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Authors: Jessie Rosen

Dead Ringer

BOOK: Dead Ringer
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Dead Ringer

 

By Jessie Rosen

 

 

For R.

Chapter 1

 

September
1

Laura

 

Deep breath, big smile, and
remember: it’s all about swag.

Laura laughed at her reflection in the little compact she
kept in her bag for touch-ups and pep talks. The word “swag” sounded so
ridiculous. That’s what made it the perfect mantra for day one of her senior
year of high school—the very first time she would be “the new girl.”

Laura had been dreaming about her entrance into Englewood
High since it was decided that’s where she would spend this year—three
thousand miles away from her previous home. The move was a big change, but she welcomed
the clean slate. It was time to focus her energy on everything
but
the
demons of the typical high school girl—the kind she’d been her whole life:
a wallflower and a pleaser. She was over the precarious balance between wearing
something trendy but not so “out there” that people might talk. She was tired
of being meek because battling the Queen Bees seemed too scary. And the days of
hiding her natural smarts were over. Laura felt like high school was a tricky
series of hoops she had to jump through before she could finally live on her
own.
So if high school isn’t for me
, she’d decided,
why let all its
silly rules run my life
?

That was Laura’s final thought as she stepped out of her vintage,
black BMW convertible and glanced around at the other cars in the student
parking lot. She’d debated the car purchase as soon as she arrived on the East
coast.
Convertibles are so obnoxiously California
, she’d thought, but
then she reminded herself that worrying about what everyone else thought was
exactly the spiral she was trying to avoid. Besides, she worshipped that car
and had saved every penny she could for almost two years to buy it. So what if
people assumed it was a gift from her parents? She’d inform them that she
bought it with a combo of waitressing tips from Joe’s Café right on the Pacific
Coast Highway in Malibu, and money saved from fit modeling for the Rosefox
denim line in downtown LA. No one would expect that. From what Laura knew of
Englewood, most of the other BMWs in the lot would be brand-new sweet-sixteen
gifts.

And yet the very first thing that caught her eye when Laura
drove into the senior parking lot was another old car with its convertible top
down. This one was cherry red and looked like it drove right out of a 90s music
video, but it was in almost perfect condition.
Apparently at least one other
person in this town had to buy their own ride
, Laura thought as she gave her
reflection in the car window one final check.

For the first time in forever, she had decided to wear her
long, blond hair down and parted on the far-left side so a waterfall of curls
danced over her right eye, the slightly bluer one—the one that usually
made her self-conscious. Today she let the curls do their thing instead of
making sure every piece of frizz was locked down with an army of gooey hair
products. She wore simple makeup paired with a shocking pink lipstick she’d
seen on the girls strolling the pier all summer long. It was wild, but it made
her feel powerful. Her first-day outfit was a 1960s floral shirt belted over
a flirty, white sundress to make sure her tan legs showed, because why not milk
the Cali-girl vibe? On her feet were cork-soled wedges in a neon-colored,
striped print from 1989—one of her favorite vintage finds besides the car,
of course. She was pretty sure she wouldn’t look like anyone at this posh,
brick-and-ivy-covered, suburban New Jersey school, and she loved that fact. She
was ready to start out on a totally new foot.

But just as Laura’s first-day confidence finally locked in,
it vanished.

Across the parking lot, she caught the glance of two girls
getting out of a shiny, white Corvette. Laura smiled in their direction, but
something was off about the way they both looked back at her. Their faces were
frozen in a strange, almost confused look that made her instantly
uncomfortable. It was more than just the usual new-kid-in-school stares.

It wasn’t until the shorter, curly-haired girl glanced back
and quickly turned away again that Laura saw the real feeling behind her eyes:
she was scared.

 

* * *

 

“Rivers? Do we have a Laura Rivers?
Hello, hello? Miss Rivers?”

Laura slipped into first period AP English just as the bell rang.
Ms. O’Malley stood at the front of the room, just as skinny and evil-looking as
all the online reviews claimed. She barely looked up from her attendance sheet
as she barked. If she had, she would have seen twenty-four sets of eyes staring
directly at Laura, and she would have also noticed that something was off.

As with those girls in the parking lot, there was something
about these stares that gave Laura instant goose bumps. It was like everyone
who saw her had the exact same thought. The only way she could think to
describe the looks on their faces was
spooked
.

“Yes. Hi!” Laura said, trying her best to push through the
awkward moment.

“Try to get here before the bell rings tomorrow,” Ms. O’Malley
said. “I have you all seated alphabetically, so go take a seat behind…hmm, let
me see…”

Laura scanned the room for empty desks. There were two open
seats where students with last names beginning with
R
might fall. One
was directly behind a way-too-friendly looking cheerleader type. She gave Laura
a fairly convincing fake smile, but Laura took it with a grain of salt. Girls
like that were skilled at the art of playing instant besties.

Then Laura’s eyes hit the person sitting behind the only
other open chair, and instantly locked. It was as if there was a magnetic field
around him; if you stayed far enough away it wouldn’t suck you in, but once you
looked, you were done.

“Charlie Sanders,” Ms. O’Malley finally bellowed. “Charlie,
raise your hand for the new girl to see.”

That wasn’t necessary—Laura had already found him. In
the time it took him to lift his hand, she’d already stared through his dark-brown
eyes, his knife’s-edge cheek bones, his messy-but-not-on-purpose chestnut hair,
and his wide, toothy smile. She had to clench every muscle in her body to stop
herself from giggling as he smiled politely in her direction.

But in the time it took for Charlie’s hand to fall back at
his side, that smile was gone. Laura saw the switch go off in his head and the
confusion land on his face. It was the same creeped-out reaction she’d prompted
so far that morning. Charlie’s version of the gaze was by far the most intense,
but it was also the shortest. He almost instantly reverted back to a wide,
comfortable smile.
Either he has better manners than the rest of my classmates,
Laura thought,
or he’s the best actor.

“I’m Charlie,” he said as she took her seat.

“So I’ve heard,” she teased. “I’m Laura…the new girl.”

“So I’ve heard,” Charlie shot back. “Welcome to Englewood.
It isn’t all that bad. Where’d you move from?”

“Los Angeles.”

“Oh. In that case, this place sucks,” Charlie said.

“Way to welcome the newbie…” Laura joked, and Charlie smiled
back. Then Ms. O’Malley demanded all eyes on the front of the room and started
rambling about the fact that Shakespeare was probably a woman.

Laura breathed a sigh of relief. For the next forty or so
minutes she didn’t have to worry about what Charlie was thinking of her, or try
to hide what she was thinking about him. It wasn’t until Charlie tapped her on
the shoulder to pass him a copy of the homework assignment circulating around
the room that Laura’s heart started pounding again. She caught him off guard
when she turned around, and he had that same instant reaction to her face. For
the first time, Laura put her finger on what was so strange about it.

He was looking at her like he knew her.

 

 

Charlie

 

Charlie’s first morning back at
Englewood was as busy as any. He owed Principal Hayden a plan for the Volunteer
Core’s winter trip, Coach Stanley the results of his latest physical for the
soccer scouts who were already swarming, and Mrs. Smelson his application for
student representative to the district school board. And then there was the
requisite time spent floating around the halls and catching up with friends
about the last few weeks of summer.

Charlie didn’t like to admit it, but he was pretty much a
celebrity in the halls of EHS. For the past two years, he’d led the soccer
team to state and national victories, and this year he would serve as captain.
All the hard work and sacrifice was paying off. In nine short months, Charlie’s
high school career would be over and his real life would begin, hopefully with
a full ride to his first-choice college.

Right now it was hard to believe he’d ever fought his mom on
the decision to leave their comfy home in Toms River for a tiny apartment in
this rich soccer mecca. He hadn’t wanted his hobby to uproot their little family
of two, but Pattie Sanders had turned out right, as always—it had been worth
it. Applications still needed to be finished, but Charlie’s grades were right
where they needed to be. Now it was all about what he did on the field, and
that was the easy part.
It’s nice to feel so confident and relaxed at the
start of senior year
, Charlie thought to himself as he slipped into Ms. O’Malley’s
room. It had been a long, long time since he didn’t have something making the
insides of his body churn.

Within seconds, that comfort was gone.

“Charlie, raise your hand for Miss Rivers to see,” Ms. O’Malley
said seconds after the first-period bell rang. He lifted his hand as he
followed her gaze to the front of the classroom. Then his mind went blank.

Standing in the doorway was…
No
. How could it be? Charlie
clenched his stomach to stop the sick feeling from crawling any higher up his insides.
Wait. Of course not. This wasn’t her—it couldn’t be.
She
was gone.
Plus, this girl had blond hair, not black. This girl’s face was round, not long,
and her nose was completely different. So then, what was it? The way she was
staring? The shape of her body? Or maybe it was her eyes? Something about this
girl reminded Charlie so much of
her
.

He let his hand fall back down, flashed a quick smile, and
then looked away.
You’re the only one seeing it
, Charlie thought to
himself.
You’re looking for it. Get her out of your head. It’s been long
enough.

“Mr. Sanders, Miss Rivers,” O’Malley bellowed from the front
of the room.

Before he knew it, the new girl was sitting directly in
front of him. He was pretty sure she’d said something cute. There was a chance
he’d said something clever back. All he knew for sure was that her name was
Laura Rivers, and she was from Southern California. Could she see him staring
at her face? Had other people stared, too? They must have. They must have all
stared. That is, if they all remembered
her
half as well as he did.

Forty-five minutes later, Charlie was kicking himself as he
watched Laura Rivers walk toward her next class. He’d invited her to sit with
them at lunch. He couldn’t explain why, but in two short hours he’d have to—to
Kit, Miller, and Amanda.

Charlie may have been the ringleader of their foursome, but
he did very little without the approval of the other three members of their set.
In fact, the fifty-minute English class that just ended was the first time
they’d been apart since 7:30 a.m.

The morning started like it had every single school day in
the six years they’d been best friends—except that today, for the first
time, Charlie was their ride in the 1996 Pontiac Grand Am convertible he saved his rec-soccer-coaching money to buy for his seventeenth birthday.

Kit and Miller were waiting on the curb between their two houses
when Charlie pulled up. Kit was fidgeting with her cellphone while telling a
mile-a-minute story to Miller. Miller was half asleep and fake-listening while
chugging an orange juice that Charlie knew he would later leave in the back of the
convertible car. Without missing a beat, Kit saw Charlie approach, grabbed the
almost-empty carton out of Miller’s hand, and tossed it in the trashcan next to
the curb.
What would Miller do without her?
Charlie thought.

“Were you two out here waiting for Bertha’s boob-mobile? If
so, I can just meet you at school…”

“I hope I never see that crazy bitch again,” Miller said as
he climbed into the back of the car.

“Sean! Be nice. You took that bus for five days and poor
Bertha probably had serious back problems because of those boobs,” Kit said as
she climbed in beside him. “Let’s go. Amanda is waiting.”

Leave it to Kit to defend the only bus driver in the
world that got lost four times a week,
Charlie thought as they sped off
toward Amanda’s house.

Predictably, Amanda was not waiting at the curb. Amanda
Hunter did not wait for people anywhere, ever. After two
beep
s, she
finally appeared with a fake-apologetic look on her face.

“Happy first day, Carly!” she said as she approached the
convertible.

Charlie had long since given up on convincing Amanda to drop
the dumb nickname she’d given him when he’d first arrived at Englewood Middle
School.

“Your name is Carly?”
she had said when he introduced
himself to her all those years ago.

“No, it’s Charlie!”

“Well, I heard Carly, so I’m calling you that…forever.”

Charlie had thought forever would last about a year, but
he’d underestimated Amanda. That was a mistake he’d never make again.

“Hey, kids,” she said, and climbed into the front seat. “Thanks
for leaving me the front.”

“Like we have a choice,” Miller said.

“Exactly,” Amanda responded.

Charlie glanced over at Amanda as she sidled in beside him.
Sometimes it was impossible to look at her without seeing all the history that
had passed between them, but today all Charlie could focus on was the fact that
she was gorgeous. She probably spent an hour making her curls look like she
just got out of bed and picking out her shorts and top, but Charlie saw right
through it. Amanda cared deeply what other people thought of her. Charlie knew how
she felt because he was exactly the same.

Amanda must have sensed his gaze because she reached out and
gently touched her hand to his knee. “I have a good feeling about this year,”
she whispered.

They had decided not to tell Kit and Miller that they’d been
talking about getting back together. Kit would explode with delight at the
thought of all the double dates in their future, and Miller would immediately
inform the rest of the soccer team that Amanda Hunter was off the market again,
courtesy of his best friend. Charlie wasn’t ready to jump back into things
quite yet, despite Amanda’s very convincing ways.

“You know we’re the best when we’re together,” she’d said to
him the other night as they lay on the couch in her pool house. She was right:
when he and Amanda were great, they were really, really great. She was
demanding and could be a brat from time to time, but underneath that tough edge
was a girl who knew what she wanted and how to get it. Charlie always admired
that about Amanda. She forced him to work harder to make all his goals a
reality. He wanted them to get back to being the couple they were always meant
to be, but they had been through more in two and a half years of dating than
most people would experience in a lifetime, and it sometimes made Charlie
wonder if he and Amanda were cursed.

He took her hand in his and gave it a quick squeeze as he
backed out of her family’s long driveway and headed toward school. So what if
Kit or Miller noticed? Right then, it felt right.

 

* * *

 

But now, as he caught Amanda’s face watching
Laura Rivers slowly glide down the lunch line en route to their table, Charlie
wasn’t so sure.

 
“You guys hear there’s a new girl?” Miller
asked, his mouth half-full with the first of two meatball subs he’d grabbed
from the cafeteria line. As usual, his timing was terrible.

Amanda glanced at Kit, who acknowledged the look, but
quickly turned away. So much for Charlie seeing things that weren’t really
there.

“Yeah. We have English together first period. I actually
invited her to sit with us today,” Charlie said. He knew the Band-Aid approach
was best with this group. Better to just rip it off so there was more time to
deal with Amanda’s freak-out.

“You did
what?
” Amanda barked.

“What’s the problem?” Charlie was bluffing, and he knew that
she knew it.

“Fine. Since no one else is going to say it…” she lowered
her voice and leaned in, “she kinda looks like you-know-who.”

 “I think she does, too, Charlie,” Kit chimed in. “But
maybe that’s just because we’re paranoid…”

“You girls are crazy,” Miller said. “I don’t see it.”

“You don’t see anything, Sean,” Kit said.

Charlie had no interest in dwelling on the issue. “Her name
is Laura and we all need to get over it,” Charlie said, mostly to himself.

The next second,
she
was standing inches from the
table. Charlie looked over at Miller as he registered Laura’s features. Within
a second, Charlie could tell that he saw it, too.

Charlie watched Laura nervously touch a chunk of her gold
curls and felt his entire body clench. In that moment, any thought about moving
on seemed ridiculous. Laura looked like
her
, yes, but the bigger problem
was that Charlie found her totally captivating.

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