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Some parents tell their kids they can be anything. Mine did not.
I was not told that if I worked hard, my dreams would come true. Or that life was fair. Or that wishes were made of stardust, or candy canes, or were delivered by unicorns.
I was told the truth: that some people get lucky, and some people don't, which is why I'm skipping fifth period to ride an elevator in one of swanky Uptown's old arts buildings.
"What do you mean it's this weekend?"
Holding my cell tightly against my ear, I drill my opposite thumb into my temple, careful not to let the four girls entering the elevator on the fifth floor see the phone's blank screen.
They're late. According to the Copeland Ballet Academy's online schedule, Dance II — a requirement for all third-year students — gets out at ten to four on Mondays. Now I've only got twenty minutes to book it down Lake Street and catch the red line to Devon Park. If I miss it, I'm late for work at Pete's, and that's the last thing I need.
I've got five minutes to work some magic.
"No." I sigh heavily, catching the nearest girl's attention. She's got to be around my age. Sixteen, maybe a year older. Everything on her copper-brown face seems stretched by the tight bun she's wearing on the back of her head. Even her eyes seem a little too wide, like blinking takes effort. But she's pretty. Graceful, like a ballerina.
I stand a little straighter. I can be graceful. Kind of.
From the corner of my eye, I study their outfits. Two are wearing athletic shorts over pastel tights. All have on loose cover-ups made from the kind of fabric you can't wash in a machine. Soft, like cotton candy.
My black, shredded leggings, are reflected in every walled mirror in this tiny car, and I fight the sudden urge to glare at Wide Eyes, who looks like she's trying to decide if my lace-up boots and camo tank top are some designer brand.
Sorry, but not everyone's got Daddy's credit card in their back pocket.
"No, it's not your fault." I hoist my messenger bag up my shoulder and speak a little louder, just over the girls' conversation. "We knew it was coming." I make the Life is Hard Face. Wipe away a pretend tear with the side of my thumb.
A familiar rush fills my veins, but it's chased by a sharp prickling right beneath my collarbones, and a voice in my ear that says they don't deserve this.
I shove it aside.
"I'll see if I can sell the tickets," I continue. "Don't worry about that. Someone's going to want them. I mean, it's not every day the Joffrey Ballet does a recital."
One girl elbows another. I catch the tilt of her head in the reflection of the mirrored wall. They're all silent now, pretending to check their own phones or staring at the floor. Politely listening in on a conversation I'm only pretending to have.
"Mom, don't worry about it. I'm not missing the funeral. I'll ... have another shot to meet David. It's no big deal. This is more important."
Ding. The elevator reaches the bottom floor with a gentle bounce. The gleaming metal doors part, revealing a lobby vastly different from the shiny upper levels filled by the Copeland Academy. Darkly stained wooden floors meet murals of dancers and musicians. Marble angel statues guard the upper corners. An old glass chandelier hangs from the ceiling. The building is a hundred and something years old, a historical landmark refurbished by the Sterling Foundation. At least, that's what the sign beside the front door says.
I step out of the elevator, nearly bumping into a guy with inky-black hair. He doesn't look up as he moves past, and I fight the urge to glare at him, instead saying a quick, "I love you," and "I'll see you soon," into the powerless phone before stuffing it into my bag. Pausing for effect, I drop my head and smooth back a mess of short, dark waves, still unused to how the blunt ends feel between my fingertips. I tried to comb it down for today's performance, but it sticks out in every direction anyhow.
"Oh, hi. Sorry. Are you all right?" It's Wide Eyes's friend, one of the elevator eavesdroppers. She's got a rich, unexpected accent, which reminds me a little of this mobster movie our neighbor used to watch on full blast every night. Standing beside me, she grips the strap of the duffel bag crossed over her chest. Her dark hair is back like the others', though it hangs in a long braid between her shoulders, the way mine used to.
I jerk my head in her direction, as if she's caught me by surprise, and give a little sniffle.
"Yeah," I say quickly. "Yes. I'm fine." My short, embarrassed laugh relaxes their rigid postures as I turn to face the semicircle they've formed. "It's just ... my grandfather passed away, and I need to go to the funeral this weekend."
People always go for dead grandparents. It's one of the most universally relatable hardships.
"That's so sad." Wide Eyes pouts, one hand flattening over her heart. She's faking sympathy while I'm faking the reason behind it.
There's a nice symmetry to that.
"Thanks." I check the gold-framed clock above the elevators. Two minutes to close the deal. My pulse begins to beat in time with the second hand.
"My mom really needs me. We were supposed to go see this recital together this weekend."
"The Joffrey recital," says Accent, with enough hitch to let me know I've got her, I just need to reel her in. The other girls look at me like I'm solid gold, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't want this minute to stretch a little longer. Sometimes it's nice to have something other people want.
"That's right. And get this." I lean in, and they lean in, too, ready for the secret. "I had tickets right behind David Aranoff."
"David Aranoff? Like the director, David Aranoff?" asks Wide Eyes.
I sigh again, relieved that they recognized the name. I'd never heard of the guy before two days ago, when I'd searched Important Ballet Directors. His name was the first to come up. "Bummer, right?"
"What's he doing in town? I thought he never left New York!" Another of the four gapes at me.
"He's got friends here," I say. "Maybe a lover. I don't know."
I giggle. She giggles.
One minute and counting.
They all look to the girl with the accent, waiting for her to take the lead.
Come on, I will her. But she doesn't move.
She needs a little push.
"You guys wouldn't want to buy them, would you?"
I open the messenger bag and take out two paper tickets I printed from the library last week. They may be in the top row of the balcony, but the price I paid — seventy bucks apiece — is absent, as it always is when you purchase from my favorite secondary ticket broker, Tix.com.
Or rather, when you print, and re-print, and re-print again. No one knows there's a problem until they show up at the event and find their ticket's already been scanned. By that time, I've already sold them three times over.
"How much?" asks Accent.
"I don't know. I bought them for three hundred. Maybe two fifty?"
Wide Eyes sees the row letter YY and makes a choking sound.
"Why would David Aranoff sit way back there?" Accent asks, skeptical.
"Don't ask me," I say. "My uncle knows his assistant. That's who booked the tickets."
The best lies are simple, that way you can't screw them up.
"Maybe he's scouting for an opening in New York and doesn't want to be recognized," says Giggles, now very serious.
"That's exactly what I was thinking." Sort of.
The door outside opens, letting in a wave of oppressive heat off the street. My time is almost up, but they hesitate.
I carefully tuck the tickets back into my bag. "Never mind. I'll see if one of the girls in my tap class wants them. Good talking to you." That seems like a polite, Uptown thing to say.
Accent's voice rebounds off the low, plaster ceiling.
"I'll give you one eighty," she says.
I stop, hiding my smirk, swallowing the cheer rising in my chest. My toes tap in my boots. I want to dance. Ballet, tap, I don't even care. One eighty is sixty bucks more than I got when I pulled this same hustle yesterday outside Frasier Music Hall.
"Two hundred," I say. "Cash."
Another beat, and then she nods.
I run down Lake Street, fueled by adrenaline and desperation and the two hundred dollars in the messenger bag bouncing against my hip. The June air is hot and heavy, and I feel like a sponge, soaking it all in, but it doesn't slow me down. Nothing could right now.
A siren rises over the breath whooshing in my ears. The patchy grass and green leaves of the park on my right are only a blur as I skirt around businessmen and -women in their black suits, tourists with their shopping bags, street musicians with their upside-down bucket drums and cardboard signs. Someone nearby is selling popcorn; the smell of it makes my stomach grumble. Someone's singing, too, though maybe they shouldn't be.
The Lake Street SCTA station is above ground, the tracks traveling over the city streets, and by the time I get there the silver train is pulling in overhead. I don't need to see the red streak down the side to know it's mine. Lungs burning, I give a final push, lunging up the dirty cement stairs past a man playing a saxophone to the open-air platform.
"Wait!" I call, as if this might actually help. Shoving my prepaid card into the metal box, I hoist my bag up to shoulder level, turn sideways, and wedge through the turnstile before it's clear for me to pass. From overhead comes a loud clang, followed by an automated operator's voice: Stand clear of the doors.
In my mind, I can see Pete's ruddy, scrunched-up face asking what took me so long, and my stomach tightens. Feet slapping across the concrete, I reach for the closing doors. It's fifty minutes until the next red line comes through. None of the other trains go that far south.
Victory begins to crumble in my chest.
With a clap, the doors bounce open. The only way that happens is if someone was blocking one of them, and as I look, I see a guy in a gray T-shirt and jeans slipping inside the train further down the platform.
Stand clear of the doors, comes the voice from above.
I jump into the cool compartment, silently thanking the guy in the next car, and breathe a huge sigh of relief.
"Lucky you," says a woman in the seat nearest the door, tucking earbuds beneath her frizzy hair. I wipe the sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand. She has no idea.
The seats are all filled, so I hook my arm around a pole as the red line shudders, and then pulls out of the station.
Next stop City Center, says the automated voice as I fix the blunt, wavy ponytail that only holds three-quarters of my hair. I've ridden this train a hundred times since I was a kid, but still my gaze finds a map hanging at the front of the compartment. Under the bold black letters Sikawa City Transit Authority is a web of colored lines. Blue and green twist north. Yellow heads west to the suburbs and the airport. Red drops straight down. Someone's scratched out the last stop — White Bank — and drawn a head tilted back, mouth open, as if swallowing any train that ventures that low.
People say Sikawa City's a nice place, but those people obviously haven't been south of the river. It stretches out from Lake Michigan, forking at the old newspaper factory to divide the city in half. The seven neighborhoods north of Uptown are filled with private schools, coffee shops, and gated communities. The nine below they call the Circles of Hell for a reason. Devon Park, where I live, is near the bottom.
Rocking on its track, the train crosses the river and cuts through downtown, giant stone buildings rising outside the windows, stretching into the hazy sky. The money's burning a hole in my bag. I keep reaching my hand inside just to make sure it's there.
Most of the people in my car get off at City Center, leaving only a handful of stragglers and the lingering scent of fast-food burgers. As soon as they're gone, I claim one of the stained yellow seats facing the front of the train and open my bag. Careful to keep the bills hidden in the little cave of worn leather, I count them slowly, savoring the crisp feel between my fingertips.
Those girls didn't need this. If they had this much cash to shell out for back row show tickets, they have a lot more where that came from. Thanks to their poor judgment of character, I'm now two hundred dollars closer to college.
One day I'm getting out of Devon Park, and when I do, I'm not looking back.
That thought alone is enough to unknot the worry inside me, and I glance over my shoulder, just to make sure no one saw the money. Earbuds is still facing the other way, oblivious. In the seat behind me, a man in a stained undershirt is snoring, chin on his chest.
My gaze stops on a guy on the back of the train, lanky and slouched in his seat, staring through cool, black-rimmed glasses in my direction.
Held by his gaze, I grow still. Not because he's just taken my breath away or anything, but because he's clearly caught, and he's clearly comfortable being caught. Most people can't even really look like this at people they know, much less a stranger.
I've never seen him before. His face is all bold lines and tan skin. Dark eyes and glossy black hair. His lips pull into a small, one-sided smirk, drawing my focus. He's the kind of guy you remember, and though I balk, it might actually be my lucky day, because he's definitely not ugly.
Then, as if it didn't happen, he removes a pen from his pocket, lowers his gaze, and begins to write something inside the book on his lap.
And that stupid grin that's somehow crept onto my face fades, because I realize he probably wasn't checking me out, but my money.
On his charcoal-gray shirt is the silhouette of a bird — a raven, maybe — with a sharp beak and pointed talons. Now that I'm looking, I'm sure it's the same shirt I saw on the guy who blocked the doors at the Lake Street Station. I thought he was in the car behind mine; if he switched he must have done it at the last station when people were getting on and off. I would have noticed otherwise.
Wariness prickles down my spine. There was a guy with a similar build and black hair in the arts building, too. I didn't get a good look at his face, but this could have been him.
How long has he been following me?
I stuff the folded money into the very bottom of the bag. Playing it cool, I glance again over my shoulder. He isn't looking anymore. In fact, he's angled himself the other way, hiding his face from my view.
Next stop, Fullbright, calls the automated voice. I jolt up, gripping the back of the seat to steady myself as the train slows. There are still six stops to Devon Park, but I'll ride in another car, thank you very much.
And if he follows, well, we'll just have to have a conversation about that.
But as I step toward the glass I realize I've got bigger problems. Three guys have spotted me through the windows and are stalking toward my doors. Two of them I know well enough from school. The third, Marcus Kilroy, I know a lot better than I wish I did. The five and a half months we dated in sophomore year will forever go down under Brynn Hilder's Poor Life Choices.
He's standing right in front of me as the doors slide back, all big, saggy clothes and bright blue eyes. He holds his arms wide, as if he's St. Peter and he just opened the gates.
"Bloody Brynn," he says. "Where you going, girl?"
"Nowhere," I mutter, which from the look on Marcus's face is exactly what he expected to hear.
During the first week of my freshman year at Robert Jarvis High, the counselor brought in a motivational speaker — a Jarvis dropout with track marks on his arms and prison tats on his knuckles, who'd gotten clean and found the Lord and now managed some noodle place in Mercer Township. Sweat ringing his collar and the armpits of his shirt, he stormed across the squeaky gym floor, bellowing like a corner preacher, the cord of the microphone tethering him to a worn-out speaker on the free throw line.
If you want something bad enough, he told us, find a way to make it happen.
Approximately three seconds later, he tripped on the mic cord and crashed straight into the front row, where the underclassmen were seated cross-legged on the floor like a bunch of preschoolers. We were packed in so tightly, I had nowhere to go. He broke his nose on my forehead, painting my face red like some slasher movie, and earning me a nickname that would prove unshakable: Bloody Brynn.
After school, I passed that guy buying drugs from Max O'Malley behind the bus stop shelter. Apparently if you want something bad enough, you really do find a way to make it happen.
Excerpted from "The Deceivers"
Copyright © 2019 Kristen Simmons.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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