BY SOME STROKE OF LUCK, I FLUNG OPEN THE door to the closest classroom, 213, and it turned out to be Spanish. And judging by all of the taken desks, I was already late.
“Meez Dee-er?” the teacher boomed.
Distracted and disturbed, I pulled the door closed behind me. “It’s Dyer, actually.”
For my correction or for my lateness, I’ll never know, the teacher punished me, forced me to stand at the front of the room while she fired question after question at me, in Spanish, to which I could only respond, “I don’t know.” She didn’t even introduce herself; she just sat there, the muscles twitching in her veiny forearms as she scribbled self-importantly in her teacher book. The Spanish Inquisition took on a whole new meaning.
And it continued for a solid twenty minutes. When she finally stopped, she made me sit in the desk next to hers, in the front of the class, facing all of the other students. Brutal. My eyes were glued to the clock as I counted the seconds until it was over. When the bell rang, I bolted for the door.
“You look like you could use a hug,” said a voice from behind me. I turned around to face a smiling short boy wearing an open, white button-down shirt. A yellow T-shirt that said I AM A CLICHÉ was beneath it.
“That’s very generous of you,” I said, plastering a smile on my face. “But I think I’ll manage.” It was important to act not crazy.
“Oh, I wasn’t offering. Just making an observation.” The boy pushed his wild dreadlocks out of his eyes and held out his hand. “I’m Jamie Roth.”
“Mara Dyer,” I said, though he already knew.
“Wait, are you new here?” A mischievous grin reached his dark eyes.
I matched it. “Funny. You’re funny.”
He gave an exaggerated bow. “Don’t worry about Morales, by the way. She’s the world’s worst teacher.”
“So she’s that heinous to everyone?” I asked, after we were a safe distance away from the classroom. I scanned the campus for imagined dead people as I shifted my bag to my other shoulder. There were none. So far so good.
“Maybe not that heinous. But close. You’re lucky she didn’t throw any chalk at you, actually. How’s your nose, by the way?”
Had he been in Algebra II this morning?
“Better, thanks. You’re the first person to ask. Or say anything nice at all, actually.”
“So people have said not-nice things, then?”
I thought I glimpsed a flash of silver in his mouth when he spoke. A tongue stud? Interesting. He didn’t seem the type.
I nodded as my eyes drank in my new classmates. I knew there were variants of the school uniform—different shirt, blazer, and skirt/pants options, and sweater vests for the really adventurous. But when I looked for any telltale signs of cliques—wild shoes, or students with dyed black hair and makeup to match, I saw none. It was more than the uniforms; everyone somehow managed to look exactly alike. Perfectly groomed, perfectly well-behaved, not a hair out of place. Jamie, with his dreadlocks and tongue stud and exposed T-shirt, was one of the only standouts.
And, of course, the disheveled-looking person from this morning. I felt an elbow in my ribs.
“So, new chick? Who said what? Don’t leave a fella hangin’.”
I smiled. “There was this girl earlier who told me to ‘watch it.’” I described Vending Machine Girl to Jamie and watched his eyebrows rise. “The guy she was with was equally unfriendly,” I finished.
Jamie shook his head. “You went near Shaw, didn’t you?” Then he smiled to himself. “God, he really is something.”
“Uh … does this Shaw happen to have an overabundance of muscles and wear his shirt with a popped collar? He was on the arm of said girl.”
Jamie laughed. “That description could fit any number of Croyden douches, but definitely not Noah Shaw. Probably Davis, if I had to guess.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Aiden Davis, lacrosse all-star and Project Runway aficionado. Pre-Shaw, he and Anna used to date. Until he came out of the metaphorical closet, and now they’re BFFs forevah.” Jamie batted his eyelashes. I kind of loved him.
“So what did you do to Anna?” he asked.
I gave him a look of mock horror. “What did I do to her?”
“Well, you did something to get her attention. You’d normally be beneath her notice, but the claws will come out if Shaw starts sniffing around you,” he said. He took a long look at me before he spoke again. “Which he will, having exhausted Croyden’s limited female resources already. Literally.”
“Well, she needn’t trouble herself.” I shuffled my schedule and my map, then looked around, trying to locate the annex for Biology. “I have no interest in stealing someone’s boyfriend,” I said. Or dating at all, I didn’t say, considering my last boyfriend was now dead.
“Oh, he’s not her boyfriend. Shaw dropped her ass last year after a couple of weeks. A record for him. Then she went even crazier—like the rest of them. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and all that jazz. Anna used to be the abstinence poster girl, but post-Shaw, you could write a comic book about the many adventures of her vagina. It could wear a cape.”
I snorted. My eyes scanned the buildings in front of me. None of them looked like an annex. “And the guy she was all cozy with has no problem with this?” I asked, distracted.
Jamie quirked an eyebrow at me. “The Mean Queen? That would be no.”
Ah. “How’d he earn the nickname?”
Jamie looked at me like I was an idiot.
“I mean, specifically,” I said, trying not to be one.
“Let’s just say I tried to make friends with Davis once. In the platonic sense,” Jamie clarified. “I’m not his type. Anyway, my jaw still clicks when I yawn.” He demonstrated it for me.
“He hit you?”
The fountain burbled behind us as we crossed the quad, and stopped in front of the building farthest from the administration offices. I inspected the labels on the classroom doors. Completely random. I would never figure this place out.
“Indeed. Davis has a vicious right hook.”
We had that in common, apparently.
“I got him back later, though.”
“Oh?” Jamie wouldn’t stand a chance in a knife fight with Aiden Davis if all Aiden had was a roll of toilet paper.
Jamie smiled knowingly. “I threatened him with Ebola.”
“I don’t actually have Ebola. It’s a biosafety Level Four hot agent.”
I blinked again.
“In other words, impossible for teenagers to obtain, even if your father is a doctor.” He looked disappointed.
“Riiight,” I said, not moving.
“But Davis believed it and almost soiled himself. It was a defining moment for me. Until that rat bastard tattled to the guidance counselors. Who believed him. And called my dad, to verify I didn’t actually have Ebola at home. Idiots. One little joke involving hemorrhagic fever and they brand you ‘unstable.’ “He shook his head, then his mouth tilted into a smile. “You’re, like, totally freaked out right now.”
“No.” I was, just a tad. But who was I to be picky in the friend department?
He winked and nodded. “Sure. So what class do you have next?”
“Biology with Prieta? In the annex, wherever the hell that is.”
Jamie pointed to an enormous flowered bush about a thousand feet away. In the opposite direction. “Behind the bougainvillea.”
“Thanks,” I said, peering at it. “I never would have found it. So what’s your next class?”
He shrugged out of his blazer and button down. “AP Physics, normally, but I’m skipping it.”
AP Physics. Impressive. “So … are you in my grade?”
“I’m a junior,” Jamie said. He must have registered my skepticism because he quickly added, “I skipped a grade. Probably absorbed my parents’ short genes by osmosis.”
“Osmosis? Don’t you mean genetics?” I asked. “Not that you’re short.” A lie, but harmless.
“I’m adopted,” Jamie said. “And please. I’m short. No biggie.” Jamie shrugged, then tapped his watchless wrist. “You’d better get to Prieta’s class before you’re late.” He waved. “See ya.”
And just like that, I made a friend. I mentally patted myself on the back; Daniel would be proud. Mom would be prouder. I planned to offer this news to her like a cat presenting a dead mouse to its owner. It might even be enough to help stave off therapy.
If, of course, I kept today’s hallucinations to myself.