Tabitha felt anxious huddled up with hunched shoulders at the curbside, watching for the bus that would spirit her away to her long-anticipated big return to Springton High. Waiting with her were three other teenagers, but none of them spoke to one another. They were each bundled up in what must have been five different layers of winter clothing and unrecognizable—this morning at least no one seemed to notice or even care that Tabitha was a newcomer to their bus stop.

It was that cold.

Temperatures had plummeted throughout the tail end of winter break until now; sidewalks and lawns glittered with ice crystals, and a rime of frost persisted in the shadows beneath parked cars and suburban hedges. At thirty degrees fahrenheit it was uncommonly cold for Kentucky, and the bitter chill in the air was painful to breathe. The corner curb here at the end of the street featured the concrete slab of a storm drain atop which it was convenient for them to stand, and although the bus stop was on the same street the Macintires lived on, it was a long street, and their place wasn’t visible because of the bend of the road.

Her outer layer was a bulky hunting jacket borrowed from Officer Macintire—camouflage pattern with neon orange highlights—beneath that, the hoodie pilfered ages ago from her father, and underneath that was the gray fit-and-flare winter dress presented to her way back when she was released from the hospital; the one grandma Laurie had tailored so that the one sleeve had ample room for her cast to fit through. Both of her outerwear hoods were up overtop of a new hat and scarf set she’d discovered in the bucket with her forgotten birthday presents. Beneath the dress she wore her nice white jeans, because it was way too cold today to go without, and she’d also donned her second pair of new shoes; snazzy brand new white ones that ate up most of the JC Penny gift card she’d been given for Christmas.

Ugh! The look on Sandra’s face when she found out I’d intended to just wear my new running shoes for everything every day, Tabitha wore a wan smile, nose and cheeks stinging even despite being wrapped in her scarf. And, she wanted to just throw out my old sneakers! Even when they still fit!

Each of the teens huddled there in silence, simply bracing themselves against the cold. Tabitha couldn’t guess what grades these kids might have been in or how old they might be, likewise no one had immediately identified her as Springton High’s social pariah. The rumor mill redhead, whose mysterious conflict with some of the sophomore girls had resulted in a string of suspensions… and an attempted homicide. She’d had weeks to steel her nerves for walking back into that level of attention, and finally thought she was ready.

‘Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,’ Tabitha planned to say to the inevitable questions. That’s a super clever thing to say, right? Mark Twain quote and everything. Didn’t get a chance to use that one back there at the Hot Topic, but since I already thought it up and all, it’d be a shame not to use it. That’s such a great line!


She’d practiced it several times in the bathroom mirror this morning, forcing herself to slow down the cadence of her speech so that she wasn’t just eagerly blurting it out. Now, her only fear was that enough people wouldn’t be listening when she actually delivered it, because repeating the line would be uncool. Worse yet, maybe others would be talking over her or interrupt her moment—Tabitha had to time her chance perfectly. If she stumbled over her words or misspoke, that would be it, and everything would be ruined.

It’s totally not cringe, Tabitha lied to herself. Going over cool things to say in the mirror by yourself is a perfectly normal teenager thing to do. I bet if I asked Elena or Alicia, they’d agree. Not that I WILL ever ask them that or admit that, because yeah… that’d be super embarrassing. So… okay, maybe it IS super cringe. It’s super cringe, but ONLY if anyone finds out. Which they won’t. Right? Still gonna use the line if the right time appears.

Because no one had realized who she was yet, Tabitha fancied herself in disguise. Maybe she could even pull off some sort of thrilling big reveal. Idle juvenile fantasies such as that where she impressed everyone with a big dramatic debut tumbled through her head one after another without much serious thought invested in them. They helped distract from how freezing it was, they were silly daydreams that softened the vague sort of dread she had for going back to school.

The sophomores who were out to get her were mostly removed from the equation, now. It stood to reason that while maybe the rest of the student body wouldn’t like her, that at least the ones who actually hated her were gone now. She had so much more confidence now, she’d grown and learned and struggled through some of that, so things could be different, this time. She was going to do it right. Have friends, be a little popular. Enjoy a normal adolescence for once.

Not going to shrink away from all of that anymore, Tabitha swore to herself. I’m not trailer trash, now. Mostly. I, I have MULTIPLE OUTFITS. Instead of basically one change of clothes for each weekday on careful wash rotation. I have FRIENDS. If people have snide remarks or talk down to me, I’ll just go to Elena. Or Alicia and Casey and the art club clique. Matthew. Olivia. I know at least A FEW people, now, so this school experience won’t be the same wilderness of horrors. I’ll have little pockets of safety here and there now, ones that can maybe grow out as I meet more people and form into some semblance of normal.

All so long as she didn’t panic, or freeze up, or make a fool of herself. She couldn’t run away from the socializing and retreat to her introvert comfort zone, because she needed to meet people, talk with people, assert herself as a human being to them so that their image of ‘Tabitha Moore’ didn’t remain a collection of rumors and slander and hearsay. It was going to be difficult and unpleasant at first, surely, but with time it would get easier.


Right? I can do this.

Their ride finally announced itself with the rumbling rattle of its diesel engine, and a high-bodied yellow bus appeared, its row of windows fogged enough to render the scattered students seated throughout blurry and indistinct. The vehicle lurched to a halt with a hiss of hydraulics, and Tabitha followed the others to board as a little motorized STOP sign swung out from the side of the bus like the fin of a fish.

Climbing up to enter, Tabitha discovered the bus was warm inside but it also smelled of sweat, and as the aisle of seats came into view she saw that their stop must be somewhere midway through bus thirteen’s route. The benches were less than half full here, whereas she remembered back on bus fifteen the trailer park was one of the last stops, so it was always difficult to find room to sit. The students were in disarray, some still bundled up from the cold while others had unzipped jackets in the heat or removed layers entirely to heap them on the seat next to them.

I can claim a whole empty seat to myself! Tabitha thought, a little thrilled. Now it’ll be on someone else to awkwardly make eye contact or ask for permission to sit with ME, this time. How the tables have turned!

She took the bench for herself and sat, gingerly reaching up to separate her hoods and pull them back without having them take her hat with them, then adjusting her scarf down to below her face. Her cheeks were still flushed from the cold, Tabitha scooted in to occupy the window spot and readjusted her bookbag into her lap while she looked around the bus with interest.

“Holy shit,” The guy in the bench across from her said, causing some heads to turn in her direction. “You’re Tabitha, right?”

“Um… hi?” Tabitha offered him a shy wave. “Gary, right?”

She didn’t recognize him, but hopefully the basketball he was clutching gave him away; he was a pale, lean-bodied older teen in tracksuit pants and a puffy half-open Kentucky Wildcats winter jacket. No backpack or bag of any kind was apparent; just the basketball. He looked surprised to see her here, but perhaps even more startled to be recognized by her in turn, and Tabitha couldn’t help but smile.

“You know me?” Gary asked with a quizzical look.

“Casey said you lived nearby,” Tabitha explained, eyeballing his basketball. “She said you were like, the basketball guy around town.”

“Hah, damn right,” Gary grinned. “You play?”

“I can’t,” Tabitha lifted her one arm. “Still have a fracture. Would love to try, though. Maybe in a couple months?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Gary nodded. “Have you played much before, though like—you know how to play?”

“Of course!” Tabitha said. “I’ve seen Space Jam, that’s basically it, right?”

“Ahhh-hah ha ha HAHHH!” One of the guys a few seats back jeered—from the cut of his jib he seemed to be one of Gary’s friends and simply jumping at the chance to heckle him. “Broooo—”

Tabitha twisted in her seat and made sure the smile she had on was a teasing one so that they knew she was kidding, while the bus rocked as it turned through the suburban neighborhood in search of its next stop. She felt… pretty good about things, so far. The last time she’d tried to use a pop culture reference in this same sort of situation on a school bus she’d cited Eminem lyrics, which at the time didn’t exist yet—and therefore failed spectacularly. This time, she’d nailed it. Space Jam was a mid-nineties movie for sure.

“That’s uhh, yeah basically,” Gary laughed. “Guess you kinda got the gist of it. Space Jam, hah. So, you’re Casey’s friend?”

“Yeah,” Tabitha affirmed. “She’s one of the few upperclassmen who, uh, isn’t some sort of vengeful psychopath?”

“Haaah, yeah,” Gary said. “Man, those girls had it out for you, like, holy shit. What did you do?”

“I wish I knew!” Tabitha remarked with a bitter smile. “High school girls. They’re just downright dangerous! You’ve gotta be careful around them—you know, don’t ever show them you’re afraid. Don’t leave food out. Never travel alone.”

Both of the guys laughed at that, and Tabitha flooded with relief.

Inwardly, her heart was beating out of control as her mind raced for witty or memorable things to say. Applying situational humor like this was so much easier when it was just her and Hannah! There was something mentally exhausting about trying to be cool in front of people she was just meeting for the first time. The right words were coming to her—for now—but at enormous effort and exertion, because she already felt like she’d done good enough for today and was ready to treat herself with quiet alone time in the school library. Away from everyone else, so that she could recharge her mental batteries.

No, no. I’ve got this. I’m doing okayish enough. Just have to keep at it throughout the school day, and it’ll get easier.

Among the youths picked up along bus thirteen’s meandering route were several more of Gary’s friends, and as the seats filled up, occasional discourse and banter flew back and forth. Rather than retreating into herself and putting her head down, Tabitha forcibly kept her body language open—facing away from the window and towards the interior, keeping a small smile up, turning her attention towards each of them whenever a dialogue formed—and her apparent interest and engagement was rewarded with Gary and his first friend fielding a question or two her way.

I even spoke up on my own, to one of the guys I haven’t even been introduced to! Tabitha thought with giddy pride. A few heads snapped my way, sure, but no one laughed, or commented on it, or thought I was speaking out of turn.

Her nerves felt like they were pulled taut, but eventually they did arrive at Springton High’s bus loop, and when Tabitha stood with everyone else to disembark, she felt she did so among acquaintances rather than total strangers. Not friends, yet, perhaps, but the first steps had been made and after all—acquaintances weren’t as scary as strangers.

“Later, Gary!” Tabitha said with a casual wave as they went in different directions.

The words almost didn’t come out even though she’d run them through her head several times as she worked up the courage for it. Her voice wasn’t as cool as she’d meant it to sound, but at least it didn’t crack like she’d feared it would, and maybe her wave was too stiff and awkward. Would it seem too personal, when they’d just met and she probably wouldn’t even need both hands to count the sentences they’d exchanged? She wasn’t sure.

“Later!” He called back.

A moment later a friend of Gary’s smacked his arm and leaned in close to whisper something.

Tabitha only caught a glimpse of the heckler friend’s face—his name had never come up in conversation despite her straining her ears for information the entire ride to school—but it seemed more amused than anything else. He likely wasn’t immediately recounting the vicious rumors from the past year that clung to Tabitha like a stench she couldn’t shake. She was just feeling paranoid about everything.

I’m fine, everything’s fine, Tabitha told herself. I’m an average to better-than-average looking teenage girl, and almost all freshmen are single but feeling interest. Right? I um, from the boys at least, I can expect a small grace period where what I receive is just teasing or light-hearted nonsense. Stuff they can walk back on if necessary, before general consensus on me really solidifies. Then, at that point—either I’m able to assert myself over the ill-intended rumor version of me in public opinion, or I’m not able to. Just, for that to have a chance of happening, I have to put in the corresponding effort. People have to KNOW ME.

Being back out in the cold stung but Tabitha slipped off her hat anyways and arranged her hair, because it was harder for people to identify her when she was all bundled up. People here and there looked at her, but with the school situation being back from winter break for everyone rather than first day of school the tension and level of scrutiny her peers had for one another wasn’t as high. As she stepped across the commons scattered groups of kids formed into bunches here and there in front of the trifecta of administration, auditorium, and gymnasium buildings. Just as many more kids were already scurrying off in search of their classrooms; it was cold out.

“Tabitha!” A voice called out. “You’re back!”

As if she was suddenly in the spotlight, the nearby crowds seemed to part as dozens of people looked over at once. Just standing by Tabitha, a circle of girls shifted and six or seven of them were gawking at her all at once—it was a sudden sea of faces. While some of them looked familiar, her head was swimming at the sudden onslaught of attention and recognition of individual names and contexts parted like a school of panicked fish before Tabitha could latch onto even one of them.

She knew that girl for sure, but from which class? Then this other girl with the flushed face and teased out hair, was she from Marine Science, or English? Did Tabitha detect disgust and hostility? Surprise and interest? She wasn’t sure, because her mind was going blank and for a moment despite her pounding heartbeat, her blood felt like it stilled. Hopefully, the wry smile frozen on her features looked natural rather than idiotic.

“Tabs!” Alicia—the voice from just then—managed to squeeze through the throng.

Her friend was dressed in a winter parka that went down almost to her knees, and wore her hair down in corkscrew curls that framed her face beneath a beanie. She was beaming, and seemed so much more confident and put together than Tabitha remembered from the last time she was here—like she was really coming into her own style. Moreover, Alicia wasn’t alone; she had an unfamiliar girl in tow.

“Tabs, meet Jay. Jay, Tabs,” Alicia hurried to introduce them while mashing the padding of her parka against the layers of Tabitha’s coat in a quick hug. “Art club—painter, she uhh, she finger-paints, or something?”

“Janaye,” the girl said with a small smirk. “Oils and acrylics.”

With dirty blonde hair carefully styled, glasses, and a thin gold necklace with a cross that hung down over a sweater, Janaye had the appearance of a model student or an achiever. The neat, somewhat bookish appearance put Tabitha at ease, and she would guess this girl was older than them by a year or two. A sophomore, or maybe a junior.

“Hi,” Tabitha said. “Tabitha, or even Tabby is fine. I write fiction?”

“Fashion,” Alicia corrected. “Tabs is gonna bring outfits to our next art show. We already have the one mannequin, right?”

“Er, yeah, I do that too,” Tabitha laughed, following as Alicia directed them along the concrete path. “With my grandma.”

“That’s cool,” Janaye remarked.

As they threaded through the early morning stream of students, Tabitha couldn’t help but marvel at how little had changed. While it was normal in the mornings for many to congregate in the front commons before first bell, many also gravitated towards the quad in the back—the walkway between administration and the auditorium continued on past Springton High’s lunch room and the library opposite it to where things began to branch off towards the sprawl of class buildings. Just beyond that, the quad area was an open courtyard with tables and waist-high planters, the area itself ringed by the more esoteric classrooms that pulled double-duty as club rooms.

I really think I DID miss it. I withdrew right when I was starting to open up a bit more, and it had felt like I was on the cusp of… I don’t know, SOMETHING.

The art room was adjacent to the theater room, and the two were in fact connected via a big storage closet that they shared; the concrete surface just outside the theater room’s doors showed blotchy rectangular outlines in paint from where the theater kids had spray-painted props and backdrops in the past. Because they were also clubs, both doors were always open in mornings and afternoons, but while the art teacher Mr. Peterson welcomed everyone, Mrs. Hart in theater would hassle and turn away anyone wandering in who wasn’t one of her kids.

Thus, the social dynamic present was that the theater kids hung out in their exclusive, somewhat insular clique, becoming more and more theater kid weird, and the art club instead attracted social butterflies and was on the rise in popularity. Across the quad from these rooms was the soundproofed band room and the weight-lifting room. Most of the tables throughout the courtyard were lined up towards the band room side of things, and a lot of Springton’s unassuming quiet kids were regulars that sat there in their own little groups.

To contrast, weight-lifting wasn’t exactly even particularly active this year—it seemed like only one or two seniors were ever visible in there lifting before or after class. But, that door attracted foot traffic like no place other, because Coach Cooke stood outside every morning with a rolling cart selling fifty-cent glazed donuts sourced from Food Lion. That entrepreneurial spirit alone kept his athletics department flush, because the fresh donuts smelled amazing, and walking around with one in hand drew the envy of everyone around. Only half of the student body seemed to have either allowance or money from part-time jobs in town.

In addition, one of the two vending machines here at school was towards the weight-lifting side of the quad, but Tabitha had never personally used it. From what she’d overheard in the past—and it was a common subject of discussion—quarters were mostly fine, but trying to feed it dollar bills was an exercise in humiliation and futility. Violence against the Coca Cola machine had led to the sinister device being both bolted down into the concrete and secured in a metal cage, with only its buttons and dispenser open.

“Tabs? Tabs?” Alicia teased, nudging Tabitha with her shoulder.

“Oh—sorry,” Tabitha blushed. “What were you saying?”

“Asked if you brought your Gameboy?” Alicia prodded again. “I’ve been trainin’ up my team since Christmas morning.”

“Um,” Tabitha shook her head. “I didn’t, no. I didn’t think there would be time? First bell is soon, and I don’t know what I’m going to do yet about getting home from school afterwards if I join any clubs.”

“Mr. Peterson is gonna make a rule so you guys can’t play Gameboys in club,” Janaye remarked with a scoff. “He’s already yelled at Casey before.”

“He will not! Mr. Peterson is cool,” Alicia scoffed. “Just you watch. When sophomore year starts, we’ll have our own separate Springton Pokemon League club for us. We could have it on Tuesdays, or Wednesdays, or something.”

“Yeah, right,” Janaye rolled her eyes. “Anyways, I’ll catch you later? I’ve got French first and it’s on the other side. Was nice meeting you, Tabitha.”

“Likewise!” Tabitha gave the girl a small wave as she departed.

“Well, shit,” Alicia confided in a whisper. “What the hell. Got her to come over and meet you, but she barely even talked. Ugghhh.”

“It’s fine,” Tabitha assured her. “She seemed nice?”

“She’s a bit stuffy,” Alicia said. “She’s real close with all the art club people though, and she’s our bigshot painter. Really kickass oil paintings, but she only does still-lifes and landscapes. Kinda like—have you ever heard of Bob Ross?”

“Of course,” Tabitha started to nod, but then stopped herself. “Well, I’ve never seen his actual show. I know him from internet memes, though. He popped up often enough to sort of enter cultural consciousness? Happy little trees, and stuff like that.”

“Really?” Alicia asked. “Memes, that’s like going viral, right?”

“I’d say those two things are… interrelated maybe?” Tabitha gave her friend a curious look. “Now, wait a minute. How do you not know memes, but you know phrases like going viral?”

“Viral is definitely already a big thing, was on the news with that Ally Mcbeal dancing baby thing. Silly computer animation, that I guess got crazy unexpectedly popular on the web, because it ‘went viral.’ I’m still not sure I even really get it.”

“Dancing… baby?” Tabitha was completely lost. “What?”

“Yeah. Right? Oh, here—off to the side here,” Alicia said, pulling Tabitha towards a distant empty table. “Ta-da~! This is Elena’s spot, this is where she usually lurks, now. Broods. Haunts. Doing her too-cool-for-anyone goth girl thing. I dunno what we’re gonna do at lunches. You want to hang out with ‘Lena, or you want to chill with the art club peoples?”

“Um, with Elena for sure,” Tabitha decided, glancing around in search of their friend. “But—hopefully we’ll be able to pull her into art club?”

“Hopefully,” Alicia sounded skeptical as she dropped her bag onto the Elena table and gestured for Tabitha to follow suit. “Not sure what all’s going on with her. Cheerleading? Ugh. You weren’t really gonna—”

“Do you know where Clarissa sits?” Tabitha asked.

“Clarissa?” Alicia made a face. “Like from your party? No, no idea.”

“Hmm…” Tabitha mused. “Olivia and Michael?”

“They’re in with the lunch room preppies, them and their friends have a regular table there,” Alicia shrugged. “Well, they are at lunchtime. No clue where they hang ‘fore first bell. Casey and Matthew drive here, so sometimes they’re chilling with people out by the student parking lot around this time, sometimes they’re in the art room.”

“Is their relationship public, now?” Tabitha asked. “Everyone knows?”

“Yep, pretty much,” Alicia grinned. “Some girls were pissy about it, but—them’s the breaks. Elena’s over it anyways, I think, so I don’t really care.”

“Okay, cool,” Tabitha took a deep breath, trying—and failing—to relax.

“You alright?” Alicia asked. “You look a little jittery. You okay to be back?”

“I think I really need to be here,” Tabitha said. “To uh, to try, really try this time. Put myself out there, get to know people. Put rumors to rest. It’s just—it’s so stressful. I feel like throwing up already, and the day hasn’t even really started.”

“Well, they’re all not gonna stop talking smack about you,” Alicia gave her a bitter smile. “But, they should be more hush hush about it, this time. Since some of the girls got suspended, and teachers are gonna be super touchy about it if they see people treating you bad. So—that’s uh, that’s something, right?”


“Oh! Hey. There she is,” Alicia nodded in the direction of the entrance to the quad. “She’s always easy to spot.”

Elena was approaching them, and to Tabitha’s surprise she wasn’t wearing only black. While Tabitha had seen the baggy black JNCO jeans before and Elena seemed to be rocking one of her many black Hot Topic hoodies, overtop the hoodie this time she wore camouflage. Unlike the hunting camo that Tabitha now wore that gave her a woodsy country girl vibe, Elena’s camo jacket was military style—from a US Army surplus battle dress uniform, with its sleeves rolled up to just above where Elena’s elbows might be. Rather than bare arms, however, her hoodie sleeves were down and pulled all the way over her hands, the outlines of which could be made out clenching the cuffs closed. It perhaps leaned more punk than goth, but it looked rather fetching on Elena.

“I’m freakin’ freezing,” Elena griped as she closed the rest of the distance and stood beside them. “Can see my breath.”

“You can borrow my coat for a bit?” Tabitha offered.

“Nah,” Elena shrugged. “I’m fine. Just wanted to bitch.”

“This is new,” Alicia stepped forward with interest to inspect the lapel. “Cole Jackson?”

“Cole?” Elena made a face. “What?”

“That’s what it says!” Alicia laughed. “Right there.”

“It’s—? Oh,” Elena rolled her eyes. “COL is short for colonel, so—colonel Jackson.”

“Kernel? What?!” Alicia was skeptical. “Why would C-O-L stand for ‘kernel?’”

“No, it’s actually spelled—” Tabitha began to explain.

“Alicia, I didn’t make all the freakin’ rules,” Elena huffed out a breath that was visible in the air and then laughed as she turned around. “Was a thrift store find. I sewed a bunch of patches on the back. See?”

“Oh, nice! Sweet,” Alicia leaned back in to check them out. “Uhh—girl scout patches?”

“Yeah,” Elena nodded.

Three rows of colored patches decorated the back of Elena’s new jacket—most of them featuring cute imagery along with brief text to commemorate various occasions. SWIM PARTY ‘92 was emblazoned in little letters above a frog hopping into a pond, GIRL SCOUTS REDEDICATION showed a simple row of candles upon a blue backdrop, and Tabitha discovered that the entire middle row of patches featured OPERATION SANTA CLAUS SKATE PARTY in a succession of years from 1992 all the way to 1996. Not all of them listed a year—there was a DO SI DO one with the embroidered silhouette of a folk violinist and a pair of dancers, as well as a pink one of a teddy bear holding another, smaller teddy bear that somehow simply had the words SURPRISE KIDNAP.

“That’s so cool!” Tabitha was genuinely awed. “Are all of these yours?!”

“Yeah,” Elena said again, trying to twist around enough so that she could face them while still showing off her back. “Became this whole big emotional ordeal. It was mom’s idea, even, but when we actually took the seam ripper and started cutting them off my girl scout sash, she started crying. Think it turned out neat, though.”

“I’m so jealous!” Tabitha said with enthusiasm. “I-I didn’t even know girl scouts were a thing in this area! Am I too old to join?!”

“Tabby…” Alicia rolled her eyes. “If there weren’t girl scouts around here, where do you think all the girls come from, who show up to your door trying to peddle girl scout cookies?”

“Um,” Tabitha stared for a moment. “Well. I guess… I never really…”

“She wouldn’t have seen them,” Elena grunted. “We didn’t go door to door at the trailer park, know that for a fact. For the urban places like that near the busy streets in town, we’d just set up a table outside the doors at Food Lion. Didn’t go to trailer parks, and we didn’t do the more rural kinda areas around the edge of town, either. Not enough return on time invested.”

“Wow,” Alicia shook her head in dismay. “Just—wow. Yep, of course you would say that.”

“Well, we didn’t pull that trick-or-treating route out of thin air,” Elena shrugged. “Carrie and me and some other girls all used to be scouts together.”

Frowning in thought, Tabitha couldn’t recall even seeing girl scouts outside the grocery store. But, then again—it hadn’t been until May of last year that she got pushy about doing the shopping for the family there, and maybe that just wasn’t girl scout cookie season. She wasn’t sure why an organization like that had never occurred to her, but it was something Tabitha was absolutely going to discuss with Mrs. Macintire tonight about enrolling Hannah in. Likewise, maybe there was a boy scout or cub scouts program she might be able to find for her cousins?

“Guess I’m just surprised,” Alicia remarked. “You’re all trying to go goth, I thought you’d want to put on like—skulls, pentagrams, more gothic kinda patch stuff.”

“I’m not gonna wear pentagrams,” Elena scowled. “Alicia—I’m still a Christian.”

“Okay, okay,” Alicia held up her hands in surrender. “I’m just sayin.’”

Boy scouts might be smart, Tabitha decided. Yeah, might be less… reckless? Than trying to just introduce them to a church youth group, like I’d considered. Especially when you remember they’re goblin heathens! The last thing I need is to get called in because the boys were fighting over whether or not Superman could beat up God in a fight, or whether Batman would get still get judged for his sins, or if they wouldn’t count just because he’s Batman. Can practically already see them arguing with a youth pastor about it...

“I did look through all the patches at the mall,” Elena shrugged. “They have a bunch, just none that are very ‘me.’ South Park, Korn, Sublime. Insane Clown Posse, a bunch of random ones from wrestling stuff. Spencers has some too, but they’re all like… stoner stuff.”

“Sublime’s cool,” Alicia commented. Unauthorized use: this story is on Amazon without permission from the author. Report any sightings.

“I might replace some of these when I find better ones,” Elena said, finally turning back around. “The Santa Claus ones first, probably. Just thought it’d be cool to do.”

“It is cool,” Tabitha said in approval. “I want to do something like that, but—I don’t even think I have my own jacket. This one belongs to officer Macintire, the hoodie is my dad’s…”

“Jesus, Tabitha—” Alicia groaned. “How do you not have a jacket?! I wish I’d have known, coulda got you a badass biker jacket for Christmas. And, yeah, speaking of—I drew you a Christmas present. Here, one sec.”

“Oh! Me too!” Tabitha said. “Got you guys gifts.”

Alicia’s backpack, Tabitha’s jean bookbag, and then Elena’s black messenger bag joined each other on the nearby table as each of the friends opened things up to retrieve presents for each other, and Tabitha let out a nervous laugh. Just as she pulled out the pair of tapes she had for Alicia—first bell began to ring. The bmmm bmmm bmmm bmmm tones sounding throughout the school’s intercom stirred the idlers throughout the school quad. Students everywhere rose from their tables and started to disperse off in the direction of their respective classes, making the previous languid atmosphere turn busy with people moving about.

“Aw, crap,” Alicia swore with a laugh, presenting a large rectangle wrapped in newspaper to Tabitha. “S’just in a dollar store picture frame, you can put it in a better one if you uh, if you wind up liking it. Merry Christmas! ‘Lena, I got one for you, too. Here.”

“Merry Christmas!” Tabitha was touched. “Here, for you.”

“These are—” Alicia hefted the gifts from Tabitha and then carefully brought them up to her ear and gave them a little shake. “Video tapes? Can I open them?!”

“Uhhh—open them when you get to class,” Tabitha couldn’t help but smile. “Too embarrassing.”

“Yeah, you have to, too,” Alicia countered with a grin.

“Elena…” Tabitha was embarrassed to hand over a very small gift-wrapped pocket notebook to her other best friend. “Your original present kinda fell through… and then the back-up plan I had also fell through! But, it should be ready in time for uh, to make it a better gift later on this year, so. For now, I got you this.”

“You didn’t even have to get me anything,” Elena brushed off her concerns as she accepted the little present. “Thanks. I just got everyone cards, but, uh. I wrote a lot in them. Mom said just givin’ you guys five dollar bills in with the card was shallow and almost as if I was trying to buy your guys’ affection and awful—so, we put in twenty dollar bills instead. Merry Christmas!”

“Nice!” Alicia gave a bright laugh as she accepted an envelope from Elena. “Cool, thanks.”

Tabitha’s envelope from Elena felt a lot heavier now that she knew there was money inside it, but she mustered up a smile for her friend all the same. Twenty dollars in 1998, that’s like fifty bucks in MODERN DAY money!

“Aww, thank you,” Tabitha said. “You—both of you guys, you didn’t have to get anything…”

“Oh shut up, we all got each other stuff,” Elena snorted, shouldering her messenger bag again. “I’ve gotta get to class. What’s your first period, now? Maybe we got the same thing.”

The Marine Science they had both shared for their first class of the day was an elective and ended with first semester, which meant depending on what curriculum they chose or were assigned next, they probably wouldn’t have class together anymore.

“Personal Fitness?” Tabitha asked hopefully.

“Damn,” Elena shook her head. “Nah, Biology one. We’ll still catch each other here for lunch?”

“Yeah! Yeah,” Tabitha nodded, watching with a surprising amount of disappointment as they parted ways. “See you!”

“That sucks, P.E. first thing in the morning?” Alicia made a face as she hurried to zip her bag back up and get going. “You should see if you can switch out for something else. I’ve got art first thing, right here.”

“I’ve got the art room last thing, it’s my last class of the day,” Tabitha revealed with a pout. “But—see you at lunch, yeah?”

“Yeah!” Alicia waved as she trotted away. “Merry Christmas!”

That’s… a little disheartening, Tabitha thought as she trudged on towards the track and field area. Like, intellectually I KNEW we probably wouldn’t have first class of the day together anymore, but I guess I did kind of hope. Now, I’ll have Personal Fitness just… by myself, or I’ll have to work at getting to know people all over again. It’s a little daunting. What are the odds I get Gary or his friends in with the same period? That’d be okay—after all, basketball is… active? It’s a sport? They could maybe play during class? I’m not sure what it will even be like.

From what little she remembered from her past lifetime, Personal Fitness wasn’t even much of an actual class. She’d had Coach Cooke teaching for it in her Junior year, and all the kids were left to their own devices for the first fifteen minutes, after which he might pass out nutrition worksheets, or he might simply have them do laps around the field at their own pace. Most just walked and talked. It had been a course few people took seriously, and one most of the students used for goofing off or socializing—Tabitha had passed with an A+ despite spending that entire class with her nose in Anne Rice novels.

Not this time, though, Tabitha clenched her fist. Just another few days, and I’ll be cleared for physical activity again—another week or so and the cast should come off, too. Then, I can spend the mornings running. Need to get myself back into shape if there’s gonna be any chance of making it into cheer with Elena.

To her surprise, it wasn’t Coach Cooke herding up the various Personal Fitness students that were gathering in front of the bleachers. Instead, a surprisingly young twenty-something blonde woman in sweatpants and a Springton Athletics sweatshirt was marking off names on a clipboard there. Tabitha recognized her as Coach Baylor—she was in charge of a number of the school programs, but everyone knew her best for being in charge of Cheer.

After all, Coach Baylor was a cheerleader, through and through, and from Tabitha’s recollection the only reason she was teaching instead of still cheering for the Indianapolis Colts was an injury that required knee replacement. Tabitha had never had much to do with Coach Baylor in her past life, but the woman had made an impression from the few times she had substituted for Coach Cooke, and Tabitha remembered when Coach Baylor went around and spoke briefly at all the classes about homecoming and prom safety and etiquette, as the young woman was nominally ‘in charge of the girls.’

The coach was young, beautiful, and very well regarded by the general student populace. The in crowd girls were all very close to her, and naturally the more daring high school guys would joke about how hot she was, or even play at flirting with her. What Tabitha did not remember was how Coach Baylor was as a person; whether or not she kept a professional separation from the teenage girls she worked with, or perhaps was ‘one of them’ due to their close proximity in age. Was she serious and no-nonsense about training and fitness? Tabitha wasn’t sure.

I guess my BIG fear is that she goes along with the sorority clique sort of cheerleader nonsense, Tabitha thought as she glanced about the other kids in search of familiar faces. She would have to be, right? Since she’s at the center of all of that. But—how does she deal with bullying, what is her stance on the way the pretty and popular girls treat everyone else as if they’re trash? What does she—

“Awww, hell yeah!” A teenage guy’s voice jeered.

A dozen of her peers that had been queuing up for first roll call with Coach Baylor turned all at once and stared at Tabitha, with several of them even joining in with catcalls at the sight of her with a woooo! Stunned in place at suddenly being in public scrutiny again, Tabitha was just trying to figure out how to react to the attention when she realized she had no fucking idea what to do in this situation, and she simply froze mid-step, like a deer caught in headlights.

“Our prayers have been answered!”

The guy lifted his arms up towards heaven in thanks. His motion allowed Tabitha to finally single him out of the crowd of teenagers milling about for Personal Fitness, and as she recognized him she felt what must have been all of the blood in her body rushing up to her face in a furious blush.

“Bobby Anderson,” Coach Baylor pointed at the boy with her pen. “Apologize to her, and then do two laps around the field. Now.”

“Right, yes ma’am!” Bobby said with a cheeky smile, turning from teacher to Tabitha and giving her a friendly wave. “Sorry, babe.”

Then, Tabitha watched as he took off down the track to the laughter of his fellow guys.

Damn it. I wanted Bobby to treat me like I was COOL, Tabitha despaired a little bit. Not like I’m a HOT GIRL. I still have no idea how to react to THAT. There’s no manual for that!

There probably actually was an in-depth manual or field guide for that kind of thing, and Tabitha suspected it was in the girly magazines she’d always steered clear of, like Seventeen, and Bop, and Teen People. It just felt so stereotypical teenage consumer to search for life advice in the pages of a rag designed to sell you things, and the idea of it had always bothered her. At least all coming of age comedies poke fun at the idea at least once or twice. Maybe that’s why I just can’t take it seriously?

In any case, she was in trouble. She had potentially good genetics going for her on her mother’s side—so long as she steered a wide berth away from fats and sugars—and knew herself to be somewhat attractive. This was not going to be an isolated incident, and the next time something like this inevitably happened, she needed to prepare a better response than blind panic.

But—but what do I DO?! Tabitha floundered, trying to put on a smile that didn’t come off as uneasy.

She stepped over closer to join the others gathered for class, but it took several long, excruciating moments to go from the focus of everyone’s attention to part of the crowd, and the raw tension didn’t leave her shoulders even when people lost interest or turned away towards their own business. After all, it was early, and it was cold as hell out here. Half the bleary faces she saw looked like they’d been dragged out of bed hours without notice and without coffee, and there was a general sense of irritation simply at being out here in the cold first thing in the morning.

“It’s so cold,” Tabitha overheard one girl complain.

“Why can’t we do roll call inside?” Another girl griped back in a low voice, as if afraid Coach Baylor might overhear.

Aside from Bobby being Bobby, all of the muted conversations Tabitha was able to pick up fell into that same repetition; it was too cold, or it was too early. They all wanted to still be in bed. One guy over there didn’t have gloves, and was joking around about keeping his hands warm in the pockets of another guy’s coat. A girl’s voice insisted that she was freezing and about to cry; when Tabitha glanced over she saw a short, petite girl wearing a poofball hat, who looked annoyed rather than distraught. In the other direction, a boy was asking the guy next to him about how much lockers cost.

I thought they didn’t charge us for school lockers? Tabitha frowned, trying to remember how much cash she had on her at the moment. I think today I just have… five bucks? Four bucks, maybe, in ones?

“Tabitha Moore?” Coach Baylor finally reached her name on the clipboard and searched the crowd.

“Here,” Tabitha announced herself, trying not to flinch back as half the class turned her way again.

Coach Baylor waved her forward as she’d done with the others she was calling up.

“Locker room lockers are three dollars,” Coach Baylor explained in the voice of someone who’d repeated this spiel all morning. “They’re the ones in by the girls showers, and they’re optional, you don’t have to have one. If you would like to have one, they’re three dollars, because we have to replace all the locks every single year. If you’d like one, I mark your name down, and then I’ll need the money before the end of the week.”

“Oh—um, yes please,” Tabitha said, unshouldering her bookbag so she could hunt down her little wallet. “Is… uh, what are the procedures for the showers here? I don’t know how any of that works.”

“Locker rooms are only unlocked during class,” Coach Baylor tapped at the teacher’s lanyard she wore where keys dangled. “So, don’t leave anything you will need otherwise in there, because I don’t open it up for anyone outside of hours. School doesn’t provide soap or shampoo or towels, and we are not a laundry service. There’s a big clothes line hung up in the women’s showers; you’ll want to bring a beach towel with a design so you can tell it apart.”

The coach’s tone and expression were difficult to read—rather than stern or put out when listing off the rules, she seemed very cordial. The beautiful blonde woman was clarifying everything right away with the patient, professional demeanor of someone who had dealt with over-excessive male attention her entire life; she was someone used to immediately introducing a framework of boundaries and expectations that could be referred back to later as necessary.

Tabitha felt like she was learning a lot here already.

“The last ten minutes of any classes where there’s physical activity, I’ll allow you girls to shower if they need to. Water on our side is only ever lukewarm, so I don’t expect anyone to be in there for their hair, or spending too much more time. You won’t have to return to our class after your shower, but you are responsible for making it to your next class on time. Shower access is a privilege, not a right, think of it as a courtesy we’re offering so that you don’t just reek of sweat throughout the rest of the school day. Shower has its own rules on a big sign—no running, no roughhousing, respect privacy, all that. We’ll be in there and go over all of that in detail with everyone tomorrow.”

“Ten minutes, okay,” Tabitha nodded, trying to quickly remember everything as she singled out three bills.

“Thank you,” Coach Baylor accepted them with a smile, penning something onto the clipboard with a flourish and then clipping the dollars in beneath the sheet. “You’re all squared away, then.”

“Oh, er,” Tabitha spoke up. “I also have a doctor’s note? I had an endoscopic ventriculostomy at the start of last November—I should be cleared for some physical activity again soon… but they might make me wear a helmet for when I’m actually doing things. I hope not, but…”

“Hmm, right,” Coach Baylor nodded in understanding. “I did hear you had brain surgery. And, you had a wrist fracture as well?”

“Yeah, yes, but um, that cast should come off soon, too,” Tabitha hurried to explain. “I do want to try for track, and maybe cheer if it’s possible.”

“Oh?” Coach Baylor regarded her with new interest, as if Tabitha had just revealed they were actually distant cousins. “You may not be able to do both, I think there would be schedule conflicts down the line. If you do have to decide, I’d recommend you go for cheer.”

“Really?” Tabitha asked.

“Really,” Coach Baylor said, giving her another look that Tabitha wasn’t sure how to interpret. “Coach Cooke is in charge of track. I don’t want you to have anything to do with him.”

“Oh,” Tabitha said. Is he… a creep, or something?

It seemed like a strange thing for Coach Baylor to say to her when she was otherwise being so professional. Was Tabitha reading into it the wrong way? Perhaps there was simply some sort of rivalry there between the two athletics teachers she wasn’t aware of. Surely the no-nonsense Coach Baylor wouldn’t let things slide here at Springton High if the male coach was creepy? The line had been delivered without any joking inflection or knowing smile or anything like that, and Tabitha wasn’t sure how to interpret it.

“Tiffany Myers?” Coach Baylor continued down her list.

Weird, Tabitha tried to put it out of mind as she backed away. But anyways, I might have to choose between track and cheer? And, ten minutes for showers. That’s a lot of time, but it’s also not a lot of time. Not when you figure I need to actually head over there and shower and change and dry off and make myself presentable for next class. Is it worth it? I definitely had planned on running in the mornings, though…

“Hey,” A girl’s voice interrupted her thoughts.

Tabitha looked up to see that the short girl in the poofball hat had approached her, and she involuntarily tensed up again.

“Hey?” Tabitha responded.

“You got a locker?” The girl asked. “None of the other girls got lockers.”

Poofball hat girl was staring, but then her eyes then also wandered. The girl’s arms were crossed, but Tabitha couldn’t tell if it was defensive distancing body language or if the girl was simply hugging herself because of the cold. She was shifting from one foot to the other, several other girls were looking in their direction, and Tabitha didn’t feel like she had a read on the atmosphere.

“Um,” Tabitha swallowed, wondering what social faux pas she’d blundered into without realizing. “I thought it would be better to have one and not wind up needing it, rather than needing it and not having it?”

“Okay,” Poofball hat stared again for an awkward moment. “That makes sense, I guess. Just—kinda scary to shower at school? I think from what I heard, like, only some of the upperclassmen do it.”

“Oh,” Tabitha winced. “Should I not have? I—I don’t know what’s normal for freshmen.”

“No, yeah, I don’t know,” The girl let out a nervous laugh that left a brief cloud of vapor in the air. “Do you think I should get one? It’s cool if it’s only like, a few of us in there. You won’t be weird or make fun of me or anything?”

“No, no,” Tabitha assured her. “She said we only get ten minutes, so—yeah, I figure we’d just be in and out. Washing off sweat real quick.”

“Yeah,” The girl frowned. “Really don’t want to feel all gross the rest of the day.”

“Yeah,” Tabitha said. “Uh—I’m Tabitha!”

“Vanessa,” The girl offered. “Right, I heard about you. They sai—”

“Vanessa Smith,” Coach Baylor called.

With an anxious jolt Vanessa spun around, quickly stepping over towards the coach. To Tabitha’s surprise, the short girl and their teacher spoke at length to each other—it appeared Vanessa was actually going to get a locker room locker with her. Some of the other girls exchanged glances or eyed Tabitha with nervous expressions, and there were more complaints about the cold. Bobby ran by them at a jog as he finished his first lap, and several of the guys heckled him with mock-drill sergeant voices as he passed.

“Move, move, move, private!”

“Left! Left! Left, right, left!”

Did I just… make a friend, almost? Tabitha felt a surge of enthusiasm that was difficult to stifle. Or, or maybe not like a FRIEND, but we’ll maybe be locker room buddies, when hardly any of the girls are going for that? There will be some little bit of solidarity or something, right?

Moments later, Vanessa returned, heading back over towards Tabitha with a scowl.

“She said the water won’t be hot,” Vanessa reported with a disgusted look.

“But, you got a locker?” Tabitha asked.

“Yeah,” Vanessa sighed. “I hope it won’t be awful. The boys’ locker room smells, like even from fifty feet away, you can smell it. It better not be bad. And, you’re not allowed to make fun of me. And, no one’s allowed to see me naked, ever.”

“If it’s just going to be you and I in there, the last thing I want to do is antagonize you?” Tabitha wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to laugh here.

“Cool,” Vanessa said. “Sorry, not trying to be bossy or anything. Super scary. Didn’t think they’d make us get all that sweaty if we have more classes after, so. I don’t know. Locker room shower stuff is all like, weird in movies and stuff.”

“Yeah,” Tabitha shuddered. “I keep picturing the movie Carrie.”

“Right?!” Vanessa laughed, arms still tightly crossed. “Where they’re all just casually naked, and then they even start like, throwing all their tampons at the girl? What the hell.”

“Did you guys sign up for lockers?” A gangly girl with wide eyes walked over to them. “Didn’t seem like anyone else was gonna shower at school.”

“Yeah, we’re gonna,” Vanessa huffed. “You?”

“Yeah,” The gangly girl answered. “I mean, if that’s cool?”

“Yeah,” Vanessa said. “Shower club can be just us three, looks like we’re the only cool ones. No one’s allowed to see me naked.”

“Same,” Tabitha added.

“Uh, yeah, same,” The newcomer said. “Marisa.”


“I’m Tabitha,” Tabitha introduced herself, finally allowing herself to feel excited. “She said we have to bring all our own stuff—soap, shampoo, everything. Towels, even.”

“Extra change of clothes too, for sure,” Marisa nodded. “Just in case.”

“Yeah, for sure, Vanessa agreed. “Not to be weird, but—there’s gonna be like, private stalls with curtains, right?”

“In movies it’s just like a big open room,” Marisa made a face. “All open tile and shared shower or whatever.”

“God, it better not be,” Vanessa scowled again. “No offense, or anything.”

“I mean, even if it is, we can set something up, right?” Tabitha said. “Like, a camp shower or something. Bring it in and set it up. They make privacy stuff for situations like that—camping trip stuff.”

“Or we could take turns?” Marisa suggested.

“With just ten minutes?” Tabitha was skeptical. “Half of that time already is like, getting over there and changing and stuff. Drying off.”

“Yeah,” Vanessa pouted. “I’m fucking freezing.”

“Can somebody ask?” Marisa turned a pleading look towards each of them. “I don’t wanna ask. She said we weren’t going in there today, but like—there’ll be stalls or curtains, right? Like, how can they want us to pay for the locker up front, without us even knowing if we can really shower in there?”

“Did you pay already? I didn’t.”

“I did,” Tabitha admitted.

“No, I just thought—I’m just marked down for one. I dunno, though.”

“I think, either way…” Tabitha shrugged. “We can either set up like a privacy screen, or just—completely mind our own business? I’m not going to be trying to gawk at either of you or stare or make it weird. Just, I know for sure I’m going to be running in the mornings, and I don’t wanna smell.”

“Did any of the boys sign up for one?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Doubt it—their locker room smells like ass. Seriously, like fermented ass. It’s disgusting. You can tell from way downwind of it, even.”

“So—what do they do about being all sweaty?”

“They’re guys, they don’t even care about being gross.”

“Well, Bobby is for sure gonna be all sweaty today,” Tabitha nodded in his direction as he jogged across the track in the distance. “Coach Baylor said she’s not even opening the showers ‘til tomorrow.”


“Is he the douchebag guy?”

“He wasn’t being serious,” Tabitha made sure to correct them. “He was just goofing around, ‘cause we know each other.”

“Oh, alright.”

“Yeah, that’s better, then.”

“Did you guys all get lockers?” A girl with thick-rimmed glasses and a Tommy Hilfiger jacket approached along with another girl.

“Yeah, shower club,” Vanessa said, eyeballing them warily. “You in?”

“Ms. Baylor said we had until the end of the week to decide,” Glasses girl said, exchanging glances with her friend.

“Well, think fast, then,” Vanessa shrugged. “Tabitha said it’s smarter to get one.”

“Better to have access and not need it, then to need it and not have it,” Tabitha repeated her line from earlier, but this time both Marisa and Vanessa were nodding along as if it was common sense.

“Right, yeah,” Glasses girl said. “Should probably get one, then.”

“We don’t want too many girls in there, though,” Vanessa pointed out, arms still folded in front of her. “And like, yeah—nobody’s allowed to make fun of each other, and nobody’s allowed to see me naked.”

“Same,” Tabitha chirped again.

“Same,” Marisa joined in.

“Yeah, we’re cool,” the heavyset friend held up her hands. “We’re cool.”

Did I… just magically become part of a little clique, here? Tabitha wondered in surprise. Do groups just CREATE themselves out of thin air, this fast? I feel like I went from weirdo loner to being part of the IN club within the span of forty seconds?! Is this a normal girls thing? Feels almost like I’m exploiting some… I don’t know, psychological blind spot, where girls just would rather be part of a group in situations where we might feel vulnerable?

“I heard Ms. Baylor makes everyone run for personal fitness.”

“God, I hope not. I can not run in these shoes, my feet are already killing me.”

“I know, right?”

“It’s Coach Baylor, not Ms. or Mrs.”

“Yeah, I bet she’s super touchy about that.”

“It’s so freakin’ cold out here…”

“Isn’t she the one who does cheerleading?”

“She has a limp when she walks, you can totally tell.”

“You should ask her about it.”

“I’m not asking her, you ask her.”

“I want to go inside already.”

“How old is she? She isn’t married?”

“God, I’m freezing.”

At first Tabitha had tried to remain engaged and focused upon the conversation the girls were having around her, but try as she might, she couldn’t think of anything substantial to add. That was the problem; the chatter here was not substantial. It was thoughtless idle talk mixed with occasional complaints, and people chiming in simply to hear their own voice or fill a silence. Partaking in discourse at that level was not a skill Tabitha had acquired in her years as an introvert, and after several minutes of listening in for an opportunity and failing to find a moment to speak up, her mind began to wander.

Bobby was still jogging across the far side of the track that circled the football field, and with idle curiosity Tabitha turned her attention to the surrounding areas. Relearning the geography of Springton High was much more of a priority to Tabitha now that she had resolved to not simply wile away her years here hiding in the library. Being popular—or at least, social—in high school required her to have a much better understanding of the dynamics where everything important was, where people gathered and where activities were.

The field here, for instance, wasn’t just for local games or pep rallies—graduation was held here every year, and it had also been host to several random Springton events like small concerts or the overnight Relay for Life cancer walk, where everyone would set up tents mid-field. She seemed to remember a fair or a festival of some kind with miniature carnival rides as well, but for the life of her she couldn’t recall what it had been called or the exact year.

I imagine Alicia, Elena and I will hang out over in the art room and the quad a lot, but I also get the impression that that’s sort of the low-level NEWBIE cool areas to be. The ‘squares’ are either lunch room or library kids, and that was me in my past life, but the upperclassmen ELITE of Springton, popularity-wise, are always right over here, just on the other side of the athletics field fence...

Just beyond that chain link fence in the distance was the legendary student parking lot, where Tabitha had never had cause to venture. There, before school, during lunch, and after school she imagined it was something like a nonstop tailgate party for the juniors and seniors. Rather than gathering around the kiddie tables in the lunchroom or front commons, or even staking territory near club rooms in the quad where there was still adult supervision, social dynamics in the student parking lot were less constrained and revolved around who had a car. Those who were fast enough—such as those who had third period classes nearby student parking—were even able to drive off campus to pick up fast food for lunch, which was a rare and highly coveted freedom when most kids here were stuck with either packed lunches from home or cafeteria fare.

The student parking lot was the more ‘grown up’ scene to be, albeit strictly in the sense of what teenagers imagine as ‘grown up.’

Smoking cigarettes, openly discussing inappropriate topics, and public displays of affection that a teacher or dean would chew you out for if caught over in the school grounds proper. Rough-housing, revving engines, and—most likely—teens discreetly buying or selling weed. None of that had been a consideration for the Tubby Tabby of her past life, but in her recent soul-searching over the time off of school, Tabitha discovered that she’d always envied those ‘cool kids’ there. Fear of missing out was a phenomenon known to her, but it was still one that she was forced to grapple with again in her new life.

A number of silly or seemingly inconsequential aspects of being cool in high school had their chance to be put up on a pedestal all over again. Last time, she’d lived in anxiety-stricken terror and excuses to avoid socializing were easy to find; she hadn’t known anyone, so she shouldn’t even try to get to know anyone. She hadn’t gotten her permit yet, didn’t have a car, had no reason to visit the student parking lot and subject herself to stares and whispers. Hopefully, all of that wasn’t going to be the glass ceiling of popularity Tabitha had imagined it was—things were different, now. Not only did she now know several peers in possession of their own motor vehicles, Tabitha herself already knew how to drive!

At least, I TECHNICALLY do, Tabitha reminded herself. On paper I do still need to be two years older, and ugghh go through the thing with the learner’s permit before getting a license and all that. But, still! The possibility of being one of the cool student parking lot kids feels like it’s open, now.

After roll call was complete—and Bobby finished both of his laps—Coach Baylor led them to their actual classroom beneath the bleachers.

Springton High’s athletics field was ringed by mismatched sets of tiered seating, the far side for hosting spectators for away teams being made up of rickety, dilapidated wooden seating that looked to be a relic of the sixties, as well as newer aluminum stands that were section by section beginning to replace those old areas. On the home team side, however, the grandstands were a larger, more permanent concrete fixture with stadium-style seats, sporting an announcer’s box at the very top and a number of actual rooms beneath.

Almost all of this was new territory to Tabitha, who had been in Coach Cooke’s demesne last time throug