Haint She Sweet

Haint She Sweet

Maureen Hardegree

July 2013 $12.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-325-2

Book 4 of The Ghost Handlers series

 
Our PriceUS$12.95
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Back Cover

Freshman year in high school is tough enough without another ghost in the mix.

Ghost handler and high school freshman Heather Tildy seems to have it all—an older sister who is popular, a hot guy who deemed her date-worthy over the summer, and coursework just hard enough to keep her parents, administrators, and college admissions counselors happy. But as the school year begins, bad boy Zac returns to Alabama, taking the "cool” factor he lent her with him. Her luck sours.

Her freshman schedule includes first period P.E., which means she's all sweaty when she sees her first love, hunky Drew, before second-period Spanish. And the only other freshman with her lunch period is pseudo-friend Suzanne, who doesn't really like Heather.

So when a bossy lunch lady ghost in a hairnet pushes her healthy-eating agenda on Heather—before she'll even consider moving on to the next realm—Heather knows she'll lose what few cool points she has left. She'll have to think fast to overcome her guy and ghost troubles. She's determined not to become Pecan Hills High's sweaty, nutrition-pushing freshman weirdo—not to mention the girl who talks to ghosts.

Although Georgia author Maureen Hardegree concedes to having all the usual baggage of a middle child, she is NOT a ghost handler. She does, however, believe in connecting with her inner teenager and in feeding her active imagination. It likes Italian food and chocolate. When she's not writing, she's wasting time on Facebook . . . or doing the bidding of her husband, daughter, and cats Pixie and Turnip Ann. Visit her at www.maureenhardegree.com


Reviews

"…a fun, entertaining read…" -- Paige Boggs, Electively Paige

"I really enjoyed this one. I loved the great characters that were created." -- Norma Wills: Wakela's World


Excerpt

Chapter One

THIS HOT, HIGH ozone Thursday could make or break the rest of my high school career. I, Heather Tildy, ghost handler and soon-to-be freshman, tried not to worry about anything beyond today's smog alert and the little slip of paper that held my fate at the registration desk. Holding my breath, I squeezed through the crack of space available between the passenger side of Grandma MacCormack's big Buick and the van parked next to it.

Audrey had borrowed Grandma's old-mobile because Mom was still with Claire at middle school registration and running so late that I now had to register with the upperclassmen and was even more nerved out because of it. Bad omen number one. It didn't help that my sister, who may suffer from road rage, cut off another upperclassman to race into the one empty parking space we'd found after seven minutes of circling the lot.

As I passed the guy's dented truck, he honked and mouthed obscenities at me, and I wasn't even the driver—a third unwelcome omen of how my class schedule would go.

"Hea-ther! Come on!” About ten parking spots ahead of me, Audrey sped across the blacktop toward the massive brick building that was our high school. Impressive, considering the fifties style, pointy-toed pumps with three inch heels she was wearing for a reason only she knew.

In spite of middle school being horrible, and seriously, how can it not be when you have extremely sensitive skin and a stupid nickname like Princess and the Pea dragging you down, I wasn't sure how high school and handling haints was going to be any better. Yeah, that's the whole new layer of weird I discovered about myself over the summer that had the potential to make me even more of an object of ridicule.

The scent of exhaust mixed with the humidity and a rebelling Pop-Tart, that had seemed like a good idea fifteen minutes ago, adding to my nausea as I jogged past the circling minivans, SUVs, and sedans to catch up with my sister.

With every bounce, the elastic on my bra band chafed, adding to my jitters. Luckily, I hadn't passed any pockets of cold, which were, quite frankly, ghosts. I hadn't seen any, either. Just lots of live teenagers and their parents walking toward the school entrance. Most, like my sister, moved forward with their heads down, their eyes glued to their phone screens, thumbs and fingertips flying over QWERTY and smartphone keyboards, like human lemmings without the cliff.

Maybe the haints were waiting inside the doors, and they'd all try to glom on me at once.

The chafing kicked up a notch to an itch. I could feel the sweaty inside seams of my skinny jeans. Audrey was still way ahead, most likely entranced by someone's Facebook post. Yeah, she'd bought herself the smartphone with money she'd saved up from her job. Since she was so focused on whatever fascinating indie lyrics were most likely being posted as one of her friends' statuses, I could relieve my nervous itch a little. She'd never know. I scratched under my shirt very lightly.

"I hear you,” she said, not even bothering to turn around or slow. It's not just mothers who seem to have ears like elephants.

"I can't help it.”

"You'd better.”

Like her hinting that things could go badly for me if my skin and psyche didn't calm down was helpful.

Think good thoughts. Think good thoughts.

I took in the rows of trailers to the right and couldn't help but start to worry again about things other than ghosts. What if I had class in a trailer, and there was mold and mildew in the air conditioner? My nose would stuff and drip. Talk about suck.

All of the positives, like my first kiss, admittedly with a ghost—Jack, and then a first romance with a living boy Zac, who'd been awfully quiet since he'd gone back to Alabama, meant nothing. Especially since he was ignoring me.

Something else I'd been proud of last night—acquiring the skills to successfully help ghosts move on—seemed majorly insignificant. Five, so far, but who could I share that with? Even the bizarre and unexpected thawing of interactions with my older sister Audrey could turn with one or two wrong moves on my part. So, even though we were on better terms than ever, it couldn't, wouldn't, shouldn't last.

"Just follow my lead,” Audrey said, looking up from her phone as we joined the larger stream of teenagers and parents heading up the concrete steps by the gym entrance.

Skinny jeans. Check. Thank God, I'd decided to wear those. But I hadn't yet seen anyone in a peasant top. Oh, my God. I went with the wrong trend. Several girls ahead had pink and purple streaks in their hair, all black clothing, which had to be super hot—especially since they were wearing hoodies. One of them turned around, and she looked like she'd put a fishhook through her lip. Nose piercings, cheek and eyebrow piercings, all made multiple ear piercings—so not allowed in middle school—seem tame in comparison.

Bracing myself for ghostly bombardment, I climbed the steps, praying I didn't somehow embarrass myself. I followed my sister through one of the doors into a massive hallway that was almost as stuffy and hot as outside. The air conditioning wasn't cutting it.

Oddly enough, no ghostly vibes, voices, or scents bowled me over. My last haint—Grandpa MacCormack—left a wake of burning pipe tobacco, which, trust me, isn't the easiest phantasmagoric evidence to find a plausible explanation for.

People were smiling and saying hi to Audrey as we plowed down the hall toward the Commons. Not stopping, she smiled and heyed them back. I didn't see anyone I knew. There were definitely detriments to registering with your upperclassman sister as opposed to registering with the rest of your fellow freshmen.

At a lull in the traffic, some girl in a pink and white striped shirt and hot pink eye shadow squealed and ran up to hug Audrey. So we stopped just past the girls and boys bathroom emitting lemon-scented industrial cleaner that nearly bowled me over when the doors swung open. Thank God I'd taken a preventive Allegra.

As I sort of loomed in the background behind Audrey, periodically being knocked as upperclassmen passed by, I suddenly felt a blast of much cooler air. Not air conditioning vent cool—ghostly cool. Female haint, I sensed. I scooted closer to my sister and her friend in hope they'd realize I was ready to move farther down the hall.

"I love your new look,” Pink Eye Shadow said.

At least somebody did. Audrey was sporting a style inspired by 1950s Hollywood glamour for the new school year, which meant she spent a heck of a lot of time grooming and filling in her sculpted eyebrows. She'd taken to red lipstick and rolling her hair, and her eyeliner was now winged and thick a la Amy Winehouse. And no, I had no clue why she thought this look was right for her.

The pocket of cool air developed once more right behind me. Maybe I should get my schedule by myself. Mom had already paid for everything online. I could use a map to find my classes. There were always maps at registration. Even middle school, which was much smaller, had maps. And if I got lost, it'd be better than standing on the periphery of my sister's conversation and getting glommed on before school even started.

But if I went off on my own, Audrey would probably get mad. She might even drive off without me, and then I'd have to walk the 1.84 miles home in ninety-five degree, smog alert weather in skinny jeans that were already sweaty. I stayed. I loomed. I risked the glomming. At least the ghost hadn't tried to talk to me yet.

Passionate-about-Pink kept darting her eyes toward me, then raising her eyebrows.

"What?” Audrey shouted over the squeak of some boy's brand new tennis shoes on the waxed linoleum.

No one was wearing gladiator sandals. No one had embraced the whole bohemian look I had. Continuing to ignore the chill at my back, I checked pink eye shadow girl's footwear. Neon pink Keds. She'd gone for the bright prep trend that Seventeen said harkened back to the 1980s.

Finally the girl jerked her head in my direction.

"Oh,” Audrey said, "that's my sister.” She didn't bother to tell the girl my name.

"You never told me you had a sister.”

"Going to school here,” was what I expected to hear next. And Audrey has two sisters. My God, what sort of double life had my sister been leading? Considering how much she used to complain about me to my face, I'd assumed she complained about me more when I wasn't around.

Audrey's friend asked, "So, like, you live in the neighborhood next to mine, right?”

"Ye-ah.” Audrey drew every syllable she could out of the word.

"Well, would you like to car pool with me and a couple other girls?” the pink girl said, like she was conferring knighthood on my sister.

"Sure, I'd like to but... You know, I'd have to ask my mom and stuff.”

I noted she didn't say "our” mom to see if "we” could.

The girl with pink eye shadow frowned at Audrey, and then Audrey pointed toward me in what she must have thought was a secretive gesture. Which meant that A) she didn't want to chat about it in front of me, B) she didn't want me riding with them, C) our relationship hadn't improved as much as I thought it had, or D) all of the above. I'm leaning toward D.

"Text you later,” Audrey said, all sweetness and light to her friend, then contorted her previous smile into her pained, exasperated look that always made me think she was constipated, and I should offer her some prunes.

She yanked me forward like I'd been the one causing the delay. "Come on.”

We had to be close to the registration tables since the traffic was thickening. Some girls wearing Keds in a variety of colors and patterns, who were standing near the board listing the teachers' room numbers, did the obligatory squeal and ran up to hug my sister. Then they all started chatting about their summers as I stood to the side, avoiding their perfumes and body sprays, and tried to figure out if maybe something in the building was preventing more ghosts from introducing themselves. I didn't sense any haints in this part of the Commons. No pools of cool air, either.

"You ready for the freshies blocking the hall?” the shortest of the girls said. Like the whole slew of them weren't blocking people.

"I swear I saw one,” said this taller girl with a nasal laugh, "in the middle of A Hall, stopping traffic, completely lost, and about to cry.”

Not interested in hearing them rag on fellow freshmen, I tried to figure out why I'd only sensed one haint. There had to be more here, and any ghost worth his salt would have approached me by now, since I was no longer a moving target. Maybe the Commons was a ghost-free zone. I looked up at the ceiling tiles to determine if there was some strange metal fiber blocking the ghosts from materializing, then down at the flooring, which also held no answers.

I tuned back into their conversation. They were talking about all the things freshmen do wrong, which I cannot lie, grabbed my complete attention. I was tempted to write it all down. Don't block the traffic flow even if you're lost. Don't tap the walls, which I don't think I'd do anyway because why would you? But I guess some freshmen in the past had. Don't wear your backpack to lunch.

Suddenly they stopped talking over one another. And they seemed to all be looking at me.

"Oh, that's my sister Heather,” Audrey said with a sigh. She didn't tell them I was a vile freshman.

"Right, the one with the problem,” the girl with the nasal laugh said. "I thought she might be a creeper.”

"Thanks,” I said, hoping she felt the sting of my sarcasm.

She looked me up and down, assessing my outfit. She stared at my sandals. "FYI gladiators are out.”

"I don't think so. I saw them featured in a photo spread in both Seventeen and Teen Vogue.” I had. I might be a lot of things, but I wasn't clueless when it came to fashion.

"Last month,” she said, rolling her eyes with a flair I'm sure my sister envied. "And we don't like them. We decided the footwear of choice is Keds.”

"And who are you, the Joan Rivers of Pecan Hills High?” No one laughed. I tried a second time. "It's not like we're on Fashion Police.”

In the uncomfortable silence, I glanced down at Audrey's chic black pumps, then up to her mortified, overly made-up face. I didn't need to connect with her telepathically to know she just wanted me to shut up. So I did.

The longer they glared at me, the more my confidence in my fashion sense crumbled like the ladies in the 360 degree mirror on TLC's What Not to Wear. Crappola. I only agonized for hours last night over this boho outfit that I now realized might be a little too on-trend.

"I'm going to take her shopping,” Audrey said.

"You are?” News to me—especially since I didn't have any money.

"Yes-s,” she said with a little too much emphasis on the s. "I've been so busy working at the pool, I haven't had time until now.”

Or, she hadn't had a stake in what I wore before, but now that everyone knew she had a sister who wore the much-dreaded gladiators, she had to make sure I didn't embarrass her further.

"You're lucky to have such a nice older sister,” the short friend-o-Audrey said.

"I'll take you to get some new makeup, too,” my sister offered.

Stunned, I drew in my breath and nearly inhaled my spearmint gum. Makeup by Audrey wasn't necessarily a good thing. I imagined what I'd look like in thick winged eyeliner and matte red lipstick. Lucky was not the word that came to mind.

Pain shot up my arm.

"What?” I asked, rubbing the flesh that had been on the receiving end of a pinch.

"Mia asked you a question,” Audrey prompted with an extremely brittle smile on her face.

The short friend Mia batted her heavily shellacked eyelashes. "You're dating Zac Beckman, right?”

My pulse rose; my face burned with embarrassment. I fanned my face with my hand. "I went out with him, but I wouldn't—”

"Oh, my God. He's so hot. So what's he like?” Mia asked.

I tugged at the scooped neckline of my blouse. I didn't want to blow this opportunity to be seen as something other than a stupid freshie. "Well, he smells good, and he makes me—”

Now they laughed. All of them.

Um, I wasn't trying to be funny. He did smell good—all the time. Not everyone is like that—especially guys. And thinking about how he always smelled nice made me kind of miss him. Okay, not kind of. I really missed him. The way he smelled good and the way he made me feel good about myself, even when I said things that people thought were weird.

The heat of embarrassment spread down my neck and chest. He hadn't called back. He hadn't texted in days. It hurt to breathe. I willed the hives of embarrassment away.

"We gotta go,” Audrey said and yanked me away from her friends, which was a good thing, because I didn't want anyone else to ask me about a boy who supposedly liked me but hadn't called me back despite two messages left on his voicemail. I wasn't counting the third call, because I'd hung up. "FYI, no one wants to know what Zac's like for real. They want you to say something like ‘super hot'.”

"But that doesn't make any sense,” I pointed out as I followed my sister to the end of the line for last names beginning with the letter T. "They can see for themselves what he looks like.”

Audrey raised one of her carefully sculpted eyebrows at me as we scooted forward about three feet. The line was moving rapidly.

"I'm sorry, but I don't get it. Why ask if you don't really want to know?”

"Look, it's an opportunity for you to fit in,” she said with a shrug and a sigh as we closed the widening gap between us and the tall boy in front. "Don't blow it. You might not get another chance.”

Did I want to fit in, or did I want to be liked for who I truly was? Heady stuff for the Thursday before school officially started. I thought back to my conversations with Zac. He'd liked that I didn't fall into the usual BS. And now, he wasn't calling me back. Maybe Audrey had it right.

That's when I sensed a haint nearby, over close to the cafeteria that connects to the Commons. This was a different ghost than the one near the bathroom. Sensing them is sort of like when you smell bread baking but you're nowhere near the oven.

The boy in front of me turned, and there I was face to face with one of my biggest middle school tormentors—William Tanner. I cringed when he made eye contact with me. For the first time ever, I swear, he didn't sneer Princess at me. Instead he just said, "Hi.”

I nodded back at him. The nickname that had haunted me since preschool might have finally died. May it rest in peace.

"Tildy, Heather,” I said to the lady rifling through the sheets of schedule print outs.

William hadn't moved on. "Hey, I heard you went out with Zac Beckman.”

Went being the correct form of the verb, since we didn't appear to be going anywhere lately.

"Yeah,” I confirmed and braced myself for a snide comment as my sister gave her name to the lady handing out schedules for the Ts.

Unfortunately, someone behind us overheard, and this girl, who knew Audrey, knew another girl who went out with Zac last Christmas, blah, blah, blah. And that, of course, led to me holding court to a bazillion other girls with other questions: When does school start for Zac? Isn't he going to be a senior? What kind of car does he drive? So, like, how often do you talk and text?

"When we feel like it,” I said, which was true. He, apparently, didn't feel like it.

Audrey's friends, and the strangers listening in, bought the baloney I was slicing and nodded. When had I become some guru of love? Was everyone at this school crazy but me?

"I'd love to talk all day about Zac, but you know, Audrey,” I said pointedly, "we really need to get a move on if we're going to go shopping later.”

That's when the last person in the world I wanted to see walked over to us—my sister's buddy Karen, who, by the way, hates me. She'd always tormented me for being weird, but her dislike had achieved a new level of nastiness over the summer after my first ghost whammied her in the movie theater bathroom, and then Zac picked me to go out with.

"Oh, it's you,” she said, her frosty-pink lip gloss looking thick and extra sticky today. Surprising that she was still wearing it considering how ghost Amy had smeared it all over her face in retaliation for Karen being mean to me. Of course, Karen thought I'd done it—that I'm psychokinetic. But that's one weird ability I'm sad to say I wasn't blessed with.

Karen tossed her flat-ironed hair over her shoulder, then glanced from one girl's face to the next, her gaze finally settling on my sister's. "Since when do we talk to freshies?”

Audrey's matte red lips pursed.

I expected a sad little whine about my mom forcing her to help me with registration. Instead, she said, "I guess we started talking to them since this particular freshie kissed Zac Beckman.”

Oh, my God. That was the verbal equivalent of a slap.

Karen's pudgy face registered shock. I'm sure mine did, too. I guess the only thing better than winning the boy of choice is your sister winning him so you can lord it over your mean friend who wanted him for herself.

Round one—Audrey.

Karen retreated to sulk as one of the hangers-on begged me, the one with freckles, "One more question before you go.”

"Okay,” I said, and prayed it was something I could answer honestly or at least lie convincingly about.

"So what's Zac like really?”

"Totally hot,” I said.

Audrey beamed, and I felt a glimmer of confidence. I might just handle high school fine. I'd say pinch me, but that's so cliché.

Moments later, I realized how delusional I'd been as I stood stunned, staring down at the slip of paper that amused my older sister to no end. My brief bit of luck had deserted me.

"If I were you, I'd be crying,” Audrey said with a smile, a smile that was a little too joyous in my opinion, like she wanted to see me wallow in the misery that was my schedule. "Not only do you have some of the hardest teachers and classes that force you to crisscross campus, you have first period P.E.”

Way to rub my nose in it.

"I bet if Mom called, my counselor would change my schedule.”

"I bet she wouldn't,” she said with a snort. She shook her head. "Don't worry. I'll show you some shortcuts on Saturday.”

Since our high school is the size of a small college, the powers that be decided the incoming freshmen needed an opportunity to walk their schedule before the big day without the sophomores, juniors, and seniors around. Freshman Walk-Through was now a Pecan Hills High tradition.

"Really?” I braced for her to pull the proverbial rug of unaccustomed niceness out from under me.

"You think I want you to get tapped for being late for class all the time? We do have the same last name. I've got my reputation to think about.”

I wondered. Part of me thought she was telling the truth, and part of me thought maybe Audrey truly had softened toward me. Only one way to test her. "So does that mean I can eat lunch with you?”

Somehow, even with six possible lunches, Audrey and I both had Five B, which could be good or bad.

She took a deep breath as she thought, her heels clacking down the crowded hall where I'd felt a ghost earlier, not exactly the route I wanted to take. "Only if there's no one else available to you.”

That reluctant affirmative was serious progress.

Sticking close to the art-filled wall opposite the boys' and girls' bathrooms, I hoped to avoid the haint I suspected made the girls' bathroom her home. I quickly texted my BFF Tina to see when her lunch period was, tell her mine, and find out whether she knew of anyone else I could eat with if our lunch times were different. In sixth grade, I'd been the sad goofus sitting by herself. No repeat performance planned, thank you very much.

My phone beeped a text almost immediately after I'd sent mine, but it wasn't Tina. It was Aunt Geneva, who was in New York, working on some big commissioned sculpture. So?

Translation: Any ghost glomming? Before she left, Aunt Geneva, one of the few people who knew about my ability, had said to keep her informed. She's a ghost handler herself.

A few cold spots, I texted back. But no outright approaches.

"Who are you texting?” Audrey nosed. She always wanted to know what I was doing, who I was texting or chatting with. Sometimes she was worse than Mom.

"I'll tell you if you tell me.”

She stopped in the middle of the hall, in close proximity to the girls' bathroom, blocking me from forward progress and putting me in immediate glomming danger. The metal clasps on my sandals made themselves known to me in a very itchy way.

"It's Grandma,” she said. "We're going to have to hurry getting supply lists from your teachers. No time to try your locker combination.”

"But what if it doesn't work?” I asked as a draft of cold air settled on my left side. I wouldn't look.

"It'll work,” Audrey assured me. "This is my third year here, and I've never heard of a single person whose locker didn't open. Besides, Grandma needs her car. Come to think of it, we don't need to stop by your classrooms, either. All those supply lists will be on your teachers' web pages. Let's just head home.”

If it meant getting out of this particular hall and away from the cold spot on my left side, I was all for it. I looped my right arm through my sister's. "Great. Let's go.”

"Not so fast.” She stopped again and tapped her pointy-toed pump. "Who?”

"I'm texting Aunt Geneva,” I said, and removing my arm from hers, once more walked as fast as my gladiators allowed toward the row of doors, the outside, safety. Audrey clacked behind me.

"She wants to know how our registration is going,” I said over my shoulder.

Do U know Y I haven't sensed more than 2? I texted back, because seriously, I was stumped.

R harder to sense in LG crowds, she answered. But they're probably there. Waiting.

I shivered. Even if the ghost hanging near the bathroom door hadn't spoken or shown me the image of her corporeal self, she'd let me know she existed and probably needed my help. Another one lurked near the cafeteria. If Aunt Geneva was right about the others biding their time until the halls were less crowded, I'd have to be careful and choose my next haint wisely.

Problem is, that's easier said than done.


 

Chapter Two

TWO DAYS LATER, as Saturday morning melted toward noon, the crowd of freshies and their parents and upperclassmen kind enough to help walk through the freshman schedules, were dwindling. Since fewer people meant easier ghost-glomming, I wanted out of Pecan Hills High before any more resident haints introduced themselves.

If only I could get my locker to open.

Of course, we'd been late arriving because Audrey had to flat-iron her hair to glossy perfection. Lesson number four thousand and eleven of the Audrey book of popularity—never be caught looking less than perfect. Her goal this year was the Homecoming Court, and I think she was trying to turn me into an asset, or maybe just trying to neutralize me so I wasn't a detriment. She'd made me change my shorts and T-shirt and re-did my ponytail—all for a freshman schedule walk through. Like we were going to run into anyone she cared about.

For what seemed like the millionth try, I spun the dial to the right three times, just to be sure the locking mechanism understood we were starting over.

Left fifteen. Right twenty. Left one. I lifted the latch. Nothing.

I glared at the metallic Cyclops-like eye on my battered bottom row locker. Silly me, I'd imagined the worst thing about my assigned locker was its location, which would inevitably result in a myriad of bruises from other students accidentally bumping into me.

Somehow, I'd known not trying out the combination on registration day was going to bite me in the butt. I wished I could go back in time to Thursday when Audrey suggested we didn't need to try my combination.

"Are you sure you're doing it right?” Audrey asked, tapping the toe of her go-to black pumps.

"Watch me,” I said, feeling the presence of at least two ghosts lurking in this hallway. So far, they were keeping a healthy distance from me. I guess they realized, since I was having major issues with my freaking locker, I wasn't in the mood to take on one of their problems.

"Let me try,” she said, and bent down to a squat, revealing the whale tail of her purple thong.

Alrighty, no low-rise jeans when you have a bottom locker.

The combination didn't work for her, either.

"See,” I said.

She tried a second time and pulled on the latch. "Stupid locker!”

"Calling it names isn't going to help,” said a familiar male voice that engendered memories of tropical tanning oils and lifeguard abs. Drew!

Neither one of my short-lived summer romances involved the lifeguard of my dreams Drew Blanton, who was a junior like Audrey. I had two more years to wear him down. Hey, anything was possible.

"So you're a Peer Leader,” I said, stating the obvious and noting his official name tag pinned to the sky blue polo that brought out the polar blue of his eyes.

"Yeah,” he acknowledged, and the lines around his eyes crinkled with what I now recognized as amusement. No matter how I tried to be something else, he saw me as funny.

I took in the rest of his outfit that would probably go on my favorites list—khaki shorts and oatmeal Sperrys—no socks. His legs were so tan and cut I could see the outline of his calf muscles even in the dim fluorescent-lighted hallway.

A flash of guilt shot through me. I shouldn't still be attracted to Drew while in the process of having Zac break my heart. Still no response from that boy. Maybe it was my pride breaking, not my heart.

"You want me to try?” he offered.

Audrey handed him my combination, and he tried—three times.

He shook his head. "I hate to say this, but you need to ask your guided study teacher to put in a work order.”

"She's not here today,” I pointed out.

Audrey, who'd been insistent that no one she knew of had ever had locker troubles, looked over at a bulletin board displaying artwork.

"Yeah, you'll have to wait 'til Monday. Unless you want to e-mail her.”

"Thanks,” I said, knowing the likelihood of my lock being fixed pronto wasn't so good.

He rubbed his chin and looked at me thoughtfully. "Should I even ask why you didn't check your locker on Thursday like you were supposed to?”

"Don't worry, it's not some crazy story. It's just me being convinced by someone that no one ever had locker problems.” I darted an angry glare toward my sister, who shrugged.

"How was I to know you'd be the only person of my acquaintance to ever, and I mean ever, have this problem?” Audrey said. A very weak defense on her part.

"Duh. Because you've lived with me and my little black cloud my entire life.”

Drew smiled, then turned his focus on a short boy and his mom, who needed directions. And my problem didn't seem so bad. This boy was so small I worried about him being thrown in a trashcan on the first day. I'd heard horror stories of what juniors and seniors did to freshies—especially the small ones. And this kid was so short of stature they'd know he wasn't a sophomore. I'd been hoping to fool people into thinking I was a sophomore, but if I had to carry my books and notebooks for every subject around all day, I might as well tack a bull's-eye to my backpack.

"Oh, my God,” I said, skin tingling with the potential for a hive eruption. "I'll have to carry all my books and notebooks around all day.”

"Hey, don't get upset,” Drew said, walking back to us. "We'll figure something out.”

"But Audrey's friends were making fun of all the freshmen who carry their books around all day. And I've heard everyone picks on freshmen the first week. What am I supposed to do at lunch? Only freshmen bring backpacks.”

"Not everyone will pick on you,” he said, pointedly, which let me know he wouldn't. But seriously, one in three, or was it four, thousand students doesn't amount to much.

My breath caught. What if some senior was being mean to me, and Drew came to my rescue and told me I could sit with him at lunch, and then everyone would think how fabulous I was because not only did Zac Beckman go out with me, but Drew Blanton ate lunch with me.

"Heather?” he said, waving a hand in front of my face.

My cheeks flooded with heat. "Sorry, I was, I was thinking about how I'd... deal with lunch.”

"I was just suggesting that you share a locker with someone until yours is fixed.”

Someone meaning him? My heart raced at the possibility. But was that wrong when I was in like with Zac? "Someone... ?”

"Like your sister,” he suggested, crushing my hope that he'd share his locker with me. When am I going to get it through my thick skull that Drew sees me only as a friend? "I'm sure she'll let you, considering how it was her idea to wait until today to try your combination.”

Audrey fake-smiled at him.

"Will you?” I asked her.

"I guess.” Which I think was a yes. "Come on. We've got to get moving.”

"Wait,” Drew said. "Let me see your schedule. I might have a few shortcuts to suggest.”

"Already covered,” Audrey said.

He looked at her dubiously, and I handed him my schedule.

"Brutal. P.E. first period,” Drew said, fighting a smile.

"See? Black cloud.”

He laughed, then glanced down again. "Let's examine the other possible horrors lurking on that innocent-looking paper. Late lunch. Kohler for algebra. Hofstead for English. Yikes. Hey, here's a bright spot.” He pointed to my second period Spanish One class. "My second period's next to yours.”

How awesome was that? My day was looking up. Sort of.

Yes, I'd get to see the beautiful Drew Blanton every day. But that also meant he'd see me at my sweaty worst after P.E. Yay, me?

Of course, I thought having an unusable locker and learning that Drew would see and smell a stinky, sweaty me every day would be the extent of my bad luck for today, but no.

As Audrey and I were walking away, Drew called out. "Hey, I almost forgot. How's Zac?”

"About the same,” I lied.

I couldn't admit to him of all people, the person who'd thought Zac was a bad idea to begin with, that the one thing I'd done this summer that added a little mojo to my social status was on a major wane. Heck, I didn't even want to admit it to myself, especially with Monday, the monumental first day of high school, looming on the horizon.

"Bye.” I squared my shoulders as I walked away, praying that my gait didn't shout my anxiety about Monday, which I'd have to face with a broken locker as well as first period P.E. I could do it. I was Heather Tildy, handler of ghosts, able to... date bad boys who somehow forgot your number. I had to stop thinking about Zac.

As Audrey and I headed out of the school building, we stopped to secure our sunglasses in place, and I got a text from Tina. Suzanne has UR lunch.

Thank God. Someone. Even if it was someone who spent money like water and didn't like me all that much. I inhaled deeply. So I guess Audrey wasn't going to have to include me at her table, and I wasn't going to be the sad sack sitting by myself. If Suzanne was willing to eat with me. Worst case scenario was eating by myself, which I'd done with a lump in my throat at twelve—not voluntarily.

I was kind of worried that Suzanne was still holding a grudge, since I didn't go to her party this summer. See, Tina, who's friends with both of us, kind of wanted Suzanne and I to be good friends, too, but I think we're kind of too different. Anyway, she lobbied big time to get me invited to Suzanne's boy-girl party. And I didn't go.

I dunno, I texted back.

"Who are—” Audrey started to ask, ever the busybody.

"Tina. We're dealing with lunch. Okay?”

"Fine,” she said in a surly tone and pushed her over-sized Jackie O style frames back up the bridge of her nose. "You don't have to be so touchy.”

Don't B stupid, Tina texted back. Meaning me being accepted by Suzanne? I guess it was important to Tina. Or did she mean eating lunch by myself would be a lonely proposition and make me an object of ridicule? Like I didn't know that already.

I braced myself and texted Suzanne about having the same lunch. Heard U had 5B lunch. Me, 2.

I'd let her decide whether she wanted to include me. No way was I going to beg her. I had a back-up in Audrey—as long as I didn't do anything to upset or embarrass her, which we both know could happen at virtually any moment. Maybe I should beg.

No answering text. Okay. So Suzanne was debating.

After what seemed like forever, but was only a few seconds, my phone buzzed with a text. UR the only 1. No, "Hey, let's sit together.”

Fine. I'd be the one to suggest it. U want 2 sit together?

Another buzz. I guess.

A prickle of discomfort edged down my spine. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the value of my company, but I wouldn't have to rely on Audrey. And we all knew that, at least, would make her happy.

Gr8.

As we turned the corner out of the hot sun and into the slightly cooler shade of the sidewalk, I saw Xavier leaning against the trunk of one of the few trees lining the curb of the parking lot.

"Geek alert,” Audrey whispered under her breath.

"Hey,” he called out, his deep voice no longer cracking like it had at the beginning of summer. No sunglasses whatsoever. He was going to get wrinkles from squinting and cataracts before he was thirty. Seriously, my grandmother read that not wearing sunglasses was causing baby boomers, people who are my parents' age, to get cataracts.

As was her usual mode of operation when it came to my geeky friend, Audrey tried to ignore his "hello.”

I, however, stopped. Even though Xavier and I had been somewhat on the outs with one another, I wasn't going to be rude. He, after all, helped me get rid of my first ghost (it's a long story involving him and the library), and, I guess, he was instrumental in the successful handling of the second one, too—Jack.

My heart did a little flip when I thought of Jack. We'd been perfect for each other, except that he was dead.

"Hey, how's it going?” Xavier said.

"I'm going to the van to turn on the air conditioner,” Audrey shouted back at us without bothering to turn her head. "You have five minutes, Heather.”

"Charming,” Xavier said, and I smiled at his humor. I kind of missed him, even though he'd been a butt at times this summer.

"You know the drill,” he said, waving his schedule, meaning we should compare. He grabbed mine right out of my hands.

"First period P.E. Me, too,” he said.

"What's that? Your only non-gifted class?” I asked.

"Yeah,” he admitted, like being smart was a bad thing. "Your horrible luck seems to be rubbing off on me. It can't get much worse than sweating first period.”

"And you're blaming me? We haven't spent much time together lately.”

"I noticed. I guess you've been busy getting ready for school.” His dark eyes glittered. "So, how's the love of your life?”

"Dr—Zac?” I corrected. He knew all about Zac, thanks to Facebook stalking and people I thought were friends posting stuff about it.

He shook his head. "Freudian slip much?”

"You want to know about Zac, though. Don't you? Because everyone else seems to.”

"Relax. It was a simple question.”

"He's fine,” I lied. How would I know? He hadn't called, or messaged, or texted me back. He had the time to post pictures of himself waterskiing with his friends, though.

Crappola. I'd become a Facebook stalker over a boy I didn't like initially. He'd had to win me over, and now I was obsessing over him.

"Funny thing,” Xavier said. "You're acting more like things aren't so peachy between you two.”

Some cute girl with nerdy, thick-framed glasses and an aura of vast intelligence walked by and smiled at Xavier. He smiled back. Oh, my God. Xavier was starting to attract some female attention. Yes, of the gifted variety, but interest was interest.

Had anything changed? His hair was still shaggy, but he might have grown taller, and his face was a little more angular than it had been at the beginning of summer. The scraggly little mustache was gone. Hallelujah.

Even though I hated to admit it, he seemed to be growing past his awkward stage. Some people, not me, of course, might even think he was cute—in that geeky intellectual sort of way.

"Why are you so interested?” I asked. "Are things going badly for you and the nameless faceless girl from Space Camp?”

His dark eyes were almost joyous. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were jealous.”

"I'm not. I'm just being courteous like you were when you asked about Zac.”

"I'll be happy to let you know her name again and show you a few pictures, even give you the scoop on my relationship status, once you tell me what happened between you and Jack. Zac, Jack. You have a thing for boys with one syllable names. Who's next? Mac?” He grinned, clearly enjoying my discomfort. "We need to break you of that preference.”

"Funny,” I said and looked for my most-likely-to-be-fuming sister. But she hadn't pulled out of the spot she'd parked in. I had a couple of minutes.

"I probably will tick you off for saying this, but I don't think it's a good idea to continue whatever it is that you have going on with Zac. You're nothing alike, and one of you will end up with a broken heart. It's statistically inevitable.”

"Did I ask for your opinion?”

"No.”

"I suppose you're thinking there's somebody else around here more suited to me.”

"Could be.”

My insides warmed like the sun was on them. I'd missed our banter. "Is this someone taking all gifted classes except for P.E.?”

"He might be. One date, Heather, that's all I ask. If it doesn't go well, we can always rewind to being just friends.”

Here's the thing, though. Sure, everyone says ‘we'll' be friends, but they aren't. Not really. I didn't want to lose the part of him I was comfortable having, and I didn't want to hurt his feelings by turning him down. But a teeny-weeny part of me wondered if I'd lose him as a friend either way. If he started dating someone, that someone might not like Xavier spending time with me. Hold the phone! If he was asking me out, that meant he and Miss Space Camp were no longer an item. But if I asked him, and he admitted they'd broken up, then I'd be obligated to also admit things were pretty much dead between me and Zac.

Avoidance. Always a good policy. I'd pretend I hadn't heard him ask me out, and neither one of us would have to talk about anything that made us uncomfortable. "Look, I'd better go. Audrey will blame me for the extra carbon molecules in the air due to her idling.”

"Okay, see you on the bus.”

"About that—”

"What? You're not riding?” Xavier's normally deep voice rose with irritation.

"Audrey's in a carpool, and Mom said if she wanted to participate, her friend would have to take me, too.”

"Must be nice,” Xavier said. His mom would never willingly chauffeur him around. If he missed the bus, he had to walk.

I shrugged. I wasn't sure if carpooling would be nice. The girls would probably ignore me, or worse, ask lots of questions about Zac. "I guess. Think of all the character-building I'll be missing.”

Xavier smirked. "Oh, you'll be getting plenty. From what I recall, Audrey's friends can be pretty harsh.”

As I imagined the varied and different ways Audrey's friends would build my character, I felt the acid burn through the lining in my stomach—literally.

At least I didn't have to wait here for someone who was late or had completely forgotten. Xavier wasn't the type to ask a friend for a ride home. He'd walk. "Do you need a ride?”

He shook his head. "Mom'll be here soon.”

"Are you sure?” I wasn't. Mrs. Monroe had checked out mentally when Xavier's brother Stevie died last fall. Not that Xavier really talked about it or his brother Stevie much.

A self-satisfied smile quirking up the corners of his mouth, Xavier leaned back against the tree trunk again. "Careful, Heather. You might be feeling something for me.”

I started to deny it, but couldn't. "It's friendship, Xavier. Friends care about friends.”

"Right. See you later, friend.”

I turned and walked to the van. I didn't like-like him. I didn't!

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