The Truth About Keeping Secrets(9)

‘People keep looking at me.’ I spoke with my teeth squeezed together like a vice, the way a ventriloquist makes their dummy talk.

Olivia stiffened. ‘Are they?’ She caught the gaze of a group of sophomores two tables away from us. They turned away so quickly they probably got whiplash. ‘Oh, wow. Yeah. They’re not even trying to hide that at all.’ She shrugged. ‘Maybe they’re looking at someone behind you.’ I turned – there was a wall. Olivia shrugged again.

‘They’re saying my name.’

‘Maybe they’re saying chimney. Or kidney. Kidney vinegar. Ew. Gross.’ Olivia spoke with the last bite of muffin still in her mouth, her words thick and gummy on the way out, and rolled the wrapper into a ball. ‘They’re just surprised. I think people assumed you were never coming back.’ She tossed the wrapper to the trashcan next to us, but it hit the rim before falling to the floor. ‘Drat.’

I glanced around the commons as Olivia went to pick up her failed shot. The place had never inspired particularly warm or fuzzy feelings, but there was something almost sinister about it now, though nothing physical had changed. There were still the unsightly strips of warehouse light, yellow tinted, turning all the students into a horde of jaundiced zombies; the purple-and-gold pennant on the far wall, proclaiming us the Pleasant Hills Panthers; a couple of browning pot plants peppering the speckled vinyl floor. All the same in shape, but now, someone or something was turning the saturation down a tick every time I blinked. Everything seemed inexplicably different, but really, I was the only thing that had changed.

I took inventory. Back, against chair. Feet, on floor. Head, somewhere else, desperately trying to reattach itself to body. For a split second, I could have sworn I was watching myself in the third person, like a movie, hovering, separate. And God, I didn’t look good.

Olivia’s chair legs screeched against the floor, and I was sucked back in. ‘If it makes you feel any better, I don’t think they’re being, like, malicious, or anything. I think they feel bad and want to help but they just aren’t sure how, you know?’

‘I guess,’ I said, even though I doubted their intentions were more benevolent than they were selfish.

Miles joined us at the table. He was Olivia’s most recent boyfriend, a guy who looked like he had too much outside and not enough inside, a PANTHERS WRESTLING shirt stretched across his wide chest, with sleeves that looked like they might have been cutting off the circulation to his biceps. I didn’t know much about him, but from what I knew about studious, sports-averse Olivia, they seemed a bizarre pairing.

When his eye caught mine, Miles stuck his lips out in a way that I would have considered extremely patronizing coming from anyone else, but since it was Miles, I think he was just trying to make sure he was expressing emotion properly. ‘Hi, Sydney,’ he said, running a hand over his crew cut. ‘Sorry.’

Olivia elbowed him. ‘I told you, she doesn’t want to talk about it,’ she said, which was almost definitely worse than her not saying anything at all.

They started to argue about the logistics of talking about something versus apologizing for it, and despite how little attention I was paying, it seemed like things were getting heated. No worries; if they broke up, Olivia would have found a replacement before I could blink. She’d had ten – eleven? – different boyfriends since freshman year. If I sound bitter, I really wasn’t. Maybe I envied how easy it was for her to let go.

And then there was June.

She was sitting across the commons at a table with Heath and a few others I recognized as members of the elite. Heath had just said something that had really made her laugh, apparently. Flash of teeth. Eye crinkle.

I didn’t know why I cared so much about a girl I barely knew. I wasn’t even sure I liked her. The way she navigated the world struck me as disingenuous, a sort of blasé approach to life that seemed to me dishonest, or unnatural, or cultivated, or all three. She spoke to everyone with a sort of cool disconnect that they all interpreted as warmth. I wasn’t sure she had ever felt pain in her life.

But if she had been seeing Dad, then there must have been something more.

I could’ve just asked. We’d very clearly made eye contact at the funeral, unless I truly had been hallucinating, but I doubted it. The moment had happened. It wouldn’t be that strange for me to go up and say something, right? I quickly came up with a story – I needed her address because we were sending out thank-you cards. Did people do that? ‘Thanks for the mourning’?

I willed myself to rise from the table, my heart beating faster still. It wouldn’t be a big deal. It would be –

The bell rang for first period.

Now it would be weird. Now I would be chasing after her, and it would be weird.

So Olivia and I said goodbye, and I peeled off alone to the East Wing.

I shivered as I walked past the courtyard, which had to be one of architecture’s most remarkable blunders; it was rumoured that Pleasant Hills High accidentally got the plans for a school in Los Angeles, so the windows were flimsy and thin, capable of keeping nothing out and nothing in, and the place was perpetually cold and damp. It had been built in the early twentieth century, apparently, and you could tell. Its hallways were cramped, despite Pleasant Hills not being very populated, and its layout was counter-intuitive, a labyrinth of dead ends and dimly lit corridors with chipped layers of decades-old paint and anything broken mended with duct tape. I’d felt a weird camaraderie with the building in the past – if the walls could talk, and all that – but now, it felt like it was out to get me.

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