Copyright © Stormi Reagan

Part One




I don't even know what made me hate him so much—maybe it was the way he was arrogant and cocky, just full of himself to the absolute greatest extent. Maybe it was his clothes, since he seemed to wear all the name brands that everyone else wore. Or, maybe it was his predictable ways of the typical popular-guy-attitude. Maybe it was all of that. Whatever it was, I just knew I hated him. Screw all that stuff about "you're not supposed to hate." I hated him.

So when Mrs. Turnipseed—yes that's her real name—partnered me up with him, I felt the insides of my stomach slowly crumble. Out of the corner of my eye, he sat at his science table with all of his buddies who checked out other girls' bottoms in our metal and plastic blue chairs. His eyes darted over at me and back to Ms. Turnipseed, and I knew he felt the same crumbling feeling I did.

But mine was worse.

"Katie Wallace and Chandler Montgomery," Mrs. Turnipseed repeated, and moved onto another pair of names.

Alice slapped my arm. "You got Montgomery," she whispered. See, Alice did this thing where she never called people by their first names—ever. Ever since I became her best friend in middle school when she moved from some itty-bitty town in West Virginia to Kaydale County, she protected me and loved me. She had that small-town heart that has a fire about it, too.

"Ugh," I spat, closing my eyes and laying my head down on the desk.

"Ms. Merkins," the teacher referred to Alice. "You are partnered with Cody Collins." In the background I heard Cody's weird "Agh-ugh, agh-ugh!" laugh, and Alice make a small, reluctant sound.

Everyone at that time had to sit with their partner at their two-seated table, but I decided Chandler would have to come to my table. I didn't lift my head when I heard his boots take slow steps on the linoleum floor toward me, because the dread was spiraling up my throat like vomit.

The chair screeched when he pulled it out from the table and I heard his chains make contact with the plastic. He coughed loudly and seemed to tap his fingers on the table impatiently.

"Now," Mrs. Turnipseedsaid to the class. "I hope you're happy with your partner because you're not switching all semester."

There went my chance, I thought to myself, grimacing in the darkness of my own little sanctuary.

"I'm going to pass out a sheet for you and your partner to fill out, and this is going to test your knowledge on astronomy, our next unit we're going to study." A couple seconds later Mrs. Turnipseedpatted me and leaned down to my ear as I lifted my head. "You all right, Katie?"

Ms. Turnipseed, like most of my teachers, favored me for my excellent grades and good attendance, but also my maturity and respect for them. "Yes, of course," I smiled for her benefit and she smiled back and moved on to the next table behind me.

Beside me, however, I caught Chandler peering over at me from the corner of his eyes. When I met his gaze he quickly looked toward the front of the room where the Smartboard was, and ignored me completely.

I felt disgust in my chest. The sheet on our table was a simple fill-out paper with a couple questions, some true or false. I figured, like most popular pupils, that they just wanted me to do the assignment for them, so I grabbed my pencil out of my sweatshirt pocket and filled out both our names on the Name line, and started answering the questions.

His voice rang out like a bass. "What are you doing?"

I stopped mid-stride in Pluto. "What?" I challenged, turning to look at him.

"You're hogging up the paper," Chandler said, turning to completely face me. I noticed his features: reddish-brown hair, brown eyes, light pink lips, square jaw.

I replied before he noticed me staring at him. "Isn't that what you want me to do?"

He grabbed the left side of the paper and slid it to the middle of the table, slipping it out from under my small hands. "No, not really," he said, voice cold and sharp as a knife. I watched as he answered four questions with his ink pen in blinding speed, and correctly, too. Once he finished, he slid it back over to me and looked forward again, saying quietly, "You finish."

I filled out the paper quickly. We were definitely the first table that was finished, so the awkward silence was even more maddening and long. Looking for something to stare at other than Chandler, I found the clock on the wall—that black and white clock that students looked at so longingly in that certain class room, for the hours seemed dreadfully long.

Suddenly I felt the paper slide beneath my hands and be swept out again. I looked away from the clock and saw Chandler giving our paper to one of his friends behind him, who begged for the answers to Number Two.

"Seriously?" I spat at the boys.

Chandler snarled at me. "It's not going to kill you."

His friend sulked in his chair and hid our paper under his binder, looking like a hunchback as he copied the paper.

"She's going to notice," I said, referring to the teacher, and laid my head back down on the table, giving up. Chandler didn't reply, only took the paper back once his friend had finished and placed it between us, like a wall of separation.

Mrs. Turnipseedshowed us a video and eventually the bell rang. I was the first one out of class, an advantage of getting the table nearest to the door, and walked to my locker so quick even Alice had a hard time catching up with me.

"Where's the fire, Wallace?" she yelled, pushing through sluggish bodies and jogging toward me.

I slowed down, sighing, "I'm going to hate second period."

"Ah, Montgomery will be fine. You'll live anyway," she shrugged, and we walked at medium pace through the school. "Say," she began. "I was wondering if I could sleepover at your house tonight. Mom and Dad are getting in more fights, so..." Alice drifted off, embarrassed. Her eyes were dancing around for anyone who might have heard her spill information about her personal life, and her voice had lowered to a whisper.

"Of course, Alice," I answered. "Just bring your own sleeping bag."

"Who do you think I am?" she said, louder and more herself as she grinned.

The hum of the vacuum cleaner always relaxed me. My long black hair had fell from its bun on my head, and it was now falling in my face, so I pushed it back with my free hand while my other swerved and drove the vacuum over my bedroom carpet floor.

A loud knock sounded at my door, barely audible, so I flicked the red button on the machine and the noise died out. "Come in!" I said, and the door opened to reveal my Aunt's pretty face.

"Alice is here," she reported, and let the door open wider to reveal Alice with a humongous black bag of her stuff on her shoulder. My Aunt Penny smiled politely to Alice and went back downstairs to her music room, I supposed.

"That's right, the Alison Merkins is here!" she exclaimed, and threw her bag down onto the floor. "Why are you cleaning? Your room already looks like a home-place for OCD's."

I gave her a warning glare. "As if,"

"As if," she retorted mockingly, and stuck her tongue out.

The straight line on my lips disappeared and I laughed. "Okay, so we have two choices of movies—The Notebook or Harry Potter."

Alice just shrugged and sat in my fluffy white chair where I did my homework most evenings. "I dunno," she said in monotone. "I was thinking we could do something more—I dunno," she said again. "Fun, maybe? Exciting? Less twelve-year-oldish?"

I furrowed my brows and crossed my arms. "Like what?"

"There's a party at Vank's just a block away—"

"A party?" I repeated. "You've definitely crossed the line, Alice."

She sighed, shaking her head. "I just thought you'd like to be a teenager for like, five minutes, but I see—it isn't in your capable ability to be fun."

"I do have fun," I defended myself.

Alice pushed her boy-short blonde hair out of her face and gave me a challenging gaze with her ice blue eyes. "Studying and watching your limited movie collections isn't the closest thing to fun, in my rulebook. Don't get me wrong, Nicholas Sparks is a good writer, but I don't want to watch The Notebook every Friday night, Wallace."

I frowned and sat on my bed, looking down at my clean carpet. Alice was right—I was a poor excuse for a teenager, but when you grew up so young, things like partying wasn't on your To Do list. "Okay, but I don't like parties."

"That's fine," she said softly. "I know you don't like them since last year—"

I winced. "Just—stop."

"Sorry," Alice said genuinely. "I didn't mean to—"

Stopping her before it got worse, I said, "You can go to the party if you want, Alice, but I'm staying home. I have a chapter to read out of Science if I want to pass Ms. Turnipseed's test."

"The test isn't until next Thursday," she informed. "Plus, you already know much more about Astronomy than anyone else in the class combined. Now, come on, can't you at least help me get ready for the party?"

My makeup skills were good, actually, since Aunt Penny taught me how to do it when I was smaller. "All right," I said, and got up to find my makeup drawer.

Alice successfully did not look like a prostitute when she walked out of my bathroom, so her worries were put to rest.

"Can you walk me to the party, at least?" she asked, her lip-glossed lips shining brightly off my overhead light.

I glowered. "You're a big girl, Alice."

She grimaced. "Just walk me? You can walk back here if you absolutely want to, at any time, just walk me halfway there."

Grabbing my sweatshirt, I gave up and walked with her downstairs. Soft piano music rang out from Aunt Penny's music room, filling the halls with light chords. In the living room, uncle Ron watched football in his recliner. I opened the front door and Alice and I left the house without a notice. My neighborhood street was long and wide, with nice houses placed all around like the typical suburban-hood, with a few trees here and there in yards or beside the sidewalk, but I realized nothing ever looked the same since last year.

"You OK?" Alice asked me, noticing the drift on my face.

I nodded, and changed the subject—Tiffany Vank's house was so loud and congested of teenagers that I could hear the rap music from eight houses down. It would've been a matter of time before the cops showed up at her house like nearly every weekend when her parents left her alone. Being me, Katie Wallace, the outcast, gave me good analyzing skills.

"Whoa," said Alice. "I can't go in there alone."

"Hah!" I laughed loudly as we were passing the seventh house until we reached Tiffany's. "Sorry, but you are."

Alice pursed her lips. "Just walk me in."

"I'm not even going on her yard," I laughed hysterically, thinking, how could Alice be so dumb as to think I would ever step foot into a party?

Her eye-lined eyes grew sad. "Wallace, come on, you can turn around and leave right when you walk me in—no big deal."

I stared at her and rolled my eyes, groaning. "Fine! I'll walk you in, but that's it, Alice Merkins."

She grinned and took my hand, and suddenly I was being dragged closer and closer to nasty Tiffany's house party. Before I could protest, we were stepping foot on her yard where the smell of beer and cigarettes hit me like bricks. Alice looked up at a jock who I recognized was Tiffany's boyfriend, leaning on the door post. "Excuse me," she said confidently, and tried to walk in.

Tiffany's boyfriend looked down at us and smudged his large, pumped feet in our walkway from entering the house. "Uh, and you two are...?"

"Alice Freaking Merkins and Katie Freaking Wallace!" said Alice, blowing blonde hair out of her face.

His long, shaggy hair got in his face, too, but he didn't push it away, instead, he lifted a red cup to his lips and took a long sip. "Okay," he said, chewing on ice as he spoke. "You can go," he said to Alice. "But she stays."

I licked my lips in frustration. I don't even want to be here, so I'm definitely not going to be judged on whether I'm worthy enough. "Bye, Alice," I said, and pulled my arm out of her grasp, backing up. As I backed, I slipped on some drink and fell straight off the step to the stone pathway, right on my back. After I'd landed, the whole yard erupted in laughter, and my cheeks grew red in humiliation. My arms had broken my fall, but only by a little bit. I saw phones taking pictures, and I got up off the ground and ran off the yard and straight to my house, feeling my eyes water in tears of anger and embarrassment.

As I ran, I heard Alice's voice. "Wallace! Wait!"

But I wouldn't stop running. I reached the house and grabbed the doorknob and slung the door open and slammed it, making a bang. Uncle Ron almost fell out of his recliner in shock, but he didn't fall—unlike me. My sweatshirt reeked of beer, so I hurried up the steps and to my bedroom, locking the door shut, and tried to catch my breath.

Good going, Katie, I thought.

Alice called my cell phone, but I didn't answer. I didn't want to deal with the incident any more than I absolutely had to, so I turned off my cell and hid it under my bed. I went to unlock the door and fell asleep, desperate to forget.

The next morning I woke up and found Alice asleep on the floor with my purple sleeping bag. Her makeup was smudged and her short blonde hair was messy. I started to smile until last night came to my mind, and I squeezed the sheets until I made a fist.

Alice snored and rolled over.

I grimaced and got out of my queen sized white and peach bed. While tip-toeing, the steps were cold under my feet. The smell of pancakes and eggs engulfed my nostrils, and I turned on my heel at the bottom of the stairs. Aunt Penny stood at the stove watching the morning news on our kitchen TV and flipping through a music magazine. She heard the floor creak under my weight and turned.

"Morning, cupcake."

I smiled. "Morning, Aunt Penny."

"Want some breakfast?" she asked, gesturing toward the stove where a raw pancake sizzled in the pan.

"Sure," I told her, and sat down at the counter.

"Alice told me you had quite a spill at Mr. and Mrs. Vank's house last night," said Aunt Penny, looking at me for a moment while my cheeks turned red. Her lips turned up in a smile. "Ah, don't be embarrassed. Why were you over there, anyway?"

"I was walking her over there," I explained, looking down at the counter. "I didn't really want to go."

Aunt Penny shrugged. "I mean, I knew you didn't like their daughter, Tiffany. I don't blame you—she's snappy towards them from what I see."

I laughed. "She's much more than snappy at school."

Alice appeared at the steps, yawning and stretching her long ivory arms. Her dark brown tank top hugged at her skinny torso. "Hey, you two," she said while yawning.

"Want some pancakes and eggs?" Aunt Penny asked her, turning her head and slinging her long blonde hair.

At that moment I felt a pinch of longing in my chest. Alice and Aunt Penny looked alike and were both gorgeous, but I didn't feel like I was made to fit their category. I'd always been a little overweight and my face was broke out in weekly events. My hair was black as night and straight as a board, and my eyes were bright green, but that was it—that was all that was special about me, was my eyes.

"Win!" Alice said, her word for yes, and sat down in the stool beside me. Her icy blue eyes fell on me and she frowned. "You okay, Wallace?"

I nodded. "Yeah, but last night..." I drifted off, shaking my head and giggling a little to try and hide my anxiety.

"It'll be all right. We'll go shopping, how about that?"

I grimaced. "What kind of shopping?"

"Clothes, makeup, shoes, the usual," Alice said.

"No," I shook my head. "What about the library or something?"

Alice groaned and Aunt Penny laughed, flipping my pancake and placing it on a plate. "It's hard to get Katie to go shopping unless it's for books or guitars."

"Then let's go to a music store," Alice grinned.

I smiled. "Okay." Forty minutes later after breakfast and showers, Alice and I jumped in Aunt Penny's blue Subaru and headed to Kaydale Mall, where the music store was. Stepping on the escalator, I looked at her. "So what's up with your mom and dad?" I asked, avoiding talking about myself for the morning.

Her face fell. "They've been fighting for days now. Dad's back on the couch, and mom stopped cooking dinner. All she does now is go out with her friends, and dad doesn't even leave the house—just sits there and waits for her to get back home, but all they do is fight."

I felt remorse for her, but also envy. She had parents who wanted her, at least. Mine, however, completely gave me away. I pushed away the thought and replied, "What started it all?"

"I don't know," Alice said, worried, and we stepped off the escalator. "I wish I knew, so I could just tell them to forget about it."

"I'm sorry," I sympathized. "But they'll work it out like they always do."

"Guess so," she said, and didn't speak any more about it, so I let it drop.

We entered the music store and looked around. I found some acoustic guitar CD's, and a set of headphones, so I bought them all. Alice bought some old, eighties collections, so when we got back to the car, we listened to the songs, and of course, she knew all of them by heart. I dropped her off at her parents' and drove back home, returning Aunt Penny's Subaru back in the garage, and settled in Uncle Ron's recliner with my headphones and CD player.

The thought that occurred to me on the escalators about my parents swarmed my brain again. As I sat there listening to soft strums, I closed my eyes and pushed the tears away. Aunt Penny was playing her piano, so she wouldn't had seen me, and Uncle Ron was at work, but I didn't risk being in tears out in the open like that.

Why didn't they want me? I thought to myself, and felt a sickness enter my chest. Was I not good enough for them?

"Of course you are!" Aunt Penny told me four years ago. "They just want you to live with me." I had only lived with them for two months, and those two months were the happiest of my life—and quickly, the months after, became the worst. When you feel so unwanted—so hopeless, you're driven to do things that you wouldn't do before, and that was where I was at four years ago.

"You've improved," my therapist had said to me. "Just stop cutting yourself."

Just stop cutting yourself. He said it as if it were that easy, and in that moment, I decided he'd never been in the position I was in, or else he'd understand that just stopping is the hardest thing to achieve.

I looked down at my wrists as I leaned back in the cozy recliner that welcomed me like warm arms. The veins on my wrist were bulging and blue, resembling roots of a tree in the front yard. The scars remained, stained in white little lines, but I never let the scars portray me. Scars only showed how strong you are, not how weak you were.