Chapter One

"Michael Hunter?"

"That's me," I say, stepping forward and smiling unsurely. "You can call me Mick."

I hold out my hand, but the man seated in front of me doesn't even look up from his computer. After a few moments of silence, I withdraw it awkwardly, absently wondering what kind of a guidance counselor doesn't offer to shake hands with a student. He is new to Orient Hills Academy- only been here a week, I think.

The name plate on his door says "Joshua Hilliard". I turn my head ever-so-slightly to stare at it, wondering if I should just make my escape right now and never come back. I don't need counseling, anyway.

Mom's just signed me up for this because she and Dad got divorced recently, and she thinks I need somewhere to relieve my 'stress'. For Pete's sake, the divorce is the best thing that has happened in my life so far. No more loud arguments at night, no more parents pouring out all their woes to me emotionally when the other is not around, no more tension-filled dinners... I'd seen the divorce coming for the past two years, and just last week it finally came to pass.

Of course, I'll miss Dad- but I still get to see him every weekend, and I can always drop by at his apartment after school. He's doing a work-from-home project right now, so he's always there. It's better than hanging out at our century-old house alone, listening to the weird creaks and imagining ghosts in the attic.

I reflect on all of this for the billionth time since I was notified yesterday that Mom's making me go to the guidance counselor every Tuesday after school. Finally, Mr. Hilliard looks up from his computer and smiles, causing laugh lines to pop up all over his cheeks. He actually looks quite jovial when he's smiling, a heavy contrast to his solemnity a few seconds ago.

"I understand you're a ninth grader?"

"Yes, sir."

"Oh, go ahead and call me Mr. Hilliard, or even just Mr. H. None of that 'sir' business- it makes me feel like a knight, and goodness knows I'm anything but that."

I chuckle weakly. Hurrah for teachers' jokes. "Alright, Mr. H."

"Sit down, Michael- Mick, didn't you say? Sit down, Mick." He gestures to the worn, green-cloth-covered chair next to me. I nod and pull it out, seating myself in one clumsy movement. Grace has never been my strong point.

"So, Mick... Would you like to tell me anything about yourself?" Mr. Hilliard asks pleasantly. His brown eyes are boring deeply into me. I inwardly flinch away from the intensity of his gaze and try to think fast. Just repeat one of those lame introduction things you said in all the classes at the beginning of this year, my brain advises helpfully.

"Er, well, my name's Mick Hunter. My hobbies are playing videogames and hanging out with my friends. I like pizza and I play the trumpet-"

"No, no, not like that!" Mr. Hilliard interrupts suddenly, frowning. I frown too, wondering what was wrong with what I just said. Just when I was getting into a good flow, too, complains my brain.

Mr. Hilliard sighs deeply. "That's not what I want to hear, Mick. That's a very... artificial introduction."

Artificial? Oh, God. What does he want from me, a full confession of my sins and a life story? I keep my face straight, however, and nod blankly, waiting for him to continue. But he just stares at me... like he's waiting for me to continue. Isn't he going to tell me what he wants?

After a few more moments of awkward silence while we wait for the other to speak, I get tired of it. I clear my throat and begin, "I'm very passionate about playing the trumpet. It's one of my biggest stress relievers, actually- I write my own songs sometimes, and I pour all my emotion into them."

Lies, lies, all lies. I do play the trumpet, but I don't even know any songwriters personally. Passion, stress relief... Hah.

Mr. H nods interestedly. "That's very good, Mick. Yes, I understand how music could be a stress reliever... I myself often listen to classical music when I'm feeling especially under pressure."

He believes it. Wow, I must be a better liar than I thought.

"Go on, Mick."

Oh no. What do I say now? I panic for a second, and then he says something else.

"Do you ever talk to anyone? Your mother, maybe, or one of your friends?"

"Yes, Mr. H. I talk to my friends quite a lot, and they comfort me. I... don't feel very comfortable talking to my mother, though..." I hesitate slightly, trying to make this sound natural. If he asks my mother whether I talk to her, I don't want her to respond negatively and arouse his suspicions, so better tell the truth on that.

Mr. H nods again. "I understand. It must have been difficult to talk to her, especially given all that is going on at the moment, no?"

And he finally reaches the topic at the center of this meeting. I have to act upset now to keep the show going.

"Yeah..." I say, voice faltering. "It's pretty depressing, all right. I never imagined this would happen! I don't know what to do..."

Barely keeping track of what I say, I ramble on, quite enjoying myself. Mr. H seems to be hanging on to every word I say, and occasionally adds a "Mmm" or "I understand..." Inwardly, I congratulate myself and think these weekly meetings are going to be so much fun.

Finally, the dusty cuckoo clock on the wall strikes four, and I get up to leave. There's still time to run over to Dad's apartment and stay a while before Mom comes home from work.

"Nice talking to you, Mick," Mr. H says cordially, as he gets up and walks the few steps with me to the door. "I'll see you again next Tuesday?"

He smiles at me, and I suddenly feel a little guilty for deceiving him so much... but I brush it away. What am I supposed to say instead? "I have no problems over my parents divorcing, none at all, please leave me alone"?

Thinking this, I smile wanly back, nod, and leave Mr. Hilliard's office.