She had hovered over me all day yesterday like a momma bear. As much as I appreciated being waited on hand and foot, there was no way I could miss the first day of school. “I’m okay. Seriously. I want to go to school.”
Linds passed by me, making a face.
“Look, we’ve got to go,” I told her, backing away. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” Her chest rose in a deep breath as she plucked her suit jacket off the back of the kitchen chair. “Text me when you get to school and when you’re leaving, okay?”
I nodded, figuring I was going to be doing a lot of checking in over the coming months.
Out in the early morning sunlight, I slipped on my sunglasses and hopped down the porch steps two at a time. When my feet hit the sidewalk, an odd sensation curled around my spine. Tiny hairs on my arms rose. The feeling. . . .
I tightened my hold on my messenger bag. In spite of the strong glare of the sun, I suddenly felt like I’d been encased in ice. The breath I took lodged in my sore throat.
Linds stopped next to me, frowning. “What?”
Turning around, I expected to find Mom at the door, watching us, but it was empty. So was the porch. The old wooden swing swayed at the end of the porch in the light breeze. Facing the front, I scanned the yard and sidewalk in front of the house. I could see the hood of my Jetta from where I stood.
The icy feeling remained, but I forced myself to draw in a breath and take a step forward, chalking it up to paranoia. Which was totally understandable. Less than forty-eight hours ago, I’d faced something I never in my life thought I would. Of course I’d be a wee bit paranoid.
I smiled as Linds started to shift nervously. “Nothing.”
Eyeing me closely, she hesitated for a moment and then started forward. Shaking off the weird sensation, I inhaled the scent of freshly cut grass as I crossed the front yard and hit the sidewalk. I drew up short, stopping at where my car was parked along the curb.
There was a demonic brown stinkbug on my windshield.
Squealing like a small child, I darted around the front of the Jetta and yanked open the door. I lurched into the car and slammed the door shut just in case the stinkbug was ninja stealth, which most were.
I turned the car on and hit the windshield wipers, grinning like the Mad Hatter as the wipers flung the bug into next week.
Linds raised a brow from where she waited on the sidewalk.
“Sorry!” I hit the unlock button.
She climbed in, casting me a long look. “It was just a small, harmless bug.”
“They are not harmless,” I told her, easing away from the curb. “They are the scourge of the Earth.”
In reality, I could walk to school if I was feeling, I don’t know, active, which was something I hadn’t really felt in a while. Once upon a time, in a galaxy far—whatever—I used to love running. It was something I looked forward to every morning or after school, and I used to plan on joining the track or cross country team, but I hadn’t run in almost four years.
As I drove down the street, I did something I always did. Three blocks down, I looked to my left, to the large brick house so much like my own. The glance was short, but the impact lasted far too long.
I gripped the steering wheel as I sped up. The narrow streets of Martinsburg were crowded with cars. The town was small, with a town square that was literally just a square with flowers, but the population was growing every month it seemed, making travel equivalent to getting your eyelashes plucked out.
“Everyone is going to stare at me,” I blurted as we waited at a red light in front of the library. “Aren’t they?”
She didn’t answer immediately. “Do you want me to lie?”
Little knots formed in my stomach. “No. Okay. Probably. Yes, please.”
“No one is going to stare at you,” she said solemnly. “And if they do, I’ll kick their asses. How about that?”
The corners of my lips rose up. “That would be awesome. Thank you.” I paused, twisting my fingers around a lock of hair as I kept my other hand on the steering wheel. “I . . .”
“What?” she asked, and I could feel her eyes on me.
I thought about telling her what I’d been thinking about last night while I lay awake, but the desire to talk about it—to even think about Saturday night—vanished. I shook my head, unsettled more than I cared to admit. “I . . . hope today doesn’t suck.”
We ended up arriving at school with less than two minutes to book it to our homerooms. I was in such a hurry to get to my class that I didn’t even have a chance to worry if people were staring at me.
As I came out of the stairwell on the second floor, I nearly ran into the back of Wendy—the blonde with boobs that should be illegal on a high school girl. I’d finally grown a pair myself, but compared to her, it was like being thirteen all over again.
She and her friends—Monica and Shawna—were literally standing in the middle of the hall like it wasn’t a place where people walked, and they were also talking loudly enough that anyone inside the school and the middle school next door could hear.
“I don’t care if he was the last guy on Earth and it was up to me to repopulate civilization, I wouldn’t get with him,” Wendy announced, flipping a sheet of shiny blonde hair over her shoulder. “Like, there’s not enough Jello shooters in the world for that.”
Monica giggled as she slid a sly look to where the metal lockers lined the wall. “Don’t be so mean, Wendy. I think he’s, you know, special.”
Then I realized that the boy they were talking about—Luis Clayton—was standing at his locker. The back of his neck was beet red and his shoulders were unnaturally tense.
The whole conversation reeked of a hundred similar scenarios I’d witnessed, reminding me of things that struck too close to home.
Skating around them, I hurried down the hall so I wouldn’t be late to class, but as soon as I walked into homeroom, I was turned right back around with a note to take my happy butt to Ms. Reed’s office, guidance counselor extraordinaire and art teacher of the year.
Christ on a cracker, this was the last thing I wanted to do.
Slipping back down to the first floor, I groaned as the bell rang, signaling the start of homeroom. If Ms. Reed sucked up my time, I’d be late for first period, which meant everyone would stare at me as I entered the classroom.
My flip-flops slid over the recently polished face of a bulldog, then I made a sharp left, slowing down as I hit the rotunda. The offices to the right were packed with staff, but before I could pay any attention to who was in there, I caught sight of my reflection.
Even in the glass, I could see the red stain on my cheek. Shifting my chin down, I let my hair slide forward, covering the mark. I passed through the rotunda and the door to Ms. Reed’s office burst open, a dark shape stepping out. There was no stopping the collision as the door swung closed.
I bounced off a chest—a hard, male chest. Stumbling a step, I almost fell back into the rotunda, but an arm shot out and a hand caught my arm, steadying me.
“Whoa, you okay?”
My body locked up at the sound of his voice, and my gaze started at the tan hiking boots and traveled up denim clad thighs, over an old t-shirt that clung to abs and then a broad chest and shoulders. I forced my eyes all the way up, and they met pale blue ones.
Stepping free from his hold, my mouth went dry and my brain conveniently emptied. One brown eyebrow rose as he stared at me, and all I could think was this was the closest we’d been in four years.
Ms. Reed’s door opened, drawing my attention. Her plump cheeks rose in a smile when she spotted me. “Ah, there you are, Ella. Come on in.” Stepping aside, she opened the door as she adjusted her square glasses. “It will only take a few minutes.”
I glanced back at Jensen, knowing I needed to say something—anything—to him, but no words came to mind. I wondered if I’d suffered brain damage when my head hit the road Saturday night.
Like a complete doofus, I turned toward Ms. Reed.
“Wait.” Jensen shifted forward, blocking me. “You have one of those damn stinkbugs in your hair.”