Mip. Mip. Mip-mip. Mip. Miiiiiiiip. Mip. Mip. Mip-mip.
Your hand fumbles through the covers to find your phone. You shut the alarm off, but not before your bleary eyes find a text from your best friend Paige.
Your fingers rush to respond. If Paige doesn’t hear from you soon, she’ll resort to calling, which will delay your shower, which will delay you getting from school, which will result in a thorough tongue-lashing from none other than Paige.
You hurry through your shower and grab a couple of pop-tarts on your way out the door. You toss one in the front pocket of your backpack for later and shove the other into your mouth. After a ten-minute bike ride through the wide streets of suburbia, you arrive at the illustious North Fruitvale High School for the first day of your junior year.
The metal rack is empty except for Paige’s shiny new bike, so you prop yours next to hers. Paige insisted that you get there early today to scope out the new freshmen, the new hairstyles, the new clothes, everything. You wind a black coiled cable through your bike’s wheels and frame, then latch the lock. Over the summer, Fruitvale saw an uptick in crime, although it’s more of the missing-person-variety than bike-stealing. Still, you just bought your bike this spring and you’d rather not spend your hard-earned cash from Corner Coffee on another new one.
You walk through the courtyard with your hands shoved into the pockets of your shorts. The few early arrivals cluster near the central fountain and one of the stone picnic tables. As you pass them, you tilt your head and dip your chin, acknowledging their greeting. But you do not stop. You didn’t get here early to chat with your classmates. No, you’re here to see Paige.
There she is, on the far picnic table. She sits on its counter. Her feet dance on the bench below her. She leans back on locked arms with her face angled toward the weak morning sun and her back arched. Mahogany waves stream behind her. Her tongue wiggles a lollipop back and forth.
You perch next to Paige, then bump your shoulder into hers, interrupting her trance. “Hey.”
Paige startles and snaps upright. She whips the lollipop out of her mouth. “Oh, hey. Don’t look now, but Josh is over there,” Paige whispers, her breath hot against your neck. Paige’s hazel eyes—a golden brown in the morning sunlight—sparkle. “Do you think he noticed me?”
You pretend to fumble with something in your backpack, then glance up. A football pressed against his hip, Josh talks to his friends. His broad back faces the two of you. “Um, maybe?”
Paige shrugs. “It was worth a shot.” She swivels toward you. Her glossy lips curve into a smirk. “I’ve got something to show you.”
“Oh yeah?” Curiosity shoots through you like a lightning bolt.
“Yeah.” Paige rolls up her sleeve. Interwoven lines glinting green in the sun decorate her shoulder.
Your jaw drops. “You got a tattoo?”
“Yup.” With a smug smile, Paige releases her sleeve. It covers the tattoo, leaving not one line exposed.
“Few weeks ago. I wanted to wait until it looked its best to show you.”
“Do your parents know?”
Paige snorts. “’Course not. They’d kill me. Then take away my allowance. Then make me go to stupid ol’ Krendley for college in a couple years.” Her hazel gaze flashes to yours. “Do you like it?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Paige’s wide mouth bends into a frown. “That’s not the glowing review I hoped for.”
Guilt crashes like a tidal wave over you. Your hand twitches toward hers. “No, Paige, it’s not that. I just…didn’t expect it.”
Paige grins at you. Her shoulder bounces off yours. “I like to defy expectations, you know that. Now we just gotta get one for you.”
Your brows drop. Your parents will never allow it, although you could hide it for a while. You roll Paige’s sleeve back up, uncovering the tattoo. Your index finger traces the lines inked over her smooth skin. “I suppose, maybe.”
Paige shivers, then covers the tattoo again. A blush blossoms over her sharp cheekbones. “Sorry, the skin’s still a little sensitive.”
The bell rings, signalling that ten minutes remain before the start of your first class. You hop off the picnic table. Paige extends a slim hand toward you like an eighteenth century princess getting out of a carriage. Obedient as ever, you accept it. She leans on you while she steps down, her lollipop tucked back in a cheek.
Joining the stream of students, you and Paige cross the cobblestone courtyard and enter through one of the four glass doors marked “NFHS.” With all the others, you head up the broad front stairway. Paige chatters next to you. You exit on the third floor and go straight to your and Paige’s lockers, side-by-side ever since Paige complained the second day of your freshman year.
You swing your backpack to the ground and squat to take out this year’s notebooks. “So, has your mom figured out anything else ’bout all the missing people this summer?”
“You know I can’t talk about that!” Paige kneels down beside you. Her bare thigh presses against yours. She leans toward you. With her lips an inch away from your ear, she whispers, “No. Leads. Still. Mom says it’s the strangest case she’s ever seen. Bunch of people go missing, but not one body.” Paige shifts back to her locker and begins constructing a rainbow of color-coded notebooks and binders. She resumes the conversation in her normal voice. “Way I see it, we’ve just gotten lucky for too long. Fruitvale hasn’t had people go missin’ in ages. Not since those two girls back when we were kids.”
You nod. Fruitvale, your friendly little home town, struggles to have anything interesting happen within its borders….until now, anyway. After this harrowing summer, you almost miss the boredom.
Beside you, Paige waves a scarlet binder and matching notebook. “Chemistry” is written over both in silver scripted letters. “You ready for Chem?”
You shrug, dragging out a battered binder and a notebook with half the pages ripped out. Science is not your specialty. As you walk toward the classroom, Paige hands you a permanent marker out of a neon yellow pouch. You spin it through your fingers while you trail Paige through the open door, then to a table for two in the back corner.
With Paige’s marker, you scratch out last year’s “Biology” and replace it with “Chemistry.” You’re finishing the last “t-r-y” when Paige’s hand wraps around your bare forearm and squeezes. Her rosy lips form a shiny “O.” Her forehead tilts toward the far table in your row, the one next to the window.
Two students you don’t recognize sit there, talking only to each other while they wait for the final bell to ring. Both wear a solid-colored T-shirt and shorts. You lean forward and peek at their table, angled toward the center of the room. A mass of wild ebony curls frames the girl’s heart-shaped face and pointy chin. Dark freckles dot the bridge of her nose, with a few straying toward her full lips. The boy has a buzz cut, bushy brows, and eyes like melted chocolate. They catch yours.
You rush back to Paige. “New?”
“How do we feel about them?”
Paige glances past you, toward the newcomers. “Dunno yet. Guess we’ll have to wait and see. Although…” A smirking Paige extends her mechanical pencil toward their shoes. “Don’t you think it’s a bit early for Halloween?”
You follow her gesture to the boy’s black Converses. Crimson laces stamped with miniature Draculas adorn them. They don’t bother you, but you know better than to disagree with Paige. “Yeah, for sure.”
The bell clangs, cutting off further discussion.
Ms. Lin rises from behind her sleek desk in the corner. She carries a single sheet of crisp white paper to the metal podium set to the left of the whiteboard.
“Everyone up!” Ms. Lin commands, then points to the bank of windows on the right. Already closed, the plastic blinds guard against the morning light. “Stand in front of the windows. And don’t forget to bring all your stuff with you.”
You and Paige groan. That can only mean one thing. Seating chart.
Once everyone has taken a place, Ms. Lin begins, “First, welcome to Chemistry! We’re going to do a lot of labs this year, so I’ve paired you into partners. You’ll also sit with your lab partners during each and every class.” Ms. Lin peers down at her sheet of paper, a lock of inky hair falling over her high cheekbone. “In the first table,” Ms. Lin waves toward the front table closest to the door, “we have Ana Maria Morales and Joe Amari.”
While Ana Maria and Joe shuffle to the table by the door, Ms. Lin returns to her seating chart. Your pinky intertwines with Paige’s. On the other side, your fingers cross. Ms. Lin pairs your classmates together until there are only three tables and six people left, including both you and Paige.
So close! When Ms. Lin parts her cherry lips, you hold your breath.
“In the back table by the door are Vicky Nowak and Maddie Boro.”
Your breath gusts out in a relieved whoosh. It’s down to you, Paige, the new girl, and Harry, one of Josh’s friends. Paige flashes a broad grin up at you. You return it.
Ms. Lin gestures toward the back middle table and announces your name.
With your chin lifted high, you strut to the table. When you tug your chair back, it scrapes against the stained tile floor. Sinking onto it, you pray: just say “Paige Torres,” just say “Paige Torres.”
“And Magda Dalca.”
Your heart falls. Not only are you not paired with Paige, but you got one of the new kids, the ones Paige doesn’t like.
Magda sits next to you, her ebony curls gleaming reddish in the light. Without a trace of a smile, she extends a hand with bitten nails toward you.
Do you shake Magda’s hand?
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