Never underestimate the power of glitter. It’s Kindergarten 101, really. Squeeze an unrealistic amount of glue on construction paper. Dump a pile of glitter on top. Shake. And let dry. Glitter is like . . . little flecks of brilliance caught in a tube. A miracle in a jar. Because glitter can take any work in progress to that next level. It hides the most glaring of imperfections, works to bring out the best in everything. It takes the ordinary and turns it into something interesting and beautiful.
I stand back, hands perched on my hips, admiring my handiwork.
RAFFLE—$5.00 PER TICKET.
The pink words twinkle beneath the tarnished, gold-plated chandelier welcoming guests to the front office. I flick the edge of the poster board, and a few specks of glitter fall, shimmering to the tile floor. A trail of the rosy sparkles chased me the entire morning: from my bedroom to the car, across the parking lot, and down the hallway to here—the foyer of my high school.
I sweep my hands together, then smear my palms across my jeans. Wrong move. I brush my pants vigorously. When this doesn’t work, I remove a miniature lint roller from my purse, peel off the old adhesive layer, and run it across my lap until I’m sparkle-free.
The first bell rings and I bounce to attention, shoving the roller back into my purse. As classmates trickle inside, I sit up straighter, adjusting the cash box in front of me and planting a pleasant smile across my face. Business Friendly. They ignore me, pushing through the glass doors, cell phones pressed against their ears, mid-conversation, twirling through their iPod playlists in search of anthems to begin their day.
My cell phone buzzes, lighting, the vibration exaggerated against the wooden tabletop. Right on time. A photo of Blake, my boyfriend, flashes across the screen. The picture draws a smile—his gray-blue eyes, blonde hair glowing beneath the fluorescents, giving him an ephemeral, angelic appeal. I read the early morning text message wishing me a Happy Monday. He is nothing if not dependable, and I try to think if a school day has passed since we began dating where he hasn’t sent a morning message like this. I can’t, and craft a response.
As I’m typing, a book bag thuds to the floor and Savannah, my best friend, crashes into the chair beside me. She immediately lowers her head to the table, burying it in her arms.
“You’re here early. I’m kind of impressed,” I say, sending my text message and shutting the phone with a snap.
She groans. It’s muffled. Far away.
I glance over at her, not concerned in the least. I love Savannah, but she is prone to melodrama. “Good weekend?”
She lifts her head. Her straight, blonde hair is pulled away from her face with a headband. “Two days away from the love of my life and my weekend is supposed to be good?”
“I know you’re not talking about me,” I tell her. “Because I just saw you Saturday.”
“Let’s just say I can’t wait for lunch, k?”
“I believe you.”
She turns in her seat, studying the poster taped to the wall. “I guess you talked to the Wal-Mart people,” she says.
“I did. They offered an amazing discount on the game and the console—I mean, they’re practically giving it to us.”
She frowns. “They should. People were trampled over those things the day after Thanksgiving.”
“Which fully explains their willingness to give back to the community. And rightly so. It is a family store.”
“I don’t know why they don’t sell bullet-proof vests. God knows you need one to make it in and out safely.”
I force back the knowing smirk pulling at my lips. “Which is why I do all of my shopping . . .”
I force back the knowing smirk pulling at my lips. “Which is why I do all of my shopping . . .”
“Online. We know,” she interrupts, rolling her eyes. “It sucks that the rest of us haven’t reached your level of enlightenment, yet.”
“Keep striving,” I tease.
Mr. Connelly, one of the history teachers, navigates the crowd of students, weaving in and out as he passes through the lobby, a cup of coffee steaming in his hand. He pauses in front of us, the chandelier light reflecting in his shiny, balding forehead.
“Good morning, Jaden. Good morning, Savannah. What are we saving this time?” he asks.
I smile brightly, the spiel I memorized weeks ago poised on my lips. “The children of Bangladesh. Did you know malaria is one of the leading causes of death in children? It’s a totally preventable disease. If we can get treated mosquito nets in every home, the cases would cut dramatically.”
“Sounds like a worthy cause,” he replies. “As always. What are you raffling?”
“An ‘A’ in your American Government class,” Savannah grumbles, arms folded. I can almost read her mind: Because that’s the only way to get an ‘A’ in your class. Which is not entirely true . . . because I have one. In fact, it’s safe to say I’ve aced all of Mr. Connelly’s classes.
I throw her a dirty look. “Wii Fit.”
“I wonder which would bring in more donations,” he mutters thoughtfully, lifting his I READ THE CONSTITUTION FOR THE ARTICLES mug and sipping slowly.
“The ‘A,’” Savannah and I reply in unison.
He swallows. “Yes, well, thankfully there are laws in place for that sort of thing. So . . . I will buy my ticket,” he continues, reaching for his wallet, “in hopes that I win a Fit.”
Savannah snickers, turning her head away and covering her mouth to conceal her smile.
“I suppose you wouldn’t need an ‘A’ in your own class,” I muse, jabbing my elbow into her arm. She straightens, rubbing the affected area.
He shakes his head. “No,” he replies. “Not today.” He hands me a floppy five-dollar bill, soft and stained, which I trade for a ticket.
“Thank you, Mr. Connelly.”
“Thank you, ladies.”
Savannah bursts into giggles the moment Mr. Connelly walks away, the smell of his black coffee still lingering in the air around us. “Oh my God. Did he just call it a ‘Fit’?” she asks.
“Yeah, I think so. But, you know, it’s five dollars.”
“The children of Bangladesh thank us.” She tosses her blonde hair over her shoulder.
I sit up straighter. “Yes, Mr. Connelly?”
“Will I see you in peer tutoring this afternoon?” he calls from across the busy hall.
“Absolutely,” I reply, lips stretching into my trademark smile: wide enough to show off straight and exceptionally white teeth—thank you, Crest Whitestrips—but not fake. Just . . . happy to help. Always.
When the two-minute warning bell rings, we split up. Savannah heads toward her first period class, while I stop by the school office to turn in our cash box for safekeeping and say hi to the secretaries. The halls are abandoned by the time I finish—silent—the lockers standing dormant and passive. A trail of crumpled papers and empty candy wrappers steers me to English. I bend down to pick up some of the larger pieces, dumping them in the trashcan by the water fountain on my way to Ms. Tugwell’s room.
I check the time on my cell phone just outside the door, lips pulling into a frown.
Ms. Tugwell won’t count me late, though. She never counts me late. No teacher counts me late. Ever. I slip inside the classroom and guide the door shut, easing it closed with my hand. Still, every head turns to me as the lock clicks. I feel my cheeks flush with heat and tiptoe to my seat at the back of the room as discretely as possible.
“This project will be worth thirty percent of your semester grade,” Ms. Tugwell says. She pauses, adjusting her glasses on the bridge of her nose, and peering at me with slightly magnified eyes. “Nice of you to take time out of your busy ‘saving the planet’ schedule to join us, Miss McEntyre.”
I smile cheerfully, even as my classmates snicker around me. “Poverty doesn’t sleep, Ms. Tugwell. If I don’t do my part, who will?”
Ms. Tugwell is, at the least, heavy set. She’s actually pretty large, and spends most of her time sitting in her chair behind her desk. She doesn’t really walk . . . more like waddles, and the ground beneath her trembles as she moves. Her glasses are at least thirty years out of style, and the lenses themselves are probably decades old, because she wears the same plaid jumpers that balloon at her waist . . . every single day . . . with her sneakers. She’s a good teacher—I like her—but every year, when a new group of idiot freshmen boys comes in. . . . I mean, “tugboat” doesn’t sound anything like Tugwell. But that doesn’t seem to deter some people.
My teacher shakes her head, but even so, I’m almost certain a tiny smile forms as she turns her attention back to the white board. I breathe a quick sigh of relief. No tardy.
“Moving on. This assignment will not be turned in for another two months, but that doesn’t mean you should wait until the last minute. You and your partner should make plans to meet as soon as possible, then regularly until it’s due. I’d suggest you get together before the end of today, so you can decide what literary piece you will focus on. You’ll find the list of acceptable works in the information packet on your desks.”
I skim the light blue pages, running my finger over the staple in the top left corner, then raise my hand. “When do we pick partners?”
Ms. Tugwell re-positions her glasses. “About three minutes ago.”
“Three minutes . . . ,” I trail off. Before I made it to class. Partners have already been picked. I force an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t here.”
“I know you weren’t, so I had the pleasure of assigning you one.” She grins knowingly, and I sit back, heart thudding rhythmically in my chest, waiting while she takes her time, studying her gradebook, stretching the suspense as far as she can possibly manage, until finally: “You and Parker will be working together.”
For a moment my breath escapes me. My heart slows to a crawl, and it pounds heavy in my ears. I glance to my right where, two rows over, Parker Whalen sits. He’s there, wearing his typical jeans, typical black crew-neck shirt, and typical black leather jacket. His motorcycle helmet, which for some reason he does not keep in his locker, rests at his feet just beside his black bag. Stereotypical bad boy motorcycle rider—lots of intimidating gazes and determined angst. I heard he was in a gang, but find that completely hard to believe because he never wears any colors, he never gets into any trouble, and he never speaks to anyone. The whole gang thing is about camaraderie anyway, and he’s always alone. Plus, it’s not like Bedford is brimming with criminals. There are what? Twelve hundred people in our town? We don’t even have a Wal-Mart for God’s sake—that’s a town over (thankfully). And to actually get any decent shopping done, we have to drive an hour and a half into Hamilton.
I’m not sure why I’m even surprised. My guess? It took my classmates all of ten seconds to select their partners. Parker would have been avoided, leaving me, not present at the time, as the only viable option. I swallow a sigh. No big deal. It’s just a project.
There is nothing I cannot handle.
“Thanks,” I reply, forcing a smile.
I steal another quick glance in Parker’s direction. This time our eyes meet. They lock to mine, slicing into me, and I stagger against his frown, smile wavering; his hard stare, smoldering; his quiet intensity as it sparks through my veins, leaving my entire body prickling in bewilderment. It’s like he hates me already, and I haven’t even done anything. I shift in my chair, uneasy. Only after what feels like an eternity’s worth of awkwardness am I able to tear my eyes away, shrinking lower in my seat as I flip my notebook open to a clean page.
The moment the bell rings I cram my books into my bag and stand, slinging it over my shoulder. Not thinking, I look toward Parker’s desk. But his seat is empty. I just do see a flash of black leather as he escapes the room. I hurry after him, but by the time I reach the hallway, so has everyone else. Whichever way he’s gone, Parker has already disappeared into the swirling mass of students—laughing, talking, tossing things back and forth—and as hard as I search—twisting, turning, peering over heads—there’s no sign of him.
He doesn’t re-enter my world until lunch.
The one thing I know for sure about Parker Whalen is that he never sits inside. He eats at the picnic tables on the lawn, even on days like today, when the wind chill hovers just above freezing and the sky threatens rain. It’s impossible to know how he spends our lunch period, because he never faces the rest of us. We’ve never spoken. English is the only class we share, and we don’t exactly hang out in the same circles. In fact, I can’t imagine Parker Whalen hanging out with anyone . . . for any reason . . . at all. The truth? The rest of us grew up together. We filtered to one high school. Even if we didn’t go to the same middle school, Bedford is a tiny town, and everyone knows everyone, and everything about everyone. When Parker arrived, he never really managed to break into the cliques formed at birth. Whether or not he’d even tried, he always remained something of an outsider.
“Man, I’m telling you, they had nothing on you. Hey!” The familiar voice sings in my ears, happy to see me.
I squeeze between Savannah and Blake, my boyfriend, who leans over and deposits a wet, barbecue potato chip kiss on my cheek as I sit down. They flame as I subtly sweep the crumbs off my face.
“Hey. What’s going on?” I ask, tucking my hair behind my ears before opening my brown, paper lunch bag.
“I was just reminding Tony of how awesome he was at Friday’s game,” Blake informs me, chewing. Blake is a basketball player, an athlete, so I try to forgive the little nuisances, like the fact that now my cheek is all gritty and smells like his barbecue breath.
Savannah’s ears perk at this. “What happened?” she asks.
“My man Tony scored forty points all by his self.”
“No way! That’s amazing!” she gushes, her entire face lighting.
Tony shrugs, unable to look her in the eyes. I hope it’s because of his repressed feelings for her. I don’t think she could be more obvious. I don’t think he could be more oblivious.
Ashley, another member of our lunchtime group, pops open the tab of her soda. It hisses, and she has to suck back the fizz. “This was an away game, right?” she asks.
“Yeah, we beat North Central ninety-five to sixty-eight,” says Blake.
“We crushed them,” Tony adds.
“You, my friend, were on fire.”
“Fire!” Tony repeats.
“Fire,” Blake finishes.
“Oh my God, I so wish I could’ve been there,” Savannah tells Tony. “It’s just that it was so far to drive, and my parents are like . . . ugh.”
Across the table, Ashley rolls her eyes. “You hate basketball.”
Savannah tosses a dirty look in her direction. “No. I don’t. I mean, it’s not that bad.” She turns her attention back to Tony, all smiles again. “You could get on a college team, and then go pro!” she says excitedly, already planning Tony’s future. Visualizing herself part of it, no doubt. I’ve watched her do the same thing every day since the first week of our freshman year, with a new guy each month. She’s had an eye on Tony as of November, which is probably some kind of record. Usually by this time she’s either already dated and dumped, or grown bored and moved on.
“Speaking of college,” Blake says, nudging me with his knee beneath the table, “have you heard anything?”
He’s asking about Harvard, and I kind of wish he wouldn’t. I’m the only one at our table who’s applied to an Ivy League school. I think I might be the only senior who’s applied to Ivy League, period, and I’m still waiting on a decision. Everyone else picked state schools or local private colleges. (Except for Savannah, who possesses absolutely no desire to continue her education beyond high school and is highly vocal about her decision . . . or lack of a decision. Whatever.)
“Um, no, I haven’t,” I confess.
“It’s still early,” he replies, hopeful.
“And no news isn’t necessarily bad news,” Ashley adds.
I study the turkey jammed between my sandwich bread, shrugging casually, then change the subject. “You guys are getting partners in English today. You know, for that big project?” I split my sandwich in half, tearing it straight down the middle, pinch off a bite of turkey and cheese, and pop it into my mouth.
“Oh my God. I totally forgot about that,” Savannah says, rolling her eyes. “I hope I get paired with a nerd.”
“So. . . .” Blake knocks me with his elbow as he roots around his potato chip bag, digging for fragments. “Who’s your partner?”
I continue chewing for a moment, then, hesitating, cover my mouth with my hand. “Parker,” I mumble.
“Whalen?” Savannah asks, eyes widening.
“That’s the only Parker I know,” I say.
Tony bursts out laughing, falling back in his chair, like it’s the funniest thing he’s heard all day. A few juniors a table over stop to stare at us, scrutinizing. “Parker Whalen? Are you serious?”
Blake slants away from me. The shift is slight, but I notice it nonetheless. “I thought we picked partners.”
“We did. Sort of. I had to stop by the office so I got to class late,” I mutter. “Partners had already been picked.” I shrug. It’s not like I had a choice or anything.
“So the Tugboat put you and Parker Whalen together.” His jaw tightens, words sharp and spiteful.
“Yeah. She did,” I reply, glowering at him. “And don’t call her Tugboat. It’s juvenile. And rude.”
“Jaden had to do it. I mean, there’s not a person at this school who’d actually want him for a partner,” Ashley says, matter of fact, spooning a bite of yogurt. “He’s freaky. Jaden’s just nice enough to not let something like that bother her.”
I’m not sure how I would define Parker Whalen, but freaky is a little extreme. Strange? Possibly. Eccentric? Maybe. A definite loner . . . but he doesn’t seem freaky to me . . . just . . . quiet. “It’s weird, actually. I don’t know anything about him. And he’s been coming to this school for what? Five? Six months?”
“We know enough,” Tony says. “I heard his dad makes money off some illegal dog fighting ring—totally underground.”
“I heard his old school kicked him out for marijuana,” says Savannah.
“Which he was also arrested for,” adds Ashley.
I roll my eyes. “We don’t know if any of those things are true,” I say, still chewing. “And just because he wears black and drives a bike? I mean, we don’t even know him.”
“I saw him at Vince’s a few weeks ago. He was wandering around like he was scouting the place. The dude is a freak.”
My ears perk up at this. Not what he said about Parker, but Vince. Because I think he means Vince De Luca, and if that’s the case. . . . “Wait. You went to Vince De Luca’s?”
Blake’s cheeks flush. Busted. Vince De Luca graduated from Bedford High a few years ago. He lives a county over now, in an old rental, and his parties are fairly notorious. Vince’s reputation is anything but stellar. Never mind that he still runs with the high school crowd. He and my brothers used to hang out, and I’ve since been warned.
“I thought we talked about that.”
“We did,” Blake says. “I was with the guys. I swear we were only there for like, fifteen minutes. If that. Ask Tony.”
I look to Tony for confirmation.
“Fifteen minutes,” he agrees.
“You know I do not like that guy,” I remind him. I set my sandwich on top of my bag; my appetite has mysteriously vanished.
“Yeah, well, I don’t really like Parker Whalen,” Blake replies coolly.
* * *
At the end of the day, as I’m taking a quick trip to my car before I head to Mr. Connelly’s room, I see Parker again. He’s walking to the far end of the lot, where he parks his motorcycle. Blue and silver. A sport bike. Which seems perfect for him, actually. I pick up my pace, hurrying to catch up with him before he disappears. Rumors, reputation, or not, we have a project to do—a project to do together. The sooner we talk the faster we can get to work.
“Parker!” I call out, crossing in front of a red Volvo. He straps his helmet beneath his chin, then mounts the bike, using his legs to back out of the space.
Everyone’s eyes are fixated on me, it seems, as I weave in and out of cars and around groups of friends who’ve stopped laughing and chatting to wonder what, exactly, I’m doing. In the next moment he cranks the engine, and revs it a few times. The thunderous blasts shake my eardrums, vibrating the ground beneath me, pulsing. He peels out of the parking lot, tires squealing, not once turning my way.
I remain cemented to the asphalt in the middle of the lane, watching in disbelief as he fades away, taillights glowing. A car horn beeps behind me, punctuating my stupor. I jump, and turn toward the line of traffic snaking around the lot. I quickly move out of the way, waving an apology to the driver. I wrap my arms tightly across my chest, hugging myself in an effort to keep warm, then jog to my car, feeling the icy wind as it bites my face and numbs the tip of my nose.
I flash those still eyeing me a quick smile. Everything is absolutely under control. Parker Whalen is not avoiding me. Not on purpose, anyway.