New Girl in Town

"Sam, I'll be fine," I practically shouted into the phone for what felt like the thousandth time.

"Jess, I've heard about those Bollinger kids," my brother replied. Even from two thousand some miles away, he was still overly protective of me. "Snobby, rich, and petty. They think the rest of the world is beneath them."

I sighed in exasperation while I pulled my winter clothes out of one of the various cardboard boxes that were scattered around my room. Packing my life in eight boxes was tough, but the unpacking was almost even more of a pain.

"Sam, you've never even met them," I told my brother. "Besides, even if they are snobby, rich, petty and think the world is beneath them, I can deal. Come on Sam, you know me. I'll be fine."

I heard my brother let out a sigh on the other side of the line.

"I know, Jess," he said. "But I just worry about you, you know. I'm all the way across the country and Dad is clueless about teenagers in general, and you're going to Bollinger High, for goodness sakes. You know what they used to say about that school. We're probably the only family with an income less than ten million dollars a month for miles around that place."

I scoffed. "Stop trying to scare me and parent me at the same time, Sam. You're as bad as Dad. Did you know the other day he tried to give me advice on not talking to strangers online?"

My brother's soft, distinctive laugh came over the line. "Poor Dad, he was never great at this stuff."

"I know," I said, pinching the handset between my head and my shoulder as I pulled out my green peacoat and searched for a hanger to put it on. "You'd think I was five and not sixteen by the way he talks. Also, how do you have the time to call me? Caltech clearly isn't hard enough if you have all this time to annoy me for half an hour on a Sunday afternoon."

"School hasn't started, silly," Sam said. "I'm staying with my friend for a bit before move in day."

I smirked. I knew exactly who he was staying with. "Your friend Ashley? That friend?"

"Jess, you need to stop being such a stalker," I could practically hear my brother rolling his eyes. "Yes, it's Ashley."

I laughed, "Maybe Dad should give you a talk on the birds and the bees when you come home for Thanksgiving."

"Ha ha, you're funny," he told me pointedly.

"I try," I told him. "Now go hang out with your friend Ashley. I don't have time for you, I have to unpack all my clothes, they're much more important than you."

"Okay, okay. I'll stop bugging you. Bye Jess."

"Bye Sam," I said, and then clicked on the hang up button on the handset.

Almost as soon as I threw the phone on my bed so I could continue with unpacking my clothes, I heard my dad's voice calling me from downstairs.

"Jessica!" he shouted. "Jessica, dinner's ready!"

"Coming!" I shouted back and then walked out of my room and down the stairs to the dining room of our apartment.

Once I could see the dining room table, I could tell that Dad was trying out his recipes for dinner again. He was currently in the kitchen, plating the dessert dish.

Once he heard my arrival though, he turned and smiled.

"Ah, Jessica, try this," he said, pointing to the large portion of pasta in front of me. "It's the gnocchi di ricotta."

I looked up at him and raised my eyebrows. He sighed in a good natured way. That's the thing about my dad, he's always in a good mood. Even when he couldn't find a job for months at a time and we were running out of money to pay the monthly rent on our apartment, he still remained incredibly optimistic.

"Honey, when are you going to learn these words?" he asked. "I've been cooking Italian food for eight years now. You'd think my own daughter would know what gnocchi is by this point."

"You still haven't explained it."

"Potato dumplings, Jessica. Potato dumplings," he turned back toward the kitchen. It was easily the biggest room in the apartment, so Dad would have plenty of space to whip up his recipes and lay out all the ingredients. "Potato dumplings with spinach and cherry tomatoes in a basil pesto sauce. Tell me what you think."

I took a bite of the gnocchi. I had had this before, plenty of times, I just could never remember the names of his dishes.

"It's delicious, Dad, as always," I told him. "I know all your dishes, you know that, I just don't remember the names."

"Well, hopefully not all the dishes," he replied. "I've got to have some variety for this new job."

He murmured something else absentmindedly as he continued working on the tiramisu in front of him. I knew that he was nervous about starting his new job soon. Dad had been unemployed for three months before being offered a job as head chef at Mia Bella in the town of Bollinger. I knew that he was nervous not only because it was a new job and a new restaurant, but because it was Bollinger.

I had grown up about an hour's drive outside of Bollinger, so of course I had heard of this town. Everyone had. Bollinger was a town with some of the richest neighborhoods in the country. Bollinger High, although it was a public high school, was a constant symbol of the elite in my mind growing up. It drew its students from the tremendously wealthy houses that stood throughout the town. Even though I had grown up hearing about Bollinger, nothing could prepare me for the drive through town on our way to our apartment. The houses, the trees, the entire landscape seemed to scream at you with how much this place was overflowing with money.

And now I was going to Bollinger High.

"You know, these people are probably used to better food," Dad interrupted my thoughts. "Fancier food. I don't know how I'll meet their standards."

"I don't know how you can't, Dad," I told him. "Your food is amazing."

Dad smiled at me, "Thanks Jessica. I can always count on my little girl. How're you doing? Excited for school tomorrow?"

Apprehensive was more like it, especially after the conversation I just had with my brother. But I certainly wasn't going to tell my dad that. He had more to worry about than my fear of fitting in to a new school.

"Yes, I am," I told him instead. "You know you really don't have to come with me."

Dad frowned. "Of course I do," he said. "It's your first day in a new place, how could I not?"

"It's not my first day of kindergarten, Dad," I told him. "I'm starting junior year of high school. I'll be fine."

"Yeah, at a new school," he insisted. "I'm definitely going with you."

But as it turned out, he couldn't.

The next morning, Dad got a call from the restaurant at 6:00 am telling him to go in early because the restaurant manager had just come in and wanted to see him prepare the dishes that he was going to be cooking that night. I woke up to a plate of French toast on the dining room table and a note explaining this and telling me that he was sorry he couldn't go with me to my first day of school.

At the bottom of the note, he wrote—Our neighbors, the Brandons, have offered to drive you. Their daughter is in your grade at Bollinger!

Our neighbors? Leave it to my dad to make friends already. Which neighbors? Did he mean the people who lived in the apartment next to ours? Did he mean that gigantic house with a gated driveway that was next to the apartment complex?

I didn't have too much time to think about this before the doorbell rang at 7:00 am, on the dot.

Shoving the last of my French toast in my mouth, I quickly grabbed my backpack and my key, then went to the front of my apartment to open the door.

"Jessica Evans?" The girl who stood in my doorway spoke. "Hi, I'm Alaina Brandon. I live in the house next door."

As I shook her hand, I had a moment to take in Alaina's presence.

She was about my height and size, brunette, and very pretty. Her skin was flawless, but that could be because she was wearing makeup, although if she was, it was done to make her look very natural. Her hair fell to her waist in perfect, glossy curls.

"Hi," I said. The thought that this might be one of those snobby rich kids who thought they were above the rest of the world that Sam had warned me about passed briefly through my mind.

"Oh, I guess you haven't gotten your uniform yet, because it's your first day," Alaina said as she took me in.

For the first time, I realized that she was wearing a classic schoolgirl's uniform. The skirt, the blouse, even the checkered sweater that I thought only grandfathers wore but she somehow was able to pull off fairly nicely. It just fit in with her whole neat and tidy appearance so well that it hadn't registered in my mind that she was wearing a uniform.

"Is everyone going to be in a uniform?" I asked.

"Oh don't worry," Alaina suddenly smiled, although only briefly. Her smile was rather disarming, maybe because I was already ready to write her off as one of those classic popular pretty girls who had everything but a good personality. I mentally scolded myself for being so quick to form judgments. Granted, I didn't know Alaina enough to determine what kind of person she was, but I was really letting all the gossip about Bollinger that I've heard over the years get to me. Meanwhile, Alaina continued to speak. "People only wear their uniforms on the first day. After that, they usually wear whatever they want."

I smiled back. Alaina motioned for me to step out.

"Come on, Jessica, we don't want to be late for school."

I followed her out of the apartment, locking the door behind me and putting the key around my neck. Having grown up in a neighborhood that was not exactly the best in town, I had grown used to making a necklace out of our apartment keys and putting them around my neck just so I won't run the risk of losing them or giving someone else access to our house. As I followed Alaina out of the apartment complex and to the parking lot, however, I suddenly became aware of how much I might stick out in my new school and quickly tucked the key underneath my tank top, out of sight.

"Here we go, this is my car," Alaina said, stopping next to a sleek black BMW.

There was no one inside.

"Oh," I told her, startled. "I thought that your mom or dad would be driving us."

At the mildly surprised look on her face, I clarified. "Well my dad left a note. He said your family would be driving us?"

Alaina laughed softly, "Oh now that I've turned sixteen and can drive? No, most of the kids at the school drive themselves when they turn sixteen. Less hassle, you know?" She put her bag in the backseat and got into the car.

I opened the passenger door and followed suit. Less hassle, Alaina had said. But really, it was because the kids here could afford it. I doubt anybody at Mapleridge High, my old school, had driven something quite like Alaina's car to school before.

"So you mentioned that you live close by," I said as Alaina drove out of the parking lot. "Do you mean the house next to our apartment? You mean 126 Orion Drive?"

"Oh no, 126 belongs to the Eddletons. Their children have all graduated from college," Alaina replied, while opening a compartment in her car to take out her sunglasses and put them on. "I live in 129. Your dad ran into Marietta this morning as she was getting the paper and asked about a ride for you."


"Marietta's our maid. She's here Sunday through Thursday," Alaina replied.

I looked out the window at the hedges and the trees that we were passing. A maid. Of course.

We were silent for a while, and then I had to ask the question that had been on my mind all through the drive.

"How do you like Bollinger?"

We were at a red light, and Alaina actually took her sunglasses off to perch them on top of her head so she could turn and look at me.

She smiled. It wasn't a reassuring smile, but rather there was something mysterious about it.

"Bollinger…is quite unique, I'd say," she told me. Well that helped. "But don't take my word for it. See for yourself."

And then we turned a corner, and the school was in sight.

This was my first time here, my very first time to see what Bollinger High looked like. Granted, I had looked up pictures online, but nothing could prepare me for the sight that was the school.

"Well?" Alaina's voice came, breaking me out of my reverie as I sat in the passenger seat of her car, drinking the sights in.

"It's beautiful," I told her as I opened the door to get out of the car.

It really was. Bollinger High had a feel that made it look like a castle. The buildings were constructed from large gray stones, and there was greenery all over the school that made me feel like I was in a scene straight out of medieval England.

Alaina smiled at my response. Like the last time, her smile was genuine but quick. I could not figure her out from my interactions. She seemed polite but somehow distant at the same time. I guess we were virtual strangers, and I suppose that she was trying to get a read from me as well.

"We're here a bit early," Alaina told me. "But I wanted you to have time to get your schedule."

We walked up the steps to the arch that marked the entrance of the school. People were milling about on the lawns, holding their books, comparing schedules. Almost every one of them waved to Alaina as we passed by them. She gave each one a brief smile, a nod, a casual wave of her hand.

Whatever type of person Alaina was, she was certainly popular. I briefly wondered if it was because she was so wealthy, wealthy enough to drive a BMW and have a maid at least, and then I realized that most of the kids here could probably afford that, if the cars I had seen in the parking lot were any indication.

"Alaina!" A voice called out to our left, and we both turned to see a petite Asian girl with long black hair bounce toward us from the lawn where she had previously been talking to some of the other students.

For the first time since I met her, I saw Alaina's face brighten up with a wide smile that for once stayed there.

"Hi Shannon," she said, hugging the other girl.

"How're you?" Shannon asked Alaina, her smile equally sunny. "Have you got sixth period biology with O'Reilly? Tell me you do. We can be partners for that dreadful etymology project she makes all her students do."

Before Alaina could reply, Shannon noticed me and her eyebrows rose.

"Oh, hi!" she told me, and her smile was so friendly that it was infectious. "Are you new here? Do you know Alaina?"

Alaina shook her head with an amused look on her face. "So excited, as always," she murmured, and then turned to me to make the introductions.

"Jessica, this is Shannon Lee, my best friend. Shannon, this is Jessica…" she raised her eyebrows at me.

"Jessica Evans," I filled in, and shook Shannon's hand. The girl was a full half a head shorter than me, but she had enough enthusiasm for the three of us. "I just moved in. I live in the apartment complex next to Alaina, and she was nice enough to drive me to school today."

Alaina gave me another one of her brief smiles, and Shannon said, "Well, I'm glad you're here. If you need anything, just let us know. We'd be glad to help."

Even though I had just met her, Shannon was so bubbly and so genuine that I could not help but find her extremely likable.

"Actually, I was just taking Jessica to Wagner's office," Alaina told Shannon, and at the look on my face, she explained, "Mr. Wagner is our principal. He should have your schedule for you."

We walked up the rest of the steps to the arch entranceway. As it turned out, Mr. Wagner's office was just inside the entranceway to the left. As the three of us entered, Mr. Wagner himself looked up from his plush red chair where he was filling out some paperwork.

"Miss Brandon, Miss Lee," he stood up walked to the front of the desk. He was a tall, thin, middle aged man with surprisingly piercing blue eyes and a stern gaze. His gaze shifted to me next. "And you must be Miss Evans."

At the surprised look on my face, Mr. Wagner explained, "Bollinger is a small school, Miss Evans. I know all my students, and you're my only new one this year."

Without waiting for a reply, he walked over to the filing cabinets at the side of his room, pulled out the second drawer, and immediately started flipping through it.

"Evans, Evans, Evans…" he murmured as his hands skimmed across the top of the files, flipping through the papers in search of what I could only imagine to be my schedule. "I'll find your schedule in just a moment, Miss Evans. I make sure to keep everything extremely organized."

As he spoke, I couldn't help but notice Shannon and Alaina exchange a look, and Shannon rolled her eyes with a playful smile on her face.

I looked around the room, and noticed that everything about the room seemed to come at me like an Edgar Allen Poe story. The heavy curtains, currently pulled apart to a towering window, could easily block out all light from the room. The walls were covered with oil paintings that were portraits of people whom I can only imagine were previous principals. There was even a fireplace next to the file cabinets that stood behind a fire poker set and a suit of armor.

"Ah Evans!" Mr. Wagner pulled a file out of the cabinet and handed me a piece of paper from the cabinet. "Here's your schedule. And I can see that you've already made some friends, but if you need anything, please, don't hesitate to ask."

With that, he returned to his seat behind his desk and paid us no more attention. As the three of us walked outside, I couldn't help but quip, "Wow, a suit of armor huh, Bollinger really doesn't skimp on the decorations."

Shannon laughed. "Oh that's just Wagner being pretentious, as always. Don't worry, he's a little pompous but basically a good guy, kind of spacey though," she paused and seem to ponder about this for a while.

"He's not the only spacey one around here," Alaina rolled her eyes when Shannon made no other comments. "The other teachers are not as bad. The suit of armor is an overkill though. Tacky."

I got the feeling that she didn't feel that the decorations in Wagner's office were too pretentious but instead felt disdain towards them because they did not satisfy her interior decoration standards.

"Well, let's see what you've got," Shannon told me excitedly, and I realized that she was referring to my schedule.

I looked at the piece of paper and read it out loud.

"First period is Mathematics, second is Music, then Reading Period, third is History, fourth Gym, fifth is English, and sixth is Science."

"Ooh," Shannon said, peering over my arm at my schedule. "Alaina and I have sixth period science as well. And I think Alaina has fourth period gym with you, don't you Alaina?"

Alaina nodded, "Yes, I do. Reed is teaching it. He's Bollinger's track and cross country coach."

"Alaina's on the cross country team," Shannon said absentmindedly, still looking at my schedule.

I blinked, surprised at this piece of information, although I couldn't pinpoint why. Alaina certainly looked like it, I thought. She was slender but lean and looked like she didn't have an ounce of fat on her body.

Thinking back to my schedule though, I frowned. "Wait a minute," I asked. "These are so generic. At my old school they would say things like Biology, or Calculus, or US History and Government on my schedule."

"Oh, they mean grade eleven science and math and stuff," Shannon explained. "That's pre-calculus, biology, and world history for this year."

Just as she said that, two boys who were descending the stairs stopped next to us.

I looked up just in time to catch the gazes of the two of them. While the blond haired boy looked away when he saw that I had caught him staring at me, the dark haired boy caught my gaze and held it. He had a cool and collected look about him and did not seem to faze at all when I glared back at him. Instead, his eyebrow merely rose slightly in what seemed to be amusement.

He only broke away to nod briefly in acknowledgement of my two companions.

"Alaina, Shannon," he said as he nodded curtly at the two of them.

"Nolan," Alaina said with a smile, but that smile was more of a customary curl of her mouth that didn't really seem to reach her eyes.

Shannon's smile was much more genuine as she gestured towards me.

"Hi, Nolan. This is Jessica," she said, and the gazes of the two boys fell on me again. "She just moved into town."

While the blond boy gave me a smile, Nolan only looked me up and down, not even trying to hide the fact that he was appraising me.

His face remained impassive and cool as he took in what I was wearing. My Converses, my jeans, my tank top and cardigan all fell under his gaze. It wasn't a leering gaze, I could tell that much for sure. He wasn't checking out my body but instead checking out my clothes. His eyes fell on my face and then on my long blond hair that I had braided quickly in the morning as I was eating my French toast. For the first time since arriving at Bollinger High, I distinctly wished that I was wearing the uniform of the students here. Both Alaina and Shannon were wearing the skirt and blouse of the girls' uniforms. Both the boys were wearing the tidy white shirt, slacks, and navy blue tie that I had seen all over school that morning.

I was beginning to feel irked enough by the dark haired boy's gaze to open my mouth and snap at him, "Done evaluating my appearance?"

I could tell that everyone was surprised by that. Shannon and Alaina both turned their head to look at me. Shannon's eyes had widened slightly. I briefly wondered if I had made a bad move, insulted someone at the top of the social hierarchy at Bollinger and would be ignored as an outcast from now on. Looking at Nolan, however, he didn't show any surprise or anger. Instead, his mouth curled slightly in a way that made him look more amused. This, of course, made me feel even more annoyed.

Before either Nolan or I could say anything, however, his blond haired friend cut in.

"Pleased to meet you, Jessica," he said, sticking out his hand in front of me for me to shake. "I'm Chris, and this is Nolan."

Nolan merely acknowledged my presence with a slight increase in the upward curl of his mouth. I fought back the urge to narrow my eyes at him and instead shook Chris' hand just as the bell rang.

"Oh we have five minutes to get to class," Shannon said. "That's the warning bell."

At her words, Chris' gaze shifted to her and the strangest thing happened.

For a moment, they both looked at each other before both quickly turning away. Shannon had turned in sudden interest to the people on the lawn who were gathering their bags and heading inside the school to go to their classes, and Chris quickly refocused on me, although I could tell that his mind was certainly not on meeting me. Out of the corner of my eyes, I could see Alaina observing the exchange, her face impassive. Nolan, on the other hand, never stopped looking at me.

"We should go to class," Alaina's voice cut through.

"We should," Nolan's voice was equally smooth and equally cool.

And with that, the two boys left to go to class in the other direction. Alaina had music first thing that morning, so she went the same direction as the two boys.

As they left, I watched them carefully. From that brief exchange, I couldn't gauge anything about the relationship between the four. Both Alaina and Nolan were cool and curt, but that might just be their personalities. Nolan had held my gaze and then looked me up and down to appraise me in a way that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up out of annoyance, but I didn't have the time or desire to analyze that.

I wondered if they were friends, acquaintances, enemies? I wanted to ask Shannon, who seemed to at least be the one genuine person I had met, but her strange reaction to Chris meant that there must be something going on there, and thus I couldn't ask. Even as I watched Alaina's long brown hair swing as she walked toward her class, I could see that she had fallen in step with the two boys at Nolan's side, and they seemed to be talking together as they walked to class.

Hmm, I wasn't about to ponder on that too much as I had classes to get to and a new school to navigate. As I walked with Shannon to our classes though, I couldn't help but ask.

"What's the deal with that Nolan guy?" I questioned her. "He's so…strange." I finally put a word to describe him.

Shannon smiled coyly as she looked at me.

"Oh Nolan Barnes is quite the enigma," she said, then chuckled. "Gives Alaina a good run for her money in terms of that cool, dismissive thing they both got going there. Don't worry, you aren't the first girl who's tried to figure Nolan out and couldn't. Although you did snap at him," she chuckled, but didn't say anything more on the subject besides, "You've also got to admit, he's quite the looker."

She was right, of course. Even in my annoyed state I could not deny that Nolan was extremely attractive. He was tall, built with a great physique that the school uniforms certainly showed off. His features were very masculine, with a well defined jaw line and dark, piercing eyes. I bet he was really popular with the girls of the school.

"I bet they go crazy over him," I muttered, and then felt instantly embarrassed for saying this out loud and letting Shannon in on the fact that I was thinking about how attractive Nolan was.

Shannon however, only let out an amused chuckle.

"Oh they really do," she told me, "Although he really seemed to notice you."

I scowled again, remembering the way that Nolan had arrogantly held my gaze and then took in what I was wearing.

"Yeah," I scoffed, "Because I'm not wearing a uniform like everyone else and stick out like a sore thumb. Or because I snapped at him."

"Maybe," Shannon replied, "But it's not every day that a girl catches the eye of Nolan Barnes."

And with that, she showed me the door of my math class and turned to go down the hallway before I could reply.