“Class, this is Jack Mitchell. He’s new here. Please make him feel welcome.”
Thirty heads swivel in my direction and fix their eyes upon me. I drop my head slightly, wishing I was invisible. This is harder than I expected.
“Take a seat,” the teacher says.
The only free seats are at the front of the class. I drop my bag on the floor and fold myself into a seat, wishing I could have sat at the back. I feel thirty sets of eyes burning into the back of my head and have a sudden moment of panic, remembering the last time I was in a classroom. I grip onto the desk tightly, my knuckles turning white.
“Are you alright, Jack?”
I don’t feel good- I could use some air- but the last thing I need is to cause a scene.
“Just meld in,” Mom had said. “Don’t do anything to stand out.”
I take a deep breath and look up at the teacher, a smile plastered upon my face. “Fine thanks, Miss.”
I’m looking down, trying to make sense of the map the teacher had given me, when I hear a voice.
“Do you need help with that?”
The words “I’m good, thanks,” are on the tip of my tongue when I look up and see the girl who is talking to me. She’s small, with long, blonde hair and striking blue eyes. She’s gorgeous.
“I…” I stammer, feeling myself turn red.
Her smile lights up her face. “This place can be like a maze. Here, let me help. Where do you need to get to?”
“H block.” I scratch the back of my neck. “I’ve got Math next.”
“Hey, me too! Just follow me.” She starts to walk along the corridor, and I fall into step beside her. “I’m Zara, by the way.”
“Jack.” The name sounds wrong in my mouth. I want to be honest with this girl, but I know I can’t.
“So, Jack.” She bites her lip as she looks at me, and something inside me melts. “Where did you live before you moved here?”
“Brooklyn,” I say, reciting my script. “My mom got a new job at the hospital. So we moved. And here I am.”
“Here you are.” She looks right into my eyes, and my heart starts pounding.
“How was your first day?” Mom asks as I traipse through the living room, loosening my tie.
I head straight for the kitchen, open the fridge and pull out a can of Coke. “Fine.”
“Just fine?” Mom is suddenly beside me, her eyebrows narrowed. I know what she really means is, did I pull it off? Did I remember my new name and story? Did I slip up?
“Fine.” I pull the top off the can and take a long slurp, wiping my mouth with my hand.
“Did you meet anyone nice?”
I hesitate for a moment, but then blurt out, “I met a girl. Her name is Zara.”
Mom studies me, worry showing on her face. “Be careful what you say to her.”
I roll my eyes. “Am I not even allowed to talk to anyone now?”
“Of course you are.” She shakes her head. “I just want you to be careful. You’re not like other boys, Jack. You know that. He took all that away from you.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I turn away and head up the stairs.
“You’re a confusing one, Jack Mitchell.”
I put my book down on the table and look into Zara’s eyes, feeling myself flush. “I am?”
She pulls out the chair opposite me and sits down, crossing her legs. “Yup. Look, I’m going to be straight with you here. I like you, and I think you like me. But every time I think I’m getting somewhere with you, you seem to pull away.”
I tap my foot against the table leg. “What makes you think I like you?”
She grins. “You turn red every time I talk to you, for a start.”
I look down at the table, not wanting to meet her eyes. I can feel that I have turned red. I’ve always been like this around girls. I was never that confident anyway, and he took away the confidence I did have.
“Plus, I keep catching you looking at me. In Math class, and when you see me around.”
“Okay,” I say, taking a deep breath. “You’re right, I like you.”
“I knew it! So, are you gonna ask me out, or what?” She pulls a piece of gum from her pocket and sticks it into her mouth.
Mom’s not happy that I have a date with Zara, but I guilt her into agreeing to let me go. “We moved because you wanted me to have a new start,” I reminded her. “You can’t expect me to stay away from girls. I’m 16, for Christ’s sake.”
“Be careful,” she tells me, as I head towards the door on the Saturday night, and I know she’s not talking about using a condom or anything like that.
I can’t wipe the smile from my face when Zara answers the door. She’s wearing knee-high boots and has her hair up in a bun. “You look beautiful,” I tell her, thrusting the bunch of flowers I’ve bought towards her.
We have our first kiss that night. Down the road from her house, her leaning against the fence, in the moonlight. She makes the first move, but it’s perfect. Later, I can’t stop thinking about how lucky I am. I’m starting to feel like the boy who was Luke is becoming a distant memory.
“You can relax,” I tell Mom, when I get in. She’s in her nightie and dressing gown, but she waited up for me. “When I’m with Zara, I’m like a new person. I am Jack. I’m not going to slip up.”
“Luke!” I turn in the direction of the voice before remembering that Luke isn’t my name anymore. I immediately look back down at the table, hoping no one saw me as another boy waves at the speaker.
Zara’s head turns towards me, and I give her a smile. She smiles back.
“You’re keeping something from me,” she says, that evening, as she snuggles against me on the sofa at her house.
I feel a stab of fear go through me, but decide to feign ignorance. “What do you mean?”
She reaches her hand out and traces my scar with her finger. “How did you get this?”
“I was riding my bike in the garden,” I begin, but Zara interrupts me.
“The truth, Jack Mitchell. Or should I say Luke Holden?”
Panic seizes hold of me. “How did you know?” I whisper. The blood is thumping in my ears.
She shrugs. “I was curious when you reacted to the name Luke earlier. I Googled the name and after scrawling through pages of news results, eventually I found you. And then it all made sense. Why you always seem to be on edge. Why there’s always sadness beneath your smile. Why it always feels that you’re not quite there with me.”
I swallow a lump in my throat and stand up. “I have to go.”
“No.” She takes her hand in mine, her grip slightly calming the shake. “I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”
I sit back down again. “You won’t?”
She shakes her head. “It doesn’t make any difference to me, you know.”
I put my head in my hands. “How can it not? My dad is… well, you know.”
“Your dad is a serial killer.” She says the words so matter-of-factly, and I wince. “But that’s not your fault, Jack.”
“Yeah, well.” I give a bitter laugh. “The kids at my last school seemed to think it was.”
“That’s how you got your scar, right?” she asks, and I nod. “That must have been awful. I’m so sorry. I’ve seen the photos of you bashed up in that hospital bed.”
I feel tears spring to my eyes, and she wipes them away with her hand. “When I tell Mom that you know, she’ll make us move again,” I say. “She always said it needs to be a fresh start. No one can know. If anyone finds out, we take off. I get another new home, another new name, another story…”
“Then don’t tell her.”
I purse my lips. “The thought of lying to Mom… she told me to always be honest with her. Her life with Dad was based on lies. I’m all she has now.”
Zara kisses my cheek. “She wanted you to have a new start, right? You have that, here with me. I’m glad I know the truth but it stays between us, I promise. And no matter what happens with us, I won’t betray your trust.”
I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. “Thank you. Just please remember, never call me Luke again. It’s too dangerous. Call me Jack.” The name sounds right, now.
She nods and laces her fingers with mine. “I’ve got your back, Jack.”