I went for registration at Thornton Academy right after my shift ended. It had been established by Lord William James IV, a British army general, in 1739, as a military training ground for young boys; it had become a boarding school for white Americans in 1801 and had eventually transformed into a co-educational day school that was one of the most prestigious ones in the country in the 1950s. Now it had the pick of the brightest, richest, WASPiest kids and teachers on the East Coast, and standing outside it that sunny August morning, I wasn’t at all sure what I was doing there.
The red brick main building was covered in ivy and surrounded by acres of lush green land. Towering black iron gates with a gold-plated plaque reading ‘THORNTON ACADEMY’ separated the long gravel pathway to the school from the main road outside. I had to flash my learner’s permit as identification and have my picture taken by a small security camera atop the gates before the surly security guard opened a tiny door in one side of the wall and let me through. I felt even more intimidated once inside; I would never fit in here.
“Are you new?”The male voice came from behind me. I whirled to face a tall athletic-looking guy with curly brown hair, friendly brown eyes, and an innocent face. He was very cute in a boyish, easy way, but what really struck me about him was that he looked kind.
Kindness, judging from the way immaculately-dressed strangers on the streets smirked at my clothes and from the rude asshole’s comment at Big Happy Family in the morning, was not the prevalent character trait of people in Linbury.
“Yeah,” I said cautiously.
“I thought so,” the guy said, offering a frank smile. I was decidedly not single, but I couldn’t help liking that smile.”I mean, I know pretty much everyone here – I’m a senior and on the Student Council and all – and I’ve never seen you before.”He wiped his right palm on his worn blue jeans and reached out to shake my hand.”I’m Chris.”
“Summer Ward, “I said formally, allowing myself to smile politely back.
It was a Thornton tradition that during Registration, the principal met each and every student individually to give them their schedules and impart choice words of wisdom. This was why Registration went on for about a week since he or she couldn’t meet all four hundred and eighty students at one go. I had already been nervous about it and seeing Chris didn’t make things any better. He looked so comfortable standing there, as if he belonged and knew he did.
The tourist brochures called Linbury ‘a kind of paradise’.If that was the case, then paradise wasn’t very welcoming.
“So which grade are you in?”Chris asked as I looked around uncertainly, trying to figure out which path to take to get to the administration building, located half a mile away from the main school building.
“Starting sophomore year,” I responded, feeling impatient. I didn’t have time to stand around talking idly to some rich boy who was probably just being friendly out of pity, no matter how nice he looked.”Could you please tell me where the principal’s office is?”
“Sure,” Chris said.”In fact, I can take you there. I’m going there myself.”
I shrugged reluctantly and followed him down the walkway. Gigantic trees lined each side, and in one corner of the manicured lawns was a marble fountain. Chris kept up a running commentary as I fell into step beside him.”The stables are behind that pond, along with the tennis and basketball courts. The football, soccer, athletics, field hockey, and lax fields are over there. There are an indoor gym and a swimming pool inside the school building. See that glass building over there? That’s the greenhouse. The kitchen is just a few steps away from that.”I already knew all of that from the brochures, but I let him talk; if he did, I wouldn’t have to, and if I didn’t have to, there would be no risk of me blurting out my secrets to him. Not that I would anyway – but I didn’t want to take any chances.
Well, here we are,” Chris said finally, pushing open a glass door of a smaller red brick building. Inside was a soft-carpeted room with mahogany furniture, wooden walls, a buttery leather couch against a wall from which hung a painting, a desk behind which sat a platinum-blonde skinny woman, and a wooden door leading to the principal’s inner sanctum. One of the most gorgeous girls I had ever seen sat on the leather couch.
“Christopher Raymond Fitzgerald!” the girl shrieked, jumping off the couch to fling her slender tanned arms around my companion’s neck. She drew back, a seductive smile on her full, pouty, highly-glossed mouth. She was tall and curvy, with glossy black hair cascading in a straight waterfall down to her lightly-freckled red-halter-top-clad shoulder and gleaming long-lashed dark eyes. “I’ve missed you so much!”
“That’s good to know, Roxanne,” Chris laughed, gently disentangling her arms from his neck. I did a quick mental assessment. Jazz, who mysteriously knew quite a lot about Thornton, had told me a little bit about the students after Zach Gellar had left the bakery, and Roxanne Vivienne Cartwright’s name had cropped up quite often. This gorgeous girl, I realized, was Roxanne, Principal Cartwright’s daughter, and the undisputed Queen of the school. Evidently, Chris – Christopher Raymond Fitzgerald, Roxanne had called him – was popular enough to be good friends with her.
Neither of them paid any attention to me, which suited me just fine. I sat down on a chair by the door and waited for whoever was closeted with the principal to come out so that I could have my turn.
“How was riding camp up in Maine, Chris?” Roxanne was asking.”You look so tanned and gorgeous. I would so consider hitting on you if you weren’t taken by one of my best friends.”
I’d been wondering whether Chris was gay – in my experience, no straight guy was as nice as he had been to strangers unless the stranger was five foot six, blond, and female enough to have breasts like Pamela Anderson’s. I had my answer now: he had a girlfriend.
“I’m flattered,” said Chris, grinning. “Where’ve you been, Roxy?”
“Oh, you know – Paris, Venice, a week in Rome – it’s all so blah.” Roxanne waved a dismissive hand. “I’m kind of sick of all that crap. Next year, I’m going to Hawaii. Or even Miami. Europe is so done – I swear, there were so many Americans trying to look French when they were dressed in shit from The Gap, I wanted to set off an atomic bomb or something.”
“You’re such a snob,” Chris teased good-naturedly.
“Please, sweetie. I can’t help it if I have high standards, can I? Oh my God, Evelyn, hi!”
The door to the principal’s office had opened, and a girl even more beautiful than Roxanne was had stepped out. I felt my breath catch with envy in her throat as I took in the sheer beauty of the girl. She was tall and slender, perfectly formed, with lustrous blond hair glistening in the sunlight descending down to her waist and enormous, icy blue eyes. Her flawless skin and chiseled features made her face look graceful and open and sweet but her elegant posture suggested that she was anything but pure and open.
“Roxanne,” she said, her tone well-bred, her accent polished, her voice sweet and clear.”Chris.Hello.”
“Hello, you moron?” Roxanne gave the beautiful blond girl an affectionate hug. “You see us after eight weeks and that’s all you can say to us? What’ve you been doing in Linbury all by yourself?”
“She went to Atlanta,” said Chris, embracing the girl – Evelyn, Roxanne had said her name was – lightly.”Hey, sis.”
I felt my jaw drop. The Greek goddess-slash-Ice Queen and nice guy Chris were related?
“Hi, Chris,” Evelyn said coolly, kissing him on the cheek. “How was Europe, Roxy?”
“Excruciatingly boring.”Roxanne wrapped one arm around Chris and the other around Evelyn and surveyed herself in the mirror opposite them.”All I did was talk about you guys to the girls I met in Spain. She said a gang like ours is stuff storybooks are written about. Do you know what she named us? The Champagne Gang.”
“The Champagne Gang?”Chris echoed, looking amused.
“Hell, yes. We’re rich, famous, hot, and hard to imitate. We’re like Dom Perignon. Right, Eve?”She nudged Evelyn’s waist with her own.
“You sound like a strange commercial, Roxy,” said Evelyn. “I’m honored that you go around telling people in Europe about your friends, though.”
Roxanne smiled.”It was because I was missing you guys so much. Remember last summer? We pulled off so much fun shit, but this year…God, all I did was sit around. Well, I guess I should go butter up my father now.”
“Summer Ward, you’re up after Evelyn Priscilla Fitzgerald, “the platinum-blond female – presumably the school secretary – at the desk intoned.
Roxanne raised her thin arched eyebrows and looked at the secretary with disdain.”Excuse me. The last time I checked, my name was Roxanne Cartwright.”
The secretary looked intimidated. “I – I’m sorry, Miss Cartwright,” she stammered.”But the names on my list say Summer Ward registered first, and then Roxanne Vivienne Cartwright.”
“I don’t give a fuck about your – who the hell is Summer Ward?” Roxanne said irritably.
“Um.”I sat up in my chair, wondering how I could be so invisible to Roxanne when I was sitting just a few feet away from her. Maybe people wearing sneakers and no-name jeans simply didn’t register in Roxanne’s line of vision. “That’s me.”
Roxanne swiveled her head around so fast that I regretted having said anything. The last thing I wanted to do, besides attracting attention, was alienate someone as powerful and bitchy as Roxanne Cartwright seemed to be. But I seemed to be doing both already, without even intending to.
“Right,” Roxanne said, a sneer forming on her perfect face as she took in my unfashionable clothes and unruly boring brown hair. I wasn’t the beauty of my family by any means: I had waist-length hair and boring brown eyes and an average face.”And may I ask where the hell you’ve come from to take my place on my father’s list? Wait, don’t tell me. Some shitty small town in Indiana, RI –”
“Hey,” Chris interrupted. His pleasant smile had vanished.”Cut it out, Roxanne.”
“I beg your pardon?” Roxanne looked at him incredulously.
“She’s new,” Chris said. He dropped his voice, but I could still hear every word he said. I bit my lip anxiously.”Cut her some slack.”
“What’s with the knight-in-shining-armor act, Christopher?” Roxanne hissed.”Do you even know her?”
“It doesn’t matter, does it?”There was scorn in Eve’s light, high voice.”We all know what a nice, chivalrous guy my brother is.”
I swallowed uncomfortably. It was interesting to see that my family didn’t seem to be the only one suffering from extreme tension, but it was beyond horrible to be stuck in the middle of some kind of internal power play the trio seemed to be having.”You know what? I don’t really care. You can go first.”
“Summer Ward?” The door to the principal’s office opened and Principal Cartwright looked out. He was a short, thin, distinguished-looking man with hair graying at the temples wearing an impeccable designer-looking suit.”Is she here?”
“I’m here, “I said softly, trying to compress myself into the smallest area of space available.
“No, she isn’t.” Roxanne flung me an angry glance. “Daddy, I’ve been waiting here for like an hour. You’ve got to see me first.”
“Don’t make a scene, Roxanne,” said Principal Cartwright quietly. He appraised me thoughtfully.”Miss Ward.If you would just step into my office.”
I didn’t dare to disobey him.”Chris, do you like that creature or something?”I heard Roxanne demand as the door closed behind her and Principal Cartwright.”You have a girlfriend, you know. That girl – she probably lives in Rochester Cottage or something.”
Roxanne’s guess was correct.I knew Rochester Cottage was several classes below the rest of the enormous, elaborate, expensive houses crowning Rochester Lane. In the colonial days, it had been occupied by groups of servants working in the other houses. All things considered, I could understand why she sounded so disgusted.
“Good morning, Miss Ward,” said Principal Cartwright. “Have a seat.”
I forced a smile as I absorbed my surroundings. The principal’s office at my old school had been a tiny room on the top floor of a red-brick building, with puce green walls, a frayed old carpet on the floor, and a bright maroon chair behind a plastic gray desk. Principal Cartwright’s office was a spacious study with polished wooden walls and floors, a soft carpet on the floor, and priceless paintings adorning the walls. There were magnificent curios scattered around the room – a silver-topped table with a gleaming golden statue of the Buddha on it, a tasteful golden lamp, an antique-looking desk behind which the principal sat on a plush armchair.
“‘Morning,” I said uncomfortably, perching on the edge of a low silk-sheet-covered divan in front of his desk.
“Welcome to Thornton Academy,” he said kindly, holding out his hand.
“Thanks.” I shook his hand for politeness’ sake and pulled it back immediately.
“Miss Ward, I see you have excellent references from Woodhouse High. Very good grades, on the school newspaper – are you inclined towards journalism?”
“Not really.” I licked my lips nervously, staring at the painting behind his head. An original by some Renaissance artist, I bet. “I just liked it more than the other extracurricular activities at Woodhouse – the choices were kind of limited.”
“I see,” said Principal Cartwright. “Well, Thornton is the opposite. We offer plenty of choices. It’s compulsory to join a sports team, and we have a Student Council, a newspaper, a literary magazine, and the yearbook committee, of course, but we also have Drama, Debate, Nature, Feng Shui, sewing, accounting, flower-arranging, and Art Clubs. To name a few.”
“Great,” I said politely, not sure why he needed to tell me that. I’d seen it in the brochures.
“Miss Ward.” He sat up straighter. “I’d like to talk to you about a rather – ahem – difficult topic.”
I nodded. In normal circumstances, I would have said, “Go ahead,” but it somehow seemed disrespectful to say that to Principal Cartwright.
“You’re a scholarship student, with the Daniella Phillips Scholarship covering about three-fourths of your tuition.”
I wished I could raise my eyebrows as expressively as Roxanne had. Instead, I settled for saying, “Yes, but I don’t see why – “
“Please, let me finish. Here at Thornton Academy, we pride ourselves on – equality, but I’m afraid some of our students are not very – sensitive. They might have some trouble accepting you as one of them, at first. Now, you and I both know that you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t worthy of this school, but they don’t.”
I nodded again. I liked his honesty, the way he’d gone straight to the point. So many people would have just hedged about and expressed themselves in insulting hints and insinuations.
“I would like to ask you – are you ready for all the trouble they might cause you?”
I frowned. “Excuse me. I see why they might not accept me as one of their friends, but I don’t see why they would want to cause me any trouble.”
“Let me be honest with you, Miss Ward. Children can be brutal. I’m sure you know that. If they think that you don’t have a right to be here, then they’re going to do all they can to make sure that you don’t remain here.”
I placed my palms on my lap. “All right.”
He observed me critically for a second. “If you can – as they say – stick it out here, you might get an immense lot out of Thornton. I believe you have some potential. If you’re willing to work hard and develop a thick skin, I think we can do quite a bit for you. But I ask you – are you willing?”
I considered. I could say honestly that I wasn’t, and walk out of the room and go back to Manhattan. But I knew that was just a fantasy. I wasn’t going to disappoint my father, and I wasn’t going to disappoint Principal Cartwright. At least, not yet. Besides, how bad could things get? “Yes,” I said quietly.
“All right then, Miss Ward, I’ll let you go.” He handed me a thick folder. “Your schedule is in here, along with your map of the school and a list of everything you need to buy. You know we have six school houses – Cartwright, Thornton, Jameson, Humphrey, Dean, and Galloway. You’re in Cartwright, which makes me your housemaster and an advisor of sorts. I’ll see you on the second of September.” He gestured towards the door. “I see you’ve already met my daughter and her friends.”
I couldn’t hide a wry smile. “Yes, sir.”
He smiled back, looking half-amused. “Be careful. And good luck, Miss Ward.”
I smiled stiffly, thinking that I was going to need all the luck I could get.
Roxanne sprang up from her couch as I exited the principal’s office. Chris and Eve were nowhere to be seen. I felt a pang of apprehension, but to my surprise, Roxanne walked straight up to me and gave me a friendly smile. “Hey. I’m Roxanne. Chris said your name was Samantha.”
“Summer,” I corrected, then wished I hadn’t.
“Right. Summer. Listen, I’m sorry if I wasn’t too gracious about letting you go in first – “
“It’s fine,” I cut her off. I didn’t trust Roxanne, and I was certain the dark-haired sex goddess had an agenda for apologizing.
“No, it isn’t,” Roxanne persisted. “I really feel bad. You’re new, and we must have given you such a bad idea of this place. I want to make it up to you.”
“Right…” I looked at her suspiciously. But as hard as I looked, Roxanne’s angelic smile gave nothing away.
“We’re having a little end-of-summer reunion at Rochester Park tomorrow evening. Me and my friends. It would be nice if you could come, Summer.”
“It’s Christopher’s idea,” Roxanne added. “Think about it, all right? Nine-fifteen, the park.”
Christopher’s idea. Chris seemed like a genuinely nice, trustworthy guy. Besides, there was no harm in at least pretending to accept Roxanne’s invitation. “All right,” I said reluctantly.
“Great. I’ll see you then. Oh, and Summer. Don’t wear sneakers.”
She pushed past me and disappeared into the principal’s office.