/// UNEDITED! ///
Nightmares of my mother’s death have haunted me for seven years.
Even now, I tossed, turned, and thrashed to no avail. I couldn’t wake up.
Mom was singing quietly to a song on the radio. Knuckles white, she grasped the steering wheel and focused intently on the wintry road before her. Laden with heavy snow, the trees bowed into a canopy above. It wasn’t currently snowing, but a massive storm had just moved out, and the plow trucks hadn’t made it this far into the mountains yet. There was a curve in the road up ahead, angling sharply downward. A momentary break in the tree line on the right offered a view of the rolling hills and valleys of the Pennsylvania Appalachians.
I could see it. I didn’t know how – there was at least half a foot of snow covering the entire roadway – but I could see it. Ice.
“Mom,” I warned warily. “Slow down.”
She never even glanced my way.
“Mom, that turn is a sheet of ice. You have to slow down. Please!”
But of course she couldn’t hear me; I wasn’t really there. I never had been. Yet somehow I evoked this scene more precisely in my mind than any physical memory.
By the time she applied the brakes, it was too late; she was already sliding.
“Look out!” I cried as I braced myself for the impact of the trees.
Confusingly, I suddenly found myself outside of the car, standing petrified in the erratic tracks of the tires. It was one of those dream elements that made no sense.
The front end crinkled like a paper bag as she hit the first tree. If that had been it, my mother probably would have lived. As it happened, the initial collision thrust the car around in a wide circle and it veered straight toward that single empty outcropping between the trees. She dropped over the cliff before I could even gasp.
Adrenaline surged like electricity through my nerve endings, jolting my legs into motion. The distant sound of shattering glass and crunching metal echoed through the woods as I ran. My footing was sure and unfazed despite the ice, which was strange. I reached the edge just as the ferocious boom of the explosion assaulted my ears, and I watched the car erupt in hot flames and putrid black smoke.
The ungodly scream that tore from my lips was what finally woke me.
I jerked into a sitting position so quickly I nearly left my skin behind me. My heart hammered as my blood rushed. My breathing was ragged and shallow. A sheen of sweat covered my skin with a ghostly glimmer as pale morning sunlight crept in through the blinds of the bedroom window.
It was six fourteen on Wednesday morning, time to get ready for school. I dragged a shaky hand across my dampened face and exhaled, willing my body to relax.
It was just a dream, but the consolation felt bleak.
A minute later, my cellphone began blasting my favorite song as a wakeup call. It was unexpected, even though I should’ve remembered it was coming, and a new wave of anxiety rushed in.
If this was any indication of how my first day was going to go…
The threat was pointless, though, because it didn’t matter. There was nothing I could do. I was going to school, and I was going to be the new girl at Center Allegheny for the third time.
Transferring schools was never a fun endeavor in general, let alone a month into senior year. I was no stranger to the process, but it was never easy. Every time my dad deployed, I was sent to live with my quirky Aunt Marge. Thankfully, she was kind enough to take me in, but the whole situation still sucked.
I showered the icy nightmare off my skin then brushed my pearly white as well as my straight blonde hair. I then studied myself in the mirror. Starkly alert pale blue eyes stared back at me, and luckily there were no purple bags underneath. Sighing, I smoothed my hair one more time and then nodded.
I’d done this before. I’d made friends and survived. Surly I could do it again.
The glass doors at the front of the building were propped open and students were streaming in freely. Most of the kids talked amongst themselves and paid me no mind. Some acted like they wanted to say something to me, but were too shy. Others were bolder and addressed me by name, remembering me from before. I smiled and waved, too nervous to say much at first.
A breath I hadn’t even known I’d been holding escaped as I crossed the threshold. The office was directly to my right with a single frosted-glass door for both entry and exit. I went inside and stood at the long countertop that stretched the length of the little room, cutting it in two. A few women busied themselves on the other side, answering phones, filing papers, talking with a couple teachers. I took a steadying breath and waited.
“Valerie?” asked a plump woman with slightly graying hair. She too seemed to remember me from a few years ago. “Come on over here, sweetie.”
I walked to the far right of the counter, smiling politely.
“Here’s your schedule, sweetie,” she said as she handed it over. “Do you remember how to find your way around?” It was a silly question as the school was quite small.
“Yes ma’am,” I replied as I gazed at the list.
The woman watched curiously as I assessed my classes.
“We received an email from your previous school detailing the elective classes you preferred. Many of them didn’t match up exactly, but we did the best we could. Does it look all right to you?”
What she was saying was, on top of the required curriculum, they had added extra English classes (Poetry and Creative Writing) and an art class (Painting).
I smiled. “Yes, that’s perfect, thank you.”
“Wonderful,” she said, looking genuinely pleased. “You have homeroom with Mrs. McConnell; that’s your English teacher. She’s located on the second floor, and you’ll find your locker in that general vicinity. It’s number two-hundred thirty-eight.” She scribbled it on a small slip of paper, then handed it to me. “Have a good day, sweetie. Come back in if you have any questions.”
I forced a warm smile. “Okay, thanks.”
I readjusted the bag on my shoulder and turned back toward the door. It opened right as I reached for it, and another student walked in.
My breath caught and my blood suddenly surged with adrenaline. The intensity of his emerald green gaze mixed with the soft, drifting spice of his cologne was inebriating. Recognition blazed across his face as he threw me the most enthralling smile I’d ever seen.
I was no longer breathing.
He licked his lips, as if he was about to actually say something, then blinked. Suddenly, the smile faded, and the fire in his eyes was reduced to a smolder. He stepped aside in one smooth motion and made way for me to pass.
I exhaled quickly and ducked into the throngs of the other students. Heart still hammering away, I rushed to my locker. My steps were unintentionally accelerated, fueled by the lingering adrenaline in my system.
Teetering into a panic attack was never a good way to make a positive impression, which I did want to make, even though I’d met these students before. It didn’t matter that I still remembered almost all of their names, and that they clearly remembered me too. Time had a sly way of changing people that forced you to meet and re-meet them over and over.
I opened the old metal cabinet then rummaged through my bag.
“Hi,” a voice said, making me pause.
I glanced to my left before removing a combination lock, notebook, and pencil.
“Hi,” I replied, still a little winded.
“I remember you,” the boy said matter-of-factly.
I smiled and spun the lock. “I remember you too.”
He poked his nose back into his locker, and I ran for the door to homeroom. He was one of those kids that made socializing awkward.
Mrs. McConnell sat at the head of the classroom checking her email. She clicked away, never once lifting her eyes to my face.
“You must be Valerie Moore. Take a seat at the end of the first row, please.”
I nodded and silently made my way to the back. Heads turned as I passed and gawked at me as I sat. Great. Luckily, everyone kept talking so there were at least no awkward silences.
“Look who’s back,” a prissy voice muttered, loud enough for me to hear. I glanced her way and raised an eyebrow.
Loren Marlowe. I should’ve known. That girl hated me since the moment I’d arrived six years before. I guess she thought I was too much competition or something? Who knows? Even now, after years of proving that I had no desire to compete, she still hated me.
“What are you looking at?” she sneered, dark blue eyes glaring.
I rolled my eyes and ignored her. I could see nothing had changed on that particular front.
The bell rang a few minutes later, and Loren finally turned away, her brown hair fanning out around her.
I seriously hoped the rest of the day was better.
The morning classes flew by in a blur, but I did take some valuable information away from each one.
In Calculus, I learned that Jimmy Reynolds was not-so-secretly messing around with Ashley Gadson behind Trisha Burbank’s back. Seriously, if you don’t like your girlfriend, just break up with her. Don’t be an ass and cheat.
Advanced Chemistry proved that couples should never be lab partners. Avenelle Winters and Benjamin Jacobson fought about everything from covalent bonds to how brusque he’d been with her on the phone the night before. They also hung on to each other like monkeys and stole kisses every time the teacher wasn’t looking. It wasn’t the best show I’d ever seen, but sadly it wasn’t the worst, either.
And then there was history, World Events to be precise, where none other than global warming took precedence in that week’s debate. My Aunt Marge would have been in her glory. There were a number of very passionate theories and opinions about it, even among teenagers. I preferred to keep my opinions on the matter to myself. Hopefully I slip under the radar by playing shy.
Lunch rolled around faster than I could have hoped. I found myself at the end of the line, stomach rumbling softly as I peered ahead and tried to see what I would have the pleasure of eating. Chicken, mashed potatoes and corn, or maybe pizza and fries, or…
I watched Cade grip his tray a little too tightly, the whites of his knuckles contrasting with his sun-kissed skin. The white t-shirt and blue jeans he wore hugged his body in all the right ways, showcasing his cut, athletic build.
He opted for fresh fruits from a basket, and nothing more.
I smiled stupidly and forced myself to stare at my own tray as he disappeared into the expanse of the cafeteria. A soft blush caressed me from my neck to my cheeks. If there was one person in this school I’d want to date, it would be Cade Landston. But that would never happen, because he seemed to have some sort of no-socializing rule going on. At least, not with anyone outside of his tight-knit group.
Of the three non-consecutive years I’d spent with that graduating class, never once had Cade stepped out of the woodwork and drawn attention to himself, or anyone else, for any reason. I knew this because I had always been something of a people-watcher, and Cade was totally my favorite show. I settled for other channels when he wasn’t around, but it was like soap opera melodrama compared to mystery detective fiction. I loved trying to imagine who he was when no one was looking.
Without thinking, I too added a small pile of fruit to my tray, grabbed a bottle of water, and entered the cafeteria. I chewed on my bottom lip, trying to find a place to sit. There were a number of long tables that spanned the length of the place and a few round tables off to the side by the windows. My eyes burned as the realization of being watched by tens of people overcame me. Why did being new automatically make you an exhibition at the zoo?
“Valerie, over here!” a cute boy with gelled brown hair shouted, waving me to his table.
Holden Michaels. I recognized him immediately, even though he’d matured quite a bit over the years. He and his friends had been my go-to group of companions the last time I was there. Hopefully I could pick up where I left off with them.
I sat down between Holden and Charlene who were both dressed in uniforms – him in a football jersey, her in a cheerleader suit. Across the table, Jay Walsh and Bear Cleveland also wore jerseys. There were no other girls.
Charlene wrapped an arm around my shoulders and squeezed me. “It’s great to have you back, Val! How have you been?”
I smiled and tucked a piece of hair behind my ear. “I’ve been good! Just going to school and doing my thing. Nothing special.”
“Still into painting?” she asked.
“Any boyfriends back in Virginia?” Holden teased, though I could tell he was totally curious.
I blushed. “Uh, no.”
I was pretty sure he’d developed a crush on me the last time I was there. But while he was definitely cute, I already had crush of my own…
I tipped my water bottle to my lips, suddenly realizing that Cade was staring at me from two tables down. Our eyes locked like electromagnets and my pulse jumped. Heart pounding, I averted my eyes to my tray.
Everyone’s eyes followed mine to Cade’s table and back, but no one said a word about it.
I picked up an orange and peeled it meticulously, willing the tedious concentration to keep me out of trouble, but I couldn’t help stealing another glance in Cade’s direction. He was no longer looking at me, just rearranging the fruit on his tray as his friends talked.
“I take it your dad is still in the navy?” Charlene asked, graciously changing the subject.
“Yep.” I put the orange down and glanced at her. “He deployed again, so here I am. I can’t believe we’re seniors this year.”
“Me either,” Jay muttered, crossing his arms.
He was Charlene’s boyfriend – or at least, he used to be – and he was quiet, in a stoical and mysterious kind of way. He always gave me the impression that he was wise beyond his years. Or maybe just smart enough to listen more than he talked.
Bear was quiet too, but his silence always set me on edge. When he spoke, it was grizzly, deep, and intimidating. It didn’t seem to bother anyone else in the group, though. They treated him as if he was cuddly as a teddy.
The lunch bell rang a few minutes later and everyone split up for their afternoon classes.
In Creative Writing, we received our first big writing assignment. We had a month before the final draft was due. It was our job to analyze a short work of literature and apply our own personal twist to craft a unique story. It could be as outrageous or subtle as we wanted. The creative possibilities were endless.
Cade was in that class, too, which was a definite plus. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it a whole year without being caught staring at him at some point. Probably not even a day.
Poetry had us analyzing and constructing lyrics. My favorite so far was one boy’s jingle about being the designated driver for his older brother and his brother’s college buddies. They certainly seemed to have some adventures worthy of a country song.
Painting came next. Passionate as I was about art, that class was a little underwhelming. Despite being bored, I thought it might actually be a good thing. It allowed me the freedom to create whatever I wanted, above and beyond Mr. Whittaker’s expectations. We’d be using watercolor for the assignment of painting a landscape that evoked a personal emotion—happy, sad, scared, angry, whatever. I immediately began painting a snow-scape, though I wasn’t sure which would be the dominant corresponding emotion. Possibly sadness, as it reminded me of my mother’s accident.
Seventh period was coed gym class. I would have preferred it to be girls only, but other than that, I generally liked gym, so it wasn’t a problem. Since it was my first day and I didn’t have the proper athletic attire, I spent that time on the sidelines watching everyone else.
That left eighth period, English. Time ticked by the slowest there, not because of the subject matter, necessarily, but because it was the last class of the day.
Cade sat two seats behind me and to the left, so I couldn’t really steal any covert glances. That left me tuning in to other, less interesting channels once again. One kid doodled little skulls all over his red skater shoes. One girl listened to music the entire time, through earbuds she had hiding in her shirt collar that trailed all the way down her sleeve to the compact player in her hand. Impressive, actually. Loren Marlowe literally sat on the other side of the room applying nail polish. And Holden sat a few seats behind her, shooting me winks and flirtatious grins.
When the bell finally sounded, I anxiously rushed to my locker. Every book I’d received throughout the day went into the bag, regardless of if I had homework in that subject or not. By the time I made it outside, some strange sense of relief had settled in, sending a cool mint wave swimming through my bloodstream.
I had survived. I could do this. The first day was always the worst day, after all. It could only get better from there.
My feet moved of their own accord as I began the walk back to Marge’s house. I liked to walk, liked the solitude, and liked the luxury of not having to think. That’s when I suddenly heard my name being called from somewhere behind me.
Turning, I followed the voice to the face. The gasp that escaped my lips couldn’t possibly be contained.
It was Cade.