Summary: As Stacey begins her final year at SHS, she learns that nothing stays a secret forever. Life in Stoneybrook isn't so simple anymore.

Rating: T for adult situations and mild language.

Author's Note: This story takes place in the same universe as my story Regretting Stacey. I suppose it could be considered a prequel. You don't have to read that story, however, to understand this one. This story is set a year before Regretting Stacey.

"Anastasia Elizabeth McGill!" my mother screams from downstairs. "You better not be late again!"

I hop to my bedroom door on one foot while struggling to shove the other into a black leather boot and shout, "I won't!" which I hope isn't a lie. Senioritis appears to be an actual medical condition and I caught it quite early in the school year. It's only October and I rarely manage to reach Stoneybrook High on time each morning. The days I'm late far outweigh the days I'm on time. This perpetual lateness irritates my mother almost as much as it does Mrs. Dowery, my chemistry teacher. Five weeks into the school year and she's already called Mom three times to complain about my constant tardiness. Mrs. Dowery says it's a sure sign of impending delinquency. At age seventeen, I think it's a bit late to worry about that.

Once both boots are on the correct feet (I already wasted time trying to put the right boot on my left foot), I race to the window and push it open. A sharp wind hits my face. October seems startlingly colder this year. There isn't a white towel on the Pike's patio, but a quick scan of the yard finds a dense cloud of smoke hovering near the fence separating my yard from theirs.

"Mallory!" I yell, "Do you need a ride?"

Mallory waves away the smoke and looks up at the window. She calls back, " Yeah, that's why we're standing here."

"Meet me at my car. Hurry! I can't be late again!"

I slam the window shut and continue rushing around the room, picking up stray books and notes and shoving them haphazardly into my enormous book bag. I need to get organized. I can't take an entire year of this. I take a moment I can't really spare to check myself in the mirror. Despite the whirlwind in which I dressed I look fabulous (if I do say so myself). Black knee-high boots (my new favorites. My stepmother sent them just two weeks ago), black miniskirt, black and hot pink striped sweater, hot pink hoop earrings. It amazes even me how put together I manage to look on such short notice.

"You're late, Anastasia," Mom says when I run into the kitchen. She's been calling me that lately. Mostly when she nags, which occurs more frequently than I like.

"I'm not late," I argue, grabbing a banana and bran muffin off the table. I'll eat in the car. Or during first period. Maybe Mrs. Dowery won't notice. "And don't call me Anastasia!" I snap, cramming my sack lunch into my book bag. I race for the front door, almost forgetting to grab my coat off the couch.

"And don't forget," Mom calls after me, "you're meeting your father tonight!"

I slam the door like I don't hear. Let her worry about it all day. What does she care anyway? After four years, she can't even say "your father" without that edge creeping into her voice. It's like she's saying "your wart" or "your slug" and not referring to the man she was married to for fifteen years.

Mallory's sitting on the hood of my turquoise Chevy Impala (a sixteenth birthday gift from my father and Samantha. Mom was not thrilled), wearing ratty sneakers, torn jeans, and a thin seafoam-green sweater. And of course, smoking one of her foul, disgusting cancer sticks. Mallory thinks she looks cool. I think she looks absolutely ridiculous.

Sometimes I look at Mallory and can't believe she's the same girl I babysat, traveled to Sea City with, and all the while thought awkward and strange. Mallory's changed a lot since then. Changed much more than anyone else. She's a little taller and slimmer now and still not exactly pretty. Truthfully, rather plain, although finally rid of her much loathed braces and glasses. Her hair's still curly and she usually wears it in a ponytail. It's not a frizzy, out-of-control mess anymore, but in nice, tight ringlets. Her changes haven't simply been physical. Her personality has altered as well. It's sort of like part of her has hardened and grown cold. I don't always know if I like her or not.

Mallory springs off the hood, her cigarette dangling from her mouth. Behind her, Adam and Byron pass a cigarette between them.

"You're not taking those in my car," I tell them, just as I do every morning. "I can't believe your parents let you smoke."

Mallory throws her cigarette on the driveway and stomps it with a sneaker. "Too many kids," she replies.

After dumping our things in the trunk, Mallory, Adam, and Byron squish into the backseat. In the month the triplets have attended SHS, I've never given a ride to Jordan. Much like Mallory, the triplets have changed in strange ways. Jordan has become the triplet everyone expected Byron to be - polite and studious and well-behaved. Jordan is more interested in piano lessons and baseball than whatever it is Adam and Byron do to occupy their time. (I honestly don't want to know). Jordan has even set himself apart physically, wearing his hair short and spiky while Byron and Adam wear theirs so shaggy it falls over their eyes. I can't tell them apart anymore.

As I turn the key in the ignition, I spot Mom standing at the living room window, tapping her wristwatch and shaking her head. Scowling, I throw the car into reverse and back into the street so quickly I nearly run over Mrs. Wilder. I peel off toward Burnt Hill Road.

"Don't worry, we have plenty of time to get Mary Anne. We won't be late," I promise.

"Who cares?" replies Mallory. "I planned to skip gym anyway,"

"Speak for yourself," says Byron. "I have a test in World History. If I'm late Ms. Colliar will lock the door."

"No pressure then," I mutter, pressing harder on the accelerator.

"We should start getting rides with Tim's mom. She's never late," whispers Byron.

"Riding with a parent is lame," replies Adam.

"You could walk," I tell them, irritably. No appreciation. Adam and Byron can be such jerks. I've only given them rides for a month and already they take me for granted. Plus, I think they're ruining my upholstery. Last year was bad enough with Mallory reeking of smoke. Now I have three of them giving my backseat the aroma of a lifesize ashtray.

As soon as I pull up in front of Mary Anne's house, I can see what kind of day it'll be. Not a good one. The mornings at Mary Anne's house tend to set the mood for the rest of our day. Mary Anne's standing on the front porch glaring at her stepmother. Sharon's back is to me, but the hand on her hip and the tight expression on Mary Anne's face lets me know it's a typical morning at the Spier house.

Mary Anne strides past Sharon without a word. Mary Anne's still sensitive and quiet, but somehow the souring of her relationship with Sharon transcends that. Mary Anne doesn't make an effort anymore - not to be polite, not to be cooperative, not to be anything that pleases Sharon. In another year, Mary Anne will be gone. She just can't bother to care anymore.

At least that's what she swore at the start of the school year.

I wonder about that vow as Mary Anne approaches in the ugliest pair of dark green and lime plaid pants I have ever seen. Quite possibly, the ugliest pair ever made. They're so opposite Mary Anne's usual style that there's no way she chose them herself.

"I don't want to talk about it," Mary Anne says in a strained voice as she climbs into the front seat.

"Those are dibble pants, Mary Anne," says Mallory in a strange, high voice.

"Shut it, Mallory," I growl.

As soon as we turn onto Burnt Hill Road and Sharon's out of sight, Mary Anne bursts into tears. "I hate these pants!" she cries. "Sharon's mom bought them for me. Sharon said I had to wear them. I didn't know she meant to school!"

In the rearview mirror, I see Byron and Adam exchange a look that clearly means, She's crying over pants? In the month they've been riding with us, they've learned not say anything. A lesson Mallory could afford to learn.

"Mary Anne," she says, "those pants aren't completely hideous. At least your sweater's cute. It has some cat hair on the back though."

"Mallory," I sigh, as if my exasperation will have any affect. Sometimes I wonder if Mallory's really that dense or just mean-spirited.

Mary Anne wipes her eyes, sniffling. A silence falls over the car, an awkwardness hanging in the air, where it continues to hang until we pull into the SHS parking lot. Students are still milling around outside the building and in the parking lot. I let out a deep breath. Mrs. Dowery won't yell at me today.

As soon as I open the trunk, Byron grabs his backpack and takes off toward the school. Mallory and Adam take longer, leisurely gathering their books and jackets. Mary Anne's still in the car, rummaging through her backpack and even from the back I can tell she's frantic. As if anything else needs to go wrong this morning.

"It's stupid to cry over pants," Adam tells me, throwing a backpack strap over his shoulder.

"It's not about the pants," I snap, slamming the trunk shut.

Adam gives me one of his Girls are so weird looks. It's like he's ten again. He starts walking toward the school without a "thank you" or "goodbye", which isn't unusual, but would be appreciated.

"I don't have Mariah's government notes!" Mary Anne cries, finally emerging from the car.

"You gave them to her at lunch yesterday," I reply.

"Oh, I guess I did,"

The first bell rings and I hurry Mary Anne and Mallory toward the building. Mallory breaks away before we reach the front doors, heading for Ben Hobart and Benny Ott. I wonder which one she's dating this week, but am not brave enough to ask. The less I know about Mallory's love life the better. Mallory's already digging through her bag for a cigarette. It's sort of my unspoken responsibility to make sure she at least goes inside the building. As far as I'm concerned, I'm no longer a babysitter and Mallory's not my charge. Mrs. Pike shouldn't expect anything more from me than a free ride.

Cokie Mason's standing at the front entrance, stamping her feet and shivering in a sleeveless dress. She gives Mary Anne a strange look as we pass. That single look is enough to send Mary Anne into tears again. I grab Mary Anne's hand, squeeze it tight so I won't lose her within the crush of students shoving their way to class. I pull Mary Anne into the girls room, which thankfully (and unbelievably) is deserted.

"I thought you weren't going to let Sharon push you around anymore," I say, managing to only thinly veil the irritation creeping into my voice. Mary Anne's my best friend, so I should be infinitely patient with her. But it's hard to be infinitely patient with someone who falls apart as often as Mary Anne. I have worries and troubles of my own without taking on the added burden of Mary Anne's. The weight of it all might crush me. I can't afford to collapse, too.

"I haven't been letting her push me around," replies Mary Anne. "Dad's out of town again. She starts picking at me when he's not around to fight with." Mary Anne's face crumples again as new tears fall from her eyes. "I don't know why Sharon hates me."

I wet a paper towel and wipe the smeared mascara from Mary Anne's face. I sneak a glance at my watch. Two minutes til the tardy bell rings. "Sharon doesn't hate you. You said it yourself, she's redirecting her anger at your father to you,"

Mary Anne shrugs, appearing defeated. I often wonder if there's more going on than she tells me. It took her near forever to even admit there are problems at home. I don't like the idea of Mary Anne keeping secrets from me.

"I'm such a mess, Stacey. What a way to start senior year,"

"You aren't a mess," I reply, which is sort of a lie. Mary Anne has made a lot of progress in high school. She'll always be shy and sensitive, but still, she's grown stronger and more confident. However, since the summer she's regressed into the old Mary Anne, oversensitive and prone to collapsing into tears over the silliest things (like a pair of pants). Maybe it's just family problems, maybe it's more. I only know what she confides, but I also know there's something she's holding back.

"Better?" I ask as Mary Anne blows her nose.

She nods. "You're a good friend, Stacey,"

"I know,"

Mary Anne laughs. It's soft and strangled, but a laugh all the same.

"We're going to be - " I start but am interrupted by the shrill ring of the tardy bell.

Late again.