SMILING AT ME LIKE HE KNEW ME. I TURNED my head, wondering if there was anyone behind me. Nope. No one there. When I glanced back in the boy’s direction, he was gone.
I blinked, disoriented, and bent to pick up my things. I heard footsteps approach, but they stopped just before they reached me.
The perfectly tanned blond girl wore heeled oxfords and white kneesocks with her just-above-the-knee charcoal and navy plaid skirt. The fact that I’d be wearing the same thing in a week hurt my soul.
She was linked arm-in-arm with a flawlessly groomed, startlingly enormous blond boy, and the two of them in their Croyden-crested blazers looked down their perfect noses with their perfect smattering of freckles at me.
“Watch it,” the girl said. With venom.
Watch what? I hadn’t done anything. But I decided not to say so, considering I knew exactly one person at the school, and we shared a last name.
“Sorry,” I said, even though I didn’t know what for. “I’m Mara Dyer. I’m new here.” Obviously.
A hollow smile crept over Vending Machine Girl’s puritanically pretty face. “Welcome,” she said, and the two of them walked away.
Funny. I did not feel welcome at all.
I shook off both strange encounters, and, map in hand, circled the building with no results. I climbed the stairs, and circled it again before finally finding my classroom.
The door was closed. I did not relish the idea of walking in late, or at all, really. But I’d already missed one class, and I was there, and the hell with it. I opened the door and stepped inside.
Cracks appeared in the classroom walls as twenty-something heads turned in my direction. The fissures spidered up, higher and higher, until the ceiling began to crumble. My throat went dry. No one said a word, even though dust filled the room, even though I thought I would choke.
Because it wasn’t happening to anyone else. Just to me.
A light crashed to the floor right in front of the teacher, sending a shower of sparks in my direction. Not real. But I tried to avoid them anyway, and fell.
I heard the sound of my face as it smacked against the polished linoleum floor. Then pain punched me between my eyes. Warm blood gushed out of my nostrils and swirled over my mouth and under my chin. My eyes were open, but I still couldn’t see through the gray dust. I could hear, though. There was a collective intake of breath from the class, and the sputtering teacher tried to determine just how hurt I was. Oddly, I did nothing but lie on the cool floor and ignore the muffled voices around me. I preferred my bubble of pain to the humiliation I would surely face upon standing.
“Umm, are you okay? Can you hear me?” The teacher’s voice grew increasingly panicky.
I tried to say my name, but I think it sounded more like “I’m dying” instead.
“Someone go get Nurse Lucas before she bleeds to death in my classroom.”
At that, I scrambled up, shifting woozily on alien feet. Nothing like the threat of nurses and their needles to get my ass into gear.
“I’m fine,” I announced, and looked around the room. Just a normal classroom. No dust. No cracks. “Really,” I said. “No need for the nurse. I just get nosebleeds sometimes.” Chuckle, chuckle. Laugh it off. “I don’t even feel anything. The bleeding’s stopped.” And it had, though I probably looked like a freak show.
The teacher eyed me warily before he answered. “Hmm. You really aren’t hurt, then? Would you like to go to the restroom to clean up? We can formally introduce ourselves upon your return.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I answered. “I’ll be right back.” I willed myself out of my dizziness, and snuck a glance at the teacher and my new classmates. Every face in the room registered a mixture of surprise and horror. Including, I noticed, Vending Machine Girl. Lovely.
I vacated the classroom. My body felt wiggly as I walked, like a loose tooth that could be dislodged by the slightest force. When I no longer heard the whispers or the teacher’s shaky voice, I almost broke into a run. I even missed the girls’ bathroom at first, barely registering the swinging door. I doubled back and, once inside, focused on the pattern of the hideous yolk-colored tile, counted the number of the stalls, did anything I could to avoid looking at myself in the mirror. I tried to calm myself, hoping to stave off the panic attack that would follow the sight of blood.
I breathed slowly. I did not want to clean myself up. I did not want to return to class. But the longer I was gone, the higher the likelihood that the teacher would send the nurse after me. I really didn’t want that, so I positioned myself in front of the wet counter, which was covered in wads of crumpled paper towels, and looked up.
The girl in the mirror smiled. But she wasn’t me.