After dinner, Samantha sat next to her dad on the couch.
"What did they look like?"
"Hm? Who?" He scratched his belly.
"The boys on the bridge."
"The dead boys?" He asked back incredulously. "Why does my daughter want to know what a couple'a dead boys look like?"
"In case I see their ghosts!"
"Samantha," her aunt interrupted. "No more about the dead boys."
Samantha rolled her eyes. Her father grinned and leaned over to her ear. "I hear that their ghosts roam around town…" he trailed off, and Samantha hung on for the next word. "…looking for nosy girls who won't let them rest!" And he attacked her with tickles, fingers digging into her sides. Samantha shrieked and laughed, fighting him off.
When the laughter was done, he told her, "You'll have to ask Em'. But wait till the old nag is gone." He kissed her on the forehead and pulled her close. They were watching the new Superman show, at the compromise between her aunt and father. Aunt Anne had wanted Murder, She Wrote. Her father had wanted Martin. Samantha had wanted the new Sea Quest show, with the cute teenage boy in it, but there was a lack of interest from all the adults.
Samantha snuggled in, remembering many days curled up like this with her father, back when she was little. But her mind still lingered on the boys, wanting to know more. However, Emily. She really didn't want to have to talk to Emily one on one.
"Daddy," Carolina walked in front of them, blocking the TV, and leaning forward on their father's knees. "Daddy," she said again plaintively.
Without even having to ask, Harrison reached forward to pick the girl up, and place her in his lap. Samantha had to scoot away, to avoid Carolina's feet. "What is it, pumpkin?"
Carolina didn't answer, just curled against his shirt. Briefly, Samantha forgot about the boys, to stew in silence as the new daughter took their father's attention.
The evening ended with another argument. Harrison expected Aunt Anne to leave immediately in the morning. Aunt Anne expected to be there when Samantha checked in at school.
"They might have questions you can't answer," Aunt Anne argued.
"I'm her father. If I can't answer, then it doesn't matter."
Aunt Anne won by simply refusing to leave until she was ready.
In bed that night, after Carolina had finally stopped whispering questions at her, Samantha listened to the strange noises outside their bedroom walls. Gentle swishing from outside, moving with the shadows of the trees. The hoot of an owl. Strange scratching noises that could have been squirrels running over the roof, or wolves pawing to get into, or ghostly boys trailing bloody nails on the walls.
Samantha shivered and told herself nothing was there.
But she had to know more. And she didn't want to talk to Emily.
She rolled onto her side, to watch the swaying shadows on the wall. Where else could she learn about the dead boys? Her father didn't know anymore, and Samantha didn't want to talk to Carolina any more than she wanted to talk to Emily. Who else could she ask?
She was going to school tomorrow. She could ask the kids there. And her teachers. Her aunt had researched Benton Falls before coming here, and she had already known about the boys on the bridge. She must have known from a book or something.
On Monday morning they all walked to the school: father, mother, aunt, and two children, heading out into the cool autumn morning.
"Now that Sam is here, she can walk Carolina to school, and you can go straight to work," Harrison told Emily.
"She's young, too," Emily argued, holding Carolina's hand in hers. "We shouldn't leave them alone so soon."
"Give her a week."
"A week?" Emily looked stunned. "Maybe in a couple months, but not so soon."
"She's twelve, Em."
Samantha agreed with her father. The school was literally just five minutes away. Even an idiot couldn't get lost.
"Don't you want to get to work early?" Harrison continued.
"I want to know Carolina gets to school safe. I like dropping her off and picking her up. I enjoy it."
"And I'd enjoy dinner on the table by the time I got home. We can't all have what we want."
Emily said nothing in return. Aunt Anne's face pinched, her mouth opened, but with a sigh she held in her thoughts. Samantha felt just a tinge of pity. But she squashed it down. This woman had stolen her father away and didn't deserve sympathy.
There were lots of other kids walking to school, both young and old. Little kids walking with parents or older kids, high schoolers loitering around in groups. The streets were packed, with more people than Samantha could imagine belonged in this little town. Cars lined up in front of the school, others circled around the neighborhood streets. One such car had stopped on their own street; a girl with long dark hair got out. She pulled her backpack over a shoulder and walked away without so much as a wave goodbye. The woman driving the car called after the girl, irate, but eventually gave up and drove away.
What if all the kids already knew each other? Samantha wondered. They would, of course. They'd been in class together since kindergarten. They already had groups of friends, best friends, had been friends since they were little. Would they like her? Hate her? What would Samantha and her friends have done if some new girl showed up? She'd have said hello, tried to make friends. Unless the new girl was weird. Was Samantha weird? Would anyone say hello to her?
At the school entrance, right in the front courtyard where everyone could see, Samantha's father crouched down in front of her as if she was a little kid.
"Now let me warn you, honey. It's a really small school. Your class won't be big."
"I know," Samantha said. She put on a smile to make him happy, but it was hard to maintain with all the students glancing at them.
Aunt Anne laid a hand on her shoulder. "You're a pro at winning people over. You'll be fine."
"Sure," Samantha shrugged, pulling her backpack higher.
The smell of chlorine greeted them inside. Emily and Aunt Anne said their goodbyes to each other, then the new wife and her daughter went down a long hall full of young children. Carolina waved enthusiastically.
"I'm glad you two are getting along," her father said. "I always knew you'd be a good big sister."
Samantha wasn't so sure, but she couldn't say that. She smiled up at him and shrugged.
The office was smaller than the one at her old school. "Is this Miss Watson?" The secretary asked, glancing between Samantha and her father.
"This is. She's a very bright student, one of the best in her class," her father bragged. Samantha cringed.
"Then she'll do great here," the receptionist said kindly. "We may not have the resources other schools do, but we also don't have the big classes she's used to. Now look at this. You'll want to sign here."
Samantha was getting tired of hearing about the class sizes.
There were forms and transcripts and other boring things that her dad and Aunt Anne had to review. A girl with pale blond hair sat in the row of gray cushioned chairs against the wall. She politely raised a hand when Sam glanced over. Sam waved back. This girl looked familiar.
"You're almost done. Let me grab Carter," the secretary stood up and walked to a closed door, labeled 'Principal Pierce Carter'. She knocked, didn't wait, and stuck her head in. "They're here."
The principal was a fit man, about the age of her father, but a little shorter. The talk was more of the same; where Sam was from, her history, the circumstances, the condolences.
"We'll take good care of her," the principal reassured, his smile directed more to Aunt Anne than Harrison Watson. "We have excellent emergency protocols in place, and we're very, very careful with the children in our care. Especially my generation. I know some of the tragic history in the town may make a family worry, but it has also made those of us who grew up during those times very aware and very cautious."
"That does make me feel a little better," Aunt Anne said, with another squeeze to Samantha's shoulder.
"Do you need a moment for goodbyes?" The principal asked.
"Yes," both Aunt Anne and Sam's father said.
"Take however long you need," the principal said and turned to speak to the receptionist.
"This is it," Aunt Anne said, putting both arms around Sam's shoulders.
"I'll call every day," Sam said.
"Maybe once a week," her father interrupted. Then, at both their looks, he added, "Eventually. However often you want this week."
"Okay," Samantha said.
"Thank you," said Aunt Anne. "Now, give me a big squeeze." And Samantha did, hugging her aunt hard. Her aunt hugged her tightly back. "I love you, honey."
"Love you too."
"Give me a call tonight? God, I don't want to leave you behind."
"I wanna stay with you," Samantha quietly admitted, hoping her father didn't hear.
"It's just for a year," Aunt Anne whispered back, squeezing Samantha again. Then she stepped back.
"I'll see you at home, kiddo," Harrison gave Samantha a hug too.
"We'll take it from here," Principal Carter stepped in with perfect timing, cutting the painful moment short. "We're very happy to have you here, Ms. Gordon," he said with a genuine smile. "I'd like you to meet Quinn," he gestured towards the girl sitting against the wall. The blonde girl's back was straight, hands crossed over her knees like an adult. Again, the blond girl raised a hand. She was so poised, her hair platinum and smooth, perfect like Madonna's. Anxiety crept up Sam's throat, aware of her own frizzy red hair, her ruddy cheeks and lack of makeup.
"She'll give you a quick tour of the school, then show you to your classroom. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask any of us."
The blonde girl stood, smoothed down her knee length skirt. Sam struggled to meet her eyes. The girls shook hands. Quinn's hand was thin, bony, and cold, her grip tight.
"Pleased to meet you."
"Um, you too."
Quinn led her around the school with a brisk walk, kitten heels clacking on the speckled linoleum. "Elementary classes are that way. The high school classrooms are this way. There's been some bullying, so we suggest staying out of the high schoolers' area. All lockers belong to them. The middle schoolers don't switch rooms, so you'll have your own desk."
"Okay," Samantha said dimly.
Quinn glanced back. "Did you have lockers at your old school?"
"Pity. Every year there's an argument over switching the middle schoolers to multiple classrooms, but apparently, they just can't make the schedule work. I proposed a schedule that added another period and put more of the high school teachers in rotation to teach the middle school levels, but alas, the teachers felt it would be took much work."
Sam had never heard anyone say 'alas' outside of a book.
Quinn narrowed her eyes at Sam like she could read that thought, and Samantha quickly looked away.
They circled through the school, the cafeteria, the gym, the pool, the library. And that's when Samantha realized who this girl was.
"I saw you this weekend! You checked us out at the library."
"Correct. Your aunt, she picked up a mystery novel, didn't she?"
"Um," Samantha had to think for a moment. "Yeah, she was pretty excited to see it. Our library got flooded like everything else. She's just been reading the magazines at the hospital. That reminds me…" She reached into her backpack and pulled out the book. Aunt Anne had asked her to return it.
"Did she finish it?" The blonde girl asked.
Samantha shook her head.
"Pity." Quinn pressed her lips together. "I should have told her to keep it."
Samantha blinked. Was that a kindness? Rule breaking seemed odd coming from this uptight, proper girl.
"Returns there," Quinn pointed to a book slot in the lobby wall. "Now this way, I'll take you to your class," Quinn said.
Samantha jogged to catch up. "Umm, there's something I've been wanting to ask you."
"Yes?" This time impatience showed.
"The bridge," Samantha rushed out. "The waterfall. The boys."
"Ah." Quinn didn't seem surprised. "They died on Friday, October 14th, 1977. Their names were Jack Lawrence and Finch Mallory. They went out camping at night. At some point they drowned, then were hung at the old Diamond Bridge," Quinn recited.
"Drowned?" That was new. Samantha bit her lip. "Why would someone drown them, then hang them? Why not just leave them in the water?"
"Their bodies were found by Oldrich Norman the next morning. The end." Quinn turned away to stride down the hallway.
Samantha jogged to catch up. "That's it? But who killed them?"
"We don't know," Quinn said without looking back. "Our sheriff is a fool and an idiot who could never solve any of the mysteries in our town." The vehemence she said this with surprised Samantha. "Given it happened 16 years ago, the killer is likely 30 to 60 years old now. Still able to kill. Not that the sheriff feels any urgency."
"You think he'll kill again?" Samantha asked tentatively.
"They haven't since. At least not in our town. But I don't like placing bets on hopes," the blonde girl said sarcastically. "So be careful at night."
Quinn didn't let them fall into silence. "You're not the only new student this year," Quinn dropped, looking sideways at Sam.
"Really?" Sam asked hopefully.
"An eighth grader. My class. It's surprising to get a single new student, much less two."
"I bet he started at the beginning of the year though," Sam said quietly.
"He did." Quinn glanced at her thoughtfully. "But if you work hard, you can make it up. You might even be ahead of the curriculum here. Most schools are."
Tour over, Quinn brought Samantha to her new classroom. "Here you are. Ready?"
All thoughts of the murderer who got away and the new student with a head start halted as the door to her new classroom loomed in front of her. Sam took a deep breath. It would be okay. As long as she didn't embarrass herself. As long as she made a friend. If Samantha could make just one friend at her new school, things would be all right.
She nodded to Quinn. The student guide knocked briskly, back stiff, chin up. Samantha stood up taller too, preparing to face her new class.
"Come in!" Called a man's voice, hearty and welcoming.
At Quinn's gesture, Samantha turned the knob and stepped in. The wood floors gleamed with sunlight, blinding Samantha for a second. The curtains were wide, showing the green-yellow grass and orange leaves.
Inside sat about a dozen students at their desks, all eyes going straight to Samantha.
At the front of the classroom was the teacher, a man younger than her father, a friendly grin on his face.
"Miss Watson, correct? We've been waiting for you," the teacher said.
"Thank you, sir." Samantha met his eyes briefly but stole a quick glance at the students. They watched her back, one boy leaning over to a classmate to say something while staring at her. Samantha felt hyper aware of her frizzy hair, her stained clothes, her pale, barely-there eyebrows, her weird black eyes. There would be rumors. Maybe they would think got kicked out of her last school. That she ran away.
"It's exciting to have a new student," the man continued, reaching out to shake her hand. His grip was too tight, the shake too energetic. "I'm Mr. Donovan. I'm friends with Indiana Jones, I have a castle in Ireland, and I won the 1889 Derby."
All of Samantha's thoughts ran to a halt. "What?" She said awkwardly.
The whole class laughed. Samantha flushed, her gaze darting between the students and teacher.
The teacher winked. "I'm just yanking your chain. Now please Ms. Watson, in your own words, introduce yourself to your classmates."
He stepped to the side, next thing Samantha knew she was standing by herself in front of the whole class, the nameless other kids watching her. "Um." Her throat went dry. She looked for a friendly face among the crowd - and found him.
Their eyes caught for a moment - two haunting gray eyes stared back at her, from behind thick frames - before the boy looked away, curling into himself. The boy from the window! He was her age, and in her class! He sat as far back in the classroom as he could, the back row, next to the window. Samantha's heart sped up, and the noise of the school disappeared. She wanted to meet see his eyes a second time, but he kept his face down to his notebook.
Swallowing the knot in her throat, Samantha looked at the other students: a bored looking girl with long black hair; two blondes whispering and giggling; unfriendly looking boys in camo, sneering at her.
A big warm hand gently landed on her shoulder. "Go ahead," the teacher said. How long had she been standing there, silently? Mortification crawled up her cheeks. The teacher winked again. "Don't worry. They're as scared of you, as you are of them."
"Hi," she said to the class. "I'm Samantha Watson."
"And where are you from?" The teacher asked, removing his hand from her shoulder, stepping back to lean against the teacher's desk.
"Kansas City. I moved here to be with my dad." The anxiety rose again, taste of bile in the back of her mouth. Would anyone ask? She didn't want to talk about it.
"What's Kansas City like?" One of the blonde girls asked.
"It's. Um…" All she could think of was the rain, of everyone in the neighborhood helping her and her aunt put sandbags around their house, then the group of adults wading through ankle high water to the next house. "It's underwater right now," Samantha said admitted.
Several heads lifted. "How?" The blonde girl asked, bewildered. "It's not near the ocean."
"It rained," Samantha said dumbly. "A lot."
This raised more questions, about how deep the water was, was it as tall as her, had she swum in it.
"Why is your Dad here, and your Mom there? Are your parents divorced?" The girl with sleek, straight black hair asked. Her cheek rested on her hand; her eyes uncaring.
"Morgan, that's rude," The teacher interrupted, before Samantha could think of what to say to that. "Samantha, you can sit down now. Any open seat is fine." And finally, finally the numerous eyes of all the students lifted from here. Samantha took a seat in the back, hoping to stay out of sight.
She'd been delivered to the class in the middle of History, and the teacher had pointed her to the used, worn textbooks readily available at the back of the room. The man bumbled through a lesson on the Civil War by reading straight from the book. Samantha had gone over this already at her previous school, but they hadn't talked so much about the individual battles. In KC they'd talked more about slavery.
Samantha tried her best to be attentive, but it was hard to be interested when the teacher wasn't. The man was obviously a gym teacher, or a coach. He wore basketball shorts with sneakers and socks all the way up to his shins.
As boredom took over the anxiety of before, her curiosity returned. Samantha took a glance over at the boy from the window again.
He was looking right at her.
They both jerked, and Samantha looked away. He'd been looking right at her! She peaked a glance again, but his head was down, pencil moving, intent on his notebook.
Was he curious about her too? Why wouldn't he talk to her?
Next was English, with Mr. Brubaker. His clothes were newer, his button up shirt pressed, a gray jacket he took off and laid over the chair, his jaw fully shaven, and he seemed to know what he was doing, as opposed to the History teacher. As Quinn had explained, the students stayed in the room, at the same desk, while the teachers switched. Samantha itched to get up and move. The student next to her glared when Samantha's feet tapped a rhythm into the floor. Samantha's stomach growled at the end of English, but according to her schedule, and the slowly ticking clock, there was another period to go before lunch. And worse, when the bell rang, everyone was getting out of their seats. Samantha sat frozen for half a second, watching as they left their books at their desks, and walked out.
"Umm." She glanced at the mystery boy, "Uh, where do we-"
With an anxious glance at her, he rushed through gathering his stuff, then dashed to the door.
"But," she faltered, wondering what was so terrible about her that he couldn't stand to even talk to her.
Looking at her schedule, the next class was Music. She walked up to the English teacher. "Sir?"
He'd been pulling his jacket back on. He glanced up and smiled warmly when he saw her. He had the bluest eyes she'd ever seen.
"Miss Watson, it's nice to meet you one on one. How can I help?"
"Um, well. I'm not sure where the music class is."
"Ah, that's a tricky one. It's on the north side, down a closed hallway. Do you know where the gym is?"
With chalk, he drew a loose map on the green board of the corridors, pointing to an area left of the gymnasium. (Samantha hated that adults used compass directions like "north" and "west". She didn't tell which way was west.)
"I'm no artist, but I hope this helps." The bell rang. Class had started. "Let me give you a tardy slip. Are you liking your new home?"
"Yes!" Samantha said, as he pulled out the yellow pad. But then she thought about it. Was she really enjoying sleeping on a mattress in Carolina's room? "It's better than things have been."
He handed over the excused pass, face sympathetic. "You were displaced, weren't you?"
"Yes, sir. We were living in my aunt's friend's home, if that's what you mean."
"I've heard there's been a lot of damage up north. Have you ever been to Saint Louis?"
"I don't think so." Her parents had taken her traveling when they were still together. But she'd been only six when they separated. There hadn't been much travelling after that.
"That's where I'm from. And it got hit very hard by the floods too."
"Oh. Are your parents okay?"
He laughed. "Don't worry about them, I imagine they're just fine. My father and his friends can weasel their ways out of any trouble. Tell me," he tipped his head to the side, eyes squinting at her, "have you made any new friends yet?"
Samantha shook her head.
He shrugged, looking to the doorway. "Just give it time. All the kids are curious about you. I'm sure you'll meet your new best friend soon."
"Thank you, sir."
"That's Mr. Brubaker. I'm not a drill sergeant. And let me know if you need anything."
"Yes, sir. Mr. Brubaker."
A lopsided smile, then a light flip of the finger on her nose. "Run along, Ms. Samantha."
But next to the gym she did not find the music room. She looked down the side hallways, finding the restrooms, the locker rooms, janitor closets, what looked like a room for the pool utilities. But no music room.
Lockers were scattered around these hallways, and it shouldn't have been a surprise when she opened a door to find a cluster of older high school boys in a bathroom. One was peeing in a urinal; he glanced up, then whipped his pants up when he saw her. Two other boys were lounging around near the window. It had been propped open a tiny bit, and they were both smoking.
"What the hell!" Cursed boy who had been peeing, saying a lot more than just the H word. The smoking boys gawked at her.
"I'm sorry!" She cried and swirled to back out. But she was stopped by another high schooler walking in, blinking down at her in confusion.
"Who are you?" He demanded.
"I'm sorry!" She cried again. "I didn't mean to, I'm new, I'm just looking for the music room."
"Yeah, you're definitely new. I've never seen you before," one of the boys by the window said.
"There's supposed to be some new girl, right?" Said his friend. "In the junior classes."
"I peed my pants!" The boy at the urinal said angrily.
The smokers laughed. Samantha tried again to back out, but this time the boy at the door crossed his arms and intentionally kept her from leaving. "What do you think you're doing, breaking into the high school boy's bathroom?"
"I gotta get to class," she whispered.
"She's trying to see her first penis!" One of the smokers joked.
"What's this?" The boy at the door said, pulling the orange tardy slip from her hand. "You're brand new, and they're already treating you like some princess?"
"No, I talked to the teacher after class, that's all. I need to get to Music."
"Then what the hell are you doing here?" The urinal boy demanded.
"Be nice." One of the smoking boys said. "I got lost trying to find it the first time back in fourth grade."
"Yeah, cuz you were in fourth grade," his pal snickered.
"What's your name?" The boy blocking her way demanded.
"What grade are you?" Urinal boy demanded.
"Um, uh," Samantha stammered. "Samantha? Seventh?" She gripped her schedule tight in her other fist. It drew the urinal boy's attention. He grabbed it from her. He hadn't washed his hands.
"She's got Kaplan, Donovan, Brubaker, Henderson, Kaplan again…"
"I liked Mrs. Kaplan. She was pretty cool."
"Please," Samantha asked. "Give them back."
They ignored her. "Where are you from?" The talkative smoker asked.
"Please, I need to get to class," she begged.
"Who cares about class?" The smoker complained. "My cousin dropped out, and he's doing just fine. Working construction, going hunting every weekend. We don't need algebra or chemistry for anything in the real world."
"He asked, where are you from?" The boy blocking the door demanded again.
"What type of idiot girl can't even tell the difference between the boy's room and the music room?" Urinal boy added.
Samantha was close to crying, surrounded by these older boys. And that's when the janitor walked in.
"Are you boys smoking again?"
The boy blocking the way had to move. The two smokers ducked into the stalls, but not before being seen by the janitor. Urinal boy stepped towards the stalls as well, but ultimately stood his ground.
"I saw you Isaac Abernathy," the janitor yelled towards the stalls. "I'll tell your mother about this myself!"
"I'm pooping!" The talkative smoker yelled from the bathroom stall.
"I can smell cigarettes, boy! What are ya'll doing, ditching class-" The janitor whirled on the rest of them, stopping when he saw Samantha.
Urinal boy took the opportunity interrupt. "She burst in on me! We didn't do anything, she just walked right in, it's her fault!"
"She was trespassing," the boy at the door said.
The janitor glanced between the two boys, scandalized. "You terrorize some poor middle school girl, then blame her? I never. Let's get you out of here, young lady." The janitor took Samantha by the shoulder and escorted her out of the bathroom.
"Don't cry, it's all right," the janitor said as he escorted her to quiet hallway leading to the gymnasium. Tears had burst from Samantha's eyes, and she was desperately trying to hold them in, every cell of her body horrified to be seen crying. "What did those boys say to you? They're cruel, every one of them. How did you even get in there?"
"It was my fault," Samantha confessed. "I walked in on them. I didn't mean to."
"There, there. You're the new girl, aren't you? Obviously, it's not your fault."
He pulled a handkerchief from his uniform and wiped at her eyes. Samantha cringed, suddenly aware of his dirty uniform and hands. Then the guilt overwhelmed her, at her disgust for someone so kind.
"I'm supposed to be in Music," she admitted. "But I couldn't find the classroom."
"Ah," the janitor said, putting the handkerchief back in his pocket. "No surprise you got lost looking for it. It's this way-"
The janitor was interrupted as a harried student came dashing around the corner. "Mr. Yeager, Mr. Yeager!"
The janitor stood up straight. "Eh? What is it?"
"One of the girls barfed all over the teacher's desk! It smells like a raccoon died!"
The janitor heaved a giant sigh. "I'll be there in just a moment." To Samantha, he put a hand on her shoulder again, and hurried down the hall, pointing as he went. "Ms. Henderson' music room is down this corridor, through the first door, then the second door on your left. Not the right door, that's the teachers' lounge. The second door is a closet. You see here?" They stopped in front of a corridor with classrooms on both sides, and another door straight ahead that Samantha had gone through and backed out of when she had just found more doors. It had looked like a space for faculty.
"Yes. Thank you." She said gratefully.
He patted her on the back. "You'll do fine, young lady. Just be thankful you don't have to go clean up vomit." He left with a wink.
This time, it was obvious which one was the chorus room, as it was the door with muffled singing behind it. She didn't know how late she was at this point, and a little bit of the fear crept back up her throat as she knocked on the door. When there was no response, she knocked again, harder. Then, after still no response, she opened the door.
The singing fell apart voice by voice as the students noticed her. It was the teacher who noticed last, turning to see what had interrupted her choir. "What is it?" She glanced Samantha up and down, hands on her hips. Several of the students snickered. "You're the new girl, aren't you?"
"Um, yes." Samantha admitted, afraid all over again.
"How did you manage to be," a glance at the wall, "thirty minutes late?"
"I- I got lost. But I talked to Mr. Brubaker, he gave me a pass-"
"Where is it?" The music teacher demanded.
Samantha realized she never got her tardy slip back. Or her schedule.
"I- I- Some boys took it." She didn't dare tell this woman that she had gotten caught in the boy's bathroom.
The teacher squinted at her, obviously skeptical. "I'll let you off today. But if you're ever late again, it's detention."
Samantha waited, not sure what she was supposed to do next.
"Are you dumb?" The teacher demanded. "Don't make the whole class wait on you."
Samantha stood frozen in fear, unsure what to do.
"Get up on the stands!" The teacher barked, and Samantha darted forward. She squeezed her way into the second row, though the other students made no move to give her room.
"Pick up at the chorus," the teacher instructed, raising her hands. Around Samantha, the other students began to sing. Samantha mouthed along, terrified to ask any questions.
She sat by herself during lunch. She'd initially followed the other kids out of the classroom but hadn't made it far before ducking into the girls' bathroom to sob in a stall.
Lunch hadn't started much better. She didn't have a lunch card, and the lunch lady had given her a dirty look when Samantha had tried to hand over cash.
"Do I look like I have change? Don't give me that. Just take your food. Don't come back tomorrow without a punch card."
"Yes, ma'am," Samantha had meekly answered, then shuffled away to find a spot to eat.
She had eaten a few bites of her macaroni but didn't have the heart to eat anymore. Then, someone stood over her. It was the pretty black-haired girl from her class, the one who had asked rude questions. "Hi," the girl said.
"Hi," Samantha said. The girl didn't look friendly, her face disdainful, like her emotions were frozen. The girl sat down across from Samantha. Two tables over were the girls from their class, watching them both and whispering. There was an empty seat at the table that hadn't been there when Samantha looked around for a place to sit.
"Music sucks. Ms. Henderson's a bitch," the girl explained. Samantha flinched at the word. "Don't worry, everyone hates her." The girl reached her hand over the lunch table to shake. "I'm Morgan." Her grip was light, barely there. "Your dad married Emily Olsen. And they've got a kid. But you don't look like her."
"Um," Samantha stalled, wondering what she should say. But there didn't seem to be any option but the truth. "Carolina and I are half-sisters."
"My mom keeps threatening to leave my dad," Morgan said easily, like divorce was as nonchalant as the lunch menu. "I wish she just would, I hate living here."
"Oh." Samantha said, not sure what else to say.
"Did your mom leave?" Morgan asked, twirling her fork. "Or did your dad?"
Samantha's mouth went dry. "Um."
"I'm guessing your dad, since he's remarried. I heard your mom's dying."
"Who told you that?" Samantha demanded.
"Lucas Edwards. He lives on your street."
Samantha's heart raced, like a drum in her chest. "The boy who lives next to me?"
"What? No, not that loser. He doesn't talk to anyone unless you're a teacher. Luke sits two seats in front of you, to the left. He's..." Morgan looked around the lunchroom. "That one, over there." She pointed to a group of boys sitting close to the kitchen. One of them was holding up a finger rifle, two hands pointed, tracking a girl in his sights like she was a deer he was about to shoot.
"Oh." Samantha didn't recognize any of them.
"His mom is friends with Emily Olsen. Was that your mom in school this morning?"
"You mean… Aunt Anne?"
"Ah," Morgan said, nodded to herself. "I heard she looked too old for him. Men like younger women."
"I guess so," Samantha shrugged, thinking of Emily. She didn't want to think about that. She didn't want to talk about any of this. But…this was the first girl her age to talk to here.
Samantha looked up, met Morgan's gaze.
"What's your dad do?" Samantha asked, and smiled, her friendliest, most reassuring smile. She didn't let Morgan dig any deeper, steering the conversation to safe places, and gradually it became almost friendly.
They talked about their parents, and how they'd grown up. Morgan lived outside of town. Her father ran a chicken farm. She'd lived in Benton Falls her whole life. Samantha got the feeling she was eager to hear about other, more 'glamorous' places.
"Was your house big?" Morgan asked.
"Not really." Aunt Anne's house had been slightly bigger than Emily's.
"I bet you guys didn't have to deal with the brats and the jerks." Morgan nodded to some of the upperclassmen on the edge of the lunchroom. The cafeteria was almost all middle schoolers. Maybe the elementary kids and the high schoolers had lunch at a different time.
"Not at school." Samantha replied, watching the rowdy students around them. Samantha could tell the sixth graders from the eighth graders by height and face shape. "But my old elementary was nearby, so I saw a lot of the little kids around the neighborhood."
"How many kids were at your school?" Morgan asked.
Morgan rolled her eyes. "Whatever.
They talked until the end of lunch period and walked back to class together. Morgan told her about the other kids in their class; who played sports, who lived in town, who had to bus.
"Science is next," Morgan said as they separated to find their seats. Briefly, Samantha wished she'd sat closer to the front.
Science was next, with a straightforward but friendly woman. She was short, and pudgy, and greeted Samantha warmly.
"I missed you this morning, dear. I teach seventh grade math during first period, so I get to see all of you twice a day. If you ever need any help, I run the help lab after school, and during weekends." The gray-haired woman smiled towards the rest of the class. "A few of you should join me this weekend! Remember, please excuse- Come on, everyone! Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally." The class joined in the recital; Samantha included. "There's no easier way to go wrong in an equation than adding and subtracting, before dividing and multiplying." The teacher looked over the faces around her, gauging boredom. "Now let's talk about sharks and dolphins!"
The day seemed to get better.
Thankfully, her dad and Emily had planned for PE and Samantha had gym clothes in her backpack. She stuck close to Morgan as the students left class.
"Why do they make us leave and come back twenty time?" Morgan complained. "It's so stupid."
Gym had always been one of Samantha's favorite classes. She liked the chance to run around, and she did well when they did the mile. She'd played soccer at the neighborhood, though her aunt could never pay for her to play in a league. As Samantha predicted, their history teacher was indeed their gym teacher, and he obviously enjoyed himself more in the gymnasium. He heaped praise out enthusiastically to all of them, a grin always on his face.
At least, until the incident.
"Hey," the teacher snapped. Samantha froze, stepping on the kickball she was about to kick. The other kids around her had also frozen. Then, "Hey!" An angry shout. Everyone on the court turned around.
Whatever had happened, it was in the corner of the court, near the folded wall of wooden bleachers. Several boys were walking away, strutting in an overly macho way. Someone was on the floor, the gym teacher kneeling by them, talking gently.
Samantha glanced around the other kids on the court, finding Morgan and jogging over to her.
"What happened?" Sam whispered.
"Just the usual," Morgan answered, bored. She was smoothing her hair down. "It's the loser."
The gym teacher helped the student sit up, pulling up a brown-haired boy, who looked younger than most of the class. The boy awkwardly put his glasses back on, and Samantha realized it was the boy from the window, the boy next door. The gym teacher stayed in a crouch, talking to the boy. The boy nodded, but never met his gaze.
With a deep sigh, the gym teacher stood up. In a booming voice, he pointed. "Lucas, Kevin, office, both of you."
"Getting out of class? Hell yeah." One of the boys high-fived the other.
"You think picking on someone is fun?" The gym teacher yelled. "You think it's fun to kick someone in the gut? You're getting more than just detention at this rate."
"Pfft, like I care." One of the boys shrugged. "I don't want to be in school anyway."
They all watched as the gym teacher escorted the three boys, bullies and victim, out of the gym. The class watched the bullies leave, but Samantha watched the beaten boy, his shoulders pulled tightly in on himself, wiping at his cheek, and Samantha's chest tightened. Why hadn't anyone tried to stop it?
"What's his name?" Samantha quietly asked Morgan.
"Who, the big asshole who thinks he's hot stuff?"
"No, the one who was getting kicked."
"The loser? Chris Grayson."
Reading was the last class of the day, and a welcome return of the handsome English teacher Mr. Brubaker. When he noticed three of the boys were missing, his lips pursed, and a brokenhearted frown crossed his face. The class was currently reading Lord of the Flies. Samantha wondered if the school had chosen it, or if the teacher had.