South High had money.
Unlike Central High, my high school, South had a new building built in the late 1990’s during better economic times. It looked more like an office building. Think gleaming mirrored windows, white walls, and beautifully landscaped lawns. Of course, in the middle of February lawns were a memory. Snow covered them to a depth of about a foot.
I parked my mom’s car in South’s parking lot, which, I couldn’t help but note, was definitely better plowed than our lot.
I zipped up my coat, stepped out of the car, and walked toward the school. South High’s parking lot had a path that led from the front of the school to the back of the parking lot. It was white, standing out from the blacktop surrounding it, and textured with pebbles. Waist high lights stood next to each row’s concrete curbs, presumably for night time events.
Central High’s parking lot consisted of dirt and gravel surrounded by a chain link fence.
The front doors were level with the sidewalk and probably wheelchair accessible. I pulled open one of the glass doors and stepped inside.
It felt wonderfully warm.
I checked my cell phone for the time. 3:30 PM.
I didn’t see Haley among the few kids still leaving the building. Could I have gone to the wrong entrance? No. This had to be the main entrance. I decided to wait.
I stood in the hall, wondering if the white walls could be any brighter.
Pulling my ipod out of my pocket, I untangled the earbuds, set it to shuffle, and started listening. It mostly held music from bands that appeared in Guitar Hero or Rock Band. I didn’t listen to much music before that — except passively.
Midway through “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“How loud do you have that thing set anyway? I called your name a couple different times.”
I turned to find Jaclyn standing behind me, backpack hanging on her shoulder. I pulled out my earbuds and turned the ipod off.
“Not that loud. I guess I must have been thinking. Anyway, I didn’t know you were coming.”
Jaclyn checked behind her. No one stood near us.
“That fight in December didn’t go so well. If I’m going to do this, I want to do it better. If it means I’ve got to learn how to fight, I’ll learn how to fight.”
“That’s great,” I said. “We’ll have Haley and Cassie and now you… and me. That’s enough.”
Jaclyn frowned. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Well, Travis has class and then works at one of the restaurants with Marcus. Vaughn just got his casts off his arms, but he’s still supposed to take it easy.”
“What about Daniel?”
“Daniel says that just being in the same room with him makes his head ache.”
“With your martial arts teacher? What’s his deal?”
“That’s a good question,” I said.
“But it doesn’t have a good answer,” she said.
It didn’t. Speculation about his origin ranged wildly — people in the Double V online forums had suggested that he was a dragon in human form, a vampire, a fallen angel that had deserted Satan’s legions, or even a retired god of war.
I had no idea which was true, if any. All I knew was that he had a deal with Grandpa to teach me and anyone who wanted to train with me — at least when he was around. He tended to disappear for six months at a time.
“I really don’t know,” I said.
She pulled her phone out of her backpack. “Well, let’s at least get lesson dates straight.” She started tapping on it with her finger. “Is class going to be the same time every week?”
“Another good question,” I said. “He’s a bit of a free spirit. Things… come up.”
She raised an eyebrow. “What things?”
“Well, last summer he ended up canceling once because he wanted to play in a Jazz festival, and then another time he got hired as a mercenary… But he generally calls.”
“When he can,” I said.
“How am I supposed to keep track of that?”
“Don’t ask me. I just show up at the studio and hope he makes it.”
From the expression on Jaclyn’s face, I guessed that that wasn’t good enough.
“I can’t believe –”
I never found out what she didn’t believe.
Haley, coming seemingly from nowhere, leaned into me and said, “Hi Nick,” and we kissed. Sometime in the past two months we’d gone from occasionally holding hands in public to occasionally kissing in public. I wasn’t sure when that had happened.
When I looked up from her, I realized that two of her friends were with her. Ashley, a short, blond girl with the same build as Haley. She was on the gymnastics team just like Haley had been. The other one was taller, brown haired and wore glasses. From what I remembered, she preferred to be called Kay, but her real name was Irma.
Haley said, “Nick, do you remember Ashley and Kay?”
“They were at your house a couple weeks ago,” I said. “Hi.”
“And you know Jaclyn,” Haley said.
Jaclyn still looked a little irritated.
Kay said, “I’ve seen you on stage accepting awards a lot. Didn’t you win that scholarship to Grand Lake U?”
“If I accept it,” Jaclyn said. “It’s my safety school. I’d really like to get into the Ivy League.”
Ashley nudged Haley, “Haley, look at that.”
I followed her gaze.
Sean Drucker, the guy whose car Vaughn had crashed (and to whom Vaughn owed at least a thousand bucks) walked down the hall with a two of his friends and a couple girls. I knew them — one was Julie, the girl from my high school who had inexplicably sent pictures of Haley and I to everyone she knew. The other was Shannon, her cousin, a barista at the Solid Grounds coffeehouse. Shannon went to South High.
“I know,” Haley said quietly. “I was ignoring them.”
If she was ignoring them, it couldn’t have been easy. They were laughing pretty hard — less hard as they passed us though. Sean actually looked kind of pissed off.
Kay gave me somewhat bemused look. “Haley’s ex-boyfriend,” she said.