Three Years Ago
I sit stiffly in the metal fold-out chair in the middle of the crowded auditorium. Freshman orientation. I snort at the thought of it. It feels more like a meat market, or what we called “the bowl” in juvie. Freshman kids crowd the front while the upperclassmen sit in the back, silently studying the crowd, looking for the weak.
I sneer in the direction of the older students; they certainly have another thing coming if they believe I’m an easy target. No one gets the jump on me. I may be a freshman, but I’ve already been incarcerated, and at six feet one, I can hold my own against anyone trying to make a name for him- or herself. I hunch lower in my chair, causing the metal to screech loudly, attracting unwanted attention. I glare at anyone who appears to look my way.
A small voice whispers, “You aren’t gonna make any friends with a look like that one.” I stiffly turn, enraged at the audacity of the voice, ready to spit at ’im.
I freeze—frozen by a pair of impossibly blue eyes. She’s a skinny little thing, not usually my type … but those eyes.
“Maybe I’m not looking for any friends?” I say curtly, but I give her a slow smile to show I’m not completely serious—or, at the very least, implying that she would be the exception to that statement.
She frowns, obviously trying to figure me out as she lowers herself next to me. Like a fly caught in my web … I’m gonna have fun with this one.
It’s been a while since I’ve had some fun.
Raising her brows, she leans forward and whispers again, “Sometimes you have to know when to fake it,” before turning to face the front in her seat, abruptly ending our short conversation.
I’m more than a little shocked that this girl, who happens to look like a little nun in the making, would presume to tell me what to do. But the more I think about what she said, the more I realize she’s right.
And that pisses me off.
Stupid girl. Doesn’t she know who she’s talking to? What does she know about life? About the real world? About how ugly it can be? And she wants me to fake it and play nice? I close my hands into fists, controlling the rage I can’t expel here.
As much as I hate to admit it, she has a point.
I look around the room at the yuppie-puppies from the Golden Coast and think, Hell, I’m smart enough to fool them. Definitely smart enough to fool my parents, who are under the impression they can buy their way into fixing their youngest son.
As the dough-faced principal takes the stage to commemorate the start of our high school careers, I ignore him completely; instead, I contemplate the blue-eyed girl’s words, mull them over, letting them roll and flow in my mind.
Play the part of a good boy …
Not be … me? The troubled kid from a “good” family who secretly covets
the destruction of life. Covets the power it gives me. The control. Faking it would be a challenge, for sure. I happen to like the thought of playing a role, catching them off guard, wearing a mask.
A person can have many faces … many masks.
The mask of a good boy who does what everyone wants him to do. Is who everyone wants him to be. Become the tall, athletic wonder boy who makes his father proud. I softly chuckle at that thought.
I like this plan. And the pretty girl sitting beside me gave me this plan. I’ll have to think of a way to thank her.
Chapter 1- Dannie
Crying. I am crying at the top of the stairs. I look down at my chubby baby arms and my chubby baby tummy, and I wail. I look up at the man holding my hand. Mommy’s friend is holding my wrist while alternating between looking fearfully at me and screaming at my mother, who happens to be lying on the couch in the living room. Why is she sleeping there? I wonder as tears burn my eyes. Why is she looking at him like she’s mad? Mommy, why are you mad at me? Look at me, Mommy! And she does. Only there is nothing but anger in that look. Disgust. I shrink back behind Mommy’s friend while he is screaming at her. I hear nothing though. I can’t make out any sound, actually. All I know is that my skin stings.
Mommy, why does my skin hurt? I look down at my naked body, and I see colors. Why are there so many colors? Why are there prints on my tummy?
Mommy, make it stop burning.
I jolt straight out of bed, startled. My heart races inside my chest, pounding so loudly I am sure it will wake someone up. My thick hair sticks to the back of my damp neck. It was the dream … no, the memory.
Will I ever sleep without nightmares? I stare at the ceiling, haunted by the look on her face, her eyes completely indifferent— almost inhuman.
I groan while palming my eyes. Might as well get up because there is no way I can fall asleep after that!
It’s too early and there isn’t enough coffee in the world to make six fifteen worth it! But mmm … café au lait sounds so good after the night I just had.
Earphones in, I blast some good ol’ Paramore as I look out the window, watching the morning pass by in a blur as the school bus moves its hostages closer to the better parts of town.
It’s uncomfortably hot already; my legs are sticking to the seat. Yuck. Shouldn’t fall be … fall? Brisk? Breezy? Trying to think offallish words fails to bring about a breeze. Apparently, that’s not gonna happen in California today. I let my head fall back because it hasn’t stopped pounding from the lack of good sleep and my morning dose of caffeine. The headache could also be from my stinging backside—my mother’s punishment for my latest misdemeanour.
She always did prefer the belt for solving problems. Luckily, today I can hide it easily.
I refuse to think about her today, of all days. It’s the first day of senior year—and only one year before freedom. Freedom. Ignoring the pain, I distract myself by making a mental checklist of everything I need to do this year before college. Lists help me keep my sanity, and as I finish the list, I feel content knowing that I’m capable of accomplishing it all.
Although I feel better momentarily, I am still weary. Somehow I’m just barely awake enough to put on my game face when we pull up to the next stop.
“The bus doesn’t smell like a douche cake today!” I hear over my music.
Jemma’s speech continues to amaze me after all these years. I feign shock as she pulls out my earphones and lowers herself onto the bench next to me, simultaneously retrieving her makeup from her backpack. Jemma, or Jem, has always been my best friend, storm of life, partner in crime, and confidante. I look at her with a practiced patience as I notice today’s look.
“So is that supposed to be a good omen or something?” I notice she is going for a glamazon appearance. I smile up at her, glad for the distraction she brings. “Dude, are you wearing enough eyeliner today?” I ask.
She gives me an incredulous glare while refreshing her already perfect makeup. I wish I could say I had her porcelain skin or her platinum blonde hair that naturally falls perfectly to her shoulders
in ringlets, but I can’t. For all her pale skin and blonde glory, I am a stark contrast with my golden skin and dark hair. She is tall with dark, mysterious, come-hither eyes, and I am short with wide blue eyes. She somehow looks somewhere between a country star and the girl next door, while I look a little beach fried.
If I didn’t love her so much, I would hate her.
“Good morning to you, Ms. Danielle Lee. I guess someone woke up with her panties in a twist. And don’t call me dude.” Jem uses my full name as if I were a child needing scolding, while giving me her signature wink as we pull up to High Ridge High. I suppress a laugh. Always so polite, that girl.
She asks, “So, did he call again?”
“Hmm?” I reply, letting out a sigh as I roll my eyes. “Of course he did.”
“I love you … but I’m not gonna talk about it.” I stand up forcefully, ending the conversation. Luckily, she lets me.
My boyfriend of two years suddenly decided to break up with me at the beginning of summer before he left for college. He wanted to “date other people” and “see what’s out there.” Bastard. Jett also happens to be Jem’s big brother, so I tend to avoid talking to her about him or his occasional drunken phone calls.
Note to the wise—when you are drinking, don’t make phone calls. Put the phone down, and just say no!
After two years of trying to convince me he was serious while declaring his devoted love, the relationship abruptly ended. Jett, out of the blue, started the typical end-of-the-relationship tells—not returning my phone calls, lying, and outright ignoring me. What a cliché.
Everything got way out of hand when he started hassling me in front of his jock-head friends, calling me a variety of colorful names—slut, whore, crazy, clingy—nothing very original, honestly. Finally it ended with an obnoxiously drunken fight, him being the one drunk, over the phone no less. And after two dedicated years, that was all I got out of it. The end.
So much for true love, right?
Needless to say, I can check “get duped by a douche bag” off my proverbial life-lessons list. I have happily conceded my love life to singleness. I’m just disappointed with all the wasted time.
Jem bounces back quickly. “Earth to Dannie! Do you want some?” she asks, holding out a compact as she approaches the locker wall.
I immediately snap out of my internal monologue.
“As your best friend, I must intervene and prevent you from going to class looking like you just rolled out of bed,” she declares, hand on hip, eyebrows raised.
Oh dang, I think she means business.
Ignoring the fact that I practically did just roll out of bed, I hesitantly look down at my cutoff shorts and white T-shirt, my satchel hanging across my chest and filled with nothing but a pen, sunglasses, and an old copy of Persuasion—all a true Cali girl needs, in my humble opinion. But my thick dark hair falling in natural waves, adding to my beach-bum persona, happens to be my favorite asset, though it still leaves a lot to be desired.
I look around, realizing I probably do look less than stellar compared to the other students. High Ridge High School is just like you’d picture a school in California’s upper-middle-class suburbia. Nestled in the beautiful foothills of the Sierra Nevadas is a quaint town called El Dorado Vista, home to the Bay Area commuters and housewives addicted to plastic surgery. I happen to be an El Do native, one of the few who weren’t born to the San Fran business class, which has gained me untold ridicule, by my not being a city kid. High Ridge High is brimming with spoiled rich kids, as evidenced by the parking lot filled with Beamers and Navigators. The image is finished off, of course, with an open quad populated by teenagers who look more like walking designer- clothing ads than students.
Screw it! I roll my eyes as I shuffle through the throngs of my peers. Deep breaths, Dannie.
Turning to her again, I ask, “Who am I gonna impress, Jem, really?” I shake my head slowly from side to side. Since I have pretty much sworn off all men, who cares? I may be one of the few brunette students who actually stay that way, not to mention being shamelessly dumped by said boyfriend, so regardless of what I look like, I will be ridiculed today.
I can’t say that I care much at this point. I give her my biggest fake smile, which I know she hates.
“Very funny, ha ha. Well, at least let me put some mascara on you.” She tilts her head to the side while giving me her most impatient look.
I wink at her.
“Fine, but I’ll have you remember I was the one who taught you everything you know concerning hair and makeup once upon a time.” I hold still while she swipes blush across my cheeks, infusing life back into my skin.
“Not anymore, beautiful!” Smiling, she starts waving the brush across my eyes as fast as she can, happy now that she won our duel and probably worried I will change my mind.
I used to be all into my hair and makeup, but I somehow lost the motivation at school about the same time I stopped dating.
Looking in the mirror hanging in my locker, I see my face, which I’ll admit looks much better now that Jem has fixed me up a little, and begrudgingly accept that this is my life. This is my stage, where I am pretending to be what I know deep down I am not— normal, the good girl with good grades, who is never a troublemaker and never late to class, and a chronic list keeper, because control is apparently an issue for me. No real surprise there. I pretty much fly under the social radar with my nose buried in a book as often as I can get away with it. I’m probably the only high school student who gets in trouble for reading in class. Such a rebel. But I have always been good at keeping my secrets with a smile on my face— my personal stage face. No one notices the girl who is always happy, right?
“Your blue eyes stand out so much more with mascara, Dannie,” she says while she gets her gloss out and starts making my lips look shinier than is natural.
Whatever will keep her happy. Jem tends to win most arguments— okay, all our arguments. She is my best friend, and I love that she honestly doesn’t care at all what other people think of her, that she is willful, stubborn, and always knows what she wants out of life. I wish I was as self-assured, but I am not. Not even close.
“Knock ’em dead, girlie.”
“Love to!” I laugh.
“Pul-lease don’t go emo on me. I can only handle one at a
time,” she says, referring to our friend Melody. She finishes with a “Gotta run, lady,” and walks away in a hurry while the bell sounds, signalling the official start of the last year of high school.
Got to keep it together for one more year. I put on a small smile that I don’t feel as I walk into leadership class.
The morning was filled with class syllabi and lectures, so many they all blurred into one very long class. By the time I made my way to the quad for lunch, Jem was already sitting with Melody, the newest member of our group, therefore completing our trifecta of awesome. Melody transferred here from Santa Cruz right before our junior year, but we instantly hit it off over seasons of Heroes, Peet’s coffee, and our love of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream—not to mention her colorful tattoos make enough of a statement in a school like High Ridge High and immediately caught my attention. Talk about flying a freak flag in Wonderland. She is as fabulously strange as Jem and I are, so, of course, we loved her.
I grab my food and make my way over to our table, glad Melody’s boyfriend, Jay, doesn’t have lunch with us this year. Last year’s lunch period was hard enough to get through without Jem punching him in the face for being an ass. Just us girls now. Thank God.
Melody also has platinum blonde hair that falls perfectly straight to her lower back. Surprise, surprise. But where Jem is glam country, tall, and curvy, Melody is a glam rocker, petite, and sporting not only many tattoos but bold facial piercings as well, topped with a bright-purple streak in her hair that fades to hot pink. Somehow it only makes her look more beautiful. We are just about the most random group of girls at High Ridge, but it works for us.
As willful and confident as Jem is, Melody could not be more opposite. She is the queen of compromise, consideration, and peace-making. They are my sassy diva and gentle lady on opposing shoulders, so to speak. Angel and devil would be going a little far … even for them.
“Miladies,” I say, greeting the girls.
“So how has the gossip been today? Anything interesting?” I sit and patiently wait to see what people have circulated from the summer’s happenings.
Melody gives me a tight-lipped half smile, knowing that I am worried about the gossip about Jett and me and our rumour- worthy split. I might fly under the radar, but my ex certainly never has—especially with the constant stream of rumours he started after we broke up. In a relatively small town like El Do, they get around fast. “That bad, huh?” I try to sound casual, but inside my stomach feels like someone is slowly squeezing it. What did he say this time?
“Screw ’em!” Jem says, giving no one in particular the bird.
Kendal and her group of gossips happen to be walking past at that moment, making it painfully obvious that they are talking about me.
Kendal suddenly smirks while flipping her red hair over one shoulder and shouts, “Did you have a good summer, Dannie?”
Wow. What a sad, sad little girl … a real grade-A bee-see.
“As a matter of fact, I did. Thank you so much for asking.” I give her a glorious smile.
“I heard you got dumped. I’m glad Jett came to his senses. It’s obvious he can get better than someone like you.” She raises one eyebrow while slowly looking over me from head to toe. Compared to her with her immaculate clothes and hair, I look like a troll. I feel a little like a troll at the moment because I’m frozen in place, not knowing how to respond to her observation. She turns to her friends, smiling as they walk away whispering to one another again.
“Kendal has always had a thing for my brother. Don’t let it bother you,” Jem whispers.
Honestly, if I didn’t feel so sorry for Kendal for being so jealous over Jett, I would be a bee-see back to her. No one should be jealous over a dickhead. But I’ll admit that I’m more than a little wounded by the insinuation that I’m a social pariah. Quickly Melody and Jem begin chatting about their mornings, obviously trying to distract me. I try to listen in contemplative silence, occasionally giving a nod or smile at regular intervals. Being the quiet one of the group has its advantages. I can mope without drawing too much attention to myself.
Is it bad that I just want to take out my book and ignore everyone? Not acceptable? Okay then.