Sneak Preview: “The Man in Black” (2)

Taylor didn’t mind the C-minus on her English paper, but she knew her parents were going to blow a gasket. Every report card, they had the same argument. “You’re a smart girl,” they would say. “Your teachers all say you’re very bright. Would it hurt you to try a little bit harder?”

The truth was, Taylor thought it probably would. Simply put, school was boring. It didn’t matter that she could usually get B’s in every class while barely trying. She had figured out a long time ago that nobody was ever going to teach her the things she was most interested in. When Mr. Barfield explained geometry, she wanted to know how his proofs about different kinds of angles would work if the triangles were drawn on a sphere instead of a flat surface. “You’ll get to that in college,” he said. Well, she was interested in that now!

That’s why she was so angry with Mrs. Markowitz. If she really was so far ahead of her classmates, what harm could there be in letting her study something that actually interested her? Instead, she had to write yet another brain-numbing report about stuff she had known since forever.

Taylor mostly quit caring about grades and schoolwork around the fourth grade. She had hoped her Greek mythology paper would be her crowning achievement: a paper written in one night with no prior research at all—just what was already in her head. She found it much more challenging—exciting, in fact—to wait until the last minute to finish her assignments, just to see if she could still land a good grade. And of course, she usually could.

A C-minus was not her definition of a good grade. She wondered how much trouble she was going to be in when she got home.

First, however, she had to get through fourth period. After Mrs. Markowitz’s impromptu meeting, she was almost certain to be late. She weaved through the corridors, trying not to get crushed as she made her way to Mr. Barfield’s room.

As Taylor navigated the halls, she tried to keep her head down, braced against any idiot classmates who weren’t looking where they were going. Of course, some of them know exactly where they were going but found ways to bump into her anyway. That came with the territory, Taylor supposed. Middle school was hard enough for a natural loner like her. It didn’t help that she was also pale, scrawny, and asthmatic.

“You did get my invitation, right?” a girl called ahead of her. Taylor looked up in surprise, only to see it was Shelby Crowthers. Thankfully, she was talking to somebody else. “Dad has reserved a room at the country club for Saturday night. It’s going to be the best birthday party ever! It’ll be a hundred times better than Jared’s lame party.”

Shelby Crowthers was pretty, popular, and rich—all the things Taylor wasn’t. Naturally, they hated each other. Taylor considered one of the high points of her year to be last September when she convinced her dad not to buy a car from Shelby’s dad’s car dealership—even though it boasted some of the best deals in central Georgia.

If only she could convince Mr. Crowthers to move to Australia.

Taylor wasn’t in a mood for a fight, but Shelby was standing in front of Mr. Barfield’s room, and the bell was going to ring any second. She didn’t have a choice but to wait there for her to finish arranging her social calendar. She probably should have kept her mouth shut, but she just couldn’t help herself.

“How inconsiderate of Jared to have a birthday the same week as yours,” she mocked.

“Jared’s party is fine with me,” Shelby sniffed. “It’ll just make it that more obvious who is who. The cool kids will be with me at the country club. The rest of you losers will just have to hope for the best.”

“All I’m hoping for is that you would just go away.”

“Dream on, honey. And are they ever going to do something about those eyes of yours?”

Taylor blushed. Shelby had said since third grade that Taylor’s eyes were funny. They were too far apart, she said, and Taylor looked like she was part goldfish. Plus, they weren’t a deep, pretty blue like Shelby’s, but washed-out and pale.

She sighed, rolled her not-pretty eyes, and sidestepped Shelby to enter the classroom. Shelby and her best friend, Jasmine, followed behind, along with Danny Underhill, Jared McCaughey, and the rest of the stragglers.

She took her usual seat in the back row and wished again that her best friend didn’t have the flu. Even though Jill’s brother William (never “Bill”) was kind of a dork, she and Jill had been best friends since fourth grade. The two girls lived across the street from each other. Jill would understand about Mrs. Markowitz. She was always there to listen to Taylor gripe—and to smack some sense into her when necessary.

“C’mon, your life is pretty good,” she could hear Jill say. “You’re super-smart, and really good at music and stuff. Plus, you’ve got about the coolest parents ever.”

The last part, which Jill never failed to point out, was the subject of ongoing debate between them. Jill insisted Taylor’s parents were much cooler than her own. Taylor wished they weren’t quite as strict and had a little bit more money. Though she had to admit she always knew her parents were in her corner, no matter what. They had fun family vacations every summer, and visits to Grandma Smart’s house for Christmas were definitely the best.

But on top of everything was the fact that they had chosen her.

Nobody knew anything about her biological parents. Taylor figured they were probably unmarried teenagers who at least had the sense to know they had no business trying to raise a baby. Whatever the case, the Smarts were her parents now—not because they had to be, but because they wanted to be. And stern lectures about schoolwork aside, most days that was something for which Taylor was very grateful.

Taylor came up from her daydream enough to realize that her balding, ruddy-faced teacher was already well into his geometry lecture. He had written about half a dozen diagrams on the board and a whole list of things that looked like they were important. Taylor jotted them down, half-listening to whatever it was Mr. Barfield was rambling on about. She figured out what page she was supposed to be on and scrambled to open her textbook without anyone noticing she was coming late to the game.

After about thirty minutes, he gave them a set of problems to work. Taylor finished them all in about fifteen. Most of her classmates would be taking at least a few of them home for homework.

She counted down the minutes until the last bell. Without Jill there, she had no one to pass notes to or to help her make fun of Shelby behind her back. Mr. Barfield was bent over Tommy Morgan’s desk, explaining basic geometry to the poor boy for what must have been the hundredth time.

She looked out the window. The sky was sunny and clear, but a stiff breeze blew through the trees. The school groundskeeper was mowing the grass outside her window.

Across the street, a fat lady in neon pink sweat pants was walking her poodle. A funny-looking guy in a dark suit stood on the corner as if he was lost. Taylor realized it was Uncle Waldo. What is he doing out there? she thought. That alien undead Justin Bieber fan was really starting to creep her out.

She wondered if he was one of those guys her Dad always slammed the door on when they came by wanting to tell them about their religion, but those types always seemed to travel in pairs. No, Taylor couldn’t imagine Uncle Waldo having any friends. And she definitely didn’t want to join any religion that would have him as a member. It was almost spooky the way he always seemed to show up lately. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she had even noticed him ducking around the corner of the restaurant when her folks went out for dinner last Sunday. Taylor’s neck hairs tickled her collar.

The lady’s dog nipped at Uncle Waldo, who bent down and yelled something. Fifi (or whatever its name was) twisted its leash around its human’s legs, and she nearly fell over. Taylor couldn’t help but giggle, and the spell of dread was broken. It was a perfect April afternoon, after all, and she couldn’t wait to enjoy it.

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