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Life's Tough. Get a Helmet!
"Your life is going to change forever tonight, so be ready."
Issa Mazumder stopped in her tracks at her mother's mystifying phrase. "Mom!" she protested. Still clad in Power Puff Girl pajamas, not to mention sans coffee, Issa was in no shape for guessing games. "You are not messing with me right now!"
"I won't say another word. I was going to wait till the weekend, but today seems like a good day. It's a surprise."
Issa dropped into the chair opposite her mother and prepared her best wide-eyed "look how cute I am" expression. Nothing she loved more than one of Alisha Mazumder's surprises.
Just last month she and Alisha had made an impromptu trip to Manhattan when the Cirque de Soliel had come to the city. They had worked as ushers and seen the show for free from the front row.
"I'll die! I'm not even kidding. Physically die!"
"I'll pick you up here at six. Be ready!" Alisha Mazumder raised an eyebrow over a steaming coconut latte. "I don't think you'll physically die."
"I can't think of anything else now. How could you do this to me?"
"This is quite the change from the panic-stricken daughter who was totally freaking last night about some exam." Alisha laughed. "What happened to 'Oh my God, I'm totally going to fail the World Politics midterm. My life means nothing beyond this exam!'"
"Whatever. I'm never panicked. Steady as a train. See that?" Issa flexed her puny biceps. "And quit changing the subject."
"Steady like a train wreck." Alisha grinned. "Talked to Adam finally?"
"Yup." Issa had to smile. She supposed the subject could turn to Adam. For a few seconds anyway.
Anxious, adorable Adam. Her boyfriend of two years had called at midnight with a panic attack of his own. He needed help. He needed support. More than anything he needed her notes.
And if anything could make Issa feel better, it was fixing a problem. She'd drilled the study material into Adam's head and realized that she knew her stuff pretty well in comparison to her first and only love.
"He hadn't studied for the exam at all. His ass was set up to fail," Issa said as she got up to fill a mug with soy milk and pop it into the microwave. The Mazumder family ritual of spending a half hour every morning discussing school, work, cute boys, etc., over coconut lattes was Issa's favorite part of the day. Often, she felt it was the only time she and her mother could completely and totally be themselves, fuzzy pajamas and bed-head included. Over the years, she'd come to savor these last few minutes of dreamy innocence before the Mazumder girls donned protective shields and journeyed into the perilous world of high school.
"So, if Adam wasn't studying, what was Nerd Boy doing all weekend?" Alisha folded a corner in her Modern Art and Design magazine, buffed nails gleaming as she flipped the pages. "Shooting up? Loose women, fast cars?"
"Ha-ha." Issa made a face. She retrieved the steaming mug of milk from the microwave after the insistent beep.
"He was sick, remember? He called me yesterday and told me he was on bed rest all day Friday and Saturday. Do you need to be calling him Nerd Boy all the time?"
"Uh, yeah. Otherwise, why would he date you?" Alisha teased, swirling her coffee cup. "Nerd Girl!"
"Hey!" Issa glanced up from where she was adding coconut syrup and two shots of espresso into her monstersized latte. "I protest!"
"Mommy, Mommy, I'm going to fail school. Will you still love me? Will you support me if I don't get into any college and have to live in a two-story cardboard box on the driveway?" Alisha mimicked Issa's paranoid ramblings from last night. "I swear, if I'd studied half as much as you do I would have been the mayor by now."
"You could be a rocket scientist, Mama." Alisha was an enigma to Issa. An eternally glamorous, bohemian version of Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alisha looked ten years younger than her thirty-six years and was one of the most dynamic people Issa knew. Everyone who met Alisha was in love with her wit, charm and vivacious personality within ten minutes. "Thanks for your concern, my love." Alisha stood and shook the cheese Danish crumbs off her tiered blue velvet skirt. "You need a ride to school?"
Issa had to call Adam one last time to make sure he wasn't panicking, but refused to confess that to her mother and risk more teasing. "I'll walk, actually. Clear my head. Make sure I have all the world politics straight."
"Again, I repeat. Nerd!" Alisha called as she waltzed up the stairs. "Where do you get it from?"
Issa caught sight of Alisha's half-empty mug on the kitchen counter and almost laughed.
A total free spirit. No rules and regulations could keep Alisha in one place for long. While Issa envied Alisha's daydreamy attitude, she knew that one person in the house had to be somewhat responsible.
"I wonder too, Mama," Issa murmured, smiling as she rinsed out the cup and placed it into the dishwasher. Sometimes she swore her list-making obsession and punctuality existed to compensate for Alisha's short-term memory. Speaking of short-term memory, Alisha had managed to escape without revealing her surprise.
"Damn. She's good. She's really good," Issa grumbled as she grabbed a notepad off the kitchen counter. So much to do today, she thought. One, drop off article at Apex.
She wrote for the school newspaper as part of her writing scholarship at the prestigious private school. She worked hard on all her articles for the Athens Apex knowing Alisha would never be able to afford to send her to the hoity-toity school without the scholarship.
Last night, Issa had just finished up an investigative article on Thomas Calabran, one of the reclusive oil tycoons in town, three days before the deadline. Even she had to admit the article was one of her better works.
"Hey, your aunt Helen called," Alisha yelled over the sound of her hair dryer upstairs. "She wants to know if you want to do Kwanzaa in Atlanta again this year. Call her back, would you?"
Strict Aunt Helena. Her father's oldest sister had never approved of the mixed-race marriage of her Indian mother and African-American father. But she loved Issa like her own child and insisted Issa "keep her black flavor ripe." Issa had celebrated the African holiday during the last week of December with her father's family every year since she was a kid. Despite her father's absentee status, it was the one holiday she looked forward to, just to be able to see her extended family. The black, red and green decorations, the homegrown fruits, beautiful objects of art she loved it all. The weeklong celebration made her feel like a part of her father's culture. A part she felt like she barely got to experience in the preppy, white-bread Connecticut town they had moved to at the beginning of high school.
"I'll call her, Mom. Please just finish doing your hair. You don't want to frizz."
Issa smiled and returned to her list.
Two, talk to Professor Kidlinger about the independent-study project.
English was the class she excelled at without trying and her teacher, Ms. Kidlinger, was always telling her she would accomplish great things with her talent for words. Issa had come up with a master plan to ask her teacher if she could do an independent-study project on Jane Austen and her life during the Pride and Prejudice era next semester.
Three "Hey!" Alisha called again, snapping Issa out of her list. "Cute-boy-on-the-patio alert!"
Issa's pen hit the counter a second before the knock on the kitchen door. "Are those cheese Danishes I smell?"
Adam. "Hey!" Issa threw open the door and greeted the smiling junior with a big kiss. "I didn't expect to see you this morning."
Her Adam. Buttery ribbons of blond hair, eyes that twinkled like Christmas lights and the most innocent smile Issa had ever seen. So he wasn't traditionally gorgeous with his mild sprinkling of acne and too-thin frame, but Issa found him adorable and perfect for her.
Adam's lightly freckled face crinkled even more around the eyes than usual. "Hello, gorgeous."
Issa's cheeks burned. Adam always claimed she looked like the girl from Bend It Like Beckham, but she didn't believe it for a second. Alisha was the great beauty in the family, Issa was just a mess of tangled, murky brown hair and tennis-ball-sized, anxious eyes. Their homecoming pictures had been beautiful, though, his cream complementing her cocoa.
"How're you feeling? Better?" Issa stuffed a Danish into his hand.
"Listen, I need to run to an early morning Science Club meeting, but I wanted to bring you this." From behind his back appeared a single lavender rose, Issa's favorite. "Thanks so much for helping me last night."
"You didn't have to." Issa took the flower and inhaled.
"I did have to," Adam said, encircling his hands around her back, pulling her head under his chin. Issa breathed in his CK aftershave as she leaned on him.
"Thanks so much, Iz. You're amazing." He kissed her nose. "Now I really need to go. I'll see you in class."
"Love you!" Issa called to him as he jogged down the driveway. He held up an arm without turning around.
She smiled and twirled on her bare feet. Adam was happy again. Problem solved.
After the last period of the day, the World Politics exam successfully behind her, Issa left the school newspaper office where her article was safely nesting in the editor's layout box. She sped through the halls, having gotten a text message from Gigi five minutes earlier.
EMERGENCY! I NEED TO SEE YOU! CHEM LAB! NOW!
Issa flew around a corner and skidded on the freshly waxed floor, her Sketchers screeching to a stop.
Latina Barbie and the Skipper twins, combined weight and IQ of 100, stood blocking the hallway.
"Well, well." Cat Morena, aka Latina Barbie, crossed her arms, a smirk in her slanted green eyes. "If it isn't the affirmative-action case." She emphasized the word with an extra S at the end. She covered her slight Cuban accent with a faux British one. "Off to help Mummy scrub the floors to earn your keep?"
Issa clenched her teeth. Rudeness on a daily basis was expected from Cat, but she was dissing Alisha now, the best art teacher Athens Academy had ever had. How low could Cat really go?
However, Issa kept quiet. She'd learned long ago that Cat wanted her to fight back. A cross between a dark-haired Paris Hilton and an even darker poisonous viper, Cat liked nothing better than to put one of her enemies in their place. Issa remembered well the first time she had challenged Cat. The first and last time she'd crossed Cat Morena.
"I got somewhere to be," Issa muttered, rubbing her toe against the sparkling floor.
"So, what do you want us to do about it, huh, chica?" Issa could see the reflection of Cat and her entourage on the floor as Cat tossed her perfectly highlighted caramel-colored hair and smiled snidely, waiting for some sort of response from Issa.
"No answer? Are you going to run to Mommy and tell her we're being mean to you? Are you going to cry?" Cat's singsong voice could cut sharper than any knife. "Are you wishing we would leave you alone?"
For a moment, Issa felt like she might actually cry. She didn't understand why Cat was so mean. So they'd had a fight over two years ago. She had no idea how Cat could hold a grudge for so long. How a privileged sixteen-year-old girl could be so deliberately cruel to someone was beyond Issa.
"I don't have time for this bullshit right here," Issa finally snapped, her voice betraying her bravado with a quaver. Damn it. Issa never liked giving Cat the satisfaction of knowing how to get to her. Like a vampire feeding off blood, Cat fed off people's weaknesses.
One of the blond Skipper twins, Jewel Taylor, giggled. "Aw, how cute. She's using her black talk. What's it called, Sunshine?"
"Ebonics! That's what it's called!" The other twin, Sunshine Harris, joined in the giggling.
Issa's cheeks burned. As one of the few biracial students in the school, she made sure to avoid sounding "black" for just this reason. Anything that wasn't "Like, oh my God," was "black talk" to the masses of rich white folks. Even her schoolteacher father would never have stood for Ebonics in his house.
Cat stopped laughing, an unpredictable look in her eyes. "Fine. Go," she said quietly. "Your day's about a get a whole lot worse, chica."
A needle of fear jabbed Issa as she ran through the hallways. Cat hadn't spent as much time torturing her as usual. As Issa well knew, that was never a good thing. She had learned that lesson the first semester of her freshman year.
Issa had made it a point to avoid Cat at all costs for the next year and a half. And succeeded. She and Cat traveled in totally different circles. Cat was always surrounded by her perfumed, feathered, rich friends and Issa hung with down-to-earth, out-of-place types.
Only a few months ago had Cat come back into Issa's life, now that they were both enrolled for the same English class. Issa made it a point to sit in the far back of the room, huddled into oversized sweatshirts in the corner, trying to be as invisible as possible.
Issa shivered, remembering Cat's words. By the time she reached the chemistry lab, she had a very bad case of dread squeezing at her stomach.
"Gigi! What's the emergency, girl?" Issa spotted her friend hunched over an array of tubes and beakers.
Gigi O'Neil held up a test tube filled with a suspiciously slimly green liquid. "Does this look right? Mr. Jonas said if I don't finish this lab by the end of the day, I'm totally failing the class."
"I think I just made a bomb!"
"Wait, let me put the bomb down. I don't want to blow us up before you hear the news."
Gigi set her bomb carefully into a beaker. She nervously pushed her goggles to the top of her wavy red hair and blinked her aquamarine eyes. "Just so you know, I could be wrong. If I'm right, I don't want you to hate me. I just thought you should know. Okay? So promise not to hate me?"
Issa restrained the urge to reach out and wrap her hands around Gigi's throat. It figured, her friend had to be a ditz at a moment like this.
"Girl, do not mess with me right now!" Issa snapped, curiosity building to the point of annoyance. Even though Gigi was often theatrical, this didn't sound like the usual round of stupid Monday-morning gossip.
"So, remember you said Adam was sick on Friday night and that was why he couldn't come see the movie with us and Ishaan?"
Issa nodded. "There you guys are." Ishaan Banerjee stormed the door of the lab, his handsome face not looking a least bit pleased. His heavy black eyebrows were drawn together in a fierce V and his usually full mouth was set in a horizontal line. "Gigi, did you tell her? I swear, I'm gonna kill that guy."
His fists were clenched and he looked ready to do some damage.