City of Secrets
Previously: On the first day of school at Caribou Canyon High, senior Penny is offered a tutoring position by Ms. Miller, the guidance counselor. Penny agrees to tutor Frankie, a fellow senior who is bullied and harassed by the other students.
Chitchat, laughter, and the banging of locker doors filled the air. The floor shook as people dashed up and down the hall. The students at Caribou Canyon High were excited; they’d made it through their first day of school.
Natasha was not excited. For her, it wasn’t just any first day, it was the first day at a new school, and it had been a failure. Her big plan—the one she’d been so sure of—to get in with the popular crowd had flopped.
She trudged to her locker, looking at the other girls for what felt like the hundredth time that day. Most of them wore jeans and carried jackets or had sweaters tied around their waists. The ones who were wearing skirts wore tights or leggings with them, or at least had on knee-high boots. They had known the temperature wasn’t going to climb higher than the mid-sixties.
Natasha hadn’t known. It wasn’t as though she’d never been up to the mountains. She was a Colorado native, born and raised. She’d been up to the mountains more times than she could count. She knew it was always cooler in the higher elevations, but twenty degrees cooler? In late August? Even in the nearby town of Aspen the forecast was only slightly cooler than the one for Denver.
Natasha’s skirt barely reached her knees, and her sweater was made of a thin material that didn’t make much difference. The purple and gold outfit had the words “Cherry Vista High Grizzlies” printed across the front. It was the cheerleading uniform from her old school, and it made her stand out, but not as much as she’d hoped. All day, people had looked at her as though she’d wandered into the building by accident. Even a few teachers had looked at her as though she were lost, despite the fact that Natasha’s name was right there on their rosters.
At her locker, Natasha tossed her books inside more violently than necessary. The clanging sound echoed her frustration. She didn’t understand what had gone wrong. In all the books she’d read, the new student in a small town was always fawned over. Other than the curious looks, Natasha had been ignored. It’s your own fault, she thought. Trying to be clever. You should’ve just talked to them. She should have, and tomorrow she would swallow her pride and do it, but today she just wanted to go home and cry.
“So. What do you think?” a girl asked. Her voice was strong and confident; it demanded that others listen to it. Natasha already knew that voice. It belonged to Laurel Beaumont. Natasha’s head filled with the conflicting thoughts: Is she talking to me? And, It worked! I knew it!
Natasha let out a slow breath and turned around. “Of?” she asked, forcing herself not to show her excitement.
Or her surprise. Standing in front of her was not just Laurel Beaumont, but Laurel’s entire entourage. They were in perfect formation. On either side of Laurel—and a few inches behind her—stood a brunette and a redhead. Natasha had the feeling that if either of the girls had the misfortune of being born a blonde that they wouldn’t be standing so close to Laurel. Behind them was a group of about ten more girls; they all had their attention focused on Laurel. A tornado could’ve swept through and they wouldn’t have noticed.
One girl stood by herself, her eyes cast to the floor. She was tall and thin with light brown hair and a smattering of freckles on her cream-colored skin. The backpack that was slung over one shoulder was stuffed so full it made her posture crooked. Her arms were filled with even more books. Natasha wondered how many classes the girl was taking, and if there were enough periods in the day for them.
All the girls were dressed similarly, and one didn’t need to be a genius to guess who set the tone. Laurel’s hair was down around her shoulders and the sides were pulled back in a barrette. Every girl whose hair was long enough wore it the same way, except for the redhead, whose curls had clearly won the battle with the barrette.
Laurel laughed. “Of CCH, silly.”
Natasha smiled and looked around. “It’s a lot like my old school in some ways. You know, high school is high school. But in other ways it’s totally different. It’s so much smaller.” It was mostly true, but she’d rehearsed the lines all weekend. She wanted to say just enough to entice them to want to learn more about her, but not to leave them feeling like Natasha was too different from them.
“Did you have to ride golf carts to get around your old school?” the redhead asked.
“Um, no,” Natasha said, not sure if it was a joke.
Laurel rolled her eyes. “Ignore Amber. We love her, but there’s a lot of empty space up there.” She tapped Amber on the side of the head and laughed. The brunette laughed with her.
Did she just call her friend stupid? Natasha wondered, trying to keep the surprise off her face.
“Whatever,” Amber said, glaring at Laurel.
“Your old school—that would be Cherry Vista High?” Laurel asked, tilting her chin at Natasha’s sweater.
Yes! “Yeah. For three years. I thought I’d be doing my senior year there, but my guardians laid this guilt trip on me to come live up here with my aunt. No offense or anything. It’s not that you guys don’t seem cool, but I didn’t want to leave my friends. Or my boyfriend.” She’d rehearsed the lie, but her stomach still somersaulted with guilt. She had no choice, but it felt like an insult to her friends, the ones she’d promised to text everyday and hadn’t. It was an even bigger insult to Nick, her boyfriend of almost two years. Ex-boyfriend, she reminded herself. Nick had been willing to do the long distance thing, but Natasha had still ended it. Her life had fallen apart, and she just couldn’t be the person she used to be. It was the right thing to do. It still hurt like hell.
“You have a boyfriend?” the brunette asked, at the same time as Amber said, “Guardians? What does that mean?”
Guardian is the word you’re left with when you find out the people you thought were your parents betrayed you,Natasha thought bitterly. “Oh, Nick and I broke up before I moved. We didn’t want to do the long distance thing. And guardian is what I call my adopted parents so people in town don’t confuse them with my real parents. I’m sorry. I’m jumping ahead. I’m—”
“Natasha Jameson,” Laurel finished for her. “Claudia Ainsworth’s niece. And I’m—”
Natasha took her cue from Laurel. “Laurel Beaumont. The Sheriff’s daughter.”
Laurel’s smile made it clear that she was pleased. She pointed first to the brunette and then to the redhead. “This is Emma Crawford, and that’s Amber Abrams.” She tilted her head to the girls behind her. “And you’ll learn their names if I decide they’re worthy.” Emma and Amber laughed.
Natasha wondered simultaneously whether or not it was a joke and if the fact that she’d been introduced meant she was worthy. She settled for smiling and said, “Nice to meet you.”
“You too.” Laurel’s tone said, the pleasure’s all yours. “That’s Madison O’Connor.” She nodded toward the girl standing off to the side, who looked exhausted from carrying so many books. “If you need anything, just ask her. She’s my slave, but I loan her out from time to time.” This time, the group in the back joined Laurel, Amber, and Emma in laughing.
Natasha was too shocked to fake a smile. She’d assumed these girls couldn’t be much different from her friends in Denver, but she was beginning to see how wrong she was. Her friends back home would never say anything so mean.
“Chill,” Laurel said. “I’m kidding. Madison’s dad is my dad’s deputy, so we have this running joke that she’s my slave, but it’s not true, right, Maddie?”
“Right,” Madison said, looking up for the first time.
“Oh, yeah, I get it,” Natasha said, though she couldn’t help but notice the fact that Madison hadn’t spoken until she’d been instructed to. Oh stop, you’re reading way too much into it.
“So, why are you wearing your old uniform on your first day at a new school?” Laurel asked, her tone reprimanding.
“Yeah, what’s up with that?” Emma asked.
“Seriously, explain,” Amber said. No one was smiling anymore.
Natasha gave them what she hoped was a sheepish expression. “It’s a pact I made with my old squad. Since I couldn’t be with them today, we all agreed to wear our uniforms so we could be together in spirit.”
“That’s so cool. Like school spirit,” Amber said.
Natasha nodded. “Yeah, like that.” The best lies were the ones that tugged at people’s heartstrings. Did that also mean that the best lies made their tellers feel like a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe?
“That’s sweet, except you go to our school now. Were you planning on trying out for the squad?” Laurel asked.
Natasha bit her lip, pretending to think about it. “I don’t know. I want to, but some of the girls on my old squad seemed upset about the idea, and it feels like cheering for another school would betray them.”
Laurel’s eyes widened and she looked offended on Natasha’s behalf. “And you not cheering at all isn’t betraying yourself? Not to mention your new school?” Emma and Amber nodded in agreement. Natasha was tempted to look for the strings that Laurel had them on.
Natasha said, “Yeah, I guess you have a point.”
“Well, you should think about it. We could use you on the squad,” Laurel said. Again, her sidekicks nodded.
Of course you could use me, Natasha thought, Cherry Vista High Cheer Squad won the state championship two years in a row. It was why she’d worn the uniform: she’d known it wouldn’t go unnoticed by other cheerleaders. “Yeah, I’ll think about it.”
“Great. Tryouts are Wednesday. See you tomorrow,” Laurel said.
“Bye,” Natasha called. A chorus of goodbyes echoed through the hall as the girls followed Laurel.
Natasha watched them walk away, not feeling nearly as happy as she’d thought she would. These girls were not what she’d been expecting. Natasha was almost positive that they’d been planning to talk to her all day and had intentionally made her wait. She couldn’t think of any reason for that other than to draw out the torment, to make Natasha think that she was going to be ignored.
You’re being paranoid, she thought. How could she not be paranoid? Everything about Caribou Canyon was strange. The more Natasha learned, the more questions she had. The more questions she had, the more determined she was to find answers to those questions. It was why she was there.
Natasha was so caught up in her thoughts that she hadn’t realized she wasn’t alone. She gasped and jumped almost a full inch off the ground.
Madison O’Connor stepped back, an apologetic look on her face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“It’s okay. I just didn’t see you.”
“Madison! Are you coming?” Laurel called from down the hall.
“Yeah, I’ll be there in a sec!” Madison shouted, almost as though she were replying to a parent rather than a friend. She leaned toward Natasha and said in a whisper, “You have one last chance.”
Natasha’s stomach flip-flopped at the girl’s cryptic tone. “To do what?”
“Find a better group of friends.”
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