We’d been best friends for a decade—but without a doubt, I was the brains of that operation.
I couldn’t have missed her more.
Considering her five-foot-eleven height, Mel hopped out of her car with surprising speed, raising her straightened arms over her head and snapping her fingers. “That’s how you park a car, bitches.” Mel was going through a phase lately where she called everyone bitches.
Her mother was the guidance counselor at our school, because Mel’s dad had paid for Sterling High’s new library—and because Mrs. Warren needed a hobby. Most parents figured that if Melissa Warren was a product of her parenting skills, then they shouldn’t put much stock in Mrs. Warren’s guidancing skills.
Today Mel wore a crisp navy skirt and a red baby-doll T-shirt that had probably cost half a grand and would never be worn again. Her bright Dior lipstick was a classic red to match, her auburn hair tied with a navy bow. Prepster chic.
In short order, she popped her trunk, dragged out her designer book bag, then locked her keys in the car.
With a shrug, she joined me. “Hey, look over my shoulder. Is that Spencer in the quad with Brand?” Spencer Stephens III, Brand’s best friend.
When I nodded, she said, “He’s looking at me right now, isn’t he? All pining-like?”
He was in no way looking at Mel.
“This year I’m taking our flirtationship to a new level,” Mel informed me. “He just needs a nudge in the right direction.”
Unfortunately, Mel didn’t know how to nudge. She play-punched hard, titty-twisted with impunity, and wasn’t above the occasional headlock. And that was if she liked you.
In a pissy tone, she added, “Maybe if your boyfriend would—finally—set us up.”
Brandon had laughed the last time I’d asked him, saying, “As soon as you housebreak her.” Note to self: Put in another request today.
Two of our other friends spotted us then. Grace Anne had on a yellow sateen dress that complemented her flawless café-au-lait skin. Catherine Ashley’s jewelry sparkled from a mile away.
The four of us were popular bowhead cheerleaders. And I was proud of it.
They smiled and waved excitedly as if I hadn’t seen them every day last week as we’d spilled deets about our vacations. Mel had modeled in Paris, Grace had gone to Hawaii, and Catherine had toured New Zealand.
After I’d repeatedly declared my summer the most boring ever, they’d stopped asking about it. I was pictureless, had zero images on my phone for three months, not a single uploadable.
It was as if I hadn’t even existed.
But I’d dutifully oohed and aahed over their pics—blurred, cropped shots of the Eiffel Tower and all.
Brand’s pics—of him smiling at the beach, or at his parents’ ritzy get-togethers, or on a yacht cruising the Gulf Coast—had been like a knife to the heart because I should have been in all of them.
Last spring, I had been. He had an entire folder on his phone stuffed with pics and vids of us goofing off together.
“Great dress, Evie,” Catherine Ashley said.
Grace Anne’s gaze was assessing. “Great everything. Boho braid, no-frills dress, and flirty, flirty heels. Nicely done.”
With a sigh, I teased, “If only my friends knew how to dress, too.”
As we walked toward the front doors, students stopped and turned, girls checking out what we were wearing, guys checking for a summer’s worth of developing curves.
Funny thing about our school—there were no distinct cliques like you saw on TV shows, just gradations of popularity.
I waved at different folks again and again, much to the bowheads’ amusement. I was pretty much friends with everybody.
No one ever sat alone during my lunch period. No girl walked the hall with a wardrobe malfunction under my watch. I had even shut down the sale of freshman elevator passes on our one-story campus.
When we reached the entrance of the white-stuccoed building, I realized school was just what I needed. Routine, friends, normalcy. Here, I could forget all the crazy, all the nightmares. This was my world, my little queendom—
The sudden rumble of motorcycles made everyone go silent, like a needle scratch across an old record.
No way they’d be the same creepers from before. That group had looked too old for high school. And wouldn’t we have passed them?
But then, it wasn’t like the genteel town of Sterling had many motorcyclists. I gazed behind me, saw the same five kids from earlier.
Now I was ready to meld into auto upholstery.
Each of them was dressed in dark clothes; among our student body’s ever-present khaki and bright couture, they stood out like bruises.
The biggest boy—the one who’d leered at me—ramped over the curb to the quad, pulling right up on the side to park. The others followed. I noticed their bikes all had mismatched parts. Likely stolen.
“Who are they?” I asked. “Have they come to start trouble?”
Grace answered, “Haven’t you heard? They’re a bunch of juvies from Basin High School.”
Basin High? That was in a totally different parish, on the other side of the levee. Basin equaled Cajun. “But why are they here?”
“They’re attending Sterling!” Catherine said. “Because of that new bridge they built across the levee, the kids at the outer edge of the basin are now closer to us than to their old school.”
Before the bridge, those Cajuns would have had to drive all the way around the swamp to get here—fifty miles at least.
Until the last decade or so, the bayou folk there had been isolated. They still spoke Cajun French and ate frogs’ legs.
Though I’d never been to Basin Town, all of Haven’s farm help came from there and my crazy ole grandmother still had friends there. I knew a lot about the area, a place rumored to be filled with hot-blooded women, hard-fighting men, and unbelievable poverty.
Mel said, “My mom had to go to an emergency faculty meeting last night about how best to acclimate them or something like that.”
I could almost feel sorry for this group of kids. To go from their Cajun, poor—and adamantly Catholic—parish to our rich town of Louisiana Protestants . . . ?
Culture clash, round one.
This was actually happening. Not only would I have to see the guy who’d shamelessly ogled me, I’d be in the same school with him.
I narrowed my eyes, impatient for him to take off his helmet. He had the advantage on me, and I didn’t like it.
He stood, unfolding his tall frame. He had to be more than six feet in height, even taller than Brand. He had on scuffed boots, worn jeans, and a black T-shirt that stretched tight over his chest.
Beside him was a couple on a bike—a kid in camo pants and a girl in a pleather miniskirt. The big boy helped her off the bike, easily swinging her up—
“Wheh-hell,” Catherine said, “good to know her panties are hot pink. Shocked she’s wearing them, actually. Classy with a capital K.”
Mel nodded thoughtfully. “I finally understand who buys vajazzling kits.”
Grace Anne, proud wearer of a purity ring, screwed her face up into an expression of distaste. “Surely she’s going to get sent home with a skirt that short.”
Not to mention her midriff-baring shirt, which read: I GOT BOURBON-FACED ON SHIT STREET!
Once he’d set the girl on her feet, she took off her helmet, revealing long chestnut-brown hair and a face made up to an embarrassing degree with glaring fuchsia lipstick.
The skinny boy who’d been driving her removed his own helmet. He had dark-blond hair and a long face, which wasn’t unhandsome but still reminded me of a fox.
He revved his motorcycle, startling two passersby, and his friends laughed.
Or rather a weasel. Strike feeling sorry for them.
Finally, the big one reached for his helmet. I waited. He yanked it off, shook out his hair, and raised his head. My lips parted.
Mel voiced my thoughts: “I kind of wasn’t expecting that.”
A tangle of jet-black hair fell over his forehead, with jutting tousles above his ears. His face was deeply tanned, with a lantern jaw and strong chin.
He looked to be older than eighteen. Overall his features were pleasing, handsome even. Though he couldn’t hold a candle to Brandon’s Abercrombie looks, the boy was attractive in his own rough way.
“He’s gorgeous,” Catherine said, her eyes lighting up with interest. We called her Cat-o-gram because she could never hide her reactions, displaying them for all to see.
People passed us in the doorway, speculating about the newcomers:
“My maid comes from Basin. She said all five of them are juvies with records.”
“I heard the tall boy knifed two guys in the French Quarter. He was just released from a year’s stint in a cage-the-rage correctional center!”
“The blond boy is a sophomore for the third try. . . .”
Weasel and the big one started for the entrance, leaving the other two and the girl to smoke, right out in the open.
The big one dug a flask from his back pocket. On school grounds? I noticed his fingers were circled with white medical tape for some reason.
While Weasel sneered at everyone he passed, his friend just narrowed his eyes with an unnerving resentment, as if he was disgusted by the kids at this school.
As the boys neared, I could make out some of their words. They spoke Cajun French.
My grandmother had taught it to me—before she’d been sent away—and for years I’d listened to the farm help speak it. As they’d stomped through Haven’s fields in their work boots, I’d followed in my miniature boots, eagerly listening to their wild tales of life deep in the bayou.
I understood the dialect well. Not that this was something to brag about, since I could barely understand proper French.
I saw Weasel glowering at a nearby group of four JV cheerleaders. As he stalked closer, the girls grew visibly nervous; he yelled, “BOO!” and they cried out in fright.
Weasel snickered at the girls’ reaction, but the other boy just scowled in their direction, muttering, “Couillonnes.” He pronounced it coo-yôns. Idiots.
Any tiny lingering inclination to be friendly to the new students—as was my usual way—died. They were messing with my khaki tribe.
Then Weasel zeroed in on me with a smirk. “Ain’t you dat jolie girl in dat Porsha?” His Cajun accent was as thick as any I’d ever heard. “Turn around, you, and hike up dat dress, so I can tell for true.”
My friends’ shocked expressions had me squaring my shoulders, refusing to be cowed by either of these boys. They’d come into our domain, acting like they owned the place.
With a sunny smile, I said, “Welcome to our school.” My tone was part bubbly, part cutting—a mash-up of sugar and snide so perfected I should TM it. “I’m Evie. If you need assistance finding your way around our campus, just let someone—else—know.”
If possible, Weasel’s leer deepened. “Well, ain’t you sweet, Evie. I’m Lionel.” He pronounced it Lie-nell. “And this here’s my podna Jackson Deveaux, also known as Jack Daniels.”
Because of the flask? How delightful.
Jackson’s eyes were a vivid gray against his tanned skin, and they were roaming over my face and figure like he hadn’t seen a girl in years—or hadn’t seen me minutes ago.
Lionel continued, “We doan need no ass-is-tance finding our way, no, but there’re other tings you can ass-ist us with—”
Jackson jammed his shoulder into Lionel’s back, forcing him along. As they walked down the hall, the big Cajun snapped under his breath, “Coo-yôn, tu vas pas draguer les putes inutiles?”
My eyes widened as understanding hit me.
Catherine said, “Did you see the way that boy was looking at Evie?”
“I didn’t understand a word of that gibberish they were talking,” Mel said. “And I just got back from Paris.” She turned to me. “So what’d the big one say?”
Grace asked, “You speak Cajun?”
“A little.” A lot. Though I didn’t particularly want everyone in Sterling to know I spoke the “Basin tongue,” I translated: “Idiot, you’re not going to chat up one of those useless bitches?”
Catherine gasped. “You lie.”
As I watched Jackson striding down the hall, I noticed with amazement that the flask was not the only thing he kept in a back pocket of his jeans.
I could clearly make out a knife, a folded blade outlined in faded denim.
Then I frowned. Was he heading into my homeroom?
Grace said, “Wait a second. What did that boy mean about you hiking up your dress in a Porsche?”
DAY 5 B.F.
For lunch period, Mel and I were lying out on a blanket in a sunny spot in Eden Courtyard, sleeves and skirts rolled up.
All around us, roses and gardenias bloomed. A marble fountain gurgled. Brand and Spencer were playing a pickup game in the adjoining quad with other boys, laughing in the sun.
And Jackson Deveaux?
He was loitering just outside our courtyard with the other Cajuns, sipping from his flask while the rest smoked. And he was staring at me.
Ignore him. I was determined to enjoy the rest of lunch relaxing with my best friend; never would I take for granted this precious freedom.
I exhaled. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t precisely relaxing. I’d been on edge since I’d woken this morning from another nightmare of the red witch.
In each one, I seemed to be present with her, watching from a short distance away, forced to witness her evil deeds. Last night, she’d been in a beautiful golden field, surrounded by a group of cloaked people, all on their knees. She was tall, towering over their bowed heads.
With a laugh, she’d cast bloody grain in front of them, demanding that the people lap it up, or else she’d slice their flesh to ribbons and choke them in vine.
As she’d bared her claws, sinister purple ones that looked like rose thorns, her victims had wept for mercy. She’d given them none.