“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I replied, trying to steel my nerves. I felt as if I were about to go into battle. “Let’s do it.”

Ivy stood at the gates waving like a proud but anxious mother seeing her children off on their first day of school.

“We’ll be fine, Bethany,” Gabriel promised. “Remember where we come from.”

We had predicted that our arrival would make an impression, but we hadn’t counted on people stopping to openly gawk at us, or stepping aside as though they were being visited by royalty. I avoided making eye contact with anyone and followed Gabriel to the administration office. Inside, the carpet was dark green and a cluster of upholstered chairs were arranged in a row. Through a glass partition we could see an office with an upright fan and shelves almost to the ceiling. A short, round woman with a pink cardigan and an inflated sense of self-importance bustled up to us. A phone rang on a desk nearby and she glared pointedly at an office assistant, indicating it was her job to answer it. Her expression softened a little when she got close enough to see our faces.

“Hello there,” she said brightly, eyeing us up and down. “My name’s Mrs. Jordan and I’m the registrar. You must be Bethany, and you”—her voice dropped a notch as she scanned Gabriel’s flawless face in appreciation —“must be Mr. Church, our new music teacher.”

She came out from behind the little glass wall and tucked the folder she was carrying under her arm to shake our hands enthusiastically. “Welcome to Bryce Hamilton! I’ve allocated Bethany a locker on the third floor; we can head up there now, and then I’ll escort you, Mr. Church, to our staff room. Briefings are Tuesdays and Thursdays at eight-thirty sharp. I hope you enjoy your time here. You’ll find it’s a very lively place, never a dull moment!”

Gabriel and I exchanged glances, unsure now what to expect of our first day at school. Mrs. Jordan bustled us outside and past the basketball courts, where a group of sweaty boys were furiously pounding the asphalt, shooting hoops.

“There’s a big game on this afternoon,” Mrs. Jordan confided, winking over her shoulder. She squinted up at the gathering clouds and frowned. “I sure hope the rain holds off. Our boys will be so disappointed if we have to forfeit.”

As she prattled on, I saw Gabriel glance up at the sky. Discreetly, he turned his hand so that it was palm up toward the heavens and closed his eyes. The engraved silver rings he wore glinted in the sunlight. Immediately, as if in response to his silent command, beams of sunlight burst through the clouds, washing the courts in gold.

“Well, would you look at that!” Mrs. Jordan exclaimed. “A change in the weather — you two must have brought us luck.”

In the main wing the corridors were carpeted in a dark burgundy and oak doors with glass panels led to antiquated-looking classrooms. The ceilings were high and some of the old ornate light fixtures still remained. They were a stark contrast to the graffiti-covered lockers lining the corridor and the slightly nauseating smell of deodorant coupled with cleaning agents and the greasy odor of hamburgers coming from the cafeteria. Mrs. Jordan took us on a whirlwind tour, pointing out the main facilities (the quadrangle, multimedia department, science block, assembly hall, gymnasium, and tracks, playing fields, and the performing arts center). She was obviously pressed for time, because after showing me my locker, she blurted some vague directions to the nurse’s office, told me not to hesitate should I have any questions, and took Gabriel by the elbow and whisked him away. He looked back at me apprehensively.

“Will you be okay?” he mouthed.

I gave him a wan smile by way of reply, hoping I looked more confident than I felt. I certainly didn’t want Gabriel worrying about me when he had matters of his own to deal with. Just then a sonorous bell rang, reverberating through the building and signaling the beginning of the first class. I found myself suddenly standing alone in a corridor full of strangers. They pushed indifferently past me as they headed to various classrooms. For a moment I felt invisible, as if I had no business being there. I studied my schedule and realized that the jumble of numbers and letters may as well have been written in a foreign language for all the sense they made to me. V.CHES11—how on earth was I supposed to decipher that? I even considered ducking through the crowd and making my way back to Byron Street.

“Excuse me.” I caught the attention of a girl with a tumble of titian curls who was striding past. She stopped and surveyed me with interest. “I’m new,” I explained helplessly, holding out my schedule. “Can you tell me what this means?”

“It means you have chemistry with Mr. Velt in room S-eleven,” she said. “It’s just down the hall. I’ll take you if you like — we’re in the same class.”

“Thanks,” I said with obvious relief.

“Do you have a spare after chem? If you do I can show you around.”

“A what?” I asked, my confusion growing.

“A spare — as in a free period?” The girl gave me a funny look. “What did you call them at your old school?” Her face changed as she considered a more disturbing possibility. “Or didn’t you have any?”

“No,” I replied with a nervous laugh. “We didn’t.”

“That must’ve sucked. I’m Molly, by the way.”

The girl was beautiful with glowing skin, rounded features, and bright eyes. Her rosiness reminded me of a girl in a painting I’d seen, a shepherdess in a bucolic setting.

“Bethany,” I said with a smile. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Molly waited patiently at my locker while I rummaged through my bag for the relevant textbook, a spiral notebook, and a handful of pens. Part of me wanted to call Gabriel back and ask him to take me home. I could almost feel his strong arms encircling me, hiding me from everything, and steering me back to Byron. Gabriel had a way of making me feel safe, no matter what the circumstances were. But I didn’t know how to find him in this vast school; he could have been behind any of the numberless doors in any one of the identical corridors; I had no idea how to find the music wing. I silently reproved myself for my dependence on Gabriel. I needed to survive here on a daily basis without his protection, and I was determined to show him that I could. Molly opened the classroom door and we walked in. Of course, we were late.

Mr. Velt was a short, bald man with a shiny forehead. He was wearing a sweater patterned with geometric shapes that looked like it had faded from overwashing. When Molly and I came in, he was in the middle of trying to explain a formula scrawled on the whiteboard to a bunch of students, whose vacant faces indicated they wished they were anywhere but in his classroom.

“Glad you could join us, Miss Harrison,” he said to Molly, who slunk quickly to the back of the room. Having already checked the roll he seemed to know who I was.

“Late on your first day, Miss Church,” he said, clicking his tongue and raising an eyebrow in reprimand. “Not exactly off to a good start. Hurry up and sit down.”

Suddenly he remembered he had forgotten to introduce me. He stopped writing long enough to make a perfunctory introduction. “Everyone, this is Bethany Church. She’s new to Bryce Hamilton, so please do your utmost to make her feel welcome.”

Almost every pair of eyes in the room followed me as I took the last seat available. It was at the back next to Molly, and when Mr. Velt stopped talking and told us to work through the next set of questions, I was able to study her more closely. I saw now that she wore the top button of her school dress undone and large silver hoops in her ears. She had drawn an emery board from her pocket and was filing her nails under the desk, blatantly ignoring our teacher’s instructions.

“Don’t worry about Velt,” she whispered, seeing my look of surprise. “He’s a total stiff, bitter and twisted after his wife served the divorce papers. The only thing that gets him going these days is his new convertible, which he looks like a loser driving.” She grinned, and I saw she had a broad smile and white teeth. She wore a lot of mascara but her skin had a natural glow. “Bethany, that’s a pretty name,” she went on. “Kinda old-fashioned though. But hey, I got stuck with Molly, like some character in a picture book.”

I smiled awkwardly at her, not entirely sure how to answer someone so confident and forthright.

“I guess we’re stuck with the names our parents chose for us,” I said, knowing it was a lame attempt at making conversation. I figured I really shouldn’t have been talking at all, seeing as we were in class and poor Mr. Velt needed all the help he could get. It also made me feel like a fraud, as angels didn’t have parents. For a moment I felt like Molly would see right through my lie. But she didn’t.

“So where are you from?” Molly wanted to know, blowing on the nails of one hand and shaking a bottle of fluorescent pink polish.

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