Project Paper Doll, Book 1
1. Never trust anyone.
2. Remember they are always searching.
3. Don’t get involved.
4. Keep your head down.
5. Don’t fall in love.
Five simple rules. Ariane Tucker has followed them since the night she escaped from the genetics lab where she was created, the result of combining human and extraterrestrial DNA. Ariane’s survival—and that of her adoptive father—depends on her ability to blend in among the full-blooded humans, to hide in plain sight from those who seek to recover their lost (and expensive) “project.”
But when a cruel prank at school goes awry, it puts her in the path of Zane Bradshaw, the police chief’s son and someone who sees too much. Someone who really sees her. After years of trying to be invisible, Ariane finds the attention frightening—and utterly intoxicating. Suddenly, nothing is simple anymore, especially not the rules.
I have had a dead girl’s name. Technically, I suppose I have a dead girl’s life. Either way, I’ve had them both now longer than she did, so I guess they’re mine.
The original—or maybe the real—Ariane Tucker lay dying in a hospital bed five hundred miles away even as I first tasted fresh air, saw the sky, or experienced the world outside the small white room where I’d lived for as long as I could remember.
I try not to think about that because, as horrible as it may sound, I’m grateful to Ariane for her death. I owe her my freedom.
If she’d been a happy, healthy child, I don’t think her father—now my father—would have done what he did. Plucked me out of the darkness and saved me when the walls were shaking and the air was full of smoke.
But that Ariane Tucker was fully human.
So there are Rules that come along with my being Ariane. They’re simple but essential for my safety and my father’s:
1. Never trust anyone.
2. Remember they are always searching.
3. Don’t get involved.
4. Keep your head down.
5. Don’t fall in love.
I followed these Rules faithfully for ten years, once I was old enough to understand what they meant. The trouble with rules, though, is that you’ll always be tempted to break one—for the right reasons, due to unavoidable circumstances, because it feels as if there’s no other choice. And once you break one, the rest seem like so much broken glass. The damage is already done.
Establishing a routine is essential for hiding in plain sight. Full-blooded humans are very habitual, as it turns out. They eat the same thing for breakfast for weeks on end, park in the same spaces, and buy the same brand of toothpaste. The best way to blend in was to follow suit. To create my own patterns and follow them without exception. Of course, in my case it was an artificial construction, not the result of naturally occurring preferences or, let’s face it, a severe lack of imagination.
But they didn’t know that.
So, Tuesday morning, first day of my junior year: Tuesday equals cornflakes. Morning, particularly on the first day of school, equals conversation with my father.
In the beginning, these father/pseudo-daughter talks were in preparation for my life outside: to discuss the challenges I would face throughout the day, the exercises I needed to practice, and the plans my father had made to further my assimilation. He worked nights, so morning was the only time available and, conveniently, the only part of the day where I hadn’t screwed up yet.
These days, though, our morning conversations were more often just catch-up, with a little, “Hey, remember you’re not like everybody else.” Like I needed that reminder.
But today was different, and it shouldn’t have been. It didn’t start out that way.
The kitchen TV, positioned on the counter by the sink for optimal viewing, was tuned in to Fox News. The shrill voices of the morning-show hosts debating the latest conspiracy polluted the air with noise, fear, and chaos. As usual.
“Really?” I asked my father, who was already sitting at the table with his bowl of cornflakes.
He grunted noncommittally, his gaze glued to the crawl on the bottom of the screen. He’d been obsessed with the news lately, particularly anything to do with a senate hearing committee investigating the misappropriation of funds within the Department of Defense. Once a military man, always a military man, I guess.
I took my seat next to him with a sigh. It wasn’t that the TV people—who must have received vocal training to hit that perfect blend of righteous outrage and near panic—were wrong, exactly. Their government was keeping secrets. I was living proof of that. They were just worried about all the wrong things. All the time. It was frustrating to watch, honestly.
“You know,” I said, “studies have shown that watching this stuff makes you ten percent more paranoid and seventy-eight percent more likely to buy an old missile silo and convert it into a personal bunker for postapocalyptic living.”
That caught my father’s attention. He gave me a sour look, telling me exactly what he thought of my made-up statistics. “It wouldn’t kill you to be more politically aware,” he said, pointing his spoon at me.
I reached for the cornflakes. “A lot of things won’t kill me,” I said. In fact, that list was much longer for me than for a full-blooded human. “But that’s not much of a recommendation, is it?” I poured cereal into my bowl and held up one of the flakes. ” “˜Taste this. You’ll survive it!’ Coming soon to cereal boxes and commercials everywhere.”
He rolled his eyes. “Funny.”
I grinned. “I can be. Occasionally.”
“Less often than you think, kiddo.” But he was smiling with a fondness that still took me by surprise. “So,” he said, hitting the mute button on the remote, “first day of school again. Do you have everything you need to—”
His cell phone trilled, a soft but intrusive sound that startled both of us. He didn’t often get work calls at home.
He plucked the phone off his belt and squinted at the screen, holding it out at arm’s length so he could read it. He’d forgotten his reading glasses again.
I kept eating, waiting for him to declare it a wrong number or to roll his eyes and mutter something about Kagan being an idiot. I had no idea who Kagan was, but apparently, according to my father, he achieved Olympic standards of idiocy on a regular basis.
Instead, I watched as the color drained from my father’s face.
Fear turned my mouth to sand, the bits of cornflake now unswallowable little rocks. “What’s wrong?”
My father shoved back from the table, the phone in his hand. “Stay here,” he ordered, and headed toward his den. A moment later I heard the door snap shut.
I put down my spoon with a shaky hand. Other children had nightmares about clowns, monsters, and—in my friend Jenna’s case—the Hamburger Helper hand from the commercials. I often dreamed about big black vans pulling soundlessly into our driveway and faceless men snatching me from my bed before I could scream.
I got up and spat my cereal into the sink and rinsed my mouth out with water. My head was spinning with horrible scenarios, each worse than the last, a veritable catalog of everything that could be wrong.
I could have tried to listen in on the conversation—not my father’s words, but his thoughts. But that ability—like much of me—didn’t function nearly as efficiently as intended. And on top of that, my father was not easy to read. I could get virtually nothing from him unless he wanted me to, thanks to the intensive mental training he’d undergone during his years of service.
Still, there was one thing I knew for sure: if they were coming, it was already too late for me. I’d have time only to hide, not escape, and that would do no good.
In theory, I should have had nothing to fear. A dozen soldiers or “retrieval specialists” were supposed to be a minor obstacle for someone like me. But I wasn’t quite up to spec in that regard. At least not anymore.
My heart fluttered unevenly in my chest, reminding me that, no matter how much I sometimes hated it, I was part human. Weak.
I sat back down and picked up my spoon, examining my upside-down reflection in the bowl of it. Had someone recognized me?
I look human enough to “pass,” of course. All part of the design. Don’t want people freaking out about an alien spy/assassin; that might lower the odds of my being able to walk up to someone and pick their brain for information, or, you know, kill them.
But passing wasn’t quite the same as blending in. That, I had to work at.
I reviewed the alterations to my appearance in the distorted view, reassuring myself that my camouflage was still intact.
Lowlights in my too-light hair brought it closer to the human range of color. But the texture was still off—heavy and soft, but it caught on fingertips like the raw silk shirt Jenna had appropriated from her mom’s closet last year—and it grew out with strange bends and kinks in it, which I hated. So I kept it pulled up in a ponytail or in a messy knot that hopefully looked deliberately, artistically disarrayed instead of barely controlled.
Colored lenses made my eyes a murky but human blue, disguising the unnatural darkness of my irises—they were virtually indistinguishable from my pupils.
My skin was slightly too pale, verging on a silvery gray in some lights, but there was nothing I could do about that. It wasn’t enough to be noticeable, really, unless I stood next to someone who’d fake-baked to a Cheeto orange…or if you knew what you were looking for.
And there were people who did. Far too many of them.
Was that what the phone call was about? I swallowed, my throat suddenly painfully dry.
My only saving grace so far was that their attention had been focused on locations far from their own backyard. I lived less than ten miles from GenTex Labs, home to Project Paper Doll and site of my very own personal hell.
My father returned to the kitchen suddenly, catching me by surprise. I slapped my spoon in place, producing a louder than expected crack, and we both flinched.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
He nodded wearily, but I could tell he was distracted. He didn’t sit down, just leaned forward with his hands braced on the table as if he needed the support.
A pulse of fear sent me to my feet, and my chair tipped over backward. “Do you need your pills? I have them right here on the windowsill.” My father was not young. He was still in good shape—thanks, he said, to the regimented training he’d picked up from being Special Forces in his twenties—but he would be fifty-six this year. He’d gone completely gray in the years I’d known him, and while his gaze was as sharp as ever, lately he’d taken to moving as if he carried a heavy weight on his shoulders. Last year, I’d ignored every lesson he’d ever taught me and called 911 when I found him collapsed on the floor in the hall, gasping for air. It turned out to be a panic attack, brought on by stress. He also had spectacularly high blood pressure, another sign that his body was not handling the demands of his life very well. Wonder why.
I started toward him, but he waved me off. “I’m fine. I already took my meds this morning. Go on to school. You don’t want to be late.”
No, because that would be a violation of Rule #4: Keep your head down. When my father had first given me that rule I’d taken it literally, which hadn’t helped matters. A second grader walking around with her head ducked down below her shoulders wasn’t exactly normal looking. Hey, you try living in a secret underground lab for the first six years of your life and see if your understanding of the metaphorical isn’t a little shaky.
The point is, people notice you when you are late. But they also notice when you are early.
I felt a fresh rush of frustration at walking this so-fine-as-to-be-almost-invisible line. GTX didn’t own me, not anymore. But they still controlled my life, down to the smallest details. And sometimes that was the worst part.
I could never have anyone at the house or go over to anyone else’s. I had to keep to myself, but not so much that they would worry about my being socially dysfunctional and force me into counseling. I lived with the constant fear of standing out in some way, even if it was for something good. I would be a B student forever even though I’d surpassed the high-school-level curriculum years ago. B’s were the perfect nondescript grade, not low enough to attract teacher intervention, and not high enough to rate nomination for the honor society.
I hadn’t even been able to go with my father when the ambulance took him to the hospital last year. GTX often lends out their specialists, and one of the doctors might have recognized me.
That was my life. And it would be for the next two interminable years, until I could escape under the cover of all the other graduating seniors.
Once I was gone from Wingate I’d be free. Well, freer, I suppose. I’d never be able to relax completely, never be able to just exist without thinking hard about who or what I was supposed to be. But living farther away from GTX—and the omnipresent sense of danger—would help, at least a little.
I pushed my chair up into place, but I didn’t leave right away. I had to know. “Are they on to us?” I asked, forcing the words past a sudden lump in my throat. My father still worked for GTX—he had to. Quitting after their prized possession up and disappeared would have looked suspicious. As far as anyone there knew, I was the daughter he’d gained full custody of after the death of his ex-wife in Ohio. And his staying at GTX did provide at least one major advantage: he had sources throughout the company who were usually able to tell him what was in the offing well in advance.
He looked up, startled. “No, Ariane. No. It’s nothing like that. Just something I need to handle.”
I nodded stiffly. I would die before I’d let GTX take me or punish my father for helping me.
“You don’t have to worry.” He reached out and touched my shoulder carefully, gingerly.
I forced myself not to flinch away. Sometimes I wasn’t so good with being touched. It was yet another way in which I could be caught. Most people didn’t avoid a casual touch as if it might cause them to burst into flame. Then again, most people hadn’t spent years being poked, prodded, and broken (deliberately) for the sake of scientific advancement.
“Okay.” I tried to smile, wishing my father looked more certain or less gray—that was my territory—and pulled away as soon as I could, my heart thundering away on the slow-to-fade rush of adrenaline.
Sometimes I could almost forget. Those days in the lab seemed so far away, a nightmare with a little too much detail. Other times…well, let’s just say today was going to be one of those days.
* * * * *
The shout came from above me in the crowded and noisy gym, loud enough to make me jump. Twitchy was my middle name today.
Actually, I don’t know if I have a middle name, come to think of it. I’ve never seen the birth certificate that is, theoretically, mine.
I watched the crowd as heads turned, some toward the shouter but most of them toward me. It felt like a spotlight was shining down on me here on the floor.
I winced. Thanks, Jenna. I found her bright and eager face in the second set of bleachers, about six rows up. She was waving furiously as if I hadn’t heard her—as if half the school hadn’t heard her. It wasn’t her fault, though. That was just Jenna. Enthusiasm turned up to eleven. I envied her that. If relentless optimism and determined cheerfulness were actually requirements for the cheerleading squad at Ashe (instead of heavy eyeliner and rumored sluttiness), then Jenna would have been captain. Maybe even a squad unto herself.
I headed deeper into the gym and then picked my way up the bleachers toward her—stepping around legs stretched out into the aisle, backpacks tossed carelessly in the way. With every step I felt people watching. Most of the school was here this morning—forced containment before the first bell to keep us “out of mischief.” Uh-huh. As if there weren’t plenty of time for that later in the day. It seemed to me that the teachers didn’t want to give up their valuable gossiping-over-coffee time to monitor the halls before school.
No matter what my father said, it might have been worth the risk of being late to avoid this cattle call. A thousand minds in one place, buzzing with the anxiety, excitement, and sheer terror of the first day of school, made my head hurt. All the practice in the world couldn’t block the tsunami of thoughts and emotions.
But as long as I kept myself from focusing on it—harder than you’d think—it was just a distant and vaguely annoying hum in the back of my brain. Like a radio tuned to hundreds of stations all at once.
“You’re here!” Jenna squealed as I reached her row. She stood up and leaned over three people I didn’t recognize to squeeze me in a hug that was just short of painful.
I’d been expecting it—the hug was Jenna’s handshake—so it wasn’t too bad. She knew I wasn’t, in her words, “touchy-feely,” but that seemed only to act as incentive for her to break me into it. Which had, more or less, worked. I trusted Jenna enough that I could quell my usual panic at someone being in my personal space. It wasn’t like she was going to spring a surprise syringe on me, unlike various lab techs over the years. And sometimes that casual affection was nice. A reminder that I was real, that someone could see me, even if it was a false version of “me.”
Besides, attempting to pull free would just hurt her feelings and possibly land me with a cracked rib or two. Not an exaggeration. My bones are fragile. Part of that whole space-faring-race thing. No gravity, less bone density or something.
I patted Jenna’s back awkwardly, which met her requirements for a response most of the time, and she released me.
“I have the best news,” she said, her eyes sparkling. She turned to the strangers, who were watching all of this like a reality show playing out in front of them. “Do you mind moving down for my friend here?” she asked without a hint of sarcasm.
The three of them, two girls and a boy—freshmen probably, judging from how young they looked and the overwhelmed and slightly terrified expressions on their faces—squished together to make room for me.
Jenna sat and pulled me down next to her. “Why didn’t you answer my texts?”
Because answering would have led only to more texts and the demand for me to come over eventually. Jenna’s house was classified as strictly forbidden.
“My dad. You know that,” I said, using the too-familiar term that I never applied to him in person. Well, I had once. It had just slipped out over breakfast one morning about a year after I’d been living with him. Can I have more toast, Dad?
I hadn’t intentionally been testing my boundaries with him (for once), but I’d found one nonetheless. He’d winced like it physically hurt him to hear the word.
He’d recovered quickly, handing over the plate and asking me if I wanted more peanut butter, as if nothing was wrong. But it was too late. I’d seen his reaction, and I knew what it meant. I might have his daughter’s name, but I would never be her.
So I called him Father, when I had to call him anything, and that seemed to be okay with him. But every time I thought or said that, it reminded me of the moment with the toast. Reminded me that even though he loved me and had risked his life for me, I would never be quite enough.
“Summer is family time,” I said to Jenna, reciting the excuse my father had given me to use when Jenna first started asking to me to come over—the summer after our freshman year.
Jenna rolled her eyes. “God, he is so strict.” She impatiently brushed her blond hair away from her too-pink cheeks. “Which means you spent another summer in virtual reality.”
My face grew hot. I looked around for anyone who might have been listening. Last year, I had, in a moment of weakness, confessed a secret to Jenna. Not the big one, of course. But still one I’d rather not have spread around.
She nudged me with her elbow gently. “And how is life in Dreamville? Perfectly perfect, as usual?” she asked, with a grin.
I cleared my throat. “It’s fine,” I said, resisting the urge to shush her. Not that this secret was anything bad, just embarrassing. “What’s going on with you? What’s your big news?” I asked quickly, hoping she’d take the bait and change the subject. For Jenna, most of the fun came from sharing. And it could be just about anything—a sale on lip gloss with glitter, a new guy in school, or a diet that she was convinced would help her lose five pounds, the last obstacle to popularity, in her mind.
She brightened immediately. “So, last week, I’m coming home from dropping off Bradley at the pool, right?”
Bradley was Jenna’s younger brother. I nodded.
“And you’ll never guess who I bumped into at the mailbox.” She bounced excitedly in her seat.
A very bad feeling started in my stomach.
“Rachel Jacobs!” she crowed, squeezing my forearm in excitement. This time, I practically heard my bones creaking and had to pull away.
“Carpal tunnel,” I managed weakly, in answer to her frown. But my mind was spinning too quickly for words. Rachel Jacobs? Rachel was behind this too-happy glow of Jenna’s? This story could not end well.
Jenna’s goal since moving to Wingate our freshman year had been to break through her middle-of-the-road status—not popular, not unpopular—and become one of the revered ones, a member of Rachel’s inner circle. At her old school, she’d told me, she’d been too shy, too sensitive, too easily dissuaded from getting what she wanted. But she was determined to change all of that here at Ashe.
That alone might have made it impossible for us to be friends, except Jenna wasn’t having a lot of luck with her mission. She wasn’t an athlete. She was cute but not heartstoppingly beautiful. Her family was rich—her mom’s an orthodontist and her dad’s a senior partner at some big law firm in Milwaukee—but they didn’t shower her with cash and ridiculous leniency. Her curfew was earlier than mine on weeknights, believe it or not.
But more important, she wanted it too badly. That was an automatic disqualification, as far as I could tell.
Plus, Rachel Jacobs was evil. Well, not evil as in demonic-possession or hell-spawn-wandering-the-earth evil; though occasionally she made me wonder. No, just plain old enjoy-the-pain-you-bring-other-people-because-it-makesyou-feel-better-about-yourself evil. And she came by it honestly: her grandfather, Arthur, was the head of GTX. The CEO, in fact, and the man responsible for my very existence. If you think that should make me grateful to him, let me remind you that existing is not the same as living. And in the six years I’d existed at GTX, he’d done enough to make me regret even that.
I’d done my best to steer Jenna away from Rachel whenever possible. But they were neighbors, and there was nothing I could do about that. It was the primary reason why Jenna’s house was off-limits for me.
The real trouble was, Jenna had no survival skills. As much as I cared about her—she was probably the only human besides my father that I would fight to protect—she was a little like a brain-damaged rabbit that kept hopping too near the snake, convinced that they could be BFFs if they took the time to get to know each other. She really thought that friendliness would win out over everything else.
“We’ve been hanging out every day since,” Jenna said triumphantly.
I stared at her, baffled. That made absolutely no sense. Jenna wanted to be Rachel’s friend so bad that it gave Rachel a perverse pleasure in denying her the opportunity. I’d watched it play out in front of me last year. And Rachel hadn’t even attempted to justify it in her thoughts. (In spite of my thought-reading limitations, I could almost always hear Rachel, except in the most crowded of rooms. She was a loud thinker, operating at a higher decibel than most everyone else. As though even her thoughts suffered from too much self-importance, wanting to be proclamations instead of random scatterings in her brain.)
“Really?” I asked, trying not to sound too skeptical. “Did she say—”
The bell rang, and suddenly the crowd moved as one, a lumbering giant made up of a thousand tiny parts. Thoughts and emotions reached a fevered pitch and spiked through my brain like an ice pick to the skull.
Jenna picked her way down the bleacher stairs, talking to me the whole time; but between the noise echoing in the gym and the chaos inside my head, I missed most of what she was saying.
“…at the pool because Cami and Cassi were in Paris…”
Okay, that could be one piece of the puzzle. Rachel was probably insecure enough to require an adoring audience at all times. With the twins gone, she might have been forced to desperate measures.
“…and Zane was there!” Jenna reached the floor and turned to face me, her hands clutched over her heart as if it might bump right out of her chest, cartoon-style. (FYI, cartoons are terrifying when your grasp on how the real world works is tenuous, at best. I had nightmares about Wile E. Coyote and safes falling from the sky for weeks after first watching that show.)
“We talked,” she said dreamily. “It was amazing.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Zane Bradshaw. Thanks to Jenna’s crush, I could recite every known fact about him. Lacrosse player, son of the Wingate Police Chief, favorer of nineties rock and those preppy button-down shirts. He was good-looking and almost freakishly tall, but built with enough muscle to keep from appearing strange. He was everything I would have found attractive—tall, broad shoulders, dark hair, and blue-gray eyes. (What can I say? I have a type. In the lab, as part of my “cultural training,” I’d seen the original Superman movies from the seventies and early eighties, and they’d made a huge impression on me. At the time I’d wanted Superman to rescue me. But then when I got older and watched the newer versions, with Brandon Routh and Tom Welling, I may have, um, slightly altered that fantasy.)
But Zane Bradshaw—resemblance to my all-time crush aside—was one of the mindless flock. He followed Rachel Jacobs around, participating in all her mean reindeer games like he was missing the portion of his brain that allowed for independent thought. The only exception had been last year in Algebra II when he’d noticed I was using pen on my homework and thought it was strange. That had been a mistake on my part. I hadn’t thought about the math being difficult for other people, which meant it probably should have been difficult for me, too. Hiding in plain sight means questioning every choice I make, thinking it through twenty different ways—all without looking like that’s what I’m doing—and sometimes I screw up.
Fortunately, Zane didn’t strike me as interested in much other than himself.
Jenna looped her arm through mine, more gently this time, as we waited for the crowd to move forward. “It was a good conversation, you know, and with it being Bonfire Week…” She bounced up on her toes in excitement.
Ugh. Bonfire Week. Ashe High had a stupid tradition that was supposed to help make freshmen feel welcome and rev everyone up for the coming year. They called it Bonfire Week even though it was only four days and the bonfire was the last night. There’d be an activities fair/carnival thing tomorrow night in the gym; a varsity vs. junior varsity exhibition football game on Thursday, where the cheerleaders, poms, and band would show off everything they’d learned in their various summer camps; and on Friday there’d be a bonfire, followed by a dance in the gym, which only the freshmen actually attended. Everyone else with a shred of social standing would be going to the unofficial bonfire party. Or so I’d heard. I’d never gone to any of it. Too risky. I didn’t need that kind of exposure. The entire freaking town showed up for parts of it, and the parade on Saturday morning was sponsored by GTX. Uh, no.
“So, I think Zane might invite me to go with him. Not as his date, but just, you know, to hang out. Maybe. I don’t know. What do you think?” Jenna looked at me, her face hopeful.
Oh. I scrambled to find an answer that would not completely crush her and yet be semi-truthful. Rumors had circulated for the last year or so that Rachel and Zane had hooked up, off and on, unofficially. Scandalicious, as Jenna would say. If those rumors were accurate, it seemed unlikely that Rachel would allow anyone to interfere with that; but if she truly was being friendly to Jenna…
“Anything is possible,” I said finally, feeling the lameness of my response. Possible was definitely not the same as probable.
But Jenna didn’t seem to notice. She brightened and gave my arm a painful squeeze. “I knew it.” She let out a squeal, and I winced.
Then she took a deep breath. “Okay, so with all these new developments, I know you’re probably worried about what’s going to happen with you and me this year,” she said as we walked through the gym doors and into the front hall.
Actually, no. I hadn’t yet gotten past my confusion about Rachel’s new inconsistent behavior to think about anything like that.
“But I want you to know, I don’t abandon my friends. I’m not like that.”
And she wasn’t. If she, by some chance, ended up on the periphery of Rachel’s circle—Rachel might very well have recognized the wisdom of keeping a follower who would eat shredded glass to keep her happy—then Jenna would drag me kicking and screaming with her.
Terrific. Then I’d be the one leaving Jenna. I really didn’t want to have to do that. We’d only become friends because Jenna kind of hadn’t given me a choice, sensing in me the same kind of loneliness that she’d felt as the new girl. But now it was more than that. I would miss her.
Jenna continued chattering away as we climbed the steps, but it wasn’t until we reached the second-floor hallway that I started picking up on something strange in the air, a vibe I couldn’t place. It was a strong thread of excitement, anticipation, and dread—but from more than one person and loud enough to catch my attention, which was unusual.
I kept nodding at Jenna and tried to hone in on what I was sensing.
Hearing thoughts is never like what you see on television or read in books. People don’t walk around thinking in complete sentences, let alone entire paragraphs of exposition.
If GTX’s experiment had continued after me, there would have been whole teams of people like me—all of us able to communicate silently with one another as we spied on the enemy or moved in for a kill.
But with untrained human minds, it was a mess. Everybody shouting scattered words and phrases at the top of their lungs, essentially. And sometimes I only got pictures or feelings. It was hard to tell what was going on in someone’s head—on the rare occasions when I wanted to—especially when there were lots of people around, jostling and shoving, their minds as jumbled and out of sorts as their bodies.
…not me. Thank God.
…just so mean…
…makes me look fat. I know it.
This is going to be awesome!
If Mrs. McCafferty puts me in the front row again, I’m going to…
“Don’t you think?” Jenna asked, nudging me.
“Uh-huh,” I said, distracted. I wasn’t getting enough to piece it together. We were on the move, and so was everyone else, which made it impossible to isolate one mind. The best I could determine was that the people buzzing about whatever was going on were coming from the opposite direction. The people around us, slowly moving upstream in the hall, were still caught up in their mundane worries about homeroom and what they were wearing.
Jenna laughed. “You spaced on me again, didn’t you?”
I grimaced. “Sorry. Just thinking things through.” Normally I would have let it go. The last time I’d sensed so many minds in an uproar, the cafeteria had been serving french fries on a Tater Tot day. Who cares?
But this…this was different. It felt more personal, and I didn’t know why.
“Zane!” Jenna chirped, and bolted ahead of me.
Bradshaw was leaning against a wall, head and shoulders above everyone else, right at the intersection by our lockers.
A quick flash of weary patience crossed his face when he saw Jenna, but he hid it quickly enough that she didn’t catch it, thankfully. He greeted her civilly enough, and paid attention to whatever she was describing with great animation—lots of big hand motions, exaggerated expressions, and giggling.
Oh God, Jenna… No matter what had happened over the last week, one thing I could guarantee had not occurred was Zane Bradshaw developing a sudden interest in a girl he’d never acknowledged as alive before.
I cringed in expectation of some humiliating putdown, but Zane just smiled down at Jenna with that same mildly exasperated benevolence humans usually reserve for adorable puppies trying to chew their shoelaces.
We shouldn’t have done it.
The clarity of that single thought and the punch of accompanying shame from Zane blasted through the rest of the noise.
That’s when I got one image from Zane Bradshaw’s head loud and clear, no distortion.
A locker smeared with some kind of white paste, the words “Pain In My Ass” scrawled in flowing cursive at the top, flattened tubes of Preparation H dangling from the ventilation slats where the contents had been squeezed inside…and Rachel’s smiling face.
Oh no. I knew her friendship with Jenna was too good to be true. Rachel had simply traded in the immediate pleasure of crushing Jenna for something a little more long-term and hateful.
“Jenna!” I shoved through people to get to her, ignoring the verbal and mental protests as my elbows connected with unprotected sides. “Jenna!”
“What?” She looked around at me, startled. Her cheeks were pink, and her eyes were sparkling.
“We need to go…uh…” I fumbled to find words, trying to push past my desire to grab her arm and haul her away without explanation. Without meaning to, I glanced up at Zane, who looked away. Coward. All he would have had to do was lead her off or ask her to go with him anywhere, and she wouldn’t have thought twice about it. She wouldn’t have thought once about it.
“I need juice,” I blurted. Jenna was always on me about what I ate, or didn’t eat. To say that I had food issues would be putting it mildly. Fortunately, that helped me blend right in with about every other girl at Ashe. “The nurse’s office. I forgot to eat breakfast again, and now I’m feeling kind of out of it, like I’m going to faint….” I kept babbling until Jenna nodded, her forehead crinkled with concern.
“I think I’ve got breakfast bars in my bag. Let me drop off my stuff and dig them out. Stay here with Zane.”
Before I could stop her, she darted around Zane and the corner to her locker.
Crap, crap, CRAP.
I followed her, praying that the crowd of spectators would be too large for her to see her locker before I could get to her again.
But as always happens in situations like this—people parted like a set of automatic doors on her approach.
I saw it at the same time she did. She froze midstep, her shoulders stiff and her head cocked to one side, as if she wasn’t sure of what she was seeing.
The wisest thing for me to do would have been to walk away. Pretend I didn’t see it. I couldn’t afford to get involved, not with so many people watching. They’d notice. They’d talk. Both were too dangerous to contemplate, especially after I’d spent years cultivating a status just this side of invisible.
Jenna’s shoulders started to shake.
I couldn’t just stand there and watch her fall apart.
I rushed to her side. “Listen to me,” I said in a hurried whisper. “We are going to walk right past like we don’t even see it. We’re going straight to the bathroom and—this is the important part—you cannot cry until you’re inside.”
She didn’t respond.
I gave her arm a shake. “Do you hear me?”
Jenna nodded, her head moving a fraction of an inch, but I could hear her breathing getting choked, the way it did every time she called me after watching The Notebook.
“If you cry in front of everyone, they win. Get it?”
“But why do they want to—” Her breath caught on a barely repressed sob.
“Doesn’t matter. Let’s just go.” An unfamiliar pressure was building inside me. I was not going to let Rachel win this one.
With my hand on her arm, I pulled Jenna toward the bathroom, and thankfully, people moved out of our way.
“Oh my God, Jenna what happened to your locker?” Rachel asked as we passed by.
“Ignore her,” I whispered.
Rachel sighed loudly.
A glance over my shoulder showed Rachel starting to follow us with an annoyed look. Yeah, being forced to walk somewhere to torture someone is such a hassle.
Before I could think it through, I shoved Jenna ahead of me toward the bathroom and moved to block Rachel’s path.
My heart was pounding so hard it made my whole body shake. “You are going to go away now,” I said quietly; but in the sudden silence surrounding us, I suspected that almost everyone heard me, even Zane in the distance. Evidently, he’d decided it would be worth it to watch the show.
Rachel laughed. “Excuse me, who are you again?”
I ignored her. “All of you,” I said, directing my gaze toward Rachel’s crowd—the twins and a bunch of Zane’s buddies—a few feet behind her.
She faced off with me, the pointed tips of her stilettos (who wears shoes like that on the first day of school but Rachel Jacobs) almost touching my battered imitation Chucks.
“I think you need to mind your own business,” she said.
Rachel was pretty. She was taller than me with long black shiny hair that looked expensive and high maintenance. She didn’t resemble her grandfather at all except in the expression on her face. Hard eyes, mouth smiling but not really. It screamed, You are nothing, and I can do whatever I want.
Suddenly I was little and stuck in that lab again with no way out, and Dr. Jacobs was telling me that it was fine if I didn’t want to cooperate. As long as I didn’t mind being alone in the dark for a few days. After all, he couldn’t pay his team to be here if I was going to waste their time.
Overhead, the lights flickered, and I couldn’t stop it. Worse, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Echoing pops sounded as the lightbulbs exploded, and glass rained down.
People started screaming and running, Jenna’s misery forgotten in their desire to protect themselves. One of Rachel’s devotees, Trey, I think his name was, rushed up to pull Rachel under his arm and hustle her away.
Ah yes, I was striking terror in the hearts of humans everywhere. My planet-invading parents would have been so proud.
My Earth-based father? Way, way less so.
“I mean, who does she think she is?” Rachel said with a loud huff.
Twelve hours later and she was still bitching about the thing with Ariane Tucker and Jenna Mayborne this morning.
I shook my head. As usual, when Rachel didn’t get what she wanted, she had to make life miserable for everyone.
I was stretched out on two wooden benches on Rachel’s enormous back deck, my eyes closed and my feet hanging off the end—one of the many disadvantages of life at six foot four. But it wasn’t uncomfortable enough for me to move yet. I held a cold beer, my third, on my stomach. Condensation rolled down the bottle past my fingers to create a damp and chilly place on my shirt.
A few feet away, Rachel and the twins, her nearest and dearest cronies, moaned about Ariane over the slosh and splash of the hot tub.
“Rachel, she’s only been in our class for forever.” Cami Andrews punctuated her disbelief with a slap of water. “She moved here from, like, Ohio. Her mom died and she came to live with her dad.” She paused. “And she was really sick a long time ago or something, but she got better.” I could hear the frown in her voice as she tried to remember the details.
Cassi seemed to be humming “The Star-Spangled Banner” under her breath, for no apparent reason.
“I know who she is,” Rachel said, sounding further irritated. “I’ve heard her name before. It’s just like, suddenly she comes out of nowhere and she’s, what, Miss Morally Righteous, Defender of the Annoying? What business is it of hers, anyway?”
In theory, it had been none of Ariane’s business at all, which made it all the more awesome. Not that I could say that aloud.
But the truth was, most people wouldn’t stand up against Rachel even if she was torturing them directly. And quiet, sit-in-the-back-of-class Ariane had come to Jenna’s defense, shocking the hell out of me and everyone else. The good timing of the unexpected special effects—apparently a transformer had blown a couple blocks away, which made the lights pop—hadn’t hurt either, adding a whole Carrie-esque feel to the moment.
Ariane hadn’t flinched, even with Rachel in full-confrontation mode and breathing fire. I never knew she had it in her—an unhesitating lack of fear. I admired the hell out of that.
“She’s in my gym class,” Cassi offered in her breathy voice. She and Cami had seemingly formed a pact early in life that Cami would be the smart one, relatively speaking, and Cassi would be the pretty one. This despite the fact that they were identical twins. Regardless, they each played their role to the hilt. “But she never participates,” she added, sounding confused. “She sits on the bleachers. Or on the grass. But only when we’re, you know, outside.”
See what I mean?
“She was in my Advanced Comp class. I think,” Cami said.
“What are we talking about?” Trey had evidently abandoned Matty and Jonas in the pool. His feet made splatting sounds on the deck as he approached.
“That girl,” Rachel said, with a pout in her voice.
Oh God, not this again. I could predict how this was going to go. Rachel would be all needy and “love me, love me,” Trey would swoop in and try to save the day, and then Rachel would find some way to bitch-slap him back to the last century. That’s the trouble with having the same friends your whole life—you know what they’re going to do before they do it. Various people on the fringes of our circle flowed in and out, depending on Rachel’s mood, but at the core, it was always Trey and me and Rachel and the twins. Since that first day of kindergarten, when Rachel had picked our table to sit at and scored us all an extra cookie at snack time by telling us to hide the first ones we’d gotten.
“Babe, you’re not still upset about her, are you?” A louder splash and a shriek from either Cami or Cassi meant Trey had joined them in the tub.
And here we go…
I opened my eyes and squinted in their direction long enough to see Trey slipping his arm over Rachel’s shoulders. I’d give that about three minutes.
“I’ve never even seen that girl before,” he said, baffled. “She must be new, right?”
Dude. Trey. I sighed. He never saw anyone but Rachel. Especially not someone like Ariane Tucker, who looked as if she practiced being invisible. To be fair, I’d never paid much attention to her either, until last year when I sat behind her in Algebra II. Then, I don’t know…no matter what my old man says, his eye for detail must have rubbed off on me. Something about Ariane was off in some vague, indefinable way. No one would probably describe her as pretty, but there was something about her that drew me in. Maybe attractive was a better word, in that I couldn’t define what caught my eye, but it was impossible to look away once I noticed her. Most people didn’t seem to notice her at all, which seemed more than fine with her. Another oddity.
I’d gathered pieces of the puzzle that was Ariane Tucker here and there—like how she always did her homework in ink. INK. Who does their math with a pen?—but never enough for them to add up to anything.
Today’s events only gave me more mismatched details to work with, building my interest.
“Something you want to add, Zane?” Rachel’s voice cut through the too-hot August air, bringing a chill with it.
“She always missed two questions.” I wasn’t sure why I spoke up. I knew better than to engage in Rachel’s games. Blame it on the beer buzz or exhaustion from surviving the summer with my dad constantly on my case. I’d thought life would be better with Quinn—my perfect older brother—staying at college this summer to work. Less opportunity for direct comparison, and therefore less falling short on my part. But if anything, my dad was worse than ever.
I’d been living for the start of school until Rachel had to go and make things complicated this morning with her “joke.” I was so tired of all this “we’re better than everyone else” bullshit. I couldn’t believe I’d once found it funny.
“What did you say?” Rachel demanded.
I stared up at the designer Japanese lanterns hanging above my head. “I sat behind Ariane in math last year. She always used pen, and she missed two questions on every test, quiz, assignment, everything.” She was so much shorter than me, it had been easy to see over her shoulder when Mr. Scaliari handed back our stuff. I’d started paying attention when I noticed the ink thing.
“The same two questions?” Cami asked, frowning.
“No, different ones every time, but always two,” I said. Which meant sometimes she got a 98 out of 100 and other times, when it was a three-question quiz, she completely failed.
Also, she smelled like lemons, but the real kind, not the fake dishwashing-soap stuff. I was pretty sure her hair was lighter than she wanted people to think—the dark streaks were dyed. It was possible there was trouble at home—she’d had splinted fingers four times last year. And I thought she might have a tattoo. The collar of her shirt had slipped back one day on her thin shoulders, and I’d seen the edge of one of those big square bandages. The kind my mom had used on my knees for those massive skateboarding wipeouts in my earlier days. Then, once I’d noticed that and knew to look for it, I saw the faint outline of a rectangle underneath her shirt in the same place every day. It couldn’t have been an injury, not for that long. My next best guess was a tattoo, one she was ashamed of. It happened—an exercise in poor drunken judgment, usually on spring break. Marcos Pyter, one of the middies on our lacrosse team, put his exgirlfriend’s name on his arm after she was already his ex.
But quiet, obedient, possibly abused Ariane Tucker with an embarrassing tat? I couldn’t make that fit. Then again, I couldn’t make today’s events square with what I knew of her either. And unlike Rachel, I was kind of fascinated.
“Whatever,” Rachel said impatiently. “So she deliberately misses questions because she doesn’t want anyone to know she’s a brain or something. Who cares?”
A girl who took on Rachel Jacobs in front of a crowd didn’t strike me as the type to worry about people thinking she was too smart.
“The point is, she shouldn’t have gotten involved,” Rachel continued. “It had nothing to do with her.”
Trey rubbed her shoulders. “It doesn’t matter, babe, does it? It’s over. Mayborne got the message.”
I groaned and shut my eyes, bored already with the inevitable fallout. Trey was a good guy, but he seemed doomed to repeat the same Rachel-related lessons over and over again.
“Trey! No!” she said. “She humiliated me in front of everyone. I can’t let that go.”
I could have pointed out that Ariane had been far from humiliating anyone. She’d just stood up for Jenna and refused to knuckle under—which, in Rachel’s mind, was probably the equivalent of forcing her to lick someone’s shoes.
Rachel didn’t handle disappointment well. She hadn’t had a lot of experience with it. Her parents were always gone, leaving extra money in her account and Rachel to her own devices most of the time. Her father traveled for GTX, and her mother was either with him or at a “spa” somewhere. Her grandfather, Dr. Jacobs, adored her. He showered her with expensive gifts—clothes, a car, vacations to any sunny island she wanted. (I’d once seen Rachel end one of these poolside kickbacks to take his call. He was always caught up at work, and I suspected she valued the rare moments of his attention more than anything he ever sent to the house in a big red bow; not that she’d admit it.)
Despite (or maybe because of ) all of this, Rachel was extremely generous with those she deemed worthy. Trey, Cami, Cassi, and I had an open invitation to her house and everything that she owned, which was saying quite a bit. She treated us like family in place of her blood relatives.
But she expected blood loyalty in return.
The water sloshed loudly. “Jonas!” Rachel called in the direction of the pool. “Come here, I need you.”
“Babe,” Trey protested. “I’m right here—”
“Shut up. It’s not about that.” Rachel’s voice had taken on a greedy intensity that I knew all too well.
I didn’t like where this was going. Jonas tended to act first and think later, if at all. In Cub Scouts, on an overnight camping trip in fourth grade, he’d been showing off his supposed knowledge of karate inside the tent and snapped the main plastic support pole, collapsing the tent around us. In the rain.
I opened my eyes again.
Jonas jogged over from the pool. “What’s up?” He raked a hand through his hair and flicked the water on Cassi to make her shriek.
Rachel rested her chin on her folded arms at the edge of the hot tub. “I want you to ask that Ariane girl to Bonfire Week.”
Oh, not good. Rachel was scheming, and that never ended well for anyone but her.
Jonas’s face fell comically. “Are you kidding?”
Rachel raised her eyebrows in response.
Jonas stepped back, shaking his head. “Oh, come on, Rachel,” he pleaded. “I’m this close to sealing the deal with Lainey Pryce.”
“Lainey Pryce will sleep with anyone,” Cami said with distaste.
“Not since she went to church camp in June and became a born-again virgin.” Jonas grinned. “Challenge accepted.”
Yeah, these were my friends.
“So sleep with this one instead.” Rachel waved a hand dismissively. “You want a challenge, she barely talks to anyone.”
“Because she’s a freak. I have a reputation, you know.” But I could hear him wavering, tempted by the idea of trying his superpowers of seduction against Ariane. Jonas was all about the challenge and not so much dealing with the aftermath.
I sat up. “I’ll do it.” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. What the hell was I saying? I didn’t need this kind of trouble. I had more than enough already.
I wasn’t even sure who’d asked the question: Rachel, Trey, Cami, Cassi, and Jonas were all staring at me.
I shrugged. “I said I’ll do it. I’ll ask her to Bonfire Week.”
Jonas exhaled loudly in relief. “Thanks, dude. You saved my life.” He turned and headed back to the pool, shouting at Matty about a cannonball contest.
“You hate Bonfire Week,” Trey said.
“I doubt Ariane’s much of a fan either.” I had trouble picturing her face painted in the school colors. “So we’ll have that in common.”
Rachel narrowed her eyes at me. “Why?”
“Why, what?” I stalled for time, knowing what was coming.
“Why are you suddenly Mr. Social when it comes to Ariane Tucker?”
“Rachel,” Trey muttered in careful warning.
“No, for the last year he’s been basically ignoring us. I think we have a right to know what has triggered his sudden return.”
And there it was…
Rachel would bring that up. I already lived with the pitying looks and the whispers, though they’d faded somewhat over the last few months finally. Was it necessary to keep reminding everyone what had happened?
“You want someone to ask her out,” I said. “And I’ve spoken to her a few times.” A slight exaggeration. Unless you count learning that 2.333333 was not the answer to number 10 in the homework. And she’d barely glanced in my direction during that exchange. Still, I couldn’t stand the thought of Rachel siccing someone else on her. What Ariane had done today took a lot of guts. She didn’t deserve to be demolished by whatever Rachel had planned, and Jonas wouldn’t give a damn. But I could try to stop it from getting out of hand.
I was tired of these games Rachel played, but it was too late to strike out on my own. I only had two years left here. It wasn’t worth the effort. Not to mention, being friends with a member of the illustrious Jacobs family was pretty much the only thing I’d managed not to screw up, in my father’s opinion.
Rachel cocked her head to one side, giving me a considering look. Then she stood up in the hot tub and stepped out. The ends of her dark hair were wet, and goose bumps covered the skin that was not covered by her red bikini.
I braced myself, expecting her to begin firing off questions, her suspicions aroused.
But instead she leaned down, smelling of chlorine and that heavy musky perfume she favored, and said, “Welcome back, Zaney.” Then she brushed her mouth over mine, which shocked the hell out of me.
She strolled off toward the house, leaving me to deal with Trey, who was glaring at me like he wanted to set me on fire.
That was Rachel for you—always looking for the two-for-one when it came to causing chaos.
â€œStacey Kade crafts an action-packed and wildly romantic story about our desire to not only be seen but also understood. The Rules is a great read.â€ â€”Rachel Cohn, best-selling author of Beta and Gingerbread
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