My parents always told me I was special. The trouble is, I believed them. Just like I believed they’d always be there, and that real monsters didn’t exist. Right.
I guess in a way it’s true. I’m not like the other girls at Bleeker Academy. But nobody calls me special here. They have plenty of other names for what I am.
I stop on my way into the gym, turn, and give Della my best guns-cocked-and-loaded stare. Yeah, I’ve heard the bit about walking away. Trust me; it doesn’t work with Della. She’s a shark, and I’ve learned not to bleed.
The hall is crammed with girls, most of them crowding around the large bulletin board. Excited chatter floats across the sea of navy blue jackets and plaid skirts. Della and her cronies have staked out a prime spot right in front of the shiny new poster decorating the board. Two gleaming, golden words sprawl across the top of the page: circus galacticus.
“Don’t look like that, Trix,” Della says, sweet and nasty as cough syrup. “We all know you don’t really like it here, so we found you a new home, with the rest of the freaks.”
I’ve got a half-formed insult almost ready to fire. It sputters out as I get a good look at the poster. Garishly painted faces leer at me, grotesque and gorgeous. But it’s not the alligator man or the green-haired girl who catches my gaze and freezes me there, making me forget even to fight back.
It’s the guy in the center, the one in the electric-blue top hat, reaching out as if he could take my hand and pull me right into that glittering page. I swear his smile has more wattage than every billboard in the city. And those eyes . . . It’s only a poster, but they remind me, somehow, of the sky out in the desert. Dark and deep and glittering, blazing with possibilities.
Dimly, I’m aware of one of the other girls complaining. “I still don’t see why we’re going to some stupid circus. This stuff is for kids. They should be sending us to a concert or something.”
“At least the ringmaster’s hot,” someone says, giggling. “Too bad he’s stuck in the sequined freak show. He could totally be in the movies.”
Bright spots fuzz against my eyelids, and I blink, trying to get back to reality. There’s something else at the bottom, under the performance information and promises of popcorn and cotton candy. I lean closer, squinting to read the odd, silvery print.
Feeling alone? Misunderstood? Strange things happening? We have answers! Visit the Hall of Mirrors and find your True Self!
If only. I shake the crazy thought out of my head. It’s a line to drum up desperate idiots looking for answers. It’s not like some circus mirror can fix my screwed-up life. It can’t bring them back.
“What’s your problem now?” says Della.
“Just reading the fine print,” I say, tapping the poster.
Della looks from me to the poster. “There’s nothing there, moron.”
“Check your eyes, princess. This bit. Right here.”
Della turns to her pack and circles her finger beside her ear.
“You seriously can’t see this?” I’m too surprised to stay on the defensive.
“God, you really do belong in the freak show,” says Della. The rest of the girls crack up.
I’m not sure what Della’s playing at, but if I don’t start fighting back, this is going to turn into a feeding frenzy. I step away from the poster and shrug. “Thanks for the career counseling, but I’ve got other plans.”
“Other plans?” Della says dangerously. “You mean state finals? As if you have a chance. Especially if you show up looking like some reject from the League of Supergeeks.” Her lip curls at my neon-green tights.
Okay, so they have silver lightning bolts running up the side. Sometimes a girl needs to feel like a superhero. It sure beats feeling like the resident crazy girl who has no friends. I cross my arms, matching Della’s sharp smile. “At least I’m going.”
Score. I catch Della’s wince before she can shrug it off. “Whatever. I’m not some orphan charity case begging for a scholarship,” she says. “And I’m not delusional. I hope you still buy your own hype when you’re slinging fries.”
The other girls giggle. Not only Della’s pack, but the rest of the average Janes trying to hold their place in the food chain. If I were a better person, I’d forgive them. Right now I’m just trying not to let Della see how deep that cuts.
“Oh, poor Trix,” says Della. “I made her cry.”
That’s it. If I don’t get out of here soon, she’s going to be eating that stupid poster and I’m going to be on the fast track to a life of fries. I start off down the hall to class. Okay, so maybe I brush into Della on the way. Just a little.
The next thing I know, I’m flying through the air with the heat of Della’s shove burning into my back. I roll, letting my body do what I’ve trained it to do, even though this is hard linoleum, not padded mats.
I scramble to my feet and throw myself at Della, smashing her into the wall. I pull her back. My fingers twist into the collar of her shirt. Scarlet drops spatter the white cotton. Blood trickles from her nose. I freeze.
It’s not a last-minute attack of remorse. It’s the look on her face. Triumph. Then a voice speaks.
“Beatrix Ling! What in heaven’s name are you doing? Unhand Miss Dimello at once!”
I force my fingers to unclench, even as Della puts on a look of injured innocence.
Headmistress Primwell minces forward, her soft cheeks quivering as she regards the pair of us. Lips compressed, she hands Della a tissue. “Miss Dimello, please explain.”
“It was an accident, Headmistress,” says Della, slightly muffled as she presses the tissue to her bloody nose. “Trix tripped.”
“You pushed me!”
I swear, if Della looked any more innocent she’d have forest creatures frolicking around her feet. “The hallway was crowded,” she says. “I tried to help, but she went kind of crazy.” Over Della’s shoulder I see the ringmaster smiling above his invisible promises. My pulse hammers in my ears.
“I’m not crazy!”
“Enough, Miss Ling. I think we had best continue this conversation in my office.”
The headmistress’s office is a lot like the rest of Bleeker Academy for Girls: shabby, uptight, and depressing. It’s November, so it’s already dark. The sickly yellow light of a streetlamp trickles in through the dusty window.
I don’t sit. Neither does Primwell. The wide oak desk between us holds a writing mat, three pencils sharpened to needle-fine points, and a bowl full of what look like hard candies but are actually nasty menthol throat lozenges.
I wait for her to say something, but she turns her back to me, moving to one of the olive-green filing cabinets lining the back wall. The drawer slides open with a bang that makes me jump. Primwell thumps a hefty file labeled ling, beatrix onto the desk, sighing like it’s her burden, not mine. “Do you know what this is?”
“And do you know, Miss Ling, that your file is approximately five times as thick as that of any other student?”
“I guess I’m just more interesting.”
“I should think a girl who owes her room, her board, and her very future to the charity of others would try a bit harder to conform to our standards of behavior.” Primwell looks at me like I’m some sort of mangy dog at the pound, the type that’s about to get put down because it’s too much trouble and no one wants to bother with it any longer. Maybe she is sorry for me, but I think she’s more sorry for herself.
“Is that too much to ask?” she says. “Can’t you try a little harder to make this work?”
“It’s not my fault! Della and the rest of them, they act like—”
Primwell cuts me off with a wave of her hand. “Personal responsibility, Miss Ling. That is something we value highly here at Bleeker Academy. Perhaps instead of blaming Miss Dimello and the other girls, you should be asking yourself what you can do to make your life—all our lives—easier.”
I set my fists on the desk. “You think this is my fault? You think I can make Della like me? No way. She hates me. It’s not my fault I’m going to the finals and she isn’t.”
“Not anymore,” says Primwell.
“What?” She can’t mean what I think she means. No. Please no.
“We have had enough of your disruptions. The other students deserve better than this. I’m sorry, Miss Ling, but I’m afraid you will not be attending the state finals. I am removing you from the gymnastics team.”
The air in my lungs vanishes, like I’ve been dumped in a vacuum. “P-please,” I finally stammer, “give me another chance. I need to compete. I can get a scholarship, go to college, become an astr—”
She shakes her head. “You dream too large, Miss Ling.” She steeples her fingers and looks at me with what she probably thinks is a kindly expression. “Your grades aren’t bad. Some are even quite good. But with your history of behavioral issues and”—she coughs—“your financial situation, you have to be realistic about your options. It’s not as if you have other prospects.”
“I do, too,” I insist, reckless with my fear.
Primwell’s expression softens for a moment. “Your parents are dead, Beatrix. Clinging to false hopes does you no favors.” She flips open my file. I turn away, but not before I see the harsh black headline of the news clipping. tragic rocket accident claims lives of astronauts.
My heart races. I’m eight again, the little girl in a field in Florida, watching fire and light rage across the sky. I don’t quite understand the shrieks and cries from the grownups, except that something is horribly wrong. I’m trapped in that moment when my insides collapsed, a black hole about to suck all the light and joy from my life.
I gulp, hard, forcing the monster inside back into its cage. I won’t let Primwell pity me. I keep it together until I’m back in my dorm room. I force open the dusty, creaky old window with shaking fingers, then collapse against the frame.
Cool air slides over my hot cheeks. I keep my eyes on the lightning bolts decorating my ankles. In my mind, I run through my floor routine. Back handspring, step out, round-off. Twist and flip and whirl. I’m perfect, flawless. The judges applaud. I stand on a step, and someone slings a medal around my neck.
But only in my dreams. I brush a hand across my face. I’m no crybaby, but that scholarship was my last chance, and now it’s gone. How can this be my life? Were my folks lying? How could they leave me in this horrible place, thinking I’m something special? Maybe I am a deluded freak. I lift my head and stare out the window. The city lights stain the night sky orange. It doesn’t stop me from squinting at the fuzzy specks above.
I was six years old the first time I really saw the stars. They hung sharp as broken glass in the desert sky. I jumped, trying to reach them—they looked so close. I begged my dad to hoist me up on his shoulders, but even he wasn’t tall enough. God, I can still feel that ache. I’d never wanted anything that bad.
Dad smiled and tried to make me laugh away my tears. But Mom understood. She held me so tight I can almost feel her arms, even now, nine years later. I think she was crying, too. You’ll reach them someday, Beatrix, she said. I promise. Then she spun me around until my head swam with stars. That’s all I have left of my folks now.
The stars . . . and the rock.
Dad gave it to me that same night. Here’s the funny thing: What I remember best about my dad is his smile. He was this big bear of a guy who loved practical jokes and silly puns. But that night he was totally serious.
It’s from up there, he said, pointing to the swirl of light above us. And it’s very, very important. There are people who want it. Bad people. You have to keep it secret. You have to protect it. Can you promise to do that, Beatrix?
So I promised. Crossed my heart, and all that. Mom gave me another hug, then whispered in my ear, You’re our special girl, sweetheart, and only you can keep it safe.
I wonder sometimes if it was just another of Dad’s practical jokes. Maybe it didn’t mean anything. Sure, the rock is real enough. And it’s not like any meteorite I’ve seen: smooth and black and glossy, more like something spat out of a volcano. But it’s not as if ninjas have been breaking into my dorm room to nab it.
I pull the meteorite out of my sock drawer and set it on the window ledge where it can catch the almost-starlight. I hope they can see I still have it, if they’re watching.
“Hey, Mom. Hey, Dad. I don’t suppose you guys could give me some help?” I lean out, trying to catch a glimpse of Orion, my mom’s favorite constellation. “I think I screwed up, bad. It’s hard, you know, when—”
The words die in my throat as I realize there’s a guy across the street watching me. I’m pretty sure it’s a guy, even in that long gray coat. He’s standing just beyond the ring of yellow light cast by the nearest streetlamp. I can’t make out his face. There’s a scarf muffling the bottom half, and he’s wearing these weird mirrored sunglasses. A thin coil of smoke twists up, catching the light, but I can’t see his cigarette.
Okay, maybe he’s not watching me. Maybe he’s having a smoke. It still creeps me out enough that I shut my window. There are better places to see the stars.
Heat sears my hand as I pick up the rock. I throw it onto the bed. How did it get so blazing hot? I blow on my stinging fingers. I must have put it down too close to the heating pipes.
Wrapping the rock in my blanket, I throw it over my shoulder hobo-style and slip out of my room. If Primwell catches me out, there’ll be hell to pay, but it’s worth the risk to get closer to the stars. Besides, no one knows about the unlocked door to the roof except me and Eddie, the night janitor. He isn’t allowed to smoke on school property but likes to have a quick one at the end of his shift, watching the sun come up over the city. Works for me. I only come up here when it’s full dark.
It’s not much better than my dorm-room window, but there’s one spot where I can curl up and tilt my head against the chimney and see nothing except the sky. My blanket’s thin and ratty, but the rock is still warm, so I press it to my chest and huddle down. I slip into happier memories of spinning under the stars. In this half-dream state I can almost remember what my mom’s voice sounds like. You’re our special girl, sweetheart.
I wake to fuzzy grayness. Thick fog blankets the rooftop, smelling like the sea. It’s still the middle of the night. Better get back to my own bed before Primwell catches me and decides to expel me from the school as well as the gymnastics team. I roll upright, bundling the blanket and sticking the meteorite back in my pocket. It’s ice-cold now.
Cautiously I find my way to the doorway through the fog, then hustle down the stairs and back to my dorm. I’m two steps through the door when I realize the window is wide open. I spin around as the door thumps closed behind me. A figure steps from the shadows.
I take it back. Ninjas have broken into my room.