About the Author
Christopher Pike is a bestselling author of young adult novels. The Thirst series, The Secret of Ka, and the Remember Me and Alosha trilogies are some of his favorite titles. He is also the author of several adult novels, including Sati and The Season of Passage. Thirst and Alosha are slated to be released as feature films. Pike currently lives in Santa Barbara, where it is rumored he never leaves his house. But he can be found online at Facebook.com/ChristopherPikeBooks.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Strange Girl CHAPTER ONE
I STILL GET asked about Aja, where she came from, what it was like to be her friend, to actually date her, whether the stories about her were true, and who—or what—I really thought she was.
The last question makes me smile, probably because I understand it’s hard to talk about Aja without sounding like a nut. That’s what I try telling people who want to know about her. She was a mystery, a genuine enigma, in a world that has more trouble each day believing in such things. And now that she’s gone, I think she’ll forever remain a mystery.
At least to those who loved her.
And to those who feared her.
My name’s Fred Allen, and I was a seventeen-year-old senior in high school when I met Aja. I was heading home on a hot Friday afternoon after a boring two weeks of classes when I spotted her sitting in the park across the street from campus. I’d like to say I saw something special about her from the start but I’d be lying, although later I wondered if she might have been kind of strange.
There was a perfectly fine bench five feet off to her left but instead of sitting on it like a normal person she was kneeling in the grass and plucking at a few scrawny daisies, while occasionally looking up at Elder High’s sweaty student body as they poured into the side streets or else cut across the park toward their homes.
The sweat was because of the humidity. From June until October, it hovered around 90 percent. But the stickiness was usually vanquished by a brief autumn that blew by in a month or less, and was replaced by bitter winter winds that were so cold they’d bite your ass off—even if you had the bad taste to wear long underwear to school, which only the principal and the teachers did.
I suppose it could have been worse. Elder could have been located in North Dakota instead of South Dakota. Our northern neighbors were something of a mystery to most of us. I mean, it’s not like anyone went to vacation up there. All we really knew about them was that they were always lobbying to change their name to just plain “Dakota.” For some reason they thought that would make their state sound more inviting. Go figure.
Anyway, the thing that struck me about Aja at the start, besides her love of grass and daisies, was that she stared at many of the students who walked by. She didn’t smile at them, didn’t say hi or bat her long lashes or anything seductive like that. She just looked straight at them, which probably made most of them feel uncomfortable. I noticed the majority looked away as they strode by.
I mentioned her long lashes, and yeah, I did happen to notice she was pretty. Not beautiful in the usual social-media way, but an easy eight or nine on Fred Allen’s relatively generous scale of one to ten. Even at a distance of a hundred yards I could see her hair was dark brown, shiny, and that her skin was the same color as my favorite ice cream—Häagen-Dazs Coffee.
Yet I didn’t equate her with ice cream because I wanted to take a bite out of her or anything gross like that. It’s not like I felt some mad rush of seventeen-year-old hormones and experienced first love for the twentieth time. I just sort of, you know, noticed that she looked nice, very nice, and that her long lashes framed a pair of large, dark eyes that were, sadly, not looking anywhere in my direction.
That was it; that was my first impression of Aja. Oh, there was one other thing. I did happen to notice that she had on a simple white dress that didn’t quite reach to her knees. The thing that struck me about the dress was—not that it was filthy—it looked like it could have used a wash.
Introduction to Aja complete. I went home and didn’t give her more than a few hours of thought all weekend. And no, honestly, my fantasies were not a hundred percent sexual. I mainly wondered why a girl her age, if she was new to town, wasn’t going to school. It was just a thought. Elder High, my school, was the only one in town for someone our age.
Monday morning I heard about Aja from my best friend, Janet Shell, five minutes before our first period, calculus, started. I was taking calculus because it was an AP class and my parents were obsessed that I ace as many hard classes as possible so I’d go to college and not grow up to be as miserable as they were.
That was sort of a joke in our household but, unfortunately, it was mostly true. My dad sold new and used cars at a Toyota dealership in a neighboring town of ours, Balen, which actually had a multiplex where the speaker system didn’t sound like a jukebox and there was a generous selection of eight movies. Unlike Elder’s sole theater, where you had to wear 3-D glasses just to keep from squinting at the sagging screen.
My mom also worked in Balen as an executive secretary for a boss that couldn’t have spelled her job title. My parents were both smart, and they loved each other, I think, but when I asked why they hadn’t moved away from Elder—like, say, before I was born—they just told me to pass the salt. What I mean is, the way they fell silent whenever I asked about their past made me feel like I was somehow rubbing salt in old wounds. I joke about it now—a bad habit, I still joke about most things—but it did worry me that they weren’t happy.
Janet Shell, on the other hand, was super happy, or else she knew how to act the part, which according to her was all that mattered. She was taking calculus because she was smart and loved math. But she was cool, too. For example, although a straight-A student, she intended to get a C in calculus simply because she didn’t want to get elected our class valedictorian.
Besides hating the spotlight, Janet knew if she was required to give a speech to us graduating seniors, there was no way she’d be able to resist telling us that virtually our whole class would still be living in Elder when our ten- and twenty-year high school reunions rolled around—her way of saying that the majority of us were destined to be losers.
“Have you seen the new girl yet?” Janet asked before Mr. Simon showed up his usual five minutes late. We’d had him as our math teacher three years running. The guy came into class reeking of pot almost every morning until Halloween rolled around, when he’d switch over to some kind of mysterious blue pill—Janet swore it was the stimulant Adderall—and lecture us on three chapters a week instead of his normal three pages.
Naturally, Janet’s question about the “new girl” piqued my interest. I’d been looking for her since I’d arrived at school. Still, I acted cool.
“Nope,” I said, adding a shrug.
“Bullshit. You must have seen her. You just blushed.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Janet looked me over. “Her name’s Aja—A-J-A. It’s pronounced like Asia but with more of a J sound. She’s a total fox, super exotic-looking. She just moved here from a remote village in Brazil. Everyone’s talking about her but I hear she’s not talking much. The word is—she’s not stuck-up, just quiet.” Janet paused. “What do you think? Want to ask her out?”
“How about I meet her first, then decide?” I said.
“Okay. But I think with this one you’re going to have to act fast. She’s no Nicole. You can’t wait two years to get up your nerve. She’ll go quick.”
I felt a stab of pain that Janet had so carelessly brought up Nicole but hid it. “What makes you so sure? She might be picky.”
Janet wavered. “True. But a ton of guys are going to hit on her. She’s a looker and she’s got money and she knows how to dress.”
Recalling the plain, dusty dress Aja had been wearing in the park, that surprised me. “Really?”
Janet caught the note in my voice. “You have seen her, you bastard. Why do you lie to me when you’re such a shitty liar? Tell me the truth, have you talked to her?”
I sighed. “I saw a new girl last Friday while walking home from school. She was sitting in the park, plucking flowers. I’m not sure she’s the same person you’re talking about.”
“Right. Like this town has a surplus of beautiful girls.”
“Hold on a sec. You’re the one who says us guys are always judging a book by its cover. Well, what are you doing? So she’s pretty. So she’s got expensive clothes. She could still be a jerk.”
“She’s not, she’s cool.” Janet leaned closer, lowered her voice. “I met her, I spoke to her.”
“Ten minutes ago. We only exchanged a few words but I sensed something unique about her.” Janet paused. “You know the last time I said that, don’t you?”
“Ages ago. When you met me.”
“That’s right. That’s why you need to ask her out.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Mr. Simon stumbled in right then, smelling like Colombian Gold, and told us to open our textbooks to chapter three. It was Janet who had to remind him that we hadn’t covered chapter two yet.
I spent most of the class digesting what Janet had said. I’d learned long ago to take her insights seriously. Janet was not merely smart; she had an uncanny intuition when it came to people. She said 99.99 percent of the population were sheep. If she liked Aja, it meant she was more than a pretty face.
I saw Aja in third period, before lunch, in American History.
We were in the same class. Just my luck.
Maybe, I thought, maybe not. My usual seat was in the corner, all the way in the back. Aja came in two minutes after me and sat down in the first row, but the last seat, by the windows. Basically, even though we occupied the same room, she was pretty far away. I couldn’t help but think she’d somehow spotted me, remembered me staring at her the previous Friday afternoon, and had gone out of her way to keep her distance.
Of course, given the fact that she hadn’t even glanced in my direction when she’d entered the classroom, I was probably just being paranoid.
She looked good, better than good. There were plenty of heads between me and her and all I could see was Aja’s. Her dark hair appeared a little shorter than last Friday, like she’d gotten a trim over the weekend. But the shine was still there. And her long eyelashes, seen in profile, were amazing.
Our teacher, Mrs. Nancy Billard, came into the room. A stuffy, old bird if you got on her wrong side, but one of the most caring people you could meet if she happened to like you. She taught AP English on top of history and I’d had her for English the previous year and had won her over with a slew of wild-and-crazy short stories I’d written. She liked students who thought outside the box.
However, those who landed on her wrong side were either flunked or ignored or both. In her AP classes she enforced a strict work ethic. She said anyone who wanted to go to college had to earn it.
“I see we have a new student today,” she said, glancing in Aja’s direction. “I was told you’d be joining us. What’s your name?”
“Aja,” she replied in a soft voice.
“Is that your first or last name?”
“It’s what people call me.”
Billard cleared her throat, a bad sign. “Then that’s what I’ll call you. But please humor the rest of the class and tell us your full name.”
“Took a moment to remember your family name?”
Aja stared at her and said nothing.
Billard continued. “Well, we’re all very happy you could join us two weeks late. Another week and you’d have wandered in during the Civil War. Ted, fetch a textbook for Aja from the closet and let’s all open to page forty-nine, chapter three. Time we got to the thirteen colonies and their feud with King George the Third.” Billard paused and glanced at Aja again. “Do you have a problem, girl?”
“You’re looking at me kind of funny. I thought maybe you did.” Aja didn’t reply, just continued to stare at her, which didn’t sit well with Billard. “You do know something about American history, don’t you?”
“No,” Aja replied.
Billard blinked, unsure whether Aja was sassing her or not. “Then it’s your responsibility to catch up. This is an AP class—there are no shortcuts here. Read the first forty-eight pages of your textbook tonight and I’ll quiz you on them tomorrow.”
Aja nodded without speaking as she accepted the textbook from Ted Weldon, a football jock with a double-digit IQ and a gross habit of farting whenever he yawned. Some might have wondered what he was doing in an AP class. But those who bothered to contemplate the matter probably didn’t know that Ted’s father was best buddies with Elder High’s Principal Levitt and that—despite what Billard had just said—there were always shortcuts available to those students whose parents knew the right people.
Handing Aja her textbook, Ted didn’t simply look at her; he gloated over her face and body before returning to his chair, eliciting a mild chuckle from the rest of the class.
“Thanks,” Aja said. Her voice was not merely soft, it was smooth, cool, confident. She obviously didn’t have to speak up to make a point. Plus her answers to Billard’s questions had been at best evasive, which I naturally had to admire.
Yet I could tell already that Billard didn’t like her and that Aja was probably going to have a hard time in her class. That bothered me, a little, even though she was a total stranger.
Total stranger. Damn. Got to change that fast.
I remembered Janet’s warning that Aja would not last when it came to Elder High’s horny guys, and it got my adrenaline pumping. When class was over I caught up with her outside in the hallway and walked by her side before she stopped at her locker. Oh no, I thought. I wasn’t ready for this. Suddenly a life-changing choice was upon me. I could either keep walking and live the rest of my days in regret or I could stop and pretend to have a locker next to her.
I did the latter, spinning the dial on the lock like it was preset to my favorite radio station. Only the volume never came on and the locker never opened because I had no idea what the combination was. Fortunately, Aja seemed to be having trouble with her own locker and I was able to swoop in and rescue her.
“It’s not opening?” I asked, way too casually and with a stupid grin on my face.
Aja pulled a slip of paper from her pants pocket and stuck it out for me to take. “I was told this is the combination,” she said.
Aja didn’t have on ordinary pants; she wore designer jeans that had clearly been purchased far from Elder’s finest clothing stores. Up top she had on an ultrathin maroon sweater; and if it was responsible for her subtle curves, then it was worth its weight in gold. Her silky blouse had red in it as well—a rusty color that made me think of desert sand dunes and romantic sunset kisses and . . .
I was losing it, I suddenly realized. Aja’s big brown eyes were still waiting for me to take her slip of paper. I shook my head and took a breath. Breathing was good, I reminded myself.
“This looks like it might work,” I said. Duh! The piece of paper said: “LOCKER NUMBER” on top. A sequence of three numbers followed: 12–18–24. All the locks in school—all the combinations I’d ever seen, for that matter—worked on the right-left-right sequence. When I dialed in Aja’s three digits, the locker immediately opened. Amazing. I noticed her eyes following me closely and added, “You see how it works?”
“Yes,” she replied, and it was only then I realized she’d never had a locker before. She deposited her book inside and closed it. Out of habit, I reached up and spun the dial.
“You can’t be too careful,” I said.
“Your lock. You need to spin it to clear th...
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