Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
Maybe everything could have been different if Ms. Patel—sorry, Nisha—had never approached me in art class. Not that any of what happened after is her fault. It’s just that something—someone—had to be the first domino to fall. The one that sent all the others toppling. And if I think back, it was that moment that set it all into motion.
At least as far as Becca was concerned.
It was seventh period, the last class of the day before Thanksgiving break. But you wouldn’t have been able to tell from peeking into the art room on that gray day. Ms. Patel always had music playing in her room—a mix of her own CDs and student iPhones plugged into her speaker system.
We’d rotated into art only a few weeks earlier with the start of second quarter, so I still didn’t know her that well, but already I liked her a whole lot more than Mr. Morris, who we’d had for health last quarter. Seemed like his job was mostly to scare us away from trying drugs.
I was half listening to the music, some kind of punk mix that my brother would probably be into, while I worked on my portrait drawing. Instead of randomly pairing us with other students in the class—the definition of awkward—Ms. Patel asked us to bring in a photograph of a family member or a loved one. “No celebrities,” she’d said when Teagan Washington tried to pass off a picture of Timothée Chalamet as a “distant cousin.”
The one I’d been bringing to life the past few classes was a photo of my brother. A snapshot Dad had taken at one of Austin’s football practices this summer. Austin and his teammates were goofing off on the sidelines. It was one of those rare pictures that truly looks like the person. Every time I look at a photo of myself, it never quite matches up to the me I see in the mirror. The me I’m used to. And maybe mirror me isn’t real me after all. But still.
I was shading in the laugh lines around Austin’s eyes when Ms. Patel stopped behind me. Her curly black hair was always up in a messy bun, and she had the kind of funky plastic glasses you’d expect on an artist. Like she’d picked them out because she wanted to look interesting, rather than pretty.
“Nice work, Emma,” she said. “That your older brother?”
I nodded, not stopping working just because she was there. There were only a few minutes left before the bell would ring, and I wanted to finish his eyes.
“I can see the resemblance.” She picked up the photograph. Her fingers were flecked with paint—metallic blue and burnt umber.
“Really?” I set my pencil down.
“Absolutely. It’s all about the composition—how your nose, eyes, and mouth relate to each other. The exact same proportions.”
My heart sank a little. It wasn’t like I wanted my art teacher to tell me I was beautiful or something. That would be weird. And it’s not like I think my own brother is attractive. Also weird. But there are some things you kind of figure out from living in the world, from seeing how people react to other people. Austin was one of those shiny people. The kind everyone paid attention to when he walked into a room. Mom and Dad, too.
But me? No one had ever really noticed me that way. I blended in with the scenery.
“You know,” Ms. Patel said, setting the photo back down, “we’re always welcoming new folks to art club. You should come sometime and see what it’s like.”
“Even in the middle of the school year?”
“Especially in the middle of the school year. So much of middle school is new, and it can take a little while to find your place. Have you taken art classes before? Private lessons?”
“Nope,” I said. Though we live in the kind of Boston suburb where everyone’s been taking lessons in something—or five somethings—since they were in diapers, Mom and Dad were never super into that with me and Austin. Between Dad’s job as a meteorologist at the TV station and Mom buying Happy Feet when I started kindergarten, there wasn’t anyone left to ferry us around in the afternoons. Austin had his teammates’ parents to take him to sports practices, and me? When I wasn’t over at the Grossmans’ house with my best friend, Becca, my after-school activity was hiding out in Mom’s office in the back of the running store. Drawing in my notebook, surrounded by boxes of the latest New Balance and Asics.
“You’re quite talented for being self-taught,” Ms. Patel said as the bell rang. “I hope you’ll consider coming, Emma. And not that I need to seal the deal, but I do provide brownies.”
My mouth watered. “Maybe,” I said with a smile, not wanting to give away how much she’d already sold me on it. “Have a nice Thanksgiving!” I slipped my drawing into my folder.
“You too, Emma. Hope to see you Tuesday!”
After stopping by my locker, I met Becca outside the school, by that one maple tree where we always met to walk home together. She was so glued to the book she was reading, she didn’t even notice me at first.
“Becca?” I said finally.
“Sorry!” She tucked in her bookmark. “Mrs. Hanson saved it for me. It doesn’t come out till next Tuesday, but she said so long as I don’t tell anyone.”
“Even me?” I said as we began our walk home.
“Well, you know! You don’t really care about books.”
Ouch. She wasn’t wrong. It’s not like I never read, but if you were going to compare me to Becca, it was no contest. No one at our middle school read more than Becca Grossman. Not even Mrs. Hanson, the middle school librarian. And that’s saying a lot because I’m pretty sure I overheard Mrs. Hanson saying she read more than three hundred books in a single year.
“Why is this one so special?” I asked.
“It’s the fifth and final one in the series.” Becca pouted. “Though, maybe if us fans clamor enough, we can get the author to put out a novella or something. It’s happened before! I know what I’m doing over break.” She hugged the book to her chest.
“Or tonight, if I know you.”
“But then I’ll probably reread it a few times. Put some stickies on my favorite scenes.”
“We can still go to the movies though, right?”
“Definitely,” Becca said as she adjusted her glasses. “I need to give my eyes a break sometime.”
“So,” I said, shoving my hands in my pockets. “I think I might check out art club next week.”
“Art club?” Becca wrinkled her nose.
“What’s so wrong with art club?”
“The kind of people who do art club,” Becca said, as if it were a certified fact that the people who do art club are weirdos.
I got this strange feeling in my stomach then. Did my wanting to do it mean she felt that way about me, too? Just a little?
“But I don’t know who does art club,” I said. “Not for sure. I haven’t even gone yet.”
“You should’ve signed up for Battle of the Books back in September. But hey, you could still do Forensics with me! That doesn’t start for a few more weeks.”
I had been interested in Forensics. But that was before I realized it wasn’t like CSI at all. Once I learned it was about giving speeches, no thanks!
When we first visited the middle school as fifth graders back in the spring, I’d been so excited. There were tons more after-school activities than we had in elementary, and since the middle school was walking distance from my house, it didn’t matter anymore that no one was around to drive me. Becca and I, we could just walk home.
But here we were, more than a quarter into the school year, and I hadn’t signed up for anything. It was easier for Austin. When you do sports, it’s all figured out for you. Fall was for football, then he had basketball all winter, and track in the spring. I promised Mom I’d try spring track, but right now spring felt a long way away. And Becca did a million activities. I needed something.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“What about math club? You’re good at math.”
She wasn’t wrong. It was my best subject. Well, after art. I’d just never had a chance to do art for a grade. Still, I wasn’t nearly as good at math as Becca, who was taking it at the high school.
“Maybe,” I said as we waited at a crosswalk. But it was entirely different from the “maybe” I’d given Ms. Patel just fifteen minutes ago.
If I wanted to do something, why did it matter whether or not Becca was on board?