I stuffed my paper hastily into my AP English folder, as though it would staunch the bleeding red ink that poured from the margins. I hadn't even seen a letter grade, just a large, scratchy See me after school across the top.
I had been looking forward to this class because the syllabus included some of my very favorite books. Now, I wasn't sure how long it would be before I could stand to look at their covers again. The latest victim was Wuthering Heights, which was normally a book I would turn to for a good long cryfest to distract me from my problems, but I didn't think that would work so well when my problem was my grade on an essay about Wuthering Heights.
I scuttled past Mrs. Jackson's desk, not meeting her eyes, and got caught up in the rush of the main hallway. It pushed me along to the cafeteria, which was just as well, because I was a little bit shellshocked, and I could just feel the tears welling up if I gave them any encouragement.
Miranda Shillaber caught me in the lunch line. "What's up?" she asked, noticing the obvious distress on my face.
I gestured with my shoulders, since my hands were holding a lunch tray. "AP English," I said succinctly. Miranda nodded sympathetically.
"Hey, did you hear about the new girl?" she changed the subject, which I welcomed.
"What new girl?"
Miranda shook her head. "I don't know. Mariah said there was a new girl in her gym class."
New kids are always exciting, especially in a tiny town like Stoneybrook, and especially, I suppose, to me. I let myself daydream a little as I collected my lasagna, green beans and quivering Jello with mixed fruit. One person could turn your whole life upside-down, give it a good shake, and leave you all jumbled up and confused.
The rest of the afternoon flew by, but only because I was dreading my meeting with Mrs. Jackson about my paper; no doubt chemistry and history were as boring as ever. I lingered at my locker, rearranging my textbooks, putting on my jacket, then taking it off to put on a sweater and then putting it on again. Finally, afraid that Mrs, Jackson would be even more upset with me if I was late, I scurried back towards her classroom, head down, teeth gritted.
I stopped short in the doorway. Mrs. Jackson was already talking to somebody -- a gorgeous red-haired girl that I had never seen before. Surely this was the New Girl that everybody had been talking about.
Before I could say anything, she bounded out of her seat and threw her arms around me. "Mary Anne!" she exclaimed, pulling back to look me over. "It's been ages!"
I was slackjawed. I might have even been drooling. "Mallory?" I finally squeaked.
She had grown; she towered over me. Her hair was pulled back into a knot, but tendrils curled softly around her cheekbones. I remembered consoling Mal during those awkward sixth-grade years and promising that she would grow out of it, but I had never really considered what she would look like when she did.
Mallory tipped back her head and laughed. "I already ran into Claudia and she had no idea who I was either. She asked me where I got my dress."
I was all-too-conscious of the old jacket I was wearing, the giant pimple on my chin. I tried to pull myself together. "It's good to see you again," I said, willing myself not to stare at her cleavage. The last time I'd seen her in a bathing suit, on the beach at Sea City, she'd been completely flat-chested.
"You too," Mallory said happily. "Are you in AP English?"
"Um, yeah." I didn't feel like mentioning that I was positive I was going to be kicked out at the end of the semester.
"What period? We might have a class together."
Mrs. Jackson cleared her throat. "Mary Anne, would it be all right if we discussed your paper tomorrow?"
Mallory rolled her eyes. "Apparently they've never let a sophomore into this class, and they don't believe that I actually wrote the stuff in the portfolio I submitted, so I'm doing an in-class essay," she explained close to my ear. I caught a whiff of her, shampoo and lip gloss and lotion.
"Of course," I said. I wanted nothing more than to put off talking about my paper. "See you later."
Well, almost nothing.
The not-so-new girl ended up in my AP English class, of course. Now, in between having all the joy sucked out of reading, I stared at the back of Mallory's head, watched her raise her slender freckled arm over and over, listened to her rattle off answers and engage in passionate debates about symbolism, themes, authorial intent and literary devices. She wasn't afraid to challenge Mrs. Jackson on anything she said, and she refused to back down without a fight.
I stayed up two nights in a row revising my Wuthering Heights paper, tiptoeing to the kitchen for more coffee and studying Mrs. Jackson's red-ink scribbles like they were the Rosetta stone. Towards the end, they almost seemed to make sense to me, but that might have been because I'd gotten so little sleep. Sharon had to tell me on Thursday morning that I was wearing mismatched ballet flats.
"Mary Anne!" An enthusiastic arm intercepted me as I was slipping into the English department to drop off my paper. "Do you want to work on the literary magazine with me?"
"We have a literary magazine?" I asked, stupidly. I hid my paper behind my back.
"We did, before it fell into ruin and disrepair," said Mallory. Her teeth were so straight and white they almost didn't look real. Was I only noticing that because I knew she used to wear braces? "I'm reviving it."
"Oh." I tried to think of something more intelligent to say. "That's cool."
"Awesome!" Mallory said happily. "Here, sign this." She thrust out an after-school activities proposal form. I held it awkwardly against my thigh and scribbled a meek and wavery Mary Anne Spier under a boldly-printed Mallory Pike.
"Isn't anyone else interested in the literary magazine?"
It had to be the sleep deprivation, or maybe the stomach-churning amount of caffeine I'd consumed. I covered my mouth with one hand as Mallory flushed.
"I haven't gotten around to asking anyone else," she mumbled defensively.
"Oh yeah, well, you might as well get permission first, no point worrying about anything else." I was babbling. "Good luck!" I said cheerfully, and then turned and left before Mallory could say another word.
I skipped my first period class and hunched in a corner of the library, hoping that nobody would ask me for a pass if I didn't take up too much space. I held my copy of Wuthering Heights in front of my face and even turned the pages, but I wasn't reading.
Everything had seemed so much simpler back in eighth grade; I almost wished that year had never ended. Now, my ex-best-friend wasn't talking to me, and my own stepsister was barely cordial to me, and now here was Mallory, another friendship that I was going to ruin because I just couldn't stop thinking about kissing her. My therapist kept telling me that it was okay to have these feelings, it was fine if I was attracted to girls or boys or both, and that I should follow my heart, but I couldn't help noticing that my heart had caused me nothing but trouble so far.
Heathcliff asked me to marry him, and I said that I couldn't, because I was a lesbian, and he said that was all right, because he was a lesbian too, and I cried and I said that I couldn't marry him and he got angry and smashed all the dishes and his hair was long and red and curly and as he shook me, the freckles standing out on his contorted face.
"Mary Anne?" There was a hand on my shoulder, but it was firm and gentle. I started awake.
"Oh!" I burst out. Mrs. Jabruski was looking at me sympathetically.
"Are you all right?"
"Yeah, fine," I mumbled. I checked my watch and saw that I'd missed second period and part of third, as well. "I better go."
"Get some sleep," she advised me.
"I will," I promised. I ducked into the bathroom and stared at myself in the mirror. There were dark circles under my eyes, the pimple on my chin had gotten bigger, redder and more painful, and I needed a haircut. I splashed cold water on my face, put on some lip gloss, ran my fingers through my hair. I still looked terrible.
When I yanked the door open and someone stumbled into me, I knew immediately that it was Mallory. Maybe it was the way she smelled, or the loose red hair brushing my face, or maybe just because it was that sort of day.
"Sorry!" I yelped. "Are you all right?" I looked up into her face and I could see that she had been crying. Mallory dragged a hand across her face and plastered on a smile.
"Fine," she said, fighting to keep her voice steady.
"Do you want to talk about it?" I asked. She shook her head emphatically. "That's okay," I said, "I don't want to talk about it either."
Mallory looked up, startled. "Talk about what?"
I giggled, a little hysterically. "Like I said, I don't want to talk about it."
"Oh, right." Mallory was laughing too, or maybe crying again. I slipped an arm around her shoulders, awkwardly. She was so much taller than me, and I was concentrating so hard on doing it right, purely platonic.
Mal was the one who swept me into a full-on hug, burying her face in my hair. I clung to her, not sure I could still stand up unaided, inhaling the sweet soft skin smell of her neck. She held me close, and I felt her hand at the back of my neck as she bent me back and kissed me.
"You?" I demanded breathlessly, pulling out of the kiss. Mallory looked away uncomfortably.
"Why did you think I transferred back to Stoneybrook in the middle of the year?"
"Why did you think half my friends aren't talking to me any more?"
I kissed her again, incredulously. My hands felt sure as they found the curve of her hip, the hollow of her spine. This time it was Mal who broke the kiss.
"I wrote you a poem," she said shyly, and I remembered the little girl I used to baby-sit, and then baby-sit with. I grinned.
"I bet I'll have no difficulty identifying themes, symbolism and literary devices," I joked, and Mallory grinned back at me.
"Just don't let Mrs. Jackson read it," she said, and seized my hand.