Kensington High’s basketball team carried Alex Baker’s coffin from the hearse to his final resting place. The closer they came, the louder the sobs, sniffles, and wails.
The cemetery was packed to the gills with students, moms, dads, sisters, brothers, and everyone in the small town of Ashford, Massachusetts. I knew of Alex, but I didn’t know him like his teammates, his family, or even his girlfriend did. She was standing next to Alex’s mom, sobbing uncontrollably. Brianna Masters was the it girl in school: beautiful, popular, rich, and sometimes the biggest snob this side of the Mississippi. But stories about her were for another time.
The day was all about mourning our number-one basketball player. Alex was loved by many, hated by few, and he’d had a future so bright that everyone had wanted to be with him, including me if I were being honest. I’d had a silent crush on Alex, even though he was two years older than my sweet sixteen years of age. Yet age didn’t matter. The age difference between my mom and dad was three years.
Despite all that, Alex had never noticed me in the girlfriend sense. He’d come from money. I came from a farm. I was shy, a trait I’d inherited from my mom. Alex had been anything but shy. When he’d walked into a room, he’d commanded it like a conductor leading an orchestra.
When I walked into a room, the popular kids whispered about me. I didn’t own designer clothes or name-brand shoes. I didn’t wear skirts or high heels or shorts that showed off my butt. I didn’t wear low-cut shirts or tons of makeup either.
I was as plain Jane as a girl could get. I lived on a farm, where the uniform of the day was boots, jeans, and a T-shirt unless it was winter; then I traded my T-shirts for heavy sweaters and a parka. Baggy was my style. But I was considered one of the nerds in school for reasons besides my wardrobe. I had my nose in books while the popular girls had their noses up jocks’ butts. I dared not get started on my name—Quinn Thompson.
Tessa Stevens, my archenemy, hated by me, loved by others, ran around the school singing, “Quinn, Quinn will never win. You’ll never get the boy.”
Grrr. I tried not to swear. As my momma would say, “Quinn, God doesn’t like potty mouths.”
Tell that to Tessa.
Father Thomas opened his Bible as the team set down the coffin. The shiny mahogany wood glinted beneath the sad gray sky. A snowflake fluttered down before splattering on top of Alex. I swore it was an angel, seeping into the casket to take him up to heaven.
I believed in God. I believed that everyone standing in the cemetery to mourn Alex had a purpose on earth. I was raised a good Catholic girl. I went to church every Sunday with my parents and two brothers. I worked hard on the farm and even harder at my schoolwork. I followed the Ten Commandments. But I couldn’t promise myself or anyone that I wouldn’t break the fifth commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” if Tessa Stevens kept giving me the stink eye.
She stood on the other side of the casket with her inky-black hair tucked under a knitted hat. Her bright-red lips stuck out like a spot on Mimi’s body. My cow was prettier than Tessa. Okay, I was getting a little out of control. It would be impolite of me to stick out my tongue at my nemesis. So I lifted my chin and smiled, something I rarely did in front of her. Lately, I’d mostly been crying, not around her but in the confines of my barn loft or bedroom.
She’d beaten me in every possible way. She’d gotten the boy. She’d gotten the ice-skating awards. She’d even taken my best friend, Celia, from me.
Witch was a name I only called Tessa in my head. I was silently screaming it at that moment because Celia was staring at me as though she wanted to do something to me. I wasn’t sure what. Her expression was a cross between I’m sorry and I hate you.
“Ignore her,” my oldest brother, Carter, said in my ear.
My brothers were protective, like the Secret Service was to the president. I loved them for it, but I could handle my own matters… most of the time. That timid and shy side of me got in the way on occasion.
But we weren’t standing out in the freezing cold to hash out my problems. We were there to mourn a legend in his own right—the school’s basketball star. People whispered at games that Alex was a god among players, a loving brother to his sister, a supportive son to his mom, who had cancer, and a devout community member, volunteering his time to the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization.
Father Thomas began. “As we stand here today to mourn Alex Baker, we’re reminded just how precious life can be. Celebrate his life. Let us pray.”
Hanging my head, I gazed at my mud-crusted boots. I did pray. I prayed for Alex, his family, who was in tears near Father Thomas, and I prayed that the man who killed Alex would seek help for his disease. The man had gotten behind the wheel with an alcohol level well beyond the legal limit.
Booze would never be found at my parents’ house. If my brothers drank at their high school parties, I didn’t know. I’d never gone to one, and whenever they got home, I was always in bed or in my room. Besides, they had a tendency to shield me from things.
“We don’t want you to be tainted by all the crap that goes on at high school parties,” Carter had said to me too many times too count.
It didn’t bother me that they didn’t want me to go to the same parties as them or any party, especially one attended by Tessa. I would rather cut off my legs than be bullied by her or any of her posse.
The crowd broke up, and I realized Father Thomas had finished his sermon. I guess he didn’t need to say much since he’d already said plenty at the church. My brothers started for the car, when Celia came running over.
Her espresso-colored eyes were filled with tears. I suspected for Alex. “Quinn, can we talk?”
Liam ran his hands through his wavy light-brown hair, which was filled with snowflakes. “We should go.” He regarded me before he set his gaze on Celia, then he stiffened. I imagined he was angry with her for ditching me.
I jutted out my chin at my brother. “I’ll meet you and Carter at the car.”
Celia stared at Liam, and the longer she did, the more I figuratively scratched my head at her perplexing look. It seemed as though there was some kind of silent exchange between them.
Carter dangled his keys. “Come on, bro. Quinn, don’t take too long.”
Carter, Liam, and I had slight variations in hair color, but our eye color was the same. Momma referred to our amber eyes as the color of pennies, coppery when our emotions took a turn for the worse, and golden when we were happy and smiling.
My brothers got swallowed up in the crowd as people filtered out of the cemetery. Car doors opened and closed. Some people stayed behind and chatted. Others sniffled as they lingered by the coffin.
Celia watched Liam and Carter leave as I studied my former best friend. Her shoulders were hunched around her ears as she nibbled on her bottom lip.
“Care to tell me what’s going on?” I asked.
Bigger snowflakes fell to the earth.
“Celia,” Tessa called. “You’re t—” Whatever she was about to say was cut off by her mother, who jerked on her arm.
Some of the rich folks in town were weird people. In some ways, the adults had morals, and in other ways, they didn’t. I knew Tessa’s mom was a harridan. The informal way to say it was bitch, but I didn’t like calling people that. I despised when someone referred to me that way. My brothers always teased that I was a walking and talking dictionary.
Regardless, Tessa’s mom had a way of talking down to others, including my mom. Anytime Mrs. Stevens shopped at our farm store, she treated my mother as if Momma were her slave. But my mom, Hazel Thompson, was the epitome of a saint, always smiling and helpful no matter what attitude people brought into the store with them.
Celia rolled her eyes before wiping her Rudolph nose with a tissue. “I want to be friends again. I’m sorry for what I did. Can you forgive me?”
I pursed my lips. My former best friend since the second grade had ditched me for our enemy, Tessa Stevens, as if I were a piece of trash. At the start of school in early September, Celia had wanted to begin her sophomore year with a bang. She’d wanted to live her high school years trying everything and anything she could, no matter the consequences. So Tessa, who was on the cheerleading squad, had told Celia that if she dropped me as a friend, then Tessa would vote to have her on the squad.
What Tessa hadn’t told Celia was that in order to make the squad, my best friend had to lower herself to name-calling, spreading rumors about me, and playing pranks on me in gym class.
Now Celia looked miserable, although her misery seemed to be linked to Liam.
“Is there anything going on between you and Liam?” I asked.
Her perfectly plucked eyebrows lifted super high. “Where did that come from?”
I shrugged as a snowflake melted on my nose. “Call it female intuition.”
She wagged a finger between us. “Liam is probably mad at me for breaking off our friendship. If you don’t want anything to do with me, I understand.” She lowered her gaze to her shiny brown boots.
I could tell she was leaving something out about her and Liam. I also knew she was sincere about being friends again. But I wasn’t about to trust her yet.
I pressed my lips together. “You didn’t just do one thing, Celia. You spread a rumor that I was easy. If it weren’t for Carter, the entire football team would’ve tried to get in my pants.”
Carter was big, mean, and most students feared him. He’d garnered his reputation after Noah Talbert had stolen his bike in the seventh grade. Carter’s retaliation was shaving Noah’s head. But the rumors about Carter and what he’d done to Noah had morphed into Carter pulling a knife on Noah, which wasn’t true.
I tucked my hands into my winter coat. “You did something far worse than telling lies about me. You violated your moral code. You lowered yourself to Tessa’s level. We pinky promised and blood promised since the second grade, Celia, that we would never stoop to Tessa’s level of witchy, easy, condescending, and have no regard for others’ feelings. We’re better than that. You’re better than her.”
Celia pushed her black-framed glasses up on her button nose. “I quit cheerleading. It’s not what I thought it would be, and I can’t stomach the way you look at me at a football game or in class. Please, Quinn.”
“I’m not going to give you ultimatums like Tessa did.” I wasn’t one to hold grudges. “How can I trust you, though?”
“I’ll do whatever you want,” she said.
I wasn’t about to boss her around like Tessa had. “Let’s start slow. Do you want to help out at the farm store tomorrow? It’s the weekend before Thanksgiving, and the store will be busy.”
Holidays were frantic and energetic. We sold not only handmade items, but jams, jellies, eggs, and other crafty things along with Christmas trees, although it was a week too early for buying a Christmas tree.
She smiled as though a pile of bricks had been lifted off her small shoulders. “I’ll be there.”
“Quinn,” Liam called. “We got to go. Momma’s making lunch.”
I gave Celia the time to be at the store on Saturday, then I hurried out of the cemetery. Momma didn’t like when we were late for meals. Besides, I had to get a big order ready for my mom’s bestie, Eleanor Maxwell.