CARA LANGE STOOD IN THE DOORWAY OF THE CAFE- teria, her nylon lunch bag in one hand. The din of chattering students floated above the sea of white Formica-topped tables, and a steamy potato-and-onion aroma emanated from the kitchen. Cara paused. She wasn’t sure she could stand another lunch tacked onto the other track girls like a vestigial organ—completely useless and unnecessary. She considered fleeing to the parking lot and eating lunch in her yellow ’99 Volvo. But no. She wasn’t that lame.
Cara forced her legs across the brown-tiled room. Sherman High hadn’t done a lot of updating since its construction in 1975, architecture’s notorious Brutalism phase. People driving by often mistook the sprawling building on the outskirts of Des Moines for a prison. Cara could have told them that assumption wasn’t far from the truth.
She passed the emo kids in the corner, and the hipsters with their retro T-shirts, and the hippies eating organic yogurt. Some of the art students were stacking a bunch of chairs into a tower—some kind of new art installation? The track girls were clustered at their usual table, packed in tightly. Sarit Kohli, her dark braid reaching almost to her waist, inhaled a stack of turkey slices as she told Rachael Meade about yesterday’s practice. Julie Cohen chomped loudly on an apple while laughing at something Madeline Brazelton was texting. Cara stood over them for a minute, smiling vaguely, but no one looked up or even stopped talking. Finally, she dragged a chair over from the next table and squeezed in between Sarit and Madeline.
“Oh, hey, Cara,” Sarit said, looking up. She inched her chair over.
“Thanks.” Cara sat down.
“Sure.” Sarit shrugged, already turning back to Rachael.
Cara let the noise of the room swirl around her like smoke as she pulled a bag of baby carrots from her nylon sack and nibbled idly. Her eyes drifted across the room to the cafeteria door. Prom-princess Alexis Henning was just swaying through the doors, her butter-blond hair spilling in perfect waves over her shoulders. By her side was Ethan Gray, her on-again, off-again boyfriend and the captain of the boys’ track team. Alexis’s beefy-faced best friend—and Cara’s next-door neighbor—Sydney Powers scurried by her side. Cara’s shoulders tightened involuntarily.
The group slouched into chairs at their usual table nearby. For the gazillionth time, Cara studied Ethan’s profile, taking in the icy-blue eyes, gorgeous nose, and perfectly scruffy beard stubble. His thick dark hair just brushed the collar of his navy polo. Cara sat back in her chair and mentally ran her fingers over his chiseled cheeks.
“You forgot to shave,” she pictured herself teasing. “I don’t want to get all scratched up when you kiss me.”
“Too bad,” she heard him say. He leaned over her and pulled her up against him. She could feel the hard muscles of his chest. He bent his head toward hers. She closed her eyes. . . .
Alexis’s screechy voice crowded her ear. “You can’t come to Sydney’s tomorrow, Ethan. It’s girls only, you dork.”
Cara opened her eyes. Three tables over, Alexis was pulling the foil top off a Dannon lemon yogurt using only the tips of her fingers. Ethan leaned over and whispered something in her ear. “Eww, you’re disgusting!” She slapped him on the shoulder, and he grinned.
Cara took a deep breath. Her fingers were squeezing a baby carrot, and she forced them to relax. Sydney’s surprisingly deep voice chimed in. “My next party is going to be all boys, Ethan—and us, of course.”
Cara resisted the urge to bury her face in her hands. Sydney’s house was practically on top of her own. Which meant that every Friday and Saturday night, Cara sat at home, alone, pretending to watch Real Housewives on TiVo while trying to ignore the squeals and laughter from Sydney’s deck.
God, if only Zoe were here. A familiar twist of pain tightened Cara’s abdomen at the thought of her old best friend. She hadn’t seen Zoe since her family moved away in fifth grade. It was like her other half was missing.
Cara pushed her lunch aside and pulled a notebook from her bag. She doodled idly in the margins. She hadn’t thought about Zoe in a while, but recently, for some reason, her mind was filled with memories of her. The two of them climbing the wild grapevines in the woods behind Zoe’s house, pretending to be forest princesses. Trying to tame the neighbor’s crazy German shepherd with pieces of cupcake, then screaming when he barked. All the times Zoe had snuck into her bedroom at night through the window, crying because of her horrible stepdad. She’d climb under the comforter and Cara would stroke her silky dark hair until Zoe fell asleep.
They’d written to each other some after the move, but pretty soon the letters just stopped. Cara had a feeling her parents were relieved to have Zoe gone. They used to act so weird whenever Cara brought up her friend; it was like they thought Zoe and her family weren’t good enough. Not that they were really in a position to decide what was good for Cara. She’d been stuck with one babysitter after another until she was old enough to stay alone, all so Mom and Dad wouldn’t miss a single moment in the courtroom.
Cara looked down at her notebook. Without even realizing it, she’d drawn little pictures of her and Zoe all up and down the margins. She glanced around hurriedly, but no one had noticed. Sarit was staring fixedly at her phone, while Julie leaned over her shoulder, pointing out something on the screen. The others were cramming the rest of their lunches into their mouths. It was only a few minutes until the next bell. Quickly, Cara ripped out the page and stuffed it in the back pocket of her frayed navy chinos.
Just then, a girl’s shrill laugh rose above the rest of the noise in the cafeteria. Cara looked up. Across the room, Jack Penn slung Alexis up over his meaty shoulder, fireman-style.
“Stop it, Jack!” she screeched delightedly, pounding on his back with her manicured hands. He twirled her faster, and everyone at Cara’s table snickered. Finally Jack set Alexis on her feet. Then he leaned over and whispered something in her ear. She laughed like a donkey, showing all her teeth.
Cara kept her eyes fixed on Ethan as he sat across the table, his brow darkening. She couldn’t believe Alexis would flirt with Jack so obviously right in front of him. Ethan rose to his feet and leaned over, his palms on the table, as he said something to Alexis. Cara watched intently as they argued back and forth, Alexis’s arms crossed over her chest, Ethan scowling. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it didn’t take a neuroscientist to figure it out. He turned away as if to leave. Cara gripped the edge of the table so hard her fingertips turned white. But Alexis caught Ethan’s hand and pulled him toward her.
Cara closed her eyes for a long moment. When she opened them, Alexis and Ethan were locked in a passionate kiss, his arms around her waist, hers clutching his neck.
Cara slumped back in her chair. Of course. Same old story.
Ethan and Alexis got up and wove their way through the packed lunchroom toward the door. Ethan stopped every few feet to talk to people. Cara watched him high-five Ms. Sitwell, the school secretary, then sighed and stood up. She might as well get a head start on her calc homework. She folded her foil into a square and stuffed it back in her nylon sack, then nodded good-bye to the rest of the table. Sarit gave her a little wave, but the others didn’t even look up.
Stuffing the last bite of baby carrot into her mouth, Cara pushed in her chair. But one of the legs stuck, and Cara lurched a little against the table edge. She felt a chunk of unchewed carrot slide down the back of her tongue and lodge in her windpipe.
Automatically, Cara opened her mouth to cough. But no air came through. She leaned over and tried to cough again. Still nothing. Panic rising through her chest, she grabbed at her throat, clawing helplessly at her skin. She looked around wildly. No one had even noticed. They were all clustered around Julie, who was showing them some homework in a binder.
Her lungs were sending distress signals through her body. She could feel her chest tightening. Her eyes bulging, she waved her hands. Choking, I’m choking, she tried to telegraph. She tried to retch, but she felt the carrot lodge even more firmly in her throat. The noise around her swirled in a colorful chaos.
I’m dying, and no one’s going to notice.
She heard Sarit’s voice as if from a great distance. “Cara? Are you okay?”
She shook her head blindly, her hands at her throat. Julie’s voice rose. “Oh my God, Cara, what’s the matter?”
“She’s, like, turning blue!”
“Where? What’s the matter?”
A sea of faces danced in front of her. Then Cara felt a pair of arms like steel rods grab her around the middle. Two clasped fists slammed into her diaphragm, once and then twice. The carrot shot up over the back of her tongue and out of her open mouth. Cara watched it roll under the rack of dirty trays like a little orange pinball.
She coughed, a big, gaping open-mouthed hack. A string of drool hung down from her lip. She swiped at it and wheeled around, her face bright red and her eyes watering.
Ethan stood just behind her, his face creased with concern. “Are you okay?” he asked.
She nodded, staggering a little, and almost lost her balance. He caught at her arm, and a shock ran through her body at his touch. She coughed again. Her throat felt like it had been doused in battery acid. “Yeah,” she gasped. She swiped at her mouth, which was embarrassingly wet. “I’m okay.” Her voice came out gravelly. She caught sight of Alexis and Sydney staring at her behind Ethan’s shoulder. Alexis’s eyes were narrowed.
“Wow, good. That was scary.” Ethan released her arm. Cara nodded dumbly and looked around. After sending her a few big-eyed stares, the rest of the girls started drifting away. Her nose was running. She looked around for a tissue. She couldn’t stand here in front of Ethan Gray, after he had just saved her life, with a runny nose like a five-year-old. Cara spotted a napkin on the table and snatched it up. She pressed it to her nose as Ethan patted her shoulder. “Cool, glad you’re okay.” He brushed past her.
“Hey, um, thank—,” Cara started to say. But he was already heading back toward the door. Someone smelling of watermelon body spray brushed past her, uncomfortably close. “It’s amazing what some people will do for attention, isn’t it?” Alexis said loudly to Sydney.
“I know!” Sydney shot a meaningful glance at Cara, then paused, a little smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “Nice one, Choker.”
And then they glided away, leaving Cara alone, clutching her damp napkin, her chair overturned at her feet.
© 2011 Alloy Entertainment