HER LIFE was over. Sammy wasn’t sure exactly when she’d figured out that unfortunate fact—it was sometime between when her momma had passed away and when she’d come to the realization that Daddy was not going to move to Texas or let her live with her bestie for a few years ’til graduation. Fact was, she was going to have to start at a new school tomorrow, and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it.
She sat in her new room, her chin on her knees, staring at her phone. Lacey, her best friend, was on FaceTime, practicing her eyeliner.
“You’re lucky. You’ve been sitting around at home for three weeks. We’ve already had three football games. It’s going to be evil Friday night, and those uniforms suck.”
“And they’re used. How many people have sweated in those nasty pants?” Sammy knew it was mean, but she felt mean. Life didn’t give a shit about being mean to her, did it?
Lacey flipped her off, but obviously no one who was a band geek cared about wearing those skanky uniforms; Lacey didn’t even wince enough to screw up her liner. “What are you wearing to school?”
“Jeans and one of those high-low tops from Target. I got the red one. There’s straps that cross in the back.” She didn’t know what everyone else was going to wear, so that ought to be safe. Invisible.
If she was home, she’d be getting her cheerleading uniform ready for Friday too. She’d made varsity again, and she’d been fixin’ to be named junior officer. She knew it.
Now, she just didn’t want everyone to hate her on sight.
“You’ll look cute. I promise. Red looks good with dark hair. It just makes me look washed-out with the biggest zits in history. You’re totally put together, and you know it.” Lacey was dear, but Sammy watched TV. She knew. The rules were that the new kid was never cool. Never.
Even if you thought you were hot shit.
“Blondes wear all sorts of colors.”
“Uh-huh. And I would kill for hair like yours. So thick and wavy.”
“Right, because I don’t have to spend a thousand hours a day flat-ironing if I don’t wear it up.” Sammy snorted and rolled her eyes. “I don’t care. I’ll be fine. Maybe I’ll just get on a bus and come home. Daddy would fuss, but he didn’t ask for me. He’d be fine if I left. I know it. I’m cramping his style.”
A deep cough came from just inside the doorway. “Um. So, my style is about to have dinner. It’s on the table if you’re interested.” Daddy winked at her and disappeared back into the hall.
Sammy glanced down at her phone, and Lacey now had a line of black like Cleopatra and Katy Perry had been fighting on her eyelid. “Yeah. I gotta go.”
“Shut up. I’ll text later?”
She stood up, hid her phone in her waistband—Daddy had taken this “family time” shit way overboard, for reals. Who didn’t allow phones at the table?—and headed downstairs, taking two at a time.
The dining room was one of the rooms in the old Victorian house that Daddy hadn’t finished yet. It had rosebud paper on the walls like in a grandma’s house, and the floor warped a little under the heavy oval table. But dinner smelled okay and looked kind of like lasagna was supposed to.
“What are you drinking?” Daddy called from the kitchen. “You want some cider?”
“Like apple juice? You know how many calories that has?” She was going to have to train him in the ways of Diet Dr Pepper. Seriously.
“No, honey, like cider. Juice is processed, cider is unfiltered. Still sweet, though.” He came out with two glasses and set one down for her. “Try it.” He pulled out a chair for himself and sat, then reached for a serving spoon.
“Is it safe?” Unfiltered sounded dangerous. She curled up in her chair, legs under her, looking at the glass, lifting it up to the light.
“Oh, right. You’re cramping my style, so I’m trying to poison you.” He was grinning as he dropped a big spoonful of lasagna on Sammy’s plate. “Watch out for razor blades.”
“That’s gross. Besides, it’s Windex you’d use. Razor blades are totally noticeable.” God, she didn’t want to smile. She really didn’t. “Are you sure I can’t go home to—”
“Samantha.” Daddy’s tone was sharp, but then he sighed and served himself some lasagna. “Look. This is hard. I get it. But this is what we’ve got.” He sat back in his chair. “Tomorrow is going to be better than you expect. I truly believe that.”
“Like you know anything about high school. You haven’t been in school in forever. Longer than Momma even. She went to law school.” She tried to smile at him, but she couldn’t. She wanted her momma. She wanted to go home. This was no fair, and she hadn’t even done anything wrong.
See, Momma? Even Daddy gets that you aren’t supposed to die after junior prom. I mean seriously. How tacky. I had to find you all naked and gross.
“Well, you’re right about that; I wasn’t all that into school. Your mom was a smart lady. She worked hard. She didn’t raise you not to rise to a challenge, right?” He gave Sammy’s hand a squeeze. “You’ve got this.”
“Yeah.” Whatever. She knew better. She stared at her plate, idly moving the noodles around. She loved her daddy, sure she did, but she’d never lived with him before—they’d taken vacations, talked on the phone, he’d sent presents, but this was new. Weird.
Not awful, but it had been three whole weeks, and it wasn’t home.
The room was quiet while Daddy ate, and she didn’t. Finally, Daddy put down his fork and looked at her. “So,” he said softly. “You want a ride to school tomorrow?”
“Uh-huh.” The tears came out of nowhere, and she fought them tooth and nail. The last thing she needed was for everybody to think she was crazy, to send her to a shrink. She wasn’t nuts; she just needed to go home.
Daddy pushed his chair back from the table and moved closer to kneel by her feet. He rested his hands on her knees. “I know, Sammy. Wanna go sit?”
“If you’re nice to me, I’m gonna cry.” She nodded, though, because Daddy was the only real thing left in all the world. This place might as well be the North Pole, although everyone on TV said New Jersey was dirty and gross, and it really sort of wasn’t. It was a place. It was just a real, normal sorta place.
They headed into the living room together, and Daddy sat her down on the wide leather couch. This room, unlike the dining room, was in pretty good shape: new paint, new flooring, and a great big TV hung on one wall.
“Can I ask you a very important question?” Daddy asked, taking a seat next to her.
“Uh-huh. I can’t promise I know the right answer, though.”
He turned to face Sammy and took her hands in his. “I just need to know. How many people have you actually poisoned with Windex?”
She blinked at him, then blinked again. Okay. Okay, clever. Clever answer. Shit. She had nothing. “You totally suck.”
They started laughing like monkeys, hard enough that it hurt, deep in her gut.
Daddy flopped over on the couch and had to push himself back upright. “What? I wasn’t going to turn you in or anything,” he joked between gasps for air. “Oh God, I can’t breathe.”
By the time they’d calmed down to giggles, Daddy was red in the face. He looped his arm around her and wiped at his eyes with his other hand. “Oh boy.” He looked at his watch. “What time do arrogant teenage girls go to bed on a school night?”
“Midnight. Maybe one. You never know. Not yet. Nowhere near.” She leaned against him and wiped her nose with the back of her hand like she was a baby. “I swear, you’re a dork. Good thing I love you. Also, I knew a girl at home that knew a girl whose brother killed his grandparents with Windex in a margarita. True story.”
“Oh, nice. And you wanted to stay down there with those Texan psychopaths? At least up here we shoot each other like civilized criminals.” He glanced at his watch again. “Yeah, midnight isn’t happening. You don’t want to wake up with dark circles under those gorgeous eyes. Ten. Latest. Up you go.”
“Babies stay up later than that.” She grabbed his hand. “Promise me it’s going to be okay, Daddy. Promise it’s just high school, just like home.” That everyone won’t hate me. That I won’t be like Carrie from the movies with people throwing pig’s blood. Except I won’t be able to murder people in a homicidal rage with my brain.
Daddy squeezed her hand right back. “Well, it won’t be just like home. We all have funny accents up here.” He smiled at her. “But otherwise, they’re just normal kids, and you’re just a sophomore. And yes, it’s just high school. You’re going to rock it.”
“I hope so. You’re going to have to homeschool me if it sucks.”
Daddy laughed right out loud. “Oh, that would be more of a disaster than anything that might happen at school. I can promise you that. Remember which of your parents was the smart one.” He kissed her on the forehead. “You’ve got an hour, and then I’m stealing your phone until your alarm clock goes off.”
“You’re funny.” She kissed his nose, pondering going back to the table and grabbing the juice. “Night.”
“Won’t be funny if your light’s not off at ten.” He winked at her. “I love you. Grab a snack on the way up.”
“The lasagna wasn’t nasty.”
“Good to know.”
She waved and got the juice, picked out an apple from the kitchen, and took a spoonful of peanut butter. She had to decide how she was doing her makeup and call Lacey back before ten. After, they could just text.
BRENTWOOD HIGH was a total zoo. There were cars, kids, buses, parents, and chaos everywhere. Perfect. Eli always felt comfortable in a crowd; he liked being just one of many faces, blending in.
Mom dropped him off; she said she had to drive him because it was the first day at his new school, but he knew there was more to it than that, and since it meant so much to her, he just went with it. He lived on a busy street, so technically, there was a bus he could take, and he’d seen three or four kids waiting on the corner as they drove by. But he lived close enough to school that, unless the weather was crappy, he’d probably just ride his skateboard most days. Small groups, like that crew at the bus stop, were just hard.
With all the commotion, he was able to walk right up to the entrance and through the front doors without anyone even saying hello to him. His backpack weighed a ton, and he had even more crap in his arms, but he had to stand there for a second to get his bearings. He’d been told where his locker was during orientation, and he was pretty sure he remembered, so he headed in that direction instead of standing in the entry looking like the dorky new kid who didn’t know where he was going. Good news, he was right. Straight, left, and then right to the end of the hall. Eli opened his locker door and started loading things inside, just keeping the few books he knew he was going to need with him for his morning classes before hooking his lock through the handle and giving the dial a spin.
Because of Labor Day, school started on a Wednesday. And during first period, on Wednesdays, Eli had the one class he’d been dreading the most. Drama. He hadn’t signed up for it, and he’d tried to get into a new elective, but drama was the only thing that had fit into his schedule. So not fair. He’d literally begged to be moved into anything else, but the counselor he’d been assigned to just shook her head and said he’d have to deal with it for the semester. Whatever. She had bad breath and annoyed him anyway.
Literally the only thing he felt confident about today was his ability to get to his classroom. He’d studied the map of the school the night before because he didn’t want to look like he was lost. He was a sophomore, after all, and he wasn’t about to walk around looking like a newbie freshman.
There was a lot of hugging and laughter and excitement in the hallways, which couldn’t have been further from what Eli was feeling right now. He hadn’t slept well, and he had a knot in his stomach that made him feel like he had to throw up. He knew no one, which, of course, was the whole point, but that didn’t make being new any easier.
One day at a time. He heard his therapist’s voice in his head. One step, one hour, one day. “One step,” he whispered as he approached the door to his classroom. Doc would have been proud of him for remembering, for using his strategies. He put his hand on the door.
It didn’t budge.
He tried again and then looked through the window to find that the classroom was dark. “Shit.” He dropped his backpack and angrily pulled out the map he’d promised himself he wasn’t going to need. He was supposed to be going to 3B. He looked at the door, which read 2B. He was a whole floor off. “Shit,” he said again. He swung his backpack up on his shoulder and took off down the hall, then up one wide flight of stairs.
The first bell rang.
He skidded to a halt to keep from barreling into a dark-haired girl who’d just made it to the room as well. “Whoa.” He tried a subtle smile, but running had made him feel even more queasy, and now, he was out of breath besides. He pulled the door open for her. “I’m really sorry. After you.”
Whoa, that was an accent and a half. Where the hell was she from?
“Come in, welcome, two seats right there.” A large man with a mustache and plaid vest waved them over to the only two empty seats in the room. Right in the middle of the very front row. Figured. Eli sighed and promised himself he would never be late again. He stepped aside and let the girl with the wild accent pick a seat first, then sat beside her.
Eli glanced at her curiously but quickly looked away before she could catch him. She looked utterly miserable, quiet and scared, but he got that “I will eat your face” vibe too. Weird. Still, she had that pretty-girl thing going on. Soon she’d be hanging with the popular crowd, waving pom-poms and dating a jock.
She had to be new too, though. There was no way a girl with that vibe would look that weirded-out, otherwise. Plus, anyone who’d lived in New Jersey for more than a couple of months would have lost at least some of that accent, wouldn’t they?
“Okay, I’m Mr. Ashford. I teach this class, and if you join the drama club, or try out for the fall Shakespeare play or the spring musical, I’ll be directing. I know many of you from past years, but we have a handful of new faces, which is fantastic.”
Mr. Ashford stepped over and stopped right in front of Eli’s desk. “So, here’s how we start this class. I do the same thing every year. Anyone remember?”
Someone behind Eli said, “Interviews!”
Mr. Ashford smiled. “Speed interviews.” He nodded. “Everybody grab a partner.”
That sick feeling in Eli’s stomach wasn’t getting any better.
“You mind partnerin’ with me?” The girl had the longest, darkest fake eyelashes he’d ever seen.
“Yeah. Sure.” Between her lashes and the amazing accent, Eli was absolutely fascinated. He tried not to stare, but everything about this girl was just so different.
“Okay, are we all partnered up? Now, the idea is to learn as much as you can about the other person in one minute. You need to come up with at least five things you didn’t already know about your partner in that time. You’ll each get a turn. Ready?”
“I’ll ask first, okay?” Eli whispered.
“Are you new to the school this year?”
“God, yes. I’m from down near Austin.”
Got it in one. “Austin, like Texas?” She looked at him like he had three heads. “Right, sorry.” He swallowed back his embarrassment. “What is your favorite band?”
“FGL. I love them, for reals. I like The Band Perry too.”
Eli quickly pulled out a pen and wrote “FGL” on his hand. He knew The Band Perry, but he’d never heard of whatever band FGL was before. It was also possible he just didn’t understand what she was saying. Her accent was completely foreign to him. “I’ve never… you said ‘FGL,’ right?”
She nodded, but he thought maybe she was getting annoyed with him now. “Uh. Wow, okay.” What to ask next? “Favorite food?”
“Tacos. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” At that, she almost smiled.
Eli thought for a minute, then counted off facts on his fingers. “From Austin, new to the school, likes FGL—whatever that is—and tacos all day. That’s four. Um.”
“Florida Georgia Line. That’s who FGL is.”
“Oh, okay.” He’d never heard of them, either.
“Time’s almost up, everyone,” Mr. Ashford told them.
“So, last question. Why did you move up here?”
Okay, whoa. She went sorta white, and Eli thought the girl was going to pass out. “Can’t you just ask me my name?”
He froze for a second, torn between asking her if she was okay and just doing what she wanted. “Uh. Sure. I’m sorry. Um. I probably should have asked that first, huh?” Duh. Of course he should have. And if he had just been polite, he wouldn’t be where he was now. He could be so stupid sometimes. “What’s your name?”
“Sammy. Samantha Moore.” She twisted her fingers in her lap, and then her chin went up, lips tightening. “My turn. What’s your name, what’s your favorite color, and what’s your favorite app?”
The questions shot out like machine-gun fire, and Eli just felt sick again watching her.
“Eli Green, purple, and Skater,” Eli shot back. “And I didn’t mean to ask a nosy question, Sammy. I’m sorry. Really.”
“It’s okay. Just… I’m not ready yet. Daddy said that was cool, so I’m going with it. What’s Skater? Is it a video game?”
Sammy was moving on, so Eli figured he should let it go too. Skateboarding was one of his favorite things to talk about anyway. “It’s this skateboarding app. You can try all kinds of tricks, and you can skate in different scenes that are based on real places the pros skate. It’s pretty dope.” He started to smile but caught himself and toned it down abruptly. He’d read on the internet that too wide a smile might give him away. Shifting in his seat, he hooked an arm over the back of his chair and let his knees fall open.
Eli didn’t usually forget things like that anymore, but he hadn’t slept all that well last night. He was obviously off his game.
“Cool. So, Eli Green, purple, Skater.” She counted off on her fingers, then caught her bottom lip in her teeth.
That was pretty cute.
“Favorite show? Do you like coffee?”
“Who doesn’t like coffee?” Eli was starting to hope this wasn’t his only class with this girl. “And, don’t laugh, Teen Wolf.”
“Oh, I love that one. Derek is a studmuffin.”
“Studmuffin?” Eli shrugged. He kind of thought everyone on the show was pretty good-looking. He liked to watch the way the guys walked and how they were with the girls. Mostly, though, he just wanted Tyler’s shoulders. And maybe his eyes.
Mr. Ashford clapped his hands to get their attention. “Everyone done?”
Eli glanced up at the teacher and then back at Sammy. “We’re good, right?”
“Yeah. I got this.” Sammy nodded, and the little sparkly earrings she was wearing caught the light as they swung.
Eli gave her his best quirky, closedmouthed smile. That game wasn’t so bad. Maybe he could handle drama class after all.
“Faaantastic! So, now it’s your turn to introduce your partner to the rest of the class.” Mr. Ashford pointed to a couple of girls in the back row. “Janie and Keisha, you guys did this last year, right? Why don’t you go first?”
One of the girls popped right up out of her seat. “Okay! So, everyone, this is Keisha.”
Wait. They were going to have to talk in front of everybody? “Shit,” he whispered under his breath. Just when Eli was starting to think he was going to make it through class without throwing up. He sighed and slumped in his chair.
This girl looked way too happy to be doing this and was much too energetic for first period. Also, she was wearing some seriously scary pink lipstick. Whoa.
Mr. Ashford interrupted with a wave of his hand. “Stand up, Keisha.” Keisha nodded and stood up more slowly. She looked pretty confident; Eli got a good vibe.
“Okay. So, again. This is Keisha. Her favorite singer is Adele, she loves science, she runs before school every day, and she’s hoping to make varsity track team.”
Eli nodded. Yep. Keisha sounded pretty cool.
Keisha glanced at Janie and then took her turn. “This is Janie, which is short for Janella. Her favorite color is fuchsia, she loves Justin Bieber, she hates gym class, and she can’t live without her phone.”
“Which, of course, is turned off right now and hidden away in her backpack,” Mr. Ashford said with one of those grins that meant he was being funny but serious at the same time. Eli’s dad gave him that look all the time—Eli knew it well.
Janie giggled, and Eli didn’t think she got it at all. He didn’t think Keisha was too keen on Janie, either.
“Next? Rick and Phil?”
The guys stood, and it was the same old thing. Name and bands and pizza—everyone liked pizza, obvi.
Then Mr. Ashford turned toward them, and it was suddenly their turn. Sammy surprised him by standing right up, no problem, looking at the class first, then Mr. Ashford. “Y’all, this is Eli Green, his favorite color is purple, he’s into Teen Wolf, skateboarding, and coffee.”
The whole room got uber-quiet. Like completely dead, and everyone stared at her. It had to be her accent. Eli scanned the room slowly, and what started as staring turned quickly into whispering. Eli looked at Sammy, that horrible feeling of dread building in his chest. He knew what it felt like to stick out, to have people whispering about you. He thought she’d been brave to just stand right up like that; he certainly hadn’t wanted to go first. But he wasn’t going to let her stand up there alone, either.
Mr. Ashford broke the silence. “Well, thank you.”
Eli stood up. “My turn,” he began. He swallowed the nerves back and looked at Sammy instead of the rest of the room because it just felt safer. “This is Samantha Moore. She likes to be called Sammy.” Breathe, Eli. Don’t pass out.
Turning to face the room this time, he went on. “So, check her out. She’s new to the school this year. She just moved here from outside Austin, Texas, which I hear is the coolest city ever. She could eat tacos all day long, and her favorite band is—” He looked at what he’d written on his hand. “FGL, which stands for Florida Georgia Line. I’ve never heard of them, but I’m gonna google when I get home.”
“Me too.” Mr. Ashford smiled at them. “Welcome, Eli and Sammy. Have a seat.”
Eli practically collapsed into his chair. He locked his fingers together to stop them from shaking.
“Thank you,” she whispered while another set of kids went. “That was great.”
It had been scary as fuck to stand up there and pray everyone didn’t see right through him. In their place, Eli was pretty sure he would have noticed he was a total noob.
“You were awesome,” Eli whispered back, starting to breathe again. “That was seriously terrifying. I don’t even want to be in this class.”
She giggled, trying to muffle it by pressing her lips together hard. “No one wants to act at eight in the morning. It’s why the class was open.”
Eli snorted, mentally checking his posture. That was funny. He’d had to act like a girl until the end of freshman year—morning, noon, and night—but it was not having to act that had him nervous. “Next time, I’m bringing coffee.” Or maybe he’d oversleep on purpose.
“Enough, you two.”
Uh-oh. “Sorry, Mr. Ashford.”
“Sorry, sir.” Sammy didn’t sound all that sorry, when you got down to it.
Wait until he told Mom he’d gotten in trouble for talking too much in class. She’d never believe it.
A couple more groups took their turns, and then the bell rang. Most of the kids seemed cool, and a few of them even stood out in their own ways too. Mr. Ashford didn’t give them any homework, and as Eli followed Sammy out of the room, he was feeling pretty good. “I wonder if I’ll get lost again on my way to my next class.”
“I’m not even sure I know what mine is.” She rolled her eyes. “Introduction to Hell, possibly.” She slapped her hand over her mouth, then dropped a wink with one perfectly made-up eyelid. “Did I say that out loud?”
“I didn’t hear anything.” Eli laughed. “Maybe I’ll see you at lunch?”
“Yeah. That would be cool. See ya.” Sammy waved, and he saw tiny little rhinestones in her fingernails. Wow.