Mr. Jonas Fletcher, recently deceased and much missed by me, was an art teacher.
He was the only teacher I ever liked, and the only one to have taught me anything worth knowing.
Jonas Fletcher was also an honest-to-God born good guy. Eccentric with age and smelly by choice, but hey, we all have our bad points.
Mine is my frequent inability to get anywhere on time. Speaking of which…
I glance over at the petal metal clock that has forever decorated that place on my wall.
Nearly time. I count it down in full-on mocking mode.
“Five, four, three, two, one.”
“If you’re not out of that bed in five seconds, Patience McCormick, I swear I will drag you to school in whatever you’re wearing. Even if that something is nothing!”
I smile at the familiarity of it all. Another year and it will all be gone. Three-hundred-miles-away gone. I will be in college. And Mom? Well, she will still be issuing her threats of naked retribution—only not to me.
“Patience? I better not have to come up there!”
“I’m up. I’m up! Jesus!”
“Yeah, and I’m George Washington!” Robbie, my pimple-faced dweeb of a stepbrother, shouts from the hallway.
“Shut it, Dum-Dum!” I swear I could wring his nerdy dweeb neck and not feel one ounce—not one—of remorse.
“Seriously! A nickname like Pippins and you’re calling me out?” he hollers.
I snort my annoyance and listen on as Robbie the dweeb’s dribble trickles down the stairs with him.
Then, with a kick Bruce Lee would have been proud of, I offload my covers, flip out onto a floor littered with my essential yet currently discarded stuff, and wait for my body to adjust itself to movement mode. Suppleness now returned, I begin the ageless task of getting myself ready for school—a meticulous ceremony involving overamplified grunts, groans, and whines. To this essential yet laborious procedure, I bring with me a bucket full of self-importance, excessive spurts of deodorant, and a vocabulary worthy of the devil himself. Then I grumble my daily path of destruction toward the bathroom where I brush, rinse, and spit. With oral hygiene now completed, I decide my face needs nothing other than black kohl liner and toffee-apple lip balm. Then last, but by no means least, I finger my short black hair into its don’t mess with me style.
School face now on, I turn my ever-diverse attention to the griping of having nothing decent to wear, yet still manage to throw on a look that not one single wannabe in school could manage without professional help.
Then I breathe. Like, really breathe. Deep.
I check my reflection one last time, studiously ignoring the birthmark on my neck that I can do absolutely nothing about, and quickly depart my chamber with attitude.
The bedroom door vibrates in protest at the force with which I announce to all downstairs my imminent arrival in the kitchen.
Once there, I drop Dum-Dum the look, sidestep my mom and exit with a hand flick, toast, and water.
“Wait up, young lady! I made you maple porridge.”
Mom’s exhausted tones bullet into my back, and I deflect with a quick over-the-shoulder apology.
“Sorry, Mom. Ride’s here. Put it in the fridge for later! I like it cold anyway!”
Family time over, I half run, half skip down our drive, place my bag with care into the back seat of Sammi’s (with an i) classic aquamarine 1929 Duesenberg, and smile. Just being near this car gives me shivers of excitement. And in full schoolgirl delight, I slide in beside Sammi.
Sammi Yates, Carnival Queen and can-do-no-wrong daughter of North Carolina’s only ever Mayoress—there is a story there, but I am too much of a lady to divulge in such smuttiness—removes a licorice stick from her blackened lips and smirks.
“Still making you porridge, huh?” She chuckles.
“Ha-ha. Very funny. Just drive already,” I mutter.
She pushes the car into first and grins.
In all the years we have known each other, and it has been many, I have never liked that grin of hers. No reason for not liking it, really. I just don’t. And on that note…
“You do know your teeth are black from all that junk you been chewin’ on, right?”
I know, it’s childish of me, but heck, she started it, and I am damned if I’m gonna let her be the one to finish it.
“Darn!” For a moment—or five—she forgets the road and focuses on her reflection, one cotton-covered wrist on standby to rub any telltale teeth stains away.
I bite back a smile, and then yelp as gemstone-decorated knuckles pound my tender thigh purple.
“You really are a bitch, Patience McCormick. You nearly had me wettin’ ma sleeve for nothin’. Licorice stains, my ass. My mama would have been ticked off big time if I had gotten this here new top stained, seein’ as how expensive it was.” She throws me a sideways glance at the expensive part.
I ignore her. Two minutes in her company and she’s already beginning to annoy the heck out of me with her I’m-richer-than-you drivel.
Biting back a sarcastic retort, I rotate away from her, rest my chin on the warm skin of my arm, and watch tarmac blur past in one continuous line of white. My thigh’s beginning to thump with the promise of bruised flesh, but I smile through it. I can smile through anything just to ride in this car.
Languorously, I ask her the same question I have been askin’ her since forever.
“You are goin’ to leave me this here car in your will. Right?”
“Of course I am, honey. Going to leave you my kidneys, too.” She winks and takes a sharp left toward the old canyon.
Highlands’ one and only high school is three miles in the opposite direction. My love of this car begins to fade with every mile traveled in the wrong direction.
“Oh, c’mon, Sam! You know I can’t afford to do this. I need that scholarship.” And the maddening thing is, she knows I need it.
“I can’t do this, Sam! You know I can’t!” she mimics, ditching the licorice out of her mouth. “I’m doing you a favor, ya know. Y’all spend too much time with your face buried in those silly art books o’ yours.”
“Take me back, Sams. I mean it.”
She does the eyebrow arch thing I hate and presses her designer-clad foot harder to the accelerator.
I now have two choices. Jump—which, at fifty miles an hour, I’m sure is suicidal—or the sensible option, wait till the car stops. I opt for the latter. And in the interval between that happening and now, I slide lower into my seat, cross my arms stiffly across my chest, and expose good old Sams to the icy side of me.
“You’ll come around,” she purrs, ignoring my sullen silence with a flick of her artificially highlighted hair.
The canyon takes ten minutes more to reach. And by the look of things, half of Highlands’ student body has had the same idea as Sammi. Or Sammi has arranged for them to have the same idea.
No one, and I mean no one, who wants to matter to anyone within our not-so-perfect little town would dare to ignore Sammi’s sugar-coated requests. Not without dire consequences to their social life, anyway.
Luckily for me, I’m not one of them.
“Congratulations, Sammi. You’ve really outdone yourself this time. Why didn’t you just go the full hog and get Mommy to shut down the whole friggin’ school for the day? ’Cause it sure as heck don’t look like there’s anyone there anyway!”
She throws me one of her looks, the type that has the ability to freeze a lake on a sunny day. Then she slowly unwinds her perfectly tanned legs from the car.
When she cottons on that I ain’t following, and I don’t intend to, she sighs heavily and dramatically.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Pippins! Give it a rest. I’m doing this for you, honey. You need some color in those dusty gray cheeks o’ yours. Education ain’t everythin’, sweetie.”
“Like you would friggin know, Miss Southern Perfection with your stupid, lazy drawl and slothful little brain,” I mutter angrily.
I mean, really, who else but little Miss Perfect here would have come up with Pippins for my nickname? A name I have, unfortunately, been tagged with for as long as I can remember. Something to do with my freckles and hair before makeup and straighteners, I think, but that aside! The accent I can hide in my readiness for the world beyond willows, humidity, and Civil bloody War reenactments. But Pippins? Seriously?
Snatching up my backpack, I hitch it over my shoulder in angered silence, and—
“Hey, Pippins! Sammi! Over here,” yells Jeff Sanders over the heads of Stephanie Rice, cheerleader airhead, William “Past Tense” Rockun, and the one guy I never thought I would see in Sammi Yates’s company, Luce Mitchell.
My heart flips like a tossed coin, which it shouldn’t because I don’t even know him. I mean, I’ve seen him. Who in the quaint little town of Highlands hasn’t? But actually talking to him? Well, that’s a whole other kettle o’ fish.
He is the guy every blooming belle in our sleepy little town would hitch up her micro denim and balconette bra her chest to attract.
And here he is, smiling and carefree and just within reach, and looking in my direction with those strange lavender-blue eyes of his and I’m…Well, I am deflating my bra and ducking out.
“Sorry, Sammi, but like I said earlier, I can’t be here.”
I start tracking back toward town, excuses for my tardiness already forming in my head.
I leave behind me a friendship that I have just served with divorce papers, and Sammi Yates knows it.
“You’re a wimp, Pippins. A friggin’ nerdy wimp,” she yells at my retreating back.
I tune out Sammi’s rising tones of indignation with a flip of my middle finger and keep right on walking. I don’t look back. I can’t afford to.
Sammi’s got it all. Money. Popularity. Looks. And a mommy who will pay her daughter’s way into any university that still accepts good old cash. Heck, everyone knows she’s already got a room with her name on it at the best sorority house in Harvard. And me? Well, let’s just say I’ll be lucky to make it through my first financial year alone, even with a scholarship.
Life sucks. Even more so when the one constant in my life has just dire-mouthed me so readily and publicly.
Squaring shoulders stiff with tension, I deflate my nostrils and keep right on walking. It’s about time I try out a solo act anyway. Couldn’t be any worse than the duo of late, which is beginning to give me serious tension issues.
“Hey! Wait up!”
“Get lost, William.”
“I’ll ignore the fact that you think I sound like him if you wait up.”
“Give me one good reason why I should.” I keep walking.
“Because I’m heading back to school, too, and some company on the way would be better than listening to my sneakers scuff dirt,” he replies.
I give in and wait for him to catch up with me. He has a point about the silence thing. After a while, the thinking sets in. Any company is better than thinking right now.
Several seconds later, Luce Mitchell is at my side. And I have never been more aware of a person in my entire life than I am of him at this precise second, minute, however long it takes to get back to school. But I am damned to hell and back if I’m gonna let him know it.
I try to sound indifferent to him, might actually get away with it, too, as long as I don’t look at him.
“Didn’t take you for the social suicide type,” I mutter.
“What type did you take me for?” He grins lazily.
“Honestly?” I look him straight in the eye. “I thought you were bent as a hairpin, given how many of my friends you have politely declined to spend an evenin’ with of late.”
“And if I tell you they weren’t my type?” He laughs softly.
“Exactly my point.” I smirk.
He draws me to a stop, his fingers soft but firm against my wrist, and despite my best intentions not to, my gaze slides from his perfect face to his rocking bod.
God, I am so shallow.
“I’m sorry,” I murmur, because I am. Luce Mitchell's sexual preference has nothing to do with me. Nothing at all. “I had no right to say—”
He cuts across me with an easy smile and a twinkle in his lavender-blue eyes. “Do you have any idea how many times over the past few weeks I have tried to talk to you, Patience McCormick? And in every instance, you have run off like the devil himself is on your tail. You really are one hard girl to pin down.”
Gawd! He really is a genuine say-it-as-it-is guy. Go figure. I clear the lump in my throat with a gruff cough and “Sorry” spills out.
He frowns, flipping a pebble ahead of us with his scuffed, faded Converse. “Apology accepted.”
For a moment or two, there is comfortable silence between us. Then—
“So, Patience. Apart from running away from me at every given opportunity, what’s the deal with you?”
“What do ya mean? The deal with me.”
“Well, for starters, why do the kids back there all call you ice queen? Apart from your obvious aversion to company, of course.”
I drop my gaze to my feet, disconcerted by his stark comment.
Luce exhales loudly. “You didn’t know, did you?”
I watch the dust swirl around our feet as we walk, and shake my head. “No.”
Luce lowers his gaze back to his Converse and kicks a stone hard enough to skip it. “Patience, I’m sorry.”
I nod, and we walk on in silence. Ten minutes in and the sun’s glare bastes my head with sweat which, of course, attracts a small army of mosquitoes that are buzzing in waiting ambush not two feet away.
Twisting out of my hoodie, I throw it over my head and sprint through the nasty little bloodsuckers until I’m out of biting range. Then, I retie it back around my hips and rake fingers through hair that smelled a hell of a lot better in my room.
I look at Luce ambling through the buzzing black cloud in angry disbelief. “How did you do that? I only need to breathe, and they zone in on me,” I gripe.
“Hey!” He lifts his hands, palms out. “Not my fault they don’t find me appetizing. Pheromones,” he explains. “They only go for females. Here, let me.”
He bends my head toward his face and examines my hair with long, soft fingers. “You’re clean. Nothing in there except air,” he teases.
“Oh, so genuine! That the best you can come up with?”
He pushes my head playfully. “I got better. How about why you left the party back there?”
I shrug and kick the dust. “Not my scene.” It’s not an out-and-out lie. Partying with the in crowd has always been a chore, not a pleasure. But the truth is Old Fletcher’s death has me rattled more than I like to admit. Even to myself.
Luce is talking again. I tune back into the here and now and close the lid on my sorrow.
“The in-crowd stuff or playing hooky?” he asks.
“Both,” I answer honestly.
“I’m confused a little here. Everything about you screams in crowd with attitude, from your hair down to that wicked symbol tat on your neck. Yet you’re telling me you don’t like to stand out or break the rules?”
“It’s not a tat.”
“Sorry?” He pulls me to a stop again like he has some God-given right to.
I reclaim my arm with attitude. “It’s not a tattoo. It’s a stupid birthmark, okay? And I dress like this to hide the fact that it’s a birthmark. As for not wanting to play hooky with those idiots back there, that’s none of your darn business.”
I march angrily away from him. Really, who the hell is this guy? I’ve known him verbally for all of five minutes, and he thinks he knows it all. I stomp ahead.
“Patience! Please, I’m sorry! Again!”
“That makes two of us!” I yell back.
“I mean it, honestly. I’m just a loud-mouthed idiot who knows absolutely nothing. Please…”
I stop, kick the dirt, and for better or worse, I turn, snorting out a laugh as I do.
Luce is on his knees in the dirt shuffling toward me, his hands raised in prayer, his features pulled down into the best puppy face I have ever witnessed. Like, ever.
“You’re gonna ruin your jeans, you know that, right?”
He grins and extends his hand toward me. “Does that mean I’m forgiven?”
“Nope. It means you’re on probation.” I take his hand and pull him back to his feet.
“I can live with that.” He smiles. And so casually I don’t even realize it’s happened until it’s done, he throws his arm around my shoulders.
I shake my head and, with a smile, duck out from under its weight. “Like I’m giving you a choice, pretty boy.”
I check my watch. Ten minutes to first bell. I’m never gonna make it back in time. “How’s your stamina?”
I ease into a fast jog, and he falls in at my side, his cheeks flushed red in what I presume is embarrassment.
“I thought you meant…” He leaves the sentence hanging.
“Sorry to burst your bubble, but I’m not that type of girl, Casanova. We have ten, uh, nine minutes to first bell, and no time left to get there, so…Think you can keep up with me?”
He looks at me, grins like that fat old Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland, and keeps right on looking.
No one stares at anyone in this town. “Your mama ever tell you that it’s rude to stare, Mitchell?”
“I’m not staring, I’m…” he smiles and squints—“taking in the view.”
“I didn’t realize I was real estate,” I gripe and push myself into a sprint.
God, why am I being so nasty? Oh, yeah! Maybe my best friend trying to ruin my chances of getting into college might have something to do with it. But he ain’t my best friend, and I shouldn’t be taking it out on him.
“Dang it.” I stop for breath, and drop my satchel dejectedly. “Luce, I’m sorry. I know I’m bein’ mean, an—”
I frown, aware for the first time today of my traitorous accent. I try again, this time concentrating real hard on the words forming in my brain before they leave my mouth.
“I am not like this. Honestly. Ask anyone. Despite the scary look, I’m actually a really nice person. First to help and all that.”
“I know.” He retrieves my bag, fires it over his shoulder, and surprisingly, shockingly for me, I let him.
“I wouldn’t have run after you otherwise,” he concludes matter-of-factly.
“Why, though? I mean it’s not like we even know each other or anything.”
“I know you like peanut butter without jelly sandwiches. You cover your mouth when you eat, and you like to walk in the rain, but no wind. Wind is a deal-breaker bus day. I know all about you, P.”
I frown, lost for words yet again. I am totally befuddled by this boy. He is nothing like the person I thought he would be. Although what I thought he would be like, I have no idea, either.
He smirks at my stupefied expression but doesn’t expand on his comment. A comment that is beginning to annoy the hell out of me. I mean, he’s taking friggin’ cryptic to the extremes, and I don’t like it. Not one little bit.
“We better get a move on if we’re gonna make it in time for roll call. C’mon.” He pulls at my sleeve and eases into a run, grinning as he moves easily ahead of me.
“You’re strange,” I call after him.
“Yeah? I’ve heard that a lot, too.”
* * * *
We make it back to the last drill of the bell echoing through newly emptied corridors.
I fold in oxygen-depletion mode, hands on knees, and attempt to reflate my lungs. I can’t believe we actually made it back in time. A few seconds late, but hey! We made it.
Breathing back to normal again, I chance speaking without my words hitching.
“What you got first?” I ask.
“French. And you’re in English,” he states without a hint of breathlessness anywhere in his perfect little self. Well, not so little, just a term of my annoyance with him at this precise moment in time. Annoyance that he knows more about me than I do about him.
“English lit, actually,” I mumble. “Speaking of which…”
Miss Collins, or little Hitler as she is more commonly known to those who have ever taken her class, is marching her fat little legs in our direction.
“I better get in there before she does.”
“I’ll catch you later then?”
And so quickly I don’t know it’s even happening until it’s over, he kisses my cheek with butterfly softness. Then he smiles, an I-know-something-you-don’t smile again before disappearing in the opposite direction.
My heart stutters and the yellow matte wall he disappeared around holds my eye longer than it should. And I have no idea why.