She couldn't have helped but attract attention, no matter what she might have been like. In a small town like Arahock, home to 2057, any person you see on the street that you don't recognize instantly becomes a person of interest, a person everyone starts to talk about, ask questions about, dig around to uncover who they are, what they're doing in Arahock, and whether they plan to stay. Small towns are practically as fast at spreading and receiving information as the Internet- if someone has a secret, even if they don't tell a soul, someone's going to find out, and by the end of the day, it's common knowledge, old news- it might as well be plastered along the oh-so-funny (not) little sayings outside our town's churches. That was what made the mysteriousness surrounding Mercedes so strange- in a town where there were no secrets, no one could find out for a fact anything about her.

As I said, any new kid in our school, in our town, would be the focus of a lot of interest and scrutiny just for being new. But Mercedes Deangelo was not just any new kid. From the first time we saw her, none of us knew what to make of her.

The first day she came to my school, I had heard about her before I ever saw her. It seemed everyone had their heads together, whispering in voices that were quite audible their observations, the rumors they had heard about her. It seemed everyone had seen her, and everyone had a different tale regarding her. Only this time, it was questionable which- if any- was true.

People approached me as I stood before my locker, fumbling with the combination.

" Have you seen the new girl, Ainslie?" they asked, their voices hushed, holding ntoes of excitement, of drama. " What have you heard about her?"

" No, I haven't," I was forced to reply, wishing that I had, so I could join in, have something to contribute- and something new to think about.

Three people asked me, and I heard many others talking among themselves about her. At the time, I figured they were just excited to have someone new, and I was even a little annoyed with their fascination. She was just another kid, after all- why were they so enthralled with her? At the same time though, I wanted to see her, to see for myself what kind of girl she was to have everyone talking about her. I hoped I'd see her in the hall or something, so I could say I had.

But I didn't see her until lunch- by then, it seemed although everyone had seen her, hardly anyone had spoken to her more than a word or two- still nothing concrete about her had been established. That more than anything interested me- all the busybodies in our school always pounced on teh new kids first thing, pestering them with questions until they were either intimidated and withdrew or asserted themselves and became one of us. For nobody to have done this yet, I was even more curious as to what kind of person she must be. Was she mean, or crippled or deformed or something? I couldn't wait to look at her, to answer some of the questions in my mind.

I saw her as soon as I walked into the cafeteria. She was hard to miss, especially among our small, familar- and very conservative- group of kids. Instantly I could see why everyone was so intrigued by her, and yet why simultaneously, they had avoided talking to her yet. She didn't look like anyone we had ever encountered in real life. While the majority of us dressed simply- Wal Mart for less wealthy, Hollister for more- this girl was different. She had on a bright red leather skirt, a few inches above her knees, paired with yellow tights and a purple top that looked like a corset and a black jacket that looked like leather too. I couldn't see her shoes right then, but later I would know they were black and covered with writing in white out. Her strange outfit was only the beginning. Her hair was short, black with red and blue streaks dyed in. She was wearing many necklaces, many rings, all in some form of a cross. She looked like people from magazines- not someone we would know.

She was sitting alone at a table for six- though whispers and stares all directed her way swirled in the air, it seemed none had yet worked up the nerve to talk to her. It was as if because she looked so different, even different from the very few Goths/punks we had, not being in black, our usual ways of handling things could not be applied to her. There was no way she could have missed the isolated state she was in, the open stares, but she didn't seem upset or uncomfortable- not bothered in any way. In fact, as she ate her lunch, she seemed calm, peaceful- even happy. I was seated more than 30 feet from her, and I could see the complacity in her eyes, the slight smile on her face. It was almost as if she were listening to something pleasant, something the rest of us couldn't hear.

I have to admit, I acted no different than the others- I stared, I whispered, I wondered aloud who she was, why she had moved- and why was she dressed like that, and smiling so funny? But I did not go to her, did not speak to her- I have always, to my shame at times, been more of a follower than a leader.

It was Troy Niadana who finally made the first advance toward her. Troy was one of the elite in our school, a member of the select "populars"- a group I had never been part of. She had a deserved rep of being bolder, more aggressive than the rest of us- I was surprised she had held back from approaching/harrassing a new girl for so long- especially one who was clearly not going to be able to pigeon hole into our neatly labeled cliques.

After speaking with her friends/groupies and flashing meaningful glances the new girl's way, she stood deliberately, adn with every outward appearance of self-assurance, sauntered over to where she sat, plopping down before her. We all watched, and pretending we weren't, all of us waiting to see what would happen.

" Hey," Troy said, in a loud, overly friendly tone. " I guess you're new, huh?"

The girl looked up at her slowly, not seeming at all surprised to be apprehended by a blonde, clearly well-off girl decked in Hollister, nor did she seem nervous or suspicous. Instead she smiled warmly, a sweet and pretty smile.

" Yes," she said, and something else I couldn't hear. Getting an irresistable urge to hear what they were saying, I stood and went to a snack machine a few feet in front of them, pretending to study its contents.

" My name is Troy," Troy was saying. " Troy Niadana."

" Hi, Troy," the girl said, her voice calm. " I'm Mercedes Deangelo."

At that, Troy wrinkled her nose.

" Mercedes? Like the car? Are you for real?"

As if she, having a boy's name, had any room to talk.

" I'm "for real", yes," Mercedes answered, not seeming to take offense. " I never lie. It means mercy of the angels."

Later I was to remember this, and think about it... later I was to wonder if Mercedes's name was only irony, a coincidence, or if it meant something more.

But I could not have known then, and I thought only how strangely she acted, how earnestly she put out her answers. She didn't seem like a teen girl- she seemed almost like a character in a science fiction movie, between the way she dressed and the tone and words she used. She reminded me of a Jedi leader from Star Wars or something.

" You NEVER lie?" Troy asked incredulously, heavy sarcasm evident in her voice. " Please! No one's that good. You trying to live up to your name or something?"

I guess she expected Mercedes to be offended, to snap back a retort- or else to be embarrassed. I dont' suppose she expected her to look her right in the eye and say simply and sincerely, " Yes."

Of course, Troy was more than a little taken aback by that response. Blinking in surprise, she looked down, then clearing her throat, tried again to get the answers she wanted.

" So where are you from?" she asked.

" Abbott," came Mercedes's reply, as she continued to look unwaveringly into Troy's eyes.

" Abbot. Where's that?" Troy persisted, impatience in her voice.

" It's a town out west," Mercedes said vaguely, as if that explained everything. She ate her sandwich calmly, still regarding Troy steadily. By now I was almost openly staring- it stunned me how casually Mercedes treated Troy's inquistion, and her answers to her questions. Not so much her words, but the way she said them, as if Troy could have asked her anything and she would have answered honestly. It made me wonder if maybe she never DID lie.

Giving up on narrowing her original location, Troy asked instead, " So how come you moved here anyway?"

" It seems like a nice town," Mercedes answered. " Why wouldn't I want to?"

Troy stared at her, convinced that Mercedes was either very, very dim or very, very mentally unbalanced. " Are you crazy? THIS town seems nice? Where did you live before?"

Mercedes shrugged. " It doesn't seem matter to me where I live," she said. " I'm happy wherever I go."

It was only a couple of minutes after that bizarrely Sarah Sunshine comment that Troy gave up and went back to her own people, giving them the scoop on what had been said- and not said. I saw her roll her eyes at Mercedes condescendingly several times, and yet when I sat down again, I could see that Mercedes didn't look sad or upset, or even lonely. She seemed oblivious to Troy's gestures- in fact, she seemed oblivious to everybody. Her eyes looked closed to me, although they might have just been looking down, and her lips wer moving like she was talking to someone. Maybe she WAS crazy, like Troy seemed to think- what kind of normal person was not only perfectly fine with sitting alone, but also talked to imaginary friends as they did so?

I had English next after lunch, and to my surprise, Mercedes had that class with me. She was given a seat a few seats over and one row ahead of me. Again, I found my attention wandering, my eyes drifting in her direction. Unlike the others, she didn't lay her head on her desk, didn't read magazines or play with her cell phone. She didn't doodle on her notebook, and when our teacher called on her once, she answered him politely and clearly- and what's more, correctly. That, of course, earned her more stares, more head shakes and hissing comments- who does this girl think she is, what a smartass, teacher's pet, brownnoser, etc- but once again, if she noticed, it didn't seem to bother her. I half-wondered if she was hard of hearing- that would explain her seemingly unshakeable comfort with herself.

But she wasn't entirely absorbed in the lesson. A few times when I watched her, she seemed far away, her mind completely and intensely focued on something else. Her head was bowed, and her lips moved slightly, as if once again she was talking to something that was not there. She stroked on of her necklaces slowly, almost lovingly, as if it were more than a steel decoration. I couldn't see her entire face, but judging from her body language, the excited flush staining the back of her neck, she was thinking of something that made her very, very happy. I wondered with amusement if she was carrying out some fantasy in her head, sexual by the looks of it, and watched with interest, but after a few minutes, her eyes opened, her head came up, and smiling as mysteriously and sedately as the Mona Lisa, she gave our teacher her attention once more- or at least seemed to...