“So how was your first day?” Jazz asked as she mopped up the counter at Big Happy Family.
“Fine,” I said briefly, not wanting to get into the gory details.
“Fine?” Jazz placed her free hand on her hips and raised her eyebrows. “That’s all you’re going to tell me?”
“Well, that’s what it was,” I persisted. I didn’t trust Jazz enough to tell her the entire story of how, on my very first day, I’d managed to break up one of the most powerful couples on campus and extract a death threat from the Queen of the school. Sure, I liked my bubbly, yellow-haired coworker enough. But it wasn’t like Jazz herself volunteered any personal information, so why should I? “I liked my creative writing class, and my homeroom staff supervisor – “
“Listen to you, Summer. I liked my creative writing class. As if that’s what makes or breaks a life.”
I arranged brownies on a plate. “Well, education is important.”
“And it’s something that’s about as boring as it’s easy to deal with.”
I looked at her, frustrated. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
Jazz’s frown softened. “Look, I know what it’s like out there. I feel for you, Summer. I’m not some adult you have to be all perky and positive with. I know that – “
“What do you know, Jazz?” My temper, normally pretty stable, flared. I’d had a long, horrible, tiring day, and I just wasn’t in the mood to deal with Jazz’s hints and insinuations. “You just keep throwing out little half-formed hints, but you never tell me what you’re talking about when I ask you to explain.”
Jazz held my gaze for a long minute. Then she sighed and looked away. “You know I want us to be friends, right?”
My first impulse was to protest loudly and earnestly that we were friends. My second impulse was to keep my mouth shut. The second impulse won out.
“I mean, we have to hang out a lot every day,” Jazz went on. “I just want you to trust me.”
“Wouldn’t that be kind of one-sided?” I said evasively. “When you don’t trust me?”
“I do trust you, I just – there are some things I don’t want to talk about.” Jazz looked somber, her brown eyes half-lidded.
“Okay,” I said, shrugging. There were things I didn’t want to talk about, too…for example, my life. And my feelings. And anything else that involved essaying information about myself and my personality.
“But you’re a cool kid, and you’re all on your own in a pretty tough world. It would be cruel of me to just stand by and watch you struggle when I can at least give you some warning about the shit that can happen to you.”
I smiled ruefully. “I doubt that’s going to make for pleasant listening.”
“So here’s what I want us to do. You tell me how your day went, and in exchange, I’ll tell you what I know about Thornton and how I know it.”
I hesitated, not sure if I could confide in Jazz without staying up all night worrying about it.
“Come on. That doesn’t sound fair to you?”
I took a deep breath. “It does. But you have to go first.”
Jazz shrugged and vaulted up on the counter. It didn’t really matter, because Big Happy Family was always deserted on weekdays, and there weren’t any customers except the guy at Table Four who was too busy devouring the ice-cream that Androvich had served him to care that an employee was sitting on the counter. “I went to Thornton for a while.”
I felt my eyebrows shoot up. “You went to Thornton.”
“Why is that so surprising? You think I can’t get the grades?” Jazz looked miffed.
“No, of course not,” I hastened to say. “I just…didn’t know.”
“Okay, whatever. Anyway, I did my sophomore year there. I thought it was the most amazing place in the world. All the beauty and the motivation and the burning ambition of the place, you know? And the people were all gorgeous…and they seemed so nice…”
I felt skeptical. It didn’t seem possible that Roxanne Cartwright had ever even seemed nice.
“There was this little group of kids on campus that everyone used to worship. They were practically celebrities.They were the kids everyone wanted to be and know about, the kids everyone feared, the kids with all the power – “
“The It-kids,” I interrupted. “I get it.”
Jazz nodded. “I told you about Roxanne Cartwright. She was just a freshman then, but she was still more adored than many of the senior girls. Then there was Nathan Wellington – he was in my class. They were that year’s It-Couple – they’d rule the school – even the juniors and the seniors wanted to break them up so they’d be fair game for everyone else.”
I tried not to look surprised. I had somehow assumed that Nathan and Roxanne had never been together – there was sexual tension between the pair, but not in a way that suggested they’d explored the tension. Not in a way that said they’d gone to movies and held hands and told each other they loved each other.
“But they’d just hooked up when I got there,” Jazz continued. “They used to be best friends before. They and a bunch of other kids they’d grown up with. They were the tightest gang you’d ever see – infiltrating their clique was tougher than, I don’t know, going to war with Bush or something. There was Lindsay Albright and her boyfriend Vance Argyle, they were seniors. There was Derek Kettering – he was a freshman, too, I think, and Denise Washington, a junior. Then Chris – Fitz-something, he was the only nice dude in the whole group. He was dating some chick from Lincoln Central, probably still is. Then there was this guy called Jean Flaubert, this really hot junior from France, and, yeah, Zach Gellar – “
“Zach Gellar?” I echoed. “The guy in the café who wanted a hotter waitress?”
“The one and only,” Jazz confirmed. “He went to boarding school at the end of the year, though. He was creating too much trouble at home or something. Anyway. Those kids weren’t all that nice to me, but they weren’t mean, either – I don’t think they noticed me, really. But then Jean Flaubert, the French guy, asked me to the first dance of the school year, and I was like totally fascinated with his hotness and popularity, you know? It turned my head. I would do anything he asked me to, even sexually, and I guess he liked that, because he wanted me to start going steady, and I said okay, even though I knew he was just this brainless sex maniac – “
“So that’s what you want me to be careful of?” I chewed my lip. “Dating guys at Thornton?”
“Would you let me go on, dude? Denise Washington was getting tired of her boyfriend, and she up and decided that she wanted Jean for herself. Which would accomplish two things at once – the It-kids only dated within themselves, and they couldn’t stand that Jean was dating a scholarship kid with no pedigree, so they’d love it if Jean and Denise went out, and Denise would get a new hot guy into the bargain. Roxanne hated me for daring to date Jean anyway, so she decided to help Denise out.” She paused and stared at her nails, kicking the counter with her heels.
“What did she do?” I said softly.
“She asked me to a sleepover with the rest of the girls. I was gullible enough to think she was starting to accept me, so I went. We talked about stuff – Roxanne made up lies about how she was insecure about her weight, so I told her about my insecurities – about how I was mortally afraid of being called a slut because I’d been brought up to think it was slutty to lose my virginity before marriage, and how disappointed my parents would be if they found out about me and Jean.” Jazz was starting to speak quicker and quicker, seemingly forcing the words out determinedly.
I shook my head. I’d never have been gullible enough to trust Roxanne Cartwright. I didn’t know where this story was going, but I had a feeling it wasn’t going to have a happy ending.
“Then they took me to a club and got me drunk. I’d never done that before, so the effects were pretty lethal. Long story short, I got polluted and made out with some girl I didn’t know because Roxanne asked me to and it sounded outrageous enough to be fun in that state of mind. Next morning, there were pictures all over school. Only I wasn’t just kissing the chick – Roxanne paid one of the computer geeks to make it look like my clothes were off, too.” Jazz’s face was expressionless, her tone calm, but a kind of bitterness flickered in her eyes that had nothing to do with having dated a brainless sex maniac.
A stunned silence followed her words. Sunlight flooded the room from the large bay windows, people on their way to the check-in counter talked and laughed as they passed the café, the lone customer at Table Four sipped his coffee and read a newspaper. It was just a normal weekday at Big Happy Family, but I felt as if I’d been transported to an alternate reality, a horrifying one in which the cruelty of young girls and of class and money politics surpassed all bounds.
“Wow,” I whispered finally, because there was really nothing else to say.
“Yeah, well.” Jazz sounded cheerful again. “My parents made me go back to Linbury High, and it turned out to be the best thing in the end – I hadn’t really been prepared for Thornton’s curriculum. I was failing calculus and Latin.”
I had a strange urge to reach over and give Jazz a bone-crushing hug. Her sanguine spirit and the way she seemed to have picked herself up and moved on was really kind of remarkable.
“So, anything else you want to know?”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “What does Zach Gellar have to do with this? Why’d you call him a fucking son of a bitch that day?”
“Oh, him. Right. Well, he sent one of the pictures to my parents. Put it into a large white envelope marked ‘Mary-Jane’s report card – very satisfactory for Thornton!’ and sent it to them. I had to go for counseling and spend hours convincing the pastor at my church that I wasn’t a lesbian. Oh, and Zach did all sorts of other shit – like putting one of the pictures on a porn website with my address on it so that random guys started turning up at my house asking for a show, locking me in the broom closet when I had an important English test, stuff like that.”
I let out a small, shocked laugh. “I don’t even know what to say.”
“He didn’t recognize me that day at the café. He’s probably here on summer vacation or something. I used to have brown hair, you know. And I dressed like a cheerleader. And didn’t call myself Jazz.”
I sighed. “I’m sorry, Jazz.”
“Dark days,” said Jazz lightly. “Okay, your turn to lay it on me.”
I couldn’t back out of our agreement, especially since Jazz had been so open about what had probably been the worst days of her life. So I sat down on the counter next to Jazz and told her every detail of my encounters with the Champagne Gang, starting with meeting Chris in front of the school and finishing with Roxanne’s little death threat. Some parts, like Nathan flirting with me in homeroom, and how nice I found Chris’s smile to be, I left out.
“Oh, my fucking God,” Jazz said when I had finished, her eyebrows hitting her hairline. “You have got to be kidding me.”
I shook my head ruefully. “God, I wish.”
“Nathan always wanted to screw every bitch, slut, and virgin in town, even back in the tenth grade, but – God, I can’t believe he and Roxanne broke up. They seemed like one of those couples who would always want each other desperately. Figures that she moved on to Derek, though – he’s Nathan’s dumber, younger carbon copy. I bet it would have been Zach if – “
“Jazz?” I interrupted. “I don’t really care about their love lives.”
“Right. Of course you don’t.” Jazz looked at me respectfully. “You, my girl, are my new idol.”
I frowned questioningly. “Meaning?”
“Hello! You got Roxanne’s boyfriend to dump her!” There was awe in her voice. “Have you any idea how big that is? You declared war on bitches everywhere!”
“Jazz. Aren’t you listening?” I felt frustrated with the yellow-haired eighteen-year-old. “I don’t want to declare war. I want to keep a low profile. Roxanne said she would kill me.”
“And she probably would,” Jazz said comfortably.
“Hear me out before you freak. Roxanne’s biggest weapon was, and probably still is, manipulating, getting-you-to-trust-her mind games. But you – you’re forewarned. You can defend yourself. Better yet, you can get her back. Zach is gone. The impact of her powers is less without him around.”
“I don’t want to fight back,” I pointed out.
“Summer. Dude. Girl. You have got to fight back. I can help you.”
“No,” I insisted firmly. “I plan to reserve myself a hiding place until Roxanne forgets all about me.”
Jazz smiled confidently. “You’ll be eating your words soon.”
“I’m not interested in vendetta, Jazz.” I held up my hands with a sigh. “I just want to survive here, okay? What happened today was regrettable, but shit happens. I just have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Jazz’s smile vanished. She looked at me gravely. “And what if it does happen again, Summer? What if Roxanne doesn’t forget all about you?”
To that, I had no answer, much as I wished I did.
I walked home from work. The path from the airport to Rochester Cottage took about an hour to walk, but it was through the park, and I liked the park. I stopped at one of the slides to call Curtis, but it went straight to voicemail, so I moved on without leaving a message, feeling out of sorts.
I turned. It was Chris Fitzgerald, sweaty in shorts and an Arsenal t-shirt, carrying a soccer ball tucked under his arm and wearing an uncomfortable smile. “Hey,” I said cautiously. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m getting my ass in shape.” Chris gestured to his soccer ball. “I didn’t play a whole lot during vacation, and Coach is just about – anyway, what about you?”
I looked at him doubtfully, then realized that it wasn’t like he couldn’t find out my address from the school directory. “I’m on my way home. Rochester Cottage.” I didn’t bother to say where I was going home from, and thankfully, he didn’t ask.
Chris shifted his ball to his other arm. “So, um. I heard Roxanne invited you to a non-existent party in here over the summer.”
I nodded. “The best party of my life,” I deadpanned.
Chris started walking alongside me. “I’m really sorry. I swear, I had nothing to do with that, and I didn’t even know about it until this morning.”
I didn’t usually trust people, but I trusted my instincts, and my instincts were telling me to believe Chris. His earnest face seemed genuine, and I was pretty sure he wasn’t faking it. “It’s all right,” I said formally.
Chris sighed. “I love Roxanne, really I do – she’s one of my best friends – but she can be a real bitch sometimes. But she’s got her reasons. I mean, I’ve known her since birth, and she doesn’t exactly have the world’s easiest life – “
“Poor little rich girl.” I was startled by the scorn in my own voice.
“I know it’s a cliché, but there’s no smoke without fire, and some stereotypes are actually true – “
“Okay, Chris?” I stopped and faced him. “You seem like a nice guy, and I hate to say this to you, but you don’t know dick about a hard life. And a hard life doesn’t give people a right to act like Rox – like shit.”
Chris looked defensive. “Hey. You’re the one who broke them up – “
“Roxanne’s the one who cheated on him,” I pointed out.
Chris sighed. “I know. I’m sorry. But she’s a cool person when you get to know her, I swear.”
I almost felt sorry for him. “Maybe you just want to see the best in everyone,” I offered, trying not to sound quite as hostile as usual.
“Thanks.” Chris smiled, looking guilelessly pleased. “It turns out practically everyone in school knew about it except us.” He shook his head. “How could we have been so blind?”
A quote from somewhere popped into my head. “If love is blind, then friendship could use some glasses.” I looked at Chris. “For what it’s worth, I wasn’t planning to tell anyone.”
“No, it’s good that you did.” Chris ran a hand through his messy brown curls, giving me that sweet, nice smile. “Derek Kettering – that’s Roxy’s ex-boyfriend – is a decent guy. He didn’t deserve to be duped like that. But anyway. Nathan and Roxanne stopped being a couple a long time ago, they just fool around a bit, so if you’re interested in him –”
“What?” I stopped in my tracks.
Chris looked confused. “Nathan says you interest him, so if you’re interested in him –”
“Okay, whoa, wait a minute.” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. “What on earth gave you that idea?”
Chris frowned. “So you’re not?”
“First of all, Nathan isn’t my type at all. Second of all, I have a boyfriend back in Manhattan, and –”
“You’re from Manhattan?” Chris’s eyes lit up. “Really? That’s so cool! I went there once, and I couldn’t blink.” He smiled, looking like a three-year-old who’d been handed a lollipop. “So you’re a sophisticated city girl, huh?”
I had to laugh. Chris was so – so innocent. Like he was terribly confused about the big bad ways of the world, but he still loved living in it. “Not me. I was a dork back in my old school. You should have seen my friend Rachael.She’s an awesome dancer.”
“You must miss her,” Chris said, smiling.
His obvious interest brought me back to earth with a bump. What was I doing, bonding with Christopher Raymond Fitzgerald? He might seem nice, but all I knew about him was that he was a spoilt rich kid and that his girlfriend, who I hadn’t seen but had heard the Champagne Gang talking about in the Principal Cartwright’s office, was one of Roxanne’s best friends. I clamped my mouth shut, letting indifference settle over my face.
“Yes,” I said quietly. “I have to hurry – I’m late already. Tell Nathan I’m not interested. I’ll see you in school , okay?”
Chris looked kind of disappointed as I hurried away through another path, but that wasn’t really my problem. I wanted to go home and call Curtis. Sure, my day for calling was , but a little extra diligence wouldn’t hurt, would it?
But when I called from my room, his mom said he was out again, shooting hoops. It confused me a little, and hurt me a little – why wasn’t he as eager to talk to me, as eagerly thinking about me, as I was about him?
Downstairs, the door crashed shut and someone staggered up the stairs. Something shattered and I heard Hadley let out a string of curses. She was evidently drunk again.
I lay back on my bed and stared at the ceiling, wondering what, exactly, I was doing wrong.