"Thanks for the advice." I push his hand off me. "Here's a dollar for you trouble."
His gazes at me with bloodshot eyes. "The eyes of March... the eyes of March."
"Creepy old man." My cousin Otti shudders.
"He smells." She kicks a rock. "I hate walking."
"Oh, cheer up, Otti. It's good exercise."
She scowls. "I told you not to call me that in public."
Ottiviana has always hated her name. She prefers her middle name—Summer. Personally, I think she's too stoned-faced and serious to pull it off.
"We aren't in public yet," I say. "Still a block to school."
"We wouldn't have to walk if you had your car. That's twice in a month someone's trashed it," my cousin mutters. "I swear, Julia, someone's out to get you."
"It happens," I say lightly. "You can't be smart, pretty, and popular without making a few enemies. People are bound to be jealous."
Otti shakes her head.
We get through the gates of school right as the bell rings, and there we part ways. Otti heads off to the sophomore corridor, while I go down the senior hall. The walls are jammed with students, but I spot my veep, Marcia Anthony, near the drinking fountain. As usual, she's going through her debate cards.
"Student Council meeting after school today," I call to her. "Don't forget."
She nods absently.
First period Spanish. I try to think if I've done the homework. Only half, but it should be okay. My conversation partner, Brittany, will help me fill in the blanks. She's one of my oldest friends and won't mind the favor.
"Hola, Britti." I plop into my desk. "Como estas?"
"Bien," she says quietly.
But she's not bien, and no wonder. Cassie leans over Brittany's desk on stick-thin arms, hovering over my best friend. My stomach tightens. I don't trust Cassie. She's too skinny, has too much pale foundation smeared over her face. You have to watch out for girls like that; they're bone-deep insecure.
Cassie wears a poisonous smile. "We were just discussing all your extracurricular activities. You're so busy, Julia, it's a wonder you find time to sleep."
"That's what vacations are for."
"Not this vacation. You'll be traveling all over Europe on the Ambassador Scholarship." She rises to her full 6' 2" model height. "It's such an honor to represent our school, our state, our country. To be a positive role model for all girls."
"Yes." I flash my teeth at her. "I'm just sorry it could only go to one person. I know you had your heart set on it."
She shrugs. "All I care about is showing our school in the best possible light."
"That's what I'll do. You can be sure of that."
The bell rings. Cassie glides out the door, fake smile still plastered to her mouth.
* * *
The security guard interrupts my Student Council meeting, right when I'm in a fierce debate with Marcia on how to spend our prom budget. She wants her boyfriend Theo Patrick's band to play. I say no. She's still going on about it, when the security guard knocks on the door.
"Julia Kaiser, you're wanted in the principal's office. Immediately."
"Okay." I take the note, expecting him to leave.
He doesn't. "I'll walk with you."
That's a little strange. "Am I in trouble?"
I look at Marcia. "Continue the meeting. And it's still a no on Theo's band."
She makes a sour face.
I walk up to the principal's office with the security guard. Romano Paxton, reads the flashy gold letters on the door. Inside the office stand Cassie and several members of her posse, some I know, some I don't. The girls crowd the room so thickly, I can hardly see Mr. Paxton. He hunches over his desk, his fingers knit together and a grave expression on his face.
"Julia, sit down. A serious charge has been brought against you."
"Against me? Why? What did I do?"
He brings something out of his desk. "Is this yours?"
He holds up a dagger, and my heart stops. It's a military-grade knife my brother gave to me before he went overseas. I know it's mine, because the silver handle has my name engraved on it.
"How-how did you get that?"
"We found it in your locker."
"My locker?" My heart races. "Mr. Paxton, you don't think that I, of all people, brought a knife to school? Why would I do that? I spoke out in favor of the school's zero-tolerance weapon policy just last September."
"I find it hard to believe as well." He rubs his eyes. "But there are witnesses."
Cassie looms toward me, and her mascaraed eyes glitter.
"You're sick, Julia. You need help. You bring that dagger to school every day and hurt people you don't like. You make them do things they don't want to do."
"What are you talking about?"
A girl I've never seen before points a bony finger at me. "You made me steal Mr. Gaul's test answers. You said if I didn't, you'd tell my boyfriend I was cheating on him."
"You called me fat and ugly and stupid," another girl says. "You'd take out that knife and cut me in the bathroom just for fun."
A third girl circles me. "You threatened to kill me if I opened my mouth about you. You said no one would believe you did it, because you're student president."
"You're all liars!" I yell.
"We know what you really are, Julia."
That voice kills me.
The crowd shifts, and now I see her. She stands by the window. The glaring light of the afternoon sun shrouds her in shadow.
"Y tu, Britti?" I say softly.
Her eyes harden. She turns to Mr. Paxton.
"Julia and I were friends until middle school. Then she changed. During class she still acted nice, but after school she'd drink and start cussing me out. I shrugged it off, because I knew her parents were getting a divorce. But then she did this to me."
She lifts up her hair to show the scar on the back of her neck.
The letters are still carved into Brittany's skin. Cut by my own dagger, cut by my own hand. Tears well in my eyes, and my face grows hot as I remember pinning her down while she cried and I laughed. I want to hide. I want to shrink smaller and smaller, until I disappear completely.
"I'm sorry," I whisper. "You know how sorry I am. I stopped drinking. I went to counseling. You said you'd forgiven me. You promised not to tell."
"Because I thought you'd changed." Brittany steps forward. "But you haven't. You're still a bully, Julia, and that's all you'll ever be. You don't deserve to represent our school. You don’t deserve my protection. No one else will be hurt by my silence again."
I'm dead inside.
More accusations fly, but I no longer hear them. Brittany's betrayal has bled me dry, and I can't even defend myself. Mr. Paxton tosses around words like forfeiture of scholarship and expulsion. I nod mutely, curling my arms around my chest. I just want to get out of there, as quickly as I can.
By the time they release me, a small crowd has gathered around the principal's door to gaze at my lifeless body. Marcia's pale face stands out among the onlookers, and her eyes are wide with horror.
"What happened?" she cries. But I float away like a ghost. I pass through the school gates and wander the streets, until I reach my bed. I entomb myself under mounds of blankets. And there I lay, sobbing.
The blankets lift. "Julia!"
"Summer!" I gasp.
My little cousin wraps her arms around me. I bawl into her chest.
"It's a lie. It's all a lie."
"I know, I know." She strokes my head. "Don't you worry. I'll restore your reputation. Those girls who did this to you—I'll destroy them, Julia. You wait. Those girls will pay for what they've done."
Her voice is like steel. I see the determination in her eyes and know she means every word. My sobbing subsides. I sniffle one last time and wipe my tears away.