Hundreds of eyes glued only on me.
I've done it.
The school corridors are crowded, the radiators broken and yet I feel suddenly so warm inside. People I've never even met stop me, say hi.
So this is how it feels to be perfect.
Ashlin hurries over to me, flanked as always by her ever faithful minions, Keira and Arianna. To be honest, even now I struggle to tell them apart. Next to Ashlin - blatantly loud, extroverted Ashlin - they seem to simply fade into the dull background of overly bleak secondary school life. I'm not sure if they mind, and if they do, I doubt they'd do much about it.
Ashlin is the Alpha.
What Ashlin says, goes.
"What did you do?" she whispers breathlessly, her eyes shining, her cheeks flushed red. I look at her knowingly, before Keira taps me on the shoulder, running her fingers gently through my hair.
"I love it Ethel!" she praises, her lips pulling upwards.
I want to grasp her hands in mine and jump up and down like a child - I want to thank her a million times more than necessary for the compliment... but I can't. The new me is cool. The new me takes this kind of thing every day. The new me says, "Thanks," calmly, and as nonchalantly as I can manage.
But I can't help it.
I throw my head back and laugh, exulting in everything, everything I can think of. I run one hand, decorated by a single charm bracelet, through my newly cut beach blonde hair; pull at the hem of my butchered skirt with the other. It's not regulation; it's banned. I stop laughing, at least out loud. In my head I continue, bursts of mirth bubbling behind my shiny lips, contorted into the perfect pout.
"Not to mention your make up... Oh my God, totally to die for!" gushes Arianna, right on queue as I blink through heavily mascaraed eye, cat flicks drawn on with eyeliner. So the hours of make up tutorials last night paid off. This time I don't even deign to say thank you - not me, not this glamorous supermodel version of me.
It's the real me, the me inside, or at least I hope it's going to be.
A boy bashes into me, knocking me from my thoughts. A boy who's fallen into me before. It's the weight, the boy from the lunch queue - the person who literally bowled me over. I smile warmly at him. "Hi."
Keira glares at me in horror. "Ew. Gross, don't talk to him Ethel. He probably has germs or something!"
"Yeah, that's like, social suicide. Trust us. Not him," chimes in Arianna.
Ashlin rolls her eyes at them. "My ex. I'll tell you the juice later. You don't want to get involved with him."
"Oh..." I mutter, biting my lip. My friends don't seem to like him, and yet he seemed so nice when he helped me that day... I can't even remember if I said thank you. I shake my head firmly, resolving myself.
My smile turns frosty.
"What happened to you?" the weight (as I know him) asks. Not in a mean way, just bemused I guess. "Aren't you the - the girl in the lunch queue?"
"Guilty," I say, hands up in defence. Then I realise I'm not acting suitably to the person who's so clearly wronged my friends. "B-But what's it to you?" I add in a sneer. Ashlin smiles, satisfied.
The boy sighs. "I see you've recruited yet another little clone Miss. Walker."
"Hardly. Ethel isn't a clone Greg. She's a friend. Yes, I actually have friends...Unlike some I could mention," Ashlin replies snidely.
Greg. The weight is called Greg.
Greg looks to me. "I didn't think it would be you though. I thought that maybe you were stronger than that."
I frown at him. "Don't say that. You don't even know me."
"Ethel. I know your name's Ethel." He grins widely. "I like that name."
Ashlin nudges me with one bony elbow, digging it in slightly harder than necessary. "Looks like you've got yourself a stalker Ethel."
Greg shrugs, seeming more amused than annoyed. "I just heard you say it. Her name I mean."
"Whatever. Ciao honey." She blows him a mocking kiss, before grabbing my arm and yanking me away down the hall.
I look at her. "You know you're going to have to tell me what that was about."
She sniffs. "Ugh, exes. Messy business. But yeah. Sure Ethel."
Arianna and Keira, who were spared from the whirlwind that is Ashlin from yanking them twenty metres catch us up, their hair in their faces. "You okay Ash?"
"I'm fine. Just fine." She's not. Her lips are tight, pulled taut. "Only... You know Ethel, not to seem rude but.."
"Spit it out," buts in Arianna.
"Okay okay, I'm trying! It's just... I can see you've given yourself a make over, and I get that you're hoping it'll be a kind of revenge on," she catches herself, glancing at Keira and Arianna furtively. "'L' but... Don't you think it would be even cooler if you reinvented your name too? I mean, Ethel's great but... you know, it's kind of old, a little frumpy..."
Greg liked the name Ethel.
Only Ashlin doesn't like Greg.
"Yeah, definitely," I murmur in response. "What did you have in mind?" She ponders, as if deep in thought, even though knowing Ashlin she'll already have cooked up several options.
"I like... Well..."
She doesn't know. Ashlin doesn't have any ides, and it leaves me astounded when Keira eventually pipes up: "How about Elle? Like, taking the E and the L from your name and... Voila?" I look at Ashlin from under my freshly darkened lashes,as I agree simultaneously to Keira's suggestion. Whatever past she had with Greg must hit home harder than I realised.
She looks up at me. Her smile is perfectly in place again, no signs of a slip. "Elle sounds good Ethel."
I nod. "Elle."