On Josie's other side was Courtney Ignatio, the alpha female of Sterling High. With her honey-blond hair hanging over her shoulders like a shawl made of silk and her low-rise jeans mail-ordered from Fred Segal, she'd spawned an entourage of clones. On Courtney's tray was a bottle of water and a banana. On Josie's was a platter of French fries. It was second period, and just like her mother had predicted, she was famished.
"Hey," Courtney said, loud enough for Natalie to overhear. "Can you tell the vagitarian to let us pass?"
Natalie's cheeks burned with color, and she flattened herself up against the sneeze guard of the salad bar so that Courtney and Josie could slip by. They paid for their food and walked across the cafeteria.
Whenever she came into the cafeteria, Josie felt like a naturalist observing different species in their natural, nonacademic habitat. There were the geeks, bent over their textbooks and laughing at math jokes nobody else even wanted to understand. Behind them were the art freaks, who smoked clove cigarettes on the ropes course behind the school and drew manga comics in the margins of their notes. Near the condiment bar were the skanks, who drank black coffee and waited for the bus that would take them to the technical high school three towns over for their afternoon classes; and the druggies, already strung out by nine o'clock in the morning. There were misfits, too -- kids like Natalie and Angela Phlug, fringe friends by default, because nobody else would have them.
And then there was Josie's posse. They took over two tables, not because there were so many of them, but because they were larger than life: Emma, Maddie, Haley, John, Brady, Trey, Drew. Josie could remember how, when she started hanging around with this group, she'd get everyone's names confused. They were that interchangeable.
They all sort of looked alike, too -- the boys all wearing their maroon home hockey jerseys and their hats backward, bright thatches of hair stuck through the loops at their foreheads like the start of a fire; the girls carbon copies of Courtney, by studious design. Josie slipped inconspicuously into the heart of them, because she looked like Courtney, too. Her tangle of hair had been blown glass-straight; her heels were three inches high, even though there was still snow on the ground. If she appeared the same on the outside, it was that much easier to ignore the fact that she didn't really know how she felt on the inside.
"Hey," Maddie said, as Courtney sat down beside her.
"Did you hear about Fiona Kierland?"
Courtney's eyes lit up; gossip was as good a catalyst as any chemical. "The one whose boobs are two different sizes?"
"No, that's Fiona the sophomore. I'm talking about Fiona the freshman."
"The one who always carries a box of tissues for her allergies?" Josie said, sliding into a seat.
"Or not," Haley said. "Guess who got sent to rehab for snorting coke."
"That's not even the whole scandal," Emma added. "Her dealer was the head of the Bible study group that meets after school."
"Oh my God!" Courtney said.
"Hey." Matt slipped into the chair beside Josie. "What took you so long?"
She turned to him. At this end of the table, the guys were rolling straw wrappers into spitballs and talking about the end of spring skiing. "How long do you think the half-pipe will stay open at Sunapee?" John asked, lobbing a spitball toward a kid one table away who had fallen asleep.
The boy had been in Josie's Sign Language elective last year. Like her, he was a junior. His arms and legs were skinny and white and splayed like a stickbug; his mouth, as he snored, was wide-open.
Copyright © Jodi Picoult, 2007. Reproduced with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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