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Crow Flight by Susan Cunningham (1)

// Two

Freshly polished floors gleamed in the fluorescent lights. High-school students filled the halls, laughing and talking. And Gin stood at her locker, thinking.

She was already nervous about her main class of the day—Computer Simulations with Sasha Sandlin—but that wasn’t until sixth period. She’d just have to distract herself until then.

Her phone buzzed—her mom must’ve gotten home from her night shift. Thinking of you, honey—have a great first day. Sorry I missed you last night, but we’ll get something good for dinner to celebrate. xoxo mom

Before Gin could write back, there was a waft of perfume. “Supermodel” by Victoria’s Secret.

“Happy first day of the ending of everything.” Hannah leaned against the metal locker and crossed her arms as she surveyed the crowded hallway. She wore combat boots and a short plaid skirt and her blonde hair was twisted up into a series of buns. “First question of the day: do you finally feel like a senior?”

“Sure.” Gin kept her locker open, creating a buffer from the river of students. “If it means you feel ready to be done.”

“Or like you’re ready to party. Which is exactly how I feel.”

“As long as you know it’s not the weekend yet. How’s your schedule?” Gin grabbed her copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare for English, already worn from the pre-reading she’d done over summer break.

“Hard. Even worse, there’s no boyfriend in sight. Not that I’m looking.” Hannah sighed as her eyes flitted up and down the halls.

“You’re always looking.”

Hannah stood up straighter, face serious. “Not this year. This year is all about not looking. Because life is about so much more than having a boyfriend. Like, you know, school and family and eating three square meals a day—or is it four?”

“Five for you.” A box of chocolate-dipped granola bars was already tucked in Gin’s locker, in preparation for Hannah’s emergency snack requests.

“And, also, finding you a boyfriend.”

Gin shook her head. “You don’t have to worry about that. Maybe that was on the list before, but my main goal for this year is to do well enough in school to—”

“I know, I know. Get into Harvard.”

“Anyway, I’ve got Love Fractal.” Gin double-checked her bag—pen and notebook, laptop, two books.

“That’s right. Your very own love prediction program. Better than Match, eHarmony, and Zoosk combined, but geared to the often-ignored high school student. And capable of finding both of us decent guys, right?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Then I’ll keep not looking for a boyfriend.” Hannah leaned over and glanced in the mirror stuck on Gin’s locker door. She pouted, then smiled, finally ending with a serious expression. “I’ve got to get to class. Differential equations. Which should be vaguely fun. See you at lunch?”

Hannah left and Gin checked her bag once more, then pushed her locker closed with a click.

She walked down the hall, texting her mom, and looked up just in time to veer back and avoid running right into someone. She saw his t-shirt first—a sun-bleached red—and his wooden bead necklace, the type that everyone had worn back in middle school.

He must’ve been new—Gin didn’t recognize him, and he definitely wasn’t a freshman. She stared at him for half a second, long enough to notice that his eyes were a bright hazel and his shaggy hair a gold-brown. And long enough to feel her heart rate rise, sudden and fast.

“Sorry about that,” she said. Before he could reply, she walked away.

She breathed in, trying to knead down the warmth in her stomach. He had smiled at her, easy and relaxed, and it had seemed like he was going to say something. But her reaction to seeing him—merely seeing him, not even knowing a single thing about him—had thrown her.

The last thing she needed was a repeat of last year. When she’d spent hours—days, really—thinking about Liam Cook, one year ahead of her and, in spite of the one class they shared, barely aware of her. And it hadn’t been for Gin’s lack of trying: she used to waste half of morning break stalling at her locker so she could pass him in the hall on the way to third period. At the end of the school year, mere months before he had to leave for college, she had worked up the courage to give him a fake questionnaire for a fake report she was “writing” about student interests, just to have a reason to talk with him. In one of his answers, he used the word “apocryphal.”

None of it had mattered. He had never even learned Gin’s name. It shouldn’t have been shocking: guys never noticed Gin. But since Gin agreed completely with Albert Einstein—or whoever had technically said it—that insanity was doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results, she had decided that this year, she would stay focused on what mattered.

A locker clanged, and Gin tightened her grip on her shoulder bag. As she rounded the corner, she glanced back. The boy, unsurprisingly, hadn’t given her a second glance.

“What’s for lunch?” Hannah threw her paper bag down on the table and popped open a soda, her purple nails bright against the red can.

“The usual.” Since Gin’s lunch was more or less hard coded into HungerStriker, Hannah shouldn’t even have to ask.

For your 11:30 a.m. school lunch, your best choice for optimizing nutrition and taste is to have a peanut butter sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a granola bar. Not pizza.

Hannah looked in her bag and scrunched up her nose. “Well, I have leftover cauliflower enchiladas. Thanks, Mom. You know, we should go out. Off campus.”

“Can’t. Every dollar I have is for college. And there are no more open lunches.”

“Doesn’t bother them.” Hannah pointed to three senior girls leaving through the side doors.

“They won’t get caught. And if you get caught—”

“Don’t remind me. I know.” Hannah set her head on the table, which smelled like old rags and French fries, and Gin fought the urge to push her back up. Hannah had had a rough end to the summer after being dumped by Pete, her boyfriend of four months. Pete was also the reason Hannah had ditched school (and been caught) several times at the end of junior year.

Gin slid her granola bar across the table. “Here, have this.”

Hannah took a bite, head still resting on the table. “We haven’t even gone to all of our classes, and I’m tired of it. How many more days until summer?”

“152.”

Hannah lifted her head and narrowed her eyes. “I should know better than to ask you a rhetorical question that actually has an answer.” She took another bite of the bar and looked harder at Gin. “So, did your model pick that outfit?”

Outfitter had, in fact, chosen Gin’s clothes. She mentally scanned through the inputs again:

Occasion: First day of senior year

Weather: High of 80, sunny and humid

Previous outfits: N/A

Recommended outfit: Gray sleeveless blouse, cropped dark jeans, off-white Converse low-tops

Gin was the first to admit she needed help with clothing: ninth and tenth grades had felt like one long morning of coming down to breakfast only to have her older sister, Chloe, send her back up to her room to change. After all, “Chloe Hartson’s little sister couldn’t be caught dead looking like a Lands’ End model.”

But then Chloe had gone to college, where she was much more interested in doubling down on hurricanes and PBRs at Sigma Chi parties than helping her younger sister choose outfits. Which meant Gin was on her own. And it seemed silly to waste time agonizing over minor decisions like what to wear. Nobel prize-winning scientists and Fortune 500 CEOs all knew the benefits of avoiding decision fatigue. But instead of limiting her wardrobe to a set of black turtlenecks and jeans, Gin had written Outfitter before junior year. She’d been successfully using it ever since.

“It’s a good outfit.” Gin finished her sandwich and moved on to her grapes. “I have a whole series of assumptions to prove it.”

“Totally good outfit.” Hannah shrugged, as though the outfit were anything but good. “A little plain, maybe. I could help you out sometime, if the model needs a break?”

“Models don’t need breaks.” Gin glanced down at her gray blouse. With her pale skin and straight hair, maybe it was a bit boring. “Anyway, it frees up my brain for the important stuff.”

“Right. Since everything in high school is so important. Like . . .” Hannah glanced around the cafeteria, “the fact that Trevor McDaniel’s fly is down?”

Gin laughed.

“Anyway, I bet your model couldn’t predict the intriguing new guy. Now that I see him, I get the talk.”

Gin followed Hannah’s gaze and wasn’t surprised to see the boy from the hall. “On straight probabilities, I’d guess he’s a player. Or at least a jerk.”

“Maybe.” Hannah said, tapping her fingers on her can of soda. “Or maybe not . . . Look.”

The new boy was carrying his tray with one hand and eating an apple with the other. He sat down in the first open seat, which happened to be at a table with sophomore math team members. They stared, open-mouthed. He introduced himself, then leaned back, stretching his legs out a mile in front of him, and took another bite of apple. Gin saw that his lips, which were slightly thin, were incredibly expressive.

“Hello? You still there?”

Gin blinked hard. “What? Yeah, sorry. He just—”

Hannah raised her eyebrows.

“He reminded me of someone. That’s all.”

“Whatever. You know you think he’s cute. You could enter it in Love Fractal, right? Maybe you’re a match.”

“I could, if Love Fractal were ready, which it isn’t. Anyway, it’d never match me with him.”

“Well, it probably doesn’t matter. He looks untouchable.” Hannah cocked her head to the side, still watching him. “Or maybe not. Tell you what, by the end of the day, I’ll have all the details.”

Hannah wasn’t joking. She could find out everything that anyone knew about him. Which was comforting. Once Gin was armed with the knowledge of who he really was, she could get her autonomic nervous system back under control.

The bell rang, and the cafeteria erupted in motion. Students trashed plates with half-eaten soft pretzels and pizza crusts then filed out to their next classes.

“One more class until computer modeling 101, right?” Hannah squeezed Gin’s shoulder. “Good luck. Though, you’ve never needed luck.”

Hannah took off down the hall. Gin started upstairs, then paused. The new boy was heading for the parking lot. He looked around, then pushed the heavy door open to the muggy afternoon.

Gin watched for a moment. And for some reason, one she never could’ve predicted with any of her models, she followed.

When she stepped outside, it was so bright that she had to squint. The doors clicked closed behind her as she walked to the edge of the sidewalk. Trying not to be too obvious, she scanned the parking lot. Sweat started to form on her brow and above her lip, and she took a deep breath of the hot air. It smelled like tar and mown grass.

There were rows of cars, gleaming in the sun. A few students milled around behind the dumpsters. Further away, students ran on the track.

No sign of him.

The practical thing to do was to go back inside. After all, it was the first day of senior year. And Gin had her most important class ever coming up. She had better things to do than stand in a parking lot. But as Gin turned towards the door, already thinking through her route to her next class, she saw a flash of red.

There, standing near the chain link fence at the edge of the parking lot, was the boy. He was still and focused, facing away from Gin, his back arched slightly. And he was staring up into a tree.

It was strange. Like he was watching something. But the tree was nothing special, just a broad, green-leafed maple.

Gin couldn’t help following his gaze. Up into the tree. Through the thick leaves, glossy in the noon sun. Along the old, bent branches.

And that’s when she saw them. Perched on a lower branch and nearly hidden in all the green, were two black crows. They were looking down, heads tilted, bodies still. Unafraid.

It was almost like the crows knew him. Even stranger, his mouth was moving. Like he was talking to them.

And suddenly, in a flash of black, the crows flew down and perched on his shoulders.

Gin gasped at the strange sight, her hand rushing to her open mouth. The boy reached into his pocket, pulling out a cracker. He split it in two and gave a piece to each bird. The crows ate nimbly, their dark feathers shimmering in the sun. Then the boy gave a slight upward push of his hands, and the crows flew back up to the tree.

There was a rush of cool air, and the doors opened. Two girls walked out, and Gin’s face turned red as though she’d been caught doing something wrong. She grabbed the handle of the slowly closing door and started inside.

But she managed one look back, in time to see the boy turn towards school, the crows watching from the tree.

It was odd, no doubt. The birds couldn’t be wild—wild birds would never do that. But two pet crows that hung out behind school didn’t seem much more probable.

Gin glanced at the time—three minutes until the next bell. She didn’t want to be late, especially on the first day. Likely, there was a logical explanation for the crows. After all, there always was.