Shift by Pili Yarusi – Chapter 6 CLEAN

Chapter 6

This needs to stop.

I wake up feeling lighter. Still foggy, but lighter. I slide the off button on my phone alarm. Something sparkles in the corner of my eye. I look over to the mess of broken mirror still scattered on my carpet. The morning sun has turned my room into kaleidoscope of light.

Crap. This needs to stop. I need to let go. Will I really? Well, I have to try. I’m this scary warped version of myself. Like this mirror, I am broken. Now, I can just wallow in self-pity or I can get my butt in gear and not wait for my Aunt to call Dr. Hart, or worse, a psychologist. Total cringe. No more psychologists.

I hear Aunt Mel leave, I pull my tear soaked sheets off my bed and start my day doing laundry. I will wash, rinse and spin Nicolas out of my life. While in the basement I find an empty crate and some garbage bags. Everything in my room that reminds me of Nicolas gets thrown into one of these. The broken shards of mirror, pictures, clothes even my new phone … well, maybe not the phone. I go to my music app and find a fun reggae beat. I’m seriously testing myself. I’d been listening to nothing but crazed and jumbled metal the last few weeks … the only music to numb one’s brain to. The bouncy beat throws more logs onto the fire. This fire is eating the misery out of my heart. Don’t get me wrong … the pain is still there, fresh and ready to move back in. I would swallow it. I can’t help the nightmares when they creep up on my unconscious self, but it didn’t mean I’d live in one.

It feels good to rip the posters off my walls. There were posters of bands from concerts Nicolas and I had gone to, posters of places we’d said we go to. All of it comes down and goes straight into the garbage bags. I clean out my closet … an amazing feat that takes the better half of the afternoon. Boxes of old school stuff, thrown away. Old journals and letters from Nicolas … into the crate, my Nicolas Box. I place the Nicolas Box neatly in the back of my closet, behind a larger box that contains a large amount of stuffed animals that I don’t have the heart to give away. I open the Stuffed Animal Box. Quite a few there were from Nicolas… I squash the memories that wanted to crash into my mind. There was an old yellow tail poking out. I dig it out. It was a stuffed lion that Mel had given to me ages ago. I smile and throw it on my bed.

That reminds me of another gift … one that I had given. My grandfather would want me to get it back now that it was no longer safe. How was I going to get the necklace back? Crap. I would deal with that later.

I close up the boxes and grab the three garbage bags filled with junk and bounce down the stairs. Grab my bedding and bounce back up the stairs. I fix my bed and look around. My room looks sterile. Everything wiped down and straightened. Nothing out of place. Good. Clean. Way too purple though. Lavender walls, purple blinds… I would have to do something about that soon. This was a good start.

Next!

I grab my school books. The music changes as I walked back down the stairs. The crooning voice of a very popular male singer dominates the air in the building. I remember having a serious crush on him a few years ago but it was fleeting because I couldn’t stand his music. I grab the wrought iron railing of the staircase in effort to fight the urge to tear back into my room and change it. I close my eyes and let the under lying beats move through me. I let the rhythm take over. I open my eyes. Once you look past the whining lyrics, the music was decent.

I dump my bag in front of my study couch. The sun was low in the sky but I was sure I could finish most of my school work before it went down. The work was mundane … easy. A five-page short story based on an Austen quote of my choice, due tomorrow. I’d already finished that last week. But, I had a half hour to give it another read-through and edit. Three pages of calculus. Boring. This school was supposed to be the best but I didn’t give me any challenge. I finish within the hour. I stretch for a moment before deciding on my next project. I grab my computer. I was half finished with the huge workbook the Science professor had given us at the beginning of school. I knew if I finished that now I’d regret it later. It was easily my favorite subject and the workbook was interesting but tedious work, some animal anatomy and some quantum physics. I really wanted to get to the quantum physics part. But, I would need this time-killing work for days that I wasn’t so in control.

Control. Yes, I need to stay in control.

There was nothing in my bag that I could work on. I turn on the computer and stare at the bookcases in the study. I would tackle those tomorrow after school. I hated to give books away but the shelves were getting crowded. They were double stocked. Maybe I’d ask Mel to redo the shelving units, build them into the walls or something.

The computer boots up. I could just finish the semester group project paperwork.

***

I hear the tinkling of familiar keys, Mel’s keys. Ouch. I turn my head towards the sound a wee too fast and am paid with a crick in my neck. Ugh. Great. I’d fallen asleep on the couch while reading. My mood brightens a tinge. I fell asleep and there had been no nightmares. I tried to remember if I’d even dreamt. Shoot, I could barely remember flopping down on the couch. There was nothing. I smile. This ‘letting go’ stuff was working.

More jingling of house keys. Mel knew I was in the study and was giving me a chance to avoid her by running up to my room. I swallow. I would have to face my Aunt eventually. There is a small knock on the study door. Sooner then.

“Come in.” My voice is calmer than I’d expected.

“Hey there, Kitten.” Mel leans against the door, kicking her black work boots to the side. She looks small there, in the doorway, tired in her wrinkled clothing. She was the strict veterinarian during the week but on the weekends she loved to volunteer at clinics around the city.

“Hey Mel.” I look down, uncomfortable. “I must have dozed off… I didn’t have a chance to start dinner.” I didn’t know how to broach the subject of my blow up yesterday.

“That’s okay honey.” She sits on the couch, a cushion away. “I picked up some pizza from Ralphʻs. He says, ‘Hi,’ by the way.” She fiddled with the edge of her flannel.

I sigh, “I’m really sorry about the way I’ve been acting.”

“Honey, I know this year has been really rough for you. You are being so strong. You have always been strong. Taking care of everything here at home. Being an amazing student and an even better niece. Sometimes I don’t think I do enough for you…”

“Mel… I…”

“No, let me finish. I talked with your grandparents today. They’re worried about you. They have things they need to share with you. They could take care of you better than I am. I am doing my very best but I see you and the struggle you go through everyday. I am not doing enough. I just thought keeping you here would be best for you. It’s not. I love you, Kitten … but,” she hesitates, looking as if she were fighting the urge to cry, “if it is too hard for you here … you can move in with your grandparents.”

What?

“Move? To Hawai’i? Aunty Mel…”

She interrupted, “I’ve already talked it over with them. Hawai’i is a lot more… relaxed. It’ll be easier for you to adjust. They can get you into one of the finest schools and you’d be able to make new friends there.”

The emphasis on ‘new friends’ didn’t escape me. “Aunty Mel.” I scoot over to her and grab her hand. She was shaking. “Mel, I don’t want to live in Hawaii. I am not running again.”

Mel smiles through her tears. “I’ll leave the option open for you.”

I hug her. My mom ran from her problems and look where it got her. I wasn’t going to be like her.

***

My chair squeaks as I settle in for Sciences. Rich whips his head to face me. So much for trying to stay unnoticed.

“Woah! Darlin’ you look like crap!” Rich snickers. The two freshman boys at the table laugh along with him.

My face reddens. “You smell like crap, Rich, and I have to sit next to you but you don’t hear me complain.” I whisper in a cracked voice. I was just loud enough for the rest of my table to hear.

Silence. I look up and into the five stunned faces of my table-mates. To tell the truth, I’m pretty stunned myself.

Rich recovers, “Wow, so you do talk. Here I was thinking you’d gone mute.”

The curly blond across the table bursts out with a tinkling laughter. “You do smell, Rich. Too much cologne.”

He sniffs his shirt, “Aw blondie, why didn’t you say so!” He scoots his seat a small ways away from the table and leans back. It doesn’t help.

The blond reaches her hand around Rich. “Hi, I’m Jennifer.” I shake it. “You can call me Jen.”

“Hi.” I don’t know what else to say.

“So, ‘Miss I am Finally Going to Speak’ now that we have the honor of hearing your voice again … you going to help us with the project?”

What an ass! It takes all my strength not to knock his chair over. It would be so easy that he wouldn’t know that I had done it. Just a simple leg swipe under the back legs of the chair and he’d be on his butt.

Instead I take out a stack of papers. The benefit of having no friends was that I had a lot of time. I give a copy to each of my table-mates. I fling it a little too hard at the two freshmen to the right of me. They were engrossed in some video game on their tablet. Their eyes widened in surprise. Jen laughs and Rich’s breath come out with a whistle. They both flip through the pages at an amazing speed.

I’d just handed them this quarter’s full project mock up. All thirty pages. This was just a fraction of the work I had completed over the weekend. All we needed to do was the labs and add pictures and charts. I already completed each lab in my head or with my grandfather … but our grade was partially based on practical application done in the presence of our professor. I couldn’t stand the practical part. Dissection … cutting into the flesh of a poor little animal. My vision blurs at the thought.

One of the freshman boys perks up, “Wow,” he bleats a little too loudly, “you finished the entire thing for us!!!”

“What’s this?” Professor Stiller grabs my mock up from the boy. Crap. Think Julia … think!

“Sir, it’s our completed paperwork.” I stammer. I didn’t know what else to say. I’d always been a horrible liar.

“Am I to assume, from what Mr. Patel here has shouted out, that you have completed this on your own, without the help of your lab partners?” His bright grey eyes scan me over black framed reading glasses.

Instead of answering I look at him in surprise. “Weren’t your eyes green before?”

Mr. Stiller cocks his brow. “Very perspective of you, Miss Lyons.” He raises his glasses back up his nose. “You are not the only special person in this school.”

An uncomfortable silence descends on our table. “Um, right. Sorry.”

“So. Did you finish this by yourself?”

“Ah … no … I, um WE decided to finish it first…”

“Miss Christiansen, is this correct?”

Jen looks up, her bouncy curls frame her innocent face, “Yes sir.” She glances at Rich for a moment. He was just about to finish reading the last page. Wow, I thought to myself, for an ass he was a fast reader.

Jen continues with a bright smile and a slight blush, “To tell you the absolute truth, Julia came up with the idea to get the paperwork out of the way … so we divided it all up. Julia took the entire second half, she just understood it more and Rich and I divided the first between ourselves.” She smiles persuasively.

Mr. Stiller is not impressed. He opens my mock up. “Mr. Brown, please explain…”

“Um sir… I’m sorry but Jen did that part. The second part though … says …”

I look up, stunned. Rich had just recited half of page twenty-four on the ventricle system of the American eagle. Verbatim.

“And Miss…” Mr. Stiller looks at Jen, but she already begins to recite the beginning of the mock up.

I try to hide my surprise. Just like me, they both had photographic memories.

“Nice work you three … what about you two?” The Professor stares at the freshmen at the table.

I should have let them rot in their own stupidity but I feel bad. I have a flash of inspiration. “Uh sir … Max and Leo haven’t finished their part yet. I figured that since they’re both geniuses at computer animation that they could animate a few mock experiments for the students, like me, that don’t want to do the actual experiment.”

The boys nod furiously in agreement.

“Well, that will be nice. I’ll expect story boards from both of you by tomorrow.” Professor Stiller walks away.

Max and Leo look at me in utter amazement. They obviously hadn’t expected anyone, let alone me to come to their rescue. I laugh. “Trust me, don’t thank me yet. I just hope you’re both as good at animation as I think you are.”

They smile sheepishly and resume their video game.

I turn to my other lab partners. Rich has a smug smile on his face. Jen is just sort of staring at me.

Rich snickers, “I knew you’d come around sometime. Nice work … I think you did this better than even I could have…” The bell rings. Rich flashes me another smile and saunters out of the class.

Jen clears her throat, “I’ve been trying to get the nerve to tell him that his cologne was too strong for weeks,” she winks as she cruises out the door, “I think the rest of the class is in your debt.”

I let a little smile bloom on my face. The bloom is interrupted by a serpentine laugh from the back of the room. Laurie. My smile turns into a jaw-clenching grimace. I hide my face so I don’t chance seeing Nicolas. I slide my book and the mock up back into my bag. I take my time. I wait for the jeering slithering noises to flow out of the room.

I don’t know if I can continue this charade. The momentary camaraderie I felt with my lab partners was fleeting. It wasn’t enough to keep the darkness at bay. I clutch my bag, not bothering to throw it on my back and stumble toward the door.

“What do you think, Caleb?” I hear a bubbly voice right behind me. I jump and my bag drops. “Well, I don’t care what Laurie thinks, we can be friends with her if I say so. I SAID I don’t care! So what if Rich told Laurie about something that happened EONS ago! She looks like she needs a friend. Don’t you want to be her friend? Good! Then it’s settled.” I feel a little tap on my shoulder. I ignore it and bend down to pick my bag off the floor. Whoever this strange girl is, she’s having a conversation with herself and I didn’t want to be her friend if she had anything to do with Laurie.

The tapping on my shoulder persists. Why are people bothering me now? I stay low and I don’t talk with anyone. It was like no one in this school was allowed to be near me anyway. I finally think of something crass and witty to throw into this girls’ face.

I turn around, that something witty that was on the tip of my tongue evaporates. I see two pairs of startlingly grey eyes staring up at me each framed by a thick expanse of black lashes. Their irises were a startlingly bright gray. One set was expectant and bright, the other drawn and cautious. They were both about five inches shorter than me. I had to look down because she was standing only a foot away, her brother peeking wearily over her shoulder.

They were clearly twins but, style-wise, they looked nothing alike. Their beautiful facial features were all the same, same smooth pale skin and round cheeks, even the same body type. Both were petite and Asian. I guessed Chinese because of the almost unnoticeable accent that colored the girls’ speech. The boy had a pair of squarish black rimmed glasses on. The glasses could not hide his enormous grey eyes. I felt lost in the storm of his eyes. His uniform was immaculately pressed, like it was straight out of the dry cleaners. He was almost too perfect, at least for a boy.

I cringe. My small experience with boys was not a good one. I could not let my mind wander in that direction.

I stare at the boy a second longer. The only thing out of place was his shiny black hair which clung to his skull like an upside down bowl. There was a slash of white hair, a good inch in diameter. I’d never seen that before.

His sister, who was tapping her foot impatiently, as if I had yet to answer some unheard question she had posed, had the same slash in her hair. Except that she had dyed it a bright shade of magenta. Everything about this girl was bright and bubbly. She looked like she was straight out of a Sailor Moon cartoon. Her uniform was in complete disarray. She missed a button at the top of her blouse and her tie was tied in a regular square knot high on her neck. Her thick black hair was pulled up to two cute pig tails, one a little higher than the other. The bands had fluffy pink balls attached to them. Her bangs were cut straight across her forehead right above her eyebrows which were arched expectantly.

“Um … hello.” I sputter.

“Hi!!! Oh thank goodness! I thought I saw you finally talking today! But I really couldn’t be sure with all the noise Laurie makes at our table. I would have much rather had you as a partner than her!” Her face broke into a surprised grin. She practically danced with surprise, as if she wasn’t sure I could speak.

“Can I help you with anything?” As if I could help anyone, I could barely help myself.

“Yes, please. My brother and I were wondering if you’d like to be our friend.” I didn’t know such a little mouth could grin so wide. It was infectious. I found myself cracking an unsure smile.

I look at her brother. He stares blankly back.

‘Ah… I guess?” I didn’t know what else to say. “Sure.” I try to make my voice sound casual.

“GRRREAT!” Then she twirls. She actually spins in place. My mouth drops open. Then I notice the ear buds that are stuck in her ears, its long white cord was tangled mess coming out of her backpack. That sort of explained the dancing.

“OK then! Why don’t we meet after school?” She grabs her brothers’ hand and as they turn he gives me a small smile. They head out the door. She is bouncing and dancing. He saunters. I stand there in the middle of the room … stunned. A bell rings.

Shoot… Lit. wasn’t going to be fun… Mrs. Tanaka hated late comers.

It wasn’t so bad though as I snuck into class. She pursed her lips a little, clearly exasperated but I had run all the way there and I’d just missed the second late bell. She’d started her lecture on the life of Jane Austen. Depressing but you could see where her life reflected her writing. Where she let her dreams of what might have been color her prose. It’s an enlightening lecture.

The bell rings and everyone begins to file out of class. Mrs. Tanaka gives her last minute notes, “Everyone, please remember that your monthly reviews are due tomorrow.” She clears her throat as I near the door. “Miss Lyons, please come to my desk.”

Crap. Another, “Are you okay? Give it some time, you’ll like this school” speech. Now I was going to be late for Gym.

***

I rush into the gym locker room at top speed and I nearly crash into a blond blur of a girl who was running out. I grab the door to prevent myself from launching into her. She stops neatly in front of me, a foot away from my face. I blink. I could have sworn she had been flying out of that door with more momentum then I had going in and yet she had come to a complete stop without help. I was still clutching the door for support.

“I’m sorry.” I had almost run her the girl down and now she was apologizing. Her voice had a British lilt to it. It was faintly melodic.

I look up. It was the girl from my Sciences class, Jen. She smiles in polite recognition, her honey brown eyes scrunch apologetically. “Looks like were both late.” Her laughter rings out into the field behind us. Her curly blond hair bounces in the slight breeze. “Julia, right? I’ll come up with something good for both of us.” She runs off without another look.

I hurry into the locker room, the encounter with Jen still fresh in my mind. What did she mean by come up with something good … I didn’t even know the girl. I recognize her from class but we had only briefly spoken today and before that I’d hardly said one word to her in the past three weeks since school started. I stuff my bag and all my clothes haphazardly into my locker and slam it shut. The second bell rings. Wonderful. Now I would have to do laps.

It wasn’t the running that I minded. I’d be just awesome if Coach Barrett made me run during the whole class. We were playing volleyball today, a game that I was actually pretty good at … but not here. Not when I didn’t know anyone else in my class. Here I seemed to play the role of the clumsy girl. I’d become the last person to be picked on every team. That meant I was on the bench a lot. The coach thought I was inept.

I fly into the gym doors, the long handle giving way to my push. I groan, all heads turn towards my bumbling entrance. I’d just interrupted a lecture. I sprint toward the group. I wait for Coach Barrett’s booming voice to sentence me to whatever extreme punishment he deemed necessary.

“Hurry up Lyons! We’re just about to start!” I stop in front of the coach, head down.

“Coach, I’m so sorry… I…” My mind was blank. I’d never been good at lying and it was impossible for me to form a coherent sentence at the moment.

Coach lowers his voice a bit. “It’s okay Julia. You’re on Jennifer’s team on court four.” I must have had an incredulous look on my face bordering on blank stupidity. He continues, “Hey, Lyons… I know this class has been hard for you but Jennifer explained that you’ve been having some difficulty with the change of this school. She also mentioned that you’re a fantastic volleyball player. I expect that the extra sessions you two have been putting in will help out in tryouts this evening.” He slaps my back and jogs over to the other side of the gym.

I sprint over to court four. They were already mid game. I would have to sit out again. Jen smiles as I approach. She cries out “Sub!” and turns to a small boy who looks like he’s never played any sort of organized sport in his life. She smiles, dimples deepening, and says something that makes his face brightened. He runs towards me with gratitude and says, “Thanks! If Rich beams me with the ball again I might be sick.”

“Come on Julia! You’re holding the game up!” A gruff voice sounds from the other side of the court. We were playing against Rich and a few other kids I didn’t recognize. Despite the growl that came from his side of the court he had a huge grin on his face. I couldn’t help but give him a small smile back.

“Hey RICH! No flirting with my players! Come on Julia, you’re serving.” I blush a little, but she hadn’t said it meanly. Her face was a welcome but determined smile. She stuck her hand out to meet mine as I got into place. “I’m Jen. I hope you’re a good player… I really want to kick Rich’s…” She didn’t get to finish.

“Hey,” Rich calls out, “is this social hour or are we playing.”

Both Jen and I snap our heads towards him, determined. She jogs over to the front right corner. The dirty white ball feels good in my hand. I throw the ball up and as my hand finds the ball again I know this is going to be a good game. I spike the ball over the net. It would have met Rich’s face but he ducks just in time, the ball slaps against the floor behind him before the girl behind him can save it.

My team roars and for the first time in a month I feel welcome.

Shift by Pili Yarusi: Chapter 5 – MIRROR

Chapter 5 – Mirror

I am prey.

There is nothing I can do, no one I can talk to. Weak. Everyone around me seems to be special. So what if I’m smart. No amount of brainpower can take me away from my past. So what if I go to the most prestigious school in North America. That means nothing as I walk down the halls, as I walk down the flower-lined paths. Everyone here is special. Everyone here is accepted. Except me.

My head hurts.

I am hated by the most popular and feared by the rest. I am a pariah.

They all know what I did.

I killed my Mom.

My head hurts.

I didn’t help her. I could have done something. I was too scared.

I see those people around me. I feel their stares. They all expect something from me.

They look at me, hungry. Waiting.

For what?

I don’t know. I keep to myself now. I don’t talk with anyone. I am friendless.

My head really really hurts.

On school days I wake up from my nightmares into my nightmare of a life.

My head hurts so I take my medicine.

Make my bed.

Stare out of my window.

Wait fruitlessly, hoping for a golden mane of hair to tumble through.

Brush things that need to be brushed.

Wash things that need to be washed.

Put on a wrinkled uniform.

Throw my hair up into a ponytail to keep it out of my face.

Avoid the mirror at all costs.

Grab a cereal bar from the kitchen.

Money for lunch.

Leave before Melanie gets up.

Walk fast, head down, past the deli … I do not want to talk to deli-man … Last time he asked about my friend. I told him that I didn’t have any friends. He’s been looking at me weird ever since.

Get on subway. Stare off into space.

Get off subway.

Get to school before the hallways get crowded. Rush to my locker.

Rush to the library. I avoid most of the crowd.

Look over homework and projects I know I’ve completed competently.

First bell. I wait. Let the cattle shuffle into class first. I rush into my Study Hall/Science Class. During the Study Hall hour, I drown myself in my latest music download, a hard driving rampage of sound, and Bram Strokers Dracula. My Lit teacher has a fascination with all things morbid and Jane Austen. She is in a morbid month. Perfect. Right now, Lucy is being attacked. I cringe. No one notices. If they do … they have no reason to care. I continue reading for the next twenty minutes. I am pleased with myself. My mind wanders. My former best friend is at the absolute other side of the universe that is study hall. He’s reading Dracula too. Black fingernails stroke his gold hair.

Vampire bitch.

I realize that I am staring again. I blast the music louder into my brain and resume my flight into the realm of the undead.

Science starts. Science ends.

The bell rings. Metal scrapes against wood. I hear a slithering laugh in my direction. The hissing voice says something. I pretend not to hear. But I do anyway. The snake has made some comment about my hair. My hair. It’s tangled and hitched up in a messy bun.

I look down into my bag and pretend that there is something interesting in there. The snake passes but not before the rancid smell of lavender and pine assaults my nose. I sneeze. I’ve convinced myself that I am allergic.

The class is empty. I make a break for Lit. class. At least here I can relax a little. Some of the other students even talk to me. Some. Not really. At least they don’t visibly detest me. The English Professor lectures on Dracula. I don’t pay attention. She calls on me. I mumble an answer. I guess I said the right thing because she doesn’t pick on me again.

I don’t want this class to end. I don’t want to go to my next class. But … I want this class to end because I will at least get a fleeting glance of … him. I don’t allow myself to think his name.

The bell rings.

As I throw my bag over my shoulder my English Professor summons me. She looks worried. I wonder if she knows about my past too. I walk up to her desk. She says things about being concerned and that perhaps she might suggest a trip to a counselor. I ask her if I’ve turned in all my homework. She says yes. I ask her if I’ve ever missed an answer. She says no. I ask her if I’ve ever missed a class. She says no. I tell her that I am fine.

Gym and lunch are a blur.

The bell rings. Now I’m late for my History of New York class.

The professor drones on about the Third World War. Even though it happened the year I was born, Manhattan and the entire world still suffers from the aftermath. It had ended with the devastation of Manhattan. The massive explosion that ended the New York Attack had leveled the Northern part of the park as well as the surrounding blocks. It was assumed that the planes were targeting the financial district and were brought down sooner. No one really knows. Many lives were lost. It was an act of terror. Similar attacks had broken out all over the United States focused mainly in New York, Washington DC, The entire West Coast and Hawaii.  Although it had only lasted a few months, the entire country had changed.

He rambles on. There is nothing that he is saying that any New York born kid couldn’t tell you. Normally I would have been an eager participant… but I just don’t have it in me. I shut him out and began the work at the back of the chapter.

It’s Friday and I really need this day to be over.

***

I wake up. The remainder of a nightmare grips me. I hold my breath as the tightness falls away. I really need to stop dreaming of flying.

Mochi-kitty head butts me in effort to get me out of bed. She tries to help. She is constantly by my side now. She knows I need a friend. She’s brought me another dead mouse. I pick the dead thing up by the tail and throw it through the open window onto the fire escape. Mochi gives me a look of disgust as if to chastise me for wasting yet another good mouse. I almost laugh.

Melanie is tinkering in the kitchen downstairs. I wait. It’s Saturday. She always goes to the clinic on Saturdays. Mochi curls up in my tangled mess of hair as I roll over and let a few tears spill onto my pillow. I don’t even really feel them anymore. The throbbing pain that courses through my heart and flows into my entire body is constant … almost normal now. It has been three weeks now since I last talked with … Nicolas. Even thinking his name makes the tears come faster, burning my raw cheeks.

Last Saturday was the hardest. Today will be no different. After Melanie goes to work, I’ll crawl over to my sound system and blast the loudest most obnoxious band I own then crawl back into bed and probably stay there for another hour, rehashing the past week of nothingness. If I’m lucky, my brain will slowly shut off so I can just lie in bed and stare up at the ceiling. I try that. All I see are eyes. Some are a midnight black, trying to suck what’s left of my tattered soul. Others I imagine to be a soft blue, like the sky, just brighter. Those eyes are closed off to me.

I roll to my side to get away. I am now staring directly into my reflection. The mirror was a gift from Nicky long ago. The girl there looks despondent, haggard and lonely. Alone. The image in the mirror shakes and becomes distorted. I blink my eyes. It’s happening again. The feeling of disappearing creeps up on me. I roll again and stuff my head into a pillow. Fresh tears spring up and are swallowed immediately by my understanding pillow.

After my failed attempt at shutting my brain off, I go downstairs. Between my schoolwork, which was thankfully never ending, and chores, the day passes in a pleasant storm of activity and very loud music.

On good days, the clocks in my house speed up as the sun overhead plunges the earth back into the darkness that signals the return of my Aunt.

On bad days, I run out of things to do. If the house is spotless, I retreat to my study and reread books that I already know by heart. I go over my Hawaiian Studies and language. My Tūtū would be pleased at that at least. I almost have the first vocabulary book memorized. On these bad days nothing can hold my attention. I throw on a movie, listen to music, read a book – sometimes all three at the same time but it is no use. My mind wanders to any moment that week in which I saw Nicky. My mind flies backwards into a happier past and reflects on times when smiling was an easy thing to do … with Nicky. Those memories aren’t all that bad: it is coming back into the reality that’s the hardest part.

At exactly six in the evening I make a lame and probably tasteless dinner. I swallow some of it. I’m not very hungry lately and most days I have to remind myself to eat. I throw the leftovers into the microwave, grab my school things from the study and run back into the safety of my room. All this done by seven-thirty. Melanie is usually home by eight.

I don’t want to think about my evenings. Alone. Just alone.

And then there are the headaches. They’re becoming almost as bad as when I was a kid. My Aunt and Dr. Hart kept me in the hospital for months after the incident to make sure I was okay.

Just thinking about it makes my head burn. I grab my pills and toss two back.

Something crashes downstairs.

Mel? I look at my clock. It is already eight AM and she hasn’t left yet. My stomach sinks as my nose picks up the various smells that are wafting into my room. Now that I was paying attention to the present I can smell it. Eggs. Microwaveable sausage. Burnt toast. Mel was cooking. She wasn’t going to work this morning.

She wants to talk.

Well … at least my headache is gone.

I can just sequester myself in my room. I can tell her I’m sick. But then she’ll just burn down the house in her effort to make me breakfast. Plus, she’ll never buy it. Besides the headaches, I never get sick. Groaning, I tip toe to my bathroom. I’ll have to make myself somewhat presentable before going downstairs. Maybe I could alleviate Mel’s worry enough to make her go to away.

I make it to the bathroom without alerting her. I jump into the shower, willing the searing hot water to wash away the grief. At least for Mel. I don’t want her to worry. She has enough going on without me and my stupid little problems. She doesn’t need me rehashing the past. It wasn’t her fault she has been saddled with me since my Mom died. I feel the tears threaten again. I swallow them. The hot water is just too comfortable. It’s too easy to let my tears flow here.

I blast the cold water. My body cringes at the sudden change in temperature. I force myself stand there for a good minute. The water numbs my up-turned face, hopefully soothing the swelling there under my puffy eyes and raw tear stained cheeks. I turn the water off and wrap me and my broken heart into my tattered purple bathrobe.

Glancing up at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, the girl behind the mist blurs. I put my glasses on. It doesn’t help. I shiver a little. I can’t even look at myself anymore.

The shower didn’t help. At least I tried. I go back to my room, not bothering to creep this time because now Mel knows I’m up.

I can’t smell burnt toast on the air anymore. Avoiding the long mirror in the corner, I throw on a pair of old sweat pants and a clean shirt and ready myself for my aunt’s barrage of questions. I think about moving that mirror into my closet as I walk down the stairs. It scares me.

I see a flash of worry crease Mel’s face as I enter the kitchen and sit at the counter. She arranges her features into a warm smile. “Morning Kitten!” She comes over and gives me a peck on my forehead.

I try to smile. I think my grin may have come off as more of a grimace from the look on Mel’s face.

I stand there. This was not part of my routine and my body did not know how to react.

“So,” Mel was throwing something frozen into the toaster. “I decided to stay home today! I figured we could do something. After breakfast maybe we could go shopping. I know you said something about redecorating your room and I saw the perfect frame for your bed while I was walking to the hospital … or we could clear out the garden. I noticed this morning that everything is drying out back there. I know it’s a bit colder now but most of the plants out there should have lasted longer and the roses need to be trimmed back before it gets too cold…” she rambles.

I get plates out of the cabinet and set them on the kitchen table. I silently nod in an absent response to her rambles as I take utensils out and place them on the sides of the plates. Mel started talking about work. Something about a little boy who had an orange jelly bean stuck in his ear. I sit down. Nod. Nod.

“Julia?”

I look up. Had she asked me something? I rake my brain for an answer but I hadn’t paid attention. “Hmm?” was all that came out of my mouth.

“Julia, I just asked you if you’d like some orange juice?”

“No. I’ll just get myself some water.”

“There’s some in front of you.” A look of concern sweeps over her face again. I hadn’t noticed that Mel put a couple of toasted waffles covered with butter and my Tūtū’s homemade guava jam, just the way I liked it, on the plate in front of me along with a tall glass of water.

This was not going well. Mel watches me carefully. “It’s been a few weeks since you called your grandparents.” My charade was not fooling her if she was actually suggesting I call them. I couldn’t even think about my Tūtū and Papa. I put some food into my mouth. I chew and swallow without really tasting anything. Try harder! “I’ll call today.” I probably won’t call today. My voice is small. “This is good, Mel.” It was her turn to nod silently.

I take another bite, and another. Mel looks away and at her own food. She doesn’t eat. My waffles are becoming hard to chew. My mouth is dry. I take a large gulp of water to make them go down. It is like swallowing styrofoam. I grab my napkin to wipe the tears that are flowing down my face again. I look down hoping that Mel hadn’t seen that.

“Kitten, sweetheart…” She began but I didn’t let her finish.

“I’m sorry Mel… I can’t…” The tears blur my vision as I stumble out of my chair and run upstairs to my room.

Thinking I could face my aunt had been a huge mistake. I shut my door and tumble back onto my bed and sob uncontrollably into my pillow. I try to quiet myself but I can’t. There was no one I could turn to. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I didn’t have my Mom. She died saving me because I was stupid for being is that dumb alley. I didn’t have Nicky. Nicky would understand. He would understand because he was the one who was doing this to me.

I feel a hand on my head. Mel. She strokes the tangles there. It makes me cry harder. I want to confide in her but, how to begin? I look up and into that cursed mirror.

My vision blurs.

“I don’t know who I am anymore. I’ve lost me. I don’t recognize that girl.” I couldn’t recognize the fear in my voice. Shaking, I point at the long mirror in the corner of my room. It was the absolute bane of my existence. I miss the girl that all my doctors said I could be if I tried. The girl that used to smile into that mirror. Now that mirror, a window into my tattered soul, terrified me. I didn’t know the person who looked out at me from that glass. She wasn’t me. I didn’t look like that.

I was going crazy.

Every time I look in a mirror now, my face would distort. My image there would fade. It was like I was disappearing. The blur and the ensuing blackness that sometimes follows scares me. It reminds me of the alley. Of my Mom screaming my name. I couldn’t go there.

“I know it’s hard, Kitten, you’re going to be all right, I promise. This is all part of growing up. You’re changing. Do you think … do you want me to ask Dr. Hart if you should go see someone again? Do you want to see Dr. Hart?”

“No.” I say as she reaches for me and brings my head down to rest against her shoulder. Fingers stroke my hair. My mind flashes back to the day before school when Nic was stroking my hair. I push my aunts hand away. It reminds me of him. “I don’t need the shrinks psychoanalyzing me again and drilling me about what happened. I saw things that weren’t there. I don’t remember it correctly. When I woke up, Mom was gone and I was covered with blood.”

Mel gets in my face. “Number one, you know that wasn’t your fault.”

“No, I don’t. I don’t know that it wasn’t my fault. I was covered in Mom’s blood, Mel! How does that even happen?”

“Stop it, Julia.” Mel shakes her head sadly. “It wasn’t your fault. And number two: I wasn’t talking about that anyway. You should go and see him to discuss what’s happening now. Maybe something is wrong with Nic”

“No, Mel. Dr. Hart is the the last person I want to talk about my feelings with. And Nic?…” I want to disappear. Stellar School and all the people that went there made me feel like I didn’t exist. I shut my eyes against the pain, against the nightmares and most of all against Nic. All I see is red. I started to shake.

“It’s all right, love.” She pats my head again.

I brake. “NO! no NO! I’m not going to be all right!!!” I scream at my Aunt. It feels good to yell. I let the pain flow out of me. I hit her hand away. I couldn’t tell her what was going on. I couldn’t tell her that my classmates knew about my past. I push off the bed and I rip that stupid, ugly mirror off the wall. It crashes onto the hardwood floor.

The sound of shattering glass reverberates through my body and I crumble.

I fall to the ground in front of the shattered pieces of my mirror. I look down. I finally recognize that girl. My eyes burn with the tears that have finally stopped.

Mel says something. I ignore her. She puts her hand on my shoulder. “I’m calling your grandparents, Kitten. You have to stop this.”

I shrug it off. “Just get out, Mel.”

As the door shuts, my mind becomes blank with grief except for the image I was now staring at. I recognize the girl in the broken fragments of reflective glass because for the first time in weeks it truly reflects me.

Shift by Pili Yarusi: Chapter 4 HOLDING ON

Chapter 4 – Holding on

“Julia?” Nicky spat. Shaking me. Rattling me. He looks at me through familiar coal black eyes. A snake slithers around his neck. Nicky’s voice becomes softer, more feminine. He starts to sound a lot like my aunt. “Julia, are you sick?” I open my eyes and look into Mel’s concerned hazel ones.

Mochi is licking my face. Groaning, I scratch her furry little belly. “Mel? Let me sleep…” I complain.

“Julia, I have Nicky’s Dad on the phone. He’s a little concerned…” I grab the phone from her outstretched hand. I’d tried to call and text Nicky all day yesterday.

“Is Nicky alright?” I blurt into the phone.

“Julia? Thank goodness. Is Nic there?”

“No. Is he alright?

“Yes … and no. He didn’t come home last night which isn’t like him so I thought he might’ve been with you but Mel just said that you were home all night. Hold on…” There is rustling and talking in the background. I can’t understand any of it. “Julia, Nic just got home. He won’t talk to me. Do you know what’s going on?”

The phone slips from my hand as the world blurs and a painful white and searing migraine hits me. A pair of black eyes flash in my mind.

I feel hands at my shoulders. “Julia? You okay? Another headache?”

I open my eyes. “Just give me a moment.”

“I’ll grab your pills, Kitten.” Mel leaves the room. The pain subsides lingering on the edges of my consciousness. Threatening. I need to clear my head but there is no time. I lift the phone back to my ear,  “… are you still there. Julia? Can you still hear me?”

“Hi Dr. Hart. I’m here.”

“Another headache?” Mr. Hart knew all about my medical difficulties. He was not only Nicky’s adoptive father but also my physician. “Julia… Is it bad? Would you like to come to the office? Do you have your pills? Maybe we need to adjust your medication?”

My head clears a little as Dr. Hart’s voice slaps me back into the present. “Yeah. It was a pretty bad one.” Mel returns with my pills and some water. I take one, not bothering with the water. “Is Nicky okay?” I ask.

“I think so. So, you don’t know where he was last night.”

“No.”

“And you don’t know who he was with?”

My chest begins to ache. I have a guess. I hope it’s not true. “No. I’ll try to ask him when I see him at school.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to come into my office today? You don’t sound very well, Julia.”

“No, Dr. Hart.”

I don’t think you can fix this ache in my chest.

***

I give myself a pep talk on the subway. For the first time in years, Nicky didn’t come to my house in the morning. Maybe he was sick? Tired from being out all night? Who was he with? I really needed to shut my brain up. I would try to forgive Nicky for ditching me at lunch and after school.

And … I would try to look past the fact that he may have spent the entire evening with … Crap … my head hurt like hell. I couldn’t even think about that black-haired snake without my head pounding.

I run into our Sciences/Homeroom class. Even if I didn’t like the answer, I was determined to make Nicky tell me what happened. I look over the room. Nicky was sitting with his head down at our desk. Good. The black-haired girl and her entourage were missing.

I walk over to the five-top. Nicky wasn’t looking up so I tap him on the shoulder to get him to turn around. His eyes brighten for a moment as he saw me. A slight flicker of remorse flashes on his face.

I am about to smile. I am about to punch him and poke at him for being a butt. I am about to tell him how worried his Dad is. How stupidly worried he’d made me! But then his eyes avert, they trail away from my face and over my shoulder to the door behind me.

His face drops and the apologetic smile that had been there changes into a look of blank hunger.

I don’t look at whoever he was looking at. I’m afraid to. I move to take the seat next to Nicky. If I could just get him to look at me everything would be okay.

“Excuse me,” the girl sounds like she had a slight lisp. No one elongated their S’s like that. I follow Nicky’s blank gaze up to the girl’s smug face. “I believe you are about to take my seat.” She stares down at me, her long legs accentuated by four-inch black wedges. Her black eyes, so dark that I could barely make out the irises in them were lined with dark blue. As if she needed any makeup, I absently thought. A flash of determined authority slithers over her features.

My head begins to pound and against my will, I pull the chair out for her. I hear a snicker come from the redhead. I look away from the girl and my mind suddenly clears. Wait! What was I doing? I slam the chair back under the desk. The other kids at the table look up. Twins, I thought absently. The girl-twin gave me a look of pity. The other twin was the boy I’d scared away at lunch yesterday. I shake my head and the migraine subsides.

“No, I sat here yesterday. Mr. Stiller assigned it to me.” My voice sounds small and humble.

The girl’s eyes flash sliver as they lower into two slits, her black onyx eyes bearing into mine. I didn’t know what she was trying to do, but it was starting to scare me and people in the class were beginning to stare. I don’t know what frightens me more, her or the attention we were attracting. I hate attention.

Suddenly, her head cocks to the side as if trying to figure out a puzzle. “Your eyes are weird.” She smirks. Without taking her eyes off me she lets her husky slithering voice carry out over the din of voices in the class. “Mr. Stiller!” Now all the attention was on us. Crap.

I was determined not to be the first to break this weird staring contest … but now I had to. The force of the complete attention of the class startles me into submission.

“Yes, Miss Amin?”

“Julia was wondering if she and I could switch seats.”

I… what?

“Yes, that’ll be fine. Miss Lyons?” I look up. I couldn’t believe this was happening. “Ah… Julia, you can take the seat next to Mr. Brown.” I look around at where he was pointing. The only empty seat was next to the big guy from yesterday. I look back at the table, at Nicky. The redhead’s face was turning into a beet. She was snickering loudly under her breath. The twins had resumed their silent conversation.

“Then it’s settled. Excuse me.” She neatly pushes me aside, takes the seat in front of me and looks sweetly up at me. “You can have my seat back there. Since you didn’t seem to want to help me yesterday I had to help myself to Nicky at lunch… and after school. He’s so… delicious. We’re great friends now.”

I want to throw up. At least now I know what happened to him at lunch yesterday. And after school. And last night. There was nothing I could do. I tried to get Nicky to look up at me. But it was in vain. There was nothing for me here. I grab my bag and rush to the empty seat at the back of the room.

In my hasty escape my hip bumps a chair and my bag flies out of my grasp. All my books tumble under a table. The class bursts into laughter, the loudest coming from the front of the room. I could see the redheaded girl practically pounding the desk.

I duck under the table to retrieve my books. I want to just crawl underneath it and hide there until this day is over. I reach for my calculus book but it isn’t there any more. The beefy boy was under the desk with me. He had my books stacked neatly in his left hand, his right extended.

“I’m Rich. We met yesterday.” He retracts his hand when I don’t take it. “I saved you from death by grape.” His smile fades, turning into embarrassed concern. “You were choking… Remember?”

I just stared at him blankly. My mind was still reeling from my embarrassment. I realize a second too late that I had let a few errant tears fall. I wipe my face quickly.

“Yeah, I remember. Thanks.” I say tersely. All I need is for this lug to start teasing me too. Wasn’t he with that black-haired girl? He was with her yesterday. He had no reason to be nice to me. I grab my books from him and sit.

“No prob.” He lounges backwards in his chair as the professor begins his first lecture. “So we have to study Avians… ah, you know… Birds…” I didn’t catch what else he said because all I see is Laurie run her claws through Nicky’s hair.

I open my notebook to take notes. Owl anatomy. I already looked over that chapter last night. I knew it by heart. What I didn’t know was that my heart was beginning to fall apart.

***

“Oh look.” Rich swings his head back to me in the lunch line, “There is Mr. Lover Boy right now.”

“Where?” I look around in vain. After a dismal gym hour, in which the entire class witnessed me eat it during sprints, Rich insisted on walking me to the cafeteria. I protested that I didn’t want to go to the cafeteria, not after yesterday’s grape debacle. But, Rich laughed and said if he didn’t watch me I’d probably trip over myself and hurt another student. Also some nonsense about hiding from beasts. Plus I was hungry and maybe if I could just get Nicky alone he could explain what was going on.

I spot him sitting alone in the back of the cafeteria.

My spirits lift a bit. I grab my tray and make my way to him.

A rough hand grabs my forearm and steadies my tray before the fried chicken can go flying off of it. Rich swipes a grape from my fruit salad and pops it into his mouth, “You know it’s a losing battle. You should just let him go.”

“What are you talking about? You don’t even know me. You don’t know what Nicky and I have been through! We…” I stutter. Why was I spilling my guts out to this lug? “He’s all I have.”

“No, he’s not.”

“Let me go please.”

“Suit yourself. But it looks to me like Nicolas has found someone else.”

I turn my back on Rich and head towards my best friend. I have to get him to explain. I notice that quite a few people were staring at me as I get to the seat next to Nicky, our backs to the rest of the cafeteria. What were they staring at? Uncomfortable and a little lost for words I inch a seat away from the table with my foot. He looks at me. His eyes flash happily and he is about to say something. A glimmer of hope unfolds in my chest. Nicky’s eyes avert from mine and he follows someone or something approaching us from behind.

“Ah hem.” I hear a throat clear behind me. “My, my, my … this little birdie does have a knack for fluttering around where she’s not wanted, doesn’t she?” Her voice makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

As I look behind me the redhead, Cami, hisses at me as she walks to the seat on the other side of Nicky. Who hisses?

Laurie glides to the other side of the round table, places her tray down and sits gracefully. In the moment her eyes brush past mine I feel my head begin to ache. It’s only fleeting. I shake my head.

When I open my eyes again Laurie is still staring at me.

“What?” I spit. This girl was seriously beginning to freak me out.

“Touchy, touchy aren’t we?” Her words slither over me. “Oh … nothing. Just thinking about what makes you tick. You’re a weird little birdie. Cami can’t figure you out either. And that, my little bird, is very strange.” Laurie continues to stare at me with some strange mixture of amusement and disgust.

What does she mean she can’t figure me out? Figure out what? I looked at Cami. She is downright scary.

Cami grins, “I’m sick of trying. I think she’s nothing.”

Nothing. I’m nothing.

Why should I even care what these girls think of me? It stung though.

Laurie is staring at Nicky. Out of the corner of my eyes I see his body go stiff. His hands grab his tray forcefully, knocking over a bottle of strawberry soda. I pick it up and place it back on his tray. He looks at me for a fleeting second. In that moment I see the light in his eyes vanish. His sky blue eyes are a stormy steel blue now. Unseeing. He looks back at Laurie who is now smiling. I hear his chair scratch the concrete below it. He gets up and moves around the table to sit next to her.

I couldn’t believe it.

“Nicky? What are you doing?” He ignores me.

There was a pause. Cami snickers. “Told you I’d come back for you.” Her voice chokes me. I can’t speak. I hear Laurie hiss to Nicky, “What’s her name?” She asks Nicky with a mock politeness that barely covers her obvious dislike of me.

I can’t stand it. “You know my name is Julia. I’d like to know who you think you are, Laurie…”

Laurie ignores me. She looks steadily into Nicky’s eyes as if hypnotizing him. “Her name is Julia.” Nicky’s voice is monotone.

“Well, Nicky could you please tell your little friend, Julia, that I am no longer interested in being her friend. Tell her that she is no longer welcome in your company and that she’d better stay away from you and me or her life will become rather painful.” Laurie hisses out the last few words and turns to her lunch.

Headache clears as I stare at her. Did she really just blow me off? “Excuse me?” I stand up, furious. She just threatened me. How DARE she! “You want to say that to my face?” I could not believe this was happening. To top it off, Nicky was just sitting there beside the witch, not saying anything. He was just staring longingly at her. It made me sick.

“No.” As she looked up into my eyes the world blurs. My head explodes in pain. I double over and hold onto the table in front of me. I bite my lip to stop myself from throwing up or screaming. Or both. It was as if her stare was enough to knock me to the ground. I steady myself. Who was this girl? WHAT was this girl? I saw her lick her lips. “Hmm.” She mused. “Interesting. Not at all what I expected. You are immune … except for…”

My head explodes again. “Now isn’t that fun, but… it does not matter. I don’t want to play with you. I thought about being your friend but you don’t like to share. So I had to take what I wanted. I thought that maybe you’d be a great addition but then I realized that I don’t care what the others say about you.”

What were people saying about me? Laurie’s black eyes catch mine. I feel my feet dragging the rest of my body towards her until I am face to face, her black eyes baring into mine.

“What are people saying? Isn’t it great how the past catches up with us? How people from our past recognize us for who we really are. No one has said anything … yet. But my friends and I will take care of that.” She laughs huskily. “I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. My name is Laurie. I could tell you to stay the hell away from my new boyfriend. I could tell you that if I ever catch you talking to him I will make sure you never speak again. I could say that you are not getting a good start in this school by becoming my enemy and that your life from now on will be a miserable hell. I could say all of this to you but…” She laughed again, “I’d rather hear Nicky say it.” She tore her steely black eyes from mine and the world righted itself again. She looks lazily at Nicky.

I laugh weakly at her. I want to tell her that Nicky would never say those things to me and that I didn’t care what she said about me at this stupid school. We both stare at Nicky. He is looking straight into Laurie’s eyes. “Go away.” Nicky said flatly.

I smile, relief washing over me. There. Now she would go away and I could punish Nicky for being such a jerk.

Nicky turns to me. My smile fades. “I said, go away, Julia.” His face, usually bright whenever he talked to me, was fixed in a horrible scowl like he’d seen something gross.

“Very good Nicky-baby.” Laurie coos into Nicky’s pliant face, “You deserve so much better than this murdering little crow.”

The room swam and I lost my grip on my tray, its forgotten contents clattering to the ground. “What did you just say?” I whisper, hoping I heard her wrong.

“Oh you heard me right. I know all about you, Julia. So do me a favor and stay away. You know it’s better this way. You’re dangerous.” She smirks.

Someone bumps me as they join the table. I hear whispers all around the cafeteria. I realize then that the entire cafeteria had stopped to listen what was going on. At least half the school had seen my defeat. They all knew that I was an outcast. They all knew what I was and what I had done.

I look at Laurie. I knew she was skewing the story. That’s how the rumors started at my last school. Someone found out. They told. But at least then I had Nicky.

Something hit my shoulder. A grape. Laughter spews from the redheaded girl at the table, “Is little Julia going to cry now? Oh no! She might get mad and claw my eyes out! Did the mean girl take her boyfriend?” She sucks a chicken wing into her mouth and swallows it, bones and all. Wait. I was seeing things. Cami smiles like a scary clown. I was going to throw up. I grab my tray and whatever I could off the ground. The whole cafeteria seems to be looking at me. I stumble to the nearest trash can. I dump it, along with a fraction of my heart.

I walk unsteadily out of the cafeteria, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. I swallow the tears that would come. I couldn’t afford to cry now. I still had three more classes left. I ignore the few ʻhellosʻ that I get in the hallway. The bell rings. The beefy boy, Rich, bumps into me. He says something that sounds a lot like, “I told you so.” and “I’m sorry.” But I brush past him without a second glance.

Better to ignore them all now than to hurt when they ignore me later. Soon they would all know what I did. They wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me.

I make it to my locker without an incident. I turn around and lean against the cold metal door, staring blankly into the now empty hall way.

What just happened? How did she know about what happened all those years ago? Guilt rakes my insides. She was right. I deserve to be alone. Nicky is safer without me.

Shift by Pili Yarusi: Chapter 3 NEW FRIENDS

Chapter 3 – New Friends

My heart soars. I missed this so much.

We crawl over to the old maple in the corner. Mochi is waiting for us there. She knows our routine. It was the best time to give Mochi her tummy-rubs. Nicky calls this our leaning tree. We come to this tree to lean and look for the non-existent stars in the bright NYC night, or in this case, to see what mystical creatures were hiding in the morning clouds. Nicky spots a tiger in a cloud that I think is a dragon. We both agree on the shark shaped cloud that flies across the sky and passes the sun. I pet Mochi as Nicky leans his head against my shoulder and we munch donuts, staring up into the blue morning sky.

“Hey kids.” My aunt bounces down the steps in her sneakers and scrubs, fiddling with her phone. “It’s six-thirty. I’ll take you both to school before I head to the clinic.” She looks down at us and at the state of our uniforms. “Nic and Julia, you both get back in here right now and get cleaned up. You are both a mess.”

I take a good look at Nicky. She was right and I probably look worse.

Back in my room, I comb a little coconut oil into my hair. A brush would just turn it to a frizzy mess at this point. I still want to hide behind my hair. A new braid tames my wild curls. Mel sent me back upstairs to change my socks, which had gotten muddy from the damp ground. I bounce back downstairs to find my aunt trying, unsuccessfully, to get Nicky’s hair into a low ponytail. It wasn’t long enough yet, but just long enough to look very untidy if left untamed. I snicker as she gives up.

“I’ll meet you two in the car.”

***

The Second Civil War changed the face of NYC. Central Park and upper Manhattan took the brunt of it. Except for any historical buildings that were salvageable the entire area was rebuilt. The bustling traffic of 110th street was diverted to a widened 111th street. 110th was converted into a small cobblestone two lane road way for emergency use and for student drop offs. The entire area from 110th to 111th and from the Central Park East to West was taken over by Stellar Academy in effort to restore and renew upper Manhattan. Two thick ivy covered iron gates loom ahead as Mel pulls her bright little Mini Cooper into the West entrance of the school grounds. The front building was massive: an impressive glass building that stood as a beacon of hope in the middle of the block. The rest of the block consisted of a hodgepodge of buildings ranging from super modern to historic wonders. As we drove into the large roundabout that circled a massive fountain and flower garden, Mel absently named a few of the flowers growing there.

A beefy uniformed boy, barely older than Nicky and I, motions for my aunt to pull over into the drop off zone. The beefy boy looks at me with recognition and winks. I drop my head, embarrassed for absolutely no reason.

I bring my head back up and while my aunt, was unaware of my foolishness, the wink had not escaped Nicky’s notice.

“Do you know that guy?” His eyes pull into a squint as the beefy boy sneaks a look at me again.

I shake my head.

“He looks familiar… I can’t place him though.” He huffs. “Great, now that’s going to bother me all day!” He throws a sharp glance at the beefy boy as if to say, “Lay off” and smiles at me, glowing.

“Looks like I got some competition!”

“WHATEVER!” I sock him in the shoulder.

Wincing and laughing Nicky and I unfold ourselves from the tiny car. I don’t know that Mel can ever take us to school. Sitting in the backseat was hell. Nicky grabs both of our backpacks and throws them over his shoulders. We kiss Mel goodbye and walk up the granite steps and through the large oak doors of the campus.

Stellar High.

We enter the Grand Hall. The Hall is the width of a football field, but half as long. The ceilings are three floors up and open to what looks like a bird menagerie. All sorts of large birds were perched up there. Quite a few were scrutinizing the humans below.

“Cool!” Nicky grabs my hand and pulls me along. We find the Students Office at the front eastern corner of the hall and check in. The stern grandmotherly woman at the desk hands us both our schedules with a huff and we leave the room.

I rush ahead of Nicky to look up again but the birds are gone. And then the world flips over as my legs are swept out from under me. My glasses go flying. Maybe if I’d been paying closer attention I wouldn’t have tripped. But I did. I tripped.

How embarrassing.

Strong arms catch me from behind with an, “Oomf.” I look up. It is the big beefy boy from the parking lot. “Hey there,” the boy’s voice rumbles. “Oh.” His arms tighten a little. “It’s you. You both getting into trouble again on your first day?”

“What…” I start to ask but Nicky picks me up out of beefy boys arms. “You okay?” Nicky asks as he slips my glasses back over my eyes. Looking around, his eyes are blazing. Laughter invades our space. There is a tall lanky girl with spiky red hair laughing down at us.

“Aww! You spoiled my fun!” she whines to the beefy boy who’d caught me. “Did the poor widdle birdie trip? Aw poor, poor birdie!” Her twinkling little laugh irritates me. She turns to a stoic black-haired boy, “Sam, are these the new kids? They’re lame…”

“You tripped her! I saw you!” Nicky advances on the girl. The boy she’d called Sam who’d been standing behind her with his back turned to us was suddenly in Nicky’s face.

“Do we have a problem here?” Sam got in his face, teeth bared. He looks like he’s going to bite Nicky’s head off when a large hand shoots out and pushes Sam back. It was the beefy boy again. He was even more massive up close. He was easily three or four inches taller than Nicky and a lot wider. “Come on Sam, let it go.”

“What’s going on, my sssweeties.” From anyone else, the slight lisp that the girl had would have been comical. But there was nothing funny about the girl who’d just walked up. The beefy boy’s entire body went rigid as she looked up at him. Her coal eyes were piercing and her black mane of thick straight hair twitched down to her waist. She gives Sam a pat on his cheek as the beefy boy snakes his arm around her.

“Nothing.”

“It doesn’t look like nothing … my my my … what have we got here?” Her deep black eyes shot daggers into mine and I feel that heat the happens before every one of my headaches. The whole world spins and I can barely keep myself from doubling up in pain. “Ah … it’s you! Rich, didn’t you say she’d show up this year!” She brushes off beefy boys arms and grabs my face. “We’ve all been waiting for you to make an appearance. The Administration is so excited for this years new haul … but you’re not just cattle, are you … no … no …” I shut my eyes. The headache recedes. “Aw … come on little Julia. Let me in. No?” She lets go of my face.

“Fresh meat!” I hear the red head whisper excitingly.

“Don’t jump to conclusions, Cami, these two might prove their worth…” I shake off the headache and I open my eyes to find the girl has moved on, staring deep into Nicky’s eyes. “Yes, very worthy. And you, my beautiful golden boy are oh so ready too…” I still feel a little light headed as she slithers on. I pull Nicky back. That seems to rattle him a little as he shakes his head and looks at me. “Are you okay?” He asks again.

“I’m fine. Let’s go.”

I take one final look back and hear the tinkling laughter of the red head echo through the hallway. I see the beefy boy grab the tall black haired girl, but she shakes him off. I grab Nicky’s hand and rush us to our first class.

***

We find our seats and Nicky still seems a little dazed. He touches his cheek and sighs. She had touched him there. For the first time I felt … jealousy? Who was that girl anyway? How’d she know my name?

I shake Nicky, “HEY! Earth to Nicky!”

He blinks and looks at me, blushing. “Wow! My head was someplace else just then.”

“Welcome!” I look up into laughing green-blue eyes and everything goes blurry … again. My eyes close and a strange smell fills my senses. Before I can place it strong hands grip my shoulders before I can faint. “Hey there … you’re Julia Lyons.” Not a question. I’m made to sit down.

“Jules you okay?” Nicky kneels next to me as I come to.

I look at Nicky then shift my eyes towards the green-eyed man.

“I… I guess I’m still jet lagged.” Why am I so weak today?

“Ah, you probably just have first day jitters. Happens to all the new students. I’m Professor Stiller.” His green blue eyes crinkle again at the edges. “This will be your seat for the rest of the semester. Nicolas, why don’t you take the seat next to Julia since you seem to know one another.”

Nicky was about to take his seat when something hit him from behind. “Hey, watch yourself.” I look up. It was the beefy boy from the parking lot again.

Nicky opens his mouth to retort but instead of speaking his face morphs into a look of a hungry little puppy. A blast of incense fills the air. It was sickly sweet and I know who it is coming from. It was the black-haired girl we’d just run into. Of course she’d be in the same class. Perfect, I thought as I turn around to face her and automatically wish I hadn’t.

“Well … how nice is this. A class with my newest friend.” The room swims again and I need look away. “Julia, won’t you introduce me to your … um, boyfriend…?” Her coal black eyes swept over Nicky.

Snap out of it, Julia! “How do you know my name?”

A little slithering giggle escapes her red lips, “Oh … I know plenty about you. I’d rather know your friend though, seeing as you were getting nice and cozy with my boyfriend.” She runs her red tipped claws up and down the beefy boy’s arm.

All eyes turned to face her. She’s captivated the room for the small space of that moment. Somehow she made the school’s uniform look like it was made for the runway. Her perfect skin glimmers in the artificial light. Every girl in the class wanted to be her and every boy wanted to be with her. I didn’t get it. The only other people in the room that seem unaffected by her were the other kids at the table I was standing in front of. The three of them were having a hushed conversation.

I look back up and she’s giggling and slapping the beefy boys hands away. The boy gives up and moves toward the back of the class. The Black-Haired Girl looks at Nicky and he stands as if summoned. All I can do is stare. I feel like I’m intruding on an incredibly private moment. My hands form into claws. She obviously wants Nicky…

“Okay! Welcome to your Sciences class and study hall.” The professors voice booms through the fog. Nicky blinks and I grab his hand and yank him down into his seat below.

Giggling erupts and trails to the back of the class.

“Nicky … you okay?”

“Yeah … yeah, sure. That was super weird. Who is that girl?” He looks back at the Black-Haired Girl. His eyes fog up again. The girl wiggles her black tipped fingers at us.

“I don’t know. She said she knows me. I don’t know how though…”

“Weird” Nicky shoves his long hair out of his eyes. He is back to normal now.

“Yah… I know. I think we should stay away from her.” I look towards the back of the class. “I think we should stay away from all of them.”

Mr. Stiller commands the attention of the class, “As some of you already know, your studies here at Stellar are a lot more free flowing. Your four new classmates have passed the aptitude and physical examinations, so they have every right to be here as you do. But they don’t know how this school works. Please do your best to make them feel welcome.” Mr. Stiller’s eyes flicker towards the back of the class and the noise there is automatically silenced. “This semester we will be studying whatever branch of Science I see fit to teach you. I’m thinking a little bit of Animal Science to get in touch with our furry little friends.” Mr. Stiller laughs a little at that. “And then we will switch gears and I’m thinking we might discuss a little bit of quantum physics and dark matter… or what I’d like to think of as the energy that binds us all… But that’ll be later in the semester. For now, I lovingly call this class “The Cage” as you will be spending the first two hours of everyday caged with me, so get comfy!” The class goes by in a haze of introductions and paperwork. Nicky and I are two of four new kids in the class. The other two are at the same table as the Black-Haired Girl and her crew. I pity them.

Class is almost done and I finally get my head out of my introduction notebook. This school is surreal. After the Second Civil War, the entire block north of Central Park had been converted into a College and High School. All students entered from the grand entrance located at the middle of the property. The College was on the West side of campus; the High School was to the East. There were no grade classifications at this school. If you were smart enough to get in, that meant you were smart enough to graduate regular High School. To even be at this school, you had to pass a High School equivalency exam. Apparently, we did, last year, in the ninth grade. It was part of the testing that we’d been administered. I just thought Nicky and I were the weird smart geeks. Who knew that we were in the upper echelon of humanity? We both took specialized tests that threw us amongst about two hundred fifty-nine other students – the smartest kids between the ages of fourteen to seventeen in North America. There were schools like Stellar all over the world. If you didn’t graduate to the College by the time you were eighteen it was okay because every student there had their choice of college. We could go anywhere. We could do anything. Nevertheless, you wanted to get into The College. That was the goal. Students who had not graduated were not allowed to go into the West side of the school. There were guards at the doorways always. The guards knew who had graduated just by looking at you. They didn’t need papers, they didn’t listen to lies, they knew.

Some kids graduated at fourteen, some on their eighteenth birthday. There was no way of knowing. It was all very hush-hush. One day the principal would just tell you, you graduated. Some of the younger graduated students still attended High School but none of them were allowed to discuss their College classes.

I bump my shoulder into Nic, “I wonder who in our class had graduated?”

“Hey Nicky.” We haven’t talked all class. He’s focused on something towards the back of the class. I shake him a bit and he looks back at me. Dazed. “I just asked you … never mind. Do you wanna meet at my locker before lunch.” I started putting all the paperwork into my bag. Mr. Stiller had given handouts of species to focus on. Our table was “For the Birds”.

“‘Kay.” Monosyllabic.

“You okay?”

“No … ah yes. Um do you know who that girl is back there?”

Wait. What? “No… I told you that before.”

“I know but she seems to know you and I thought that maybe…”

“You want an introduction? She asked for one you know.” Was he really slobbering over some girl and asking me to send her love notes for him? Butt-head! “Earth to Nicky!!!”

“What?” He shook his head. “Whoa! Totally someplace else right there. What happened?”

“Maybe you can tell me that.”

“Shit … we’re gonna be late. Meet you at your locker later for lunch,” and with that Nicky runs off.

***

My second class: Literature. Nicky’s second class: Creative Writing. Our classes are at separate sides of the Literature Hall. Thank goodness I made plans to meet for lunch. I really have to knock some sense back into Nicky. What’s up with him?

***

I walk into the crowded cafeteria, alone. Nicky didn’t show up at my locker before lunch. He was supposed to meet me there. I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I ignore it. I’m just hungry. Maybe Nicky was so hungry that he’d forgotten to meet me.

I scan the room. No Nicky. My stomach rumbles again. The donuts and orange juice this morning were long gone, leaving an empty starving beast in its wake. After Animal Sciences, I’d had English Lit. Then Gym right before lunch and I was famished. I choose a turkey sandwich and a fruit salad. Although I could probably eat six of the fried chicken thighs they were serving but after the donuts, I needed to eat something healthy today.

The tables in the cafeteria were large and round, good for small groups of friends to eat around and talk with each other. I didn’t have as much luck as most of the students here. Without Nicky, I was alone. I try to shrug it off. He’s probably stuck in some class, probably his creative writing class. I could see him showing the professor his story ideas. Smiling at the thought, I find a table. As I sit, I recognize the other people sitting there. Both boys were in my Sciences Class, the beefy boy and a smaller Asian boy that sat at my table. They look like they were in an intense argument about something on the smaller boys phone, but they weren’t saying anything. Not a word. Just pointing. They didn’t notice me take a seat across from them. I knew I was blatantly staring at the pair, but I couldn’t help it. It was so odd. The beefy boy abruptly grabbed the phone from the hands of the smaller and started pounding his fingers against the screen. The smaller boy watched, a little put out, but engaged in what the other boy was doing.

“YES!!!” The beefy boy roars. I almost fall out of my seat in surprise. He does a little victory dance while the smaller boy just sits back and seethes’. The smaller boy’s eyes meet mine. He flushes, grabs the discarded phone from the table and runs away.

“Hey! Caleb! Come back!” The beefy boy calls out. This guy was huge. It was hard to believe that he was in high school. He was cute in a burly sort of way. He was easily a foot taller than me. Shoot. I looked down, pretending to fiddle with the grapes in my fruit salad. I was staring again. Besides this morning, I could have sworn I’d met him before. I pop a grape in my mouth for something to do.

He hadn’t noticed me staring. Thank God! He slumps back into his seat. The beefy boy looks at me, his brown eyes bearing down on mine. “Hey! Why’d you go and scare him off like that! I finally got him to let me play that game! It took me over two weeks to convince him. Now he’s gone and run off.” He looks at me with mild accusation.

I take a breath in. I mean to tell him that I hadn’t done anything … but nothing comes out of my mouth.

Instead, I choke.

I am choking on the grape I’d just begun to chew. Partially from the surprise of the accusation – all I did was sit down. I hadn’t done anything to the younger boy that would be considered even remotely scary – and partially because the beefy boy looked at me full in the face. He was stunningly beautiful. His large brown eyes looked like they were brimming with tears as a child would when his best toy was taken away from him. I saw a flash of anger there that made my stomach clench involuntarily. That’s when I choked.

I couldn’t get it out. I wave for the beefy boy to help. In two long strides he comes up behind me and wallops me on my back. The culprit comes flying out of my mouth. I cough and air flies back into my lungs.

He put his hand on my shoulder. “You OK?” He looks down at me his face spread wide in a stupid grin. He looks like he’d like nothing better than to fall to the ground laughing.

I don’t get a chance to thank him for saving me or to chastise him for scaring me.

“Who threw that?” There was a string of expletives that accompany the question but all I can concentrate on are the emerald green eyes encased in the smooth ivory skin of the girl who I’d accidentally hit. It was the same redhead that tripped me this morning. I tear my eyes away as the expletives get louder. Her small pink mouth was spread tight over a straight line of sparkly white teeth. I wonder stupidly who could be more beautiful, the big beefy boy or the enraged redhead. I really couldn’t choose.

“Whoops!” The beefy boy laughs looking from me to the redhead. “She didn’t mean to Cami!” He was laughing even harder, “She was choking and she had to spit it out somewhere.”

I cringe as I hear the girl’s chair slide out. The beefy boy could not have made it sound worse. I hear the area around us become hushed. I get up out of my seat to apologize but the words get caught in my mouth. The red head comes up to me, her face inches away from mine.

“You spit that thing at me?”

Her green eyes lash into me. I can’t breath. I try to fill my lungs but they would not work. It was like she was crushing my windpipe. With what little breath I had, I scream.

Silence.

“Freak.” The redhead laughs.

There were some twitters of giggling in the crowd around me. It must have looked like I screamed for no reason. I wanted to explain how I had lost control of my breath but there wasn’t anyone around me who would care. I stare at the evil redhead in front of me. All I can think of to say was, “Stay away from me.”

“Or what?” She is about to say more but is interrupted.

“Cami…” The beefy boy seethes through his teeth. There are quite a few teeth there too.

“Whatever… I’ll get you later…”  Cami seethes as she stalks away.

I slump back into my chair trying to tune out the new chatter in the cafeteria. Worse day ever. I was now the topic of embarrassing discussion amongst my peers. I look up. The beefy boy is looking at me.

“You probably shouldn’t have spit that thing at her…”

Irritation wells up inside me, “I didn’t mean to!”

“Well, it’s all the same to her and she never liked you to begin with. Now she really has a reason to hate you, she holds on to her grudges.” He grabs a slice of apple from my tray and throws it in his mouth.

“What did I ever do to her?”

“Oh … that. Ah…” The boy grabs another apple. “Cami just doesn’t like anyone.”

“Argh!” I growl into my plate. I wasn’t hungry now. My mind was in a jumble. First, Nicky ditches me, now I have an enemy on my first day of school, and to top it all off I have some big oaf staring at me. I didn’t think he was remotely cute anymore.

“Stop staring!” I spat under my breath.

“Why? You were staring. Before.” Crap, he noticed that. I didn’t say anything. My face felt a little hot. Thank goodness for my tan or I’d probably look like a lobster. He continues, his voice a little less enthusiastic, “Hmm… You’re friends with that blond kid… Ricky or Dicky. Yeah… Dicky.”

“You mean Nic?” No one else calls him Nicky except for me.

I meet the beefy boy’s calculating stare. “Yeah, that cat. You tell your friend to stay away from Laurie. Although…” He gave a little growling chuckle. “I really don’t know whether to punch him or shake his hand. Maybe I’ll do both…” and at that he picks up his tray and saunters away, laughing.

I stare after him. What was he talking about? Why would Nicky be with Laurie?