Buy My Book!

cover_6_textsperiments_glasketIt’s finally time, I have a book! It’s coming out this Wednesday, November 23rd (just in time for Thanksgiving!), it’s about werewolves and vampires and (mostly) a super-sad teenager, and you can find more information at deadsidegirl.com. What’s more, I’m donating 100% of the proceeds to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, so you can buy with the faith that your purchase goes to a better cause than “putting more ice cream in my belly”

(and don’t shed any tears for my belly, it has more access to ice cream than it probably should already!)

ANYWAY: because Amazon doesn’t let you preview the book during the pre-order period, I figured I’d just paste a bunch of it here to give people a look in the meantime. So check it out under the break!

(i’ll do more tomorrow, keep an eye out 😶)


DUST

“When I look at my hands long enough, my blood starts to boil.”

The other girl smeared Molly with a deliberate look. “Hands?”

As they walked, Molly tried to make less obvious—how she struggled through the micro-dunes the dust storm built around her paws. “Stop being contradictory, it’s annoying.”

“So are you.” The other girl’s membranous wings unfurled, cleaving to the sudden gale that battered them. She seemed to relish in the swell of dust that scraped her vulnerable body and caked her pale skin with grey. “Fake it till you make it, right? Pretend to be cool, eventually you just will be.”

“You got that from a movie or something.”

“I never said I didn’t.”

Molly panted with the effort of keeping pace with the other girl’s easy strides. For her, every step took an hour and, lower to the ground as she was, the dust and grit seemed to pile in her lungs. “But what if my problem isn’t whether I’m ‘cool’ or ‘uncool’? What if my problem is I was born with a molecule in the wrong place?”

“Your problem is you’ve got no willpower.”

The sun was a black disc, sealed by foreign object, its corona feeble and muted through the gritty haze. The howl of the storm was somehow sad. Molly sleeked her ears back to ward off the melancholy etching along her bones.

“You know how the guidance counselor asks where you think you’ll be in five years, and since you can’t really be like nowhere, instead you say, college?

“Not really.”

“Then he reminds you that five years is right when you’d graduate college, so what comes next? So, on instinct, you go: being completely honest, Mr. Harris, I have this feeling a meteor’s going to crash land on me any day now, so why worry about it?”

“What do they say then?”

“They call your parents. They turn it into this whole big thing.” Molly thought she saw the lonely shadow of something tremendous, a leviathan, swimming somewhere far ahead. But the dust had a way of playing tricks on you; with a flick of her tail, she tried to brush it off. “Do you ever think maybe there’s a clone of you out there somewhere? Same hair, same face, same weird birthmark, only she’s got spectacular grades, a whole grip of friends, doesn’t smoke cigarettes or waste her life scrolling down social media, maybe she even knows who her real parents are.”

“That sounds like a fairy tale.”

A blurt of indiscriminate anger seized Molly’s veins. She stopped short, grinding her claws into the earth. “So?”

“So I hate fairy tales, how the girls in them just sit around waiting for things to happen. It makes me mad enough to puke.” Though her bare feet never hesitated on the path, other girl glanced behind her, leveling her gaze on the ebony slip tracing its way down Molly’s foreleg.

“You’re bleeding, you know.”


CHAPTER ONE

There’s a girl outside of school, leaning against the endless chain-link construction fence across the street where they’re building the new McMansions.

Scott puts the car in park and turns to me. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that you wake up with your alarm, Molly.”

The girl on the fence—messy haircut, white, skin desperately clinging to the last vestiges of a summer tan, punky clothes, sunglasses, too much metal in her face—is eating breakfast, a sandwich or something, out of a paper bag.

Scott clears his throat.

I peel my cheek away from the window and grunt out something like a response, something that says this wouldn’t even be an issue if I weren’t the only Junior at my school without a driver’s license—only, you know, in grunt form.

“Well, give it some thought”—what, did he think that was an apology?—“In the adult world, avoiding the snooze button is the bare minimum for success.”

I stare down at my uniform, smooth my hands over the coarse poly-cotton of my skirt, and pick a wayward piece of fuzz off my tie. “Yeah, I know.”

I act like I’m physically capable of looking him in the eyes while he lectures me. But what I’m really doing is focusing every ounce of my perception over his shoulder and out the driver’s side window, on the blue and white vinyl banner lashed up next to the school gate—St. Mary’s Catholic High Girls Soccer. #1 Six Years Running! Goooo Bobcats!

Scott says some things about how personal responsibility is paramount, I say fewer things about how I understand personal responsibility is probably, like, a super-good trait. I get embarrassed when he meanders into do you really need to spend so much time in the bathroom every morning? territory, and I get out of the car when the discussion seems like it’s over.

goooo Bobcats…

I peek at the girl while I’m getting my bike from the trunk. It’s cloudy today. She doesn’t really need sunglasses.

I only realize I’m staring when Scott lurches the car forward and nearly tears my bike out of my hands. I grit my teeth and slap my hand down on his stupid car.

He putters off with a wave out the window after I slam the trunk shut, so it’s not like he even notices.

The girl on the fence just watches.

So I watch her back.

I get this chill. My hands tense around my bike’s handlebars. She drops her sandwich onto its paper sack, makes a big show of wiping her hands off onto her jeans, then takes her sunglasses and pulls them down her nose. A grin tugs at the corners of her mouth.

The dream I keep having fires through my head. The back of my neck prickles. My mouth is dry.

She throws me this court jester wink.

My face gets hot. I make like I’m suddenly real interested in the tall row of poplar trees flanking the campus—sure are golden, them trees; that’s October for you, am I right?

A couple seconds later, I get the brains to forage around in my jacket pocket and pull out my snarled-up mass of headphones. That’s way more natural than tree watching.

But, being honest, “budding high school apiarian” is a probably better look than “moron approaching catastrophic meltdown coz she can’t untangle her ear buds from one another.”

Shit, wait. “Apiary” means “bee stuff;” I don’t remember the fancy word for “tree appreciator.”

Good thing she’s not psychic. That would’ve been embarrassing!

…but what if she is?

By the time I get the guts to glance back at her, she’s done with me and back to breakfast.

I crank the music on my phone as loud as it’ll go and slink my ass into the parking lot, trying not to think about what exact quantity of loser I represent.

Nice thing about being late, short line in the cafeteria. Skirting around the popular tables, I keep my headphones in—so I can feign ignorance if they say something shitty (spoiler alert: they do)—make a beeline for the buffet, grab a thing of fries, douse ‘em in ketchup real quick, and scout the room for Susan. She’s so absorbed in her textbook she doesn’t notice me until I drop my tray on the table with a bang.

She stiffens up at the sound like she somehow found space to cram another stick up her ass, sighs when she sees it’s just me, and says, “Molly. Fries? For breakfast?”

I throw myself into my seat and pluck my headphones out of my ears. “What are you, the food police? If I shouldn’t be eating them why do they give them to me?”

“Just get cereal or something like a normal person.”

I’m about to reply when someone jostles me from behind, clonking me forward, over the table. Brenda Sikorski’s haughty-ass cackle bursts out from over my shoulder. “Charlotte! Look what you made me do.”

“Sorry Molly,” Charlotte says, though it’s hard to hear her apology through the freckled hand hiding her grin.

I drag my tie out of its new home, the ketchup container. “It’s fine.”

“Look at her, she’s a mess.” Brenda’s perfectly polished fingernail taps a clack-clack-clack of pending judgment against her lunch tray as she looks me over. “Charlotte, help Molly clean—”

“Brenda.” My skin is tight, splitting around my fingers. “It’s fine.”

“Sure, sure,” Brenda says. “Thanks for being so understanding. See you at practice, Molly!” She stretches out the end of my name until it almost snaps off in her throat, and she’s mincing away with her little running crew before we can respond.

Susan’s already leaned all the way over the table, trying to dab my mess of a tie clean. “I got it,” I say. When she doesn’t back off I give her a rougher-than-necessary shove and grab my own wad of napkins. “I said I got it.”

She puts her hands up in retreat. “Hey, don’t take it out on me.”

“Yeah.” I take a breath. “Yeah, sorry.”

Susan redoes her ponytail with an extra-judgmental snap of elastic. A scowl scrawls across her chipmunk cheeks and she flips a couple pages in her textbook, giving me time to feel bad about snapping at her while I clean my splotchy tie as best I can.

I don’t know why it makes me so mad—Susan gets it. It’s not like nobody gives her shit.

But she doesn’t get it get it. Her regulation blonde hair and near-regulation green eyes (blue is preferable, being a St. Mary’s color and all) inoculates her from my specific brand of bullying. She was born here. She’s white. She didn’t have to fix her weird accent when she was seven because she didn’t learn English in a foreign country. She didn’t have to stop eating like a psycho because she didn’t devour her lunch like the devil was going to steal it. She didn’t have to train herself not to scrunch up with anxiety whenever someone looked at her because, when the other girls learned the term Resting Bitch Face from their older sisters in second grade, they didn’t decide, pretty much instinctually, that RBF (whatever it meant) described her personality to a T.

When I get sick of slumping my shoulders and looking guilty, I check on my phone cats. Hell yes. Look who got visited by Pawdrey Hepburn! My shoulders unwind, tension flowing out of me with the serotonin relief that only cartoon phone games can truly provide.

Eventually Susan decides I’m still worth talking to. Without looking up from her reading, she says, “She’d back off if you stood up to her ever.”

“I’m just biding my time.” I stow my phone—Le Chevalier Gateaux, you’re next. “You know she’s up at, like, five every morning to get that ridiculous blowout of hers done. One of these days she’s going to pass out with the hairdryer on, burn her whole house down, and then my problems are over.”

“Careful Mol. If you start dissing how long she spends in front of the mirror, I’m going to compare your times.”

I tease a bit of my short, choppy hair in front of my face, fake a frown. “What are you talking about? It only takes fifteen minutes to make this look like it takes no time at all.”

Susan snaps her book shut. “I heard her bragging that once she gets her SAT results back she’s applying for early admission at Yale. She’s going to get it, you know she will.”

“Aw, you jealous?”

She cocks an eyebrow. “Not just Brenda, Stacey Kim too.”

“Oh I’m sorry, are you new here? Are you a Susan clone, maybe?” My reprimand comes out so quick I nearly gag on my fries. “Because the real Susan would know we don’t say the Ess-Kay words.”

“Give it up. Stacey Kim barely knows you exist.”

“Yeah, I know.” I sigh. “I just… it still pisses me off how I’ve endured nine years of being ‘the foreigner,’ and Stacey Kim got to be ‘Stacey Kim’ because she’s, like, good at art.”

“And science.”

“Yup, a regular academic mastermind,” I say.

“And she has friends.”

“And she’s better looking, obviously.”

“But you’re taller than her!”

“I’m taller than every girl here.” I sprawl forward across the table and stretch out my arms as far as they’ll go. “Fat load of good that does me.”

Susan purses her lips, raises her eyebrows. “Means you get to eat fries for breakfast while everyone else is starving themselves on yogurt.”

Silver Lining Susan. “Yeah, well, tell that to my boobs—oh wait, you can’t. I never got any.”

“Saves you money on bras!”

“I will literally kill you. I will strangle you with the bra I bought in sixth grade when Brenda told everyone Asians don’t hit puberty until nineteen.” I flick a fry at her as punctuation and Susan shoots a for-real glare between me and the spreading grease stain on her shoulder.

I wave my spattered tie at her. “What? Now we’re twins.”

She grimaces at me in her Susan way and continues with her itinerary like my fry-based assault barely fazed her. “Thought any more about college visits? I’ve got a few lined up during winter break. I thought maybe you could come along.”

“What, winter break? But I already emailed Jess to say we were coming.”

She sits up ramrod straight. “Oh, I—”

“What the hell, Suze. I worked my ass off building that list. The Korean burrito truck, remember? The Know, the Japanese Garden, Voodoo Donuts. You were psyched!”

“Look, it’s fine. We’ll still go to Portland.”

“Whatever, it’s not like she’s gotten back to me yet anyway.” I slump in my chair. “College changes you, man.”

“That’s just Jess being Jess. We’ll still go. We’ll definitely go. But it’s probably worth checking other schools besides PSU while we’re at it, yeah?

“I don’t know. Isn’t it enough I wasted a whole month of Saturdays on that dumb SAT prep course?”

“It’s not a waste! Forget prep courses; my dad’s talking about getting me a tutor. I’m pretty sure he’ll disown me if I don’t make it into at least Brown.”

“As long as it’s not in Bentham-goddamn-New Hampshire, I don’t care where I go. Hell, Kate and Scott would probably be happy if I knew how to pronounce Brown.”

Susan rolls her eyes. “Whatever. You do fine whenever you bother to try. You’re going to nail the AP English exam this year and then—”

“Look, mom, we’ve got like six minutes before homeroom. Can we maybe spend some of it not talking about “the future” for once?”

“Fine.” She busies herself organizing her notebooks for a while before she pipes up again. “By the way, you have American History with the new kid, right?”

“Jason Kline?” I lift my attention away from one of my all-time, top-five best fry sculptures. “Why do you care?”

“Oh, because… I just thought…”

I’m grinning before I have decided to grin. “Damn, Suze, you’re usually obvious with this stuff, but not this obvious. What’s got you all up in him, huh?”

Her cheeks drain down a few shades. “I am not ‘all up in him’; I’m just interested in the new kid.”

“I was the new kid once. You weren’t interested in me until Lacey Stevenson dumped your chili into my lap.”

“That was different!”

“It was different because I don’t have tawny hair or those dreamy dimples. I mean, dimples, am I right?” But even I’m not dense enough to miss how her face twists right up. Emergency, emergency. “H-hey, so, you want to hear something weird?”

“Not really.” She scrunches up her nose in a frustrated wrinkle—what a total front, she’s just as happy as me for the change of subject. “But go ahead.”

“Did you see that, like, girl outside of school?”

“Huh?”

“This girl. Black jacket, short hair, lots of piercings. I saw her on the way in this morning.”

“Doing what, exactly?”

Looking at me. “I dunno, hanging around the construction across from the parking lot. Loitering, I guess?”

Susan just shakes her head. “I swear. Didn’t you say something like this last week during lunch?”

“I did not.” I jab a fry at the sticky remains of my ketchup container. “I said I felt like there was someone watching me, and I told you that in confidence so it’s not fair bringing it up now. Anyway, look: I saw her. It’s not like I was daydreaming; I was getting my bike out of the trunk of Scott’s car.”

“In my experience you don’t usually wake up until fifth period.”

“Gee, thanks.”

She grins.

“Seriously, though.” I run a hand through my hair and sigh. “It’s not just that, every night I’ve been—”

The bell rings and I am saved from relating my stupid, weird dreams—which I can’t even remember anything about except it’s so damn dusty in them that I wake up every morning like I’m suffocating. Even better, I’m saved from explaining why I think my dumb dreams are related to this random hobo girl. I stand up, grabbing my lunch tray. “Er, next time.”

Susan shrugs her backpack onto her shoulders as she stands. “See you in English.”

She trots off to first period, but I keep standing by the trashcan way after I’ve dumped my tray into it. There’s a buzzing in my head when I think about the girl, and the dream, like there’s two live wires on either side of my brain, and if I could just put them together…

The second bell rings. I’m late.

***

If you really focus on it, the ceiling crack could be just about anything. A spider, a rabbit—harder to see but still plausible—maybe a bird.

Screw fourth period. Fourth period is just what you do before lunch. There shouldn’t even be a fourth period, especially not when your best friend in the whole world spends third period—AP English, tedium central—looking at the board instead of you, even when you chuck your eraser at her and everything.

We’re reading Jude the Obscure. It’s way boring, sure—but actually? I think it’s a good book. It’s super dark, total sad-factory. But I like the parts about Sue’s, like, sex-o-phobia, and I severely, dangerously get what Jude’s about, having had about seventeen whole years to rue my own conception, and birth, and all that stuff.

I keep stealing glances out the window, like “she” might be out there, somewhere, like she’s just waiting for me for me to notice her.

The ceiling crack—water damage, I guess—has always been more relevant to my interests than Mr. Forrester’s look at me, I’m the cool, handsome young teacher making things hip for the kids lectures on American history. It’s also way more interesting than any of the immediately available St. Mary’s fauna: George Howe, football; Linda Brandt, cheerleader, secretly nice to me when Brenda isn’t around; Pete Tully, he’s all right, except for how he always stinks like pot after lunch, but that’s better than how he was back in middle school, when he spent all his time trying to ferret out how, since I’m Japanese and all, I must be, like, a secret anime super fan—hi, low-key stereotyping much?—when the only thing I ever really got into is this completely random comic called Claymore, which more or less objectively kinda sucks; Renee Green, class president, brown-noser; and… Jason Kline.

So this is what we know about Jason Kline: white kid, dirty blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and dimples. He seems good at school; he raises his hand and asks questions about stuff, anyway, which is more than I can say for myself.

Despite all this, he has yet to exhibit an utterly detestable personality. Susan’s into him, for whatever reason, but he doesn’t reflect my “type.”

Er… not that I really have one…

I tap my pencil against the desk as I think. Is he cute? I guess he’s cute. Maybe Susan’s right, I don’t know. I act like I’m keeping my eyes on the board, but when I’m sure nobody’s looking at me, I tilt my head and give Jason another glance.

He’s taking notes. God.

It’s okay. Susan’s an ultra-mega nerd too, and she turned out all right. Don’t write him off just because he pays attention in class.

I blink, realizing the lecture has gone silent. I turn back to the front of the classroom to see what’s up, only to come face-to-face with Mr. Forrester’s fashionable paisley tie. I jerk upright, my pencil clattering to the floor.

“Good morning, Molly.” The class titters as a suave smirk claims his cool-teacher face. “Since you’ve decided you don’t have to pay attention, you must have an exceptional command over the material. Why don’t I take a break while you tell the class a little about the Buffalo Soldiers?”

Forrester’s attention expands like an invisible radius, encouraging every pair of eyes in the room to rack focus on me. The looming silence blooms prickling waves of tension across my skin. I bet the rest of the class, with their own dumb daydreams, wouldn’t know the answer either, but sure, single me out.

I sit up straight and clear my throat. “I guess”—here goes nothing—“after the Civil War… and with the overpopulation of the buffaloes—”

“Indeed,” he says, smile going wry, “there were far, far too many buffaloes.” Two slim fingers push his fancy, thin-rimmed glasses up his nose. The class waits one requisite heartbeat before exploding into laughter.

Cool.

Mr. Forrester strides up the aisle, back to the blackboard. “All right, all right. We’ve got a lot of material to cover if you’re going to be ready for the test on Friday.” Before he returns to the text he pauses. “This stuff is important to know. It’s your country’s history. Now, the Buffalo Soldiers’ inception dates back to 1866. At the time…”

I slink down in my chair and loll my head back, see how the old ceiling crack’s doing. Maybe today it will finally collapse. Maybe the whole ceiling will. If I’m lucky it’ll kill me outright.

It’s nice to dream.

Mr. Forrester’s lecture drones on, until every ounce of tension in the room has been replaced with the usual pure-strain boredom. Around then I feel comfortable enough to peek over at Jason under the guise of picking up my pencil. I stop halfway when I notice that as I’m lifting my eyes to look up at him, he’s already looking back at me. When our eyes meet he breaks into a smile and hands me my pencil.

***

Even though sports suck, and I avoid going to the actual games as much as I’m humanly able, soccer practice isn’t so bad, especially this late in the season. The air has cooled down, so you don’t get all sweaty and miserable, the fresh-cut grass smell fills your nose, and you start thinking about how maybe the outside world isn’t the literal worst thing in the universe—at least, in this confined, discrete, specifically man-made iteration.

And I wouldn’t state it in my college essay, but there’s something irresistible about the energy of the team. It’s just a scrimmage, there’s nothing riding on it, but everyone runs around, shouting, bouncing off of each other, and tussling for the ball.

They always put me in the goal during practice because I’m tall. Being goalie means less running around, which I appreciate, but you can’t let yourself space out just because the ball’s on the other side of the field. You have to focus.

I, however, am focus-resistant. When I was a kid Scott and Kate took me to a therapist to see if maybe I had the ADHD, but it didn’t stick. Too bad, I would’ve liked a clinical diagnosis, then you get drugs—good drugs, the kind that improve your grades, help you write novels, and stop you from blowing your whole adolescence scrolling Tumblr. Instead, all I got was a rubber stamp that said “Nonspecifically Defective,” and I was on my merry way (sans drugs).

Scrappy-ass Linda Brandt tucks around Brenda Sikorski’s legs. The thwock of her shoe against vinyl echoes crystal clear through the thin night air and everyone on both sides starts shrieking as a tussle for possession breaks out. I stare up into the floodlights until the pure white halogen burns big, purple blotches into my vision. Blind, I close my eyes, and the team’s excitement tickles against my pores. The light humidity seems to squeeze around my skin, it gives me goose bumps—I wouldn’t put that on the college essay either. I roll my fingers against the tension in my knuckles, enjoying the infection of their enthusiasm.

Around this time, the soccer ball wooshes past my head and straight into the goal.

“Sheridan!” Brenda Sikorski says. “Keep your eye on the ball!”

And that’s The Story of Why Molly Sheridan Never Tends Goal During Actual Games.

Brenda flicks her sweaty ponytail and thrusts her chin in the direction of the ball. I get my foot around it, lob it back to her, and commit myself to devoting some nominal amount of focus to the scrimmage. And I do, I totally do, until I notice…

The girl is back.

Holy shit. She’s just out there, sitting in the stands like it’s no big thing.

In a way it’s not a big thing? A couple diehards are always out to watch the division’s winningest girls soccer team. Not as many as boy’s football, sure, but it’s not like she’s the only person watching…

Still, everyone else is someone’s uncle or mom with nothing better to do, or an older sibling with something better to do, but saddled with the crushingly unfair responsibility of driving their lil’ sis, the up-and-coming JV soccer star, home.

Whatever. Point is, people like her don’t just show up at soccer practice. Somewhere on campus Mr. Bill, the security guard, is fingering his flashlight like it’s a revolver.

I bet she thinks she’s so cool. She’s probably got this really smug way of twisting her lips. I would probably try to copy it in the mirror, if I were the copying type.

I jerk myself back to reality just in time to make a dive for Brenda’s second shot on goal, but it sails right past my fingertips and I end up face down in the grass.

“Sheridan, I said keep your eyes on the goddamn ball!”

Brenda commits herself to hands-on-hip glaring for the whole sputtering five seconds it takes me to get back on my feet. I crouch for the ball, chuck it back onto the field, and she’s off and away before I can use the witty retort I had saved up that would’ve definitely shut her trap instead of causing her to burst out laughing and say something kind of racist about me.

I spit the taste of grass out of my mouth—forget it, the outside world still sucks—and try to flag down Susan. “Hey,” I say, jerking my head towards the bleachers. “Hey, look.”

Doesn’t work. You’d have to hit Susan with a car to distract her from a match in progress, even a practice match. I can see the obituary now. “Starting Sweeper, Ivy League-Bound, Tragically Dead After Ignoring Best Friend’s Desperate Cry Of Warning (Town Agrees She Deserved It), continued on p. 27.”

The ball moves back to the other side of the field.

It’s easy to imagine the sort of adventures the girl on the bleachers, comprised wholly of punk-rock attitude and aggressively angsty tattoos—which I mention for their statistical probability, it’s not like I can see any from here—might get involved in.

A spy.

Come on, not very realistic.

Maybe she’s writing a book about the nation’s lamest small towns. Bentham’s got to be in the top ten. Plausible—she’s here to observe the losers in their natural environment.

She shifts in her seat. Afraid she’s noticed my attention, I jerk away, focus on the game. Eyes on the ball, eyes on the ball, eyes on the ball…

Get over yourself. What, you think she’s here to induct you into her secret punk rock spy mission? The last time someone came to take you away from your miserable life you ended up here.

My curiosity gets the better of me and I hazard another look. My eyes drift upward, past heavy boots and black jacket to find her…

Looking back at me.

That’s about when the soccer ball hits.

It gets me right in the face. My neck locks, and I give a literal, actual bleat when my balance jumps two feet to the left and I fall ass-first onto the ground.

“Jesus Christ Sheridan, pay attention!”

My eye squeezes shut against the sting of the impact. I trace my fingers across my face and find a trail of tender welts left by the ball’s stitching. My cheeks are hot. My brain is swimming.

“Girls, girls! Everyone out of the way!” Coach Mathers snaps his fingers in front of me, drawing out a flinch and bringing me halfway back to reality.

“Sheridan?” he asks. “Are you all right?”

I shake my head and immediately regret it when the world lurches upside down. I throw my palms out to balance myself. “I-I’m fine.”

“You need to listen to your captain.” His calloused fingers rope around my elbow and haul me to my feet. “Things like this wouldn’t happen if you weren’t in lala land half the time you’re out on the field.”

Brenda is a human echo chamber. “Yeah, listen to your captain.”

Heat washes over my upper lip. I wipe my hand against my nose and my fingers come back red. A dappled trio of bright splotches, melding into the grass stains, has ruined my white jersey.

“You did that on purpose!” I say. Brenda just raises an eyebrow, and Susan is three ranks back in the crowd, wilting like a dying lily—conflict spikes her anxiety something fierce—so no support there. I turn to Mathers. “Coach, she did it on purpose!”

“Accidents happen. Sikorski, apologize.”

Brenda shrugs. “I’m sorry you’re so slow the ball hit you in the face.”

I lunge.

Brenda’s poise poofs like a cloud of smoke, but before I get in range Mathers hooks a hand around me and reels me back.

“That’s enough.” A tension in the muscles beneath his flab and I go limp. “There will be no fighting on this field. Am I understood?” I keep on shooting eye daggers at Brenda until he grabs me around the shoulders and gives me a jostle. “I said, ‘am I understood?’” I jerk out a nod through the jostling and he grunts. “Good. Now hit the showers. Brandt, you’re in goal.”

Two steps towards the showers and I pause, turn, and look at the bleachers, at the girl, who, like everyone else around her, is quietly observing the last, petulant dregs of our pathetically high school-caliber scuffle. I snort hard against the tickle of blood, pain in my nose shrieks its complaint, and I wince—ow, bad call.

She’s here to gawk at the losers, right? Well, she’s found their queen.

Who knows why I decide to do it? Maybe it’s the adrenaline, or even a concussion.

Do people get concussions from soccer balls? Probably not.

Whatever, doesn’t matter. I’m going to get right up in her face. If it’s got to be in front of the whole team, then fine. It’s her fault this all happened anyway. She can’t… she can’t just sit there and stare at me. You can’t just let people do that.

I barely get two steps out before Mathers grabs me by the arm and yanks me back toward soccer, toward the team, toward my normal, terrible life.

“Forget where the showers are?” He rotates me by the shoulders, turns me around like a lost little lamb. “Get moving.”

When I glance over at the bleachers girl, she’s tapping away at her cell phone. She’s not even looking anymore.

Forget it.

I’ve lost most of my Japanese, that’s what ten years of barely speaking it does, but I can still swear up a storm if I need to.

The orphanage was a breeding ground for that kind of talk, words muttered in secret when the nuns weren’t listening. I had a total knack for it. I was basically a swearing prodigy.

That’s what you do, after getting reprimanded in front of the whole team. You sit on a bench in the locker room with a towel crammed under your bloody nose, you lean forward, you get all tense and coiled up, and you just swear, you swear until there’s nothing left to swear about.

I kick my bag open and get out my phone. I have this number in it. Mieko.

It’s amazing the sort of information older people just put on the Internet: pictures of girls’ nights, their favorite books and movies… and their phone numbers, sometimes. It’s like they’ve never heard of privacy settings.

I wouldn’t actually call her or anything. It just helps to look at it.

“Weird area code. Who’re you calling?”

I leap about a mile out of my skin.

But it’s just Susan.

“Oh, uh…” I shuffle my phone into my bag and bend over to undo the laces on my cleats, like I was actually getting undressed and not being a completely quantifiable loser. “Guess I punched a bunch of numbers in, spacing out.”

She plops down onto the bench opposite me and takes off her shoes. “Coach told me to make sure you weren’t, like, going to kill yourself from embarrassment.”

“Someone’s got a high opinion of soccer practice.” My eyes go wide, I clutch a hand to my chest. “Please don’t yell at me in front of the team, Coach. What will I tell my family? How will I ever live it down?”

“I could say something. If one of the varsity girls got a bloody nose he probably would’ve called an ambulance.”

“It’s cool.” I stand up and start tugging off my shirt. “That’ll just end up getting us both twenty laps.”

“Still, it’s crap,” she says. “You know you don’t have to do that, right?”

I thrash my shoulders to untangle myself, and my shirt comes free. “Huh? Do what?”

“Put your back to the lockers while you change, you psycho.”

I tilt my head, recognize how I’ve jammed myself into the corner of the locker rows. “I didn’t mean to. It’s—”

“Chill out, nobody’s going to make fun of you for it. We’re grown-ass women now. They probably wouldn’t even notice.”

“Easy for you to say.” I put my hand over my shoulder and dip my fingers under the strap of my sports bra. It’s just a tiny rise on my skin, my birthmark. In the mirror it’s almost purple, a blotch of color that runs from my left shoulder blade almost to the middle of my back. It shouldn’t be a big deal. It’s not a big deal, but… “They notice everything.”

“They only notice the stuff you’re sensitive about. They’re like… like pumas, or something.”

“What? Pumas?”

“Jaguars? I don’t know, some big cat that preys on fear. Speaking of which, want to see that movie this weekend? The one about the giant panther—”

“Nope.” I stretch my arms high above my head, tent my fingers, and release a full-body yawn. My back cracks back into place and I do my best to shake out fifteen minutes of tension, with limited results. “You know the rules: no ghosts and no killer animals, especially ones that bite you and stuff. They creep me out.”

“You’re such a baby.”

“I’m a romantic.”

“No, I’m a romantic. You won’t go to anything without an explosion. Jagged bullet wounds are okay, but ghosts are too much.”

“I know what I like and that’s why you like me!” I flop down next to her on the bench, apply an affectionate nudge of my elbow to her ribs, and loop my gym bag with my foot, dragging it close.

“Hey, Mol.”

I look up from getting my shower stuff. “Huh?”

“What was that number about, seriously?”

My phone’s peeking out from the pocket of my bag. I didn’t lock the screen. “It’s nothing. Some girl I used to know, back home.”

“You never talk about that stuff.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“You can though.”

“Yeah, I know.”

I fill the time staring at the floor, feeling the heat rise back up in my cheeks, swabbing my nose raw with my towel.

“God, Brenda.” Susan says. “Such an asshole.”

You can always count on Susan to change the subject, once she’s fidgeted enough, and the quietness in the room has reached that perfect, awkward pitch. She’s such a WASP. It’s cute, really.

“Yeah.” Brenda’s an asshole? Might as well call the sun round or the grass green. Instead of giving in to the Two Minute Hate, I ask, “You saw her, right? The girl in the stands?”

Her eyes practically flash, once she’s taken a second to think about it. “So you were right, for once. Don’t let it go to your head. She’s probably one of the freshman’s older sisters, somebody’s ride home.”

Shit. I’m such a moron…

“Woah Mol,” Susan says. “You’re never this nosy, not about anyone.”

I blink. “Huh? So what? I was just curious.”

“Yeah.” She’s grinning ear to ear, all the way to Sunday. “Bi-curious.”

“Seriously? We’re making gay jokes now? You been taking lessons from Lacey behind my back?”

“No, but… I didn’t mean like…” Her face creases up. “You’re my best friend—”

“What? Shut up.”

“No, seriously. Obviously I—”

“Oh my god, shut up! Shut up!” I’m laughing, but I’m not sure if it’s funny-laughing or awkward-laughing, so I grab up my towel, break eye contact, and head for the showers.

“It’s okay Molly!” Susan’s voice chases me down the hall, little jabs of comfort masquerading as jokes. “If you ever need to talk, you know where to find me!”

I close the curtain behind me and wipe my hair out of my face. It’s fine. It’s Susan. She’s… she’s just trying to cheer me up.

I turn on the shower as hot as it’ll go. The water spraying against my nose isn’t exactly comfortable, but the warmth does massage some of the pain away. I wiggle it a little and flinch at the sharp ache. I wipe a finger through the last, little dribble of remaining blood and press it to my lips.

The metallic twang of it kicks against my brain and I grunt out my discomfort to any ghosts or invisible people who might be watching. I reach for my washcloth and try to scrub away the profound discovery that I’m the sort of girl who tastes her own blood in the shower.

The sound of chirpy conversation builds beyond the hiss of the shower. I dry off quickly, hustle into my clothes, pack my bag, and stomp right out of the locker room, fast enough to avoid everything but a couple odd stares. My hair is wet. It’s cold out tonight, but no time to dry it. Maybe it’s not too late. You can still do this. I stride towards the field…

…only to find it empty. She’s long gone, and so’s everyone else. The magic blinks away. All I have to look forward to now is a long bike ride home.

I spin on my heel to head for the parking lot, and throw myself face first into Jason Kline.