Two steps from the door, my feet froze to the sidewalk and refused to move. There was no way I was ready to go back into that school and face the people I'd had the strangest tantrum in front of. I'd just ridiculed them and made a fool of myself in that cafeteria and, if they hadn't already thought I was a freak, they'd definitely think I was a freak now.
Not even Eric's cautious coaxing was helping lull me into going back in.
"I can't do it," I told him after several moments of listening to him tell me everything would be fine. "My feet won't move."
He smiled encouragingly. "That's because you're afraid, and that's okay, Zoey. But there's really nothing to worry about. Besides, if anyone thinks you're a freak, they're not worth your time anyway. It's better that you got away from all of them, don't you think?"
I shrugged and looked away, out at the football field, the acres of snow-covered school property. "I don't know what I was thinking. I just yelled all that stupid shit at them, and Liza's probably going to go around, spreading rumors about how unstable I am. I bet half of them think I spent winter break in therapy."
"Well, we both know you didn't, and, as long as you know, what the hell difference does everyone else make?" Eric was not going to let me cop out of going back in, and I wished he would. While a part of me was pleased that he was so concerned for me, I couldn't help but wish that he hadn't come out after me because I would've been able to escape from school after that scene inside.
"Eric, come on." I was perilously close to crying again and didn't have the energy to argue with him anymore. I just wanted to crawl into a hole somewhere and never come back out.
He shook his head emphatically and glared at me. "What you did in there was quite possibly the bravest thing I've seen anyone do, and, if you don't go back in there, they'll think they've won. All that bravery will just go to waste. Is that what you want, Zoey? You want them to think you're a coward?"
"Damn it! Why can't you just leave me alone?" I glared right back at him before shrugging out of his coat and shoving it back in his hands. "You're such a stubborn ass! I can't believe I want to be friends with you again."
There was the slightest hint of a smile on his face—which I ignored—as I pushed open the doors of the school and stomped back in. I was not a coward; Eric was right about that. If I had been a coward, I would've never stood up to Liza and her minions. I also wouldn't have a metaphorical target painted on my back.
I had just started off down the back hallway towards the class I had after lunch when I heard my name being called. Eric was still by my side, and we both turned to see who was shouting for me.
Tyler rushed down the hallway towards us, and, the instant I saw him, I felt the craziest urge to just grab onto him. When he skidded to a halt in front of us, I did just that. I pressed my face against his shoulder and proceeded to burst into tears again. I hadn't meant to do that, but that semblance of bravery I'd put on for Eric had crumbled again when I'd seen Tyler. I could feel his worry and his discomfort, but he just wrapped his arms around me and patted my back soothingly.
"It's okay, Zoey. Whatever happened, it doesn't matter," he murmured, trying to help out.
I have to admit, it wasn't so much his words that helped as it was the fact that he was there, and he was actually worried about me. Sniffling a little, I leaned back and looked into his concerned face. "Aren't you supposed to be in class?"
"Yeah, but who cares? Leo sent me a text and let me know what was up, so I thought I'd come and find you, but" he glanced over my head at Eric "I guess Eric found you. Where'd you go?"
"The football field," Eric answered for me. "She's going to be fine. Right, Zoey? You're not going to give a damn what anyone says to you because they don't matter. They are not the important people."
I nodded and tried to tell myself that I could do exactly what he said. "I don't know," came out of my mouth instead. "I know you're right. Both of you. I know everything I said in that cafeteria is going to be used against me, and I also know that I shouldn't let what people say bother me. I know that up here." I tapped my temple. "But in my heart, I'm not sure I'll be able to handle it."
Tyler tightened his grip on me. "Then we'll be right here to help you out."
Appreciating him enormously, I squeezed his hand and caught the oddest expression on Eric's face for an instant. The next second, his face was smooth again, so maybe I'd imagined it. "Thanks, you guys. Seriously. I didn't really mean to freak out in there, but seeing that look on Liza's face made me want to…well…yeah."
Obviously, I didn't have to say anything else because the two boys knew exactly what I meant, and their faces took on expressions of disgust. "Liza's a two-faced bitch," Tyler stated simply.
"I second that," Eric muttered and shot me a look. "Guess you made the wrong choice in sixth grade, huh?"
"I'll say." Maybe if I'd picked my friendship with Eric over my desire to be popular, maybe we would've been dating right now. I guess I'll never know that for sure.
The sound of footsteps echoed down the hall, and the three of us turned to find Mr. Harper heading towards us. He frowned at the sight of us huddled in the hall. "Zoey? Eric?" He glanced at Tyler. "It's Tyler, right?" Tyler nodded. "Where are the three of you supposed to be? Do you have hall passes?"
Tyler held his up. "I was just on my way to the bathroom," he lied. "Then I ran into Zoey and Eric, but it was only for a minute."
Mr. Harper barely glanced at the pass before looking at me. "Is everything okay, Zoey? You look upset." I guess my eyes were probably still bloodshot, which meant my face probably looked really streaky with all the tears, too.
I sighed a little. "I'll be okay, thanks. Um, Eric and I were on our way back to lunch."
"Really?" He glanced down the hallway. "Because the cafeteria is that way." He jerked a thumb in the opposite direction from where we were going and lifted a brow. "Are you sure you're okay? I might be a teacher, but I'm not clueless." He paused and narrowed his eyes at us. "I was in that cafeteria when you gave your little speech, Zoey."
Oh. Oops. "Um, okay." I wasn't sure what I should or could say. I hadn't really broken the rules by saying that stuff to Liza and everyone else, but, then again, it hadn't been the best choice I'd made either.
"Don't worry," Mr. Harper replied. "You're not in trouble. In fact, I'm actually rather proud of you for doing something like that. It takes guts to say something like that to your peers." His eyes skimmed over my face again. "You sure you want to go back in there?"
Eric spoke up before I could. "I was going to walk her to her next class, Harper. Is that okay? I don't think it's such a good idea for her to go back there."
Tyler nodded, too. "I can go with them. You know, moral support and all that," he added when Mr. Harper's brows lifted.
"Well, Zoey. It looks like you have quite the bodyguards here." Mr. Harper smiled at me, and I felt slightly better. "You always surrounded by the boys like this?" he asked with a grin.
Tyler and Eric both snickered, but I rolled my eyes. "I can't help it if I'm so popular with your kind," I replied and realized that joking like this was making me feel better. I could practically feel a smile teasing my lips.
"Right, well. I think it's best if the three of you get going. Tyler, I think one of you is moral support enough for Zoey. It'd probably be better if you got back to your class." Mr. Harper checked his watch. "The period is going to end soon, anyway. So go on. Get where you're going."
I rubbed at the streaks of mascara I knew were on my cheeks and managed a smile. "Thanks, Mr. H. I'll see you in class tomorrow?"
"Absolutely. And, Zoey?"
"Just remember that you did the right thing. Giving in to peer pressure is rarely healthy."
I nodded and couldn't help but think how odd it was to have such a conversation with a teacher. I don't think I'd ever realized how wise they could be. "Thanks."
Mr. Harper walked away, whistling lightly, and left Tyler, Eric, and I slightly amazed. Then, Eric cleared his throat. "Um, so I guess we'd better get going."
"Yeah." I turned to Tyler and squeezed his hand. "Thanks for the support."
"Anytime, Zoey. Seriously." He held up his hand to his ear, miming making a phone call. "Call me later, okay?"
I nodded and managed a smile for him. "Yeah, okay. Later."
Eric and I walked in silence to my fifth period class. I wasn't really in the mood to talk, and I figured that he sensed that. One of the best things about Eric was that he was intuitive. Like that day in my bedroom. I glanced over at him and felt my stomach dip again when I saw his bruised eye. Clearly, in the midst of everything that had happened in the past forty minutes, I'd forgotten all about Eric's dilemma, and I felt guilty. My silly woes were nothing compared to his.
"Hey, Eric? Can I ask you something?" I knew it wasn't the best time to ask him, but I couldn't help it. I had to know.
He looked up and over at me. "What is it?"
"Um, it's about…Well, it's about-" I broke off, struggling to find the right words to address such a delicate matter. And then the bell rang, and the halls were flooded with people. My opportunity to talk to him was lost, and I shook my head. "Never mind. I'll ask you later."
"Okay," he replied easily. "But, hey, listen. I was thinking, if you want, you're more than welcome to sit with Gwen, Dan, and me at our table from now on if you want."
I blinked, surprised at his offer, though I shouldn't have been. Eric was the sweetest guy ever, and it just figured that he would offer me a spot at his table. "Thanks, Eric, but I think I should steer clear of people at lunch. I wouldn't want anyone to start chucking things at your table because they're pissed off at me, you know?"
"Oh, come on, Zoey. You don't really think it'll be that bad, do you?"
I shrugged. "Who knows? The kids here aren't exactly model citizens."
"If I do decide I want to sit with someone, you'll be the first table I come to," I interrupted in an attempt to placate him. "How's that?"
Eric frowned a little, looked really hot doing it, and then sighed. "Okay, fine. I just don't want you to feel worse because you have nowhere to go during lunch or something."
We stopped outside of my next class, and I leaned up and kissed his cheek impulsively. Surprise flitted over his face, and I smiled. "That's really, really nice of you, Eric. Like I said, you're the first person I'll ask if I need somewhere to sit. Now, I really think you need to get to your class, too, okay?"
"Yeah, okay." He tugged on my hair playfully before stepping away. "Good luck, Zoey."
I nodded, acknowledging his well wishes before I stepped into a classroom full of avid eyes. Returning the curious stares I received, I settled into my desk.
It was going to be a long afternoon, and I was definitely going to need that luck.
It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Everyone in my class had been in the cafeteria during my freak-out, but no one said anything. Sure, there was a lot of staring in my direction, but no one asked me about it or made comments on it. I started to think that maybe I'd overreacted to what had happened and was jumping to crazy conclusions about what might not actually happen.
I walked into physics feeling much better about everything, and, when I saw Eric, I felt even better, despite the fact that he was talking to Gwen. She seemed very enthusiastic about something, and I wandered over to them.
"Hey, you guys. What's going on?"
Eric smiled and shrugged in response, but Gwen stopped talking and eyed me strangely. "Nothing. I'm just trying to have a conversation with Eric here about FBLA. You're not in it, so you probably wouldn't be very interested in listening."
I was surprised by her snappy answer, and, so, apparently, was Eric. He hissed out a frustrated breath. "Gwen. What the hell?"
"What?" She blinked innocently. "I'm serious. Come on, Eric. Zoey wouldn't have a clue what we're talking about."
Eric glanced over at me. "Well, maybe she would be interested if we told her about it." He turned to me and, ignoring Gwen's protests, said, "Hey, Zoey. Do you want to come to the FBLA meeting we have after school tomorrow? We're talking about opening up your own business and what that involves."
"Well, I-" I glanced over at Gwen's furious expression and, knowing it made me a bad person, thought it would be fun to get under skin some more. "Okay, sure. Why not? I've always wondered how people own their own stores and stuff."
Gwen made a sound of frustration before stalking back to her desk. Eric watched her go and shook his head slightly before smiling at me. "Great. I'll get you the meeting place tomorrow."
The bell rang then, so I went and took my seat. We were working on finishing up our trebuchet projects, and the treb that Gwen and I had built was, while on the shabby side, not too bad.
"Well, it probably won't win any prizes," I said as we worked on sanding the rough edges and screwing it together, "but it's not so bad. Right?"
Gwen barely looked over at me. "Yeah, whatever. Maybe if someone had been more focused on the project than her social issues, we'd do better."
I blinked, shocked. "Excuse me? Who the hell are you that you get to say something like that? You have no idea what I've been doing."
Straightening, she set the screwdriver down with a snap of metal on wood before turning her angry face towards me. "Jeez, Zoey. The entire school knows what's been going on in your life! If you're not banging and dumping Jonathan, you're off hooking up with his best friend and ruining their friendship. And then, you pull that stupid poor-me crap in the cafeteria today, and the worst part of it is that people actually fell for it." Her eyes flicked away to settle on Eric for a moment before meeting mine again. "You shouldn't be allowed to manipulate the genuinely nice people out there, Zoey. It's just not right."
When she grew silent again, I just gaped at her, in shock at what she'd actually just said to me. I couldn't believe it. Who knew that the sweet little Gwen actually had that bottled up in her? "So I guess you're siding with everyone else," I said quietly. "And that's fine. That's perfectly fine, but maybe we could just have a truce until we finish this project. We might not get that prize, but I still want that A. Okay?"
She didn't say anything, just shrugged and, picking up the screwdriver again, got back to work. We barely spoke during the rest of the period, except for when it was absolutely necessary. When class ended, I watched Eric catch up with her and, sliding his arm around her shoulder, talk to her. At first, her expression was still annoyed, but, by the time I lost track of them, I'd seen the sunny smile light up her face.
Well, I thought, at least someone was happy. I, on the other hand, probably had a ways to go until then.
I didn't get the chance to talk to Eric at all the rest of the day. I was dying to find out whether or not my theories about his home life were true, but, since I couldn't find him, I was left to mull everything over in my head, by myself. Which meant, of course, that I obsessed over the possibilities. Because that's what I do. I obsess.
As I passed the McAllister house on my way home from school, I slowed my car down to peer at it closely. Everything looked normal, and it didn't look like the kind of house in which parents abused their children. But, then again, appearances can be very deceiving, and who knew that better than me, right?
Eric's car was, surprisingly, parked in the driveway, and, even as I told myself not to interfere, I found myself pulling in behind his car and getting out. It took only a few moments for the door to open when I rang the bell, and Eric frowned at me, surprise clearly imprinted on his features.
"Zoey? What are you doing here?" His brows drew together, and, the way he studied me, I felt sort of like a specimen on a slide.
I pasted on my best "I'm so friendly" smile. "Oh, you know, I was just on my way home, and I wanted to stop and thank you again for helping me out today. What a rollercoaster, right?"
Eric stepped out on the porch and closed the door neatly behind him. I stifled my disappointment at not being able to see the inside and focused on him. "You can say that again," he replied easily. "And, really, there's no need to thank me. It's what friends do, right?"
"Sure it is, but still. Anyway." I pretended to shiver a little and rubbed my gloved hands together. "Wow, it's pretty cold out here, isn't it? Think it'll snow again anytime soon?"
He shrugged. "Who knows? This is central New York after all. Anything is possible." But he didn't invite me in the way I was hoping he would. Instead, "Listen, I'm glad you stopped by, but I really have to get ready for work. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
"Uh, yeah, okay. Tomorrow." I smiled cheerily as I backed off the porch. "Tell your parents I said hi."
His features wrinkled again for an instant before smoothing out. "Sure. Bye, Zoey."
And then I was left, staring at his closed front door. What a brush off.
Of course, if there is one thing that I can proudly admit to being, it's my tendency to be ridiculously obsessive and persistent about the object of my obsession. Eric wasn't off the hook yet. Not in any way, and definitely not by a long shot.
Anyone who says that being a social pariah is easy because no one bothers you…they are dead wrong.
Things were going okay the next day. At least, they mostly were until lunch. Sure, there were some people who avoided meeting my eyes or whispered behind their hands to each other when I walked by. Jonathan's stupid football friends pointed and laughed at me in front of my face because, as we all know, they have no tact. I ignored all those people because I was feeling pretty good about standing up to all of them and, what I self-righteously believed, calling them out on their crappy social behavior.
Then, I got to lunch.
No, I didn't have signs taped to my back saying, "Kick me" or anything, but it wasn't as easy to get through as the first half of the day had been.
As I'd told Eric I would, I sat at one of the two empty tables in the cafeteria and got out my things. I acted as casual and normal as possible.
Or I tried to until a spitball landed next to my tray.
Okay, a spitball. That wasn't so bad, I told myself and kept right on eating. I ignored the second one, too, and the third one after that.
Then, there was the loud laughter. Ever so nonchalantly, I turned my head to glance over at my old table and Jonathan's table next to it and found that the occupants of both tables were making faces at me and cracking themselves up. Of course, they'd done that all day so far, so I didn't have much trouble ignoring that.
I did, however, have trouble ignoring Liza and Jonathan.
I swear, if the two of them were any closer, they would've gotten in trouble for shoving their tongues down each other's throats like they couldn't get enough. It was enough to completely destroy my appetite, and I shoved away my barely touched food, feeling nauseated.
Try as I might, my eyes kept traveling back to where Liza and Jonathan were practically giving everyone else lessons on how to make out. She was straddling his lap, her hands in his hair, while his hands were as close to her butt as possible without calling one of the lunch monitors' attentions.
When they finally broke apart, Liza slid off his lap and fluffed her hair, pecking his lips once more. Even as her lips were on his, Jonathan's eyes met mine over her head. The smirk on his face pissed me off and hurt worse than I'd expected it would.
What was this? I wondered. I was over Jonathan and had been for months, so why was I feeling hurt when I saw him with Liza?
Before I could indulge in a little more obsessive soul-searching—as usual—Liza turned her head and shot me a sinister little smile when she saw she had my attention.
Usually, she doesn't even prick at my skin, but, this time, seeing that smile sent shivers down my back. Liza was obviously planning something, and, for the first time since I'd met her, I found myself worried about what that something might be.
Luckily, the bell rang, ending lunch, and I grabbed my things and bolted. The sick feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach followed me.
AN: So I'm really sorry it's taken me so long to give you all another update. This really isn't like me to take so long to write, but I've had a crazy past couple months, and the summer is looking to be even more hectic still. Thus, updates on any of my stories will sadly be much slower. Hopefully, though, you won't have to wait more than a month or so. Hopefully.
Anyway, let me know what you think of this latest chapter as I'm still not quite sure I like it or not. Thanks to all of you who keep reviewing and keep waiting for me to update. I love you all!