The next day at school was a nightmare. I usually drove Lindsey to school in the mornings, but I flat out refused to do it. I felt a twinge of guilt when I saw her sprint past my first period class, five minutes late.
That guilt immediately disappeared at lunch when Mike dragged her off to his usual lunch table with his friends. I sat down at our old table, feeling like a hole had opened up inside of me. I glanced over at Lindsey. She was looking at me, her mouth set in a hard line. She turned away quickly the moment I caught her eye.
I had never eaten lunch all by myself. What a loser I must have looked like – sitting by myself at the table in the corner, tearing off tiny bits of my sandwich and eating it slowly.
I looked around in surprise to see Henry Stone, Louis' friend, waving at me from a couple tables over. Louis was grinning in my general direction. I just stared, and Henry gestured for me to come. Uncertainly, I gathered up my lunch and headed toward them.
"What?" I asked, stopping. I was uncomfortably aware of all of them staring at me; seven or eight guys my age or older. They didn't all look quite as enthusiastic as Henry or Louis.
"Wanna sit with us today?" Louis asked. I raised my eyebrows.
"Sure, sit down."
I glanced over my shoulder at the empty table I had left. "Sure," I said. One of the boys pulled up another chair, and I sat down next to Louis. For a moment there was an awkward silence.
"Well everyone, this is my friend Anna Shepard," Louis said at last. "I'm sure you've all heard about her."
"Hi," I said, my voice coming out way tinier than I had intended. They were all still staring at me like they had never seen a girl before.
"And these are all my friends," Louis said.
The boys went around introducing themselves. I knew a few of them from my classes, but the new names immediately flew right out of my head.
Eventually, the uncomfortable silence eased and the boys started talking again to each other. Louis leaned toward me and spoke in a low voice.
"So where's Lindsey?"
"Oh," I muttered. "Well, we got in a fight. She's with Mike, as usual."
"You got in a fight?" Louis looked shocked. "You guys are inseparable."
"Were," I corrected him. "We haven't been, lately. Not for a while."
"But you've been best friends for years."
"Since when have you noticed so much?"
The corner of his mouth twitched. "You might be surprised."
"Hey, Anna," one of the boys, Jeremy Reisner, said. "Do you play soccer?"
I laughed. "Oh no. Not at all. Pretty much anything athletic is not for me."
"That's too bad," Jeremy said. "Do you watch it at all? We have a game on Saturday. You should come watch."
The other boys all went "oooh" and somebody whispered, "Jeremy's got a crush." Louis quickly stepped in. "Actually, that would be great if you could, Anna! I've been hoping to go to one of the games, even though technically I couldn't watch it. Maybe you could be my commentator."
"I guess so," I said slowly, perplexed. "What time is it at?"
Jeremy told me the time and location of the game, and I agreed to go with Louis. He beamed at me happily.
"Class in ten minutes!" Mrs. Adkins, the assistant principal, called out, her loud voice resonating throughout the lunchroom. She always announced the time at lunch, as if we didn't have clocks.
I stood up. "I'll be right back," I said.
"Where are you going?" Louis asked.
"Bathroom." I gave an awkward smile. For some reason it felt weird saying that to a bunch of boys. I left my backpack on my chair and headed toward the nearest bathroom.
I was in the stall, just having finished doing my business, when I heard the bathroom's door open and a group enter. The girls – I would guess there were about three or four of them – were whispering. I froze immediately. Whispers meant secrets, and, let's face it, who wouldn't pass up the opportunity to overhear some juicy gossip? I listened closely, trying to discern what they were saying.
"Is anyone else in here?" one of the girls said, a little louder than the rest.
"I don't think so," another answered. I recognized that voice. Julia Gaines, the queen of popular at this school. I guessed this was her and her friends coming to the bathroom to trash talk some poor girl in private.
"I just don't understand why he likes her," a third girl whined. Unless I was very wrong, that was Erica Preston, one of Julia's best sidekicks.
"It's ok, Erica," the first girl said sympathetically. If I had to guess, I'd say that was Holly Sparks, another girl in that group. "He'll come around eventually. She's too ugly for him."
"Ugh, don't even remind me," Erica groaned. "The way she flips around those pigtails like she's in kindergarten. It's disgusting."
A feeling of horror began to grow in the pit of my stomach. I hoped I wasn't right about who I thought they were talking about.
"Cheer up, Erica," Julia said. "Mike's not stupid – at least, most of the time – and I'd guess that he's only dating her to make you jealous."
Oh no. I was right. They were talking about Lindsey.
"He just wants to make you think that girl is better than you, and then you'll come straight back to him."
Erica sniffed. "What should I do?"
"Oh honey, just ignore him," Holly said. "He can be a jerk if he wants to be. You deserve way better than him."
"Yeah," Julia agreed. "Now he's just descended to that level and there's no way we're letting him back up again."
"Speaking of descending," Erica said, her voice noticeably more cheerful, "have you seen Louis Kelley?"
"Yeah, but he hasn't seen me," Holly giggled.
I closed my eyes. I didn't want to hear any of this. I wanted to be as far away from here as I could be.
"God, to think that I actually once thought he was cute," Julia said. "And now he's, like, an invalid."
The other two laughed, and I felt hot anger start to bubble up inside of me.
"And have you seen Anna Shepard? She's been totally hanging off him!" Holly added. My insides turned to ice.
"Yeah, because she'll only ever have a chance on a blind guy," Erica sniggered. "No guy who can see would ever want to look at her."
I tried to swallow, but my throat was too dry.
"Desperate girls annoy me," Julia sighed. "She'd do anything to get a guy."
"Girls like that shouldn't even be talking to Louis," Erica said. "Just because she was there when his car crashed doesn't mean they're friends or something."
Just then I remembered sitting down at Louis' table. I could almost hear his voice saying, "This is my friend, Anna Shepard." You don't know anything, I told Erica in my mind.
"It's not like she's even pretty," Holly complained. "Her hair is obviously dyed."
It is not! I gritted my teeth, thinking about the hundreds of times I had had to tell people that my hair was naturally red. Nobody seemed to believe me.
"Forget about her," Julia said. "It's not like Louis is ever going to care about someone like her. And even if he does, what do we care? He's no use to us anymore."
From outside the bathroom came the sound of the bell ringing, signaling that there was five minutes until class started. I heard the three girls gathering up their bags. They were still talking as they went out the door.
For a long time, I just stood there. Eventually I realized I was leaning against the wall of the stall, and I straightened up. I swallowed the hard lump in my throat with some difficulty and ran my fingers through my hair. Pull yourself together, I commanded myself, taking deep breaths. It's not as if I didn't know that those girls hated me. But hearing from their own mouths, and listening to them talking about Louis like that…
I shook my head, unlocking my stall. I checked my reflection in the mirror, to make sure I looked normal, before opening the bathroom door and stepping out.
Thank you to everyone who has reviewed so far! I love you all! :D Keep on being awesome! Hopefully Chapter 10 will come soon...but school is just...ugh.