twenty-five

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Zoe sent me a look that said it all: give me a compliment, and you'll die a slow, miserable death. So I didn't say a word about the absence of mottled green and brown in her outfit. I ignored her jeans, white T-shirt, and brand-new red Converse. We sat down at the round table and ate our lunch like everyone else in the cafeteria.

As we discussed who had the worse student ID picture, I did my best to keep my eyes off Nora and Justin, who were falling all over each other at a table next to the salad bar. While I was busy trying to look somewhere else, I saw Richie emerge from the lunch line. I gestured for him to join us, but he sat alone. An island in a sea of kids. This was day three of my campaign to convince him to eat with us, and I wasn't going to give up until graduation.

When he walked by to leave the cafeteria, I called out his name. He glanced around, trained to seek out Justin.

Zoe laughed. "It's okay. We're allowed to talk now."

Richie gave her a slim smile. We started walking down the hall together.

"How have you been?" I asked him.

"It's not easy losing your best friend."

"You'll have other best friends," Zoe told him. "Better ones."

"Justin was just a dream, anyway. I woke myself up," Richie said.

Zoe didn't have a clue what he meant, but I did. Justin Bieber was as elusive as cloud formations in the sky; as soon as you figured out the picture, it changed.

At the lockers, kids rushed by us to get to class.

"Is Mr. Reid back yet?" Richie asked.

"I heard he's coming back today," Nora said, adding, "People think he's been sick."

We knew what she meant. It was eerie, the silence. No emergency assemblies. No rumors. Even the two police officers were missing in action.

We stood there, saying nothing, until Richie broke the silence. "So long, guys."

"So long," I said.

He opened his locker, took out his jacket, and walked away.

"He doesn't slouch anymore," I observed.

"That's good," Zoe said. "That's real good."

I gathered my books in my arms, too tired to put them in my backpack, and headed to my last class of the day. I was halfway down the stairwell when he stepped in front of me.

Mr. Reid.

My breath lodged in my throat.

"Hello, Ariana."

It was good that he felt well enough to be at school. Bad that he knew my name.

"Uh, hi."

He turned to give me a close-up view of his bruised profile. "Would you meet me in my office right away?"

"Well, I have this—"

"Take a seat. I'll be there in a moment."

I nodded as he walked away.

In the office, Mrs. Roach pointed to Mr. Reid's door, then returned to a pile of forms. I walked in and sat down on the uncomfortable hard-backed chair in front of his desk. I wondered if I should take this moment to invent an alibi for prom night, but my brain felt paralyzed.

"Ah, Ariana Grande." Mr. Reid edged past me to his desk. "I suppose you know why you're here?"

I shook my head.

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