I was the first one who saw her. I didn't hear the door to the English class open, and she stood so still that she didn't even seem to be breathing. I caught my breath, too, and it was as if I had sudden knowledge of a strange place I'd never imagined. I gripped my hands together so hard that they hurt.
It was eight-forty in first period, and Woody McCready was still reading the morning bulletin aloud. He was late finishing it because he'd argued with Mrs. Munson before he began, and now she'd make sure the whole class paid. Why did she ask him to read aloud so often? He hated it, and he did such a terrible job that he embarrassed himself.
Mrs. Munson watched me, not Woody. Her eyes were narrow and speculative, and she never seemed to blink. She tapped her big teeth with her pencil.
The stranger took one step inside the room, and a quick ripple of awareness spread over everyone in the class except Woody. He struggled on and stumbled over the word assembly.
" Assemaly," he said. "No, assby."
No one dared laugh. Not yet, at least.
"Ass!" Woody finished triumphantly, and he looked around to see if everyone appreciated his switch from stupidity to colossal wit. He snorted laughter, wiped his nose on the back of his hand, and then saw that he'd lost his audience. Everyone had turned to stare at the stranger.
Immediately I knew that most of the other girls wouldn't like her, and I was already sorry for her. For one thing, starting school after the semester began was a very bad move. I remembered that from my own experience in fourth grade. The girls had already divided into competing cliques, and they had more fun excluding people than including them. Mitzie Coburn and I were always excluded, Mitzie because she was over-weight and I because ... I didn't really know why. Yes, I did. From the beginning, they sensed something about me, no matter how hard I tried to be like everybody else.
The biggest reason the new girl was making instant enemies was the way she looked. She was different in every possible way, but she held her head up as if she knew it and didn't care. She wore a long chevron-patterned brown skirt and a thin ivory-colored shirt instead of the jeans and shorts, tees and sweatshirts that all the rest of us wore. The leather sandals on her bare tan feet looked new. Her long, layered hair was precisely streaked brown and blond and looked as if her hairdresser was a computer instead of a human. It was...strange. Her round dark eyes seemed calm enough, facing a class of unsmiling strangers, and I wondered if she was studying us.
She carried a handful of registration papers and a neat brown leather pocketbook. Why was she transferring to Bayhead High now, during the last week of September? I felt around the edges of her mind, looking for an answer, but she closed me out the instant she sensed my question.
Okay. She caught on to me sooner than most.
Woody McCready whispered something to a boy sitting in the front row, and both of them laughed. Then he turned to stare insolently at the newcomer in the doorway. I was sure he wanted to seem important and intimidating. Instead, he only looked mean, with dirt-colored eyes and greasy, dark hair. He and his friends always dressed in black, like TV gang members, but nobody dared laugh. Woody could hit hard. Very hard.
I hated him so much that when I looked at him, my hands automatically turned into fists.
The new girl studied Woody calmly, then looked toward the windows, totally dismissing him.
Oh ho, Woody, I thought. This will be fun. Is she someone you can't bully? But you be careful, new girl. You be really careful. Woody is full of ugly surprises.
I decided at that moment that I wanted to be the new girl's friend.
Are you coming in, stupid?" Woody asked her. He laughed, as if he'd been clever.
"Come up to the desk," Mrs. Munson told the girl.
"Woody, finish the bulletin and then take your seat."
I felt the entire class hold its breath as the new girl walked toward Mrs. Munson's desk. Jennifer Budd, a fake blond with eyes like bright blue marbles, our apprentice beauty contestant and especially unloved by Mitzie and me, whispered furiously to the girl next to her but never stopped gawking at the stranger. Jennifer's jealousy poured out into the room like a sour odor, and the other girls caught the scent. The boys reacted to the girls' animosity with nervous excitement. They muttered and laughed hoarsely, nudging each other.
What a beginning, I thought, pitying the new girl. Wherever she came from must be better than this.
Mrs. Munson glanced through the girl's papers, then said, "People, this is Althea Peale. Althea, sit next to Bridget Raynes. Back there! See? She's the girl in the red shirt!"
It didn't take much to infuriate Mrs. Munson. A split-second's hesitation would do it.
Althea walked to the empty chair beside me, without flinching when the girls snickered and the boys openly laughed at her as she passed. It was her clothes, her attitude, and her strange hair. And her newness. There was no room for her among these kids.
I slid down in my chair and looked out the window at the pale blue sky and the gold and brown trees. I really hated that class, and I'd always liked English before.
Althea's skirt rustled softly when she sat down. She folded her hands and stared straight ahead. A student aide came in then, carrying a thick brown envelope, and Mrs. Munson told us that our school photo I.D.s were ready. When she passed them out, most of the kids made disparaging remarks, even as they showed their photos around, waiting for compliments. Mitzie and I tucked ours into our wallets without comment. Mitzie had glossy dark hair and perfect skin, but she weighed too much. I had light brown hair and my skin was good enough, but I stammered and I was clumsy. I could trip over a dog hair.
In the few minutes left in first period, Mrs. Munson plunged into our class work. When she talked about sentence structure, she sounded as if she might explode into violence any second. If she hated teaching English so much, why did she do it? Why didn't she teach science or math? Or better yet, why wasn't she a prison guard? Or a burglar? I'd heard she didn't have children. I hoped she didn't even have a pet, but I didn't search her mind for answers. She was so mean I didn't want to know what went on inside her thick skull.
I was sure she'd call on me to read my list of adjectives describing weather, and she did. I'd written "dank" at the end of my list, and Woody started off the laughter when he heard it.
"Dank," he whined through his nose. "Daaank."
"Wouldn't 'damp' be a little less affected?" Mrs. Munson asked me. She often applied the word "affected" to my work. I had looked it up. It meant phony and pretentious. She'd hurt my feelings, of course. Wasn't that what she was all about?
Fortunately, the bell rang before I could stammer a reply. Althea, Mitzie, and I kept our seats while everyone else bolted for the door. Woody knocked Sam Pendergast into the cork bulletin board and then kicked his feet out from under him.
"Hey, quit it!" Greg Thompson yelled at Woody, risking ending up on the floor with Sam. But Woody was already shoving his way through the door, his elbows jabbing and his thick black boots stomping on everybody's feet.
Sam waited in silence until most of the crowd disappeared before he got up and pushed his glasses back in place.
"You all right?" I asked him.
Sam shrugged wordlessly and hitched sideways out the door, all elbows and knees and misery. Mrs. Munson had seen what happened, but she'd left without even changing her surly expression.
We three girls looked at each other.
"What class do you have next?" I asked Althea.
"History, Room 202," she said, consulting her schedule. Her voice was quiet but surprisingly rough, as if she had a cold. Or had been crying. But her round dark eyes were clear.
"Mitzie and I have trig, down the hall," I told her.
"Your room is at the other end of the second floor, Althea. You'd better hurry. I hope we see you later, maybe at lunch."
We pushed out into the hall and separated. The noise level was too great for conversation, so Mitzie and I hurried along, exchanging smiles and shrugs.
After we'd settled ourselves in trig, Jennifer and her two best friends sat down in the front row and whispered and giggled. Their thoughts were jagged, spraying from them like small bits of broken glass. Beside me, Mitzie sighed and pulled her dark hair down over her face. I thought that she was trying to hide at least a small part of herself. Jennifer and company made her miserable. Knowing that kept them happy.
I thought about the new girl again, making her way late to class, dressed in her weird clothes. There was something about her, something new and unscarred, that was certain to attract attention.
Greg Thompson skidded in, almost late again. He bent down beside me and said, "Hey, how about the new girl? I like her." Then he threw himself into his seat behind Mitzie, pawed his curly brown hair with a big, square hand, and grinned obligingly. "Are you working in the store tomorrow? I am."
I didn't have a chance to answer, because the teacher began writing on the board and talking.
Okay, Althea had three friends. That was a start.
At lunch, after Mitzie and I had begun eating at our usual corner table, we saw Althea come into the cafeteria. Silence enveloped the room as she slowly walked through it. She looked around as if she was studying faces.
"I'll ask her to sit with us," I told Mitzie and the other girls and I got up so quickly that I nearly spilled my milk.
Althea saw me and waited. "There's room at our table,"I said. "Unless you're meeting someone."
"Thank you" she murmured in her strange, hoarse voice. I introduced her around, although two of the girls already knew her from morning classes. She nodded at everyone, then folded her hands on her pocketbook.
"Aren't you going to eat?" Julie asked.
"I'm not hungry," Althea said.
I pushed my bag of grapes toward her. "Would you like some?"
"No, thank you, Bridget," she said, carefully polite.
While we ate, she looked around the cafeteria slowly, studying faces again.
"Are you looking for somebody?" Mitzie asked "Can we help you find someone?"
"No, thank you," Althea said.
Mitzie held a chocolate chip cookie out to her. "Try this. Mom makes the best."
Althea shook her head wordlessly.
Mitzie shrugged and offered the cookie to me.
"Yum," I said, taking it.
After a while Mitzie and Julie began telling jokes, and I nearly forgot Althea. When I looked back at her, she was sitting erect but her eyes were closed. I wouldn't have been surprised to see tears running down her face. She gave off waves of grief, a high, cold tide of it.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
Althea's black eyes opened abruptly. For a moment I was frightened out of my senses, because what I saw in her eyes was so terrible. Water and darkness and an awful fall, down and down, and a mother's anguish.
"I'm fine, thank you," Althea said. "I need to find a restroom."
"Go out the main cafeteria door and turn right," Mitzie said. "Do you want company?"
Althea shook her head, gathered up her pocketbook, and excused herself When she was out of hearing, Mitzie said, "I think she's crying."
"Poor kid," Julie said. "Being new in school is rotten. And she has funny clothes. But I'm crazy about her hair. It makes me feel like petting it."
We all laughed. Julie was homely and freckled, but she was so sweet, like Mitzie. That was the nicest thing I could say about anyone, that she was as sweet as Mitzie.
Althea turned up again in my last period art class. The teacher sent her to the drawing board in the back corner, between the last window and the supply cupboards. She sat next to Jordan O'Neal. Jordan and all the kids on that side of the room were juniors, but there was no room left for Althea on the lowly sophomore side.
I wished I sat by Jordan. I saw him bending over his drawing board, never looking up no matter what. He was the saddest person I'd ever known.
"Bridget?" Miss Ireland asked.
My head jerked around. "Yes?"
She was standing next to me, smiling. She'd been talking to me, but I'd been gawking at Jordan as if I'd never seen him before. I felt that way every time I saw him.
"Will you finish your watercolor in time for the art fair?" she asked.
"I've got enough time," I said.
Miss Ireland smiled again. "I've put aside a mat for you. Just tell me when you want it."
I was dazzled by her attention and afraid my work wouldn't live up to her expectations.
"I saw your aunt last night," she said. "She's so proud of you."
I grinned, pleased.
Miss Ireland moved on. She stopped by Greg Thompson's desk to admire his drawing and laugh at something he said. He was a clown, but he was the best artist in school. I was second best, thanks to the encouragement I'd had from Miss Ireland and my aunt. They acted as if they thought I was wonderful.
Most of the time I felt as if I were on a speeding bus that didn't have a driver. If I hadn't had Aunt Cait, I wouldn't have known what to do. I could tell her what I thought about anything and not worry about ridicule or blame. Unfortunately, our friendship was one of the things that drove my mother crazy.
Sometimes -- but not often -- I wished I could be like Jennifer Budd, for the safety it would bring. Oh, to be what everyone expected teenage girls to be, vain, shallow, noisy, and sneaky. Then no one would bother asking me what I was thinking. And if anyone did, I'd be sly enough to make something up.
I looked out the window and saw that a mist had drifted through the trees on the school lawn. It collected on colored leaves and dripped slowly, glimmering in the golden afternoon light. Half a dozen tree spirits bathed their small pointed faces in it, and when they saw me watching, they flickered their opal wings and disappeared within the shelter of the peach and gold leaves.
Summer was over.
I felt the stranger, Althea, staring at me, and startled, I met her dark gaze.
She knows, I thought. She knows about me. But I couldn't know about her, because she'd learned to shut everyone out. And that was a very strange thing.
I tried to concentrate on the exercise in perspective Miss Ireland had given us, but my mind wandered. I doodled small figures on the corner of my paper, the little tree spirits I'd seen bathing their faces.
"I know them from somewhere," Miss Ireland said. She was back at my elbow again, smiling while she studied the winged spirits. "Have you drawn them before?"
She startled me and I didn't think before I acted, so I turned to look out the window at the nearest tree, where I'd seen the spirits.
"Oh!" she said, flushing as if she was guilty of something. She moved on and didn't glance back.
I stared after her, embarrassed. She probably believed I was crazy.
She stopped to talk to Jordan. He liked painting more than drawing, and lately all he'd been drawing in class was his old dog that had died during the summer. No matter what the assignment, Jordan drew Mikey. Things were bad at his house.
Althea held a pencil lightly while she looked out the window at the colorless sky. Greg Thompson laughed at something the boy next to him said. Mitzie cleared her throat, then coughed. She was allergic to eraser dust.
Art was my favorite class. I bent over my paper and added another bathing tree spirit to the cluster I'd drawn at the edge of my paper.
The bell rang, and I took a deep breath. Time to start home.
Althea was the first one out of the room, gone before I could call out, her skirt and hair fluttering behind her. I'd wanted to talk to her when we'd have more time, find out where she lived, and try to make friends.
I didn't know why I had goosebumps on my arms.