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Setting Fire 02: Bright-Eyed and Bushy-Tailed
Knucker was pretty sure he knew what Hell must feel like.
Okay, maybe he was being a little bit dramatic. (Fine, a lot dramatic.) But after the night he’d had, he kinda sorta thought that he had a right to be, especially in the harsh light of morning when the reality of the situation had sunken in and he and Lexi arrived for their first day of school in the Sheriff’s squad car. Which wasn’t the kind of “making their senior year memorable” he’d been thinking of when Lexi had pushed to go crash that party.
Yeah, fun perk of being the Sheriff’s kid and getting in trouble. Punishments were out of this world and humiliating. Despite driving (his own car, anyway) not being involved in last night’s incident, Knucker’s dad had confiscated his keys until further notice. The only thing he’d been allowed to drive was Margrit’s car… to the Berkshire Estate… after scrubbing blood out of it. That night.
Knucker hadn’t exactly gotten much (or any) sleep.
Which is why he was staring blearily in frustration and something like awe at his completely bright-eyed and bushy-tailed best friend. As per usual, Lexi had gotten steamrolled and still had the energy to run in circles. Although… she normally didn’t literally heal overnight. And yeah, Knucker was still kind of freaking out about that.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he muttered, fidgeting in his seat and glancing around at the other kids in their homeroom. Everyone was pretty distracted, though, all clustered into little groups and talking. Except Robbie Kilpatrick, who was clicking away furiously at something on his laptop. (Knucker saw him on that thing a lot, at lunch and in the morning and stuff. He was guessing Robbie was playing video games, or something? The guy looked the type.) There was a girl reading a textbook near the front of the classroom, too, which even Knucker had to admit was kind of lame.
The teacher was late and administration had apparently forgotten about them. It was the one good thing that had happened since Knucker had snuck out last night.
All things considered, Lexi really should have been dead. Or at the very least taking full advantage of their teacherless classroom to catch up on a little of the sleep she’d missed after a night of being viciously mauled by a rogue bear from hell. Instead she was constantly shifting in her seat, unable to keep still. She was dying to get up and do something. Run. Have breakfast. Anything that didn’t involve sitting motionless at her desk.
“Yeah, weirdly okay.” She leaned over her desk towards him, tapping her fingers against the surface and bouncing one knee. She looked like a cracked-out junkie the way she was fidgeting. “There’s not a scratch on me, I double-checked. Now Dad thinks I’ve lost my freaking mind along with my phone. I have to work an assload of shifts at the gas station now to pay for a new one.”
Uuuuurgh! How long had they been sitting here? Ten minutes? Fifteen? She wanted to get uuuuup. She was so wound up that she was tempted to just throw herself on the floor and start rolling around on the linoleum.
Lexi reached across to grab and tug at Knucker’s sleeve with both hands.
“Do you have any candy stashed on you? I’m starving.”
“No,” he groaned, not bothering to try and remove her hands. (He never did, honestly.) How are you even alive?! “I don’t have anything. Wait, maybe I’ve got some change, but I don’t know if sneaking to the vending machine is the greatest idea…”
Even if they weren’t that far from the cafeteria, Knucker was pretty sure the chance of getting caught was still pretty high. And they couldn’t afford to get busted for anything after not even one freaking day.
“Look… Maybe we can find your phone. The Dads will let us go out if it’s for that, right?” His uncertainty leaked into his voice. George Polk and Jacob Ryan were frighteningly similar when it came to their kids; never mind the consequences, the massive heaps of guilt were deterrent enough for Knucker and Lexi to keep their noses clean most of the time. But the consequences could be pretty dire too. “It won’t be too bad to walk out there and take a look around when we get home from school.”
They’d have to make it fast, though. Knucker wasn’t keen on going into the woods after dark anytime soon, if ever again.
“Tryouts for teams start today. Although, I guess since Dad is expecting me to be late anyway we could probably get away with searching for an hour or two.” She let go of his shirt just long enough to start rifling through his pockets. She was so hungry she could SWEAR that she smelled food on him. Maybe he’d spilled his breakfast this morning. When her search still bore no fruit and she’d checked the last pocket on him, Lexi gave up with a huff. She flopped back in her seat in a cascade of limp arms and long auburn hair.
“I wish I took a picture of that stupid thing before it tried to chomp my whole arm off. I could HEAR Margrit this morning all the way down the hall talking about us crashing her party.” Lexi stared at the ceiling, counting the little dots that surrounded the light fixture. She finally just laughed.
“It wasn’t what I was going for, but I guess we’re the hot topic now.” Lexi tilted her head, giving Knucker a big, wide, toothy grin. “Not too bad of a start for our last and greatest year of high school, right?”
He couldn’t help himself. That smile was infectious, and Knucker felt himself grin right back at her like a moron.
Then he blinked.
“You’re still going to try out? But Lex—”
Knucker’s (very reasonable, very sane) protests died at the sound of the classroom door being thrust unceremoniously open. Knucker—and most of the class—swiveled in their seats to stare at the person who must, presumably, be their truant teacher at long last arriving.
At first Knucker thought it couldn’t be. The man who’d walked through the door was young. He couldn’t be more than a few years older than some of the students, and he was even wearing a backpack. But sure enough, instead of scrambling for a free seat among the students, the guy tossed his bag under the teacher’s desk at the front, ran a hand through curly brown hair (which didn’t get any flatter, Knucker noticed), and took off his glasses to clean them on his grey Henley while grinning sheepishly at his students.
Knucker could swear there was a collective sigh from the female portion of the class.
“Better late than never, right? I’m the new teacher, as you guys might have guessed, and I got a little lost…” The teacher paused, frowning, and put his glasses back on.
And Knucker was sure for a moment that the guy was looking directly at Lexi, which was not only weird, but weirder because he looked taken aback and uncomfortable. He would have thought Lexi knew him from somewhere—except Knucker didn’t know him from Adam, so who the heck could he be?
“My name’s Mr. Anderson,” the teacher supplied, on cue. “English, and—theoretically—homeroom. I think we’ve got about five minutes left, so, uh… Can you guys take pity on me and tell me if anyone’s not here who’s supposed to be?”
Like everyone else in the class, Lexi was staring curiously at Mr. Anderson. She could hear someone in the back mumbling under their breath about the guy’s backpack, and two of the girls on the other side of class giggling and whispering to each other about his glasses being hot. Lexi’s nose wrinkled up and twitched, forcing her to rub it because she was sure she was going to sneeze. He was wearing some sort of weird cologne and she—
What the hell are you staring at?!
Perturbed, she shifted uncomfortably and sat up a little straighter in her seat. Maybe there was ketchup on her shirt? She glanced down surreptitiously and fussed a hand through her hair to make sure that wasn’t sticking up everywhere wild and weird, either.
No stains. Her hair was fine. What was this guy’s deal?
“It’s the first day. You’re supposed to tell us who should be here,” she blurted out before she could help it.
Normally Lexi wasn’t one to sass a teacher. She sure as hell didn’t want to land in MORE trouble with her dad. But she just had to. That was what bold people did, wasn’t it? He’d started it by giving her weird looks. Lexi squinted and gave Mr. Anderson what she hoped was an intimidating glare.
“Holy cow, Lexi,” Knucker hissed in dawning horror. Holy shit! “Stop talking!”
For a moment, Mr. Anderson looked as shocked as Knucker felt. That sheepish grin faltered, and he cleared his throat.
“Yeah, that’s right. I’m the authority figure here,” the teacher answered slowly—and while his voice still held a bit of that friendly and laid-back tone, there was now an undercurrent that Knucker easily identified as Warning: Trespassers Will Be Shot. “We can talk about our respective responsibilities when you come see me after school today. Miss…?”
“Ryan,” Kelly Matheson, who’d lived down the street from Knucker since they were six, supplied all-too-helpfully from the third row, her head whipping up from where she’d been whispering furiously with—oh god, was that the scary girl with the scooter from last night?! He slid down in his seat. “She’s Lexi Ryan.”
Knucker put his face in his hands and prayed for the bell.
Lexi was already regretting her words even as Knucker hissed a warning beside her. You didn’t mouth off to teachers, you just didn’t. Now she was starting off senior year pissing off a new one, and everyone knew that new teachers had to set examples right from the start lest they get trampled on by students for the rest of the year.
“Yessir. After school.” Just like Knucker, Lexi was sliiiiiding down low in her chair and propping up a book to shield herself from more stares. She was getting a lot of them now. People in the back of the class were snickering.
Sorry, Lexi mouthed at Knucker, and miraculously kept her mouth shut after that until almost halfway through her first period lit class.
By lunchtime, Knucker had resigned himself to his role as best friend to the local lunatic. He was also struggling to keep his eyes open; he’d dozed off in the middle of Ms. Prewett reading the syllabus for AP Calculus and gotten a reprimand. (He was pretty sure he’d have gotten worse if he hadn’t been her student last year for Precalc.) He’d reached the kind of exhaustion where even eating seemed like too much of a chore… and if he wasn’t careful he was going to face-plant right into his cafeteria tray.
Lexi didn’t share that problem, apparently.
“Did you skip breakfast?” he asked her blearily, taking a gulp of much-needed caffeine and watching her wolf down her lunch. They’d only just plunked down at their usual table for two, but the food on her tray was disappearing fast. “Are you sure you’re not… you know… sick or something? From. Well. Last night.”
Last night, when you got mauled and then your wound disappeared within an hour. Because that’s normal.
“Maybe you should see the nurse?”
“The nurph isn’ gon’ tell me anyfin’ diffren’ from the docs last night,” Lexi responded between bites. Food, precious blessed food! She payed extra for the heap of things on her tray—which was going to hurt later considering that her dad was probably never going to give her allowance ever again. She’d spent all morning swearing she could smell the cafeteria all the way from the other side of the school, so actually getting to stuff her face now was heaven.
Her nose seemed to be pretty sensitive in general today. Between perfumes, socks, and teenage funk it was all kinds of nauseating.
“What’re the symptoms of rabies? I DO kinda feel sick. And rabid. Uuuugghhh…” She’d been acting rabid, too. Just remembering the great first impression she made with Mr Anderson had her groaning and clonking her head on the table. “I don’t know what happened back there. Have you ever just wanted to punch someone in the face the minute they walked in the room? Not that I wanted to punch him exactly, but yeah. Where did he get off staring like that, anyway? What kind of teacher does that?!”
“You’re eating too much for it to be rabies. You don’t have a headache or feel tired or woozy or anything, right? Does it itch where you got bitten?”
It wasn’t weird that Knucker knew the symptoms of rabies, alright? His dad just wanted him to be prepared.
“Besides, you’ve had your shots,” he went on, though he wasn’t so sure he sounded convinced. Because aggression and bizarre impulses were symptoms too, and Lexi was kind of scoring hard in those categories. “We both got them on the same day, remember?”
So maybe he was best friends with a rabid lunatic. At least that might make a good excuse for their teacher.
“So you don’t know that guy from anywhere?” he asked, frowning. (And hoping that didn’t sound jealous or accusatory. He wasn’t, really.) Yeah, he hadn’t thought so, but… Lexi was right; it wasn’t normal behavior. “Maybe he mistook you for somebody else.”
Lexi thought about it for a moment just to be sure, but no. She definitely didn’t know that guy. She shoved another piece of her extra sandwich in her mouth, not bothering to lift her head off of the table.
“Murrby.” She DID kind of itch. Not just where she was bitten; Lexi was itching all over. Like her skin was crawling or her hair was becoming sentient and waving about. Aaaand wasn’t that a freaky thought? Just in case, she took a look at her arm.
Just as she was sitting back up, an angry fire demon slammed its hands on the lunch table in front of her face. Lexi jumped in her seat.
“You DESTROYED my car,” Margrit Berkshire hissed and leaned in. For every inch closer that she came, Lexi slid an equal amount lower in her chair. She was getting the urge to whimper but it was dangerous to show weakness to Margrit when she had that look. Her beautifully manicured finger lifted to jab at the tip of Knucker’s nose. “Which one of you little shits thought scrubbing imported leather with soap and water was a good idea?”
“It—it was me,” stammered Knucker. “I’m sorry, I—”
Suddenly, Margrit snatched her hand back and that murderous glare was replaced with something much, MUCH more frightening.
She smiled. Smiled so sweetly that angels might as well have been singing above her as light shone down from the heavens.
“Don’t worry, I explained EVERYTHING to your father this morning, Knucker. All about my party being crashed by a bunch of drunk college jerks. How Owen and I saved Lexi’s life by letting you borrow my car. He was VERY understanding.
“And now…” she giggled, reaching up to pat each of them on the cheek. Lexi kind of wanted to bite her fingers off, but the whole thing was so horrifyingly messed up that she couldn’t seem to do anything but sit there with her mouth hanging open like a dead fish—much to Margrit’s amusement, judging by the way her angelic smile rapidly melted into a downright nasty smirk.
“You gutter-trolling shits are going to be my bitches for the rest of the year,” she told them both, her voice dropping to a lower range as the false honeyed tone evaporated. “We’re going to have SO much fun!”
With those words hanging over their heads, Margrit turned away and walked off. They could hear her laughing all the way to her usual table, where she took a seat with Owen DeWhitt and Margrit’s freshman henchgirl Silvia Whelan.
Silvia was staring Lexi’s way with a peculiar expression blooming across her face.
“Holy shit, what just happened?” Lexi wondered aloud the moment that she finally found her voice. She was pretty sure that she was still in shock. “Are we… Did we die last night and go to hell?”
“Probably.” That would be a pretty good explanation. Not much was making sense anymore as of last night, so Knucker was prepared to believe a lot of things. Maybe they’d both died in the woods and this was Hell and Knucker’s Nana had been right about him.
He noticed Silvia Whelan staring and frowned a little. What was that all about? Knucker couldn’t guess. He didn’t really know Silvia; he knew she was younger than the rest of Margrit’s posse, and he knew she was also way too nice to be hanging out with Margrit and Owen. She was a tiny little thing with olive skin, long black hair, and all the pep you’d expect from a cheerleader. Like Margrit, Silvia came from one of the founding families of Silent Pines, which had to be the only reason she and Margrit associated. But that was the extent of his knowledge.
Tentatively, he waved his fork at her and hoped Margrit wasn’t watching.
Silvia scrunched up her nose and blinked at him, but she mimicked the motion with a little wiggle of her plastic spoon.
“You should probably take it easy today, Lex,” he told his best friend (who was actually scaring him a lot more than Margrit right now). “Let’s skip tryouts, okay?”
Beside the fact that Lexi may or may not have contracted rabies, Knucker was beat. He wasn’t about to tell Lexi that, of course, but she’d probably figure it out if he passed out in the middle of basketball or something.
Silvia looked like she was about to mouth something to Knucker—or Lexi—or both—but Margrit snapped her fingers in front of the girls face. She briefly went cross-eyed before looking away and answering the redhead’s question. Whatever the odd moment might have been about, it was now forgotten as the cool kids started chortling about something which (evidently) was incredibly hilarious.
Lexi scowled. If they were talking about her and Knucker… Rrrrghh.
Crap, it was like she was suffering from PMS times a MILLION.
Squirming uncomfortably in her seat, she shook her head at Knucker.
“I CAN’T bail on it now. We worked so hard all summer to make this year extra-awesome. We already failed at Epic Party Crashing. I mean, LISTEN to that.” She gestured to a table all the way across the room, where some of the other seniors were crowded. It wasn’t quite Margrit’s group. Those were the people who desperately wanted to be in Margrit’s group, and that was almost worse. She could hear them right now, competing to see who could come up with the best new name for the two of them. It was especially galling because they didn’t seem to care that Lexi and Knucker were listening. Normally they weren’t so LOUD about it. “I mean seriously, Little Red Ginger Hood and the Drunk Who Cried Wolf? Those aren’t even GOOD humiliating nicknames.”
Lexi’s scowl deepened as she sank in her seat.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to try out. …You’ll at least be there, though?” Amidst all her snarling and sulking was a hint of the non-rabid, insecure girl who was a lot more afraid to do things on her own than she liked to pretend. Lexi cast Knucker her best pleading pout.
Lexi was right. Those were pretty bad. Knucker was kind of an expert on humiliating nicknames; he was a weird, unpopular kid. Named Knucker. He’d been called every name in the book. For an entire year after the last Harry Potter movie came out, the school had known him as Knickers.
Problem was he hadn’t actually heard anyone using those names, other than Lexi.
Problem was, he was way more concerned about Lexi than he was scared.
Problem was he had never been able to say no to that face.
“I’m not going to let you do it on your own,” he told her, angling his soda bottle in front of his face just so and staring determinedly down at his mac and cheese. You might bite somebody and then they’d get rabies. It’s a public service. “Come on, you know that. Besides. I’ve got to cheer for you when you kick those jerks’ butts.”
“You’re the best!” Lexi threw her arms around his shoulders and squeezed him tight. It was her favorite thing to do because he was so hilariously awkward about it, especially when his hands were occupied and he couldn’t escape. “I’d be lost without you. I’d be, like, a sandwich without cheese. A burger without fries. A tater tot without ketchup!” Why were all her cheesy lines of affection about food today?
…Why did he smell like a steak?
“You’ve gotta tell your dad to stop grilling so close to the house. You reek like you’re what’s for dinner,” she remarked, releasing him and looking down at her empty lunch tray with a forlorn sigh. There was no time to grab any more food. The bell for fifth period would be ringing any minute.
No matter how many times she did that, Knucker still always turned as red as his hair.
It was even more embarrassing when she talked about smelling him. He hadn’t known it could get any more embarrassing at this point, but that did it. Also, weird. Why was she smelling him? Crap, he hadn’t really gotten a shower between all the car washing and school; did he smell bad? Grilled meat was an okay thing to smell like, right? “Reeked” wasn’t exactly a good word, though, was it?
Who was he expecting to answer him, anyway?
“Here,” he said, pushing his mostly untouched tray toward her, because he could see her thinking about food. “Go ahead.”
As cheesy as her metaphors might be, sometimes Knucker liked to believe them.
Watching her whole face light up was worth skipping out on fuel for the rest of his insane day.
As the school day drew to a close, sixth period let out a little early so that all hopeful students could make their way to the locker rooms to change and head out to the sports field where the annual Extra Academic Activity Fair was being held. Silent Pines High used the entire first week of school as an opportunity for clubs and sports teams to recruit new members, but everyone knew that the highlight was really on the athletics portion of the proceedings. Tables and tents had been set up temporarily all around campus. Monday’s chances at a spot on the field itself had been nabbed as per usual by the basketball team, the cheer squad, the girls’ softball team, the track team, football, and the school band; the rest of the sports teams and outdoor clubs would have to wait for another day or longer.
Lexi, of course, was going to go for everything BUT band. She was already enough of a loser without being part of the worst band in their school district.
Parting ways with Knucker outside of the gym, Lexi was one of the first girls to make it to the locker room to change. Her gym uniform was brand new and smelled strongly of “linen”-scented laundry detergent, and it took her less than a minute to get out of her jeans and t-shirt and into the shiny red jersey and shorts.
That was about where things started to go downhill.
As she was about to sit down and lace up her tennis shoes, Margrit rounded the corner with a few of the other cheerleaders. She stopped dead as soon as their eyes met, and Lexi knew something was coming just by the way the redhead looked her over from the top of her head right on down to her toes. When that familiar smug smirk appeared, Lexi braced herself. Margrit always looked particularly smug when she had something really nasty to say.
“Uh, did you join an unwashed hippie cult during the summer, Alexa? Or have you decided to go full-blown lesbian like your troll and just forgo the whole shaving thing?” Margrit sneered. Silvia peered around from behind her, brown eyes going wide and her mouth forming an O shape.
“What?” Lexi immediately looked down at her legs. What the fuck. They could have belonged to a middle-aged MAN with how much hair was all over them. But… she’d JUST shaved yesterday, knowing she was going to be wearing these shortass shorts for the tryouts!
“You’re going to fit right in with the football team,” chortled Margrit, turning on the heel of her bleached-white sneakers and sending her pleated skirt twirling as she flounced out. “Lets go, Silvia. We need to cheer on the ACTUAL athletes.”
Before Silvia followed, the smaller girl paused to whisper to Lexi.
“There are extra razors in my locker.”
Having to shave her legs as quickly as possible not only made her LATE but also left Lexi covered in little nicks all over the place, because Silvia didn’t have shaving cream in her locker and Lexi hadn’t exactly thought to keep any on hand. They itched like crazy. At least she managed to find a couple of band-aids at the bottom of her backpack. Once she got out onto the field and spotted Knucker on the sidelines, though, Lexi felt a TON more confident.
Sadly, that confidence didn’t do her a lick of good.
First up in her exercise in humiliation: the basketball court.
After spending the summer poring over the rules of every sport that Silent Pines High had to offer, Lexi was sure that she knew what to do. Top that off with surviving a wilderbear attack and there was no way she couldn’t do this. Once she was assigned her team and the whistle blew, Lexi gave a quick wave to Knucker in the bleachers and threw herself into the game.
Almost the second that she got out there, Lexi’s depth perception seemed to go sideways. Within five minutes, she took a basketball right to the face.
“SRGHFT!” What Lexi actually yelped when she landed flat on her back was shit, but her hands had flown up to cover her nose and the muffled mess was all that could escape. She was positive she heard her nose CRACK, and as she pressed her fingers to it she could feel cartilage moving around under the skin. A wiggle and a snap later, it seemed to be just fine. Her EGO, though? Totally smashed.
“RYAN! You bleeding? No? Get up and get off my court!” shouted Coach Martinez. As soon as Lexi’s vision was no longer fish-bowling, she scrambled to her feet.
Lexi decided basketball was definitely not her game.
Cheerleading was a stupid idea in the first place and she fared even worse. Though really, she suspected Margrit might have sabotaged her on that one. Lexi was forced to be on the bottom of the pyramid. It was going okay despite the knees digging into her back until a whiff of REALLY strong perfume started to tickle her nose.
Honestly she wasn’t sure how a simple sneeze could have caused the whole pyramid to topple… but the girls swore up and down that she threw them. (The only good part about it was that Margrit had been on the very top of the pyramid. She’d landed right on her ass when they all tumbled down.)
After she accidentally let go of her bat during softball tryouts and it spun across the field only to knock some poor football player out cold, Lexi was due for a much-needed break. She wandered over to Knucker, dropped to her knees, and face-planted right into the grass.
“Uuuggnnhhh. Everything is going SO WROOOOOONG. Did you see that guy? What are the chances..!” Her wailing was somewhat muffled by the lawn. “This is the worst.”
“You can’t expect to be good at everything you try,” Knucker pointed out, ignoring that she’d so far been good at none of them. “You’ll find your niche eventually. I mean come on, you’ve never even played softball before.”
He’d tried to get her to practice over the summer, after they (read: Lexi) had gotten the idea for the Most Memorable Senior Year ever. But somehow it had just ended with Lexi chasing him around his backyard with a bat.
Knucker scooted over, putting one hand on her shoulder and using the other to pick grass from the field and tie it into knots. Maybe his touch would be reassuring somehow. He hoped it was.
“I found this a couple minutes ago,” he said, tucking a broken-off stem of clover behind her ear. Unlike the rest of the patch he’d been sitting in, it bore four distinct leaves. Sure, it was a simple genetic mutation and occurred once in every 10,000 clovers—which wasn’t that rare in the scope of things, really—but maybe if Lexi believed in it, she’d believe in herself. Like Knucker believed in her. “And I’m a redhead, so… maybe it’s close enough to luck of the Irish?”
“Don’t let Margrit hear you say that, she’ll start calling you a leprechaun again.” Lexi didn’t need to be good at everything. She didn’t even need to be kind of okay at everything. She just needed ONE thing. One thing that she was really, truly good at. …And so far, the one thing she was good at was injuring herself and everyone around her.
Knucker made it really hard for her to feel sorry for herself though. He had to go and be a million times smarter than her, and always pull out the exact right thing to say. Her method of solving problems was usually to kick them until they surrendered.
Sighing heavily, she shifted on to her elbows and plucked the clover from behind her ear. She turned it around and around in her fingers, staring up at the overcast sky.
“I could use some luck. I think my rabies is throwing off my game.” Lexi finally sat up, crossing her legs in front of her on the grass and reaching up to undo her hair from its sloppy bun. She made quick work of tying the clover up into a small pleat, then twisted the braid back onto her head again.
“What’s next on Lexi Humiliates Herself Week? I’m NOT bothering with rugby. I’ve had enough of balls in my face. What doesn’t involve balls? Swimming? Track? Color Guard?”
“Track is still going on.”
Lexi had eaten so much earlier that she’d probably cramp up if she tried to swim, and Knucker had heard bad things about Color Guard ever since Julian Hollinger had dropped out; they all acted like mini-Margrits now. Track was a much safer bet.
On the plus side, Lexi had more than enough energy to run in circles all day.
On the minus side…
Knucker side-eyed the track from across the field. In the distance, Owen DeWhitt was barking orders at his team.
“…Maybe you should just join the drama club?”
Lexi made a face. Drama club was filled with a bunch of really WEIRD people who pranced around quoting things like Monty Python and being, well… dramatic. Lexi was dramatic enough without a club to help her do it better.
“Track it is. At least I can’t hurt anybody while running.” Lexi pushed herself up off the grass, dusting off broken blades and bits of dirt from her shorts. She reached down to grab Knucker’s hands and pull him up to his feet too. Then she was dragging him across the green to be her own personal cheerleader.
She didn’t let him go until they were by the bleachers next to the track. Lexi had to bounce a bit on her feet to build up her courage. But ONLY because Owen DeWhitt was Margrit’s current boy-toy, and if she massively failed at running he was going to be overjoyed to spread that juicy piece of news. That redheaded hellhound had already gotten enough ammunition today to last through the rest of the school year.
Straightening her arms and putting on her war face, Lexi stomped forward.
“I’M TRYING OUT.” She didn’t really know why she felt the need to bark that announcement at the top of her lungs, but it got everyone’s attention. GOOD.
Yeah, she definitely had their attention. Some of the other hopeful kids (mostly freshmen) had paused mid-stretch in all kinds of goofy poses. One boy had his knee up to his chest; he hopped in place a couple of times before finally bringing his foot back down to earth.
They were all staring at her. Immediately she regretted being so loud, and for a brief moment she was second-guessing this whole “senior year with a bang” thing. Who was she kidding, anyway? Lexi sucked at everything. She and Knucker were the kids in the corner, and life had always been pretty good in that corner.
They couldn’t just spend their lives together in the corner forever, though.
“Sure that’s a good idea, Ryan?” Owen asked after a brief pause, voice gruff—albeit not nearly as antagonistic as it usually was when he was passing Lexi in the halls. He was looking at her almost warily, his eyes measuring her footing on the grass like he expected her to suddenly keel over. “You bled all over the woods last night.”
“If she doesn’t die, tell her she owes me for ruining my clothes.” A snippet of half-forgotten conversation came floating back to Lexi.
“Girls bleed ALL THE TIME. I’m used to it, DeWhitt.” Oh god. Did she just make a crack about her period? She might as well have said Fight me, Bro! It might actually have sounded cooler.
“I mean—” Lexi fumbled for the right words. If she said the wrong thing here, she was going to sound even more stupid. “I’m standing here, right? If I can out-run a bearwolf with my arm ripped halfway off, I can definitely do this…”
Great, now she didn’t sound like she was sure of herself at all. Good thing she’d been spending all day trying out for things. If her face was red, she could just pass it off as exertion. Or maybe the smudges of dirt would cover it up.
Lexi threw her arms skyward in exasperation at herself.
“What do you want me to do? Run in a circle? Jump over sticks?” She clearly had NO idea how the track team worked.
“Get in line,” he barked at her, putting his hands on his hips. His tone and stance were all… bossy. Absolutely assured she’d obey. And his eyes were doing that squinty thing that somehow made him look three times taller. (How did that even work?) “And warm up. You’re not the only one trying out today and you’re wasting their time.”
He was already turning away from her, pointing at the kid who’d been doing a one-legged chicken dance a minute ago. With his other hand, he pulled a stopwatch out of his pocket.
“You’re up,” he told the boy. This kid was definitely a freshman, with feet too big for his scrawny body and knobby-kneed chicken legs sticking out of his gym shorts. Owen looked even less impressed with him than he did with Lexi. “Sprint. Go up to the 60 meter mark—”
He pointed down the track to a white line.
“—and then stop. Let’s see if you’re gonna be wasting our time too.”
Lexi stood there staring stupidly at his back for a moment, one hand slowly raising to give him a soldier’s salute since he was shouting orders like some sort of war general. (Of course, she’d never have dared to do that to his face. Owen might not be the type to hit a girl, but he had no problems tossing one into the nearest pile of gross stuff.)
She looked back over her shoulder to give Knucker a big toothy grin and two thumbs up, then bounced over to mimic what some of the other hopefuls were doing. An arm stretch here, a bit of ankle rotation there.
Most of these kids were shorter than her, so she could probably out-run them, right? She had this.
Of course, two seconds later there was an earthquake. ..Okay, maybe it was just her center of gravity dipping out. Or even the RABIES. Either way, Lexi’s ass hit the dirt when she lost her balance. Only through sheer quick-thinking (and a little luck) was she able to play it off as plopping down on purpose to do some leg stretches. She whistled innocently, which she realized belatedly was kind of dumb—and likely something she’d picked up from Knucker.
“Nervous?” a voice chimed in from Lexi’s left. “Me too.”
The speaker was a boy with curly red hair—really red hair, not ginger like Margrit’s or Knucker’s, and not Lexi’s darker brownish-red—starkly green eyes, and a friendly grin. He was leaning over to touch his toes and looking perfectly at ease doing it as he shifted closer to Lexi across the grass. Out of all the kids on the field, he was the only one who could pass for Lexi’s own age. The muscles in his arms and legs looked like he did a lot more in the sports department than Lexi had done in her whole life, that was for sure. But he wasn’t one of the track team guys.
She’d never seen him before in her life.
“You seem, uh… friendly? With the captain there.” He nodded at Owen’s turned back. “Ex-boyfriend? Should we team up to kick his ass?”
“Ex-boyfriend?” Lexi’s nose wrinkled up as she repeated the word with as much disgust and horror as could possibly be packed into a single word. Her eyes made the slow trek across the field to bore holes in Owen’s turned back. Lexi had exactly zero ex-boyfriends—but even if she did have one, Owen would be the last guy on the planet she’d pick for that role.
“Owen hates me,” she finally explained, tearing her gaze from the captain to peer awkwardly at this new guy. He was DEFINITELY new. Which meant that not only did she feel weird having a conversation with someone who wasn’t Knucker, there was the added bonus of having no idea what to expect from him.
Just one more reason why she NEEDED to climb the social ladder at Silent Pines High School.
At least he offered to beat up Owen with her. That was an automatic point in her book.
“I’m all for kicking his ass. …AFTER we see if I botch running in a circle. I kinda need to make this team.” Lexi gave up trying to pretend that she knew how to stretch, choosing instead to lean backwards on her hands and frown at her traitorous feet.
“’Need to’?” he echoed, tilting his head. After a moment, though, he laughed and gave her an encouraging smile. Lexi received a playful shove to her shoulder. “You’ll be fine. Most of the people trying out are total freshies and still growing into all their awkward limbs.”
As if to prove his point, the girl currently under Owen’s supervisory glare tripped over her own shoelaces and went down face-first on the track.
“Trust me! I know what I’m talking about,” New Guy continued. “If you don’t make the team, I’ll buy you a soda. Your choice.”
“Cooney, you’re up!” Owen barked, looking up from his clipboard to glower in their direction. New Guy jumped to his feet.
“Sir yessir!” he joked, winking at Lexi, and trotted over toward the starting line.
Free soda, yeeees! If she DID make the team, this meant she had an ally.
With a sudden start, she bent forward to make sure her shoelaces were tied good and tight. Lexi added a couple more knots just to make sure. If she was going to be humiliated, it wouldn’t be because she landed face-first on the asphalt and had herself an appetizer course of ROCKS. When the girl who had fallen hobbled past with the support of her friends, Lexi gave her a pitying look.
Meanwhile, Lexi’s newfound ally was gearing up for his sprint.
“60 meter dash, yeah?” he confirmed, planting his feet on the line. He was talking to Owen, but his eyes were on the track ahead. Unlike the freshies, he looked pretty relaxed about all this. He was even smiling.
“That’s right,” Owen grunted. The track team captain lifted his stopwatch, eyeing New Guy—Cooney?—in what was probably some kind of weird jock cavedude sizing-up thing. “On my mark… and time!”
New Guy grinned.
And then he was off like a shot, moving so fast he almost became a blur. He was crossing the meter marker well before Lexi could count to ten. As he did so, he turned around and jogged backwards for a few extra feet.
He made it all look like a breeze. Not that the freshmen hadn’t too with their bumbling and falling all over the place, but Lexi was pretty sure her skill-set leaned more towards theirs than this dude and his pro running. Running like a pro? Was that even a real thing? That nonplussed look crept onto her face again, nose scrunching up and mouth twisting. Lexi was about to receive her award for Stupidest Runner.
“How’d I do, captain?” New Guy yelled cheerfully.
“…3.9,” Owen called out, taking just a second too long to answer. One of the other track team members let out a low whistle. “Get your ass over here, Cooney.”
Unperturbed, the boy trotted back over. Owen immediately launched into a hushed conversation, but Lexi caught most of it:
“Don’t bullshit me. You’ve done this before.”
“Yup. Track team since middle school.”
“You should’ve said as much.”
“I wanted to get in fair and square. Everyone else had to try out. Besides, you’d have wanted to see me actually run anyway, right?”
“Fine. But no more showing off, got it? I’m not going to tolerate that kind of…”
When all was said and done, New Guy made his way back to Lexi. He looked like he had something to say, but he never got the chance.
“Ryan,” boomed Owen. Oh man, he sounded pissed. “Are you still here? It’s your turn.”
Silvia dropped to her knees next to Knucker on the bleacher, still wearing her Devils cheerleader uniform and carrying her red-and-white pompoms. Her hair was twisted up in a perfect ponytail and tied with a red ribbon. She wasn’t looking at Knucker at all; she was staring determinedly out at the track, wiggling in her seat even though being on her knees had to make all that moving around uncomfortable.
“YAY OWEN!! MAKE THEM CRY!” she squealed, waving her pompoms at the blond boy when he lifted his head to see what all the noise was about. It looked like he wasn’t pleased to see her, though it was hard to tell. “Angry” was kind of Owen’s default expression.
As soon as Owen’s attention was back on the tryouts, Silvia leaned towards Knucker.
“Has Lexi come up yet? Margrit wanted me to spy and tell her how badly she fails. But don’t tell Margrit I sat down to talk to you!” she stage-whispered out of the side of her mouth. At least… it sounded like a stage whisper, but she also genuinely seemed to think that no one around them could hear. The girl in the row behind her was staring.
Knucker had been pretty preoccupied with keeping an eye on Lexi. He didn’t really notice Silvia until she was, uh, cheering right beside him. Which was why he jumped. He may also have been a little startled because Silvia Whelan was talking to him and holy
shit smokes what, why?!
“Uh,” he began intelligently. “No.”
Knucker was not a conversationalist. He didn’t really know how to talk to people who weren’t Lexi or his dad or a teacher. And even then he wasn’t that great. Talking to people left him feeling very much out of his element.
Especially when a popular (granted, younger than him) girl was apparently defying Margrit Berkshire to talk to him. For some reason.
“…Why are you talking to me?” he blurted, before he could stop himself. The lack of sleep was seriously getting to him, apparently, because normally he would’ve just sat there wondering in utter silence until she lost interest and went away. Because that was the sane thing to do.
“Wow, he’s fast AND cuuuute.” For a moment it seemed Silvia didn’t even hear his question. She was staring wide-eyed at the track, where some guy Knucker didn’t recognize was having an argument with Owen. But something must have finally registered because after a beat she shrugged her shoulders and tilted her head with a thoughtful expression. “I didn’t want to bother Owen while he’s running the tryouts. He’s SUPER serious and needs all the concentration he can get. There’s a lot of pressure when you’re a team leader. I guess I could have asked Lexi herself, but she’s doing the worst and I think maybe she’s super nervous and if I ask her I might jinx it. Which would be BAD because I think she’ll really like being on track because you get to RUN ALL DAY. I would have joined track too, but I am learning so much more on the cheerleading squad with Margrit. You were sitting by yourself and have been watching the whole time, I bet, so you were the perfect person to ask!”
The words went a mile a minute. Knucker couldn’t be sure she’d even stopped to catch a breath.
At the sound of Lexi’s last name, her pompoms went up in the air again with a furious shake. This time without a cheer.
“Crap,” Knucker swore. (That counted as swearing for him, okay?) It looked like Owen was up to his usual Jerkwad tricks with Lexi. The guy was unpleasant (a douchebag) in general, but the way he treated Lexi—and Knucker—was a whole different ballgame.
Knucker sometimes (okay, maybe often) wished he didn’t have noodle arms that prevented him from throwing a proper punch.
“‘Serious’ is a word for it, I guess,” he muttered. It didn’t matter in Knucker’s book how much pressure the guy was under; it was no excuse for the way he treated people.
He glanced over at Silvia, his eyebrows furrowing. Unlike her friends, Silvia didn’t seem to have it out for Lexi. She was even waving her pompoms in support. And she was being kind of sort of friendly to him too. Was that allowed? This was high school.
The way she’d been staring at them in the cafeteria earlier came back to him, and for a minute he considered asking her what the heck that had been about. He almost did it.
But then his Lexi Sense started tingling and he whipped his head back around, just in time for Owen to give Lexi her starting signal.
Owen bellowing her name had Lexi leaping to her feet with a start.
“HERE!” She swatted dust and bits of pebble off of her clothes, eyeing the new guy again. All she had to do was do EXACTLY what he did. That would be a piece of cake, right?
Lexi took way longer than she should have to get on her mark, knowing full well that she was trying Owen’s patience. That wasn’t really on purpose though. Mostly she was just trying to dig up the last remaining bits of her courage and dignity so that she could end her day of unending failure with one more attempt at glory. Antagonizing Owen was just a bonus.
“So… to that spot over there, right?” She gestured down the track.
“The one everyone is running to? Yes.” Owen gave her a look that probably made the freshmen pee their pants. He took a step forward, ducking his head down and sticking his face uncomfortably close to hers.
“You’d better not be wasting my time,” he told Lexi, eyes narrowed. “Are you up for this or not? Because if you don’t think you can make this team today, you should walk off the field right now.”
He wasn’t exactly being nice, but this might have made a record for the longest Owen DeWhitt had ever talked to her without calling her names or giving her a swirly.
“If you’re going to run, do it. Now,” he added, and pushed the stopwatch button without warning.
Oh Jesus son-of-Mary Christ. Owen was almost as intimidating as Margrit. (Margrit still eked out ahead, if only because with Owen you knew what sort of physical violence would be coming whereas Margrit used all the cunning of SATAN to make you miserable). Lexi nearly turned around and took off running away from the track. A tiny voice at the back of her mind nearly summoned up a really badass comeback for him, but all of a sudden there was the click of a stopwatch and him saying Now and it all went straight out of her head.
“What—EEEEE!” Despite the wild flailing of panicked arms and squealing like an idiot, Lexi took off like a bolt. There wasn’t a lot that could go wrong with running, it turned out, and to her joy and surprise it really DID feel easy and effortless!
Maybe even a little too effortless, because she over shot the line in an instant. By the time she realized it, she also realized that she had no idea how to STOP. Lexi skidded on the asphalt just at the first bend of the track, her arms windmilling in an attempt to preserve her balance. Gravity inevitably won the fight and she went rolling right off the track and into the grass.
At least she didn’t eat rocks.
“I’M OKAY.” She lifted her thumb up in the air over her head as she shunted herself onto her back.
“I knew she smelled funny,” Silvia mumbled in awe. In an instant she was up on her feet and dashing away. Before she got too far, she turned around to bounce excitedly and squeal at Knucker. “We’re going to be friends now! …Just don’t tell Margrit yet! I don’t want you to die before we have any fun.”
Silvia skipped away with a flounce and one last swish of her pompoms before Knucker could ask what any of that was all about.
But then again, Knucker had other things on his mind.
“Lexi!” Knucker was already scrambling down off the bleachers, undeterred by his best friend’s claim that she was fine. (He’d long since learned to stop taking her word about that kind of thing.) He was surprised (and a little annoyed) to find that Owen was headed over too.
The track team captain got there first.
“Ryan, I swear to god I am not peeling your ass off the ground one more time,” Owen growled, reaching down to take Lexi by the arm and haul her vertical. Knucker scooted in to take over supporting her the moment that he caught up to them, and was happy to note that Owen immediately backed off.
“Lexi, are you sure you’re okay?” Knucker pressed, checking her over for scrapes and bruises in a way he was (way, way too) used to from their long years of friendship.
Owen, evidently, was less concerned with her well-being than he was with other stuff. Stuff Knucker hadn’t yet started to process, to be honest.
“What was that?!” the jock blurted, waving the stopwatch at Lexi like she’d broken it and he was demanding compensation for damages. “What—You need to learn to stop, dumbass!”
It was about then that Knucker actually got a good look at Lexi’s time. Knucker knew (from reading online, because he’d wanted to be prepared for tryouts, okay?) that with the 60 meters, it was actually supposed to time how fast you could run 30. The person timing stopped and started again at the halfway point, and then averaged the two times together. So Lexi’s official time wouldn’t be the exact time that was currently on the watch readout.
But the watch read 3.57 and hooooooly guacamole, how was that even a thing? Knucker almost dropped her out of shock.
“You need to learn to stop!” Lexi blurted reflexively. Aside from her not-so-soft landing in the grass, she couldn’t figure out why the hell they were making such a big deal about it. She’d crashed on one body part or another all afternoon, this was pretty much the natural order of things at this point.
It finally dawned on her that they were having PTSD-style flashbacks from last night and her face went a bit crimson. She was FINE. …Not counting the rabies. Were they going to freak out about it FOREVER?
Lexi swatted at Knucker. He was being way too mothering. …Until he looked like he’d swallowed a bumble bee and stopped short. She followed his eyes and grabbed Owen’s hand to keep the stopwatch still so that she could read the numbers.
“So, this is good, right? Maybe?” She nudged Knucker’s shoulder, partly to shake him out of his stunned silence but mostly because he’d know the answer. Lexi didn’t trust Owen not to sabotage her chances in the name of Margrit’s demonic love.
“It’s like Olympic good,” Knucker answered, staring back and forth between the numbers and Lexi’s hopeful face. She’d never exactly been slow, but he’d never known she could run like that. Almost no one their age could run like that.
Owen DeWhitt couldn’t run like that.
As soon as he thought it, Knucker cast a wary glance at the other boy.
And yeah, Owen did not seem happy. The guy looked like he might punch Lexi out, and for a moment Knucker was ready to step in the way so Lexi didn’t get knocked around for the third time in less than 24 hours. But instead Owen was slapping Lexi on the shoulder (not the one where she’d been bitten, Knucker noticed) and shoving her back off the track.
“You need to learn to stop and to shut up if you want to be on the team,” Owen grumbled. “Go home. You’ll get the results tomorrow with everyone else.”
Lexi’s mouth pursed—and unlike the five-thousand-and-one different sour expressions she usually gave Owen, this was the exact opposite: a pleased as pie, cat-ate-canary, unusually pointy-toothed grin as she struggled to hold back the kind of sassy, smart-assed remark which would probably get her punched right in the face.
That wasn’t a no. That was practically a yes!
“Heeeee.” She couldn’t quite swallow the smug laugh. Lexi grabbed Knucker by the shoulders, twisting him around so she could properly shove. It was time to get the hell out while the getting was good.
The farther out of earshot they got, the more her giggling veered into evil villain territory until it was downright maniacal. Once they got through the big double doors and into the gym, though, she subsided back to normal (if overly-excited) snickering.
She also couldn’t fucking stop bouncing. Lexi still had a hold of Knucker’s arm as she jumped up and down.
“That wasn’t a no! It’s probably a yes! Margrit can KISS MY ASS. Even if I suck at stopping, I’m still on the team! Holy shit, I still have detention and rabies but I don’t caa-aaare!”
“Jesus, Lex, don’t tug so hard,” Knucker told her, wincing a little. He didn’t try to free his arm though. She’d let go eventually, once she calmed down.
If she ever calmed down. Knucker was pretty sure rabies didn’t make you better at sports, so maybe this was something else. But at least she’d perked up again.
“I’m really happy for you.” It was true. Mostly. Knucker couldn’t help but feel a small pang when it occurred to him that this was actually happening and Lexi was actually going to be at after-school practices and track meets and Knucker was going to be… on the sidelines. Not right there with her. “…I told you that you could do it, didn’t I?”
He still wasn’t sure how she did it. But that wasn’t really the point.
Maybe the explanation was simply that Lexi was just amazing.
He’d always kind of thought that anyway.
Lexi finally let go of his arm only to pump her fists in the air. Her victory bouncing continued as she danced in a wide circle around him. She didn’t know where all the energy was coming from but at that moment she didn’t care.
“Phase Two: Infiltrate Sports has been completed! …As good as, anyway. You’re the best lucky charm! And going to have to tell me everything you know about track because I have NO idea what I’m doing.” THAT realization got her to stop bouncing. Her cheeks were flushed, but she wasn’t even close to being out of breath. Lexi rested her hands on her hips, a small frown on her face as she surveyed her best friend. The Best Senior Year Ever was supposed to be about both of them tackling everything in one last hoorah. Now her plans were only halfway on track. Not to mention, now he wasn’t going to be there where she monumentally fucked up.
“It would have been even better if you tried out too. You usually out-run me,” she admitted. “Maybe we can sneak you in later. You’re going to be there all the time anyway, I bet Owen won’t even notice.”
I’m pretty sure he would definitely notice.
“Maybe,” he told her anyway, giving her a half-smile. Knucker knew he couldn’t beat Lexi’s time from today, and he doubted anything less could convince Owen DeWhitt to let him onto the track team. But he wasn’t about to burst Lexi’s bubble. “You know I’ll be there anyway.”
It was Knucker’s turn to frown.
“You have to go to detention now, right?” It was technically after school now, wasn’t it? “…I’ll wait for you in the parking lot. We still need to go find your phone.”
“Uuuuuggh, yeeeeah.” She groaned again just for good measure. She knew she totally deserved detention, but this was going to be the most agonizingly awkward detention in the history of all detentions. “Why did I have to open my stupid mouth?”
Lexi ruffled up Knucker’s hair in parting (it drove him nuts, which always cheered her up) and dragged her feet down the hall to the girl’s locker room. Hopefully she could get in and out without another run-in with the Queen Bitch.
When she reached the doors, Lexi peeked her head in and warily glanced around. Once she was positive that the place was Margrit-free, she slipped inside and tip-toed over to the small locker where she’d shoved her backpack earlier.
Her over-active sense of smell kicked in again, her nose twitching as it was assaulted by a myriad of scents. Sweat, perfume, gym socks, girl.
The last time Lexi had actively used the girls’ locker room was in 9th grade for her mandatory P.E. class, and she was just as uncomfortable now as she’d been back then. Some girls could just stroll down the aisles buck-ass-naked without even a speck of insecurity, but… Lexi just wasn’t LIKE that. When she’d changed into her gym clothes before tryouts, she’d been in and out in ten seconds without so much as flashing her bra.
Now that the activities on the field were winding down, there were several girls at the tail end of their showering rituals and a few more in various stages of undress. Lexi kept her eyes averted from anyone showing too much skin while her inner voice did a really good impression of Margrit.
Wow, what are you, a ten year old nun-child? They’re BOOBS. You have them too!
“Mrrglph,” was her strangled response to her own thoughts.
She HAD to get over this, especially since Lexi herself was now covered head to toe in grass, dirt, and sweat. As tempted as she was to just throw on her clothes and bolt, she didn’t want to go sit in detention smelling like… well. Like a locker room.
After eyeballing the perimeter one last time for telltale red curls, Lexi hastily stripped down and wrapped herself up in a towel. With a level of finesse even James Bond would envy, she stealthily lurked her way past each row of lockers until she reached the showers. Grateful to find the area had emptied out, Lexi made a mad dash into the stall that looked the least dangerous. There was enough open space where she could take off running if Margrit decided the most humiliating time to murder her would be while she was naked, but not so much that Lexi felt exposed.
Once she had the hot water going, she relaxed a little bit. Standing directly under the stream, she twisted to get a good look at her bad shoulder.
There wasn’t even a SCAR anymore. Great. Not only did she almost die, now no one was going to even believe it happened. Aside from Margrit’s ruined car and Lexi’s shredded clothes, the evidence was gone overnight.
At least Knucker knew she wasn’t crazy.
She only got a few precious moments to herself before a heavy thud issued from a couple of stalls down and across the aisle. It sounded like someone had dropped something.
When Lexi looked up out of reflex, there was a heavy-looking olive green canvas bag sitting just outside the stall; that hadn’t been there before. Maybe that explained the noise. It must have been a student’s backpack, but it looked a lot like an army rucksack.
Movement inside the stall drew her eye, and she glimpsed a long brown ponytail before the other girl’s hands rose to pull her hair free of its tie. As her chestnut-colored hair spilled down over bare shoulders, she seemed to sense that Lexi was watching; she stiffened up and glanced behind herself.
All Lexi had really meant to do was shoot a quick look over her shoulder to make sure it wasn’t Margrit (or one of Margrit’s henchbitches). But it was hard to recognize someone by the back of their head and bare naked skin, so she might have spent a little too long squinting over at the other stall. Lexi definitely hadn’t expected to be caught staring.
“Hi,” the girl drawled. Her voice dripped with just a hint of an accent that Lexi couldn’t quite place.
Oh, fuck, was she still gawking? She probably looked like a deranged creeper. Lexi gave a little start and quickly refocused her gaze to the shower knob.
“Hellooooo,” she echoed in response. …And that greeting didn’t help matters. Instead of the nonchalant, breezy tone that Lexi had been going for, it came out like some kind of sleazy proposition. In her mind’s eye, Knucker was cringing.
Crap, now what? Were you supposed to have shower-time banter? What was proper locker room etiquette anyway? Lexi had never actually used the showers before today. Freshman P.E. had been her last class of the day, so she’d always just changed her clothes and bolted the second her shoes were tied.
“So… tryouts. Yeeeaah.” Not the greatest save, but at least this time Lexi didn’t sound creepy. The award for today’s lamest comment still went to the line she’d given Owen about periods.
“Yeah. Tryouts,” agreed the mystery girl—and she was kind of a mystery. Something about her looked familiar, but Lexi couldn’t quite think of where she’d seen her before… Not that that meant much. If you weren’t Knucker or a mean girl, Lexi didn’t notice you. The more surprising thing was that the girl had actually answered Lexi’s dumbass comment.
The water cut on across the way. Lexi could hear shuffling and the slap of wet feet on the tile floor. Okay, maybe they weren’t going to be chatting after all.
“How’d you do?” she asked. “Think you made it?”
Lexi’s immediate sigh of relief was drowned out by when she shoved her face into the shower spray. As long as she wasn’t being called a freak or getting her head shoved in a toilet (especially while she was naked), everything was cool. Although now she looked like a crying raccoon thanks to the remnants of black eyeliner streaming down her face. Lexi grabbed her bar of soap and began to furiously scrub her cheeks and around her eyes.
“I pretty much sucked ass until I got to track. So unless Owen DeWhitt would rather die than have me on the team, I’m good. …I think.” Now that most of the energy and adrenaline had worn off, Lexi wasn’t quite as bouncy and confident. She was stuck with that same nervous, pent-up itching that had been torturing her all day.
Shit, she wasn’t all hairy again was she? Lexi ran her hands over her arms, then twisted and turned to check out her legs.
Okay, cool, paranoia’s setting in. Good to know.
She finally cast another curious peek over her shoulder.
“Did… you try out for anything?” she tested the waters of casual conversation. It was funny; she’d talked to more people today than she had since… well, Lexi didn’t even know. Aside from humiliating herself in twenty different ways, maybe her Best-Senior-Year-Ever plan was actually going to work.
There wasn’t a girls’ football team at Silent Pines High. There weren’t girls on the football team and never had been on any high school team in the entire state of Pennsylvania, as far as Lexi was aware.
Even if there had been, this girl didn’t look like the type of girl who played football. She wasn’t tiny or anything—actually, she was taller than Lexi, with broader shoulders to boot—but she was, well, kind of pretty. At least prettier than, say, most of the girls’ rugby team (which had earned a reputation for being made up almost entirely of hulking gargoyles).
She shot Lexi a wry look, like she knew what was on her mind.
“I don’t think they went for it, even if I did knock down a couple field goals.”
“I bet if you go back and knock down a couple of dudes too, they might change their mind,” Lexi remarked. The girl just had to turn around and catch Lexi looking again. At least this time Lexi managed to play it cool, flashing a toothy, jesting grin before she resumed washing. This wouldn’t be so awkward if she couldn’t see this girl’s ass and if Lexi weren’t self-conscious as hell. Why did anyone think these open shower rooms were a good idea?
On the bright side, Lexi was pretty much done. She shut off the faucet, then got busy wringing water out of her hair. Once she’d squeezed out all the moisture she could, she snatched up her towel and swiftly wrapped it around her body.
“But, uh, good luck, I guess? I’ll buy you a soda if you don’t make it!” The stolen phrase was out of her mouth before she could think twice, pilfered straight from the pep talk that Cooney guy had given her. Thankfully it wasn’t too weird of a thing to say. Lexi was fast realizing just how much she sucked balls at talking to people who weren’t Knucker.
Even Knucker could bullshit his way through a conversation better than this. What the hell was wrong with her?
Maybe she’d finally creeped the girl out after all, because she didn’t immediately reply. Or maybe she was just too busy shampooing her hair. She had her head tipped back away from the stream, her fingers working up a furious lather.
“…I’ll hold you to that,” she said in the end. “Thanks.”
Wait. Oh shit. Did Lexi just make a promise with some random chick? Her stomach couldn’t decide if it were twisting up in abject horror at the thought of trying to interact with someone new again, or doing somersaults over how actually kind of AWESOME it was to have done it twice in one day already.
“Okay. Cool. Coooool.” Lexi accented that utterly insightful remark by making a little okay gesture with her fingers, and was immediately glad the girl wasn’t looking this time because THAT was probably the dorkiest thing ever.
“So, uh, see ya!” she followed up quickly. Her heels squeaked on the wet tile as she spun around. She had to get out of here before she said anything else monumentally stupid.
“Sure,” she heard the girl call after, though it was a bit muffled by the sounds of the shower. “Later, Al…ligator.”
Maybe Lexi wasn’t the only one feeling awkward? Who could tell. She certainly didn’t stick around to find out.
Weirdness aside, at least she avoided another run-in with Margrit on the way back to the main building. The cheerleading squad captain must have still been tied up with directing tryouts. Or maybe even permanently injured from that fall and out of school for the rest of the year?
Lexi could dream.
She dragged her feet all the way back to Mr. Anderson’s classroom. The halls were empty; everyone else had either gone home or was out on the field, so she had only her own escalating anxiety for company. It briefly occurred to her that dicking around could add more time onto her punishment, but the dread was too strong for her to pick up the pace. Lexi felt about an inch tall by the time she eased open the door and crept over the threshold.
God, why couldn’t she turn invisible? Hopefully someone else had been a bigger asshole today than she had, and she could walk out of here without a strongly worded letter to her dad.
Unfortunately, this was where her borrowed Knucker-luck wore out. She was the only kid in the room.
We have officially hit nightmare mode.
“Ms. Ryan,” Mr. Anderson acknowledged Lexi as she slunk into her seat. “I’m glad you could make it.”
The teacher was at his desk, rummaging through a drawer. He pulled out a heavy, faded book and flipped through a few pages before he finally glanced up. Ugh. Everything about the guy was weird and wrong. He was too young. He had dorky glasses. And here he was reading a book that looked like it came from HOGWARTS. Lexi once again had an overwhelming urge to say something REALLY STUPID, but at least this time she managed to keep it to herself.
Instead she slid a little lower in her seat, giving the sea of empty desks a pitiful stare. Why was she the only one here? Her gaze drifted to the windows. Maybe she could just jump out…
“I heard you were out on the field at tryouts,” he remarked over Lexi’s inner turmoil. Sometime between this morning’s fiasco and the end of the day, he’d lost that “young, cool guy” vibe and settled into something much more… teacherly. “How’d you do?”
Huh. Deja vu.
“Uh… I only sort of made an ass—UH, jerk of myself during track. Results aren’t posted until tomorrow though.”
“Track?” He grinned a little, one eyebrow quirking. “Well, I hope you make it. Track’s a good sport.”
Mr. Anderson stood up, then, and moved to the desk in front of Lexi. He plopped down into it—still holding that mouldy, ancient-looking book—and propped his elbows on the faux-wood.
“Look,” he said. “I think we got off on the wrong foot this morning. We all make mistakes. But you’re going to be in my homeroom all year, Lexi. I need you to respect me or it’s going to be a problem. And I really don’t want to have a problem with a student right off the bat.”
His tone was friendly, but had this undercurrent of firmness to it which made it clear she would be getting waaaay less slack about this later if she didn’t cooperate now.
Lexi didn’t like that at all.
Apparently a guilt-ridden morning and an afternoon of running and beating whatever out of her system hadn’t worked in the slightest. Something about this guy just rubbed her the wrong way, and even though he was being perfectly polite and actually really cool for a teacher, Lexi wanted to flip her desk and tell him to shove it. To tackle him and bite him real good.
Holy shit, I’m a psycho!
This was NOT COOL. She was not going to tackle and bite a teacher, what kind of rabies-infested monster was she turning into? Antsy, Lexi tapped her fingernails on the desktop… and then paused to look down at them with a frown. Had her nails been that long earlier? They were in dire need of a trim.
She straightened in her seat and stuffed her hands inside her desk.
“I’m sorry,” she forced out the words. “I’m having… problems.”
Ugh, that sounded like she was talking about her period again. Lexi WISHED she was PMSing; maybe that would explain why rolling on the floor and sinking her teeth into her newest teacher seemed like such a fun idea.
OH MY GOD. STOP THINKING ABOUT IT.
Maybe it was her imagination, but it felt like he drew back a little too, giving her more room to breathe. But he was still sitting right there and hadn’t moved… Lexi really was losing it.
“You had a rough night last night, as I’ve been informed,” he allowed, giving her a quick once-over and tilting his head. “If you ever want to talk about it—about anything—feel free to talk to me. I know I’m not your friend, but I’ve been told I do okay at listening, and it’s my job to help you succeed.”
“Is EVERYONE talking about it?! Uuugh,” she groaned. All of the fight and fire melted out of her and Lexi’s limbs became limp floppy noodles as she turned to dead weight in her chair. Not only was the entire student body talking about her (and not the way she WANTED them to), apparently all the faculty were in on the gossip too. Didn’t teachers have something better to talk about? Like lesson plans, or taxes? She tooootally wanted to talk about her first epic failure of the year with a teacher. One that looked barely twenty but could still send her to the principal if she said “fuck” out loud.
She couldn’t spend the entire school year feeling awkward and wanting to kill a teacher. Lexi sat back up, giving him a sort of sideways stare.
“Okay. Purely for a hypothetical situation, what if I said I think I might have rabies and all of this,” she gestured her hands, completely unable to put her feelings about him into words, “makes me want to throw something at you.”
She made sure not to say BITE AND MURDER because that was a quick way to get sent to the school counselor.
“And it’s not really YOU, I guess, but like, today has just sucked all day and all I really wanted to do this year was take over the school with my best friend and make my mortal enemy cry. So I will take your teacherly advice into consideration. Let’s hear it,” she mumbled. It was kind of hard to keep the snark out of her voice, but at least now she was trying and genuinely interested in seeing how this experiment would turn out. It wasn’t as if she could embarrass herself any further today than she had already. Maybe an ally from the teaching staff could make it easier to achieve her plans for school domination.
“Okay,” said Mr. Anderson, drumming his fingers on his desk. “Purely hypothetically, I’d say that you’re not the only one who feels like that sometimes. I’d say you just need to learn to channel that in a way that isn’t going to get you in trouble. Track isn’t a bad start, as far as that goes, so you’re headed in a good direction. Don’t let one bad day get you down.”
He slid that old book onto the desk in front of her. It was a grey-green color, with little pictographs of dogs pulling sleds on the front. Gilded, curling letters spelled out the title and byline: “The Call of the Wild by Jack London”. A bit of thread was poking out of the top of the spine.
“I think you might like this,” he told her. “It’s kind of about how the main character survives against all odds and becomes top dog. You have to promise you’ll give it back in one piece though. Can I trust you?”
Lexi didn’t know what she was expecting. This was pretty much the textbook after-school special advice from a nerdy teacher. He wanted respect or whatever, but he was clearly a huge dork. Somehow that softened her impression of him—and even though it was super lame, it was maybe KIND OF cool that he was trying so hard. Lexi still had a hard time taking him seriously, but at least now she didn’t want to bite him or throw a desk.
The look on her face betrayed her less-than-kind thoughts, though, and it probably didn’t help that her smile was threatening to turn into a laugh. Lexi just barely kept that in check.
“You definitely CAN’T trust me. But I promise I’ll try to bring it back without destroying it.” She pulled the book closer, giving the cover and the first few pages a curious examination. Reading was not her thing—that was all Knucker. But Lexi supposed she’d HAVE to read it, just in case he decided to give her some weird pop quiz.
To his credit, Mr. Anderson didn’t look too surprised at her response. He gave her a rueful, at-least-we’re-both-trying smile and climbed up out of his chair.
“I think we’re all good for now, Ms. Ryan. I’ll see you tomorrow morning. I know you probably won’t get any reading done tonight, but let me know what you think of the book when you get a chance.”
And just like that, Lexi was free to go.
Devil’s Wood looked a lot less spooky in the daylight.
Not that the sun would last for long. Lexi and Knucker had only a small window of opportunity to retrace her fearful dash of the night before and find her phone. Her dad expected her home in time for dinner WITH phone in hand… otherwise Lexi was going to have to work her ass off to pay for a new one. Just because I own a gas station, it doesn’t mean I’m made of money. Her dad had repeated that saying so many times that Lexi was entertaining the idea of running away from home if she didn’t find the damn thing.
“We’re getting close to where the party was,” Knucker commented. He’d just nearly tripped over a crushed red solo cup that was half-hidden by the leaves. He nudged it with his toe—and after a moment’s hesitation picked it up, because as gross as it might be he also really didn’t like littering. If he didn’t pick it up now, it was a pretty sure bet that no one else would.
“I think I took off this way,” she grunted, pointing up ahead of them. “Maybe that thing will come back and finish me off so we’ll know for sure.”
She kind of regretted it after she said it. Lexi was instantly on alert, looking up and around warily to make sure nothing was lurking in the bushes or in the trees.
“Ugh, it’s probably out of battery too, or this would be a million times easier. We could just call it!”
“Do you want me to try calling it anyway?” he offered, fishing his own phone out of his jacket pocket.
He hoped it would work, because Knucker really did not want to be out here. It was going to get dark soon and there was a mysterious animal with a taste for people roaming the woods and he was a little weirded out by this whole ordeal. Their teacher was no exception. Something about the guy creeped Knucker out. Lexi had told him about her (surprisingly brief) detention in excruciating detail, and while her fears seemed to have been allayed, he wasn’t so sure. Maybe it was the fact that when Lexi had shown him that book, well… Knucker hadn’t had the heart to tell her but he recognized it as a first freaking edition and what kind of person gave that to someone they’ve just met?
…Okay, maybe Knucker was also a little jealous. He was sure he could convince Lexi to let him borrow it though. Mr. Anderson didn’t have to know.
“Hnnng. Yeah, try calling it. Maybe we’ll get lucky. …Man, there’s no way I had it in my hands this close to the party. We better trek back that way.” She gestured again in a totally different direction. Honestly she didn’t have a clue which way was the best to look. Lexi couldn’t remember if she ran in a straight line, or zig-zagged, or even went in circles. And every tree and bush looked EXACTLY the same.
Everything SMELLED really different though. Lexi rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. Half the woods must have been saturated in beer, because she could still smell it even now. That and a lot of wet dirt, along with something really flowery and sweet. And then she got a strong whiff of something dead, which nearly made her tumble face-first over a tree stump in her path. Lexi assumed it must have been carried on the wind, though, because there was nothing in sight.
Now her nose was itching and she was rubbing it even more furiously.
Wait. She spotted something blue and plastic up ahead. That might be her phone! Lexi stooped and snatched it up.
Her nose wrinkled. This was definitely not her phone.
“What is this even—” It was an odd-looking old doll in a faded blue dress. Half of its hair was missing and strange symbols had been drawn with black marker all over its little plastic arms, legs, and face. As if these woods needed more creepy things in them.
…A mischievous look crossed her features.
Lexi inched towards Knucker, dangling the doll.
Knucker’s brain was a chorus of nope, nope, nope.
“Lexi. Lexi no.” He backed up, holding out the broken red cup as if to fend her off. “Cut it out, that’s so not funny.”
Rationally, he knew it was just a doll that some weirdo kids had played some creepy game with out in the woods. But still. When you were in a place called Devil’s Wood and the sun was going down and you found a sketchy, half-destroyed old doll, you did not mess around with it.
As he stumbled over a tree root, his thumb slipped on the call button of his phone.
The distinctly dramatic chords of a Fall Out Boy song instantly blared from only a few feet away. Knucker perked up, whipping his head to face the sound. Holy crap, that actually worked!
His excitement plummeted again almost at once. A towering figure stepped out from amongst the trees; Knucker yelped and lost his balance. He crashed to the ground, crushing the plastic cup into a disc between his fingers.
Meanwhile, Lexi’s first instinct was attack the monster! …Which apparently involved making a not-so-brave noise and chucking the creepy doll at their new nemesis.
She overshot. The toy went sailing off into the distant bushes. This fortunately gave Knucker the time he needed to get a good look and realize it was just… a guy. A really intimidating, really tall guy—but just a regular guy nonetheless. There was something about him that looked sort of familiar, but Knucker couldn’t quite place it. He was maybe a couple years older than the two of them and was dressed in a worn-looking grey t-shirt and jeans and… Huh. No shoes.
What was he doing in the middle of the woods with no shoes?
He was also holding what was unmistakably Lexi’s phone. Which was still screaming “Thnks fr th Mmrs” at full blast. Knucker quickly swiped to end the call and the music halted.
Lexi mentally cursed Knucker for startling her and making them both look like total dumbasses. She moved to grab Knucker’s arm and pull him up from the ground, casting the stranger a wary look.
“Is this yours?” the newcomer’s voice growled. Holy fuuuudge was that voice deep. His eyes were fixed on Lexi as he gave the phone an impatient shake. “You’re trespassing. This is private property.”
“We were looking for my phone. Yeah, that’s mine.” She had to gesture with her chin because her hands were busy keeping a tight grip on Knucker. Not that she was scared. But if this guy turned out to be a ghost or something, she was gonna haul ass out of there with Knucker’s limp body if she had to.
“You were at the party last night.” It wasn’t a question. He stepped forward, shoving the phone at Lexi; when she didn’t move a muscle to take it, he slipped it into Knucker’s waiting hand instead.
“…You kids need to be careful,” he continued. “It’s not safe out here after dark.”
He glanced over his shoulder, lips pursing, and then back at the two of them. His arms folded over his chest.
“You’re the one who got attacked. Alexa Ryan.” Oh cool. Now random barefoot lunatics in the woods knew who she was.
“Wai—How do you know that?!” Knucker stammered, eyebrows knitting together.
“My sister told me,” snapped the stranger in reply. He eyed Knucker, clearly unimpressed. Lexi couldn’t entirely blame him. She figured his sister must obviously go to their school—but then again with the nature of her luck, the whole town was probably talking about her anyway.
“Go home,” the man cut Knucker off. Totally stone-faced. “Get some rest.”
What Lexi really wanted to say was screw you, we’re not kids! But, again, barefoot lunatic in the woods. Sassing a teacher got her detention. Mouthing off now to some serious-as-fuck weirdo in the middle of Devil’s Wood would probably end with the both of them being axe-murdered, and then the bearwolf that took a chunk out of her yesterday would be gnawing on their bodies.
“C’mon. Lets get out of here,” she hissed at Knucker. She was already backing away and tugging him along with her. It wasn’t until she almost steered them backwards over a log that she finally turned her back to the guy.
Well that wasn’t creepy at all, thought Knucker.
This guy gave him a serious case of the willies. For one thing, he wouldn’t stop staring. He just stood there, watching Lexi drag Knucker off, and Knucker could swear the two of them were eye-locking up until Lexi stumbled and finally turned away.
Which was also when Knucker blinked. And when he glanced back again, the dude had vanished.
“Holy cow,” he muttered, and fixed his eyes determinedly forward from that point on. The sooner they got out of the woods, the better… and Knucker didn’t want to know what might be behind him.