Vivian was raised with one purpose in life: to exact revenge on behalf of her mother. Manipulative and cruel, Mother has deprived Vivian not only of a childhood, but of an original identity. With an endless arsenal of enticing personalities at her disposal, Vivian is a veritable weapon of deception.
And she can destroy anyone.
When it’s time to strike, she enrolls in a boarding school on the English moors, where she will zero in on her target: sweet and innocent Ben, the son of the man who broke Mother’s heart twenty years ago.
Anyone…except for the woman who created her.
With every secret she uncovers, Vivian comes one step closer to learning who she really is. But the more she learns about herself, the more dangerous this cat and mouse game becomes. Because Mother will stop at nothing to make sure the truth dies with her.
|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||977 KB|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
This land is barren. Windswept. A heavy mist hangs over the earth, shrinking the world to only a few yards of space. I feel as if I have entered an enchanted place. My home in upstate New York was filled with tall pines creaking up toward the sky, lush grass biding its time under blankets of winter snow, houses and concrete and people.
Here, short clumps of green-brown heather cover the ground. Every so often, a tree ekes its way out of the soil, its trunk having curved back toward the land under the pressure of the wind until it stuck that way. It reminds me of a person hanging on to the edge of a cliff, this stubborn clinging to life.
Madigan School, though, doesn’t look like it would bend to any force of wind. Its four buildings are clustered together in a square on top of a hill, surrounded by a high stone wall. The main school building stands tall and proud at the forefront, surveying the wild moors of Yorkshire, England, below it. It’s taller than it is wide, its windows piling on top of each other. The gray stone facade—Georgian, the catalogue called it—only grows larger and more intimidating as the cabdriver and I approach it. If I were to draw it in my secret sketchbook, it would tower over the viewer, immense and imposing.
We wind our way up the hill to campus, and something feels like it’s flipping around in my stomach. This is the scenery of my new life, but it appears to be just as foreboding as my old one. I can picture Mother looking down at me from one of the windows, waiting for me. Lying in wait for me.
The flipping in my stomach intensifies, and I close my eyes and picture myself hidden away in my bedroom at home, up in the attic where Mother rarely ventured. Breathe in, breathe out. I can do this. I have to do this for her. Mother relies on me.
The driver passes through the imposing wrought-iron gate, emblazoned with Madigan School in twisty cursive across its top, and stops the car in front of the main building. He turns in his seat to look at me. “You all right back there?” he asks, his Yorkshire accent so thick that I can barely understand him. But I can still recognize the uncertainty in his voice. He doesn’t know how to deal with a hyperventilating girl.
I calm my breath and put on a dazzling smile. “Just a bit nervous, that’s all,” I simper.
He smiles, relieved. His watery blue eyes stare at me for just a touch too long, and I know I have him. I have nothing in particular to do with him, but this is still reassuring.
There are people milling about the lawn, girls and boys about my age glancing at the car out of the corners of their eyes. As soon as I step out, all of the useless motion stops. People stare. I’ve engineered my appearance for this specific reaction, and Mother will be so pleased that it worked.
I wear the uniform I was required to buy, but I know it looks nothing like anyone else’s. I shortened the red and black plaid skirt and ripped the hem, making it jagged and frayed. I paired it with black tights and sparkly gold ballet flats, to soften the edginess of the skirt. My white shirtsleeves are rolled up to my elbows to show off arms cluttered with bangles: gold and red and black. I’ve bared my throat, having unbuttoned my shirt until you can see just a hint of cleavage, though there’s not much there to show. The pale skin of my neck and the vulnerable cut of my collarbones will be the focal points. I painted on a thin dash of black eyeliner, making my deep blue eyes pop. I skipped the blush and added dark red lipstick to contrast with my pale skin.
My hair, though, my best feature, I’ve left alone. It hangs long and black down to the middle of my back, a thick mass of glossy hair that tempts you to run your fingers through it.
I am irresistible.
And everyone notices it.
As I pass my eyes over the crowd, a slow smirk on my lips, the buzzing starts. Kids turn to each other and ask who I am. I grab my bags from the driver as the girls begin judging my outfit and the boys make bets on who will get me into bed first.
I’m used to it all. During my one year of public school, back home in upstate New York, I showed up as the sweet girl next door at first, the type who wore pale pink cardigans and pearl bracelets. This made some girls want to be my friend, but none of the boys seemed particularly interested. So Mother and I cooked up a new persona: the edgy confident girl. This girl was friendly enough and desirable, but unimpressed with boys who just assumed I would fall all over them. I wore clothes Mother could hardly afford along with my slash of red lipstick. And suddenly everyone was talking about me.
I’m not pretty. My eyes are too wide and my mouth too small. But I’ve learned ways to soften these traits and become something even better than pretty: fascinating. I am someone who earns double glances, someone whose eyes trap you, someone otherworldly. Once Mother had figured out how to alter my uniform to match that captivating quality, she pronounced me perfect.
I pay the driver without giving him a second glance, straighten my shoulders, and march toward the front door. Students move out of my way to let me pass, but no one speaks a word to me, despite the fact that there’s only a slight hint of condescension in my smile.
I open the massive wooden door and enter a foyer with a sumptuous marble floor—white shot through with tendrils of somber gray. A wide slate staircase rises in front of me with depressions in the center of each step, revealing how many thousands of students have traveled on it. The walls are paneled with dark wood, and, despite myself, I let my eyes drift up to the ceiling, several stories above. It has carvings I can’t make out on its white surface.
It’s an entrance designed to awe. I can relate to that.
“Sorry, do you want the admin office?” a small British voice asks.
I snap my eyes back down to find a girl as small as her voice looking at me like I might bite her.
“I just—you’re the new girl? From the States?” she asks, tilting her head to one side as she considers me.
She’s pretty, a blonde ringleted thing in a freshly ironed uniform. The kind who offers everyone genuine friendliness and is probably well liked. Someone I should engage with, not treat with disdain.
I focus on making my eyes light up as I smile widely at her and stick out my hand. “Yes, hi! I’m Vivian,” I say. “And I have no idea where the admin office is.”
She beams back at me, her smile of perfect white teeth stretching even wider than mine. “I’m Claire. Come on, I’ll show you.” She beckons for me to follow her. “I think you’re going to be my roommate?” she says as our footsteps echo down the hall. “Emily used to be, and since you’re replacing her, I guess I have to give up my single.”
Emily. So that’s the name of the girl Mother got rid of so that I could take her spot a month into senior year.
I laugh along with my new roommate at her weak joke, and we stop in front of another heavy wooden door. Its top half is nearly covered by a gold medallion bearing the school’s crest: a torch rising out of an open book. Above it, a marble plaque declares that this is the headmaster’s office.
“Thanks, Claire. See you soon, I guess,” I say before squaring my shoulders and pulling the door open by its oversized brass doorknob.
The room is bare except for a generic painting of a green hill on the back wall and a desk with an expensive laptop and carefully ordered piles of paper. The secretary, a woman with frizzy brown hair and bifocals, looks up sharply when I fling open the door. Her look only intensifies as she takes in my carefully disheveled appearance.
I nod. My last name was stolen from the father I never knew so that my name would be different from Mother’s, though she’s never told me what her name is. My fate has been planned since before my birth.
“Your skirt is too short,” the secretary declares, looking me up and down again.
“Oh, is it?” I ask, feigning concern as I look down at my skirt. “I measured it to make sure it would comply with the dress code, two inches above the knee.” I look back at her with horrified pleading in my eyes, hoping she’s the forgiving type.
She purses her lips. Not so forgiving, then.
I straighten, examining her. “Should I get my schedule from you?” I ask, my voice a tiny, meek thing.
The meekness doesn’t seem to appease her. “The headmaster wants to meet you first.” She’s staring at me now like I’m a revolting bit of spoiled fish. I bite my lip, waiting until she finally sighs and presses something on her phone.
“Vivian Foster is here to see you.”
“Send her in,” a gruff voice orders.
The secretary cocks her head toward the headmaster’s office, and I sail past her. It’s time for the true performance.
I widen my eyes into those of a soft, uncertain little girl and walk into an office of dark carved wood and overflowing bookshelves. A bald man sits at a mahogany desk, hunched over a sheaf of papers. Mother drilled me over and over about him, so I know what to expect. George Harriford is forty-seven, divorced, no children. He dreams of being an author and has published a few insipid poems in journals no one has heard of. That sheaf of papers might even be his novel, the opus he’s been working on for more than two decades. The one he’s probably never going to finish. He loves Nabokov, red wine, and complaining about his ex-wife, though how Mother knows that, I have no idea.
“Sir?” I ask, my voice a whisper in this cold space.
He looks up, and his eyes take me in. I press my back against the door, sealing the room off from the prying ears of the secretary.
He gestures for me to sit in one of the red leather seats, and I sink into one, crossing my ankles primly and leaning forward to seem eager. My seat is rather low, and the desk and its occupant loom over me. A bronze bust of Nabokov, with his round face and piercing eyes, rests in one corner, and I feel as if I’m sitting in judgment.
“Miss Foster, I’m Headmaster Harriford. Welcome to Madigan School,” he begins, his squinty brown eyes still locked on me. He’s one of those men who is bald but shouldn’t be—the bulge on the back of his head makes him look somewhat alien, and his forehead towers above his scrunched face.
“Thank you,” I murmur, widening my smile. “It’s kind of intimidating, but I think I’m going to like it here.”
He rushes to assure me that I’ll love it here, that I’ll fit right in, that the students are ever so friendly. I smile at the appropriate moments and twist my hands together to show a nervousness that I no longer feel.
“I’m sure you’re tired after traveling all night, yes?” he asks.
Though my head feels heavy and my eyes threaten to close, I shake my head. “I’d actually love to get to class and meet everyone,” I say, filling my expression with hope and excitement. “I’ve missed a month already, and I don’t want to miss anything else.”
He laughs, utterly charmed. “That’s the kind of enthusiasm we’re looking for in students here at Madigan,” he declares. “If you want to go, I won’t stop you.”
“Thank you so much, Headmaster Harriford.” I bite my lip, as if my excitement is too much to contain. Really, I might be overdoing it. He seems to love it, though.
“Do you have any questions before you go?” he asks, folding his hands over the papers on his desk.
“Just one. Does Madigan have a creative writing club?”
He leans forward. “Are you a writer?” He imbues the word with a sense of reverence, and I smile inwardly.
I try my best to blush as I look down at my hands, but I don’t know if I’m successful. “I’d like to be,” I murmur. “Writing is one of my passions.”
I sneak a glance up through my eyelashes to find him beaming at me. “Well, we have a literary magazine, Open Doors, that’s very well respected. You can ask Ms. Prisby, your English teacher, about joining. They would love to have you.”
“Thank you, Headmaster Harriford.”
He glances at the grandfather clock ticking away in the corner, its face painted with the school crest. “You’d better hurry if you want to make your first class. Ask any of the students the way—we’re very friendly here at Madigan, as I told you. And if you ever have any questions or concerns, you’ll come speak to me, yes?”
I nod, smiling. “I will.”
He sends me back out to the prissy secretary, who sniffs as she hands me the schedule I requested earlier. “You only have a few minutes until the bell,” she declares. “You’d better hurry. Tardiness is not acceptable at Madigan.”
“What should I do with my bags?” I ask, gesturing at the duffels I left in the corner.
“Leave them be. I’ll watch over them until the end of the day, when your roommate will show you to your room.”
I do my best to smile politely at her sneer and head out into the hall. Wooden lockers line the walls, most of them covered with brightly colored signs proclaiming “Go #42!” or the like. Books and papers spill out of every crack, and the marble floor gleams in the bright golden light from the large crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and the ornate sconces on the wall. I hold my head high and make my way through this swarming hive of red plaid and shouts and laughter, searching for room 211, where my first class will be: history with Dr. Thompson.
I needed to pick three or four subjects to study at Madigan, since I enter as a sixth former and have to take A-levels at the end of the year. Mother picked English literature for me first, then rounded it out with history and psychology, reasoning that those were the fields I had the most knowledge in and wouldn’t need to spend too much time on.
“You need help?” someone asks as I sidestep sharp elbows and overstuffed book bags. A boy, of course.
I look at him, taking him in with a brief glance. Dull brown eyes, cocky smile. Popular, clearly. It’s in the way he holds himself, feet planted apart as if he wants to take up as much space as possible.
“Where’s room 211?” I ask, my tone curt and unfriendly.
“You know, I don’t like giving directions to pretty girls whose names I don’t know.”
I refuse to play along. “Look, you can help me, or you can get out of my way.”
His cocky smile fades a bit, and he looks at me with even more interest. “One floor up, take a left, third room on the right.”
I push past him without a word. I hope I’ve made him curious, because if he’s curious, he’ll talk about me.
I make it to 211 just as the bell rings and the hallways empty out. I stand for a moment in the doorway as everyone stares. Dr. Thompson, a grizzled man in his late sixties, nods at me. “Vivian Foster, everyone. Introduce yourselves individually later. Vivian, sit down in the front here next to Claire.”
The blonde girl from earlier, my new roommate, waves at me, smiling hopefully as I slide into the wrought-iron desk next to hers, its wooden surface polished and shiny. I learned last year that only overachievers sit in the front row. It looks like I pegged Claire in the right slot.
The class is studying the Italian Renaissance, something I know plenty about. Lucrezia Borgia is one of Mother’s role models, and I learned everything about her world as a consequence. She was the illegitimate daughter of a pope, and it’s rumored that she poisoned those who got in her powerful family’s way.
I remember Mother telling me about her and all of the terrible things that she supposedly did. “She did what she could for her family. Nothing is more important than family,” Mother said, concluding the lesson. She rested a hand lightly on my shoulder, and there was almost something like a smile on her face as she looked into my eyes. I find myself nodding at the memory. You have to do whatever you can for your family. It’s the only thing that matters in this world. It’s the only bond that lasts.
I zone out, and my eyelids grow heavy. I jab my pen into the palm of my hand every few minutes to stay awake until the bell finally rings and I can head to English literature.
Which is much more interesting. Because it’s there that I first see him.
I notice him almost as soon as I walk into the room. He sits in the back of the classroom with the other confident kids, and his golden popularity shines through every pore. He wears the required boys’ uniform: gray slacks, white shirt, black blazer with the school crest on its lapel, and red and black plaid tie. His tie is loosened and his shirt is wrinkled, but somehow he looks more insouciant than sloppy. He leans back in his chair like a king on his throne with an easy, self-assured smile. As soon as I spot him, it’s as if the whole room starts spinning, revolving around him. Everyone’s waiting to see what he’ll do next. He is the center of everything.
I feel my breath stutter in my chest, and I know this is the beginning.
I only let myself glance at him, my eyes slithering over him in an open show of indifference as I sink into a chair in the middle of the room. I turn my back toward him coldly, hoping he notices.
My pulse races, ripping through my skin. My breathing grows shallower, and I take a few deep breaths to regulate it. I keep my spine straight and proud and focus my attention on the twenty-something woman at the front of the class.
“Who’s the new girl?” a boy—him?—asks behind me.
Another boy laughs. “No idea, mate. She’d look good in my bed, though.”
The first boy, the boy who has to be him, answers with a hefty dose of disgust. “Try not to be such a wanker all the time, Liam.”
I cling to that, the voice of the boy who has drawn me to him.
The teacher, Ms. Prisby, clears her throat. “All right, everyone, we’ve got a new student. Vivian Foster, yeah?”
I nod slightly.
“Well, good, then. I’m sure we’ll do our very best to welcome you to Madigan. We’ve been reading Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott.’ Have you read it?”
“Yes.” Of course I have. Mother made sure I read everything on the syllabus before I got here. But I knew this poem long before that, and the story behind it. In the poem, the lady will be cursed if she looks down on Camelot, so she spends her days weaving a tapestry and watching a magic mirror that shows her events of the world outside. It’s only when she sees Lancelot in that mirror and hears his voice below her tower that she looks down, and in doing so, she has to sacrifice her own life, putting herself in a boat that carries her dead body down to Camelot. When she’s found, all Lancelot says about her is “She has a lovely face.”
The Arthurian legend the poem is probably based on is even more pathetic. Elaine of Astolat develops a crush on Lancelot, nursing him after he’s injured in a tournament. But his heart belongs to Guinevere, and he leaves Elaine, who is so distraught that she boards a boat and dies of a broken heart. The ending is much the same, with Lancelot simply paying for her funeral. Hardly caring about her at all.
Ms. Prisby’s voice calls me back to the present. “Then you can jump right in.” She offers me a smile briefly, before it falters under the weight of my disdain, the disdain that only she can see. She looks back at her book, suddenly unsure. She’s young, not much older than I am. She’s almost too easy a mark.
“Right, well, we’re looking at the theme of art in isolation versus art that confronts the real world,” she says, continuing on to point out that the lady creates a wonderful tapestry when alone, but once she looks down to Camelot, her loom breaks, and all of her artistic talent is forfeited.
I keep my head down, scribbling nonsense in my notebook and trying to sort out my first impressions of the boy and what his first impressions of me might be.
He has light blond hair that curls slightly at the ends, making him look boyish. His eyes are warm and brown-green and observant. His jaw is square and firm. He’s attractive, the kind of boy teenage girls hang posters of in their rooms.
And he’s noticed me. He’s maybe even already attracted to me, or maybe he just doesn’t like the way his friend speaks about women. I’m not yet different enough from the girls who must throw themselves at him daily.
As soon as the bell rings, the other kids jump out of their chairs and dive into the hall. It’s the last class before lunch, and everyone seems to be in a hurry to eat.
I take my time, gathering my notebook and stretching my long legs before standing up. The boy and his cronies are taking their time, too, watching me.
When he walks up beside me before I reach the door, I’m prepared.
“Hey,” he says, placing a strong hand on my shoulder to stop me. “I’m Ben.”
I turn to find him beaming a wide, confident smile at me. He’s a bit taller than I am and much broader, with the body of an athlete. His nose is crooked, as if it’s been broken before. Probably playing sports; he seems too affable and easygoing to get in a fistfight. There’s no coiled spring behind his eyes, the sure sign of a hothead.
I expect him to let those hazel eyes drift down and back up my body, but he doesn’t. He keeps them on mine. “I know it, uh, has to be difficult being the new girl, but I wanted to offer my help. You know, if you have questions or anything.”
I raise my eyebrows, trying not to show how my thoughts are scrambling. I thought he would be cocky, maybe give me a pickup line, something I could decline with derision to show how different I am. To make him want me even more.
I can’t reject him, not when he’s being kind and considerate. And I can’t fall all over him. So I take a gamble, tucking a strand of my hair behind my ear in a show of self-consciousness. “Thanks,” I say, my voice small and shy, before turning and hurrying out the door.
I spend lunch exploring the main building, too tired to face a room full of my peers. The dining hall, a few lockers, and the administration offices that I visited earlier take up the first floor. The next four floors are made up of unending hallways of sameness: lockers and classroom doors and slightly scuffed floors.
I head for the top story, hoping for a view. For a new perspective on this place I’ve come to. And I’m not disappointed.
There are a few classrooms up here, but almost half of the floor is taken up by a room with a marble sign above the doorway, the words “Student Lounge” carved into it. I peek in and see only a couple of girls reading in armchairs in one corner, so I walk inside. I throw the girls polite but uninterested smiles and head for the wall of windows opposite.
I can see the whole of the hilltop below, with three large gray stone buildings that form a quadrangle with this one, a courtyard in the middle. The courtyard is cluttered with wrought-iron benches and gas lampposts and a few ornamental trees. They stand stubby and straight, but only because there are ropes on each side of them tying them to the ground. Otherwise, I’m sure they would be like the trees I saw on the way in: curved and bent, but not yet defeated by the force of the wind.
I can’t see much beyond the high stone wall that surrounds the campus, though the fog from this morning has dissipated a bit. Up here it feels as if I’m in a dome, as if I’m cut off from the world outside. I watch a few students meander along the courtyard paths, flickering in and out of sight beneath the branches of the trees below, but I’m too high up to recognize any of them from the bustling halls. I wish I had a pencil and paper so I could draw them, show them as they really are. They are mere ants, waiting to be stepped on.
A giggle from one of the girls behind me breaks me from my reverie, but when I look back, she’s pointing to something in her book, sharing a harmless joke with her friend.
The rest of the lounge is like an overgrown living room, muddled with brown leather couches, overstuffed armchairs, a few dark wooden tables, and tall brass lamps. The walls are lined with rich crimson wallpaper, and a thick golden-hued carpet covers the floor. A daunting stone fireplace takes up most of one wall, a fire crackling in its mouth. I examine the books in the low bookshelves that line one of the walls, dragging a finger along their cracked spines. There are beautiful volumes by Dickens and the Brontë sisters and Shakespeare and the like. Yearbooks dating back to 1947 rest on the bottom shelf.
I take one last look at the room before I have to head to psychology. If I had that pencil and paper, I would sketch the air here, the feeling of this place. It is warmth and ease and the sharp scent of money.
After I suffer through psychology, where the teacher drones on about human behavior experiments I already know, I go back to the administration office to find Claire waiting with my bags. “I was right,” she says brightly when she sees me. “You are my new roommate.”
I nod, forcing a smile onto my face.
Claire picks up one of my bags, the heavier one. “Come on,” she says, “I’ll show you our room, roomie.” She nudges my arm, inviting me to laugh along with her.
I follow her with the lighter bag through the wood-and-marble hallways to the back entrance of the school. We step out into the chilly early October air, and I look for the details that I missed from my vantage point in the lounge. The hilltop the school sits on is not very wide, and it’s covered in short brown grass and mud that squelches underneath our shoes. The sidewalks between the buildings are red cobblestone, with large gaps between the bricks and a healthy covering of mud. The gas lamps lining the walk are already lit, their flames dancing in glass cages.
“Boys’ house,” Claire says, pointing to the building on the left, which has the name Rawlings Hall etched over its small portico. “And our house.” She points to the one on the right, Faraday Hall. Both are built from the same rough-cut gray stone blocks that make up the main building, with ivy grasping onto their sides, reaching nearly up to the top floors. Ebony-trimmed windowpanes peek out through the ivy, several of them glowing with soft lamplight.
The building directly opposite us completes the quadrangle. It’s almost as large as the main building, with a set of wide stone steps leading up to a pair of wooden doors that seem much too large for one person to open by herself. Ornate Corinthian columns line the porch that spans the entire front of the building, and I realize that it’s the only structure on campus that is untouched by ivy. It’s too grand to be covered. “Canton Library,” Claire says, noticing my gaze. She stops in the middle of the courtyard, forcing everyone else to stream past us. “Madigan has one of the most extensive book collections of any secondary school in England. Canton is a good place to study.”
I nod and hitch the duffel bag from my hand to my shoulder.
Everything is clustered together on top of this hill. It doesn’t seem enough space for the hundreds of students and teachers who live and work here. When I remember that just beyond the rough gray stones of the ten-foot wall surrounding us there are brown moors stretching for miles, the tightness in my chest loosens.
“The playing fields are down at the bottom of the hill off the right side, closest to our house, out the back gate,” she tells me. “What sports do you play?”
“None,” I answer. Mother got me out of Madigan’s athletic requirement by telling the administrators something about a heart condition. “I’m not really a sporty person.”
“I play lacrosse in the summer term, but I work for the newspaper this term,” Claire offers, her voice rising at the end to make it more of a question, the way most of her sentences end. It’s like she wants to make sure what’s she saying is acceptable.
I nod as if I’m interested, but say nothing, and we remain silent as we cross the rest of the yard.
We enter Faraday, my new home. As soon as we set foot on the worn brown wood floors, I hear a symphony of girls’ laughs and shouts and conversations. The hallways are dim, their navy-wallpapered walls lit mostly by the lights shining from the open doors of the bedrooms. Girls tumble in and out of these rooms, everyone friendly and happy. Most have changed out of their uniforms now that the school day is over, and though some are in sweatshirts, most have covered themselves in skinny jeans and soft cashmere and wool sweaters or brightly colored silk tops. They dance by us like exotic birds, leaving us in clouds of their cloying perfumes, most of them smiling at Claire and offering me a tentative “Hi.”
I take a deep breath and pretend this is all normal for me.
Claire leads me to a room on the second floor. It’s small, more of a closet than a proper room, with two truncated beds shoved into it. One tiny desk faces the window, while the other faces a blank wall. I toss my bags on the bed that’s not covered by an explosion of pink. “I took the desk by the window?” Claire says behind me, her voice vibrating with nervousness. “It used to be Emily’s. If you want it . . .” Her voice trails off.
“The other’s fine,” I chirp, putting my hands on my hips and looking around the room with a smile as if it pleases me. I don’t look at Claire. I don’t want to see the emotions passing across her face. She’s so open, so vulnerable. Ready to be eaten alive.
“I’ll introduce you to Mrs. Hallie, then,” Claire says, her default brightness restored, walking out of the room before I can answer.
Mrs. Hallie, the housemother, is a plump, gray-haired woman who wraps her arms around me as soon as I meet her, and I bite my lip and force myself not to push her away. I learned at public school last year that I’m not very good at enduring hugs. This embrace lasts an interminably long time, until she finally gives me one last squeeze and lets me go. “You’re just going to love it here!” she declares as she shows me the bedding and other necessities Mother shipped for me.
Claire grins and heads back down the hallway, leaving me alone with Mrs. Hallie, who tells me the house rules, all of which I already know: No drinking, smoking, or boys, ever. Curfew at nine on weekdays, midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. The gates to the playing fields are locked every evening at seven, and all other gates to the outside are locked at all times unless a student is given special permission to leave by a faculty member. Internet is shut off promptly at ten o’clock each night. She explains that there’s no cell reception in this part of the country unless you’re very lucky, so there are landlines set up in each hallway. “With international plans, dear, so you can call your mother whenever you like,” she says.
I keep smiling and pretending to care until this interview is over and I can retreat to my room with my boxes.
Claire and the rest of the chattering girls have disappeared to their afternoon activities. After that they’ll go to dinner, and then the library to do homework, which the teachers pile high onto all of us. I shove the textbooks Mother bought me in the corner of the room and concentrate on unpacking and transforming myself. I find a box of cereal among Claire’s things and munch on that for dinner.
I think about Ben, replaying the conversation we had after English class. And an image begins forming in my mind. I start by taking out my black eyeliner and defining my eyes even more, until their blueness is electric. I tear holes in my tights and rip stitches in my skirt to make the seams and hem even more jagged. My only school shoes are a pair of ballet flats, but I use red nail polish to scribble lines of poetry on their gold surface, the chemical scent eclipsing the faint floral perfume that permeates the air from Claire’s side of the room. When it’s dried, the lines of my favorite Catullus poem are scrawled around the sides of both shoes.
Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
There. Everything about me reflects a passionate, tortured soul, in need of saving.
I’m setting up my desk lamp when Claire comes back. Her ringlets seem deflated, as if the long hours in the library sapped some of her blonde energy.
“Hey,” I say with a soft smile and an uncertain voice.
Claire smiles at me, raising an eyebrow as she takes in my new black-rimmed eyes. She notices the open box of cereal on my side of the floor, too, but says nothing.
“How much homework did you get done?” I ask, approximating a sincere tone.
“Not nearly enough,” Claire says with a dramatic sigh, flopping onto her pink marshmallow bed. “I swear, they’re being bloody sadistic this year. Did you do that history reading? We’re supposed to learn about a hundred years in one night.”
“Haven’t started,” I admit. “Is it that bad?”
She nods, then smiles. “The teachers will probably give you a little leeway for a few days, since you’re a new student and all that? But they’re pretty demanding, just to warn you.”
“I’ll get it done.” Mother taught me speed-reading almost as soon as I learned to read. My time is meant for more important things than homework.
“Can I ask you something?” Claire says, tilting her head in that observant way she has, her eyes intently absorbing me.
I steel myself. “Sure.”
“Why did you come a month into the year? Wouldn’t it have been easier to finish it out back home?”
I shrug, bending to plug in the lamp. “I’ve been on the waitlist for a long time. When this spot opened up, I couldn’t pass on it.”
“What about university? Have you already applied?”
“I’m applying to places in the States,” I lie. Mother told the administration that I would be using a college counselor in New York for all of my college applications. Hopefully no one here will notice that I won’t actually be applying anywhere. “I’m not really worried about it.”
I can feel Claire freeze up behind me. “You’re not really worried about it?” she repeats. “And your parents are okay with that? Mine would chain me up and torture me if I didn’t get into Oxford or Cambridge.”
“My mother doesn’t care,” I say. My tone is clipped, and she takes the hint.
“Well,” she says, bouncing off the bed and rummaging in one of her dresser drawers. “I’m going to take a shower. The bathroom’s at the end of the hall, and it’s for the whole half of this floor, so there are thirty of us sharing it. It can get rather crowded at night and in the morning.”
I offer up a smile. “Thanks for letting me know.”
As soon as she’s gone and I’m alone in the room, I sit on my hard bed and rub my temples.
Before I can decide what I should do now, someone knocks on the door. I open it to find an unfamiliar brunette girl with a pixie cut and a bored expression. “You’re Vivian?” she asks, her tone matching her expression perfectly.
“Your mum’s on the phone for you,” she says before walking away.
I peek out into the hallway and notice a monstrously large black phone on the wall. I walk to it slowly and close my eyes as I pick up the receiver. “Hello, Mother.”
“You were supposed to call as soon as you arrived.” Her harsh, icicle-laden tree branch of a voice crosses the Atlantic as clearly as if she were standing next to me, her cold gray eyes staring into mine with an almost tangible distaste. I can picture her face so clearly: the porcelain skin, with only the faintest hints of lines at the edges of her eyes and wide, thin-lipped mouth. The heart-shaped mole on her cheek. The prematurely gray hair curling at her forehead.
“I had no time alone,” I say. “The hallway has been crowded.” I wince at the lie.
“Then you should have figured out a way to get some privacy. You know the rules.” She speaks slowly, deliberate as always, her brutal words seeping through the telephone line.
Her reproach is a birch switch on my back. “Yes, Mother.”
I hold my head up, trying to overcome the lump forming in my throat. I’ve disappointed her, and I hate myself for it.
“Everything’s going great here!” I say brightly. There’s no one in the hallway, but I’ve already discovered how thin the doors and walls are, and I want to sound like a normal girl giving her doting mother her first impressions of her new school. My voice in its feigned cheerfulness bounces around the navy walls. “My roommate is really sweet, and I think we’ll get along great. And there was this very cute boy in English class.” I say this last sentence more quietly, though it’s innocuous enough.
“Your impression of him?”
“Popular and cute. I’m sure he’s got lots of girls swooning over him already. He seems very nice, though. Kind.”
“What is your plan?”