"No, they’re not," said Monica Morrell, stepping around the corner of the concrete building where the groundskeepers kept their tools and mowers. "They’re here, you crazy b***h. Oh, look, you found a little friend. A little friend who’s completely stupid if she doesn’t start walking away right now." Monica was pretty, perfectly made up, and wearing designer jeans and a spangled top, but she had an expression that made Claire’s stomach twist. "Danvers. Don’t you have to go save a puppy or the whales or something?"
Claire said nothing. Now it wasn’t just Monica, but both her Lipstick Mafia girls, who came a few seconds late to the party. Gina was wearing a denim skirt and a*s-kicking shoes, and Jennifer was basically a duplicate of Monica, only with knockoffs instead of designer originals.
That they’d target Miranda wasn’t unusual; it was their standard operating procedure to pick out the weak and (presumably) helpless. It had been Claire’s introduction to the warm, welcoming community of Morganville, running into these three in her dorm. She’d gotten beaten up and tossed down stairs, and, frankly, she knew she’d been lucky to get off that lightly.
Even so, even as bold as Monica was in her bullying, it was unusual that the Evil Trio was chasing Miranda around outdoors, in full view of the campus. Granted, they were herding her into the trees, where whatever unpleasant thing that was going to happen would happen in relative privacy, but still…this was bold, even for Monica.
Even when Miranda was easy, friendless prey.
"I said get lost, Claire," Monica said as Gina and Jennifer spread out to cut off easy retreat. "You’ve got about five seconds before I forget you’re wearing that Founder’s Pet pin and start kicking your skinny a*s, just like old times."
"You’re forgetting? I didn’t know you were old enough to get Alzheimer’s," Claire said. She tugged on Miranda’s cold, trembling hand. "Just that you looked it. Come on, Mir. Let’s go."
"Wait." That was Jennifer, stepping up to block their escape. "Not her. She stays."
"None of your business, b***h. You can go. She can’t."
Claire glanced over at Miranda. "You said you came to warn me? About what?"
She looked miserable and defeated. "About them," she said. "I woke up and my head was hurting and all I could think about was that I had to tell you, had to warn you before it was too late. But I think I did the wrong thing. Sometimes it all gets mixed up in my head, what’s coming, and what I should do about it. Sometimes it seems like I actually cause it. But this is definitely wrong now."
Gina said flatly, "No s**t. I was just walking along and that crazy b***h came right up to me, babbled at me, andhit me . Look, I’m going to have a bruise." She pointed at her chin, which did look red on the side. "So I’m going to hit her back. That’s all. You just stay out of it and we’ll all be fine."
Claire looked at Monica and Jennifer. "Areyour friends staying out of it?"
"You really want to go there?" Gina’s flat, dark stare was unsettling. "This isn’t your business, Danvers. Walk away, go do whatever it is that smart freaks do when they’re not being completely annoying."
She should have. That would have been the smart thing, the easy thing. But instead, something flared up inside her, something stubborn and bright and obstinate, and Claire said, "I’m not leaving anybody for you to pound on, especially not some helpless fifteen-year-old kid. You know that, right? That’s what you’re afraid of, that I’m going to stick around. Because now you’ve gottwo of us who aren’t afraid to hit back. Andone of us has people on speed dial that you don’t want to mess with."
"Are you threatening me?" Gina asked softly.
"Crap," Monica sighed. "Danvers, you’ve stepped in it now. It’s all on you."
Gina’s eyes were like a shark’s, Claire realized; just blind menace, no thinking behind them at all.
When she smiled, that made it all the more eerie. Especially when she unfolded the pocketknife with the long, sharp blade she had hidden at her side. It made a soft, metallic clicking sound as it locked into place.
Miranda took in a sharp, shaking breath. "Oh no. It’s all going wrong, so wrong…. This isn’t what I meant to do…."
Claire shifted her attention to Monica, who was standing very still, face closed into a pretty, shallow mask. "You’re going to let your psycho friend come after me. Even knowing what will happen when Amelie finds out."
Monica smiled, just a little. "What makes you think I can’t make you disappear? Lots of places in this town to hide a body, especially if it’s in little pieces. And you’re just a little bitty thing, anyway."
Claire shook her head and looked at Miranda. "Why did you hit her?" she asked. "Gina. You came on campus, looked for her, and hit her. Why?"
"Because it had to happen that way." Miranda sometimes didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and this was definitely one of those times.
Monica wasn’t going to back down, not in front of her friends. Something had to change first. The balance had to shift, and fast, because Gina was working herself up to some genuine psycho-quality violence. As Gina was wont to do, actually.
Claire looked at Jennifer.
Jennifer seemed scared. This had clearly gone further than she’d thought or was comfortable with; Jen had always been the softest of the three of them, and this was especially true now. She’d been hurt recently, when a rave in town had turned into an all-out humans-versus-vamps brawl. When Shane and Claire had finally found her, she’d been balled up in a corner, thin party dress torn and stained with
blood. She’d been cut with broken glass, and had a couple of cracked ribs.
But from the haunted look in her eyes, Claire had to wonder if maybe, just maybe, she’d learned how it felt to be on the receiving end.
"Jen," she said, very quietly. "You don’t have to be here. You know what it’s like to be hurt, and you don’t want to make someone else go through that. Just walk away."
Jen flinched and took a small step backward. She looked over at Monica, then at Gina.
"We were there for you, Jen," Monica said. "We’ve always been there for you. Don’t you turn your back on us now. We know where you live, b***h."
"Yeah, she knows where I live, too," Claire said. "But she knows better than to show up there." She turned her attention back to Monica. "It’s not just about scaring people out of their lunch money anymore, Monica. You’re not the school bully. You’re talking about real trouble,jail trouble, and you know how this is going to end. You need to stop this before you all get hurt, lots worse than anything you’d do to Miranda. Or to me."
Monica was staring back at her, and Claire had the oddest feeling that for the first time, Monica was seeing her. After all this time, all this anger, she was actuallycommunicating.
"Think," Claire said very softly. "Justthink . You don’t have to make this happen. You don’tneed it, Monica. Everybody knows who you are. You don’t have to keep on proving it to yourself and to everybody else."
That rocked Monica’s head back, as if Claire had actually punched her in a vulnerable spot. Her lips parted, but whatever she was going to say…she didn’t have time.
"You know what? I’m tired of the blah, blah, blah. Screw all this talking," Gina said, and came at Claire with the knife.
"Gina,no !" Monica yelled. She sounded shocked, as if she hadn’t actually thought Gina would do it. As if Gina was all threat, no action.
But Claire had always known better.
That didn’t make it feel any better as she watched Gina and the knife lunge straight for her.
Claire’s world got suddenly very clear–high-definition clear. She could see the light glittering along the blade of Gina’s knife. The sweat on Gina’s forehead. The way she balanced her weight as she attacked.
Claire shoved Miranda out of the way, and in the same motion, slammed her forearm at a right angle to
Gina’s as the hand holding the knife came at her. She remembered Eve’s fencing poses. Seemed like the right thing to do.
Gina’s knife missed. Claire watched the edge glide past her, an inch from her left elbow, and knew she ought to be afraid, because, myGod , she was in a knife fight withGina , and nobody was coming to help her. Nobody even knew what was going on. Not Shane or Michael or Eve, not Amelie, not even Myrnin.
But, weirdly, right now it didn’t matter. Everything was still and quiet inside, and she supposed she should have felt scared, but she didn’t. She didn’t feel anything.