The sound of water rushing through the pipes behind my bedroom wall punctured my dream. The unfamiliar house I had been searching through evaporated the way scenes in our dreams do, and I found myself jumping into the waves of the ocean, calling for my mother, knowing she was out there in the dark somewhere, wanting to help her find her way home again…
With a strangled cry I sat up, clutching the worn bedspread in my fists and biting my lip to stop what was left of the noise from escaping. The digital alarm clock on the bedside table glowed an ungodly 4:57 a.m., and I hugged my knees to my chest, straining to hear what was happening outside my bedroom door over the continuous thump of my heart. I was still getting used to Aunt Caroline’s routine, her strange schedule and even stranger daily activities making it impossible to anticipate, but I was learning.
The water shut off, and through the pinging of the pipes, I heard the shower curtain rings sliding across the rod. Loud coughs interrupted the otherwise heavy silence, and my shoulders sagged, then tensed again. Aunt Caroline’s boyfriend had obviously spent the night, and if I didn’t move fast, he’d make it to the kitchen before I did. I wouldn’t be able to escape, and unless I wanted to miss the bus to school, there was a risk I’d end up in the same room him. Alone. Even one minute with Peter Franklin was too long, so I threw back the covers, ignored the cold floor under my feet as I threw on jeans and a sweater, and shoved my feet into the sneakers I’d left by the door.
I pulled my long dark hair into a ponytail and pressed my ear to the door, straining to hear anything that would give me a clue Peter was out there. When I was sure there was only silence on the other side, I slid down the hallway and grabbed my backpack from the living room floor. I’d have to forgo brushing my teeth, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t have many friends at Cooper’s Landing High School, so the chances of horrifying someone with my breath wasn’t likely. I was starving, however, so on my way through the kitchen, I opened the fridge to see what my choices were. Scanning the sparse contents, I opted for an apple and a juice box and hoped Aunt Caroline was going to make it to the grocery store by the end of the week. I knew her cleaning business kept her busy, but how long could a person live on a head of lettuce and a few apples?
I locked the door behind me and stepped into the cool New England (Florida?) morning. Streetlights sent dull yellow shadows across the sidewalk, the light making my skin look jaundiced as I walked down the driveway, and I paused to check my reflection in Aunt Caroline’s car’s window. I narrowed my eyes at the girl staring back at me from the glass, wondering how this average height, average weight, average everything teenager could look so normal when disaster bubbled just below the surface. What would happen if everything erupted and people found out Jordan Sanders had secrets, secrets bigger than any of the rich, high-society kids of Cooper’s Landing High School could ever imagine?
I sighed and turned away from my reflection. It was a blessing really; in a town like Cooper’s Landing, I stood out no matter how hard I tried to be invisible. Being nondescript made me at least a little less of a threat, and I was glad there weren’t substantial reasons, like being model-gorgeous, for the popular girls to dislike me more than they already did. As it was, Misty Carpenter, the alpha of the popular crowd, had made it clear I wasn’t a welcome addition to their kingdom, and making me miserable had become a sort of sport in the halls. I had my backpack dumped out three times, my chair had been pulled out from underneath me twice, and there had been a few instances of homework being taken from my locker between classes. I kept silent through it all, refusing to react, and now, two months into the school year, they were changing tactics. Instead of bothering me, their new plan to ignore me and act as if I didn’t exist suited me fine. I wasn’t in Cooper’s Landing to make friends. My stay in the small town was temporary, and the minute my mother got her criminal case taken care of, I would be living with her, somewhere other than the small, pathetic town. What these kids thought about me didn’t matter, but co-existing with minimal conflict did.
I bit into my apple as I wandered down the sidewalk, making my way past sagging porches, peeling paint, and overgrown gardens. Even the darkness couldn’t hide the sadness of these places and I shuddered, blocking the images of the house I had been forced to leave three months ago from surfacing. Mom had been renting the place, and by now the landlord would have found new tenants. Our small but comfortable lives would be erased, our stuff tossed out or sold, and it pissed me off.
I threw the apple core into the street with a jerk of my arm and jammed my hands deep into my pockets. Hunching my shoulders I continued walking, swallowing against the angry tears burning the backs of my eyelids. I stared at the ground, focusing on the cracks in the sidewalks and the sprouts of weeds still clinging to life despite the dropping temperatures, and when I raised my head again, I caught sight of someone leaning against one of the lampposts. My breath caught and I squinted in their direction, trying to make out who it was.
The dark form lifted a hand. “Hey, Jordan. You’re early.”
I approached Brian Webber, one of the other kids assigned to the bus stop, and dropped my bag on the sidewalk between us. “Hey,” I said, not bothering to comment on the obvious fact he was just as early. “Couldn’t sleep. What’s up?”
Brian shrugged in his usual noncommittal way and pulled something out of his pocket. “Want some?” He held the package of gum out to me, and my cheeks warmed. I nodded my thanks, and we were both silent as we opened the foil wrappers. I popped the gum in my mouth and began chewing, watching him do the same.
I searched for something to say, not as comfortable with silence as Brian was. “Did you finish the reading for today?” I blurted. “I’m not looking forward to writing that essay. It will probably take me the whole weekend.” My voice sounded loud in the darkness, and I cringed.
Brian shook his head, his dark hair falling over his eyes. “Nah. I mean, I’ve read it before so I didn’t see why I should read it again. I did the essay though.”
I stared at him. “You did? Wow. I haven’t even started an outline.”
His half-smile revealed the dimple on his left cheek. “Yeah, well, you’ll do fine. I’ve seen your work.”
My cheeks warmed again. Brian was in my English Lit class, and our last assignment had been to analyze a poem by an American writer. I chose a piece by Walt Whitman and discussed his view of spiritual union and his means of relaying personal perceptions about people and events. Our teacher, Mr. Rutherford, had read my paper to the class, and I still wasn’t over the embarrassment.
“Ah, I don’t know.” I stared across the street. “This is different. We’ll see, I guess.”
Silence settled between us again, and I shifted my weight from side to side. Brian was an interesting sort of person, and I wasn’t sure what to make of him. He was good looking, but not in a flashy kind of way. His eyes were kind, his shoulders broad, and I knew the baseball team’s coach had tried to get him to try out for the team a few times. He refused, saying he preferred to be alone, and at least that was something I could relate to. I saw him around school a lot and we always smiled at each other, but that was the extent of our mutual acknowledgment. Once we got to school he went his way and I went mine, and that was fine with both of us.
“Mark and Nicole are here.” Brian nodded in the direction of the street behind me. “Guess our gang is complete.”
I smiled at the thought of our misfit bus stop group being considered a gang and turned as the other two drew closer. Nicole stopped next to me, and Mark gave Brian a high-five in greeting. “Hi, guys,” I said. “What’s new?”
Nicole dropped her backpack onto the sidewalk next to mine and pushed her short black hair away from her eyes. “Nothing. Last night I had the same night I’ve had four thousand nights before it, and today was an exact replica of the morning I lived through yesterday. I’m pretty sure this afternoon is going to be a carbon copy of each afternoon I’ve had since starting school, too.” Her sarcasm was thick, and I hid a smile. She made no secret of the fact that she hated Cooper’s Landing, and she made sure to remind us at least once a day.
Mark rolled his eyes. “Nicole is bored,” he stated, as if we needed an explanation. “She thinks this town is a waste of prime real estate.”
I glanced at Brian, and he winked. I grinned in return and then focused on Nicole. She was examining the ends of her dyed hair, muttering under her breath, but lifted her head to meet my gaze, her eyebrows arched in expectation. “Well, I’m right, aren’t I?”
“I’m beginning to agree,” I said, nodding, “and the people aren’t much better. I mean, I’ve been here a while now, and the only people who have bothered to admit I exist are you guys. That leaves a lot of people wandering around the halls who work hard at looking right past me.”
Nicole crossed her arms, regarding me with her deep blue eyes. “You should be thankful,” she argued. “Most of the kids at school are worthless rich kids who would never be able to survive if it weren’t for Mommy and Daddy.” She jutted her chin in my direction. “You’re okay, kid. We like you, and we’ve got your back anytime you need us.”
I laughed at Mark's exaggerated groan. “Are you going soft on us now, Nicole?” His eyes sparkled despite the well-placed punch she delivered to his right shoulder. “Kidding. Just kidding,” he said, holding up his hands in mock surrender. "Just a joke. No need to be upset that we noticed you have a heart.”
I glanced at Brian while Nicole concentrated on shooting daggers in Mark’s direction. He was gazing at me, his eyes narrowed, his expression thoughtful. I didn’t look away this time, and neither of us blinked until the sound of an approaching school bus broke through the morning fog. The moment was lost, and we grabbed our bags without speaking while the bus slowed and then stopped, the squeal of its breaks as familiar to me as my own heartbeat. The door opened and Nicole stepped on followed Mark, and Brian motioned for me to get on before climbing in behind me. I settled into a seat behind Nicole and leaned my head against the cold window, wincing as we lurched forward. There was still a 30-minute ride to endure before we reached the high school, so I closed my eyes against the rising sun and hoped for some peace before I was forced to make my way into hell.
My morning classes limped by, and I was ready for lunch when the bell rang. I hurried through the halls and made it to the cafeteria before the kids who had friends and wasted time socializing in the halls, so the l was one of the first in line.
Since I was part of the Free Lunch Program due to, as my caseworker called them,“recent life changes,” I made it through the line and to a table near the back of the room in only a few minutes. I stirred what could have been pasta with tomato sauce, poked a fork in the salad that looked as if it had seen better days, and eyed the small bowl of mixed vegetables. I wasn’t going to be able to eat anything sitting in front of me, so I pushed my tray away, opened my milk, and sipped it while surveying the usual crowd in the cafeteria.
Cooper’s Landing was a small town, only 15 square miles I had been told, so the student body wasn’t big. The social groups had pretty much formed back in the days when who pushed who on the swings cemented friendships, and it was clear they had no use for newcomers. These established groups included your nerds, jocks, artists, and preppy kids like every other school across the nation seemed to have, and at the top of the heap were, of course, the ultra-rich kids, the ones that dominated the school in every way. Scattered among the cliquey groups were your average, everyday kids, but even they tended to stick together and shy away from the threat of infiltration. It was funny to me now that I had wasted so much time preparing prefabricated answers to every question I could imagine before I started, because I hadn’t needed them. No came within ten feet of me, and when I overheard Misty Cartwright explaining to a crowd of letter-wearing jackets that I was living with my “housecleaning aunt who survived on charity and the fact people were too busy in the city making money and wouldn’t dream of scrubbing their own toilets,” and I was “destined to follow in her footsteps based on my ‘jail inmate mother,” it was obvious the chance to fit in had never existed. I had been deluded into thinking my past was a secret, and from the moment I locked eyes with her during the responding laughter, my main goal at school became one of survival and nothing more.
I let my gaze wander around the room, not really registering anyone in particular until I spotted the familiar form of Brian Matthews. I had never seen my bus stop companion in the cafeteria before, not that I was looking for him specifically, of course, and I wasn’t sure what to make of his sudden appearance. I tried to focus on another group of kids, but my gaze kept sliding back to Brian as curiosity gnawed at my gut. What was he doing, eating and chatting it up with the jocks ? Didn’t he know how awful they were? Especially Bradley Carpenter, Misty’s older brother, who had the uncanny ability to strike me mute whenever he was around. I was helpless to do anything more than slink away when he and his sister came near me, and it annoyed me to see Brian laughing at whatever it was they were saying.
He must have felt my stare, because he lifted his head and looked right at me, the corners of his dark brown eyes crinkling above a wide smile. I gulped and lowered my eyes, watching from underneath my lashes as he slapped the back of the guy sitting next to him, and I pretended to cut the wilted lettuce of my salad when he stood. He pushed his chair in and began making is way toward me, but I wouldn't look up.
My heart fluttered when he sat down across from me. "Hey.” He dropped his book bag on the floor with a thud and leaned back, the smile still on his face.
“Hey,” I replied, then blurted, “I’m surprised to see you here.”
“Oh yeah?” He cocked his head to the side. “Good surprised, or surprised like you can't believe I'd come over here and bother you?”
His eyes sparkled, but I couldn't tell if he was teasing me or not. “Good surprised. I mean, I guess. I’ve been in the cafeteria every day, and I’ve never seen you here before. Or, well, I never noticed if you were here or not, but I don’t remember seeing you. You know, when I was in line or looking for a place to sit.”
He laughed at my pathetic explanation. “Relax, Jordan,” he said. “I don’t usually eat here. I have a work-study next period, so I head out at lunch and work through this period and the next.”
That was interesting. Brian kept his private life private, so his revelation urged my brain to click into action. I added this new bit of information to the few facts I already had. So, he had a job. I knew he didn’t come from money since we shared the same bus stop and thus the same undesirable zip code, but I hadn’t considered the fact he worked somewhere.
I propped my chin in the palm of my hand. “I hate eating here. Eating alone is never fun.”
Brian frowned. “Then why do you?”
I gave a very unladylike snort. “What do you mean? Where else am I supposed to go?”
He looked around the room. “I didn’t mean ‘why don’t you eat somewhere else,’ I meant ‘why do you eat alone?’ Why aren’t you eating with other people?”
The bitter laugh escaped before I could stop it. “Really? What, take my tray and just sit at a table? Where would you suggest I sit? Should I go over to the football team? What about the Drama Club? Oh wait, better yet, the Rich Girls Table! Yes, I can see it now,” I sneered. “I’ll just head on over there and plop myself down next to Misty and join in the discussion they’re having about the latest chemical peel and which of them just got a new car. No thanks." I crumpled my napkin into a ball and threw it on my tray. “I’d rather eat alone.”
I glared at him, hating how childish I sounded, and he pressed his lips together, the skin surrounding them whitening with the pressure. “Ouch,” he said after a beat of silence. “Feeling a bit left out, are you?”
I shook my head, my ponytail whipping from side to side. “No, I do not,” I assured him. “I have no desire to sit around talking about who dates who and who was spotted with the latest designer bag. No thanks, not my scene.”
He leaned forward and rested his arms on the table. “Well then, Jordan, what is your scene? What is it you want?”
I stared at the ceiling and considered his question. I couldn’t tell him what I really wanted, and that was to go back in time and stop my mother from getting arrested; I wanted my old life back, my old family back, and I didn’t want to be in Cooper’s Landing anymore.
My emotions surged as I I tried to come up with a generic answer to what he asked, and it didn't take long for them to tangle together, the spinning whirlwind making it impossible to tell where my anger left off and the ache of loneliness began. I was horrified to feel tears filling my eyes, and I grabbed my tray, struggling to keep them from spilling over as I stood. “My scene is to have people not judge me without knowing me and to not ask questions they have no right asking.”
I hurried to the nearest trashcan, dumped the uneaten food, and tossed my tray on its top. I considered saying good-bye but decided escaping was more important than being polite, so without a backward glance, I made my way to the exit. I’d have to face him the next day, but it would be easier to deal with him after I came up with an answer to what should have been a very simple question.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Brian’s question. The truth was, I didn’t know what my scene was. I couldn’t, not until I knew what was happening with my mother and where I was going to end up. My caseworker assured me I was always going to have a place to live and that I’d be taken care of, but I didn’t know if that meant in Cooper’s Landing or somewhere else. Denise, my caseworker, never had answers for me when I asked, but I knew my mother’s situation was far from over. What little I got from overheard conversations and sneaking peeks at Aunt Caroline’s files, my mother’s case was still in its early stages. She was in jail waiting for her hearing date, but now there was a delay in the process, something about being seen by psychiatrists. I didn’t dare ask what that meant, but I kept toying with the idea of asking Aunt Caroline to take me to the jail to visit her. I hadn’t seen her since the arrest, and while a part of me wanted to, another part wanted to wait until she called to talk to me because she hadn’t bothered to. Not once.
“Dude, let’s go.” A book slammed down on my desk and I jumped, gasping a mild curse in reply. Nicole laughed and thumped me on the shoulder, then shoved the offending textbook into her backpack. “I don’t know what you’re thinking about, but whatever it is, put it on hold. We’re late.”
I looked around and realized the rest of the students had left the classroom. “Shoot,” I said, following Nicole from the room. “I hate being one of the last people on the bus.”
We hurried across the front lawn to the line of buses waiting at the curb, and with a laugh over her shoulder she surged ahead, her long legs carrying her across the grass too fast for me to keep up. “Hurry, Jordan. I don’t want to be stuck sitting next to that smelly kid from the farm on Old Plantation Drive.”
We reached the doors just as they stared to close. “Hey,” Nicole shouted, “give us a second, will you?” With a hiss the doors swung open again, and Nicole glared at the driver. “Seriously, Mr. Harrington, I know you saw us. Jerk.”
The driver rolled his eyes and shot back an equally charming remark. It was like this every day, and now that I understood their relationship, I looked forward to their verbal sparring. The first time I head them tossing insults back and forth I had been horrified, but Nicole explained that Mr. Harrington, Tommy Harrington outside of school, was a friend of her older brother’s. She had known him “forever,” and he was more like an annoying older brother than an actual adult.
Tommy shook his head as he closed the door behind me. “I don’t know why you hang out with this girl on purpose,” he grumbled. “She’s impossible. I thought you had better taste.”
I smiled. “She just follows me around. I can’t shake her.”
His laugh was loud. “Now that I can understand.”
I made my way to where Nicole sat, glaring at me, and slid into the space she had left for me. I put my backpack in my lap and elbowed her. She sighed and elbowed me back, then turned to look out the window. “He’s such a dip,” she said. “He’s always trying to make my life difficult. I swear, he gets off on stuff like that or something.”
I bit back a laugh and rest my head against the back of the seat. “So, he’s like a third grader? I guess it’s true then that boys mature later than girls.”
Nicole’s blue eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, you know,” I continued as the bus pulled away from the school, “he likes you but has to pretend he doesn’t so you’ll pay attention to him when he insults you. It’s like when you’re little and some boy keeps pushing you or knocking you down on the playground. They like you, but they don’t know how to actually tell you that…”
My voice trailed off as a blush climbed up her neck. “No, it is not at all like that,” she huffed. “He’s just another poor soul, stuck here like the rest of us. He never even tried to get out, and look where he ended up. Driving a bus? No thanks. He’s just another loser my brother hangs out with and nothing more.”
I shrugged and turned to face forward again. “It must make Mark jealous,” I said, glancing at her out of the corner of my eye.
Her blush deepened, and she turned to stare out the window, her shoulders slumped. My suspicion was confirmed, but I didn’t want her mad at me. I had only been teasing.
In an effort to distract her, I decided to tell her about my conversation with Brian in the lunchroom. Not all of it, of course, but just enough to shift the focus away from what I had said.
“I sat with Brian at lunch today,” I offered.
Nicole waited a moment, but in the end her curiosity outweighed her annoyance. “Oh yeah?” She faced me again. “That’s strange. He’s usually working and doesn’t have lunch at school.”
I nodded, noting her blush had disappeared. “He told me that. He didn’t tell me why he was there, though.” I paused as the bus lurched its way toward the outskirts of town. “He’s pretty intense.”
Nicole shrugged. “Nah, not really. He’s just quiet. He’s been that way the two years I’ve known him.”
“You’ve only known him two years?” I had assumed Brian, Mark, and Nicole had grown up together, but that’s what I got for assuming things. Interesting. I was dying to know where he came from, but I didn’t want to start asking a ton of questions and give Nicole the wrong idea about my interest. “Well, still. Anyway, I wonder why he was there?”
Nicole shrugged. “Probably because most of the horses are off-site at that dumb high-class event. Without them around for a week, I’m guessing there isn’t much for him to do.”
“Horses?” I twisted in the seat to face her. “Brian works with horses?”
“Sure. How do you not know this? He works at Holloway Stables cleaning the stalls, exercising the horses, doing general barn-type things.” She shuddered dramatically. “Not at all my idea of a good time, but he seems to like it.”
I considered that. Brian working around horses was not something I had expected, and I couldn’t imagine him working at the Holloway mansion no matter how hard I tried. The way he had been joking around with Clayton Holloway made it look like they were friend, not employer/employee. “Wow.”
Nicole grinned. “A kick in the gut, isn’t it? Brian used to work with horses or something before he moved here, and the Holloway family hired him almost as soon as he arrived. He’s a legal adult, so I think that makes a difference to them.”
I was even more curious now. “He is? A legal adult, I mean. How old is he?”
Nicole pursed her lips. “I have no idea,” she admitted. “I never thought to ask. I know he’s older by about two years, but I don’t know for sure.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” I argued. “What’s he doing in high school if he’s that much older?”
Nicole shrugged again. “Well, maybe I’m wrong then,” she said. “Maybe it was a joke or something my brother told me. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Hmm,” I muttered. Suddenly, I had a thought. “Nicole, where did Brian come from? Where did he live before this?”
Nicole’s eyes sparkled. “My, my, my,” she teased. “We certainly have a lot of questions about Brian Webber, don’t we?”
I swallowed. “No, not really.” I tried to keep my voice light. “I’m just trying to figure him out. Things got a bit… tense today, and I want to understand him.”
“I really don’t know. He told us he had to move here because something happened and he needed to move in with his Grandfather.” Her expression was thoughtful. “Funny, now that you mention it, I don’t know much about him other than things I’ve seen or overheard.” She cocked her head to the side and smiled. “I guess he is pretty private. He’s always been nice though.”
“Have you ever hung out with him? Aside from the bus stop, I mean?”
She chewed on her lower lip. “In the beginning, yeah. Not so much now. He works a lot, but he helps me out with homework and stuff sometimes. When I ask him to.”
I stared out the back of the seat in front of me and ran my tongue along my teeth. “So, you know nothing else about him?”
Nicole laughed. “What else do you want to know, Jordan? His zodiac sign? Where his birthmarks are?”
“Of course not,” I scoffed. “I told you, I’m trying to figure him out, that’s all.”
“Well, why don’t you ask him?” Nicole punched me on the arm, and I winced. I would need to remind her I wasn’t Mark and didn’t share the same rock-hard biceps he had. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind opening up to you.”
“What does that mean?” I was annoyed by the lack of answers, and my tone showed it.
“I’ve seen the way he looks at you, Jordan,” she replied. “I’m just saying, if he had the desire to start sharing intimate details of his life with someone, I don’t think he’d mind sharing them with you.”
She was wrong. “That isn’t true. He’s just curious. That’s all.” The bus made it’s final turn before our stop, and I stood, swinging my backpack onto my shoulder.
“What, you mean like a third grader who doesn’t know how to get your attention?”
I winced. “Shut up.”
She followed me off the bus, her laughter ringing in my ears. “Oh Jordan,” she said, patting my shoulder. “You’re too easy to get a rise out of. You’ve got to get a thicker skin!”
“Tell me about it,” I muttered.
Nicole’s fingers wrapped around my wrist and stopped me from continuing up the sidewalk. “You keep saying how you don’t know much about Brian, but the same thing goes for you. Other than what I’ve heard through the gossip mill, I don’t know much about you or where you come from, either.”
I froze, my feet like blocks of ice inside my sneakers. It would have been impossible to avoid explaining my past forever, but I hadn’t expected Nicole to be the one to break our unspoken rule of No Questions. Her comment caught me off guard and left no room for excuses, and I stared at her, willing her to tell me it didn’t matter and she didn’t really want to know after all. My past was embarrassing and hurtful, and I wasn’t ready to tell the truth. I didn’t think Nicole was ready to hear it yet, either.
I took a step backward, forcing Nicole to release my arm. “O.K., fine. Never mind,” she snapped. “Forget it.”
Silence stretched between us, and any chance of avoiding the conversation slipped away with the last of her patience. Our friendship would never be the same if I let her walk away. She was still holding on to grudges from grade school, and I didn’t want become another one of the things she hated in Copper’s Landing. Like it or not the time had come, and if I was going to be forced into sharing some of my secrets, standing on the side of the road wasn’t where I wanted to do it.
“Wait.” I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, searching for the strength I would need to tell my story. “What do you want to know?”
I opened my eyes to find her staring at me, her expression impossible to read.
“Nothing,” she said, stepping away. “I know all about secrets, and I’m not going to force you to confide in me.”
Before I could think, I grabbed her wrist, almost desperate for her to understand my hesitation. If she turned her back on me now, I didn’t think I could stand it. “Nicole, please,” I said. “I’ll tell you what I can. Really. It’s just that this will be the first time I’ve talked about it with anyone other than my caseworker, the police, or my aunt.”
Her eyes widened, and her mouth formed a small ‘O’. “The police?” she breathed.
I scuffed my toe against the ground. “It isn’t as dramatic as all that,” I promised her. I let go of her arm and looked around at the shadows covering the ground. “Uh, do you think we could talk about this somewhere else? I don’t particularly want to have this conversation while standing in the street.”
Nicole nodded, her eyes still wide, but she didn’t offer any alternatives. I looked up the street toward Aunt Caroline’s house, then let my gaze settle back on Nicole, considering my limited options. Nicole already knew what my aunt did for a living and where I lived, but I still wasn’t sure I wanted to invite her over. The ironic thing was, even though Aunt Caroline cleaned houses, hers wasn’t one she considered a priority. I never knew what I was going to be walking into when I got back from school, and between that and her slimy boyfriend, it wasn’t any place I wanted to be. However, considering Nicole was still mute I didn’t think an invitation her house would be coming, so I would have to take my chances. “Come on, Nicole,” I said. “Let’s go.”
She fell into step beside me, and I tried to slow my heartbeat to match our footsteps. I wondered what Nicole would think of me after she learned why I had to move in with Aunt Caroline. I hated to think that she might not want to be my friend after hearing all the lewd details, but I had to prepare myself for that. I would just have to pray that my gut instinct was right and hope she wouldn’t judge me.
I used my key to unlock the door and made my way into the house, turned on the hall lights, and breathed a sigh of relief. Although decorated in what I considered “yard sale meets college dorm,” the house was relatively picked up and in good order. Better still was the smell of cinnamon filling the air, and I led Nicole to the kitchen to find its source.
Aunt Caroline stood by the oven, an unlit cigarette dangling from her free hand. “Hi, Jordan,” she said, not bothering to look up from the icing she poured onto the steaming dough in front of her. “You’re home late.”
“Uh, sorry.” I glanced in Nicole’s direction. “We were talking, and I lost track of time.”
Aunt Caroline looked up then and sucked in her breath. “I didn’t realize you had a friend with you.” She put the icing down next to the pan of cinnamon rolls and wiped her hand on her jeans. “Hi. I’m Caroline, Jordan’s aunt.”
Nicole gave a small wave. “I’m Nicole Parson. I live two blocks down.”
Aunt Caroline’s shoulders relaxed. “Hi, Nicole. I think I know your father.” Her green eyes brightened, and she smiled. “Henry Parson, right? I remember him from church, though I haven’t been in a while. How is he?”
Nicole returned her smile. “He’s okay. He’s busy with work and everything, but he’s fine.” She eyed the cinnamon rolls, and I could almost see her salivate. “Are those freshly baked?”
Aunt Caroline laughed and gestured to the table. “The sure are. Fresh out of the can, in fact. Why don’t you girls have a seat, and I’ll get you each a plate.”
I silently cursed the creaking chairs and the rings on the tabletop left by wet coffee mugs and beer bottles. Nicole didn’t seem to notice, but I was nervous, giving her the chance to judge where I lived.
I cleared my throat and searched for something to say. “What does your dad do?” I asked, resting my chin in my hand.
Nicole shrugged. “Oh, this and that. He’s a contractor, so he’s pretty busy building and fixing things. He also sub-contracts with the town on different projects, like snowplowing the government buildings’ parking lots and stuff.” She smiled at Aunt Caroline as she placed the hot rolls in front of us, then reached out to grab one with a sigh of content. “These are great,” she said around a mouthful of dough.
Aunt Caroline’s smile reached all the way to her eyes. “Thank you.” She yawned and waved her cigarette in the air. “If you guys are all set, I’m going to head out for a smoke and then go to my room to read.”
“We’re good,” I assured her. “Thanks for these.”
I licked icing off my fingers and waited for Nicole to start asking questions, which she did the minute the front door closed behind Aunt Caroline. “Okay,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “Start at the beginning. What happened?”
I concentrated on my fingertips. “The beginning. Do you mean when I moved here or when I had to leave home?”
I could feel Nicole’s eyes on me, but I didn’t look up. I wasn’t going to offer her more information than she asked for, and I didn’t want to give her the impression that I was anxious to discuss my past by making eye contact. I was uncomfortable, and while I wanted to unburden myself a little, I also wanted to be done with the conversation as soon as possible.
“I guess what happened to land you here and what’s going to happen next,” she finally said. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I detected a note of uncertainty in her voice. I risked glancing at her and saw she was chewing her lower lip with vigor, looking just about as uncomfortable as I felt.
“My mother was arrested in August on drug charges,” I blurted. “The police came in the door one night dressed in vests and waving their guns around, yelling all at one so we couldn’t understand what was happening at first. They had us get on our knees and then handcuffed my mom right there in the middle of our living room. She was crying and begging them to let her go, and then she started screaming when they tried to get her out of the house. She was telling them that she had to talk to me, that she needed to explain what was going on so I would know, and then she started trying to get away. They pulled her through the doorway, and all I could hear was her yelling my name and telling me that she loved me.”
I looked at the ceiling, fighting against the anger burning in my stomach and doing my best to keep the tears from spilling over. The panic in her voice was crystal clear in my head, her screams just as shrill as they were when she was wrestled her out of the house and down the front walk… But I didn’t tell Nicole any of that. She didn’t need to know about my nightmares or the way I had betrayed my own mother. That wasn’t what she had asked about, and even if she had, I wouldn’t have told her.
The kitchen was silent, and I waited until I had control of my emotions again before continuing my story. “One of the police officers, detective really, sat with me while a caseworker for Protective Services explained that my mother was being charged with Possession of a Controlled Substance, Possession with Intent to Distribute, Trafficking, Child Endangerment, Child Neglect, Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor, Illegal Possession of a Firearm…” I looked down at my hands. It was the first time I had said her charges out loud, and they sounded horrible.
I didn’t think I could handle it if I saw anything other than understanding in Nicole’s eyes, so I avoided looking at her all together. “There were other charges too, but that’s the worst of them.” I shifted in my chair and decided I may as well tell her about my caseworker and moving to Cooper’s Landing rather than waiting and having to tell her later on. “My Aunt Caroline is my mother’s sister,” I explained. “She’s her only living relative, and she agreed to take me when Protective Services called. I never knew my father, so she was the only one they could ask. If it wasn’t for her, I’d be in foster care.” I ran a finger around the edge of my plate and swallowed. “I moved here the next day, and I’ve been here ever since. My mother is in the county jail waiting for her trial to start, but that might be delayed. My caseworker was here last week, and she said she’d call when she knew anything else.” I took a deep breath, my lungs expanding further than they had since I arrived in Cooper’s landing. “So, there it is. There’s my recent life history for you.”
Nicole didn’t make a sound, and after a few moments I couldn’t take the silence anymore. I looked up, my shame ready to morph into anger if provoked, but she was gazing at me with an expression full of nothing but sadness.
Somehow I was able to give her a lopsided smile. “More than you wanted to know, huh?”
She shook her head, her necklaces clinking together with the force of the movement. “No, not really. It just wasn’t what I was expecting.”
My hands shook a little as I toyed with my napkin. “What were you expecting? Isn’t that close to what’s being said about me behind my back?”
Nicole frowned and leaned her elbows on the table. “It’s similar,” she admitted, her typical blunt way of speaking unaffected by my pathetic question, “but you have to remember that I’m not real friendly with the people who would be doing most of the talking. Everything I’ve heard were just snippets overheard in the hallway or whatever. I don’t think I ever had a full conversation with anyone about it…” She blushed, and I knew there was more to the story than she wanted to say.
“But?” I asked, narrowing my eyes. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Nicole squirmed in her chair and dropped her gaze. “Well, nothing really. It’s just that in gym some of the rich girls were going on about how you probably knew how to make drugs since your mother did, and that she, uh…” she trailed off and looked away, her face red.
I sighed. “Just tell me, Nicole. I’m sure I’ve heard it all already, and if I haven’t, I’m guessing it can’t be any worse than what I’ve said in my own head.”
Nicole coughed and fixed her gaze somewhere over my left shoulder. “Um, they might have mentioned that your mother was a prostitute and that’s how she got into the drugs, and that you were, uh, you were a result of one of her customers.”
My mouth dropped open. “That’s nuts,” I squeaked. “My mother was not a prostitute. Ever.” My stomach clenched, and I was pretty sure the cinnamon rolls I had eaten earlier were going to end up on the floor.
Nicole blew out a breath that caused her bangs to flutter against her forehead. “I know that.” She focused on me again, the relief in her eyes obvious. “It’s just another mean thing they came up with to say. Not that it would matter anyways, but…” She leaned forward and grasped my hand. “Listen, I’m glad you told me,” she said. “Really, I am. None of it matters anyway, but I’m glad I get to know part of what makes you who you are. You’re pretty cool,” she said, a shy smile touching her lips, “and I don’t say that about a lot of people.”
A spark of relief flickered in the midst of my shame and discomfort, and I ran a hand across my eyes. “I know. Can we keep this between us?” I didn’t think she’d tell anyone, but it wouldn’t hurt to make sure. “I mean, you can tell Mark if you need to. You know, if you trust him to keep it quiet, but I don’t want anyone else to know, at least not yet.”
Nicole’s nod was earnest. “Of course. Mark’s a vault, so you don’t have to worry about him spreading it around or anything.” She cleared her throat. “Um, I have to ask ,” she said. “What about Brian? I mean, it would be a bit awkward if we knew and he didn’t, don’t you think? What if we slipped up and said something by accident?”
Damn. I hadn’t considered Brian. “I guess,” I hedged, “but, I mean, he works for the Holloway family.” An image of Clayton Holloway came to mind and my stomach quivered with the conflicting memories of his amazing smile and the condescending laughter following his sister’s mean-spirited comments. “I don’t want them, or anyone in that crowd, to know what I told you. Brain seemed pretty chummy with Clayton and the other jocks today, and I don’t want him to say something.” I cringed. “I’d have to be homeschooled if he did.”
“Absolutely not,” Nicole assured me. “Brian is a good guy. He never talks about anyone, and I know he hears a lot of stuff, considering where he works. He just keeps his head down and does what he needs to do, you know? He’s really great. He’s funny and cute, and he’s real honest…”
It suddenly hit me. “It isn’t Mark at all, is it? You have a thing for Brian!” I almost laughed, but the look on her face stopped me. “I had no idea. I just assumed you and Mark had a thing. You two spend so much time together, I figured there might be more to it."
She sniffed. “It doesn’t matter. It’s stupid. I made a move on him last year and he brushed me off. He told me I was like a sister to him and he knew Mark had feelings for me, blah, blah, blah.” She waved her hand in the air, but the tone of her voice contradicted her attempt at appearing blase. “No biggie. I’m totally over him, I just think he’s a nice guy. Trustworthy, you know?”
Nicole was a pro when it came to her emotions. She was able to turn herself on and off like a light switch, but I knew whatever happened between her and Brian still stung.
“Sure,” I said. “I don’t get it though. Does he like boys or something?”
Nicole barked out a laugh, and the tension in the room lifted. “Nah, he’s not like that.” She managed a smile. “He said he’s going through a lot of stuff and didn’t want to ruin our friendship. An excuse, yes, but at least it was a nice one.”
I stifled a yawn. “I guess. Do you have a lot of experience with brush-offs to compare it too?”
She pushed back from the table and stood. “Nah.” Reaching her arms over her head to stretch, her shirt lifted far enough to reveal a taught stomach and a jeweled belly ring. I was glad Peter wasn’t around to see it. “Ugh, I’m so tired,” she said with a yawn of her own. “You wore me out.”
I allowed myself the yawn I had been holding in, and she yawned again right after me. We both giggled as I led her to the front door, and she paused in the doorway, backpack slung over her shoulder and another cinnamon bun in her hand.
“Sorry. I tend to have that effect on people,” I joked. “For some reason, people yawn a lot when they’re around me.”
Her expression turned serious. “Jordan, you’re an okay chick.” Her cheeks reddened, but she didn’t look away. “I hope you know, like really know what your mother did has nothing to do with you. You were there, yeah, but her choices don’t define who you are.”
I tried to swallow the lump in my throat, but it was no use. I waved instead, too afraid that if I tried to speak I’d break apart, and watched as she walked down the driveway. I was exhausted and didn’t want to think about how Nicole’s opinion might change if she knew the whole truth about my role in my mother’s case. She had proven she was my friend, and if I broke down, told her what I hadn’t been able to admit to anyone else, I might not be able to call her that anymore. I had told her the truth, but like any truth without witnesses, some things might have happened a little differently than I had said, things I may have left out. I didn’t dare admit that, not to her and not to anyone else, either. I had to make sure she and the rest of the kids in Cooper’s Landing never found out. Not ever.