The Iron King

By: Julie Kagawa

Anger flared, anger that he dared stick his nose into my affairs, anger that he could be right. “Again, it’s none of your business, Rob!” I snapped, making his eyebrows arch. “And I can take care of myself, okay? Quit butting in where you’re not wanted.”

Hurt glimmered briefly, but then it was gone. “Fine, princess.” He smirked, holding up his hands. “Don’t get your royal pink panties in a twist. Forget I said anything.”

“I will.” Tossing my head, I flounced out of the room without looking back.

Guilt gnawed at me as I wove through the halls toward the cafeteria. I regretted snapping at Robbie, but sometimes his Big Brother act went too far. Still, Robbie had always been that way—jealous, overprotective, forever looking out for me, like it was his job. I couldn’t remember when I first met him; it felt like he’d always been there.

The cafeteria was noisy and dim. I hovered just inside the door, looking for Scott, only to see him at a table in the middle of the floor, surrounded by cheerleaders and football jocks. I hesitated. I couldn’t just march up to that table and sit down; Angie Whitmond and her cheerleading squad would rip me to shreds.

Scott glanced up and saw me, and a lazy smile spread over his face. Taking that as an invitation, I started toward him, weaving my way past the tables. He flipped out his iPhone, pressed a button, and looked at me with half-lidded eyes, still grinning.

A phone rang close by.

I jumped a bit, but continued walking. Behind me, there were gasps, and then hysterical giggles. And then, the whispered conversation that always makes you think they’re talking about you. I felt eyes on the back of my head. Trying to ignore it, I continued down the aisle.

Another phone rang.

And another.

And now, whispers and laughter were spreading like wildfire. For some reason, I felt horribly exposed, as if a spotlight shone right on me and I was on display. The laughter couldn’t be directed at me, could it? I saw several people point in my direction, whispering among themselves, and tried my best to ignore them. Scott’s table was only a few feet away.

“Hey, hot cheeks!” A hand smacked my ass and I shrieked. Spinning around, I glared at Dan Ottoman, a blond, pimply clarinet player from band. He leered back at me and winked. “Never took you for a player, girl,” he said, trying to ooze charm but reminding me of a dirty Kermit the Frog. “Come down to band sometime. I’ve got a flute you can play.”

“What are you talking about?” I snarled, but he snickered and held up his phone.

At first, the screen was blank. But then a message flashed across it in bright yellow. “How is Meghan Chase like a cold beer?” it read. I gasped, and the words disappeared as a picture flashed into view.

Me. Me with Scott in the parking lot, his arm around my shoulders, a wide leer on his face. Only now—my mouth dropped open—I was butt naked, staring at him in wonder, my eyes blank and stupid. He’d obviously used Photoshop; my “body” was obscenely skinny and featureless, like a doll’s, my chest as flat as a twelve-year-old’s. I froze, and my heart stopped beating as the second part of the message scrolled over the screen.

“She’s smooth and goes down easy!”

The bottom dropped out of my stomach, and my cheeks flamed. Horrified, I looked up at Scott, to see his whole table roaring with laughter and pointing at me. Ring tones echoed through the cafeteria, and laughter pounded me like physical waves. I started trembling, and my eyes burned.

Covering my face, I turned and fled the cafeteria before I started wailing like a two-year-old. Shrieking laughter echoed around me, and tears stung my eyes like poison. I managed to cross the room without tripping over benches or my feet, bashed open the doors, and escaped into the hallway.

I spent nearly an hour in the corner stall of the girls’ bathroom, sobbing my eyes out and planning my move to Canada, or possibly Fiji—somewhere far, far away. I didn’t dare show my face to anyone in this state ever again. Finally, as the tears slowed and my gasping breaths returned to normal, I reflected on how miserable my life had become.

I guess I should feel honored, I thought bitterly, holding my breath as a group of girls flocked into the bathroom. Scott took the time to personally ruin my life. I bet he’s never done that to anyone else. Lucky me, I’m the world’s biggest loser. Tears threatened again, but I was tired of bawling and held them back.

At first, I planned to hole up in the bathroom until school ended. But, if anyone missed me from class, this would be the first place they’d look. So, I finally gathered the courage to tiptoe down to the nurse’s office and fake a horrid stomachache so I could hide out there.

The nurse stood about four feet in thick-heeled loafers, but the look she gave me when I peered through the door suggested she wasn’t going to take any teenage foolishness. Her skin looked like that of a shrunken walnut, her white hair was pulled into a severe bun, and she wore tiny gold glasses on the end of her nose.

“Well, now, Ms. Chase,” she said in a gravelly, high-pitched voice, setting aside her clipboard. “What are you doing here?” I blinked, wondering how she knew me. I’d only been to the nurse’s office once before, when a stray soccer ball hit me in the nose. Back then, the nurse was bony and tall, with an overbite that made her look like a horse. This plump, shriveled little woman was new, and slightly unnerving, with the way she stared at me.