The sound of running water punctured my dream, and the unfamiliar house I had been searching evaporated. The mist left behind stretched into waves of the ocean, the swirling current pulling me under until I struggled to breathe...
With a strangled cry I sat up, clutching the worn bedspread in my fists and pressing my lips together to stop my scream from escaping. The digital alarm clock on the bedside table glowed 4:57 a.m., and I hugged my knees to my chest, straining to hear anything strange over the thump-thump of my heart. I wasn’t used to Aunt Caroline’s routine yet, so I had no way of knowing if the noises creeping into my subconscious were typical or something to be wary of.
Silence settled around me as my heartbeat slowed, and then the sudden whoosh of shower curtain rings sliding across the rod echoed through the wall. Loud coughs cut through the otherwise silent house, and my shoulders sagged. Aunt Caroline’s boyfriend had obviously spent the night, and if I didn’t move fast, he’d make it to the kitchen before I did. If that happened I wouldn’t be able to make my escape without seeing him, and even one minute with Peter Franklin was too many.
I threw back the covers and did my best to ignore the cold floor under my feet while pulling on my jeans and a sweater. Yanking my long dark hair into a ponytail, I pressed my ear to the door, and once positive only silence waited on the other side, I slid down the hallway and grabbed my backpack from the living room couch, ready to flee, which meant I’d have to forgo brushing my teeth. Not that it would matter; I didn’t have many friends at Cooper’s Landing High School, so there wouldn’t be a lot of chances to offend someone with my breath.
My stomach gave a growl of protest on my way through the kitchen, then snarled when I considered ignoring it, so I paused long enough to open the fridge to see what my options were. Scanning the sparse contents, I opted for an apple and a juice box. I hoped Aunt Caroline would make it to the grocery store by the end of the week. Not that I was complaining or anything, but really, how long could a person survive on a head of lettuce and a few apples?
Successful in my undetected escape, I locked the door behind me before stepping into the cool Florida morning. Streetlights cast dull yellow shadows across the driveway, and when I checked my reflection in Aunt Caroline’s car’s window, the hue made the skin around my eyes look jaundiced. I wondered for the millionth time how so many disasters could bubble below the surface of such a plain-looking, nothing-special about, average everything fifteen-year-old.
Truthfully, it was a blessing. In a small town like Cooper’s Landing, I stood out no matter how hard I tried to be invisible, but at least being nondescript made me a little less of a threat. Not entirely though, because during the first few weeks at Cooper’s Landing High School, Misty Carpenter, the alpha of the school’s popular crowd, did her best to show me I wasn’t a welcome addition to her kingdom. My backpack got dumped onto the floor on three separate occasions, my chair was pulled out from underneath me twice, and there had been six instances of homework disappearing from my locker between classes. I knew better and refused to react, so now, two months into the school year, it seemed their new plan was to ignore me which suited me fine; I wasn’t there to make friends. My stay in Cooper’s Landing was temporary anyway. The minute my mother’s criminal case was over, I would live with her somewhere other than this pathetic town, so their efforts to pretend I didn’t exist wasn’t worth the bother.
I bit into my apple and wandered down the sidewalk, making my way past sagging porches, peeling paint, and overgrown gardens. Even the darkness couldn’t hide the sadness of these places and I shuddered, trying not to think about the cute little house Mom and I left three months ago. We had rented, so by now the landlord would have found new tenants. He would have tossed out or sold our stuff, erasing our small but comfortable lives, and it pissed me off.
I threw the apple core into the street with a jerk of my arm and jammed my hands deep into my pockets, swallowing the angry tears burning the backs of my eyelids. I focused on the cracks in the sidewalk and the weeds still clinging to life despite the colder weather, and when I raised my head again, I caught sight of someone leaning against a lamppost that marked our bus stop.
Squinting, I tried to make out who it was, and the dark form lifted a hand. “Hey, Jordan. You’re early.”
The voice belonged to Brian Webber, another of the ‘undesirable zip code’ kids. “Hi,” I replied, dropping my bag on the sidewalk between us. “I couldn’t sleep. What’s up?”
He shrugged in his usual noncommittal way and pulled something out of his pocket. “Want some?” he asked, holding up a package of gum.
I nodded, and popped the piece Brian offered me into my mouth, chewing while I watched him slide the foil wrapper from his piece. Not as comfortable with silence as Brian was, I struggled to start a conversation. “Did you finish the reading for today? I’m not looking forward to writing that essay. The stupid thing will take me all weekend.” My voice sounded loud in the darkness, making me cringe.
Brian shook his head, strands of dark hair falling over his eyes as he looked at me. “Nah. I read it before so I didn’t see why I should do it again. Did the paper though.”
I stared at him. “The whole thing? Wow. I haven’t even started an outline.”
A half-smile revealed the dimple on his left cheek. “Yeah, well, you’ll do fine. I’ve seen your work.”
My cheeks warmed. Brian and I shared an English Lit class, and our last assignment had been to analyze a poem by an American writer. I chose a piece by Walt Whitman and discussed his view of spiritual union and means of relaying personal perceptions about people and events. Basic stuff, but our teacher, Mr. Rutherford, had read my paper out loud. I still wasn’t over the embarrassment.
“Ah, I don’t know.” Frowning, I stared across the street. “This is different. We’ll see, I guess.”
Silence settled between us again, and I shifted my weight from side to side. Brian was interesting, but I wasn’t sure what to make of him exactly. He was good-looking, but not flashy. The color of his eyes reminded me of the black coffee aunt Caroline drank, and his hair was too long, causing it to fall across his forehead when he moved, but he had an air of confidence you couldn’t ignore. His legs were long and lean; from what I had heard, the baseball team’s coach tries to get him to try out for the team a few times every year, but he refuses. Brian’s excuse was he preferred to be alone, and that was something we had in common.
Brian nodded toward the street behind me. ““Mark and Nicole are here. Guess our gang is complete.”
I smiled at the thought of our misfit bus stop group being considered a gang and turned as the other two drew closer. Short, hard-edged Nicole stopped beside me, and Mark stood next to Brian giving him a high-five in greeting. “Hi, guys,” I said. “What’s new?”
Nicole dropped her backpack onto the sidewalk next to mine and tucked a misbehaving stand of short black hair behind her ear. “Nothing. Last night was the same night I’ve had four thousand nights before, and today was an exact replica of the morning I had yesterday. I’m pretty sure this afternoon will be a carbon copy of each one I’ve had since starting school, too.” Her sarcasm was thick, and I hid a smile. Nicole made no secret of the fact she hated Cooper’s Landing, and she made sure to reminded us at least once a day, as if we could forget.
Mark rolled his eyes. “Nicole is bored with this place,” he stated as if we needed an explanation. “She thinks this town is a waste of prime real estate.”
I glanced at Brian, and he winked before I focused on Nicole again. She was examining the ends of her dyed hair, muttering under her breath, but lifted her head to meet my gaze, her eyebrows arched in expectation. “Well, I’m right, aren’t I?”
“No argument here,” I said, nodding, “and the people suck too. I mean, I’ve been here a while now, and the only ones who have bothered talking to me are you guys. That leaves a lot of folks wandering around ignoring me.”
Nicole crossed her arms, her deep blue eyes narrowing. “Well, be thankful,” she argued. “Most of the kids at school are worthless rich snobs who could never survive if Mommy and Daddy weren’t there.” She tilted her head to the side and jutted her chin in my direction. “You’re okay in my book, kid, and we’ve got your back anytime.”
Mark gave an exaggerated groan. “Are you going soft on us now, Nicole?” His eyes sparkled despite the well-placed punch she delivered to his right shoulder. “Kidding. Just kidding.” He held up his hands in mock surrender. “It was a joke. Don’t you remember those?”
While Nicole shot daggers in Mark’s direction, I turned to Brian and caught him looking at me, eyes narrowed, his expression thoughtful. Despite the uncomfortable feeling in my gut from being scrutinized I didn’t look away until the sound of an approaching school bus broke through the morning fog. The moment lost, the four of us grabbed our bags while the bus slowed to a stop, the squeal of its brakes making me wince. When the door hissed open Nicole stepped on followed Mark, and Brian motioned for me to get on before climbing in behind me. I settled into a seat near Nicole and leaned my head against the cold window, my stomach dropping as the bus lurched forward to continue its route. There was still a 30-minute ride to live through, so I closed my eyes, hoping for a quick nap before we pulled through the gates of hell.
Morning classes limped by, and I was ready for lunch when the bell rang. I hurried through the halls and made it to the cafeteria before the kids who had friends and wasted time socializing in the halls, which made me one of the first in line. Since I was part of the Free Lunch Program due to, as my caseworker called them, “recent life changes,” it took only a few minutes to slide through the line and settle into a table at the back of the room. I stirred what could have been pasta with tomato sauce, poked a fork in the salad that looked as if it had seen better days, and eyed the small bowl of mixed vegetables before tossing my fork back onto the tray. I wasn’t going to be able to eat anything sitting in front of me, so I opened my milk and sipped it while surveying the usual cafeteria crowd.
Cooper’s Landing was a small town, only 15 square miles from what I had been told, so the student body wasn’t that big. Residents were generations deep so social groups had pretty much formed back in the days when who pushed who on the swings cemented friendships, and it was clear there was no use for newcomers. The established groups included your typical nerds, jocks, artists, and preppy kids, just like every other school across the nation seemed to have, and at the top of the heap were, of course, the ultra-rich kids, the ones that dominated the school in every way. Scattered among the cliquey groups were your average, everyday kids, but even they tended to stick together and shy away from the threat of infiltration.
It was funny to me now how much time I'd wasted preparing prefabricated answers to every question I could imagine before coming to Cooper's Landing, because I hadn’t needed any of them. No came within ten feet of me, and when I finally overheard Misty Cartwright explaining to a crowd of letter-wearing jackets that I was living with my “housecleaning aunt who survived on charity and the fact people were too busy in the city making money and wouldn’t dream of scrubbing their own toilets,” and was “destined to follow in her footsteps based on my ‘jail inmate mother,” it was obvious any chance I thought I had to fit in had never existed. I had been deluded into thinking my past was a secret, and from the moment our eyes locked during the responding laughter, my main goal at school became one of survival and nothing more.
My gaze wandered around the room, my head not really registering anyone in particular until I spotted Brian Matthews. I had never seen my bus stop companion in the cafeteria before, not that I was looking for him specifically, of course, and I wasn’t sure what to make of his sudden appearance. I tried to focus on another group of kids, but my gaze kept sliding back to Brian as curiosity gnawed at my gut. What was he doing, eating and chatting it up with the jocks ? Didn’t he know how awful they were? Yet there he was sitting right next to Bradley Carpenter, Misty’s older brother, who had the uncanny ability to strike me mute whenever he was around. I was helpless to do anything more than slink away when he and his sister came near me, and it annoyed me to see Brian laughing at whatever it was they were talking about.
He must have felt my stare, because he lifted his head and looked right at me, the corners of his dark brown eyes crinkling above a wide smile. I gulped and lowered my eyes, watching from underneath my lashes as he slapped the back of the guy sitting on the side opposite of Brad, and pretended to cut the wilted lettuce of my salad when he stood. Brian pushed his chair in and began making is way toward me, but I wouldn't give him the satisfaction of looking up.
My heart fluttered when he sat down across from me. "Hey.” He dropped his book bag on the floor with a thud and leaned back, the smile still on his face.
“Hey,” I replied, then blurted, “I’m surprised to see you here.”
“Oh yeah?” Brian cocked his head to the side. “Good surprised, or surprised like you can't believe I'd come over here and bother you?”
Brian's eyes sparkled, but I couldn't tell if he was teasing me or not. “Good surprised. I mean, I guess. I’ve been in the cafeteria every day, and I’ve never seen you here before. Or, well, I never noticed if you were here or not, but I don’t remember seeing you. You know, when I was in line or looking for a place to sit.”
The pathetic explanation made him laugh. “Relax, Jordan. I don’t usually eat here. I have work-study next period, so I head out at lunch and work through this period and the next.”
That was interesting. Brian kept his private life very private, so his revelation urged my brain to click into action. I added this new bit of information to the few facts I already had and considered it as a whole. So, he had a job which explained why he wasn't on the bus going home in the afternoon. He didn’t come from money since we shared the same bus stop and thus the same undesirable zip code, but I hadn’t considered the fact he worked somewhere.
I propped my chin in the palm of my hand. “I hate eating here. Eating alone is never fun.”
Brian frowned. “Then why do you?”
Surprised, I gave a very unladylike snort. “What do you mean? Where else am I supposed to go?”
Brian looked around the room. “I didn’t mean ‘why don’t you eat somewhere else,’ I meant ‘why do you eat alone?’ Why aren’t you eating with other people?”
The bitter laugh escaped before I could stop it. “Really? What, take my tray and just sit at a table? Where would you suggest I sit? Should I go over to the football team? What about the Drama Club? Oh wait, better yet, the Rich Girls Table! Yes, I can see it now,” I sneered. “I’ll just head on over there and plop myself down next to Misty and join in the discussion they’re having about the latest chemical peel and which of them just got a new car. No thanks." I crumpled my napkin into a ball and threw it on my tray. “I’d rather eat alone.”
I glared at him, hating how childish I sounded, and he pressed his lips together, the skin surrounding them whitening with the pressure. “Ouch,” he said after a beat of silence. “Feeling a bit left out, are you?”
My ponytail whipped from side to side as I shook my head. “No, I do not,” I assured him. “I have no desire to sit around talking about who dates who and who was spotted with the latest designer bag. No thanks, not my scene.”
Brian leaned forward and rested his arms on the table. “Well then, Jordan, what is your scene? What is it you want?”
I stared at the ceiling and considered his question. I couldn’t tell him what I really wanted was to go back in time and stop my mother from getting arrested, that I wanted my old life back, my old family back, and I didn’t want to be in Cooper’s Landing anymore.
My emotions surged as I tried to come up with a generic answer to what he'd asked, and it didn't take long for my feelings and my thoughts to tangle together, the spinning whirlwind making it impossible to tell where my anger left off and the ache of loneliness began. I was horrified to feel tears filling my eyes, and I grabbed my tray, struggling to keep the salty drops from spilling over as I stood. “My scene is to have people not judge me without knowing me and to not ask questions they have no right asking.”
I hurried to the nearest trashcan, dumped the uneaten food, and tossed my tray on its top. I considered saying good-bye but decided escaping was more important than being polite, so without a backward glance, I made my way to the exit. Brian and I would be face-to-face again in the morning, but it would be easier to deal with him after I decided on an answer to what should have been a very simple question.
Brian’s question kept repeating itself in my mind. I had no idea what my 'scene' was, and I wouldn’t bother trying to figure it out until I had answers. My caseworker, Denise Maxwell, assured me that now matter what happened with my mom I would always have a place to live, but she had yet to say if that meant in Cooper’s Landing or somewhere else. She never had any concrete answers when I asked, and what little I got from listening in on whispered conversations, my mom's case was still in its early stages which meant there weren't any answers anyway. Mom was waiting in jail for her hearing date, but there was a delay, something about psychiatrists. I'd never dare to ask about it since I wasn't supposed to know, but the idea had me considering a visit to the jail. I hadn't seen Mom since the arrest, and while part of me was desperate to see her, I was also pissed that she had put me in this position in the first place and wanted to wait until she reached out to me. A month ago she had called, but for all she knew, I could be dead now. The fact she had forgotten me didn't have me begging to see her.
“Dude, let’s go.” A book slammed on my desk, and I gasped out a mild curse. Nicole laughed and thumped me on the shoulder, then shoved the offending textbook into her backpack. “Whatever you're contemplating, put it on hold. We’re late.”
I looked around at the empty classroom. "Shoot.” I stood and chased her out of the room. “I hate being last on the bus!”
We sprinted to the line of buses waiting at the curb, and with a laugh over her shoulder Nicole surged ahead, her long legs carrying her over the grass too fast for me to stay alongside her. “Hurry, Jordan. I don’t want to get stuck sitting next to that smelly kid from the farm on Old Plantation Drive.”
Nicole reached the doors just as they started closing. “Hey,” Nicole shouted, “give us a second, will you?” They swung open again with a hiss, and she glared at the driver as we climbed the stairs. “Are you serious? You saw us, Jerk.”
Eyes rolling, he shot back a remark almost as charming. They way they tossed insults back and forth had horrified me at first, but Nicole explained Mr. Harrington, Tommy outside of school, was a friend of her older brother’s. Nicole had known him “forever,” and he was more of an annoying brother than an actual adult. Now that I understood their relationship, I looked forward to their verbal sparring. It gave me something to smile about.
Mr. Harrington shook his head and closed the door behind me. “Why do you hang out with this girl on purpose?” he grumbled. “She’s impossible.”
“She follows me around, and I can’t shake her,” I replied.
His laugh was loud. “Gotcha.”
Nicole glared at me as I slid into the space beside her. "Traitor," she frowned. I put my backpack on my lap and elbowed her. She sighed and jabbed me back, then turned to face the window. “He’s such a dip, always trying to make my life difficult. I swear, he gets off on stuff like that.”
I swallowed a laugh and rest my head against the seat. “The equivalent of a third grader, huh? Boys do mature later than girls."
Nicole’s blue eyes narrowed. “Huh?”
“Oh, come on,” I replied, raising my voice above the groan of the buses engine. “He likes you but has to pretend he doesn’t so you’ll pay attention to him when he insults you. It’s the same as when you’re little and a boy keeps pushing you or knocking you down on the playground. They have no idea how to tell you they think you're cute."
A blush climbed up her neck. “It's not that way at all,” she huffed. “Tommy is just another poor soul, stuck here with the rest of us. He never even tried to leave Cooper's Landing, and look where he is now. A career driving a bus? Way to reach for the stars! No thanks. He’s a loser my brother hangs out with, and nothing more.”
I shrugged and faced forward again. “It must make Mark jealous,” I said, glancing at her out of the corner of my eye. Her blush deepened, and she turned to stare out the window, her shoulders slumped. Unknowingly Nicole had confirmed my suspicion, but I had only been teasing. I didn't want her mad at me.
To distract her, I decided to relay my conversation with Brian in the lunchroom. I wouldn't tell her everything, but I 'd give her enough to shift her focus.“Brian sat with me at lunch today,” I offered.
Nicole waited a moment, but the curiosity outweighed her annoyance. “Oh yeah?” She swiveled around to face me again. “That’s strange. He usually goes to work and doesn’t eat at school.”
I nodded, noting her complexion had returned to its ivory perfection. “He told me that, but he didn’t tell me why he was there.” I paused as the bus lurched toward the outskirts of town. “He’s intense, isn't he?”
Nicole shrugged. “Nah, just quiet. He’s been that way the whole two years I’ve known him.”
“You’ve only known him a few years?” I had assumed they had grown up together. Interesting. I was dying to find out where he came from but didn’t want to ask a ton of questions and give her the wrong idea. “Still, I wonder why he was there.”
Nicole shrugged again. “A lot of the horses and their owners are out of state at some dumb high-class event. Without the usual crowd around for a week, I’m guessing there wasn't much for him to do at the stable.”
I twisted in the seat to face her. “Brian takes care of horses?”
“Sure. How did you miss this?" Her dark hair swung forward as the bus slowed, then accelerated again. "He works at Holloway Stables cleaning the stalls, giving lessons, doing general barn-type things.” She shuddered. “Not my idea of a good time, but he likes it.”
I considered that. The way he had been joking with Clayton made them look like friends, not employer and employee, and hearing that Brian worked for the Holloway's wasn't what I had expected. "Wow."
Nicole grinned. "It's a kick in the butt, isn’t it? Brian had experience with horses or something before he moved here, so the Holloway's hired him right away. Brian is a legal adult, so he can have a job without needing permission from his parents."
I was even more curious now. “He is? A legal adult, I mean. How old is he?”
Nicole pursed her lips. “I have no idea,” she admitted. “I never asked. I think he's two years older than we are?”
"That doesn’t make sense,” I argued. "What’s he doing in high school then?"
“Well, maybe I’m wrong. It could have been a joke or something my brother told me. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Hmm.” I wound my ponytail around my finger. “Where did Brian move from? Where did he live before this?”
Nicole’s eyes sparkled. “My, my, my,” she teased. “We have quite a few questions about Mr. Webber, don’t we?”
I swallowed. “No, not really.” I tried to keep my voice light. “I’m just trying to make sense of something. It got… tense today, and I want to figure out why.”
“I'm being serious when I say I don't have any idea. He told us he moved here because of a situation with his Grandfather.” She cocked her head to the side. “Funny, now that you mention it, I haven't learned much more about him other than what I’ve seen or overheard. I guess he is kinda private.”
“Have you ever hung out with him? Aside from the bus stop, I mean?”
She tapped a finger against her red, L'Oreal-painted lips. “In the beginning, yeah. He works a lot, but sometimes he helps me with homework. When I ask him to.”
I stared at the back of the seat in front of me, running my tongue over my teeth. "So, that's it?"
Nicole laughed. “What else do you want to know? What his zodiac sign is? Where his birthmarks are?”
“Of course not,” I scoffed. “I told you, I’m trying to figure him out, that’s all.”
“Well, why don’t you ask him?” She punched me in the arm, and I winced. I had to remind her I wasn’t Mark and we didn’t share the same rock-hard biceps. “Brian would open up to you.”
“What does that mean?” Her lack of answers annoyed me, and my tone reflected it.
“I’ve seen the way he looks at you, Jordan,” she replied. “I’m just saying, if he wanted to confide the intimate details of his life with someone, I don’t think he’d mind doing it with you.”
She was wrong. “That isn’t true. He’s curious, that’s all.” The bus made its final turn before our stop, and I stood, swinging my backpack onto my shoulder.
“What, you mean like a third grader who can't figure out how to get your attention?”
I winced. “Shut it.”
Nicole followed me off the bus, her laughter ringing in my ears. “Oh Jordan,” she said, patting my back. “You’re so much fun. You’ve got to develop a thicker skin!”
“Tell me about it,” I muttered.
Nicole’s fingers wrapped around my wrist and stopped me from continuing up the sidewalk. “You keep saying how little you know about Brian, but the same thing goes for you. Other than what I’ve heard through the gossip mill, I don't know much about you, either.”
I froze, my feet blocks of ice inside my sneakers. Avoiding an explanation forever would be impossible, but I hadn’t expected Nicole to break our unspoken rule of No Questions so soon. Her comment left no room for excuses though, and I stared at her, willing her to tell me it didn’t matter, that answering her wasn't important. My past was embarrassing and hurtful, and even though we were becoming friends, I doubted our relationship would be strong enough to survive if I told her everything.
I took a step backward, forcing Nicole to release my arm. “O.K., fine. Forget it.” she snapped, and any chance of avoiding the conversation slipped away with the last of her patience. There wasn't much time to decide my next move; Nicole was still holding on to grudges from grade school, and I didn’t want to become yet another part of Cooper's Landing that she hated.
“Wait.” I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, searching for strength, and when I opened them again, Nicole was staring at me, her expression impossible to read.
“Don't worry about it, I said to forget it," she repeated, taking a step backward. "I'm familiar with secrets, and I won't force you to tell me yours.”
Nicole's eyes were bright with hurt, and before I could think I grabbed her wrist, desperate for her to understand my hesitation. "Nicole, please! I'll explain, and I mean it. It’s just... This will be the first time I’ve talked with anyone other than my caseworker, the police, or my aunt, so it's a little weird."
Her eyes widened, and her mouth formed a small ‘O’. “The cops?” she breathed.
I scuffed my toe against the ground. “It isn’t as dramatic as it sounds.” I let go of her arm. “Um, can we talk somewhere else? I don’t want to discuss it standing on the sidewalk.”
Nicole nodded, her eyes still wide, but she didn’t offer any alternatives. I looked up the street toward aunt Caroline’s house, then let my gaze settle back on Nicole, thinking over my limited options. What my aunt did for a living and where I lived was no secret, so that wasn't the reason I hesitated. No, the ironic thing was, even though aunt Caroline cleaned houses, she didn't consider her's a priority. I was never sure what I'd be walking into, so between that and aunt Caroline's slimy boyfriend, the house was not where I wanted to take Nicole. However, considering she was still mute, I doubted Nicole would be offering an invitation to her home anytime soon. I'd have to take my chances.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Nicole fell into step beside me while I tried to match my heartbeat to our slower footsteps. Nicole might not want to be my friend after she heard every lewd detail of my life, and I needed to prepare myself for that. I hoped my gut instinct was right, that her impression of me wouldn't change once she had time to think over everything, but I couldn't plan on that.
I used my key to unlock the front door, turned on the hall lights, and breathed a sigh of relief. Although decorated in what I considered “yard sale meets college dorm,” the place was at least organized. Better still was the smell of cinnamon filling the air, something I wasn't used to, and I led Nicole to the kitchen to find its source.
Aunt Caroline stood by the oven, an unlit cigarette dangling from her free hand. “Hi, Jordan,” she said, not bothering to look up from the icing she poured onto the steaming dough in front of her. “You’re home late.”
“Yeah, sorry.” I glanced in Nicole’s direction. “We were talking, and I lost track of time.”
Aunt Caroline looked up and sucked in her breath. “I didn’t realize you had a friend with you.” She put the tube of icing on the counter next to the pan of cinnamon rolls and wiped her hand on her jeans. “Hi. I’m Caroline, Jordan’s aunt.”
Nicole lifted her hand in a small wave. “I’m Nicole Parsons. I live two blocks down.”
Aunt Caroline’s shoulders relaxed. “Hi, Nicole. I know your father.” Her green eyes brightened above a gentle smile. “Henry's his name, right? I remember him from church, though I haven’t been in a while. How is he?”
Nicole returned Aunt Caroline's smile. “Okay. Busy with work and everything, but he’s fine.” She eyed the cinnamon rolls, and I could almost see her salivate. “Are those fresh?”
Aunt Caroline laughed and gestured toward the table. "They sure are. Fresh out of the can." She winked. "Why don’t you girls have a seat, and I’ll get you each a plate."
I cursed the creaking chairs and the rings on the tabletop, evidence of numerous abandoned coffee mugs and beer bottles. Nicole didn’t seem to notice, but giving her the chance to judge where I lived made me nervous.
I cleared my throat and searched for something to say. “What does your dad do?” I asked, resting my chin in my hand.
“Oh, this and that. He’s a contractor, so he builds and fixes things, but he also subcontracts with the town on different projects, like snowplowing the government buildings’ parking lots and stuff.” Nicole smiled at aunt Caroline as she placed the hot rolls in front of us, then grabbed one with a sigh of content. “These are great,” she said, swallowing a mouthful of dough.
Aunt Caroline’s smile reached her eyes. “Thank you.” She yawned and waved her cigarette in the air. “If you guys are set, I’m heading out for a smoke and then going to my room to read.”
“We’re good,” I assured her. “Thanks for these.” I licked the icing off my fingers and waited for Nicole to begin her questioning, which she did the minute the front door closed behind Aunt Caroline.
“Okay,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “I'm ready.”
I concentrated on my fingers where they trembled against the tabletop. “Where should I start? When I moved here or when I had to leave home?”
Nicole's gaze was heavy, but I didn’t look up. I didn't want to offer her more information than she asked for, and I was afraid if I made eye contact, she'd decide I was inviting more questions. “Um, how you got here and what will happen next.”
I wasn’t sure, but I thought I detected a note of uncertainty in her voice. I risked glancing at her and saw she was chewing her lower lip with vigor, looking as uncomfortable as I felt, which made me feel a bit better.
“My mother was arrested in August on drug charges,” I blurted. “The police came in the door one night dressed in vests, waving their guns around, shouting over each other so much we couldn’t understand what was happening at first. They had us on our knees before handcuffing my mom right there in the middle of our living room. She was crying and begging them to let her go, then started screamed when they pulled her out of the house. She was telling them she had to talk to me, that she needed to explain what was going on, and when they wouldn't listen, she tried to get away." I paused, remembering how hard they hit her, how the sound of their skin against hers echoed through my mind for days afterward. "They made it through the doorway with her yelling my name, saying that she loved me.”
I looked at the ceiling, doing my best to keep the tears from spilling over. The screams rang crystal clear in my mind, the fear just as raw as when they wrestled her out of the house... But I didn’t tell Nicole any of that. There was no reason to go into my nightmares or tell her how I had betrayed my mother. She hadn't asked, but even if she had, I wouldn’t have told her.
I waited until I had control of my emotions before continuing. “One of the police officers sat with me while a caseworker for Protective Services explained that my mom was being charged with a bunch of stuff, like Possession of a Controlled Substance, Possession with Intent to Distribute, Trafficking, Child Endangerment, Child Neglect, Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor, Illegal Possession of a Firearm…” I looked at my hands again. It was the first time I had named her charges out loud, and they sounded horrible.
If Nicole's eyes held something other than understanding I'd fall apart, so I avoided looking at her altogether. “There were others but those are the worst." I shifted in my chair and decided I may as well go on and explain my involvement with Mrs. Maxwell instead of having to do it later. “My aunt Caroline is my mother’s sister. She’s her only living relative, and she agreed to take me when my case manager, Mrs. Maxwell, from Protective Services called. I've never met my father, so she was the only one they had to ask. If it wasn’t for her, I’d be in foster care.” I ran a finger around the edge of my plate and swallowed. “My mother is in the county jail until her trial starts, but there might be a delay. My caseworker was here last week, and she said she’d call when she got new information.” I took a deep breath, my lungs expanding further than they had since I arrived in Cooper’s Landing. “So, that's it. There’s my recent life history for you.”
Nicole didn’t make a sound, and after a few moments, I couldn’t take the silence anymore. I looked up, my shame ready to morph into anger if provoked, but she was gazing at me with an expression full of nothing but sadness.
I forced a lopsided smile. “More than you wanted to know, huh?”
She shook her head, her necklaces clinking together with the force of the movement. “No, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.”
My hands trembled as I toyed with a napkin. “What were you expecting? It's close to what’s being said behind my back, isn't it?”
Nicole frowned and rest her elbows on the table. “It’s similar,” she admitted, her typical bluntness unaffected by my question, "but remember, I’m not friendly with the people who do most of the talking. Everything I heard was snippets in the hallway or whatever. I don’t think I ever had a full conversation with anyone about it…" She blushed, and I knew there was more to the story.
“But?” I asked, narrowing my eyes. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Nicole squirmed in her chair and dropped her gaze. “Well, nothing important. It’s just that in gym class, some stupid rich girls were going on about how you can make drugs since your mother did, and that she, umm…” she trailed off and looked away, her face red.
I sighed. “Just tell me. Chances are I’ve heard it already, and if I haven’t, I’m guessing it can’t be any worse than what's been through my head.”
She coughed and fixed her gaze somewhere over my left shoulder. “Um, they might have mentioned that your mom was a prostitute, and that’s how she got into the drugs. They claimed you are the result of one of her customers.”
My mouth dropped open. “They're nuts,” I squeaked. “My mother was not a prostitute. Ever.” My stomach clenched, and I was pretty sure the cinnamon rolls were going to end up on the floor.
Nicole blew out a breath, and her bangs to fluttered against her forehead. “Well duh.” She focused on me again, the relief in her eyes obvious. "It’s just one more mean thing they invented. Not that it matters anyway, but…" She leaned forward and grasped my fingers. “Listen, I’m glad you told me. None of it matters, but it explains why you haven't said much." A shy smile touched her lips. "You’re cool, and I don't say that about many people.”
A spark of relief flickered through the darkness of my shame, and I ran a hand across my forehead. "Thanks." I doubted she'd tell anyone, but it wouldn't hurt to make sure. “Can we keep this between us? I mean, you can tell Mark if you trust him to stay quiet, but that's it." Nicole nodded.
“Mark’s a vault, so don’t worry about him spreading it around the school." She cleared her throat. "Um, I have to ask. What about Brian? What if we mention something by accident? Wouldn't that make things awkward?”
Damn. I hadn’t considered Brian. “I'm not sure,” I hedged, “I mean, he works for the Holloway family.” An image of Clayton came to mind, and my stomach quivered with the conflicting vision of his amazing smile and the memories of his condescending laughter after his sister’s mean-spirited comments. “I don’t want them, or anyone in that crowd, to know what I told you. Brian was chummy with Clayton and the other jocks today, and I'd hate to think he might let something slip by accident.” I cringed. “I’d have to be home-schooled if he did.”
“No way,” Nicole assured me. “Brian is a good guy. He never talks about anyone. He hears stuff considering where he works, but he keeps his head down and does what he needs to do. He’s really great. He’s funny and cute, and most of all honest…”
Suddenly it hit me. "It isn’t Mark at all, is it? You have a thing for Brian!" I started to laugh, but the look on her face stopped me. “I'm sorry. I assumed it was you and Mark. You spend so much time together, I thought there might be more to it."
She sniffed. “It doesn’t matter. It’s stupid. I made a move on him last year and he brushed me off saying I was like a sister to him and it was obvious Mark had feelings for me, blah, blah, blah.” She waved her hand in the air, but the tone of her voice contradicted her attempt to appear blase. “No biggie. I’m totally over him, but I still think he’s a nice guy. Trustworthy, you know?”
Nicole was a pro with her emotions. She could turn herself on and off like a light switch, but I could tell whatever happened still stung. “Sure,” I said. “I don’t believe it though. Is he into boys or something?”
She barked out a laugh, and the tension in the room lifted. “Nah.” She managed a real smile. “He said he’s going through a lot of stuff and didn’t want to ruin our friendship. An excuse, yes, but at least it was a nice one.”
I stifled a yawn. “I guess. Do you have many experiences to compare it too?”
She pushed back from the table and stood. “Nah.” Reaching her arms over her head to stretch, her shirt lifting far enough to reveal a taut stomach and jeweled bellybutton ring. I was glad Peter wasn’t around to see it. “Ugh, I’m so tired,” she said, letting loose a wide-mouthed yawn. “You wore me out.”
I allowed myself the yawn I had been holding in, and she yawned again right after me. We both giggled, and I led her to the front door where she paused in the doorway, backpack slung over her shoulder and another cinnamon bun in her hand.
“Sorry. I have that effect on people,” I joked. “They yawn when they’re around me.”
Her expression turned serious. “Jordan, you’re an okay chick.” Her cheeks were pink, but she didn’t look away. “I hope you know what your mom did has nothing to do with you. You were there, yeah, but her choices don’t define who you are.”
I did my best to swallow the lump in my throat, but it was no use. I waved instead of saying good-bye, afraid if I tried to speak I’d crumble into pieces, and watched her walk down the driveway. The conversation had exhausted me, and my head throbbed with the lingering fear Nicole's opinion about me might change. She had proven she was my friend, but if I broke down and shared the whole truth, I could lose the right to call her that. Everything I had said was true, but things might not have happened in the exact way I explained them. There were parts I had to leave out, things I didn’t dare admit to her or to anyone in Cooper's Landing. I had to be careful that no one found out. Not ever.