Sneak Peek: The Darkness that Lies Inside

In anticipation to the sequel of THE MERGING OF SHADOWS, previously known as A Daughter of Light (A Light Onto the World) series, we are releasing a chapter at midnight each Saturday up until THE DARKNESS THAT LIES INSIDE release date on August 28th!
*SPOILERS are ahead for those of you who have not read the first book which you can download as a free Ebook here.

The Darkness that
Lies Inside

Price Girls

Published by The Olympic Pen
Copyright © 2019 Price Girls
All Rights Reserved
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places, events, and incidents is entirely coincidental.
Summary: Having battled her dead roommate and reclaimed her house, Marimar attempts to reinstate herself back into normal day life, but when the darkness comes creeping back in she is left with only two choices: fulfill the role she was predestined to take by embracing the light and, subsequently, risking the loss
of the one she holds most dear or be swallowed by the darkness.

Cover art by Taís Price © 2019.

To the best Papí in both worlds—here and in the hereafter. Thank you for haunting us always.

Wayne (Sonny) E. Price Jr.

Dear Reader and or Fellow Paranormal Geek No Longer Hiding in the Closet of Normalcy,
You have escaped the closet and have seen beyond the merging of shadows. Congratulations! You have just opened a door that can’t be closed. Now prepare yourself for the darkness that lies inside these pages. Break out your sage, light your candles, and raid the nearest cupboard for the box of salt ‘cause the battle with evil has just begun.
Sleep with the lights on, lock your doors, and above all else, beware of those around you, for darkness is no stranger to those who walk the path of light. The whispers, the knocks, and the shadows in the corner of the room are not in your imagination. It’s all real. And, like any nightmare where one is trapped in a room full of new acquaintances, all eyes are on you.
Once more, thank you for allowing us to share our nightmares with you. Sweet dreams.

Price Girls


I lie rigid and breathe evenly. The sound of soft humming fills my eardrums. The eeriness of the song raises goosebumps up and down my body. Peeping under my eyelashes I chance a glance up at Marisol who’s staring dazedly down at me. Snapping my eyes shut I hold my breath and pretend to be asleep. Fearful of finding out what will happen this time if I do interact with her. For instance, having her speak in her scary voice like she did the first time. Seeming to have fallen for my ruse, she quietly departs from my side and makes her way across the room. Slowly, painfully, I exhale.
Over the past week, Marisol has incurred a case of sleepwalking which has led her to roam all over our eighteen-hundred Victorian-style farmhouse. Papa—after the second time I woke him up to hunt down my five-year-old baby sister—screwed in a sliding latch on top of our bedroom door that only I can reach. Clearly, that was only a temporary fix as her condition seems to have worsened. Yesterday, she startled me awake by sprinkling freshly dug dirt through her outstretched fist onto my face and down my body as if paying her final respects. Somehow, she had managed to quietly drag the rocking chair over to the door—without waking me up, undo the sliding latch, and venture outside. To be quite honest, this whole situation has reached a whole new level of creepy. Not to mention, the humming is new.
Now wide awake I stare up at the ceiling until it appears to be swallowed by the darkness. Listening … Wondering … Waiting … Hoping, against all hope, she will return back to bed now that the rocking chair has been removed from the room, rather than me having to endure listening to her grunting and moaning and clawing at the door as she has done all the other nights since the sliding latch was installed.
Creak. Covering my mouth with my sheet I stifle a gasp, too terrified to look. She couldn’t possibly …? The door moans open, drawn out like an old woman’s cackle. The tune drifts through the open door until it fades away along with the sound of footsteps. Gathering enough courage, I raise my head and peer over at the door. There’s nothing in sight she could have used to reach the latch. Someone would have had to undo it for her, is the first frightening thought to cross my mind. Or … maybe I forgot to lock it.
Heartbeat quickening, I carefully inch the sheets off me. Freezing air comes flooding through the gap, gripping my body in its cold embrace. The bed lets out a soft groan as I slip out from under the covers and reluctantly step onto the frigid wooden floorboards. The room is quiet and still. The kind of quiet that makes you feel on edge like something or someone is concealed in the deep shadows awaiting an opportunity to jump out.
Sliding out the drawer from my night stand I rummage around for my flashlight. Where is it? Where is it? Yes, yes! Damn. The flashlight only sheds a dim glow the size of a golf ball. I knew these solar powered flashlights would suck. Way to save on batteries, Papa.
Oh, I’m so stupid. I can use the flashlight app from my phone. Five percent of battery life left. Are you freaking—? Trevor. He yanked the cord out again. That asshole. Ugh! Stupid dog better help me find her.
Dying phone in hand, I tiptoe my way across the room. Reaching the door, I lean my head out carefully listening for any clue to where she may be. Shit! Within moments a child’s silhouette manifests at the end of the hall. Illuminating her with my phone I find her staring right at me. Her head is tilted downwards, and her blonde curls form a curtain around her face. All I can make out is the glow of her eyes peering from underneath them. Softly humming, she rocks on her heels.
Having no choice but to confront her, I call out in a low whisper, “Marisol?” Shivers rock my body in part from the cold, heavily air-conditioned room, and partly due to the chilling likeness of the image of the girl in front of me to the morphed vision of my sister in my reoccurring nightmare—the one in which a monster wears her skin.
She gives no indication that she has heard me.
Struggling to lift my legs, they stay rooted firmly to the floor. Every part of me is screaming—go back to your room and lock the door and you can go find her in the morning. Yet, somehow, I find myself venturing steadily forward.
“Marisol,” I breathe. With each step my heartbeat intensifies, to the point that the sound of it nearly drowns out the constant rhythm of her humming as I grow ever nearer. I come to a standstill an arm’s length away.
Eyes, now cast downward, her humming fades into low whispers. The whispers are so low in fact they seem to blend, creating a low rumbling sound. Extending my hand out to touch her shoulder I whisper gently my nickname for her, “Sunshine?” My fingers are about to grasp her shoulder when she breaks into a dead sprint right past me. Vanishing into the spare room that now serves as her playroom. Of course, she would.
I chase after her. Stopping at the threshold I scan the room with my eyes. The room appears undisturbed as though she hadn’t entered. A slight rustling in the corner of the room gives her hiding place away. Shit. Not the closet. Moonlight radiating through the window glints off the brass closet doorknob. The little door is open a crack; the darkness beckons me. I hit the light switch on the wall, but all that’s yielded is a clicking noise. That’s not good.
At least I have my phone.
Beep. The light shuts off and my phone vibrates in my hand signaling its dead. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
“Trevor.” I glance around the room. “Trevor.” Where the hell is that killer attack dog when I need him? “Trevor!” Nothing. I wet my lips and try to whistle only for the sound to peter out into spittle. So much for Golden Retrievers being obedient. “Lazy dog,” I mutter under my breath, as I pocket my useless cell phone into my pajama bottoms. Looks like I’m going in alone.
Creeping my way across the room, I approach the small closet. After what seems like forever, my fingers clutch the ice-cold knob and I slowly pull the door towards me.
Hmm-hmm-hmm. Turning around I catch a fleeting glimpse of Marisol walking past the playroom door. I wheel back around to face the closet. How the hell did she get past me?
“Marisol,” I call after her, turning on my heels to follow. Entering the hall, I investigate the area, but can’t find her. Rustling in the room beside me causes me to jump. “Marisol?” The door to the guest bedroom, which my boyfriend Sage and his younger brother Oscar used to share, and in which Oscar is currently occupying, is open ajar. Quietly, I open the door further and take a peek in. All is as it should be. Oscar is dead asleep in his bed, by his feet is a large mass. Grrrrr.
The large mass begins to morph into a large hairy animal. “Trevor, it’s me,” I whisper. His growling, which had started as a low rumble, has transitioned into a ferocious warning. “Trevor, what’s wrong, buddy?” The corners of his furry lips begin to twitch, revealing his large canines.
Creak. I whip around to see Marisol taking off down the hall, and before I can react, she skips towards Mama’s and Papa’s bedroom. “Trevor, come on, boy!” I command, snapping my fingers at my side. Refusing to budge he lets out a whine, all the while wagging his tail nervously. Fine, have it your way you butthead, I think before I head off to hunt Marisol down. By. My. Self.
Trailing behind her, the melody leading the way, I stop in the middle of the hall and listen carefully. The humming seems to have faded, disappearing beyond the walls along with Marisol. Where could she have wandered off to this time? Mama’s and Papa’s room is to my right. Their door is slightly open, exactly the same way Mama and Papa had left it. Papa’s bellowing snores fill the air, possibly drowning out the sounds of Marisol’s footsteps. Lightly pushing the door open, I walk in. The curtains are drawn, casting the room in varying shades of shadows. Two figures lay asleep in their bed. Nope, she’s not in here.
Wavering by Papa’s side I will him with my eyes to wake up so I can pass him the baton, or in this case my dead cell phone. He must be exhausted as this usually works, or he’s getting older and his reaction time is getting slower. I consider tapping him awake like he told me to do if Marisol ever managed to escape from our room again, but he’s already lost so much sleep I should probably leave him be … Tap. Tap. Tap. Oops. Guess my hand didn’t get the memo.
Papa stirs and rolls over, still asleep.
What!? Cat-like reflexes my ass!
Having wasted enough time waiting for someone to get up and freaking help me I decide to go solo. Venturing directly across their room I check the bathroom, before coming to the realization that she may well, in fact, be upstairs standing outside the place that I haven’t dared to go near since I was almost barbequed. If she were to head there, the only consolation would be that she’d be barred from entering due to the locks Papa installed after the house cleansing the paranormal investigators, The Visionaries, performed.
Standing in the hallway I contemplate my next move when the tinkling sound of childlike laughter echoes down the hall, only to be resumed by the persistent humming. Without further hesitation, I race after her, determined to catch her once and for all. Once again, her humming beckons me to the playroom.
Please don’t be in the closet. Please don’t be in the closet. Please don’t be in the closet.
The closet door has now been opened all the way. Of course, she went into the fucking closet. With my luck why wouldn’t she be in the fucking closet? I rethink the idea of returning to my bed, crawling back under my sheets, and pretending this never happened. But I can’t. Marisol could get seriously hurt. I mean, what if she took a header down the stairs or something? Or worse, found her way back outside and gets herself kidnapped? Although, with her track record she’d most likely wind up back here anyway.
Sucking it up, I advance on the closet. Hesitating for a moment at the entrance, I try to focus my eyes in the darkness; searching for any sign of the closet’s occupant to no avail. A thick, unnatural black haze seems to encase the deep recesses, permitting me to distinguish all of the contents lining the closet with the exception of the back wall.
Unable to take the suspense, I go in. Entering deeper and deeper, I feel around with my hands, secretly hoping every second that goes by that it is Marisol I am searching for instead of the monster from my nightmare. Eventually, I feel my way to the end. Wait. Where is she?
I strain my eyes, but I am unable to make out anything.
I can hear her. She’s in here with me.
Bum-bum. Bum-bum. Bum-bum. My heart hammers against my ribcage.
Hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm …
She’s … right … behind me.
Terror zaps the little storage of courage I had left, and I start to cry. Please be Marisol. Please be Marisol, I beg, tears burning my eyes and cooling my cheeks as they flow down them. “Pleeaase,” I whimper, as the humming swells in my eardrums. Squeezing my eyelids shut I crush my palms to my ears so hard that my head feels like it’s locked in a vise. Abruptly the humming is shattered by silence. I lift my hands away from my ears. Is she gone?
“‘As life departs and death awaits, you’ll be only welcomed through hell’s gates,’” she hisses directly behind me in her scary voice. I let out a shriek of fright as all of my senses fade away.

How did I end up in the playroom closet? I wonder, waking up on the hardwood floor boxed in by four walls—an encampment of toys and dolls stuffed into clear plastic bins on either side of me. Body crying out in agony, I lift my head from off the wall and straighten up into a more comfortable position. 
“Oh my God,” I groan as I massage my stiff neck.
“Whatcha doing?” Oscar asks quizzically, approaching the entrance with Spidey—his beloved Spiderman action figure—in hand. The concerned eyebrow raise he’s giving me begs the question, have you lost it?
“I have no idea,” I mumble, answering both his questions. Slowly getting to my feet, I start to stretch my sore aching muscles. Angling my neck, I pop my bones into place. Snap. “Ow,” I moan. Rubbing the tender spot, I survey the contents of the closet in the hopes of piecing together how I ended up in here. Impressions of memories flash across my mind. The last one ending with me feeling around in the dark for ... “Marisol.”
Looking down at Oscar I ask, “Where’s Marisol?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugs, pushing his dark curls out of his eyes with the back of his hand. His blue-green eyes are filled with uncertainty on how to respond.
Passing Oscar, I bustle out of the room as fast as my aching muscles will allow. Heading straight down the hall, I pass the bathroom and come to a halt outside my now-closed bedroom door. Swinging it open, I look in and find Marisol asleep on her side, facing away from me. After I wound up in the closet Mama or Papa must have found her and took her back to bed. Forgetting the fact that they WOULDN’T GET UP FOR ME! How did they not notice I was missing? Glad I was only in the closet because if some intruder had snuck through my window and snatched me, I’d be a goner.
Shuffling over to the bathroom I brush my teeth. Afterwards, I proceed down the hall. Passing my room, I take one last peek in and find her still asleep under the covers. Continuing on my way, I head down the stairs. Once I reach the final step, I turn into the living room, go through the dining room, and head into the kitchen.
What the … how in the … but she was …? Stepping into the kitchen, I am floored by the sight of Marisol sitting at the island chatting casually away with Oscar. How could she be down here? She was just dead asleep upstairs. I checked. Twice. She would have had to walk past me down the stairs. Unless she, somehow overnight, developed a superhuman ability to turn herself invisible, I would have seen her. There’s only one freaking staircase.
Mama and Papa are too busy dancing to notice me come in. Swept away by the music, their eyes are locked with each other’s as the whole world seems to fade around them. You people had time to dance, but you couldn’t be bothered to SEE WHERE I WAS!? At least they are distracted. Now I can interrogate Marisol without interruption.
“How did you get down here so fast?” I ask, interrupting Marisol and Oscar’s conversation.
“Huh?” she asks.
“How did you get to the kitchen before me?”
“I took the stairs,” Marisol replies.
“But, how could you? I didn’t see you pass me?”
“Yes, I did, you just didn’t see me,” she says with a mischievous smile.
What is she hiding? I’m about to ask her when Mama interrupts my interrogation. “What? You don’t say buenas días to me anymore?” she asks, her raven-black spirals fanning her shoulders as their dancing comes to an abrupt stop. In Guatemalan culture, it’s considered rude not to greet your parents with a kiss and a good morning. Feigning offense, her light copper eyes reproachfully look into mine. Slipping her olive hands out of Papa’s, she rests them on her hips.
“Buenas días,” I respond reluctantly, before stooping down to give her a kiss and wrapping my arms around her tiny frame.
“Uh-huh,” she replies, hugging me back. Letting me go, she makes her way around the counter and stirs her coffee.
“What, no love for your Papa?” Papa teases, pressing his hands over his heart as he comes up from behind me. Despite the fact that Papa’ actually Irish-American, he’s still down for some daughterly love in the morning. A big bear of a man I have to stand on my tiptoes to give him a kiss.
“Good morning, Papa,” I say, as he stoops over and gives me a big bear hug; his bright green eyes twinkling. The light streaming in from the open window behind us catches on the whites of his hair—since the haunting I’ve noticed most of his hair on the top has gone more salt than pepper and the greys around the side of his head are whitening.
“Can you set the table? Breakfast is almost ready.”
“Okay,” I huff out.


I push the huevos rancheros around my plate. The boiled egg is swimming in the creamy tomato sauce and the tomato sauce is soaking up the pieces of bread mixed in. I probably should have used a spoon for this meal since the tomato sauce—which contains most of the flavor—keeps dripping off my fork every time I try to scoop up a piece of egg. A big wet nose nuzzles my other hand resting in my lap.
“Oh, now you show up. Where were you last night when I needed you, butthead?” I question, lifting the tablecloth as I glare at him from underneath. Trevor lets out a low whine and paws my hand; his big brown puppy eyes are as large as disks. “I see how it is. Now you want something from me? Too bad, mister. Next time, maybe you’ll come when I call you,” I chide, before letting the tablecloth float down between us as I push his face away.
“So, where were you this morning? You weren’t in bed when I went to wake you?” Mama asks. Still bent over, I right myself as I turn to look at her. Mama is seated in her usual spot, diagonal from me and opposite Papa who sits at the head of the table in his “throne;” Marisol’s seated next to her and Oscar’s at the end.
“I passed out in the playroom closet.” My response leaves Papa on the verge of spitting his coffee back into his cup.
“How did you wind up in there?” Papa asks, wiping the coffee dribbling down his chin with his napkin.
“Marisol was sleepwalking, and I followed her in there. She somehow snuck up behind me and freaked me out using her new scary voice. After that I must have passed out,” I reply glancing over at Marisol whose too busy talking to Oscar to notice. “Thanks for coming to look for me by the way. Surprised you didn’t hear me screaming.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear anything. I assumed you were in the bathroom this morning,” Mama apologizes.
“Sunny couldn’t have left the room, there’s no way she could have reached the latch. Not unless you forgot to slide the bolt in place when coming back from the bathroom.”
“I thought the same thing, but I never left the room until I went after her.”
“Then she couldn’t have got out. I got up twice last night to check and see if the door was locked and it was. The only person capable of unlocking it is you which means either you forgot about leaving the room—”
“I didn’t,” I maintain.
“—or you must have been the one sleepwalking,” Papa surmises.
Huh? “I was sleepwalking?”
“Must have.”
“Pretty sure I wasn’t,” I say tentatively, “because I remember trying to tap you awake, but all you did was roll over and go back to sleep.”
“Baby, I’m one-hundred percent sure that didn’t happen. I have always, always responded when you or your sister have come to wake me up.”
“Hmm,” I disagree.
“Again. I may not have heard the dog that time—” Papa says, referring back to the time when the whole family and Sage had been camped out in the living room and nobody had come to my aid when George, i.e., “Casper from Hell” came a hunting. “—but if you or somebody had managed to throw something at me, I would have woken right up and none of what happened would have happened.”
“So that was my fault? Because I was a little busy with the whole trying-not-to-be-violated thing.” Disgust waves over me and I taste my breakfast coming back up as, not only the memory of the dead kid on top of me resurfaces, but the sickening feeling that comes with having been duped into making out with him even if it was just a dream.
Papa only knows half the story but even so, he flinches. “I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that, that was different.”
“Mamí, all your Papa and I are trying to say is, if you were to start sleepwalking it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After what you have gone through—what we have all gone through—it’s like what Calista said, it’s going to be a while before everything goes back to normal.” Easy for Calista to say, she’s the team leader of The Visionaries: Paranormal Investigators and let’s not forget the claircognizant clairvoyant medium of the group. Her very definition of the word normal is abnormal. For a family of former atheists, there’s no going back to a life we once defined as normal, only moving forward and defining a new one.
“I guess,” I relent, taking a bite of my breakfast. Being almost burned to death by a grown woman possessed by a sadistic six-year-old could do the trick. Would explain how the door came unlatched … and why nobody woke up, and Marisol’s vanishing act …
“If this keeps occurring maybe you should think about what she said about learning more from her about the spirit realm,” she says, leaning forward and whispering the last part as if they were bad words. “Could help both you and your sister sleep a little easier, don’t you think?”
Before I open my mouth to respond, Papa cuts in, his pupils widening in panic and his hands waving frantically in front of him as if he were trying to fend off my response. “Let’s hold off on this conversation for now.” In other words, indefinitely. Can’t say I’m not relieved. Somehow saving dead people as a “Daughter of Light” doesn’t seem like my line of business.
“So, school starts tomorrow, are you excited?” Mama asks, changing the subject.
I give her a look as if to say, “Are you serious?”
“I’m going to be stuck in a building with a bunch of immature, superficial people for eight hours a day, five days a week,” I answer. I viciously stab at a piece of egg that keeps sliding around the plate due to the sauce. Finally getting a hold of the slippery egg, I also pierce the tomato-soaked bread onto the fork before popping it into my mouth. Hmmm. So good.
“I’m sure it won’t be that bad and you’ll make some friends,” Mama says, reassuringly.
Yeah, because I was so popular back in Corvallis, Oregon. Not.
“Aren’t you excited about your senior year? Not every kid can graduate a year early.”
I shrug. “A little,” I answer.
 If I had to endure another year of high school, I’d lose it. The only good thing about the school year starting is that it will be that much closer to ending. Plus, I’ll be able to get out of the house a little and away from the terrible memories that are rekindled every time I walk into a room. I can’t even turn on a freaking faucet without checking for roaches since the night of the cleansing. I shudder at the memory.
“Don’t worry, Mar. I’m sure Sage will help you adjust,” Mama responds.  
“I guess.” At least I’ll have some time to be with Sage.  A little more than I’ve had lately.  Between working and taking care of his brother we haven’t had much time to be girlfriend and boyfriend. Luckily for me, he should be arriving in an hour or so to pick up Oscar for a little last minute school shopping so he should be able to squeeze in a little time with me.
“How about you, Sunny? Are you excited for your first day of kindergarten?” Papa turns and asks Marisol before taking a sip of his coffee.
Marisol nods her head in answer before shoving another forkful of her meal into her mouth. Unlike me when I was her age, she’s not a very picky eater.
“Our baby girl is growing up,” Mama says, gazing down at Marisol seated beside her as she smooths Marisol’s hair back before giving her a kiss on the head.  
“I’m not a baby, I’m a big giwl,” Marisol protests, her voice muffled from the bite she just took.
“Yes, you are a big girl. But, you’re still my baby,” Mama answers, planting a kiss on her forehead.  Marisol smiles up at Mama before going back to eating. “Why is there white chalk in your hair?” Mama asks, combing it out with her fingers.
“I dun know,” Marisol mumbles out, still chewing.
“Are you excited, Oscar?” Papa asks. “You’ll be seeing all your friends from preschool.”
“Yes, sir,” Oscar responds through a mouthful of scrambled eggs. Since he hates tomatoes Papa made him scrambled eggs with a side of buttered toast. Oscar takes a moment to swallow his food before responding further, “I get to play with my favorite buddy all day.” He smiles over at Marisol before continuing to eat. I stifle a laugh. As opposed to every day they’ve spent together so far. This year Oscar and Marisol will be attending the same class. Both kids are thrilled about it, as they have been nearly inseparable since we have been babysitting Oscar for Sage, who has been working non-stop since he moved out of his parents’ trailer, then our house, and now into his own apartment.
“I don’t even know what I’m going to be able to do with myself in this house ... alone,” Mama says.
“There is nothing to worry about. Casper, the unfriendly ghost is gone, and he is never coming back,” Papa assures her. “Let his soul rest in hell, the little bastard,” Papa mumbles to himself while heading into the kitchen with his coffee mug in hand to get another refill.
If he really believes that he’s gone, then why doesn’t he call him by his name, George? 
Marisol reaches towards the center of the table for her glass of orange juice. Grasping the cup, she starts to hum an oddly familiar song. Something about the tune she’s humming causes me to shiver. Isn’t that the same tune she was humming last night? In my supposed dream? Her eyes catch mine and then instantly, her eyes drop to the cup in her hand. Picking up her song she continues to draw the glass towards her with both hands, bringing it up to her lips to sip. Having her fill, she puts the glass down. Acknowledging the fact that I am watching her—intently—she gives me a wide toothless smile before continuing to eat.
“Woof, woof, woof!”
Trevor’s fur brushes my legs as he bolts from under the table, nearly taking the tablecloth with him. He dodges corners and furniture, slipping and sliding across the smooth wooden floor as he tries to make his way out of the room. For a dog, as plump as he is, he sure can move fast.
“Crazy dog!” Papa shouts after him, re-entering the room.
“That must be Sage,” I say, as I swiftly push my chair back, the legs scrape against the floor. “May I be excused?”
Papa waves me off and I half walk, half jog down the hall to the front door. The knocking becomes more distinct the closer I get. I briskly brush down my tank top and comb back my hair with my fingers before speedily unlocking the door. Pushing Trevor back with my foot, I open it to reveal my ruggedly handsome boyfriend. Standing at six foot two, I have to crane my neck to look up at him.
Sage’s damp curly brown hair glistens in the glaring Texas sun. His face is flushed pink from the heat of the day. Skin slightly wet, the white t-shirt he’s wearing with the black writing scrawled in print clings to the tight muscles underneath. He has one hand in the pocket of his baggy blue jeans and the other hand is being used to run his fingers through his hair as his hazel-green eyes stare into mine.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hi,” he responds. “Mind if I come in, I’m starting to sweat out here. I just took a shower and I don’t wanna have to take another.”
“Come on in and sit a spell,” I say in my best Southern belle accent, batting my eyelashes. I step to the side to let him in. Sage pretends to tip an imaginary hat as he enters, carrying in the scent of soap mingled with his Polo cologne. I close the door after him.
Trevor races right at Sage and puts both his paws on Sage’s stomach. At the same time, Trevor stretches on his hind legs, his tongue licks the air as he tries to give him kisses.
“He just made me swallow my gum,” Sage mentions, amused.
“Get down,” I reprimand. Grabbing him by his collar I try to detach him from Sage. Sage just laughs.
“It’s fine,” he says as he rubs Trevor’s head.  He pats Trevor’s sides and utters still laughing, “Down, boy.”  Trevor complies, satisfied.
“You have a little ...” I say, dusting off the golden strands of fur off his shirt. He looks down.  
“It’s like a hair bomb went off on me,” he says, catching my hands, interlacing our fingers.
“You look cute in your new cowboy boots,” I tell him, staring down at the expensive boots I got him as a belated birthday gift/early back-to-school present. Cost me a couple of months of allowance, but he deserved them and much more after all he’s done for me and my family. I think it’s fair to say if it wasn’t for his help, we might still be haunted. Granted, he was the one to piss George off in the first place with his whole ghost hunting idea.
“Thanks,” he says, kicking up a boot in admiration. “My girlfriend gave them to me.” His head bows close to mine as I look up at him. My heart flutters against my ribcage as I feel his breath on my lips and then … he kisses me. Letting go of my hands, he grabs onto my waist and pulls me closer to him. I run my fingers through his curls as I kiss him back.
I give him one last kiss before pulling away. Hanging my arms around his neck I study the chiseled features of his face—his defined jaw, strong nose, high cheekbones—until my eyes come to rest on his mood ring eyes which have switched from hazel to a more vibrant green. “That kiss was even better than last time,” Sage comments.
“You know what they say, practice makes perfect,” I reply, the taste of peppermint lingering on my tongue.
“Who have you been practicing with?” Sage teases. His curls brush against my neck as he kisses my collar bone.
“Your replacement,” I say.
“Oh really,” he laughs. His grin widens and he stares into my eyes. “Might I ask who he is?”
“Oh, you know. He’s just some blond, blue-eyed cowboy with a thick accent,” I answer, cocking my head to the side.
“Some blond, blue-eyed cowboy, huh?” his eyebrow arches in mock surprise.
“Uh-huh,” I giggle. “He’s, like, super huge.”
“Is that so? Well, I’d like to meet my ‘super huge’ replacement.”
“You can’t, I ended it already. He was totally devastated.”
“I bet. Well, it’s a good thing he’s no longer around.”
“And why is that?” I ask, leaning in closer to him. Close enough so I can feel the heat of his breath on my lips.
“‘Cause, I would have totally kicked his ass.”
I tilt my head back and laugh. “I know you would,” I answer. “So, are you going to take Oscar shopping for school supplies and then pick me up to go to the mall?” I ask, resting my forehead against his after I break away from another kiss.
“That’s the plan,” he says, stealing one last kiss. He releases me from his hold. His right hand slides down until it finds mine and I lead him into the breakfast room.
“Good Morning, Mr. and Mrs. Utterson,” Sage says, still grinning; his curls are a mess. Oops. Straight away, I try to comb his hair back into place before Papa notices. Too late.
“Not anymore it isn’t,” Papa huffs, eyeing us as he gets up from his chair. He uses the back of his throne to assist him. Mama smacks his chest with the back of her hand as she rises from hers. Papa lets out a sharp breath in irritation.
“Good morning, Sage,” Mama says, trying to suppress a laugh. “Did you have anything to eat yet?”
“We have some leftovers that I can heat for you,” I offer.
“No thanks, I ate last night’s leftovers,” Sage replies.
“Oh good,” Mama responds. “I already packed today’s breakfast for you to take to work later.”
“Thank you, ma’am. That wasn’t necessary though, you already do so much for me. What with y’all watching Oscar.”
“Nonsense, you’re part of the family now,” Mama says, before turning to give Papa a look as if to say, “Remember?”
Papa turns away from Mama, pretending not to have noticed. “Since you both are done go and wash your hands,” Papa directs Marisol and Oscar. Oscar leaps down from his seat while Papa helps Marisol get down from hers.
“Oscar, get dressed,” Sage orders, stopping him in his tracks. “We have to go shopping for school supplies.”
“Ugh, but I hate shopping,” Oscar grumbles.
“I’ll buy you that Avengers shirt you have been asking for if you don’t complain,” Sage bribes.
“Really?” Oscar says, brightening up at the thought. “I’ll be good,” he promises before rejoining Marisol.
Turning my attention away from Oscar, I find Papa glaring down at our interlocked hands. He clears his throat as his eyes flicker up to mine. A devious smile hangs on his lips. “Since you two seem to have already said your hellos, why don’t you go give your mother a hand with the dishes, Mar.”
Papa points at our hands with his index finger. “Uh, son, you’re going to have to let go of my daughter’s hand first.”
“Of course, sir,” Sage says, dropping my hand.
“Mar, the dishes,” Papa reminds me.
“Fine,” I huff as I comply.
“Don’t worry,” Papa smiles as I pass him to pick up the dishes, “he’ll be here when you come back.”
“Well, you might as well grab a seat and wait for Oscar to get ready,” Papa says sitting back down, well pleased with himself. I glare down at him as I reach around him to grab his coffee cup before hauling the dirty dishes to the kitchen.
“Hey, I wasn’t done with that!” Papa calls after me.
“You’re done now!” I inform him, entering into the kitchen. The door to the kitchen swings shuts after me, not giving Papa enough time to reply.
I place the mugs in the sink for Mama to do a quick rinse before she hands them back to me to place into the dishwasher. After putting the rest of the dishes into the dishwasher we head back into the breakfast room where Papa and Sage are talking about some wrestler/boxer in the UFC. I silently sit down at the table trying hard not to yawn. At least Papa and Sage are getting along. Something that only seems to happen when Sage and I aren’t co-existing in the same space.
A few minutes later, Oscar comes down wearing a red shirt, jeans, and a pair of dirt coated white tennis shoes.
“Best get a move on, bud,” Sage tells Oscar while getting up from the table. “Always fun talking to you, sir,” Sage says, shaking Papa’s hand.
Mama hands him a container full of leftovers for him to bring home. “Thank you, ma’am. I’ll enjoy these later,” Sage says as he rests it in the crook of his arm. He tips his head in politeness before turning and taking his leave.
I walk them to the door to see him off. “See you later,” I say, standing on my tiptoes to kiss him. Oscar walks past us and stands by the truck expectantly.
“I should be back around two to pick you up.”
“‘Kay, see you then,” I say, giving him one last kiss for the road.
“Sage!” Oscar groans in annoyance.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he replies. “Miss you already,” Sage says, walking slowly backward and blowing me a kiss.
“Sage, it’s hot!” Oscar hollers.
“Alright, hold yer horses!” Sage yells back. He turns around and swiftly crosses over to the truck, pausing at the driver’s side. “If my replacement shows up again, you make sure to tell him your ‘super big’ boyfriend says you’re taken,” he says before opening the door and ducking in.

Spider bite or mosquito? I wonder as I examine the inflamed lump on my shoulder in the fitting room mirror. Shuddering I dispel the image of a tarantula crawling on top of me in my sleep. Paranoid, I pinch the cardigan laid out on the bench and give it a good shake before putting it on.
I have been shopping at the Old Navy outlet store in the mall for about a half an hour looking for the perfect first day of school outfit. If I’m going to be locked in a classroom for hours on end I might as well look good doing it.
I am wearing a pink tank top that hugs my body in just the right places with a violet cardigan to cover up my shoulders—making it appropriate enough to wear at school since the strict ultra-Christian dress code doesn’t allow bare shoulders. God forbid our bra straps are shown in public. Although, somehow, it’s okay in our society for guys to walk around with their pants hanging so low they might as well tie it to a leash and drag it beside them.
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. What’s that noise? Peeping out of the crack of the door I see Sage—who hates shopping more than I do—with his eyes closed knocking the back of his head against the side of an uninhabited dressing room, causing the door to vibrate. Men are so dramatic.
Yet, the sight is so funny that I can’t help but to giggle.
“What’s so funny in there?” Sage asks.
“Why don’t you bang your head a little harder so you can end your misery,” I answer. Tightening my lips to suppress my amusement, I unbuckle my belt and slip out of my jeans and into a skirt.
“Ha-ha-ha,” he replies sarcastically. “You almost out yet? My butt is starting to go numb. These damn stools are about as comfortable as riding a horse bareback.”
“They’re supposed to be uncomfortable. How else are you going to get people to leave?” I comment, opening the door. “How do you like this?” I ask, resting against the door frame. I’m wearing a flowy lavender colored skirt that rests right above my knee. Sage who’s bored out of his mind, sits up while rubbing his eyes with his fingers. Opening his eyes, he perks up.
“Wow, you look amazing, but …”
“But … what?”
“If I’m being honest, I think the skirt seems a tad long,” he says offhandedly. He stands up from the stool and strolls over to me. “Maybe if you take off a few inches,” he says with a mischievous smile, lifting up the fabric from the end of my skirt; the back of his fingers grazes my leg.
Removing his hand, I place it around my waist as I wrap my arms around his neck. I look around making sure that we’re alone. Seeing that we are, I press myself against him and stick my face close to his—close enough that I can easily steal a kiss. “You would like that wouldn’t you?” I tease.
“Yes, very much,” he says before kissing me.
I pull away from him and reply, “Well, since I am trying to find an outfit for school, I think it would be highly inappropriate to wear a mini skirt so I will have to say no.” I give him a quick kiss before breaking away. “But since you seem to like my outfit so much, I think I will get this. I’ll be in the dressing room if you need me.”
“How about I come in and assist you,” he says, following behind me.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” I reply, pressing my hands against his chest and slowly pushing him back. Closing the door in his face.
“Let me know if you need help unzipping something,” Sage says through the closed door.
“The fact that I’m not wearing anything that needs to be unzipped means that I will not be needing your assistance,” I say as I pull off my clothes and put on my jeans and my baby blue tank top.
“I’ve been sitting here for half an hour, I think I deserve to unbutton something at least,” he mutters as he returns back to his seat.
“That’s what the kiss was for,” I say as I slip on my blue Chuck Taylors. Once done, I put the new clothes back onto their hangers and carry them out. “Shall we?”
Sage stands up and we head over to the registers to pay.


Reclining against the bench, I watch as people venture in and out of stores while others take a leisurely stroll around the mall. I’m waiting outside the store for Sage who went to use the restroom before the long drive back into town. That’s when I spot her heading straight towards me.
Shit, so much for having a nice day. The last time we met I almost tore her blonde extensions out back at the diner.
“That’s the girl I was telling you about, Scarlett,” Barbie, Sage’s clingy ex-girlfriend, says, turning to a redheaded girl. The redheaded girl takes up the lead in the group of four girls. I stand up automatically, strategically folding my arms over my chest and putting my right foot in front of me. Just in case somebody starts something my hands are already up and ready to strike in self-defense.
“She called me dumb,” Barbie says in her irritatingly whiny voice. Scarlett’s glossy red hair lies lifeless down her back. Her freckled hands are rested on her hips. She’s wearing an all-but-friendly smile and her green-cat-like eyes are zeroed in on me. The other three girls are garbed in almost the same hooker-like attire: super short skirts, skin-tight shirts, and platform sandals. That is exactly why I don’t wear short skirts.
“I call them as I see them,” I respond.
Barbie gasps. “Do you hear how she speaks to me?” she says turning to Scarlett.
“Shut up, Barbara!” Scarlett snaps. “I’ll handle it.” She redirects her attention back to me. “Look you, little boyfriend-stealing bitch, if you know what’s good for you, you better watch what you say and stay the hell away from Sage.”
“What does Sage have to do with any of this?”
“Don’t act all innocent. Just because Sage and I broke up doesn’t mean shit. He’s still mine.” Great, another ex. How many girlfriends did he have? “I don’t know what kind of connection you think you have with him, but it is nothing compared to what we have. He’s in love with only one girl and that’s me. You’re just his little bitch.”
“Wow, you must be seriously desperate if you have to create this whole deranged fantasy that I stole him away from you. Has the fact that he doesn’t like you and your relationship with him was never really serious ever occur to you?”
Scarlett fumes, her face turning beet red. “Me, desperate?” she laughs angrily. “I’m not the one whoring around with the first guy I meet in Texas. Don’t stand there looking surprised. The whole town knows about you and Sage living together.”
A girl standing in the back of the group adds, “I bet they even shared the same room.”
“Ah—huh—you …?” I can feel my face burning ear to ear like someone just bitch-slapped me. I take a few deep breaths trying to gain control of my temper before I do something that will get me arrested. Like smashing her nose in with my palm. I can’t tell what shocks me more, Sage ever dating this psycho or the whole town thinking I’m sleeping with him. I think it’s the first.
Scarlett has on a wicked smile. “Now you have two choices. You could either back on off of Sage or I can make your life a living hell.” I look around the mall as though my reply could be found somewhere in the crowd of people walking by. My eyes land on Sage who is coming back from the bathroom. The sight of him causes my tongue to be miraculously restored.
“I have two choices for you. You could either fuck off or I could fuck you up!” I threaten a little louder than expected.
The girls behind her look around a little warily and then back to me. My ears perk up, a lull seems to have swept over the mall. Glancing out of the corner of my eye I can see all eyes are gravitating towards us. A stray whisper reaches my ear, “Bitch fight.”
“Oh, yeah?” Scarlett challenge’s, stepping towards me with her hand balled up into a fist.
All I have to do is take her out and the rest of her friends will scatter, I think. I slightly bend my knees ready to spring at her. My hands are itching to knock her on her ass.
Just as she is about to make her move Sage interrupts, looking over at me and then to the group of girls. “I see y’all have met,” Sage says, coming to my side.
We sure did, I think.
“Think we best get going,” Sage proposes, grabbing the shopping bag I left on the bench with one hand and my hand with the other. “Ladies,” Sage says, nodding in their direction before leading me away.
“What just happened?” Sage asks once they are out of earshot.
“Oh, I’ll tell you what happened,” I whip around and face him. In the process yanking my hand free from his. “You happened.” Passing him up, I enter the department store. I follow the carpeted walkway in and out of sections in search of the exit.
Sage’s strides quicken as he follows close behind me. “Me? What did I do?”
“She’s your ex,” I answer as I continue onward.
“I don’t understand how in every argument we have it’s always my fault,” he says, blocking the exit; his brows are furrowed in irritation and his eyes turn a darker green.
“That’s because it is always your fault.” Slyly, I turn around and head out through the entrance before he can stop me, weaving through some shoppers until I pass through the second set of doors. I make it to the end of the curve when Sage catches me by my elbow and forces me to face him.
“Did you know that apparently, the whole stupid town believes we’re sleeping together!?” I angrily whisper.
“I—uh ... I might have heard something about that at work,” Sage answers slowly.
“You knew and you didn’t tell me!”
“I knew you would react like this. Anyhow, it’s just small-town gossip.”
“Yeah, small-town gossip that a bunch of holier-than-thou hypocrites are spreading about not only us but my family,” I say, still fuming.
“You know, Mar, people spread rumors all the time. It’s not like anybody is actually going to believe them. What did you expect people to say when I moved into your house?” I stare off into the distance. Didn’t really think much of it if I’m being honest with myself. “All that matters is that you know, and I know, that nothing went on. Let’s be real here, if anything was going on, your dad would have suspected something was up and I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you right now. Or breathing.” He has a point.
Sage ducks his head down close to mine. “See it my way,” he says tenderly. Smiling sheepishly he continues, “I kind of see it as a compliment. I mean, look at you.”
I stare up into his eyes, bashfully they flitter away from mine only to return. My face floods with color. I bite my lip while the corners of my mouth raise. “Really?”
“Really,” he says, drawing me to him. Giving me a kiss above my brow and then on the lips. My head is swimming with so many thoughts that his kiss only momentarily sedates me.
“Are you aware that your lunatic ex-girlfriend still thinks you and her are a thing,” I say, staring up at him.
“So, it’s not true. She and I are over and now I have you. I’ve never been happier in my life. Even though now and then you do insist on pissing me off beyond belief.”
“Only when it’s your fault,” I answer, grabbing his hand as we cross the parking lot; maneuvering around vehicles we finally find his truck. “Let me ask you something. Who broke up with who?” I ask while I slide into the passenger seat.
“I did,” he says, turning and shutting the door behind him. “As you can see, she was a frigging psycho,” he says while strapping his seatbelt in. He starts the engine and puts the truck into drive. “And that back there was only a taste of what it was like to be with her.” Twisting around, he checks to make sure that nobody is behind us as he starts to pull out.
“How many girlfriends did you have?” He stops abruptly, the momentum of the truck jerking us forward. He pulls back into to the parking spot and shuts off the engine.
“Why does it matter?”
“Why can’t you just answer my question?”
“Okay, around six or seven, maybe.”
“Too many to keep track of, huh? So, you’re like some serial dater or something?”
“It wasn’t like that, Mar. C’mon, give me some credit. I have been dating since I was twelve so yeah there were a lot of them. Actually, now that I think of it, my experience with women probably did come in handy. It provided me with plenty of practice for dealing with a certain stubborn-headed girl.”
I smile wide, finally satisfied that he answered my question.
“Should I start the truck now or are you going to continue your interrogation?”
Sage starts the truck up again and begins to back out when a black van with dark tinted windows pulls out behind us, forcing us to stop abruptly. “Sage, look. I think that’s the S.U.V.”
For weeks I have noticed that same sport utility vehicle showing up everywhere I go. Though I haven’t had people outright follow me like the last time I went shopping with Mama for my new summer wardrobe, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m being watched. Further cementing this belief, is the ominous warning Calista gave me a month back about staying clear of the people in the S.U.V. as they apparently wish to extinguish my light. Either she meant they wish to invite me over to the dark side or they want me dead. Whatever their intentions are, I don’t want to find out.
The van moves past us and I catch sight of the one significant detail; the AC/DC sticker. “That’s it! That’s the S.U.V!”
“Let’s follow them,” Sage says, pulling out. I watch as the van makes a right turn. We are about to do the same when a car coming from the right pulls out in front of us and stops.
“Come on! Move it already!” Sage shouts impatiently, slamming the side of his fist on the dashboard. Fortunately, the only exit out of the mall’s parking lot is a long bend that curves into the intersection so the van is still in our view. The driver in front of us has his neck craned to his shoulder, pinning down his cell phone to his ear.
“Get off your phone, dumbass!” Sage shouts, honking the horn so hard I almost imagine his hand breaking through the plastic.
Finally, the idiot driver ahead of us makes up his damn mind and decides to turn left.
In the time it takes the driver to move, he has allowed the S.U.V to travel further and further into the distance. Sage makes a sharp turn right. Hitting the gas, he tries to catch up. The chase finds its way onto the freeway. Due to the influx of cars racing down the lane he is forced to slow down.
“Try weaving in-between cars,” I suggest.
Sage skillfully winds in and out of traffic, producing a lot of shouting, honking, and birds from the other drivers.
The S.U.V. suddenly merges off the freeway as the driver attempts to evade us.
“Left, left, take a left,” I say, back-seat driving.
“I can see that,” Sage says, quickly breaking. Merging, he coasts into the off-ramp.
After about a mile, the road leads us to an intersection and we manage to be right behind the S.U.V. The light is green but instead of proceeding through the S.U.V. idles, holding up traffic.
“What the hell is that guy doing?” I ask, straining my eyes as I try to catch a glimpse of the unknown driver through the back windshield, to no avail.
“Hell, if I know,” Sage answers, his brows furrowed in irritation. “But I’m about to find out,” he says as he shifts the truck into park.
“Sage, what are you doing?” I ask as I watch him unbuckle his seatbelt and swing the door open. “Are you insane? Get back here you—! Don’t be an idiot!” I call after him, but my words fall on deaf ears.
“Hey!” Sage shouts, nearing the vehicle. His body is tense, and his hands are rolled into fists. Approaching the driver, he bangs on the side window. “Open, up!”
Screech. The mystery driver hits the gas and speeds off just as the light turns yellow.
Sage races back to the truck. Hopping into the driver’s seat, he shifts the gear into drive but before he is able to pursue the light changes to red and the S.U.V disappears around a corner.
Sage slumps into his worn vinyl seat, defeated. “Now see that, that was my fault,” he admits, turning to face me.

A sharp pain on my cheek wakes me up. Before my eyes can focus, something smashes into the side of my nose bringing tears to my eyes. “Fuck!” I cry out as I cup my hands over my face. Sight blurry with tears, I writhe in pain. Something collides into my side and hurls me off the bed. My spine slams sharply onto the hard floor but I have no time to recover. Instead, I blindly swing my hands around trying to fend off whatever has been beating me up before curling up into a ball as I wait for an oncoming attack that never comes. Blinking away the tears, my vision clears, and I look around the dark room expecting to see some sort of monster. But all I see is emptiness.
The sound of Marisol moaning as she thrashes around in her sleep cuts through the silence. Lifting myself on to my knees, I reach over and turn on my bedside lamp. The glow of the lamp reveals Marisol flailing around in bed, her hands clenched in tight fists. Squeezed in one hand is her sock monkey, Socks, whose coal-black eyes seem to stare back at me. If I had it my way that stupid monkey would have been tossed out a long time ago, but Marisol insists on keeping him. I look over at Marisol. She must be having a nightmare.
Marisol moans again, but this time she sounds like she is saying something. I stand on my knees to get a better listen as I look over at her. Smack! Her fist goes flying full force into my pillow. “That would have hurt,” I think. Crawling back onto the bed I go over to Marisol to wake her up from her nightmare.
“Sunshine,” I call out softly. “Sunshine.” I reach out to stroke her cheek with the back of my hand.
“Don’t touch me!” Marisol hisses vehemently through clenched teeth in a deep voice, stiffening up. I immediately retract the hand that was hovering just above her face.
“Marisol?” I study her face. How did she know I was going to touch her? Her eyes are still closed, and her face is scrunched up into a grimace. She lets out a soft moan as her features relax; her head drops to the side and her chin nestles into her shoulder. Was she talking in her sleep again?
I might as well try to go back to sleep now that she has calmed down. Going back to my side of the bed, I burrow under the sheets. As a precaution I place an extra pillow in between us as a barrier. Hopefully, that will soften the blows. I can feel the blood thrumming against the side of my face where she struck me. That’s going to leave a mark. What time is it? I look at the clock. It’s three in the morning. God, it’s too early for this. Damn, is my cheek swollen? I probably should put ice on it, but the thought of having to walk all the way through the long, dark halls to the kitchen only heightens my resolve to just go to sleep ...
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! Once again, I am jarred awake, only this time it is from the extremely annoying blare of my alarm. “Shut up!” I groan groggily as I hit the snooze button finally after the third attempt. Rolling up into an upright position, I turn over to find Marisol perfectly dead asleep. Huff. I direct my aggravation over to Trevor whose heavy sleeping body is trapping my feet. “Trevor, get-get off!” I nudge underneath him with my foot and when that doesn’t work, I wriggle around until I get one foot free and push him off with the other until he has no choice but to flee.
Trevor throws an angry glance in my direction, and— with a nod in indignation—puffs air through his nose at me as his way of saying, “Screw you!” before going to sit at the door.


Gazing into the mirror, I turn my face to see if Marisol left any bruising. To my relief, my cheek isn’t swollen but there is a slight discoloration. Hmm. Not too bad. At least my lips not busted.
After finishing up my first routine, I leave the bathroom. On my way back to the bedroom, I pass Mama who is guiding a sleepy Marisol into the bathroom to get her teeth brushed. Back in my room I slip out of my pajamas, flinging them onto the bed behind me. Sliding the clothes off the rack I ease them on. Standing in front of the armoire I evaluate myself in the mirror. My hair is pulled back over the crown of my head to cover the spot where my hair has yet to have grown back fully since my stay at the hospital. Speaking of which, I had to take off four inches as a consequence of almost being burned alive. So now I am sporting the same haircut as the one I had before, only this time I added layers.
As to the beating I took from Marisol, the bruising has virtually disappeared since I applied some powder to conceal it. Due to the heat, the humidity, the freaking red ants, and mosquitoes forcing me to stay inside, my perpetual beachcomber’s tan has lightened a great deal. Thus, leaving me only a couple of shades darker than Marisol’s fair complexion and the ghost of my former self. So, to add a little color I used a touch of blush and added a little gloss to my lips. Sadly, there wasn’t much I could do to get rid of the purple rings tracing my eyes, but, overall, I am the poster child of health.
“What do you think, Trevor?” I ask, looking down at him. He appears to have forgiven me. Wagging his tail, he nuzzles his nose under my skirt, lifting the edge and letting it float down. “Do you like my skirt?” He bumps my leg with the side of his butt as he starts to vocalize. “What do you think, bud? Does mommy look pretty?” Trevor responds by shaking his head. “No? You don’t think so?” Once again Trevor shakes his head, this time blowing snot all over my leg. I gasp. Before I can react, he takes off out of the room slipping and sliding across the wooden floor. Eww! “You, butthead!” I yell after him. “Rude dog,” I say to myself as I stare into the mirror.
Sigh. Time for school.


Sage pulls into one of the last available parking spaces which happens to be a good walking distance from the building. He then gets out and strolls over to my side to open my door. Looking around, he tugs on the door handle, but the door doesn’t budge.
On the other side of the window, I watch his mouth move as he breathes to himself, “Really?” before trying to wrench the door open. It does nothing to resolve the issue. Vigorously shaking the door handle, he attempts to unjam it. “I hate this truck!” he shouts, striking the truck’s roof with the side of his fist.
I suck in the sides of my cheeks to keep from smiling, so as not to infuriate him further. I crawl over the driver’s seat and exit out his door.
Sage’s cheeks are flushed with color from both embarrassment and exasperation. “I’m sorry you had to do that,” Sage says while rubbing the back of his neck.
“It’s fine,” I say as I walk over to him. “Anyway, I found it kind of funny.” I smile up at him as he glares down at me. Looping my arm with his and resting my head against his bicep, we take our time heading through the parking lot. Partly, because it’s too hot to walk any faster and mostly because not one of us is in any hurry to get this school year started.
A glint of something catches the corner of my eye and I spot an S.U.V pulling in front of the entrance. THE S.U.V!
Tugging on Sage’s arm, I lean away from him. The S.U.V’s door opens, dropping off a kid, but as I am about to discover who’s coming out a behemoth-sized truck stops in front of the S.U.V. Come on, come on, come on. Move already. The chick in the truck allows a few students to cross. Yanking my arm free from Sage’s, I try to draw nearer, but the motion causes Sage to drop his backpack he had loosely hanging on his shoulder onto the pavement; spilling all of its contents. “Sage, look! It’s the S.U.V!”
Sage looks up and is about to take off towards the S.U.V when he realizes his bag is still on the ground. I take a step forward, standing on my tiptoes to get a better look. Behind me I listen to the shuffling sound of pages being tossed into the bag and notebooks’ metal spines scraping the street. A pang of guilt spreads through me for leaving him to pick up the stuff on his own. Damn it. Grudgingly, I spin around and nimbly toss all the school supplies into his bag as fast as I can—not bothering to stop and discern whether I am actually tossing in his supplies or garbage—all the while periodically glancing over my shoulder. By the time we are able to shove all his crap into his backpack, the truck has already passed and the van had sped off; the student had already dispersed into the crowd, hidden among the students indolently trekking to the building like a herd of animals seeking shelter from the sun.
“Damn it all to hell!” I groan, stomping my foot.
“Don’t worry,” Sage says, wrapping an arm around me as he rubs my arm soothingly, “we’ll get them next time.”
Entering the school, the first thing we see is the lunchroom located directly across from the front doors. With it being August, it’s hotter than hell outside, so every one of my fellow inmates are corralled into one area, the cafeteria. By the look of it, there are about two-hundred students in here. It’s not much of a shocker, I mean who wouldn’t choose the comfortable sixty degrees in here compared to the hundred and five out there? The one percent not in the room are either in their cars with the windows rolled up and the air conditioners blasting, or they’re on their way to the building.
A group of voices break through the fusion of laughter and chatter resonating practically throughout the building. “Sage! Yo, bro! Get over here!” a group of guys shout, waving him over. Judging moderately by their slightly more athletic build from the rest of the male population they must be on the sports team.
“C’mon, I want to introduce you to Cammie,” Sage says, his fingers gently brushing my cheekbone as he tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. I tear my eyes away from his to the far corner of the cafeteria where the guys are shouting for us to join them.
Two of the boys are having a cram-as-much-chips-into-your-mouth contest, another dude is pouring chocolate milk onto a boy’s head before retreating outdoors as the guy gives chase, and still another guy is shooting food off a spoon into a wide expectant mouth.
Girls are sprinkled about them, cheering them on and or flirting with them while practically sitting in their laps. Judging by the orange glow of their skin, stamped on eyebrows, and resting bitch faces I would say it’s safe to assume they make up the cheer squad.
“Like I said, I want to introduce you to Cammie,” Sage assures, taking note of my reaction. “Unlike the rest of those yahoo’s he’s cool. You’ll see.”
“Hey, guys! I haven’t seen y’all in a while,” Sage says.
Faces of disgust are made in my general direction from a couple of the girls upon my approach as they turn around to stare at me for a moment before putting their heads close in together to whisper openly about me.
“Where have they been hiding you, man?” says a Latino with black shaggy hair who reaches across the table for a fist bump. “Bro, we haven’t seen you since the beginning of summer break,” he says.
“It’s been a pretty crazy summer,” Sage says while rubbing his neck. Crazy doesn’t even sum it up. Try hellish.
“Yeah, we’ve heard all about you keeping busy and all,” says a tall dark-haired boy whilst his eyes hungrily take me in. He boldly winks at Sage without the slightest hint of trying to keep it discreet.
“Excuse me?” I respond fuming, crossing my arms.
Sage continues talking, clearly choosing to ignore the exchange. “So, let me introduce you to—anybody seen Cameron?” Sage asks the table. “He should be here by now.”
“You never did remember to check your back,” someone says in a deep booming voice from behind me. The voice belongs to a very large, very tall African American guy with short cropped hair and dark brown eyes.
“That’s where you came in,” Sage says. “He played left tackle,” he informs me as if I would know what that is. “Missed ya, brother.”
“Missed you too, Sterling.” The two best friends slap hands and give a brief hug. “You’d better hang onto her, Sage.” Turning to me he says, “They sure weren’t exaggerating when they were saying how pretty you are. The name is Cammie.”
“Sage has told me all about you,” I respond, taking his hand. To me, the face and the name doesn’t match up. Cammie sounds to me like a girl’s name. But you’d have to be stupid or at least have a death wish if you were to point that out. Cameron’s of the same build as Sage but he must be six-six and must weigh close to two-fifty. Here I thought Sage was freakishly tall. Although to be fair, most people consider me abnormally small for standing at five feet tall—only four inches shy from average.
“It’s great to finally meet you,” he says with a gentle smile. The kind of smile that takes up most of his face. Automatically I smile too. Now I can see why he goes by Cammie. His face is round and childlike, and when he speaks he speaks in a friendly and gentle manner like he’s afraid that he might frighten me. Facing Sage, he shoots him a dirty look to which Sage responds with a shrug.
“Likewise,” I reply.
“I’ve been meaning to introduce y’all but I’ve been so damn busy.”
“Like things going bump in the night,” says the boy with the rat-tail; smirking he nudges Sage with his elbow.
“What!?” I respond.
“Sure bro, ghosts. The scariest thing in that house is her dad,” Sage replies. Either Sage is being too stupid to have caught the implication or he is just praying that I was too stupid to understand.
Ring. Ring. Ring.
“We had better be getting to class,” Sage says, looping my arm with his. “See ya guys later.”
“Wait, what’s your first class?” Cammie calls after us.
“Math, Mr. Wilt.”
“I’ll save y’all a seat then,” Cammie says, before going the other way.
“I’m sorry about those things the guys were saying,” Sage whispers to me once we’re out of earshot.
“So, do you hang out with them often?”
“Not really. It’s mostly me and Cammie. Except for this summer when Cammie went away for football camp. We don’t have to sit with them for lunch. Can be just you and me and Cammie.”
“Can we? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the others are nice. I’m just not sure I can eat when their girlfriends are telepathically striving to make me choke on my food.”


We drift through the waves of students heading to second period. We zig-zag through the crowded halls. I hang onto Sage’s hand as he navigates us through.
“See you in an hour,” Sage says, dropping me off at my first class alone from him, PE. The sports team shares a different PE class, and even though he won’t be playing this year because he’s working and whatnot the coach allowed him to work out with the team. Sage and I share a total of five classes which means I’ll be on my own for only three.
“See you.” Sage reaches down and gives me a goodbye kiss before heading off.
I wrinkle my nose as I encounter the entrance to the gym. The gym smells like a mixture of floor wax, sweat, and cleaning products. Royal blue—the school color—outlines the dingy white walls stained yellow by years of dust and mildew. An asthmatic’s worst nightmare. Girls are seated on the pull-out bleachers pressed against the far wall. A string of emotions shoot through me like a lightning bolt as green eyes glare back at mine.
“Look who it is, girls,” Scarlett says standing up and walking toward me. Scarlett and her clones come to a stop in front of me.
“Sage let you off his leash?” she provokes, cocking her head to the side, lips parted insolently.
Before I can respond a girl runs up from behind and rests her arm comfortably on my shoulder and replies for me. “Cool it, Scarface. Wouldn’t want the whole school knowing you have a crush on the new girl.”
“Shut up, you little slut. This has nothing to do with you.”
“Slut, ooh, how original. But I guess you’re the expert. Seventh grade was a big year for her,” she says to me. “Your big girl bra wasn’t the only thing you got that year was it?”
“That’s a lie!” Scarlett growls, her face growing almost as red as her hair.
“Is that so? So, I guess that special shampoo you left in the girl’s shower was Blondie’s?” the girl says, gesturing to Barbara. Barbie gasps.
“Anyone could have gotten it. Could have caught it off a dirty toilet seat,” Scarlett says through gritted teeth.
“But you didn’t,” the girl sings.
“Shut up!”
Blow! A screech from a whistle rings around the room so close behind me that I resist the urge to plug up my ears.
“C’mon y’all, take a seat,” the coach says to partially deaf ears. He produces another longer whistle.
“For fuck’s sake,” the girl behind me complains.
“Get a move on!” he shouts as if he hadn’t just blown everybody’s eardrums out.
Everybody starts to shuffle to the benches.
“I’ll deal with y’all later,” Scarlett declares, shooting us—mainly the mystery girl—a deadly glare. Once again, she takes her seat. The clones take her lead.
“Bye, now,” the mystery girl waves back after her.
“Thanks,” I say turning to face the girl. Her violet eyes peek out from under her bangs. Her eyes are about leveled with mine as she is slightly slouching, shifting her weight onto one foot. Her sleek black hair is cut short and hangs in waves a little past her shoulders.
“No problem. Someone has to put her back in her place. I’m Evanie by the way,” she says, putting her hand out for me to shake.
“We’d better go find a seat before old Burt pops a vein,” she says, looking over at the PE teacher who is writing something down on the clipboard resting on his bulging stomach. When we approach the edge of the bleachers a few girls get up and move away.
“Welcome to Valentin High,” Evanie says.
“Okay, class, I’m Coach Burt. I’ll be your PE teacher.”
“Way to state the obvious,” Evanie says, rolling her eyes.
“Before we start, I’m going to start roll call. Avery, Janice …”
He goes down the line of names. Like most teachers, he stumbles on mine, ultimately butchering it, before he gives up on trying to pronounce it correctly and moves on to the next kid on the list. Afterward, he goes on about what we will be doing for the rest of the school year.
“Man, this guy just likes to hear himself talk,” Evanie says. I can’t help but smile.
“No kidding, why can’t he just say we’ll be exercising? Why does he have to go into detail?”
“Exactly.” Eyeing the clique closest to us she says, “So, new girl. How’s it feel to be popular?” My eyes lock with one of the girls who then turns back around and whispers something. After which, they all turn to look our way. And it’s not just them. Clusters of girls are participating in the same act. I even catch a few guys staring at me. A brave—and stupid—few (wait till I tell Sage) nudge and hedge each other as they take turns catcalling me like they would some random hooker.
“Wonderful,” I respond.
“You and I are going to get along just fine.”
“Why is that?”
“We’re both a couple of hell-raisers. You’re dating Scarface’s crush and me being, well … me. Not to mention, I heard you two were kicking up one hell of a fuckstorm disrupting the peace with your unchristian ways.”
“Unchristian ways?”
“More like progressive ways, but—uh—around here they are practically the same thing. You are living with your boyfriend and all. Not two days ago was the reverend of my parents’ church standing in front of the pulpit warning us kids to stay clear of you two infidels.
“‘Cause, they’ll corrupt your innocent minds with their wicked ways. Pray for them my children, for the path they are on is heading to the place filled with fire and brimstone,’” Evanie says in a solemn country accent, making her voice drop a couple of octaves. “Don’t worry, he prays for me too,” she adds with a grin.
“People actually believe all that B.S.?”
“If that were true Valentin wouldn’t have a high teenage pregnancy rate. The problem is that all these idiots,” she gestures with her hand around the room, “don’t want to cross the little white sheep of Valentin. Hell, Scarface is the daughter of one of the more popular pastors here and there’s like twenty of them.”
Whistle. We turn our heads back to the center of the room where Coach Burt is just bringing his whistle from his mouth.
“Okay, class. Free time is over. Since most of you weren’t listening—” Coach stops and looks in no general direction. “—I’m only going to repeat myself once more, so listen up. Today we’re going to play some dodgeball,” he says resting his clipboard on his hip. “You, you, and you—” he points to a couple of scrawny guys, “help me get the balls out of the equipment room. The rest of you go get changed.”
“Aren’t you coming?” I ask as I push myself off the bleacher and stand to face Evanie who hasn’t budged. I waited until most of the girls were piling out of the locker room before getting up.
“And ruin this perfectly soft bod? No thanks. I’m going to ditch. You can come with. He’ll never notice we’re gone.”
“No thanks, PE isn’t that bad,” I lie, not wanting to get in trouble.
“C’mon, it’ll be fun. You know you want too,” she entices.
“As tempting as that sounds, I think I’ll just stick around.”
“Suit yourself,” she says as she dismounts and sneaks (well walks) out the back door of the gym.
The coach comes back from his office and the game starts. Dodgeballs come flying at me left and right. Most of the balls are purposely being thrown at my face by girls who already hate my guts thanks to Scar. I manage to dodge them mostly by ducking behind the players on my team. Five minutes into the game and I am already regretting my decision not to ditch with Evanie.

“Well, well, well. Look who we have here. It’s nice to see you again.”
No, no, no. This cannot be happening. There is no way. No way.
“I’m Mrs. Kimberly, I’ll be your English teacher for the next year. Surely, you couldn’t have forgotten me over the course of a month? I work part-time as a librarian at the downtown library.”
For a moment I’m rendered speechless. Her light-brown eyes stare coldly back. The last time I saw her … well, it didn’t go so well. To say that we got off on the wrong foot would be an understatement, to say the least. The old hag threw Sage and me out of the library because we were trying to find information on my house which apparently was “none of my business.”
“So, you do remember,” she says, baring her false teeth as her thin lips peel back.
I check the schedule in my hand and reciprocate a smile. “I must have the wrong class. I’m supposed to have Mrs. Jones?”
“Oh, there isn’t any mistake. Mrs. Jones decided to take a job in Decatur. It’ll be just you and little old me this year. But that shouldn’t be a problem. I bet we’ll get along just fine.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Yes, ma’am,” she repeats, vaguely mocking me.
My luck can’t be this crappy, can it? It’s not too late to change classes, right? The counselor said as long as I do it before the week is out there shouldn’t be a problem.
“Take a seat, class is about to start.”
I turn on my heels and head down the row of seats, searching for a seat furthest from the front.
“Sorry,” a girl says, tossing her purse onto the empty seat nearest to her. “This seat is taken.”
At first, I choose to believe that she isn’t bullshitting me. That is until one girl says, “Sorry, this seat is taken, boyfriend stealer.” The girl smirks as the chick seated beside her giggles. Thus, setting off a chain reaction as everywhere I turn all the girls refuse to let me sit. There are a few empty seats where a group of guys are huddled, but that isn’t an option as I hear harsh whispers from girlfriends threatening them along the lines of let-her-sit-there-and-you’ll-never-get-to-second-base-again. Their choice was obvious.
I had planned to find a seat in the way back if it wasn’t for the teacher taking up my time, leaving me now with limited options. My fist clenches into a ball and I move on. I catch side glances coming from every which way and laughs of girls criticizing me. Turns out that all of the seats are “packed” except for one next to a tall, lanky blonde girl with big blue eyes magnified by her glasses sitting off to the side.
“I suppose you’re going to say this seat is taken too,” I grumble peevishly.
“Nuh-uh,” she manages to utter before spitting out the sideways silver cross pendant she had in her mouth along with a dribble of saliva. “No, not at all. By all means,” she says cordially gesturing to the seat beside her.
“Thanks.” I plop my binder down on the desk. Just in time too, because the second I sat down the bell rang and Mrs. Kimberly took no time in taking roll call.
The girl lets out a muted squeal of glee and bounces in her seat as she flaps her hands about in giddiness. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she apologizes to everyone around even though nobody has even bothered to pay her the slightest attention. “I’m just … oh! I’m just so happy your se-sitting next to me! Nobody ever talks to me! Oh … I’m ruining it, I’m ruining it!”
“No, you’re not,” I say amused. Lowering my voice so as not to interrupt the teacher I whisper, “I get what you’re saying. I was beginning to feel the same way.” The girl titters and dips her chin as her smile widens, revealing her shiny wired teeth. “What’s your name by the way?”
“Eugenia, but I go by Genie.”
“Genie, like Genie in a bottle. I like it. It’s very pretty.”
“Marimar Utterson,” the old bat reads off.
“Here.” Like you didn’t know that already.
“I heard about you and Scarlett getting into it at the mall yesterday. That was pretty brave of you. Telling her off like that. You know, I don’t believe a word she says. If ever there’d be a boyfriend stealer, she’d be the one.” It’s shocking how news travels fast in a small town.
“I’m glad someone believes me,” I mutter. “Who’s that?” I ask, seeing a scrapbook laid open on Genies desk. Hearts and bits of poetry adorn the page, at the center is a collage of one guy.
“My boyfriend, Keith Montgomery.” She slides the book over to me. “He’s on the football team.” Keith is a tall, muscular, blue eyed all-American boy. He’s what I call a pretty boy, dimples and all.
“This was taken last year in my fifth-period calculus class that we shared together,” she says, pointing to a photo of him chewing on a pencil as he ponders a math problem.
“Is that—?” I say, pointing to a pencil taped to the page, disgusted.
“The exact one. I switched pencils with him when he wasn’t looking.” Genie is really nice, but my God she’s crazy.
“Isn’t he gorgeous?” she utters dreamily as she points to a picture where he is visibly sleeping in class, his cheek resting in a puddle of drool. Attractive.
“Totally,” I lie.
She studies the photo a moment longer, letting out a wistful sigh, before moving on to another photo. “There we are at the school dance,” she says, pointing to a picture right across from the previous one. He and another girl are dressed up as Johnny and Baby from Dirty Dancing, while Genie is standing a foot behind them dressed as Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter.
“This is us on Pajama Day, Red Ribbon Week (Drug-Free Week), the pep-rally …” She photobombed almost every photo. A few times it appears he caught her.
“This,” she says, flipping to one of the last pages filled, “this one is my favorite.” She shows me a picture of his butt. His skinny jeans are practically painted on his ass. “Isn’t it great?” she giggles.
“It sure is,” I lie. His skinny jeans hug his ass so tightly I can make out the lines of his boxers. How is that allowed? Are those rhinestones on his back pockets? Feeling weird about staring at some guy’s ass I look away.
“Hey, how old are you?” I whisper after a short pause.
“So, you’re advanced?”
“Something like that.”
“Me too, I skipped eighth grade and headed straight into ninth. I’ll be seventeen when I graduate high school this year,” I tell her. “What classes do you have?” I ask, pulling my list of classes out of my binder to compare.
She pulls a piece of paper out of her pocket and places it on my desk. At the top of the list is written KEITH’S CLASSES. “Umm, let’s see,” she says as she runs her finger across it as I check to see if Mrs. Kimberly’s back is still turned. “Darn, it looks like we only share lunch and this class together. Hey, do you wanna … maybe … be class buddies?” she says somewhat carefully, toying with the sideways cross. She waits expectantly for my response.
“Definitely,” I say with a grin. Relief washes over her face as she takes back her paper.
“Wanna sit with me at lunch, class buddy?”
“Sounds good.”
Genie smiles and twists the silver crosses’ chain around. “I’ve been dying to ask … is your house really haunted.”
“Not anymore. Called ghostbusters and they got rid of his sorry butt,” I say in the most nonchalant there-is-no-way-I-am-actually-being-serious-right-now kind of tone.
She studies me for a second then snorts. “You’re funny.” I let out a forced laugh. “Too bad,” she sighs, resting her chin in her hand. “It would have been nice to know if ghosts can mo—”
“My apologies, am I boring you?” Mrs. Kimberly interrupts, hovering over my desk, her hand on her hip. Glasses resting on the bridge of her nose, I receive the full brunt of her scowl. Even though both of us had been talking she hasn’t once looked in Genie’s direction.
Yes, actually, I think.
“No ma’am,” we answer in unison. Our dear teacher shoots me one last dirty look before turning on her heels and presuming her stance at the front of the class. “Now where was I … oh, yes. This semester we will be …” She drones on for what seems like forever. Every now and then she will look in my direction, so talking’s out. Bored, I sit through the rest of class watching the clock or watching Genie write all over her binder I heart Keith or Mrs. Eugenia Montgomery. I begin to fantasize about faking a brain aneurysm to get out of here faster when the bell signals class is over. Ending my purgatory.
Binder and books in hand, I wait for Genie to gather her stuff. It’s not until now do I take notice of her ensemble. Where did I see that outfit before? Then it hits me. Her outfit is practically identical to Scarlett’s: a tight t-shirt, a tight pair of shorts with a bedazzled butt, and mid-calf cowboy boots.
“Which way are we headed?” I ask.
“Next up is lunch. Mind snagging me a seat?”
“‘Kay, but where are you going?”
“I’m going to the gym to see my man,” she says cheerfully as she folds the paper back up and places it in her pocket. “With any luck, he’ll be in the showers,” she says excitedly, doing a little jig, before racing out the door.


Sage juggles both his and my lunch tray in his hands. “Where do you want to sit?” he asks, searching the room for an available spot. I catch sight of an empty table on the far right away from where Sage’s buddies are sitting.
“Over there,” I say, leading the way. I pass the jocks tables and the popular kids’ table where their evil ringleader Scarlett is practically sitting on Keith’s lap.
We get to the table and sit down. I look over to Sage’s plate that is crammed to capacity. I switch out my slightly green hotdog and what looks to be mac and cheese for his apple and fruit cup.
“Is she going out with him?” I ask in disbelief, nodding my head towards Keith who’s essentially swallowing Scarlett’s tongue when the supervising teacher’s back is turned.
“You mean Scarlett and Keith? Yeah, he’s kind of her on again off again boyfriend.”
“Tramp. If she has him then why is she hot and bothered about me dating you?” Keith can’t hold a candle to Sage, but still.
“Probably because she’s never been dumped before.”
“How long were you guys dating?” I push my fruit around with my spork.
He smiles slightly before answering, “A few months. I found out later that the whole time she was cheating with him behind my back. I was going to break up with her anyways; she’s a control freak.”
“I can see that.” I pop a pineapple into my mouth. My teeth sink into the skin sending a cascade of tangy liquid to envelop my tongue. I stop chewing. Wait a second … if he dated Scarlett then when did he date Barbie? Isn’t that against girl code? I take a moment to swallow. “If you dated Scarlett then when did you and Barbie get together?”
“Before. After Barbara and I broke up, Scarlett and I hooked up …”
“Hooked up?”
“Dated. We dated and we had a roller-coaster relationship.”
“And Barbie and Scarlett became friends? How did that happen?”
“Why the sudden interest?”
“I don’t know.” I shrug. “I’m just curious.”
“If it interests you to know, they were already friends. It turned out that Scarlett made Barbie end it so she and I could get together.”
“Hold on a sec, I’ll be right back. I forgot to grab a chocolate milk,” Sage says, getting up in a rush. He nearly runs into Genie who was coming over but zigged unknowingly just as she zagged. Pushing her glasses back up her nose with her index finger she sits down across from me. “Hi, there class buddy.”
“Hello,” I answer.
“Is that macaroni and cheese, or mashed potatoes with cheese on it?” Genie asks as she squints down at Sage’s tray and wrinkles her nose in disgust at the yellowish mass.
“I don’t know,” I respond.
“What is that?” I ask Sage just as he sits back down. Picking up my spork I give it a little poke. “Mashed potatoes or mac and cheese?” He stabs a piece and chews it.
“Neither. It’s cauliflower covered in melted cheese.”
“Eww, gross!” Genie and I both say in disgust.
“It’s not bad,” he says, picking up another forkful. “It’s terrible. But I’m starved.”
“By the way, Sage, this is—”
“Oh, we already met,” Genie informs me. “Pretty much everyone in this town grew up together since pre-school.”
“Never mind then.” I stab a cherry tomato from on top of my meager salad and pop it in my mouth. Mmm.
A tray slams down beside me, startling me.
“The crap they feed us,” Evanie growls, sitting down on my right.
“How come you’re here? I thought you were skipping the rest of the day?” I say still chewing, covering my mouth with my hand.
“I wasn’t going to skip this delicious meal,” Evanie says sarcastically, holding up a forkful of what looks to be rice pudding and letting it drip down onto her plate. “Oh, hey,” she says dourly, barely lifting her eyes at Sage.

“Hi,” Genie replies self-consciously. Staring down at her plate she crumbles crackers between her fingers and uses it to garnish her salad. A massive shadow casts over Genie’s plate, procuring her thoughts. Befuddled, she looks up from her tray to investigate the source of the shadow and her wide perturbed eyes meet Cammie’s. Cowing under him she freezes, intimidated by his size. Her eyes are as wide as a deer in headlights.
“Where am I gonna sit?” he asks, pursing his lips as he stares down at Genie. His booming voice spooks her, making her jump. Now she’s really scared. Biting my lip, I try not to laugh.
“Sorry, take mine,” she answers meekly. Clumsily, she starts to gather her tray, her hands shaking violently.
“Got it!” Cammie exclaims—causing Genie to flinch—before breaking into a smile and shambling down the row and sitting on the other side of Genie. “Now I don’t gotta fight for elbow room with you, Sterling.”
I stifle a laugh at the look on Genie’s face.
She lets out a nervous giggle, and with her face still drained from color she replies flatly, “Funny.”

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