Copyright © 2017 Huntson Press Inc.

CHAPTER ONE

 

JEWEL

 

Senior year held no promises for improvement. Someone had once told me that high school would be better than all the years before it. So far, that’s not been the case. I dared to hope my senior year would finally make up for all the rest.

The anxiety of a new school year picked at me as I sat at the beige granite kitchen island, scarfing my breakfast down. Soon, I’d wander upstairs to search through my endless closet of clothes and come up with the same conclusion. Nothing I chose would make me feel everything about me wasn’t all wrong.

When I looked in the mirror, I saw a blue-eyed blonde peering back at me. Was I pretty? Sure. But I saw what all the other kids saw. The loser… the girl who wasn’t cool enough or good enough to belong.

Friends? What were those? I wanted one person to give me a chance, but I’d never had any. Was that so much to ask? Being friendless had been my story for as long as I could recall.

“Earth to Jewel.” My older brother’s voice cut through my thoughts as he plopped down beside me.

“Don’t start.” I glared at Miles, anxiety pulling at me.

He raised a hand in surrender. “Okay, chill. No need to get riled up.”

I huffed a sigh. “I’m sorry.”

Miles shrugged off my reply and dived into his bowl of Cheerios. At two years older than I was, I wouldn’t say we were close, but I knew he loved me. Miles was the quiet type of guy. Girls thought he was smoking hot—our mother’s Italian heritage giving him dark hair and dark eyes—but he’d yet to let one catch his attention. Goal oriented, Miles had worked since he was fifteen, purchasing the shiny black Silverado out in the driveway with straight cash. He was that kind of guy. I admired and looked up to him. On the nights when he found me crying in my room over something that happened at school, he would sit with me and offer me comfort. He’d joke around and tell me only he had permission to pick on me, often securing a laugh from me.

I recalled a time in junior high when a group of boys came up to me at the bus stop. I dropped my eyes as soon as I saw them because I was a favorite target of theirs.

My body curled inward as they mocked me.

On this day, Miles happened to be in the right place at the right time and walked up. Miles had taken the boy by the arm and given him a rough shake. Things like that made him who he was in my eyes.

“Morning, kiddos,” Mom’s cheerful voice pierced my thoughts.

“Morning,” Miles and I replied in unison.

She started the coffeemaker before turning to us. Her dark brown bedhead stood up on end, and squinting through sleepy eyes, she smiled at us.

“Well, the last year of high school for you, baby girl, and the beginning of university for you, bud,” she said with a chuckle, tucking the belt of her cream-colored fleece robe snugly around her.

“School is the pits,” I grumbled.

“Or I could live with you forever and bypass school altogether,” Miles said with a smirk at Mom.

Maybe it was because he was her firstborn, but my mom had a soft place in her heart just for him. Always the smart one, Miles was well aware of this and sometimes used it to his advantage. He’d bat his chocolate-brown puppy dog eyes at her, and Mom seemed to melt under his spell.

“You can live with me as long as you need to, but you’ll still be a productive citizen in society.” She scrunched her eyebrows and laughed. “But nice try.”

I smiled at their carefree banter as Mom brushed stray crumbs off the countertop with her hand.

“Morning, family,” Dad said, humming as he sauntered into the chef’s kitchen he designed for Mom. He was dressed in a pinstripe charcoal suit. Beneath the collar of his crisp white dress shirt hung a deep purple tie, not yet tied. His blond locks were tapered short on the sides while the top was left longer and combed back. He resembled one of those middle-aged men you saw in cologne ads.

He wrapped my mom in his arms for a quick kiss and a squeeze. Then he rounded the counter to place a kiss on top of my head before giving me an encouraging hug, as if to say, “You’ve got this.” He ruffled my brother’s neatly gelled back hair.

“Dad!” Miles said with a groan, but a grin curved his mouth.

Dad grabbed a stool at the island, and Mom placed a piping-hot cup of coffee in front of him.

I loved how my parents loved each other. Don’t get me wrong—they could be as annoying as any other parents, but overall, they were great. They were there for us, unwavering in their love and support.

“What do you guys say to a trip to New Orleans over Christmas break?” Mom smiled, a glimmer of excitement in her hazel eyes.

“I’m in,” Dad said without hesitation.

As a lawyer at our family firm, my dad worked long, grueling hours. Family vacations were his escape.

“Good, because we’re going.” Mom grinned.

I glanced at the time on my smartphone. “Well, I need to go get ready, so I will see you guys later,” I said, hopping down from the nail-studded ivory leather barstool.

 

***

The sun was sneaking through the cream silk curtains in my bedroom, its rays painting a long, narrow window on my dark hardwood floor. I ambled to the window and pulled aside the curtains, glancing out over our neighborhood. Our house sat tucked back from the street, and the broad expanse of lawn between the neighboring homes provided a sense of privacy. A circular driveway surrounded the front of our two-story sandstone concrete house. Windows stretching on forever mirrored the broad red maples lining our property.

Shuffling to my double-door walk-in closet, I grasped the glass doorknob and flicked on the light. The ivory-colored chandelier’s faceted crystal pendants reflected the light, blinding my early morning eyes. The vaulted ceiling made the closet feel like a room of its own. Shoes and purses in various styles and colors were neatly stored individually to showcase them. In the center of the back wall, a large window provided additional light within the soft metallic gray walls. Ceiling-to-floor glass doors displayed rows of white shelving with color-coordinated clothing. In the center sat an ivory leather chaise with an oversized ruffled pale pink pillow placed on it. A smaller silver pillow with the word “love” embroidered on it sat in the center of the chaise.

I stood back and stared at my choices, but nothing jumped out at me. Summer was still making its presence known, forcasting a smoldering twenty-eight degrees Celsius in Toronto today. I first tried a knee-length pale yellow sundress with tiny pink flowers. The rayon dress nipped in at the waist, then flowed into jagged layers. The adorable criss-cross of ties exposed my back, which I embraced as a good feature. Summer days lying by the pool drinking lemonade had given me a sun-kissed glow. Looking in the floor-length mirror, I scrutinized myself from every angle.

“Blah,” I grumbled.

The dress made me feel wide through the hips. I tugged down the sides, trying to make it a few inches longer to cover the bruise on my right leg from a tumble during my horse-riding class. With a sigh, I whipped it over my head and placed it back on the hanger. Next choice was a pair of white jean shorts. I slid into them and gave my butt a glance in the mirror. I liked my curves, but some days—like today—I viewed myself as fat. Logically, at five foot two and one hundred and ten pounds, I knew I wasn’t, but after years of my peers having nothing better to do than pick on me, I’d developed a negative opinion of my appearance. Once, a disparaging girl said I was fat, and I shouldn’t be seen eating in public. Can you believe that? Guys could eat in public, and it was cool, but girls were supposed to hide in shame. Even though I knew this remark was insane, it stayed in my head, starting years of refusing to eat lunch at school.

Looked like jeans and a tank was what it was going to be. I grabbed a pair of the medium-wash jeans Mom had purchased for me for back to school. I slid them on and zipped them up. I liked how they tucked in all my imperfections and how the edginess of the rips trailed down my legs.

“Knock, knock.”

I clutched a white ribbed tank from the shelf and poked my head out the closet door. “Hey, Mom, what’s up?”

“I’m going to get your sister up and get myself ready for the office. I wanted to wish you a good day in case you leave before I see you again.” She smiled softly. Mom ran the accounting department at the firm, but no matter how busy she was, she always put us kids first. I counted on her more than I cared to admit. She was my strength when my supply was depleted.

“Thanks, Mom,” I replied. “Maybe this will be my year.” I glanced at her for encouragement.

“I hope so, Jewel.” She willed an encouraging smile, but her eyes reflected the pain we had both struggled with throughout my school years.

I knew my life of ill treatment had affected her. She was one of those moms who became a mama bear when you messed with her cubs. She hated conflict as much as the next person, but when it came to her children, she’d go toe to toe with any parent, teacher, or anyone else threatening us. Don’t get me wrong—she didn’t run to my defense all the time, but when things were beyond my ability to fix, she stepped in.

“Remember, they’re the ones with the issues, not you. They’re the ones hurting inside, and you just happen to be the one they spew it out on. It’s not right, but try not to let it hurt you. Like I always say, ‘You’re beautiful and strong.’ Hold your chin up and don’t take any of their trash-talk. You’ve got this, Jewel,” she said with determination.

I smiled at her and her effort to instill hope in me. God bless her for trying, but it didn’t take away the heaviness deep in my stomach or the nausea threatening to overtake me.

 

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