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Snow sifts down from a tree with a gust of wind, crystals glittering in the dim sun. Matt’s hands slide down my arms until he lets go. “What makes a person anyway?” He shrugs and glances far off. “Certainly not the outside.” He looks back down at me. “It’s the soul inside that makes us who we are.”
Cool wind blows against my hot cheeks as I gaze back. “That frightens me even more,” I whisper.
“Avery!” a girl squeals from down the street. She’s flanked by two others as they rush toward me in bright jackets. “I didn’t know you were home from the hospital. That bitch Rachel’s probably trying to keep you all to herself.” The girl is tall with unnaturally red hair tucked under a black cap. Her plump, feminine curves are obvious under the tight yellow jacket, and her eyes are outlined with black coal, making her face look feline. She pulls me into a hug. “Oh hey, Matt,” she says, her hot breath in my hair.
I’m as stiff as parchment. “Oh sorry,” Liz says, backing up. “Did I hurt you or something?”
“No, I’m well.” I offer a small smile.
Taylin and Luke jog over, their pants dusted with snow. “Hi Kiara,” Taylin says, then looks to the other girls, “Liz, Amy.” I know Taylin’s pointing out their names for me. What would I do without her?
The girl named Amy bounces high on the toes of her wide brown boots and claps her hands together. The sound is muffled by her oversized mittens. “Great to see you up,” she says. She has straight black hair, pale, smooth skin, and dark eyes that slant beautifully upwards at the corners. Her lips are painted bright red. Her look is exotic and stunning.
The other girl, Kiara, has very dark brown skin. A lovely, warm hue, like the perfect blend of cocoa with a splash of cream. Her black hair splays out about her shoulders in a hundred tight, thin woven braids. It looks so different than any other hair I’ve ever seen. Her pink lips are full, and a diamond sparkles on the side of her nose. I can’t help but stare.
“So girl,” Kiara says to Taylin. “I didn’t know you hang with Avery’s crowd, you either Luke. Matt, sure, being on the football team.”
“What?” Taylin says and links her arm with mine. “We’re baes.”
“I’ve never seen you two together,” Kiara says.
“French, we do French club together.” Taylin smiles broadly. She didn’t lie so well two hundred years ago and hasn’t improved.
“Liar,” Amy says, her lips pursed. “I’m in French club, and I’ve never seen either of you.”
“It’s not at Cougar Creek,” Taylin says, rolling her eyes. “It’s through…the library. We meet second Tuesday of the month.”
“Mmhmmm,” Amy says, clearly not believing her.
“C’est vrai,” I rattle off in French. “We meet quite frequently at the library. The books are beautiful and full of wondrous things.” All three look at me, their mouths open.
“Yeah, well I didn’t get all that,” Amy says. “But I guess you can speak French. Who knew?”
I hear Matt muffling a chuckle next to me, which makes me grin.
“Well you look fabulous,” Liz says. “Hey, I doubt we’ll have school tomorrow. Want to hang with us?”
“Hang?” I ask. “You hang?”
“Maybe catch a movie,” Kiara says. “We could eat first. At Liz’s.” Kiara slaps Liz playfully on her yellow back.
“Sure, we have tons of food,” Liz says, pushing her generously round hip out to one side. “My mom’s main goal in life is to feed us.”
I smile. “I see she’s doing a good job with you. You’re very lucky.” How many children did I see starving in the streets of Paris? Too many to count. This modern world is so much stronger and healthier.
Amy coughs in her mitten while Liz’s smile disappears, her face glowing red. Zut. I must have said something wrong.
“Or we can get some Chinese food,” Amy offers with a wave of her painted nails.
“From your house?” I ask her. “Food from your homeland?” I’ve never tried food from China before. It’s probably as exotic as her face.
“Uh…what?” Amy asks, one dark eyebrow raised. “Homeland? I’m from Cleveland.”
Kiara doubles over with laughter. Liz mumbles something under her breath, and Amy just stares. A song breaks the stillness, and I flinch.
“It’s mine,” Kiara says, whipping her phone device from her back pocket. She plucks off her glove to tap the screen, and I notice the oddly pale color of her palm.
“Her skin is white on her hands,” I say to Matt in French. “Isn’t she brown everywhere?”
Amy and Kiara stare.
“That I did get,” Amy says.
“I’m in French four,” Kiara says, her voice angry.
Did I say something wrong? “You are a beautiful brown, African, right?” I ask. Some of the nurses at the hospital were brown, and Dr. Vinica had explained that they were African-American.
“Yeah,” Taylin draws out. “Avery’s not been feeling up to her old self yet. She’s had some memory loss too.”
“She’s forgotten what black people look like?” Kiara asks, her eyebrows raised, eyes wide open.
Zut. “Not black,” I say, “brown, a warm chocolate kind of brown.”
Matt clears his throat as he rubs his mouth. I want to kick him. Instead I plaster a smile on my face and wait. I’ve clearly blundered.
“An aneurism requires a lot of therapy,” Luke explains. “She won’t be back at school for a while.”
“Probably a good thing,” Kiara says, pointing her chin up.
“Mental,” Amy says just under her breath. Liz just glares, her lips tight.
“See ya.” Taylin tugs me around to walk back toward my street.
“Good day,” I mumble and hasten to keep up with her steps. Luke and Matt stay behind, talking to the girls.
“I said everything wrong, didn’t I?” I mumble. Taylin laughs under her breath so hard that she wipes away tears at the corners of her eyes. “I spoke in English,” I defend.
“Yes you did,” she says and snorts, actually snorts. Like a pig. I huff and keep striding next to her. “I’m nothing like these people,” I say as we dodge some kids dragging red, glossy sleds behind them. “I’m foreign and outdated.”
Taylin tries to collect herself. “Vintage.”
“I’m hardly a fine wine. Mon Dieu. I could really use a glass of sweet Chablis.” I throw my hands out wide. “You have all the food you want but are not allowed to drink wine. The world is backwards.”
“In more ways than you could ever guess,” she says.
Matt and Luke jog up as we cross into my yard. The snow has stopped falling, but the clouds still hang heavy. I frown at them. Even Luke is grinning.
“Is someone going to stop laughing at me long enough to tell me what I said wrong?” I ask, my eyes narrowed at Matt.
“Deidre,” Luke starts.
“Don’t call me that,” I snap. “I’m not Deidre Madeline Fournier Lamont anymore. I’m Avery Elizabeth Sanders. Mental and bumbling through this foreign world.” Everything feels too much. The flame that burns in my middle rises up with my anger, making my face burn. I turn and stride toward the front door where a long slender box, tied with a yellow ribbon, sits against the brick steps.
I feel a firm hand on my shoulder. “Avery,” Matt says. “Wait. God, I’m sorry.” I turn to him, and he stares into my eyes. He lets out a long breath. “Look, you’re totally lost right now. We were jerks, idiots.” He shakes his head as if he’s sorry. “We are going to help you learn all this stuff. It wasn’t fair to let you meet some of Avery’s old friends yet, especially when you’ve never lived with different types of people.”
“Yeah,” Taylin says, hopping up two of the steps. “You’re my bae and baes don’t make each other feel dumb.”
Luke lifts the box, flipping the envelope. “It’s for Avery.” He hands it over. The card inside is just a two-inch white piece of parchment with a single word typed out.
“Welcome back,” I read in a whisper and open the lid. Nestled in black tissue paper are long stemmed yellow roses. My breath catches and won’t let go.
“Who sent them?” Taylin asks.
“There’s no return address or even a florist’s name,” Luke says, examining the box.
One, two, three…I count the fragrant yellow heads. Please be a dozen. I flip through them, quickly counting up to…ten. There are only ten roses. “Mon Dieu,” I whisper and sink to the snow.