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‘But if you bought me a car now, it would be yours when I go away to school in two years. Still practically new,’ Helen said optimistically. Unfortunately, her father was no sucker.
‘Lennie, just because the state of Massachusetts thinks it’s OK for sixteen-year-olds to drive . . .’ Jerry began. ‘Almost seventeen,’ Helen reminded.
‘Doesn’t mean that I have to agree with it.’ He was winning, but Helen hadn’t lost yet.
‘You know, the Pig only has another year or two left in her,’ Helen said, referring to the ancient Jeep Wrangler her father drove, which she suspected might have been parked outside the castle where the Magna Carta was signed. ‘And think of all the gas money we could save if we got a hybrid, or even went full electric. Wave of the future, Dad.’
‘Uh-huh,’ was all he’d say.
Now she’d lost.
Helen Hamilton groaned softly to herself and looked out over the railing of the ferry that was bringing her back to Nantucket. She contemplated another year of riding her bike to school in November and, when the snow got too deep, scrounging for rides or, worst of all, taking the bus. She shivered in anticipated agony and tried not to think about it. Some of the Labor Day tourists were staring at her, not unusual, so Helen tried to turn her face away as subtly as she could. When Helen looked in a mirror, all she saw were the basics – two eyes, a nose and a mouth – but strangers from off island tended to stare, which was really annoying.
Luckily for Helen, most of the tourists on the ferry that afternoon were there for the view, not her portrait. They were so determined to cram in a little scenic beauty before the end of summer that they felt obliged to ooh and aah at every marvel of the Atlantic Ocean, though it was all lost on Helen. As far as she was concerned, growing up on a tiny island was nothing but a pain, and she couldn’t wait to go to college off island, off Massachusetts, and off the entire eastern seaboard if she could manage it.
It wasn’t that Helen hated her home life. In fact, she and her father got along perfectly. Her mom had ditched them both when Helen was a baby, but Jerry had learned early on how to give his daughter just the right amount of attention. He didn’t hover, yet he was always there for her when she needed him. Buried under a thin layer of resentment about the current car situation, she knew she could never ask for a better dad.
‘Hey, Lennie! How’s the rash?’ yelled a familiar voice. Coming towards her was Claire, Helen’s best friend since birth. She tipped unsteady tourists out of her path with artfully placed pushes.
The sea-goofy day trippers swerved away from Claire like she was a linebacker and not a tiny elf of a girl perched delicately on platform sandals. She glided easily through the stumbling riot she had created and slid next to Helen by the railing.
‘Giggles! I see you got some back-to-school shopping done too,’ Jerry said as he gave Claire a one-armed hug around her parcels.
Claire Aoki, aka Giggles, was a bad-ass. Anyone who took a look at her five-foot-two frame and delicate Asian features and failed to recognize her inherent scrappiness ran the risk of suffering horribly at the hands of a grossly underestimated opponent. The nickname ‘Giggles’ was her personal albatross. She’d had it since she was a baby. In her friends’ and family’s defence it was impossible to resist calling her Giggles. Claire had, hands down, the best laugh in the universe. Never forced or shrill, it was the kind of laugh that could make anyone within earshot smile.
‘Fo-sho, sire of my BFF,’ Claire replied. She hugged Jerry back with genuine affection, ignoring his use of the dreaded nickname. ‘Might I have a word with your progeny? Sorry to be so rude, but it’s top-secret, highclearance stuff. I’d tell you . . .’ she began.
‘But then you’d have to kill me,’ Jerry finished sagely. He shuffled obligingly off to the concession stand to buy himself a sugary soda while his daughter, the chief of the food police, wasn’t looking.
‘Whatcha got in the bag, Dad?’ Claire asked. She
grabbed Helen’s loot and started rifling through. ‘Jeans,
cardigan, T-shirt, under– whoa! You go underwear
shopping with your dad? Ew!’
‘It’s not like I have any choice!’ Helen complained as
she snatched her bag away. ‘I needed new bras! Anyway, my dad hides at the bookstore while I try everything on. But, trust me, even knowing he’s down the street while I shop for underwear is excruciating,’ she said, a smile on her reddening face.
‘It can’t be all that painful. It’s not like you ever try to buy anything sexy. Jeez, Lennie, do you think you could dress more like my grandma?’ Claire held up a pair of white cotton briefs. Helen snatched the granny pants and shoved them to the bottom of the bag while Claire stretched out her magnificent laugh.
‘I know, I’m such a big geek it’s gone viral,’ Helen replied, Claire’s teasing instantly forgiven, as usual. ‘Aren’t you afraid you’ll catch a fatal case of loser from me?’ ‘Nope. I’m so awesome I’m immune. Anyway, geeks are the best. You’re all so deliciously corruptible. And I love the way you blush whenever I talk about underpants.’ Claire was forced to adjust her stance as a couple of picture-takers barged in close to them. Working with the momentum of the deck, Claire nudged the tourists out of the way with one of her ninja balance moves. They stumbled aside, laughing about the ‘choppy water’, clueless that Claire had even touched them. Helen fiddled with the heart necklace she always wore and took the opportunity to slouch down against the railing to better meet her friend’s small stature.
Unfortunately for achingly shy Helen, she was an eye-grabbing five feet nine inches tall, and still growing. She’d prayed to Jesus, the Buddha, Muhammad and Vishnu to make it stop, but she still felt the hot splinters in her limbs and the seizing muscles of another growth spurt at night. She promised herself that at least if she topped six feet she’d be tall enough to scale the safety railing and throw herself off the top of the lighthouse in Siasconset.
Salespeople were always telling her how lucky she was, but not even they could find her trousers that fitted. Helen had resigned herself to the fact that in order to buy affordable jeans that were long enough she had to go a few sizes too big, but if she didn’t want them to fall off her hips, she had to put up with a mild breeze flapping around her ankles. Helen was pretty sure that the ‘wicked jealous’ salesgirls didn’t walk around with chilly ankles. Or with their butt cracks showing.
‘Stand up straight,’ Claire snapped automatically when she saw Helen slouching, and Helen obeyed. Claire had a thing about good posture, something to do with her super-proper Japanese mother and even more proper kimono-wearing grandmother.
‘OK! On to the main topic,’ Claire announced. ‘You know that huge kazillion-dollar compound that the New England Patriots guy used to own?’
‘The one in ’Sconset? Sure. What about it?’ Helen asked, picturing the house’s private beach and feeling relieved that her dad didn’t make enough money at his store to buy a house any closer to the water.
When Helen was a child, she had very nearly drowned, and ever since had secretly believed that the Atlantic Ocean was trying to kill her. She’d always kept that bit of paranoia to herself . . . though she still was a terrible swimmer. To be fair, she could tread water for a few minutes at a time, but she was rotten at it. Eventually, she sank like a rock no matter how saline the ocean was supposed to be and no matter how hard she paddled. ‘It finally sold to a big family,’ Claire said. ‘Or two families. I’m not sure how it works, but I guess there are two fathers, and they’re brothers. They both have kids – so the kids are cousins?’ Claire wrinkled her brow. ‘Whatever. The point is that whoever moved in has a bunch of kids. And they’re all about the same age. There are, like, two boys that are going to be in our grade.’
‘And let me guess,’ Helen said, deadpan. ‘You did a tarot reading and saw that both of the boys are going to fall madly in love with you and then they’ll tragically fight to the death.’
Claire kicked Helen in the shin. ‘No, dummy. There’s one for each of us.’
Helen rubbed her leg, pretending it hurt. Even if Claire had kicked Helen with all her might, she still wouldn’t be strong enough to leave a bruise.
‘One for each of us? That’s uncharacteristically low drama of you,’ Helen teased. ‘It’s too straightforward. I don’t buy it. But how about this? We’ll each fall in love with the same boy, or the wrong boy – whichever one doesn’t love us back – and then you and I will fight each other to the death.’
‘Whatever are you babbling on about?’ Claire asked sweetly as she inspected her nails, feigning incomprehension.
‘God, Claire, you’re so predictable,’ Helen said, laughing. ‘Every year you dust off those cards you bought in Salem that time on the field trip and you always
predict that something amazing is going to happen. But every year the only thing that amazes me is that you haven’t slipped into a boredom coma by winter
‘Why do you fight it?’ Claire protested. ‘You know
eventually something spectacular is going to happen to us. You and I are way too fabulous to be ordinary.’
Helen shrugged. ‘I am perfectly happy with ordinary.
In fact, I think I’d be devastated if you actually predicted right for a change.’
Claire tilted her head to one side and stared at her. Helen untucked her hair from behind her ears to curtain off her face. She hated to be watched.
‘I know you would. I just don’t think ordinary’s ever going to work out for you,’ Claire said thoughtfully.
Helen changed the subject. They chatted about their class schedules, running track and whether or not they should cut a fringe. Helen wanted something new, but Claire was dead set against Helen touching her long blonde hair with scissors. Then they realized that they had wandered too close to what they called the ‘pervert zone’ of the ferry, and had to hastily backtrack.
They both hated that part of the ferry, but Helen was particularly sensitive about it; it reminded her of this creepy guy that had followed her around one summer, until the day he just disappeared off the ferry. Instead of feeling relieved when she realized he wasn’t coming back, Helen felt like she had done something wrong. She had never brought it up with Claire, but there had been a bright flash and a horrible smell of burned hair. Then the guy was just gone. It still made her queasy to think about it, but Helen played along, as if it was all a big joke. She forced a laugh and let Claire drag her to another part of the ferry.
Jerry joined them as they pulled into the dock and disembarked. Claire waved goodbye and promised to try to visit Helen at work the next day, though since it was the last day of summer, the outlook was doubtful.
Helen worked a few days a week for her father, who co-owned the island’s general store. Apart from a morning paper and fresh cup of coffee, the News Store also sold saltwater taffy, penny candy, caramels and toffee in real crystal jars, and ropes of liquorice whips sold by the yard. There were always fresh-cut flowers and handmade greeting cards, gag gifts and magic tricks, seasonal knickknacks for the tourists, and refrigerator essentials like milk and eggs for the locals.
About six years ago the News Store had expanded its horizons and added Kate’s Cakes on to the back, and since then business had exploded. Kate Rogers was, quite simply, a genius with baked goods. She could take anything and make it into a pie, cake, popover, cookie or muffin. Even universally loathed vegetables like Brussels sprouts and broccoli succumbed to Kate’s wiles and became big hits as croissant fillers.
Still in her early thirties, Kate was creative and intelligent. When she’d partnered up with Jerry, she revamped the back of the News Store and turned it into a haven for the island’s artists and writers, somehow managing to do it without turning up the snob factor. Kate was careful to make sure that anyone who loved baked goods and real coffee – from suits to poets, working-class townies to corporate raiders – would feel comfortable sitting down at her counter and reading a newspaper. She had a way of making everyone feel welcome. Helen adored her.
When Helen got to work the next day, Kate was trying to stock a delivery of flour and sugar. It was pathetic.
‘Lennie! Thank God you’re early. Do you think you could help me . . . ?’ Kate gestured towards the fortypound sacks.
‘I got it. No, don’t tug the corner like that – you’ll hurt your back,’ Helen warned, rushing to stop Kate’s ineffectual pulling. ‘Why didn’t Luis do this for you?
Wasn’t he working this morning?’ Helen asked, referring to one of the other workers on the schedule.
‘The delivery came after Luis left. I tried to stall until you got here, but a customer nearly tripped and I had to at least pretend I was going to move the blasted thing,’ Kate said.
‘I’ll take care of the flour if you fix me a snack,’ Helen said cajolingly as she stooped to pick up the sack.
‘Deal,’ Kate replied gratefully, and bustled off with a smile. Helen waited until Kate’s back was turned, lifted the sack of flour easily on to her shoulder, and sauntered towards the workstation, where she opened the sack and poured some flour into the smaller plastic container Kate used in the kitchen. While Helen neatly stacked the rest of the delivery in the storeroom, Kate poured her a bubbly pink lemonade, the kind that Helen loved, from France, one of the many foreign places she was dying to visit. ‘It’s not that you’re so freakishly strong for someone so thin that bothers me. What really pisses me off,’ Kate said as she sliced some cherries and cheese for Helen to snack on, ‘is that you never get winded. Not even in this heat.’
‘I get winded,’ Helen lied.
‘You sigh. Big difference.’
‘I’ve just got bigger lungs than you.’
‘But since you’re taller, you’d need more oxygen, wouldn’t you?’
They clinked glasses and sipped their lemonade, calling it even. Kate was a bit shorter and plumper than Helen, but that didn’t make her either short or fat. Helen always thought of the word zaftig when she saw Kate, which she had a notion meant ‘sexy curvy’. She never used it, though, in case Kate took it the wrong way.
‘Is the book club on tonight?’ Helen asked.
‘Uh-huh. But I doubt anyone will want to talk about Kundera,’ Kate said with a smirk, jingling the ice cubes in her glass.
‘Why? Hot gossip?’
‘Smokin’ hot. This crazy-big family just moved to the island.’
‘The place in ’Sconset?’ Helen asked. At Kate’s nod, she rolled her eyes.
‘Oh-ho! Too good to dish with the rest of us?’ Kate teased, flicking the condensed water from the side of her glass in Helen’s direction.
Helen play-shrieked, and then had to leave Kate for a moment to ring up for a few customers. As soon as she finished the transactions, she came back and continued the conversation.
‘No. I just don’t think it’s that strange for a big family to buy a big property. Especially if they’re going to live in it year-round. It makes more sense than some old wealthy couple buying a summer home that’s so huge they get lost on the way to the mailbox.’
‘True,’ Kate conceded. ‘But I really thought you’d be more interested in the Delos family. You’ll be graduating with a few of them.’
Helen stood there as Delos ran around her head. The name meant nothing to her. How could it? But some echoey part of her brain kept repeating ‘Delos’ over and over.
‘Lennie? Where’d you go?’ Kate asked. She was interrupted by the first members of the book club coming early, wound-up and already in the throes of wild speculation.
Kate’s prediction was right. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was no match for the arrival of new year-rounders, especially since the rumour-mill had revealed that they were moving here from Spain. Apparently, they were Boston natives who had moved to Europe three years ago in order to be closer to their extended family, but now, suddenly, they’d decided to move back. It was the ‘suddenly’ part that everyone spent the most time discussing. The school secretary had hinted to a few of the book-club members that the kids had been enrolled so far past the normal date that the parents had practically had to bribe their way in, and all sorts of special agreements had to be made to ship their furniture over in time for their arrival. It seemed like the Delos family had left Spain in a hurry, and the book club agreed that there must have been some kind of falling-out with their cousins.
The one thing Helen could confidently gather from all the chatter was that the Delos family was rather unconventional. There were two fathers who were brothers, their younger sister, one mother (one of the fathers was a widower), and five kids, all living together on the property. The entire family was supposed to be unbelievably smart and beautiful and wealthy. Helen rolled her eyes when she heard the parts of the gossip that elevated the Delos family to mythic proportions. In fact, she could barely stand it.
Helen tried to stay behind the register and ignore the excited whispering, but it was impossible. Every time she heard one of the members of the Delos family mentioned by name, it drew her attention as if it had been shouted, irritating her. She left the register and went over to the magazine rack, straightening the shelves just to give her hands something to do.
As she wiped down the shelves and stocked the candy jars, she mentally ticked the kids off in her head. Hector is a year older than Jason and Ariadne, who are twins. Lucas and Cassandra are brother and sister, cousins to the other three. She changed the water for the flowers and rang up for a few customers. Hector wouldn’t be there the first day of school because he was still in Spain with his Aunt Pandora, though no one in town knew why.
Helen pulled on a pair of shoulder-length rubber gloves, a long apron and dug through the garbage for stray recycling items. Lucas, Jason and Ariadne are all going to be in my grade. So I’m surrounded. Cassandra is the youngest. She’s a freshman, and only fourteen.
She went to the back kitchen and put a load in the industrial dishwasher. She mopped the floors and started counting the money. Lucas is such a stupid name. It’s all wrong. It sticks out like a sore thumb.
‘What! Dad! Can’t you see I’m counting?’ Helen said, slamming her hands down on the counter so hard she made a stack of quarters jump. Jerry held up his hands in a placating gesture.
‘It’s the first day of school tomorrow,’ he reminded her in his most reasonable voice.
‘I know,’ she responded blankly, still unaccountably irritable but trying not to take it out on her father.
‘It’s almost eleven, honey,’ he said. Kate came out from the back to check on the noise.
‘You’re still here? I’m really sorry, Jerry,’ she said, looking perplexed. ‘Helen, I told you to lock the front and go home at nine.’
They both stared at Helen, who had arranged every bill and every coin in neat stacks.
‘I got sidetracked,’ Helen said lamely.
After sharing a worried glance with Jerry, Kate took over counting the change and sent them home. Still in a daze, Helen gave Kate a kiss goodbye and tried to figure out how she had missed out on the last three hours of her life.
Jerry put Helen’s bike on the back of the Pig and started the engine without a word. He glanced over at her a few times as they drove home, but he didn’t say anything until they parked in the driveway.
‘Did you eat?’ he asked softly, raising his eyebrows.
‘I don’t . . . yes?’ Helen had no idea what or when she’d last eaten. She vaguely remembered Kate cutting her some cherries.
‘Are you nervous about the first day of school? Junior year’s a big one.’
‘I guess I must be,’ she said absent-mindedly.
Jerry glanced over at her and bit his lower lip. He exhaled before speaking. ‘I’ve been thinking maybe you should talk to Dr Cunningham about those phobia pills.
You know, the kind for people who have a hard time
in crowds? Agoraphobia! That’s what it’s called,’ he burst out, remembering. ‘Do you think that could help you?’
Helen smiled and ran the charm of her necklace along its chain. ‘I don’t think so, Dad. I’m not afraid of strangers – I’m just shy.’
She knew she was lying. It wasn’t just that she was shy. Any time she extended herself and attracted attention, even accidentally, her stomach hurt so badly it felt almost like the stomach flu or menstrual cramps – really bad menstrual cramps – but she’d sooner set her hair on fire than tell her father that.
‘And you’re OK with that? I know you’d never ask, but do you want help? Because I think this is holding you back . . .’ Jerry said, starting in on one of their oldest fights.
Helen cut him off at the pass. ‘I’m fine! Really. I don’t want to talk to Dr Cunningham; I don’t want drugs. I just want to go inside and eat,’ she said in a rush. She got out of the Jeep.
Her father watched her with a small smile as she plucked her heavy, old-fashioned bike off the rack on the back of the Jeep and placed it on the ground. She rang the bell on her handlebar jauntily and gave her dad a grin.
‘See, I’m just peachy,’ she said.
‘If you knew how hard what you just did would be for an average girl your age, you’d get what I’m saying. You aren’t average, Helen. You try to come off that way, but you’re not. You’re like her,’ he said, his voice drifting off.
For the thousandth time Helen cursed the mother she didn’t remember for breaking her father’s sweet
heart. How could anyone leave such a good guy without so much as a goodbye? Without so much as a photo to remember her by?
‘You win! I’m not average – I’m special, just like everyone else,’ Helen teased, anxious to cheer him up. She nudged him with her hip as she walked past, wheeling her bike into the garage. ‘Now, what is there to eat? I’m starving, and it’s your week to be kitchen slave.’
Still without her own car, Helen had to ride her bike to school the next morning. Normally at a quarter to eight, it would be cool out, even a little chilly with the wind blowing off the water, but as soon as she woke up Helen could feel the hot, humid air lying on her body like a wet fur coat. She had kicked her sheets off in the middle of the night, wriggled out of her T-shirt, drank the entire glass of water on her nightstand and still she woke up exhausted by the heat. It was very un-island weather, and Helen absolutely did not want to get up and go to school.
She pedalled slowly in an attempt to avoid spending the rest of the day smelling like phys. ed. She didn’t usually sweat much, but she’d woken up so lethargic that morning she couldn’t remember if she had put on deodorant. She flapped her elbows like chicken wings, trying to catch a whiff of herself as she rode, and was relieved to smell the fruity-powdery scent of some kind of protection. It was faint, so she must have put it on yesterday, but it only needed to hold on until track practice after school. Which would be a miracle, but oh well.
As she cruised down Surfside Road, she could feel the baby hairs around her face pulling loose in the wind and sticking to her cheeks and forehead. It was a short
ride from her house to school, but in the humidity her carefully arranged first-day-of-school hairdo was a big old mess by the time she locked her crummy bike to the rack. She only locked it out of tourist-season habit and not because anyone at school would deign to steal it. Which was good because she also had a crummy lock.
She pulled her ruined hair out of its bonds, ran her fingers through the worst of the tangles, and retied it, this time settling for a boring low ponytail. With a resigned sigh she swung her book bag over one shoulder and her gym bag over the other. She bent her head and slouched her way towards the front door.
She got there just a second before Gretchen Clifford, and was obliged to hold the door open for her. ‘Thanks, freak. Try not to rip it off the hinges, will you?’ Gretchen said archly, breezing past Helen.
Helen stood stupidly at the top of the steps, holding the door open for other students, who walked past her as if she worked there. Nantucket was a small island, and everyone knew each other painfully well, but sometimes Helen wished Gretchen knew a little bit less about her.
They’d been best friends up until fifth grade, when Helen, Gretchen and Claire were playing hide-and-seek at Gretchen’s house, and Helen accidentally knocked the bathroom door off its hinges while Gretchen was using it. Helen had tried to apologize, but the next day Gretchen started looking at her funny and calling her a freak. Ever since then it seemed as if she’d gone out of her way to make Helen’s life suck. It didn’t help matters that Gretchen now ran with the popular crowd, while Helen hid among the braniacs. She wanted to snap back at Gretchen, say something clever like Claire would, but the words caught in her throat. Instead, she flipped the doorstop down with her toe to leave the door propped open for everyone else.
Another year of fading into the background had officially begun.
Helen had Mr Hergeshimer for homeroom. He was the head of the English department, and had mad style for a guy in his fifties. He wore silk cravats in warm weather, flashy coloured cashmere scarves when it was cold and drove a vintage convertible Alfa Romeo. The guy had buckets of money and didn’t need to work, but he taught high school regardless. He said he did it because he didn’t want to be forced to deal with illiterate heathens everywhere he went. That was his story anyway.
Personally, Helen believed he taught because he absolutely loved it. Some of the other students didn’t get him and said he was a wannabe British snob, but Helen thought he was one of the best teachers she’d probably ever have.
‘Miss Hamilton,’ he said broadly as Helen stepped through the door, the bell ringing at exactly the same time, ‘punctual as usual. I’m certain you will be taking
the seat next to your cohort, but, first, a warning. Any exercise of that talent for which one of you earned the sobriquet Giggles and I shall separate you.’
‘Sure thing, Hergie,’ chirped Claire. Helen slid into the desk next to her. Hergie rolled his eyes at Claire’s mild disrespect, but he was pleased.
‘It is gratifying to know that at least one of my students knows that “sobriquet” is a synonym for “nickname”, no matter how impertinent her delivery. Now, students:
another warning. As you are preparing for your SATs this year, I shall expect you all to be ready to give me the definition of a new and exciting word every morning.’
The class groaned. Only Mr Hergeshimer could be sadistic enough to give them homework for homeroom. It was against the natural order.
‘Can impertinent be the word we learn for tomorrow?’ asked Zach Brant anxiously.
Zach was usually anxious about something, and he had been since kindergarten. Sitting next to Zach was Matt Millis, who looked over at Zach and shook his head as if to say, ‘I wouldn’t try that if I were you.’
Matt, Zach, and Claire were the Advanced Placement kids. They were all friends, but as they got older they were starting to realize only one of them could be
valedictorian and get into Harvard. Helen stayed out of the competition, especially because she had started liking Zach less and less the past few years. Ever since his father became the football coach and starting pushing Zach to be number one both on the field and in the classroom, Zach had become so competitive that Helen could barely stand to be around him any more.
A part of her felt bad for him. She would have pitied him more if he wasn’t so combative towards her. Zach had to be everything all the time – president of this club, captain of that team, the guy with all the gossip – but he never looked as if he was enjoying any of it. Claire insisted that Zach was secretly in love with Helen, but Helen didn’t believe it for a second; in fact, sometimes she felt like Zach hated her, and that bothered her. He used to share his animal crackers with her during recess in the first grade, and now he looked for any opportunity to pick a fight with her. When did everything get so complicated, and why couldn’t they all just be friends like they were in junior school?
‘Mr Brant,’ Mr Hergeshimer enunciated, ‘you may use “impertinent” as your word if you wish, but from someone of your mental faculties I shall also be expecting something more. Perhaps an essay on an example of impertinence in English literature?’ He nodded. ‘Yes, five pages on Salinger’s use of impertinence in his controversial Catcher in the Rye by Monday, please.’
Helen could practically smell the palms of Zach’s hands clam up from two seats away. Hergie’s powers for giving extra reading to smart-ass students were legendary, and he seemed determined to make an example out of Zach on the first day. Helen thanked her lucky stars Hergie hadn’t picked on her.
She’d rejoiced too soon. After Mr Hergeshimer handed out the schedules, he called Helen up to his desk. He told the other students to speak freely, and they immediately launched into excited first-day-of-school chatter. Hergie had Helen pull up a chair next to him instead of making her stand and talk across his desk. Apparently, he didn’t want any of the other students to hear what he was going to say. That put Helen a little more at ease, but not for long. ‘I see you decided not to enrol in any Advanced Placement classes this year,’ he said, looking at her over his half-moon reading glasses.
‘I didn’t think I’d be able to handle the extra workload,’ she mumbled, tucking her hands under her thighs and sitting on them to keep them still. ‘I think you’re capable of much more than you are willing to admit,’ Hergie said, frowning. ‘I know you aren’t lazy, Helen. I also know you are one of the brightest students in your class. So what’s keeping you from taking advantage of all that this educational system has to offer you?’
‘I have to work,’ she said with a helpless shrug. ‘I need to save up if I want to go to college.’
‘If you take AP classes and do well on your SATs, you will stand a better chance of getting enough money for school through a scholarship than by working for minimum wage at your father’s shop.’
‘My dad needs me. We aren’t rich like everyone else on this island, but we are there for each other,’ she said defensively.
‘That’s very admirable of you both, Helen,’ Hergie replied in a serious tone. ‘But you are reaching the endof your high-school years and it’s time to start thinking about your own future.’
‘I know,’ Helen said, nodding. She could see from the worry puckering his face that he cared, and that he was just trying to help. ‘I think I should get a pretty good
athletic scholarship for track. I got much faster over the summer. Really.’
Mr Hergeshimer stared at her earnest face begging him to let it go, and finally conceded. ‘All right. But if you feel like you need more of an academic challenge,
you are welcome to join my AP English class at any point this semester.’
‘Thank you, Mr Hergeshimer. If I feel like I can handle AP, I’ll come to you,’ Helen said, grateful to be let off the hook.
As she went back to her desk, it occurred to her that she had to keep Hergie and her father away from each other at all cost. She didn’t want them comparing notes
and deciding that she needed to be in special classes and go out for special awards. Even the thought gave her a bellyache. Why couldn’t they all just ignore her? Secretly, Helen had always felt she was different, but she thought she had done a pretty good job of hiding it her whole life. Apparently, without realizing it, she’d been sending out hints of that buried freak inside her. She had to try to keep her head down, but she wondered how she was going to do that when she kept getting taller and taller every damn day.
‘What’s up?’ Claire asked as soon as Helen returned to her seat.
‘Just another motivational moment from Hergie. He doesn’t think I’m applying myself,’ Helen said as breezily as she could.
‘You don’t apply yourself. You never do your work,’
Zach replied, more offended than he should have been.
‘Shut it, Zach,’ Claire said, crossing her arms belligerently. She turned and faced Helen. ‘It’s true, though, Lennie,’ she told her apologetically. ‘You never do your work.’
‘Yeah, yeah. You can both shut it,’ Helen said, chuckling. The bell rang and she gathered her things. Matt Millis gave her a smile but hurried away as they left
the room. Feeling guilty, Helen realized that she hadn’t spoken to him yet. She hadn’t meant to ignore him, especially not on the first day of school.
According to Claire, ‘everyone’ knew that Matt and Helen were ‘supposed’ to be together. Matt was intelligent, good looking and captain of the golf team. He was still
sort of a geek, but because Helen was practically a pariah ever since Gretchen had started spreading rumours about her it was a compliment that everyone thought she was good enough for someone like Matt.
Unfortunately, Helen never felt anything special for him. Zero tingles. The one time they had been shoved into a closet together at a party to make out, it had been disastrous. Helen felt like she was kissing her brother, and Matt felt like he was being rejected. Afterwards, he was sweet about it, but no matter how many times he cracked jokes there was a weird tension between them. She really missed him but she worried that if she told him he would take it the wrong way. It feels like everything I do lately is being taken the wrong way, Helen thought.
The rest of the morning Helen wandered on autopilot from class to class. She couldn’t concentrate on much of anything, and every time she tried to make herself focus she felt nothing but irritation.
Something about the day was off. Everyone – from her favourite teachers to the few acquaintances she should have been happy to see – was annoying her, and every
now and again while she was walking down the hall she would suddenly feel as if she was inside an aeroplane at ten thousand feet. Her inner ear would block up, all
the sounds around her would become muffled and her head would get hot. Then, as suddenly as it had come on, the discomfort would go away. But, even so, there was a pressure, a pre-thunderstorm energy all around her, even though the skies were lovely and blue.
It got worse at lunch. She tore into her sandwich thinking that her headache was the result of low blood sugar, but she was wrong. Jerry had packed her favourite – smoked turkey, green apple and brie on a baguette – but she couldn’t force herself to take more than a bite. She spat it out.
‘Your dad make another dud?’ Claire asked. When
Jerry had first partnered up with Kate he’d started experimenting with creative lunches. The Vegemite and Cucumber Disaster of Freshman Year was legendary at their table.
‘No, it’s good old number three. I just can’t eat it,’ Helen said, shoving it away. Claire gleefully picked up the remainder and started eating it.
‘Mmm, is really good,’ she mumbled around a full mouth. ‘Us a ’atter?’
‘I just don’t feel right,’ Helen said.
Claire stopped chewing and gave her a worried look.
‘I’m not sick. You can go ahead and swallow,’ Helen assured her quickly. She saw Matt approaching and chirped, ‘Hey!’ trying to make up for that morning.
He was deep in conversation with Gretchen and Zach, and didn’t respond, but still came to his habitual spot at the geek table. Both Gretchen and Zach were so engrossed in what they were saying that they didn’t notice that they had wandered into geek territory.
‘I heard they were movie stars in Europe,’ Zach was
‘Where did you hear that?’ Matt asked, incredulous.
‘I heard from at least two other people that Ariadne was a model. She’s certainly pretty enough,’ Zach argued passionately, hating to be wrong about anything, even
‘Please. She’s nowhere near thin enough to be a model,’ Gretchen hissed bitterly, before catching herself and adding, ‘Of course I think she’s pretty, if you go for that exotic, voluptuous look. But she’s nothing compared to her twin, Jason – or her cousin! Lucas is just unreal,’ she gushed.
The boys shared a knowing look, but silently agreed that they were outnumbered by girls and should probably let it go.
‘Jason is almost too pretty,’ Claire decided solemnly, after giving it a moment’s thought. ‘Lucas, however, is an über-babe. Quite possibly the most beautiful boy I’ve ever seen. And Ariadne is a stone-cold fox, Gretchen. You’re just jealous.’
Gretchen gave an exasperated huff and rested a fist on her hip. ‘Like you’re not,’ was all she had for a comeback.
‘Of course I am. I’m almost as jealous of her as I am of Lennie. But not quite.’ Helen felt Claire turn to her to see her response, but she had her elbows on the table and her head cradled in her hands, rubbing her temples.
‘Lennie?’ Matt said, sitting down next to her. ‘Does your head hurt?’ He reached out to touch her shoulder.
She stood up abruptly, muttering an excuse, and hurried away.
By the time she got to the girls’ room she felt better, but she splashed a little cold water on her face for good measure. Then she remembered that she had put mascara on that morning in an attempt to make an effort. She looked at her raccoon eyes in the mirror and burst out laughing. This was the worst first day of school ever.
Somehow she made it through the last three periods, and when the bell finally rang she gratefully made her way to the girls’ locker room to change for track practice.
Coach Tar was all fired up. She gave an embarrassingly optimistic speech about their chances of winning races
that year and told them how much she believed in them, both as athletes and as young women. Then she turned to Helen.
‘Hamilton. You’ll be running with the boys this year,’ Coach said bluntly. She told everyone to hit the trail.
Helen sat on the bench for a moment, debating her options while everyone else filed out of the door. She didn’t want to make a fuss, but she was mortified by the thought of having to cross the gender line. The muscles in her lower abdomen started to spasm.
‘Go talk to her! Don’t let her push you around,’ Claire said indignantly as she left.
Confused and afraid she was going to get a bellyache, Helen nodded and stood up.
‘Coach Tar? Can’t we just do it the way we always do?’ she called out. Coach Tar stopped and turned round to listen, but she didn’t look happy about it. ‘I mean, why can’t I just train with the rest of the girls? Because I am a girl,’ Helen finished lamely.
‘We’ve decided that you need to start pushing yourself more,’ Coach Tar responded in a cold voice. Helen had always had the feeling that Coach didn’t like her much, and now she was sure of it.
‘But I’m not a boy. It’s not fair to make me run crosscountry with them,’ Helen tried to argue. She jabbed two fingers into the spot between her belly button and her pubic bone.
‘Cramps?’ Coach Tar asked, a touch of sympathy creeping into her voice. Helen nodded and Coach continued. ‘Coach Brant and I have noticed something
interesting about your times, Helen. No matter who you’re running against, no matter how fast or slow your opponents are, you always come in either second or third. How can that be? Do you have an answer?’
‘No. I don’t know. I just run, OK? I try my best.’
‘No, you don’t,’ Coach said harshly. ‘And if you want a scholarship you’re going to have to start winning races.
I talked to Mr Hergeshimer . . .’ Helen groaned out loud, but Coach Tar continued, undeterred. ‘It’s a small school, Hamilton – get used to it. Mr Hergeshimer told me that you were hoping for an athletic scholarship, but if you want one you’re going to have to earn it. Maybe forcing you to match the boys will teach you to take your talent seriously.’
The thought of displaying her speed for the world to see had a physical effect on Helen. She was so afraid that she was going to get some kind of cramp or bellyache that she started to have a mini panic attack. She began to babble. ‘I’ll do it, I’ll win races, just please don’t single me out like that,’ she pleaded, the words tumbling out in a rush as she held her breath to hold back the pain.
Coach Tar was a hard-ass, but she wasn’t cruel.
‘Are you OK?’ she asked anxiously, rubbing Helen between her shoulder blades. ‘Put your head between your legs.’
‘I’m OK, it’s just nerves,’ Helen explained through gritted teeth. After catching her breath she continued, ‘If I swear to win more races, will you let me run with the
Coach Tar studied Helen’s desperate face and nodded, a bit shaken from witnessing such an intense panic attack. She let Helen go to the girls’ trailhead, but warned her that she still expected wins. And more than just a few.
As she ran the trail, Helen looked at the ground. An academic scholarship would be great but that would mean competing with Claire for grades, and that was out of the question.
‘Hey, Giggles,’ Helen said, easily catching up. Claire was panting and sweating away already.
‘What happened? God, it’s so hot!’ she exclaimed, her breath strained.
‘I think the entire faculty is trying to see if they can climb up on to my back at the same time.’
‘Welcome to my life,’ Claire wheezed. ‘Japanese kids grow up . . . with at least two . . . people up there . . . you get used to it.’ After a few more laboured moments of trying to keep up with Helen, Claire added, ‘Can we . . . slow down? Not all of us are from . . . planet Krypton.’
Helen adjusted her pace, knowing that she could pull ahead in the last half mile. She rarely exerted herself in practice but she knew that even without trying hard she
could easily finish first. That fact scared her, so she did what she usually did when the subject of her freaky speed came up in her head. She ignored it and chatted with
As the two girls ran down Surfside and out across the moors to Miacomet Pond, Claire couldn’t stop talking about the Delos boys. She told Helen at least three times that Lucas had held the door for her at the end of class. That act proved he was not only a gentleman, but already in love with her as well. Jason, Claire decided, was either gay or a snob because he had only glanced at her once before quickly looking away. She also took offence at how nice a dresser he was, as if he was European or something.
‘He’s been living in Spain for, like, three years, Gig.
He kinda is European. Can we please stop talking about them? It’s giving me a headache.’
‘Why are you the only person in school that isn’t interested in the Delos family? Aren’t you even curious to get a look?’
‘No! And I think it’s pathetic that this entire town is standing around gawking at them like a bunch of hicks!’ Helen shouted.
Claire stopped short and stared at her. It wasn’t like Helen to argue, let alone start yelling, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself.
‘I’m bored to death of the Delos family!’ Helen continued, even when she saw Claire’s surprise. ‘I’m sick of this town’s fixation with them, and I hope I never have to meet, see or share breathing space with any of them!’
Helen took off running, leaving Claire standing by herself on the trail. She finished first, just like she’d promised, but she did it a little too quickly; Coach Tar gave her a shocked look when she recorded the run time. Helen blew by her and stormed into the locker room. She grabbed her stuff and bolted out of school, not bothering to change or say goodbye to any of her teammates.
On the way home, Helen started crying. She pedalled past the neat rows of grey shingle-sided houses with their black or white painted storm shutters and tried to
calm down. The sky seemed to sit particularly low on the scoured land, as if it was pressing down on the gables of the old whalers and trying to finally flatten them after a few centuries of stubborn defiance. Helen had no idea why she’d got so angry, or why she’d abandoned her best friend like that. She needed a little peace and quiet.
There was a car accident on Surfside; some gigantic SUV had tried to turn on to a narrow, sandbanked side street and rolled over. The drivers were OK, but their
beached whale of a car blocked off traffic from end to end. Annoyed as she was, Helen knew she couldn’t even pedal past the boneheaded off islanders without losing her marbles. She decided to take the long way home. She turned round and headed back towards the centre of town, passing the movie theatre, the ferry and the library, which, with its Greek temple architecture, stuck out like a sore thumb in a town that otherwise was an ode to four-hundred-year-old Puritan architecture. And maybe that’s why Helen loved it. The Atheneum was a gleaming white beacon of strange smack-dab in the middle of forget-me-now drab, and somehow Helen identified with both those things. Half of her was nononsense Nantucket through and through, and the other half was marble columns and grand stairs that just didn’t belong where they had been built. Biking past, Helen looked up at the Atheneum and smiled. It was consoling for her to know that she might stick out, but at least she didn’t stick out that much.
When she got home, she tried to pull herself together, taking a freezing-cold shower before calling Claire to apologize. Claire didn’t pick up. Helen left her a long apology blaming hormones, the heat, stress, anything and everything she could think of, though she knew in her heart that none of those things was the real reason she had flipped out. She’d been so irritable all day.
The air outside was heavy and still. Helen opened all the windows in the two-storey Shaker-style house, but no breeze blew through them. What was with the weird weather? Still air was practically unheard of in Nantucket – living so close to the ocean there was always wind. Helen pulled on a thin tank top and a pair of her
shortest shorts. Since she was too modest to go anywhere dressed so scantily, she decided to cook dinner. It was still her father’s week as kitchen slave and technically
he was responsible for all the shopping, meals and dishes for a few days yet, but she needed something to do with her hands or she’d use them to climb the walls.
Pasta in general was Helen’s comfort food, and lasagne was the queen of pasta. If she made the sheets from scratch, she’d be occupied for hours, just like she wanted, so she pulled out the flour and eggs and got to work.
When Jerry came home, the second thing he noticed, after the amazing smell, was that the house was swelteringly hot. He found Helen sitting at the kitchen table, flour stuck to her sweaty face and arms, worrying the heart-shaped necklace, which her mother had given her as a baby, between her thumb and forefinger. He looked around with tense shoulders and wide eyes.
‘Made dinner,’ Helen told him in a flat voice.
‘Did I do something wrong?’ he asked tentatively.
‘Of course not. Why would you ask that when I just cooked you dinner?’
‘Because usually when a woman spends hours cooking a complicated meal and then just sits at the table with a pissed-off look on her face that means some guy somewhere did something really stupid,’ he said, still on edge. ‘I have had other women in my life besides you, you know.’
‘Are you hungry or not?’ Helen asked with a smile, trying to shake off her ugly mood.
Hunger won out. Jerry shut his mouth and went to wash his hands. Helen hadn’t eaten since breakfast and should have been starved. When she tasted the first forkful she realized she wouldn’t be able to eat. She listened as best as she could while she pushed bits of her favourite food around her plate and Jerry devoured two pieces. He asked her questions about her day while he tried to sneak a little more salt on to his food. Helen blocked his attempts like she always did, but she didn’t have the energy to give him more than monosyllabic answers.
Even though she went to bed at nine, leaving her dad watching the Red Sox on TV, she was still lying awake at midnight when she heard the game finally end and her father come upstairs. She was tired enough to sleep, but every time she started to drift off she would hear whispering. At first she thought that it had to be real, that someone
was outside playing a trick on her. She went up to the widow’s walk on the roof above her bedroom and tried to see as far as she could into the dark. Everything was still – not even a puff of air to stir the rose bushes around the house. She sat down for a spell, staring out at the fat, black slick of the ocean beyond the neighbours’ lights.
She hadn’t been up there in a while, but it still gave her a romantic thrill to think about how women in the olden days would pine away on their widow’s walks as
they searched for the masts of their husbands’ ships.
When she was really young, Helen used to pretend that her mother would be on one of those ships, coming back to her after being taken captive by pirates or Captain Ahab or something just as all-powerful. Helen had spent hours on the widow’s walk, scanning the horizon for a ship she later realized would never sail into Nantucket Harbor.
Helen shifted uncomfortably on the wooden floor and then remembered that she still had her stash up there. For years, her dad had insisted she was going to fall to her death and had forbidden her from going up to the widow’s walk alone, but no matter how many times he punished her she would eventually sneak back there to eat granola bars and daydream. After a few months of dealing with Helen’s uncharacteristic disobedience, Jerry finally caved and gave her permission, as long as she didn’t lean out over the railing. He’d even built her a waterproof chest in which to store things.
She opened the chest and dug out the sleeping bag she kept in there, spreading it out along the wooden planks of the walk. There were boats far out on the water, boats
she shouldn’t be able to hear or see from such a distance, but she could. Helen closed her eyes and allowed herself the pleasure of hearing one little skiff as its canvas sails
flapped and its teak planks creaked, way out on the gently lapping swells. Alone and unwatched, she could be herself for a moment and truly let go. When her head finally started to nod, she went down to bed to give sleep another shot.
She was standing on rocky, hilly terrain, blasted so hard by the sun that the bone-dry air wriggled and shook in streaks, as if parts of the sky were melting. The rocks were pale yellow and sharp, and here and there were angry little bushes, low to the ground and full of thorns. A single twisted tree grew out of the next slope.
Helen was alone. And then she wasn’t.
Under the stunted tree’s crippled limbs three figures appeared. They were so slender and small Helen thought at first they must be little girls, but there was something about the way the muscles in their gaunt forearms wove around their bones like rope that made Helen realize that they were also very old. All three of them had their heads bent, and their faces were completely covered by sheets of long, matted black hair. They wore tattered white slips, and they were covered in grey-white dust down to their lower legs. From the knees down, their skin grew dark with streaks of dirt and blackening blood from feet worn raw with wandering in this barren wilderness. Helen felt clear, bright fear. She backed away from them compulsively, cutting her bare feet on the rocks and scratching her legs on the thorns. The three abominations took a step towards her, and their shoulders began to shake with silent sobs. Drops of blood fell from under the skeins of rank hair and ran down the fronts of their dresses. They whispered names while they cried their gory tears.
Helen woke up to a slap. There was a prickly numbness in her cheek and the steady note of a dial tone whining in her left ear. Jerry’s face was inches away from hers, wild with worry, and starting to show signs of guilt. He had never hit her before. He had to take a few shaky breaths before he could speak. The bedside clock read 3.16.
‘Y-y-ou were screaming. I had to wake you,’ he stammered.
Helen swallowed painfully, trying to moisten her swollen tongue and closed-off throat. ‘‘S OK. Nightmare,’ she whispered as she sat up. Her cheeks were wet with either sweat or tears, she didn’t know which. Helen wiped the moisture away and
smiled at her dad, trying to calm him down. It didn’t work.
‘What the hell, Lennie? That was not normal,’ he said in a strange, high-pitched voice. ‘You were saying things. Really awful things.’
‘Like what?’ she croaked. She was so thirsty.
‘Mostly names, lists of names. And then you started repeating “blood for blood”, and “murderers”. What the hell were you dreaming?’
Helen thought about the three women, three sisters she thought, and she knew she couldn’t tell her father about them. She shrugged her shoulders and lied. She managed to convince Jerry that murder was a pretty normal thing to have nightmares about, and swore that she would never watch scary movies by herself again. Finally, shegot him to go back to bed.
The glass on her nightstand was empty and her mouth was so dry it felt tender and sore. She swung her legs out of bed to get water from the bathroom and gasped when her feet touched the hardwood floor. She switched on her lamp to get a better look, but she already knew what she was going to see.
The soles of her feet were cut deep and peppered with dirt and dust, and her shins were scratched with the hatch-mark pattern of thorns.
In the morning when Helen woke up and looked at her feet, the cuts were gone. She almost believed that she had imagined them – until she saw that her sheets were dirty with dried, brown blood and grit.
In order to test her sanity, Helen decided to leave her sheets on the bed, go to school and see if they were still dirty when she came home. If they were clean when she
got home, then the whole thing was an illusion and she was only a little crazy. If they were still dirty when she came home, then she was obviously so crazy that she was walking around at night and getting dirt and blood in her bed without remembering it.
Helen tried to eat a bowl of yogurt and berries for breakfast but that didn’t work out very well so she didn’t even bother to take her lunch box. If she got hungry, she could try buying something more tummy friendly like soup and crackers later.
Riding her bike to school, she noticed that it was unbearably hot and humid for a second day in a row. The only wind was the breeze created by her spinning wheels, and when she locked her bike up at the rack she realized that not only was the air still, but it was also lacking the usual insect and bird sounds. All was unnaturally quiet –
as though the entire island was nothing but a ship becalmed in the middle of the vast ocean. Helen arrived earlier than she had the day before, and the halls were crowded. Claire saw her come in. When her face broke into a smile, Helen knew she had been
forgiven. Claire fought the flow of traffic to double back and join her on the walk to homeroom.
As they made their way towards each other, Helen suddenly felt as if she was trying to trudge through oatmeal. She slowed to a stop. It seemed to her that everyone in the hallway vanished. In the suddenly empty school Helen heard the shuffling of bare feet and the gasping sobs of inconsolable grief.
She spun round in time to see a dusty white figure, her shoulders slumped and quivering, disappearing round a corner. Helen realized that the sobbing woman had passed behind someone – a real person staring back at her. She focused in on the figure, a delicate young girl with olive skin and a long, black braid trailing over one shoulder. Her naturally bright red lips were drawn into an O of surprise. To Helen, she looked like a china doll, so perfect she could not be entirely real.
Then the sound switched back on and the corridor was full of rushing students again. Helen was standing still, blocking traffic, staring at a glossy black braid swinging against a tiny girl’s back as it vanished into a classroom.
Helen’s whole body shook with an emotion that took her a moment to recognize. It was rage.
‘Jesusmaryandjoseph, Len! Are you gonna faint?’
Claire asked anxiously.
Helen made her eyes focus on Claire, and she took a wobbly breath. She realized that she was drenched in cold sweat and shivering. She opened her mouth but nothing came out.
‘I’m taking you to the nurse,’ Claire said. She grabbed Helen’s hand and started to tug on it, trying to get her to move. ‘Matt,’ she called out over Helen’s shoulder. ‘Can you help me with Lennie? I think she’s going to faint.’
‘I’m not going to faint,’ Helen snapped, suddenly alert and aware of how strangely she was acting. She smiled bashfully at them both to try to take the sting out of her words. Matt had put his arm round her waist and she patted his hand softly to let
him know he could release her. He gave her a doubtful look.
‘You’re really pale, and you’ve got circles under your eyes,’ he said.
‘I got a little overheated riding my bike,’ she started to explain.
‘Don’t tell me you’re fine,’ Claire warned. Her eyes were flush with frustrated tears, and Matt didn’t look much happier. Helen knew she couldn’t brush this off. Even if she was going crazy, she didn’t have to take it out on her friends.
‘No, you’re right. I think I might have heatstroke.’
Matt nodded, accepting this excuse as the only logical one. ‘Claire, you take her to the girls’ room. I’ll tell Hergie what happened so he doesn’t mark you late. And you should eat something. You didn’t eat any lunch yesterday,’ he reminded her.
Helen was a little surprised he remembered that, but Matt was good at details. He wanted to be a lawyer, and she knew that some day he would be a great one.
Claire drenched Helen in the girls’ room, dumping cold water all the way down her back when she was supposed to just wet her neck. Of course they wound up having a gigantic water fight, which seemed to calm Claire down because it was the first normal response she’d had out of Helen in a few days. Helen herself felt like she had passed an exhaustion barrier and now everything had become funny.
Hergie wrote them hall passes, so the two friends took their time getting to their first classes. Having a hall pass from Mr Hergeshimer was like getting one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets – a student could go anywhere and do anything for a full period and not one teacher would put up a stink.
In the cafeteria they got oranges for Helen’s low blood sugar, and while they were at it they split a chocolate chip muffin. Helen choked it down and miraculously started to feel better. Then they went and stood in front of the six-foot-tall fan in the auditorium to cool down, taking turns singing into the whirling blades and listening to
each other’s voices get chopped into a hundred pieces until they were both laughing their faces off. Helen felt so giddy after playing hooky on a Hergie hall pass and eating raw sugar on an empty stomach that she couldn’t even remember what class she was supposed to be going to. She and Claire were casually strolling down the wrong hallway at the wrong time when the bell signalling the end of first period rang. They looked at each other and shrugged as if to say, ‘Oh well, what can you do?’, and burst out laughing. Then Helen saw Lucas for the first time.
The sky outside finally exhaled all the wind that it had been holding for two days. Gusts of stale, hot air pushed through every open window into the sweltering school.
It caught loose sheets of paper, skirt hems, unbound hair, stray wrappers and other odds and ends, and tossed them all towards the ceiling like hats on graduation day. For a moment it seemed to Helen that everything stayed up there, frozen at the top of the arc, as weightless as space.
Lucas was standing in front of his locker about twenty feet away, staring back at Helen while the world waited for gravity to switch back on. He was tall, over six feet at least, and powerfully built, although his muscles were long and lean instead of bulky. He had short black hair and a dark end-of-summer tan that brought out his white smile and his swimming-pool blue eyes.
Meeting his eyes was an awakening. For the first time in Helen’s life she knew what pure, heart-poisoning hatred was.
She was not aware of the fact that she was running towards him, but she could hear the voices of the three sobbing sisters rise into a keening wail, could see them standing behind the tall, dark boy she knew was Lucas, and the smaller, brown-haired boy next to him. The sisters were tearing at their hair until it came out of their scalps in bloody hanks. They pointed accusing fingers at the two boys while they screeched
a series of names – the names of people murdered long ago. Helen suddenly understood what she had to do.
In the split second it took for her to close the gap between them, Helen saw the other boy lunge at her, but he was stopped by Lucas, who threw out an arm and sent
him flying back into the lockers behind them. Then her whole body stopped and strained.
‘Cassandra! Stay where you are,’ Lucas called over Helen’s shoulder, his face no more than an inch away from hers. ‘She’s very strong.’
Helen’s arms burned and the little bones in her wrists felt like they were grinding together. Lucas was holding her by the wrists to keep her hands away from his neck, she realized. They were locked in a stalemate, and if she could get her fingers half an inch closer, she could reach his throat.
And then what? a little voice in her head asked. Choke the life out of him! answered another.
Lucas’s achingly blue eyes widened in surprise. Helen was winning. One of her long nails grazed the pulsing skin covering the fat artery she itched to slit. Then, before
she could process what was happening, Lucas spun her round and clamped her to his chest, restraining her arms against her breast and standing between her legs. The
position he’d forced her into kept her off balance and unable to bring her heel down on his instep. She was immobile.
‘Who are you? What is your House?’ he breathed into her ear, giving her a rough shake to punctuate his point.
She was beyond understanding language.
Outmanoeuvred and helpless, she started to scream with rage, then stopped herself. Now that she couldn’t see his eyes she was becoming aware of the fact that half the
school’s faculty was trying to tear her off him. Everyone was staring.
Helen doubled over in agony as her abdomen seized up with cramps. Lucas immediately let her go as if she’d turned into a lit match, his body convulsing spasmodically, and she dropped to the floor.
‘Miss Hamilton! Miss . . . Helen. Helen, look at me,’ said Mr Hergeshimer. He was kneeling on the floor next to her while she panted, trying to relax her muscles. She
looked up at his sweaty face. His hair was messed up and his glasses had been knocked sideways on his face in the fight. She wondered for a moment if she had been the one to hit him, and then she burst into tears.
‘What’s wrong with me?’ she whimpered softly.
‘It’s all right now. Calm down,’ Mr Hergeshimer said sternly. ‘All of you had better get to class. Immediately!’ he roared to the throngs of kids standing around with their mouths open. Everyone scattered as Mr Hergeshimer stood up and took charge.
‘You boys,’ he pointed at Lucas and Jason, ‘are to come with me to the principal’s office. Mr Millis! Miss Aoki! You are to take Miss Hamilton to the nurse’s office and then go directly to your next classes. Understood?’
Matt immediately stepped forward and put Helen’s arm over his shoulder, helping her to stand. Claire took Helen’s hand and held it reassuringly. Helen glanced up and saw Lucas looking back over his shoulder at her as he went quietly with Mr Hergeshimer. Another wave of loathing broke over her, and fresh tears lined up in her eyes. Matt guided her while she cried, awkwardly patting her hair and getting her to walk towards the nurse’s office at the same time. Claire walked on Helen’s other side,
shaken and silent.
‘What did he do to you, Lennie?’ Matt asked hotly.
‘I’ve never seen him b-b-before in my l-l-life!’ Helen hiccuped and cried even harder.
‘Great idea, Matt! Ask her questions! Can you shut the hell up now?’ Claire snapped, trying to get hold of herself.
They walked the rest of the way without talking.
When they got to the nurse’s office, they told Mrs Crane what had happened and made sure to add that Helen had come to school with heatstroke that morning. Mrs Crane had Helen lie down with a cool towel over her eyes and went back into her office to call Jerry.
‘Your father’s on his way, dear. No, no, keep your eyes covered. Darkness will help,’ Mrs Crane said as she passed by Helen’s bed. Helen heard her rush out to the hall to speak to someone briefly, then come back in and sit behind her desk.
Helen lay under the towel, grateful that she was being left alone and in relative privacy. She couldn’t think two coherent thoughts in a row, let alone explain herself to anyone. What scared her the most was that for some reason she knew that what she had tried to do was right, or at least that it was expected of her. Deep inside, she
knew she would have killed that boy if she could have, and she didn’t even feel guilty about it. Until she saw her father.
He was a mess. Mrs Crane told him everything that had happened, explaining that Helen was suffering from a serious case of heatstroke and that it may have caused her strange outburst. He listened patiently and then asked Mrs Crane for a moment alone with his daughter, which she gave them.
Jerry didn’t say anything at first; he just sort of hovered over Helen’s bed while she sat up and fidgeted with her necklace. Finally, he sat down next to her.
‘You wouldn’t lie to me right now, would you?’ he asked softly. She shook her head. ‘Are you sick?’
‘I don’t know, Dad. I don’t feel right – but I don’t know what’s wrong,’ she told him earnestly.
‘We’ve got to take you to the doctor, you know.’
‘I figured,’ she said, nodding. They smiled at each other, and then suddenly they both turned their heads at the sound of hurried footsteps coming towards the nurse’s office.
Jerry stood up and faced the door, putting himself in front of Helen. A tall, impossibly fit man in his early forties burst into the room. Helen jumped off the bed and stood on the other side of it, glancing around instinctively for another exit. There wasn’t one. Helen had the feeling that she was going to die.
In the corner of the tiny office, one of the sobbing sisters from her nightmare appeared. She was hunkered down on her knees, her face covered by her filthy hair,
moaning names and saying ‘blood for blood’ as she hit her forehead repeatedly against the wall. Helen put her hands over her ears. She pulled her eyes away from the horror in the corner and mustered enough courage to look back at the large man. A spark of recognition passed between them. She had never seen him before, but somehow she knew that she should be very afraid of him. At first his angular face was set with determination, but it quickly morphed into shock and then confusion. His eyes zeroed in on Jerry, and a nearly comical look of disbelief derailed what might have been a terrible fight.
‘Are you . . . are you the father of the young lady that attacked my son?’ he asked in a halting voice.
Jerry nodded curtly. ‘My daughter, Helen,’ he said,
gesturing back to her. ‘I’m Jerry Hamilton.’
‘Castor Delos,’ the big man replied. ‘My wife, Noel, won’t be able to make it. And Helen’s mother?’
Jerry shook his head. ‘It’s just Lennie and me,’ he said with finality.
Castor’s eyes darted to Helen and back to Jerry and he pursed his lips as if he had set something right in his head. ‘Pardon me. I didn’t mean to bring up personal matters. Is there any way you and I might have a word alone?’
‘NO!’ Helen shouted. She lunged across the bed, grabbing her father’s arm and yanking him away from Castor.
‘What is wrong with you?’ Jerry shouted. He tried, and failed, to shake Helen off.
‘Please don’t go anywhere with him!’ she begged, tears welling up in her eyes.
Jerry made a frustrated sound, put his arms round Helen and held her reassuringly. ‘She hasn’t been well,’ he explained to Castor, who looked on with sympathy.
‘I have a daughter,’ Castor replied gently as if that explained everything.
Mrs Crane and the principal, Dr Hoover, rushed into the room as if they had been trying to catch up with Castor.
‘Mr Delos,’ the principal began in an irritated voice, but Castor talked over him.
‘I hope your daughter feels better soon, Jerry. I’ve had heatstroke myself, and I was told I did all kinds of strange things. It can make you hallucinate, you know,’ he said to no one in particular.
Helen saw him glance quickly at her and then into the corner where the sobbing sister was still rocking back and forth. Did he see her too, she wondered, and if he did, how the heck could two people share a hallucination?
‘Well . . . OK. There’s no animosity, then?’ Dr Hoover said uncertainly, looking from Castor to Jerry.
‘Not on my part, nor on my son’s, I’m sure. I’m more concerned about you, young lady,’ Castor said, turning politely to Helen. ‘Luke told me he had to be, well, a bit
rough. Did he hurt you?’ Castor enquired. On the surface, it seemed like he had extraordinarily good manners, but Helen didn’t buy it. He was just trying to gauge how strong she was.
‘I’m fine,’ she replied tartly. ‘Not a scratch.’
His eyes widened ever so slightly. She didn’t know why she was baiting a full-grown man, a very big man in the prime of his life at that, but she simply couldn’t help herself. Usually, she hated arguments so much she couldn’t even bear to watch those trashy daytime talk shows where everyone screamed at each other, and here she was for the second time in half an hour looking to mix it up with someone much bigger and stronger than she was. Thankfully, she wasn’t as desperate to kill Castor the
way she had been with his son. No one had ever enraged Helen the way that Lucas had, but she still wanted to put a few dents in Castor’s fender. That urge confused her
‘I’m glad you’re all right,’ Castor said with a smile, diffusing the situation. He turned to the principal and made it clear that he and his family did not want Helen punished. As far as he was concerned, Helen had been ill, and the whole incident should be forgotten. He left as abruptly as he had entered.
As soon as Castor’s footsteps faded away, the sobbing sister vanished and the whispering stopped. Helen no longer felt angry. She slumped down on to the bed like a balloon with a fast leak.
‘You’d best take her home now, Jerry,’ Mrs Crane said with a no-nonsense voice and a comforting smile. ‘Lots of fluids, no direct light and get her to take a cool bath to bring her core temperature down. All right?’
‘Sure, Mrs Crane. Thanks a lot,’ Jerry replied, reverting back to the teenaged boy he had been the last time he was in Mrs Crane’s office.
Helen kept her head down on their way out to the parking lot, but she could feel the other students staring at her as she passed. As she jumped up into the passenger seat of the Pig she saw the door by the principal’s office open and the two Delos boys leaving with Castor. Lucas’s eyes went straight to hers and held them. Castor pulled up and put his hand on the back of his son’s neck, talking to him. Finally, Lucas broke his stare contest with Helen and looked at his father briefly before nodding and looking at the ground.
It started to rain. One, then two, then three big, fat drops of summer rain splashed down, and suddenly the air was full of water. Helen slammed her door shut and glanced over at her father, who was also looking back at the Delos family.
‘Which one did you jump?’ Jerry asked, fighting a grin.
‘The bigger one,’ Helen answered, a half smile of her own creeping up her face.
Jerry looked at Helen, whistled once, and started the engine. ‘You’re lucky he didn’t seriously hurt you,’ he said, not joking around any more.
Helen nodded meekly, but she was thinking that Lucas was the lucky one. The strangeness of her own thoughts scared her silent for the rest of the drive home.
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