Chapter 1 – Spring Break, Finally Free, and Torture Pictures

There are two types of girls in the world. The first is the kind that looks horrible when they cry. Their face scrunches up, their nose gets all red, their eyes get swollen and puffy, and their face shows every path of every tear in jagged lines all the way down to their chin. The second is the kind that look so beautiful when they cry, tears dripping silently down their cheeks, softly staring into space, looking so pitiful and so stunning at the same time. You can't even tell if they're sad or immensely happy.

I'm the first kind.

I guess it started the day we got out for Spring Break. No, I wasn't crying. That's not where this story starts. The halls of my school, Pierce Academy, were full to the brim with students, students milling about aimlessly, students making remarks that no one listened to, students just waiting to be free, if only for a week.

And then there was me.

Don't get me wrong. I'm as normal as the next person. Except for my flaming red hair, and the way my eyes glaze over when I think too hard, and my unfortunate habit of being just plain abnormal, of course. But anyway, at first glance, I'm normal enough. I certainly don't just love being in school, though people try to argue that. No, I'd much rather hang out with my friends than be stuck in a theology class listening to Vincent Murrell argue out the specifics of predestination with our new theology teacher. But I wished that over Spring Break I could be at school and just socialize instead of go to class, or do what I was going to do over Spring Break – nothing. Absolutely nothing.

As I tuned out Vincent's endless stream of arguments (which didn't themselves impress me; it was the way he made them actually sound plausible that made me smile sometimes), one of my closest friends, Victoria Boutin, leaned over to me and whispered, "I'm tired of living in filth."

My first thought was, Oh, so she's talking to me again. Victoria sometimes went off on crazy tangents, citing fabricated reasons for ignoring me for a morning. I had grown used to it. It was daily routine. If I got the cold shoulder when I greeted her in the morning, I knew that I just wouldn't talk to her until she talked to me. But now she was, so I decided to listen in. My second thought was, Filth? She obviously hadn't seen my house (of which she constantly reminded me). My house is so cluttered it looks like something exploded. Sometimes I can barely tell we have floors.

"I am giving new meaning to the term 'spring cleaning,' all right? Don't call me this week, I'm going to be dusting and reorganizing."

I tried to master the impulse to roll my eyes, as I often did with Victoria. She was the one person who kept me on my toes, "making high school memorable," as she put it. I knew this too would pass, as had the collection of Juicy Fruit wrappers and the making of posters to put on the lockers of everyone she knew. The one thing that hadn't passed was her determination to be separated legally from her mother, who we both knew had gone off the deep end permanently and had even been trying to sell all of Victoria's belongings. It was after her parents' divorce that Victoria started seeing a psychiatrist. She even kept her on speed dial, number two.

"My house has to be presentable for the Finally-Free party, remember?" she persisted, tossing her ponytail of long, straight dirt-colored hair back over her shoulder with her long nails. The Finally-Free party was another tangent that she could not give up on. It consisted of a large gathering once the courts ruled she no longer had to associate herself with her mother. She often claimed it would include pin-the-tail-on-the-mother and bobbing for deadbeat-parent-heads (the heads being made entirely of apples and nothing else, as she had to assure some people).

"I remember," I answered, twisting an already curly lock of flame around my finger.

"It's going to be soon. My new lawyer is doing great. You know, what's the point of paying a lawyer if they're not helping? You're coming, right?"

"Just tell me when."

"I will, don't worry. Everyone's invited, even Lizzie and Kira!"

I tried to hide my grimace. Lizzie McCormick and Kiralyssa Taber were two of my very best friends (a group that included Victoria herself), and Victoria couldn't stand them. It pained me to hear that Lizzie was too immature and Kira was too annoying to deal with, or even be thought about. And it wasn't very smart of Victoria to nearly mention her hate for them both when Kira was sitting a row over from her. Fortunately, she was half-asleep.

"What'd you say?" she asked, her head popping up and her wisps of cinnamon smoke that had evaded her morning scrunchie flying up and then settling back down.

"Nothing," Victoria said dismissively. "Anyway, Gracie, I was telling you—"

The bell rang and everyone popped out of his or her seat, eager to get away from Vincent. He looked crestfallen that he hadn't gotten to finish his argument. I knew I'd hear more of it in algebra, because he'd assume that I had been hanging on his every word. I waved goodbye to Victoria and Kira and my friend Brigitte (who had been absorbed in one of her signature trashy romance novels the entire period) and slipped out the door toward the algebra room.

No sooner had I dumped my backpack off my shoulders than Vincent entered with the air of one who had been cheated out of winning a battle. "But don't you think it's true that we all are destined to make the choice that we are going to make?" he said, as if we had begun this conversation before.

"Not now, Vincent," I said wearily. "Don't you ever stop?"

"Now…why would I do that?" He cocked his head to one side, his glasses slipping awkwardly.

"Because sometimes you just run out of energy. Sometimes you just want to sit and relax instead of talk. Sometimes you want to end something you started!"

He stared quizzically. "I do?"

I sighed and shook my head. "Forget it. I guess you don't."

He stared a bit longer at me, so I stared back at him, wishing he'd just be quiet like he was now, but during theology, when an argument came up. His messy brown hair (what was it with brunettes? They were everywhere!) reminded me of his messy handwriting, impossible to decode. Then, abruptly, he reached into his backpack and extracted pictures of him and his girlfriend, Lily, kissing. He always looked at them at the beginning of third period, as if theology somehow drove her out of his mind. I smiled. It was nice to see one of my best guy friends so happy with a girl, especially how it had been for nearly a year now. It just made me ache inside, a kind of ache that wanted to get out of me and made me want to just hug the nearest guy.

Which I'm going to have to do soon. And more, I thought, but then I brushed that thought aside. I was not going to start dwelling on the play again. It drove me so loony that sometimes I wanted to hit Victoria's speed dial number two and get her psychiatrist.

Fast forward to lunch, where everyone could barely eat for the approaching excitement of Spring Break. Victoria had to ask everyone at our table what they were doing for Spring Break, and everyone very heartily started to chatter on about their plans. I listened.

"You first," Victoria said, pointing to Emma Whitten, a small, mousy girl with mousy brown hair and a huge smile.

"I'm going to Florida, and we get to go to that big amusement park there, you know…what's the name…"

"You next," said Victoria while Emma struggled with the name. She gestured to Janet Madrigal, a best friend of Lizzie's and mine since fourth grade. Janet giggled and smiled hugely.

"I'm going to Oliver's house. I'm helping him housesit," she smiled. Oliver Gunn was her boyfriend, and had been for at least a year. I didn't know him that well, but I knew Lizzie did: She was in his anatomy class. I knew Janet's ideal Spring Break involved her and Oliver together, alone. I knew, of course, she wouldn't do anything wrong, but just being there with him made her the happiest person in the whole world.

"Next," said Victoria to Rose Bucci, our resident raven-haired beauty. She just smiled and shrugged.

"Probably Paris or Milan. Or London. We haven't been to London in a while either."

"And next," said Victoria to Lizzie. She too had Emma's chocolate hair and wide grin, but she was much shorter and she had an immeasurable amount of cheerfulness, something that Victoria sometimes couldn't understand.

"We're going to the spring house in New Mexico, and my aunt and cousins are coming down from New York."

"And you?"

Max Lundy, the only guy at our table, grinned. He was so personable around his friends, but in front of crowds, he wouldn't smile for the world. Right now he flashed his biggest grin. "I don't know, my uncle said he'd take me and my brother camping. Of course, with him, roughing it doesn't actually mean roughing it."

"And you?" she asked me, though I had told her the first dozen times she had asked.

"Nowhere. I'm watching my little sister every single day this week. Hope you guys have fun."

Everyone gave me that fake sympathetic look. You know, the kind where they feel like they have to feel sorry for you, so they look at you, and then things get awkward. It's like they dig a hole for you to fall into. The only way to pull yourself back up is to strike the balance between indifference and cheerfulness.

"Who wants a bite of my dad's cookies?" I asked. This brought everybody around. I could almost see the jealous wheels turning in Victoria's head: Grace gets to stay home and eat her dad's cookies all day. Though she hadn't volunteered her Spring Break plans during this lunch period, she had already told us five times that she was spending Spring Break in Miami, with her dad. And her psychiatrist was on speed dial number two, and her lawyer on number five.

The day passed eventually, seeming agonizingly long, like when a clown just won't stop pulling rainbow-colored tie-dye ribbons out of your ear. I survived until the afternoon announcements: "All the competitors in the state academic, art, speech, and music meets please meet in the auditorium for photos after the last bell. It should only take a few minutes. Have a wonderful Spring Break."

I blanched. I had to start off Spring Break with pictures? With a bunch of people I didn't know? The state meet was only three weeks away, and already I was agonizing over it. I was in—what could be stupider? —spelling. There were no other sophomores going, only juniors and seniors. One of them was Mark Griffiths, whom I didn't know well enough to wring his neck but I was often tempted. He was the reason that the whole play experience was so nerve-wracking for me.

I had to—(ick, ugh, gag, cough, gag again, gag some more, hurl, blech)—kiss him.

I had joked about it last year with my friends, during auditions for The Importance of Being Earnest. I had actually said, "Wouldn't it be sad and pathetic if my first kiss was onstage? Can you imagine?" My friends, especially Lizzie and Janet, had laughed and agreed, saying that would be pretty pathetic. And now it was true. I had to imagine it. I had to practice it soon, probably. I wondered if the drama teacher and director, Miss Malek, would make us rehearse it in front of everybody. I desperately hoped not. I didn't want to have to do it—with him—more than was absolutely necessary.

Anyway, I hunted Max down and told him he was going with me to pictures (he was going to state for band; unfortunately, the band meet was separate from the academic meet) and together we headed down to the auditorium. He got sidetracked a couple of times, and twice we started right back where we had begun when he got caught up talking to some of his band friends who weren't headed to state or the auditorium. As I was tugging on his sleeve, like a little girl who wants her daddy to buy her a lollipop, Mark passed with Shawn Lundquist, another of the seniors in the play. "Hey, Grace," he said.

I raised an eyebrow. What the heck did Mark want to talk to me for? "Yeah?"

"Where're the pictures?"

Oh. I should have known that was all it was. "Auditorium."

"Thanks."

I stared after him a minute, contemplating something that I really didn't even know what it was. It was kind of like reading a different language, I guess, and not really understanding, but getting the gist. Has something to do with connotations. Anyway, I shook it off and grabbed Max's arm to haul him down there so Spring Break could officially begin before I turned eighty-four.

Nothing interesting happened in the pictures, except that Mark's younger brother, Chad, ran up behind the teacher who was photographing (Mrs. Rico-Matney, ugh) and started making weird faces, while everyone pointed and laughed. I stifled a giggle, knowing that Chad was just as odd as Mark and that I really shouldn't be encouraging it, but at the same time knowing it was funny. "What's so funny, gang?" Mrs. Rico-Matney asked, her cheerful grin mixed up with a confused look. She turned to see if anyone was behind her, and Chad dodged sideways so she wouldn't catch a glimpse of him. She turned the other way, and he jumped to the other side. She shrugged and positioned the camera once more, and Mark imitated her, cocking his head to one side and staring into an imaginary camera, looking completely lost. A few people cracked another smile.

"Okay, on three, gang!" Matney (as many people had dubbed the insane freshman history teacher) shouted. "One—two—THREE!"

Everyone gave a half-hearted smile. The camera clicked. A whoop went off, but Matney cut it off quickly. "One more, gang!"

"Mrs. Rico-Matney!" Naomi Mathison, another of my play co-stars (actually, it was more like I was her co-star) called out exasperatedly. "It's Spring Break! Can we please leave?"

"Just one more, Naomi!" Matney called cheerfully. "Ready? One—two—THREE!"

Chad, who had conspicuously disappeared, came running right in front of the group, jumping into the air sideways and blocking out half the people in the shot. Matney dropped the camera before his airborne form hit the ground. "Chad!" she cried indignantly, as everyone cheered and hurried for the exit. "Gang, get back here!" Matney called after all of us as we charged away. Then she sighed and decided to console herself by chasing after Chad, whose wiry form had disappeared behind the auditorium curtains. In my head, I had labeled him the "drama rat," and so I knew that once he got onto the stage, she would never find him today.

"Grace, are you coming?" Max asked.

I snapped back to reality, realizing that I had been watching the chase unfold with unwavering attention. "I'm coming," I told Max. "Happy Spring Break!"

"Happy Spring Break," he agreed with his flashing grin, and together we headed outside into the sunshine and into one week of freedom. Boring, monotonous freedom.