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That night, since there was nothing to study for yet, quiet hours were suspended so that each floor could have a little get-to-know-you party. I was never good at parties, so I was kind of dreading it, even though I knew I should just go. If I wanted a new start, I was going to have to go against instinct, which meant being social. The very idea gave me cramps, though, so I avoided thinking about it and flipped through my Easton Handbook on my bed while Constance got ready. And talked.
"So when we finally got to the bottom of the mountain, I was totally dehydrated and had this streak of mud all the way up my side and this guide was waiting for us there and he was like, 'Did you not see the trail?' and we were like, 'What trail?'"
I smirked because I could feel her looking at me and it sounded like the point in the story where she would expect some kind of reaction.
"Anyway, are you ready?"
The moment of truth. I put the book down. "Maybe I'll come down later." I honestly didn't know until that moment that I wasn't going to go. But I didn't take it back.
"Want to make an entrance, huh?" she joked.
"Something like that," I said.
"Okay," she said with a shrug. "But don't blame me if all the good pizza's gone!"
"Don't worry about it," I said.
As soon as the door was closed I felt really bad for bailing. What was wrong with me? There was no way I was ever going to make friends if I sat alone in my room. I knew this. But still, somehow, I couldn't make myself move.
I sighed and leaned back against the denim pillow my brother had bought me at Target, settling into my self-imposed exile. So this was my new home. This square, cream-colored box with its creaky wooden floor, standard issue twin beds, matching desks, and five-drawer dressers, one of which I couldn't even fill. Within five seconds of seeing my half-empty side of the huge closet, Constance had asked, "Do you mind?" and then promptly jammed up the empty space with three extra wool coats and a puffy black parka. It all contributed to my feeling that I didn't fit or, more accurately, that there wasn't enough of me to fill a place like this.
I heard laughter outside the window and stood up. The large bay window with a sill big enough to sit on was, hands down, the best feature of our room. Earlier, Constance had gone out to meet some of our floor-mates and had come back beaming, happy to report that only two rooms had a window like this and we were beyond lucky to get one. I sat down on the sill and stared out the last window pane. Another peal of laughter rang somewhere out in the darkness and my heart ached. What the hell was I doing here? How could I possibly have thought this would be a good idea?
Leaning my temple against the glass, I willed myself not to cry. This was unbelievable. Was I really homesick? For what? For my pins-and-needles home life? For the cinderblock halls of my old high school? For the strip malls? My mind flashed on my father and on Adam, who had never been anything but sweet to me. I saw my dog, Hershey, wagging his tail when my dad got home, expecting to see me as well. I saw the ugly flowered wallpaper my parents had hung in my bedroom before they knew I was a tomboy, wallpaper I had always hated but which now felt like the perfect emblem of home. I thought of the lacrosse team and our vow to actually get to the state championships this year. Why did all of this suddenly seem so huge? The day before I couldn't wait to get out of there.
A tear squeezed out and it was like a wake-up call. No. This was not acceptable. I was not a weakling. I had made my choice. I was not going to call my father and beg him to come back for me. There was nothing in Croton for me. Nothing worth sticking around for, anyway. I knew this. I just had to focus on it. I stared into the darkness, at the lights in the windows of the other dorms, and told myself that I belonged here. I forced myself to try to believe it.
I will be happy here. I will make friends. This is the beginning of a whole new life.
And that was when I saw her. A girl, sitting in a window just like mine, directly across the way. She was wispy and thin with delicate features, smooth pale skin, and light blond hair that fell in loose waves around her tiny shoulders. She looked almost ethereal, like she could float away at any moment with the help of a light breeze. She wore a white tank top and short pajama shorts and seemed riveted on the pages of the book she held in the crook between her bent legs and her flat stomach. I was so riveted by her that I didn't notice anything moving in her room until another girl swooped in out of nowhere and snatched the book out of her hands. I sat up straight, startled, thinking for a split second that the girl had been threatened. But then I saw the taller, darker girl twirl the reader into the room and onto the bed. There she joined two others who sat, laughing, their bare legs splayed out as they ate from a box of chocolates.
I turned fully toward the window now, crossing my legs Indian style in front of me and balancing precariously on the windowsill. Then the lights across the way were doused and my breath caught. Moments later, a flicker of light. Then another. Then another. Gradually the room started to glow and the figure of the dark-haired girl loomed through the dancing shadows as she lit candle after candle. Soon the four girls were bathed in the warm light. One of them rose and handed out glasses. Large, round glasses with delicate stems. Each was already filled with deep red liquid.
Wine. They were drinking wine right there in their dorm. Laughing and chatting and sipping in the candlelight.
In my entire life, I had never seen anything like these girls. They seemed so much older, and not just older than me -- which they obviously were -- but too old to be in high school. Every move they made was graceful and sure. The held their glasses with carefree assuredness as if they drank from such delicate crystal each and every day.
This girl, the laugher, had piled her brown hair on top of her head in a messy bun, held there by a pair of chopsticks. She was stunningly beautiful, with dark, tan skin and a lithe, athletic figure. She flashed a knowing smile, which she prefaced by a narrow, sliding glance at her friends. She wore a red silk robe over a tank top and boxers and seemed to live to tease. The second girl was petite, with messy, dark blond curls and cheeks like a porcelain doll. She was playful with the others and seemed younger than them, shoving and rolling her eyes and clapping when she laughed. But it was the reader and the dark-haired girl I couldn't tear my eyes from.
The dark-haired girl wore nothing but black underwear and a large silk nightshirt, undoubtedly made for a man, with only the two center buttons done. She shook her thick hair back, took a sip of her wine, and held the novel up to read from it to her friends, gesturing dramatically with her glass, but never spilling so much as a drop. All three of them gathered together, rapt with attention at the girl's performance, and I thought, This girl is the leader. As she continued to read, she placed her glass down and lifted the ethereal girl's arm. The girl stood on cue, a slight, far-off smile playing about her lips. The dark-haired girl thrust their hands above her head and the bottom of her shirt fell open, exposing a long, red scar along her stomach, just above her hipbone. I was so startled by this garish imperfection on such a flawless being that I almost looked away. But then she stepped breast-to-breast with her friend and the scar was covered and I realized they were dancing. They moved as one, twirling through the shadows and the flickering candlelight. The little cherub reached for her sound dock and acoustic guitar music echoed through the quad, sending a shiver down my spine.
The ethereal girl spun out of her friend's arms toward the window and suddenly she froze. My heart caught, startled at her abruptness, but it took me a good long moment to realize she was staring right at me. I had mistaken her gaze as flighty and un-focused, but I saw now that it was the exact opposite. She looked right through me, around me, all over me, taking in everything and turning me inside out. Embarrassed, I looked quickly away, pretending to be preoccupied by something in the room, but it was no use. I had to look back. When I did, she was holding her curtains wide with both hands, still staring.
I was breathless. I was caught. But I couldn't look away. Would she tell her friends? Would she report me? Could I get kicked out of Easton for spying? I stared back, willing her to be kind. Willing her not to tell. For a long moment, neither one of us moved.
Then she smiled, ever so slightly, and snatched the curtains closed.
Copyright © 2006 by Alloy Entertainment and Kieran Viola
The Billings Girls
"Billings House? That's an upperclassmen-only house. And even if you're a junior or senior, you have to meet certain requirements to get in."
"Academic, athletic, service. If you meet their requirements, you get an invitation from housing at the end of the year. It's very selective. You have to be an integral part of the Easton community to live there."
Her expression said, "You will never live there."
I had just met Missy Thurber five minutes before and already I felt like choking her. She was the piglike girl who had snickered about the no-boys rule at yesterday's meeting. She had highlighted blond hair that she wore back in a French braid and a nose that turned up so far at the end that you could almost see into her nostrils. You'd think that a girl with a nose like that wouldn't have the guts to be so superior, but she managed to look down it at everyone she saw. She also held her shoulders so far back when she walked it was as if she wanted her large breasts to enter any room a good fifteen seconds ahead of her. Ridiculous. I would never have even bothered talking to her if Constance hadn't told me both her parents and all her siblings had attended Easton and that she knew everything there was to know about the school. I had looked up the dorm behind mine in the catalog, but other than its name, Billings, there was no information. All the other dorms read "Bradwell, sophomore girls' housing" or "Harden, junior and senior boys' only." Billings just said "Billings House."
"At the end of the year, we should apply. We should all apply," Constance said in her enthusiastic way as we walked out of the breakfast line and into the Easton cafeteria with our trays of fruit and toast. "I bet we would totally get in," Constance added to me alone.
The Easton cafeteria was a cavernous room with a domed ceiling that terminated in a small, cut-glass skylight that danced slivers of sun on the tables and chairs below. Unlike Croton High, the furniture here was not made of standard-issue plastic and metal, but real, solid wood. Cane-backed chairs were set up alongside tables with thick legs, and all surfaces shone as if they had been freshly waxed. On the walls were paintings that evoked various facets of life in historical New England. Farmhouses, covered bridges, skaters on a frozen pond. All very quaint and old-fashioned. All almost funny when juxtaposed against the kid with the MP3 player who was executing a sleeper hold on some other guy in an effort to commandeer his portable game system. Or the girls swapping summer piercing horror stories, lifting their shirts and sticking out their tongues to display their war wounds.
Near the front of the room was a large table with slightly more ornate detailing. Several teachers sat there with their food, talking in low tones or reading from newspapers. A couple of older gentlemen sat back with their arms crossed over their chests, scanning the room as they spoke to one another, eager to pounce if someone stepped out of line.
"You don't apply. They invite you," Missy said again, rolling her eyes. "How did she even get in here?" she said, not so quietly, to Lorna, the mousy girl on her other side. Lorna had small features overpowered by bushy brown eyebrows and the kinkiest brown hair I had ever seen. She hadn't said much so far, but she hadn't left Missy's side all morning, so I had a feeling I didn't like her.
"Nice attitude," I said.
Missy scoffed and took a seat at the end of a table, forcing the rest of us to squeeze between her and the chair behind her to get in.
"Whatever. The point is, not just anyone can get into Billings. You have to be...special," Missy said as she prissily opened up her napkin and laid it across her lap.
"And it's like once you live there, you're golden," Lorna added. "They all get good grades -- "
"Even if your grades sucked before. Go figure," Diana Waters, another girl from our floor, interjected. She was a pixie-ish girl with short blond hair and clear braces. "Plus every captain of every team and every president of every club lives there -- "
"They're achievers," Missy said. "Women who lived in Billings have gone on to be senators, movie stars, news anchors, novelists."
"And college? Forget about it," Diana said. "They get recommendations from all the Billings alumnae and every single one of them ends up at an Ivy. Every single one."
"You're kidding," I said.
"I shit you not," Diana said. "Their track record is blemish-free."
"Yes, it is," Missy said as she spread some low-fat cream cheese on her bagel. "I can't wait until next year. To have one of those huge rooms? The cages they have us in now have got to be a human rights violation."
"What makes you think you're going to live there? I thought you had to be invited," I said pointedly.
"I will be. I'm a legacy," Missy said. Like, duh. "Both my mother and my sister lived in Billings."
Okay. Now I hated her even more. The fact that someone like that could just have something like Billings handed to her just illustrated everything that was wrong with the world.
"Which basically means they have to take her," Lorna added with a laugh.
Nice. Maybe Lorna didn't entirely suck.
Missy shot her a look that made her go instantly pale. "Not that you wouldn't get in anyway," Lorna added quickly.
"Check it out," Diana said, lifting her chin. "Speak of the devils."
I looked up and there they were, striding two-by-two toward a table in the very center of the cafeteria. Leading the pack was the girl with the dark hair and the scar that was now hidden somewhere underneath a pristine white linen blazer and black T-shirt. I flushed just thinking about it, knowing it was there when she had no idea that I knew. She was tall -- even taller than my five nine from the looks of her -- and, I couldn't help noticing, in flat shoes. She spoke to the ethereal girl, who walked next to her with her head tipped toward her friend, but with that far-off expression in her eyes.
Behind them was the sly girl, whose light brown hair was again up in a messy bun. She led with her hips as she walked, her back straight and her chin up. A gawky brunette boy stared at her as she passed him by and she winked at him surreptitiously. He turned a deep, disturbing shade of purple before sliding down in his seat and hiding behind his manga book. The girl laughed to herself, triumphant.
With her was the cherub, whose blond curls bounced as she scurried after her friends. She was the only one of the four who walked with her head down, her pale skin blotched with pink from some kind of exertion, pleasure, or embarrassment. She hugged her books to her chest and seemed to be concentrating hard on something going on in her head.
They really were here. They really did exist.
"I would kill to be Noelle Lange," Diana said, leaning her chin on her hand.
"Yeah. That's gonna happen," Missy said sarcastically.
"Which one's Noelle?" Constance asked.
"White blazer," Lorna said, envy dripping from her very lips. "Rumor has it that Harvard, Cornell, and Yale are all fighting for her."
"Please. She'll go wherever Dash McCafferty goes," Missy said, glancing over.
I saw that the big, blond guy who caught my punt yesterday was now sitting on a table behind Noelle, rubbing her shoulders with his huge hands. She titled her head back, her long tresses tumbling down behind her, and he leaned down for a kiss.
"More like he'll go wherever she goes," Diana said. "I highly doubt Dash wears the pants in that relationship."
"When Noelle's in the room, she's pretty much the only one wearing pants," Lorna added.
"That's true. I take it back," Missy said.
"Who's the reader?" I asked, noticing that ethereal girl once again had her nose stuck in a book.
"That's Ariana Osgood," Missy said. "Her family owns half the South. Which means the rest of the Billings Girls forgive her for being from the South."
Diana, Constance, and Lorna all snickered.
"They're in oil," Missy added. "All big, cigar-chomping, bane-of-the-environmentalists types. God only knows how they produced her."
"She's a poet," Diana explained. "She writes half the literary magazine every quarter. She's really good."
"The model is Kiran Hayes," Lorna said. "She's done Abercrombie, Ralph Lauren..."
"Omigod! Yes! She was on the billboard outside my Pilates studio!" Constance exclaimed.
"Omigod! Keep your voice down, you freak!" Missy shot back, mimicking her.
"Wait. She's an actual model?" I asked.
"What? Like you've never seen one in the flesh before?" Missy said. "Half the girls in my building back home have done the spring shows."
I glanced around and noticed that at least half the male population of the room was in fact watching Kiran, most of them practically drooling.
"And then there's Taylor Bell," Diana said. "From all accounts, the smartest girl ever to step foot on the Easton campus."
Across the way, the cherubic girl laughed and had to slap her hand over her mouth to keep from spitting out her oatmeal. Didn't look like a genius to me, but then again, I'd never seen one of those in the flesh either.
"Best schools. Hottest boyfriends," Diana said. "Yeah. Being a Billings Girl definitely wouldn't suck."
I stared across the room at the four girls and the guys who hovered around them, my pulse racing with a new sense of excitement. A few more girls sat down at the other end of their table, every last one of them beautiful and poised, though to me they seemed second-string compared to the four girls I had seen the night before.
"What about the others?" I asked.
"Eh, they're in Billings too," Diana said with a wave of her fork.
So I was right. It was Noelle and her friends who were important. Noelle and her friends who were the most worth knowing.
My heart pounded against my rib cage and I pressed my sweaty palm into the thigh of my jeans. I had never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be at that table right then. If I could just enter that inner sanctum, every door at Easton would open up to me.
I would never have to worry about being accepted or fitting in. I would be leaving my own crappy, depressing home life so far behind maybe i could manage to forget it altogether.
Copyright © 2006 by Alloy Entertainment and Kieran Viola