Saturday, May 20, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 16

City of Secrets

Chapter 16

Previously: Natasha--still shaken over discovering Ms. Miller's body--is appalled that none of the other students seem to care. After getting into an argument about it with Chase, she walks off to be alone.

Chapter 16
    Natasha—too upset after her argument with Chase—didn’t go back to the cafeteria. Instead, she walked around the school, lost in her thoughts. It was strange, how quiet the halls were. She wasn’t used to the whole school taking lunch at the same time. At her old school, lunch was worked into the class periods. Every year she and her friends had to find excuses to change their schedules around so they could have the same lunch period. She wondered what excuse she would’ve come up with this year. She swallowed a lump in her throat. She still hadn’t texted or called any of them. Not even Meg, her best friend. Not even Nick, though they’d promised to stay friends. Her hand ached to reach into her purse and grab her phone.

    She didn’t. She couldn’t, because she was beginning to wonder if coming to Caribou Canyon had been a mistake. If she talked to Nick or Meg now, she might lose her nerve and hop on a bus back to Denver right at that very moment.

    The thing that bothered her most was that—though stated in the most callous way possible—Chase had a point. Life went on. What else were they supposed to do? But that made her feel like the most selfish person on the planet. She was supposed to go on, while Ms. Miller couldn't?

    She turned another corner, going in circles now, and paused at the sight of a girl with a blond braid tossed over her shoulder. She must not have heard Natasha, because she didn’t turn around. Is that Penny Harper?Natasha hadn’t officially met Penny, but almost all of her teachers had pointed Penny out to her as the person to go to in case she felt behind on any of the material. Natasha had been intending to introduce herself, but not because she was behind on the material. She wanted to talk to Penny because of her brother. Richie Harper had died on the same road that Natasha’s parents had died on sixteen years ago. For some reason, Natasha felt compelled to talk to the girl.

    This was the perfect chance, but she hesitated. What in the world was she supposed to say? “Hi, did you know that your brother died the same way my parents did? Isn’t that funny? Let’s be friends. By the way, your hometown is seriously screwed up. Anything you want to share on that note?” That wouldn’t go over well at all. It would probably be better if she pretended to need help with one of her classes after all.

    Natasha was about to call out, when Penny stopped in front of a door. This wouldn’t have been a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that it was Ms. Miller’s office. What was Penny doing going into Ms. Miller’s office? Or at least, trying to go into Ms. Miller’s office. It had to be locked. But Penny, living up to her reputation as the girl who was always prepared, pulled a key out of her pocket. Maybe she’s helping clean it out, Natasha thought. But that didn’t seem right, not without a teacher present. And then there was the fact that Penny hesitated, her hand hovering over the knob, her body rigid. Penny turned her head, glancing in the direction opposite Natasha. Guessing what Penny was about to do next, Natasha quickly ducked into the alcove that housed the drinking fountain, grateful it was there. A couple seconds later, she heard the quiet clicks of a door opening and closing again.

    Natasha stepped forward. The hallway was deserted.What are you up to, Penny Harper? Whatever it was, Natasha was going to stick around to find out. Part of her was tempted to barge right into the office and ask, but she quickly pushed that idea down. It would be better if she waited, let Penny do what she needed to do, and then confronted her afterward. That way, she could earn Penny’s trust, and maybe learn some things in the process.

    “I’m just sorry that it had to be you,” a man's voice boomed from around the corner. It was loud and authoritative and one Natasha didn’t recognize. It was headed in her direction, so she ducked back into the alcove.

    “Don’t be. The responsibility is an honor,” another man replied. He didn’t sound honored. He sounded bored. Natasha recognized Mr. Rosen’s dry, insurance-salesman voice right away, even though she’d only attended two classes with him so far. She’d nearly fallen asleep on the first day.

    “That’s one way to put it. I suppose it’s more of a burden,” the first man said. His voice grew louder, and Natasha assumed they’d turned the corner. “Can you handle that, guidance counseling duties, and teaching? I can place an ad for an English teacher, if you’d like. I don’t know if we’ll find anyone, now that the year has started, but it’s worth a try.”

    “No, it’s fine. I’m sure I can manage,” Mr. Rosen said.

    Mr. Rosen is replacing Ms. Miller? Natasha had only been there a couple of days, but even she knew he was the worst possible candidate. Natasha was pretty sure that he hated students. Passionately.

    “I’m happy to take care of cleaning out her office. I know it must be hard for you, what with your history and all.”

    Their history? He couldn’t possibly mean a romantic history, could he? Mr. Rosen and Ms. Miller? Natasha heard footsteps and bent over the drinking fountain, but didn’t turn it on. She held her breath. Please don’t look over, please don’t look over. She watched as two pairs of feet walked past. When they were gone, she risked a peek around the corner. She recognized the broad shoulders and bald head of Principal Cazin standing next to Mr. Rosen.

    “That was a long time ago, sir. It is what it is,” Mr. Rosen said, in the same monotone voice he said everything in.

    Principal Cazin nodded. “You’re very loyal. I don’t understand—never mind. Well, I’ll set you up with the password and then—”

    Natasha realized that they were about to enter Ms. Miller’s office. Penny was still in there, and Natasha was almost positive that she wasn’t supposed to be. Not entirely sure what she was doing, Natasha ran out of her hiding place. “Mr. Rosen! Principal Cazin! Can you help me?” Natasha waved her arms at them. “Over here! Help!” she shouted, as loudly as if the two men were standing at the opposite end of a football field.

    They turned in surprise, staring at her with identical wide-eyed expressions of alarm that were truly comical. Natasha wished she could snap a picture to show Penny later. It might serve as the start of a beautiful friendship.

    “Uh, Ms. James, we can hear you,” Mr. Rosen said. His lips twitched, as though he were trying not to smile.

    Now Natasha really wished she could take a picture. She wondered if any student had ever made Mr. Rosen smile. She might’ve just broken a world record. “Jameson,” she corrected, lowering her voice half an octave. “Natasha Jameson. I’m the new girl. Claudia Ainsworth’s niece. Hi, Principal Cazin! It’s nice to meet you!”

    Principal Cazin blinked, looking completely bewildered. “Ahh, yes, Natasha. I apologize for not having introduced myself sooner. Welcome to Caribou Canyon High. But, could you please stop shouting? You’ll disturb, uh, well, there are no classes in session right now, but still, there really is no need to shout. We might be past our prime, but neither of us is deaf.”

    “Oh, okay. Sorry, sir. Sirs. It’s just that I’m trying out for cheerleading this afternoon, and I really want to make the squad! It’s not just about gymnastics you know. You have to have pep,” Natasha said, not quite shouting, but not talking at a normal volume either. She waved her arms again, showing off her pep. “Could you guys help me? Please? The drinking fountain’s broken. I think it’s broken. No water’s coming out. Everyone said that I should drink a lot of water. Well, my aunt did, and so did Sheriff Beaumont’s assistant, and maybe the sheriff did too, I can’t remember. What’s her name? Not the sheriff, his assistant. Oh yeah, Ms. Nelson. She was really nice.” Natasha’s voice gradually grew louder with each word.

    Principal Cazin started heading toward her. “Why are you supposed to drink a lot of water?”

    “I need both of you! I think it’s really broken! It’s the trauma! You know, because I’m the one who,” she dropped her voice to a very loud whisper, “found her.” She pointed in the direction of Ms. Miller’s office.

    Principal Cazin’s eyes widened. “Oh, oh my. Yes, dear, we’ll take a look at it, but please, enough with the shouting. You seem to have quite a lot of pep. I’m sure you’ll make the squad.” He looked helplessly at Mr. Rosen, who shrugged. They walked away from the office, toward Natasha, who was ready to give herself a high five. Don’t get cocky yet, the hard part’s still coming. 

    When they reached her, Natasha stepped back and moved to the side, so that she was closest to Ms. Miller’s door. “I kept pressing the button, but no water came out,” she said, now talking as though the teachers were standing at the fifty-yard line. Mr. Rosen moved forward, but Natasha said, “Shouldn’t you both look? It could be really complicated.”

    They exchanged a glance, but Principal Cazin stepped into the other side of the small alcove. “Thanks for looking. I’m really thirsty. I guess it’s true, that trauma dehydrates you. That’s what Ms. Nelson said. Did I mention that she was nice? She’s so nice. God, it was awful.” Come on, Penny. Prove that you’re as smart as they say you are.

    Principal Cazin had been about to press the button on the fountain, but looked up at the comment. “I imagine it was. Do you have someone you can talk to about it?”

    “Well, my aunt.” Natasha thought she heard a clicking sound, so she raised her voice. “Hey! You’re the new guidance counselor! I heard you guys when you walked by. I can talk to you if I need to.” She had to bite back the laugh that wanted to escape at the look of wide-eyed horror on Mr. Rosen’s face. He definitely was not cut out to be a counselor. So why was he? One thing at a time, Natasha.

    “Ahh, well, yes, but not officially until tomorrow. Feel free to make an appointment.”

    An appointment? I just saw a dead body and the new guidance counselor wants me to make an appointment?“Okay, I will. Thanks!” she shouted, to cover up the second click that she was hoping and praying was the door closing behind Penny.

    “All right, let’s see what the problem is.” The principal pressed the button on the fountain, and water came shooting out in a perfect arc. Both men looked at Natasha with raised eyebrows.

    “Ohhhh! So that’s how it works! I thought you were supposed to press up here!” Natasha touched the nozzle where the water came out. “That’s how the fountains at my old school worked. Wow, I feel really stupid. You guys won’t say anything, will you? Oh my god, you can't. I’d never live this down.”

    Both men looked skeptical, but they shook their heads. “Of course we won’t say anything,” the principal said. “Is there anything else you need?”

    “No, that’s all. Thank you so much,” she said, smiling sweetly.

    “Of course,” Principal Cazin said. “Good luck with tryouts.” Mr. Rosen only gave a curt nod.

    Natasha took a long drink from the fountain as they walked away. When she heard the door to Ms. Miller’s office close, she straightened. It was time to find Penny. Natasha was going to get answers about Caribou Canyon, and those answers were going to start with why Penny Harper had just snuck into the guidance counselor’s office.