Excerpt from Proof of Lies – Book #1 in the Anastasia Phoenix series
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My friends and I headed down a row of rectangular tables set in prison-straight lines. We sat near the windows on the outskirts, one of the few parts of the cafeteria untainted by the stench of meatless veggie burgers and drugstore body sprays.
I bumped the backs of carrot-colored chairs as we neared our seats. I could see a pack of baseball players headed from the opposite direction, which was unusual given that the popular table sat in the cafeteria’s center. It was like seeing Mickey Mouse in the parking lot of the Magic Kingdom.
“Hey, look who it is!” said Wyatt Burns in a voice so loud he was obviously working to draw an audience. He hovered over a male student seated alone with his tray, two empty plastic chairs beside him. “Where’s your Harley now, empanada?” Wyatt backhanded the guy’s head, not hard enough to be an actual hit, but too hard to be considered friendly.
What was strange was that I didn’t recognize the target. He was well-built, with black spiky hair, dark eyes, black T-shirt, and a tattoo of a bull with curved horns showing on his neck. Not exactly someone you could easily overlook.
I stopped en route to our table, twisting my head toward Regina. “Who are they messing with?”
“He just started here. Some exchange student or some- thing. I think he’s Mexican. Could you imagine moving to a new school in May? The year’s almost over.” She mindlessly flicked the part in her shiny black hair, which fell toward her waist like a silk curtain. I’d kill for hair like that. Instead, my hair reminded me of my mother’s every time I looked in the mirror—long, thick, and espresso brown.
“Sometimes you don’t have a choice,” I grumbled, as we continued to our table. I put down my tray, but I didn’t sit; I was too busy watching the scene.
“Oh, sorry. I forgot about your nomad days.” Regina made a whoops-my-bad face, though it actually was nice not to be considered the new girl anymore. At seventeen, I’d lived in nine cities, in five countries, on four continents, and spoke four languages—including upper-class Moroccan French. “I heard his parents work at Boston General, doing research or something. Hey, maybe your sister knows them?”
“Maybe he’ll be invited to your party?” Tyson added.
“Yeah, I’m sure Keira invited the entire hospital staff and their families,” I deadpanned, still gawking. Wyatt wasn’t letting up. I didn’t know what this kid had done to draw the ire of three hulking baseball players, but the entire lunchroom was now involved. Conversations lulled.
“You know, I think they serve tacos up there,” Wyatt pointed to the cafeteria line. “Did you grab a couple burritos, ese?”
The guy said nothing, and even in his silence, I could see he wasn’t Mexican. I’d traveled enough to recognize the basic physical differences between cultures. His features looked European—maybe Spanish, assuming all the politically incorrect digs were based on something other than idiocy.
“Maybe next time you cut me off on that stupid bike of yours, I won’t slam on the brakes.” Wyatt jerked like he was going to punch him, but the guy didn’t inch (good for him). Wyatt quickly covered by reaching for the boy’s untouched veggie burger. He plucked it from his tray, took a huge bite, and threw it on the dirty tile floor.
“Bon appétit!” he shouted, probably not realizing that was French, not Spanish, though I doubted he cared. He was laughing like he’d just told the best joke in the world, bits of food flying from his mouth as his buddies cackled beside him. Then they marched away, straight toward us, patting one another’s backs.
I’d watched a lot of TV in my seventeen years, and I’d heard theories about “crimes of passion,” people who claimed to pull the triggers of guns yet had no recollection. They swore there was no conscious decision made, it just sort of happened. That was me in that moment.
I stood watching the cocky smile on Wyatt’s face, his cheesy high fives to his buddies, his undeserved swagger, and I simply stuck out my foot. I wasn’t even sure my brain registered the action, but when Wyatt charged past my right side, my leather sandal wrapped around his ankle, just above his Nike, with perfect timing, and Wyatt tripped.
Wow, did he trip.
He stumbled forward in three awkward lunges, arms ailing for balance, until he fell splat on the gritty linoleum floor. Face first.
The roar of laughter that followed could rival any Comedy Central performer. I pressed my palm to my mouth, trying to hold in the giggles, but I’d just tripped the most popular guy at Brookline Academy.
Wyatt pushed to his feet and spun toward me, blue flames in his eyes.
“Sorry,” I sputtered, fingers covering the laughter spurting from my lips. “I didn’t see you.”
Regina and Tyson doubled over, crying with giggles, as Wyatt’s scruffy hands twitched into fists at his sides. His eyes darted around viciously, but after a few heated moments, he did nothing. He didn’t say a word. He just stomped off in the opposite direction, preserving what little dignity a teen who trips in the cafeteria can muster.
“I think I love you,” Regina choked. “Like, really love you.”
“Oh my God. That was awesome!” Tyson added, patting my back with his big sweaty hand. “You’re my hero.”
Everyone in the cafeteria was staring—the teachers, the lunch aides, probably the roaches in the walls, and especially the new kid.
Our gazes met for a second. His eyes were as dark as his hair, but when he smiled, they lit with the glint of a rock star on stage. “Gracias,” he said. With that one word, I could tell I’d been right. He was from Madrid. I’d spent only a summer there, but it was good to realize I hadn’t lost all of my nomad skills.
“De nada,” I replied, noticing the dimples in his cheeks. What was it about a guy with dimples that sucked you in, like you couldn’t look away, even if you wanted to.
And I didn’t want to.
Diana Rodriguez Wallach is the author of the Anastasia Phoenix series, three YA spy thrillers set to debut beginning in March 2017 (Entangled Publishing). She is also the author of three award-winning young adult novels: Amor and Summer Secrets, Amigas and School Scandals, and Adios to All The Drama (Kensington Books); as well as a YA short-story collection based on the Narcissus myth, entitled Mirror, Mirror (Buzz Books, 2013). In 2011, she published a highly regarded essay in Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins). It was the only essay chosen from the anthology by Scholastic to be used in its classroom materials. Diana is featured in the anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses (Twilight Times Books, 2015), and she is currently on staff as a featured blogger for Quirk Books. In 2010 Diana was named one of the Top Ten New Latino Authors to Watch by LatinoStories.com, and she placed second in the International Latino Book Awards. She is an advisory board member for the Philly Spells Writing Center, and is a Creative Writing instructor for Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth. She holds a B.S. in Journalism from Boston University, and currently lives in Philadelphia.