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This is the first chapter of my debut novel Changing Ways.
“I think the world is ending.”
My mother stops what she’s doing in the kitchen and peers around the corner into our TV room. There, I’m lounging on an old beige couch in grey sweats with my eyes glued to the television.
“Why are you watching the news?”
I shrug. “It was on. I was bored.”
“Well, it’s your last day of summer break. Don’t get yourself all bummed over, uh,” she squints at the tiny words projected at the bottom of the screen, “nuclear weapons.”
“What else am I supposed to do?” I ask. “Nothing good is on.”
“How ‘bout you help me make dinner?” she suggests. “I could use an extra hand.”
“Yeah, okay. What are you making?”
Flipping off the television, I follow her into the kitchen. She hands me a knife and a cutting board, so I can start assembling a salad. Outside the window next to the sink, fat raindrops drench our peaceful little neighborhood in western Connecticut. It’s been pouring ever since I woke up this morning and by the looks of it, it won’t be stopping anytime soon.
“I hate this weather,” I say as I’m methodically slicing a plump tomato.
“It could be worse,” Mom responds. “If we still lived in California, we’d be in a drought.”
“I’d take a drought over this any day.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. I’ve seen photos on Facebook; it’s pretty bad.”
“Since when are you on Facebook?” I ask.
“Grace, I’ve had an account for two years. I’ve sent you a friend request three times.”
“Oh . . . yeah, sorry ‘bout that.”
“It’s all right,” she says. “I understand being friends with your mother is embarrassing.”
“It’s not embarrassing, it’s just . . .” I sigh. “Never mind. Forget it.”
She continues spreading a thin layer of marinara sauce onto the lasagna while I peel skin off a cucumber. The rain has escalated to a downpour, like one thousand marbles are clattering against a metal ﬂoor.
I know rain is good for our environment or whatever, but this unexpected change in weather is screwing up my routine. I love the outdoors. As soon as the temperature reaches the sixties, I spend most of my free time taking walks around my block and reading horror novels beneath the beautiful maple tree in my backyard.
Not to mention that I was looking forward to wearing my new white Converse tomorrow. But in these messy conditions, settling for my old Nikes is more sensible. Though they won’t live up to the exemplary ﬁrst-impression I’d hoped for for my junior year, it shouldn’t be a big deal. After all, at my high school, styles range anywhere from skinny jeans and V-necks to dinosaur onesies and smiling poop emoji hats.
When I stepped through the daunting double doors of Chuck L. Everett High School two years ago, I had no idea what to expect. Prior to starting, I’d heard a number of things—some reassuring, some intriguing, and some downright intimidating. I’d heard that cliques are overrated, but that the afterschool activities you partake in determine your social status (i.e. don’t join the Mathletes). I’d heard that as long as you do well on quizzes, most teachers don’t care if you use your phone in class. I’d heard that you should always respect upperclassmen even if they’re total dicks, because like clubs, they have the power to dictate whether you’re liked or loathed. My neighbor Alex, who graduated last year, had even warned me to avoid the bathrooms in the C-Wing, because that’s the most popular destination for getting stoned.
And while all this was true, high school was undoubtedly an improvement from my painfully awkward middle school experience. I can only hope it stays that way for what many students deem the “most stressful” year.
After I’ve dressed the salad with a balsamic vinaigrette, I place it on the table beside a bowl of steamed broccoli. “Can I leave?” I ask Mom.
She nods. “Yes. Thanks for the help.”
I unplug my phone from its charger, grab my earbuds, and return to the TV room to listen to music. As I’m humming along to Coldplay’s Yellow, a ﬂash of orange beneath our dogwood tree catches my eye. I watch in fascination as a monarch butterﬂy lands on a fallen pink ﬂower, unfazed by the brutal downpour that threatens to crush its delicate wings.
In the beginning of summer, butterﬂies were everywhere, but now that autumn’s approaching, the only place I see them is in the community garden at the end of my street, ﬂuttering around the shriveled roses and wilting lilies.
“See you next summer,” I say, as if the butterﬂy can somehow hear me.
Then I recline into a stiff throw pillow, raise the volume on my phone to muffle the sound of raindrops steadily pounding against the roof, and close my eyes. I’m so exhausted, so bored of this lazy day, and so nervous about what tomorrow has in store that I wish I could just sleep until it’s all over and everything is okay again.
New beginnings always make me anxious.
The rain is still going strong the next morning when I’m abruptly woken by my six-thirty alarm. I fumble around in the darkness for the OFF button, and when I can’t ﬁnd it, yank the cord out of its socket. The beeping stops.
“Thank God,” I mumble.
I toss aside my covers and ﬂip on my bedside lamp. Once my eyes have adjusted to the sudden brightness, I change into a navy shirt and dark-wash capris that are too snug in the waist. Had the temperature not been so abnormally cold for September, I’d have selected my favorite khaki short-shorts instead. But with a high of ﬁfty-six, the capris will have to do.
In the bathroom, I add a couple strokes of mascara to my stubby eyelashes and rub concealer around my eyes to mask the dark circles that insinuate another restless sleep. Once my appearance no longer screams “insomniac,” I adjust my waistband so it isn’t digging into my gut and head downstairs for breakfast.
Mom is already in the kitchen. She’s leaning against the counter, struggling to squeeze into a pair of heels that clearly aren’t her size. “Damn these shoes!” she exclaims angrily.
“Are you going somewhere?” I ask.
She jumps at the sound of my voice. “Oh, Grace! I didn’t hear you.”
“You said you’d drive me to school.”
“Yes, two days ago.”
“I’m sorry,” she apologizes. “It completely slipped my mind. See if Lou’s mother can give you a ride, okay? I have to be at the hospital in twenty minutes.
“What about Jamie?”
“He’ll have to take the bus. Oh, and remind him to come home immediately after. He has a dentist appointment at three.”
“All right, I will.”
“Thanks, hon. I’m glad I can count on you.” She stuffs a protein bar into her purse, then plants a peck on my cheek. “Have a great day. I can’t wait to hear all about it.”
“Okay. Did you pack my—” The side door bangs shut, and I sigh. “Lunch?”
As Mom’s noisy engine fades into the distance, I dig my phone out of my pocket and dial seven familiar digits. “Lou? Hi, I know it’s last minute but—”
“You need a ride,” Lou ﬁnishes. “No problem. I’ll let Ma know right now.”
“You’re a lifesaver.”
“Anything for my homegirl. See you soon?”
“Yeah. Bye, Lou.” Louisiana “Lou” Jackson and I have been best friends since ﬁfth grade when she was the ﬁrst person at my elementary school to talk to me after I joined in late October. It’s been six years since then, yet I still remember our ﬁrst interaction like it happened yesterday; I was sitting on a swing, longingly watching the boys kick around a soccer ball, when a bubbly black girl dressed in overalls and a vibrant pink blouse approached me.
“I need a favor,” she said.
“Um, okay,” I responded skeptically. I recognized her from my art class—she was the girl who had gotten recess detention for shoving a crayon up Tommy Kershaw’s nostril—though the extent of our communication prior to that moment was friendly eye contact.
“I need to see your math homework.”
“My math homework?”
“Yeah. You did it, right?”
“Good, because I didn’t, and my parents will kill me if I get another U.” She claimed the swing beside mine, giggling when it creaked under the weight of her plump body. “I love swings. Aren’t they just so much fun?”
“I can’t just give you my homework,” I said.
“Because . . . because . . .” I sighed. Even though I wasn’t a cheater, in that moment, having a friend seemed more important than having a clean conscience, so I begrudgingly dug the worksheet out of my Wonder Woman backpack and handed it to her. “Just don’t tell anyone, okay?”
She rummaged through an unkempt folder until she found hers, then began copying down my answers. “My lips are sealed.”
I waited until she was ﬁnished to say, “I need a favor too.”
“Play soccer with me.”
None of the others girls will, and I don’t want to be the only one.”
“But—but I’ve never played before.”
“That’s okay. You’ll learn.”
“Fine,” she reluctantly agreed. “It’s not like I’ve got anything to lose.” We hopped down from the swings, our shoes—her glow-up Sketchers, my navy Keds—skidding against the woodchips. “I’m Louisiana, by the way.”
“Like the state?”
She rolled her eyes. “Unfortunately. But you can call me Lou.”
“Cool. I’m Grace.”
“Do you ever go by Gracie?” Lou asked. “That’s my aunt’s name, and I think it’s cute.”
I shook my head. “No. Just Grace.”
I followed Lou onto the ﬁeld where the boys were scrimmaging, and she announced that we were going to join. They exchanged arrogant smirks, as if the mere thought of girls playing sports was ludicrous, but agreed nevertheless. The second Tommy passed the ball to Matt Durham, I stole it from him, took three dribbles, and booted it towards the two orange cones they were using as a makeshift goal. Cody Cooper lunged, but he was too late, and the ball grazed his ﬁngers.
“Sick shot!” Lou exclaimed. She slapped my back with such force, I almost keeled over onto the matted grass. “Way to show those jerks a thing or two.”
“Hey!” Matt called to us. “You girls gonna talk or play?”
Now it was our turn to exchange smiles. “Play,” I said.
“Duh,” Lou added.
We continued kicking around with the boys until the recess monitor blew her whistle, and we were forced to return to class. Then the next day, we picked up where we’d left off.
As the year progressed, so did my friendship with Lou. She was different than anyone I knew; she was bold and strong-willed and brutally honest, no matter the circumstances. When I told her about my father, she didn’t coddle me or reassure me that “everything would be okay” like most people did. Instead, she listened. She was my shoulder to cry on when I felt weak; my voice of reason when logic failed me; my rope to cling to when I wanted to let go. Although there are still days when I’m tormented by his memory, at least I know I’m not alone.
You may not be able to choose your family, but you can choose your friends. Letting Lou cheat off my science homework was one of the smartest decisions I’ve made. Even the simplest of things, like getting a ride to school, would be impossible without her.
I’m halfway through my bowl of Cheerios with strawberries when my younger brother Jamie meanders into the kitchen wearing his kitten-patterned pajamas.
“At work. She wants you to be home by three. Something about a dentist appointment.”
Jamie groans. “I hate the dentist.”
“Everyone hates the dentist. Want some cereal?”
“Sure.” Jamie takes the box from me, serves himself double my amount, then joins me at the table. He’s painted his nails again, selecting peach this time. I hope the other boys don’t tease him for it. “When do you leave?”
“Lou should be here any minute. Her mom’s driving me.”
“Lucky you. I can’t wait until I don’t have to take the stupid bus anymore.”
“One more year,” I remind him. “You got this.”
“I hope so,” he responds. “I heard eighth grade is pretty hard.”
“Well, it’s certainly not easy.”
As I’m slurping down the pink-tinged milk in the bottom of my bowl, my phone lights up with a text.
“Gotta go,” I tell Jamie. “See you later, kiddo. Make some friends.”
He crosses his ﬁngers. “I’ll try.”
I place my empty bowl in the sink, then grab my bookbag. Using it to shelter me from the rain, I cut across my damp lawn to where Mrs. Jackson’s silver Mercedes is waiting and slide in beside Lou.
She grins. “Hey, girl. You excited?”
“For junior year?” I shake my head. “Nah, I’m kinda dreading it.”
“It’ll be ﬁne. At least we have chemistry together, and we both have Mr. Lipschitz for algebra, so that will be good for studying.” She subtly adjusts the light blue scarf she’s wrapped around her neck in the blurry reﬂection of her window.
“What are you hiding under there?” I tease. Before she can react, I lift the fabric, and my eyes grow wide. “Damn. I didn’t know the principal’s daughter could do that.”
“Keep it down!” she hisses. “Ma might hear you!”
Sure enough, Mrs. Jackson clears her throat. “What are you two talking about back there?”
“Sports, Ma,” Lou lies. “Grace is trying out for the Varsity soccer team.”
“I just hope I’m good enough,” I say. “The last thing I want is to get stuck on a team with a bunch of annoying JV kids like last year.”
“Oh, you’ll totally make Varsity,” Lou assures me. “I mean, you’ve been playing since you were, like, six. That’s gotta count for something.”
“I dunno. I hear the coach is pretty selective.”
“When I was your age,” Mrs. Jackson says, “I tried out for soccer without having ever played before and made the team.”
“Ma, you were one of fourteen at tryouts,” Lou responds. “There was no competition.”
“Things were different back then, Lou. It was groundbreaking that girls got to play at all.”
“Title IX,” I say. “I did a project on it in seventh grade.”
Mrs. Jackson nods. “You girls have so much opportunity. Don’t take it for granted.”
“We won’t,” Lou and I simultaneously respond.
Mrs. Jackson turns left into the busy parking lot of Chuck L. Everett High School—hilariously nicknamed “Chuckles”—and joins the lineup of parents waiting to drop off their kids. She stops behind a shabby convertible occupied by three teenagers who appear suspiciously aloof and asks, “Do you need a ride home, Grace?”
“If it’s all right with you,” I say.
“Of course. Here’s your lunch money, Lou.” She hands her daughter a ﬁve-dollar bill, which she promptly stuffs into her bra. “I’ll see you at two-thirty.”
“Thanks, Ma.” Blowing her mother a kiss goodbye, Lou grabs my hand, and we sprint towards the crowded front entrance, narrowly avoiding getting drenched by the incessant rain.
“Do you have any idea where we’re going?” I ask once we’re safely indoors. I lunge to the left as two soaking-wet guys dash past me and collide with a girl whose nose is buried in 13 Reasons Why. “Sorry.”
The girl rolls her eyes. “Asshole,” I hear her mumble under her breath.
“Good going, Grace,” Lou jokes. “C’mon, that’s what this is for.” She points at a four-by-six laminated paper that’s stapled to a bulletin board outside the main office. “Now all we need to do is ﬁgure out where our advisories are, and we’ll be good. Easy as pie.”
“I can’t believe you’re so chill about this,” I grumble.
Since her last name begins with a J and mine an E, as usual, we have different advisors. I ﬁnd B-208, led by the notoriously strict French 3 teacher, Mademoiselle Rousseau, on the second ﬂoor, across from the restrooms. After claiming the desk farthest away from Mademoiselle, I insert my earbuds and stare out a nearby window, where dark clouds continue to dominate the colorless sky.
Students arrive at different intervals, so by the time the second bell rings, most of the seats are taken. I ﬂing my bookbag on the desk to my left—amazingly the only one that’s still unoccupied—as Mademoiselle stands at the Smartboard, patiently waiting for the chatter to cease.
Once the room is completely silent, she says in a thick accent, “Welcome back to Everett High School. Before we get started, I’m going to take attend—”
“Sorry I’m late.” A boy bursts through the door, gasping for breath. “I missed my bus.”
Everybody momentarily looks up from their phones to check out the boy, including me. When I see him—a well-built brunette with piercing blue eyes and sun-kissed skin—my jaw drops.
Holy shit. It’s Liam Fisher.
Mademoiselle frowns disapprovingly, but doesn’t chastise Liam for his tardiness. Instead, she points at the desk next to me and says, “You can sit there, uh . . .”
“Liam. And I promise I won’t be late again.”
“You’d better not,” she warns. “Now, where was I?”
While she takes attendance, Liam maneuvers through the ﬁrst two rows of desks and drops his backpack where my bookbag was. He’s wearing a Florida Gators jersey and jorts that hang so low on his hips, I can see the waistline of his underwear.
“Hey, Grace. Long time no see.” He grins.
I force myself to return my ex-friend’s charismatic smile. “When’d you get back?”
“A couple weeks ago. My aunt’s in the hospital again, so my dad wanted to be close to her for moral support or something.”
“Me too. Depression sucks.”
“Grace Edwards?” Mademoiselle calls.
“How’s Lou?” he asks while she moves onto the Fs.
“Good. She’s dating Cassie Myers now.”
“The principal’s daughter?” He chuckles. “I see she hasn’t changed much.”
“Yeah. So, are you seeing anyone?”
“Not currently,” he says, “but there’s this girl on my block, Bianca Sanchez. She’s ﬁne as hell.”
“It’s Santos, not Sanchez.”
“Oh. Do you know her?”
“Everyone knows Bianca. She’s, like, the most popular girl in the grade. Good luck getting with her.”
“Keep your luck,” he responds.
“She gave me her number this morning.”
“I’m passing around the rulebooks,” Mademoiselle announces. “Turn to page four, so we can review the dress code. Don’t think you’re at liberty to wear whatever you want to because you’re upperclassmen now. This is still school after all.”
While she explains why miniskirts and crop tops aren’t appropriate attire, I steal intermittent glances at Liam, who’s scrolling through Instagram with a look of apathy on his slender face. He’s taller than the last time I saw him, and he’s packed on a considerable amount of muscle, but aside from those minor differences, he may as well still be the scrawny, goofy eighth-grader who stole my heart, then shattered it into a million pieces because I wasn’t “good enough” for him.
The day Liam rejected me was the second-worst day of my life. The day I learned that he was moving to Florida, however, was one of the best. I wonder if he met anyone “good enough” there. I hear the girls in Miami are pretty damn hot.
All of a sudden, Liam’s lips curl into their trademark smirk. “I can see you, Grace,” he says. “You checking me out?”
I quickly avert my eyes to the rulebook. “What? No!”
“You sure ‘bout that?”
“Yes!” Liam laughs. “Okay, okay. I’m just saying, it’s ﬁne if you were.”
“Well, I wasn’t,” I insist, “so don’t ﬂatter yourself.”
“Quiet down back there,” Mademoiselle scolds, “or you can both see me at lunch.”
“Sorry, Mademoiselle,” Liam says while I offer her an apologetic nod.
“As I was saying,” she continues, “our No-Bullying Policy at Everett includes cyberbullying as well. Remember; everything you say online is permanent. Act thoughtfully, be respectful, and most importantly, think before you type.”
Two desks to my left, Matt Durham whispers something to Eli Doherty, who in response begins to silently giggle. Directly in front of them, Maura Evans Snapchats under her desk. Liam, as well, is still on his phone, though I’m hesitant to look his way for more than two seconds. The last thing I want is for him to falsely assume I’m checking him out again.
While Mademoiselle moves on to Chuckle’s lateness policy, I open my rulebook and listlessly skim through the remaining sections. Page seven explains how to set up a lunch account and access a meal plan. Page nine thoroughly details the consequences of using drugs on school grounds. Page ten covers hall courtesy. Page eleven is about sexual assault.
No inappropriate or suggestive remarks, non-consensual touching, groping, or fondling, and non-consensual sexual advances on AND oﬀ school property. Failure to abide by these rules will result in an immediate expulsion. No means no!
“Hey, Grace?” Liam touches my shoulder, and I ﬂinch.
“What do you want?” I whisper-demand.
“Chill. I just wanted to ask if you know where A-G04 is.”
“The G-Wing’s in the basement. Do you know where the cafeteria is?”
“Um . . . I think so.”
“Well, if you walk through the cafeteria, it’s to the left of the salad bar.”
“We have a salad bar?”
“Why do I hear talking?” Mademoiselle’s beady brown eyes instinctively hone in on Liam and me. I guess the rumors are true; literally nothing gets past this woman. “You two again? That’s it, you’re both getting detention. I’ll see you—”
“It’s my fault,” Liam interrupts. “I don’t know where my English class is, and I thought Grace could help. Sorry.”
Mademoiselle sighs. “This is your last warning—I mean it.”
“Thank you so much,” Liam responds graciously.
“Yeah, thanks,” I echo.
“You’re welcome. Now turn to page—” The bell rings before she can ﬁnish. “Bon sang!” she exclaims exasperatedly. “Ces putains de cloches! Bon dieu!”
“You all right, Mademoiselle?” Ayesha Farooq asks.
Mademoiselle nods. “Oui. Excusez-moi. If anyone has questions about their schedule or needs help ﬁnding their next class —I’m looking at you, Mr. Fisher—come talk to me. Otherwise, have a good day.”
“See ya, Grace,” Liam says.
“See ya, Liam,” I respond.
Offering him a parting smile, I grab my bookbag and follow our classmates into the busy hall. The ﬂoor is still slick with water and besmirched with dirty shoeprints, but when I glance out the narrow window overlooking the central staircase, the grey clouds have vanished.
It has ﬁnally stopped raining.