Riverdale meets Inception in Ginger Scott’s twisty new coming-of-age romance, releasing next week, and I have a sneak peek for you.
The locker shuts with a soft click. I fall back on my ass and gasp out a breathy laugh. My palms slide back and I tilt my chin to the ceiling. My eyes close, testing how a relieved smile feels for just a beat. That’s all I get, too, because the shift in position makes it impossible not to hear whoever is sobbing in the girls’ bathroom just to my left.
My head rolls to the side and I reach with one palm to push back my hood and tug my beanie from my head so I can hear better. It’s a pretty steady stream of sniffles. I’ve gotta get out of here before whoever is crying in there makes it to this hallway.
Why am I not moving?
I don’t think I’ve blinked once since my eyes landed on the checkered tile floor that disappears around the corner into the girls’ bathroom. There’s something achingly beautiful in the sound of this girl’s cries, which I know . . . that’s a shitty thing to think. I can’t explain it any other way, though. It’s familiar, and my lips part just enough to push out a scratchy cry of my own to see if the tone matches hers.
“Shit.” The word comes out louder than my failed attempt to cry. I sit forward and fold my arms on my knees and rub the puffy feeling away from my eyes. I should be halfway home by now, but instead I’m sitting on the concrete floor in a hallway of a place I hate. I think maybe this girl, whoever she is, hates it here, too.
Palms flat on the floor, I pull my legs in and lift myself to stand, taking quiet steps closer to the ladies room. I feel like a pervert.
“Hey,” I say at my normal volume. Her sniffles pause.
I reach the door that’s propped open with a wedge and rap my knuckles against it to announce my presence.
“You can clean in here. I’m done,” she says, clearing her throat to mask the tears she probably just wiped away. She obviously thinks I’m the janitor.
It’s a terrible idea, but I step over that small threshold where the hallway concrete floor transitions into tiny octagon tiles and wrap my hand around the wall blocking my view. I could still leave. In fact, that’s probably what she wants. Yet . . .
“No, I’m not . . . here to clean?” I shrug, hidden behind the wall. I pull my hand down and flatten it over my face. I’m making this worse. I step into her view and peel my fingers from my eyes. “Just making sure you were all right.”
I’ve seen her before. Maybe. I think she might be a tutor or something, probably in one of the classes I rarely go to. She hugs her backpack to her chest, and her cheeks are wet. The white parts of her eyes are bloodshot, and she’s squeezing herself and her massive bag so hard that I think she’s trying to somehow tuck herself inside and disappear. I should have ignored her. I have no idea what I’m doing in here.
“I’m sorry. I’ll go—” I stuff my hands deep into my pockets and turn.
“No!” She barks out a panicked sound that stops me. I turn and lean my back flat against the wall, barely in her view. My feet are so close to leaving the tile. I have to get to Gia’s school soon. She hates it when she’s the last one checked out of after-care. I don’t really know this girl; I could keep walking. But I don’t.
“Sorry,” she says. My eyes bounce to hers, and for whatever reason, my mouth curls upward. She lets out a nervous giggle, and the hold she has on everything visibly eases until her bag slips to the floor. She shakes her head lightly and rubs at her temples. “I’m usually so together. I just get so sick and tired of it all sometimes. You know?”
I consider her question for a second or two before smirking.
“The sick and tired part? Yeah. But I’m never together, so you’ve got me on that one.” The skin between her brows dents right before a short laugh bursts through her lips.
It feels really good to make someone laugh. No. It feels really good to make this girl laugh. The red tones in her eyes have cleared. I notice it because she’s smiling toward the floor but her head isn’t looking so far down that I can’t see her eyes. I need to get out of here. I can’t get out of here. I feel oddly stuck, but even so, I don’t really mind.
I chuckle nervously and resume my steps back toward her to formally introduce myself. I need to know this girl. I operate in the shadows and she clearly lives above ground where people work hard and have goals and shit. This girl—she’s the kind whose name I should know. I wipe away the sweat forming on my palm—another really strange occurrence—and am about to offer it to her along with another witty, self-deprecating line—I liked the way she laughed at the first one—when a swift tug on my hoodie forces my collar hard against my throat. I stumble back, but before I fall on my ass, someone stops me with what feels like a forearm bluntly shoved at the center of my back.
“You already have one detention, young lady. You trying to get yourself suspended by hanging out in the bathroom with this guy?” I recognize the familiar snark and indignation in Principal Lee’s voice. I also smell the stale cigar smoke from the nearness of his breath. That shit kills people. Though I probably shouldn’t say that to him right now.
My mystery girl’s eyes are welling up again. And damn it, her lip is quivering. The firm slap of paper hits my chest from the hand over my shoulder. I clutch it in my palm and crumple it, stuffing it in my pocket along with the cash I’m really glad Principal Lee didn’t find.
“Saturday detention. I think maybe this is your first offense for being in a ladies room.” Principal Lee laughs at his own joke, and my mystery girl’s mouth turns down. I liked it better when I was the guy who made her laugh, not the one who repulsed her. I already passed on the cigar smoke remark; I can’t let two smart-ass opportunities slip by—it would be so unlike me.
“Third, sir.” Mystery girl’s frown halts. I hold her stare, and curl up the right side of my lips. Her eyes widen, and I know she wants to stop me. I like that she wants to save me from making this worse, and that means this little moment we shared significant enough that she’s willing to.
“What was that?” His cigar breath swirls at my neck. I wink at her warm amber eyes.
“This is actually my third offense. For the bathroom thing, I mean.” His hand jerks my sweatshirt to the side and he steps up so we’re nearly nose to nose. “You just didn’t catch me the first two times.”
I’m no longer looking at her so I can’t tell for sure, but I think she just laughed. I heard her breath, and I imagined the slight shake in her chest and shoulders. I bet she’s covering her mouth. I might not impress her, but damn, can I make her tears stop.
“Well, then,” Principal Lee begins. His pissed-off icy stare holds mine while he writes on his little pad in the tight space between us. The scribbles are short and sweet, as is the ripping sound that follows once . . . twice. His palm flattens to my chest again with two more slips of paper. “Let’s correct that, shall we? I pretty much own your Saturdays in October.”
He snaps his fingers, hoping to making me flinch, I’m sure. It takes a lot more than that to startle me. I’ve become immune to a lot of things. He jerks his thumb to the right, ushering me out. Before I leave, I glance to the cute girl I now get to see on Saturday, and her eyes flit up to show me the smile she’s hiding behind her fist. I give her one for real and do my damnedest not to look toward my locker as I get thrown off campus by a man in khakis and black leather Clarks. He thinks he’s showing me a lesson, but really, he just saved me from three brutal Saturdays at home alone with my stepfather. Suddenly, my pocket doesn’t feel so light.