I KNEW RACHEL WANTED TO GO TO THE ASYLUM. But until the night after Mabel’s piece of shit owner died, I didn’t remember why I agreed.
On Saturday I tried to prepare myself to dream more, to remember more—to watch her die. I crawled into my sheets shaking, wanting and not wanting to see her again. I did, but it was the same dream. Nothing new on Sunday night, either.
It was a good sign, the remembering. It was happening slowly, but it was happening nonetheless. And without a psychologist or mind-altering chemicals. My mind was obviously altered enough.
I was almost glad to have Mabel to wonder and worry about all weekend, even if I couldn’t bring myself to try and find out Noah’s phone number. I figured I’d ask him how the dog was in English on Monday, but when I got to class, he wasn’t there.
Instead of listening, my mind and my pencil wandered over my sketchbook, drifting lazily as Ms. Leib collected our papers and discussed the difference between tragic heroes and antiheroes. Each time a student left or entered the classroom, my gaze shifted to the door, waiting for Noah to stroll in before the next bell rang. But he never did.
When class ended, I glanced at the drawing before closing the book and stuffing it in my bag.
Noah’s charcoal eyes squinted at me from the page, cast downward, the skin around them crinkled in laughter. His thumb grazed his bottom lip as his hand curled in a lazy fist at his brilliantly smiling mouth. He looked almost shy as he laughed. The pale plain of his forehead was smooth, relaxed mid-chortle.
My stomach churned. I flipped to the previous page, and noted with horror that I’d traced Noah’s elegant profile perfectly, from his high cheekbones down to the slight bump in his solemn nose. And on the page before that, his eyes stared back at me, aloof and unattainable.
I was afraid to keep looking. I needed serious help.
I shoved the sketchbook in my bag and glanced furtively over my shoulder, hoping no one saw. I was halfway to Algebra before I felt a light tap on my back. But when I turned around, no one was there. I shook my head. I felt strange all of a sudden, like I was floating through someone else’s dream.
By the time I arrived at Mr. Walsh’s classroom, I was surrounded by laughter. Some guys whistled when I walked in the room. Because I was finally wearing an iteration of the school uniform? I didn’t know. Something was happening, but I didn’t understand it. My hands trembled at my sides so I balled them into fists as I sat at the desk next to Jamie’s. That was when I noticed the sound of crunching paper behind me. The crunching of the paper that was taped to my back.
So someone did bump into me earlier. That, at least, I hadn’t hallucinated. I reached around and pulled the sign off my back, where the word “slut” was scrawled on a sheet of looseleaf. The quiet snickers then erupted into laughter. Jamie looked up, confused, and I flushed as I crumpled the paper in my fist. Anna threw her head back and roared with laughter.
Without thinking about it, I unfurled one of my fists and placed the wad of paper in my flat palm.
And then I flicked it in her face.
“Creative,” I said to her as it hit its target.
Anna’s tan cheeks turned red first, and then a vein protruded from her forehead. She opened her mouth to fling an insult my way but Mr. Walsh cut her off before she began. Score.
Jamie grinned and clapped me on the shoulder as soon as class ended. “Well played, Mara.”
Aiden pushed past Jamie on his way out the door, slamming Jamie’s shoulder into the door frame. Aiden turned before leaving the room.
“Don’t you have a lawn you should be decorating?”
Jamie glared after him and rubbed his shoulder. “He needs a knife in the eye,” he muttered, once Aiden was gone. “So. A-holes aside, how’s your first week?”
Oh, you know. Saw a dead guy. Losing my mind. Same old. “Not too bad.”
Jamie nodded. “Big change from your old school, is it?”
When he asked me that, a still frame of Rachel materialized in my brain. “Is it that obvious?”
“You’ve got public school written all over you.”
“Oh, that’s a compliment. I’ve sat in class with these douches for most of my waking life. It’s nothing to be proud of. Trust.”
“Going to private school or going to Croyden?” I asked as we made our way to his locker.
“From what I’ve heard from friends at other schools, I believe this level of asshattery is unique to Croyden. Take Anna, for example. She’s only a few IQ points above a corpse, and yet she sullies our Algebra II class with her stupidity.”
I decided not to mention that I was probably just as confounded by the homework as she was.
“The amount your parents donate is directly proportional to how much murder you’re allowed to get away with,” Jamie said as he exchanged his books. When a shadow blocked the light filtering in from the midday sun, I looked up.
It was Noah. As always, the top button of his collar was undone, his shirtsleeves were carelessly rolled up, and today he wore a skinny, knitted tie loosely knotted around his neck. I could just make out the black cord that hung around his neck, peeking out from beneath the open collar of his shirt. It was a good look for him. A great look, actually, despite the shadows that stained the skin under his eyes. His hair was in its permanent state of disarray as he ran a hand over his rough jaw. When he caught me staring, I blushed. He smirked. Then walked away, without saying a word.
“So it begins.” Jamie sighed.
“Shut up.” I turned around so he couldn’t see me flush a deeper shade of red.
“If he wasn’t such a dick, I’d applaud,” Jamie said. “You could start a fire with the heat between you two.”
“You’re mistaking bitter animosity for heartfelt affection,” I said. But when I thought about last week, and how Noah had been with Mabel, I wasn’t so sure if I was right.
Jamie answered with a sad shake of his head. “It’s only a matter of time.”
I shot him a poisonous look. “Before …?”
“Before you’re doing the walk of shame out of his den of iniquity.”
“Thanks for thinking so highly of me.”
“It’s not your fault, Mara. Girls can’t help falling for Shaw, especially in your case.”
“Noah is clearly smitten with you,” Jamie said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. He shut his locker and I spun around to walk away. Jamie followed behind me. “And that ass don’t hurt, neither.”
I smirked over my shoulder at him. “What’s your deal with him, anyway?”
“You mean, aside from the fact that his attention already has Anna Greenly gunning for you?”
“Aside from that.”
He considered his words, the mulch crunching under our feet as we cut across one of the flower beds to the picnic tables. “Noah doesn’t date. He’ll screw you—literally and figuratively. Everyone knows it—his conquests know it—but they pretend not to care until he moves on to the next one. And then they’re alone and their reputations are shot to hell. Anna’s a prime example, but she’s only one of many. I heard that a senior from Walden tried to commit suicide after he—well. After he got what he came for, pun intended, and didn’t call again.”
“Sounds like a major overreaction on her part.”
“Maybe, but I wouldn’t want to see that happen to you,” Jamie said. I raised my eyebrows. “You have enough problems,” Jamie said, and a wide grin spread across his face.
I returned it. “How magnanimous of you.”
“You’re welcome. Consider yourself warned. Much good may it do you.”
I shifted my bag to my other shoulder. “Thanks for telling me,” I said to Jamie. “I’m not interested, but it’s good to know.”
Jamie shook his head. “Uh-huh. When you’re all broken-hearted and listening to sad kill-yourself music after it ends, just remember I told you so.” He walked off and left me at the door to History. Wise were his words, but forgotten in the face of my next class.
Lunchtime found me once again scrounging for scraps from the snack machine. I rooted around in my bag for change when I heard footsteps approach. Somehow, I didn’t need to turn to know who it was.
Noah reached around me, brushing my shoulder as he placed a dollar in the machine. I sidestepped out of his way.
“What shall I get?” he asked.
“What do you want?”
He looked at me and tilted his head, and one corner of his mouth lifted into a smile. “That’s a complicated question.”
“Animal crackers, then.”
Noah looked confused, but he pressed E4 anyway and the machine obeyed. He handed me the box. I handed it back to him, but he laced his hands behind his back.
“Keep it,” he said.
“I can buy my own, thanks.”
“I don’t care,” he said.
“What a surprise,” I said. “How’s Mabel, by the way? I meant to ask you about her this morning but you weren’t in class.”
Noah gave me a blank look. “I had a previous engagement. And she’s hanging in. She’s not going anywhere for a while, though. Whoever let her get that way ought to die a slow, painful death.”
Suddenly queasy, I swallowed hard before speaking. “Thank your mom again for taking care of her,” I said, trying to shake it off as I made my way to a picnic table. I sat on its pitted surface and opened the box of crackers. Maybe I just needed to eat. “She was amazing.” I bit the head off an elephant. “Just let me know when I should pick her up?”
Noah loped onto the picnic table and sat beside me, leaning back on his arms but staring straight ahead. I munched next to him in silence.
“Have dinner with me this weekend,” he said out of nowhere.
I almost choked. “Are you asking me out?”
Noah opened his mouth to respond just as a group of older girls burst forth from the stairwell. When they saw him, they arrested their breakneck pace and sashayed suggestively as they walked past us, tossing a chorus of “Hey, Noah”s behind them. Noah seemed to ignore them, but then, the tiniest twitch of a traitorous smile began at the corners of his lips.
That was all the reminder I needed. “Thanks for the invitation, but I’m afraid I must decline.”
“Already have plans?” His voice suggested he was merely waiting to hear my excuse.
I delivered. “Yeah, a date with all of the crap I’ve missed in school,” I said, then tried to recover. “You know, from transferring in late.” I didn’t want to talk about that now. Especially not with him. “The trimester exams are twenty percent of our grade, and I can’t afford to screw them up.”
“I can help you study,” Noah said.
I looked at him. The dark lashes that framed his gray-blue eyes weren’t helping my situation. Neither was the slightly mischievous smile on his lips. I turned away. “I do better studying on my own.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” he said.
“You don’t know me well enough to make that assessment.”
“So let’s change that, then,” he said matter-of-factly. He continued to stare straight ahead as a few strands of hair fell forward into his eyes.
He was killing me. “Look, Shaw—”
“We’re starting with the surname nonsense, are we?”
“Hysterical. Ask someone else.”
“I don’t want to ask someone else. And you don’t really want me to either.”
“Wrong.” I hopped off the table and walked away. If I didn’t look at him, I’d be fine.
Noah caught up to me in two long strides. “I didn’t ask you to marry me. I asked you for dinner. What, are you afraid I’ll ruin the image you’re cultivating here?”
“What image,” I said flatly.
“Angsty, solitary, introspective emoteen, staring off into the distance as she sketches withered leaves falling from bare branches and …” Noah’s voice trailed off, but the look of cool amusement on his face didn’t.
“No, that was lovely. Please, continue.”
I rushed ahead until another girls’ bathroom appeared. I pushed the door open, planning to leave Noah outside while I collected myself.
But he followed me in.
Two younger girls were standing at the mirror applying lip gloss.
“Get out,” Noah said to them, his voice laced with boredom. As if they were the ones who didn’t belong in the girl’s bathroom. But they didn’t wait to be told twice. They scooted out so fast that I would have laughed if I hadn’t been so shocked myself.
Noah directed his gaze at me, and something flickered behind his eyes. “What’s your problem?” he asked in a low voice.
I looked at him. Gone was the casual indifference. But he wasn’t angry. Or even annoyed. More like … curious. His quiet expression was ruinous.
“I don’t have a problem,” I said confidently. I took a step forward, eyes narrowed at Noah. “I’m problem-free.”
His long frame, accentuated by the spare line of his untucked shirt and slim cut pants looked so out of place against the ugly yellow tile. My breathing accelerated.
“I’m not your type,” I managed to say.
Noah then took a step toward me, and a deviant smile teased the corner of his mouth. Damn. “I don’t have a type.”
“That’s even worse,” I said, and I swear I tried to sound mean when I said it. “You’re as indiscriminate as they say.”
But I wanted him closer.
“I’ve been slandered.” His voice was barely above a whisper. He took another step, so close that I felt the warm aura of his chest. He looked down at me, all sincere and open and with that chaos hair in his eyes and I wanted and didn’t want and I had to say something.
“I doubt it” was the best I could do. His face was inches from mine. I was going to kiss him, and I was going to regret it.
But at that moment, I couldn’t bring myself to care.