"She hooked up with Will Cash last night," she said, her voice low, but not that low. "In his car. And Sophie caught them."
"No way," Mamie said, her eyes wide. "Are you serious?"
Because I was looking at my reflection, I was able to actually see myself react as I heard this. I watched myself blink, my mouth fall open just slightly before I shut it, quick, and looked away.
"Louise was inside," Hillary was saying now, "so she only heard about it. But apparently Will had driven Emily there, and someone saw them. When Sophie heard, she freaked."
Mamie glanced over at Emily, who was now standing with her back to us while her mom spoke to Mrs. McMurty. "Oh my God," she said. "What did Will do?"
"I don't know. But Louise said that Sophie had kind of suspected something lately. Like Emily had been flirting with him, always acting silly when he was around."
Silly, I thought. Or just nervous. I had a flash of Will's intense, flat stare, how slowly the time seemed to pass whenever we were alone in the car waiting for Sophie. Behind me, people were passing by, other models talking, the same noise and commotion. But all I could hear were these two voices, and my own heartbeat.
"God," Mamie said. "Poor Sophie."
"No kidding. They were supposed to be best friends." Hillary sighed. "I guess you can't trust anybody."
I turned my head. Sure enough, they were both looking at me. I stared back at them, and Mamie blushed, shifting her gaze elsewhere. But Hillary kept her eyes on me for a long moment before pushing back her chair and standing up, then shaking out her hair and walking away. After picking at her water bottle for an uncomfortable few moments, Mamie got up and followed her.
For a moment, I just sat there, trying to process what I'd heard. I looked at Emily, who was now sitting in a chair across the room. Her mom, standing beside her, was saying something, her face serious, and Mrs. McMurty, next to her, was nodding. Mrs. Shuster's hand was on Emily's shoulder, and every once in a while I saw her squeeze it, the fabric bunching, then unbunching.
I closed my eyes, swallowing over the lump that had risen in my throat. She hooked up with Will Cash last night. Sophie freaked. They were supposed to be best friends. I guess you can't trust anybody.
No, I thought, you can't. I had a flash of the last few months, my quiet summer, starting school alone, that awful day in the courtyard when I'd pushed Sophie away. Maybe I couldn't have changed any of that. But now, too late, I was realizing I might have been able to change something. Or one thing.
I tried to study, tried to think about Owen and what came next. But every time I managed to distract myself for even a moment, I'd find myself looking up and across the room, where Emily was sitting in front of a mirror. She'd been so late they were having to make her up quickly, a hairstylist and makeup person working in tandem, stepping around each other. In the room between us, people kept passing by, their voices high, movements busy, as the time to the show counted down, but Emily kept her gaze straight ahead, looking at herself and no one else.
When they called us out of the dressing room, she didn't walk out with the rest of us. Instead, she showed up after we were all in our places to take her spot second in line, three people ahead of me. There was a digital clock on a nearby mall directory—it was 6:55. Several states and miles away, Kirsten was getting ready to show her piece, and I had a flash of that green, green grass, suddenly not so perfect anymore.
Usually, this was the time I was the most nervous, these last few minutes before I had to walk. Ahead of me, Julia Reinhart was tugging on the hem of her shirt, and behind me I could hear one of the freshman models complaining that her shoes were too tight. Emily wasn't saying a word, her eyes on the slit in the curtain.
The music started—it was loud and poppy, total Z104 material—and Mrs. McMurty came around the corner, looking frazzled, her clipboard in hand. "One minute!" she said, and the girl at the front of the line, one of the seniors, tossed her hair, squaring her shoulders.
I stretched out my fingertips, taking a deep breath. Now, in the mall itself, everything felt brighter and more open. All I had to do was get through this, get out, and go find Owen, moving forward into what I wanted, not what I'd been.
The music stopped for a moment, then began again. We were starting. Mrs. McMurty made her way up the stairs to stand by the curtain, then pulled it aside and motioned for the first girl to step through. As she did, I caught a glimpse of the crowd—so many people in the chairs on either side, and more standing behind them.
When it was Emily's turn, she headed out with her head high, her spine ramrod straight, and as I watched her I wished I was like everyone else out there, who would see only a beautiful girl in beautiful clothes, nothing more or less. Another girl went out, then Julia, after which point Emily returned, walking off the other side of the stage to the dressing room. Then it was my turn.
When the curtain opened, all I could see at first was the runway stretched out in front of me, a blur of faces on either side. The music was pounding in my ears as I began to walk, trying to keep my eyes straight ahead, but still, I caught the occasional glimpse of the crowd. I saw my parents on the left, my mother beaming at me, my dad's arm around her. Mallory Armstrong was sitting with the red-haired twins from her party a few rows back on the other side. In the split second our eyes met, she waved excitedly, hopping up and down in her seat. I kept going, down the runway. When I got to the very end, I saw Whitney.
She was leaning against a planter in front of the vitamin store, a good fifty feet from the back of the fashion-show crowd. I hadn't even known she was coming. But what surprised me more than this was the look on her face, which was so sad that it almost knocked the wind out of me. When our eyes met, she stepped forward, sliding her hands in her pock-ets, and for a moment I just stared at her, feeling a tug in my chest. And then I had to turn back.
I could feel a lump rising in my throat as I willed myself forward, toward the curtain. I'd been through enough. I didn't want to think about anything that was happening or had happened, to Emily, or to me. I just wanted to be on the wall with Owen, talking music, and be the girl he saw, who was different, and in a good way. All the good ways.
I was at the midpoint of the runway by now, halfway there. Four more changes, four more trips, a grand finale, and this would be over. It wasn't my job to save anyone, anyway. Especially since I hadn't even been able to save myself.
"Annabel!" I heard a voice call out, and I glanced to my left to see Mallory, smiling widely as she lifted her camera to her face, her finger moving to the shutter. The redheads were waving, everyone was watching, but as the flash popped, all I could think of was that night in her room with Owen, looking at all those faces on the wall and not even recognizing my own.