It was eleven thirty exactly, and I was going observationalist. Standing with my back against the cafeteria wall, waiting in line to get my lunch, the science geek within me couldn't help but take in the clusters of tables in the cafeteria like herds of animals. After all, the closest comparison of high school I could make was comparing it to a jungle, and if that was the case, then the cafeteria was like the watering hole. Everyone inevitably had to congregate there, and when they did, I took some sort of sick satisfaction in watching them.
I already knew who inhabited what tables. There were band geeks at the table closest to the wall, sitting together gossiping about drum majors and telling perverted jokes that somehow linked into musical instruments. There were the art kids, in the table furthest from me, near the corner of the cafeteria, their table littered with sketchbooks and charcoal, setting dates for shows and trading tips about oil pastels. There were the skaters, wrapped up in their toilet humour, and the freaks, who talked about things I didn't want to understand. There were the Stiletto Six, a group of six sophomores who were obsessed with designer clothes. There were the nerds, sitting underneath the widest window in the lunchroom, bent over textbooks, debating whether time travel was really plausible, finishing up physics homework and comparing SAT scores; I scanned the table, but what I was looking for wasn't there.
I was jerked out of my careful study of my peers by a slap to my arm, delivered by Michelle Bright, alpha female of the eleventh grade. She tossed her long, straight blonde hair over one shoulder as I blinked at her in confusion.
"You weren't listening, were you, Taylor?" she asked, narrowing her huge brown eyes in my direction. I shook my head, and she rolled them, before letting out an exasperated sigh. "Of course. Anyway, Danielle just said that Jodi Merriman got to third base with Adam Ross, and I said, yeah right, because I mean, honestly? So Danielle asks what my version of bases is, and she says mine are inaccurate, so tell us, Taylor, what are your bases?" I bit my lip for a moment, nervous that I would fall out of line with Michelle. Not that I was scared of her, but I hated watching her short fuse ignite in public.
"Well, I'd say, being the resident expert at hooking up, that first base would be kissing with tongue, second would be any form of boob fondling, third would be mouth to crotch, a homerun would be real sex, and a foul ball would be anal," I declared, allowing myself to grin at my own joke. Both Danielle and Michelle giggled at my explanation.
"Told you," Michelle announced triumphant, a smug smirk settling upon her lips. "Danielle tried to say that third base was a boob grab, but clearly, she was wrong."
"Can I just ask," I started, though of course I wasn't actually waiting for a reply before I finished my question, "how Adam could possibly touch Jodi's boobs, if she doesn't have any? I mean, she's flatter than a board!"
"Taylor," Danielle sighed, between her laughter.
"What?" I raised my eyebrows and grinned.
It was, after all, my sense of humour that catapulted me to the amount of popularity that Michelle and Danielle had. Without that, I was just another blonde girl on the cheerleading team. I had tried out for it my freshman year, after being pretty much forced to do so by my mom; she was worried if I didn't have an extracurricular, I would never make friends. Being the dutiful daughter that I am, I tried out, and I was surprised to find that I was actually pretty good at it, good enough to make the team, even. The other two girls who made the squad as freshmen were Michelle and Danielle, a blonde and a brunette who spoke in sync and dated twin brothers on the football team. They approached me with some hesitation, but when they discovered that I had no idea who they were or how the social hierarchy of our school worked, they took me under their wings, and soon enough, people knew who Taylor Brickley was.
"Taylor?" I blinked my way back into the heavy fluorescent lights of the cafeteria and out of my thoughts. Michelle rolled her eyes and smiled. "You are such a space cadet."
"Come back down to Earth," Danielle said. "Or you're not going to eat lunch."
"I'm here," I assured them, as the line for the salad bar began to inch up. "I just…I had a lot of homework to do last night, so I'm kind of tired." I offered up a weak smile, tucking a fallen wisp of hair behind my ear.
"That's what you get for taking a class like physics," Michelle replied, grinning. "What did you expect? You should have taken something like meteorology, or animal science, or something. Physics is definitely cutting into your social life."
"I know. I totally hate it," I lied. While physics homework was a bit of a pain, especially when I didn't get home from cheer practice until seven, I actually enjoyed it. As we approached the salad bar, I lingered behind the two of them, watching to see what they put on their trey before I filled my own. Michelle took a banana, a cup of pudding, and a bottle of water, while Danielle grabbed apple sauce, a few cubes of Jell-O, and a bottle of water. I put an apple, a roll, a fistful of packages of Saltine crackers, and a bottle of water on mine, before handing a dollar to the lunch clerk. Once I was finished, I fell in line behind the two of them, and we made our way over to our table in the lunchroom. As we did so, the sound of their heels against the cold, hard linoleum of the cafeteria floor, like the tune of a pied piper, drawing eyes from across the room.
I liked that feeling, the heat of the envy in their glances. So many girls, I had heard, through hushed whispers, wondered what I had done to get where I was; so many girls wished that they were in my shoes (not literally, of course; none of them would know what to do with a footwear wardrobe that consisted almost entirely of Converse), wanted desperately to sit at my table and talk to my friends and belong, and I liked that.
Settling down in my usual seat, to the right of Michelle, I glanced around the table. There were the three of us, of course, but others too: the twins Danielle and Michelle dated our freshmen year, though they had long since broken up, a few more football players, the shortstop from the baseball team, our class president. I ripped open the plastic packaging of my Saltines, popping one in my mouth, as Danielle started to ramble.
"Stupid Mrs. Knave, the chem professor, is so tough," she whined, tugging a strand of her straight brown hair. "We do a lab every freaking day! Like, really?"
"She looks like Skeletor," I pointed out, once the crumbs of Saltines had been swallowed. Danielle and the twin she dated both busted out laughing.
"Tay!" Danielle cried, covering her open mouth with one curved hand.
"She's got a point, though," her twin agreed. "I'm going to start calling her Skeletor."
"That's what we did in my chem class," I told him. "Everybody was in on it, too. It was great. When we had to give those science fiction presentations, I swear, like four different groups put pictures of Skeletor in their Power Points. It was hilarious!"
"That's just awful," Danielle said, despite the fact that her smirk showed her obvious amusement.
"I think it's hilarious," her twin argued, and I nodded.
"I agree," I concluded, crossing my arms over my chest. My gaze wandered, skimming the cafeteria, until I saw the table where Riley La Russa sat. There he was, one hand gripping a silver pen, the other hand tugging his hair, the way he always did when he was hard at work on something. He was bent over a notebook, occasionally scratching something down, before pausing for a few moments.
I looked away, staring down at my tray. The Saltines I'd gathered were gone, and the water bottle had been slightly emptied. I decided to tuck the apple in my book bag for later, and then tossed my roll down the table to the shortstop, before hopping up out of my seat.
"Where are you going, Taylor?" Michelle asked, raising her eyebrows. She lowered the water bottle from her lips and stared at me.
"I need some help with my physics homework. I'm going to go to the nerd table and make one of them finish it for me." She scrutinized me for a moment, raising her doe eyes to my tired blue ones, holding my gaze, before she finally dipped her head.
"Okay. Have fun with that. Try not to get sucked into the nth dimension."
"Bye, Michelle," I replied, as I slung my book bag over one shoulder and headed across the cafeteria. This time, as I weaved my way between tables, I didn't feel the envious glances of my peers upon me, although a few of them did smile at me as I walked past. Perhaps it was because my Converse didn't click and clatter against the floor…or because when I was alone, people could see straight through me.
As I approached Riley's table, my heartbeat started to accelerate in my chest. I shoved my hands in the pockets of my cable knit hooded sweater and swallowed, hard.
"The historical validity of the movie can be discounted, mainly due to the-" I cleared my throat, and Riley's rant against some new movie that was supposed to be based on a true story came to a premature close. "Hi Taylor," he greeted, and he lifted his calculus book up from the chair next to him so I could sit there. The first few times I came to sit with Riley at lunch time, the other people, his friends, who also sat at the table gave us some strange looks, but as my visits increased, their staring decreased, until they never even batted an eyelash when I joined them.
"Hi," I squeaked, pulling my book bag onto my lap. "How are you?"
"Slightly perturbed," he admitted, one hand still tugging his brown hair. "I'm trying to complete this essay for my Cornell summer studies application, and on top of that, I just found out another World War Two movie that's completely littered with falsities is being released this weekend." He broke off here and looked away, exhaling on a loud note, before he turned back to me. "How are you?" I shrugged.
"I'm alright," I replied. "I just, um, I needed some help with the physics assignment, if you don't mind."
"Not a problem." I opened my physics textbook and tossed it down onto the table, flipping through pages until I found the homework section our class had been assigned, along with the wrinkled shirt of paper that I had begun to answer the questions on the night before. After the first one, I'd decided to call it a night, but with physics next period, that decision was coming back to haunt me. Luckily, I was exploiting it.
"I, um…" I wasn't exactly confused by the work, but I needed an excuse to come talk to Riley. "The second question." I squinted my eyes and furrowed my eyebrows, so as to look confused, and he seemed to buy it. He placed one hand on the page of my book, before scooting closer to read it better. He leaned in, and we were so close that I could practically feel his heart beating through the light cotton of his button up shirt.
"Thermodynamics," he started, one of his half-moon fingernails tracing the black, inky words. "Well, the two laws of thermodynamics are…"
We had a substitute. After I spent nearly my entire lunch slaving over my homework, our physics professor decided she needed a mental health day, and we were left with a completely useless substitute who had no teaching abilities and no assignment to give us.
"Just try not to kill each other," the substitute announced, as he pulled out his copy of Naked Lunch and began to read.
"Lovely," I muttered under my breath, rolling my eyes. I dug through my purse until found my iPod, which I pulled out, along with my ear buds; I jammed them in my ears and clicked through my songs until I settled upon a Gustav Holst composition. Then, I laid my head down on my desk and closed my eyes, trying my hardest to become absorbed in the music and forget that I was still stuck in school.
After a few minutes, I felt something tug on my long, blonde ponytail. Listlessly, I lifted my head up, but I smiled in spite of myself when I saw it was Riley who had disturbed me. I tugged one of my ear buds out and sat up straight.
"What are you listening to?" he asked, putting down a book from his hand onto his desk.
"Jupiter from The Planets," I replied. If I was with my other friends, I, of course, would have lied, but with Riley, I didn't have to. He just got it.
"For shame," he said, shaking his head softly. "Mars is so much better."
"Lies!" I held up my index finger and wagged it in his face. "You're only saying that because you're a stupid boy."
"And I suppose you don't prefer Jupiter because you're a stupid girl?" he retorted, one eyebrow cocked.
"Jupiter is the centerpiece of the entire suite!" I protested, feeling my eyes go wide.
"Please," Riley scoffed, smirking. "Back that statement up.
"Easily. Jupiter is the centerpiece, and all the songs on each side of it are opposites, like mirror images of each other. Think about it," I told him, and he fell silent for a moment, contemplating this possibility. After a moment, though, he shook his head.
"I just don't know abo-"
"I have the entire suite on my iPod. We can listen to it right now," I insisted. "Beginning to end. And then we'll see who is right." I wiggled one ear bud across my desk, so it was within reaching distance of Riley, and he scooted over in his own chair, as did I, so we could both listen. With a few clicks, I set my iPod to play the entire Planets suite, in suite order, starting with his favourite, Mars.
We finished the suite less than five minutes before the dismissal bell was scheduled to ring, and after I gathered my ear buds back and turned my iPod back, slipping them both back into my purse, Riley sat silent, deep in contemplation.
"You had a valid argument," he finally declared. "While I understand the reasoning behind your position, I will not concede. Mars is clearly, without argument, still the best piece in the suite." I rolled my eyes, and I opened my mouth to protest, but the bell rang, interrupting my thoughts. "Bye, Taylor. Have a good weekend." He offered one of his hands up in a sort of wave, before gathering his textbooks into his arms.
"You too, Riley!" I waved back, tugging my book bag over my shoulders. He paused at the edge of the classroom door to smile at me, while I slipped my purse on, and the moment he stepped into the hallway, Bryn took his place.
"Come on, loser," she demanded, using one hand to brush her wavy bangs out of her face.
"I'm coming," I sighed, dragging my feet against the dirty tile floor of the physics lab, until I was at the doorway. "Why are you in such a hurry?"
"I'm not," she replied. "I just don't want to spend twenty minutes sitting in the parking lot while you talk to all your little friends. It's bad enough that I have to drive you around all the time, but-"
"It's not all the time," I argued, though I could hardly say that with a straight face. "And I don't want to talk to them most of the time, Bryn. I can't help it if everyone loves me."
"They don't have to live with you."She winked as we hurried down the hallway, and I kept my head hanging slow, trying to avoid running into anybody. While I was quite the social butterfly during school, I wasn't really into the weekend scene. I didn't judge my friends for the things they did, but that really wasn't my style. As a general rule, I kept my cell phone off and stayed invisible on my instant messaging and social networking pages, so my friends would think I was busy, instead of avoiding their raucous parties.
Once I managed to make it out to the parking lot without being stopped by anybody, I breathed a sigh of relief. Bryn's white Explorer, the same one she was driving two years ago, was parked just a row away from the door, so I didn't have to worry. Even though I was sixteen and licensed to drive, my mother just couldn't afford buying another car, even if it was a clunker, so the responsibility of driving me around was delegated to my sister and her ancient car.
I hopped in the passenger seat and flung my book bag in the backseat of her car, before pulling a pair of aviator sunglasses out of my purse and slipping them on. In the driver's seat, Bryn pulled on her Ray Ban knockoffs, then cranked up the car and backed out of her parking spot.
"By the way, don't think I didn't notice who you were talking to," Bryn said, grinning widely.
"Okay." I tried to sound dumb, but as I caught myself crossing my arms over my chest, I knew it was no use. "And?"
"Oh, nothing," Bryn crooned, in a singsong voice, shaking her head.
"Whatever. I'm so blessed to have such a freak for a big sister." I slipped my feet up onto the dashboard, only to be met with a smack a few seconds later. Well, it was worth a try. Pulling my feet down, I rolled down the window. The late September air was cool and crisp, filling my lungs as I inhaled deeply. The sun was on the downturn, already sliding from its position in the impossibly blue sky toward the horizon.
I stretched my arm out the open window, feeling the wind whip between my fingers. It was going to be a good weekend.
sorry it took so long for an update. this semester all my classes are AP classes, so i actually have homework. i know, its tragic, haha. on top of that, a few of my college apps are due monday so i've been scrambling to complete those. plus, i've been sick since wednesday, and then on top of it, fictionpress has been acting foolish and not letting me upload any documents. finally, i just decided to copy and paste what i wrote into word in an old document, so i could at least update.
i know this chapter is a little slow. i just kind of wanted to get to the current and explain how taylor got popular. haha. i apologize in advance if there are any typos or errors in formatting.
i was totally flattered by the outpouring of feedback i got from the prologue. i love reviews! they make me smile...even when i'm sick. especially when i'm sick.
and as always, thanks for reading :)