THAT SAME CREEPING, WATCHFUL FEELING escorted me to school the next day. I just couldn’t shake it. As Daniel pulled into the school parking lot, he said, “You know, you should think about getting some sun.”
I shot him a look. “Seriously?”
“I only mention it because you’re looking a little peaked.”
“Duly noted,” I said dryly. “We’re going to be late if you don’t find a spot, you know.”
Rachmaninoff floated softly from the speakers, doing nothing to settle my jangled mood.
Or Daniel’s, apparently. “I am seriously itching to start playing bumper cars, here,” he said, his jaw clenched. Even though we left early, it still took us forty minutes to drive to school, and there was already an egregiously long line of luxury cars waiting to pull into the entrance.
We watched as two of them vied on opposite ends of the lot for the same space; one of the waiting vehicles, a black Mercedes sedan, squealed its tires as the driver propelled it forward into the spot, cutting off the other car, a blue Focus. The Focus driver pounded one long, sharp note on the horn.
“Crazy,” Daniel said.
I nodded as I watched the driver of the Mercedes exit the car along with another passenger. I recognized the immaculate sheet of blond hair on the driver even before I saw her face. Anna, naturally. Then I recognized the sour expression of her omnipresent companion, Aiden, as he emerged from the front passenger seat.
When we finally found a space, Daniel smiled at me before we parted.
“Just text me if you need me, okay? The lunch offer still stands.”
“I’ll be fine.”
The door was still open when I arrived at AP English, but most of the seats were already filled. I sat down at one of the only available desks in the second row and ignored the snickers of a couple of students I recognized from Algebra II. The teacher, Ms. Leib, was busy writing something on the board. When she finished, she smiled at the class.
“Good morning, guys. Who can tell me what this word means?”
She pointed to the board, where the word “hamartia” was written. My confidence grew, having already had this lesson. Point one for the Laurelton public school system. I briefly looked around the class. No one raised a hand. Oh, what the hell. I raised mine.
“Ah, the new student.”
I really, really needed that uniform.
Ms. Leib’s smile was genuine as she leaned against her desk. “Your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Mara. Have at it.”
“Fatal flaw,” someone else called out. In a British accent.
I half-turned in my seat and would have recognized the boy from yesterday immediately even if he hadn’t looked as distinctly rumpled as before, with his collar open, his tie knotted loosely around it and his shirtsleeves rolled up. He was still beautiful, and still smiling. I narrowed my eyes at him.
The teacher did the same. “Thank you, Noah, but I called on Mara. And ‘fatal flaw’ isn’t the most precise definition, anyway. Care to take a shot at it, Mara?”
I did, particularly now that I knew that British Boy was the notorious Noah Shaw. “It means mistake or error,” I said. “Sometimes called a tragic flaw.”
Ms. Leib gave a congratulatory nod of her head. “Very good. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you’ve read the Three Theban Plays at your previous school?”
“Yep,” I said, fighting self-consciousness.
“Then you’re ahead of the game. We’ve just finished Oedipus Rex. Can someone—not Mara—tell me what Oedipus’ tragic flaw was?”
Noah was the only one to raise his hand.
“Twice in one day, Mr. Shaw? That’s out of character. Please, demonstrate your dazzling intellect for the class.”
Noah stared straight at me as he spoke. I was wrong yesterday—his eyes weren’t gray, they were blue. “His fatal flaw was his lack of self-knowledge.”
“Or his pride,” I volleyed back.
“A debate!” Ms. Leib clapped her hands. “Love it. I would love it more if the rest of you would look alive, but hey.” The teacher turned back to the board and wrote my answer and Noah’s on the board, under “hamartia.” “I think there are arguments to support both claims; that Oedipus’ failure to acknowledge who he was—to know himself, as it were—caused his downfall, or that his pride, or more correctly, his hubris, led to his tragic fall. And for next Monday, I want a five-page paper from each of you with your brilliant analysis of the subject.”
There was a collective groan from the class.
“Save it. Next week we start antiheroes.”
Then she continued on with her lecture, most of which I’d heard before. A bit bored, I took out my thoroughly dog-eared and well-loved copy of Lolita and hid it behind my notebook. The air conditioner in the class must not have been working, and the atmosphere grew increasingly stuffy as the minutes ticked by. When the bell finally rang, I was fiending for some fresh air. I sprung out of my seat, knocking it over. I crouched to lift it and set it right, but my chair was already in someone’s hands.
“Thanks,” I said as our eyes met.
He gave me the same familiar, knowing look as yesterday. Slightly ruffled, I broke the stare and gathered my things before hurrying out of the classroom. A throng of oncoming students jostled me and my book fell to the ground. A shadow darkened the cover before I could reach for it.
“You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, in order to discern, at once, the little deadly demon among the wholesome children,” he said, his British accent melting around the words, his voice smooth and low. “She stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.”
I stood there staring, openmouthed and speechless. I would have laughed—the whole thing was sort of ridiculous. But the way he said it, the way he was looking at me, was shockingly intimate. Like he knew my secrets. Like I had no secrets. But before I could think of a reply, Noah crouched and picked up my book.
“Lolita,” he said, turning my book over in his hands. His eyes wandered over the pink-lipped mouth on the cover, then handed it to me. Our fingers brushed, and a warm current coursed through them. My heart thundered so loud he could probably hear it.
“So,” he said, his eyes meeting mine again. “You’re a smut-hound with daddy issues?” The corner of his mouth turned up in a slow, condescending smile.
I wanted to smack it off of his face. “Well, you’re quoting it. And incorrectly, by the way. So what does that make you?”
His half-smile morphed into a whole grin. “Oh, I’m definitely a smuthound with daddy issues.”
“I guess you nailed me, then.”
“Asscrown,” I muttered under my breath as I headed to my next class. I wasn’t proud of swearing at a complete stranger, no. But he started it.
Noah matched my pace. “Don’t you mean ‘assclown’?” He looked amused.
“No,” I said, louder this time. “I mean asscrown. The crown on top of the asshat that covers the asshole of the assclown. The very zenith in the hierarchy of asses,” I said, as though reading from a dictionary of modern profanity.
“I guess you nailed me, then.”
The words popped into my mind without permission, and I ducked into my Algebra classroom and away from him the second I saw the door.
I sat in the back, hoping to hide from yesterday’s stares and lose myself in the incomprehensibility of the lecture. I cracked Lolita’s spine and hid it under my bag. I took out my graph paper, then took out my pencil. Then exchanged that pencil for another pencil. Noah was getting under my skin. Not healthy.
But then Anna primly entered the classroom, accompanied by her not-so-little friend, and cut off my thoughts. The pair walked in like a matched set of evil. She caught me staring and I quickly looked away, but not without blushing. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her watching me as she sat in the third row of desks.
I was flooded with relief when Jamie slipped into the seat next to me. My only friend at Croyden thus far.
“How goes it?” he asked, grinning.
I smiled back. “No nosebleeds.”
“Yet,” Jamie said, and winked. “So who else have you met? Anyone interesting? Besides me, obviously.”
I lowered my voice and scratched at my graph paper. “Interesting? No. Assholish, yes.”
The dimple in Jamie’s cheek deepened. “Let me guess. A certain unkempt bastard with a panty-dropping smile?”
Jamie nodded. “That blush of yours tells me it is decidedly so.”
“Maybe,” I said casually.
“So you’ve met Shaw. What did he say?”
I wondered why Jamie was so interested. “He’s an asshole.”
“Yeah, you mentioned that. Now that I think about it,” Jamie started, “that’s what they all say. And yet that boy is drowning in pu—”
“All right class, take out your problems and pass them to the front, please.” Mr. Walsh rose, and wrote out an equation on the blackboard.
“Nice visual,” I whispered to Jamie. He winked, just as Anna turned to glare at me.
My second day passed in a sea of dreary mundanity. Lectures, homework, bad teacher jokes, homework, in-class assignments, homework. When it ended, Daniel was waiting for me at the campus perimeter and I was glad to see him.
“Hey, you,” he said. “Walk faster so we can have a prayer of getting out of here before the cars clog up the only exit.” When I complied, he asked, “Second day any better than the first?”
I thought about yesterday. “Mildly,” I said. “But can we not talk about me? How was your day?”
He shrugged. “The usual. People are the same everywhere. Not many stand out.”
“Not many? So some people actually stood out?”
He rolled his eyes at me. “A few.”
“Come on, Daniel. Where’s that Croyden enthusiasm? Let’s hear it.”
Daniel dutifully gave me the rundown of his senior class, and was in the middle of telling me about a brilliant female violinist in his music study when we arrived back home. The news blared from the living room, but my parents weren’t home yet. Must be the little brother.
“Joseph?” Daniel shouted over the din.
“Daniel?” he shouted back.
“She went out to get dinner; Dad’s coming home early tonight.”
“Did you do your homework?” Daniel rifled through the mail on the kitchen table.
“Did you?” Joseph asked, without looking up.
“I’m about to, but nevertheless, I’m not the one engrossed in—what are you watching?”
Daniel paused. “Why?”
“They recap the day’s market trends,” Joseph replied, without missing a beat.
Daniel and I exchanged a glance. Then he held up an incredibly thick envelope with no return address. “Where did this come from?”
“Dad’s new client dropped it off like two seconds before you got here.”
A look passed over Daniel’s face.
“What?” I asked him.
And then it was gone. “Nothing.”
He made his way to his room, and after a minute, I made my way to mine, leaving Joseph to face the consequences of being caught watching television before doing his homework. He’d charm his way out of them in about five seconds.
Some time later, a loud knock startled me from the depths of my Spanish textbook, which I’d decided was my most hated subject. Even worse than math.
My dad peeked in through a crack in my door. “Mara?”
My father walked into my bedroom, obviously tired but not at all rumpled despite spending the day in a suit. He sat down on the bed next to me, his silk tie catching the light.
“So how’s the new school?”
“Why does everyone always ask me about school?” I said. “There are other things to talk about.”
He feigned bafflement. “Like what?”
“Like the weather. Or sports.”
“You hate sports.”
“Ah, but I hate school more.”
“Point taken,” my dad said, smiling.
He then launched into a story about work, and midway through telling me about the lambasting of a clerk for wearing “hooker heels” by a judge today, my mother called us in for dinner. It was so much easier to laugh with my dad around, and that night I drifted off to sleep easily.
But I didn’t stay asleep for long.
I opened one eye when the pounding on my window grew too loud to ignore. The figure in my window brought his face up to the glass, peering. I knew who it was, and I wasn’t surprised to see him. I buried myself under the warm covers, hoping he’d go away.
He knocked on it again. No such luck.
“I’m sleeping,” I mumbled under my blanket.
He pounded on the glass even louder, and the old window rattled in its wooden frame. He was either going to break it, or wake my parents. Both scenarios were undesirable.
I inched over to my bedroom window and opened it a crack.
“I’m not home,” I whispered loudly.
“Very funny.” Jude opened the window, shocking me with a jet of cold air. “I’m freezing my ass off out here.”
“That problem has a simple solution.” I crossed my arms over my tank top.
Jude looked confused. His eyes were shaded under the brim of his baseball cap, but it was obvious that he was scanning my nighttime attire.
“Oh my God. You’re not even dressed.”
“I am dressed. I am dressed for bed. I am dressed for bed because it’s two in the morning.”
He looked at me, his eyes wide and mocking. “You forgot?”
“Yeah,” I lied. I leaned out the window slightly and checked the driveway. “Are they waiting in the car?”
Jude shook his head. “They’re at the asylum already. It’s just us. Come on.”