I run a shaking hand through my hair, dark strands slithering like snakes against my palm. I thought my new neighbor looked familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why. At first I didn’t give the girl much thought and assumed the familiarity was because we had hooked up or something. But that round face and those long dark locks haunted me all night. And then, passing her on the way to first period this morning, the scent of rosewater shampoo set fire to my neurons.
My middle school best friend, Danika Winters, has returned home after more than three years and instead of being thrilled, my skeletons are knocking.
I swallow a lump in my throat the size of a cannon ball. My heart’s racing. Vision’s blurring. Suddenly, I’m a seven year old boy again, sitting in my therapist's office, his icy fingers curling over my shoulder. I shudder and blink back the first round of demons haunting me.
Feelings I’ve fought for years bubble in my chest. I can’t risk Danika running her mouth and anyone finding out what happened. No one besides me, her dad and the two other men in that room know the truth.
I intend to keep it that way.
Twisting an unlit cigarette between my fingers, my gaze drifts to Danika as she enters the cafeteria. Watching her amble to the food station with Sarah Archer, I don’t know how I missed it. She looks exactly the same as she did in middle school, only older. Same olive skin. Same hazel eyes. Even the singular dimple on her left cheek when she laughs is still there.
I watch, with a sick sense of deja vu, as Danika bypasses lunch entirely, instead opting for just a Coke. Lunch was our thing back in middle school: sitting on the stage, sharing a peanut butter and banana sandwich, and a soda. I still remember the day she told me her mom was sick. She cried the whole lunch period, never once touching her half.
Being the nosy fuck that I am, I’ve noticed there’s only one car in the driveway next door. Now knowing that Danika is my neighbor, I’m guessing that her mom died. Whatever they were doing in California that kept them gone for so long apparently didn’t work, and I doubt it was cheap.
“You look like you’re out for blood. Who was stupid enough to piss you off this early in the year?” Tad Parker asks, sitting on the tabletop beside me.
I don’t particularly like Tad, but being on the same football team all throughout high school has forced us into a strange sort of friendship. Meaning he thinks we’re friends, and I don’t. I slip the cigarette I’ve been playing with between my lips and lite it up. “No one.”
Trays settle on the table behind me. I don’t need to look to see who’s sat down. Tad only hangs out with a specific group of entitled pricks and no one would dare to enter his circle without being invited.
I scan the cafeteria again, searching for Danika’s unique hue of brown. It’s a rich shade, filled with natural highlights. She’s always had a color too pure to be from a bottle, something I didn’t appreciate when I was thirteen.
I take a drag of my cigarette and exhale a cloud of smoke above me. I’ve got to stop thinking about Danika like this. Like she’s still the girl I ate lunch with everyday for three years. The one I told all of my secrets to. The girl who used to be my best friend.
Danika is my enemy because she may know what happened that night, and I have to remember as much. I take another drag and hold my breath, letting the smoke singe my lungs. Focusing on the burn in my chest makes tuning out the cafeteria chatter easier.
Until I hear her name.
“You guys remember Danika,” Sarah says, setting her tray beside Tad. “Right?”
There's a collective murmur of uninterested hellos, meaning no one remembers who Danika is. Good. She’ll have to prove she belongs and judging by the fact she still wears Converse sneakers, Melody is going to eat her alive.
Melody Fox, self crowned queen of St. Anastasia's High School has earned every bit of her title: bitch. I can’t stand the woman, but for some reason she seems to think we are a thing. Exclusivity isn’t in her vocabulary, so I gave up fighting her on it last year. I still get to fuck who ever I please and she… I don’t know what she gets out of the arrangement. I don’t care either.
“You’re like, really pretty,” Melody taunts, setting a trap, one Danika is sure to fall into.
I almost feel bad, but Melody is making my job easier. Danika was always a quiet girl and cowered when met with confrontation. I highly doubt that’s changed. I give it a day, two tops, of being on Melody’s radar and she’ll find another lunch table to sit at. Hell, maybe she’ll find a new school while she’s at it.
“Who does your hair?”
“Um.” Danika says, unmanicured fingers running through her long strands. “I don’t dye it.”
“So that’s natural?” Melody snickers.
Her best friend Rachel Moore cackles beside her. They glance at each other, a silent conversation in the works. I’ve never understood how girls do that, communicate with each other with nothing more than a look. Guys don’t put in that much effort. If we have something to say, we say it.
“She’s probably too fucking poor to dye it,” I add on an exhale. The words feel heavy on my lips, but I can’t stop thinking about what Danika might remember. I need her on edge, and possibly even a little afraid of me. Maybe then I can intimidate her into staying quiet. “Have you seen where she lives?”
‘No! Where?” Melody gasps.
Another drag. Another exhale to numb my mind and the shiver of guilt rippling through me.
“The fucking shack next to me.”
“You mean Mr. Andrew’s old guest house?” Melody titters.
The weight of Danika’s stare burns my skin. I turn my head and glare at her because she needs to realize that I’m not the same timid kid she left behind.
“Whatever. Poor or not,” Gunner Wells says, cutting off Melody’s infectious hyena laugh. He looks at Danika, gaze settling on her massive rack then finding her face again. “You’re fucking hot.”
Danika isn’t hot, she’s beautiful. Always has been. Only now, she’s grown into her body. She developed early. I know that’s strange to say, but come on. I’m a guy. I notice these things. Especially on a pretty girl who leaves her table to sit with the weird friendless kid that had a stutter in the sixth grade.
That kid was me.
Awkward as fuck, thick rimmed glasses, and quieter than a church mouse because damn near everyone picked on me when I talked. I was in therapy for years to correct my speech. Although, looking back, I’m not sure if those sessions helped my situation or made it worse.
Tad crushes his soda and tosses it at the trash can. It circles the rim then falls onto the cafeteria floor. He grunts, probably remembering how shitty he was on the basketball team as a freshman. “Yeah, at least she’s not like Piper.”
“Don’t fucking talk about Piper,” I quip. Tad smirks, realizing he’s gotten under my skin and I’m reminded once again why I can’t stand him.
Piper Lovelace, my on-again-off-again foster sister, doesn’t deserve to be treated the way she is. Part of her reputation is my fault, I started the rumor that she was a slut as a joke last year, when I considered her to be nothing more than a nuisance. Before I knew what she was going through. Not that that’s any excuse.
I never expected the rumor to stick because most of the things people say about Piper are forgotten in a day or two. It didn’t help that soon after she started hanging around with a bunch of different guys adding fuel to the rumor fire. Even so, everything they say about her is wrong. Piper’s a good person, she’s just been dealt a shitty hand in life.
“Let me guess, Piper’s fucking both you and Cooper now that she’s moved back home again?” Tad digs a joint out of his cigarette pack and lights it, not giving two fucks about the cafeteria monitors. They won’t do shit anyway. He sucks in a breath, holding the smoke in his lungs then passes the rolled paper to Gunner and says, “Tell me, is that bitch as good as the rumors say she is?”
I toss what’s left of my cigarette to the floor and jump off the table, ready to kick Tad’s ass, but Cooper—my twin brother— beats me to it. He comes up from the left, catching Tad in his blindside and throws a jab at his face. Tad falls off the table and clutches his cheek like the little bitch that he is. Serves him right. Piper is family and you don’t fuck with family.
I sit on top of the table again and light another cigarette to calm my nerves. I’m anxious, full of unused adrenaline and need something to take my mind off stomping Tad’s face into the pavement.
“Fuck!” Tad yells, but anyone within earshot has gone back to talking with their table mates.
Everyone on campus knows that if you fuck with Piper, talk to Piper, hell even look at Piper the wrong way, you’ll face the wrath of Cooper. He’s more protective of her than a starved watchdog with a steak.
Our Principal, Mr. White, grabs Cooper by the arm and escorts him to the office with Tad in tow. Mom’s going to be pissed when he gets suspended for the rest of the day but she’ll understand. She always does. Cooper spends more time out of school than in and she barely bats an eye. But when I get in trouble, all hell breaks loose.
Melody groans and rolls her eyes. “Always with the drama.”
From my peripheral vision, I see Gunner make himself comfortable next to Danika. I don’t like the way he’s looking at her. The way he’s whispering into her ear. How she playfully shoves him and they both laugh. I have no right to be pissed, but just being around her sets me on edge.
Besides, I saw her first.