LESSON IN LOVE 101... CHAPTER THREE, SIDE 6 AND 7
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In Homeroom a few days – of hiding from Nathan and the rest of the Champagne Gang – later, the juniors were giving presentations on the topic of 'Teenagers in Today's Society'. Amy Norris went first; she used cardboard cutouts as props and talked about brand endorsements and the influence of movie stars. Jake Black was next, with his presentation on the absence of Biblical knowledge in teenagers' minds, which made Jason Towne, a Jewish freshman, so angry that he walked out of class. Roxanne Cartwright followed, and the room fell respectfully silent as she flicked on a switch and the image of a girl in cargoes and a Hawthorne Heights t-shirt filled the screen set up next to the blackboard.
In my seat, I stiffened, my stomach clenching suddenly as I recognized the girl on the screen. It was Hadley. My stepsister.
"This is one of today's teens, who I observed over the week as a sort of survey," Roxanne said, her throaty voice dropping slightly. "She lives in a nice house in a beautiful town, wears nice clothes – well, I suppose it depends on your tastes, but at least the cloth isn't shabby – probably goes to a good school…but she's not happy."
On screen, the camera panned backwards to show my house – my house – as Hadley stormed out the door muttering a stream of explosives and holding an open can of Bud. There was Ann at the door – sad, vulnerable, frightened Ann, who seemed to be pleading with Hadley for something. Hadley held up her middle finger, tossed the can into the bushes, puked into the pavement, and started running, whooping wildly.
A couple of students snickered. Some were looking bored, many had their heads on their desks – but I couldn't tear my eyes away from the images on the screen. I could feel the bottom dropping out of my stomach, my palms curling into fists of their own accord. I bit my bottom lip, hard, with a strange sense of watching my life flash by before my eyes. I knew that what was coming would be worse.
Hadley was jumping up the steps of a bus, and then the bus was moving out of Linbury into Woosterten, a seedy town just outside the state. It was to New Jersey what the Valley was to Los Angeles. Hadley was running again, and then she stopped in front of a sleazy-looking structure with a few electric lights that was obviously some kind of nightclub. She entered as if she'd been there many, many times before, and vaulted up on a stool before the bar.
For a second, the camera went blank. When it flickered to life again, Hadley was gyrating on the counter of the bar. I watched in stupefied horror as she threw up her arms and slid her Hawthorne Heights t-shirt off her head, then flung it into the dance floor below her.
Some guys hooted. At that moment, I hated them. I hated them because I couldn't hate Curtis or Rachel or my parents; I hated them with the hatred I wouldn't allow myself to feel for Hadley; I hated them as forcefully as I hated myself for being foolish enough to believe that things would get better if I just left the remains of my old life behind.
The guy behind the counter slid something over the counter to Hadley. Roxanne was starting to speak again. "Why is this girl so troubled? Why does she need cocaine to survive? Doesn't she have a family? Doesn't she have anyone she can talk to? Or is everyone in her family so caught up in their own lives – you know, doing their own thing, getting good grades, making new friends, breaking up relationships…"
That was when realization hit me with a sharp, sudden stab. It wasn't just chance that Roxanne had found Hadley of all people to 'survey'…she'd done it on purpose. She had found my house, my family, my secrets – or some of them –, and she'd used it all to hurt me. I touched my forehead with shaking fingers. It was burning. I found it difficult to believe that Roxanne had pulled off something so impossible and cruel, something that would wound me without anyone realizing it, but as her eyes met mine for a moment, they flickered with bored triumph, and I knew for sure – I didn't know how, but Roxanne Cartwright had managed to get her revenge.
I couldn't sit there and watch my stepsister ruin herself anymore. I couldn't take it all in – that Hadley was taking drugs, that Roxanne was getting revenge – without my head bursting. I got to my feet and walked steadily to the door, determined to at least walk out with dignity. Nobody tried to stop me – they were too engrossed in watching my stepsister snort coke. Worst of all was the fact that while I could escape for now, there was no way I could leave Thornton for ever, because I had nowhere to go.
Rochester Park, where my steps led me, was deserted and quiet. I sat down on a bench and drew my knees up to my chin, tilting my head upwards to look at the sky. My tears blurred my sight, but I could still make out the clear, unblemished blue and the spotless white of the clouds sailing unhurriedly over the glinting sun. The brightness of the sky was almost unbearable. I bowed my head, feeling tears stream down my cheeks. Circumstances were spiraling out of control.
I didn't know how long I'd been there when the voice tore into my reverie.
"What the fuck are you doing on my bench?"
I looked up. My palm jumped to hide my tear-streaked cheeks reflexively. It was Zach Gellar, smoking a cigarette and kicking at stray leaves, the typical scowl on his face. I blinked, shoving tears back into my eyes. He was yet another rich bastard who didn't know what it was to want things so bad that life felt like a gaping black hole without those things. He was entitled to everything money could buy, perhaps; but he wasn't entitled to the satisfaction of seeing me weep and cower.
"This isn't your bench," I said defiantly.
He rolled his eyes, looking uninterested. "We'll pretend you didn't say that if you leave right now."
I shot him my iciest glare. "I repeat – this isn't your bench. Contrary to what you and your friends believe, this town doesn't belong to you. This park isn't yours. Therefore, I repeat again : this is not your bench."
"Whoa," said a voice. Nathan Wellington stood by the slides, hands shoved into the pockets of his charcoal grey blazer. His eyebrows were raised, a strange reflective smile quirking his lips.
"What are you doing here?" Zach asked lazily. He gave a distinct impression of not really caring about the other person's response.
"Man, Roxy's looking for you," Nathan said, turning his gaze away from me. "We figured you'd be here. Why aren't you answering your phone?"
Zach looked amused. "Since when do you cut class to run errands for Roxy?"
Nathan shook his head. "I'm not. The Socials Committee needed me to pick up fairy lights for Saturday night. Cartwright gave me the hour off. The stuff's back in my car. If you're going back to Thornton, lug some of it over, okay?"
Zach didn't respond. Instead, he slowly stubbed out his cigarette on a swing and looked at me. "Look, kid. No matter what you think, this spot is mine. I've been coming here since preschool. I'll let it go now, since you're – " He smirked unpleasantly. " – obviously going through a lot of mental anguish. But next time, don't let me find you here."
He turned and slouched off. I made a face at his retreating back. Who did he think he was?
Nathan sat down next to me. "You okay?"
I considered for a moment. No, I wasn't okay. And who was he to ask me if I was? "Do you care?"
"Summer." He threw up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Yes, I care. Why'd that presentation thing upset you so much?"
I looked at him. "I can't believe you're insensitive enough to ask."
Nathan sighed. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to. But do you – do you know that chick? Or did you know someone who was, you know, a coke whore – "
I widened my eyes in frustration. "God, Nathan, what is wrong with you? Didn't your parents teach you not to go around asking inappropriate questions?"
"My parents were never around much," Nathan said quietly.
I instantly regretted my words. "Oh."
"Yeah," Nathan said, wriggling his toes in his black boots. "My Dad travels all the time, and my Mom – well – having me fucked up her career, and she just couldn't handle a baby instead of having to handle six-inch stilletos and topless photos, so she started taking drugs. She went into rehab when I was ten after trying to kill herself."
A heavy silence surged around us, as sudden as it was potent. I looked at him uncertainly, not sure what to say. What did people say in these situations? "Wow. I'm – I'm sorry."
"She was Miss Indiana in the year 1999," said Nathan solemnly.
I glanced at him, frowning. The exaggerated sadness of his tone had provoked my suspicions. He looked back seriously for longer than I'd expected; then his lips curled upwards and he burst out laughing. I tried hard to feel angry, but I couldn't resist smiling. "You are so full of crap," I stated, amused.
Nathan winked. "Hey, you're the one who fell for it."
"Poor little rich boy," I said, nodding. "Foolproof way to…fool people."
"Yeah, well, I made you smile. Forgive my insensitivity?" Nathan held his hand out in an overstated gesture of begging for forgiveness. I didn't take it, but I acknowledged the gesture with a slight nod. We grinned at each other, and for the first time since I had started Thornton, I felt myself relax. Nathan was quite a guy. Maybe his charm was part of his player mechanism, but for a second at least, I let myself enjoy it.
"Hey, you know what?" Nathan quirked an eyebrow, his green eyes gleaming. "That was…interesting, what you said to Zach. It was kind of hot, in fact."
For a while, I had stopped thinking of my relationship with Nathan; I'd forgotten that I was the dorky new girl and he was the overconfident jackass trying to get into my pants. Now, the thoughts came flooding back, the humiliation stinging afresh. I got to my feet and grabbed my bag.
"Want a ride back to school?" Nathan asked, leaning back against the bench.
I shook my head. "I can get there on my own," I said freezingly.
He looked puzzled. "I thought we were having a nice conversation."
"We were," I said. "And now we aren't. I'm not one of your groupie girls who like being flirted with, Nathan."
"I wasn't flirting with you," Nathan said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "It really was hot, the way you stood up to Zach. I meant what I said."
"Whatever," I muttered, but a part of me felt kind of flattered.
"So," Nathan said. "You want a ride?"
"Nathan," I said, and then I paused, wondering what to say. "You know, the whole reason I didn't slap you silly last night after I let you kiss me was that you'd leave me alone."
"Yes, well," said Nathan. He smiled at me again, and I noticed the way his green eyes lit up when the corners of his mouth stretched. "I can't help it if our paths cross, can I? I guess Fate means for us to hang out, even if you don't want to."
A cheesy line, but somehow, cheesiness worked on him just as well as intense gazes and dazzling smiles.
"I've got a pretty wide selection of music in my car," Nathan said. "You might find something you like. If, that is, you want to come with me."
"I'm not going back to school," I said resolutely.
Nathan shrugged. "I can drop you off at your house, then."
Oh, what the hell. He was more than cute, he was buttering me up, and as long as I didn't trust him or fall for his corny lines, I'd be okay. "Fine," I agreed. "But you have to drop me off at the bus-stop. Not my house. At the beginning of the lane. If you go any further, I'll…destroy your music."
"Awesome," said Nathan, grinning. He rubbed his head, tousling up his fine, sandy-blond hair. If I'd been born with hair like that, Zach Gellar would never have asked for a hotter waitress.
"This does not,in any way, mean that we are friends, or that I'm going to fall for what you're trying to do with me. I'm just accepting the ride because it's convenient. And I would appreciate it if you would stay away from my house."
"If that's what you want," said Nathan casually.
"It is what I want," I said irritably.
His expression was, strangely enough, one of admiration. "You know what the funny part is?"
Who said I cared? "What?"
"I think you actually mean that."
"I do," I said firmly.
"So we're never going to be friends?"
I tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear. "Nope."
"Not more than friends?"
"Nathan, I heard you tell Roxanne that you want to break my heart to enhance your reputation, and now you think I'll trust you enough to ever be with you?" I said, unable to stop vehemence from creeping into my tone.
Nathan smiled confidently. "We'll see how long you last."
I glared at him. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"I'm a persistent guy, Summer. When I want something, I don't give up till I get it." He opened the door of his car for me gallantly. "And what I want right now is for you to stop thinking I'm an asshole and realize that maybe I'm better than I seem."
I slid into the seat. "And maybe you're worse."
I didn't feel like going to school the next morning, but of course I had to do the responsible thing and go. I had to talk to my homeroom teacher about my schedule, and when I exited her office, Roxanne Cartwright was waiting outside.
"It smells funny in here," she said sweetly, when she saw me. "Like…desperation and defeat, maybe? Did you enjoy the presentation?"
I tried to imitate her calm and smiled a close-mouthed smile. "How did you do it?"
"Do what?" said Roxanne innocently.
I looked her in the eye. "Did you pay Hadley to do all those things on the camera?"
"Oh, please." Roxanne sighed. "Hadley, huh? That's her name? Your coke whore of a sister or cousin or whatever the crap she is?"
I had to dig my nails into my palm to stop myself from lashing out at her, which I knew would be actual physical suicide. "I don't think you actually want to know."
"So dramatic." Roxanne fanned the air in front of her nose delicately. "It's simple, sweetheart. I found your address from the Directory and I hired a PI to watch your house. I knew I'd find something – you have that secretive air, you know? – but I have to admit, I had no idea it would be that good, and I had some plan Bs lined up, just in case –"
"Why?" I interrupted. It was all I could say at that moment – my head was in a whirl. "Why would you want to do something that cruel?"
"Aw, poor little hurt baby Twummer." Roxanne's faux-pitying look hardened. "You made my boyfriend dump me."
"You were going to make me look like a whore if I hadn't said anything," I said, trying to reason with her.
"You did make me look like a whore."
You are a whore, I thought but didn't say. Instead, I swallowed. "You cheated on him."
"It was none of your fucking business," Roxanne snarled.
Which was, undeniably, true. I rubbed my arms, suddenly feeling cold.
"Look," I said softly. "You're right. It wasn't. I'm sorry, okay? I'm really, really sorry. That's all I can say."
"And that isn't enough." Roxanne spun on her heel, her eyes trained intently on my face. "I'd watch my back if I was you, Samantha. Payback's a bitch, and yesterday was only the beginning."
My world seemed to swim around before my eyes as she stalked away, her sleek mane of hair swinging elegantly from side to side.
I was dead. Hiding wasn't working out. I would have to stand up, face the music, and fight back – except I had no idea how to.
"Excuse me?" said a voice at my elbow. It was Rufus Cummings, a dark-haired, abnormally tall junior with freckles dotted over his nose who had reputedly lost his virginity to Karin Wu.
I realized that I'd completely forgotten that it was the day the results of the Chocolate Hearts draw would be announced. The guys would be asking the girls they had drawn to the fundraiser; the girls, of course, would have to give their consent. Now that I thought about it, the halls had been in chaos all day. Girls congregated to their lockers and giggled excitedly about their dates, or cried in disappointment in the bathrooms. A group of freshman boys were taking bets on whom Roxanne Cartwright would be drawn by, and girls had started lingering by the Student Council Lounge and begging Karin Wu to change the results to pair them with Nathan Wellington. Zach Gellar, too, was a popular choice – even though the many girls feared him, there were a few who were willing to overlook everything but how hot he was.
Of course, I hadn't really remembered until I saw Rufus and realized that I, too, had to go to the fundraiser.
"Hi," I said, swallowing. "Can I help you?"
"You're Summer Ward." Rufus made it sound like a statement rather than a question.
"You're my date," I said, in the same flat tone.
"Yes," said Rufus. "Are you pregnant?"
I choked on the words I'd been about to utter. "No," I said, coughing.
"Are you sure?" said Rufus anxiously. "Because if I'm going to introduce a girl to my mother, I have to make sure that nothing remains of her past liaisons."
Oh, God. I'd had to end up with the wackiest weirdo in the whole town, hadn't I? "Rufus, I'm not – "
"We can swing by Planned Parenthood right now, upperclassmen are allowed to leave campus," said Rufus. "I can pay for an abortion if you want."
I placed my hands firmly on his shoulders. "Rufus. I am not pregnant."
Rufus smiled. "All right, then you can fall in love with me. My mother says you should never be with anyone who has a child already, so if you are pregnant, then you'll have to give up your child to marry me. First you'll have to go to college, of course. Vassar, maybe. Or Smith. But then we'll get married."
Our exchange was getting increasingly surreal. I felt a laugh rising to my throat and bit it back. "Okay, Rufus. Pick me up at seven."
"Sayonara," said Rufus goofily, and then he was gone.
I turned away to go to my locker, letting my shoulders shake with laughter as I gave in to the hilarity of the situation. Rufus lived in a different planet, sure, but he wasn't as intimidating as one of the popular guys, and all things considered, it was a relief that he was my date. I mean, at least I wouldn't have to go with Nathan Wellington.
I spun around again. Zach Gellar was leaning against the office door, arms crossed over his chest as he surveyed me under half-closed eyelids, an amused smile curling his lips.He really was hot and attractive in a disturbing way. "Rufus Cummings," he said slowly. "You're particularly unlucky this week."
"Not as unlucky as your date," I retorted, meaning it.
Zach raised an eyebrow. "My date is throwing herself off Eiffel Tower in sheer joy right now. I'd say she considers herself pretty lucky."
"Poor deluded freak," I muttered.
"Whatever," said Zach. He smirked. "I have to say, though, Rufus is far more your type than Nathan is."
I nodded. I wasn't going to let this asshole get to her. Bringing up Nathan wasn't really hitting my weak point – not yet, and if I could help it, not ever. "He makes me laugh," I said coolly. "We're going to get married and go backpacking in the Alps. Don't worry, we'll come back when you and Nathan join the gay fraternity at Arrogant Jackhole University."
For a split second, Zach almost looked impressed. I felt kind of impressed myself. I had no idea where the offensive wit was coming from – I was, after all, the meekest girl in New York City. Or was I? This whole debacle had made me more cynical and angry than I used to be, but maybe it wasn't completely a bad thing. Then Zach's half-impressed, half-amused expression was replaced by a scowl, and he stepped closer, his voice menacing as he said, "You're playing with fire here, kid."
I stopped myself from flinching in the nick of time. "I've got plenty of water, Grandpa."
Zach raised his eyebrows. "I'm saying this for your own good. Stay. Away. From. Nathan." He crossed his arms over his chest. "He isn't your type, and you're not his. And I will do anything to make sure you remember that. For my own amusement, if for no other reason."
"He kissed me," I said quietly, feeling my shoulders slump in spite of myself. God, I felt so tired. Why was I even bothering? Why couldn't everyone see that I had zero interest in using Nathan to rule Thornton? Why did everyone hate me so much in the first place? And I got the impression that Zach wasn't so fond of Nathan anymore – judging from Roxanne and Nathan's conversation in the classroom, because of some girl named Denise. So why was he being so protective of Nathan? Was it a clannish blue-blood thing? "Why are you threatening me? I didn't even want this."
Zach's eyebrows clamped together. "I warned you." We regarded each other silently for a long time, and then he shrugged and turned away, taking a few steps towards the exits. "Oh, and kid," he added over his shoulder.
My knees felt weak. I was digging myself a deep grave, I knew. I managed to keep myself from showing vulnerability and said belligerently, "Yeah?"
"Stay away from my park bench."
He'd just had to have had the last word.