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.”