MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 10
At lunchtime, I stumbled into the cafeteria, backpack hooked over one elbow. I felt a massive headache brewing at the front of my forehead from information overload. All those new names and faces, teachers, classrooms, languages… I needed a nap.
Instead, I bought a cheeseburger I knew I wouldn’t eat and wandered the lunchroom like a freak, each table looking me up and down. It dawned on me – again – that I was the New Girl. There was a flashing arrow over my head for all I knew.
Like Daria mentioned, the room was also an MPR, so there were curtains draped across a small stage at the far end of the lunchroom. Alessi sat at the last table, chatting with a bunch of girls. Nearby, Wayne gnawed a corn dog in a cluster of chortling freshman boys, his hair a beacon of orange fluff. A few tables away, Troy and Shawna laughed with a group of kids in letterman’s jackets. I didn’t need a pair of special decoding glasses to know it’s the popular kids.
Jealousy crept up on me. Of course they already found they already had a crowd. High school was made for people like Troy and Shawna. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were already voted homecoming king and queen.
As I stood there, tray in hand, I felt an icy gaze on me. In the dead center of the room, Nyx glared at me with her yellow-green eyes.
As I stood in the middle of the cafeteria, tray in hand, my skin rippled uncomfortably and I knew I was being watched. Sure enough, when I scanned the room, Nyx was glaring at me with her yellow-green eyes. I turned away, hot with embarrassment, and lowered my eyes to the ground, my tray heavier by the second.
It was an easy decision. I took a few steps backward, ready to ditch my food and sit in the hallway, waiting for my next class, when a glimmer of light scuttled through the cafeteria door.
It was strange, not least because the cafeteria was underground, with no windows.
But still, the light zipped and twirled over tables and students. It leapt over Alessi’s head and vanished into the curtains. I paused, waiting for it to reemerge, but it was gone as quickly as it came.
Again I felt the searing heat of Nyx’s gaze and sure enough, she was still glaring at me. She leaned toward Candace, whispering. Candace poked her head up, chewing with her mouth open, and almost spat her food out as she laughed in my direction.
My cheeks burned and I headed toward the trashcan to toss my lunch and bolt.
I flinched at the gravelly voice. It was deep and guttural, an accent I couldn’t place, not quite Napoletan. It sounded more… ancient. If I was not gonna sound crazy, I might even say it sounded like the old woman who gave me the necklace —
But what I saw next made me swallow my thoughts.
Standing a few feet away was the tall man from the hotel lobby, dressed in a snug green janitor’s jumpsuit with high-water pant legs, a far cry from the oversized suit he’d worn at the American Hotel. Stringy wig-hair hung in clumps around his white-powdered face. His gold-colored sneakers sparkled in the bright fluorescent light.
His honey-colored eyes fell on the violet hair at my neck. He stared at me, studying me. Suddenly, I felt trapped…Nyx on one side, this goon on the other. I edged away from the trash can.
The man cleared his throat. “Signorina, you dropped this.” My hourglass necklace dangled from his index finger.
I drew one hand to my throat, feeling only bare skin. “How did you—”
“Signorina, you must be careful with your belongings.” He seemed to glide toward me, and placed the necklace on my tray. “Do not … get … lost.”
A hand shot up in the center of the lunchroom; it was Daria. As I waved back, I asked the janitor, “What do you mean, ‘don’t get lost’?”
But he was gone.
I spun on my heels, my eyes darting side to side. He couldn’t have gone far in the span of two seconds. And yet, he was nowhere.
The lunch tray wobbled in my hand and the hourglass slid to the edge, proof that I saw someone. The necklace didn’t just materialize in my hand.
Or did it?
Daria called out, “Eden! Sit with us!”
I held my thumb over the pendant – I couldn’t deal with it now – and made my way to Daria’s table. If I was losing my mind, at least Daria would be a welcome distraction.
Daria sat with Maria-Grazia and a bunch of friends, all beautiful in that dark-skinned Mediterranean way: thick hair in shades of blond and brown, deep-set eyes, long noses, eyelashes like batwings. I recognized a boy and girl from my art class.
“Vai, Marco!” Daria shoved the boy next to her. “Eden’s from San Diego.” She motioned around the table. “You know me and Maria-Grazia. That’s Marco, Flavio, Graciela and Donatella.”
All eyes were on me – my version of hell, also known as my life that day – as I wedged between Daria and Maria-Grazia. “Hi,” I said. “Or ciao, I guess.” I turned to Daria, “Hey, um… did you happen to see the janitor?”
“Signore Zaccardi?” Daria made a face and giggled. Turning to her friends, she joked, “Eden’s obsessed with janitors.”
I blushed and stammered, “No, it’s just – he found my necklace… on the floor… and I wanted to say thanks. I thought he was over there—” I craned my neck toward the trash can, but he was still gone. Vanished. “He’s really tall, so we should be able to see him, and he was dressed kind of weird. Does he always wear gold shoes and a wig?”
Marco, in a preppy blue polo shirt with a backwards baseball cap, asked, “Gold shoes?”
A kid with dark blond hair wearing a crisp apple-green button-down touched his head. “Wig,” he snickered.
Across the table, a girl with long dark curls and saucer-sized eyes – Graciela, maybe? – shushed him. “Flavio, be nice!” To me, she shrugged. “Who knows? It could be a staff dress up day.”
But Daria tilted her head at me, confused. “Signore Zaccardi is shorter than Donatella. You okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, securing the hourglass around my neck. “Low blood sugar. It makes me a little nutty.” I unwrapped my burger, pretending that I couldn’t see them exchanging looks with one another. I didn’t want Daria to regret befriending me, so I changed the subject. “Thanks so much for letting me sit here. The girl from P.E. – Nyx, right? – gave me the evil eye.”
“Boh!” Marco shook his head. “Strega.”
Donatella launched a French fry at him. “Don’t say that! She’ll hear you and—” She mimed a slice across her throat.
I took a small bite, though I wasn’t hungry anymore. “What’s her deal, anyway?”
Maria-Grazia sipped her soda. “Rich parents.”
“Yeah, like über-rich.” Daria nodded with excitement. “They live across the street from me and their house is ridiculous.”
“Do you live in the Beverly Hills of Naples?” I asked.
Everyone laughed, and Daria shook her head. “Uh-uh, but about two years ago they tore down a few houses and built this crazy modern villa. It doesn’t really fit in.”
“The house, or Nyx?” Flavio joked.
Daria ignored him. “Anyway, I don’t know them or anything but her dad doesn’t work on the base, just pays for her to go to school here, with other American kids.” She glanced in Nyx’s direction. “Not like she even tries to fit in. From Day One, she’s been the reigning Ice Queen of Naples American High.”
Her friends murmured agreement.
“Enough about her,” Maria-Grazia said, twirling a lock of hair. “Let’s teach Eden how to speak Italian.”
I wanted to ask more about Nyx and Signore Zaccardi, but if I didn’t want to be the super-weird New Girl, I’d have to put my obsession with the resident mean girl and janitor on hold. Since Daria saved me from being totally awkward on my first day, I willed myself to be a good sport.
“Say my name like this: Dah-rrrrr-ee-ah.” Daria trilled her r’s. It sounded like a cat purring.
“Dar-thwpt—” I spat, to a chorus of laughter. I tried not to notice that modern Italian didn’t trip off my tongue the way the old gypsy woman’s language had. “Sorry I’m butchering your name.”
“No, it’s funny,” Marco laughed. “Say mine, too: Marrrrrrr-co.”
“Bastate, bastate.” Flavio held up a hand. “I want to hear about California.”
All at once, they fired off a bunch of questions, hardly pausing for my answers.
Daria: “What’s the fashion in San Diego?”
Me: “Same as here, with bikini tops and—”
Marco: “What’s your favorite music?”
Me: “Everything, but mostly indie—”
Maria-Grazia: “What movies do you like?”
Me: “Weird British comedies and—”
Graciela: “How long will you be here?”
Me: “Three years, I think—“
Donatella: “Where do you live?”
Me: “Lago Patria.”
Flavio: “Do you surf?”
Me: “Not really, but my brother Troy—”
Graciela’s eyes widened. “Troy DellaLuna’s your brother?”
“Yeah…” I could see Troy laughing nearby, his arm draped across Shawna’s shoulders. “Do you know him?”
“He’s in my P.E. class. Oh my God, he’s so cute,” Graciela gushed. “Sorry, sorry. I know he’s your brother. And his girlfriend is… Shawna?”
Donatella said, “I hear they’re gonna be Homecoming King and Queen. Such a cute couple.”
My eyes twitched as I struggled to not roll them.
“Anyway,” Daria said, “do you like it here?”
Because I didn’t want to be negative – and I didn’t know the translation for not yet in Italian – I said, “My friends back home are jealous. They think all Italians are models or soccer stars, and that everyone drives a Ferrari.”
They screamed with laughter.
“Uffa! Che noia!” Flavio sighed dramatically. “It’s so boring here. I wish I was from San Diego.”
Graciela agreed, “Sì, che barba.”
“Kay bar-bah?” I asked.
Flavio cracked up. “It means what a beard.” When I didn’t respond, he added, “It’s so slow, it makes your beard grow. But Americans like it. You know, buy some run-down Italian building, make it into a hotel, write a book, make a movie, get rich…”
“Ew! Who wants to fix up a nasty old building? Che schivo!” Donatella wrinkled her nose.
“Nasty.” Marco smiled at me. “You’ll see when we go to Pozzuoli. Right, Daria? Daria?”
Everyone turned to Daria, but she wasn’t listening. “Eric’s grown a few inches since June, don’t you think?” she asked.
Her friends shook their heads.
“Eric?” I followed her gaze to a hunky guy sitting next to Nyx. Even sitting down, he was head and shoulders above her. Somehow, he looked familiar. Then I noticed Bax across the table I recognized the other guy as the Vespa driver in the alley.
“Is that Bax?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Daria nods. “He’s Eric’s best friend.”
Bax flicked the hair from his eyes and I broke into a smile. He was cuter than I remembered, his hair longer and blonder, his skin tanned. I wondered if he’d been geocaching lately, and if he’d still want to take me with him sometime.
Nyx turned her head and caught me staring. She leaned closer to Eric.
“WHAT?” Graciela squealed. “Aspettate un minuto! Are they dating?”
Daria shook her head. “Nuh-uh. No way. He was made for me.”
Flavio rolled his eyes. “Um, yeah. Reality called and wants to move back in.”
Daria’s friends laughed, but she didn’t seem to care, a dreamy expression on her face. The bell rang and she sighed as she slung her backpack over her shoulder. “I’ll see you later,” she said, eyes still aimed in Eric’s direction.
I followed Daria to the stairwell and stopped to check my schedule. Next: Algebra 2, Mr. Butler, Room 124.
Students scrambled past me and I started up the stairs. Steps away, I saw a tangle of unruly blond hair.
“Hey, Bax!” I pushed through a few people to tap him on the shoulder.
He glanced over a shoulder and broke into a grin, blue eyes sparkling. “Eden! I thought maybe you got smart and went back to Cali.”
Just ahead of him, Nyx swiveled around, her citrine eyes blazing. Candace thumped Bax on the arm. “You finally get a girlfriend, nerd?”
“Candace, lay off.” Bax heaved a sigh, like he didn’t want to make introductions.
I sucked in my ego and did it for him. “We have P.E. together.” I forced a smile at Nyx. “Remember?”
Nyx was silent, but her eyes dropped to the hourglass and for a split second, her mouth fell open. She swallowed hard and turned back around, as though she didn’t hear me.
“Come on,” she said, continuing up the stairs, Eric and the girls on her heels. “I want to see what Miss DiPaola’s wearing this year. Such a kook.” Her dark laugh filled the stairwell.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“Don’t let Nyx get to you,” Bax said. “She’s like that. She thinks the world revolves around her.”
“Well, does it?”
“Not for me.” He smiled.
I blushed, again. Ugh, so lame. I gulped, trying to recover. “So, have you been… what’s it called? Geocaching?”
Bax lowered his voice. “Nah, but I don’t tell a lot of people about that. You know, my dad…”
“Anyway, I was kind of hoping I’d see you.” He pushed the hair from his eyes. “What’s your next class?”
I tapped my schedule. “Algebra 2. Butler.”
“No way! Me too. It’s a sign.” He hooked a thumb through the strap of his backpack. “So, how d’ya like Naples so far?”
“Aside from Nyx? It’s okay. I really like Miss DiPaola. And I might try out for volleyball.”
“Oh, so you’re a jock,” Bax says. “Guess I’ll check out the games this year.”
I bit my lip to keep from smiling. “So, um, are you in art or history? I mean, are you going to Pah…Pazz…” I couldn’t remember the name of the field trip.
“Pozzuoli?” His eyes lit up, electric blue. “Yeah, I’m in Dr. Williams’ ancient history class. You?”
I nodded. “Art, with Miss DiPaola.”
“Huh. I might have an idea…” Grinning, he opened the door to our algebra class. “After you.”