The new boy showed up on the day Owen Killgore died.
Earlier in the morning, when I walked through the quad and saw the popular girls crying and the jocks swiping at their eyes with their sweatshirt sleeves, I knew something was very wrong. I found my best friend, Chloe, sitting against a wall with the pad of her thumb pressed to her wrist, staunching a small bit of blood from a cut she'd made, thinking no one would notice.
She stood and I put my hand on her wrist over the cut as she tried to hug me.
"You promised," I said, holding tight to her wrist. "No more cutting."
"I saw his body," she said into my hair. "Owen died." I loosened my grip.
"What?" I said, and looked at her closely for a smile on her round face. Chloe's skin was pale and smooth like the inside of a shell and her eyes drooped at the corners and made her look sad.
"It's true," said Chloe.
"It can't be," I said. Not Owen Killgore. The most popular boy couldn't die. He was destined for greatness, they'd said when he was chosen homecoming king. When he won races, the boys' coach stood in front of the teams and talked about Owen's dedication and drive. Owen would bite the inside of his cheek and stare beyond the coach at a vague point on the horizon.
"He won at the last meet," I said.
It had been at our school. The girls' team had finished and we'd stretched and cooled off before the rumble started in the crowd. I sat up in the grass as the people in the stands began to cheer. A single air horn went off as Owen circled into the track. His hands were loose and he smiled as he ran past the home-side seats. He knew the cheers were for him, only him.
"It was horrible. The ambulance woke me," Chloe said now. She lived across the street from Owen. She put her arms around me and squeezed. "I just saw him in the quad yesterday playing football during lunch."
"I don't believe it," I said.
"No," she said. "He was a good person."
When they were kids, she and Owen trick-or-treated together, and splashed together in swim lessons. In her locker, Chloe kept a photo of them as kids making soap beards and mustaches in the bathtub.
"I'm so, so sorry," I said.
She pressed her lips together and nodded. "I'm sad for you guys. For cross-country."
"He was a great runner." He was lean and his stride was long, his hands and shoulders loose like he could run for days. But this beauty and this confidence were only visible from far away. Up close he was just a boy. I had found this out one afternoon a few weeks before.
The bell rang and Chloe hugged me again. "Don't be late."
I walked to first period. The spindly ceramics teacher sat on her desk and dangled one shoe off her toes.
"As you know, Owen Killgore died in his sleep this morning. He was peaceful." She wiggled her foot back into her shoe. She dusted chalk from her hands onto her thighs. "Please read, or work, or go out and talk to the counselors and be with your friends. I'm so sorry," she said, and pressed a tape into a portable stereo. Classical music played as some people got up, and I rested my head on my desk. I dug my thumbnail into a groove in the Formica and for a secret moment I felt relief that Owen was gone, because on that afternoon a few weeks ago he seemed to know me too well.
It was after a meet and I was walking up the hill to my house, which was on the opposite side of the canyon from the nicer part of town. I'd heard stories about the trails in the canyon, about a runner found raped and left for dead. About the coyotes and the homeless people who lived there.
I walked slowly as the sun heated the shirt on my back and I felt my neck burning. Owen came up from the canyon, still in his shorts and jersey. He jumped when he saw me.
"JV Girls' Cross-country, right?" he said.
"Varsity Boys' Cross-country, right?" I walked quickly, but he walked next to me. His sweat made him look clean, like he'd stepped out of the shower.
"You don't win many races, do you?" he asked. I could smell him, wet and brown like mud and dead leaves. I stopped and the cars groaned past us up the hill.
"I don't win any, but I don't come in last either."
He stopped and touched my arm. His fingertips were cool despite the heat.
"I lost today," he said. "Not last place, but close."
"Congratulations," I said. I stepped around him and kept going. He walked beside me so close his arm brushed mine and I was suddenly hotter; his body radiated heat.
"I need to go home." I walked faster, thinking of a time in elementary school when two boys wouldn't let me pass in a corridor.
"Have you ever run the trails in the canyon?"
"I haven't," I said.
"Wanna run now? I can show you the best trail."
"Go shower up, maybe we can run another time," I said, thinking that would be enough for him. I would make plans with him, and then accidentally forget. Not just because of Owen's girlfriend, Linda, though I was sure if she knew she would kill me. But because I wasn't popular and if anything happened between me and Owen, I'd be called a slut as soon as he told all his friends.
He stopped walking and I looked at him up close for the first time. From far away he looked handsome, with dark hair and tanned skin, but now I noticed his eyes were just a bit too light for his skin--a kind of cloudy jade--and his cheekbones were too sharp. Still, he fit the idea of handsome and the girls at our school could forgive him for this.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Swollen by Melissa Lion. Copyright © 2004 by Melissa Lion. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.