We were not always freaks.
Sure, most of us occasionally exhibited freakish behavior. But that’s not the same thing.
Olivia Byrne, when she worried about something, picked the skin around her thumbnails until it bled.
Cooper Miller sang badly. When he walked down the hall, when he studied, when he ate. He wasn’t singing the top twenty either--he made up tunes and lyrics about his everyday life. Walking to school. Being late to math.
Mackenzie Feldman, Cooper’s girlfriend, hated needles. Not that any of us liked needles, but Mackenzie truly hated them. She hated them so much she never even got her ears pierced. She wore clip-ons to her own sweet sixteen. Or her Sweet, as we called it in Tribeca, our little downtown corner of Manhattan.
So yeah, we had certain quirks, but before October 2, which was eleven days before the Bloomberg High School carnival and eighteen days before Mackenzie’s Sweet, Olivia, Cooper, Mackenzie, and the rest of us were pretty much just regular sophomores.
Even October 2, the day that changed everything, started normally enough.
We got ready for school. Most of us lived in Tribeca, within a few blocks from BHS, Bloomberg High School.
Tribeca is one of the wealthiest areas in Manhattan. Not that we were all wealthy--definitely not. Half of our parents owned our apartments; the other half rented. A bunch of us shared rooms with our siblings. If you lived in Tribeca and your parents were really rich or famous--like if your mom was Beyonce or your dad ran an investment bank--you didn’t go to BHS like us. You went to private school.
On October 2, we arrived at school, most of us on time. We locked our stuff in our lockers and headed to room 203, where 10B met for homeroom. Well, Cooper didn’t arrive on time--he was always late. He also didn’t lock his locker, because he didn’t bother having a lock. He could never remember the combination. And he trusted us. Back then, he trusted everyone.
We claimed our usual seats and chatted with our friends.
“Darren Lazar asked me if you were single,” Renee Higger said as she sat down beside Olivia in the middle of the room. Renee’s black leopard scarf fluttered behind her. She was also wearing a black hair band, earrings, and a silver bracelet overflowing with charms. She was an accessories kind of girl. She was a busybody kind of girl. We’re relieved she’s not one of us. We have enough busybodies without her.
Olivia’s heart skipped a beat. “What did you tell him?”
Renee laughed. “What do you think I told him? I told him you were. Unless you’re involved with someone and keeping it a secret?”
Olivia had never been involved with anyone. Fifteen and never been kissed. She was afraid that when the time came to be kissed she would barf all over the kisser.
Olivia did not have much confidence around boys or girls. One of the main reasons she hung around Renee was that Renee did 99.9 percent of the talking.
Of course, we didn’t know the degree of her lack of confidence back then. We didn’t know about her lack of kissing experience either. We didn’t know any of each other’s hidden thoughts or secret histories. Not like we do now.
“Do you think he’s going to ask me out?” Olivia asked.
Renee twirled her scarf around her wrist. “Do you want him to ask you out?”
“I don’t know.” Olivia tried to picture him. He had light brown hair and red cheeks. Green eyes, maybe. Dressed well. Button-downs and the right jeans. He seemed nice. No one called him by his first name--he just went by Lazar. They had public speaking together. Her stomach clenched at the thought of the class. The next day she had to make a speech on Lyme disease, which was worth 40 percent of her grade. There was nothing that terrified her more than speaking in front of others.
“I think you guys would be perfect together,” Renee continued.
“Why?” Olivia asked. “Because we’re both short?”
“No, because you’re both nice. And smart. And cute.”
Olivia didn’t say no, but didn’t say yes either. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Lazar. It was just that the idea of being on an actual date--where she would have to worry about what she wore, what she ate, and what she said--was incredibly stressful to her. She picked at her thumb.
Cooper came in at last, singing to himself. As usual, he looked slightly disheveled, like he’d woken up, picked up the green hoodie and jeans that were lying in a heap on his floor, and put them on.
Which is exactly what he had done. Cooper was wearing his Yankees hat. He wore it all baseball season until they were out of the running. Also, it brought out the blue in his eyes. Not that he’d be aware of something like that. Well, not without reading our minds.
Cooper cupped his ear with his open hand. “What’s up, 10B, can I get a boo-ya?”
“Boo-ya,” called out Nick Gaw from the side of the room. Nick was one of Cooper’s good friends.
Cooper sighed with exaggerated disappointment. “That was lame, people. Lame. Lame-o. The Yankees won last night! I said give me a boo-ya!”
Mackenzie responded with a “boo-ya.” She had to. That was her job as girlfriend, even if she occasionally found Cooper’s antics a little embarrassing, like the time he insisted on giving her a piggyback ride down the hallway.
Cooper stood in front of Olivia’s desk and wagged his finger. “Livvie, I did not hear you boo-ya. Why did I not hear you boo-ya?”
Olivia flushed. She gripped the sides of her desk. She did not like being put on the spot. Her heart sped up; her mouth felt dry. She debated. Would whatever she said sound stupid? Would she not make the right boo-ya sound? Would she sound too eager? Place too much emphasis on the boo and not enough on the ya?
But she liked Cooper. If he weren’t totally out of her league and didn’t already have a girlfriend, she might have a crush on him. He was one of those people who were always smiling. Always kind. Always inclusive. Like right then, when he was trying to get her to boo-ya.
She could do it. She could! She just had to push the words out with the tip of her tongue. “Booooo‑ya?”
Cooper petted her twice on the head like she was a rabbit. When he was a kid he’d had a rabbit for a whole two weeks before his dad made him return it to the pet store. He’d gotten a turtle instead. Gerald. “Well done, Livvie. Thank you for playing.”
Olivia turned bright red.
Cooper made a point of talking to Olivia. She was shy, but Cooper knew that she just needed some help breaking out of her shell. Like Gerald. When he’d first gotten Gerald, the turtle had barely ventured out of his bowl. These days Gerald strutted around the loft like he was the mayor of Tribeca.
Cooper got a few more of us to boo-ya as he zigzagged his way through the desks to the empty seat in the last row by the window, right next to Mackenzie and her closest friend, Tess Nichols.
“Thank you, Cooper,” Ms. Velasquez said, closing the door behind her. “Now take off your hat, please.”
Cooper gave our teacher a big smile. He had a small overbite from losing his retainer a month after he got it. “But Ms. V, I didn’t have a chance to wash my hair this morning.”
“Then you might want to consider getting up earlier in the future,” Ms. Velasquez said, taking off her blazer and slinging it over her chair.
Cooper removed his hat, revealing slept-on hair, clutched it to his chest, and finally sat down. “Let’s get this party started,” he said, and leaned his chair all the way back so it kissed the wall.
“Let’s see who’s here,” Ms. Velasquez said, and called out all our names. When she was done, she sat on the desk and swung her legs. “People, I have some good news and some bad news,” she said. “I’ll start with the bad news.”
“Those of you who are planning to get flu shots--and I think that’s most of you--are scheduled to get them today at lunch,” she told us.
Ms. Velasquez cleared her throat. “So, the good news is . . .”
Cooper made a drumroll.
Ms. Velasquez smiled. “You probably won’t get the flu.”
Naturally, we booed.
“What if I like the flu?” Cooper asked.
“Why would you like the flu?” Ms. Velasquez asked.
“I’d get to stay home and watch baseball,” he answered.
“I wouldn’t mind missing a week of school,” Nick said.
We understood. His mom was a biology teacher at school. If our moms taught at our school, we’d want to stay home too.
“I’m not getting the shot,” Renee declared, playing with her headband. “I never get sick. And you know, I read an article that said that they don’t even work. That the pharmaceutical companies are only interested in making money off us.”
We all groaned and she crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. Renee was a conspiracy theorist. She thought the government was out to get everyone.
These days we’re not so sure we disagree.
“I’m skipping it too,” Mackenzie said.
Mackenzie had been born a preemie, at twenty-six weeks instead of forty. She’d required a lot of surgeries. Eye surgery. Kidney surgery. Heart surgery. She didn’t remember any of it, but she knew she hated any kind of needle, and she assumed the two facts were related.
“You’re going to make me get it alone?” Cooper asked. “We’ll do it together. I’ll hold your hand. It’ll be fuuuuuun,” he sang.
Mackenzie saw nothing potentially fun where needles were involved. But as usual, her boyfriend found the silver lining in everything. In coming to school. In the flu. In vaccinations.
Cooper lived in silver linings.
Ms. Velasquez tapped her fingers on her desk. “So remember, everyone. Nurse Carmichael’s room. Lunchtime. Bring your permission slips if your parents haven’t already sent them back.”
As Ms. Velasquez continued talking, Olivia continued to worry. Not about the vaccination. Needles didn’t scare her. She was nervous about her Lyme disease speech.
She picked her thumb. Everything will be fine, she told herself. Fine, fine, fine.
Of course, it wouldn’t be fine. Not at all. But Olivia couldn’t know that. It’s not like she had ESP.
Ha, ha, ha.
This is the story of how we became freaks.
It’s how a group of I’s became a we.
Maybe you think Olivia is telling the story. Or Mackenzie, or Cooper, or someone else in our homeroom you haven’t met yet.
It could be any of us.
But it’s not.
It’s all of us. We’re telling you this story together.
It’s the only way we know how.
It Happened Here
At the beginning of lunch, we waited in line by Nurse Carmichael’s office.
There were twenty-three of us. Most of homeroom 10B. 10A had gotten their shots the day before.
Adam McCall was missing--probably an ear infection. He always had ear infections.
Pi Iamaura went in and came out first. Her real name was Polly, after her grandfather Paul, but her nickname was Pi because she could tell you the first thirty-nine numbers of pi. They’re 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419, if you’re curious.
BJ Kole went in next.
Yes, he called himself BJ.
His name was actually Brian Joseph but he started going by BJ in middle school. He thought it was hilarious. He was a bit of a perv.
He hurried into the nurse’s room and closed the door behind him. He thought Nurse Carmichael was hot, and was always trying to come up with accidental ways to feel her up. He tried to feel everyone up.
Next in line was Jordana Brohman-Maizner. Jordana filed her nails while she waited. She kept a full manicure set in her locker. Base coat, top coat, clippers, and eleven different colors ranging from Bliss (shimmery yellow) to We Were Liars (fire engine red).
Behind her were Olivia and Renee. Renee was still not getting the vaccination. She was only waiting in line so she wouldn’t miss anything. She liked to know what everyone was up to at all times. She was the type of person who got email notifications every time her friends changed their Facebook statuses.
“Do you know that more people die from flu shots than the flu?” Renee asked.
“I’m not sure that’s true,” Olivia said. Actually, she was totally sure it wasn’t true, because she had the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website bookmarked on her laptop, and visited it frequently. In addition to having a lot of anxiety, Olivia was a hypochondriac.
“It’s going to hurt,” Renee said.
Her words didn’t scare Olivia, but they terrified Mackenzie, who was right behind them. She’d decided to do it. She couldn’t believe she was really going to do it.
Mackenzie was waiting with Cooper and Tess, although Tess was busy texting Teddy on her iPhone. Teddy was Tess’s best guy friend. Tess also had a massive crush on him.
“Maybe I won’t get it,” Mackenzie said, suddenly unsteady on her feet.
“Oh, come on,” Cooper said. “It’s just a pinch. You don’t want to get the flu.”
“Everyone else is getting the shot. I won’t get the flu.”
“You might. It’s going around. And your Sweet is soon. You don’t want to be sick and have to cancel.”
Mackenzie’s parents would kill her if she got the flu.
It was all booked. Her brother and sister were flying in from Stanford. Her parents had spent a small fortune in deposits. They’d gone all out. They’d booked a hotel ballroom. Hired a DJ. Hired an event planner. Mailed out gorgeous invitations. Square, black, with cursive silver print.
The few of us who’d been invited had all RSVPed yes.
Mackenzie was excited for the party. Kind of.
Nothing was expected of her. All she had to do was dance and look pretty in her new black Herve Leger cocktail dress.
Mackenzie knew she was pretty. Since she was a kid, people had always told her as much. She had curly blond hair, big green eyes, a button nose, and a gymnast’s body. She’d trained at the NYC Elite gymnastics studio for years. She’d tried competing back in middle school, but it wasn’t for her. The night before one of her big matches, she’d stayed out late with her friends, broken curfew, been exhausted the next day, and tripped off the balance beam. Her parents had been furious. She had been relieved.
Outside the nurse’s office, Cooper slung his arm around her and sang, “The needle will only hurt for a secoooond.”
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Mlynowski. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.