Odd One Out

open locker

Popularity is like a disease. You catch it at someone’s birthday party, or come back from Christmas vacation with it, and for awhile it’s even okay. It’s what you wanted, kind of like a new jacket or a tan. But then, it starts to get old. You try to comb it out of your hair or scrape if off your shoe, but it doesn’t budge.

In the mirror over the sinks, I can see most of the locker room. Behind me, Kendry is braiding Palmer’s hair. They’re talking about calories.

“But protein,” Palmer says. “Maybe not beef. But, like soy? How many calories does tofu have if it’s baked?”

“I don’t know, but it’s supposed to be good for your boobs—I heard it makes them huge. Waverly knows, right?” Kendry says it over her shoulder, giving me an ironic look.

I laugh because that’s how the script goes, the little joke, the little giggle. I have no breasts to speak of. I open my locker and get out my cross-trainers and my running shorts.

Autumn Pickerel is sitting alone on one of the low benches, staring down at a battered notebook with paper flowers decoupaged all over the front. The laces of her sneakers have been wrestled into sloppy bows, grimy from being stepped on. She looks floppy and defeated.

Autumn is slow. Not in the sense of being stupid or special—I have no idea about her mental capacity—but her cross-country times are terrible.

I’ve changed into my warm-up clothes and I’m just lacing up my shoes when, behind me, Palmer says, “Wow, that’s really interesting.”

The words are innocuous, but the tone promises misery to the recipient.

When I turn around, the bloodletting is already underway. Autumn Pickeral is standing in the middle of the locker room, with her shoulders slumped and her ankles crossed awkwardly.

When the florescent tube in the ceiling flickers, she looks like someone out of a cheap horror movie—the girl who gets killed in middle. Not the smartest or the prettiest or the most virtuous, but everyone thinks she’s basically okay and they’re sad when she’s dead.

“Why are you always so mean?” she mumbles at the floor. “Can’t you just quit?”

“God, Autumn,” says Kendry. She’s holding Autumn’s notebook. “Do you always take everything this personally? You don’t have to be so lame about it.”

Autumn doesn’t answer. I think I catch her looking at me, just from the corner of my eye, just for a second, but then she glances away, letting her hair fall in front of her face.

“Yeah,” Palmer says, flipping her hair in a shining arc. “We were only joking.”

Autumn just looks at her with the same flat, sleepy expression she always has. Then she nods. “Oh. Oh, yeah, I get it now.” Her voice is soft and husky. “No, that is funny. I think you might have messed up the punchline a little, though. I think the way it actually goes is Bite me.”

For a second, I’m almost sure that something is going to happen and I have no idea what it will be. Autumn looks mysterious, but not the way that other girls look mysterious when they’re trying catch boys or keep secrets. Nothing about her face tells me what’s coming. She’s not angry, not anxious or hurt or apologetic. I don’t recognize her expression, and that scares me.

“Come on,” I say, taking the notebook back from Kendry, turning Palmer by the elbow. I smile and it’s slow and controlled and thirty degrees. My eyes are lasers, beaming out subtext, saying get a move on as I shove Palmer toward the door.

In the hierarchy of our glossy, snarling pack, I’m the beta. I don’t know when that was decided exactly. Long before boy-girl parties or high school or we knew who would have breasts and who would only be stuck with the brains, my best friend Maribeth Whitman plucked me from obscurity and made me her second, and now it only takes a stare and a smile and all the rest of them fall in line.

It lacks any sort of nuance, or subtlety, but it always works. It’s so heavy-handed that I want to scream.

Palmer looks away. She huffs once, then catches hold of Kendry, dragging her out of the locker room.

When they leave, the room gets so quiet it feels like it’s starting to rust.

I splash some tap water through my bangs and push them off my forehead, using a strip of pre-wrap as a headband.

As I’m tying the ends of the pre-wrap, Autumn comes up behind me. When she speaks, her voice sounds low and almost drugged. ““I’m done,” she says.

It takes me a second to realize that she’s talking to me. I finish adjusting my hair. Then I turn around, leaning against the counter. “Done with what?”

“With being nice. With having a big fricking target on my back.”

We stand in the locker room, facing each other, and I don’t know what to say. She’s different now, in the empty room. Her expression is cool and alert. She’s taller than me, with a good build and long legs. I wonder why her times are so bad.

The face I maintain is carefully neutral—my mother’s psych face. “Okay. And when did you decide that you were done being nice?”

“Friday, when they tied my hair to the bleachers when I wasn’t looking, And Saturday at the meet, when they asked me if I ever made birthday wishes that I wasn’t such a huge lame-ass loser—’just kidding.’ Oh, and last Wednesday, when they threw my socks in the shower. And every other day, and every other damn minute.”

She tosses her hair out of her face and turns to the mirror, picking at her bottom lip. “You know how when you’re little and people make fun of you, and grown-ups always tell you to just ignore it? Just be the better person, let it bounce off?”

I nod. In the mirror, Autumn’s reflection looks stoic and mean.

She meets my eyes in the glass and smiles. “Yeah, well it’s not like that. It doesn’t bounce. It’s like a holding tank. They just keep pouring in their stupid screechy laughs and their just kidding, and now it’s full.” She shrugs and twitches away from the mirror. “So, I’m done.”

“Then it sounds like maybe you need to do something else.”

Autumn nods. “That’s the general idea. So, you want to get in on it?” She’s still smiling and it’s not as tentative or as friendly as I would have expected. “Just think of it as a project. Like, a social project. Don’t worry—I’d be doing the work. You’d just be like the officer in charge of strategy, or whatever.”

“What are you talking about?” It comes out halfway between a laugh and a cough, and I put my hand over my mouth. “I think you’re ignoring one vital obstacle. They don’t like you.”

“That’s why I need your help—to get me in with the cool kids. You know the passwords and the handshakes. You know the lay of the land.”

But what she really means is, I know how to make them do whatever I want and think it’s their idea.

“Maybe, but why would I help you?”

Autumn grins, sort of, only it’s more like she’s baring her teeth. “I know your secret.”

I have this weird, guilty thought that she’s talking about the power I have over them. Not the obvious dog-pack one, but that second kind of po
wer. I know them too well not to know their weaknesses.

I cross my arms over my chest. “What secret?”

“That you’re the smart one.”

When I laugh, it sounds almost relieved. “Everyone knows that. They print the honor roll on the back page of the Courier every quarter.”

“I’m not talking about grades.” She waves her hand at the empty locker room. “I’m talking about this. The dances, the teams, the clubs. You know it’s bullshit, and you play anyway.”

I don’t say anything.

We stand looking at each other over the carved-up benches. She’s wearing so much eyeliner that it’s starting to flake off in waxy pieces, like crayon.

Autumn smiles again, sweeter and more thoughtful than before. “If you help me with this, you get to find out exactly how smart you are.”

That wide-eyed, guileless expression is a little much. Her idea of manipulation is intuitive, but raw. It needs some fine tuning. And I’m just the person to do it. My father works in advertising.

I’m only even considering this because sometimes Palmer goes too far and needs to be taken down a notch or two.

Oh, who am I kidding? I want to see what happens.

“I have to go,” I say. “We’re going to be late.” I grab my warm-up jacket and start for the door. I’m almost out in the athletics hall before I turn back to face her. “Just one thing. Why did you pick me?”

“Because I think you might be the only person who can actually do this.”

I nod and pretend to consider that, but in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, you have no idea what I can do.

Photo by iampeas

46 thoughts on “Odd One Out

  1. What’s slightly terrifying is the realization that such a challenge would be so tempting to me, if I had been in Waverly’s situation, ever.

    Seriously. Challenge me to find out just how smart I am? That’s like throwing a dog a meaty bone and saying, “Go get it.”

    …luckily for the world, perhaps, I have a different life, and ethics drawn from that life. I don’t want that kind of power. But if I did?

  2. I really loved the narrator. She was so in control of both herself and the situation. Autumn’s right. She is the smarter one (which makes her absolutely intriguing).


  3. There’s such a sense of menace about this. And nice detail about ignoring things fills you up not washing off

  4. This is absolutely terrifying, and I want to see what happens next!

    I like this little bit of analysis: “That wide-eyed, guileless expression is a little much. Her idea of manipulation is intuitive, but raw. It needs some fine tuning.”

    I really enjoy you ladies’ versions of high school angst–like the one with the perfect girl who was sick of herself so she punched the lacrosse player….You always have a new spin.

  5. I needed to pry myself out of That One Voice and into another (you know the one I mean).

  6. What’s slightly terrifying is the realization that such a challenge would be so tempting to me

    A lot of times my stories for Merry Fates are me trying out various ideas, and this is one that’s come up for me a few times. I think power is really fascinating—I mean, what would you do with it? There are so many possibilities!

  7. I like Waverly because she *is* very controlled. I mean, I think that’s going to shape up to be her fatal flaw, but it’s one that you could have a lot of fun with.

  8. I think I like writing about high school so much because high school was the first time I’d ever been to public school and I didn’t really know much about my peer group. Man, they can be vicious, and they can be fascinating!

  9. I would gladly write more on this one—Waverly is someone I find really fascinating. But then, I also find Machiavelli fascinating . . .

  10. Did you not? Hee. Perhaps I’m just paranoid, but there was so much potential for it all to go horribly wrong.

  11. This is kind of terrifying to read – starts off a little in the theme of “Mean Girls” and then slips into “The Craft”. You could go some really fun places with this – there’s certainly enough here to get people interested and gripped already.

  12. I enjoyed it. The idea of the prey turning into the hunter is a good theme (one I really like to use).

  13. I agree; power is fascinating. What disturbs me is that I’ve observed somewhat second-hand the kinds of things a bored Gifted student might do if he or she has no check–moral, ethical, authoritative, what have you–on his or her actions. Waverly seems like she’s that kind of person. Worse, this story brings up what might happen if someone challenges that same person to focus her attentions in a way that could easily end in disaster for everyone else, if not for the Waverly type (although there could be consequences for her; what they are really depends on how subtle she is about it and if anyone notices her).

  14. I mean, I think that’s going to shape up to be her fatal flaw

    Yes! That was partly why it fascinated me so much. She was so confident that you just knew that somewhere down the line her greatest strength was really going to bite her in the ass. And being as compelling as she is, it’d have been really fun to watch her deal with her humanity in that way.

  15. Ooh, I definitely enjoyed this, and hope that you’ll revisit it someday…there’s much more to this story!! Loved the names, and I loved Waverly. : )

  16. I kept thinking someone’s going to die soon. I like how the danger and menace is veiled. Both characters are flawed. One on the outside and the other on the inside. I love how you use combinations of plain words to show rather than tell. I’m trying to write like that. I’ve just started writing a YA novel, for fun, to see if I can write like you. Your voice often has a male feel to it, and I don’t know if that’s the right way to describe it, but it’s different than anything I’ve read.

  17. The narrator’s voice is so spot-on and engaging! Her observations on popularity at the start of the story reeled me in right away. I was so eager to keep on reading…but then, of course, the story ended. *morenowpleeeeze*

  18. I still have to figure out what exactly they do, but I suspect it’s going to be elaborate and deft.

  19. That’s one of my favorites too—it seems to play out in so many different ways.

  20. I think I just set up the death expectation so often that now it comes through even when the threat isn’t physical. I think someone will be destroyed, but probably not fatally.

  21. Waverly is a personal favorite of mine (don’t know what that says about me), because she’s so removed and single-minded. I think she could go far!

  22. Yay! I really like writing Waverly and would love to do something big with her eventually—probably not fantasy, or at least, not heavily so.

  23. I absolutely loved this one because of the raw idea of such power IS intriguing and, being gifted, it really makes me wonder what certain people would DO with power of any kind, including myself. There are all kinds of philosophical discussion to be had on the topic. Autumn seems like a very complex and mysterious character; if you decide to turn this into a longer story, things could get very interesting. >:)

  24. ……………. Why does he blink. Holy $h*T All the expressions change. My god, I was just reading the other comments that he blinked and gosh that was about the scariest thing I’ve seen all day congrats…. *chills up my spine*

  25. That kind of power has always interested me, because high school often *is* so boring/lacking in challenges, and yet it’s this perfect controlled environment—the best possible conditions for social experiments or manipulation. I don’t know exactly what Autumn would get up to yet, but I’m convinced she has powers no one sees!

  26. Just finished ‘The Replacement’, loved it very much, thought I’d have a search and came across this little wonder. The first sentence had me hooked, ‘Popularity is like a disease’.

    Naomi, Wales

  27. Just finished ‘The Replacement’, loved it very much, thought I’d have a search and came across this little wonder. The first sentence had me hooked, ‘Popularity is like a disease’.


  28. It’s my favorite kind of story. Something that seems almost harmless on the outside, but has a very dark undertone. 😀

    Oh, by the way, I’m obsessively in love with Mackie Doyle. XDDDDDD

  29. Hi Naomi,

    I’m glad you liked The Replacement, and of course, also glad that it brought you over here to Merry Fates!

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