Which made it so much worse when he was gone so quickly, just two weeks later. The only boy who had ever said it to her and meant it. The rest of the world didn’t know how much Scarlett loved Michael Sherwood. Even I couldn’t truly have understood, much as I might have wanted to.
On the first day of school, Scarlett and I pulled into the parking lot, found a space facing the back of the vocational building, and parked. She turned off the engine of the Aspire, dropping her keychain in her lap. Then we sat.
“I don’t want to do it,” she said decisively.
“I know,” I said.
“I mean it this year,” she said, sighing. “I just don’t think I have it in me. Under the circumstances.”
“I know,” I said again. Since the funeral, Scarlett had seemed to fold into herself; she hardly ever mentioned Michael, and I didn’t either. We’d spent the entire first part of the summer talking about nothing but him, it seemed, and now he was out of bounds, forbidden. They’d planted a tree for him at school, with a special plaque, and the Sherwoods had put up their house for sale; I’d heard they were moving to Florida. Life was going on without him. But when he was mentioned, I hated the look that crossed her face, a mix of hurt and overwhelming sadness.
Now people were streaming by in new clothes, down the concrete path that led to the main building. I could hear voices and cars rumbling past. Sitting there in the Aspire, we held on to our last bit of freedom.
I sat and waited, shifting my new backpack, which sat between my feet, a stack of new shiny spiral notebooks and un-sharpened pencils zipped away in its clean, neat compartments. It was always Scarlett who decided when it was time.
“Well,” she said deliberately, folding her arms over her chest. “I guess we don’t have much of a choice.”
“Scarlett Thomas!” someone shrieked from beside the car, and we looked up to see Ginny Tabor, in a new short haircut and red lipstick, running past us holding hands with Brett Hershey, the football captain. Only Ginny could hook up with someone at a funeral. “School is this way!” she pointed with one red fingernail, then laughed, throwing her head back while Brett looked on as if waiting for someone to throw him something. She waggled her fingers at us and ran on ahead, dragging him behind her. I couldn’t believe we’d spent so much time with her early that summer. It seemed like years ago now.
“God,” Scarlett said, “I really hate her.”
“I know.” This was my line.
She took a deep breath, reached into the backseat for her backpack, and pulled it into her lap. “Okay. There’s really no avoiding it.”
“I agree,” I said, unlocking my door.
“Let’s go then,” she said grudgingly, getting out of the car and slamming the door behind her, hitching her backpack over one shoulder. I followed, merging into the crowd that carried us down through the teachers’ parking lot to the courtyard in front of the main building. The first bell rang and everyone moved inside, suddenly thrown together in front of the doors and causing a major traffic jam of bodies and backpacks, elbows and feet, a tide I let carry me down the hallway to my homeroom, keeping my eye on the back of Scarlett’s red head.
“This is it,” I said as we came up on Mr. Alexander’s door, which was decorated with cardboard cutout frogs.
“Good luck,” Scarlett called out, pulling open the door of her own homeroom and rolling her eyes one last time as she disappeared inside.
Mr. Alexander’s room already smelled of formaldehyde and he smiled at me, mustache wriggling, as I took my seat. The first day was always the same: they took roll, handed out schedules, and sent home about ten million different memos to your parents about busing and cafeteria rates and school rules. Beside me Ben Cruzak was already stoned and sleeping, head on his desk, with Missy Cavenaugh behind him doing her fingernails. Even the snake on Mr. Alexander’s counter looked bored, after eating a mouse for the audience of science geeks who always hung out before first bell.
After about fifteen minutes of continuous droning over the intercom and a stack of memos an inch high on my desk, Alexander finally handed out our schedules. I could tell right away something was wrong with mine; I was signed up for Pre-calculus (when I hadn’t even taken Algebra Two), French Three (when I took Spanish), and, worst of all, Band.
“Have a good day!” Alexander yelled above the bell as everyone headed toward the door. I went up to his desk. “Halley. Yes?”
“My schedule is wrong,” I said. “I’m signed up for Band.”
“Yes. And Pre-cal and French Three, and none of those are my classes.”
“Hmmm,” he said, and he was already looking over my head at the people streaming in, his first class. “Better go to your first class and get a pass to Guidance.”
He stood up, his mustache already moving. “Okay, people, take a seat and I’ll be sending around a chart for you to fill in your chosen spot. This will be the seating chart for the rest of the semester, so I suggest you choose carefully. Don’t tap on that glass, it makes the snake crazy. Now, this is Intro to Biology, so if you don’t belong here...”
I walked out into the hallway, where Scarlett was leaning against the fire extinguisher waiting for me. “Hey. What’s your first class?”
“What? You haven’t taken Algebra Two yet.”
“I know.” I switched my backpack to my other shoulder, already sick of school. “My schedule is so messed up. I’m signed up for Band.”
“Yes.” I stepped aside to let a pack of football players pass. “I have to go to Guidance.”
“Oh, that sucks,” she said. “I’ve got English and then Commercial Design, so I’ll meet you after, okay? In the courtyard by the soda machines.”
“I’m supposed to be in Band then,” I said glumly.
“They can’t force you to take Band,” she said, laughing. I just looked at her. “They can’t. Go to Guidance and I’ll see you later.”
The Guidance office was packed with people leaning against the walls and sitting on the floor, all waiting for the three available counselors. The receptionist, whose phone was ringing shrilly, nonstop, looked up at me with the crazed eyes of a rabid animal.
“What?” She had the kind of glasses that made her eyes seem wider than platters, magnified hundreds of times. “What do you need?”