001. Paper Notes
001. Paper Notes
At Aquino High, to be wanted is everything.
I’m a nine.
That’s what the sticky note on my locker says—the bright blue one that means there’s someone in this school who has a crush on me. Spencer O’Brien told me that Celia Carter told him that it’s Luke.
Luke Horton is nice enough, but we exist in different friend circles as if we live in parallel universes. I live in a world where school is in a precarious balance with social life, parties, and sports games. He lives in a world where school is all-consuming, and when his homework isn’t, Star Wars and video games are.
Just like every Monday morning before first period, I pull the sticky note off of my locker to realign it. None of the senior girls take their numbers off of their lockers—that’s just how it works. I wouldn’t want to, anyway: a blue Post-It note, particularly one with the number 9 written on it in black Sharpie, is the most valuable kind of note a girl at Aquino High can receive. It means I’m wanted. Liked. Sought-after.
At Aquino High, to be wanted is everything.
I barely have time to straighten my Post-It note in the middle of the metal door before Celia Carter bounds up to me, her loose blonde ringlets pulled back by a black fabric headband. As always, her makeup is impeccable and her lips shimmer with the slightest trace of gloss. There is no doubt that Celia dresses to impress.
Her baby blue eyes flicker over the piece of paper I’ve just pulled my fingers away from. “You’re a nine again? You’ve been a nine every day since the beginning of the school year.”
“I know,” I say, twisting the combo on my locker before swinging the door open. This means someone has liked me since the start of the school year. And because Luke has about as much of an attention span for girls as I do for his Star Wars obsession, I know Spencer O’Brien is wrong.
It has to be someone else.
I don’t tell Celia this though, because her lips form a perfect pout as she finishes surveying my locker. Then she scans me up and down me once, taking in my skinny jeans and bright blue shirt, before frowning.
“You’re Erika Soto. You have no idea who it is?” she asks, and I would never have known that she was dying for an answer except for the sparkling hunger in her eyes.
So I bait her. “Not really,” I say. “It could be anyone.”
And then, because I don’t have time for people like her, I slam my locker shut and make my way down the hall towards math class.
People part ways for me like I’m some kind of impending force and they’re succumbing to the pressure. I never have to push aside underclassmen or skirt my way around groups of gossips just to make a path to class. I’ve never known why—I’m not like Celia and I’m not like her wannabe friends, who hang on her every word like they’re starving and she’s got the last cookie on the planet. I’m a different kind of popular. The smart, admired kind.
It’s hard to be well-liked at Aquino High, just like it’s hard to be liked in the surrounding suburban Hampton. I don’t know how I’ve done it, but somehow I’m there.
I sit in the front of AP Calculus BC, where I can stretch out my legs without hitting the desk in front of me and where I can get an unobstructed view of our teacher lecturing on integrals and limits. When I sit down, I notice Spencer O’Brien is already seated behind me, just like he always is. His fingers fly across his sleek iPhone and his dark brows crease as he studies the screen.
“Texting your girlfriend?” I ask, startling him out of his thoughts.
He glances up and in a half-second his ice-blue eyes have locked onto my darker ones. I hold his gaze until he breaks it, glancing down to lock his phone and shove it into his pocket. “No,” he says. “It’s just Celia.”
I don’t know whether to be happy at the fact that he called her “just Celia” or disappointed by the fact that he’s texting her at all, but I don’t have time to worry because Mrs. Rutledge begins passing out a worksheet on implicit differentiation and my mind focuses on the one thing that truly matters to me most.
As I write my name at the top with my purple mechanical pencil, my thoughts shift back to the blue Post-It note on my locker for only a second, but then I’m absorbed with problem number one and making sure I understand it, because I can’t afford anything less than an A.
I’m halfway through problem three before a pencil taps my shoulder. I turn around and see Spencer staring at me, his lips drawn in a tight line. “Did you get an answer for number two?”
I want to smile, but just Celia keeps repeating itself over and over again in my head, so I just hand him my paper and let him read it over. I know the one boy that isn’t leaving nines on my locker, and that’s Spencer O’Brien. He’s too busy with Celia instead.
When Spencer hands me back my worksheet I take it and turn back around without saying anything else. It’s too early on a Monday morning to feel heartbroken.
“All right!” calls Mrs. Rutledge, attracting the attention of the entire class. The boy next to me, Grant, appreciatively shifts his gaze from his worksheet to our young blonde teacher. “Let’s go over the answers. Who’s got number one?”
My hand shoots up, and nobody questions me as Mrs. Rutledge nods and hands me the dry erase marker. In calculus class, I’m indisputably one of the smart ones.
As I solve the derivative, I try to keep my eyes on the board and away from the girl sitting a few rows away from my normal spot. I know Allison Soto watches me with eager eyes, waiting to pounce on any mistake I make. So she isn’t satisfied, I double-check every step on my paper before I scratch it out for everyone to see.
“Does everyone agree?” asks Mrs. Rutledge once I underline my answer and step back.
A thoughtful silence spreads across our small class. Then, Allison raises her thin hand just high enough that our teacher can see it. I turn back around to the board, my cheeks flaming as I frantically scan for some error that I made.
“Shouldn’t it be nine-fifths instead of four-fifths?” asks Allison, her dark eyes squinting.
Relief washes over me. “It’s definitely four-fifths,” I say. “You have to subtract the one when you take the derivative. Chain rule.”
Someone wolf whistles in the room and I bite down on the inside of my cheek to keep from smiling. Just for once, I’ve one-upped my sister.
After Mrs. Rutledge confirms my answer and I sit back down in my seat, the rest of the class passes smoothly. My best friend Cassidy Clark winks at me from two rows over, and I know it was she who whistled when I proved Allison wrong. For a moment, my worries about Spencer and the rating on my locker are disintegrated as if they’re a math problem I can easily erase away.
“Why do we have to have this stupid rating system anyway?”
It’s lunchtime, and I’m seated at the center cafeteria table between Cassidy and our other best friend Brynn. Celia sits at the table beside us, her spindly tan legs crossed at the knees. She’s eyeing Spencer from across the room.
“What do you mean?” asks Cassidy. “You know it saves everyone from all the drama. No more love triangles. Anyway, all of us get really high ratings. It’s not like we’re hurting from it.”
I don’t care what she says—I hate the rating system at Aquino High just like I hate that Celia likes Spencer and that my twin sister is competition for me.
It all started when the guys in our grade, recently seniors and itching for something semi-productive to do with their luxurious lives, decided to make a system. Every Friday afternoon, they meet after school in the auditorium like some kind of cult and write the names of girls and their ratings on Post-It notes. One guy per girl, to eliminate competition. A blue Post-It note means they want to ask you out, red means you’re already dating, and yellow means they’re just interested in a hook-up.
Nobody really understands how the sticky notes appear on the girls’ lockers over the weekends. Rumor has it the vice principal helps the senior boys out on Saturdays, but I don’t think that’s true. Even though the administration doesn’t bat an eye at the system, I can’t imagine them condoning it.
“I think Erika’s just angry because of Spencer,” points out Cassidy—it’s the first intelligible word I’ve comprehended since I started reflecting upon the rating system. “Supposedly, he’s leaving tens on Celia locker.”
“Of course he is,” said Brynn. She glances over at me almost apologetically before adding, “Celia’s got him wrapped around her perfect little finger.”
I chew down on my lip but don’t say anything, because Celia is sitting only feet away and I never can tell what those ears of hers can pick up.
“It’s all Taylor’s fault, anyway,” says Cassidy. “The guys’ system, I mean. He started it and he’s the one seeing it through every weekend.”
“You mean he’s the one putting the notes on the lockers?” asks Brynn. “He’d have to sneak in.”
Cassidy takes a bite of her yogurt before swirling the spoon around the bottom of the container to catch all the remnants. “No,” she said. “I just think he’s the one who leads it on Friday afternoons. I bet he knows exactly what guy likes what girl.”
My stomach swoops, and I know it has nothing to with my hunger and the fact that I’ve barely touched my food. Taylor Cunningham knows everything.
And I’m determined to find out.
“Taylor can’t possibly run all of that,” Brynn interrupts. “He doesn’t have the initiative.”
“Wow, big words,” I simper, causing her to stick her tongue out at me.
Cassidy rolls her eyes. “I don’t know anything for sure. I’m just telling you what I’ve heard.”
I want to sass her, too, just to have someone to take my anger out on, but I don’t have anything to say so I just start in on my own lunch. There’s still that tumbling in my stomach, though, and I doubt that I can even swallow a bite without gagging.
Instead of engaging in the next topic of conversation—Cassidy is gushing about her boyfriend of six months, Nathan—I stare out at the cafeteria. The flawlessly dressed girls and preppy boys of Aquino High move around in their normal routine, talking, eating, and laughing as if they were puppets. Sleek ankle boots are crossed over skin-tight jeans, and Sperrys wander the gaps between tables as the boys mingle, stealing food from plates and roughhousing.
My gaze flicks over Spencer, who sits with most of the senior boys at a table on the far side of the cafeteria. Next to him is the broad-shouldered, tanned figure of Taylor Cunningham. I watch both of their backs, wondering what they know that I don’t. Then someone taps me on the shoulder and I snap my head back to see Allison staring at me.
“Who are you staring at?” she asks, tucking a piece of dirty blonde hair behind her ear.
I shovel a bite of spaghetti into my mouth despite my lack of appetite. “Nobody.”
She surveys me for a few seconds before sitting down in the chair Brynn must have vacated when I’d been zoned out. As if we were best friends, she steals a chip from the bag next to me, but she doesn’t say anything else. Tension rests between us like the bricks I remember weighing out in AP Physics earlier in the month.
Cassidy and I are silent, watching her sample a bite of my pasta. She doesn’t belong here—she belongs at the table next door, with Celia at her side. She hasn’t eaten with us since the end of junior year.
“Fine, I get it,” she says finally, shoving my lunch back at me. And then she gets up and leaves, the seat that her trendy jeans just vacated still angled towards me.
“So,” says Cassidy once she’s gone, “Are you up for the football game tonight? I heard Liam’s having the after party.”
I shake my head halfheartedly, too busy thinking to worry about the next Aquino High social event.
My next class is AP English—for once, a class that I share with the majority of the seniors instead of other overachievers. Cassidy follows me down the hallway and to my locker after lunch as I switch out my books, chattering nonsensically.
“You’ve got a blue nine again?” she asks me, her gossip coming to an abrupt halt when she catches sight of the note on my locker door.
I enter my combination and swing open the door, shrugging so she doesn’t realize how much I care. “Yeah,” I say. “But so what? It’s obvious that I’ll never find out who’s leaving them.”
Someone bumps into me and I turn around to see Taylor navigating his way down the hallway, hitching his black backpack higher on his shoulders. I never imagined I’d actually want to go and talk to him—not after everything that had happened before.
“Didn’t Spencer tell you that it’s Luke Horton?” asks Cassidy, relentless.
I pull out my English textbook. “Let’s not talk about Spencer.” Then before she can protest I’ve disappeared into the swarm of high schoolers buzzing about their day mechanically, and then I’m in the trance, too. On my way down the hallway I pass girls’ lockers with sticky notes in a rainbow of colors adhered to the doors. Numbers in Sharpies coat them like some type of offering. Some of the notes have been decorated with hearts or arrows, doodles I know the girls have added since arriving to school in the morning. One of the lockers sports a yellow Post-It note with a one scribbled on it—a cruel prank.
My legs walk me to the door of my English classroom. Gathering all of my dark hair on one side of my shoulder, I stride inside. Over and over again, I remind myself that I am Erika Soto. I am smart, I am pretty, and I have been ranked a nine every week since the start of the school year. Girls like Celia have nothing on me and boys like Spencer are missing out if they don’t like me.
The façade works for an instant as I survey the room with a cool, calculating gaze. Then it drops, at the same time that I sit down in my normal seat and pull out the previous night’s homework. Memories of calculus class that morning slip back into my consciousness: how Spencer’s fingers had brushed mine as I’d handed him my worksheet to look at, how his blue eyes had been trained on me.
Someone brushes my desk and almost knocks my laptop off. When I glance up, I see Spencer making his way to the seat behind me. He turns around and whispers an apology before sitting down, and even though I can’t see him I feel his heated presence just feet away. Every hair on the back of my neck is on end and I’m attentive, trying to pick up on anything he’s doing. He leans over to talk to his friend next to him as Celia walks in the room. His conversation halts, and my stomach sinks all over again.
As always, Celia sits on Spencer’s right. Her dagger-like blue eyes scan over me dismissively before she takes her seat, flashing a smile at the object of both of her attention. She’s exactly the kind of girl who would sketch hearts on the blue Post-It notes she receives, with a ten written on them in blocky black Sharpie. They’re from Spencer—I know it. Everyone knows it.
Slowly, the rest of the class filters in. Taylor Cunningham ambles inside the room and sits down on my left, pulling out the book we’re reading and flipping through. I wonder whose locker he leaves ******* on.
Someone taps my shoulder. My breath catches, expecting to turn around and see Spencer talking to me, but instead it’s Celia.
“Have you figured out who’s leaving nines on your locker yet?” she asks. Her eyes flicker over to Spencer and so do mine, just to gauge his reaction. Nothing.
“Nope,” I said. “But don’t worry, I’ll figure it out eventually. You should probably get around to working out who’s leaving them on yours.”
She smirks, and I see just a trace of pearl-white teeth underneath her glossed lips. “Don’t fret about me, Erika! I already know who it is.”
She pats my shoulder maternally and I turn around, heart hammering. I am Erika Soto, I tell myself. I am smart. I am pretty
What does all of that matter, anyway?
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