The last thing a girl as awkward as Dani Gale should be doing is trying to learn the high wire. Yet that
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The butterflies in my stomach wouldn't stop fluttering as the imposing wrought iron fence of my new school came into view. The car crested the hill and came to a stop at the security booth. As I surveyed the fence and the decorative gothic lettering melded in the metal, my gut dropped.
After my dad quickly talked to the guard in the shack, giving him my name, he glanced at me as the gate opened for us to drive through. "Dottie highly recommends this place. I'm sure it's nice inside. Give it a chance."
I sighed and sat back. First of all, why did my new school have tight security to begin with? What was really all that dangerous out here in the middle of nowhere that they had to construct a fence to keep it out? Or was it to keep the students in? That thought produced all kinds of horrific jailhouse images.
I also couldn't get past the letters shaped in the fence. First a huge O, and on the other side, a huge Z. Was this a joke? Was someone punking me? It wasn't like I was from Kansas or anything.
"Are. You. Freaking. Kidding. Me?"
My dad gave me one of his withering looks. "You wanted a prestigious circus arts school. So here we are. You're lucky to even be going."
Well, that firmly shut me down. My dad was pissed. He was usually a one-word type of guy, so the fact that he strung two full sentences together screamed volumes. The pulsating vein at his right temple also gave him away. God, I hope he didn't have a heart attack. That would be some way to start my first year.
"I'm sorry, Dad, but ..." I gestured to the fenced-in wooded grounds. "This ain't Montreal." The impact of that rejection still thundered inside my gut. I ran a hand over my long braid repeatedly. It gave me some comfort.
He sighed. "I realize that, pumpkin."
I could hear the frustration in his voice, so I didn't push. I just gnawed on my bottom lip as we drove through the now open gates to the Oswald Zinzendorf School of Circus Arts. My new home away from home. The only school that would have me.
Six months ago, the National School of Circus Arts located in Montreal, Canada — the best school in the circus arts world — had rejected me. Most of the performers from Cirque de Soleil graduated from that school. And I, Danielle Gale, had wanted to be one of them. It had been everything I'd thought of for the past five years. The only thing I'd dreamed about since I was eleven. But they had said no, thank you, Dani Gale. You aren't good enough to come to our awesome school.
And I'd been shattered into tiny little Dani bits.
My mom had gone to that school when she was only sixteen. She was a skilled dancer and acrobat, and when she graduated, she ended up touring in three Cirque de Soleil shows over the next seven years. She met my dad during the last tour. He was one of the stagehands in charge of building some of the sets. Like all good love stories, they fell deeply in love and got married. Shortly after, they had me.
I'd been raised around dance and shows my whole life, and it's all I ever wanted to do. So, before my mom died from stupid cancer a little over a year ago, she made me promise her that I would never give up on my dreams. The night she passed, I sat beside her on her bed, held her hand, and told her I would be the best high-wire walker ever. For her.
Then one glorious afternoon, after weeks of crying jags and depression, I was enrolled in a shiny new school for the circus arts. Great Aunt Dottie, on my dad's side, with her floppy sun hat, flowered dress, and sandals, had an in at this place. It was the school she attended many years ago (how many she wouldn't divulge), and now she was on the board of trustees. Because we'd missed the usual enrollment date, the only thing that got me accepted was a glowing letter of recommendation from Dottie. And the extra donation she made. Which was a good thing, since Dad didn't have the money for that. Things had gotten tight after my mom died.
I'd done a ton of research. I googled, the heck out of it. There had been absolutely zip, zero, nada information about the Oregon school. It was as if it didn't exist. Which was weird.
As we drove down the long, winding lane, I looked out the side window. The trees were thick and lush and pretty. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad out here. Back home, I liked to jog at the park near our house. Maybe there would be paths through the woods I could use to run side by side with nature. As long as there weren't too many bugs, mind you.
We passed more trees, and even more trees. Every once in a while I could spy an old stone building here and there through the thicket. I wondered what those buildings were for. Dorms maybe. I wondered if there was a lake nearby. I'd forgotten to ask. The rich green became a blur as we drove on. I imagined it would be gorgeous out here in the deep fall when all the leaves turned yellow and red and ... orange? Wait. I'd just spotted something big and orange sitting on the forest's edge. Orange and black like a ...
Surprised, my dad slammed on the brakes. I lurched forward and nearly knocked my head on the dashboard.
He whipped around to look at me. "What? What's wrong?"
"I saw a tiger."
He frowned. "Excuse me? You saw a what?"
I nodded and turned in my seat, straining to see out the back window. "A tiger was just sitting there in front of the trees."
Dad did that heavy sigh thing again. "Dani, I'm pretty sure tigers are not indigenous to Oregon."
"Maybe it's a pet or something. Maybe they use it for some kind of circus training. I know they teach 'magic' here." I air quoted, because the whole magic thing made me want to roll my eyes. Please.
But in the fancy brochure that Dottie had given to us, they had listed magic as one of the twenty circus subjects they taught at the school, along with floor acrobatics like contortion and the trampoline, and aerials like trapeze, hoops, and silks. Magic was part of the showmanship classes along with clowning and juggling arts. I really hoped there wasn't going to be a bunch of Harry Potter wannabes running around campus hoping to cast a love spell. I wouldn't mind if they had a Quidditch team, though. I had watched a match put on by a comic expo in town, and it looked like a lot of fun.
"I'm going to continue driving now, okay?" My dad put his foot on the gas. "We're already a little late as it is."
I craned my neck to watch the woods behind us as my dad brought the car around the corner. The flash of orange was no longer there. Maybe I was seeing things. Any excuse to not go to the school. Nerves were making my skin itch. A wild tiger on the loose would've been a great reason to turn the car around and drive back home.
Dad stopped the car at the top of a circular drive directly in front of a huge building that looked older than dirt. It was five stories high and constructed from gray and beige stone. I was decidedly intimidated by the imposing structure to say the least. It didn't exactly induce a feeling of welcome but one of "keep out; there are dangerous things lurking about."
Those dangerous things being teenagers, of course.
"Here we are." He parked and opened his door to get out.
I wasn't as eager to leave the relative safety of the vehicle.
I stared out the window at my new home for the next ten months and was less than thrilled. It looked old and cold and dirty. The overt seclusion of the place brought thoughts of gothic tales. Images of Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein constructed a rather gory and graphic movie trailer in my head.
How mad would Dad be if I suddenly decided I wanted to be a lawyer instead of a dancer?
I imagined my mom saying, "On a scale of one to ten, I'd say definitely a fifteen or twenty." She would smile and say, "I'm sure it's better inside, Dani. Don't judge a book by its cover, remember?"
She'd been teaching me that one for years, ever since I was two. But sometimes a crap cover covered a crap book. That was just a fact.
I sat in that seat and asked myself, Were the last five years of dance, gymnastics, and ice-skating a waste of time?
I scanned the daunting building, taking note of the tiny windows on top, wondering if that was where they would keep us locked up and underfed and overworked. Then I noticed the gargoyles perched on two spires. Taking in their grotesque forms and large teeth sticking out from between gray stone gums, I imagined them to be the guardians that kept an eye on the students, to make sure they behaved. I shivered.
After taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, I opened the door and stepped onto the gravel drive, my ballerina flats crunching the rock underfoot. Dad already had my bags out and was carrying them up the steps to the landing outside the main doors. It looked like he was in a hurry to see me off. I supposed I didn't blame him too much. I had been a bit of a whiny complainer lately. I knew he was doing the best he could for me under the circumstances. Still, the place made my skin crawl, and I shook again inside my black wool peacoat.
Once we were up on the landing, the main doors opened, and a young compact woman in brown riding boots and black leggings came striding out like a gazelle. Her dark ponytail swung gaily behind her. She smiled at my dad. "Mr. Gale, welcome."
They shook hands, then she looked at me. "Hello, Danielle, I'm Marta, the school administrator."
She ignored that and continued. "Orientation has just started, so why don't you attend and I'll see to your father and get your bags to your room."
I glanced at Dad. He smiled encouragingly, then pulled me into a big bear hug. "I miss you already."
"Call me later, okay? When you're all settled in."
"See you, kiddo." He kissed me on the top of my head. "Be awesome."
I glanced at Marta. "Where do I go?"
"The lyceum in the right wing."
I was going to ask for clarification, but she was already herding my poor dad into the school, chatting away about the amazing programs they had to offer. I followed them in but must've looked completely lost, because Marta pointed a long arm and finger down the main corridor to my left. "It's that way."
She'd disappeared with my dad before I could thank her, or ask her what the heck a lyceum was, so I screwed up my courage and hurried down the hall to find it. It didn't take long, since there was a huge sign over double doors that read lyceum. That was easy. I did a quick smooth down of my hair, then pulled open one of the doors and swept through, stepping into a pool of light in an otherwise dark and silent room. Unfortunately I let go of the door when I shouldn't have, and it clattered shut, the sound reverberating through the darkness. I grimaced at the deafening echo. But that wasn't the worst part.
That would be the four hundred faces turned toward me. Oh, and the imposing woman standing on a spotlighted stage with a microphone in her hand and a look of utter disdain on her pale, angular face. Despite the glare in my eyes from the spotlight I'd managed to step into, I knew she was scowling at me.
"Well, I see we have an unexpected interruption."
There was a wave of giggles through the crowd.
"Welcome, Miss Gale. I'm so happy you have graced us with your presence."
Another surge of giggles and masculine laughs.
Oh. My. God. My stomach lurched up into my throat. How did she know my name? I gaped at everyone, unsure of what to do. My face was burning with embarrassment. If ever there was a time in my life that I wished with all my heart to disappear, it was now. Should I open the door and leave?
"Are you going to take a seat? Or are you going to watch the show from there?"
I gaped in horror. Then panic set, in and my body revolted. I stumbled to the side, my arms flailing wildly, as if I was trying to take off in flight. There were more laughs, then a huge gasp/guffaw could be heard collectively when I tripped over some immovable force. Which just happened to be a boy. A very cute boy with unruly ginger hair and soulful eyes, which were wide with horror — for me, I hope, and not for his complete embarrassment at being tripped over — as I landed on my butt at his feet.
"Oh my God," I heard some girl nearby whisper-laugh.
If I could've melted into the floor right there and then, I would have. I could feel the sting of tears in my eyes. I clamped them shut. I refused to cry. There was nothing worse than crying in front of your peers.
Before I could do anything more embarrassing, the ginger-haired boy gave me his hand, and pulled me up and into the metal chair beside him. His skin against mine was warm and comforting, but I knew he didn't offer it for that. He probably just wanted everyone to stop staring in his direction, and for me to get off his foot.
"So, it looks like you're Dean Vasilev's first casualty of the school year," he said without looking at me. His voice was low and smooth, with just a trace of an accent. Definitely European.
He gestured to the woman on stage, talking. "Dean Vasilev hates it when people are late. It offends her righteous Russian sensibilities."
That made me smile a little, and I started to relax. "Guess I'm not off to a great start, then."
"Nope." He gave me a small smile that actually made my belly clench. Wowsa, the guy was potent.
"At least I managed to trip over ..." The best-looking boy I've ever seen. "A nice guy and not some horrid mean girl."
"Yeah, I don't think you would've survived that unscathed."
I was about to comment, maybe say something witty to make me seem cooler than I was, when the lights winked off, plunging the room into complete darkness. And when they flashed back on to point at the stage, I noticed that the boy had vanished from the seat next to me.
"Welcome new and returning students to OZ." No longer on the stage, the dean's voice boomed from the speakers mounted on the wall. "Meet your teachers this term."
Exciting drum-laden music filled the lyceum. My heart thumped to the beat just as two people in red Lycra bodysuits tumbled onto the stage, both doing front handsprings and flips.
"Li Kwan and Bo Kwan. Your acrobatic and balancing teachers," announced the dean.
The Kwans performed some more complicated tumbling, then the woman, Bo, jumped high and landed on Li's outstretched hands. She pressed into a handstand, arching her back nearly in half, bending one leg down and curling one up. She looked like a pinwheel. Everyone clapped.
The music slowed a little, and the spotlights swept up from the stage to the trapeze hanging from the ceiling. There was a woman in ice-white sitting on it like a swing. She smiled and waved at the audience.
"Meredith Beal, your trapeze arts teacher."
She dropped backward, catching herself under the knees. My breath hitched in my throat thinking she was going to fall. Grabbing hold of the bar with her hands, she continued with a series of complicated leg and arm maneuvers over and under the swinging bar. Then she swung out, let go, and did three front flips before being caught by a big man in a tuxedo balancing on a huge yellow sphere. The audience exploded into cheers. Caught up, I yelled and clapped, too. This was like a mini Cirque show.
After kissing the man on the cheek, Meredith jumped down and ran off stage. The man made an "aw shucks" face and shrugged, which had everyone laughing.
"Stas Gromeko. The clowning artist."
More cheers erupted as he rolled the ball around the stage, his feet so fast I could barely see them. Three small yellow balls dropped from the ceiling. He caught them and started to juggle, while still running on top of the sphere. Another ball dropped to him, then two more, until he was juggling six balls with lightning speed.
"Go, Stas," someone in the audience yelled.
Stas caught all the balls and made a sweeping bow while still running on the ball. That caused a ripple of laughter and more cheers through the room. Then he rolled off stage.
Two red silk ribbons unfurled from the ceiling, the ends resting about three feet off the ground. A woman clad in a beautiful flowing white dress ran onto the stage. She wrapped a silk rope around each of her arms.
"Cassidy Holmes, your silks, ropes, and hoops instructor."
As soon as the dean's voice trailed off, Cassidy ran forward, was lifted off the ground, and soared over the top of the audience. It was spectacular. Maybe one day, I would do that.
Landing back on the stage, she then proceeded to climb the silk ribbon with one arm and one leg curling around it. Once at the top, she unfurled like the rope had, to stop suspended upside down, her head three feet from the stage. Amazing.
Excerpted from "Lions and Tigers and Boys"
Copyright © 2018 Tawny Stokes.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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