nOAH PICKED ME UP THE NEXT MORNING, but I was unsettled and silent on the way to school. He didn’t push. Even though this had been our routine for virtually every day for over a week, all eyes were on us as we walked from the gate through the quad. Noah’s arm never left my waist, but he did leave me at the door to Algebra, albeit reluctantly. Anna and Aiden breezed past us, making faces like they smelled something foul.
“You all right?” Noah asked me, tilting his head.
“What?” I was distracted, thinking about the call last night. And the metal forest at the art show. And Claire and Jude in mirrors. “Just thinking about my Bio exam later,” I told Noah.
He nodded. “See you later, then?”
“Mmm-hmm,” I said, and walked into class.
When I reached my desk, Jamie sauntered in and sat beside me. “You’re still with that prideful ass?”
I dropped my head in my hands and tugged at my hair. “God, Jamie. Give it a rest.”
He opened his mouth to say something, but Mr. Walsh had already started class. But I was sick of listening to Jamie whine about Noah, and today we were going to have it out. I narrowed my eyes at him and mouthed lunch. He nodded.
The rest of my morning classes flew by, and Jamie was waiting for me by the picnic tables at the appointed time. And for the first time I could remember, his eyes were level with mine.
“Did you get taller?” I asked him.
Jamie raised his eyebrows. “Did I? Crazy hormones. Better late than never, I guess,” he said, shrugging. Then he narrowed his eyes at me. “But don’t change the subject. We should be discussing your unfortunate taste in men.”
“What is your problem?”
“I don’t have a problem. You have a problem.”
“Oh? What’s my problem?”
“Shaw’s playing you,” Jamie said quietly.
I grew irritated. “I don’t think so.”
“How well do you really know him, Mara?”
I paused. Then said, “Well enough.”
Jamie looked away. “Well, I’ve known him longer.” He pushed his dreadlocks out of his face and chewed on his lower lip.
I watched him closely as he sat there, and after a minute the evidence clicked into place. “Oh my God,” I whispered. “You’re jealous.”
Jamie looked at me like I’d gone insane. “Are you insane?” he asked.
“Umm …” Maybe?
“No offense, sugar, but you’re not my type.”
I chuckled. “Not jealous of him, of me.”
Jamie’s face darkened. “I won’t lie, the boy is hot, but no. I don’t know how you stand him, honestly.”
“What did he do, Jamie?”
He was silent.
“Did he sleep with your mom or something?”
Jamie’s expression hardened. “My sister.”
I opened my mouth, but no sound came out at first. Then, “I didn’t know you had a sister.”
“She graduated. She was a junior when Noah first started here.”
“Maybe … maybe he liked her.” I said. Something twinged in my chest.
Jamie barked out a laugh. “He didn’t. He only used her to make a point.”
“What point was that?”
Jamie leaned his head back and fixed his gaze on the thatched roof. “So you know I skipped a grade, right?” Jamie asked. I nodded. “Well, I used to be in his little sister Katie’s class. When Noah and Katie first started here, she was kind of confused about the material. So I helped her.”
“Like you helped me.”
“Except there may or may not have been tonsil hockey involved. I don’t remember,” Jamie said, as I raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Anyway,” he said pointedly, “Noah totally busted me with a hand up her skirt—she wears thongs, by the way. So hot. And the next day, I came home and all my extremely intelligent, pragmatic sister, Stephanie, could talk about was Noah.”
I felt a pang of something in my chest. “Maybe she liked him,” I said quietly.
“Oh, she did. A lot. Until she came home crying one Saturday night after they’d gone out.” Jamie’s eyes narrowed as he watched Noah approach us from the other building. “Noah humiliated her. She insisted on transferring out of Croyden, and my parents let her.”
“Is she okay?”
Jamie laughed. “Yeah. I mean, she’s in college, and it was a couple of years ago. But using her to make a point like that? Sick.”
I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to defend Noah, but could I, really? So I said something else. “What happened with you and Katie?”
“Nothing. I didn’t want him screwing with Stephanie’s life more than he had, so I shut that shit down.” Jamie sucked in his bottom lip. “I really liked her too.” He tilted his head at me, his dreads falling to the side. “But none of this matters, because you’re not going to listen to your token black Jewish bi friend, are you?”
My eyes connected with Noah’s as he sauntered over. “I don’t know,” I said to Jamie, still watching Noah.
“It’s your funeral.” Jamie stopped talking a few seconds before Noah arrived.
“Roth,” Noah said, inclining his head.
“Shaw.” Jamie nodded back.
Noah stepped behind me and kissed my shoulder, just as Anna and Aiden appeared from behind the stairs.
“God, Mara, are you still holding out on him?” Anna said, tipping her head at Noah. She tsked. “Is that what I was missing, Noah?”
“The list of what you’re missing, Anna, is longer than the South Beach Free Clinic’s walk-in list,” Jamie said, and I was surprised to hear his voice. “Though I’m sure your hookup résumé includes the same names.”
Noah laughed silently against my back and I flashed Jamie a conspiratorial smile. He stood up for me. Even though he didn’t agree with my choices. He was a good friend.
Anna stood there openmouthed before Aiden grabbed her shirt and pulled her in close for a whisper. An evil grin rearranged her face before they turned just as the bell rang.
It was only when I saw Noah’s face as I walked out of my Bio exam that I realized something was wrong. Very wrong.
“What happened?” I asked, as he steered me away from the parking lot toward the lockers.
“Jamie wants to tell you himself. He asked me to get you,” Noah said. “And he hasn’t spoken more than one word to me in years, so let’s go.”
I was dumbstruck. What could have happened in the past two hours? When we rounded the corner by Jamie’s locker, he was packing up his stuff. Not just his books, but his pictures, his notes … everything. Cleaning it out.
He shoved the script for the school play in his backpack and sighed when he saw me. “Aiden said I threatened him,” he said in a rush.
“With a knife. Anna backed him up.” Jamie shoved a handful of papers into his bag. “One of them planted it in my backpack when I wasn’t looking. I’m expelled.”
“What?” My voice rang out, echoing against the metal. “That’s bullshit! How can they just expel you?”
Jamie stopped and turned to me, his hands balled into fists. “Even if Croyden didn’t have a zero-tolerance policy, I have a track record. The Ebola thing last year. My parents are already here to pick me up.”
“Just like that?” I asked, my voice shrill.
“Just like that,” he said, and slammed his locker shut. “Technically, I’m suspended pending review, but it’s pretty much over—I was already on probation. So now I’m going to be doing all of my work by correspondence.” He imitated Dr. Kahn’s deep voice. “I saw Noah loitering near the administration building and asked him to get you. I’ve been informed that I’m grounded until I graduate. Or take my GED. Whichever comes first. It’s going to completely fuck up my college applications next year.”
My stomach plummeted. I couldn’t believe this. It was beyond unfair.
“Well, well. If it isn’t the school bully.” I heard Aiden’s voice and whipped around, furious. Anna stood beside him, looking triumphant.
So this was how it was going to be. In one stroke, they ruined Jamie’s life, simply because he stood up for me. Because we were friends. And looking at their disgusting faces, I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that this wouldn’t be the last time.
I itched with violence. I could kill them for this. I wanted to.
Jamie glared at Aiden. “Don’t make me cut you, Davis.”
Aiden laughed. “With what, a cocktail sword?”
I rounded on him before I realized what I was doing. “Leave. Right now, before I hurt you.”
Aiden closed the distance between us in seconds. Up close, he was even bigger. The muscles in his biceps twitched. “Why wait?”
Noah’s hand was at Aiden’s throat in an instant, and he pushed him up against the lockers. “You stupid motherfucker,” Noah said to Aiden. “Jamie, get Mara out of here.”
“Noah,” I protested.
“Go!” he snapped.
Jamie grabbed my hand and pulled me away, past Anna. I heard the sound of bodies slamming into metal behind me and tried to turn, but Jamie was surprisingly strong.
“Noah can take care of himself, Mara.”
I tried to pull away. “Aiden’s huge.”
Jamie flashed a small, bitter smile as he gripped my hand tighter and pulled me along. “But Noah fights dirty. He’ll be fine. Promise.”
He didn’t let go until we stood next to the cul-de-sac, in front of his parents’ car.
“Grounded likely means no phone or computer,” Jamie said. “But if I encounter an owl, I’ll try to smuggle a message to the outside, okay?”
I nodded, just as Jamie’s dad rolled down his window.
“Bye, sugar,” Jamie said, and kissed me on the cheek. “Don’t let The Man keep you down.”
And just like that, he was gone.