Today is my stop of the Severed Heads, Broken Hearts blog tour! I have an extract from the very beginning of this gorgeous, gorgeous novel. I hope it convinces you to pick it up.
I’d nearly forgotten we were on Pep Rally Schedule until I was halfway out the classroom door, thinking it was break, and someone tapped me on the shoulder.
It was the new girl. She clutched a crumpled class schedule and stared up at me, as though I’d somehow given her the impression that I was the right person to talk to on her first day. I wasn’t expecting her eyes—deep and disquieting and dark blue—the sort of eyes that made you wonder if the skies opened up when she got angry.
“Um, sorry,” she said, glancing back down at her schedule. “First period is supposed to end at nine thirty-five, but the bell didn’t ring until nine fifty—”
“It’s the pep rally,” I told her. “Break is canceled and we go straight to third.”
“Oh.” She pushed her bangs to the side and hesitated a moment before asking, “So, what do you have next?”
“AP American Lit.”
“Me too. Can you show me where that is?”
Ordinarily, I could have. On the first day of junior year, I’d even stopped to help a few confused-looking freshmen in the quad, who’d stood gawking at the maps in the backs of their day planners as though they were stuck in some sort of incomprehensible labyrinth.
“Sorry, no,” I said, hating myself for it.
I watched her walk away, and I thought about how most of the girls at Eastwood, or at least the ones worth noticing, all looked the same: blond hair, lots of makeup, stupidly expensive handbags. The new girl was nothing like that, and I didn’t know what to make of the shabby boys’ button down tucked into her jean shorts, or the worn leather satchel slung over her shoulder, like something out of an old-fashioned movie. She was pretty, though, and I wondered where she’d come from, and why she hadn’t bothered trying to fit in. I wanted to follow her and apologize, or at least explain. But I didn’t. Instead, I grappled with the stairwell near the faculty lot, crossed the quad toward the 100 building, and opened the door of AP American Lit several minutes in arrears of the bell.
I’d had Mr. Moreno before, for Honors Brit Lit. He’d supposedly been writing the same novel for the past twenty years, and either he genuinely loved teaching or he’d never outgrown high school, because it was sort of depressing how hard he’d tried to get us psyched about Shakespeare.
Moreno hadn’t cared that I was late for class; he hadn’t even noticed. The DVD player wasn’t working, and he was on his hands and knees with a disc clutched in his teeth, prodding at the cables. Finally Luke Sheppard, the president of Film Club, arrogantly stepped in, and we all sat and watched The Great Gatsby—the original, not the remake. I hadn’t seen it before, and the film was in black-and-white and sort of bored me. The book had been our summer reading, and the movie wasn’t nearly as good.
What I hated, though, was the part with the car accident. I knew it was coming, but that didn’t stop it from being any less terrible to watch. I shut my eyes, but I could still hear it, hear the policeman telling the crowd of onlookers how the sonofabitch didn’t even stop his car. Even with my eyes closed, I could feel everyone staring at me, and I wished they wouldn’t. It was unsettling the way my classmates watched me, as though I fascinated and terrified them. As though I no longer belonged.
When class let out, I briefly considered the quad, with its harsh sunlight and café tables. My old crew sat at the most visible table, the one by the wall that divided the upper and lower quads. I pictured them in their new team uniforms, the first day of senior year, telling stories about summer sports camps and beach vacations, laughing over how young the freshmen looked. And then I pictured sitting down at that table. I pictured no one saying anything, but all of them thinking it: you’re not one of us anymore. I wasn’t class president, or tennis team captain. I wasn’t dating Charlotte, and I didn’t drive a shiny Beemer. I wasn’t king any longer, so it was only fitting to take my exile. Which is why, instead of gambling my last few chips of dignity, I wound up avoiding the quad entirely and decamping on that shaded stairwell out near the faculty lot with my headphones on, wondering why I hadn’t known it would be quite this bad.
There was only one senior-level Spanish class, which meant another year with Mrs. Martin. She’d urged us to call her Senora Martinez back in Spanish I, but that was completely ridiculous on account of her husband being the pastor of the local Lutheran church. She was one of those cookie-baking, overly mothering types who festooned her sweaters with festive holiday pins and treated us all like second graders.
I was the first to arrive, and Mrs. Martin beamed at me and whispered that her congregation had prayed for me after the accident. I could think of so many more worthwhile things they could have prayed for, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her.
“Gracias, Senora Martinez,” I muttered, taking my usual seat.
“Yo, Faulkner.” Evan nodded in greeting as he and three guys from the tennis team slid into seats around mine as though nothing was the least bit changed. They were carrying Burger King bags and wore matching tennis backpacks, the pro kind we’d been begging Coach to approve for years. I was so distracted by their backpacks that I failed to notice two things: that they’d all gone off campus for lunch and that Evan’s uniform sported an extra line of embroidery.
“Aren’t you going to congratulate me on making captain?” Evan reached into his bag and unwrapped a massive double burger. The smell of warm onions and clammy meat patties filled the classroom.
“Congratulations,” I said, unsurprised. Evan was the most likely choice for it, after all.
“Well, someone had to take over for your gimp ass.” Evan’s surfer baritone made the insult sound strangely friendly.
Jimmy, who was sitting behind me, held out what had to be a full-sized bucket of fries. “Want some?”
“Sure you can’t finish that yourself?” I deadpanned.
“Nah, I got enough for everyone, in case Senora Martin gets mad.”
I couldn’t help it, I laughed.
“Dude,” Evan said, clapping me on the shoulder. “You in for Chipotle tomorrow? Taco Tuesday, gotta get some tac and guac!”
“No one calls it that.” I shook my head, grinning.
It was strange, my crew acting the same as they always had, and for a moment I wondered if it was really that easy. If I could go for Mexican food with a team I no longer belonged to. If I even wanted to hang out with them, now that I’d gone from leader to liability.
And then Charlotte waltzed over in an all-too-familiar cloud of fruity perfume and grabbed a handful of fries from Jimmy’s bucket. She perched on top of the desk next to Evan’s, her Song Squad skirt swishing against her tanned thighs.
“Where are my fries?” she demanded, poking Evan with her shoe.
“Well, Jimmy got enough for everyone.” Evan’s face fell as he realized he’d screwed up.
“But I didn’t ask Jimmy to get me fries, I asked you,” she said, pouting.
“Sorry, babe. I’ll make it up to you.” Evan leaned across the aisle, going in for a kiss, and if I hadn’t figured it out before, I knew it then: they were dating.
“Not right now, my hands are greasy,” Charlotte said, turning away. “Did you at least get any napkins?”
I suppose it should have been painful to see them together, my ex-girlfriend with one of my best friends, that I should have wondered not just how but when it had happened, but I felt oddly detached, as though it was too much effort to care. I sighed and took a packet of tissues from my backpack, passing it to Charlotte.
“Thanks.” She couldn’t even bear to look at me, and I couldn’t tell whether it was out of guilt or pity.
Jill Nakamura joined us then, still wearing her sunglasses. She gave Charlotte a hug before taking a seat, like they hadn’t just seen each other at lunch.
“Ugh, we have like two classes together this year,” Charlotte complained.
I allowed myself to smirk as Jill made up some excuse about Student Government screwing with her schedule. The truth was, Jill and I had been in the same honors courses since tenth grade, but we had an unspoken understanding to keep quiet about that sort of thing.
I watched as Charlotte put the packet of tissues into her handbag—my packet of tissues, actually.
“Oh my God,” Charlotte said, zipping her bag with a flourish. “Look! It’s like she robbed the lost-and-found bin.”
“The boys’ lost and found.” Jill stifled a laugh.
The new girl stood in the doorway, surveying the mostly filled rows of seats. I could see her trying to be brave about the unwanted attention. Thankfully, Mrs. Martin stepped to the front of the classroom, clapped a short rhythm for silence like we were all in the third grade, and called “Hola, class!”
I’d always been fairly ambivalent about Spanish. Usually, I could waste a good five minutes pondering Mrs. Martin’s pin-of-the-day, and occasionally we got to sit back and watch Spanish-dubbed Disney movies. But when Mrs. Martin told us that we’d be interviewing a classmate and introducing them to the class en espanol, I realized that Spanish had the capacity to be even worse than that morning’s pep rally.
I watched as everyone around me, who had been so friendly only minutes before, partnered together. In the past, I’d always had someone to work with. But clearly, things had changed. And then I caught sight of the new girl staring down at a blank page in her notebook.
I claimed the seat next to hers and grinned in the way that girls usually found irresistible. “So what’s your name?” I asked.
“Don’t we have to speak in Spanish?” she countered, unimpressed.
“Mrs. Martin doesn’t care, as long as we do when we give our presentations.”
“How challenging.” She shook her head, opening to a blank page in her notebook. “Well, me llamo Cassidy. Como te llamas?”
“Me llamo Ezra,” I said, writing her name down. Cassidy. I liked the sound of it.
We fell silent for a moment, listening to one of the groups around us struggle on in tortured Spanish. Everyone else was using English because, as I’d said, Mrs. Martin didn’t much care.
“Well,” Cassidy prompted me.
“Oh, sorry. Uh, de donde has venido de?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Dondo de la Barrows School de San Francisco. Y tu?”
I hadn’t heard of the Barrows School, but I imagined it as some sort of rigid prep school, which only made her appearance at Eastwood High even more odd. I told her that I was from here.
“So, um, es una escuela donde duerme uno con el otro?” I asked. My Spanish was rusty, and not that great to begin with.
She burst out laughing, in that unencumbered way you sometimes do at parties or lunch tables, but never in a quiet classroom. Charlotte and Jill whipped around to stare at us.
“Sorry.” Cassidy’s lips twisted into a smirk, mocking me. “But you seriously want to know if all of the students sleep with each other?”
I winced. “I was trying to ask if it was a boarding school.”
“Si, es un internado. A boarding school,” she replied. “Maybe we should switch to English.”
And so we did. I learned that Cassidy had just completed a high-school summer program at Oxford, studying Shakespeare; that one weekend, she’d nearly gotten stranded in Transylvania; that she’d been teaching herself how to play guitar on the roof of her dormitory because of the acoustics of gothic architecture. I’d never been out of the country—unless driving the three hours to Tijuana with Jimmy, Evan, Charlotte, and Jill last spring break counted. I’d certainly never been to the Globe Theatre, or had my passport stolen by gypsies at Dracula’s castle, or climbed out of my bedroom window with a guitar strapped to my back. Everything I had done, everything that defined me, was stuck firmly in the past. But Cassidy was waiting patiently, a fountain pen poised above the pale lines of her notebook.
I sighed and gave her the standard Spanish-class answers: that I was seventeen years old, my favorite sport was tennis, and my favorite subject was history.
“Well,” Cassidy said when I had finished, “that was certainly boring.”
“I know,” I muttered. “Sorry.”
“I don’t get you,” she said, frowning. “Practically everyone goes out of their way to avoid you, but they can’t stop staring. And then you sit with that crowd in the corner like you’re the freaking prom king or whatever it’s called and all you can say about yourself is me gusta el tennis, which, I’m sorry, but you obviously can’t play.”
I shrugged, trying not to let it show how much it unnerved me that she’d noticed these things.
“Maybe I was the prom king,” I finally said.
This infuriated her. I tried not to laugh at how ridiculous it seemed now, that stupid plastic junior prom crown and scepter gathering dust on my bookshelf, when I hadn’t even made it to the dance.
We sat there studiously ignoring each other until it was our turn to present.
“Yo presento Cassidy,” I said, and Charlotte giggled loudly.
Mrs. Martin frowned.
“Butch Cassidy,” Charlotte stage-whispered, sending Jill into muffled hysterics.
I knew what Charlotte could be like, and the last thing Cassidy needed was to become the new object of her torture. So I made up a boring story about how Cassidy’s favorite subject was English and that she liked to dance ballet and had a younger brother who played soccer. I did her a favor, making her forgettable, rather than giving Charlotte further ammunition. But clearly Cassidy didn’t see it that way, because, after I finished, she grinned evilly, pushed up the sleeves of her sweater, and calmly told the class: this is Ezra. He was the prom king and he’s the best tennis player in the whole school.
Awesome, huh? Check out my review of Severed Heads, Broken Hearts and then go out and buy it!
Thanks to Kat at S&S for asking me to be a part of the tour.