When school draws to an end, I hurry out of its crammed hallways as soon as possible. Or at least I do usually. Today, three girls wait for me, their bored expressions lighting up when I come into view.
"Ethel!" hollers Keira, sounding the happiest to see me anyone has in my entire life. "Over here!" She waves her indigo tipped nails at me, standing on her tiptoes to get my attention and I can't help but smile, begrudgingly I admit.
I begin to trudge over, but am stopped halfway by Arianna hurtling towards me, her thin tanned arms outstretched. "Ethel! Babe!" she exclaims, enveloping me in her exaggerated version of a hug, her rose water perfume invading my senses. I stand stock still, my hands firmly glued to my sides, but smile again at them all, slightly awestruck by the fact the three most popular girls in Year Ten are waiting for me. Hugging me - a ritual usually only reserved for the highest, most respected clique in high school.
The popular clique.
"So," says Ashlin, "What's up?" She bursts out laughing, a sound similar to tinkling bells, as if she's made some sort of weird inside joke. I titter quietly, not wanting to seem rude as Keira and Arianna chuckle wholeheartedly beside me.
I begin to walk.
They begin to walk with me.
"So," Ashlin begins conversationally, "Arianna, Keira and I are going to have this completely awesome sleepover at my place."
I flinch, wondering if this is a misguided attempt to make me jealous. "Erm... Cool."
"Uh huh, it's totally going to be!"
Arianna pokes her in the ribs. "Stop stalling. Get to it already!"
Ashlin giggles, a high pitched girlish squeak. "Stop it! Don't poke me, you know I'm ticklish!"
All of a sudden, I frown, my thoughts wandering from the current conversation. Right here, in this moment, it's almost like I'm in my old school, listening to my old friends mess around and chat. I let my barrier slip, just slightly. Maybe it will be good to have some new friends. Just because they're popular doesn't mean they're inhuman. They're still people, just the same as everyone else.
Maybe I can give them a chance.
Keira punches me lightly on the arm. "Ethel? Were you even listening?"
I squirm under her gaze, realising that I wasn't. "Huh? Um..."
Ashlin flicks my hair with her hand. "Oh my gosh Ethel, you're just so... Endearing!"
I thank her, marginally confused but impressed. I didn't even know she possessed that word in her vocabulary.
"Anyway," she goes on, "I said that we're having a sleepover over at mine. And, it would be like, SO amazing for you to come too! What do you say?"
I don't say anything, stunned beyond speech. I'm not sure if this is a joke or messed up kind of trick, and after a few seconds of shocked silence I tell them so, to which they laugh and easily dispel my worries.
"Well, but... I've got to ask my mum you know... And I don't have my pyjamas... "
Three pairs of footsteps fall to an abrupt halt.
"Oh..." says Arianna. "Well...there goes THAT idea.."
Kiera gives me a wry smile. "Okay, well maybe another time then Ethel?"
Ashlin stays quiet which surprises me - in the brief period I've known her she seems the most talkative, the one in charge. Then, her smile pops back on her face and she grabs hold of my arm, animated again. "How about we go round to your house then Ethel?"
I hesitate, then shake my head. I've known them for what, less than six hours and they want to come round and make friendship bracelets? I'm skeptical, and I can tell they know that. "I can't. Sorry. Like Kiera said, maybe another time."
For the second time that day, three girls stride away alone.