Flower Five: Hemlock–You Will Be My Death

SI Exif

 

Emma

 

I ate my dinner quietly, trying to avoid eye contact with Grandmother and the four thieves.  All hope of getting them fired was lost.  I’d talked to Grandmother, and she’d confirmed their story.  She had been the one to instruct Marcus to give the Lockhart Mimic to that mean boy.  It turned out Grandmother knew the mean boy.  She’d told me his name was Benjamin Lyons, and his father, Benjamin Lyons, Senior, worked for The Fragrance Stop, our rival company.

That name had jilted a distant memory.  My father had mentored a man named Ben Lyons, and back when I was little, I’d seen the man around the greenhouse, listening to Daddy’s lectures about proper soil conditions.  When I’d asked Grandmother about this, she told me Ben Lyons had been Daddy’s friend and apprentice, and he’d even worked for our company for a few years before we found out he also worked for The Fragrance Stop and tried to steal secrets from us to give to them.  Ben had always been jealous of Daddy, and he was intent on ruining our company so Daddy would become poorer than him.

Grandmother explained that after Lyons was caught trying to steal our company’s secret formulas, Mike Cantin, the founder of The Fragrance Stop had been just as enraged as Grandmother.  Cantin hadn’t known that Ben Lyons was employed by both companies, and he certainly hadn’t sent Lyons into Splash and Spray as a spy.  He might be a formidable man, but he was honest.

But Cantin also had something of a soft heart, and Lyons had begged him not to fire him because he was a single father trying to raise enough money for his son.  So instead of firing him, Cantin had demoted Lyons from being part of the research and development team to a mere sales associate.

But Lyons hadn’t learned his lesson, and Cantin regretted his decision to keep Lyons.  Every so often, he’d try and steal some of our secrets or Cantin’s secrets to sell to other companies.  We just could never quite prove it, and Michael Cantin could never catch Lyons either.  Without proof, he couldn’t fire Lyons, especially when the man was actually competent at his job.  We were just thankful that the man hadn’t yet been successful in stealing anything of worth from either of our companies.

“You must be careful,” Grandmother had told me back in her study.  “His son attends your school.  If he recognizes you, he might try to use you to get to me.  That was one of the reasons why I was content keeping you locked away at home until now.”

I asked her why I couldn’t still be locked up at home.

“Because I realized it was the easy way out, but not what was best for you,” she’d replied.  “But it’s time for me to stop sheltering you so much.  Another reason I’ve hired those four boys is to make sure you’re well-protected.  Lyons won’t try anything if you’re always surrounded in public, so don’t go wandering around by yourself.”  She’d given me a warning look, which had made me wonder if she’d guessed that I’d tried to run away today.  “Don’t worry too much though,” she’d added.  “I don’t believe Lyons will recognize you.  There are no pictures of you circulating in the press—I’ve made sure of that.”

Which was why nobody at school knew I was really Emmaline Lockhart, except the principal, who loved our company’s products and would do anything to win Grandmother’s favor.  Nobody had seen the granddaughter of Penelope Lockhart, and according to the newspapers I’d read, some of the rumors stated that I’d died long ago, in the same car crash that had taken my father.  Another rumor said I was sickly and bedridden and couldn’t go outside.  And a third, more extravagant rumor claimed I was a vampire who couldn’t see the light of day.  I personally liked this story, as one of my favorite mangas, Vampire Maiden, featured a rich vampire girl.

“How do you know those four won’t tell everyone who I am?” I’d asked.

“I’ve done full background checks on the four of them, and I have a good feeling about them.  Contrary to their appearances, the people who know them the best have high opinions of them.  Besides, I’ll tell them all about Benjamin Lyons tonight.  And if they want their college tuitions, they’d better learn how to keep a secret.”

In the end, it was still all about the money.  The four thieves would do anything to get their share of Grandmother’s money.

“Emma.” The voice that called my name jilted me out of my reverie.  I turned to look at Marcus and scowled.  What did he want?

“Did anyone say anything to you last week after the lunch incident?” he asked.  “You know, about what happened the morning of the first day of school.”  I darted an alert glance at Grandmother.  I didn’t want her to know that people had started picking on me since the first day of school and were still showing no signs of stopping.  Thankfully, she was engaged in conversation with Marcus’s grandparents and wasn’t paying attention to our side of the table.

I thought about Marcus’s question and how to answer without lying.  After that first day, people had stopped whispering about Marcus and me rolling on the grass.  So Marcus had achieved what he wanted.  No more whispers that circulated his name with mine.

“Well?” he persisted.

“You achieved your goal,” I said, trying not to seem bitter.

“Good.”  He sounded happy.

“Your grandma told us about The Bulk’s father,” Heath added.  “Don’t worry.  We’ll keep your secret safe from him.”

Anything for the money, I thought resentfully.

As we finished up dessert, the four of them tried to make polite conversation with me.  I responded with half-hearted attempts just to keep Grandmother from getting on my case.  As the servants cleared away the last of the dishes, Grandmother rose from the table.

“Time for your lessons, Emma,” she said.  “Boys, I entrust her to your care.”

Once we’d reached the Cornflower Ballroom, they explained to me what each of them had been assigned to teach me.  Tonight, Stan, Tony, and Heath would combine their lesson, and Marcus would take over for the last hour.

“I’ve been assigned to teach you how to be more charming in your speech and actions,” Stan said.  “And Tony has to teach you all about humor, while Heath is teaching you how to read people.  It’s all kind of related, so we thought we’d teach the first lesson together just to get an idea of your strengths and weaknesses first.”

“We’re going to watch a segment of a movie,” Tony announced.  “Then we’ll ask you about what you saw, and you’ll tell us what you think.”

It sounded easy enough, although I rarely watched movies.

The clip showed some girl and guy at a restaurant for their first date.  The guy kept wiping his hands on his pants, and he kept stuttering.  He said a variety of stupid things and laughed to himself after he said them.  Meanwhile the girl kept sighing and staring at the other tables.  Then she finally dismissed herself, saying she needed to use the restroom.

Tony paused the DVD.  “I’ll go first.”  He cleared his throat.  “Question one: Mick and Patty were on a blind date.  True or false?”

I thought about this for a second.  “Well, neither of them seemed to be blind, and they weren’t blind-folded.  So…false.”

“Incorrect,” he said.  “A blind date has nothing to do with actually being blind.  It’s a figure of speech for when a guy and a girl go on a date without having seen each other before that day.”

“That’s dumb,” I muttered.  “Why would they do that?”

Tony flashed me a smile.  “Some people, like me, are desperate.  But that’s a lesson for another day.  Question two: Mick says he grew up in a town so small, all the townspeople could probably fit within the restaurant.  Is he telling the truth?”

“Why wouldn’t he be?” I said, thinking it would be wrong to lie to a girl on the first date.  “I’d assume it was the truth.”

“Wrong again,” Tony said.  “It was an exaggeration and a tiny attempt at humor.”

He asked me several more questions regarding Mick’s attempts at humor.  I hadn’t even realized they were attempts at humor, and as a result, I answered all the questions wrong.  Tony sighed and looked to Heath.  “Maybe you’ll have more luck.”

I was getting frustrated and wished this whole lesson were over already.

Heath scooted his chair closer to mine.  “I’m not going to ask you questions just yet.  Instead, just tell me what you saw in that clip.  Tell me what you observed.”

I took a moment to recall what I’d seen.  “Well, Mick kept brushing his palms against his pants.  And he kept stammering.  Patty didn’t seem to be paying attention to him.”

“Good job, Emma.”  Heath smiled, making me feel a bit better.  “Now why do you think Mick was doing those things?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “Maybe he was born with a stutter.”

“Think about it again,” he said.  “There he is, on a first date, and he’s not sure how to impress Patty.  How do you think he’s feeling?”

“Nervous, I guess.”

“That’s right, Emma.  He’s nervous, so he’s stuttering because he’s not sure what to say.  And his palms are getting sweaty, and that’s why he’s wiping his hands on his pants.  As for Patty, she keeps sighing and looking around, which are cues that she’s bored.”

“Oh,” I nodded my head, understanding.  “So the date isn’t going well.  But why is Patty bored?  It seemed like Mick was trying his best to impress her.  To me, she’s just being rude.”

“She might be,” Stan said.  “But Mick had something to do with it too.  And teaching you what he did to disgust Patty is my territory.  Did you hear some of the things he said?  He told her right when they met that she was pudgier than how she’d described herself online.  Don’t you think that’s a little rude?”

“But he was just telling the truth,” I said.  “She lied about herself online.  He should be the angry one, not her.”

“There are some things you just don’t tell people though, even if they are true,” Stan explained to me.  “Girls are sensitive about their weight and age.”

“I’m not,” I argued.  “They’re just facts that describe me.”

“Other girls are sensitive then,” he said.  “So it’s something you should probably not mention, especially when meeting for the first time.  In your case, if you went on a date, don’t mention anything about the guy’s height if he’s short.”

Stan went on to tell me that in the clip, Mick shouldn’t have told Patty how chickens were raised in overcrowded, horrible conditions before they’re slaughtered, especially since she’d ordered chicken.

Again I argued.  “But it’s the truth.”

“The truth spoken at an inappropriate time,” he said.  “Usually people don’t like to know where their meat comes from when they’re eating it.”  He stood from his chair.  “All right.  Now we’re going to role play a situation in which you meet someone for the first time.  Marcus, get your butt over here.”

Marcus had been sitting at a table in the corner of the room, quietly doing his homework.  But he stood up at Stan’s request and dragged a chair over.

“Now this role play isn’t about a first date,” Stan said.  “I wouldn’t be that cruel.  But it is about meeting someone for the first time.  Emma, you’re going to play the part of a new girl at school, trying to make friends.”

“But I am a new girl at school.”

“Exactly why this role playing will help you.”  Stan gestured for Marcus to sit across from me.  “You’ll pretend to be her biology lab partner.  So you’re introducing yourselves for the first time and trying to name the parts of a flowering plant on a worksheet at the same time.  Let’s get to it then.  And…action!”

Marcus went into character instantly.  “Hi, I’m Marcus.  It’s nice to meet you.”

This whole thing seemed completely ridiculous to me.  How was I supposed to pretend to meet Marcus for the first time when he was already my tutor?  Even so, I decided to humor the four.  I looked at our pretend table, where our pretend worksheet was supposed to be.  “So parts of the flower.  Here, we have the peduncle, and right above that comes the receptacle.”

“Cut!” Stan waved a hand horizontally through the air.  “Emma, you’re not supposed to jump right into the worksheet.  When Marcus introduces himself, you’re supposed to do the same.”  He sighed.  “Emma, repeat after me.  I’m Emma.  It’s nice to meet you too.”

I did what I was told, still feeling like this was ridiculous.  Even if this was pretend, and we were meeting for the first time, shouldn’t the teacher have called roll?  So Marcus should have caught my name.  Why did I have to tell it to him again?

“One more time, from the top,” said Stan.  “Go!”

This time Marcus did something a little differently.  He extended his hand.  “I’m Marcus.  Nice to meet you.”

I stared at that hand for a moment before remembering what I was supposed to say.  “I’m Emma.  It’s nice to meet you too.”  His hand was still there.  I wondered if he had a cramp, the way he was flexing it in my direction.  But I couldn’t break out of character now.  I’d just said my line successfully and didn’t want to do another retake.  So I turned to our pretend worksheet again.  “So up here we have the petals, of course, and these long, skinny, pillar-like—”

I was interrupted by a loud sigh.  “Emma, you’re supposed to shake Marcus’s…oh, never mind.  Just go on.”

“As I was saying,” I continued.  “These long, skinny, pillar-like objects are called filaments.  And—”

“Hold on,” Marcus said.  “Let me write that down.”  He pretended to scribble the words on the fake paper.  Then he “snatched” it to his side before I could protest.  “Let’s take a break.  We have lots of time to finish later.  I want to get to know you.  Tell me about yourself.”

I wished I could pound him.  He wasn’t about to make this stupid skit easy for me.  “What do you want to know?”  The words came out more forcefully than I’d intended, and I heard a snort of laughter come from Tony.

“Well, when did you move here, and where did you live before?”

“Some time ago, and somewhere that wasn’t here.”

“Could you be a little more specific?”

My fists clenched, just itching to smack that smirk on his face.  “No, I can’t be more specific.  Because as you well know, I didn’t just move to this city, and I’ve been living in this same house since I was six.”

“Actually, I didn’t know that,” Marcus said, still refusing to break character.  “I thought you lived here your whole life.”  All right, now he just slipped.

Stan noticed too.  “Umm, Marcus, you’re not supposed to—”

“Oh damn, sorry,” Marcus said.  “It’s just difficult to work with someone who refuses to cooperate.”  He glared at me, which made me strangely happy.  It was satisfying to know that the perfect leader wasn’t so perfect after all.

“It’s all right,” Stan said.  “Just keep going.”

“So you’ve lived in the same house since you were six,” Marcus continued.  “Where did you live before then?”

My smile fell.  With my mother.  “I—I don’t remember,” I told him.  “And it’s none of your business.  Can we please get back to work now?”

He looked thoughtfully at me, but then said, “All right.”  He looked back at our pretend flower.  “So these are the sepals.”

“No, no,” I said.  “The sepals aren’t that far up.  You’re pointing to the petals.  The sepals are down here.”

“Someone just kill me now.”  Marcus’s voice rose a notch, and he picked his gaze up heavenward.  “Kill all of us, please.”

“Why in the world would you want someone to kill you?” I asked, horrified.  I wondered if maybe he was suicidal.

“Or maybe she is killing us.  Slowly, by torture,” he said.

I had no idea what Marcus was blabbing on about, but I needed him to concentrate on the make believe flower so we could finish this dumb role playing business.  “Focus Marcus,” I said.  “This is the top of the paper, and this is the bottom.”  I indicated with my hands.  “So the sepals are towards the bottom of the paper, where the bottom of the flower is drawn.  You were pointing to the top at first.”

“To the top of a nonexistent flower on a nonexistent piece of paper!” Marcus bellowed.

“You still have to be accurate!” I shouted back.  “I thought that was the whole point of this stupid role playing exercise.”

“You choose now to be accurate, when you haven’t been in character since the beginning?

“Damn it all!” Marcus swore, grabbing the paper from me.  He drew a flower on the paper, labeled its parts accordingly, and handed it back.  “Happy now?”

I examined his diagram and admitted I was impressed.  He knew a thing or two about plant biology himself.  “Your drawing skills could improve slightly, but everything’s labeled properly.”

“ARGGHHH!!!”  He crumpled up the paper, tore it three times, and threw the pieces in the air.

“Hey!”  Did he know he’d just killed part of a tree?  “You could at least recycle.”

We glared at each other, nostrils flaring.

“Oh, this is hopeless,” Stan exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air.  “Tony, put on the next movie clip.  I give up on role playing today.”

Tony gave a gleeful chortle.  “At least we know one thing.  Emma isn’t emotionless, and Marcus brings out those emotions.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” we both cried at the same time.

“Exactly that,” Tony grinned.  “Emma hardly speaks above a whisper, and she never voices her true feelings out loud, so we don’t know how she’s feeling unless she hands us some flower and expects us to interpret the flower’s meaning.”

My cheeks started to burn.  They knew why I’d given them the Iris wattii and Tanacetum vulgare and why I’d been wearing Carpobrotus edulis in my hair this morning.  I hadn’t expected them to know.  Nobody ever guessed why I gave them flowers.  Usually they just thought I was being my normally peculiar self.

“But this skit with Marcus brought out Emma’s true feelings,” Tony said.  “Instead of keeping her dislike for us inside, she voiced it all during the skit and took out her anger on Marcus.”  He shrugged.  “I’d rather face Emma’s wrath than her indifference.  At least she feels something towards us.”

My mouth opened to say something, maybe to tell them I didn’t dislike them.  But it wasn’t exactly the truth either.  I loathed Marcus, that was for sure, but I didn’t like or dislike the other three.  I just didn’t want them to be interfering with my life anymore.

“So our lesson today was good for something,” Heath said.  “We managed to make Emma reveal her true emotions.  That’s quite an accomplishment.”  He grinned at me, and my embarrassment flared further.  I couldn’t believe I’d left myself unguarded.  It was rare that I ever let my anger show, unless one of my tantrums hit me.  And even then, I didn’t say much during those tantrums, only rocked back and forth and screamed because it was hard for me to voice my frustration with words.

“All right, onto the next movie clip,” Tony declared.  “Watch carefully, Emma.  I have lots of questions about this one.”

We ended up watching four other movie clips.  Two of them took place in an office, one of them was a job interview, and one of them was a conversation between two friends who liked the same boy.  Tony asked me a bunch of questions about the jokes and the idioms the characters used, and I got about two questions out of twenty correct.  When he gave up on me, Heath took over and asked me to describe the emotions of the characters by observing their facial expressions and subtle body language.  I did a little better with that, but it was only because Heath ended up feeding me most of the answers.

Since Stan had given up with the role playing, the four of them decided we’d stop with the social skills lesson for the day, and Marcus took over.  It turned out Grandmother had told him to teach me martial arts.

“I don’t want to learn martial arts from you,” I declared with a pout.  I couldn’t believe how spoiled I was acting, but I couldn’t quite help it.  Marcus already acted as though he was a king, and I, his lowly subject.  As my martial arts teacher, he’d become a tyrant.

“I don’t care what you want,” Marcus said.  “So get over here and do what I say, or I’ll tell Mrs. Lockhart you aren’t cooperating.  Now let’s go.”

We left the ballroom to walk to the gym in the east wing.  Stan left us to return to his room, since he was done with his parts for the day.  He claimed to have a headache, although I couldn’t understand why.  I’d been doing most of the work, with that stupid role playing he’d made me do.

“You’ll be fine without me, won’t you?” Stan lightly punched Marcus in the shoulder.  “There’s three of you, and one of her, so I doubt she’ll bite…I think.”

“We can only hope,” was Marcus’s snarky reply.

“I can hear you,” I said, and stormed off, wishing I could throw these guys off my trail.  They weren’t familiar with the layout of the house yet, so maybe they’d get lost.

But they didn’t.

“We’ll take it a little easier today,” Marcus said, as we spread out the mats to do some exercises.  Tony and Heath decided to ride the stationary bikes and watched us from there.

Marcus had me do several exercises, including leg lifts and squats.  As I was doing my squats, he began explaining that martial arts was a form of self-defense, not to be used unless absolutely necessary.  And being angry at someone was not a good enough excuse for punching their lights out.

Too bad.  I knew one person in the room especially whom I’d love to knock unconscious.

“For the first few weeks, I’ll have you build up your endurance,” he said.  “This means a lot of running, stretching, push-ups, and that sort of thing.  We’ll also work on your balance.  Then we’ll start on the basics of a proper punch.”

“When will you teach me how to kick?  Or do I need to teach you?”  I asked, making Tony laugh.

He glowered at the reminder that I’d already managed to knock him unconscious on our first meeting.  “That was a lucky shot.  You’d never be able to repeat the move much less hit me with it again.”

I couldn’t quite help what happened next.  Maybe it was the way he said it, as though he were challenging me.  Or maybe it was just because he was such an arrogant jerk.  My foot twitched just a tiny bit, as Marcus bent over to retrieve a jump rope, and before I quite knew what I’d done, he was laying face flat on the mattress, totally unconscious.

I stared at him in horror.

“Oh my God, she did it again!”  I heard Tony shout, and he and Heath were standing above Marcus’s prone body, even more shocked than I was.

“I didn’t quite believe she did it that first time,” Heath said, “But now I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

“Stan’s gonna be so pissed that he missed it,” Tony added.

Now I spurred into action, kneeling down to assess the damage I’d done.  He had another lump growing, this time on the other side of his head.  Paired with the first lump, it looked like he was growing horns of a devilish nature.  How fitting.

I wished the boys would do something more useful, but they were just standing around, frozen in place.

“Go get some ice,” I told them.

Heath came to life first.  “Oh, right.”  He dashed out of the gym, and I heard him calling for the servants.

I closed my eyes, wondering what Grandmother would do when she found about this.  Would she fire Marcus?  I’d proved for the second time that even though he was supposedly a kung fu expert, I could take him down.  It was clear that Marcus’s skills were a little shabby.

I knew I’d probably get into trouble with Grandmother, but for the first time, I didn’t really care.  Beating Marcus for the second time in a row just might have made up for being forced to attend public school.

 

Marcus

 

The second lump was worse than the first.  Two months later, I could still feel a slight swell on my scalp, and my friends were still hounding me about getting beaten by a girl.  Most likely they would never let it go, but I deserved it.  I couldn’t believe I’d let Emma take me off guard again.  But I really hadn’t thought she’d try the kick when my back was turned, and she was just a little girl, two heads shorter than me.  I should have learned my lesson from the first time.

At least Mrs. Lockhart took my side and told Emma she couldn’t go kicking people in the heads when they least expected it, even more so, her tutors.  So I was grateful that Mrs. Lockhart hadn’t immediately wondered if I was lying about knowing kung fu and fired me on the spot.

And I guess I wouldn’t have minded that second kick as much if Emma hadn’t taken it as a sign that she was stronger than me.  Mrs. Lockhart had warned Emma to stop undermining my authority, but the girl showed no signs of obeying and continually challenged my authority as her martial arts instructor.  If I told her to do fifty jumping jacks, she’d half-heartedly do twenty of them and stop, and nothing I said could make her do more.  If I told her to run a mile, she’d walk it instead, very slowly.

It wasn’t like I could physically overpower her to make her do things.  The most I could do was verbally lash out, but she didn’t even bat an eye.  All she did was constantly remind me that she, who had no previous martial arts training, had beaten me twice, and she should be teaching me.

I wasn’t about to tattle to her grandma either.  It would be like admitting I was failing horribly, which I was, but I refused to let Mrs. Lockhart know that, especially when Tony, Stan, and Heath were more successful.  Although Emma was still a completely miserable mess in the social realm, at least she wasn’t treating them like they were ignorant pigs.

It was irritating the way she targeted me, but I was still determined to find a way to gain back my power; I’d force her to submit to me if it was the last thing I did.  And I’d do it without crying to Mrs. Lockhart about how her little granddaughter was bullying me.

Today was a dull Friday.  I wasn’t really looking forward to the weekend, especially since I was spending most of it with Emma, just as I had for the past six weekends.  Yes, I was counting.

We’d taken Emma to the grocery store so she could learn to order meat from the butcher and to pay the cashier.  We’d gone to restaurants and small cafés to teach her how to order her own food.  But this weekend was more of a challenge than anything we’d made her do before.  It was the next level up, and even I wasn’t sure I could do what we were making her do.  But getting up in front of a crowd to speak or perform was a task she had to get used to.

Our public outing this weekend was a visit to the senior center, where she would play a medley of classic tunes on the piano for the seniors.  Since I was already teaching the seniors Saturday morning, I was in charge of organizing the whole event.  I’d be spending the entire day at the senior center with Emma.  After my class, we’d do some community service, eat lunch and play some board games with the seniors, and the guys would come in the afternoon after work to listen to Emma’s performance.

So my whole Saturday was dedicated to the girl who loved making my life miserable.  My only comfort was that at least I would have this afternoon and most of Sunday off.

I took a sideways glance at Emma, who was walking beside us as we walked across the field to the music building.  Her eyes were fixed on her feet, as usual.  It looked like she was trying not to step on any cracks or bugs.  I shook my head and frowned.  She was the strangest person I’d ever met, by far.

By now, we were mostly settled into our daily routines, dropping Emma off at her first class before we parted ways.  As Emma walked into the music building, at the corner of my eye, I thought I caught a glimpse of a girl rudely shoving Emma as she passed through the door.  But when I looked back, Emma was still standing steadily, and the other girl was out of sight.

“Did
you see that?” I asked Heath.

“What?”

“Some girl pushed Emma.”  I frowned.  “Do you think people are still bullying her?”

“After your warning?” Tony snorted.

“I wouldn’t even dare to look at the girl,” Stan wholeheartedly agreed.

“Maybe it was an accident,” Heath said.  “People tend to be in a hurry in the morning, especially when they’re late.”

I hoped it was an accident.  If Emma was being bullied, surely she would have told us.  Nobody would have gone two whole months without at least one complaint if they were being picked on.  Or at least I wouldn’t.  But I didn’t know about Emma.

 

Emma

 

It was only mid-October, and the autumn winds were barely brushing through the trees.  Yet, I was already anticipating summer.  I wanted school to end now.  Nobody liked me, and everyone thought I was a freak.  I got at least five hate notes a day, and my arms had bruises from where someone shoved me hard into the wall during passing periods.  They whispered hateful things about me, saying I was a skank, a mumbling freak, and a horror show.  They’d even on occasion sprinkled salt, pepper, and liquid cheese on my hair after lunch.

The only thing Marcus’s warning had done was to stop the gossip that mixed his name with mine.  But when I was by myself in the halls, they didn’t even try to keep me from hearing all the mean things they said.

And I had no one to tell.  I refused to tell Grandmother or any of the four thieves.  I always washed the cheese and other gunk from my hair before meeting up with the four thieves after school.  If they found out, it would only confirm their beliefs that I couldn’t make friends or handle the world on my own.  I wasn’t going to give Marcus that satisfaction.  Not after what he’d done to me.  Sure, I’d kicked him, but it had been an accident.  But Grandmother had taken his side, and as punishment, she forbade me from even breathing the garden air and from reading manga.  I was only allowed access to the garden and manga for two hours on Sunday afternoon.

All thanks to Marcus.

Usually, I had manga to read and flowers to confide in when I was sad or wanted to pretend the world didn’t exist.  But now I had no one, and this was probably the lowest point in my life.  Besides those years I’d spent living with my mother.

Nobody, not even these awful high school students, would ever be worse than my mother.

As I walked through the hall on my way to history, some guy elbowed me hard, and I stumbled.  But just before I collided with a wall, I hit something else that was equally as hard.  Two hands came to steady me.  I looked up to see who had helped me.  The guy had a camera and a yearbook pass dangling around his neck.  I recognized him as a senior named Adam something.  I didn’t know much about him, other than that he was a photographer for yearbook, and he was a new kid like me.  Gossip was that he had a huge crush on Jasmine Carwarner, the girls’ swimming team captain and junior class vice president, and she was the reason he’d transferred to Orchid High.  One would think the gossipers would love this story, but no, they were all too infatuated with bothering me to care.   If only my attackers could redirect their attention to him.

“Hey,” he shouted at the guy who’d elbowed me.  “Watch where you’re going.  You almost made this pretty girl fall.”

I blinked in surprise.  Pretty girl?  I immediately felt bad for wishing evil upon him.  It wasn’t his fault everyone else in this school was mean.

“Are you all right?” he asked me.

I simply stared at him, too stunned to do anything else.

“Wait a minute, I’ve seen you around before.  You’re a junior, right?  Emma…”  His eyebrows folded in concentration as he tried to remember my fake name.  “Emma Hartley.”  He grinned.  “Listen Emma, if someone makes trouble for you again, be sure to tell me, all right?”

Dumbly, I nodded, feeling the effects of his charms.  He talked like a gentleman, something I was completely unused to—the exact opposite of Marcus.

“I’ll see you around then, Emma.”

I walked to history, still feeling a little dazed.  With almost the entire school against me, it was nice to be reminded that there were still a few decent people around.  Adam was one of them, and Jasmine, the girl he supposedly had a crush on, was another.

It was too bad they couldn’t be around all the time.

As I reached the door to the classroom, someone behind me tugged hard on my hair, making me gasp from the sharp pain.  I tried to free my hair, but whoever was behind me wouldn’t let go.

“There you go,” a girl’s voice hissed in my ear.  “A nice ribbon for your hair.”  Finally she let me go, and passed me to get into the classroom.  Another girl followed her, laughing hysterically.  I knew who they were.  The same girls who’d been all over Marcus and Heath that day in the cafeteria when Marcus warned everyone to stop with the rumors about him and me, or else.  Lindsey and Darlene were the worst of the bullies at school.  As the saying went, they were off to get me.  Or was that, they were out to get me?  Anyway, they had been relentless in their efforts to make my life miserable.  Those two witches were the ones who liked putting sticky, dirty gunk in my hair.

I ran my hands through my hair to find out what treasures they’d left me today and discovered white glue, already clunking strands of hair together and dripping onto my backpack.  They’d stuck a yellow ribbon and a note there too.

Despite knowing it was another hate note, my curiosity won out.  As they said, curiosity always killed the dog, and they were right.

“Hey you bitch,” it read, “This is your last warning.  Stay away from Marcus and Heath, or next time we’re bringing out the scissors.”

It’s not like I can help it, I thought.  I wished I could stay away from them too.  Although, I wasn’t sure why Lindsey and Darlene wanted me to stop hanging around Marcus and Heath.  They’d been hassling me about it for weeks, although Marcus had already made it clear, I thought, that he wasn’t interested in Lindsey.  He’d clearly humiliated her.  I just didn’t understand why she wasn’t giving up.  Maybe she was a masochist with some sick desire to be humiliated further.

I walked to the restroom to try and wash the glue from my hair as best I could before it dried.  Maybe I’d just cut it myself and save Lindsey and Darlene the trouble.

The water helped a little, but my hair was a mess.  It frizzed out from where the glue had formed globs.  I looked like I’d just woken up, but it was the best I could do.  I took some paper towels to clean my backpack, and once that was done, I returned to class.  Although most people were already in class, three seniors were in the hallway, working on a huge poster for something called Homecoming.

“Hey freak,” one of the guys called.  Why, oh why, did I have to run into trouble every five minutes?  Why couldn’t I be just a wallflower again—invisible and alone?

I tried to ignore them, but they blocked my way.  “Respond when you’re addressed by your elders, freak,” the guy said.  His girlfriend cozied up next to him and sneered at me.

“Nice hair,” she said.  “Did you have a quickie in the restroom?”  The two guys laughed.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”  What was a quickie?  I made a note to ask Tony later.

“Oh really,” the girl said.  “That’s surprising, considering you’re the school slut.”

“Come here, and make out with me,” the guy who wasn’t her boyfriend said.  In one hand, he held a can of soda, and with his free hand, he pulled me towards him.  When I tried to resist, he laughed.  “Oh, come on.  There’s no teachers around.”

“There are no teachers around,” I couldn’t help but correct his improper grammar.  It was one of those things that vexed me if left uncorrected.  “And I don’t want to.  Leave me alone.  Please,” I added desperately.

“Oh, there you go acting all proper,” he smirked.  “That’s hot.  This’ll be like making out with a teacher.”

He tugged me towards him again, only this time, I pushed hard enough so that he lost his balance.  His can of soda tipped, the sticky sweet contents pouring directly onto my head.

He swore and glared at me.  “You owe me a soda, bitch.  Come here.”

But I was already zooming down the hall.  I had to get out of this school.  I could already feel one of my tantrums coming on.  I reached the nurse’s office before finally slowing down and tried to take slow, even breaths.  It would only cause more trouble if I threw a tantrum in front of the nurse.  She’d probably send me to the principal’s office, and the principal, Ms. Tate, who happened to be the only other person besides the four thieves to know I was Emmaline Lockhart, would call Grandmother, and then everyone would find out I was being bullied, and then they wouldn’t have any more faith in me, and then…and then…

I needed to stop over thinking, or I would start screaming right there in the hall.

Breathe in, breathe out.  I concentrated on listening to my breaths until I felt the panic subsiding.  It was a trick Daddy had taught me back when my tantrums were ten times worse than they were now.  Little by little, I could feel myself stepping back into my own body, in control of my thoughts once again.

When I felt like I could talk without screaming, I cautiously poked my head into the nurse’s office.  Mrs. Lowe was taking care of another student kid who lay on a cot.  He was looking a little green.  For a full five minutes, I stood there, unnoticed.  Why was it that when I wanted to be invisible, people noticed me, and when I wanted to be noticed, they treated me like I wasn’t there?

But finally, Mrs. Lowe turned around and jumped a bit in surprise.  “Oh, sweetie, I didn’t see you there.  You should have said something.”  She took a look at my hair and immediately knew why I was there.  “Uh oh.  What happened?”

“I…I spilled soda on myself.”

“Oh dear, go get yourself cleaned up in the bathroom,” she said.

I dunked my hair under the water, trying to wash out the stickiness, and then I tried to clean my clothes and backpack too.  But with the combination of glue and soda, it was impossible to get everything out.

When I stepped out of the bathroom, the guy on the cot was gone.  He’d probably gone home.

“Are you all right, sweetie?”  Mrs. Lowe asked.  “Let me get you a change of clothes.”

“Oh, no thanks,” I said quickly.  If I changed my clothes, the four thieves would know something was wrong.  “It’s just a little spill.  I’ll dry quickly.”

She gave me a look that might have been sympathetic, but I wasn’t too sure.  “Your name’s Emma, right?  You’re the new girl.”  She sat me down on the cot and then scooted her own chair across from me.  “Emma, is there something you’d like to talk about?  If you’d like to confide in someone, I’m right here.”

I debated whether or not to tell her.  It would be nice to finally vent to someone.  But in the end, I decided against it.  She would only tell the principal I was being bullied, and then Grandmother would find out.  “I just feel a little sick.  Is it all right if I go home?”  I didn’t think I could stand a moment more of being here at school.  I’d had enough of people, and I wanted to be by myself for once.

The nurse hesitated a moment, but then she agreed.  “All right, let me call the office and tell them to excuse you for the rest of the day.  What class are you supposed to have right now?  I’ll give your teacher a call too.”

I told her I was in Mr. Gyler’s history class, but I hadn’t shown up at all, so there was no point calling him because he’d probably already marked me absent.  She still called him, just to “let him know.”  Then she called the office.

When she’d hung up the phone, she turned back to me.  “Give me your parents’ number.  I’ll call and tell them to pick you up.”

“No that’s all right,” I said and decided to lie.  “They’re both busy at work.  I don’t want to bother them.  I’ll be fine taking the bus.”  Except I wouldn’t take the bus.  I’d already decided to walk, at least part of the way.  I needed it to clear my head.

She still tried to insist, but in the end, she let me go.  I was glad.  I desperately needed some time alone, to think and to calm down before I had to go home.  I’d have lunch somewhere before taking the bus the rest of the way.  The four thieves wouldn’t care anyway, as long as I got home when they did and Grandmother didn’t find out they hadn’t escorted me.  In fact, they’d probably be glad to get some time away from me.  It wasn’t like they were my real friends.

I had no friends.

 

Marcus

 

I had a crazy morning, with an AP chemistry lab during second period, and a pop quiz in third period government.  By the time lunch rolled around, I’d used up so much brain power that I was ready to eat anything and everything.

The cafeteria was serving hamburgers and fries today.  After buying my lunch, I searched the tables and spotted Heath already digging into his burger.

“How’d you do on the government quiz?” he asked, as I took a seat.  Mr. Pom taught government two periods in a row, but the difference was one was advanced placement, and the other wasn’t.  Heath had the class before me, which wasn’t AP, but Mr. Pom always tested both classes on the same days, and we used the same textbook.

“It was all right I guess,” I said.  “Pretty straightforward if you kept up with the reading.”

“I think I bombed it,” Heath sighed.  “That textbook’s so boring.  I tried reading it last night, but I fell asleep.”

“That’s why you shouldn’t procrastinate.”

Heath shrugged sheepishly.  “I was too busy preparing for my lessons with Emma this past week, and then I got distracted by a new project.”

Heath was always getting distracted by his artwork.  He was forever doodling when he was supposed to be studying.  He was a smart guy, but he barely made the grades because he didn’t like to study.

“What are you drawing now?” I asked.

“Oh, just different things,” he replied cryptically.

By now, Stan and Tony had found us.  They sat down and immediately started some argument about whether the hamburgers were really made out of beef.  Tony argued that horse meat was cheaper, and there was no way the hamburger he was eating could be beef because it was too sweet.  Meanwhile, Stan disputed that it was just cheap beef because there was no way the school district would be able to feed us horse meat without facing lots of legal issues.

I only listened half-heartedly.  My mind wandered, and I searched the cafeteria for Emma.  Where had she gone?  Although I knew she didn’t want to sit with us, she usually did for lack of another place to sit.  I turned to Heath, about to ask him if he’d seen Emma today, when I saw his eyes scouting the cafeteria too, and I knew he was also looking for her.

“Do you think Emma’s all right?” he asked us.  “Maybe we should look for her.”

“No need,” I said, spotting a guy named Bryan, who sat next to Emma in fourth period English.  I stopped him as he walked by our table.  He looked like he was about to pee in his pants.

“I didn’t say or do anything behind your back.  Please don’t beat me up.”

“Relax man.  I just want to know if you’ve seen Emma Hartley.”

“Emma?”  Bryan’s shoulders relaxed slightly.  “Oh, she didn’t show up to class.  You might try the nurse’s office.  Mrs. Lowe called Mr. Gyler, and I heard them say something about Emma not feeling well.”

“Do you know if she went home?”

“I have no idea.”  His body started shaking again.  “You’re not going to beat me up because I don’t know, are you?”

“No.  Go eat your lunch.”

He scampered off in relief.

“Time to visit the nurse,” Heath said.  The four of us trekked our way across the halls to Mrs. Lowe, the school nurse.  She was at her desk, eating lunch, but there were no sick patients on any of the beds.

“Hello boys, what can I do for you?”

“We heard Emma Hartley was here,” I said.

“Oh yes, she was,” Mrs. Lowe replied.  “She wasn’t feeling well.”

“Where is she now?”

“I sent her home,” the nurse said with a frown.  “I hope she’s all right, poor thing.  I asked if there was someone I could call to pick her up, but she said she would be fine taking the bus.  I had to let her go.”  She eyed us critically.  “Are you her friends?”

“You could say that,” I said.

“Well, I hope you’ll talk to her soon.  Something’s bothering her, but she wouldn’t talk to me about it.  Maybe she’ll open up to you.”

I hardly heard her, as the alarm bells sounded in my head.  Emma had been taking the bus home with us these past two months, but I didn’t think she could do it on her own, especially if she was sick.  She always stared at the ground while she followed us, never paying attention to her surroundings.

We left the nurse’s office quietly, but as soon as we were out of hearing distance, Heath took out his phone.  “If she left during fourth period, she should have gotten home already.  I’ll call and make sure she’s okay.”  He dialed the house number and put it on speaker phone.

Marlin answered within the first two rings.  “Hello, Mr. Renway.”

“Hi Marlin,” Heath said.  “I’m just wondering if Emma is at home.”

There was a short silence from the other end, then, “No, she is not.  She should be at school, safe and sound.  With you.”

“Umm…yes she is,” Heath forced out an awkward little laugh.  “I see her now.  I was just worried because she was late for lunch.”

“If anything happens to her…” Marlin warned.

“Don’t worry,” Heath interrupted.  “We’ll take care of her.”  And he hung up before Marlin could say anything else.

Then Heath immediately dialed Emma’s number.  The phone rang several times, but finally, her voice answered on the other end.  “Hello?”

Since she usually forgot her phone, I was both shocked and relieved to hear her answer.

“Where are you, Emma?” Heath asked.

“Walking home.  I’m eating lunch near that sea shell shop.  I didn’t want to stay at school today.”

“Why didn’t you take the bus?” I roared at the phone.  “It’ll take two hours for you to get home.”

“I just wanted to walk,” she sniffed.  “By the time you guys get home, I’ll be there too, so don’t worry, Marlin and Grandmother won’t know you weren’t watching me.  Goodbye.”

“Wait,” Heath exclaimed, but the line went dead.

“Does she even know the way home?” Tony asked.

We looked at each other with mutual expressions of panic.  This was like that first Monday all over again, when she’d run off the bus by herself.  Only now, we were far behind her trail.

Stan groaned.  “We’ll have to ditch the rest of our classes to find her, you know.”  He said this for my benefit.  I might have had a reputation for being a rebel, but I hated missing classes.  Not that anyone besides my friends had noticed, but I hadn’t been absent since kindergarten.

“Not like we have a choice,” I spat angrily.  Stupid girl.  When I found Emma, I was going to shake her to within an inch of her life for making me miss two classes.

 

Emma

As I walked down the street, deciding on a place to eat, the scent of delicious-smelling orchids drifted across my nose.  I followed it to a sign.  Daphne’s Garden—Nursery and Café.

Wait a minute, I knew this place.  This was one of our nurseries, and I’d been here before but hadn’t realized it was here on Bellflower Avenue, the tourist street.  Then again, I’d never paid attention to street names before either.

Gardeners from all over came to buy plants here because they knew the plants were of the highest quality.  It was owned by an old lady named Daphne Barnes, and she’d been running the place for forty years.  She was one of Grandmother’s old friends, and she was one of the few people who actually knew I was Emmaline Lockhart, not Emma Hartley.

Ms. Daphne was a warm, friendly lady, and she brewed fantastic flower teas.  Inside her nursery, she also ran a small gift shop and café, where she served cakes, pastries, and tea.  I usually visited the nursery, but never the café, so today I decided it was about time to go for the first time.

I walked down a long cobblestone path amidst bushes of heather until I reached the small building in front of the nursery.  This was Ms Daphne’s café, also known as her main office.  A couple was browsing the potted pansies out in front, debating on whether they wanted purple or white groundcovers.

Inside the café, a tall woman with dark hair and the prettiest hazel eyes I’d ever seen greeted me.  I’d never seen her before, but she had a smile I wasn’t used to.  It just seemed nice and genuine.

“Is Ms. Daphne here?” I asked.

“She is,” the lady said, “But she’s busy right now.  I can tell her you’re looking for her though.”

“Can you tell her Emma Hartley’s here?”  Ms. Daphne was well-acquainted with my pseudonym, so I didn’t have to worry she wouldn’t know it was me.

“Sure thing,” the lady said, beaming at me.  Even her eyes seemed to smile.  I frowned slightly, wondering why those eyes looked so familiar.  I’d seen them before, but on someone else.  I just couldn’t think of who though.

“Would you like anything to eat, miss?”

That drew me out of my reverie.  I blinked at her, wondering if she knew who I was, but then another customer walked through the door, and the lady said, “I’ll be right with you, miss.”  I hypothesized that the lady must address all her female customers that way.  Strange.

“I’d like a tuna melt on rye, a Waldorf salad, and a pot of chrysanthemum tea,” I said, already taking out my wallet and guessing how much it might cost.

“That’ll be eight—“

“Eighty, right?” I guessed.  “I only have a hundred dollar bill, but you can keep the change.”

The woman’s jaw fell.  Then she collected herself and said, “Oh no, I can’t accept all this money from you.  Your total is only eight dollars and seventy-three cents.”

I felt my face heating up at the mistake, but the lady threw me another smile.  Somehow it felt calming.  “It’s all right.  This must be your first time paying without your parents, right?  I’m just glad you came here, so I could prevent you from getting cheated out of your money.  Let me get you some change.”  She scurried to the back room, and when she came back, she handed me several bills and coins.  I looked down at the twenty-dollar bills and realized this was the first time I was holding one.  Usually I only dealt with hundred-dollar bills.

“Th-thank you,” I said.

“Go ahead and sit wherever you’d like.  I’ll bring your lunch when it’s ready.”

I sat at one of the tables and watched the lady continue to help other people.  She really was nice.  Not everyone would have graciously looked over my mistake without giving me a strange stare or just taking the money without any questions.  She was the polar opposite of that sea shell lady who’d tried to cheat me before.

But really, why did this woman look so familiar?  I frowned, trying to place where I’d seen those beautiful eyes before.  I had a feeling they hadn’t belonged to another girl, but to a guy.

I stared until she brought me my food, and then looked down, hoping she hadn’t caught me staring for so long.  She didn’t mention it though, only told me Ms. Daphne would be right out to see me.

I ate my lunch in silence until a familiar woman bustled in from outside, her hands and garden apron covered in dirt.  “Oh my little Miss Emma,” she cried, and I stood up to give her a hug.  “Wait a second, let me wash up, or you’ll end up with mud all over.”

She came back two minutes later, having washed her hands and removed the sullied apron, and sat across from me.  “So what brings our little Miss Emma to my shop today?  I heard from your grandma that you’re attending Orchid High now.  In fact, aren’t you supposed to be there right now?”  She glanced at the clock, and I knew I was caught.

“Please don’t tell Grandmother,” I begged.  “I just needed to get away for awhile.  I hate it there.”

Her lips narrowed the way Grandmother’s did whenever she was about to lecture me, and I braced myself.  But then Ms. Daphne threw up her hands and sighed.  “What the heck.  Sometimes we all need a day off.  Just don’t do it too often.”

I smiled and thanked her.  If there was one person I could count on, it was Ms. Daphne.  We talked for awhile before she left me to finish my lunch.  “Stay for as long as you need,” she said.

And I’d take her up on that offer.  I still had just about two hours before I had to head home, which meant I had two hours to read manga and relax before facing reality again.

My phone rang, and I winced, knowing exactly who was calling.  The four thieves were probably checking up on me.  I debated whether to answer it, but in the end I picked up.  It was better that they know I was all right, so they wouldn’t call my house and alert everyone that I was missing.  “Hello?”

It was Heath. “Where are you, Emma?”

“Walking home.  I’m eating lunch near that sea shell shop.  I didn’t want to stay at school today.”

“Why didn’t you take the bus?” I heard Marcus roar, and I drew the phone away from my ear.  That rude jerk.  “It’ll take two hours for you to get home.”

“I just wanted to walk,” I said, peeved at him for trying to bust my eardrums.  Besides, why did he care anyway?  I wasn’t bothering him by deciding to go home alone.  “By the time you guys get home, I’ll be there too, so don’t worry, Marlin and Grandmother won’t know you weren’t watching me.  Goodbye.”

I hung up, satisfied.

There was no way they’d know to come here to find me.  Daphne’s Garden was the last place they’d think of.

 

Marcus

 

On the bus, the four of us looked out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Emma on the street.  We were hoping she’d follow the bus route, since that was the only way she knew of to get home.  Each of us sat at a corner of the bus, looking through different windows.  But after the fourth stop on Bellflower Street, where Emma had said she’d just finished lunch, we decided to split up.  Stan and I got off the bus to continue the search on foot, while Heath and Tony decided to stay on the bus.

I returned to the sea shell shop, since Emma had told us she’d been eating lunch around there, and Stan went the other way, deciding to search some of the other shops.

The woman who’d tried to cheat Emma was working at the register again.  She was reading the newspaper and looking very bored.  Before I even entered the store, she shooed me away without looking up.  “We’re closed.”

“But your open sign is up.”

“We reserve the right to refuse service to customers,” she said.  “Especially customers who ruin our chance to make big bucks.”

Ah, so she remembered me even after almost two months.  “I didn’t ruin anything.  You wanted to cheat a girl out of her money.”

“Out,” she said, more forcefully this time.

I’d been intending to ask her if she’d seen Emma pass by, but it was obvious she wasn’t going to be helpful.  So I left.  Back on the street, I looked around for any restaurants close by.  Heath had called her maybe twenty minutes ago, so there was a high chance she’d just finished lunch and would walk out of one of those restaurants at any second.

Where would a rich girl go and eat?

There was an expensive-looking French bistro across the street, and an Italian restaurant a few shops down from that one.  I looked through the window of the French bistro, and when I didn’t see Emma sitting anywhere, I asked the hostess if she’d seen a girl with Emma’s description.  When she said she hadn’t, I walked down to try my luck at the Italian restaurant.  On my way there, I paused at a small sign with an arrow.  Daphne’s Garden—Nursery and Café.  The arrow pointed up towards a small cobblestone path.  I could smell a strong aroma of flowers wafting down the walkway.

Could it be?   It had to be.  Emma couldn’t stay away from flowers.  And she’d said she was having lunch.  It was the perfect combination, it was laughable.

I was so angry, I ran down the path, barely noticing all the pretty wildflowers that grew around me.

As soon as I got to the nursery, I located the café and threw the door open.  There, sitting at one of the tables, was Emma.  Her green backpack lay on the ground next to her, and she sat comfortably on a chair next to it, reading manga, without a care in the world.

That sneaky girl wasn’t sick after all.  She’d ditched school purposely, just to get away from us so she could secretly read manga, which she hadn’t been allowed to touch ever since Monday.  It was her punishment for having kicked me that second time.

I was so angry that I wanted to march up to her and rip those comics to shreds.  Instead, I slammed the door shut behind me.

The lady behind the counter dropped a tray, breaking some dishes and startling herself.  “Oh my God!” She sounded like she’d seen a ghost, and I barely glanced at her.  My entire focus was on Emma.

She looked up when the lady had dropped the dishes, and as her eyes met mine, they widened enormously from a mixture of surprise and annoyance.

“What a coincidence to meet you here,” I drawled, taking a seat and folding my arms across my chest.  “Getting some light reading done?”

Emma instantly stood to place her backpack on the chair and eagerly began to pack her things.  “I was just about to start home again,” she said.  “What are you doing here?  School’s in session.”

“Smart of you to know,” I said, “considering you’re not there.”

She flipped her hair behind her shoulders to sling the backpack on, and that’s when I noticed her hair and clothes were damp.  I frowned, wondering if my suspicions this morning about people still bullying her might be correct.

I didn’t know why I cared, considering she’d played hooky and made me miss class.  I should be furious, which I was, but I was still concerned.  If she was wet because someone had dunked her in the toilet or thrown a bucket of an unknown liquid on her, then I wanted to know so I could fix it.

“Look what you did,” she scowled.  “You startled that poor woman with your angry expression and the way you slammed the front door.”  She pointed to the lady behind the counter, who surprisingly wasn’t gathering the broken glass but staring at me like I was something that came out of a horror movie.

I raised a hand to apologize.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” I called.  “I promise I’m not here to cause trouble.”  Then I turned back to Emma.  “Why are you all wet?”

“None of your business,” she said, starting for the door.  “Bye,” she said to the cashier lady, who was still gaping at me.  “I’m sorry about him.  He can’t help his temper.”

The lady said nothing, only nodded, and still looking scared as ever.  I supposed I shouldn’t have slammed the door.  Just what I needed—one more person thinking I belonged to a gang.

Why did Emma make me lose my temper all the time?  I followed close behind, stalking her.

“Go away,” she said.

“No.  Now tell me why your clothes are wet.”

“I spilled soda on myself and tried to clean it up with water.”

That answer satisfied me for the moment, and the animosity returned.

“You lied about being sick,” I accused.  “Just so you could get out of school and read your comics.”

“Leave me alone.  You’ve been paid to be my tutors and ‘friends’—” she made air quotations around the word friends, just as Tony had taught her, “—not my guardians.”

“Let me remind you that your grandma also left us in charge of you whenever we’re in public,” I said.  “So when you run away, you’re not only jeopardizing your own safety, you’re making life tough for us.  I—”

She began to run.

“Hey!” I called, chasing after her.  Within ten seconds, she started slowing down, already tired from running.  I grinned to myself.  She could try all she wanted, but she’d never be able to escape me.  She darted into a small alleyway, looking for a way to escape, but it was a dead end.

“This is why you should take your training seriously,” I said, cornering her.  “You can’t even run a few feet without losing your breath.  How do you expect to lose someone who’s chasing you?”

“Don’t get any closer,” she huffed, throwing down her backpack.  Her arms positioned into a battle stance.  “I’ll knock you out again.”

“Do you really think I’d let you?” I scoffed.

“I did it twice already,” she said.  “I can do it again.”

Narrowing my eyes, I dared her to try and took a step closer, and another step.  Her leg swung out, but this time I was ready.  I grabbed it, and she toppled off balance, but before she could fall to the ground, I caught her around the waist and whirled her body until she was trapped against the wall.  With one hand, I entrapped both of hers, and pinned the rest of her down with my weight so that she couldn’t kick again.  She struggled, but I was too strong, and to my satisfaction, her eyes widened in fear.

It was about time she feared me.  Using my height to intimidate and my best glower that scared the crap out of people at school, I said, “That’s how easy it is for me to dodge that move of yours and corner you in.  Those two times you landed that kick were flukes.  So it’s time you stopped being a spoiled brat and give me the respect I deserve as your tutor, do you understand?”  I waited for an answer, but she didn’t say a word.  “I expect an answer, Emma.”

She was breathing hard, chests heaving from the exertion of running earlier.  Her voice came out in a petrified whisper, although she was still trying hard to put up a courageous front.  “I don’t have time to deal with you, so let me just cut to the run.”

“You mean, cut to the chase.”  She was always getting these idioms wrong, despite Tony’s best efforts to correct her.

“Whatever.  You and your friends don’t deserve my respect.  Not when all you care about is Grandmother’s money.”

I drew in my head until it was mere inches away from her face and I could smell cherry soda coming off her skin.  People would call me a monster for terrifying a tiny thing like her, but I didn’t care.  Emma pissed me off like no other.  “Money?  A spoiled, little rich girl like you doesn’t know the first thing about money except how to spend it,” I growled.  “You’ve never worked a day in your life.  Everyone pampers you, tells you how great you are.  Not one person in this world dared say anything horrible to you all your life.  You do whatever you want, run around wild without a care in the world, while others live to serve you.  But the rest of us don’t have that luxury.  We need to work, or we’ll starve.  We strive to find our place in this world because we want to make something of ourselves, and I won’t let you ruin my chance or my friends’ chances at getting the college education we want.  So if you ever try to ditch school to read your stupid manga or do anything to make us look bad again, I’ll—I’ll—”

“You’ll what?” she spat.  “Hit me?  Grandmother would fire you right away.”

Her smugness brought out something dark within me.  I couldn’t hit any girl, especially this one, so I did the only other thing I could think of.  I kissed her.

It was a bruising kiss meant to punish, a warning never to undermine my authority again.  I wanted to demonstrate my power over her, prove my dominance, and so I kissed to weaken her pride, to destroy that haughtiness she exuded whenever I was near.  And she was too shocked to struggle.

I broke the kiss and eased off her.  For a second she was still too stunned to move.  Then she abruptly unfroze, smoothing out her clothes.  Then her mouth fell open as she stared at me, more dazed than angry.  The anger would come later.  “You—you stole my first kiss!  I’m telling Grandmother.  She won’t let this one go.”

“Go ahead and tell her,” I challenged.  “It’ll only prove you’re not only a leech, but a coward too.”

I saw the way she flinched at the word leech, and at the back of my mind, I knew I was being harsh, but I was too fired up to stop.  “Go on living off Grandmother without making any of your own contributions to the world.  Go on hiding behind Grandmother’s skirts instead of confronting life on your own.”

“Leech?” she squeaked.  “You think I’m a leech too?”  Her eyes began to grow shiny with tears, and there was the way she added the word too that made me wonder who else had called her a leech.

I should have felt at least a little remorse for having made a girl cry, but today, I was too angry to care.  Emma really brought out the worst in me.  “Prove to me you aren’t then.”

Her eyes darted behind my shoulder, and I knew she was plotting a way to escape from me again.

“Don’t even think about it,” I said.  “You know I’ll only catch you.  So you’d better follow me home like a good little girl, and if you give us any more trouble, I just might kiss you again.”

I expected her to say something like “Try it, and I’ll punch your face in,” or at least argue some more.  But she didn’t.  Instead, she repeated, “Leech?”

Now she sounded so wounded, as though I’d sucker punched her in the heart.  It was getting harder not to feel a little horrible for having called her that.  But I hardened my heart.  She needed someone to put her in her place.

Emma bowed her head down, looking entirely defeated and followed me without a peep.  And when we finally returned to the Lockhart Mansion, she still didn’t say one word to me or anyone else.

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