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THE HIGH SCHOOL CIRCLE
HER BIG PAL GAVE HER A LITTLE LOVE PAT—ENOUGH TO BOUNCE HER FROM THE WALL AND BACK TO HIS BEEFY HAND.
Pretty people do ugly things. It was one of those laws of nature that Gaia had understood for years. If she ever started to forget that rule for a second, there always seemed to be some good-looking asshole ready to remind her.
She stumbled up the steps and pushed her way inside The Village School with five minutes to spare before her first class. Actually early. Of course, her hair was still wet from the shower and her homework wasn’t done, but being there—actually physically inside the building before the bell rang—was a new experience. For twelve whole seconds after that, she thought she might have an all right day.
Then she caught a glimpse of one of those things that absolutely defines the high school circle of hell.
Down at the end of the row of lockers, a tall, broad-shouldered guy was smiling a very confident smile, wearing very popular-crowd clothes, and using a very big hand to pin a very much smaller girl up against the wall. There was an amused expression on Mr. Handsome’s face.
Only the girl who was stuck between his hand and fifty years’ worth of ugly green paint didn’t look like she thought it was funny.
Gaia had noticed the big boy in a couple of her classes but hadn’t bothered to file away his name. Tad, she thought, or maybe it was Chip. She knew it was something like that.
From the way girls in class talked, he was supposed to be cute. Gaia could sort of see it. Big blue eyes. Good skin. Six-five even without the air soles in his two-hundred-dollar sneakers. His lips were a little puffy, but then, some people liked that. It was the hair that really eliminated him from Gaia’s list of guys worth looking at.
He wore that stuff in his hair. The stuff that looked like a combination of motor oil and maple syrup. The stuff that made it look like he hadn’t washed his hair this side of tenth grade. “What’s the rush, Darla?” the Chipster said. “I just want to know what he said to you.”
The girl, Darla, shook her head. “He didn’t . . .”
Her big pal gave her a little love pat—enough to bounce her from the wall and back to his beefy hand.
“Don’t give me that,” he said, still all smiles. “I saw you two together.”
Gaia did a quick survey of the hall. There was a trio of khaki-crowd girls fifty yards down and two leather dudes hanging near the front door. A skinny guy stuck his head out of a classroom, saw who was doing the shoving, and quickly ducked back in. Gaia had to give him some credit. At least he looked. Everybody else in the hallway was Not Noticing so hard, it hurt.
Gaia really didn’t need this. She didn’t know the girl against the wall. Sure, the guy with the big hands was a prime example of Jerkus highschoolensis, but it was absolutely none of Gaia’s business. She turned away and headed for class, wondering if she might avoid a tardy slip for the first time in a week.
“Just let me . . . ,” the girl begged from behind her.
“In a minute, babe,” replied the guy with the hands. “I just need to talk to you a little.” There was a thump and a short whimper from the girl.
Gaia stopped. She really, really didn’t need this.
She took a deep breath, turned, and headed back toward the couple.
The easiest thing would be to grab the guy by the face and teach him how soft a skull was compared to a concrete wall. But then, smashing someone’s head would probably not help Gaia’s reputation.
Words were an option. She hadn’t used that method much, but there was a first time for everything, right?
She could try talking to the guy or even threatening to tell a teacher. Gaia didn’t care if anyone at the school thought she was a wimp or a narc, or whatever they called it in New York City. That was the least of her problems. Besides, they already thought she was a bitch for not warning Heather about the park slasher.
Before long, Gaia was so close that both partners in the ugly little dance turned to look at her. Tough Guy’s smile didn’t budge an inch.
“What?” he said.
Gaia struggled for something to say. Something smooth. Something that would defuse this whole thing. She paused for a second, cleared her throat, and said . . .
“Is there . . . uh, some kind of a problem?”
The guy who might be named Chip took a two-second look at her face, then spent twice as long trying to size up the breasts under Gaia’s rumpled football shirt.
“Nothing you gotta worry about,” he said, still staring at her chest. He waved the hand that wasn’t busy holding a person. “This is a private conversation.”
The girl against the wall looked at Gaia with a big-eyed, round-mouthed expression that could have been fear or hope or stupidity. Gaia’s instant impression was that it was a little bit of all three. The girl had straight black hair that was turned up in a little flip, tanned-to-a-golden-brown skin, an excess of eye shadow, and a cheerleading uniform. She didn’t exactly strike Gaia as a brain trust.
Not that being a cheerleader automatically made somebody stupid. Gaia was certain there were smart cheerleaders. Somewhere there had to be cheerleaders who were working on physics theories every time they put down their pom-poms. She hadn’t met any, but they were out there. Probably living in the same city with all the nice guys who don’t mind if a girl has thunder thighs and doesn’t know how to dress.
“Well?” demanded Puffy Lips. “What’s wrong with you? Are you deaf or just stupid?”
Gaia tensed. Anger left an acid taste in her throat. Suddenly her fist was crying out for his face. She opened her mouth to say something just as the bell for first period rang. So much for being on time.
She took a step closer to the pair. “Why don’t you let her go?”
Chip made a little grunting laugh and shook his head. “Look, babe. Get out of here,” he said to Gaia.
Babe. It wasn’t necessarily an insult—unless the person saying it added that perfect tone of voice. The tone that says being a babe is on the same evolutionary rung as being a brain-damaged hamster.
Gaia glanced up the hallway. Only a few students were still in the hall, and none were close. If she planned to do anything without everyone in school seeing it, this was the time.
She leaned toward him. “Maybe you’d better get out of here,” she said in a low voice. She could feel the cheerleader’s short breaths on the back of her neck. “You don’t want to be late for class.”
The sunny smile slipped from Chip’s face, replaced by a go-away-you’re-bothering-me frown. “Did you hear me tell you to go?”
Gaia shrugged. It was coming. That weird rush she sometimes felt.
“I heard you. I just didn’t listen.”
Now the expression on Chip’s face was more like an I-guess-I’m-going-to-have-to-teach-you-how-the-world-works sneer. “Get the hell out of my way,” he snapped.
He took his hand off Darla and grabbed Gaia by the arm.
Gaia was glad. If she touched him first, there was always the chance he would actually admit he got beat up by a girl and charge her with assault. But since Chip made the first move, all bets were off. Everything that happened from that first touch was self-defense.
Gaia was an expert in just about every martial art with a name. Jujitsu. Tai kwon do. Judo. Kung fu. If it involved hitting, kicking, or tossing people through the air, Gaia knew it. Standing six inches from Mr. Good Skin Bad Attitude, she could have managed a kick that would have taken his oily head right off his thick neck. She could have put a stiff hand through his rib cage or delivered a punch that drove his heart up against his spine.
But she didn’t do any of that. She wanted to, but she didn’t.
Moving quickly, she turned her arms and twisted out of his grip. Before Chip could react, she reached across with her left hand, took hold of the guy’s right thumb, and gave it just a little . . . push.
For a moment Puffy Lips Chip looked surprised. Then Gaia pushed a little harder on his captive digit, and the look of surprise instantly turned to pain.
He tried to pull away, but Gaia held tight. She was working hard to keep from actually breaking his thumb. She could have broken his whole oversized hand like a bundle of big dry sticks. The real trick was hurting someone without really hurting someone. Don’t break any bones. Don’t leave any scars. Don’t do anything permanent. Leave a memory.
“What do you think, Chip?” Gaia asked, still pushing his thumb toward the back of his hand. “Should you be shoving girls around?”
“Let go of me, you little—” He reached for her with his free hand.
Gaia leaned back out of his range and gave an extra shove. Chip wailed.
“Here’s the deal,” Gaia said quietly. “You keep your hands to yourself, I let you keep your hands. What do you think?”
Chip’s knees were starting to shake, and there were beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead. “Who are—”
“Like I really want you to know my name.” She pushed harder, and now Gaia could feel the bones in his thumb pulling loose from his hand. Another few seconds and one was sure to snap. “Do we have a deal?”
“Okay,” he squeaked in a voice two octaves higher than it had been a few seconds before. “Sure.”
Gaia let go. “That’s good, Chip.” The moment the physical conflict ended, Gaia felt all her uncertainty come rushing back. She glanced up the hallway and was relieved to see that there was no crowd of gawkers. That didn’t stop her from feeling dizzy. She was acting like muscle-bound freak girl right in the main hallway at school. This was definitely not the way to remain invisible.
Puffy Lips stepped back and gripped his bruised thumb in his left hand. “Brad.”
“Brad,” he said. “My name isn’t Chip. It’s Brad.”
Gaia rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” She lowered her head and shoved past him just as the late bell rang.
Another day, another fight, another tardy.
THINGS GAIA KNOWS:
Her father sucks.
Heather Gannis sucks big time.
THINGS GAIA WANTS TO KNOW:
Who kidnapped Sam?
Why did they contact her?
What was with all those stupid tests?
How could she have let the kidnappers get away after everything they’d done to her and Sam?
Why did Mr. Rupert use the words “all right” more often than most people used the word “the”?
Who killed CJ?
Why did she never know she had an uncle who looked exactly like her father?
Was said uncle going to contact her again?
Did she even want him to after he’d been nonexistent for her entire life?
Why did anyone in their right mind choose to drink skim milk?
Was she really expected to pay attention in class when there were things going on that actually mattered?
Even back when his legs worked, Ed had never been fearless.
He sat in his first-period class and stared at the door. Any moment, the bell would ring. Then he would go out into the hallway and Gaia would appear. Any moment, he would have his chance. In the meantime he was terrified.
People who had seen him on a skateboard or a pair of in-lines might have been surprised to hear it. There had been no stairs too steep to slalom, no handrail Ed wasn’t willing to challenge, no traffic too thick to dare. Anyone would tell you, Ed Fargo was a wild man. He took more risks, and took them faster, than any other boarder in the city.
The dark secret was that all through those days, almost every second, Ed had been terrified. Every time his wheels had sent sparks lancing from a metal rail, every time he had gone over a jump and felt gravity tugging down at his stomach, Ed had been sure he was about to die.
And when it didn’t happen, when he landed, and lived, and rolled on to skate another day, it had been a thousand times sweeter just because he had been so scared. It seemed to Ed that there was nothing better than that moment after the terror had passed.
Then he lost the use of his legs and grew a wheelchair on his butt, and everything changed. A wheelchair didn’t give the sort of thrills you got from a skateboard. There were a few times, especially right after he realized he was never, ever going to get out of the chair, that Ed had thought about taking the contraption out into traffic—just to see how well it played with the taxis and delivery vans. That kind of thinking was scary in a whole different, definitely less fun way.
Legs or no legs, Ed wasn’t sure that any stunt he had pulled in the past had terrified him as much as the one he was about to attempt.
He stared at the classroom door, and the blood rushing through his brain sounded as loud as a subway train pulling up to the platform.
He was going to tell Gaia Moore that he loved her.
He was really going to do it. If he didn’t faint first.
Ed had been infatuated with Gaia since he first saw her in the school hallway. He was half smitten as soon as they spoke and all the way gone within a couple of days.
Since then, Ed and Gaia had become friends—or at least they had come as close to being friends as Gaia’s don’t-get-close-to-me force field would allow. To tell Gaia how he really felt would mean risking the relationship they already shared. Ed was horrified by the thought of losing contact with Gaia, but he was determined to take that chance.
For once, he was going to see what it was like to be fearless.
One idiot an hour. Gaia figured that if they would let her beat up one butthead per class, it would make the day go oh-so-smoothly. She would get the nervous energy out of her system, add a few high points to her dull-as-a-bowling-ball day, and by the time the final bell rang, the world would have eight fewer losers. All good things.
It might also help her keep her mind off Sam Moon. Sam, whose life she had saved more than once. Sam, who was oblivious to her existence. Sam, who had the biggest bitch this side of Fifth Avenue for a girlfriend but didn’t seem to notice.
And still Gaia couldn’t stop thinking about him. Daydreaming her way through each and every class. If her teachers had tested her on self-torture, she would have gotten an A.
Gaia trudged out of her third-period classroom and shouldered her way through the clogged hallway, her cruise control engaged. Every conscious brain cell was dedicated to the ongoing problem of what to do about her irritating and somewhat embarrassing Sam problem.
It was like a drug problem, only slightly less messy.
It was bad enough that Sam was with Heather. Even worse was Heather getting credit for everything Gaia did. Gaia had nearly lost her life saving Sam from a kidnapper. She had gone crazy looking for him. And then Heather had stepped in at the last second and looked like the big hero when her total expended effort was equal to drying her fingernails.
Not to mention the fact that the kidnappers had gotten away after they spent an entire day ordering her around as if she were a toy poodle.
Gaia suddenly realized she was biting her lip so badly that it was about to bleed. Whenever she thought about how the nameless, faceless men in black had used her, she got the uncontrollable urge to do serious violence to something. Then, of course, her thoughts turned directly to Heather.
And the fact that Heather had sex with Sam. And the fact that Heather had taken credit for saving Sam. And the fact that Heather got to hold hands with Sam and kiss Sam and talk to Sam and—
Gaia came to a stop in front of her locker and kicked it hard, denting the bottom of the door. A couple of Gap girls turned to stare, so Gaia kicked it again. The Gap girls scurried away.
She snarled at her vague reflection in the battered door. In the dull metal she was only an outline. That’s all she was to Sam, too. A vague shadow of nothing much.
For a few delusional days Gaia had thought Sam might be the one. The one to break her embarrassing record as the only unkissed seventeen-year-old on planet Earth. Maybe even the one to turn sex from hypothesis into reality. But it wasn’t going to happen.
There wasn’t going to be any sex. There was never going to be any kissing. Not with Sam. Not ever.
Gaia yanked open the door of her locker, tossed in the book she was carrying, and randomly took out another without bothering to look at it. Then she slammed the door just as hard as she had kicked it.
She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, squeezed hard, as if she could squeeze out her unwanted thoughts.
Even though Gaia knew zilch about love, knew less about relationships, and knew even less about psychology, she knew exactly what her girlfriends, if she had any, would tell her.
Find a new guy. Someone to distract you. Someone who cares about you.
Right. No problem.
Unfortunately, it had only taken her seventeen years to find a guy who didn’t care about her.
Navigation of high school hallways takes on a whole new meaning when you’re three feet wide and mounted on wheels.
Ed Fargo skidded around a corner, narrowly avoided a collision with a janitor, then spun right past a knot of students laughing at some private joke. He threw the chair into hard reverse and did a quick 180 to dodge a stream of band students lugging instruments out a doorway, then he powered through a gap, coasted down a ramp, and took the next corner so hard, he went around on one wheel.
Fifty feet away, Gaia Moore was just shutting the door of her locker. Ed let the chair coast to a halt as he watched her. Gaia’s football shirt was wrinkled, and her socks didn’t match. Most of her yellow hair had slipped free of whatever she had been using to hold it in a ponytail. Loose strands hovered around the sculpted planes of her face, and the remaining hair gathered at the back of her head in a heavy, tumbled mass.
She was the most beautiful thing that Ed had ever seen.
He gave the wheels of his chair a sharp push and darted ahead of some slow walkers. Before Gaia could take two steps, Ed was at her side.
“Looking for your next victim?” he asked.
Gaia glanced down, and for a moment the characteristic frown on her insanely kissable lips was replaced by a smile. “Hey, Ed. What’s up?”
Ed almost turned around and left. Why should he push it? He could live on that smile for at least a month.
Fearless, he told himself. Be fearless.
“I guess you don’t want us to win at basketball this year,” he started, trying to keep the tone light.
Gaia looked puzzled. “What?”
“The guy you went after this morning, Brad Reston,” Ed continued. “He’s a starting forward.”
“How did you hear about it?” The frown was back full force.
“From Darla Rigazzi,” Ed answered. “She’s talked you up in every class this morning.”
“Yeah, well, I wish she wouldn’t.” She looked away and started up the hallway again, the smooth muscles of her legs stretching under faded jeans.
Ed kept pace for fifty feet. Twice he opened his mouth to say something, but he shut it again before a word escaped. There was a distant, distracted look on Gaia’s face now. The moment had passed. He would have to wait.
No, a voice said from the back of his mind. Don’t wait. Tell her now. Tell her everything.
“Gaia . . . ,” he started.
Something in his tone must have caught Gaia’s attention. She stopped in the middle of one long stride and turned to him. Her right eyebrow was raised, and her changing eyes were the blue-gray of the Atlantic fifty miles off the coast. “What’s wrong, Ed?”
Ed swallowed. Suddenly he felt like he was back on his skateboard, ready to challenge the bumpy ride down another flight of steps—only the steps in front of him went down, and down, and down forever.
He swallowed hard and shook his head. “It’s not important.”
I love you.
“Nothing at all, really.”
I want to be with you.
“Just . . . nothing in particular.”
I want you to be with me.
“I’ll talk to you after class.”
Gaia stared at him for a moment longer, then nodded. “All right. I’ll see you later.” She turned around and walked off quickly, her long legs eating up the distance.
“Perfect,” Ed whispered to her retreating back.
A perfect pair. She was brave to the point of almost being dangerous, and he was gutless to the point of almost being depressing.