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Chapter 2: "Rising From the Ashes"

December 11, 2007|By SARA MARTENS / Pulse Correspondent

Nicky stood hesitantly. At the end of the worst day in her life, after being cold-shouldered by her best friend Claire, dumped by her boyfriend Zach, and forgotten after school by her mom, she had no way home. Now this boy - a neighbor she barely recognized - offered her a ride.

"I'm Jay," he said. "And you're Nicky, the teen queen."

"Not any longer," Nicky said miserably. "Now I'm an outcast. Everyone was talking about me today, and I don't know why."

Nicky followed Jay hesitantly to his car, trying to figure out why he was being so nice to her. They had barely even spoken before today.

They sat in silence as Jay drove, until Nicky could not stand it.

"What are the rumors saying about me?" she blurted, looking at Jay, then looking at her feet.

Jay glanced at her, his longish dark hair falling slightly over his expressionless eyes. His unreadable expression startled her slightly.

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"Whatever they say, it's not true," she said. "No one believes me, but Sean and I are just friends. I was helping him shop for Claire. Nothing happened between us."

Nicky continued looking down, afraid to meet Jay's eyes. She wanted him to believe her so badly it hurt, simply so she wouldn't be so alone.

"It's not like it's a big deal anyway," Jay said, razor-sharp bitterness coating his words. "It's not even that important. The rumors will die in a week or so and your life will go back to normal."

Nicky looked up at him, confused and angry.

"It is important! It's my life!" she said, heatedly. "My friends all hate me, my boyfriend broke up with me, and no one else will talk to me. You're the first person who's been remotely nice to me all day, although now I'm starting to question that!"

They remained silent for the two minutes it took to reach his driveway. Nicky fumed. She thought shouldn't have accepted a ride from him. He obviously doesn't understand what she's going through.

When the car stopped, she quickly gathered her things and began to flee his presence, murmuring a curt thanks as she closed the car door. Before she made it very far, his voice reached her.

"Nicky?" She stopped but didn't turn to face him.

"Maybe I underestimated your problems," he said, more sympathetically. "No one should be alone. If you want, you could sit with me at lunch tomorrow. Just an option."

She turned toward him and nodded slightly before scurrying home. Sitting with him might be better than spending lunchtime in the bathroom. But only barely. I cannot possibly find him interesting, she thought to herself.

The next day at school was much like Nicky's previous day. Claire glared hatefully at her. Zach avoided her. Her classmates saw her and whispered to each other.

At lunchtime, she left the line and saw Jay sitting alone. He glanced up at the exact moment she saw him. He smiled. A little thrill went through her, but she suppressed it. He is just convenient, that's all, she thought. A friendly face who is low maintenance.

Nicky made her way across the cafeteria to join him. She had just put her tray on the table when someone painfully collided with her, nearly knocking her flat. Nicky gasped and grabbed the table to stop her fall, then glanced after the perpetrator. It was Claire.

"Why do you let her push you around like that?" Jay asked, bringing her mind back to reality. "Why not push her back?"

"It's just not worth making a scene," Nicky muttered. She sighed and began to play with her food as a form of distraction. But Jay would not let it go.

"Why not stand up to her?" he asked. "She acts like she's the new teen queen. Everyone thinks she can't be humbled. If you of all people can't even stand up to her, well, no one else stands a chance."

"She'll always win and I don't need anymore public humiliation," Nicky replied.

Jay ran his fingers through his hair.

"What have you got to lose?" he said.

His brutal honesty left her speechless.

Nicky ducked her head, mumbled a lie about being in a hurry and began to eat. Jay nodded and let it go.

Nicky spent the rest of her day watching Claire become her. Claire had taken over everything that had once been Nicky's. Her friends, her status, everything important in Nicky's life - even Zach - now belonged to Claire.

She drove herself home, relieved to get out of school. As she closed her car door, she heard a melancholy song - just a voice and a guitar - come from Jay's house. She didn't recognize the artist. Must be a new release. I'll ask Jay, she thought.

Nicky made her way across Jay's lawn and headed for the back of the house, where the music came from. She stepped around the corner and stopped suddenly. Jay sat on his back steps, eyes closed, singing and picking a guitar. His song was so beautiful and so raw that Nicky could hardly hold back tears.

She slowly moved closer, trying to be quiet. But her toe clattered a pebble. The music stopped. Jay's head snapped up, and he cried out in almost fearful surprise, "Nicky!"

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