Chapter 1: How It Begins Chapter 1 HOW IT BEGINS
THE WIDE HALLWAYS of Washington Middle School are no joke. Lives are made in these hallways, or ruined. Last week, for example, someone smeared superglue on Trevor Addison’s locker handle, and he was stuck fast. The janitor showed up with a blowtorch. Things quickly got out of hand.
My best friend, Mia Wilson, said Trevor probably deserved it, which I definitely didn’t agree with, because no one deserves to be superglued to a locker, but I kept that opinion to myself. Lately, Mia finds everything I say exasperating or wrong, even something as straight up as “good morning.” We once promised to be best friends forever, but I’m starting to think she’s had a change of heart.
Usually, we meet on the sidewalk outside of school and walk home together, but the last few days she’s left without me. She says I’m too slow getting out of school and she needs to get home and change for soccer practice. Sure, sometimes I’m late because Mrs. Holmes, my science teacher, wants to talk about a new recycling strategy they are using successfully in Australia or wherever, and I have to stay for that conversation because saving the planet is important. I mean, without it we are in serious trouble. Plus, I like Mrs. Holmes. She encourages me to share my ideas, but mostly I don’t because even if I have the perfect answer in my head, I’m not that good at actually saying it out loud. It always comes out sounding weird. Or wrong. Or not what I meant.
But today is different. Determined not to let Mia down, I plan to get myself to the sidewalk exactly on time, no matter what. My dad once told me the universe was on my side. All I had to do was try hard and I could make things happen.
“You just can’t quit, Cassie,” he said. “The universe doesn’t like quitters.”
When the final bell of the day rings, students spill from classrooms like a great surge of water bursting through a dam. I avoid eye contact with Mrs. Holmes, slipping out with the rush. I race to my locker and check for glue. All clear. And the locker doesn’t even jam when I try to open it. This is a good omen. Things are looking up. Right? Stuffing my books into my backpack, I bolt for the exit without even zipping the bag. I’m pretty sure my math textbook falls out, but I don’t stop. I’m on a mission. The universe doesn’t like quitters.
Outside, a cold Lewiston wind whips the fog into little cyclones that swirl and eddy like ballet dancers. Lewiston is not what people think of when they think of California. There are no palm trees, no movie stars, no sun-drenched beaches dotted with surfers looking to catch the next perfect wave.
Squished between dense mountains and a craggy ocean shoreline, basically in the middle of nowhere, Lewiston is a university town so far up the California coast that we might as well be in Oregon. Even super-boring Sacramento is hundreds of miles away. It rains constantly, and when it’s not raining, it’s foggy, and when it’s not foggy, it’s just plain gray. On the rare occasion when the sun does come out, Lewiston sparkles like the Emerald City, with trees a hundred shades of green coming right to the edge of an endless blue sea. But it never lasts, the sun, and those moments only remind us of what we are missing.
More importantly, nothing interesting ever happens in Lewiston. Like, ever. If you look up “boring” in the dictionary, there will be a picture of Lewiston.
Strands of brown frizzy hair cling to my eyelashes, blinding me. I clear the hair just in time to see Mia glide out of school, surrounded by the Popular Posse, girls who last year did not know she existed. She wears a new down jacket, the color of a pineapple, that I have never seen before. The Popular Posse moves in a tight bunch, like an amoeba, giggling and whispering and oozing confidence all over everything. I shelter behind a row of pines and try to pull my tangled mess of hair into a ponytail. If I look like I just got electrocuted, Mia will say something snarky about the frizz or my uniform of leggings and hoodies, and that tight, uncomfortable feeling in my stomach will show up and stay for the rest of the day. The girls drift toward me, chattering like monkeys, and I’m about to step out and wave when I hear my name. There is something in the tone that stops me fast.
“Cassie Jones,” says Sadie, a girl with sleek black hair where no strand would dare be out of place. “I mean, why? Does she even ever speak?”
“Seriously,” concurs Lila, brand-new phone tucked casually into the pocket of her shredded skinny jeans. “She’s the opposite of fun.”
“And her clothes?” adds Ruth, puckering up a questioning, lip-glossy pout. “I mean, tall and dorky is not a good look. Target would be an upgrade.”
My heart snaps against my ribs. I can’t catch my breath. Surely, Mia will defend me. She’ll set them straight, tell them we shouldn’t judge someone’s worth based on appearance, and we’ll walk home together, and everything will be fine. Everything will be like it’s always been. Right?
“I firmly believe things happen for a reason,” Mia explains seriously to her new friends. “Obviously, Cassie’s situation was meant to get me to reexamine who I was spending my time with.”
There are murmured agreements. Well, of course, obviously.
My cheeks burn with shame as I attempt to disappear into the trees. And really, what Dad said about trying hard isn’t true. The universe doesn’t care if I quit. It is a cold, empty, bleak place, and it doesn’t care about me at all. If I fade to nothing, it will not notice.
Keeping my head down, I slink away, vanishing among the groups of friends, all laughing and going places and having fun. The wind is blowing so hard my eyes water.
But I’m not crying.