Clayton's Mill High School - odd name I think as I stare up at the lettering on the red brick building. It's October of my senior year and this will be the sixth school I've attended in my high school career. I hear them, the whispers, from students who thinking they are being inconspicuous, hiding behind their hands. But their eyes give them away, focused on every move I make. I've seen and heard it all before. You get used to it when you are always the new girl.
"Come on, Alex, we need to get you enrolled. Don't want you to be late on your first day."
I duck my head and take a deep breath as I hurriedly follow Karen, my latest foster mother, into the school. She navigates the hallways like a pro, which, in a way, I guess she is. She's been a foster parent for twenty-five years and has probably enrolled more kids in this school than she can remember. Keeping my eyes on Karen's heels, looking neither right nor left, I follow her into the school office. The attendance secretary waves at Karen, motioning for us to walk back to the counselor's office.
I'm only half listening as Karen and Mrs. Ratliff, the senior class counselor, discuss the school's newest student, me, Alexa Nicole Logan, Alex for short, age seventeen, GPA 3.8, foster kid. Mrs. Ratliff is surprised when she sees my GPA. I guess she, like everyone else I've ever run across, has low expectations for foster kids. I might be in the system, but that doesn't stop me from wanting more for my future. I know the best way to get that future is a college education. To get that, I need scholarships, which means I need good grades and I've worked hard for every single one. I'm proud of my GPA and take a little smug satisfaction in surprising people with it.
Before I can blink, I've been handed my class schedule, a school map with 'you are here' plainly marked (really, are we in a school or at the mall?), and my locker number and its combination. The hall is deserted when we exit the office, the first bell having rung during our meeting with the counselor. Karen gives me a quick, one-armed hug before parting ways, home for her and class for me.
Great, not only am I starting two months into the school year, I'll be late walking into my first class. So not the way to keep a low profile.
I survive the first half of my Manic Monday schedule, which includes all eight classes in one day instead of the block schedule of four classes per day the rest of the week. Walking into the cafeteria for lunch, I start to relax just a little. I have this loner thing down to a science and that's just what I need – some time alone. After a quick pass through the food line, I zero in on the most uninhabited corner of the cafeteria and, with great relief, disappear into it.
I'm successful at being invisible. Almost. Sitting at the farthest table from the entry, I eat my lunch behind my open government book. For the first ten minutes, the rest of the world pretends that I don't exist, just the way I want it. Eating while reading my assignment, I occasionally peer over the top of my book, identifying the various groups – jocks, nerds, freaks – as they sit at their unofficially designated tables. It's after the first ten minutes that I see her, a girl walking straight toward me. I shoot her my best 'leave me alone' glare, which she either is to oblivious to notice or simply chooses to ignore. Slouching down in the chair even more, I hope she'll take the hint and just walk away. As her shadow falls over the table followed by a soft voice saying 'hi,' my hopes of a quiet, lunch of solitude fade away.
"Um, hi." I have no idea what this girl wants, but hopefully I can send her on her way without too much effort. Sitting up a little straighter, I look up at her and I'm even more confused. She's a loner. It takes on to know one. If anyone should pick up on my vibe, it should be her. She's breaking the loner code and doesn't even seem to care.
"Do you mind if I sit here?" She's dressed all in emo black – long sleeve Henley, jeans, biker boots and a hoodie, zipped halfway. Her coal black hair (obviously dyed) is mussed like she slipped the hood off just moments earlier. Standing out in sharp contrast to her monochrome palette are her bright green eyes, outlined in thick black eyeliner, almost burning a hole through me. "My name is Caitlin Bellamy, by the way."
"Sure, go ahead, I guess." I shrug, making my indifference very clear, before turning my attention back to my government book.
She, Caitlin, sits down. I can feel her staring at me like she's waiting for something, tapping her painted black nails on the cafeteria table. After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, I realize what she's waiting for.
"I'm Alex Logan, the new kid." Might as well lead with that. It's not like it's a big secret. I'm sure word of my existence has spread through the school by now.
"I already figured that out," she laughed. "I'm in your government class."
"Sorry, I don't remember you. Guess I really didn't notice anyone." Not that I wanted to notice anyone in my classes.
"No big. Anyway, I saw you sitting over here by yourself and thought I'd introduce myself. I'll let you get back to what you were doing." She stands and starts to walk away. Maybe she's not creepy after all. Maybe she is just trying to be friendly, one loner to another.
"Hey, Caitlin. Thanks."
Maybe being the new kid won't be so horrible this time. I quickly push the thought away knowing better than to make friends or become attached to anyone or anything. I know how quickly it can all be taken away. I've lost everything more times that anyone should. Becoming attached only makes it worse.
Ugh, almost time to go to class. After gathering my books and disposing of my partially eaten lunch, I head to my next class, calculus. I keep my head down, as usual, when I walk through the halls, only looking up to check room numbers. Entering the classroom, I look around for an empty desk. Instead, my eyes meet a pair of vivid emerald green eyes staring at me through a curtain of black hair. Caitlin. Just my luck. Hard to avoid her if we're in the same class. And I really want to avoid her. She makes me uncomfortable, like she wants something from me. I'm afraid what she wants is friendship and that's not something I want or need.
Forty-five minutes later the bell rings and I high-tail it out of the room before anyone, especially Caitlin, can stop me. I've already mapped the route to my next class, which luckily is just a few doors down. Ducking into the room, I take the desk in my preferred spot, second row from the front, dead center. I learned a long time ago that if I want to be taken seriously and endure fewer distractions, I need to sit near the front of the class. Added bonus – it usually keeps the other kids from approaching me outside school. They always assume that I'm a stuck-up snob or teacher's pet. I don't care, as long as they leave me alone. I take my loner role very seriously and cultivate it at every new school.
I endure my final two classes of the day, including a mandatory study hall. While everyone else is sitting around and talking, I finish my calculus homework, leaving only my physics assignment to do at Karen's.
That was relatively painless I think as I push my way through the crowded halls after the final bell. Oof! So much for painless. I have walked straight into the back of a very large guy who has stopped walking right in front of me. The collision is hard enough to knock the air out of my lungs, leaving me wheezing for a minute. While I'm trying to catch my breath, the big guy, spins on his heel and gives me an angry shove and yells at me. In no mood to let this Neanderthal attack me, using my small size, I slip past him and snake my way through the crowd, his angry voice trailing behind me.
I've only been at Karen's house for a few days, but I've done enough exploring to have found the perfect route from school to the house. It's direct without much foot traffic coming from the school. By cutting through a business district, I'm adding a few blocks to the walk, but the other students who walk that path seem as happy to ignore me as I am to ignore them.
A brisk twenty minute walk later, I'm opening the door to Karen's house. I can't think of it as home. I've made that mistake in the past. I'm a foster kid. I don't get to have a home. When I step inside, I catch a whiff of chocolate chip cookies. My gut clenches and my eyes tear up at the memory the aroma evokes, the 'good old days' when my mom would be waiting with a snack for me to come home from school. My favorite was always chocolate chip cookies. She made the best.
"Alex, is that you?" Karen calls out from the kitchen.
Brushing away the few tears that escape, I walk toward Karen's voice.
"Yeah, it's me."
I want to tell her how delicious those cookies smell, but that would break one of my rules. No opening up, no giving more information than is absolutely necessary.
"These just came out of the oven. Would you like a few?"
I don't have time to answer before she pulls a plate from the cabinet and piles it with cookies, sliding it across the kitchen island toward me.
"What about something to drink? Milk? Iced tea? Water?"
Again, she is in the cabinet, pulling down a glass, walking to the refrigerator and waiting for me to answer.
"Um, just water, please. Thanks."
Taking a bite of a cookie, I have to muffle a moan. So delicious, even better than my mom's. Maybe Karen adds a secret ingredient. Maybe it's just that no one has made these for me since I was seven years old. Maybe it's because they taste like home, a home I wish I had.
"So… how was school? Did you make any friends?"
It takes everything in me to fight the urge to roll my eyes. Karen chuckles, realizing what she said.
"Sorry! That really sounded like you are in second grade. Let me rephrase. Did you meet anyone at school?"
I hesitate. Karen is once again getting dangerously close to stepping across my invisible line in the sand, the line between questions I will and will not answer. In the few days I've been at Karen's, I've discovered that she has this sneaky way of getting people (me) to open up. It's not something I want to encourage, but sometimes the answers come out on their own. Like I said, she's sneaky.
"One girl talked to me at lunch." There. Question answered with as little info as possible. Anything less than that and she would probably call me out for being rude. Anything more would just lead to more questions.
"Well, maybe you can talk to someone else tomorrow. Anyway, the boys should be home soon and I thought we could go out to dinner to celebrate your first day at your new school. Where would you like to go?"
'The boys' are Karen's two foster sons, Matt and Henry, siblings who were lucky enough to be placed together. They've been with Karen for six months, but act like they've lived with her their whole lives. They call her Mom. Maybe it's because they are younger, eleven and thirteen. Maybe it's because they don't really remember their own mother. Whatever the reason, I think it's just weird. None of my foster parents would have allowed that. Calling them by their first names was as informal as I ever got.
"We don't have to go out. Really." I don't want special treatment. I certainly don't need it.
"Oh no, we are going out. It's been a big day for you. Besides, I don't have anything planned for dinner. And it would really disappoint the boys not to go."
As if on cue, the front door bangs open against the wall. Two sets of feet stampede through the house to the kitchen. Two voices pipe up at the same time, "Hi, Mom!"
I watch as Karen hugs each of the boys, before getting them their own plate of cookies to share. I have a terrible feeling that I am getting in over my head here, that if I'm not careful, I might care about this little family more than I'd like. I might wish it were my own.