"Is there something funny you would like to share with us, Miss Chase?" Mr. Allen's sharp voice came across the room like a spear, ceasing my laughter immediately.

"No, sir. Nothing." Normally, I wouldn't have used that politeness, but it was a formality Mr. Allen had insisted on the first day. "You're in the twelfth grade now," he'd said, "It's time you learn how to address your superiors in a formal working environment."

"And you, Miss Montgomery?" Mr. Allen continued.

"No, sir," Lauren replied quickly, ducking her head and causing her long brunette waves to fall in front of her face.

Mr. Allen began walking toward the front of the class, and Lauren and I exchanged a look and then burst into a fit of silent laughter. I blamed the incident on Lauren; it had been her who had passed me the note in the first place and got us in trouble.

* * *

The bell rang, and Mr. Allen asked Lauren and I to stay a few minutes after class. I figured I deserved the chewing out we were going to get.

We approached Mr. Allen, seated at his desk.

"Don't look so nervous, ladies," he chuckled, "Though I do expect that will not happen again, that isn't what I wanted to talk to you about."

I relaxed.

"You see, Miss Montgomery has brought to my attention some concerns that she does not understand some of the material we've been covering. You're top of the class, Miss Chase. I was hoping you might be able to tutor her."

"Oh, uh." I knew that I was good at English, but I didn't realize I was that good. "Sure, I can help her."

"Excellent. Thank you. I will see you tomorrow."

* * *

"Do you want to come over tonight, then?" I asked Lauren while we were at our lockers, which, out of luck, were beside each other.

"Yeah, sure."

A set of arms suddenly twisted around me, making me jump and turn around. This put my face within an inch or two of Ethan's shoulders. He was six feet tall and still at least a head taller than me. He even had to bend down to kiss me. I hated being short.

"Oh, look, it's Romeo and Rosaline." The sneer came from behind me, and I turned, knowing who would be there. And of course, I was right.

"Hi, Julia!" I made my voice high and cheerful, but it had a false ring to it that was just as evident as the fact that Julia was not a natural blond. She had bleached it last week, and as far as I was concerned, next to her too-dark salon tan, it looked horrendous.

"Amara," she responded, still in that same I'm-better-than-you sneer.

Of course, I was looking up at Julia. I tried to make myself seem bigger. It would've really been nice if I were just a few inches taller. But for now, I was stuck dealing with this bitch and she was able to look down at me.

"What do you want, Julia?" Lauren cut in.

"I'll start with the fact that I want nothing to do with either of you." She appraised both of us with a disgusted expression that reminded me of a snarling dog. "And I wanted to let Ethan know I'll be coming tomorrow night," she continued, turning her head to look at Ethan, and I swear that she winked at him.

"Well, I'm done then. I think I'll leave, hopefully before anyone sees me with either of you." And she spun on her heel and walked away, shaking her butt as she went.

"Wow, she gets sluttier every day," Alyssa commented from behind us. She was the closest of all of us in height to me, and had the same straight hair, but while mine was brown, hers was blond.

Though Lauren and I agreed with Alyssa almost immediately, I noticed that Ethan remained silent.

Today was Lauren's turn to drive, so after dropping Alyssa off, she parked at the curb in front of my house and led the way inside and up to my room.

I dumped my messenger bag beside my desk and gently pulled my beaten copy of Othello off my shelf, so as not to damage it any more.

I spent the next few hours carefully explaining the events and words of Othello to Lauren, breaking only long enough for us to grab our dinner and bring it back upstairs. We didn't finish until twilight, when my mom stuck her head in the door saying that Lauren's dad had called wondering where she was.

"Thanks for your help, Amara." Lauren reminded me as she was heading out the door, "I really appreciate it."

"No problem. Oh, are you going to that party over at Ethan's tomorrow night?" I added in an afterthought.

"Wouldn't miss it." And she headed out to her car.

I packed my textbooks back up into my backpack, set Othello on my desk and sat down at my computer, intending to surf the web for a while, but then the familiar Thriller ringtone of Lauren's phone sounded from my bed.

I searched the covers and finally found it wedged between the pillow and the covers. I opened it, and checked it for her so that I could call her with the message. It was Alyssa.

Hey if I told u something, could u keep it from amara?

Seeing my name sparked something in me. Why would Alyssa, of all people, keep something from me? So I replied,

Sure

I think ethans cheating

My heart thudded to a halt for a second as I read and reread Alyssa's words. I felt like it was going to fall out of my chest. There was no support left. Ethan, faithful for over a year, may be cheating on me. Hell, this is bad.

Y

There was no way I could believe this was happening. I needed proof before I could force my brain to believe this.

He was at a party w julia. Brooke showed me this

Beneath the words was a picture of Ethan and Julia. I wanted to gag but I couldn't even do that. He was practically on top of her. And her hair was that ugly blond. That meant it couldn't have been more than a week ago.

I couldn't respond to Alyssa. I didn't know what to say.

Lauren's phone rang again.

Don't tell her, please?

And then: Laur? U there?

And again: I don't want to hurt her feelings

Still I couldn't answer. I felt like my heart had been ripped out of me and I was left to die. And then my own phone started ringing. I forced back tears as I fished it out and answered it.

"Amara?" Lauren asked, "Did I leave my cell at your place?"

It took a moment to compose myself enough to answer her, and I spoke slowly. "Yeah. It's here."

"Amara? What is it?" Lauren always knew when something was wrong.

"Ethan," I choked out after a long pause, "He's – he – he cheated on me." The words came out slowly and quietly.

"What?" she shrieked loudly in my ear. "That idiot! With who?"

It took a bit to find the composure to answer that one. "Julia."

"You're sure?"

"Positive. Alyssa texted you a picture."

I heard her suck in a breath. "Oh." She let out a long sigh. "You know what; try not to worry about it tonight. Argh. Who am I kidding, of course you will. But I'll help you kick her scrawny ass tomorrow. For now, I've got to go. I have a dumbass to call. Don't do anything I wouldn't do. Wait. Scratch that. Don't do anything stupid – we'll take care of it tomorrow, just get some sleep for now, ok?"

"Thanks," I muttered.

"Anytime." There was a click, and the line went dead.

I took Lauren's advice and went to bed. I was in a slightly better mood as I got ready, but only slightly. I could just envision what choice swear words Lauren was using right now. And knowing her mom, she would probably get yelled at until she gave a reason, at which point she would be allowed to continue ranting at Ethan. I couldn't help but laugh a bit at that.

***

I tossed and turned most of the night, unable to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I'd see the two of them. I couldn't get the image out of my head.

Soon it was morning, but not soon enough. On one end of the spectrum, I wanted to kill both of them. But at the same time I didn't want to face either of them. I hated Julia. Everyone knew that. I didn't like seeing her, even on a good day. But Ethan… Ethan I loved, and I was afraid of the pain that would come with seeing him.

Still pondering that thought, I got into my car and headed out to pick up Lauren and Alyssa. Alyssa was already at Lauren's before I got there; I handed Lauren her phone as she got into the passenger seat. It turned out to maybe not be the smartest move.

"Uh, Amara," Alyssa asked slowly, "why do you have Lauren's phone?"

I answered simply. "She left it at my house."

"But that means – fuck. I wasn't talking to Lauren last night, was I?"

Another simple answer. "No."

"Oh. So… what are you going to do?"

I shrugged. "Kill Julia," I suggested, "Then Ethan. And then I'm probably going to drag you two out somewhere."

"Sounds good, I guess." The conversation ended there, which was good, because I was on the verge of tears again.

We parked right in the front of the student parking lot across the street from the school, and sat on the hood of my car and waited.

After about ten minutes, Alyssa spotted Julia standing by the sign in front of the school. I leapt to the ground and slung my bag over my shoulder, already heading toward the road.

I got across in record time, despite having to dodge the cars that were scattered across the pavement as they dropped off students in front of exactly where I needed to go.

Julia was facing away from me when I got to her, which was an advantage; she wouldn't see me coming. One more stride, and, "Hey, Julia!" and she turned toward my voice. The side of her face collided with my moving fist.

"You. Fucking. Whore!" I slapped her, hard enough that it turned her head. I was pretty impressed; for my tiny frame, I had a lot of strength. "You are almost as dead as Ethan," I threatened, hit her again, and used my forearm to force her back against the sign.

"Amara, come on." A pair of hands seized my shoulders. "She's not worth it. Save it for Ethan."

"Bitch," I muttered, and reluctantly, I let Alyssa pull me away, leaving her with Lauren. I scoffed a laugh at Julia's shocked expression, one hand on the already-forming red marks in the shape of my hand on her cheek, and then turned away. Skank. Lauren would take care of her.

We walked right by my locker inside the door and headed straight for Ethan's. He wasn't there when we got there, which was unusual because he was always at school early. We asked a few people nearby if they had seen him. None had. He wasn't in the classroom either. We waited until class had started, and he still hadn't shown. Miserable coward.

Lauren and I returned to class without saying a word to each other Homeroom was the only class that she, Lauren and I all shared. I followed her inside, earning a much-deserved glare from Ms. Carter, but she allowed us to take our seats and continued as though we had never interrupted.

By the time that she had started talking again, we were being questioned by Lauren. "Well?" she was asking before I even had my bag open.

"He's not here," I answered at the same time that Alyssa said, "He ditched."

"Asshole," Lauren hissed, maybe a little too loud; Ms. Carter shot us another glare across the room and grabbed the ringing phone from the wall.

"Hello? ... Yes, they're here… Yes, absolutely… Ok… I'll send them right down." She hung up. "Amara, Lauren, Alyssa; office, now."

I hauled my unopened bag off the floor and rose, ignoring the "Ooh's" coming from the students around us, and I left the room with my head held high.

I tried to maintain my confidence through the walk. We didn't say anything, but walked in awkward silence until we reached the hellhole known as the office. "Office" was a term meaning administration. This was a courthouse, for punishment. They just called it the office to make us feel better. But it certainly didn't make me feel better at all. The office was still the same dark, dank institution for any kid who screwed up. Nothing good came out of here. Ever.

And now it was my turn. I wondered what instruments they would use to force me into telling them what they wanted. Would they chain me to the wall? Tie me to a chair and beat me like a squealing mobster? I shivered at the thought.

"Come on, 'Mara," Lauren said. Only then did I realize that I had stopped walking. My heart rose to my throat and my knees began to shake. Alyssa put her hand on my shoulder and guided me in. How could she be so at ease here?

Inside was well disguised. One hallway was lined with vinyl chairs where victims could await their sentences. What would have been a rather open space was split by a counter, and behind it were a bunch of desks for the secretaries. The teacher mailboxes were there too. It was bright with fluorescent lighting that just made the aura creepier. The only windows in the room were the ones behind the desks with their curtains drawn, and the one behind me in the door that was inlaid with wire. So horribly prison-like. It was too quiet, and too neat. The atmosphere was stifling.

A middle aged secretary with blond highlights looked up from her desk behind the counter. "You two can take a seat." She looked pointedly at Lauren and Alyssa. "Amara, go straight into Mrs. Walker. Last office down the hall."

I nodded solemnly. I was on my own now. Lauren and Alyssa sat in chairs at this end of the hallway and I continued methodically past them down my walk of doom to the torture chamber. Every window had the blinds down and closed. All of them but one, where through the small slits I could see Julia as I went by. Of course. Part of me noticed absently that the mark from my hand really stood out. That me patted itself on the back.

As for the me that was living in the current situation, I wasn't doing too good. The shaking in my knees got worse as I got closer, and now my racing heart was all I could hear.

After what seemed like hours, I reached the door with the nameplate reading, Karen Walters, Vice-Principal. I glanced back over my shoulder. Lauren saw me, smiled, nodded, and rested her right fist over her heart. Alyssa followed suite. It had been our gesture, so-to-speak, since elementary school, meaning strength.

I took a deep breath and mimicked them, and then used the same fist to knock hesitantly at the door.

"Come in, Amara," Mrs. Walters called.

I did. She gestured for me to sit down across from her. I lowered myself shakily into the chair.

"You know why you're here?"

I just nodded.

She clasped her hands on the desk. "Anything to say for yourself?"

I shrugged. "Not really."

"Ok, then," she sighed, "How about an explanation?"

"Like, why I hit her?"

She nodded.

"Because Brooke Donnelly caught her with my boyfriend." I guessed they would want to check that, so I gave her last name too.

She wrote down the name, and then studied me closely. I saw a glimpse of understanding in her warm brown eyes. "He was… unfaithful," she guessed.

I nodded and looked away. "Yeah, he was."

"Well… I'm sorry, Amara, but you did hit, her, and that counts as fighting."

"I know."

"And fighting on campus carries –,"

"A mandatory suspension," I finished, "How long?"

"Three days. Your mom will have to come get you." She picked up the phone receiver. "Will she be at work by now?"

I gave Mrs. Walters the number even though it was in my file right in front of her. She had a short conversation with my mom about me, and then told me I could go wait in the hallway.

Neither Alyssa nor Lauren were there, so I sat in an empty chair and waited.

Lauren was the first to rejoin me. She dropped into the empty seat beside me. "How long did you get?" she asked.

"Three days. You?"

"Five."

"Five?"

"Well, yeah. I wasn't about to let her off easy."

"What'd you do, beat her up?"

"You didn't see the black eye?" She snickered. "Nah, I only slapped her once, just to reinforce you. It was the threats that did me in."

"Oh." I heard a door open, and Alyssa came out to sit with us. She got a one-day suspension for "being involved". She didn't deserve it, she hadn't hurt anyone.

"Are we still going tonight?" I asked.

"Will jerk-face be there?" was Lauren's response.

"It's his party."

"Then we're going."

"I don't care if I have to jump out my window to get there," Alyssa added, "I'll be there."

"You know you guys didn't have to get into this."

Lauren answered again, "I wanted to. We stick together, always."

"And it was worth it," Alyssa agreed.

"And it's not over," I reminded them.

"That should be fun," Lauren scoffed, "Party, boys, and getting back at that jerk. Can't get any better."

"We'll meet there at 8?" Alyssa suggested.

"Make it 9. Fashionably late means that everyone will be there already. I want to humiliate him."

* * *

My mom hadn't been terrifically upset about the suspension, but she certainly wasn't happy. She followed me home with her car, and then spent almost an hour questioning me until she knew every little detail of what had happened. After that it was another hour of lecturing. The usual punishment.

Mostly she was concerned about what the universities would think. I wasn't as concerned. I had sent all of my applications out months ago, and I had gotten my first acceptance letter last week. I didn't know if it would even show up. It was my first offence anyways.

But that didn't change the instructions she then gave me. I had to finish my homework before I did anything. No TV, no internet unless I needed it for my homework, no going out when I would otherwise be at school, and I had to finish a long list of chores by the end of my suspension. Fair enough. I deserved it.

I left just before nine. I made a point of calling to my mom that I was leaving. She came out of the living room where she had been helping my little sister, Marie with her homework.

"Where to?" she asked.

"I'm going to go talk to Ethan," I said quietly.

She watched me, probably judging whether it was a good idea. "Ok," she finally decided, "Do you want me to wait up for you?"

"Could you?"

"Sure, hon." She hugged me. "Call me when you leave, okay?"

I nodded and opened the door. "Bye."

* * *

As we had planned, we were late. Very late. The music at Ethan's house was blasting out of the wide open windows, and there were people everywhere.

Brooke had tagged along with Alyssa, as was usual for the twins. I met them and Lauren at the door, and then the four of us split up. Brooke and I were left to search for Ethan while Alyssa and Lauren headed off somewhere else. They wouldn't tell us why.

"You see him?" I shouted over the music.

"Nope." Brooke shook her head, sending her hair flying around her.

My phone rang in my pocket. Lauren. "Yeah?" I answered.

"Anything?"

"Not yet. Where are you?"

"Living room. You?"

"Back room."

"Come back this way, Amara, I see him. Doorway to the kitchen."

I started walking.

He was there when I got to him, And there was someone else with him.

"Fuck. He's with Julia. I gotta go." I snapped the phone shut. My feet carried me forward automatically without any conscious effort. I was already focused.

Julia was dancing, if you could call it that. She was all over him. The music stopped when I grabbed her by the back collar of her shirt. "You want to get off my boyfriend, bitch?" I said, really loudly, and the yanked her back and sent her careening into Brooke, who caught her and held her by a hunk of her awful hair.

She stared at me, dumbstruck, just like everyone else in the room, who I noticed had gone silent and were watching.

Ethan glanced at her, then at me, and then back at her again, and motioned with his head for her to leave. Brooke looked at me, a silent transmission of whether I wanted her to let Julia go or not. I gave a tiny nod, and Brooke released her with a shove. Julia scrambled into the next room.

I ignored the waiting eyes and turned to Ethan. "What the hell?" He didn't answer, and refused to meet my eyes. I slapped him. "Start talking, asshole. Now."

"She was dancing with me, I swear it. I didn't want to."

"Bullshit." I opened my phone and showed him the photo. "Does this look familiar?"

He shook his head.

"Really? Well to me it looks like you cheating on me, with Julia!" By the end I was shouting.

"Look, Amara, honestly, it's not what you think."

"Oldest excuse in the book, Ethan."

"It didn't mean anything, Amara. I love you, I wouldn't –"

"You're lying," I said coldly.

"No. No, I wouldn't lie to you."

"Then explain what you're doing right now, Ethan." He looked down "I know you're lying, okay? Remember that I'm studying criminology, I can tell when you're lying – you won't look me in the eye. You keep looking away. You're defensive. Now tell me the goddamn truth."

He tried to say something, and faltered.

I scoffed a humourless laugh. "You're disgusting."

"Amara, I'm sorry."

"Save it. I don't want to hear it. Just leave me alone."

I turned and headed outside. I held my composure until the door was shut behind me, and then I finally broke down and started crying. I headed to my car.

"Amara!"

"What, Lauren?" I didn't stop.

"Ugh. Will you wait?" Her footsteps quickened.

"No. I'm going home."

"Amara –" She grabbed my wrist and turned me around just as I got to my car.

"I can't stay here, Laur. I just… I need some time, to think."

"'Kay," she murmured, "See you tomorrow? We'll go do something, the four of us. Movies, shopping, maybe."

I nodded. She gave me a hug and I got into my little blue Toyota. "Bye, Laur," I told her through the open window

"Night, 'Mara."

I pulled away from the curb and headed for the highway that headed toward my house.

"Call Mom," I told the hands-free system. She picked up on the first ring.

"I'm heading home," I told her, "I'm just at the highway."

Upon hearing me crying, she said softly, "It didn't go well, did it?"

"No," I moaned. I stopped at the intersection at the highway. I checked for traffic, twice because of the sharp curve in the road to my left. Nothing. Not even headlight beams. "And what's worse is it went exactly as I expected." I pulled out into the road to make my left turn, completely unaware that there was someone just around the corner, completely wasted, and speeding silently and invisibly toward me.

I had no idea until their car hit my door with a deafening thud, screeching tires and the crunching sound of metal crushing metal. Both of the windows on my side shattered, my car alarm blared loudly, and I screamed. I heard all of it together.

I didn't see everything in slow motion like some people do, but instead, it seemed like it all happened at once and my brain only registered a few frames.

I saw the empty road, and then the car was there, the driver's eyes wide with shock. The airbag exploded in my face, and I went flying with the car. It rolled, once, twice, two and a half times before finally landing on the roof down the road. And then everything was still. That's when everything started to go in slow motion.

My entire body ached. There were cuts everywhere from broken glass, and I could feel blood trickling down the back of my neck. The seatbelt was digging into my shoulder. I unbuckled it and tried unsuccessfully to lower myself carefully to the roof of the car. Instead I fell.

My head spun. I tried to drag myself out through the broken window, but only made it far enough that when I collapsed, my upper body was resting on the pavement.

First everything went blurry, and then dark spots began to block my vision here and there, and I knew I was dying. It was all I could think about. No one would be there when I took my last breath. I was dying, and I was completely alone.

Funny how now I was realizing just how much everyone meant to me. My mom, my dad, Marie, Lauren, Alyssa, Brooke, even Ethan's name drifted through my thoughts. I'd never see any of them again, never say "I'm sorry", or "I love you".

A weak attempt at speech came out as a mangled sob. All that remained now of my vision were a few dark, hulking shapes. I used up the last of my strength to hold on and listen to the approaching sirens. Bur by the time I could see the flashing lights through the clouds in my sight, I was slipping fast.

I finally succumbed involuntarily to the closing darkness as voices started to call out around me.