I HEARD HE E-MAILED HER A PICTURE OF HIS—OH. Hi, Noah.” The voice stopped mid-sentence, and I could hear the coy smile in it.
Noah closed his eyes. He stepped away from me and turned to face the intruders. I blinked, trying to bring everything back into focus.
“Ladies,” he said to the openmouthed girls and nodded. Then he walked out.
The girls giggled, stealing sidelong glances at me while they fixed their melting makeup in front of the mirror. I was still slack-jawed and shell-shocked, staring at the door. Only when the bell rang did I finally remember how to walk.
I didn’t see Noah again until Wednesday night.
I spent the day mildly freaked out from lack of sleep, general malaise, and angst over what had happened between us. On Monday, he’d walked out on me like it was nothing. Like Jamie warned me he would. And I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sting.
I had no idea what, if anything, I was going to say to Noah when I saw him. But English came and went, and he didn’t show. I dutifully took notes from Ms. Leib and loitered outside of the class when it ended, scanning the campus for Noah without understanding why.
In Algebra, I tried to focus on the polynomials and parabolas but it was becoming painfully clear that while I could coast in Bio, History, and English, I was struggling in math. Mr. Walsh called on me twice in class and I gave a grievously wrong answer each time. Each homework assignment I’d submitted was returned with angry red pencil marks all over it, punctuated by a disgraceful score at the bottom of the page. Exams were in a few weeks, and I had no hope of catching up.
When class ended, an odd bit of conversation caught my attention, scattering my thoughts.
“I heard she was eaten after he killed her. Some kind of cannibal thing,” a girl said behind me. She punctuated her remark with a crack of her gum. I turned around.
“You’re an idiot, Jennifer,” a guy named Kent, I think, shot back at her. “Eaten by alligators, not the pedophile.”
Before I could hear more, Jamie dropped his binder on my desk. “Hey, Mara.”
“Did you hear that?” I asked him, as Jennifer and Kent left the classroom.
Jamie looked confused at first, but then understanding transformed his face. “Oh. Jordana.”
“What?” The name rang a bell, and I tried to remember why.
“That’s who they were talking about. Jordana Palmer. She was a sophomore at Dade High. I know someone who knows someone who knew her. Kind of. It’s really sad.”
The pieces clicked into place. “I think I heard something about it on the news,” I said quietly. “What happened to her?”
“I don’t know the whole story. Just that she was supposed to show up at a friend’s house and then … didn’t. They found her body a few days later, and she was definitely murdered, but I haven’t heard how, yet. Her dad’s a cop, and I think they’re keeping it quiet or something. Hey, you okay?”
That was when I tasted the blood. Apparently I’d chewed on the skin of my bottom lip until it split. I flicked out my tongue to catch the drop.
“No,” I said truthfully, as I made my way outside.
Jamie followed me. “Care to share?”
I didn’t. But when I met Jamie’s eyes, it was like I didn’t have a choice. The weight of all the weirdness—the asylum, Rachel, Noah—all of it just bubbled up, trying to claw its way out of my throat.
“I was in an accident before we moved here. My best friend died.” I practically vomited the words. I closed my eyes and exhaled, appalled by my overshare. What was wrong with me?
“I’m sorry,” Jamie said, lowering his eyes.
I’d made him feel awkward. Fabulous. “It’s okay. I’m okay. I don’t know why I just said that.”
Jamie shifted uncomfortably. “It’s cool,” he said. Then he smiled. “So when do you want to study Algebra?”
A random segue, and a ridiculous one. There was no way Jamie would benefit from having me as a study partner; not when he nailed each and every question Mr. Walsh lobbed at him.
“You are aware that my math skills are even more lacking than my social skills?”
“Impossible.” Jamie’s mouth spread into a mocking grin.
“Thanks. Seriously, you must have better things to do with your life than waste it on the hopeless?”
“I’ve already learned Parseltongue. What else is there?”
“You’re like, a gen-u-wine nerd. Love it. Meet me at the picnic tables during lunch. Bring your brain, and something for it to do,” he said as he walked away. “Oh, your flap’s open, by the way,” he called over his shoulder.
Jamie pointed at my messenger bag with a grin, then strolled to his next class. I closed my bag.
When I met him at the appointed time, math textbook in hand, he was all smiles, ready and waiting to bear witness to my idiocy. He took out his graph paper and textbook but my mind glazed over as soon as I glanced at the numbers on the glossy page. I had to will myself to focus on what Jamie was saying as he wrote out the equation and explained it patiently. But after only minutes, as if a switch had been flipped in my brain, the numbers began to make sense. We worked through problem after problem until all of the week’s homework was finished. Half an hour for what would normally have taken me two and netted me an F for my efforts, and my work was perfect.
I gave a low whistle. “Damn. You’re good.”
“It’s all you, Mara.”
I shook my head. He nodded his.
“All right,” I acquiesced. “Either way, thanks.”
He bent into an exaggerated bow before we headed to Spanish. We made meaningless small talk on the way, steering clear of dead people as a topic of conversation. When we reached the classroom, Morales lumbered up from her desk to the blackboard and wrote down a series of verbs for us to conjugate. Characteristically, she called on me first. I answered wrong. She threw a piece of chalk at me, scattering my good mood from my lunchtime study session into a million pieces.
When class ended, Jamie offered to help me with Spanish, too. I accepted.
At the end of the day, I stuffed my now unnecessary textbook in my locker. I needed to spend some quality time with my sketchbook not drawing Noah, not drawing anyone. I shifted my books to one side of the locker and searched through a week’s worth of refuse, but didn’t see it. I leafed through my messenger bag, but it wasn’t there, either. Irritated, I dropped my bag so I could focus, and it slid against the bottom row of lockers, dislodging some pink fliers taped to the metal before it hit the concrete. Still nothing. I started pulling out my books one at a time as raw, arctic fear coiled in my stomach. Faster and faster, I tore through my things and let them fall to the ground until I was staring at my empty locker.
My sketchbook was gone.
Tears threatened my eyes, but a bunch of students walked into the locker niche and I refused to cry in public. Sluggishly, I put my books back into my locker and removed the flier that was now stuck to the front of my Algebra textbook. A costume party on South Beach hosted by one of Croyden’s elite, in honor of the teacher workday tomorrow. I didn’t bother reading the rest of the details before letting it fall to the ground again. Not my scene.
None of this was my scene. Not Florida and its hordes of tan blonds and mosquitoes. Not Croyden and its painfully generic student body. I’d made a friend in Jamie, but I missed Rachel. And she was gone.
Screw it. I ripped a flier off of another locker and shoved it in my messenger bag. I needed a party. I jogged to the back gate to meet Daniel. He looked uncharacteristically cool in the Croyden uniform, and happy until he saw me—then his face transformed into a mask of brotherly concern.
“You’re looking unusually glum this afternoon,” he said.
I got in the car. “I lost my sketchbook.”
“Oh,” he said. And after a beat, “Was there anything important in it?”
Other than the several detailed sketches of the most infuriatingly beautiful person in our school? No, not really.
I changed the subject. “What were you looking so happy about before I curdled your good mood?”
“Did I look happy? I don’t remember looking happy,” he said. He was stalling. And speeding. I glanced at the odometer; he was doing over fifty miles per hour before we got to the highway. Living dangerously for Daniel. Very suspicious.
“You looked happy,” I said to him. “Spill.”
“I’m going to the party tonight.”
I did a double take. It definitely wasn’t Daniel’s scene. “Who are you going with?”
He blushed and shrugged. No way. Did my brother have a … crush?
“Who?!” I demanded.
“The violinist. Sophie.”
I stared at him, mouth agape.
“It’s not a date,” he added immediately. “I’m just meeting her there.”
The beginnings of an idea sprouted as we turned off the highway. “Mind if I tag along?” I asked. Now it was Daniel’s turn to double take. “I promise not to interfere with your amorous advances.”
“You know, I was going to say yes, but now…”
“Oh, come on. I just need a ride.”
“All right. But who are you going to see, pray tell?”
Huh. I hadn’t planned to see anyone. I just wanted to dance and sweat and forget and—
“What the hell?” Daniel whispered, as we rounded the corner of our street.
A massive gathering of news vans and people lined the pavement in front of our driveway. Daniel and I looked at each other, and I knew we shared the same thought.
Something was wrong.