I stifled a yawn. “It’s too early to be such an asshat, Daniel.”
“And watch your language. It’s unbecoming.”
“Who cares?” I lolled my head back as we walked, reading the names of illustrious Croyden alumni inscribed in the brick archway above our heads. Most were along the lines of Heathcliff Rotterdam III, Parker Preston XXVI, Annalise Bennet Von—
“I heard Joseph call someone that the other day. He’s picking it up from you.”
“It’s not funny,” Daniel said.
“Please. It’s just a word.”
He opened his mouth to respond when I heard Chopin emerge from his pocket. The sound of Chopin, not the actual Chopin, thank God.
Daniel picked up his phone and mouthed Mom to me, then pointed at the glass wall that housed the administration office of Croyden Academy.
“Go,” he said, and I did.
Without my brother distracting me, I was able to fully absorb the campus in its immaculate, overlandscaped splendor. Fat blades of emerald grass anchored the grounds, clipped within a millimeter of uniformity. A sprawling courtyard divided the campus into blooming, flower-framed quadrants. One section housed the gaudily becolumned library, another the cafeteria and windowless gymnasium. The classrooms and administration office dominated the last two quadrants. Open-air archways and brick paths connected the structures and led to a gurgling fountain in the center of the lawn.
I half-expected to see woodland creatures burst forth from the buildings and break into song. Everything about the place shrieked WE ARE PERFECT HERE AND YOU WILL BE TOO! No wonder my mother chose it.
I felt grossly underdressed in my T-shirt and jeans; uniforms were required at Croyden, but thanks to our late transfer ours hadn’t arrived yet. Switching from public school to private as a junior—and in the middle of the trimester, no less—would have been torment enough without the added insult of plaid skirts and kneesocks. But my mother was a snob, and didn’t trust the public schools in such a big city. And after everything that had happened in December, I was in no shape to argue coherently about it.
I picked up our schedules and maps from the school secretary and headed back outside as Daniel hung up the phone.
“How’s Mom?” I asked.
My brother half-shrugged. “Just checking in.” He looked over the paperwork for me. “We’ve missed first period so your first class is …” Daniel fumbled with the papers and declared, “Algebra II.”
Perfect. Just perfect.
His eyes scanned the open-air campus; the classroom doors led directly outside, like the structure of a motel. After a few seconds, Daniel pointed to the farther building.
“It should be there, on the other side of that corner. Listen,” he said, “I might not see you until lunch. Do you want to eat with me or something? I have to speak to the principal and the head of the music department but I can find you after—”
“No, it’s fine. I’ll be fine.”
“Really? Because there’s no one I’d rather eat mystery meat with.”
My brother smiled, but I could tell he was anxious. Daniel had kept a big-brotherly eye on me ever since I was released from the hospital, though he was less obvious about it, and therefore less irritating, than our mother. But as such, I had to work extra hard to reassure him that I would not crack today. I put on my best mask of adolescent ennui and wore it like armor as we approached the building.
“Really. I’m fine,” I said, rolling my eyes for effect. “Now go, before you fail out of high school and die poor and lonely.” I shoved him lightly, for emphasis, and we separated.
But as I walked away, my little facade started to crumble. How ridiculous. This wasn’t my first day of kindergarten, though it was my first day of school without Rachel … ever. But it was the first of many. I needed to get a grip. I swallowed back the ache that rose in my throat and tried to decipher my schedule:
AP English, Ms. Leib, Room B35
Algebra II, Mr. Walsh, Room 264
American History, Mrs. McCreery, Room 4
Art, Mrs. Gallo, Room L
Spanish I, Ms. Morales, Room 213
Biology II, Mrs. Prieta, Annex
Hopeless. I wandered the path to the building and scanned the room numbers, but found the vending machines before I found my Algebra classroom. Four of them in a row, pushed up against the back of the building, facing a series of tiki huts that dotted the grounds. They reminded me that I’d skipped breakfast. I looked around. I was already late. A few more minutes couldn’t hurt.
I set the papers down on the ground and dug in my bag for change. But as I inserted one quarter in the machine, the other one I held in my hand fell. I bent to search for it, as I had only enough money to buy one thing. I finally found it, placed it in the machine, and clicked on the letter-number combination that would provide my salvation.
It stuck. Unbelievable.
I clicked the numbers again. Nothing. My M&M’s were trapped by the machine.
I grabbed the sides of the machine and tried to shake it. No dice. Then I kicked it. Still nothing.
I glared at the machine. “Let them out.” I punctuated my statement with a few more useless kicks.
“You have an anger-management problem.”
I whipped around at the sound of the warm, lilting British accent behind me.
The person it belonged to sat on the picnic table under the tiki hut. His general state of disarray was almost enough to distract me from his face. The boy—if he could be called that, looking like he belonged in college, not high school—wore Chucks with holes worn through, no laces. Slim charcoal pants and a white button-down shirt covered his lean, spare frame. His tie was loose, his cuffs were undone, and his blazer lay in a heap beside him as he lazily leaned back on the palms of his hands.
His strong jaw and chin were slightly scruffy, as though he hadn’t shaved in days, and his eyes looked gray in the shade. Strands of his dark chestnut hair stuck out every which way. Bedroom hair. He could be considered pale in comparison to everyone else I’d observed in Florida thus far, which is to say he wasn’t orange.
He was beautiful. And he was smiling at me.
SMILING AT ME LIKE HE KNEW ME. I TURNED my head, wondering if there was anyone behind me. Nope. No one there. When I glanced back in the boy’s direction, he was gone.
I blinked, disoriented, and bent to pick up my things. I heard footsteps approach, but they stopped just before they reached me.
The perfectly tanned blond girl wore heeled oxfords and white kneesocks with her just-above-the-knee charcoal and navy plaid skirt. The fact that I’d be wearing the same thing in a week hurt my soul.