seventeen

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On Monday, I hung around the lockers, waiting as Nora exchanged the books in her backpack. I wanted to make things right between us, and I needed to talk to someone about what had happened to Tiffany.

A few stragglers chatted in front of the drama room, but they didn't seem to notice us. I moved in. "Can we talk?"

She shut her locker and spun the combination lock. "I told you I don't care about you and Justin, Ariana."

I shook my head. "Not about that. I need to—"

"Shh," she reprimanded. "Not here."

"Then where?" I whispered.

Zoe marched up behind us, startling me. "Glenwood Library. After school. I have to tell you guys something. It's important."

Nora looked at me and shrugged. We took off for class, each of us heading in a different direction.

....

A teenager with dreadlocks sat across from me, rapping her knuckles on the table as she listened to heavy metal music leaking from her iPod. Her chemistry book was upside down. I almost laughed, until I remembered my own plummeting grade-point average.

Nora and Zoe were late. I figured I might as well get something done, so I looked up Shakespeare's love sonnets on the computer. When I reached into my pocket for a scrap of paper, my fingers hit something. I pulled out the chain necklace with the wedding ring. I'd forgotten about the "gift" Justin had given me.

In the light of day, I could tell it was too big to be a woman's ring. Inside, the inscription read FRANCES FOREVER, 1985. My throat tightened. Someone, somewhere, was desperate to find this. I shoved it back into my pocket.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nora. She waved me over to a table by the young-adult book section.

"You want to tell me what's so urgent that you'd violate the 'no talking during school' rule?" she asked in place of a greeting.

"I need to talk to someone," I said.

I told her everything as quickly as I could. How I wished we could all be friends without needing a deeper purpose. How my doubts had grown as our plans escalated to new heights of ... of what? Cruelty? What other word described them? She winced when I said it, giving me hope that she felt the same way. I ended my speech with, "You know I like you guys. My life's been great since we met and all, but—"

"What's your point, Ariana?"

I was already regretting my decision to confide in her. "I thought I'd be happier when my turn came ... I mean, Tiffany's turn."

"She sure deserved it." Hadn't she said the same thing about Dave Harper?

"Right," I agreed. "But ..."

"But?"

"But it doesn't feel good to mess up someone's life. Even if it's someone I don't like."

"I hate to disagree with you, Ariana, but the League's the best thing that's happened to me."

"You're right," I backtracked. "Me, too, but—"

"This is the first time in my life that I can be myself. The first time I've been able to let go without worrying that people will hate me for it." She crooked a finger around her purse strap and drew it close. "Justin knows what he's doing. We won't get into trouble, if that's what you're thinking." She studied me for a moment, then said, "Play along, Ariana. The year's almost over. Soon it will be time for the Prom with the Dead, and then we'll all move on to bigger and better things, and you can forget all about us."

"I didn't mean—"

"Hey, girls, fancy meeting you here!" Zoe threw herself into a chair and propped a boot up on the table.

"What's going on?" Nora asked.

Zoe made a face at Nora's abruptness and reached into her camouflage jacket. She pulled out a piece of paper and slid it across the table. Nora and I looked down at a printout of a news article from a three-year-old Sunday edition of the Highlander Times. The headline stared me in the eye: "Girl, 14, Assaulted After School."

"Read it," Zoe urged.

"Quiet!" hissed a lady behind us. Nora tossed a curdling look over her shoulder.

A girl had taken a shortcut through the woods on her way home from school when someone wearing a ski mask attacked her. She was in the hospital at the time the article went to print but would probably be released in a day or two. Neither her family nor the police could get her to talk.

"What's this mean?" I asked.

"The unnamed juvenile was Jenny Carson, otherwise known as Justin's love interest from his old school," Zoe explained.

"The one who plastered his poems everywhere?" I asked.

She flipped the top page over. A second article was stapled behind it. "There's more."

I tapped the papers with my finger, delaying. My eyes wandered across the room to a couple making out by a magazine rack and the librarian shooting them a stern look from behind the information desk. Eventually, my eyes pulled back to the page, unable to fight it.

Two days had gone by. The police had a suspect, an unidentified student from the victim's school.

"This is ridiculous," Nora sputtered. "Justin wouldn't assault anyone."

I had the uncomfortable feeling that I should have been the one to defend him first.

Zoe pulled her boot off the table and scooted her chair closer. "My cousin knows someone at Jackson High, who knew Justin at his old school. When I told her that I was hanging out with him, she asked around. She said Justin has a reputation for causing trouble. Apparently, Jenny Carson moved away right after the assault. My cousin's friend says she lives in New York City now." She looked me in the eye. "I'm sorry, Ariana. Really I am. But I thought you should know."

I pulled myself together to look at the big picture. "Even if it is him, she dropped the charges. That proves he's innocent, right?" But my father hadn't raised me to be naive about the law. People dropped charges for all kinds of reasons, from embarrassment to fear.

"He probably is," Zoe agreed, but I could see in her eyes that she was saying it for my benefit.

Nora pushed back her chair and stood up. "Well, thanks, Sherlock Holmes."

"Maybe you could track Jenny down," Zoe suggested. "Just ask her what happened."

I gave a single nod but didn't answer. I wasn't sure I had the guts to do that, even if I wanted to, which I didn't know if I did.

"That's stupid," Nora said. "Either you trust Justin or you don't."

"Right," I said. If Justin had anything to do with this, he would have told us. He would have told me.

Zoe returned the paper to her pocket. "Okay, just sharing."

I tried to smile. "Thanks."

"See you guys later," Nora said.

I closed my eyes and listened to Nora's high-heeled sandals tap their way down the marble stairs.

A/N:

drama come throughhhhh ;)))

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