MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 7
The rest of the summer was pretty uneventful. In between days of unpacking boxes and moving into our villa (which, unfortunately, only meant “house,” not “centuries-old historic palace”), we took road trips up and down the coast, to Sorrento and Gaeta. We set up a guest room for Grandma Cleo, who’d be there in a few weeks and promised to stay for at least a month. We made lists of the best pizzerias and ate our weight in mozzarella di bufala. I started to understand why people love Italy.
By the end of August, I hadn’t had a bad dream or a run-in with a crazy person for over a month. Which was saying something.
Still, on the first day of school, my stomach flip-flopped on the way to the bus stop at the end of the street. Meanwhile, Troy was whistling.
“You’re in a weirdly good mood for the first day of school,” I say.
“You were up early and your clothes match. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were happy about school starting.”
“I’m an upperclassman this year, E.” With a grin, he added, “And my girlfriend’s hot.”
“Psshh,” I said, but each step was heavy and I noticed Troy looking at me. “What?”
“You okay? You look a little stressed.”
“Yeah,” I lied. “I mean, okay enough. I’ve just, you know, never been the new kid.”
“So you’ll eat lunch all alone, NBD.” He knocked my shoulder and I grumbled. “C’mon E. It’s gonna be fine. Nothing to worry about.”
I sucked in a deep breath as we reached the end of our parco. Where it met the main road –actually named “via Lago Patria,” but everyone called it the “Four Laner”– there was a fruit stand and market owned by a gray-haired guy named Franco. The bus stop was his parking lot. Kids of all ages milled around, and I wondered if our bus took all of them to school.
“Eden!” The girls who lived across the street from us, Alessi Petrakis, pulled away from the pack and skipped toward me, a fringe of glossy brown bangs swinging across her olive-skinned forehead. She wore a short black sheath dress with purple tights and black ankle boots.
I looked down at my flannel shirt over jean shorts and the frayed high-tops I’d had since 7th grade. I crossed my arms and cringed. I should have worn something better.
Alessi greeted me with a too-tight hug. “Oh good! I was scared you’d miss the bus. Wanna sit together?”
I forced a smile, not in the mood to talk, but Alessi was my first-slash-only friend. The day before, she had brought over last year’s yearbook and gave me a quick rundown of the who’s who at Naples American High School. There was no way to just blow her off, so I sidestepped the question. “Hey, uh, cute outfit.”
Alessi smoothed her skirt. “Thanks, my mom picked it out,” she said and my heart pinched a little as I imagined them – Alessi and her mom Dora, a former supermodel – shopping together for a first day outfit.
Dora was kind of intense, always talking about increasing Alessi’s chances for success. That’s why Alessi was a freshman instead of a sophomore like me, even though we were the same age. It was a running theme with Alessi – the idea of increasing her chances for success – and it meant she was on swim team, student council, Latin club, Greek folk dancing, math club… But still, as awesome as my Dad was, I felt a wave of envy whenever I saw Alessi and her mom walking their dog together.
Alessi touched the hourglass around my neck. “Cool necklace. Does it work?”
I flipped it upside down. The sand didn’t move. “Nah, just some vintage thing I found.”
Batting her extra-long lashes, Alessi cooed, “Ooh, I love vintage. It’s so in right now.”
I tucked the hourglass inside my shirt and nodded toward her 9-year-old twin brothers Giorgio Jr. and Niko, who were comparing their flexed biceps to Troy’s. “Do they take the same bus as us?”
“Oh, thank God, no.” She rolled her eyes. “The elementary school’s in Pinetamare. Their bus comes after ours. Hey, speak of the devil.”
A large Mercedes bus rumbled down the Four-Laner. Middle and high school kids formed a serpentine line at the edge of the lot.
“Not so bad,” I said. “Mercedes at least.”
Troy hoisted his backpack over one shoulder. “Yeah, but it’s still a bus. You weren’t this close to driving,” he says, pinching his thumb to index finger. “Then poof! Denied!”
“Yeah, that sucks for you,” I said, chewing on a fingernail as we lined up behind Alessi.
“Ya know, I woulda driven you to school, too…”
I made a face. “Ugh. Sucks for me, too…”
“Nervous about seeing your boyfriend?” He mouthed Wayne.
“Boyfriend?” Alessi whipped around, eyes wide. “He lives here? Do I know him?”
“Troy’s just being a dork.” I shot him a death look. “As usual.”
The bus was a far cry from the yellow buses in San Diego, with cushy, high-backed seats with armrests and cup holders. Already, was three-quarters full, so Alessi led us toward a few empty rows in the back.
“Troy!” Shawna Miller and her blonde curls peeked out from a seat near the middle. She moved her backpack and scooted into the window seat.
“Nervous about seeing your girlfriend?” I whispered, jamming my elbow backward into Troy’s ribs. With a smirk, he slid next to Shawna.
Alessi and I plopped into seats across the aisle as the bus drove away from Franco’s fruit stand. Someone kicked the back of my seat. I ignored it.
“Who’s that?” Alessi asked, looking at Shawna.
“A girl from ICR.” There was another kick on my chair, then a steady, annoying tap. I sat up and turned, saying, “Hey, can you chill?”
Behind us, Wayne Miller flashed a metallic grin. “Always.”
“I’m sorry,” I said to Alessi. “In advance.”
“Hey, Eden, remember me?” Wayne leaned forward. “I’m Wayne… Shawna’s brother? From the ICR thingie? With the gypsy, remember?” His voice was changing, somehow both low and squeaky in the same sentence.
“Don’t say that word,” I hissed.
“Romani,” he said, shrugging. “My bad. Hey, you guys live in Lago Patria, too?”
I wanted to get up and move, but I noticed Alessi eyeing Wayne through the seats.
“Duh!” she said, smiling. “Why else would she be on this bus?” Her words were laced with mock sarcasm.
Wayne sat back in his seat, arms crossed. “Dunno. Maybe Eden missed me?”
“Whatever,” I muttered, but Alessi tilted her head in Wayne’s direction and looked at me, waiting for an introduction.
“Oh yeah.” I waved a hand between them. “Alessi, Wayne. Wayne, Alessi.”
“You a sophomore, too?” he asked. “Seems like all the cute girls are in 10th grade.”
My nostrils curled. Barf.
Alessi giggled. “Nah, I’m a freshman. My mom held me back. She says it’ll be best for me in the long run.”
“Lucky for me, ‘else we might not have class together,” Wayne said.
Wait, what? I looked from Wayne to Alessi and back again. Were they…flirting?
“Hey, Eden,” Alessi said, “are you taking the regular bus home today? Or the activities bus?”
“Activities bus?” Wayne was now hanging over the top of our seats. I wanted to crawl away.
“Yeah, the late bus leaves school around 5:30, for kids in sports or clubs or whatever,” Alessi said. “I have swim practice off base today, so I have to take the regular bus. But maybe tomorrow we can stay and get ice cream or something.” She nodded at me. “Eden?”
I shrugged in response, but they’d already moved on to comparing class schedules. I was not alone but I didn’t have to talk, so in a way I got my wish and spent the next hour playing a game on my phone until we hit the traffic of Squeeze Alley. Finally, the bus turned into a driveway a quarter-mile past the base’s main gate, across from the American Hotel.
“Welcome to Naples American High School,” Alessi said with a flourish of her hand.
The school was U-shaped, three floors with a stairwell on each side, and positioned like a horseshoe around a raised black-top in the center of the driveway. Students darted back and forth along the metal-and-glass hallways, like ants in an alien ant farm, in and out of classrooms, opening and closing lockers.
I followed Alessi and Wayne off the bus, and I realized I couldn’t understand most of the conversations around me. Some kids were speaking Italian, of course, but also Spanish, French and German. I stuck close to Alessi and Wayne. Freshmen or not, at least I wasn’t alone.
Then Wayne turned to Alessi. “Homeroom with Levine, right? Wanna walk together?”
Alessi didn’t hesistate. “Sure!”
My heart dropped. I couldn’t believe that (a) I’d just been rejected by Alessi, the nicest person I’ve ever met, and (b) Wayne Miller had someone to walk to class with, but (c) I didn’t.
She turned to me. “I mean, I told Eden I’d show her around…”
Wayne gave me his best puppy dog eyes, which were as goofy as you’d expect. It pushed me over the edge. I would rather walk into school alone every day of my life than with that.
“Yeah, no worries—” Before I’d even finished my sentence, they had bounded up the steps together.
Troy left the bus in the swarm of kids. So, he was my brother, whatever. At least he’d let me walk in with him.
Troy stifled a yawn. “Long drive, huh?” He dipped his chin at Shawna as she glossed her perfect pout. “Yeah, so I’m gonna walk Shawna to class, since it’s her first day of school…”
I slouched under the weight of my sudden loser-ness and the sarcasm dripped from my mouth. “Oh good. ‘Coz it’s not my first day.”
“Come on, you’re my baby sister. How cool would I be if I showed up to first period with you?”
“I have blackmail pix,” I said, a last-ditch to change his mind.
“Yeah, not gonna happen.” Troy shook his head, all good humor and confidence. He’d been super popular at our old high school, and right now I could tell he’d be just as popular. Maybe even more so. And I was just his weird little sister in art class. It made me feel even more like a loser.
My eyes started to water and I dug my fingernails into my palms to avoid breaking into tears. “Troy, c’mon…. Can’t you just drop me off at my first class? What if I get lost?”
“You got the sense of direction in our family. It’s me you should worry about.” But then he inspected me with his kind, caramel eyes and his face softened. “You know what? If you really need me…”
A surge of students pulled us toward the steps and I knew I was being lame. I could walk to a stupid class by myself. I shook my head. “No, we’re cool. But, uh, thanks. For the pep talk.”
Troy waited a beat to see if I was serious or not and Shawna appears at his side.
I shoved him away. “Go on, I’m good.”
“K, cool. See ya.” He slung an arm around Shawna and flashed a peace sign, vanishing into the crowd before I could say bye.
Well, I sighed, unclenching my jaw, here I go.