For eight painful minutes and twenty-seven infinite seconds, I sat sweltering in the seventh circle of my own personal inferno, motionless at my desk. I listened to the sound of the teacher’s voice but heard nothing. Shame drowned him out, and every pore of my skin felt painfully naked, open for exploitation by the pillaging eyes of my classmates.
I tried not to focus on the assault of whispers that I could hear but not decipher. I patted the back of my tingling head, as if the heat of the anonymous stares managed to burn through my hair, exposing my scalp. I looked desperately at the door, wishing to escape this nightmare, but I knew that the whispers would only spread as soon as I was outside.
The bell rang, marking the end of my first class at Croyden. A resounding success indeed.
I hung back from the mass exodus toward the door, knowing I’d need a book and a briefing on where the class was in the syllabus. Mr. Walsh told me ever so politely that I was expected to take the trimester exam in three weeks like everyone else, then returned to his desk to shuffle papers, and left me to face the rest of my morning.
It was blissfully uneventful. When lunch rolled around, I gathered my book-laden messenger bag and heaved it over my shoulder. I decided to look around for a quiet, secluded place to sit and read the book I’d brought with me. My vomiting shenanigans had ruined my appetite.
I hopped down the stairs two at a time, walked to the edge of the grounds, and stopped at the fence that bordered a large plot of undeveloped land. Trees towered above the school, casting one building entirely in shadow. The eerie screech of a bird punctured the breezeless air. I was in some preppy Jurassic Park nightmare, definitely. I violently opened my book to where I’d left off, but found myself reading and rereading the same paragraph before I gave up. That lump rose in my throat again. I slumped against the chain-link fence, the metal scoring marks in my flesh through the thin fabric of my shirt, and closed my eyes in defeat.
Someone laughed behind me.
My head snapped up as my blood froze. It was Jude’s laugh. Jude’s voice. I stood slowly and faced the fence, the jungle, as I hooked my fingers in the metal and searched for the source.
Nothing but trees. Of course. Because Jude was dead. Like Claire. And Rachel. Which meant that I’d had three hallucinations in less than three hours. Which wasn’t good.
I turned back to the campus. It was empty. I glanced at my watch and panic set in; only a minute to spare before my next class. I swallowed hard, grabbed my bag and rushed to the nearest building, but as I rounded the corner, I stopped cold.
Jude stood about forty feet away. I knew he couldn’t be there, that he wasn’t there, but he was there, unfriendly and unsmiling beneath the brim of the Patriots baseball cap he never took off. Looking like he wanted to talk.
I turned away and picked up my pace. I walked away from him, slowly at first, then ran. I glanced over my shoulder once, just to see if he was still there.
And he was close.
BY SOME STROKE OF LUCK, I FLUNG OPEN THE door to the closest classroom, 213, and it turned out to be Spanish. And judging by all of the taken desks, I was already late.
“Meez Dee-er?” the teacher boomed.
Distracted and disturbed, I pulled the door closed behind me. “It’s Dyer, actually.”
For my correction or for my lateness, I’ll never know, the teacher punished me, forced me to stand at the front of the room while she fired question after question at me, in Spanish, to which I could only respond, “I don’t know.” She didn’t even introduce herself; she just sat there, the muscles twitching in her veiny forearms as she scribbled self-importantly in her teacher book. The Spanish Inquisition took on a whole new meaning.
And it continued for a solid twenty minutes. When she finally stopped, she made me sit in the desk next to hers, in the front of the class, facing all of the other students. Brutal. My eyes were glued to the clock as I counted the seconds until it was over. When the bell rang, I bolted for the door.
“You look like you could use a hug,” said a voice from behind me. I turned around to face a smiling short boy wearing an open, white button-down shirt. A yellow T-shirt that said I AM A CLICHÉ was beneath it.
“That’s very generous of you,” I said, plastering a smile on my face. “But I think I’ll manage.” It was important to act not crazy.
“Oh, I wasn’t offering. Just making an observation.” The boy pushed his wild dreadlocks out of his eyes and held out his hand. “I’m Jamie Roth.”
“Mara Dyer,” I said, though he already knew.
“Wait, are you new here?” A mischievous grin reached his dark eyes.
I matched it. “Funny. You’re funny.”
He gave an exaggerated bow. “Don’t worry about Morales, by the way. She’s the world’s worst teacher.”
“So she’s that heinous to everyone?” I asked, after we were a safe distance away from the classroom. I scanned the campus for imagined dead people as I shifted my bag to my other shoulder. There were none. So far so good.
“Maybe not that heinous. But close. You’re lucky she didn’t throw any chalk at you, actually. How’s your nose, by the way?”
Had he been in Algebra II this morning?
“Better, thanks. You’re the first person to ask. Or say anything nice at all, actually.”
“So people have said not-nice things, then?”
I thought I glimpsed a flash of silver in his mouth when he spoke. A tongue stud? Interesting. He didn’t seem the type.
I nodded as my eyes drank in my new classmates. I knew there were variants of the school uniform—different shirt, blazer, and skirt/pants options, and sweater vests for the really adventurous. But when I looked for any telltale signs of cliques—wild shoes, or students with dyed black hair and makeup to match, I saw none. It was more than the uniforms; everyone somehow managed to look exactly alike. Perfectly groomed, perfectly well-behaved, not a hair out of place. Jamie, with his dreadlocks and tongue stud and exposed T-shirt, was one of the only standouts.
And, of course, the disheveled-looking person from this morning. I felt an elbow in my ribs.
“So, new chick? Who said what? Don’t leave a fella hangin’.”
I smiled. “There was this girl earlier who told me to ‘watch it.’” I described Vending Machine Girl to Jamie and watched his eyebrows rise. “The guy she was with was equally unfriendly,” I finished.
Jamie shook his head. “You went near Shaw, didn’t you?” Then he smiled to himself. “God, he really is something.”