"I wasn't a bitch," the girl said, taking off her sunglasses. "I only—"
"You were, and you know it," Kirsten said, cutting her off. "So you can stop denying it. And stop following me around, too, okay? You're creeping me out. Come on, Annabel."
I was frozen to the spot, just looking at the girl's face. Without her sunglasses, her expression stricken, she suddenly looked twelve, just staring at us as Kirsten grabbed my wrist, tugging me back to where she and her friends were sitting.
"Unbelievable," she kept saying, and as I looked across the pool I could see Clarke watching me, confused, as Kirsten pulled me down onto her chair. Molly sat up, blinking, reaching up to catch the untied straps of her bikini.
"What happened?" she asked, and as Kirsten began to tell her, I glanced back toward the snack bar, but the girl was gone. Then I saw her, through the fence behind me, walking across the parking lot, barefoot, her head ducked down. She'd left all her stuff on the chair beside me—a towel, her shoes, a bag with a magazine and billfold, a pink hairbrush. I kept waiting for her to realize this and turn back for it. She didn't.
Her things stayed there all afternoon: After I'd gone back to sit with Clarke, and told her everything. After we played several hands of rummy, and swam until our fingers were pruny. After Kirsten and Molly left, and other people took their chairs. All the way up until the lifeguard finally blew the whistle, announcing closing time, and Clarke and I packed up and walked around the edge of the pool, sunburned and hungry and ready to go home.
I knew this girl was not my problem. She'd been mean to me, twice, and therefore was not deserving of my pity or help. But as we passed the chair, Clarke stopped. "We can't just leave it," she said, bending over to gather up the shoes and stuff them into the bag. "And it's on our way home."
I could have argued the point, but then I thought again of her walking across the parking lot, barefoot, alone. So I pulled the towel off the chair, folding it over my own. "Yeah," I said. "Okay."
Still, when we got to the Daughtrys' old house, I was relieved to see all the windows were dark and there was no car in the driveway, so we could just leave the girl's stuff and be done with it. But as Clarke bent down to stick the bag against the front door, it opened, and there she was.
She had on cutoff shorts and a red T-shirt, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. No sunglasses. No high-heeled sandals. When she saw us, her face flushed.
"Hi," Clarke said, after a just-long-enough-to-be-noticed awkward silence. Then she sneezed before adding, "We brought your stuff."
The girl just looked at her for a second, as if she didn't understand what she was saying. Which, with Clarke's congestion, she probably didn't. I leaned over and picked up the bag, holding it out to her. "You left this," I said.
She looked at the bag, then up at me, her expression guarded. "Oh," she said, reaching for it. "Thanks."
Behind us, a bunch of kids coasted past on their bikes, their voices loud as they called out to one another. Then it was quiet again.
"Honey?" I heard a voice call out from the end of the dark hallway behind her. "Is someone there?"
"It's okay," she said over her shoulder. Then she stepped forward, shutting the door behind her, and came out onto the porch. She quickly moved past us, but not before I saw that her eyes were red and swollen—she'd been crying. And suddenly, like so many other times, I heard my mother's voice in my head: Moving to a new place is tough. Maybe she doesn't know how to make friends.
"Look," I said, "about what happened. My sister—"
"It's fine," she said, cutting me off. "I'm fine." But as she said it, her voice cracked, just slightly, and she turned her back to us, putting a hand to her mouth. I just stood there, totally unsure what to do, but as I looked at Clarke, I saw she was already digging into the pocket of her shorts to pull out her ever-present pack of Kleenex. She drew one out, then reached around the girl, offering it to her. A second later, the girl took it, silently, and pressed it to her face.
"I'm Clarke," Clarke said. "And this is Annabel." In the years to come, it would be this moment that I always came back to. Me and Clarke, in the summer after our sixth-grade year, standing there behind that girl's turned back. So much might have been different for me, for all of us, if something else had happened right then. At the time, though, it was like so many other moments, fleeting and unimportant, as she turned around, now not crying—surprisingly composed, actually—to face us. "Hi," she said. "I'm Sophie."
Finally it was lunchtime, which meant that this, the first day of school, was now at least half over. All around me, the hallway was packed and noisy, but even with locker doors clanging and the droning of various announcements from the intercom, I could still hear Emily Shuster's voice, clear as day.
I looked down the hall to the main staircase and sure enough, she was coming toward me, her red head bobbing through the crowd. When she finally emerged about two feet from where I was standing, our eyes met, but only fleetingly. Then she was quickly moving on, down the hall to where Sophie was waiting for her.
Since Emily had been my friend first, I'd thought maybe, just maybe, she might still be. Apparently not. The lines had been drawn, and now I knew for sure I was standing outside of them.
I had other friends, of course. People I knew from my classes, and from the Lakeview Models, which I'd been doing for years now. It was becoming clear, though, that my self-imposed isolation during the summer had been more effective than I'd realized. Right after everything happened, I'd cut myself off entirely, figuring this was safer than risking people judging me. I blew off phone calls and avoided people when I saw them out at the mall or the movies. I didn't want to talk about what had happened, so it seemed safest not to talk at all. The result, however, was that now all morning, when I'd stopped to say hello to girls I knew, or walked up to groups of people chatting, I'd felt an instant coolness and distance, one that lingered until I made my excuses and walked away. Back in May, all I'd I wanted was to be alone. Now I'd gotten my wish.
My association with Sophie didn't help, of course. Hanging out with her made me a party to all her various social crimes and misdemeanors—and there were many—so there was a wide portion of the student body that was not exactly rushing to embrace me. To the girls Sophie had insulted and isolated while I stood by doing nothing, my own taste of this medicine was nothing short of deserved. If Sophie couldn't be ostracized, I was the next best thing.