* * *
Everyone turned toward the commotion at the door to the classroom. An auburn-haired girl stood in the doorway. Her hair was closer to light brown than to red. Her hair cascaded past her shoulders and unlike most girls new to the school; she didn’t attempt to hide behind it. She had an athletic build, shining eyes the color of emeralds, and a swath of freckles across her cheeks and nose.
Steven wasn’t the only one to stop what he was doing and stare at the smiling girl. Her green eyes flashed in the light as she surveyed the room, finally her gaze locked on the instructor. The other girls in the classroom looked on, wondering if she were a friend or a rival. Leonard winked at her and beckoned for her to come to him. She ignored them all and strode with confidence to the instructor’s station.
“Can I help you, dear?” the instructor asked when the auburn-haired girl approached the desk.
“I’m a new transfer to Twin Oaks. I’ve just moved to the neighborhood.”
The instructor nodded and turned off the overhead projector as she tapped some keys on her computer. “Name?” she asked, looking up at the new girl.
“Ruby,” she replied. “Ruby Julian.”
Steven returned his attention to the strange markings on a piece of paper in front of him. He had no idea what the marks were, and he started shading and connecting the odd marks. Some of his classmates returned to clicking on their mice and tapping on their keyboards. The assignment was to build a web page, but Steven’s screen remained blank.
Steven returned to his drawing; his attention focused on the weird scribbles in front of him. He flipped his pencil and rubbed out an errant mark. The shaking of his desk was loud enough for a few coughs and pairs of eyes to lock on Steven in his corner separated from everyone else by a moat of empty desks. Even Robert made brief eye contact before he sniffed and returned to his assignment.
The instructor stood, walked around her desk, and clapped her hands to garner the class’s attention. Everyone stopped what he or she were doing and looked up at the instructor. Everyone that is, except Steven. His outlandish scratching of graphite against paper was audible in the silence. The instructor didn’t seem to acknowledge Steven’s act of defiance. He felt several sets of perplexed eyeballs on him, but he ignored them all, maintaining his silent disturbance.
“We have a new student who’ll be finishing out her year here at Twin Oaks. I want you all to help make Ruby feel comfortable in these last few weeks until school ends for the summer.”
For the first time since Ruby entered the classroom, she looked a little nervous. She smiled and gave a small wave to the rest of the class. Even Steven stopped defacing the paper in front of him to look up at her.
Today, Robert was sitting behind David and Leonard, the last row before the swath of empty desks that separated Steven from the rest of the class. Robert’s shoulders were rigid, and his work on his webpage was abandoned. Like everyone else in the classroom, he was enthralled with the Auburn-haired beauty. Leonard made a comment and David snickered. It was too far away for Steven to hear, but the tips of Robert’s ears subsumed into a dark red.
The instructor motioned for Ruby to sit in a vacant desk next to Robert. He shifted in his seat uncomfortably, as Ruby walked down the aisle, mindful that her backpack stayed on the proper path with her. She lowered herself into the desk beside Robert, flinging her backpack under her chair.
Another person to hate you.
Steven flinched at the voice. Bending low over his drawing, he murmured, “Shut it!” He knew that he wasn’t very quiet and that several eyes focused on him before returning to Ruby. He suspected that at least a few of them had witnessed him talking to the voice. He didn’t care. If they didn’t care about him, then he didn’t care about them.
Beside Robert, Ruby turned to him and said, “Hi! I’m Ruby.”
Robert shook her hand and mumbled his name in response. Steven was aware of the smell of vanilla wafting from the new girl.
The instructor materialized behind them. “Robert, please help Ruby get caught up with this assignment.” She clapped her hands together. “Everyone else,” she raised her voice, “Get back to your projects. This assignment counts for a quarter of your grade this semester. Let’s finish with a bang.” She returned to her desk, and the overhead projector returned to the grading rubric.
Robert flipped open the textbook and wiggled his mouse to wake up his computer. He seemed to have overcome his initial embarrassment and he and Ruby bent their heads together, discussing his website and the syllabus.
Good for him, thought Steven as he glanced at his former best friend. Robert had always been the third wheel to Lindsay and Steven. It was nice to see him interact with a cute girl. Robert’s love of steampunk and computers seemed to work for once as Ruby oohed and ahhed over his fancy website.
Steven tried to return to his drawing, but stolen glances from Ruby made that all but impossible. Once, their eyes met and she smiled at him. His heart thundered in his chest, but he quickly focused on his paper. Ruby returned her attention to something Robert was saying, and Steven looked up again to take in her beauty.
She reminded him of Lindsay before her behavior spiraled out of control. Like she’d want to have anything to do with a murderer, Steven thought morosely. I am not a murderer! he chastised himself.
The voice returned. They think you are. You can stop that, you know…
Steven shook his head and tried to ignore the voice. It was a constant battle against it. The voice was becoming more frequent and was getting harder to ignore. Each utterance was a tiny nibble at his soul. Steven wondered how long he could resist it. Each time he heard it, it seemed to make a little more sense. Was the voice right?