The Times They Are A Changing

-:-:-

'C'mon Birdy, it's tradition'. Maxine tugged on the sleeve of my school shirt, her big blue eyes set on plead-mode. I raised both eyebrows.

'Nuh-uh! I ain't going in no voodoo shop, Max, that's a whole world of crazy I'm not interested in.'

My sister scoffed. 'It's hoodoo, Birdy. Madame Satanique's Hoodoo Shoppe?'

'There is so much wrong with that sentence,' I muttered.

The shop –or shoppe, yeah right- we were stood outside of was nothing less than a convention to tourist traps all over the globe. It's French doors were painted blood red, thrown open on a window full of the usual tiki-crap clutter – Catholic icon paintings, trussed up Barbie dolls, figurines of saints wrapped in fairy lights… It was the sort of store locals ignored in favor of the up-market art gallery on one side and the brand new Starbucks franchise on the other. A handwritten sign was propped in one corner of the window, advertising half-price piercings for the month of September –"Yes we sterilize!"

'Jeez,' I hissed through my teeth, 'What a dive.'

Max rolled her eyes. 'It's cheaper than Rev. Zombie's ok, and besides, Natasha got her mojo hand from here and she swears it's legit. She passed her driver's test on Friday and her dad bought her a Lexus.'

'A real mojo hand would have scored her a Porsche don't you think?'

Max didn't even flinch at my smart-ass joke, just whipped out a small handheld mirror to check her makeup and said, 'Listen loser, I'm gonna go in and get the candle and if you know what's good for you you'll come in and get your lip done.'

I startled. 'My lip? What's wrong with my- Wait! What do you mean if I know what's good for me?'

My sister snapped her mirror shut, dropping it in her bag. I watched her push the satiny curtain of her long brown hair from one shoulder to the other, making a show of the many bracelets decorating her arm. Funnily enough when we'd waved goodbye to mom that morning she hadn't been wearing any jewelery that I'd noticed and her hair had been tied up. She gave a long sigh as if she was waiting for the penny to drop and then when it became obvious that it hadn't and wasn't going to…

'Oh all right, since you asked. Let me ask you this: do you want your senior year to be exactly the same as last year?'

I shrugged. 'Sure.' Last year had been fine. Good grades, good friends… I'd moved up in AP Physics, taken Sarah to the formal…

Max gave me a look like I was the blandest person in New Orleans and slowly began to shake her head. 'Ferdinand, this is your last year. Your last! You don't want to maybe…you know….shake things up a bit?'

I gave her a blank look. 'You know, Max, I am actually comfortable in my own skin. I don't need new friends or whatever you're implying.'

She looked unimpressed. 'So you're happy to just keep playing dad's game, huh? Bringing home your As and A plusses, hanging around at the specials table with Sofie and Duncan-'

'Hey! Sofie and Duncan aren't the specials okay? I don't even subscribe to that kind of crap. And what, now you're not "Mile Wide Maxxie" anymore you're all pro-clique?'

My sister let out an insulted squawk at the hated nickname, her arms instinctively crossing over her midsection. It was a pretty low blow and I immediately wanted to take it back.

'Look…look we've only got ten minutes before school starts. Can we just get the candle and go?'

Max gave me a hard look and then seemed to shake free of whatever hurt place I'd put her in. You had to hand it to the women in my family they weren't the sort to ever shed tears.

'Whatever,' she said, and with a twirl of her too-short skirt she disappeared through the beaded doorway of Madam Satanique's.

Through the window display, in the dim red theatrical lighting of the store, I could see her talking animatedly to the scary-looking girl behind the counter.

Max never used to be confident. In fact, that was probably why she had been asking me to come with her into the store in the first place. The looks she used to get for being her weight… She'd spent all last year on a bender, in screaming matches with mom over what she would and wouldn't eat for dinner. I remember the day when all those tiny events –too frequent trips to the bathroom, the permanent smell of breath mints, the piles of clothes bought four sizes too small – started to static together. I'd been heading for the bathrooms and seen Max with a group of friends, laughing and upending her packed lunch into a trashcan. Her eyes had flashed up and caught mine, features still twisted in disgust, like mom's lovingly made sandwiches were something shameful. I'd gotten home late that day, intending to confront her but she'd been waiting in my room, unapologetic, smirking, the magazine I kept under the mattress held loosely in one hand…

A car sped by on the street, disturbing my reminiscence, metal blasting from all four open windows. From the dark cabin a hand flicked out and an acid green cigarette butt landed at my feet, still smoking. I gritted my teeth in annoyance and stubbed it out with my shoe and when I looked back up Max was back, smiling smugly with purple bag in hand.

'Pussy,' she said shoving her purchase into my stomach so that I was forced to grab it before it could drop.

'Oof. What the hell? Why is it so heavy?' I asked.

Max shot a smirk back at me, having already taken off down the sidewalk. 'Mom wanted one of the pillar candles. They come in a glass, Birdy.'

I scowled. 'And why am I carrying it?'

Max's smile was blinding. 'Because I don't have a big enough bag,' she said, waving her tiny handbag for effect.

I just shook my head thinking of the many, heavy textbooks waiting for me in my locker and how it would be to carry them without my faithful old backpack.

Max stopped outside the school gates, excitement visible on her face. Two girls walked past and she waved to them, bouncing on her heels before she turned to me.

'How do I look?'

I sighed. 'You've always looked great to me, Max.'

Her mouth set in a little frown.

'What?' I asked.

She gave me a vaguely sympathetic look. 'Don't you ever want to… change, Birdy? You don't have to be the perfect student this year you know.'

I gave a laugh, half trying to reassure myself that what she was implying didn't sting. 'Now more than ever…college…' I made a vague hand gesture. Max had her lacrosse scholarship; all I had was my GPA and a promise from our parents…

Her frown deepened. 'I'm not…I'm just saying…' she let out a shaky breath as though steeling herself to say the words. 'I'm just saying that you could be happy.'

I snorted. 'The bell's going to ring. I've got to find Sarah. I'll see you after school okay?'

Max just stared at me.

'Maxxie?'

That shocked her out of whatever words she'd been mulling over to unsettle me more. 'Don't call me that,' she snapped. 'It's Max and you shouldn't wear your glasses everywhere. You look like a nerd and you don't even need them all the time.'

Before I could reply she had spun around and disappeared into the growing throng of students.

I dragged a hand through my hair and then readjusted my glasses out of habit, all of a sudden tired and the new school year hadn't even officially started. I looked up the long, poplar-lined path to the historic main building. The grass on either side was littered with small groups of people; old friends excited to see each other, trading stories from summer break. There were kids smoking just outside the gates, their backpacks abandoned underneath trees, kids sprawled out on the hoods of their cars, bragging. There were of course, the freshmen kids, clustered in groups for support, already consulting their timetables with ferocious concentration, or just looking around, lost and stranded. A group of girls just inside the gate were chatting loudly and adjusting each other's uniforms. There was a knack to it – folding the waistband of the pleated skirt until it was inches shorter, and then pinning it. One girl, looking up, caught my eye and smiled, her lips clamped around no less than five hairpins. I quickly looked away.

St Clementine's, Senior Year, here I come, I thought just as the 5-minute warning bell sounded. Well shit. I was caught up in the rush of people eager to get to class, all the separate groups traveling across the grass to converge on the path as if magnetized. Carried along in the crowd I found myself bumping shoulders with Duncan Snyder, my best friend since elementary school. Duncan appeared to have grown another foot, making him possibly the lankiest guy in the whole school, which was saying something seeing as I was quite tall myself. He was wearing the same thick, Spiderman-patterned glasses. We'd both saved up our pocket money to buy them for him back in middle school.

'Hey man,' he beamed at me, clapping a hand on the back of my neck. 'Guess what I did all summer.'

I smiled back, glad to see that Duncan had at least had some fun over the holidays, as was to be assumed from his horrendous sunburn. 'You met Jessica Biel and she wanted you to rub sunscreen on her back on board her private yacht?'

Duncan chuckled. 'Nah man, s'so much better than that,' he said, gesticulating wildly as was his habit. 'I met Derrick DuPont down there –you know, Derrick DuPont?' He made his hand into a little bong shape with the thumb sticking out. I nodded for him to continue as we filed into the main hall. 'All right, well I ran into him on the beach while my parents were on this, like, tour thing in Port Royal.'

We turned down the senior's wing. It was almost exactly the same as the junior's wing had been last year except the lockers were painted blue not green and the motivational posters were different, but no less insipid.

'Anyway,' my friend continued, 'So he's walking up the beach looking for a light and he was like so stoned man. Anyway, I told him how my parents were on the opposite end of the island and he's like, "well how long are they gone, 'cos I have some rancid shit I need to smoke up" and like, maybe he can do it at mine, ya know?'"

'What did you say?' I asked. My stomach had begun to clench around my breakfast in excitement. I wondered if I was feeling jealous. Jealous that Duncan might have smoked some weed, and yet it hadn't even crossed my mind to feel anything when he'd ended up taking Sofie Yves home after the formal, and really, what kind of person isn't jealous of their best friend getting laid before them? Not that that was for sure… The formal had been after exams and I had only seen Sofie once or twice over the break, Duncan having been in Jamaica the whole time. And Duncan hadn't outright said anything about her…

Duncan cocked his eyebrow. Duncan's specialty was his facial expressions. Whenever we got into a fight he could get out of it with a well-timed eyebrow waggle.

'I was like, "yeah man, that's cool",' he said as we rounded the corner to C-Block were we both had form. Mr Brandt was standing outside and barking reprimands at anyone who dawdled. He had one of those demeanours where even in repose he was terrifying. It seemed to be having this effect on a gaggle of younger kids as they'd fallen silent. 'So,' Duncan continued, his voice lowering conspiratorially with an eye on the infamous Literature teacher. 'So we go back to the cabin and he's like, "do you have anything to eat" and I'm like, well yeah 'cos mom bought me like five bags of chips right, and then he just breaks out this huge joint and starts smoking it right in the living room! Man it was so hardcore!'

I pushed the classroom door open and threw my backpack onto the first available desk. The class was already half-full with familiar faces and some semi-recognizable bodies that had shifted form. Kate Burton and Megg Matthews were already hassling one of the new kids -a tall, foreign-looking guy with dark olive skin. They looked up at Duncan and me as we entered and then dismissed us with a glance. I sighed and slumped down into my chair. Duncan grabbed the seat next to mine, as always.

'So,' I said, turning to him, 'You, uh, you smoked some?' What was it like? Did it feel good? Did you see things?

Duncan laughed out loud, looking taken-aback. 'No way man. It stank!' he said, wrinkling his nose to demonstrate his distaste. And that was that.

'Oh,' I said. I fiddled with the zipper on my bag wondering if it was worth it to take my exercise books out already. As I went to stuff the purple bag from Madam Satanique's something hard and plastic fell out the top. I frowned and picked up the small package, flipping it over. It was just a piece of backing paper with a jointed silver hoop on it. A lip ring, I realized with mild trepidation. Max… The gesture wasn't lost on me but it would take more than a cliché act of teenage rebellion to turn me into some sort of school rebel, I thought dryly.

Duncan nudged me, already dropping the threads of his story, 'Hey, check who swiped her V-plates over the summer,' he whispered.

I looked up just in time to see Gemma Theters walk through the door, her perfect hair hanging in waves down to her waist. As much as I didn't want to give credit to Duncan for his appraisal of her, he was right. She had a sort of sway to her that said she'd done it. Had sex. It wasn't hard to figure out with whom, seeing as she walked arm in arm with Sasha Marin –St Clementine's very own, golden haired, double-dimpled demigod. Weirdly enough, a memory from just months ago flashed before me -of Gemma walking fast, her tear streaked face turned down, and Kate and her clique following behind like wolves. 'Spots. Go home and wash your face, Spots.' Hmm, I thought as Kate, Megg and Gemma blew kisses to each other, seems like everyone changed this summer.

Except you, a dark part of me added. I scowled, thinking of my sister and what she'd said to me outside the gates. Gemma's laugh broke my train of thought and I looked up to see her punch Sasha Marin playfully in the arm. He rubbed at the spot as if she'd bruised him, face mock-hurt. Despite what I'd said to Max earlier, I envied him the obvious comfort he found in his own skin. People like Sasha Marin didn't know insecurity, or invisibility. People like him didn't feel anxiety when lining up to be picked for the baseball team, or when told to find a partner in lab; because you're never really amongst strangers if everyone knows your name…

'Psst.' Duncan nudged my arm again, leaning close. 'She's looking at us man!'

She was. Holy crap, I thought, she is! Gemma Theters wasn't looking at Duncan though, I could tell that much. She was looking at me, and when she realized I was staring back at her the corners of her mouth tilted up in a smirk.

Before I could figure out what that smirk meant, however, Mr Brandt strode into the classroom, whiteboard marker already uncapped. Duncan let out a small moan when he realized that we had Brandt for homeroom, which also meant we had him for PE.

'Nice to see you too, Mr Snyder, I can tell by your sunburn that you spent all day inside brushing up on your studies. I seem to recall you were given special permission to not be held back this year.'

Duncan sunk down in his chair, the parts of his face not horrifically burnt already, turning pink.

'Books out. Margin down one side. Take your seats, this isn't free period,' he said, voice as clipped as I remembered. 'Hat off, you in the back.' There was a squeak of chairs as everyone turned to see what poor soul had got himself on Mr Brandt's shit list before first bell. I didn't bother, too busy lost in thought as Gemma moved past me in a cloud of soft-scented perfume, and took the seat directly behind mine. I know Duncan felt nervous too because his posture changed dramatically.

As I looked down to start ruling up my paper my glasses slipped down my nose. I pushed them back up in frustration. Max was right. I only needed the glasses to read which was why I always sat at the front of the class, because too much distance between me and the whiteboard and the glasses actually interfered with my normal long vision.

'Todd, you hand out the timetables,' Mr Brandt was saying, 'I don't want any talking, you have a question, you put your hand up. Anytime today Todd.' The second Mr Brandt had his back turned to write something upon the board, Todd made a rude gesture known quite well to anyone who knew what a blowjob was. Kate and Megg giggled. I felt my face heat up at the obscene things Todd was implying about Mr Brandt. But also because I wondered if that's what happened, if cheeks really did that when you…

'Alright now for those of you I haven't taught before, my name is Mr Brandt I will also be your English literature teacher if you take the noble subject. I see a few new faces so let's get the introductions out of the way and then we can run over my in-class rules. Ahh, Gareth, Ashton, Sarah, Megg,..' He started at the window-side crossing off each name on his clipboard. It turned out there were six new students, two of them just form transfers. Three were part of an exchange program with a school in Zurich, and the olive-skinned newcomer Kate and Megg had been flirting with was from Italy. I grimaced a little when he called out Souleymane's name –Souleymane being my first and only experience with bullying back in my sophomore year.

I didn't really understand why everyone thought Mr Brandt was so terrifying. I'd been in the AP Literature class he taught and he'd never been anything but kind to me. Mind you, I was hardly the sort of student who drew negative attention. I had near perfect attendance (except for the week I caught the flu) and always completed the assigned work even if I wasn't the smartest kid in class –that honor went to Georgia Cane or maybe Pete Nguyen. But still, I'd never found anything about Mr Brandt scary so much as it was intimidating. He had a widow's peak and hair that stood up as if he was always running his hands through it in frustration.

A giggle snapped me out of my thoughts. I jerked my head up to see the object of my puzzling looking at me expectantly. Next to me, Duncan sniggered.

'S-sorry Mr Brandt-' Someone in the back immediately mimicked my stutter in a high-pitched voice. 'I, ah…what was the question?'

Mr Brandt looked unimpressed. 'Your name?'

I felt my stomach sink. But I had you last year! I wanted to shout. More giggling. Kate and Megg could barely contain themselves. It was only a look from Mr Brandt that silenced them.

'Uh, Ferdinand Bellevue,' I said miserably. 'I, uh, I took AP Literature…'

Mr Brandt's eyes widened a little but he seemed to realize his error and quickly moved on to the rulebook. I stared unseeingly at my timetable hoping that I wasn't turning red. It certainly felt like all the blood had drained away from my vitals. Max's word racketed around in my head. 'Do you want your senior year to be exactly the same…Don't you want to shake things up a bit…you could be happy…'

So what? So one teacher forgot my name. So Gemma Theters didn't throw herself into my arms. Just because everyone else around you is changing doesn't mean you have to change too. Keep your head down and make it into college and you can do all that experimenting there… God, even in my head I sounded like my dad.

'Hey,' came a soft voice from behind me. A quick check assured me that Mr Brandt was occupied with writing his contact details on the board so I twisted around in my seat. Gemma was leaning forward over her desk and I noticed that she'd undone to stiff collar of her school blouse and stuck a small heart-shaped pin on her school tie. On the shiny pink enamel was a gold "S". Huh.

She smiled at me.

'Hey,' I said. A quick glance to my left –Duncan's eyes were about bulging out of his head with shock. 'Uh, where y'at?' I asked.

She smiled even bigger. 'All good. Where you at?'

'I'm, uh, good.' Brilliant. Fantastic. Ecstatic. Confused…

'Um, so can I borrow a pen?' She bit her lip in an expression I realized was supposed to be coy but her laughing eyes sort of canceled it out. 'I didn't bring any of my stuff today so…'

'Oh, of course,' I said, possibly nodding too much. I grabbed a fresh biro out of my pencil case. I'd gone out with mom the week before and gotten new pens, new leads for my mechanical pencil but my pencil case was the same one I'd had since I was 13. Sofie, Duncan and me had decorated it together over the years, our names in biro and whiteout. Sofie had put little hearts around her name. In one corner Duncan had drawn a caricature of Mrs Delmar our 8th grade history teacher. I passed her the new pen, cap still sealed tightly.

'Thanks,' she said, her eyes twinkling. 'I'll give it back to you after class?'

'S-sure,' I said, managing a weak grin. There came a soft guffawing noise and I glanced over at Sasha Marin. He had his head down and pencil in hand but one hand was pressed over his mouth and chin and it was obvious he was laughing at our exchange.

Gemma shot him a wicked look and then grinned back at me and that was that.

Unnerved I turned back around. Duncan was staring at me like I'd grown an extra head, his mouth slightly open. It felt good, the rush of being acknowledged by the hottest girl in school. And the hottest boy I suppose even if the acknowledgment hadn't really been of the desirable kind. Or maybe it was that little jab of happiness at being envied, at surprising someone.

-:-:-

At lunch, I was fiddling with the lip ring still in its packet.

'You're not going to do…anything with that thing, right Birdy?' Duncan asked. I let out a huff of air and dropped the packet on the table next to my lunch. Duncan was the one who put me on to taking a packed lunch to school –the cafeteria food being so awful. Mom had made sure to pack an apple in with my ham and cheese sandwich, and a granola bar. I looked over to the table the popular kids had already staked out as their own. The guys were already flinging their gravy and fries at each other and the girls were pretending to be upset about it, not quite succeeding in containing their grins. Gemma was sitting on Sasha Marin's lap and toying with his hair…

'No,' I murmured, refocussing on putting the sharp end of my plastic straw through the foil part of my juice box.

Duncan breathed an audible sigh of relief. 'Good. You don't want to look like one of those stoner kids. Did you hear? Lola Macky is already in trouble. She came to school in like, this black dress with her eyebrows shaved off.'

'You forgot her nose piercing,' my other best friend Sofie said as she settled into the seat across from me. Duncan struggled not to look uncomfortable, eyes downcast on his own sandwich. Ah, so maybe they did have sex then…

I smiled at Sofie. She at least hadn't changed over the summer, her hair still meticulously pulled back off her face with barrettes in the school colors –green and white. Like Duncan, her tie was clean-pressed and straight. She drew a plastic lunch box out of her bag and I was struck with a sense of déjà vu –of her pulling that lunch box out every single day, always sitting where we were sat. Always with her lips peeled back in a grimace to reveal her neat, uncolored braces.

'Urk, mom packed my tomatoes in with my salad and it's gone soggy,' she said, picking up a plastic fork.

'She always does that,' I said. Always. 'What about Lola Macky?'

'Oh,' Sofie said, affecting a scandalized expression. 'She's in my form, she showed up late and Mr Bolton made her go to the front office to take her nose piercing out.'

'Does it… what does it look like?'

'Hideous,' Duncan cut in. 'I heard it's huge.'

Sofie rolled her eyes. 'It's not that big. It is horrible though. Just like a cow,' she said, showing me with her fingers pinched around the base of her septum. 'Just think of how pointless it would be to get something like that. I mean, she knew it was going to get her a detention.'

'Maybe she just liked the look of it,' I said to shocked silence.

'Birdy's got a lip ring,' Duncan said to Sofie after a moment, swiping the packet off the table to show her. They both eyeballed me.

'What? I'm not going to do anything with it. My sister just slipped it in while we we're buying mom's candle this morning.'

'Oh,' Sofie said and then laughed. 'You guys still do that too? My mom made me light one yesterday for luck.'

'What's this?'

'Oh, you don't need to worry about it, Duncan,' Sofie said, 'It's just a tradition amongst some of the older, more superior French families.' I chuckled at Duncan's outrage.

'Don't fret over it, Dunc. It's just a bunch of superstitious crap that our moms make us do for each new school year. You buy a white candle from a voodoo doctor and you get good grades.' I made sure to roll my eyes on "voodoo doctor" and both my friends scoffed.

'Here, have this back,' Duncan said, chucking me the lip ring. I scowled at him as the packet hit me in the forehead and bounced onto the floor –my hands being occupied with my lunch. Sofie giggled. Ignoring the headache that the day was starting to give me, I bent down to pick it up and was stopped dead by the sight of their hands clasped together underneath the table. I jerked back up so fast that my head hit the table, sending my glasses clattering along the cafeteria tiles. Someone, maybe a jock, laughed.

'Way to go special.'

Face flaming, I crammed by uneaten lunch back into my bag.

'Birdy? Where you goin'?' Duncan asked. I looked at the well-measured distance between them and thought of their hands held so tight just beneath the table.

'I just remembered I have to pick up my sport uniform from the front office. I'll catch you guys later.'

I stumbled out of the cafeteria and into the main hall, heartbeat pounding in my temples. So is this where they lie to you, I thought viciously, pretend to be busy when you phone so that they can lie on Duncan's bed and make out? Are they going to share a room and go to college together? You didn't care that he might have slept with her but now they might be leaving you and you're what- relieved? Alone? Angry?

I was so lost in thought that I didn't see the kid in his black hoody until we crashed into each other, my shoulder bumping hard off of his.

'Watch it!' I hissed. I wanted to tell him to take that stupid jacket off and stop wandering around school grounds with his hood up. It was against regulation. I was sick of all the people walking around like crooked ties and untucked shirts made them outside the system. Made them something special. The only part of his face that the light revealed was a swath of chin and lip, and gleaming on said lip was an array of silver rings. 'God, what is with today?' I huffed, not waiting for his protest or his apology, just storming out through the main doors and throwing my bag down to sit against the fence.

In the few hours in which I'd been inside the sky had become overcast, the temperamental Fall weather threatening a downpour. The sky was veritably thrumming with electricity, clouds dusky and purple forming on the horizon even thought the school was currently bathed in warm sunshine.

The fence around the school was your average chain link, warped in places and dotted around its perimeter with oak trees. I crouched against it and tried to get my head right. So my two only friends had made me into a third wheel? Was it really so bad? I had been totally oblivious to Sofie's gentle nudging the night of the formal. I'd had a headache and asked Duncan to drive her home. When she'd promised to leave early with me instead –'We can just hang out and watch movies'- I'd insisted she stay and dance –'There's no need to ruin a good night. Duncan will drive you home'- and now…

'Hey.'

I looked up to see Nora Collins gazing down at me. Since elementary school, Nora had been Lola Macky's best friend. Her smaller, less beautiful, less outrageous, friend. Still, I thought she was pretty. Her caramel colored hair was cut shorter than most boys' and she always wore colored stockings under her school skirt, which probably got her in trouble. It was strange, however, for Nora to be talking to anyone let alone me, as she mostly trailed along in Lola's wake, and we'd only ever talked to each other out of necessity, in class or out on the baseball field.

'Hey,' I said intelligently.

Nora smoothed the back of her skirt as she sat down next to me, back against the fence. 'So your friends huh?'

'Yeah,' I said, not bothering to ask how she knew about Sofie and Duncan. It was quite possible that everyone but me had seen it coming, such an obvious thing as that. I picked at a blade of grass.

Nora gave me a sympathetic look. 'Yeah, I've been there all right. Lola and her boyfriend are pretty steady now. Most days we don't even hang out, except during school…' She trailed off. Each of her fingernails was painted a different color. Pink, orange, cyan, yellow, white.

'That's...not it. Really. It's just that, everyone came back from the summer…'

'Changed?' Nora said knowingly and I nodded.

We sat and talked for the rest of the lunch break. Well, Nora talked mostly, about Lola, about Lola's theories, Lola's family… I'd only ever known Lola as the beauty queen type-girl from middle school who'd gradually turned Goth. Everyone remembered the day her mother stormed into the school demanding that the administrators force Lola to take the black dye out her hair.

Nora talked so much about Lola I started to get the uneasy feeling. Like, how Nora lit up talking about her best friend, and yet when I held a picture of Sofie and Duncan in my head…I didn't feel overwhelming joy. I didn't feel like, these are the people who know me. Who care about me...Because how much could they know, really, when I never shared the real me with them? I thought of my pencil case with our names stencilled and flaking…

Nora was talking about Lola's boyfriend when a loud cracking noise startled us. On the other side of the fence a bunch of kids were crowded around someone's car. The cracking noise had been a bottle, shards of glass decorating a streak of alcohol sprayed across the parking lot like a comet. Thrown then. Assholes, I thought. The crowd laughed riotously, falling in on themselves. Weirdly enough I recognized Sasha Marin –who certainly belonged at the jock table and not with the car park outcasts- talking to someone with a frown on his perfect features, and standing uncomfortably to the side, Gemma Theters.

Nora glared at the group. 'Why do they have to be so noisy all the time?'

I made a noise of assent before turning to look again. Even if they were all stoners or losers or whatever Duncan called them, they were fascinating to look at. The girls of the group all had crazy hair –red, lime green, black and white-streaked. There was a boy with a shaved head, dressed all in leather, who looked a bit too old to be a student, his arms clad in vivid color tattoos.

I was about to turn away when I saw him. The boy who'd obviously thrown the bottle if the cocky sureness of his posture was anything to go by. He was sprawled lazily on the hood of the car, black hoody pushed back off his head so that I could see a shock of white hair as feather soft and mad as candy-floss. Sasha Marin said something, his face serious, and this mysterious boy, he threw his head back and laughed and the girls tittered around him. Then he was sliding off the car and with a start I realized he was of a height with Sasha, maybe even taller, the school pants hanging low on his narrow hips. He moved as sinuously as a cat and threw an arm around Sasha's shoulders and the other boy bowed his head shyly, features finally breaking into a reluctant grin.

Then, as if pulled by a string, his head jerked up -lip piercings flashing in the sun- and locked eyes with mine.

I swallowed thickly but couldn't tear my eyes away. A dark-skinned girl slid in beside him and followed his gaze to me. Pretty soon, all of them were quietly watching Nora and me.

'Who are they?' I asked, voice slightly croaky. Who is he? And why is he looking at me? I'm a nobody…Just a guy who knocked into him in the hall. Oh god, what if I pissed him off? Every fibre of my body was telling me this boy was dangerous.

Nora rolled her eyes. 'They're just kids who go here. The one with the shaved head, that's Christophe, Lola's boyfriend.'

'You!- You know them?'

Nora looked shy all of a sudden. 'Yeah, we've hung out before. They're cool I suppose.'

'Just cool?'

Nora looked downright uncomfortable now. 'They're a little…wild. You don't want to get, you know, caught up in that.'

In what? I wanted to ask but it was pretty obvious really.

He was smiling at me now and I don't know how I could tell but he had amber eyes, gold and red and honey eyes under dark brows, cruelly arched. He was fingering some sort of necklace he had on, black-painted nail circling the amulet rhythmically so that it caught the sun and glinted as gold as his eyes. I could see every detail of that necklace, every curlicue and symbol right down to the tiny, fake emeralds set in the grinning skull's eyes…

'Don't give him what he wants.'

'Huh,' I snapped out of the trance. Nora's voice was low and serious. She held my eyes with hers.

'Don't play his games. It'll only end badly. That's how it ended for Theodore.' She was standing up.

I shot to my feet. 'Wait, what? Theodore who? What went badly for Theodore?'

Nora seemed to consider me for a moment, her eyes shifting from me to the group still eerily silent at my back. She shook her head and then smiled. 'Not everyone needs to change, Ferdinand. You're a good person. You don't want to get mixed up with Valmont and his acolytes.' She practically hissed "acolytes".

The school bell rang for third period and there was swell of noise and movement from the main building.

'You look nice without your glasses,' she said finally and walked away. Startled, I reached up to my face and found that I had indeed forgotten my glasses in the cafeteria.

Behind me their came a low chanting in a husky, unfamiliar voice, soon joined by the cajoling tones of the others.

'Birdy. Aren't you gonna come and say hi Baby Birdy?'

'Bir-deeeeee'

'.'

I felt my face flush red with humiliation but refused to turn around them and give them the pleasure of seeing me spooked. Heart in my throat, I grabbed my bag off the grass and headed for the main building. Behind me the group howled with laughter.

I felt his eyes on me all the way down the hall, and even when the doors had closed behind me and Sofie and Duncan were clamouring at my side, asking where I'd disappeared to, I still felt their heat.

A/N: Reviews make updates happen :)