Perfectly Flawed (Flawed 1) by Nessa Morgan by Nessa Morgan - Read Online

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Perfectly Flawed (Flawed 1) - Nessa Morgan

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Dedication

To my best friend, Erin, because she’s suffered through every story I’ve wanted to tell but never had the chance to finish. She’s suffered through inevitable cliffhangers that have never been resolved and she still wanted to read more. I love her like a sister. TWIB!

And to my mother for not saying, Well, what are you going to do with a Creative Writing Degree? Maybe you should stick with Law. I love you Mom!

Prologue

The dark, seemingly hollow world sucks me into its vortex almost instantly. It traps me within its icy depths and steals what remaining soul I have. I fight—I claw my way to freedom. Or try. Losing blood and hope as my fragile, struggling body—climbing—nears the hazy, clouded surface but it is almost a fruitless effort—a pointless attempt to succeed where I know, without a single doubt, I have failed before.

Some part of me knows I belong here, trudging along in a mindless daze, in this despondent place where things seem to die. Some part of me knows that, no matter how hard I try, I will always wind up here, in this hole of hopeless dreams and lost moments, faded memories and recycled puzzle pieces that no longer seem to fit together.

But some part of me wants to fight—a tiny part that wants and needs to bear its claws—but knows a losing battle is all I’ll face.

Forget this place and forget this world.

This little place created only for me.

How long before my world, the only place I have ever known, ever remembered, ever lived within, comes crashing down into nothing but shards and jagged pieces? How long before I finally discover what lurks, creeps, and haunts in the shadows of this dark, shallow cavern covered in shadows. Whatever it is, I know it’s waiting for me—for the wrong turn, wrong step, it knows that I’ll take.

When it finally reveals itself to me—which I know it will—will the surprise shock me?

Will it even be a surprise?

Will they even find me?

What the hell am I asking? Of course they’ll find me, the question is:

How long?

How long? How long do I have? How much longer before I truly know my demons, before I truly understand them. Meet them face to face.

When do I meet them and discover their deep dark secrets since they know all of mine? Will they look like me—scared and shaking, resembling the image I try to ignore in the mirror—or will they take on an image all their own, yet still resembling the material things that terrify me in the real world?

I’m scared to admit it, even while in deep subconscious, but these are the things I fear I’ll never know; these are also the things I hope I never gain the chance to learn.

When I feel like I may win, like my pain and struggle was worth it, I’ll know I’ve learned something useful, something important.

I can feel the morning air, cold and moist, against the soft skin of my exposed cheek, and I know that I have beaten this once again—but as always, there’s that one wrong step and everything changes. Suddenly, I am floating—no, sinking. The sensation of cold water surrounding me, suffocating me, shoving me beneath the crazy, wild waves of the dark abyss in this empty place. I almost let it take me because I want to give up, I don’t want to fight anymore. I almost let it overcome me and conquer me, its strength stealing me down to the rocks on the bottom, the rocks that will surely poke and prod me until I am nothing more than a useless lump of muscle and bone. Slowly, my will to fight, to swim against the strong current—because that can save me—kicks in, and I try to succeed. I try to be better than… whatever this is.

I am strong.

And it’s no longer water I’m fighting. I am climbing again.

As my hand reaches into the foggy light, muted from the clouds hovering low enough that I think of touching it, I stretch into the bright world I know I belong within, reaching for the safety of what I know. I can feel the air around me grow heavier and heavier. Gravity takes effect; it succeeds at its purpose, its reason for being, and drops me quickly and painfully back to the earth, letting me collide, with a soft, muffled thud, into the moist flesh that is dirt hidden beneath a canopy of twisting, decayed and dying trees.

My eyes crash open, seeing the dark clouds suspended above me, hiding me from something scary and strange.

With a breath, I’m alive.

One

Another nightmare wakes me in the gray early morning. Not the one that leaves you screaming in the wee morning hours while you thrash violently about in your bed, but one that leaves a sour taste in the back of your mouth and a heavy feeling of dread surrounding you, landing like a stone in your gut. If only I could remember them—these nightmares. If only I could remember the things that terrify me, the monsters under my bed, the creepy things that bump in the night. Something has to answer the raging questions in my head, the unanswerable questions banging around and colliding like ping-pong balls in my brain.

Sitting up, I feel the sheets sticking to my damp arms and legs. I can feel the sweat pouring down my forehead, gliding into my eyes and clouding my already-blurry vision usually aided by spectacles. My head is pounding, my brain is throbbing—the early stages of a headache working its way behind my eyes, my body’s evil way to keep me awake in the morning when I only want to fall back asleep.

I must have had some dream.

If only I could remember it—any of it—or any of the others. Some small, minute fraction of color, some insignificant blip in the radar, any sound, any word, anything would be helpful. But nothing remains in the deep dark cavern of my la la land.

My hand instinctively reaches to grasp the platinum chain around my neck, the one that holds the circular locket dangling from my neck, the locket that houses the faces of my family. On my palm, I can feel the pressure of the owl against my skin, permanently marking me for the rest of the day as I tightly squeeze the piece of jewelry. The mark will fade, it always does, but I’ll still feel it within my skin. I lift the locket to my lips, gently kissing it before quickly releasing it from my grip and letting the locket fall against my chest where it rightfully belongs.

I would rather be in bed, but I fight the urge. After grabbing some clothes for the day, I slowly trudge to the shower to start my usual morning routine. I stand beneath the stream of scalding hot water, letting it pound against my sensitive flesh. I can feel the top layer of skin, the thin sheen of sweat I collected through the night, washing away just like the nonexistent remains of the dream. Or nightmare. I should really use the correct terms. It leaves me bare and vulnerable—exposed, if you will.

While the shower itself doesn’t make me feel clean, not completely, it does make me feel slightly better. It makes me feel as if I can face the world in the upcoming hours with a fresh slate—a new canvas. As damaged as I am, I feel I can accomplish anything right now.

The feeling usually fades within the hour.

After towel-drying and covering myself in cherry blossom scented body lotion, something I do every morning, I drape the green towel over the metal bar screwed into the wall and grab my neatly folded clothes from the counter, dressing myself as I avoid the gaze of morning-me in the mirror. It’s never a pretty sight.

The weekend, sadly, is over and I start the second week—first full five-day week—of school today. It’s just another typical day—another day where I am the school freak, the junior class psycho, or any variation of the terms, or any new words you want to substitute, it all works around here.

I tug on my clothes, taking in the feel of the fabric against my steamed skin. My jeans are tight and the air hits my legs through the large frayed hole in the knee and the randomly placed frayed spots running up and down my legs. I never understood the purpose of paying for already-ruined jeans, but I bought them nonetheless just to join the trend and conform, to better blend into the masses. My white camisole falls against my skin; the soft worn fabric soothing tenderly as it rubs against my stomach, covering the blemishes I refuse to show the world. I quickly cover the white fabric with a black tank top.

As I correct the fall of the clothing and smooth out any wrinkles, I check—more like scrutinize—the reflection in the mirror. I don’t feel right. Not completely. But I try to ignore the uncomfortable feeling looming over me like the shadow of a tall building. I won’t feel like myself. I’ll never feel like myself. I’ve grown to accept that. I’m not even sure what myself is supposed to feel like—I just know I won’t feel right for a long, long time. Maybe not ever. To be honest, since my aunt took me in, some part of me felt distant, some part of me felt misplaced, forgotten, and corrupted, or, for lack of a better word, dead.

Dead like my mother. Dead like my sister and brother. Dead like the people who cared for me, the people who loved me, the people who were taken—stolen—from me. Dead as I’m supposed to be.

Just dropped a bomb on you, didn’t I?

Now, there may be questions running rampant in your mind right about now. Why am I—sweet little me?—the junior class psycho, you may be wondering. Why am I the appointed freak—I think there was even a vote one day. Of course, they didn’t invite me—wandering through the halls repelling those who believe themselves to be the pretty and popular, you could ask. You know, the people who wish or demand that everyone else notice them but we only pay attention because we thrive on humiliation when it eventually finds them.

Sorry, that was a bit of a tangent.

But since you asked so nicely, it’s easier to start from the beginning… or at least nine years ago.

My father decided, one drab and dreary night, to take the largest, sharpest knife in the kitchen drawer—the drawer that none of us kids were allowed to open because it had sharp objects—and stab my mother, the woman he supposedly loved, in the throat while she quietly slept. The woman he promised to love and cherish, for richer and for poorer, for better or for worse, until death do they part. He just killed her, threw her away, as if she didn’t matter. As if she never mattered.

I don’t know about anyone else, and I haven’t been married, but I don’t think the vows allow for the husband to take the matter into his own hands, even if he isn’t happy or satisfied.

It’s pathetic, really.

I’m sorry, is this too gruesome for you?

Just wait. Like everything else in my screwed up little world, it gets worse.

Then, dear old Dad walked down the hall, entered the pretty little purple bedroom off the stairs, and sliced my older sister’s throat. She was ten years old, she hadn’t even seen fifth grade yet. In my sister’s hands, she still clutched her favorite Cabbage Patch doll, one that looked exactly like her, because they did that back then despite how creepy it really was. Then, across the hall, he skewered my older brother in the stomach while he slept on Power Ranger sheets in a room covered in truck wallpaper. He worshipped the Power Rangers and loved toy trucks and never hurt anyone, not in his life. Neither did my sister.

Why am I telling you any of this?

Because I can.

Too simple an answer for you?

Well… I actually have no idea. Not a one. I can’t remember any of it. Never could. The layout I just gave you, I read that somewhere. All I know is what the police said on the news, what the newspapers printed, what my therapist told me (and I assume all of what she told me was a lie fabricated to help me heal quickly), and what my Aunt Hilary could stomach to repeat to me. That was five words, I’m sorry, but they’re dead. I think she added honey to make it more sincere. I looked up the trial online once—I know, not the brightest idea for the victim—but I wanted to see if I could learn something new, something the aforementioned neglected to tell me, but it was very blank, very bare on the details. I was more confused than before because I didn’t even know half of the words in the file. I was around twelve when I Googled it.

I should be dead and decomposing six feet below, spending my days with Elvis and my great Aunt Ida—maybe with my mom, brother, and sister, too. The twelve stab wounds on my body agree with me, they ache and burn whenever these thoughts cross my mind.

But I’m still here, breathing and blinking, rather than slowly morphing into the next generation’s new fossil fuel.

It sucks, I know—I sounded so pathetic, right there—but let’s be honest, it made me more interesting, didn’t it? It gives people a reason to talk about me even if they’re too scared to talk to me or only want to bully me. Although, what they say isn’t really that great or important, people still know who I am. The entire country, from what I can understand, knows who I am. At least, I think they do. I could be wrong about that all together. Although, no one has really said anything, done anything, to me in quite some time. A few years, actually. I still get the look, though. You know, the look that says, I’m waiting for the day you finally snap just so I can tell the surviving people, ‘I told you so,’ after you’ve massacred the majority of the town.

See, it’s harder to ignore the psychotic gene and crazy DNA running within me. I am the most interesting and downright intriguing girl in school even if most of my classmates ignore me.

Hey, I can say I’ve literally been stabbed in the back.

Get it? …no?

Oy, tough crowd.

Maybe it’s a good thing I can’t remember what happened to me and what happened to my family. Whom am I kidding? It’s freaking fantastic that I can’t remember crap. I can’t remember my dad, Thank God. I wouldn’t even know the man if I were to pass him on the street—which will never, ever happen—I’ll just keep thanking the Big Man upstairs. Aunt Hilary even moved us from Texas to Washington State to make things easier on me, to make growing up easier on me. She was hoping I wouldn’t be That Girl. But a story like mine tends to follow me around. It sticks like glue to me wherever I am, no matter who I pretend to be. Being anything other than That Girl wasn’t an option.

Everywhere I go—the mall, school, bookstore—all I hear are the usual questions. Aren’t you the daughter of the murderer? The chatty mothers ask me with fake-pity and faux-sympathy stuck on their Botox’d faces before turning to discuss my supposed scars and what they’re baking for the jazz band bake sale. Didn’t your dad, like, try to kill you or something? The chatty mothers’ gossipy daughters ask in their pursuit of the perfect juicy story before turning up their plastic, birthday-gift-noses, flipping their chemically perfect hair, and pretending I don’t exist so I don’t ruin their perfect view of the discount rack.

I swear, if I hear Oh, you poor thing!—in any context, whether it be genuine, pathetically sarcastic, or a way to feign interest so I divulge my secrets—one more time, I may just snap and show these people how far from the freaking tree this apple really fell.

These are the reasons why I prefer to remain invisible.

I try, at least.

I pull my damp and drying hair over my left shoulder, completely exposing the right side of my neck, and watch the water droplets fall to the rug the color of a morning sky on a sunny day. My naturally dark curls are almost dry. I paint my face with the usual coat of makeup, nothing over the top and dramatic, just enough to make me look alive, then brush my teeth using the disgusting cinnamon toothpaste I hate but have yet to replace, before leaving the bathroom.

The cold air of the hallway seeps through my clothes, through my skin, chilling me to the bone. I shiver for a brief moment before my body can adjust to the normal temperature of the large house and force my bare feet to start their journey.

I walk back into my bedroom. The pale green walls of my sanctuary are covered in various posters of my favorite bands, sports teams, actors, and movies, pictures of me and friends, a calendar, a bulletin/whiteboard, and the butterflies that covered my childhood room. I like butterflies. There is a light pink accent wall and the ceiling is a pastel purple—because I was an odd thirteen year old. The colors don’t usually mix well but I still like it. The pink wall isn’t as cluttered as the rest of the room; it holds three paintings done by my closest friend and four pictures of my family. My mother’s smiling face beams at me while Ivy and Noah—my sister and brother—smile to the camera. Hilary cut my father from the picture before she gave it to me. I saw her burning his face from all of the pictures in the fireplace, the only time that I’ve ever seen it used.

This is my cave, my safe haven, the wonderful world I have created for myself. This is the place that says who I truly am—what I like, what I love. At least, I’d like to believe it does. In here, no one can hurt me.

I make my bed, using hospital corners, because I’m a bit weird, and the urge to crawl back in and destroy my hard work overwhelms me. I resist, and back away, making my way to my cluttered desk to prepare my backpack, shoving all binders and pieces of homework into their respective places before zipping it up and shouldering it.

I make my way down the stairs, listening to the old wood creak beneath my steps, and drop my pack by the piano bench in the living room before turning the lock on the door, unlocking it. In the kitchen, I lower three slices of bread into the four-slot toaster, tug the butter and peanut butter from their respective places, and pour two glasses of orange juice (no pulp) and one glass of apple juice.

Hello? Right on schedule. A small smile tugs on the corners of my lips as I wait. Where are you?

In here, I yell, hearing the heavy steps stomp toward me from the living room. As long as I’ve known him, he’s still incapable of taking light steps. He always sounds like he’s marching somewhere. Hey, I say, not looking at the boy leaning against the counter on my left. I slather butter on one piece of toast moments before he snatches it from my hand and shoves it into his mouth, taking a large, hungry bite. I nibble the corner of my bottom lip, trying not to sarcastically snap, ‘That’s attractive.’ He quickly washes it down with the orange juice set aside for him and smiles at me as if none of that happened.

Thanks, Joey, Zephyr mumbles after his second devouring bite, his mouth full of soggy, mushy bread. I start smearing peanut butter on the other two slices, just waiting patiently, as I do every morning.

The door closes for a second time and something heavy drops to the floor with a thick thud. Ah, the beautiful sound of textbooks in the morning. I can smell the thick vanilla scented perfume she wears as it quickly floats through the air before I see her glide into the kitchen as if she floated on a cloud.

You just left me, Jamie grumbles in annoyance. She doesn’t whine. Quickly, her eyes shoot an angry glance toward her little brother. Her manicured hand snatches one of the peanut butter slices from the plate sitting in front of me on the beige counter, like normal, and she takes a small bite out of the corner. Jamie won’t ruin her lip-gloss, but she’ll still reapply the pink glossy coat when she’s finished eating. Anything for her to look absolutely perfect. She is all about perfection. How’re ya doing, Joey? Jamie asks, all sweet and kind to me, not how she was just speaking to Zephyr.

I look up; connecting with Jamie’s subtly lined mahogany eyes. Upon close inspection when we were kids, on the basis of science, we saw that her eyes are lightened with flecks of gold and honey, nothing like Zephyr’s dark chocolate eyes that make me feel like I’m looking into two pools of a starless night sky.

As she stands before me—her back straight, her shoulders back—Jamie has a presence that commands your attention. When she walks into a room you can’t not look at her, you can’t even pretend that you didn’t see her. She’s like a magnet attracting your stare. You just stare and gawk at her while your mouth drops open and your drool collects on the front of your shirt in an obvious hideous dark spot. It may be her overwhelming height—she’s just south of six feet—or her flawless, model-like features. No one can avoid her and no one can ignore her. Even her boyfriend knows how lucky he is.

Zephyr is just the same, just for different reasons. While he’s just as stunning—as one of his best friends, I feel I can say that without any, uh… context. He’s also around six-three, maybe six-four, with shoulder length dark brown hair that almost rivals his sister’s, in volume and silky/softness, and eyes that, I swear to you, look into your soul. When he looks at you, there’s something that makes you believe he only has eyes for you.

Both the Kalivas kids have tanned skin, only growing darker when they spend any amount of time in the sun, or outside for that matter, but they never burn. We have that in common.

Good, I reply, being polite right back to her—just like any other morning—and rubbing it in Zephyr’s face. Although, she was my first best friend, like Zephyr, why wouldn’t I be nice and polite to her, even if only to gloat? Yourself? It’s too formal, but I say it every time.

Pretty good, she answers, a small smile tugging at her re-glossed lips. Jamie turns to lean against the counter, nudging her brother with her hip, pushing Zephyr from his spot. She’s acting every but the big sister I wish I still had. Zephyr moves to take a seat at the dining room table against the far wall, relaxing into the chair as his eyes scan the kitchen. They stop on me; I can feel it like the heat from the sun, warm and gentle against my back. I turn to watch him drag his hand through his hair, pulling it away from his face before it falls back into his eyes.

Jamie is distracted with her small breakfast, holding the glass of orange juice by her mouth as she checks the text messages on her phone, completely cut off from the world as her thumbs tap, tap, taps against the screen while she types a message to someone.

This is my morning—my normal morning. With the kids next door stealing my food, all of us waiting to head to school, this is familiar. I love familiar.

The Kalivas kids, Jamie and Zephyr, spend time with me in the morning before school because I’m usually home alone. I don’t mind it. My aunt is a heart surgeon in Seattle and, for some reason that only makes sense to her, she loves to operate at night. Hilary tells me she thinks better at night, works better at night, does everything better at night. She is very nocturnal, like an owl. So when she is here, which is, sadly, rare, she’s normally asleep or close to it, operating in a zombie-like state. It’s been like that since we moved her, though, back then, she was a full time student and working while I was spending nights at the Kalivas home, taking the top bunk in Jamie’s room and making it mine. She still reserves it for me when I don’t want to be alone at night. But I haven’t taken her offer in a few months. Even if I did, I’d probably just take over Aidan’s room. He moved to New York after he graduated college two years ago. I wouldn’t mind leaving something pink and girly for him to come home to.

Their parents took pity on me when I first stepped onto the driveway. It was pity on the orphaned child; I knew it then, at the tender age of eight. They forced their children to befriend me. I didn’t mind. Not then, anyway. I don’t really mind now. They don’t treat me like an abomination. They refuse to act as if I’m a plague, like I’m some contagious disease that’s going to kill someone’s entire family. Murder isn’t contagious, people! Somehow, after all of the stuff that they’ve heard about me, they stuck around.

The front door opens for a third time I’m not expecting. More heavy objects—emphasis on the plural—hit the hardwood floor of the entryway before my aunt walks into the kitchen with her tired, bloodshot eyes set on the vintage coffeemaker she desperately needs to update. Even though I hate coffee, I’m hoping for a Keurig.

Mornin’, she mumbles like an afterthought, exhaustion obvious in her voice as she sighs. Her eyelids are dropping, her tiny body is sagging and drooping awkwardly to the left, and she looks ready to fall asleep wherever she stands.

Good morning, indeed.

Hey, Aunt Hil, I say into my orange juice, calling her the nickname she despises. It was a happy accident when I was eight and it just stuck. Zephyr and Jamie repeat my greeting, much to her chagrin. We’ve called her that for years, now; she can’t stop us, no matter how hard she tries. As teenagers, we are, like most, very stubborn.

She starts a pot of coffee with fumbling fingers that briefly make me mentally question her quality of work as a surgeon—especially after her choice of hours. She leaves us our nickname for her, not snapping at us as she used to do, then she turns to lean against the counter on the opposite side of Jamie. Hilary drags her hands through her orange hair and turns her attention to me, lifting her gaze from the empty mug she holds in her hands, one of those Seattle mugs for tourists. Don’t forget your appointment this afternoon, Hilary reminds me.

Again.

I sigh.

I watch Jamie’s body stiffen, her eyes briefly glancing to me before they dart away. Zephyr turns his attention to the window on the other side of the room, pretending something, anything, outside the window is more interesting than what is about to happen in here. They do anything to avoid me on this subject. It’s a bit touchy for me.

I have a standing monthly appointment with a psychiatrist. It started back in Texas, so I was told—another thing I can’t remember. I started seeing one twice a week to make sure I was okay after everything that happened. Yeah, I was perfectly fine as you can tell. According to Dr. Jett, my shrink now, I didn’t speak in Texas. She says that my records stated I was practically mute—Practically? What the hell does that mean, exactly?—she says that I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that’s why I couldn’t talk. When I turned ten, I saw Dr. Jett once a week. That changed to twice a month a few years later. Now I see her once a month. I barely speak now but it’s required—court ordered and mandatory—until I turn eighteen. Even then, they need an assessment from Dr. Jett before they can release me from my appointments before I graduate.

I let out a long, exaggerated sigh and close my eyes, leaning my head back until it presses against the low cabinet. I try mentally counting to ten as Dr. Jett suggested I do when I get upset, or extremely pissed off—or any other angry kind of emotion. "Have I ever forgotten?" I ask her, the annoyance slithering into my tone like a snake.

No, Hilary replies shyly. As her cheeks flush red, her green eyes cast down to look at the kitchen floor as if she’s studying the linoleum squares patterned around our feet—black and white checkered. I’m just being nice, Joey. Like family. Damn, I should know this crap. She’s just caring about me! I have to remind myself of this every time she shows any interest in my life and well-being. Just as she’s been doing for most of your life, moron.

I am such an idiot sometimes.

Shame slips through me, coursing through my veins. Shame that I sounded like an immature little brat, shame that I embarrassed my aunt, shame that I did this all in front of an audience. I know based on her expression and flushed cheeks that she didn’t mean any harm by it. She’s just being nice. I want to apologize. I want to set down my glass, place my hand on her shoulder, and, while looking into her emerald green eyes as vibrant as the gem they resemble, smile sweetly and comfort her. Or as sweetly as I can.

But I’m not like that.

I will never be like that.

Instead, I set my empty glass in the sink beneath the faucet, run water into it—one of us has yet to run the full dishwasher—and look to Zephyr, raising my eyebrows in a signal that we should head out for school. He takes it with visual relief.

See you later, Auntie. I plaster a large smile on my face—well, I try, but it looks more like a forced sarcastic smirk—it’s fake, but she can’t tell. Can she?

Absolutely, Joey. No, she can’t. She reaches out her thin, bone-weary arms to give me a hug. It’s a simple act of love and kindness. By my reaction, you’d think she was about to inject me with lethal drugs. I back up quickly to avoid her embrace, bumping the back of my head on the low cupboard. I hate hugging. I hate being hugged—scratch that, I hate being touched. I mean any form of touching whether innocent of something else. God forbid it’s ever something else, I may just run screaming from the room. I search the surrounding area for something to save me from this innocent interaction and debate shoving the broom into her arms. Jamie is already walking through the living room, her long dark hair swishing and swaying from side to side as she steps, completely oblivious, as if her hair were saying Goodbye, you’re on your own, dude, so pushing her into this is out. But Zephyr suddenly sweeps into Hilary’s arms, taking the hug she meant for me and saving the awkward situation with a wink and a smile.

Phew!

After all these years, damn, this boy knows me too well. I’ll have to remember to thank him for that later.

Later, Aunt Hil, he murmurs to the top of her head as his hand rubs gently along her back, up and down slowly. He’s over a foot taller than she is so the sight is quite amusing and I smile slightly.

Hilary nods, forcing a small smile as I back out of the kitchen. She’s scared for me. Hilary has been scared for me since the day she discovered she was the legal guardian of an eight-year-old. Since then, she has changed her life to accommodate my life, my needs. That is a hard thing to do when you are twenty-three years old, living in a college town, and your usual weekend includes fraternity parties, sorority formals, and track meets.

Looking at the former sorority girl, the former party girl, and former track star, I want to thank her for everything that she has done for me, everything that she has sacrificed for me. She transferred schools for me, she left her sorority, she stopped dating, stopped running, and all of that was for me. Yet, I still treat her like a stranger when she’s pretty much all I have left in the world.

I just want her to know how thankful I am, sometimes.

Maybe I do have something to talk about with Dr. Jett later.

Thanks, Zephyr, I whisper before we leave my house, leaving Hilary to her coffee and much needed sleep. Jamie’s already outside walking toward her car, her keys jangling as she walks across the combined yards to her driveway.

Zephyr smiles at me, cockily, before he says, Not a problem, Joey. If I was a hugger and this was a sappy movie, this would be a good moment for a hug and cheesy slow music, maybe an Aww or two from a captive audience.

Sweet baby Jesus! Thank God, this is the real world.

Two

We arrive at school—surprisingly early by Jamie’s standards—and part ways. Jamie finds her flock of matching mindless followers, Zephyr is happily welcomed by the jocks, and I am left to walk alone to my locker. I notice a few stares and one mumbled freak, but it’s easy to ignore. As long as it isn’t written on my locker in hideous coral lipstick, I’m good—yes, it’s happened before.

I unload all my post-lunch class books and notebooks into my locker, watching the book tower grow. It knocks serious weight from my back and I stretch to relieve the remaining tension tugging at my muscles. Only a week, not even a full week, into school and I’m seriously regretting my decision of four advanced placement classes.

I know, right? I’m a bit of an overachiever.

The bell rings right as I slide into my seat in my AP European History class. I’m in the seat next to Zephyr. We took the table in the back of the room in front of the windows. I tug the red notebook from my backpack, the composition notebook reserved for this class. Already, the first five pages are filled with notes in a rainbow of color, the pages crinkly and curling from my neat handwriting. I choose a purple pen today; I choose a different color every day for note taking. It keeps things interesting.

What’s life without whimsy?

I’m not going to be able to keep up in this class, Zephyr mutters bitterly as he prepares his side of the desk, his eyes stealing glances at my notebook. I shoot a gaze in his direction, knitting my brows together. I’ll admit it; I was surprised—more shocked than anything—when he walked into the classroom with me on the first day. My mouth dropped open when he took the open seat next to mine. I was completely flabbergasted when Mr. Cheney called Zephyr’s name during roll call.

I did a double take.

Then why take it? I ask, still seriously confused by his choice. Zephyr isn’t the AP type. He’s smart, don’t take what I’m saying as Zephyr’s an idiot, that’s not what I mean in the slightest, but he isn’t devoted to academics like I am. He would rather be average, scraping by with Cs. As long as that means he can play on the varsity football team during the fall semester and soccer during the spring. Sports are his main focus; classes are what he does in his spare time.

You said that you were taking it. That catches me off guard and I smile shyly. I’ve always taken advanced classes. I took honor classes in middle school, joined after school academic groups in elementary school; I even take online college courses during the summer. It was all I could do to keep me occupied when the other girls made fun of me. I found that when I studied I could block them out. I could block everything out. All the mean words they said to me, all the stories they’d spread about me—it was nearly forgotten and I was near bulletproof. None of that existed within the pages of textbooks because, to me, the cruelest people were in the past and there they would remain. I compared my life to those in history texts, learning that my life doesn't even compare to theirs. While it's hard for me now, I can move on in two years and slowly heal on my own far, far away. I’ve never had a class with you before, he continues, as if it makes perfect sense to me—when it doesn’t. Not to me. His pencil sits poised above his blank notebook page, ready to start writing. Or doodling. He’s a doodler.

We have PE together, I reply matter-of-factly, my hand drawing a small three-dimensional cube in the top right corner of the page, right above the date for today. You could drop this and take the junior history class. You know; if that would be easier. I shrug my shoulders apathetically—forcing the emotion from my face.

Maybe, he draws out as if he’s actually considering the option, working it over in his mind. Zephyr’s brown eyes stare at the page in front of him, sadly and concerned.

I hate to admit it, but I wouldn’t like to see him go.

Dude, I begin, getting his attention, you know I’d never let you fail, I tell him with a smirk. I drag my hand through my hair, moving wisps and curls away from my eyes. We can study for tests, partner together for group assignments. I’ll even help you with the essays. He’ll definitely need help with those babies with the way Cheney grades.

Zephyr releases a breath. Thanks, Joey. He smiles at me, looking genuinely pleased and relieved. I really appreciate it, you know?

I know, I reply with a wide smile as Mr. Cheney walks through the door, his bald head glinting in the bright fluorescent light. It only gets worse throughout class, somewhat blinding us as he exaggerates points with is entire body. With every move he makes, it’s as if he’s trying to tell us something in Morse code. I’m almost tempted to search remedies for that on Google. Maybe the man should invest in a compact to diminish the sheen.

Fifty-five minutes and three full purple pages of notes later, I’m on my way to AP Calculus. Zephyr’s class is in the opposite direction, on the other side of the school. He turns away from me, giving me one last cocky smile as he pulls his hand through his wavy locks, heading to his English class before we have gym together.

I tug my black tank top over my head, leaving the white camisole on to hide my torso. I notice a few girls glance to me as I grab my shorts and t-shirt from my locker. They snicker before they turn away. The last thing these people need to see or know about are my scars, the infamous scars the entire school knows I have but have never seen or confirmed. It’s like a secret—picture me rolling my eyes. The worn heather gray t-shirt I wear for this class—it says Same Shirt, Different Day, but the R is faded—falls down my stomach as someone struggles with the combination on the locker next to mine.

Harley aggressively twists and spins the lock at least five times before grunting and hitting her palm against the hard; cold metal once, twice, three, four times until I fear she’s about to sprain her wrist. It’s stronger than she is. Harley gives up, looking to me with her pleading puppy dog eyes, large and ethereally pale blue, no one close to her can resist—that means me. I’m a sucker, really. I memorized her combination, for her gym locker and her regular locker, for this reason alone. I giggle as I pull her locker open on the first try, something she can’t do—it’s usually the fifteenth, sixteenth try by the time her locker opens for her and by then, she’s late for class and bitching about it loudly as she walks into the gym. She’s interesting to have around.

I hate these damned lockers, she grumbles angrily to herself. The innocent puppy dog eyes quickly drop from her face, an expression of pure malice covers her face as she grabs her clothes from the metal box. She throws them down on the bench I’m sitting on in a huff. "I hate this stupid class."

I shrug. You could have been a cheerleader with Kennie, I reason, almost hiding my giggle, but failing as the image of Harley bouncing around the football field in a short skirt and tight top drifts through my mind. The rule at this school is that students must take a gym class; be it weight lifting, global games—whatever the hell that is—yoga, aerobics, dance, and so on. There is even a walking class for those who don’t want to try or hate exercise all together. The only exception is if you play a sport for the school. They reason that you’re already exercising, there’s no need to tire you out with an hour-long class before practice. Though, if you still want to take gym, like Zephyr and other various athletes because it’s an easy A, you can.

"So I can spend my days kissing Alexia Cavanaugh’s obviously lipo’d ass, no thank you, ma’am. Harley scoffs loudly. A few girls nearby turn to glare at her as she badmouths the most popular girl in the junior class. But, my best friend, she’s against organized sports. And sweating. And physical exertion of any kind. And Alexia Cavanaugh—but who isn’t, right? Oh, and cheerleaders in general… minus Kennie. I’d rather die before I strut my pom poms in front of the entire school."

Kennie does it, I counter, thinking of our other friend. She decided on a whim at the end of freshman year to try out for the squad. Like a trooper, she endured spirit days dressed in neon leopard print short shorts that defied the school’s clothing policy and animal printed sports bras that she should have been sent home for, parent meetings with the coaches and current and future squad captains, and dancing around the school while the band stalked behind while blaring the school’s fight song. That was an interesting day in math class. Luckily, she was a trained gymnast before she moved here; that was the only reason she made the squad.

The biggest thing against her was her friendship with me. No upperclassmen on the squad could understand it. You’re friends with the crazy chick. Why? They just couldn’t reject someone that could out-flip any of them blindfolded, four feet off the ground, on ten centimeters of space to stand on.

"Kennie has bigger balls than I ever will."

I never understood that. Since when did strength for all equate to masculinity?

As that thought runs through my mind, Harley slams her locker shut, twisting the lock to ensure she won’t lose anything valuable—a lot of people in this school have sticky fingers, just ask my old iPod. I’ve been sitting on the bench tying my laces while she changed her clothes.

Dude, I’m definitely telling her that you said that, I joke.

Man, I’ll tell her for you. Harley tugs on the hem of her cropped black t-shirt. The shirt rises when she raises her arms, or moves, or breathes, revealing the sterling silver barbell pierced through her navel. I don’t want to run today, she whines loudly as she ties the purple laces on her black sneakers.

The thought of running the mile irks me but there is no avoiding it. I have grown to accept it. It’s Monday—Mile Monday, yay for alliteration. The coaches like to believe that running the mile weekly will make us faster. In retrospect, it should, but it doesn’t. Not in the way they want. I could run a fast mile. I could also enter a chicken wing-eating contest at a dive bar in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Washington. I just choose not to.

Well, suck it up, Harley, I tell her, patting her on the back, and forcing humor into my voice. There isn’t anything funny about this; I hate it as much as she does. We walk into the large gym, the thick scent of floor polish, chlorine—which is weird because the school doesn’t have a pool—and sweat wafts through the air. It’s enough to make you gag, which I do whenever I am lucky enough to walk through those lovely double doors. I’m graced with this every single day of school. Yay me!

People are scattered around the gym in groups; some stretching, most talking, all annoyed to be in this class. We check in with one of the four coaches in charge, the one that leads the juniors, and start stretching near the bleachers. Well, I stretch—cramps are a bitch—Harley just mumbles to herself while leaning against the lower bleacher as her eyes scan our gabbing classmates.

Well, she’s not mumbling in the crazy way that usually means someone’s hearing voices and replying to a conversation in their head, more like the angry way because it’s helping them from standing up and straight punching someone square in the nose. I do the same thing from time to time, only in the safety of my own home.

Hey. I look up and spot Zephyr running toward us. He’s wearing a sleeveless gray shirt and black basketball shorts with a red stripe running up the side, his long hair is tied back away from his face, as he does during gym every day. He smiles at me briefly before turning his attention to the grumbling girl next to me and asking, Harley, how are you this lovely morning? I’m not sure if I got my sarcastic quality from him, or he got it from me. He leans into a leg stretch. He’s usually one of the first people in class done running the mile. And he never cramps.

Harley just stares at him, her pale, freckled face expressionless as she waits for him to do… something, before she huffs with annoyance and looks away. Something she learned from me in our many years of friendship. I guess I rub off on people after a while.

Okay, Zephyr says to himself, his chocolate eyes set to me. His lips try not to crack into a grin but it slowly does, his lips pulling to reveal genuine happiness.

Kalivas! someone yells from the other side of the gym. Jackson Ray, one of Zephyr’s friends, and tallest, towering over Zephyr by a good eight inches, catches his attention across the gym and waves him over.

Just wanted to stop by, you know, he tells me with a small, quick shrug. He straightens up and reaches his arms above his head in one final long stretch that leaves a lazy smile on his face. That good, huh?

Whatever, dude. I