Read Breathless Online

Authors: Jessica Warman

Tags: #ebook, #book

Breathless (7 page)

“We’re going to wax our legs,” Lindsey tells me, leaning against Madeline Moon’s bare desk. I notice that Estella is carrying a basket of supplies: a container of hot wax in what looks like a tiny Crock-Pot, wide wooden sticks for spreading the wax onto our legs, and long strips of cloth to yank the hair out from the roots.

“We’ve been growing our hair out for, like, six weeks in order to wax right before school starts,” Lindsey explains.

“And we noticed your legs are hairy as hell,” Estella says. “But I don’t know—are your bones too fragile for wax strips? We wouldn’t want Granny to break a hip.”

I shake my head at Lindsey, trying to ignore Estella. “I can’t do it.” And I explain to them how drag works in the water, and that it would look bad if I showed up to practice with smooth legs.

Estella frowns. “What about your armpits and bikini line?” She wrinkles her nose at me. “You’ve got to do
something,
Katie.” Her gaze drifts to my legs. “You look like Sasquatch.”

I take a moment to consider. It isn’t that much hair. Besides, here I am with two girls who are obviously interested in being my friends—although I’m still not sure why—and if I tell them to leave so I can go to sleep, they might not come back. “I guess that’s okay.”

“Put on your swimsuit, then,” Estella says, slipping out of her boxer shorts, anxious to get started on her fuzzy legs. She stands in the middle of my room, wearing nothing but a white thong and matching white tank top. “I’ll do your bikini line, okay?” She gives me an exaggerated wink, followed by that huge, irresistible grin of hers. “Don’t worry, Katie baby. It won’t hurt a bit.”

But it
does
hurt—so bad, in fact, that after just half of her right leg (which is bleeding already), Estella hops out my window and strolls, half-naked, into the woods behind the dorm to take a break and smoke a cigarette.

Lindsey and I both watch her from a distance, the white of her top and underpants glowing beneath the moonlight. She seems unafraid of being caught and takes her time, running her free hand through her long hair, absently searching for split ends in the almost-dark.

“Is she always like this?” I ask, trying to keep my voice down.

Lindsey nods. “She’s something, huh?”

I know I’m taking a risk, since I barely know Lindsey. But I ask, “Why do you think she’s . . . I don’t know . . .”

“Such a bitch?” Lindsey supplies. She doesn’t even look up from her waxing.

“Well, yeah.”

Lindsey shrugs. “Duh, Katie. Just
look
at her. She’s like that because she can be. She’s my best friend, you know, and she’s not even nice to me. Like, the summer between seventh and eighth grades, my parents hired me a trainer and I lost, like, fifteen pounds. When we went back to school, Estella told everyone I’d been to fat camp. It’s just her way of getting attention. Or whatever.”

She yanks away a section of hair, closing her eyes momentarily to let the pain subside. Pinpricks of blood appear in bursts where her hairs have been ripped from their roots. “Don’t take her personally. She wouldn’t be here if she didn’t like you. And, Katie,” she continues, “she’s the most popular girl in the whole
school
, and she wants to be your friend. So, I mean—who cares what she’s like?”

I glance out the window. Estella has finished her first cigarette and lit another. Anyone looking out their window could spot her. It’s almost like she’s daring Jill to come out and catch her.

“Why does she want to be my friend, though? She doesn’t even know me.”

“Because . . . you’re mysterious. Here you are, arrived out of nowhere with this tragic past . . .
ouch!
” She has yanked away another sheet of wax. “Where’s your roommate, huh? What’s her name?”

“Madeline Moon.”

“Right. Fifty bucks says she never shows up. Anyway, people like you, Katie. You shouldn’t be so surprised.”

“Why do you like me, then?”

Lindsey shrugs, stirring the wax. “You’re nice. You’re pretty. Like I said, you’re mysterious. We need to expand our group a little bit. Lately Estella’s always busy with Stetson or something, and everyone else we hang out with . . . they only want to be friends so they can get invited to parties and, you know, be
seen
with us.”

“But you said she’s the most popular girl in school,” I say, confused.

“Yeah. So?”

“Well . . . doesn’t she have a ton of close friends?”

Lindsey looks me in the eye. “She has a bunch of people who think they’re her friends. But I’m the only person who really knows her.”

“Oh.” I nod, pretending to understand.

“This isn’t public school, Katie. Things are more complicated here. Just trust me.” Glancing at the window, Lindsey lowers her voice. “Here she comes. Shut up.”

The day before school starts, I’m walking back from dinner with Lindsey. Estella is still in the cafeteria, sharing a sundae with Stetson McClure, who, Estella has informed me, Belongs To Her. Stetson is captain of the boys’ water polo team and has yet to say a word to me even though I’ve sat at the same meal table with him and Lindsey and Estella and a few other people more than once.

Lindsey is telling me about the parties she has, almost every weekend, at her parents’ house. I’m only half listening, tired and full and homesick in an achy way I’ve been feeling all week—homesick for an impossible place. My parents have called every night to check in and see how I’m doing. When I ask about Will, they say he’s fine, and then they clam up. Our conversations are never more than three or four minutes.

“. . . plus,” Lindsey continues, oblivious to my distraction, “we have an indoor pool. It’s huge. My mom has a family history of arthritis, so she can only do low-impact aerobics.”

I perk up at the mention of the pool. “So you have pool parties, like, every weekend?”

She shrugs. “Pretty much.”

“What do you do there?” I ask.

She shrugs again. “Whatever we want. Get drunk, mostly. Smoke up. You know—normal teenager stuff, I guess.” She squints at me. “Why? What did you do at parties back home?”

I shake my head. “Oh, the same thing. You know—normal stuff.”
Got high with my clinically insane brother. Smoked cigarettes stolen from my supernatural father. The usual.

Lindsey lowers her voice. “What’s your family like? You haven’t mentioned them. I mean, besides your brother.”

When I look away, she rushes on, “I’m sorry—I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just—there was an accident, you said?”

Once again, I hear the words coming out of my mouth automatically. I keep telling myself that as long as I don’t say “dead,” it isn’t really a lie.

“Yes.” I nod. “It happened very close to our house.”
Not untrue.

“Katie, I’m so sorry.” Her look is full of pity. “And . . . I mean, what kind of accident? What happened?”

“It was . . . It was a mess.” I stare at her, pronouncing the next few words without having to force any false emotion into my voice. I just want her to stop asking questions. “Then he was just gone.”
Technically not untrue.

I can tell she wants to ask more, but my look shuts her up. And then, when we turn the corner that brings us into the bottom of our dorm’s driveway, I put my hand on her elbow, point with my other hand, and say, “Hey! Look at that!”

A Woodsdale Academy shuttle van (shiny maroon, the Woodsdale insignia painted in white on its side) is parked in the driveway. The school groundskeeper, Papa Rosedaddy (obviously not his real name, although nobody—not even Mrs. Martin—seems to know what his real name
is
), is hoisting a suitcase from the back. Mr. and Mrs. Martin are carrying smaller suitcases, one in each hand, toward the dorm. Behind all of them, her head down, a curtain of long black hair hiding her face as she follows them inside, is a girl who can only be my new roommate, Madeline Moon.

chapter 4

When I walk into my room, Mr. and Mrs. Martin are gone. It’s just me and Madeline and all of our stuff. I don’t know how she’s managed to do it so quickly, but Madeline has switched my sheets to the bottom bunk, claiming the top bunk for herself. Neither of us mentions it, but right away it sets an unsettling tone to the whole roommate relationship.

At first, she doesn’t say anything to me—not even hello. She stands in the center of the room, lips pressed together, her small Asian features delicate and soft, and says, “This is crap.”

Before I can respond at all, she continues. “Do we get laptops? I mean, do they issue them on the first day, or what?”

I shake my head. Woodsdale is what they call a cyber-secure campus. There are computer labs in school, and most kids have laptops of their own in their rooms, but there’s no Internet access anywhere except the main academic building. We also aren’t allowed to have cell phones—each room has its own landline—or PDAs or iPods or anything like that. Breaking any of these rules is supposedly punishable by expulsion, although Lindsey has assured me you’d just get a ton of work details.

When I explain this to Madeline, she looks on the verge of furious tears. I realize she doesn’t even know my name yet. “So,” I say, trying to ignore her obvious anger, “I’m Katie Kitrell, and I’m a sophomore too. And you’re Madeline Moon?”

“Mazzie.”

“Huh?”

“Ma-zz-ie,” she pronounces. “Don’t call me Madeline. And my last name isn’t Moon. It’s Moon-Park.”

Another hyphenated last name. Great.

“Okay. Mazzie.”

She nods. “Look—Katie? Let me just tell you now that I don’t want to be here. This school is a joke. I mean, as far as boarding schools go, it’s at the bottom of the totem pole. What is it, like, seventy percent of graduating students matriculate to top-tier colleges?”

“I think it’s . . . eighty-five? Maybe ninety?”

She snorts. “That’s what they
tell
you.”

I don’t know what to say. But I don’t have time to come up with any kind of response before she continues with, “The last school I was at, in Connecticut, had a ninety-five percent matriculation rate to top-tier colleges. It cost about twice as much as this place.” She shakes her head at me, like she can’t believe I’m not as disgusted as she is to be someplace so clearly inferior.

“Well if you don’t mind my asking, why did you leave your last school?”

She pauses, glares at me, and says, “I don’t know. It’s not important.”

“Uh . . .”

“Why did you leave
your
last school?” She puts her tiny fists on her hips and smirks. When she narrows her eyes at me, they almost disappear. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

I don’t hesitate. She deserves to feel bad. “My brother died.”

And then—right there, in that moment, which I know I’ll always remember, right down to the red-and-white-striped tank top Mazzie is wearing, the small beads of sweat on her high forehead, the bronze of her summer tan and her almost-labored breath—I feel a door closing, my brother’s face behind it.

I feel awful. In this moment, I miss him more than ever. But I also feel relief, a kind of deep satisfaction now that I’ve managed to complete the lie I’ve been trying to tell for weeks. I feel, for the first time since I watched Will being driven away in the ambulance, like I can breathe on dry land again.

Just like every other year, there’s a kind of death in the air as the summer is squelched by autumn. It is a lonely feeling. At night, I lie in bed and listen to Mazzie breathing above me, thankful for her warm sound in the dark. Even though she’s still barely willing to speak to me, it feels better than being all by myself. Sometimes I pretend she is Will, and that I know exactly where he is and what’s happening to him, right there above me. Sometimes I try not to think about it, and I don’t pretend anything. Mostly, though, I pretend that everything I’ve told everyone is true: my big brother is dead. In that scenario, at least, we all get some rest.

For the entire first week of classes, aside from our brief exchanges when we come and go from the room, Mazzie and I hardly speak to each other. At breakfast and dinner, it’s mandatory that you eat family-style, seated with your roommate and a few other girls from your dorm, along with a handful of boys and at least one faculty member to head the table. When we’re forced to eat together, Mazzie and I sit across from each other, wordlessly passing food.

In spite of this, we quickly settle into a rhythm as roommates; we learn from each other’s slowing actions when it’s time to turn out the light at night; we shake each other awake in the morning if one of us—usually Mazzie—sleeps through the alarm. The telephone in our room doesn’t ring once all week. It’s typical of the Ghost and my mom; now that they know I’m tucked away, they don’t feel any need to get in touch. It doesn’t bother me so much. It’s not like I want to talk to them, anyway.

The person I do want to talk to is Mazzie. I feel like, if she’d just give me the chance, we’d have a lot to say to each other. It seems like we are both alone in the world, families out there somewhere, for whatever reasons disinterested in making contact, and we both seem determined that it’s okay with us—isn’t it? I can’t help but feel so sorry for her, even though she took my bed without asking, even though she can’t seem to stand being around anyone. As far as I can tell, she hasn’t made any friends so far. Whenever Lindsey and Estella come into our room, she makes herself scarce; it’s almost like she can slip away before they even know she’s around.

There’s something else, too: from the first night she arrived at Woodsdale, and every night afterward, Mazzie has talked in her sleep. It starts with the grinding of her teeth; that’s how I know she’s out. Then, after ten or twenty minutes, she starts murmuring to herself. Her voice is angry and sad at the same time. More than once, I’ve gotten out of bed to watch her. I’ve thought about shaking her awake, or even putting my arms around her and holding on tight so she can’t struggle away. I want her to know that, whatever she’s dreaming, I’ve probably known worse.

But I get the feeling she wouldn’t appreciate it if I woke her, or tried to comfort her in any way. When she talks during her dreams, she speaks Korean, her guard up even in sleep.

The more I get to know Lindsey and Estella, the more I like both of them. Well, not Estella as much. But I at least understand where Lindsey is coming from when she defends her. Right away, it’s obvious there are advantages to being her friend. On the first day of school, I’m standing at the back of the lunch line when Estella, Stetson, and Lindsey walk past me. Without a word—she doesn’t even
look
at me—Estella takes my arm and yanks me out of line, leading me toward the front with them. None of the people we cut ahead of say anything.

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