My fingers tightened around my backpack. “Um, yeah. Ara-Rose.”

She drew a breath through her teeth. “Yikes. Do you go by Ara? The whole Rose thing’ll get dropped around here anyway, you know, ‘cause it kinda sounds a little… antique.”

I smiled pleasantly, remembering that being normal meant fitting in; slapping a girl you just met led to detention. “I guess just Ara’s fine,” I said, but scowled at the girl when she wasn't looking, thinking I should start shortening her name. In fact, that’s what I’d do. Well, maybe later, assuming we ever talked again after this one time.

“So, what brings you to our school?” the girl asked.

She looked at me, then, seeing I was joking, actually laughed. And I suddenly liked her so much more. “Seriously. Did you just move here or were you, like, expelled from another school?”

I wondered if I looked like the sort of kid who’d get expelled. “Sea change.” I shrugged.

My brow crinkled. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, I mean, most of the new kids come here because their moms decided to be a painter or marry a man they met on the Net. Eccentric moms.”

“Oh.” I tried to laugh. “No. Just a sea change.”

“Well, our gain,” she said, linking arms with me as if we were friends.

I laughed awkwardly, using the excuse of adjusting my backpack to break away from her. And she talked non-stop after that—her high voice too fast for my ears, while I let my mind wander in the ugliness of the décor. Brown seemed to be the preferred colour at this school and, in my yellow dress, I blended in too easily with the linoleum floors. But it was better than black, I suppose, which had been the only colour I really took notice of anymore. Not that I wore black, but everything just felt black.

“Hey!” Emily called from a few steps ahead. “Are you coming?”

I snapped out of my state, realising my feet had stopped moving. “Oh, yeah, sorry.”

I walked quickly past her curious stare. “I, uh. I kind of faze out sometimes.”

“Why? Do you have, like, a brain condition or something?”

I laughed for real this time. “No, just an over-active imagination.”

“Hm. Well, you should fit in just fine here, then.”

She stopped walking. “Were you being sarcastic?”

“Because, you know, we started back last week. If you wanted to be a wallflower, you should have started with all the other new kids.”

“I was…” I looped my thumb around my backpack strap. “I wasn’t quite ready.”

Attention, I didn't really have a problem with. It was questions I wanted to avoid or, well, answers.

“Come on.” She linked her arm through mine again. “Let’s just find out where your first class is.”

The corridor had gone quiet—all the students closing the plain brown doors on the noise in each classroom, leaving only the occasional squeak of Emily’s sneaker on the linoleum. Ahead of us, pale light filtered in through the glass doors leading to a parking lot, making the floor gleam in an eerie way, like something out of a post-apocalyptic horror film.

“Okay,” Emily said, stopping abruptly by a door on the right, her ponytail swinging behind her again. “This is the school office and your first stop on today’s tour.”

“Awesome.” I nodded, fake-smiling again. “Can you just show me to the last stop?”

She laughed and pushed the door open. “Sure. As soon as the last bell rings.”

Inside the quiet, muggy room, a lady behind the desk, talking softly on a phone tucked into her chin, looked up and smiled, issuing a straight finger at us while she wrote something down. “Okay, Mrs Rossi, I’ll let them know. You just tell him to get some rest and we’ll see him back here next week. Okay, bye.” She hung up, stashed the note elsewhere, then looked at me; I shrunk, contemplating a quick dive to hide under the desk. “What can I do for you, Miss Pierce?”

“New kid.” Emily leaned her forearms on the counter. “Need her schedule.”

“Name?” She put her glasses on and fingered through a pile of manila folders.

“Right.” The lady woke up then and, in a jittery fashion, fumbled about her papers. “I’ll just find your file here among all this mess, and—” her voice trailed off. “Haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Been so busy with all this stuff here. Ah, here we go.” She put her glasses on. “Yes, this is you.”

I stared at the folder, wondering when I had become an A-Four piece of stationery.

“Well, um, here’s your class schedule—” She handed me a piece of paper. “And you can just go ahead and take one of those there maps ya see.”

Emily handed me a pamphlet from the desktop. I ran my fingers over it, biting my lip to hide a hint of a grin. This little piece of paper was my new best friend.

“Now, Emily, can you show Amara-Rose to her first class?”

“Happy to.” Emily grabbed my hand and dragged me from the room, but even as the door closed, the eyes of Reception Lady lingered along my nerves. “I bet you have English first period.” She snatched my schedule, then grinned widely. “You do. I hate you.”

“Nice to meet you, too.” I took the paper back and frowned at it.

“It’s just....” She started walking; I followed. “You have David Knight in your class.”

I scratched my head, choosing to ignore her complete lack of composure. “School heartthrob?”

“You guessed it. I mean, he’s a bit of a jerk, really—to most girls, but he’s just so damn cute no one cares.”

My lip curled. I bit it. This girl had issues. “I don’t like jerks, really.”

“Mm-mm.” She shook her head. “He won’t be a jerk to you. You haven't done anything to annoy him yet.”

“Yeah, and he totally goes for that lost lamb thing you’ve got going.” She motioned to me—all of me.

“Um, yeah, well, my biggest concern for senior year is not what some jerk-face cute guy thinks of me.”

“That’s because you haven’t seen him yet.”

I rolled my eyes. As if I’d ever be that pathetic.

“Yep.” She considered me again for a second. “He is just going to snatch you up.”

“Should I be worried?” I wasn't partial to being snatched.

“No way. They’d deny it, but any girl in the school would give their right arm to be snatched by David.”

Or maybe just you would.

“Okay.” She stopped again. I wanted to keep walking—right past the glass doors, out to the front parking lot and into the closet under the stairs back at Dad’s house. “Here’s Room One; you’re late, but people will only whisper about you for the first ten or so minutes.”

“That’s the spirit.” She curled a fist in front of the door and said, “Take a deep breath.”

I tried, but the deep gasp of air just formed another lump in my throat, making me dizzy as I held it in.

“Okay, you can let it out.” She laughed. “You ready?”

My head moved; I think I nodded. Then, Emily rapped lightly on the door, sending my nerves into a frenzy. Don’t get me wrong, I could handle nerves, and butterflies in my stomach were just yesterday’s breakfast, but these felt more like bats. Big black, hairy bats.

The door clinked and popped open a little, revealing a shiny head with a light tuft of hair around the ears. “Emily? What can I do for you?”

“Ah, yes. Of course.” He turned to look at my face; his eyes warm, his grey-brown moustache curving atop his grin. “Ara, is it, not Amara-Rose?”

I shook my head—maybe I should’ve nodded. Who knows?

“Well, Ara, I hope you’re a much quieter student than this lot.” He jerked his thumb to the noisy class; I tried to look past him to get a handle on the room, so as not to trip on anyone when I walked in, but he was in the way.

“I don’t think you need to worry about that, Mr Benson. She’s hardly said two words.”

The teacher looked back at me, straightening up a little, making my heart race as if I’d just run a block, which seemed like a viable option, just...in the other direction. “Are you nervous, Ara?”

I nodded slowly. “I’ve never been to a new school before.”

“Well, I tell you what…” He touched his chin, then turned and signalled into the class. “I think I have a solution.”

“Yes, Mr B.” A boy stepped up before I expected him to, and a short gasp escaped my lips, making my heart skip a beat that it would never recover. I wanted to grab Emily, who stifled a giggle beside me, and shake her for being right about a boy so cute you’d picture yourself in his arms without even knowing his name. I really hoped this wasn't Mr B’s idea of a ‘solution’ to my anxiety.

As the boy settled into his lean on the doorframe, his casually-dishevelled dark-brown hair fell into his eyes; he swept it back, and any hope of composure withered away with the hold of that smile; how his dark-pink lips sat closed and turned up sharply in the corners, his gaze fixing mine in place. He seemed completely unfazed by my totally obvious ogling. I even felt myself rise onto my toes; my inner fantasies wandering off to a world where I shoved Mr Benson aside and stepped up to charm the hell out of this boy with my sassy disposition. But the true, witless me stood, mouth gaping, begging my skin not to drop my bones all over the floor.

“Ara? This is David,” Mr Benson said, eyeing the proverbial drool on my lip.

Time came rushing back like a smack across the face; I snapped my gob shut and wiped my chin, glad there wasn’t actually drool there. I already knew that boy was David; my reaction completely mirrored the stupidity I despised in Emily two minutes ago.

David’s smile changed then, became wider, drawing me in to his world, almost inviting me to be his friend. But the dimples beside his lips made promises I knew they’d never keep. “Hello, Ara.” He nodded, almost like a bow.

Breathe, Amara-Rose, just breathe. I lifted my hand a little to wave. No words came out, though. Pathetic.

“Ara, David is my best student,” Mr Benson said, then looked at the boy. “David?”

“Yes, sir?” The boy stole his gaze away, his head turning before his eyes left mine, and shoved his hands into his pockets, his shoulders lifting as if he was some kind of shy guy. No freakin’ way.

“Ara’s a little worried about coming to a new class,” Mr Benson said. “Would you take her to the library and fill her in on last week’s lessons, please?”

A sudden wash of relief brought my body back to life. I wanted to hug Mr Benson for being so considerate.

“Of course.” David smiled at me again, the sound of his voice running through me, like milk for my soul—liquid with maturity, yet simultaneously weightless.

“Excellent.” Mr Benson went to walk away but stopped. “And keep your charms to yourself, young man.”

“I’ll do my best, sir,” he said, looking right at me with those smiling green eyes.

And my cheeks exploded with heat, sending it to my ears. I looked down at my feet, biting my spreading grin.

“Okay. Well, Ara, you take care, and I’ll see you in class tomorrow.” Mr Benson patted my shoulder.

“Thank you,” I said, looking him directly in the eye this time.

“You are more than welcome.” He turned to face the boy. “David, you can get your stuff.”

For a split second, as David and Mr Benson walked away, I braved a glance into the room of dread—seeing only a desk and a whiteboard. Looked normal enough. I’d imagined fiery pits and wailing souls. Guess I was wrong.

Emily squeaked, bouncing on her toes. I actually wanted to squeal, too. She was so right. He was so hot!

“Oh my God. You’re so lucky.” She waved two handfuls of spirit-fingers.

“Lucky? I have to spend forty minutes alone with that guy.” I pointed into the class.

“Trust me, Ara. You’re going to love David.”

That’s what I was worried about. “He’s not that cute,” I said, but the lie showed in my tone, shouting to the world that I was as pathetic as Emily.

She rolled her head to one side. “It’s okay to like him, you know. We’re only human.”

I swallowed my pride and said, “Does he have a girlfriend?”

“Sure thing, Mr Benson.” David’s smooth voice filled the hallway a second before he stepped out of the classroom, carrying his bag and a stack of books.

“Everything all right, Emily?” he asked.

He looked at me then and studied my face with slightly narrowed eyes—as if maybe he was trying to figure me out. I wished him luck. “You ready, new girl?”

I managed to nod. Somehow, staying with Mr Benson seemed more appealing. I was going to make a fool of myself in front of this boy, I just knew it.