One Lonely Degree | Chapter One

Things don't always change with a bang. Sometimes they change so gradually that you can't clearly pinpoint the last moment they were truly the same. That's the way it was with my parents. I know they were happy—but I couldn't tell you exactly when.

Audrey says they could just be going through a bad patch and that things could start changing back when I least expect it. Anything is possible. That's almost the truth, but it doesn't fill me with hope. Anything is possible makes me feel like someone's scraping at the inside of my ribcage with dull scissors. If you kept that idea in your head you'd never leave the house for fear you'd be crushed by a runaway bus or gunned down in the mall parking lot.

Anything is possible is something I prefer not to think about, but I don't always have a choice. Some nights are just like that. The sick feelings creep on me until I want to shout so loud that it would make my parents come running. I never do, of course. It wouldn't help, and my parents would cart me off to some highly recommended shrink that would want to know everything.

And there are things I could say, but not anything that I actually want anyone to hear. There are thoughts in my head that I can't get out, but I have my own trick for dealing with them, which is to let other things in, as loud and furious as I can. Tonight, for instance, I have to keep pulling off my earphones to listen for my dad's key in the front door. Raine Maida screams "Naveed" in my ears. Listen. Then it's "Where Are You," "Innocent," and "Yellow Brick Road." Listen. The pounding in my ears, the sound of Raine's voice like burning gold, and the blanket pulled all the way up to my chin is the nearest thing I know to an antidote but if Dad hears the music he'll open the door and ask why I'm still awake. It's happened before. I used to keep the bedside lamp on, and a couple months ago, around two in the morning, he tapped at my door and asked if I was sick.

"No," I told him. "Just a little insomnia." My face felt like a bleached white sheet, and I was scared that he'd sense my bad feelings and try to put them into words.

"You could try turning down the volume," he said, smiling.

A guitar riff was screeching out of the earphones around my neck and I furrowed my eyebrows, puffed out my cheeks and said, "Ha. Ha." Everyone is so sarcastic these days that it's practically boring but I need all the crutches I can get.

"And turning off the light," he added, still hovering in the doorway in his plaid pajamas and slippers, looking like a sitcom TV father that can solve any problem within thirty minutes.

"You're funny, Dad." I pulled an impatient face. "Anyone ever tell you you're a funny guy?"

"Not my teenage daughter," he said, smile as wide as ever. "Don't go deaf tonight, Finn. You have school in the morning."

I nodded and watched him shut the door, the sickness stretching tight across my face the moment he was gone. My skin feels that same way now. Like a mask that doesn't fit anymore. Like I'm not the person anyone thinks I am—not even Audrey. But if I'm not that person, just who am I instead? I'm not the girl who slinks soundlessly through the school hall pretending nothing can touch her. That much I do know.

Listen, I tell myself. Just listen. Listen. Everything will be alright, as long you stop your mind and listen.

And this is the way it goes for awhile. Me listening to Raine's voice in my ear. Me waiting for Dad's key in the door. My heels are itchy dry in my socks. My lips are cracking and my fingertips will be next. The air in my room is colder than anywhere else in the house except the basement. My mother says she doesn't know how I can stand it, but I like the contrast. This is me in bed in the middle of winter.

Everything will be alright.


My mother stands at the kitchen counter, eyeing me wearily over her shoulder. She's making Daniel's lunch—or more accurately, packaging it. In fact, it's more of a lunch kit than an actual meal. My brother is ten years old and has yet to accept the value of real food. "Are you still taking those vitamins?" Mom asks, pointing to the bottle in front of me. "Your color is terrible."

"I don't have a color," I tell her. "I am the very absence of color." It's true, I'm terminally pale. Much ashier than Daniel, who will look like a Mexican come July. Lately I have problems focusing and forget things too. Sometimes I feel like I don't even know how to breathe anymore and that my brain isn't getting enough oxygen. Mom likes to tell me I don't have enough iron in my diet.

"Where's Dad?" I ask. Normally the four of us eat breakfast together. It's one of those things my parents think prove we're a family.

"Running late," Mom says shrilly, her gaze shooting back to the plastic lunch bag. "You'll be late too if you don't hurry."

Yes, I'm moving in slow motion. I don't operate well on less than eight hours' sleep. My frizzy red hair keeps falling into my face, impeding the flow of cereal from bowl to mouth. I take a swig of orange juice and glance at Daniel in his brown cords, his thick blond hair behaving itself in a way mine never does. Sometimes I wonder what it's like to be him. What happens to him when he leaves this house? Whatever it is, it's probably easier than being me.

For one thing, I don't blend. I'm taller than other fifteen-year-old girls but not skinny or pretty enough for that to be a good thing. For the longest time I didn't even have any boobs. I was like an elongated Pippi Longstocking. Believe it or not, that's not a popular look in ninth grade. Tenth grade either.

Mom is always telling me to, "Stand up straight. Own your height." She was an actress for, like, five minutes. Now she's just a woman with extremely good posture. Mom was nothing like me in tenth grade. She was a cheerleader, a regular high school "it" girl. She can't understand why I won't color myself in with lipstick and foundation and do "something" with my hair.

When the three of us assemble at the front door later, Mom's frosted blond hair is swept back into a perfect bun, her lips shimmering mauve. Samsam, our resident furball, crowds into our midst for the daily goodbye ritual. Mom's French-manicured nails dip carefully into her purse for her keys as I press my nose to Samsam's head and inhale. He smells like a damp old blanket, even when he's dry. Some people don't like the way dogs smell but I'm not one of them. I scratch behind his ears and smooth my hands over his scraggly sandy coat. Fur clings to the arms of my school uniform sweater. Samsam doesn't realize that his hybrid breed isn't supposed to shed much.

Upstairs my parents' closet slides open, evidence that my dad is awake and indeed, running late. The rest of our family files out the front door and into the outside world. Or in my case, St. Mark's High School. I'd like to think St. Mark's is nothing like the outside world but I haven't seen enough of it to know. London or New York. That's where I want to head when I graduate—have regular coffee dates with struggling playwrights and painters, people too cool to even calculate their own cool quotient.

All of that is a long way off, but the last thing I want to think about is where I am: Portable G, its windows facing the frozen football field on one side and Portable F on the other. Homeroom happens to be my favorite class—not only for it's brevity but because it's the only class Audrey and I have in common this semester—but it's still St. Mark's.

I slip into the back row, populated mainly by stoners, and slump into the desk next to Audrey's. We're not stoners ourselves, but we're not brainiacs or beautiful people either. It's an interesting geographic problem—everyone has to sit somewhere.

"My dad was out late again last night," I tell her, leaning into the space between us. "I was up for ages and he was still out when I fell asleep."

Audrey tilts her head and looks at me fixedly. "Were you waiting up for him or were you having trouble sleeping again?"

My hands disappear into my sleeves. "I couldn't sleep." The room is rapidly filling up with assorted students, all of them Pack Animals, and I drop my voice. "But it's okay, you know, it's getting better. It wasn't all night or anything."

Audrey nods. Her eyes register concern but she doesn't push it. "Did your mom say anything about him being out?"

I shake my head. "She was in a shitty mood this morning. He didn't even come downstairs." My dad is non-confrontational at the core. He doesn't raise his voice unless it's absolutely necessary. If you'd listen to my parents fight, you'd only hear my mother's voice; he makes his point by getting incrementally quieter. What could be quieter than being absent in the first place?

"You know what we should do?" Audrey says, her gold-brown pupils suddenly as wide as Oreos. "We should go to the mall and see Record Store Guy. Screw this. No one will even miss us." Her head cranes towards mine in the aisle, waiting for my reply.

"You don't like Record Store Guy," I remind her. "And it's freezing out there."

Audrey's eyes sharp-focus on mine. "No, I don't like Record Store Guy—you do. Anyway, it's not like a pathological hate or something. Personally I just can't get into guys in eyeliner and nail polish."

She's trying to help and I'm blocking her. I see that. But I don't know that a trip to the mall will help. I'm not even sure how I feel about Record Store Guy (Ryan, his name is Ryan) anymore. Nothing to do with the eyeliner and nail polish. He's still a Beautiful Boy (and they're a definite rarity), but it's complicated. Sometimes I feel like I want to forget about the opposite sex entirely.

"Not today, okay, Aud? I have civics homework due." That's the truth but it's also true that I don't want her hovering around me in HMV, looking for proof that I'm okay.

"After school?" she adds. "I won't say anything about him. I promise. I won't even go in if you don't want me to."

"It's not that," I say sharply. The guy in front of me turns and stares at me like I've run my fingernails down the blackboard. I give him a wild voodoo stare and turn back towards Audrey. "I'm not sure about him anymore and you know nothing's ever gonna happen there anyway. What's the point?" I fold my arms in front of my stomach and slide down in my chair, watching her face. "I mean, we can go to the mall after school if you want, but I don't want it to be about Ryan, okay? If we go the mall let's just go to the mall."

Audrey frowns like I've nipped her hand, but she recovers fast. "It's okay. We don't have to go to the mall. I just thought you might want to do something—take your mind off stuff."

I feel like a rotten stump, the remains of a tree that fell in the forest while one person was watching. "I know," I tell her. "We should go, you're right." Audrey is my witness for everything, my best friend in the universe for the past four years, the only person under thirty that I trust implicitly—the absolute least I can do is try.

Chapter Two

The girl's washroom is painted Pepcid pink. It's supposed to be feminine and pretty, I guess—disguise the gross things happening inside the cubicles and in our Girls Gone Wild minds. In my particular cubicle, for instance, I hover over the toilet seat emptying my bladder and reading the following red-pen message: "Drew S. popped my cherry last night."

A concerned silver marker asks: "Did it hurt?"

The reply is in different hand-writing yet again: "Not as much as when he…"

I grimace as I read the rest and I don't know why I bother looking at that stuff—except that it's there and I'm already late for art class. It took me six minutes to remember my locker combination, which is one of the things that happens when I don't get enough sleep. I should've written the combo down earlier this morning, but I forgot. The result is me in the washroom, reading scrawls on the wall and wondering if any of them are true. I could take my own pen out and ask, but I'd never be able to verify the answers.

I wash my hands, wipe them on my kilt and head slowly for the art room. Inside, Mr. Ferguson is playing one of his environmental tapes. This one is of the ocean and I'm instantly grateful that I've already peed. Mr. Ferguson nods at me as I walk into the room but says nothing. I've caught him in a good mood, apparently, and I nod back and make a beeline for my usual seat.

Jasper eyes me guiltily from across the table and then I spot him—another guy sitting in my chair. Jasper is no help. He'd be a social climber if he wasn't a gay guy trapped in a Catholic high school. He's not a true social outcast; he doesn't understand that saving a seat is crucial.

I look over the guy that's filled my space—disheveled light brown hair, a fine scar that must be nearly half an inch long on his cheek, his thin build clothed in the same navy sweater and gray pants that every other guy in St. Mark's is wearing. He must be new; I've never laid eyes on him before. I don't particularly want to make his acquaintance now but I don't want to find another place to sit either. If I have to shimmy in next to Abel and listen to him plug his Catholic Youth Group I'll end up stabbing somebody with my pencil.

I walk over to my chair and put my pencil case and books down on the table, right next to the new guy's virgin sheet of bristol board. He glances over his shoulder at me, and it occurs to me that he has no idea who I am yet. I could be winner of the Freshman Science Award or a religious zealot like Abel. I could be the girl who lost her virginity to Drew S.

"You're sitting in my seat," I say. "This is my spot." My finger is pointed down at his bristol board. It's overkill and I'm verging on rude, but I'm extremely tired and slightly panicked. If he refuses to move, I won't be able to do a thing about it.

"I didn't think you were coming," Jasper says, regaining the power of speech. "You're late."

"I know." Everyone is watching our mini-drama and I'm stupid to care.

The new guy's staring at me with an expression I don't recognize. If we could be strangers forever, I'd never know what that look means, and I wish it could stay that way. Why does everyone in St. Mark's feel so depressingly similar in the end?

"I didn't know," the guy says, shrugging. "You're welcome to it." He pinches his bristol board between two fingers and gets to his feet.

"Sorry," I tell him. "I'm a creature of habit." A creature of what? Those aren't my words. Maybe I feel bad now that he's given in. I could be dooming a decent person to the cult of Abel.

Jasper strokes his nose as I sit down across from him. With his wispy blond eyelashes and the glow in the dark veins on his wrists, he could be the only person in the school whiter than me. That complexion helped earn him the nickname Casper. Most people are too polite to say it to his face, but everyone knows.

"So what happened?" he asks. "Where have you been?"

"Forgot my locker combo," I say irritably. "Thanks so much for saving my seat."
Jasper rolls his eyes like I'm being a bitch. "It was a misunderstanding, Finn. I thought you weren't here, okay? Calm down."

"Whatever." I retrieve my rough sketches from Mr. Ferguson's cabinet and examine the clean sheet of Bristol board in front of me. I'm not ready to put a mark on it and there's no time anyway; Jasper spends the entire period talking to me, trying to make up for giving my seat away. I don't take long to forgive him. It's easier on both of us, and besides, I'm distracted by the sight of the new guy glancing periodically over at me from his new seat beside Abel.

"So what's the new guy's name anyway?" I ask Jasper.

"I don't know. He just sat down before you came in." Hmm. Jasper, for the second time today, is no help whatsoever. I flick my gaze back to Abel's kingdom as Jasper drops his voice. "Stop checking him out."

"I'm not," I say, although I suppose I am. For now he's an unknown quantity. "He keeps looking at me. It's creepy."

Creepy isn't the right word. Mysterious maybe. It doesn't even matter. I pick up my pen and print my locker combination on the inside of my palm, in case my memory shuts down again. The sound of ocean waves breaking against our land-locked classroom makes me want to draw the sea. A river at least. I'm not a future Dali or Van Gogh, but I'm pretty good at putting things together. I figure I could be a graphic designer if I keep it up. London or New York would be the place for that. I don't even care if I'm a poverty-stricken graphic designer, so long as I'm in London or New York.

At the moment, Mr. Ferguson's got us working on a pretend fund-raising campaign for an environmental agency. I was planning something simple. A smiling little girl, sitting cross-legged and holding up a pristine glass of water. But the ocean is very persuasive. It has me envisioning a tranquil forest, a fox lapping up river water at the edge of the scene.

Jasper is way ahead of me, another reason he's talking so much. I don't really mind only I wish he wouldn't watch so many movies. Half of them sound boring and I don't want to know what happens in the other half, in case I ever see them myself.

"Don't worry. I won't give anything away," he promises. "I'll just tell you the premise."

But there's not enough time for that either. The bell sounds, signaling the beginning of lunch, and Jasper and I pack up our stuff and shuffle through the door, single file. Jasper's waiting for me on the other side of the hall, ready to continue from where he left off, but I never get to him. Somebody touches my elbow and I swing around in the middle of the hall, people buzzing by me on both sides.

"So what's your name?" the new guy asks. He's in no hurry to get the words out and I'm immediately suspicious. Why does he want to know my name?

"Finn Kavanagh," I tell him. He breaks into a toothy grin that makes my stomach churn. Did somebody put him up to this? I glance over at Jasper, who is taking it all in like a silent movie, and telepathically command him to stay where he is. "What's yours?"

"Jersy," he says happily, smiling wider than ever. "Jersy Mikulski."

Jersy. A familiar feeling of a different kind ripples through me. Like eating ice cream on your front porch in summer. I say his name over and over again in my head, waiting for a lightbulb to switch on. He's waiting too, and we stand there facing each other, feeling the moment stretch back into the past.

"Yeah," I say slowly, memories jogging back to me in frustratingly small pieces. "Okay." I bob my head and shift my books to my other arm. It's a weird feeling, remembering something you didn't know you'd forgotten in the first place. My brain doesn't know where to put the fragments at first. "Your mom was at Eastman's, right?" My mother still works in their marketing department. Our moms were pretty good friends back in the day. "You guys moved to—"

"Kingston," he says. "Yeah. It's weird. When I saw you in there it didn't really click, but there was something…" He motions vaguely towards my body. "You look different. You're so tall." He doesn't say that like it's a good or bad thing, just a fact.

"Well, six year olds are usually shorter," I joke, beginning to relax. "Hair's the same though." I grab a chunk with my free hand and he laughs. "So what're you doing back?"

He shrugs, his smile beginning to disappear. "What's this place like anyway?" He's two inches shorter than me and his blue-green eyes have to look up at mine. It makes me want to slouch, and because of that I stand even straighter.

"It's okay," I tell him. The kind of information he wants is no good coming from a stranger. The answer's completely dependent on who's asking and who's answering. "But then I have nothing to compare it to, you know?"

Jersy nods like that's just the answer he was expecting. The boy I remember wasn't afraid of anything. He got a concussion somersaulting into the pool at a company barbecue. The next time I saw him both his arms were bandaged. He'd scraped them something fierce trying out a stunt on his bike and his mother shouted at him, without raising her voice, when he unwrapped one to show me.

"It all looks the same from here," he says, staring up the hall. I follow his eyes. Kids. Lockers. A sea of uniforms in motion. My eyes zoom back to the spot where Jasper was waiting. He's deserted me, but this time I can't blame him. Lunch never lasts long enough. I concentrate on my kilt, ignoring my own silence. "So I guess I'll see you tomorrow," Jersy continues. "Don't worry, I won't sit in your chair." He blinks at me like he knows he's cute. All the cute guys at St. Mark's know they're cute but there's not one genuine Beautiful Boy in the entire population.

"Ha. Ha," I say sarcastically. God, I'm an absolute genius. I turn my back on him and point my genius self in the direction of the cafeteria.

"Finn," he shouts after me.

My head whips around to find him. "Jersy," I shout back. My palms are sweaty and I can't explain why.

"Where the fuck's the cafeteria in this place?"


Jersy doesn't sit with us at lunch. He disappears into the crowd the second we step into the cafeteria. I buy chicken nuggets and fries and plop down next to Audrey. Everyone else is already seated: Jasper, Maggie (who isn't quite smart enough to be a brainiac but too quiet to be anyone else), Teresa (Audrey's friend from drama class), and her boyfriend, Edwardo. It's not a pack the way other people have them. We don't do group activities together outside of school. We don't exclude people.

"So what'd the new guy have to say?" Jasper asks, plunging his fork into a plate of macaroni and cheese. "Did he tell you his name?"

Audrey, Maggie and Teresa stare optimistically over at me. "New guy?" Audrey repeats.

We're all so starved for variety that I'd laugh if it wasn't so sad. "Our moms worked together years ago," I say dismissively. "His family just moved back." I don't want any of them getting too excited, because I know exactly how this will go. He won't be the new guy for long. He'll be just like everyone else, and then we won't even mention him.

But Maggie's already fired up. "And he remembered you," she says. "That's sweet." Maggie's big on "sweet." She uses that word a lot—mostly in relation to romances she reads about in Us magazine.

I shrug and shake my head a little. Whatever, Mags. That girl needs to get a life. I pop a chicken nugget into my mouth, suddenly feeling too bitchy for words. It's better not to expect too much to begin with. I shouldn't let myself forget that.

Audrey bumps her shoulder against mine, sensing my slip into bad mood territory. I don't know what I'd do without her. Would I have to start reading Us magazine and haunting Blockbuster Video so that I could communicate meaningfully with Maggie and Jasper? "Are we still hitting the mall later?" she asks.

"For sure," I say, gratefully.

Jasper's macaroni makes a squelching noise as he stabs it. Audrey and I giggle with our mouths closed. Jasper smiles too. "It lives," he jokes.

"And dies," Audrey says, pointing to the impaled elbow noodles on Jasper's fork.

The six of us are staring down at Jasper's murdered macaroni and smiling like idiots at the lame joke. "It's actually not bad," he says, holding out his fork. "Anyone want to try?"

"I will." I reach in front of Audrey and take the fork. He's right, it's not bad. Macaroni is one of those foods it's hard to ruin. Jasper smiles at me as I nod. Sometimes it seems so easy to make people happy that I wonder why I don't do it more often.