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"My father is a control freak, I hate my stepmother, my brother is dead and my mother has
issues. How do you think I'm doing?"
That's how I would have loved to respond to Mrs. Collins's question, but my father placed too much importance on appearance for me to answer honestly. Instead, I blinked three times and said, "Fine."
Mrs. Collins, Eastwick High's new clinical social worker, acted as if I hadn't spoken. She shoved a stack of files to the side of her already cluttered desk and flipped through various papers. My new therapist hummed when she found my three-inch-thick file and rewarded herself with a sip of coffee, leaving bright red lipstick on the curve of the mug. The stench of cheap coffee and freshly sharpened pencils hung in the air.
My father checked his watch from the chair to my right and, on my left, the Wicked Witch of the West shifted impatiently. I was missing first period calculus, my father was missing some very important meeting, and my stepmother from Oz? I'm sure she was missing her brain.
"Don't you just love January?" Mrs. Collins asked as she opened my file. "New year, new month, new slate to start over on." Not even waiting for a reply, she continued, "Do you like the curtains? I made them myself."
In one synchronized movement, my father, my stepmother and I turned our attention to the pink polka-dotted curtains hanging on the windows overlooking the student parking lot. The curtains were too Little House on the Prairie with the color scheme of a bad rave for my taste. Not a single one of us answered and our silence created a heavy awkwardness.
My father's BlackBerry vibrated. With exaggerated effort, he pulled it out of his pocket and scrolled down the screen. Ashley drummed her fingers over her bloated belly and I read the various handpainted plaques hanging on the wall so I could focus on anything that wasn't her.
Failure is your only enemy. The only way up is to never look down. We succeed because we believe. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
Okayso that last one didn't make the wall of sayings, but I would have found it amusing.
Mrs. Collins reminded me of an overgrown Labrador retriever with her blond hair and much too friendly attitude. "Echo's ACT and SAT scores are fabulous. You should be very proud of your daughter." She gave me a sincere smile, exposing all of her teeth.
Start the timer. My therapy session had officially begun. Close to two years ago, after the incident, Child Protective Services had "strongly encouraged" therapyand Dad quickly learned that it was better to say yes to anything "strongly encouraged."
I used to go to therapy like normal people, at an office separate from school. Thanks to an influx in funding from the state of Kentucky and an overenthusiastic social worker, I'd become part of this pilot program. Mrs. Collins's sole job was to deal with a few kids from my high school. Lucky me.
My father sat up taller in his seat. "Her math scores were low. I want her to retake the tests."
"Is there a bathroom nearby?" Ashley interrupted. "The baby loves to sit on my bladder."
More like Ashley loved to make everything about her. Mrs. Collins gave her a strained smile and pointed to the door. "Go out to the main hallway and take a right."
The way she maneuvered out of her chair, Ashley acted as if she carried a thousand-pound ball of lead instead of a tiny baby. I shook my head in disgust, which only drew my father's ice-cold stare.
"Mr. Emerson," Mrs. Collins continued once Ashley left the room, "Echo's scores are well above the national average and, according to her file, she's already applied to the colleges of her choice."
"There are some business schools with extended deadlines I'd like her to apply to. Besides, this family does not accept 'above average.' My daughter will excel." My father spoke with the air of a deity. He might as well have added the phrase so let it be written, so let it be done. I propped my elbow on the armrest and hid my face in my hands.
"I can see that this really bothers you, Mr. Emerson," Mrs. Collins said in an annoyingly even tone. "But Echo's English scores are close to perfect
And this was where I tuned them out. My father and the previous guidance counselor had this fight my sophomore year when I took the PSAT. Then again last year when I took the SAT and ACT for the first time. Eventually, the guidance counselor learned my father always won and started giving up after one round.
My test scores were the least of my concerns. Finding the money to fix Aires' car was the worry that plagued my brain. Since Aires' death, my father had remained stubborn on the subject, insisting we should sell it.
"Echo, are you happy with your scores?" asked Mrs. Collins.
I peeked at her through the red, curly hair hanging over my face. The last therapist understood the hierarchy of our family and talked to my father, not me. "Excuse me?"
"Are you happy with your ACT and SAT scores? Do you want to retake the tests?" She folded her hands and placed them on top of my file. "Do you want to apply to more schools?"
I met my father's tired gray eyes. Let's see. Retaking the tests would mean my father hounding me every second to study, which in turn would mean me getting up early on a Saturday, blowing the whole morning frying my brain and then worrying for weeks over the results. As for applying to more schools? I'd rather retake the tests. "Not really."
The worry lines forever etched around his eyes and mouth deepened with disapproval. I changed my tune. "My dad is right. I should retake the tests."
Mrs. Collins scratched away in my file with a pen. My last therapist had been highly aware of my authority issues. No need to rewrite what was already there.
Ashley waddled back into the room and dropped into the seat next to me. "What did I miss?" I'd honestly forgotten she existed. Oh, if only Dad would, too.
"Nothing," my father replied.
Mrs. Collins finally lifted her pen from the page. "Ask Mrs. Marcos for the next testing dates before you go to class. And while I'm playing the role of guidance counselor, I'd like to discuss your schedule for the winter term. You've filled your free periods with multiple business classes. I was wondering why."
The real answer, because my father told me to, would probably irritate multiple people in the room so I ad-libbed, "They'll help prepare me for college." Wow. I'd said that with all the enthusiasm of a six-year-old waiting for a flu shot. Bad choice on my part. My father shifted in his seat again and sighed. I considered giving a different answer, but figured that reply would also come off flat.
Mrs. Collins perused my file. "You've shown an incredible talent in the arts, specifically painting. I'm not suggesting you drop all of your business courses, but you could drop one and take an art class instead."
"No," my father barked. He leaned forward in his seat, steepling his fingers. "Echo won't be taking any art classes, is that clear?" My father was a strange combination of drill instructor and Alice's white rabbit: he always had someplace important to go and enjoyed bossing everyone else around.
I had to give Mrs. Collins credit; she never once flinched before she caved. "Crystal."
"Well, now that we've settled that
" Ashley and her baby bump perched on the edge of the chair, preparing to stand. "I accidentally overbooked today and I have an OB appointment. We may find out the baby's gender."
"Mrs. Emerson, Echo's academics aren't the reason for this meeting, but I understand if you need to leave." She withdrew an official letter from her top drawer as a red-faced Ashley sat back in her seat. I'd seen that letterhead several times over the past two years. Child Protective Services enjoyed killing rainforests.
Mrs. Collins read the letter to herself while I secretly wished I would spontaneously combust. Both my father and I slouched in our seats. Oh, the freaking joy of group therapy.
While waiting for her to finish reading, I noticed a stuffed green frog by her computer, a picture of her and some guypossibly her husbandand then on the corner of her desk a big blue ribbon. The fancy kind people received when they won a competition. Something strange stirred inside me. Huhweird.
Mrs. Collins hole-punched the letter and then placed it in my already overwhelmed file. "There. I'm officially your therapist."
When she said nothing else, I drew my gaze away from the ribbon to her. She was watching me. "It's a nice ribbon, isn't it, Echo?"
My father cleared his throat and sent Mrs. Collins a death glare. Okay, that was an odd reaction, but then again, he was irritated just to be here. My eyes flickered to the ribbon again. Why did it feel familiar? "I guess."
Her eyes drifted to the dog tags I absently fingered around my neck. "I'm very sorry for your family's loss. What branch of the armed forces?"
Great. My father was going to have a stinking coronary. He'd only made it clear seventy-five times that Aires' dog tags were to stay in the box under my bed, but I needed them todaynew therapist, the two-year anniversary of Aires' death still fresh, and the first day of my last semester of high school. Nausea skipped and played in my intestines. Avoiding my father's disappointed frown, I took great pains to search my hair for split ends.
"Marine," my father answered curtly. "Look, I've got a meeting this morning with prospective clients, I promised Ashley I'd go to her doctor's appointment and Echo's missing class. When are we going to wrap this up?"
"When I say so. If you're going to make these sessions difficult, Mr. Emerson, I will be more than happy to call Echo's social worker."
I fought the smile tugging at my lips. Mrs. Collins played a well-choreographed hand. My father backed down, but my stepmother on the other hand.
"I don't understand. Echo turns eighteen soon. Why does the state still have authority over her?"
"Because it's what the state, her social worker and myself think is in her best interest." Mrs. Collins closed my file. "Echo will continue therapy with me until she graduates this spring. At that point, the state of Kentucky will release herand you."
She waited until Ashley nodded her silent acceptance of the situation before continuing. "How are you doing, Echo?"
Splendid. Fantastic. Never worse. "Fine."
"Really?" She tapped a finger against her chin. "Because I would have thought that the anniversary of your brother's death might trigger painful emotions."
Mrs. Collins eyed me while I stared blankly in return. My father and Ashley watched the uncomfortable showdown. Guilt nagged at me. She didn't technically ask me a question, so in theory, I didn't owe her a response, but the need to please her swept over me like a tidal wave. But why? She was another therapist in the revolving door. They all asked the same questions and promised help, but each of them left me in the same condition as they found mebroken.
"She cries." Ashley's high-pitched voice cut through the silence as if she were dispensing juicy country-club gossip. "All the time. She really misses Aires."
Both my father and I turned our heads to look at the blond bimbo. I willed her to continue while my father, I'm sure, willed her to shut up. God listened to me for once. Ashley went on, "We all miss him. It's so sad that the baby will never know him."
And once again, welcome to the Ashley show, sponsored by Ashley and my father's money. Mrs. Collins wrote briskly, no doubt etching each of Ashley's unguarded words into my file while my father groaned.
"Echo, would you like to talk about Aires during today's session?" Mrs. Collins asked.
"No." That was possibly the most honest answer I'd given all morning.
"That's fine," she said. "We'll save him for a later date. What about your mother? Have you had any contact with her?"
Ashley and my father answered simultaneously, "No," while I blurted, "Kind of."
I felt like the middle of a ham sandwich the way the two of them leaned toward me. I wasn't sure what prompted me to tell the truth. "I tried calling her over break." When she didn't answer, I'd sat next to the phone for days, hoping and praying my mother would care that two years before, my brother, her son, had died.
My father ran a hand over his face. "You know you're not allowed to have contact with your mother." The anger in his voice hinted that he couldn't believe I'd told the therapist this tantalizing tidbit. I imagined visions of social workers dancing in his head. "There is a restraining order. Tell me, Echo, landline or cell phone?"
"Landline," I choked out. "But we never talked. I swear."
He swiped at his BlackBerry and his lawyer's number appeared on the screen. I clutched the dog tags, Aires' name and serial number embedding in my palm. "Please, Daddy, don't," I whispered.
He hesitated and my heart pressed against my rib cage. Then, by the grace of God, he dropped the phone to his lap. "We're going to have to change the number now."
I nodded. It stunk that my mom would never be able to call my home, but I'd take the hit.. for her. Of all the things my mother needed, prison wasn't one of them.
"Have you had contact with your mother since then?" Mrs. Collins lost her friendliness.
"No." I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Everything inside of me ached. I couldn't keep up the "I'm fine" facade much longer. This line of questioning ripped at my soul's freshly scabbed wounds.
"To confirm we're on the same page, you understand that contact between you and your mother while there is a restraining order, even if you initiate it, is forbidden."
"Yes." I took another gulp of air. The lump in my throat denied the entry of the precious oxygen. I missed Aires and, God, my mom, and Ashley was having a baby, and my dad was on me all the time, and.I needed something, anything.
Against my better judgment, I let the words tumble out of my mouth. "I want to fix Aires' car." Maybe, just maybe, restoring something of his would make the pain go away.
"Oh, not this again," my father muttered.
"Wait. Not what again? Echo, what are you talking about?" asked Mrs. Collins.
I stared at the gloves on my hands. "Aires found a 1965 Corvette in a scrap yard. He spent all of his free time fixing it up and he was almost done before he went to Afghanistan. I want to restore it. For Aires." For me. He didn't leave anything behind when he left, except the car.
"That sounds like a healthy way to grieve. What are your thoughts on this, Mr. Emerson?" Mrs. Collins gave great puppy dog eyesa trait I had yet to master.
My father scrolled again through his BlackBerry, his body present but his mind already at work. "It costs money and I don't see the point in fixing up a broken-down car when she has a car that works."
"Then let me get a job," I snapped. "And we can sell my car once I get Aires' working."
All eyes were on him and now his were on me. Without meaning to, I'd backed him into a corner. He wanted to say no, but that would bring down the wrath of the new therapist. After all, we had to be perfect in therapy. God forbid we take advantage of it and hash out some issues.
"Fine, but she has to pay for the car herself, and Echo knows my rules regarding employment. She has to find a flexible job that will not interfere with her schoolwork, the clubs we agreed upon or her grades. Now, are we done here?"
Mrs. Collins glanced at the clock. "Not quite. Echo, your social worker extended your therapy until graduation because of your teacher evaluations. Since the beginning of your junior year, each of your teachers has noted a distinct withdrawal from your participation in class and in your social interactions with your peers." Her kind eyes bored into mine. "Everyone wants you to be happy, Echo, and I'd like you to give me the opportunity to help."
I cocked an eyebrow. Like I had a choice about therapy, and as for my happinessgood freaking luck. "Sure."
Ashley's perky voice startled me. "She has a date for the Valentine's Dance."
Now my father and I took our turn speaking simultaneously. "I do?""She does?"
Ashley's eyes darted nervously between me and my father. "Yes, remember, Echo? Last night we discussed the new guy you're into and I told you that you shouldn't dump your friends at school while you obsessed over some guy."
I deliberated over which part disturbed me more: the imaginary boyfriend or that she claimed we'd had an actual conversation. While I was deciding, my father stood and put on his coat. "See, Mrs. Collins, Echo is fine. Just a little lovestruck. As much as I enjoy these sessions, Ashley's appointment is in twenty minutes and I don't want Echo to miss any more class."
"Echo, are you really interested in making money to fix your brother's car?" Mrs. Collins asked as she stood to escort my father and stepmother out.
I pulled at the gloves I wore to cover my skin. "More than you could possibly imagine."
She smiled at me before walking out the door. "Then I've got a job for you. Wait here and we'll discuss the details."
The three of them huddled together on the far side of the main office, whispering to one another. My father wrapped his arm around Ashley's waist and she leaned into him as they nodded at Mrs. Collins's hushed words. The familiar pang of jealousy and anger ate at the lining of my gut. How could he love her when she'd destroyed so much?
Fresh paint and the scent of drywall dust made me think of my father, not school. Yet that smell slapped me in the face when I walked into the newly remodeled front office. With books in hand, I sauntered toward the counter. "'Sup, Mrs. Marcos."
"Noah, why you late again, muchacho?" she said while stapling papers together.
The clock on the wall flipped to nine in the morning. "Hell, this is early."
Mrs. Marcos stepped around her new cherry desk to meet me at the counter. She gave me crap when I came in late, but I still liked her. With her long brown hair, she reminded me of a Hispanic version of my mother.
"You missed your appointment with Mrs. Collins this morning. Not a good way to start the second term," she whispered as she wrote my tardy slip. She tilted her head toward the three adults huddled together in the far corner of the room. I assumed the middle-aged blond woman whispering to the rich couple was the new guidance counselor.
I shrugged and let the right side of my mouth twitch up. "Oops."
Mrs. Marcos slid the tardy slip to me and gave me her patented stern glare. She was the one person at this school who didn't believe that me and my future were completely fucked.
The middle-aged blonde called out, "Mr. Hutchins, I'm thrilled you remembered our appointment, even if you are late. I'm sure you wouldn't mind taking a seat while I finish a few things." She smiled at me like we were old friends and spoke so sweetly that for a moment, I almost smiled back. Instead, I nodded and took a seat on the line of chairs pushed against the office wall.
Mrs. Marcos laughed.
"She's not going to put up with your attitude. Maybe she'll convince you to take school seriously."
I rested my head against the painted cinder-block wall and shut my eyes, in need of a few more hours' sleep. Short one person for closing, the restaurant hadn't let me go until after midnight, and then Beth and Isaiah kept me up.
"Mrs. Marcos?" asked an angelic voice. "Can you please tell me the upcoming dates for the ACT and SAT?"
The phone rang. "Wait one sec," said Mrs. Marcos. Then the ringing ceased.
A chair down the row from mine shifted and my mouth watered from the aroma of hot cinnamon rolls. I snuck a peek and noticed red, silky, curly hair. I knew her. Echo Emerson.
Not a cinnamon roll in sight, but damn if she didn't smell like one. We had several of our main courses together and last semester one of our free periods. I didn't know much about her other than she kept to herself, she was smart, a redhead and she had big tits. She wore large, long-sleeved shirts that hung off her shoulders and tank tops underneath that revealed just enough to get the fantasies flowing.
Like always, she stared straight ahead as if I didn't exist. Hell, I probably didn't exist in her mind. People like Echo Emerson irritated the crap out of me.
"You've got a fucked-up name," I mumbled. I didn't know why I wanted to rattle her, I just did.
"Shouldn't you be getting high in the bathroom?"
So she did know me. "They installed security cameras. We do it in the parking lot now."
"My bad." Her foot rocked frantically back and forth.
Good, I'd succeeded in getting under that perfect facade. "Echo.echo.echo."
Her foot stopped rocking and red curls bounced furiously as she turned to face me. "How original. I've never heard that before." She swept up her backpack and left the office. Her tight ass swayed side to side as she marched down the hallway. That wasn't nearly as fun as I'd thought it would be. In fact, I kind of felt like a dick.
"Noah?" Mrs. Collins called me into her office.
The last guidance counselor had major OCD issues. Everything in the office perfectly placed. I used to move his plaques just to mess with him. There'd be no such entertainment with Mrs. Collins. Her desk was a mess. I could bury a body in here and no one would ever find it.
Taking the seat across from her, I waited for my ass-chewing.
"How was your Christmas break?" She had that kind look again, sort of like a puppy.
"Good." That is if you considered your foster mom and dad getting into a screaming match and throwing everyone's gifts into the fireplace a good Christmas. I'd always dreamed of spending my Christmas in a hellhole basement watching my two best friends get stoned.
"Wonderful. So things are working out with your new foster family." She said it as a statement, but meant it as a question.
"Yeah." Compared to the last three families I had, they were the fucking Brady Bunch. This time around, the system had placed me with another kid. Either the people in charge were short on homes or they were finally starting to believe I wasn't the menace they'd pegged me to be. People with my labels weren't allowed to live with other minors. "Look, I already have a social worker and she's enough of a pain in my ass. Tell your bosses you don't need to waste your time on me."
"I'm not a social worker," she said. "I'm a clinical social worker."
"Actually, it's not. I went to school for a lot longer."
"Good for you."
"And it means I can provide a different level of help for you."
"Do you get paid by the state?" I asked.
"Then I don't want your help."
Her lips flinched into an almost smile and I almost had an ounce of respect for her. "How about we shoot this straight?" she said. "According to your file you have a history of violence."
I stared at her. She stared at me. That file was full of shit, but I learned years ago the word of a teenager meant nothing against the word of an adult.
"This file, Noah." She tapped it three times with her finger. "I don't think it tells the whole story. I talked to your teachers at
Highland High. The picture they painted doesn't represent the young man I see in front of me."
I clutched the spiral metal binding of my calculus notebook until it stabbed the palm of my hand. Who the hell did this lady think she was digging into my past?
She flipped through my file. "You've been bounced around to several foster homes in the past two and a half years. This is your fourth high school since your parents' death. What I find interesting is that until a year and a half ago, you still made the honor roll and you still competed in sports. Those are qualities that don't usually match a disciplinary case."
"Maybe you need to dig a little further." I wanted this lady out of my life and the best way to do that was to scare her. "If you did, you'd find out I beat up my first foster father." Actually, I had punched him in the face when I caught him hitting his biological son. Funny how no one in that family took my side when the cops arrived. Not even the kid I defended.
Mrs. Collins paused as if she was waiting for me to give her my side of the story, but she was sadly mistaken. Since my parents' death, I'd learned that no one in the system gave a crap. Once you entered, you were damned.
"Your old guidance counselor at Highland spoke highly of you. Made the varsity basketball team your freshman year, honor roll, involved in several student activities, popular amongst your peers." She surveyed me. "I think I would have liked that kid."
So did Ibut life sucked. "Little late for me to join the basketball teamhalfway through the season and all. Think coach will be fine with my tattoos?"
"I have no interest in you re-creating your old life, but together I think we can build something new. A better future than the one you will have if you continue down your current path."
She sounded so damn sincere. I wanted to believe her, but I'd learned the hard way to never trust anyone. Keeping my face devoid of emotion, I let the silence build.
She broke eye contact first and shook her head. "You've been dealt a rough hand, but you're full of possibilities. Your scores on the aptitude tests are phenomenal and your teachers see your potential. Your grade point average needs a boost, as does your attendance. I believe those are related.
"Now, I have a plan. Along with seeing me once a week, you will attend tutoring sessions until your G.P.A. matches your test scores."
I stood. I'd already missed first period. This fun little meeting got me out of second. But since I'd actually gotten my ass out of bed, I intended to go to class sometime today. "I don't have time for this."
A slight edge crept into her tone, so subtle I almost missed it. "Do I need to contact your social worker?"
I headed for the door. "Go ahead. What is she going to do? Rip my family apart? Put me in the foster care system? Continue to dig and you'll see you're too late."
"When was the last time you saw your brothers, Noah?"
My hand froze on the doorknob.
"What if I could offer you increased supervised visitation?" I let go of the doorknob and sat back down.
If only I could wear gloves every moment of the day, I'd feel more secure, but the stupid dress code wouldn't let me. Because of this, my wardrobe consisted of anything with long sleevesthe longer the better.
I clutched the ends of my sleeves and pulled them over my fingers, causing my blue cotton shirt to hang off my right shoulder. My freshman year, I would have freaked if people stared at my white skin and the occasional orange freckle. Now, I preferred for people to look at my bare shoulder instead of trying to catch a glimpse of the scars on my arms.
"Did she say who it was? I bet you it's Jackson Coleman. I heard he's failing math and if he doesn't get his grades up he'll lose his scholarship to college. God, I hope it is. He is so hot." My best friend, Lila McCormick, took her first breath since I'd given her the rundown on my counseling session and the tutoring job Mrs. Collins spontaneously created. With her nonstop mouth and tight clothes, Lila was Eastwick High's own version of Glinda the Good Witch. She floated in her own beautiful bubble spreading happiness and cheer.
As Lila moved her tray down the lunch line, the smell of pizza and French fries made my mouth water, but the nausea roiling in my stomach kept me from buying food. My heart thundered and I hugged my sketch pad closer to my chest. I couldn't believe I was actually in the lunchroom. Lila and I had been best friends since preschool and the one thing she'd asked of me for Christmas was that I ditch the library and reclaim my old spot at our lunch table.
It may have sounded like an easy request, but it wasn't. The last time I'd eaten lunch in the cafeteria was at the beginning of May during my sophomore year: the day before my entire world fell apart. Back then, no one stared at me or whispered.
"Who's hot?" Natalie cut the line by sliding her tray between me and Lila. A group of guys behind us groaned at her boldness. As usual, she ignored them. Natalie was the second of two people who refused to treat me like a social pariah because of the gossip flying about me at school.
Lila pulled her sleek golden hair into a ponytail before paying the cashier. "Jackson Coleman. Echo is going to tutor some lucky guy and I'm guessing it might be him. Who would you like to add to our list of hot yet stupid boys?"
I followed them to the lunch table as Natalie's eyes roamed the cafeteria, searching for the right combination. "Nicholas Green. He's dumber than dirt, but I could eat him for dessert. If you're tutoring him, Echo, think you could introduce me?"
"Introduce who to who?" asked Grace. Natalie and Lila took their seats and I hesitated.
Grace's smile fell when she spotted me. She was the main reason why I didn't want to return to the lunchroom. We were total best friends before the incident and, I guess, even after. She visited me every day in the hospital and at home during the summer, but when our junior year began and my social status took a nosedive, so did our friendship.. in public that is. In private she claimed to love me like a sister. Everyone else at school treated me like I didn't exist.
"Natalie to Nicholas Green." Lila patted the seat between her and Natalie. Attempting to hide, I dropped into the chair, slouched and propped my sketch pad against the edge of the table.
The other girls whispered to each other as they glimpsed me. One giggled. From the time I'd come back to school, I never had a social shot. The rumors about why I was absent for the last month of my sophomore year ranged from pregnancy to rehab to attempted suicide. My gloves became the kindling and my memory loss the match. When I returned that fall, the rumors exploded into a firestorm.
Lila continued her explanation. "Echo's going to be tutoring some dumb hottie. We're trying to guess who it will be."
"Well, don't hold out on us, Lila. Who is Echo tutoring?" Grace's eyes flickered from Lila to the girls on her squad sitting at the table. When we'd returned for junior year, Grace had found out she had a shot at making head cheerleadera difficult feat since she'd always hovered in the periphery of popular in that crowd. I'd assumed things between us would go back to normal once she was voted in. I'd been mistaken.
"Ask Echo." Lila's teeth crunched into the apple, her hardened gaze locked on Grace. Our table became eerily silent as the most beautiful girl at school openly defied the most popular girl at school. A lull fell over the cafeteria as the student body prepared to watch the showdown in progress. I would have sworn a tumbleweed blew past the table and that weird Western whistle song played on the loudspeaker.
I gave Lila's foot a nudge, begging her in my mind to answer for me, instead of forcing Grace to acknowledge me in front of other people. Seconds ticked by as neither flinched in the stare-down.
I couldn't take it. "I don't know. I meet him this afternoon." Mrs. Collins didn't want to say who I'd be tutoring. She'd mumbled something about smoothing over a few details with him before we met.
Movement and chatter resumed in the cafeteria. The muscles in Grace's face relaxed and she took a relieved breath before taking stock of the reaction of her public friends. "I'll play guess the stupid hunk." She sent me a private wink. For the billionth time, I wished my life could go back to normal.
When Grace threw out a name the rest of the group also decided to play. I sketched Grace as they talked. Her new short blond haircut framed her face perfectly. I listened to their name-dropping and the new school gossip that accompanied their guesses.
"Maybe Echo's tutoring Luke Manning," Lila said with a not-so-gentle nudge of my arm. "He fits hunk and less-than-bright."
I rolled my eyes and did my best to fix the dark line her nudge had created on my drawing. Lila held on to the false hope that Luke, my boyfriend from my life before, still harbored feelings for me. She substantiated her claim with made-up stories of how he watched me when I wasn't paying attention.
"Luke and Deanna broke up over the winter break," said Grace. "Deanna says she broke up with him. Luke says he broke up with her. Who knows if we'll ever find out the truth?"
"Who would you believe, Echo?" Natalie asked. Gotta give her credit. She wanted me to participate in the conversation, regardless of whether I wanted to be included.
I focused on shading the shadow Grace's hair created against her ear. After meeting Luke in freshman English, I'd dated him for a year and a half. This made me the table's Luke expert. Since our breakup, every table with a female contained a Luke expert. "Hard to say. I broke up with Luke and he didn't claim any differently, but he's changed a lot since then."
"Noah Hutchins," Natalie said.
I stopped sketching, confused about what Noah had to do with Luke. "What?"
"Guess the hunk, remember? Noah Hutchins is definitely hot. I'd tutor him." Lila stared over at the stoner table, practically drooling. How could she swoon over the guy who'd made fun of me?
Grace's mouth gaped. "And take the social hit? No way."
"I said I'd tutor him, not take him to prom. Besides, from what I've heard, quite a few girls have ridden that train and loved every second of it."
Grace glanced at Noah, eyes wandering up, then down. "You're right. He's hot, and rumor has it he's only into one-nighters. Though Bella Monahan tried to force a relationship. She followed him around like a pathetic puppy dog. He wanted nothing to do with her if it didn't involve the backseat of his car."
Lila loved dirt. "She lost her boyfriend, her virginity, her reputation and her self-respect in less than a month. That's why she transferred to another school."
Guys like Noah Hutchins ticked me off. He used girls, used drugs and had made me feel like crap this morning. Not that I should be surprised. I'd had a couple of classes with him last semester. He'd stride into the room like he owned the earth and smirk when girls fell all over themselves in his presence. "What a jerk."
As if he heard me from across the room, his dark eyes met mine. His shaggy brown hair fell over them, but I could tell he was looking at me. The stubble on his face moved as he smiled. Noah had muscles, looks and trouble stalking him. Somehow, he made jeans and a T-shirt look dangerous. Not that I was into girl-using stoners. Yet, I took another peek at him while sipping my drink.
"Harsh words, Echo. You're not talking about me, are you?" A chair scraped the floor. Luke flipped it around so he could straddle it between Natalie and Grace. Come freaking on. Luke and I had barely spoken a word to each other since we broke up sophomore year. Why was everyone pushing me into social mode today?
"No," said Lila. "We talked about you earlier. Echo was calling Noah Hutchins a jerk." I kicked her under the table. She sent me a glare in return.
"Hutchins?" Luke Manning: six foot two, built like a freight train with black hair, blue eyes, captain of the basketball team, hot and full of himself. To my horror, he sized Noah up. "What's stoner boy done to deserve your wrath?"
"Nothing." I returned to my sketch pad. My cheeks burned when one of Grace's public friends mumbled something about my weirdness. Why couldn't Lila, Natalie and Luke just leave me alone? The gossip only became worse when I crept out of my shell.
Unfortunately, Lila chose to ignore my red cheeks and my warning kick. "He made fun of Echo this morning, but don't worry, she told him off."
The pencil in my hand bowed from my tighter grip as I fought the urge to yank Lila's gorgeous hair out of her head. My teachers and Mrs. Collins were so wrong. Interacting with my peers stunk.
Luke's eyes narrowed. "What did he say to you?"
I stomped on Lila's toes and stared straight at her. "Nothing."
"He told her that she had an effed-up name and then did the stupid 'echo' thing people did in elementary school," said Lila. Oh, God, I wanted to murder my best friend.
"You want me to talk to him?" Luke stared at me with a familiar hint of possessiveness. Both Grace and Natalie smiled like Cheshire cats. I refused to look at Lila, who bounced in her seat. Now I would never hear the end of her fantasies about Luke and me getting back together.
"No. He's a stupid guy who said a stupid thing. He probably doesn't even remember saying it."
Luke chuckled. "True. That whole table's screwed up. Did you know that Hutchins is a foster kid?"
The girls at my table gasped at the new gossip. I checked out Noah again. He appeared deep in conversation with some girl with long black hair.
"Yep," Luke continued. "Heard Mrs. Rogers and Mr. Norris discussing it in the hallway." The bell rang, ending Luke's spotlight on the forbidden information on Noah Hutchins.
While I threw away the remains of my lunch, Grace sidled up beside me and whispered, "This was huge, Echo. If Luke's into you again, life will change. Who he talks to and dates changes everyone's opinion. Maybe things will finally get back to normal."
One of Grace's public friends called out to her and she left my side without a second glance. I sighed as I pulled my sleeves over my fingers. What I wouldn't give for normal.
I'd told Mrs. Collins the truth. I didn't have time for tutoring or counseling. In June, I would turn eighteen and graduate from foster care. That meant I'd need a place of my own, and rent meant a job. But Mrs. Collins had played me like a street hustler. An occasional supervised visit with my brothers wasn't enough. She dangled them in front of me like a damn needle to a heroin addict.
My shift at the Malt and Burger started at five. I glanced at the clock hanging over the reference librarian's desk. What part of "meet the guy you're tutoring directly after school at the public library" did my know-itall misunderstand? Mrs. Collins might have mentioned who would be tutoring me, but I'd stopped listening after a few minutes. The lady talked too much.
I focused on the double doors. Five more minutes and I could happily call this session a failure, a fact I would be thrilled to throw in Mrs. Collins's face.
One door opened and cold air swept in, causing goose bumps to rise on my arms. Ah, hell. I leaned back in my chair and folded my arms across my chest. Echo Emerson glided into the library.
Her eyes swept the room while her gloved hands rubbed her arms. Like the cold could penetrate that fancy-ass brown leather coat. A light, sunshine smile rested on her face. It appeared Mrs. Collins had kept us both in the dark. The moment she saw me, her smile faded and her green eyes erupted with thunderclouds. Join the fucking club.
From under the table, I kicked out the chair opposite me. "You're late."
She set her book bag on the table and scooted the chair in as she sat. "I had to go to the office and find out testing dates. I could have gotten the information this morning, but some jerk got in my way."
Advantage Echo, but I smiled at her like I had the upper hand. "You could have stayed. I never asked you to leave."
"And let you harass me some more? No, thanks." She shrugged off her jacket, but kept on her knitted gloves. She smelled of cold and leather. Her blue cotton shirt dipped below her beige tank, exposing the top of her cleavage. Girls like her enjoyed teasing guys. Little did she know, I didn't mind looking.
Catching me staring, she readjusted her shirt and her cleavage disappeared from view. Well, that was fun. She glared at me, possibly waiting for an apology. She'd be waiting a long time.
"What subject are you failing? All of them?" Those green eyes danced. It appeared Echo also enjoyed dishing out shit.
All right, I'd screwed with her this morning for no reason. She deserved to get a couple blows in. "None. Mrs. Collins is calling the shots on this."
Echo opened her backpack and withdrew a notebook. A shadow crossed her face when she slid off the gloves and immediately pulled her long sleeves over her hands. "What subject do you want to start with? We have calculus and physics together, so we could start there. You've got to be a complete moron if you need help with business technology." She paused. "And weren't you in my Spanish class last term?"
I lowered my head so my hair fell into my eyes. For a girl who didn't know I existed, she sure knew a lot about me. "Yeah." And this term, too. She barely beat the bell walking into class and took the first seat available without giving anyone a second look.
"Que tan bien hablas espanol?" she asked.
How well could I speak Spanish? Pretty damn decent. I shoved away from the table. "I gotta go."
"What?" Her forehead crinkled in disbelief.
"Unlike you, I don't have parents to pay for everything. I've got a job, Princess, and if I don't leave now, I'll be late. See you around."
Grabbing my books and jacket, I left the table and immediately exited the library. The cold January air smacked me in the face. Ice covered several spots on the pavement.
I glanced over my shoulder. Echo bounded after me, leather jacket on one arm and pack slung over her back.
"Get your damn jacket on. It's cold outside." I didn't stop for her, but I slowed my pace, curious as to why she followed me out.
She caught up quickly and kept step beside me. "Where do you think you're going?"
"I told you, to work. I thought you were smart." I'd never met anyone so fun to mess with.
"Fine. Then when are we going to make this session up?"
I slammed my books on the piece of crap I called a car, causing rust to scatter to the ground. "We're not. I'll make you a deal. You tell Mrs. Collins that we're meeting as many days after school as you want, collect whatever volunteer hours you need for whatever little club you belong to, and I'll back you up. I won't have to see you and you won't have to look at me. I get to continue with my screwed up life and you get to go home and play dress-up with your friends. Deal?"
Echo winced and backed away as if I'd slapped her. She lost her footing when she hit a patch of ice. My right hand swept out and snatched her wrist before her body could smack the ground.
I kept hold of her while she steadied herself using the trunk of my car. Embarrassment or cold flushed her white cheeks. Either way, I found it funny. But before I had a chance to make fun of her, her eyes widened and she stared down at the wrist
Her long blue sleeve was hiked past her elbow and I followed her gaze to the exposed skin. She attempted to yank her hand away, but I tightened my grip and swallowed my disgust. In all the horror-show homes I'd lived in, I never once saw mutilation like that. White and pale red, raised scars zigzagged up her arm. "What the fuck is that?"
I tore my eyes away from the scars and searched her face for answers. She sucked in several shallow gasps before yanking a second time and successfully jerking out of my grasp. "Nothing."
"That ain't nothing." And that something had to hurt like hell when it happened.
Echo stretched her sleeve past her wrist to her fingertips. She resembled a corpse. The blood rushed out of her cheeks and her body quaked with silent tremors. "Leave me alone." She turned away and stumbled back to the library.