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The school bus lurched into motion, nearly throwing Alyx Mossman into her seat. She sighed and dug her book out of her leather handbag.
"Good morning!" came a perky female voice from behind her. "Do you care if I move up and sit with you?"
Alyx didn't look up from the battered copy of Gone with the Wind. Maybe, if she was really lucky, the girl wasn't talking to her.
But luck was obviously not her ally today. A body plopped down next to her, causing the springs in the peeling vinyl seat to go boing.
"My name's Carrie Eberson," the petite newcomer said. "I saw you yesterday. Are you a junior?"
"Yes." Alyx turned the page. Scarlett had just been caught in Ashley Wilkes's embrace by his bitter, old, sourpuss sister, who was, of course, going to rush right home and tell Miss Melanie and Rhett.
"Hey, you're in my brother's class then," the girl practically squealed, causing Alyx to grimace, and forcing her to reread a paragraph. "My brother's a real pain as far as brothers go, but mostly he's an okay guy. Lots of the girls think he's cute, and sometimes it goes to his head, which makes him a nightmare to live with, but he is my brother, so I put up with him. If you're one of those girls who thinks he's cute, I guess I should shut up, but I just keep hoping I might meet somebody, someday, who has some sense and sees him as a human being, not as some kind of a god."
Alyx slowly lifted her nose out of the book and blinked. "What?"
"My brother." The girl's blond ponytail bounced as the bus hit a pothole in the road. "You know, b-r-o-t-h-e-r," she said slowly as if Alyx were a kindergartner. "His name's Tom.Tom Eberson."
Oh, Alyx knew him all right.
It was kind of hard to miss him, standing a head taller than anyone else in school, his blond hair casually mussed, flashing a smile worthy of Tom Cruise. He was in a couple of her classes and was all the junior girls could whisper about. "Totally hot" was the phrase she'd overheard to describe him. Apparently they couldn't wait to see him in his tight football pants this year.
Great. All the seats on this bus, and she ended up next to the sister of Mr. Popularity Jock of Heart High School.
She rubbed her temple where a headache had been building all morning, then turned back to her book.
"You don't talk much, do you?" Carrie said. "My parents are always telling me I have diarrhea of the mouth. I think that's a horrible way of putting it, don't you? I'm a lowly ninth-grader this year, by the way. I know pretty much everyone in the whole school. That's one of the weird things about going to such a small country school. You get to know everyone, even the elementary kids."
Alyx tried to tune out the chatter and concentrate on Scarlett's angst over going to Melanie and Ashley's party because everyone in Atlanta would be talking about her behind her back. But her headache became a particularly brutal throb, and she could only stare at the blurred words on the page.
The babble next to her continued as though the girl didn't realize Alyx wasn't listening any more.
Mother talked to her like this all the time, too, going on and on about all the details of her new job, her wardrobe, her latest shopping spree. Just this morning she'd rambled for fifteen minutes about how she couldn't find a decent place to get her nails done since they'd moved, and had barely paused to notice when Alyx left the house to go to the bus stop. Alyx always felt like she could be anybody, or maybe not even be there at all, and it probably wouldn't make any difference to her mom.
Carrie Eberson obviously didn't care who was listening, either. Any warm body would do.
Marking the place in her book with her finger, Alyx closed her eyes and leaned her cheek against the cool glass of the window. Dry, brown, endless prairie stretched out on either side of the road. How had she ended up condemned to this place?
Dumb question. She was here by choice, such as it was. It was either here or St. Edna's School for Girls. It had been the ultimate betrayal by her father as far as she was concerned. When his company had offered him a transfer, he'd given her an ultimatum. She could either stay in New York, alone, and go to St. Edna's. Or she could move with him and Mother and go to this small country school.
He'd wanted her to stay in New York. She'd seen it in his eyes and heard it in his voice.
She'd chosen the country. Her fear of being alone in the city had outweighed her hurt at her father's cold attitude.
But Heart, Colorado? What kind of a name was that for a dinky little town in the middle of nowhere? Her mother had giggled about the fact that Heart's claim to fame was that their tiny local post office was swamped every year at Valentine's Day because people all over the country sent their cards through here to get the famous "Heart" postmark.
Great, so she was living in Valentineville, USA. That should imply people were kind and caring, you'd think. But no one in her entire class had talked to her yesterday. Not a single person. They'd all checked her over and assessed her, but not said a word.
She didn't know what she'd expected, though. She wasn't like these kids. Almost all of them dressed in baggy T-shirts and jeans. And a lot of the boys, she'd noticed, wore cowboy boots. Not the high-gloss snakeskin numbers some of the super models wore on the runways of New York City. These were dirty, battered, looked-like-they'd-been-in-places-Alyx - didn't-even-want-to-know-about kind of boots.
She stared down at her neatly pressed khakis, classic loafers, and the button-up pink cashmere sweater she'd borrowed out of Mother's closet this morning. Her clothes practically screamed goody-two-shoes yuppie geek in this school. Nothing like fitting in.
The bottom line was, it didn't matter where she lived. Some things never changed. She was the outsider, just like always. The bus hit another pothole, causing her to bump her head on the window. The seat squeaked loudly. Carrie took it all in stride, her blond pony-tail bobbing up and down, and her mouth never stopping the whole time.
A sudden image of Sadie popped into Alyx's mind. She could see the wiry red hair that Sadie always used to wear in tight braids to keep it under control, and the funny space between her front teeth. An empty ache so intense it was painful gnawed at her insides. Sadie wouldn't have kept babbling on. Sadie would have noticed she'd bumped her head. Sadie would have done a lot of things, if only...
"Hey, we're here!" Carrie said, in high spirits. "Another day of the old school grind! I'll save you a seat on the bus tonight, okay?" She grinned and waved as she pushed out into the aisle.
Alyx grunted a non-response and waited to be the last one off the bus. There was no reason to hurry.
As she stepped down onto the dusty gravel driveway, the pungent aroma of manure hit her, just like it had yesterday. She stared across the road to the enormous dairy farm that sat just fifty yards from the school.
This was some kind of a sick joke. She was going to wake up any moment now and be back in the modern apartment in Manhattan where she'd grown up.
God, please let this be a bad dream.
As if listening in on her thoughts -- and right on cue -- a fat brown cow standing next to the fence let out a loud, warbling moo.
• • •
The school was so small there were only about fifty kids in the whole eleventh grade. Needless to say, there weren't a lot of English classes to choose from, and the creative writing class offered after lunch had been the only one that fit Alyx's schedule. Creative writing was okay, though. She figured she'd read enough books in her lifetime that she could be creative if she had to be. The assignment they'd been given last night was easy enough. Write one free-flowing page about themselves. Whatever they wanted to say.
When she got to class, she did what she always did in school -- she moved to a seat in the middle of the room where she could blend in with the masses. The front was too close to the teacher and made it too easy to get called on. The back was where the troublemakers hung out. In her limited experience, troublemakers and wallflowers didn't mix. And when a tall, blond girl dressed in tight jeans and an even tighter black tank top stared at her sullenly from the back table, she quickly lowered her gaze and remembered that little fact all over again.
Students crowded into the room, but she pretended to write in her notebook so she wouldn't have to look at any of them.
"Good afternoon, class." Mrs. Elgrin, the teacher, leaned against the corner of her desk. She was a perfect example of what books described as tall and willowy. Her shoulder-length brown hair was swept off her face with combs, she wore gold wire-rimmed glasses, and her casual, floral dress swished around her calves as she crossed her ankles. "It's good in a creative writing class to read one's work aloud, so most days we will be sharing our assignments with each other. I look forward to hearing what you all wrote last night."
Alyx's stomach tightened in panic. She didn't do speaking in front of a group. Her palms got sweaty, and her heart pounded just thinking about it. She always felt like people could see right through her, into a part of her soul that she didn't even like to look at herself.
"Everyone be sure to introduce yourself before you begin reading so those of you who don't know one another can learn names," Mrs. Elgrin said, looking directly at her.
Alyx knew she was the only new person in this class, so the teacher was obviously going through this for her benefit. She groaned mentally and tried to disappear into the hard metal chair she sat in.
"Molly, would you like to begin?"
"Okay," said a girl across the table from Alyx. She stood up with such enthusiasm that her short, brown curls bounced around her face. "My name is Molly Brackenhouser. I was born in Colorado Springs. We used to live there, but when I was six, we moved out here to the country. My best friend is Jenny Oto." She grinned down at the dark-headed girl sitting next to her. Alyx presumed this was Jenny. "I like to go to the mall, sunbathe, and listen to music. My parents' names are Gloria and Ted, and I have a little brother who is in the fourth grade. His name's Eliot. My mom is an accountant, and my dad runs his own construction company." She dropped into her chair, and she and Jenny giggled.
"Done in your usual exuberant style I see, Molly." A smile teased the corners of the teacher's mouth. "Who's next? How about you, Tom?"
Tom Eberson was seated at the table next to Alyx's, and when he stood, she had to crane her neck to stare up at him. Unlike his petite little sister, who probably barely met the five-foot mark, Tom towered well over six feet. A lock of sun-bleached hair had settled onto his forehead, and the contrast between that blond hair and his tan face was startling. He looked like some kind of California surfer god she'd seen on Baywatch reruns. A surfer god in cowboy boots.
"I didn't know where exactly you wanted us to start, Mrs. E.," he said in a deep voice, "but I skipped all the stuff about being born and started with my life now."
"That's fine, go ahead. The idea was to just go free-flow. Whatever came to mind about yourself."
"Well, my name's Tom Eberson. You guys all know my motor-mouth sister, Carrie."
A couple of chortles rose from around the room, and he glanced up over his paper. A blinding, white-toothed grin spread across his face.
Alyx felt a little light-headed, and she shifted in her chair, figuring she was just having an attack of nerves because she was going to have to stand up and talk eventually.
Tom continued. "We live on a ranch where my parents raise cattle, and when I'm not in school I usually work there with my dad. We have a big pond behind our house where we swim in the summer and ice skate in the winter, so living on our ranch is pretty fun. We also have two dogs that Carrie and I tried to train this summer, but we must not have done a very good job because they still don't listen to us. My favorite classes in school are math and English. I really like sports, so I play football and basketball."
A couple of female sighs echoed around the room, and Alyx thought again about the girls who couldn't wait to see the great Tom Eberson in his football uniform.
"The football team has its first game this weekend, so I hope everybody can go." He glanced apologetically at Mrs. Elgrin. "Sorry, I didn't have that written down, but I thought I'd add it in." The teacher nodded, and he went on. "When I'm not in school or doing something else, though, I really like to read."
Alyx's ears perked up at that. He, the class jock, had actually cracked a book? No way. What did someone like him read? Probably the Swimsuit Edition of Sports Illustrated. Or if he was feeling really energetic, maybe Tiger Woods's autobiography.
"I guess that's about it." Absently, he pushed a lock of hair off his forehead and sat down.
"Thank you, Tom, and I didn't mind the advertisement for the football game."
He gave that dazzling smile again, and Alyx's dizziness problem returned. That smile was too perfect, like maybe he had an orthodontist in his family.
"Okay, who wants to read next?"
The class was silent except for the rustling of papers around the room.
"How about you, Alyxandra? Are you ready?"
Her heart pounded so loud she was sure everyone at her table could hear it. But she swallowed hard and nodded. Better to get it over with. She just hoped she didn't throw up. She'd done that once, in fifth grade, when the teacher had made the mistake of giving her a part in the class play. The Wizard of Oz. An auditorium filled with two hundred proud parents and grandparents, and she'd barfed on Agnes Napolitano's red ruby slippers.
She stood up, and in a wavering voice, introduced herself. "My name is Alyx Mossman." Then she quickly looked down at the safety of her paper. The penciled writing was smeared along the edges from where her sweaty fingers had been clutching it.
I stand alone on the silent hillside,
It doesn't feel right.
Where once I was whole,
I am no longer...
Merely a shell of what I used to be.
You are gone and yet
I still yearn for you
As if you'll be back tomorrow.
I search for you
Among complete strangers,
Passing like shadows through my life.
I too am a shadow...
Her stomach lurched as she realized what she'd just read was worlds different than the little speeches Molly and Tom had given. She risked a glance around the room. Mrs. Elgrin was sitting on the edge of her desk watching her with a pleasant expression on her face, and Alyx felt a momentary breath of relief well up inside her.
Then she heard a snicker from behind her -- from the table where the blond girl sat.
Alyx's face burned. A lump moved up into her throat, and suddenly she thought she might choke if she tried to talk again.
"Please go on, Alyxandra. You're doing fine." Mrs. Elgrin smiled at her.
She'd been quiet for way too long. But when she tried to speak, her throat closed up. She ended up giving a wheezy hiccup.
Giggles and snorting laughter erupted all around her.
"Excuse me," she choked out, and ran from the room.
It was the middle of a class period, so there was no one else around as she slammed into the restroom and lurched into the stall at the very end of the row. Just as she fumbled the latch shut, her stomach cramped. She turned and threw up into the toilet.
If Agnes Napolitano could see her now.
She groaned. Now she wasn't just the new girl, she was the weird new girl. Why had she written that horrible poetic drivel? What kind of an idiot did something like that?
Her stomach knotted again, but the sight of dried yellow splatters on the toilet seat were enough to hold off another wave. She swallowed hard and willed her stomach into submission.
Last night, sitting in her room, that poem had flowed effortlessly from her pencil. She'd just done what the teacher had said, gone with her instincts. But at the time she'd had no idea she was going to have to stand in front of the whole flipping room and recite it out loud.
She closed her eyes and fought another wave of nausea.
"Alyxandra, are you okay?" It was Mrs. Elgrin.
Quickly, she wiped her mouth with a wad of rough toilet paper, feeling guilty at being caught "emoting," as Dad called it. "Yes, I'm okay."
"Why don't you come out and we'll get you a drink of water. That's what I always want after I've been sick."
Oh, great! Obviously the teacher had been in the bathroom long enough to hear her heave. What else could go wrong?
Slowly, Alyx pulled open the stall door. She caught a quick glimpse of herself in the mirror and saw how pasty white her face looked framed by her shoulder-length, blah-colored hair.
"I'm okay," she said again when she met the teacher's concerned gaze.
"I'm glad. Come on, let's get you that drink before we go back to class."
A cold shiver trailed up Alyx's spine at the thought of going back to the lion's den. She got a drink at the fountain, and the cool water did help her tight throat a little.
"Take a few deep breaths. You'll feel better."
Alyx watched Mrs. Elgrin out of the corner of her eye. She acted like she honestly cared. Not anything at all like the teachers at her old school. Her teachers in the city weren't bad, they were just so busy and hassled that most of the time they didn't notice any one particular student. At least not Alyx Mossman.
"You ready? We can't stay away too long." Mrs. Elgrin smiled calmly. "Take another deep breath, and if you have a few minutes before your next class, stay and talk with me for a bit when the bell rings, okay?"
Alyx nodded and clasped her hands together so tightly her fingers began to throb as she followed the teacher back to the classroom. She kept her eyes glued to the floor and sank into her chair.
The rest of the period passed in a blur. She stared hard at the book in front of her, afraid that if she looked up, she'd find the whole class watching her. When the bell rang, she stayed in her seat as the rest of the students filed out of the room.
Mrs. Elgrin sat next to her at the table. "Are you feeling better now?"
She nodded. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have left the room without permission." The cold feeling was still with her, and she braced herself for the lecture she was certain she would get.
"That's okay. Sometimes our emotions get the best of us. It happens to all of us now and then. What you wrote was very good. You're a natural poet."
Alyx stared at the teacher and felt her mouth open, but no words came out. She'd been expecting to be reprimanded for her behavior, not praised for her work. She didn't want to be praised. It was that stupid assignment that had caused this mess to happen in the first place. She made a mental note that from this day forward she would leave the "creative" out of her writing. She couldn't go through this again.
"Most people call me Alyx." No one used Alyxandra but Dad.
"Okay, Alyx. I don't know you very well yet, and you've only been in my class a couple of days, but there was nothing wrong with the way you chose to do your assignment. It was refreshing to hear something off the beaten path."
Refreshing? Off the beaten path? That was hardly how she wanted to be remembered.
"All right," Mrs. Elgrin's voice interrupted her thoughts. "You better run along so you're not late for your next class. I'll see you tomorrow."
When Alyx emerged into the crowded hallway, she steeled herself to keep her gaze straight ahead and not think about what an idiot she'd been. Maybe if she didn't think about it, the whole ugly mess would go away and no one in school would remember she existed.
She sighed. In her dreams, anyway.
Her next period was study hall. She glanced at the books she was carrying to see if she could get away with not having to go to her locker. There was always her journal for English, although the thought of writing made her feel like running back to the bathroom again.
Her head was down, and one second she was sticking her pen into the metal spiral of her notebook, the next she caught a quick glimpse of a black foot shooting out in front of her.
She tripped, and her books sailed out of her hands into a haphazard mess on the gray carpet.
A large hand grabbed her by the arm and pulled her up before she fell on her face and gave Heart High School yet another dramatic performance.
"Thanks," she mumbled, fighting to keep a teeny bit of her pride intact. She looked up to see who was holding her, and found herself staring up into the smiling, golden-brown eyes of Tom Eberson.
Next to him, one blond eyebrow raised in disdain, stood the girl from the back row of English. The one who'd laughed at her behind her back.
Mortified, Alyx took a step back and tried to pull away from Tom's grasp.
He let go of her and bent down to pick up her books and notebook. "You okay?" he asked as he stacked her things back into her hands.
"Yeah. Uh...thanks. I've got to go before I'm late."
"Well, you don't want to be late now, do you?" the tall girl in black said with a smirk. She wrapped an arm through Tom's and leaned against him.
"No." Alyx thought she remembered the girl's name was Randi. The sight of her hanging on Tom, the great god, made Alyx feel like the hunchbacked, adopted cousin at a Blonds Are Beautiful party. Trying to avoid looking at them both, she reached down to pick up a paper Tom had missed.
And that's when she noticed the girl had on black platform sandals.
The foot that had tripped her had been wearing black.
A quick glance at Tom's scuffed, tan cowboy boots confirmed he wasn't responsible.
The bitter tastes of anger and fear mixed together in Alyx's stomach. As she stood, her eyes locked with a blue-eyed glare. A slow smile lit up the girl's face.
Alyx's heart pounded.
She had to escape.
As gracefully as she could, considering how hard her knees quaked, she turned and half walked, half stumbled away.
"Wait up," Tom called. "I'll walk with you."
Oh, God. No.
"We need to talk, Randi, but let's do it after school, okay?" Alyx heard him say.
"But, Tom!" Randi whined. "You promised we could talk now."
"Later," he insisted.
Alyx ordered her feet to move faster.
"Hey, wait," he called again.
Next thing she knew, he came up alongside her in all his long-legged glory.
"You'll be late for your class," she said.
"I've got Mr. Nielson next. He's cool. Besides, you look like you could use some help."
She gave him a sideways withering glare. "I don't need any help."
He didn't have to point out how obviously horrible this day was for her. And she didn't want anyone to treat her like a charity case, especially not some big popular jock who would probably be laughing about her with his girlfriend later.
"Come on. Will you stop, please?"
She did. But only because she was in front of the door to her study hall. With a sigh and a huge ache in the pit of her stomach, she turned toward him. "What?"
"I'm kind of screwing this up. I was just waiting for you when you came out of Mrs. Elgrin's room to see if I could cheer you up. I thought you might need some moral support, especially when you stayed after class." His blond eyebrows scrunched together in concern. "She didn't get mad at you, did she? Mrs. E., I mean."
Alyx stared up at him, not quite sure what to say. He didn't look like he was making fun of her. "Nooo," she said slowly, not sure if she could trust him or not. "She wasn't mad at me."
He nodded. "Yeah, I didn't think she would be. She's pretty great. But I wanted you to know that what you wrote was really good. Don't let those other kids get you down. They're too dumb to know a good thing when they hear it."
She thought again of Randi laughing at her in class, and then how the girl had been stuck to Tom like glue in the hall. What kind of game was he playing?
"By the way, I'm Tom Eberson." He smiled and held out his hand.
Like she didn't know who he was.
And was this for real? She shook hands with her dad's business associates when he brought them home, or did a ladylike finger version of it with her mother's socialite friends in the city. But doing it here, in this dinky school, with Mr. Popularity Jock was just...well...way too weird.
Hesitantly, not positive what the joke was -- but sure it was on her -- she took his hand. It was warm and dry. "I'm Alyx."
"Alyx. That's a cool name." His voice was deep and smooth, and for a moment she was lost in those golden eyes of his. Until he spoke again. "I was wondering, Alyx, if maybe you could do me a favor?"
She pulled away, remembering where she was and who he was. Here was where the joke part came in, no doubt.
"Since you're new here, and you probably don't really know anyone very well yet..."
Yep, here came the punch line. He'd probably been laughing right along with Randi when she'd tripped in the hall. And it would be her luck if someone besides a teacher had found out she'd heaved in the bathroom, too.
She took a step backward, bracing herself to fend off the hurt she knew was coming.
"Hey, where are you going?" Tom's blond eyebrows drew together. "I was just thinking that maybe, when you have some free time, you could introduce yourself to my sister Carrie."
"What?" Alyx scowled. "Why?" She didn't bother to mention she'd already met his sister.
He took a deep breath and stared at the wall for a moment. When he turned back to her, the sparkle in his eyes had dimmed, and she found herself wondering why. "Well, she could really use someone to look up to."
What was he talking about? That babbling chatterbox on the bus didn't act like she needed anyone except a mechanical creature that would bob its head occasionally to acknowledge it was listening to her.
"Carrie's been through some rough times, and I just wish she had someone older, someone...well, another girl to talk to."
Alyx shook her head, certain she was delirious. Or maybe he was. Or maybe it was still just some big joke. Maybe the motor-mouth from the bus was part of it.
"I know it probably sounds kind of lame, me asking you this when I don't even know you."
She nodded her head emphatically.
"Yeah, well..." He sighed and ran a hand through his already ruffled hair. "It's just that I like you. You seem grounded, you know? Not into all the fad stuff." His gaze traveled the length of her, and she wanted to die at what he must really be thinking about her city clothes.
And to her surprise, he did look serious. There were worry lines around his eyes that hinted at something darker and deeper than all his class jock reputation made him out to be.
"Carrie needs a friend. And since you're new here, and after what happened this afternoon in English, I figured you probably did, too. I thought you two would be good for each other."
Her mouth dropped open, and her headache of earlier in the day suddenly throbbed to life again. "I'm not some charity case, you know? I don't need you or anyone else to find me friends."
"No. No, I didn't mean it that way," he said quickly, shaking his head. "I don't think you're a charity case at all--"
"Look, I don't need anybody, okay? Find someone else to baby-sit your sister." And then, with one last burst of emotion from someplace she seldom tapped into, she added, "And tell your girlfriend to keep her feet to herself."
She caught a glimpse of his confused frown before she spun around and darted into her study hall.
As she dropped into her chair, Sadie's image filled her mind. Smiling. Laughing. Always a ray of light in her own little universe. Until, in one fell swoop, it was all ripped away.
No one, no one, could ever replace Sadie. And it burned her to think some know-it-all she'd never met until today thought he could possibly pick out a new friend for her.
If any of that was even for real.
But for some reason, as she forced her pen across the page of her English journal, another image began to invade her thoughts. That of Tom Eberson shaking her hand and smiling at her like she was a real, live human being.
It was the first time in almost a year that someone had looked at her like she mattered.
Copyright © 2002 by Karin Story Dearborn