|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 18 Years|
About the Author
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Day 1: Alive
DEAD PEOPLE ARE SCARY. Even if my nanny has spent my entire life trying to convince me otherwise. Granted, at sixteen, I’m too old to have a nanny. But that is beside the point at this particular moment, as I find myself staring down at the corpse of Dr. Jenkins. He’d been Meadowdale’s most popular pediatric dentist. I hadn’t seen him since losing my last baby tooth but I remember the way his face turned bright red when he laughed. That and the fact that he always commended me for being able to open my mouth wide enough to accommodate his sausage fingers. I glance down at Dr. Jenkins’s hands, which are folded one on top of the other and resting across his expansive belly. It is the kind of unnatural pose that you never see people in unless they’re dead. His ruddy complexion is plastered over with thick, waxy makeup, and his eyes and mouth are glued shut. The result is a Dr. Jenkins that looks like an eerie, artificial version of his living self. Like those creepy wax figures I saw once at Madame Tussauds. “Kiss him again,” Naomi Talbert commands in a cool, low voice that sends goose bumps up my arms. Here we are in front of a cadaver and still, Naomi manages to be the most menacing thing in the room. All twelve of us girls from the Meadowdale High School poms team, unaffectionately known as the Squad, stand around the doublewide pine rose casket where Dr. Jenkins lies. I can bet that at least eleven out of twelve of us desperately want to be anywhere but here in the parlor of the Talbert Funeral Home. But what we want hardly matters since Naomi, cheer captain and all-around head bitch, summoned us for an official team meeting at her house. I draw a circle with the tip of my sneaker in the moss-green carpet. This isn’t the first time that I’ve seen a dead person. Up until three years ago, I saw them quite frequently. Thankfully, not in the same wacked way as that poor boy from The Sixth Sense who was haunted by dead strangers 24/7. My visitors were merely dead relatives who came and went. These days, they don’t visit at all. Or at least, that’s what I’ve convinced myself of. Naomi narrows her steel-blue-gray eyes at Madison Kingsley. “I said kiss him again.” I’ve also seen my fair share of dead bodies here in this very parlor and that one time when we snuck downstairs to the morgue. I used to be a frequent guest at Naomi’s house, back in the days before popularity, boys, and the amount of Instagram followers you had determined if you were good enough to be Naomi’s friend. In fact, in that first year that the Talberts moved to Meadowdale, I was one of the only kids who came over. It seemed that most parents and their children weren’t too keen on sleepovers with the dead. But that quickly changed as the Talberts rose through the town’s social ranks and became Meadowdale royalty with Naomi as the celebrated princess. Nowadays, everyone is just dying to hang with the Talberts. I shoot a quick glance at Naomi. This morning, she posted a photo of herself wearing those ridiculously tight white jeans she has on and it had already gotten 4,200 likes by lunchtime. There’s no denying that Naomi fits the mold of the classic hot girl: thick, wild honey-golden mane, lush lips, curves in all the right places, and firm where it matters. She looks like the love child of Gigi Hadid and a pair of Daisy Dukes. But high schools around the world are filled with beautiful girls. It wasn’t solely good looks that had catapulted Naomi into a league of her own. It was that girls like Naomi had discovered their power and staked their claim to the top prize before the rest of us even realized we were in a competition. “No way am I doing that again!” Madison shouts as she wipes her mouth with the back of her hand for the umpteenth time. I exchange eye rolls with Jessica Chang, who is standing on the other side of the coffin. Madison is a freshman and therefore new to the Squad. She doesn’t know that there is no point in taking the high road or standing your ground because no matter what, Naomi always wins. She isn’t just a mean girl. Naomi is the mean girl. What Madison has to do in order to keep the little social cachet she’s accumulated in the two weeks since school started is suck up her pride and let Naomi humiliate her. That way the budding sociopath will be satisfied (at least temporarily) and we can all finally leave. “Madison, we’re not going anywhere until you do as I say. I told you to kiss him for thirty seconds and you like barely did it for five,” Naomi counters as though her argument is completely logical. I sigh. Why does every moment with Naomi feel like a scene from a Lifetime movie? One where the mean girl murders the new pledge in a hazing gone too far and the rest of her minions have to help cover it up. At some point or another, we’ve all been subjected to Naomi’s tests. Madison is actually getting off kind of easy. Last year, Naomi forced a new recruit to spend an entire hour inside a closed casket. I arch my neck slightly to peek into the showroom across the hall. Glossy coffins in all makes and models sit out in full display like shiny new automobiles at a car dealership. When he’d renovated this place a few years ago, Mr. Talbert had poured so much money into blinging out the main floor with crystal chandeliers and gold accents that he’d dubbed it “the bank.” I’ve always thought it was like putting lipstick on a corpse. No amount of designer wallpaper can hide the creepy fact that there’s an actual morgue downstairs. “Please don’t make me kiss that old dead man again,” Madison begs. Her freckled chin begins to tremble. I wince. Doesn’t Madison know that crying only makes it worse? Hasn’t the girl watched Karate Kid, Heathers, or any 1980s Molly Ringwald flick? Maybe Maddie isn’t an ’80s girl, but, come on, she’s certainly seen Mean Girls. Those films might have been made way before my time but I firmly believe in applying history (at least movie history) to the present. Basically, any situation that I find myself in can be referred back to a book, movie, or TV show. Who better to help me navigate the perilous world of high school than Judy Blume or John Hughes? This doesn’t mean that I’ve managed teenagehood unscathed. Far from it, actually. But at least I’m still alive, and survival is all I’m hoping for right now. Big, sloppy tears roll down Madison’s face, forcing me to look away. I don’t need a movie to tell me that I should do something to help the girl. The nausea that is making me want to hurl my lunchtime nachos is enough of an indicator that every single aspect of this situation is wrong. However, the warning bell going off in my head reminds me that any action that sets me apart from the herd will draw a lot of attention. By doing something, I risk becoming the heroine. Heroines are leads and I have already determined that the safest way to get through high school is to play an extra—just be part of the background and blend in. Of course, blending in with the predominantly white cast of Meadowdale isn’t so easy for a brown girl. To be accurate (I’ll put it in food terms, since that’s usually what most people use to describe girls who look like me), I’m a caramel frappuccino with a peanut butter swirl. My brown comes via India. No, I’m not going to have an arranged marriage. No, I didn’t escape the squalor of Mumbai like that boy in Slumdog Millionaire (Jai ho, bitch). No, I don’t need to wear a red dot on my forehead. No, I can’t show you how to wrap a sari. No, I don’t know Priyanka Chopra or Mindy Kaling or “that one girl from the Bollywood video.” And yes, I speak English and I understand every single word that you just said about me. “The longer you stall, the longer you have to kiss him the second time, Maddie,” Naomi hisses. I realize that we live in the age of Beyoncé, where brown, black, and everyone in between is accepted and even celebrated. However, that applies to the world out there, the la-la land of social media and diverse metropolises like NYC, LA, Toronto, and London. My reality is Meadowdale, Illinois, population thirty-two thousand, smack-dab in America’s heartland. A town that feels like it cropped up in the middle of a cornfield and has more cows than people. Meadowdale is three hours away from Chicago, one hour from a decent mall, and light years away from everything else. It isn’t that Meadowdale is intolerant. For the most part, it’s okay to be a minority here. As long as you act just like everyone else. That means I have to work harder and be better than all of them just to prove that I am exactly like them. I’m junior-class vice president, in the honor society, and on the student council, tennis team, and poms (bottom of the pyramid and back line, but nonetheless). I maintain a 3.7 grade point average but make sure not to reach 4.0 because everyone hates a brownnoser. Most important, I am the perpetual nice girl, never too much and adapts easily. Except that there is nothing easy about it. Madison’s sobs drown out the Muzak playing from the overhead sound system. In this particular situation, no matter how hard Madison cries, blending in means that I should do nothing at all. “Naomi, I think Maddie has had enough,” Tessa Price mumbles as she looks down and pretends to study a lock of her bleached-blond hair extensions. I’m all about DIY beauty but her hair looks so fake that I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d just glued pieces of straw to her head. She’s skinny to the point of being skeletal and her voice is quiet and wispy. “Can we just drop it and go on with our cheer meeting?” Tessa is Naomi’s BFF which makes her VP, wingman, and number two. She is generally perceived as the good cop but runner-up is mostly a ceremonial position with lots of perks but very little influence. To Tessa’s credit, she’s usually the only one of us that makes any effort to check Naomi on these all-too-frequent occasions when she goes full-on Regina George. Naomi gives Tessa the kind of withering stare that would turn most mortals into stone, then raises a perfectly waxed eyebrow. “Who cares what she wants? That’s—” “You’re not supposed to be in here,” a deep male voice barks. I jump and turn in the direction of the voice. In the doorway is a tall guy with a short blond buzzcut wearing an ill-fitting black blazer that appears to be at least a couple of sizes too big for his lean, muscular frame. His intense green eyes peek out from behind his thick dark-rimmed glasses, which look like the kind of fake prop that I used in the costume department for last year’s school musical. “Who’s the hottie?” Jessica coos not so quietly. A few of the other girls chime in with their own catcalls and stupid remarks. I also can’t help checking him out but for a different reason. A weird sensation like déjà vu washes over me. I am fairly certain that I’ve never met the guy but there is something oddly familiar about him. Maybe because he’s an unsettling mix of American Psycho and Ryan Gosling. “He isn’t a hottie. He’s, like, my dad’s pathetic intern,” Naomi says, letting her disgust drip from every word. “A creepy hottie,” Jessica purrs. “Even better.” Naomi ignores her and turns her attention to the intern. She plasters on her best fake smile. “Since you’re new, lackey boy, I’ll let this one slide. But just so you know in the future, this is my house and I can go anywhere I want.” Naomi’s delivery is classic diva. All that is missing is the hair flip. I try to read the guy’s face for some kind of reaction but there isn’t even a tiny crack in his icy demeanor. “You can go anywhere you want upstairs in the private living quarters. Not here with the bodies,” he counters. He is talking to Naomi but I feel like his eyes are on me, which makes me jittery. I’m not used to guys noticing me, especially when Naomi is around. Though the way this guy is checking me out doesn’t feel like he wants to ask for my digits. Naomi digs her platform heels into the carpet. “I don’t take orders from the help.” “And I don’t tolerate petulant children.” Then he makes a gesture that is too fast for me to catch. But Naomi sees it. Her cheeks flame with rage. “It was you . . .” she mutters, but she doesn’t finish her thought. Instead, to my utter shock, Naomi begins to make her way toward the door. In the nearly ten years that I’ve known Naomi, I’ve hardly ever seen her obey anyone so easily. We all follow her without saying a single word. As I reach the end of the hallway, just before the staircase, I turn around. That same strange feeling comes over me again. The guy is still standing in the doorway and I swear that he is staring right through me.