She walked idly through campus, looking for a place to sit down and read while she ate her lunch. Across the campus, she spied a pretty little tree growing up from a triangular patch of grass, but it wasn’t the tree that caught her attention. It was the girl sitting cross-legged on the grass beneath its green canopy, hunched over a book. Her blond hair was divided into a pair of loosely twined braids. Dressed in a delicate pink tulle skirt, a black tank top, and black high-tops, she definitely made a statement.
It was a statement Lexi understood: I’m not like you. I don’t need you.
Lexi had spent a few years dressed the same way herself, back when she hadn’t wanted to make friends, when she’d been afraid of being asked where she lived or what her momma was like.
She took a deep breath and walked toward the girl. When she drew near, Lexi paused. She wanted to say the right thing, but now that she was here, she didn’t know what that would be.
The girl looked up from her book. She was fragile looking, with acne-blistered skin and green eyes that were rimmed with too much purple eyeliner. Brightly colored rubber bands accented her braces.
“Hey,” Lexi said.
“He’s not here. And he’s not coming.”
The girl gave a disinterested shrug and went back to reading. “If you don’t know, it doesn’t matter, does it?”
“Can I sit with you?”
“Social suicide,” the girl said without looking up.
The girl looked up again. “It’s social suicide to sit with me. Even the theater kids won’t hang with me. Yeah. It’s that bad.”
“You mean I won’t make the cheerleading squad? How tragic.”
The girl looked interested in Lexi for the first time. A smile quirked her mouth. “Most girls care about stuff like that.”
“Do they?” Lexi dropped her backpack onto the grass. “What are you reading?”
Lexi held out her own book. “Jane Eyre. Can I sit down?”
The girl scooted sideways to make room on the small patch of grass. “I haven’t read that one. Is it good?”
Lexi sat down beside her. “My favorite. When you’re done with yours, we could trade.”
“That would be awesome. I’m Mia, by the way.”
“Lexi. So what’s the book about?”
Mia began talking slowly, stumbling over her words, but when she started talking about Heathcliff, she kind of took flight. The next thing Lexi knew, they were laughing as if they’d been friends for years. When the bell rang, they got up and walked toward their lockers together, still talking the whole way across campus. Lexi didn’t keep her head down anymore, didn’t clamp her books to her chest or purposely not make eye contact with anyone. Instead, she laughed.
Outside the door to her Spanish class, Mia stopped and said in a rush: “You could come to my house after school today. If you wanted to, I mean.” She looked nervous as she asked it. “I know you probably won’t. No worries.”
Lexi felt like smiling; only nervousness over her teeth kept her in check. “I would totally like that.”
“Meet me at the flagpole by the admin building, okay?”
Lexi went into her classroom and took a seat at the back. She eyed the clock for the rest of the day, willing time to speed up until finally at 2:50, she was at the flagpole, waiting. Kids swarmed around her, jostling one another as they made their way onto the buses lined up outside.
Maybe Mia wouldn’t show. Probably she wouldn’t.
Lexi was about to give up the whole thing when Mia came up beside her. “You waited,” she said, sounding as relieved as Lexi felt. “Come on.”
Mia led the way through the hive of students, toward a shiny black Escalade parked out on the main road. She opened the passenger door and climbed in.
Lexi followed her new friend into the leather-scented beige seat.
“Hola, Madre,” Mia said. “This is Lexi. I invited her home with me. Is that okay?”
The woman in the driver’s seat turned around, and Lexi was stunned by her beauty. Mia’s mom looked like Michelle Pfeiffer with her perfect, pale face and sleek blond hair. In an obviously expensive salmon-colored sweater, she looked like she belonged on the Nordstrom catalog cover. “Hello, Lexi. I’m Jude. It’s nice to meet you. And how is it that I don’t know you?”
“I just moved here.”
“Ah. That explains it. Where did you move here from?”
“I won’t hold that against you,” Jude said with a bright smile. “Will your mother mind if you’re not home right away?”
“No,” Lexi said, tensing for the inevitable next question.
“I could call her if you’d like, introdu—”
“Mo-om,” Mia said, “you’re doing that thing again.”
Jude flashed Lexi a smile. “I’m embarrassing my daughter. Something I am sadly wont to do these days, just by breathing. But I can hardly stop being a mother, can I? I’m sure your mom is just as embarrassing, right, Lexi?”
Lexi had no idea what to say to that, but it didn’t matter. Jude laughed and went on as if she hadn’t asked a thing. “I’m supposed to be seen and not heard. Fine. Buckle up, girls.”
She started up the car, and Mia immediately started talking about a book she’d heard about.
They drove away from the school and onto a pretty little main street. The traffic was stop-and-go all the way through town, but once they made it onto the highway, the road was clear. They followed one curvy, tree-lined, two-lane road after another until Jude said, “Home sweet home,” and turned onto a gravel driveway.
At first there was nothing but trees on either side of them, trees so tall and thick they blocked out the sun, but then the road curved again and they were in a clearing full of sunlight.
The house was like something out of a novel. It sat proudly amid its landscaping, a soaring structure made of wood and stone, with windows everywhere. Low stone walls delineated magnificent gardens. Behind it all was the blue Sound. Even from here, Lexi could hear waves hitting the shore.
“Wow,” Lexi said, getting out of the car. She had never been in a house like this before. How should she act? What should she say? She would do the wrong thing for sure and Mia would laugh at her.
Jude slipped an arm around her daughter and they walked ahead. “I bet you girls are hungry. Why don’t I make you some quesadillas? You can tell me about the first day of high school.”
Lexi hung back instinctively.
At the front door, Mia looked back. “Lexi? You don’t want to come in, do you? You’ve changed your mind.”
Lexi felt her insecurity dissolve, or perhaps more accurately, it joined with Mia’s and morphed into something else. They were alike; impossibly, the girl who had nothing was like this girl who had everything. “No way,” Lexi said, laughing as she hurried toward the door.
Inside, she slipped out of her shoes, seeing a second too late that her socks had holes in the toes. Embarrassed, she followed Mia into the magnificent house. There were walls of glass that framed a stunning ocean view, a stone fireplace, gleaming floors. She was afraid to touch anything.
Mia grabbed her hand and dragged her into a huge kitchen. There were gleaming copper pots hanging from a black skeletal thing above the eight-burner stove and fresh flowers in several places around the room. They sat down at a long black granite counter while Jude made quesadillas.
She just walked right up to me, Madre. And I told her it was social suicide to sit with me, but she didn’t care. Is that cool or what?
Jude smiled at that, and started to say something, but Mia kept talking. Lexi could hardly keep up with Mia’s steady stream of stories. It was as if Mia had been holding observations and thoughts inside of her for years, and now they were coming out. Lexi knew about that, about holding things inside and being afraid and trying to stay quiet. She and Mia compared opinions on high school, boys, classes, movies, tattoos, belly button piercings, and they agreed on everything. The more they agreed on, the more Lexi worried: what would happen when Mia found out about Lexi’s past? Would Mia want to be friends with a drug addict’s kid?
At about five o’clock, the front door banged open and a group of kids burst into the house.
“Shoes,” Jude yelled from the kitchen without looking up.
Nine or ten kids surged forward, boys and girls. Lexi could tell they were the popular kids. Anyone would have recognized them—pretty girls in low-rise jeans and midriff-baring T-shirts, and boys in PIHS blue and yellow sweats. They’d probably come here from football and cheerleader practice.
“My bro is the one in the gray sweats,” Mia said, leaning closer. “Don’t judge him by the company he keeps. Those girls have the brains of breath mints.”
It was the guy from first period.
He peeled away from the crowd with the ease of one who knew how popular he was and sidled up to Mia, putting an arm around her shoulders. The resemblance between them was startling; Mia’s face was a feminine, sculpted version of his. He started to say something to his sister, and then he noticed Lexi. His gaze sharpened, grew so intense that she felt that fluttering start in her chest again. No one had ever looked at her like that before, as if everything about her was interesting.
“You’re the new girl,” he said quietly, pushing the long blond hair out of his eyes.
“She’s my friend,” Mia said, grinning so wide her braces were a multicolored blur.
His smile faded.
“I’m Lexi,” she said, although he hadn’t asked her her name.
He looked away from her, disinterested. “I’m Zach.”
A girl in tiny shorts and a midriff-baring top moved in behind him, draped herself along his side, and whispered something in his ear. He didn’t laugh, barely smiled in fact. Instead, he backed away from Lexi and Mia. “Later, Me-my,” he said to his sister. Slinging an arm around short-shorts girl, he led her toward the stairs and disappeared into the crowd of kids running upstairs.
Mia frowned at her. “Is something wrong, Lexi? It’s okay if I say you’re my friend, right?”
Lexi stared at the empty place where he’d been, feeling unsettled. He’d smiled at her, hadn’t he? At first, for a second? What had she done wrong?
“Lexi? Is it okay if I tell people we’re friends?”
Lexi let out the breath she’d been holding. She forced her attention away from the stairs. Seeing Mia’s nervousness, she realized what was important here, and it wasn’t a guy like Zach. No wonder he confused her. He would always be incomprehensible to a girl who’d grown up in the weeds. What mattered was Mia and this fragile beginning of their friendship. “Of course,” she said, smiling. For once, she didn’t care about her teeth. She was pretty sure Mia wouldn’t care. “You can tell everyone.”
* * *
The media room was full of kids, as usual. Some women might be overwhelmed by the noise and mayhem, but not Jude. Years ago—back when the twins were starting sixth grade—she’d made a conscious effort to make her house welcoming. She wanted the kids to hang out here. She’d known herself well enough to know that she didn’t want to be dropping her kids off into other women’s care; she wanted to be the one in charge. To that end, she’d designed the upstairs carefully, and it had worked. Some days, there were fifteen kids here, eating their way through her snack provisions like locusts. But she knew where her children were and she knew they were safe.