An excerpt from
Deep breath, big smile, and remember: it’s all about swag.
Laura laughed at her reflection in the little compact she kept in her bag for touch-ups and pep talks. The word “swag” sounded so ridiculous. That’s what made it the perfect mantra for day one of her senior year of high school—the very first time she would be “the new girl.”
Laura had been dreaming about her entrance into Englewood High since it was decided that’s where she would spend this year—three thousand miles away from her previous home. The move was a big change, but she welcomed the clean slate. It was time to focus her energy on everything but the demons of the typical high school girl—the kind she’d been her whole life: a wallflower and a pleaser. She was over the precarious balance between wearing something trendy but not so “out there” that people might talk. She was tired of being meek because battling the Queen Bees seemed too scary. And the days of hiding her natural smarts were over. Laura felt like high school was a tricky series of hoops she had to jump through before she could finally live on her own. So if high school isn’t for me, she’d decided, why let all its silly rules run my life?
That was Laura’s final thought as she stepped out of her vintage, black BMW convertible and glanced around at the other cars in the student parking lot. She’d debated the car purchase as soon as she arrived on the East coast. Convertibles are so obnoxiously California, she’d thought, but then she reminded herself that worrying about what everyone else thought was exactly the spiral she was trying to avoid. Besides, she worshipped that car and had saved every penny she could for almost two years to buy it. So what if people assumed it was a gift from her parents? She’d inform them that she bought it with a combo of waitressing tips from Joe’s Café right on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, and money saved from fit modeling for the Rosefox denim line in downtown LA. No one would expect that. From what Laura knew of Englewood, most of the other BMWs in the lot would be brand-new sweet-sixteen gifts.
And yet the very first thing that caught her eye when Laura drove into the senior parking lot was another old car with its convertible top down. This one was cherry red and looked like it drove right out of a 90s music video, but it was in almost perfect condition. Apparently at least one other person in this town had to buy their own ride, Laura thought as she gave her reflection in the car window one final check.
For the first time in forever, she had decided to wear her long, blond hair down and parted on the far-left side so a waterfall of curls danced over her right eye, the slightly bluer one—the one that usually made her self-conscious. Today she let the curls do their thing instead of making sure every piece of frizz was locked down with an army of gooey hair products. She wore simple makeup paired with a shocking pink lipstick she’d seen on the girls strolling the pier all summer long. It was wild, but it made her feel powerful. Her first day outfit was a vintage, floral shirt belted over a flirty, white sundress to make sure her tan legs showed, because why not milk the Cali-girl vibe? On her feet were cork-soled wedges in a neon-colored, striped print from 1989—one of her favorite vintage finds besides the car, of course. She was pretty sure she wouldn’t look like anyone at this posh, brick-and-ivy-covered, suburban New Jersey school, and she loved that fact. She was ready to start out on a totally new foot.
But just as Laura’s first-day confidence finally locked in, it vanished.
Across the parking lot, she caught the glance of two girls getting out of a shiny, white Corvette. Laura smiled in their direction, but something was off about the way they both looked back at her. Their faces were frozen in a strange, almost confused look that made her instantly uncomfortable. It was more than just the usual new-kid-in-school stares.
It wasn’t until the shorter, curly-haired girl glanced back and quickly turned away again that Laura saw the real feeling behind her eyes: she was scared.
* * *
“Rivers? Do we have a Laura Rivers? Hello, hello? Miss Rivers?”
Laura slipped into first period AP English just as the bell rang. Ms. O’Malley stood at the front of the room, just as skinny and evil-looking as all the online reviews claimed. She barely looked up from her attendance sheet as she barked. If she had, she would have seen twenty-four sets of eyes staring directly at Laura, and she would have also noticed that something was off.
As with those girls in the parking lot, there was something about these stares that gave Laura instant goose bumps. It was like everyone who saw her had the exact same thought. The only way she could think to describe the looks on their faces was spooked.
“Yes. Hi!” Laura said, trying her best to push through the awkward moment.
“Try to get here before the bell rings tomorrow,” Ms. O’Malley said. “I have you all seated alphabetically, so go take a seat behind…hmm, let me see…”
Laura scanned the room for empty desks. There were two open seats where students with last names beginning with R might fall. One was directly behind a way-too-friendly looking cheerleader type. She gave Laura a fairly convincing fake smile, but Laura took it with a grain of salt. Girls like that were skilled at the art of playing instant besties.
Then Laura’s eyes hit the person sitting behind the only other open chair, and instantly locked. It was as if there was a magnetic field around him; if you stayed far enough away it wouldn’t suck you in, but once you looked, you were done.
“Charlie Sanders,” Ms. O’Malley finally bellowed. “Charlie, raise your hand for the new girl to see.”
That wasn’t necessary—Laura had already found him. In the time it took him to lift his hand, she’d already stared through his dark-brown eyes, his knife’s-edge cheek bones, his messy-but-not-on-purpose chestnut hair, and his wide, toothy smile. She had to clench every muscle in her body to stop herself from giggling as he smiled politely in her direction.
But in the time it took for Charlie’s hand to fall back at his side, that smile was gone. Laura saw the switch go off in his head and the confusion land on his face. It was the same creeped-out reaction she’d prompted so far that morning. Charlie’s version of the gaze was by far the most intense, but it was also shortest. He almost instantly reverted back to a wide, comfortable smile. Either he has better manners than the rest of my classmates, Laura thought, or he’s the best actor.
“I’m Charlie,” he said as she took her seat.
“So I’ve heard,” she teased. “I’m Laura…the new girl.”
“So I’ve heard,” Charlie shot back. “Welcome to Englewood. It isn’t all that bad. Where’d you move from?”
“Oh. In that case, this place sucks,” Charlie said.
“Way to welcome the newbie…” Laura joked, and Charlie smiled back. Then Ms. O’Malley demanded all eyes on the front of the room and started rambling about the fact that Shakespeare was probably a woman.
Laura breathed a sigh of relief. For the next forty or so minutes she didn’t have to worry about what Charlie was thinking of her, or try to hide what she was thinking about him. It wasn’t until Charlie tapped her on the shoulder to pass him a copy of the homework assignment circulating around the room that Laura’s heart started pounding again. She caught him off guard when she turned around, and he had that same instant reaction to her face. For the first time, Laura put her finger on what was so strange about it.
He was looking at her like he knew her.