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The panoramic view outside the windows of the bus showed a world that wasn't mine. It was chilly in early September and the trees were pine, not palm.
I grew up in St. Augustine, Florida. My life so far had been made up of conversations over noisy fans, shrieking at the sight of pony-size bugs in the shower, and coming home from the beach to find an alarmingly sunburned reflection waiting for me in the mirror. When I took my Labrador, Jasper, for a walk, it meant running in the surf and tossing a tennis ball into the waves. I hardly ever got in the car without my thighs sticking to the hot seats, and most of my neighbors were renters or vacationers. It wasn't Hawaii, but it wasn't New Hampshire, either. And that, unfortunately for this warm-weather girl, was where I found myself now.
Towering trees of dark, thick green loomed over the highway we rode down. It was fifty-five degrees out, the sun had already set at six, and it was only September second. St. Augustine isn't bliss all year round, and I'm the first to admit it, but it's never this cold yet. Not this early in the year. My friends back home were still going for swims after school every day and requesting outdoor seating at restaurants. Restaurants that I was already craving to order from again.
Behind me I was leaving all of the warmth of home, my best friends, and a really comfortable queen-size bed that lay next to a big window that overlooked the beach and filled my room with the smell of salty sand. I was leaving all of that for a boarding school. Up north. Where I knew no one.
I'd never been the new girl before, and I barely knew what to think. But every time I remembered that that would be my new identity, a surge of nervous anticipation spread from my chest right down to the pit of my stomach. I was about to step into the spotlight in front of eight hundred other students. Would they wait for me to dance and entertain them, or would they expect me to walk right across the stage and back out of sight?
And which would I do?
My parents had called this a "surprise." Poor, deluded, lovely things that they are. It turned out that they had been submitting an application for me every year since I'd begged to go to boarding school in eighth grade. I'd found this place on Google somewhere, and excitedly called them to the computer where I'd gone on and on about how much fun it would be.
This was right after I'd finished all of the Harry Potter books, unsurprisingly, and would have given anything to be swept away and told that my life was more than it seemed. When my first application was submitted and rejected, I'd burst into adolescent tears. When I had stepped into my new huge, public high school for the first time, I'd felt sick with regret that I couldn't be somewhere else. It felt so plain, so black-and-white.
But by the time my parents presented me with the fruits of their secret labors, I'd grown to really love my "plain" lifelargely thanks to them, admittedly. Not even in that "never know what you've got until it's gone" kind of way. I was happy all the time. Sheltered and comfortable, true. Dreading college and being away from everything, also true. But I was happy.
I had a best friend, Leah, who was regularly in and out of the same relationship with one guy, a crew of other fun friends that I wasn't as close to but had plenty of fun with, and a seriously fantastic little family that I loved to come home to. If anything went badly in the rest of my life, there was always my mother to reassure me that the thing I really needed was a pedicure, and off we'd skip. My father could always come back from the grocery store with a York Peppermint Pattie and a tube of Pringles, knowing that my way to my happiness is often found through junk food. My four-year-old sister, Lily, could always cheer me up with a crayon drawing, or even the overheard sounds of her tiny voice in another room playing out some story with her toys. Not to mention again the warm breeze that whistled through my window every night, while I drifted off to sleep with Jasper curled up on my feet.
Oh, that feeling I missed it already.
Last night seemed like forever ago.
But one lazy afternoon, my parents had called me in from the backyard, where I was tanning and listening to a book on my little white earphones, and into the kitchen. Lily was flinging macaroni and cheese, and my parents were beaming.
"What's going on?" I could tell something was up. My mother, the open book, looked like she was about to burst.
"We have a bit of a surprise for you." My dad grinned.
"We got you into Manderley!" my mother spilled.
She loved good news, gossip, excitement, parties and wine. She'd grown up in the heart of Paris with equally marvelous sisters, and so every word that came out of her mouth sounded like champagne bubbles. So I smiled, not registering what she'd said meant, or evenas was often the problem with my dear mother's accentwhat she'd said. "Sorry?"
"Manderley Academy." My dad held up a brochure. "We know how badly you've always wanted to go. You got in, honey!"
He came over to give me a hug. My mother, who had been bouncing from foot to foot, her hands clasped together, followed him.
And, like that, there was nothing I could say. They were too excited. I tried to drop hints over the coming weeks, suggesting that maybe my going there wasn't worth the money, considering that it was only for one year. But they told me the money was already spent and that it would probably help get me a scholarship at one of the schools I'd already been accepted to.
"See, it's actually saving money," my father had decided.
My mom cooed from the next room that it was, "perfect, just pozee-tiffly perfect!"
Leah, ever the devoted best friend, patiently spent the rest of the summer helping me soak up as much of home as I could before leaving. We were having fun, when I wasn't catching her looking at me mournfully. At those points I'd say, "Lee-ah, I'll be back for college soon, and you'll be absolutely sick of me."
She'd nod, but then doubt would fill her eyes as she looked at me and she'd say something like, "But what if you don't come back?"
I'd laugh and assure her that there was no way that would happen. It had always been our plan to go to college together and be roommates. I ignored the voice in my head that asked if I was sure that's what I really wanted.
Of course it was. It's what I'd always wanted.
I ordered coconut shrimp from my favorite restaurant every other day, in an effort to get sick of them. Instead, I think what I did was grow more desperate not to leave them behind. Leah and I went to the beach every single day, without fail. As she put it, I was going to need my tan to last through the year. The whole, long, cold year up north. Sometimes it was like she was trying to convince me to stay, but since I had no control over it, all it did was make me dread my impending departure more.
When it rained, we just moped and looked out the windows for a while before watching something obsess-worthy for the rest of the day.
The days were shorter than ever in those three months. My legs felt leaner and tanner, and my shorts shorter and more frayed. My friends were funnier and more exuberant than ever before. The boys were cuter, the neighbors more neighborly, and my home was cozier. No one argued, no one was snappish; everything was perfect.
But then the summer wound to a close, like all good things eventually do. Though you'd never know it from looking outside, where it was still sunny and warm.
My mother took me shopping for things with long sleevesand I learned that these make my wrists feel strangledboots, which make my feet hot, and a good coat, which made me feel panicky and claustrophobic. I said goodbye to all of my friends, knowing it wouldn't be the same next time I saw them. I gave Jasper the biggest hug, soothed my distressed sister with a bag of Pirate's Booty popcorn (her favorite for some reason) and the promise that I'd be home soon, thanked my parents again for the surprise, and trudged onto a plane for New Hampshire. Now here I was hours later, passing by neighborhoods with big old Victorian-style homes, trying to forget about palm trees and mango salsa. I pushed thoughts of football on the beach at night and the ability to actually leave school at the end of the day from my mind.
I knew I would be okay. I always was. I wasn't going to feel nostalgic forever. I wasn't going to hate everything just because it was unfamiliar. It'd be tough to jump into a new life, but that was okay. It was my last year of high school anyway. What did I have to lose?
I could be anyone I wanted to be now. I could adopt an accentI'd always been ace at mocking my mother. I could become a slut maybe. I could be carefree and exciting..
A small, irritating voice in my head told me that I wouldn't be any of those things. I'd lose confidence as soon as I stepped off this bus, and that was just a fact.
The neighborhoods that passed by the windows died away, and we turned onto a long, narrow, gravel road. A road like a hallway, packed with cabs, cars and other buses, with walls of tall green trees on either side of us and reaching up to the clouds. We inched our way up for fifteen minutes, and then I finally saw the actual boarding school for the first time in real life.
It truly took my breath away the second it unveiled itself to me. The building was old, enormous, and I could just barely see in the waning daylight that it was covered in thick ivy. Lively golden glows poured from its shuttered windows. Surrounding all this were jade lawns and a wrought-iron fence. Lamps illuminated bustling, shadowy figures in the roundabout, all unloading luggage and heading down the long path of brick that led to the building.
The campus had always been striking in the pictures I saw, but to see it in person made me feel like I was in the presence of some omniscient queen.
We filed off of the bus, and cold air hit my thighs. I had been freezing for the entire ride from the airport until I figured out how to direct the stream of air they call a fan away from me. Everyone around me was wearing long jeans, scarves, Lacoste polos, and sweaters. My Jax Beach Lifeguard sweatshirt (a real one, not a touristy one), frayed jean shorts and Rainbow flip-flops looked so out of place. I'd been sure it couldn't be that cold here.
I'd spent my life in Southern states. I'd never even seen snow in real life.
"Oh, you'll see a lot of that," Dad had said.
"Hush, Daddy. Tell me there'll be unseasonably warm weather this year," I'd replied.
I also had brought the most stuff out of anybody I'd ridden in with. I'd gotten a lot of looks throughout the ride, and I assumed that was why, although that annoying part of me felt kind of sure I had a big embarrassing something somewhere on me. According to the snotty girl sitting in front of mewho seemed intent on informing me without speaking directly to meeveryone always leaves their things in their rooms over the summer. Still, weren't there freshmen and transfers? Why was it so weird I should have a year's worth of things before living somewhere for a year?
I turned and saw a guy with a flashlight and a notepad. "Yes?"
"Do you need to check in some luggage?"
"There's only a service elevator, so we just take it up for you."
His practiced tone told me that he'd had to explain this many times.
"Oh." I smiled. "Okay, great. I was wondering how I was going to bring it all in." I gave a small laugh, and he smiled politely back at me.
"Write down your student ID number and room number here, please." He handed me a clipboard. I filled out the indicated lines, referencing the letter I'd gotten over the summer for both, and handed it back. "Thanks, it should be up there soon."
He slapped stickers on my things, and another guy put them into a cart. I followed everyone else up the walkway toward the school, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. I would not be intimidated by this place. I refused. I ignored that little voice in my head again.
As I walked down the path, I remembered when I was thirteen and looking at pictures of Manderley. I'd imagined myself prancing down this very path full of optimism, maybe already with a brand-new friend acquired on the ride in, ready to have an adventure.
I felt a little silly thinking about it, but something in me still had a flicker of that same excitement.