It was the end of Paige Langley's second day as a high school senior, which would have been insignificant if she wasn't fifteen and a new student.
Paige pushed open the door of Germaine's Used Books clutching a stack of textbooks. The stiff, dusty scent of books felt warm and cinnamon-y, like coming home to a hot drink after a rainy day.
Bookshelves made of oak stretched from floor to mid-ceiling with an impressive showcase of titles. Quotes from Faulkner and Shakespeare were stenciled over bookcases. On the far-left wall was a mural of a family reading under a tree.
Paige rushed past the poster advertising the latest New York Times Bestseller, and rested her books on the only table available in the place.
Catching her breath, nostrils flaring, she surveyed the area before starting down a book aisle.
Ads for half-off and buy one get one free sales lined the wall. Everything in the store seemed to encourage, even beg people to buy a book.
She picked up a book from a shelf, an old Linda Davis title. On the cover, a busty brunette was wrapped in the embrace of her equally as attractive male counterpart. Paige read the tagline near the bottom: Will a decade's old secret tear lovers apart?
It was trashy: the good parts of the book pages worn, dog-eared and underlined. The blurb promised scandal and secret rendezvouses. It was the perfect book to take her mind off herself.
Paige rested it on the table, pushing her school bag and textbooks under her seat.
She searched through the aisles for the book she needed for A.P. history and even talked to the man at the customer service desk without any luck. She started back to her chair, and stopped.
The book she rested on the table was pushed aside, replaced by a clutter of papers and folders. In the chair opposite hers a boy mumbled to himself and wrote on a paper.
Devon Connors cursed and erased something. Sunlight from the vertical window hit his cheek and reflected off the metal rings of his binder. His planner told him what he already knew: Essay. Four pages. Due tomorrow.
He wasn't bad at writing. In fact, he thought he was pretty good. He wrote whenever he felt the inclination. The thing was he couldn't force himself to write.
Of all the writing prompts, Mr. Gerard chose one that promised to be devoid of any joy or fulfillment.
Describe the advantages and disadvantages of Dickens's use of present tense narration in Bleak House.
Maybe it would have been easier to write if he had actually read the book. It did look like an interesting read, but like most of his assignments, he had gotten to it too late. Senioritis had reared its ugly head, leading to a dull sense of complacency and the sensation that high school was over before it was done.
He wished to be struck with a bolt of inspiration, an idea, a thought, anything. Still, he knew genius didn't come from thin air. Writing took time, practice and patience.
He just didn't have any right now.
A shadow fell over the table. He looked up at a short kid scowling back at him. Weird.
Confused, he turned back to his work. The girl let out an exasperated sigh and retrieved her book on the other side of the table.
"Oh, were you there?" he asked.
"Don't worry about it," she said. "I'll just go somewhere else." She brushed her red hair off her shoulders.
"Sit here," he said. "Sorry, didn't know anyone was there." Well, there had been that book, but people left books on tables here all the time.
"I'm Devon, by the way." He pushed his things aside to make room for her.
"Paige." She sat down and immediately opened her book, lips twisted.
On second glance, she didn't look that young. There was a sprinkle of freckles on her cheeks. Her lips were full and pink beneath a nose too small to be called bulbous and too big to be considered diminutive. She was pretty, if he sort of squinted. And she looked familiar, as if he'd seen her just that morning. "You live around here, don't you? I've seen you before."
She must have been caught in a dream world. She looked up, startled.
But those eyes, nothing plain about them. As if she was so much more than the deceptively simple package she was wrapped in. Bright green irises that melted into pupils as dark and enigmatic as the expression she was wearing.
Paige set her book down. "I'm sure you haven't," she said. "I live in Leesburg."
"That's a long way."
Leesburg was called the Lakefront City for good reason. It was nestled next to the teeming waters of Lake Harris, about twenty-two miles away from Clermont.
"I just started at Bass Towers," she said. She fingered the corners of her book, eager to get back to whatever garbage bodice-ripper she'd picked up.
"That explains it. I've been going there for three years. I'm a senior."
"I guess you must have seen me around campus."
"It's a big school," he said. "Do you like it so far?"
Paige paused for a moment.
"Not much?" Devon asked, unaware Paige's attention was by the doors.
Paige focused on Devon again. "Well…" she tilted her head thoughtfully. She laughed, "I guess not, but I've made a few friends. Some things confuse me. Why is Room 103 next to Room 110 on the first floor?"
"Prank," he said. "It happens at the beginning of every school year. Some idiot switches the plate numbers on the doors. It usually stays that way for about two weeks until someone cares enough to change it back." He studied Paige for a second. "I hope it didn't throw you off too much."
"I got along fine, thankfully," she said.
He realized he was staring. He looked down at his paper, erased a sentence and sighed.
"What are you working on?" she asked.
"This?" he laughed, and pushed his paper over to her. She leaned forward. "Just an assignment I have for my literature class."
"You've made excellent progress on it," she said.
The page was blank.
"Glad you think so."
"Yeah, well, wait until you get into your senior year. The amount of work they give us is ridiculous," Devon said.
Paige started to speak. Her smile faded and she stared past him again. He turned around.
"I thought you were saving a seat for me…"
Cristina Spradley stood behind him, wearing track shorts, a hoodie and neon orange crocs. She rested her Jansport backpack on the table.
"God, look at this table. Almost as bad as your room. I hope my stuff isn't in here."
The table was crowded with open folders, papers and textbooks. Bits of eraser and crumpled notepad paper were scattered. There wasn't enough room on the table for an elbow, much less a textbook.
Devon's face turned bright red. Paige went back to reading her novel-or at least pretending to.
"It's under the table."
Cristina looked around, her light blue eyes stopping on Paige. She paused as if really seeing her for the first time. "Hey." She sounded embarrassed.
"Hi," Paige said quietly.
"You're done getting your books?" Devon asked.
"They're not here. I'm ready to go." Her tone turned back sour.
Devon started to pack his things. "I'm not going to another store."
"I didn't ask you to."
He stuffed his things in his book-bag.
Cristina put a hand on her hip and looked at Paige. "Sorry he was bothering you."
Paige nodded, lowering her head deeper into her book, not seeing, not hearing, though a smile played at her features.
Devon zipped his backpack. "Happy?"
"Fine, let's go."
Cristina hurried to the door without a glance back.
Bye. Devon mouthed over his shoulder.
Paige waved at him and watched them exit. She returned to her book. Definitely a flirt. It was obvious he was with the blonde.
She realized she hadn't done what she needed. She put down her book, which she decided to purchase later. With a less crowded table, there was plenty of space to work.
But a binder she did not recognize was with her other things. It was white with a protective sleeve on the cover. It didn't have any identifying marks on it, only two words written on the front with a black sharpie: The Collection.
She opened the binder and read the first page, again only two words: "Drummond Island."
She did a quick thumb-through of the pages, taking into account that there weren't any names, only pages full of words. Every so often there was a break in the words, and then a page with a drawing or sketch.
It couldn't have been an assignment. There would have been some form of a header on it. There was none.
Maybe the binder belonged to Devon? But she was sure she saw him put the only binder he had out back in his bag. Almost positive. The binder could belong to anybody. Dozens of people passed through Germaine's in one day. Maybe it was left behind by accident.
Acting against her better judgment, she stuffed the binder in her bag. She would look over it tomorrow.
Paige spent the next afternoon sitting in the living room, reading The Collection, and eating bowls of Pops cereal.
From "Godless," about a minister's wife who posed as a prostitute and killed her husband, to "Drummond Island," a sentimental account of a father-son relationship, there were sixteen stories in all. The binder was three inches thick with the protective cover tattered on the front. The stories were recorded on white, lineless paper that was yellowed and creased at the corners.
She was mesmerized by the stories, and the author behind them. Paige flipped back a page.
The author. He or she was hard to identify.
The name was on a page by itself surrounded by white canvas. It was struck through three times. Then there was the name Olivia a few pages after that in the same fashion. It was in the middle of the narratives that Paige got her answer.
She thought so. Unless it was dumb chance that she met a Devon at the same time she found the binder, it belonged to him, or someone who was obsessed with him. Paige closed the binder.
The binder was still in Paige's room on Saturday.
Her grandmother and sister were at work. Paige was at home watching a trashy reality show on TV and babysitting her niece, Justice. All part of a healthy weekend diet.
Justice sat in the corner of the living room, her legs splayed over the pale beige carpet. A Barbie and Ken doll in her hands, she smashed their heads together in a false kiss.
Paige frowned. "Juney, that's not a nice thing for dolls to do."
The girl just made a face at her aunt and continued the dolls' make-out session.
Paige hadn't seen Devon on Friday. So the binder remained in an isolated spot on her bookshelf.
Okay, so she hadn't exactly been looking for him at school, either.
She unraveled the ad she took from the school's bulletin board:
The First National Linda Davis Writing Contest
Do you have a passion for writing?
Do you dream of seeing your name on bookshelves?
Do you long for the fame of being a celebrity writer?
Sponsored by the author of the award-winning book The Novel Affair, the Linda Davis High School writing contest is now open.
Three (3) contest winners will receive a $5,000 dollar cash prize each and an autographed copy of Linda Davis' latest: Nighttime Enemies. One (1) grand prize winner will win a trip to New York to meet Linda Davis and receive a free critique from her editors with a chance at publication.
Open to all high school seniors in the continental United States. For full contest rules, details and exclusions, visit: lindadavis.com/fiction_contest
The timing couldn't be more perfect.
Still in her pajamas, Paige lounged in her grandmother's two-position recliner and changed the speed on the seat's back massager. Her phone vibrated on the side table next to her.
She ignored it. It was Landon.
They'd met five years before, when his parents divorced and he moved into his grandmother's house at the end of the cul-de-sac. Two years older than her, he'd been one of her only friends at her old school. Actually, they'd been more than friends.
The phone beeped for the second time that morning. Out of curiosity, she listened to the message. His phone was choppy. It always was. There was a lot of background noise: music, voices, and the robotic whirl of some type of machinery.
"Hey," Landon's voice came out through the sea of static. "Um, I don't know if you're not there, or if you're just ignoring my calls." That last bit sounded angry. "Still, I know you're alone this Saturday, and I was wondering if you want to hang out." There was a break in his words, it sounded like he was talking to someone in the background. "It's busy in here," he said, laughing. "Anyway, I get off work at three, so call me by then, okay?"
The line went dead.
Paige ended the call and returned the phone on the side-table.
"You want to hang out?"
No. She didn't want to hang out, and he didn't either. He only called for sex.
Paige walked to the window, pushing aside the bucket they used to catch rain from the drippy ceiling, and pulled back the curtains. The entire living room filled with light. It had been so dark inside she had forgotten it was noon.
Noon? She should get started on lunch. Justice hadn't eaten since breakfast.
Outside was a normal Florida August. The sun beat down mercilessly on Greenly Avenue. There was that hot, shirtless guy mowing his lawn across the street. If Paige was in a brighter mood, she would have sat and watched him.
A mom was teaching her daughter how to ride a bike. The girl couldn't have been older than Justice. She looked terrified as she mounted the two-wheeler for what must have been the first time. Her mother held the handle and pushed the bike down the street.
Page felt a knot in her throat. She was gripped with an emotion so deep and encompassing, so draining and emptying, it was without a name. What would it be like to live? She wondered what other kids would be doing this Saturday night, but for her it wasn't a question.
She would watch Justice until her sister returned from work at seven. Then the three would share a meal in silence. Her sister, Anne, would finally slump down into the recliner and sleep in front of the television. Paige would tuck Justice in bed and then head back to the kitchen table to study for hours.
The temptation to call Landon back became overwhelming.
Paige drew the curtains together and walked toward her niece. "Why don't we color something?"
Paige started down the hall to her bedroom, rubbing her hands together. It was easier to avoid Landon.
Flowers were stenciled on her bedroom walls. Her dresser was white with soft pink handles. The curtains over the window were yellow. On her twin bed, the sheets were plain, white and creaseless. A photograph of her mother hung over the bed frame.
When she was younger, Paige looked at the picture like a good luck charm. What she liked best was that her mother looked like a mother. There was nothing frilly, fascinating, or glamorous about the photo. It was her mother, pregnant, on a tire swing. She had a fat nose and laughing eyes. Next to the picture was a photograph of Paige at her kindergarten graduation. The year her mother died. The redheaded five-year old didn't smile or look at the camera. Somewhere along the line, she'd grown tired of being seen as that poor girl with the dead mother.
Paige pulled open a dresser drawer and got out a pack of markers and a sheet of drawing paper.
That summer, on a Saturday night, she helped Landon sneak in through her bedroom window. He took her virginity and a little piece of her heart. Her grandmother and sister had been away. Justice was asleep in her bedroom. It was the first of many incidents.
The last ended their relationship. One Saturday afternoon her sister walked through the front door, home early from work. She caught the two naked on the living couch with "Wheel of Fortune" blaring on the television in front of them. Three days later, after pressure from her family, Paige called the relationship off.
Do I love him?
The question remained unanswered throughout their relationship, and even now.
I don't, that's why I won't call him. I won't. I won't. I won't.
And she didn't. Oh sure, he would be mad for a little while, but he would come around eventually. Besides, he wouldn't spend the weekend alone. He could spend time with plenty of other girls, and he would. She would still talk to him after school whenever their grandparents would allow it.
That was fine with her.