. She steered onto the highway and speeded up. As we drove, she continued to talk about how our families chose spouses for their children, and how when we turned seventeen, we'd meet our future husbands. "Your birthday is in two days. February second. Has your dad said anything about meeting your husband-to-be?"

Ice seemed to have frozen me in place as she talked. "No," I managed to whisper. My mind wandered back to the book I'd been reading last night. Bella and Edward had fallen tragically in love with each other, and were willing to give up anything to be together. He was even sacrificing his thirst for her, causing him a lot of pain, because he loved her. This rule Kiera was talking about said we weren't allowed to chose who we loved. She couldn't be serious. It sounded so sad put next to Bella and Edward's love.

"Are you just trying to annoy me?" I asked, snapping out of my daze and turning my body as much toward her as I could in the car.

Kiera stared at me for a moment, then turned her eyes back to the highway. "What?"

"This whole rule thing. It's not true, is it?" It couldn't be.

Her eyes widened. "Yes! I wouldn't lie to you about something like that."

I shook my head. "But it sounds so... cruel. I mean, you can't force someone to love someone you choose for them."

"It's not like that," she shook her head. "Our parents think it through very hard. He'll be right for you."

A frown stained my lips once again. "Parent," I muttered bitterly. "I don't have a mother, remember?" She didn't say anything. "I think it's stupid."

The car lurched to a stop, and I realized we were parked in my driveway. Kiera turned her fiery green eyes on me. "Stupid? I can't believe you said that, Ella." She looked genuinely offended, and I felt bad, but still didn't apologize. It was true. I couldn't lie and say I was sorry if I wasn't. "You know you'll be in huge trouble if you phone and fall for... or anything... with Hawkins."

"Like what? Is my own father going to behead me or something?" It came out more like a sneer than I'd intended it to, and I regretted it as soon as it was out.

Kiera's eyes flared, and I saw the muscles in her jaw clench as she gripped the steering wheel. "I don't know what will happen! But I just know it's very bad!"

I sighed and looked away from her. I hadn't meant to fight with her. Not the one person I wanted to be around the most. "I wasn't going to call him anyway," I murmured. "Is it a good idea to ask for help with my homework?"

"Probably not."

I nodded and got out, shutting the car door behind me. She cranked the car into reverse and slid out of the driveway, then sped down the highway, and was out of sight within two minutes.

A little annoyed with myself but still too stubborn to try and understand, I used the key to get inside the house, dropped my jacket and shoes off by the door, and shut myself in my room. I then bent over my homework, willing the answers to come to me. A few minutes later, the door opened, and I heard small feet race up the stairs. Kate must have brought Sydney back. My bedroom door opened a crack and the little girl stuck her head inside, her silky brown red hair falling forward. "Hi Ellie! I'm back. Can I watch TV?"

I nodded, still raking my brain for answers to the questions Mrs. Ringler had given me. "Sure."

"Okay, thanks!" She closed the door behind her and a little while later I heard the TV from downstairs. The voices of some kind of kid show echoed up the stairs and under my door. Blocking them out as best I could, I turned back to my work.

By the time evening had come, Tarry was home and had put Sydney to bed, and I still had two questions left. I didn't know how to answer either of them. It was late, and I knew I wasn't going to get help if I didn't think of something soon. Leaving it until tomorrow and asking Mrs. Ringler crossed my mind, but I was afraid she wouldn't have patients for that. And I wasn't about to test them either. My next thought was to phone Kiera, but she was probably still mad at me.

I thought about Mrs. Ringler's fury, and the thought of her shouting at me and scolding me for not completing my homework flashed behind my eyes, and even though a part of me knew I was over exaggerating, the part that was nervous about her response dominated. I panicked and flipped the sheet of paper over, grabbed my cell phone, and dialed the number scribbled across the top.


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