eleven

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Tiffany Miller's newest boyfriend, a scraggly foreign-exchange student from Paris, pressed her to the cafeteria wall, devouring her with a gaping, hungry mouth. Every few seconds, Tiffany stepped back to get some air. Of course, the public act of lust was for the benefit of the student body. Tiffany was the Most Desired Female at Kennedy, and everyone had to know it. I hoped she'd faint from oxygen deprivation.

I spotted Zoe, sitting alone at a table by the arched entrance to the cafeteria. She also watched Tiffany, who made a halfhearted attempt to slip out of her boyfriend's grip. The struggle seemed to turn him on more. Free at last, Tiffany glided through the cafeteria like a bride at a reception, garnering more votes for prom queen.

Zoe caught my eye. She strutted to the snack line, imitating Tiffany's Barbizon-graduate walk. It looked like she was modeling the latest in Third Infantry Division wear. I laughed into my napkin.

When lunch was over, I followed Tiffany and Monsieur Paris as they stumbled down the hall, occasionally veering to the side to let people pass. I turned toward the locker beside me and pretended it was mine. It didn't matter, though; they didn't know I was alive. Monsieur Paris's hand swept under Tiffany's shirt, and she tossed her head back, laughing.

With a seductive smile, he strutted off. Tiffany waited for him to turn a corner, then walked past me into her classroom. A few years ago, she would've elbowed me as she passed by, but now I'd turned invisible. I could live with that.

I stood there, thinking of Justin—imagining his lips, a velvet softness, seeking mine ...

"Miss Grande? The bell is for class. Not naptime." My calculus teacher, Mr. Furino, stood in front of me, wearing his lunch-time workout gear. I clutched my backpack to my stomach and moved past him.

A crash of something hard against metal snapped me out of my lust-induced daze.

"What's going on?" asked Jill Bengley from behind me.

"Morris is getting the crap beaten out of him," someone answered.

Another voice said, "It was only a matter of time before he got his butt kicked."

A book slid out of my arms. I didn't bother to pick it up. I tore around the corner, crashing into kids.

Beside the stairs, Richie was crumpled on the floor, his shoulders trembling with quiet sobs. Blood trickled down his chin.

Dave Harper stood over him. "I know you're behind this. You were at the post office, weren't you? I know I heard someone back there." He bent down, giving Richie a magnified view of his arm cast. "Doc says no sports for months. How about I break both your legs as payback?"

Richie closed his eyes.

"Lost your voice, homo? Whatcha think?" Dave gave him a shove with his uninjured arm. Richie rolled onto his side, retracting his legs to his chest like a turtle without a shell.

I couldn't stand it any longer. I'd only taken one step when someone grabbed my shirt and yanked me back. I jerked around, fists clenched.

Justin's eyes were slits. "It's under control, Ari."

His grip on my wrist was so tight that the slightest movement hurt. I glanced at Richie, helpless. "But we can't just let him—"

Justin's other hand clamped over my mouth. I had a sudden urge to sink my teeth into his palm. How could he stand by and let his best friend get pummeled? What was wrong with him?

"Get the hell out of my way!" cried a familiar voice.

Zoe barreled through the crowd, pushing people to the side like bowling pins. I waited for Justin to charge her, but he stayed still and slowly lowered his hand from my mouth.

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