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It didn’t take long to reach the classroom due to my escaping pace. I stopped outside of Anatomy and turned to face him. He peered down at me in anticipation.

“I get that you’re new, and I must seem intriguing to you. But I assure you, I’m not that interesting. You really don’t need to get to know me. I get good grades. I’m decent at sports, and I keep myself busy. I like my privacy. I like my space, and I like being left alone. That’s it. You can get to know everyone else in this school who’s dying to know you. I’m not. Sorry.”

He grinned.

“And stop looking at me like I’m entertaining you. I’m not amused, so leave me alone.” I rushed into the classroom. I thought I would feel better, relieved – but I didn’t. Instead, I felt defeated.

I had no idea where Even sat during Anatomy, but it wasn’t next to me. Actually, no one was sitting next to me. The seat where Karen Stewart usually sat at my table was empty. Karen was always lost during the lessons and constantly asked me questions to try to keep up. Today, I finally had the silence I kept pushing everyone away to get, but it wasn’t comforting.

By the time the bell rang at the end of the day, I was over it. Knowing I was staying over at Sara’s and didn’t have to return home helped – as did not seeing Evan again.

“Hi!” Sara greeted me as we gathered our books from our lockers. “I feel like I haven’t seen you at all today. How are you? You didn’t get to tell me…”

“Don’t mention it. Later, okay? I’m finally feeling better and just want to have fun tonight, alright?” I pleaded.

“Come on, Em. Don’t do this to me. I heard you and Evan walked together to Anatomy. You have to tell me what’s going on.”

I hesitated, not wanting to say anything where we could be overheard. I scanned the halls, stalling to make sure I wasn’t going to add to the already circulating gossip.

“He keeps trying to talk to me,” I explained to Sara. I thought this might be enough, but Sara shrugged her shoulders, waiting for me to continue.

“You were right yesterday. He told me he thinks I’m interesting, whatever that means. Sara, he’s in all of my classes, or at least it feels like it. I can’t get away from him – he’s always right there.

“I finally told him that I wasn’t interesting and to leave me alone. That’s what the walk to Anatomy was about. I don’t get this guy.”

“Em, he’s interested in you. Why is that so bad?” Sara asked, genuinely perplexed. I was surprised she didn’t understand the problem.

“Sara, I can’t have anyone interested in me. You’re my only friend for a reason.” Her eyes lowered, beginning to understand my dilemma.

“I can’t go out. I don’t go to the movies. Tonight will be the first and probably only party I’ll ever go to. I don’t want to have to lie. And if anyone ever got close enough to touch me…” I couldn’t finish the sentence. The thought of being afraid to be touched because I might cringe in pain made me shudder.

I wished I didn’t have to be so convincing, but until I said it, Sara hadn’t put it together. For just a moment, she saw the world through my eyes, and her sorrowed expression made my chest tighten.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I should’ve realized. So, I guess you shouldn’t talk to him.”

“It’s okay,” I assured her with a tight smile. “I have six hundred seventy-two days left and then anyone can find me interesting.”

She smiled back but not as big as usual.

The pity in Sara’s evasive eyes reflected the patheticness of my life, it was hard to take. It was harder to escape – literally.

I couldn’t remember a time when my life wasn’t a disaster. I had images of a smiling child stored in shoe boxes, but my father was usually included in the pictures. When he was taken away, I was left with a mother who didn’t know how to be one. So, I did everything I could to get by with as little parental interaction as possible. If I was perfect, then there wasn’t anything to regret, or distract her from the replacements she sorted through, who would never live up to my father.

I was still too much – a burden. I hoped my academic drive would help my aunt and uncle accept me as an addition to their family. Unfortunately, the reception never warmed beyond the frigid steps when I crossed the threshold four winters ago. Guilt opened the door that night, and I couldn’t be perfect enough to earn their forgiveness for what they never wanted. So, I’ve mastered evasion and over-achievement. Neither as deftly as I’d prefer, since Carol was right there to brand me with my lack of worth at every opportunity.





4. Change



Sara was quiet when we drove away from school. I knew she was thinking, and hoped that it had nothing to do with me. Of course it did.

“There’s a way around it, you know.”

I sighed, afraid to encourage this train of thought.

“You don’t have to cut yourself off from everyone to get through high school,” she continued. “We just have to anticipate the questions and have answers ready. There are so many guys who would love to ask you out, but have no idea how to approach you. Em, we can figure this out.”

“Sara, you’re not making any sense. Besides the obvious - I can’t go out.”

“What’s the obvious?”

“Honestly, who do you know who’s interested in me? Be specific.”

“Evan already told you he found you interesting,” she said with a grin. “Let’s start with him.”

“Let’s not,” I groaned.

“Oh! Did you hear that Haley Spencer asked him to homecoming?” she exclaimed.

“Of course I didn’t. You’re my source of gossip, remember?” Something in my chest twisted. “Isn’t homecoming a month away - and she’s a senior – what’s that about?”

Sara examined me with narrowed eyes. “Honestly? It’s only three weeks away. Anyway, I heard he turned her down. I told you the senior girls were looking at him too. But Emma, he’s into you.”

“Sara, let’s put this into perspective,” I corrected. “I amuse him. He thinks I’m interesting. He didn’t ask me on a date. He just probably thinks I’m a freak or something.”

“Well, you are,” Sara said with a playful smile. “Who else can live with pure evil while still maintaining a 4.0, play three varsity sports, be in what seems like every club and, to top it all off, be scouted by four colleges. That is pretty freakish.”

Before I could respond, she continued, “Okay, let’s just say we don’t know his motives. He already knows you’re a private person. It sounds like you made that perfectly clear. Why can’t you give him what he wants and just talk to him? He’s either genuinely interested and will ask you out, and we’ll deal with that when it happens. Or he ends up becoming a friend, which isn’t a bad thing. You have nothing to lose. Come on, the worst thing to happen is he loses interest, and everything’s back to the way it was before he moved here.”


She was so compelling. Besides, talking to him could get him to leave me alone, especially once he realizes there’s not much to know – which will be the best thing that could happen, not the worst.

“Fine, I’ll talk to him. So what’s the story? And I don’t want to lie.” I figured she’d already concocted something during her silence.

“No lying, sort of. You just leave most of it out, so it’s omission,” she said smugly, confirming my suspicion. “You tell him you were adopted by your aunt and uncle after your father died and your mother became ill. That’s pretty accurate. You can tell him anything you want about Leyla and Jack since that won’t affect anything. Explain that your aunt and uncle are very busy with work and the kids, and that will hopefully be reason enough why they don’t go to your games.

“He’s definitely going to want to know why I’m your only friend and why you don’t talk to anyone.”

“He’s already asked that,” I admitted. “I didn’t answer him.”

“Well, tell him you and I became friends when you first moved here. That’s true.” She hesitated for a moment to think about the second part of the question. “Say that you’re the first in your family to go to college – which is technically true - and that you have a lot of pressure on you to get a scholarship.”

“That’s not bad, but why don’t I have more friends?” I challenged.

“How about, your aunt and uncle are very overprotective, and have no idea how to raise a teenager so they tend to be strict. Then you can admit that because you’re so involved in school activities and sports, and with the early curfew, you don’t get to go out much. That should work.

“Besides, that’ll be like one conversation, and then you can talk about anything else. Almost all truthfully – you know, music, sports, college. You may have a hard time with pop culture though, but I can bring you magazines so you can catch up during the rides to school if you want.”

I laughed. “Why is this so important to you?”

“I don’t know,” she paused, considering the answer. “These past two days, I’ve seen a fire in your eyes that I never have before. Granted, it’s mostly anger and frustration, but it’s still emotion. You keep everything locked up so tight - I’m afraid someday you’re going to explode.

“This guy’s found a way to get to you unlike anyone else. You’re different, and I like it. I don’t like seeing you upset, but I like seeing you feeling something. I know you put your guard down a little with me, but you refuse to show me the hard stuff. You never get angry or scared, or let me know when you’re hurt. You don’t want me to see you that way, but I know you have to feel it, especially with everything Carol puts you through.

“In the past two days, you’ve been angry, frustrated and humiliated. I was actually relieved that it didn’t turn you into dust or a mass murderer. So if it takes this guy to annoy you to let some of it out, then I want you to keep talking to him. Sound crazy?”

“It does actually,” I said. She scowled, not pleased with my honesty. “But I understand what you’re saying.”

After we pulled into her driveway, she shut off the car and turned toward me.

“What if I like him – that would be horrible. You’re the only one who knows my secrets and I can’t risk letting anyone else in right now. Not while I’m still living with them. It’s too complicated.” I took a deep breath before continuing, “But I’ll try to talk to him.” This caused a smile to spread on Sara’s face.

“Besides, he’ll probably continue to frustrate me, and I’ll end up strangling him. If I murder him, you’re my accomplice for encouraging it.”

“Do you promise to tell me everything?” Sara asked, glowing.

“Of course!” I replied with a grin as I rolled my eyes. “If I don’t tell you, then it’s like it never happened. And besides, who’s going to help me bury his body when I bludgeon him for patronizing me?”

She laughed and hugged me again. Feeling my body tense, she pulled back. “Sorry.”

I followed Sara into her enormous house. Her family lived in a newer home compared to the historic Colonials and Victorians in the center of town. The development used to be farmland at one point, and was now broken up into expansive lots to showcase huge homes.

I could never get used to Sara’s set up as we neared the top of the stairs. Sara was an only child, so she had a lot of room to herself in the three story house - actually, she had the entire third floor. The bathroom was larger than my entire bedroom, with its granite double sinks, Jacuzzi tub and separate shower. To the right of the landing, it opened into a game room with white walls leading up to the cathedral ceilings, accented by a hot pink racing stripe around the perimeter, and black electric guitars mounted on the walls.

There was a plush white couch with a matching recliner and love seat in front of a home theatre system that included a giant flat-screen mounted to the wall on the far side of the room. It was hooked up to several gaming systems that were set on a console beneath it.

Behind the couch was a reading area with built-in bookshelves that extended to the ceiling, with a sliding ladder attached to reach the higher shelves. Oversized pillows lined the floor beneath the bookcases, creating the perfect place to get lost in the pages. In the corner, opposite of the library, were air hockey and foosball tables.

Sara touched the screen of the built in music dock on one of the walls, releasing an Indie artist declaring what she expected from a guy. The rhythmic guitar strums filled the entire floor through the inset speakers in the ceiling. I followed Sara into her bedroom on the other side of the stairs.

“Are you ready to be pampered?” Sara asked, jumping onto one of her two queen-sized beds adorned with pink and orange pillows.

“Sure,” I answered, hesitantly walking past the door that opened into her office with its walls covered with pictures of friends, record covers and celebrities torn from magazines with a clean glass desktop displaying Sara’s Mac and printer, furnished with a bright pink chair. The room was small, but still large enough to squeeze in a full-sized, black vinyl couch. I sat down on the identical bed next to Sara’s.

“I have the perfect sweater for you to wear with the best pair of jeans,” she declared, bouncing off the other side of the bed and entering her walk-in closet.

This room - and I say room, not closet - was as large as my bedroom with two long walls lined with shelves and bars storing folded and hung clothes. At the end of the closet were racks of shoes in every color and style. Visiting Sara was like taking a break from reality – everyone’s reality.

“Sara, you’re five ten – there’s no way I’m going to fit into your jeans,” I argued.

“You’re not that much shorter than me,” she retorted.

“You have a good three inches on me. Besides, I brought a pair of jeans.”

She paused, trying to decide if my jeans were acceptable.

“Okay. You can take a shower up here, and I’ll use my parents’ bathroom,” she instructed handing me a scooped neck white shirt, paired with a light pink cashmere sweater with a square neckline.

“Two shirts?” I inquired.

“Well, it’s supposed to be cold tonight and you can’t wear a jacket that will hide the sweater, so… layers,” she explained simply.

I raised my eyebrows and slowly nodded my head. It was obvious that she was loving this, and my lack of fashion savvy was not going to keep her from treating me like a life-sized Barbie doll. I couldn’t imagine what else she had in store, or maybe I didn’t want to.

“Listen,” she said, trying to put me at ease. “I know you never make a big deal over clothes or any of that, but it’s because you can’t, not because you don’t want to. I know they don’t let you shop, so let me do this for one night, okay?”

Of course she knew that I appreciated the latest trends, as we often flipped through the fashion magazines together during lunch. But I was only allowed to go shopping twice a year – at the beginning of the school year and again in the spring. I had to get the most out of my bi-annual clothing stipends and buy items that could easily mix and match, so it wasn’t obvious when I rotated them every few weeks. This practicality didn’t allow me to shop in the trendy stores in the mall or the boutiques in the city like most of my classmates. It meant going to the discount chains in the plazas. I never let it mean that much to me - it wasn’t worth it.

However, to have access to Sara McKinley’s wardrobe for one night would be any girl’s dream, so I wasn’t about to refuse it. I knew she had clothes in that closet that still had tags on them. I took the tops, grabbed my tote and headed to the bathroom. Sara ran out of her room before I closed the door.

“Oh, I have this lotion I bought last week that I think you’d like. I was going to save it for a Christmas gift, but you should use it tonight,” she offered, handing me a bottle of lotion with pink flowers drawn on the label.

“Thanks,” I said, taking the bottle before I closed the door. It was great to take a long, hot shower without fear of the knock on the door, signaling the end of my allotted five minutes. It gave me time to think about the past couple of days and how different today felt. I was actually looking forward to the game, despite how awkward it was going to be. If I could get through the game, then I should be able to get through the party. I shut off the water with a new conviction – how long it would last was another story.

I flipped the top of the bottle and took in the soft floral scent. After dressing, I opened the door to find Sara on the stairs, with a towel wrapped around her head. She wore a flattering light blue angora sweater. Sara had no problem with tops that hugged her modelesque body. Sara looked amazing, even with the towel on her head. Conversely, I tugged and pulled at the pink sweater that felt like a second layer of skin, despite the layer beneath.

“Oh. That sweater looks great. You should wear more clothes that fit you like that instead of hiding your figure.” I dismissed her with a shrug. She smiled before asking, “Are you ready for the next step?”

We were interrupted when her mom called up that the pizza was here.

“We’ll eat and then finish getting ready,” Sara decided, and turned to descend the stairs.

“I heard you scored three goals yesterday,” Anna said from the refrigerator where she was pouring us glasses of diet soda. “Sara also told me about the scouts. You must be so excited, Emma.”

“I am,” I replied with a small smile. I was horrible at carrying on a conversation with my peers, forget about trying to say something worthwhile to an adult. The only adults I spoke to on a regular basis were my teachers, my coach, and my aunt and uncle. I only discussed my assignments with my teachers; coach was all about soccer - so that was easy. George hardly said a word, or maybe he couldn’t get a word in over Carol’s rambling about how difficult it was to be her. Then of course the interactions I had with Carol were one-sided, usually reprimands about how useless and pathetic I was. So I didn’t have a lot of practice. Anna recognized my conversational ineptitude, so she didn’t push.

“Congratulations,” she added walking towards the stairs. She paused to tell Sara, “I’m going upstairs to change for dinner. Your dad and I are going out to eat with the Richardson’s and we’ve invited the Mathews to come along since they’re new in town.”

“Okay, mom,” Sara said only half listening. My heart stopped when she said their name.

“Your parents are going to dinner with Evan’s parents?” I whispered in disbelief.

Sara shrugged, “My parents have to know everyone in town. You know, they’re like Weslyn’s unofficial welcoming committee. My father is the ultimate politician.”

Then she added with a grin, “Do you want me to get some dirt on Evan and his family for you?”

“Sara!” I exclaimed in shock. “Of course not. I’m really not that interested in him. I’m just going to talk to him so he’ll leave me alone.”

“Sure,” she said with a knowing smile. I tried to ignore her and took a bite of the pizza slice.

“What’s next?” I asked, needing to not talk about Evan any more.

“I was hoping you’d let me cut your hair,” she said with a cautious smile. My hair was all one length, hanging past the middle of my back. There was no way I could get it cut every eight weeks or whatever was needed to maintain a style, so I kept it simple and trimmed it myself a few times a year. I usually wore it up out of my face in a clip or ponytail – again, simple.

“What do you want to do?”

“Nothing crazy,” she reassured me. “Just shorten it.”

“Whatever you want to do is fine with me.”

“Really?! This is going to be so great!” she exclaimed, practically jumping off the stool and dragging me back up the stairs.

She opened the middle drawer of her vanity that displayed every shade of lipstick and nail polish on the market, and took out a comb and pair of professional shears. She invited me to sit as she laid a towel on the floor to capture the clippings, and attaching another around my shoulders. “No one’s going to recognize you tonight.”

That wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Sara drew the comb through my hair and clipped portions of it up. I felt the weight begin to fall and decided it was best to keep my eyes shut and let her concentrate – or to keep me from panicking as more hair fell to the floor. Sara sung along with the music as she combed, clipped, and cut. Before I knew it, she plugged in the hair dryer and ran it over a round brush as she styled my hair.

“Keep your eyes closed,” Sara instructed as she spread eye shadow along my lids with her cool fingers.

“Sara, please don’t make me look ridiculous,” I pleaded.

“I’m barely putting any on. I promise.” The bristles of a brush streaked across my cheeks. “What do you think? Em, open your eyes!” she demanded impatiently.

I slowly opened my eyes to view the transformation. My dark brown hair gently rested on my shoulders, and layers of bangs softened my heart shaped face. I found myself smiling.

“I like it,” I admitted. She hadn’t put much make-up on, to my relief - just a slight shimmer on my lids and hint of pink to my cheeks, which wouldn’t be needed if I was anywhere near Evan.

“Here,” Sara said handing me a tube of lip gloss and mascara. “I thought it would be easier if you put these on yourself. I’m going to get ready in the bathroom, I’ll be right back.”

While Sara was drying and styling her hair, I sat on one of the beds and flipped through the latest women’s magazine with articles on how to be more aggressive and the fastest way to lose ten pounds. When she glided back into the room, she radiated with loose curls of shiny red hair and just enough makeup to show off her blue eyes and pouty red lips. It deflated me a little.

“What’s wrong?” Sara asked, reacting to my sunken shoulders.

“Are you sure you want me to go with you? I don’t want it to be awkward for you having me tagging along when I know everyone will want to talk to you.”

She scowled and threw a pillow at me. “Shut up. Of course I want you to go with me. Why should this be any different than any other day? If people talk to me, and I want to talk to them, I will. It’s never bothered you before.”

I looked at the floor, recognizing my nerves were getting the better of me – and it really had nothing to do with Sara’s popularity. “You’re right. Sorry, I’m just getting a little paranoid about going.”

“We’ll have fun, I promise.” Sara flashed the whites of her teeth from between her shiny red lips. She went back into her closet and threw something out in my direction. “This white scarf goes perfectly with that sweater, and it will keep you warm, so you won’t miss not having a jacket.”

“Thanks.” I grabbed the fuzzy scarf and wrapped it around my neck as I stood in front of the mirror. Sara was right - I did look different.

“This is going to be the best night,” Sara reassured me when we got into her car to drive to the school. She was so excited she could barely contain her energy, which made me smile. I made an effort to let go of the anxiety that’d been building. I could do this. I could be social. Okay, let’s not go that far. I would not be completely pathetic – that sounded better. Who was I kidding?





5. Fading



When we pulled in, the parking lot was filling with cars, and spectators were making their way to the ticket booth in a steady drove. A jolt of panic rushed through my body. I knew I was being ridiculous - this was only a high school football game - but I might as well have been walking to school naked. Sara jumped out of the car and yelled to a group of girls who were lost in a giggling conversation while heading toward the stadium.

“Sara!” they screamed in unison and ran to her, receiving her with hugs and gleeful babble. I followed behind her, suddenly feeling overly exposed in the fitted sweater - the fashionable scarf doing little to conceal the low neckline.

“Emma?!” Jill Patterson exclaimed in shock. Everyone turned to gawk at me. The fire ignited in my cheeks. I knew the artificial color would be unnecessary.

I forced a smile with my lips pressed together and waved casually.

“Wow, you look great,” another girl declared in disbelief. The rest of the girls offered similar gushing compliments.

“Thanks,” I mumbled, wishing I was invisible again.

Sara linked her arm through mine and led us to the ticket booth with a prideful smile. I took another deep breath and prepared myself for whatever the night presented. Unfortunately, there were many more reactions of astonishment and gawking

There was a lot of stares, whispers, and comments about my presence and transformation, but not a lot of conversation. It was evident no one knew what to say to me any more than I knew what to say to them. So I sunk into the metal bleachers and engrossed myself in the football game. Sara cheered for Jason and watched as much as she was allowed. She was often drawn away by just about everyone passing by, including some of the parents who were there to support the local high school football team or their son who was on the field - or bench. I couldn’t get over how many people she knew and how effortlessly she’d come up with a witty remark or a kind sentiment. I should’ve taken notes.

During the third quarter, I decided to get a hot chocolate while Sara walked off toward the school with Jill and Casey to use the restroom, talking and giggling about something. While I waited in line, I scuffed the ground with my foot, lost in the booming voice of the announcer calling the last play as Weslyn continued to move the ball down the field.

“Not a bad game, huh?” His voice carried through the cheering crowd and the deep voice of the announcer. I turned to find Evan behind me, holding his camera.

“No, it’s a pretty good game,” I replied, struggling to find my voice. The sweater suddenly felt stifling as my cheeks set aglow once again, ignited by the frenzied beating in my chest. “Are you covering the game for the paper?” As soon as I said it, I knew it was a dumb thing to say. Of course he was covering the game - I assigned him the coverage!

“Yeah,” he said holding up his camera, dismissing my ignorance. “I thought I heard you didn’t go to the games?”

“I’m staying over Sara’s tonight,” I answered, thinking that would be enough of an explanation for him as it was for everyone else. But he appeared confused. I paused to recall the answer Sara had prepared.

“I’m usually so busy with school and everything that I don’t get out much. It worked out that I could tonight.”

The line continued to move forward, I stepped up. Evan followed.

“Oh,” he replied. I could tell he still wasn’t satisfied with my answer. “Are you and Sara going to the party after the game?”

“I think so,” I said tentatively. “Are you?”

“Yeah. I’m supposed to follow some of the guys from the soccer team over there.”

I nodded, not knowing what else to say. I turned back toward the counter, thinking this would give him the opportunity to escape and go back to taking pictures of the game. I remained facing forward, not looking back to see if he’d walked away. I ordered a hot chocolate and turned to find him still waiting for me.

“Do you want to walk around with me while I take a few more pictures?” My heart stopped again. I wished it would decide if it was going to pound out of my chest or fall out. The stopping and starting was getting to be a bit much.

“Sure,” I heard my mouth say, before my brain registered what I’d agreed to do. He smiled, and my heart took off beating at its exhaustive pace again.

“So, you’ve decided to talk to me,” Evan observed, looking at the ground as he walked next to me.

“I shouldn’t. But, it’s only a matter of time before you see that I’m not that interesting, and you’ll let me fade into the background like everyone else.”

He laughed and studied me, uncertain if I was serious. I was bewildered by his reaction.

He drew his eyebrows together with a smile and said, “I actually think you’ve become more interesting now that you’ve decided to talk to me, whether you should or not.” I groaned. He smiled bigger and added, “Besides, I don’t think it’s possible for you to fade. Well, at least not in that sweater.”

All of the blood in my body rushed to my face. “It’s Sara’s sweater,” I confessed, looking at the ground to conceal the drastic color change.

“I like it,” he admitted. “It’s a good color on you.” Maybe talking to him wasn’t such a good idea after all. This was way more than I bargained for. What was I supposed to do with a comment like that? I took a sip of my hot chocolate, and sucked air between my teeth as the scalding liquid soaked into my tongue.

“Too hot?” he observed.

“Yeah – I don’t think I’ll be able to taste anything for a week.”

He smiled again. I decided my heart had been tortured enough by his smile and stared back at the ground.

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