Authors: J.M. Miller
My eyes sifted through the faces in the room again while I finished spooning the last of the pudding between my teeth. I locked eyes with Emily for a second when she repositioned her seat closer to football star Ryan Stanton. She looked away without even a friendly nod. Why she continued to fight to be a part of that crowd was lost to me. Her lust for popularity had been the same since freshman year. Losing Harper never curbed it. Judging the way she was acting today, she hadn’t seen most of the people she pathetically wanted to impress since the start of summer. That probably made her anxious for senior year, which was probably what affected her work. But if she kept it up, she’d be out of a job like Simone warned.
I couldn’t worry about her issues, though. I had enough of my own.
I stood and threw my trash into the bin behind our table. There were only a few minutes left of lunch. Izzy and Spaz were taking full advantage of those last hands-on minutes, not so discreetly. I was about to leave them to it and walk to the office to drop off my paperwork for next week’s appointment when I finally saw her. LJ.
Sitting at the corner of a table beside the outdoor exit, she was nowhere close to the popular tables. I almost didn’t recognize her. She was wearing a faded gray hoodie drawn up over her head, with strands of her straight hair escaping around her face. Those strands were no longer blonde. They were all black, as dark as the wet roots she’d had in the tub on Saturday. She wore faded blue jeans, a shade lighter than her hoodie. One leg was kicked out alongside of the table, showing off a calf-high combat boot, which had scuffs and cuts in the leather that only wear could create.
I sat back down and swiveled in my seat to stare at her profile. It had to be her. I couldn’t see her wide green eyes underneath her hood, but the thin nose poking out matched hers. From what I could tell, she had no makeup on. She looked like she didn’t give a crap.
“Dude,” Spaz’s voice broke through my trance.
I didn’t bother to spin around; I just turned my head to see him. “What?”
Izzy started giggling beside him when he asked, “What’s up? Don’t you have metal shop with me next?”
“Yeah.” I nodded and looked back at the girl. I needed to see if it was LJ. If it was actually her, the change in her appearance had me seriously puzzled.
“Who are you looking at?” Spaz asked, standing up and peering over my shoulder. The bell rang and people began to move so I stood for a better view.
Izzy stepped beside me. “Is that her?”
“Her who?” Spaz asked, clueless. “Wait, Janine’s niece? LJ? That’s her? You are seriously bad at describing people if that’s her. Her clothes don’t look like big money.”
I watched the girl stand and wait for other people to cycle around her before she left her table. She navigated the walking masses, dodging a few stopped bodies, only looking up when she got closer to the door.
“Bubbles,” I whispered.
I floated through the first day of school unscathed and unnoticed, practically. Keeping my face stuffed into a book warded off any unwanted conversations. It was an adopted method from the loners back at Summerlin Prep, and I considered myself lucky it worked. The Mega Thrift clothes also helped. Since the weather stayed mild, I kept a hoodie on and up, only pulling the hood down at teachers’ verbal requests or voiceless scowls. No one else talked to me. Then again, it was the first day of school. It was hectic and busy as people focused on learning their new routine instead of what anyone else was doing.
I took the time during my concealment to watch the school’s hierarchy, gauging the system and the players. The lunches were divided by grade, and in a cafeteria full of seniors it was easy to see who was on top. The popular kids took up the middle section of the lunchroom, like that was their home─the center of attention. Sitting among that crowd, I saw the red-haired girl from the Mega Thrift. I almost giggled when I watched her take off one of my jackets and place it on the back of her chair.
It was awkward to watch from afar as a few envious friends eyed the gray Burberry pea coat. They were admiring my go-to jacket from last fall. During Vegas jacket weather, I’d alternate daily. But last year, that jacket was almost an exception to my inane fashion rule. I cringed as the twill material dropped to the floor behind the redhead’s chair. A few feet trampled its satin lining before she snatched it up. I’d think after looking so needy for something designer at the Mega Thrift she’d at least have a little more respect for it.
Thankfully, I had a whole corner of a table to myself and no one asked to sit beside me. Most enjoyed company with friends from last year, maybe even from kindergarten. I’d realized quickly that this place wasn’t as big of a melting pot as Vegas. They’d known each other for a long time and that made me nervous. Those bonds were tough to battle. If one person targeted you, all the others took aim.
When lunch ended, I’d seen another familiar face. Benjamin’s eyes linked with mine as soon as I’d noticed him. I was heading toward the door after the bell had rung and he was staring at me with a quizzical crease above his brows. The clothes he had on were better fitted than what he’d worn the other day. The thin, black T-shirt outlined his lean upper body. His dark eyes were intense and drawing, but there was no way I was going to acknowledge him. Our last meeting involved me naked in a tubful of bubbles and him being inconsiderate. Imagining the comments he could cut loose in front of his friends regarding that encounter made me cringe. If I went anywhere near him right now, I’d immediately lose my anonymity. I was already trying to dodge one stigma; I didn’t need to be pelted with another.
I dipped out of his view and ended the school day with no other issues. The relief was enormous. I didn’t even witness any first-day fights. The cruelest thing I’d seen was an attack on a vending machine that ate someone’s money. It gave me hope that the people here weren’t as petty and evil as my old friends. And I’d use any hope I could get.
After Dad picked me up, we went to get Gavin. It was a half-hour wait for the middle school to let out. Dad informed me of the various places he’d applied for work, all of them local stores or businesses. I informed him that my first day at school was okay. He asked if I made any friends and I glared at him, which wiped the supportive smile from his face.
He didn’t bother asking anything else.
Twenty ear-aching minutes of sports radio later, Gavin chucked his backpack into the back seat and jumped in without a greeting.
“How was your day?” Dad asked before I could.
“Good,” Gavin murmured unenthusiastically.
“Everything okay with your classes? With the other kids?” Dad prompted, weaving around the lineup of parked buses and pulling out of the parking lot.
I turned in my seat for a better view of Gavin’s face. His head was tipped toward the window, watching the crowds of kids disappear as we turned onto the street. His blue eyes looked dull gray.
His day was not fine.
When we got home, I waited until Dad walked into the kitchen before pulling on Gavin’s arm. “Hey,” I whispered. “You all good?”
He nodded and his brown hair almost touched his eyes. “Yeah, just a rough start.”
His answer was what I’d expected, but also what I was dreading. “I’ve got to go to work, but I’ll be back later if you want to talk.”
“I’m fine. Don’t worry about it,” he replied, following Dad’s earlier steps toward the kitchen. “Have fun at work,” he added over his shoulder. It should have been either a sarcastic comment or a truly sincere one. Either would’ve been normal. This one fell somewhere in between, which meant, regardless of what he’d said, I needed to worry.
Dad told me to see Simone about the job so I dropped my books upstairs and hurried down the sloped lawn to the event house. I pushed through the large front door and was struck by the elegant interior of the mansion. It was extraordinary. The ballroom was through a wide archway on the right. Its tall windows let so much light into the room that the natural hardwood floor glowed white. There was a three-tiered chandelier in view. It had upturned lights that dipped lower than the base and curled up, like flowers planted in a hanging pot, stretching to worship the sun. A grand wooden staircase was to the left. I ran my fingers over the intricate roses adorning the thick support posts, feeling all of the peaks and valleys carved into the grain. The hallway upstairs was exactly like the main hall in Janine’s
house. The half-panels were oak wood with the same rich color as the staircase and the front doors.
A female voice traveled from the end of the hallway, interrupting the otherwise still building. I followed the voice and turned into a bedroom that had been converted into what I could only guess was Simone’s office. A lady with chopped brown hair sat behind a huge desk. She looked tiny behind such a big piece of furniture, almost childlike. A cordless phone was squished between her shoulder and her ear as she picked through a stack of papers.
She glanced up at my movement and waved me in with one hand. “I’ll have to call you back,” she spoke to the receiver, then clicked off before setting the phone down. She kept her eyes on the pages for another minute before turning toward an adjoining room─possibly a closet─and said, “Emily, grab me that employment packet on your desk.”
“Okay,” a girl’s voice replied from around the corner.
“Hi, LJ. Have a seat,” Simone finally addressed me, though she made no movement to shake hands.
My aunt must’ve referred to me as LJ to everyone. “Hi,” I replied, deciding not to correct my name as I took a seat in one of the studded leather chairs in front of her desk.
Emily, the girl from the other room, walked through the open doorway. She was the same redhead from the Mega Thrift who was wearing my pea coat today in school.
She works here?
Emily’s eyes looked me over as she handed the paperwork to Simone. She stayed at Simone’s side and silently watched me with a blank expression.
“Thanks,” Simone said to her without looking. “So, LJ,” she began with a tight smile. It was one that wanted to be friendly, but it was strained. She slid the papers over the desk toward me and continued, “Since you aren’t legal owner of the Stockton property yet, I have to have you fill out the normal employee forms. You’ll find a W4 inside also all applicable documents dealing with pay and employment information. If you have any questions, I’m sure either your father can help you or you can come back and see me.”
I leaned forward, grabbed the papers, and responded as nicely as I could. “Thanks.” It was apparent how unwanted we were on this property, and how unwanted I was is this room. It shouldn’t have bothered me. I was used to fighting for acceptance, and I knew how to throw my own weight around when needed. But I never did enjoy a cold shoulder, even when I was the one giving it.
“Emily and I run the office up here,” she said pointing a finger behind her to indicate Emily, whose thin lips smirked in response to Simone’s brief recognition. “You’ll have to learn everything eventually, but for right now you’ll be working the grounds to become familiar with the property.”
Emily smirked again, and I knew we couldn’t be friends. She was everything about my past that I wanted to let go. Once upon a time, we would have been sitting with the same group of people at lunch, tearing through weakness with our evil glares. Now I just wanted to vomit, and the nausea wasn’t just from my stomped ego. Looking at her was like looking in a mirror. It was painful to see who I’d become. When I was younger and my family life was in the early stages of disintegration, I’d wanted to belong to something so badly that I latched onto people who brought the worst out of me instead of the best. No matter how many people I tore down, I was still a weak follower.
I wouldn’t be that person again.
I nodded. “Thanks so much for letting me start early. I’ll do my best.” There wasn’t anything I could do except suck it up. We were here now. We had a place to live. And I still needed to be strong for Gavin no matter what I’d have to deal with.
Simone blinked a couple of times, as if unsure how to respond, though her face remained impassive. Was she expecting me to argue? Did I look as though I would? She picked up the phone again and punched a few numbers, keeping her small eyes on me.
Emily went back into the closet room and pulled the gray pea coat from around the corner, purposely checking the pockets as she stood in the doorway. She was parading it in front of me. There was no way she remembered me from the Mega Thrift. She’d been so focused on the clothes, she wouldn’t have noticed if an actual designer had been standing in front of her. Was she simply judging me by the clothes I was sitting in now? She had to know that I had money before. Maybe she was flaunting that I no longer did.
“Nice coat,” I commented, knowing that’s exactly what she wanted to hear.
She smiled and peered at me from under her tipped eyes. “Thanks. It’s this season. Burberry.” Her voice was light, cheerful, and almost convincing.