Sage Czinski is trying really hard to be perfect. If she manages it, people won't peer beyond the surface, or ask hard questions about her past. She's learned to substitute causes for relationships, and it's working just fine . . . until Shane Cavendish strolls into her math class. He's a little antisocial, a lot beautiful, and everything she never knew she always wanted.
Shane Cavendish just wants to be left alone to play guitar and work on his music. He's got heartbreak and loneliness in his rearview mirror, and this new school represents his last chance. He doesn't expect to be happy; he only wants to graduate and move on. He never counted on a girl like Sage.
But love doesn't mend all broken things, and sometimes life has to fall apart before it can be put back together again. . . .
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About the Author
ANN AGUIRRE is a New York Times&USA Today bestselling author and RITA winner with a degree in English literature. She lives in sunny Mexico with her husband, children, and various pets. She likes books, emo music, and action movies. She writes all kinds of genre fiction for adults and teens, including the Razorland series and Like Never and Always.
Read an Excerpt
The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things
By Ann Aguirre
MacmillanCopyright © 2015 Ann Aguirre
All rights reserved.
I know what they call me. The Goth girls started it, all ripped black fishnets and heavy kohl, with chipped black nail polish and metric tons of attitude, like any of that makes them cooler than anyone else. It so doesn't, but high school is full of people who think what they wear matters more than who they are. But I should talk. Before I came to stay with Aunt Gabby, I was worse than those girls. But she's taught me a lot in the years I've been living with her, mostly how to stop being angry about things I can't control.
Like my mom. My dad. And especially the nickname.
It echoes as I walk past the burners, which is what I call the pot and pill heads, who cluster near the emergency exit. They disable the alarms after each inspection, so they can slip in and out for a smoke. A bleary-eyed guy who's failing to rock a soul patch says, "What up, Princess?" and holds up two fingers in what's supposed to be a victory sign ... or maybe peace, I dunno.
I ignore him, though it's not easy. There's always a part of me that wants to make people sorry when they piss me off, but I've swallowed her whole, wrapped the shadow me in plastic, and I'm waiting for her to stop breathing. I walk on, brightening my smile through sheer determination. I've heard if you pretend long enough—or maybe wish hard enough—faking normal becomes real. I'm counting on that. Until then, I'll carry on.
Everybody at JFK has a thing. For the drama dorks, it's huddling up in the auditorium, singing or running lines every chance they get. They all have big Broadway dreams, fattened by watching Glee. Since we're also in a podunk Midwestern town, they figure the show speaks directly to them. I don't mind the concept, but it's ironic that they get twenty-five-year-olds to play high school students. Which explains why all the performers have such poise and polish. I'd like it more if they looked real, if they occasionally had zits or bad hair.
The burners take pride in not doing anything. Most of them have a 1.2 GPA, barely attend class, and are heavily into recreational drugs. The preps are all about grades, sports, and pretending to be awesome in front of adults. Ironically, they also drink the most; a few of them do it binge style and suffer from blackouts on a regular basis.
I fit in with the crunchy granola do-gooders. I'm involved in eco-related clubs, partly because it looks good on your college application, and I don't intend to stay in a crappy Midwestern town. When I graduate, I'm getting out of here, where everything feels small. Maybe that sounds like I don't appreciate Aunt Gabby, which is the opposite of true, but I can love her without thinking this is the best place ever.
"Is she ever gonna stop with that?" one of the goth girls asks.
"Whatever. Let Princess Post-it do her thing," says a dude with a safety pin in his ear.
I wish they'd listen to him; it's not like I'm hurting anyone. Basically, my thing is this—and it started freshman year—I had a pack of pink Post-it notes with me on the first day of school because I was so scared I'd forget something important. Before I started at the junior high here, it had been years since I attended a normal school, and I felt pretty sure that junior high wasn't the same as high school. So yeah, reminders. Inside my locker. On my notebooks. Everywhere.
There's this girl, Becky, who has great hair, bouncy and red, but she's ... big. Not like me, with a small chest and a big butt, but all over large. So that day, first day of freshman gym, they didn't have shorts or a tee that would fit her. So she's sitting in the bleachers in her school clothes, red-faced, shiny-eyed, fighting tears while she hears people saying stuff like "orca" and "lard-ass" as we run laps. I can tell by watching her that she's about to cry, which will just make her humiliation complete. But the bell rings before she breaks, and we go back to the locker room. The other girls treat her like she's invisible, and I see her register that this is how high school is going to be; her place in the social strata is already cemented from one bad day. And I couldn't change that. So I don't know why I did it—just an inexplicable impulse—but later that afternoon, I wrote You have amazing hair on a pink Post-it and stuck it on her locker, where everyone could see it.
I waited for her to read it, and after she did, Becky looked around to see if somebody was punking her. So I made eye contact to be sure she knew I meant it, smiled, and gave her a thumbs-up. Maybe it was stupid; maybe it didn't help at all, but from the way she lit up, I feel like it did. She gave me two thumbs back, and we went our separate ways.
However, I liked the feeling. I enjoyed cheering her up. High school is hell and I'm trundling around passing out ice water. Maybe it doesn't end the torment but if the nice balances out some of the crap, then I feel like it was worth my while. So that's how Post-its became my thing. Hence the nickname.
I do this daily, scope for somebody having an awful day, and look for a bright side. Sometimes it's lame, but at least I'm trying. Aunt Gabby says if you put positivity out into the world, it will come back to you tenfold. I don't know if that's true, but I want it to be. I'm trying so hard to build up good karma, like when you can't see how furiously a duck is paddling beneath the placid surface of a pond.
Aunt Gabby is actually my half aunt because she was my dad's half sister. Apparently she and Dad weren't raised together; they have the same father, and he was the kind of guy who thought it was awesome to impregnate multiple women and then wander off. I don't remember my grandma. She passed on when my dad was young ... and he died when I was seven. That doesn't bode well for my potential lifespan, I suppose. But bad ends run in my blood, not genetic disorders or congenital health problems. So whatever goes wrong, at least it'll be quick.
"Sage!" My best friend, Ryan, wanders out of Mrs. David's classroom, falling into step. "You going to Green World tonight?"
That's our eco-awareness group. Supposedly, we'll come up with ways to save the planet, brainstorm green technologies, and sponsor community cleanup projects. So far, one month into the school year, we've only managed to order pizza and screw around.
"Yeah. I hope we actually do something soon."
"Ditto that. I signed up to pad my college apps, but this failure to launch is becoming problematic."
"You sound like you already work for NASA," I say.
Ryan is over six feet tall with black hair that refuses to lie down, regardless of how it's cut or combed, and he's a total string bean. He wears hipster glasses to disguise how much of ginormous dork he is, but so far, this strategy has fooled no one. Not that it matters to me how he looks.
He was the first friend I made when I moved here three years ago. That day, I forgot my lunch; I was a huge mess, and I sat down in the corner of the cafeteria at a broken table, or at least, it was half broken, because it almost collapsed when I leaned my elbows on it. Everyone else at the school knew not to sit there, but after I plunked down, I was too nervous to move. To this day, I have no idea why Ryan came over. I had terminal new-kid disease, which can be mad contagious, but I guess Ryan was vaccinated—or lonely. That day, he gave me half a peanut butter sandwich and the courage not to drown myself in the girls' toilet. We've been inseparable ever since.
"Seen anyone who needs a pick-me-up?" I've got my Post-it pad in hand, purple glitter pen at the ready.
It's super girlie, I know, and faintly ridiculous, but I was into that two years ago, and since that's what I did the first time with Becky, who has since lost weight and joined the volleyball team, I'm still doing it. I don't claim I'm the reason she got motivated to change her life, but I believe in the power of ritual. So if I have any positive mojo to give to people who need it, maybe it comes from my pink Post-its or the purple glitter pen. Also, this is how people know the message comes legit from the Princess herself.
Occasionally, there are pretenders.
Ryan groans. "Are you seriously doing that again this year?"
"I'm doing it until I graduate. There are plenty of people who go around being dicks. Not enough go around being nice."
"That much is true." He hugs me around the shoulders, then dashes into history class.
This period, I have Mr. Mackiewicz for math. The Mackiewicz math class is the ninth circle of hell, and I'm currently failing. Everyone thinks I'm super smart, but I can't get geometry. This was a huge revelation, as prior to this year, I skated through the rest of my classes. I made dioramas and participated in discussions; I did extra credit and gave my all in group projects. I'm a good test taker, too. I don't get nervous or anything, have no trouble memorizing stuff.
But geometry? It's a foreign language. So the first test of the year is still in my bag. I haven't been brave enough to show Aunt Gabby yet, but that big circled F haunts me. If I close my eyes, I can see it, along with the smear of red sauce and the grease stain at the edge of the paper. I suspect Mr. Mackiewicz was eating pizza when he graded my exam. Somehow that makes it worse. He's cramming cheese and dough into his face while decreeing my epic failure? So uncool.
I trudge to the back of the class, wishing somebody would write something nice on a Post-it and stick it on my locker for a change. The classroom hasn't been updated in forty years, I bet. The globe probably still has Persia and Constantinople and other places that were dissolved prior to 1900. The math trivia cards that have been posted around the room are yellowed at the edges, starting to fray. Mr. Mackiewicz's desk is crooked.
The jocks have a bet going—every day, they nudge it back an inch, and they're running a pool to see how long it takes for Mackiewicz to notice that it's majorly askew. So far that's half a foot. It doesn't speak well of the cleaning crew that it stays that way, even less of Mackiewicz that he hasn't spotted a problem. But the guy's fairly myopic: thick bifocals, a white monk fringe, and a wispy mustache. If that doesn't sound enticing enough, he's also all about baggy cardigans, plaid, and corduroys.
I take my seat, wondering if this is the day when math lightning strikes, and suddenly all of the theorems will make sense. Since fakery seems like the only answer, I get out all my supplies, notebook, pencil, iPad. One cool thing about JFK, we aren't using textbooks anymore. They're all available electronically, and the school subsidized iPads. Of course that meant cutting metal shop and drivers ed from the budget. Doesn't affect me, as I refuse to drive on principle until affordable electric cars are widely available as an alternative; I'd prefer a solar one, but Ryan says I should keep dreaming. As for metal shop? Well, I tried to build a birdhouse in eighth grade. It didn't end well. God only knows what would happen if I attempted to weld.
I'm fiddling with my supplies when Mackiewicz shuffles into the room. He's wearing the gray sweater with the red stain. People reluctantly settle down, folding into their desks like grumpy origami dolls. Geometry is the only class where I sit near the burners, who slouch in the back, letting sunglasses and hair hide their bloodshot eyes. Most of them, I suspect, doze off before Mackiewicz sits down at his crooked desk.
The bell rings. Anyone who enters at this point is officially tardy.
Before the teacher can numb my brain with an hour of droning, the door creaks open, and a new kid slides in. New Kid is kind of a big deal because people don't move to Farmburg, Illinois, by choice; you can guess what's around here by the name of the town. He's almost as tall as Ryan with a mop of brown hair, not curly, but messy and hiding most of his face. Though it's late September, he's got on an old army surplus jacket, which pretty much hides any sense of chest and shoulders. His legs are long, though, feet encased in battered boots. They're not Docs, more like something soldiers would actually march in. His jeans are faded, torn up and down one leg, but in his case, I don't think it's a fashion statement. You can tell intentional grunge from pure wear. He keeps his head down as he hands a slip to Mackiewicz.
The math teacher skims it, then drops it on his desk. "Please welcome Shane Cavendish, transferring in from Michigan City. Take any empty desk."
What Mackiewicz hasn't told New Kid Shane is that he'll be stuck wherever he sits for the rest of the year. I wish I could warn him. Shane never looks up entirely, his shoulders hunched like this is a horrible ordeal. Though I was thirteen when I first hit JFK, I still remember that awful feeling, like a pit in my stomach, because starting over just sucks so hard, especially when other stuff is bad, too.
Shane skims the room and then he's coming down the aisle one over from me. He drops into the desk with the uneven leg. It rocks a little, making it annoying to write, but he doesn't move even after he discovers the fault. It's like he just wants to disappear, but people watch him get his supplies out like it's fascinating.
Finally, Mackiewicz gets started on the lesson, and I tune out. Fifty minutes later, my brain switches back on. My notebook is empty. As the bell rings, I scrawl the assignment, which I'll make a mess of, into my work diary. I'd like to say something to the new kid, but before I can, he's up like a shot. At the door, Dylan Smith, one of the jocks, shoulder slams Shane into the jamb, and his buddies do the same on the way out. Yeah, I guess they've decided where he fits in the pecking order. Because he doesn't have the right haircut or the right clothes, he's an auto-reject? It totally sucks.
"You all right?" I ask, but if he heard the question, he's ignoring me.
He doesn't turn. I tell myself it's because if he acknowledges my concern, then the bad junk is real. To face the day at the new school, he told himself, This time it'll be different. You can lie to yourself about all kinds of things. Until you can't, anymore. Until reality pounds a hole through your fantasy castle and the reality check must be cashed.
But he must be fronting because nobody ever wants to be lonely. You just pretend not to care if anyone talks to you because otherwise, you're the desperate loser begging for friends. Whatever, Shane's gone, long strides eating up the hallway, and he's not even rubbing his shoulder, like he's used to pain.
For some reason, that bothers me.CHAPTER 2
After school, I stick a post-it on Emily Franklin's locker. Seeing as she dumped her lunch tray everywhere in the cafeteria, I figure she could use an ego boost. I don't always stick around to watch people read like I did that first time. Sometimes I have places to be.
I unlock my bike from the rack out front. My house is two and a half miles from school, not an easy distance, but I'm determined. Riding five miles daily should keep me fit, but it's bulked up my thighs while doing little for my butt. There are probably other exercises I should try, but I don't care enough. Pedaling doggedly—while responding to the occasional greeting—carries me home.
Aunt Gabby is still at work when I arrive. She manages a new age place, where they sell healing crystals and hand- dipped candles. You'd think there wouldn't be much market for that in a small Midwestern town, and mostly, you'd be right. Which is why she spends a lot of time filling Web orders. There's a light walk-in business, but mostly she parcels things up and takes them to the post office.
Home is a two-bedroom bungalow, the exterior painted a cheerful robin's egg blue. The house has pine-green shutters and a fanciful menagerie of statues in the front yard. Now, in early fall, the garden is bright with orange and yellow mums, an explosion of color curling around the side of the house. The lawn itself is browning around the edges, as we're in a bit of a drought.
Excerpted from The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre. Copyright © 2015 Ann Aguirre. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
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