“Hurry up!” I hissed. Claire bit her lip to choke back her laughter pulling open the back door with her free hand. The other cradled her caramel chai latte. The coffee shop next to Paul’s Alley may have been my favorite place in the whole world at that moment. When all else seemed wrong, at least I could count on my coffee. That and Claire, who was about the only person who knew how to reach me. My cousin recognized things in me that Astrid could only pretend to see. I was almost feeling fully alive again, like the lies weren’t beginning to take over my life. Almost.
Claire paused to glare at me over her shoulder. “Nice job, Alessa,” she growled. “We’re late.” Of course it was all in play. Claire and I had been to hell and back together, and were in the process of planning our next visit. We’d been inseparable since birth and there was not a force on this earth that could tear us apart. They'd tried.
The bowling instructor shot us a warning glance. As if we cared. Our teammates, Nick and Sean, were already setting up at a lane. “I put you in last,” Sean said to Claire as she gently set her cup down on the table. I was a bit more forceful with my own, a mistake that sent a few precious drops sloshing onto the plastic-coated surface. As far as Claire and Sean’s history, it was pretty one-sided. Claire had gotten over him, though, and now we were all just great friends.
Bowling was sort of my escape from the flawless façade of my life at school. It got me to a new place, a few towns over, where people didn’t know my name. They hadn’t witnessed me throw away the person I’d been, transform into a girl who wore such dark clothes and hid under a mask of black makeup. They didn’t expect me to be a pretty little clone of a queen I only obeyed because I was terrified of losing.
As we bowled, the echoing of the pins crashing against the lane ricocheting off the walls around us, Claire and I exchanged the gossip and drama of the past week. Mostly I talked about Cheer and Astrid, because that was all I really knew. She talked about her friends and school too, and I realized how much I cherished the moments with her. I guess family bonds really are deeper than words can ever express.
Looking back, I really did love those simple little things, like pounding coffee to fight off insomnia, or laughing with friends I seldom got to see. Perhaps even more than I held to the moments with Astrid, the repetition of the life we led. I didn’t know if that thought frightened me, or if I found a comfort in it. I didn’t seem to be so sure of anything anymore. The girl who was always so confident, so alluring, and she didn’t even know who she was. Life is full of little ironies.
Monday came much too soon, bringing me back to that damned school, where I was forced to smile and glow and act like nothing in the whole entire world phased me. Something told me Astrid had seen a change in me, and when we stepped from her mother’s car to the curb, she was quick to dart away to the place where Tori was waiting. I did my best to keep up, pushing through crowds that had just parted for her, wondering if maybe she was trying to punish me for something. As if I knew what.
Tori was leaning casually against a wall of beige lockers, blonde hair in waves around her face, pink polo stretched out across her chest. Astrid was already at her side, murmuring words I couldn’t make out. When I fell into place at Astrid’s side, they both went silent much too quickly.
“You’re looking dark,” Tori scowled, eyeing up my outfit, my makeup, my abnormally straight hair. Instinct made me wrap my arms around myself, covering the Avenged Sevenfold tee I was wearing. All the things I was not supposed to be. I couldn’t stop thinking about the chipped black polish upon my jagged fingernails. It’s always the little things that consume our minds and tear them to shreds.
“Thanks,” I spat back, but then remembered to bite my tongue. Tori was still Astrid’s companion, and so I needed to remain calm in her presence. Yes, I was a two-faced liar. But sometimes in life we had to pretend. Sometimes it was easier to pretend. “I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
Tori shrugged off my attempts at conversation. “I’ve been around. Hanging out with a lot of the dance team lately. I might try out for the winter season.”
That got Astrid’s attention. The dance team and the Cheerleaders were supposed to be rivals. I felt a wave of victory surge through me, because this was Tori betraying the queen. Treason was not tolerated in Astrid’s make-believe kingdom.
But then Astrid smiled, reaching out to touch Tori’s arm lightly. “I think that’s really awesome. It’ll get some diversity in our group.”
She had to be fucking kidding me.
“I have to go,” I muttered, but they were lost in their own discussion, and neither was paying any mind to me. I spun around on the heel of my Converse and dashed off down the hall, away from the person I had always, always loved. The person I was, admittedly, starting to hate.
I didn’t know where I was going to go. I’d never been away from Astrid, never been on my own. I’d built up my whole life around her, and without her at my side I was totally lost. I thought perhaps I’d go to find Gregory, but I didn’t want to feel his sympathetic eyes on me. Maybe Benjamin and Karlee, with the emo kids or wherever they might be. At least I’d fucking fit in there, with my dark clothes that had my best friends in the world turning against me. What kind of world did I live in, where the way I dressed determined who I was allowed to talk to? Why couldn’t they remember the summers of middle school, swimming in Tori’s pool, suffocating in the stifling heat?
I was walking with no direction again. Clumsily stumbling down the halls, fighting off tears because I had to appear like everything was fine. Like everything was perfect. Like I wasn’t dying for a fucking knife just then, for the secrets to come spilling out in the form of crimson relief. Maybe if I told Astridthatshe’d understand. I was dressing dark because I was feeling even darker. I was sick of the expectations. I was sick of pretending to love a life I so despised being trapped in.
High school sucked.
“Scarlett!” I heard my name from somewhere in the throngs, and when I found the energy to search for the voice, I saw Collin approaching with a wide smile.
It was hard for me to muster a smile of my own, but I managed for him. Of course I did. In the back of my mind I’d been wondering if I’d ever see him again, if I’d ever have the chance to fall under his spell. Now he was here, and I probably looked like a frantic wreck.
“Hey,” he greeted simply, when he was standing about a foot away. I couldn’t find it in me to reply. There were those eyes again, piercing me straight through. “How have you been? I’ve been trying to find you.”
“You have?” I asked, blatantly ignoring the first question. He didn’t need to know how I’d been. He didn’t need to know how everything seemed to be falling apart right into my lap. “Why?”
Collin shoved his hand deep into the front pocket of his jeans. “I wanted to give you this,” he explained. In his fingers was a small, folded piece of paper. I extended a shaky hand to take it from him, whispering a thanks. Or maybe only thinking I did, because I cant remember any sound actually coming out.
Collin looked like he might say more, maybe something sweet that would bring me to my knees. But the bell cut him off, just like the last time I’d seen him, in the cafeteria. “Shit,” he muttered. “I’ll see you soon, okay?”
“Okay,” I murmured. My lips felt numb, body paralyzed. I watched him walk away, bodies moving past me as if I was a ghost. As if I didn’t even exist at all. When at last he was gone I gently unfolded the scrap of paper in my hand. Scrawled upon it was a phone number. Collin’s phone number.