By the time I emerged from the lunch line the next afternoon I was all nerves. I was about to sit with Marshall and his obnoxious, vain, fatuous friends—a prospect that made me queasy for three reasons. First, I knew that David and Danielle were going to be thrown completely and would probably excise me from their lives forever. Second, I was going to have to maintain complete focus—not one of my attributes—and be careful about everything I said. After my flub yesterday at lunch I realized that social situations could be hazardous to my cover. Apparently when I got too comfortable I got careless. Of course, comfort probably wasn’t going to be an issue, because third and most difficult to admit, I also was nervous because I was about to have lunch with the cool kids.
Big confession time. I, Kim Stratford, had heretofore never hung out with the cool kids. At least not until I got to college and nobody knew that in high school I was barely a blip on the social radar. I never really wanted to hang with them because they were all elitists, but that didn’t mean they weren’t intimidating. I had always found them intimidating.
So there I was, a high school graduate, a college student from Stanford University and a policewoman, and I was cowed by a bunch of kids wearing Tommy Hilfiger and laughing over the latest episode of The Jamie Kennedy Experiment. Not my proudest moment.
Here goes nothing, I thought.
Marshall waved to me from across the cafeteria, as if I could miss him and his obstreperous friends even in all the chaos. Their table stood out like a cruise ship in the middle of a sailboat race—big and long and packed with boisterous people. Cheryl turned to see what he was waving at and her face grew livid the moment she laid eyes on me. Wow. This girl was seriously jealous. I had a feeling she was going to tear me down the first chance she got. It was so unfair. I couldn’t have been less interested in her potential drug-dealer boyfriend.
You can deal with her, I told myself. Whatever she attempts to throw at you, just make sure her efforts are futile . You’re older, you’re cooler and you have way-better hair.
I knew it would be easier said than done, but my internal pep talk calmed me a bit. Keeping my chin up, I gamely walked along the wall until I reached the packed table. Each guy was sporting more hair gel than the one next to him, and the commingled scents of the many products the girls were currently abusing created a noxious cloud over the table.
“Everyone, this is Kim,” Marshall said, looking proud that he’d remembered my name. “She’s cool.”
The few people who acknowledged my presence seemed unimpressed. A couple of girls gave me the once-over and then looked away, returning to a heated debate over the benefits of thongs vs. tangas.
I was in hell. I mean, how banal could they be?
You have to be tolerant here, I told myself, sliding into an empty seat next to Marshall. They can’t be all bad.
I hazarded a glance toward the table where I’d sat yesterday with Danielle and David. They were both staring at me, and their pain was almost palpable, even from across the room. I hated that I was the one who had made them feel that way. I smiled at them obsequiously, but they both turned away. My stomach contracted.
This is your job, I reminded myself. You can’t worry about Danielle and David’s feelings. You’re gonna have to ingratiate yourself with these people and you’re going to have to do it fast.
“Hi,” I said, smiling at the most welcoming-looking person there—a cute guy with shaggy red hair who sat across from me.
“Hey. I’m Curtis,” he replied, extending his hand to me from across the table. The headphones of his iPod dangled from his neck as he rose from his seat. I was impressed that he was actually shaking hands with me. Not something most teenage guys bothered to do.
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
“What do you think of Hereford?” Marshall asked as he shoved a fistful of fries into his mouth.
“It’s okay,” I replied, pushing my fork around in my spaghetti and meatballs. I was too tense to eat just yet. “Some of your teachers are tough, though,” I added, hoping to get a conversation started. If there was one thing I remembered about being a high school senior, it was how much we enjoyed lamenting our lot in life.
“Who said anything about coasting?” I shot back immediately. “I go to Stanford. I’ve never coasted in my life.”
“What do you mean you go to Stanford?” Cheryl asked.
Damn. There I go again. Apparently I wasn’t only in danger of blowing my cover when I was too comfortable. It was also going to happen whenever I was heckled. Good job, Deputy Moron.
“I mean I went to Stanford. Prep,” I explained, proud of the smooth save. “The teachers were actually tougher there, but I didn’t want to make you guys feel inferior.”
“Whatever,” Cheryl said, rolling her eyes and returning her attention to her girlfriends.
Marshall, Curtis and a couple of other guys chuckled to themselves.
“What?” I asked.
“Cat fights. Gotta love it,” the blond kid from karate practice said.
I had a feeling I wasn’t going to be having any scholarly debates with these guys during my days at Hereford. I decided to cut to the chase.
“So, what do you do for fun around here?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.
Marshall exchanged cautious glances with his buddies as if he were debating whether or not he should let me in on something. I felt my pulse start to race. Was I already on to something disreputable?
“She seems cool,” Curtis said finally, lifting one shoulder.
“Like I said,” Marshall replied firmly, as if he wanted to make sure he was credited with being the first person to say I was cool.
“So tell her,” some meathead suggested.
I saw Cheryl shoot Marshall a warning glance, but he was either oblivious or decided to ignore her.
“We have this secret party every month in the gym,” Marshall explained through a full mouth. “It’s totally exclusive. Just us and some of the cooler juniors and sophomores.”
I could tell that his “us” didn’t apply to all seniors, just the ones at this table—the Hereford regime. I held my breath as Marshall’s eyes flicked over me. Would I be included as one of “us?” I had an inkling my investigation depended on it. An underground monthly party sounded like the perfectly unwholesome venue for some serious drug use.
Instantly my mind turned to Corinne and I felt my blood start to boil. I shoved the thoughts away. I couldn’t go there now. Otherwise I’d be blaming these kids for what happened to her, and they never even knew the girl.
“You can come if you want,” Marshall said.
At that moment Cheryl shoved her chair back from the table in an intemperate manner, making far more noise than was absolutely necessary, and stalked through the cafeteria toward the bathroom.
“Don’t mind her. She’s on the rag,” Marshall said, causing Meathead to guffaw.
Ugh! He was so uncouth!
“So, you in?” Curtis asked me.
“Sure. When is it?”
“Next Friday,” Curtis replied. “We meet in the gym at midnight.”
“How do you guys get away with it every month?” I asked. “I mean, doesn’t the Hereford administration sort of frown on this kind of thing?”
“They turn a blind eye cuz it’s us,” Marshall said, reaching out to slap hands with his friends. “Gotta love it.”
“It’s gonna be wicked this month,” Chris said with a grin. “Marshall is DJ-ing with his new speakers.”
“I’m making some killer mixes, man,” Marshall said, nodding his big head. “Wait’ll you hear what I got in store.”
“I have a ton of new CDs if you want to borrow some,” I said, munching casually on my roll. “A lot of West-Coast stuff you may not have.”
This was actually true. My friend P.K. back at Stanford had a brother who worked for Universal Records, and he was constantly sending us new albums by up-and-coming DJs and bands. Some of it was vapid crap, but most of it was kicking party music.
“Good deal,” Marshall said. “Bring ‘em by my room tonight. I’m in 315.”
“I’m there,” I said, relaxing. Now that things with Marshall were settled I was finally able to dig into my lunch, but I devoured it quickly—before Cheryl could come back and turn my stomach to knots all over again.