The spel of the dream lifted the moment my mom’s voice got louder and she used my ful name. She only cal ed me El speth—my old-fashioned given name, which she knew I hated—when she was real y irritated with me. My voice returned, and I responded to my mom. “I’l be down in a minute!”

Disentangling myself from my sheets, I slid off the bed and padded over to my dresser, where I’d laid out my clothes for the day. I shivered; I could actual y see my breath in the air. Why was it so cold?

I looked around the room and saw that my window was ajar. Just a crack, but enough to let in the chil iness of the Maine autumn morning. I didn’t remember opening it before I went to bed. Odd, but I could be a bit absentminded at times.

I closed the window, gathered up my clothes, and headed down the short hal way to my bathroom. Shutting the door behind me, I turned on the water—hot. Then I lathered lemony soap onto a damp washcloth, and took my first look into the mirror.

I ignored the pale, almost translucent, blue eyes looking back at me as best I could: their odd, unsettling color had brought me nothing but stares for years. Instead, I focused on the things I could control. I studied my face, wondering for the mil ionth time just how I’d tame my unruly, obstinately straight black hair. Picking up my brush, I began the long, painful process of undoing al the knots, yawned, and slowly awakened to the sunny morning.

Its brightness drove away the creepy ending to my dream and lifted my spirits a tiny bit. I thought maybe I’d be able to make it through my first day at the upper high school after al . Then again, I’d probably stil wish I could fast-forward through al the nonsense—past the hal ways and classrooms ful of social posing and gossipy distractions from schoolwork—and go straight to col ege.

Within the hour, I was careening through the hal ways crowded with al -too-familiar seniors and juniors. I approached my newly assigned locker with a single, silent prayer on my lips: “please, please, for once let Piper’s locker not be near mine.” In an unfortunate twist of fate, I was regularly subjected to the uber-popular Piper Faires both at home—where she was my next-door neighbor—and at school. Our last names—Faires and Faneuil—doomed me forever to be Piper’s locker neighbor as wel . The fact that Piper routinely ignored me at school, while stil acting like my friend at home, made the whole situation very awkward. Although I had to admit, our unavoidable in-school proximity and neighborhood friendship had benefits: they brought me a certain immunity from her group’s petty little games.

Scanning the lockers, I didn’t have to look too hard or too long before I spotted my assigned number twenty- four, and realized my prayer hadn’t been answered. There stood Piper with her swarm of friends circling around their queen—Missy—like honeybees. With their even tans, perfectly faded jeans, and colorful summer flip-flops, they glowed and seemed carefree—even young—in a way I’d never experienced. With al our environment-saving missions to impoverished countries, my parents had imbued me with such a strong sense of responsibility to the world at large that I never real y felt happy-go-lucky. If I ever had a minute to spare, I felt like I should be volunteering more hours at the local soup kitchen instead of just hanging out.

I knew I shouldn’t care about their little pack, and real y, truly didn’t care most of the time. After al , Piper had “invited” me to be part of her inner circle back in middle school, and I rejected her. Even then, I just couldn’t stomach being part of a group that routinely voted their friends “off” the lunch table, relegating them to some “loser-ridden backwater table” until they were voted back “on.” Stil , in such close proximity to their light, I couldn’t help but feel like a black hole, with my dark hair and jeans.

Missy, the most malevolent of the group, leaned directly on locker number twenty-four. My eyes rol ed at the thought of having to cut through al Missy’s nastiness to get to my locker before the bel rang. She caught my gesture, and I braced myself for some sort of backlash. Instead, Missy flipped her golden brown hair over her shoulders and said, “Hey, how was your summer?” With a smile.

I turned to look behind me, wondering just who she was talking to. My relationship with Piper ensured that Missy never bothered to belittle me, but she sure never bothered to be nice, either.

She repeated herself. “How was your summer, El ie?”

“Fine,” I answered warily, as I opened my locker. I busied myself inside it, slowly organizing my books in the hopes that she’d disappear by the time I emerged.

It didn’t work.

“Where’d you go this time?” Missy asked when I peeked out.

“Kenya,” I said as I shut my locker. That she admitted to knowing my name and the fact that I took summer trips abroad was beyond me.

“You’re so lucky your parents take you al over the world. I was stuck here in Til inghast al summer long.”

I didn’t know what to say to her, especial y since Piper and the rest of the golden group were watching with expectant grins on their faces. And especial y since I was pretty sure that Missy’s glamorous vision of my world travels didn’t jibe with the third-world reality. So I didn’t say anything.

Missy fil ed in the silence. “The girls and I were just talking about meeting at noon for lunch. Want to join us?”

I was just about to ask why when Ruth walked down the hal toward me.

Ruth’s pace slowed and her shoulders tensed when she spotted me talking to Missy. Ruth knew that she’d have to pass by her to get to me, and that the immunity my relationship with Piper bought me didn’t extend to her, even though she was my best friend.

I watched as Ruth bravely squared her shoulders, tucked her long red hair behind her ears, and approached me. Compared to the suntanned perfection of Missy and her friends, Ruth looked plain with her pale skin, wire- rimmed glasses, and basic T-shirt and jeans. But I knew that she hid a quiet prettiness behind that camouflage; it was just that she hated any kind of attention, even the positive variety.

“I think the bel ’s about to ring, El ie,” she said. Our first class was AP English, and rumor had it that the tough Miss Taunton was a stickler for timeliness.

Before I could respond, Missy swatted her hand in the air. She said to her little audience, “Did you guys hear something?”

The other girls snickered. I shot a quick look at the unchar-acteristical y quiet Piper. I didn’t expect Piper to defend Ruth, but I was happy to see that she didn’t chime in.

“No?” Egged on by her friends’ laughter, Missy batted the air and continued with her little charade. “Must be some nasty fly.”

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