HOPE AND CHANGE
I tried not to look at the Billings destruction site as I crossed the snow-covered campus with Constance, Kiki, and Astrid, all of us huddled together against the cold, rushing for the stone chapel on the east side of the quad. Once inside, I was hit with a surprisingly warm wall of air. I tugged off my wool hat and looked at my friends in confusion.
“It’s like the Caribbean in here,” Constance said, removing her red wool gloves.
The Caribbean. Sigh. Even though I’d sworn I’d never go back there, the word instantly conjured up thoughts of Upton Giles, my winter break boyfriend, and my heart pinged and panged like mad. I could practically feel his solid arms around me, smell the clean island scent of him in the air. I wondered what he was doing right then. Oxford was five hours ahead, so he might very well have been heading off to class at the university, lunching with friends, or catching up on his reading for school. I imagined what he might say to me if he knew about Billings.
“It’s your future, Reed. Your choice. Who are you going to be?”
I felt a shiver as his sexy English accent echoed in my mind. Later I’d give him a call and a chance to pep-talk me himself.
“Reed? People are starting to queue up,” Astrid said, nudging me from behind. Her English accent wasn’t quite as hot as Upton’s, but it got me moving.
I shed my coat and let the other girls slide into one of the pews ahead of me so I could sit on the end. The source of all the unexpected warmth appeared to be a series of long white space heaters, which had been placed along the outer walls of the chapel. Their insides glowed red and filled the air with the nose-prickling scent of warm iron. Why no one had ever thought of this before was beyond me. It gave the formerly cold, dank chapel a pleasant, cozy vibe. Many of the students around me actually looked happy to be there. That was new.
The whispering and chatter suddenly intensified and I turned around to find Spencer Hathaway walking into the chapel, along with his two sons Sawyer and Graham. Graham, all preppy in a burgundy V-neck sweater and navy pea coat, took a seat at the very back of the chapel in the senior section. Sawyer and his dad paused at the end of the pew across from mine and whispered a few words to each other; then Sawyer sat as his dad made his way up the aisle to the podium. As soon as Mr. Hathaway got there, the chapel fell silent. In his seat, Sawyer flicked his blond hair away from his eyes. I waved and his entire demeanor relaxed when he saw me.
“How are you?” he mouthed.
I shrugged. “Fine, I guess.”
“Good morning, Easton Academy students!” Mr. Hathaway’s voice boomed across the chapel, scaring my heart into a sprint. I saw Lorna and Missy exchange an incredulous look. Who knew such a commanding voice could come out of such a slight, handsome man? The few people who hadn’t been at attention before were now.
Astrid whistled quietly. “The new headmaster is hotttt!” she sang.
“Ew,” I replied under my breath. “He’s, like, over forty.”
I stifled a laugh and faced forward. I guess when it came to parental types, Mr. Hathaway was on the good-looking side. He was of medium height, no taller than I was, but slim and athletic. He wore his dark hair slicked back from his face, and his pin-striped suit was slim-cut and stylish.
“My name is Headmaster Hathaway,” he said, resting his hands on either side of the podium.
“Double H. I like it. Very sexy superspy,” Astrid said.
“Where do you come up with these things?” I whispered.
“I have a highly creative inner dialogue running through my head at all times,” she replied matter-of-factly.
“I’m here to welcome you to a brand-new semester and a brand-new era, at Easton Academy,” Headmaster Hathaway continued.
“Oh boy. Here we go,” Kiki said sarcastically, slumping so low in her seat her butt hung off the pew. “Hope and change all over again. I get the appeal, but the coattails are full. Get a new point of view already.”
“I’m sure you’ve all noticed there have been a few changes around here since you’ve been gone.” Headmaster Hathaway smoothed his eggplant-colored tie and drew himself up straight, like he was preening over the destruction of Billings. Which kind of made me want to smack him.
Kiki rolled her eyes at me and mouthed “duh.”
“In addition to the obvious, physical changes to the campus, I’d like to mention one new rule up front,” he said, pacing out from behind the podium. “As of today, elitism and insularity will no longer be tolerated at Easton Academy. Any and all social groups and clubs are to be disbanded, and no new clubs will be incorporated unless they have a clear mission statement. In order to facilitate this change, any new clubs will have to fill out an application in my office, which will be reviewed by me personally.”
Here he paused, to level us all with a no-nonsense stare. I didn’t know of any clubs on campus that were strictly social clubs, so I wasn’t sure whom he was trying to intimidate.
“I want you to know that while some of these changes may seem, at the moment, unfair, they were all made in your interest—and in the interest of the community of Easton Academy at large. I have been brought here by your board of directors to usher in a new way of thinking,” he said, clasping his hands. “I value honesty, integrity, humility, and, above all else, equality.”
I swallowed hard. Was Mr. Hathaway saying what I thought he was saying? Had it been his decision to tear down Billings to send a message? To put us all on the same level? I glanced over at Sawyer, but he was staring ahead, studiously avoiding my gaze.
“But I also value your opinions,” the headmaster said, seeming somehow to make eye contact with each of the two hundred–plus students in the room. “This is your school. It should be a place where you feel nurtured, inspired, and safe.”
I looked down the pew at my friends. Safe was one thing I hadn’t felt around here in a long time. Around the room, people sat up a bit straighter, looked at one another, impressed. Hathaway already had them eating out of his hand.
“To that end, I will have an open-door policy,” Mr. Hathaway continued. “If you have any questions about the changes being made on campus, please feel free to stop by my office to chat. My goal is to get to know every one of you personally. The better we know one another, the better we can work together.”
A bright smile creased Headmaster Hathaway’s tan face. I had definitely liked Sawyer’s dad when we were all down in St. Barths together, and he still seemed like a vast improvement over Headmaster Cromwell, who was more like an automaton than a person, but there was something about his touchy-feely speech that made my skin crawl. I wanted a headmaster, not a new BFF or therapist.
“But this semester won’t be all about work,” he said, relaxing his posture and giving us a grin. “A week from Saturday I will be hosting a schoolwide party in the Great Room. A get-to-know-you dance of sorts. It’s going to be a lot of fun and I expect to see all of you there.”
A dubious murmur carried throughout the room. No one at Easton attended on-campus school dances. Unless they were clueless. Or freshmen. Or were, you know, dared to go, as I had been last year by Missy and Lorna for the first dance of my sophomore year.
Of course, I’d ended up sharing my first kiss with Thomas Pearson at that dance, so, as lame as it had been, it was one of my best nights at Easton. I hugged my arms around my body, a chill traveling across my shoulders and all the way down my arms. It had been more than a year since Thomas had died, and I was starting to wonder if that visceral reaction to his name would ever go away.
“Just to be clear, your attendance is expected at this dance,” Mr. Hathaway continued. “I believe it will engender school spirit and strengthen our sense of community. If, for some reason, you are unable to attend, I expect to personally receive your excuse in writing and signed by your parents. That’s how we’ll be doing things around here from now on, people. Trust is a big thing with me. I’ll do whatever I can to earn yours, and I hope you’ll do the same for me.”
Right. Making us bring an excuse note to get out of a dance was very trusting.
As Headmaster Hathaway continued to wax on about our bright new future, I glanced over my shoulder, trying to get a glimpse of Noelle. Maybe Double H would erode her earlier nonchalance and inspire her to help me bring Billings back. But as I turned, my gaze fell on someone else. Someone so distracting I forgot what I’d been thinking two seconds before.
Josh Hollis. Josh, who was no longer my Josh, but Ivy Slade’s Josh. He was sitting in the back row of the boys’ section, wearing a black cashmere sweater over a white T-shirt, his curly, dark blond hair slightly unruly. He seemed tense; his hands were tucked under his arms and he was pressed so far back in the pew that it looked like he was trying to fuse his spine to the wood. I saw him glance toward the aisle and followed his gaze. There sat Graham Hathaway—the usually jovial, devil-may-care Graham Hathaway—bent forward with his elbows braced on his knees, his feet bouncing beneath him, his jaw and fists clenched tightly, like he wanted to punch someone.
My eyes darted back to Josh. He was now chewing on the side of his thumb and sliding his eyes toward the exit, as if he wanted to escape.
Graham, Josh. Josh, Graham.
Did those two know each other?
The moment Mr. Hathaway dismissed us, Josh was out the side door, shoving it open with the heel of his hand. As everyone else got up and gathered their things, the room exploding with conversation, I saw Ivy look around for him. Our eyes met and I shrugged.
Never a dull moment at Easton.
We came from all corners of campus. From Pemberly, from Bradwell, from Parker. Some came in pairs. Others alone. Some defiant, with heads held high. Others meek, with curled shoulders, books clutched to their chests. Salt crunched beneath our feet. The frigid New England wind bit at our noses. Our fingers stung inside fur-lined gloves. In the silence, we came together, ignoring the curious stares of students who hustled by. Ignoring the whispers, the snickers, the scoffs. We waited for the last of us to arrive, each searching the other faces. Each unsure of what to do next. Of where we belonged. Of who we were.
For the Billings Girls, this was not a familiar sensation.
But it was familiar to me. Because not that long ago I’d been Reed Brennan, Glass-Licker, the New Girl. The awkward scholarship student from a no-name town in Pennsylvania. Not that long ago I’d been no one, and I’d handled it. Which might have been why, after a few moments of tense silence, everyone looked at me, as if searching for guidance.
“Well,” I said. “This sucks.”
Constance Talbot and Lorna Gross laughed. Kiki Rosen smirked. Missy Thurber and Shelby Wordsworth rolled their eyes. Tiffany Goulbourne lifted her ever-present camera and snapped some rapid-fire photos of our strained faces. Everyone else seemed to relax, shoulders lowering, postures unclenching. Maybe it was my joke, or maybe they just didn’t want to look pinched and tense in the pictures.
“Tiffany, is that really necessary?” Shelby asked, lifting a hand to the camera as if Tiff were a stalkerazzi.
“Just making memories,” Tiff said.
“Why would you want to remember this?” Portia Ahronian tilted her head ever so slightly toward the north side of campus, where the tall tower of Billing House once loomed. All that was left was a huge dirt patch, currently being flattened by a yellow bulldozer. The machinery groaned and creaked, and just as the huge shovel-thing at the front lowered to the ground with a bang, Gage Coolidge and a few of his more obnoxious friends let out a whoop and a cheer.
“Dude! Nothing like a little destruction to start the new year!” Gage cackled as he walked by us from the direction of the boys’ dorms. He had a skullcap pulled low over his brow and his irritatingly handsome face was covered in stubble. As animated as he was, his eyes were rimmed in red, like he’d just gotten home from partying. Which he probably had. Wherever Gage went, he took the party with him. At least, so he liked to think.
“You’re such an ass,” Astrid Chou snapped at him.
“Ooh. Frisky,” Gage replied, looking her up and down. He licked his lips in a way that made me want to lop his tongue off. “Wanna stay in my room tonight? I mean, since you no longer have one.”
Astrid rolled her eyes and Gage’s friends slapped him on the back, laughing as they shoved their way into the cafeteria.
“That boy needs a lobotomy,” Tiffany said.
“Doesn’t a lobotomy require a brain to remove?” I joked.
At that moment, Noelle Lange finally graced us with her presence. She walked up, her dark hair billowing in the breeze, her black coat buttoned all the way up to her chin.
“In case you people haven’t noticed, it’s freezing out here,” she said with a sniff. I tried to meet her eyes to see what she was thinking, but her Gucci sunglasses were so dark all I could see was my own reflection and the gray clouds gathering over our heads. “Let’s go.”
She opened the double doors to the dining hall and in we walked, turning our backs on the empty space that was Billings. We moved in a pack, like a class of suburban kindergartners shuffling through a museum in the big city, sticking close for safety. As we entered the cavernous room, the walls of gray brick matching the sky outside, the place fell eerily silent. And just like that, our brief moment of levity was over.
Everyone was watching us—students, teachers, food service workers. It was the first Monday morning of the new semester and all anyone could think about, talk about, care about was the fact that Billings was no more. Once the most popular and powerful girls on campus, we were now the train wreck from which no one could look away.
We passed my friend Marc Alberro’s table, and he shot me a sympathetic look, but I had to wonder if he was also taking mental notes for some human-interest piece for the student paper. Diana Waters and Sonal Shah whispered behind their hands and I felt a niggling sense of paranoia. I lifted my hand in a wave, trying to show them I was okay—that there was nothing worth whispering about—but I couldn’t even muster a smile to go with it. I wasn’t okay. I felt like my stomach had turned to Jell-O inside me, all quivery and unfirm. Then Constance linked her arm with mine and I took a breath. I still had my friends. And our usual tables in the center of the room were still waiting for us. That was something, at least.
When we sat, chatter started up again. Plates clinked, knives scraped. I felt like collapsing forward on the table and taking a nap. Or crying. Or both. Which was, perhaps, what the general population of Easton Academy was expecting us all to do. Break down. Show a crack in our perfect exteriors.
Not this Billings Girl, though. Jell-O might have been taking over my insides, but my outsides were going to stay intact.
“I can’t believe Billings is gone,” London Simmons said.
Right. Putting it out of my mind wasn’t going to be an option.
“I mean, it’s just . . . gone,” she repeated. Her highlighted brown hair was down around her face and her lashes were so long and thick they made her eyes look huge. Her purple turtleneck grazed her chin but was tight enough to show off all her curvaceous assets.
“We went over there this morning to see if we could grab a brick or something. You know, as a memento?” Vienna Clarke added, leaning forward on the table. She could have passed for London’s double, but with slightly less makeup. “There was nothing there.”
“It’s like it never existed at all,” Amberly Carmichael confirmed, bringing both hands under her chin. The belled sleeves of her pink angora sweater were pulled down to her fingertips, and her long blond hair was slicked back under a matching pink headband.
“Don’t say that,” Missy snapped, her wide nostrils flaring. “Billings has been part of this community for over a hundred years. We have to keep its memory alive, at least.”
My heart squeezed. I’d never heard Missy sound so impassioned about anything—even Billings. Even if it was bitchily impassioned.
“What’re we going to do?” Rose Sakowitz asked. She looked tiny and meek at the far end of the second table, cuddled into a huge white sweater, her red hair drawn into a low ponytail. “I mean, we can’t live like this, all split up.”
“They put me back in Bradwell,” Amberly muttered. “My old roommate, Cassie, has had a single since I moved to Billings. She was not happy to see me.”
Everyone had received their new room assignments in their mailboxes the day before. The administration had not only scattered the Billings Girls over three dorms, but they’d separated roommates, just for kicks. Portia and Tiffany were now living together in Parker, along with the random pairings of Rose and Astrid, London and Shelby, and Kiki and Vienna. In Pemberly, Lorna and Constance were living together, while Noelle and Missy each had singles there, like me. I’d been placed there last semester when the Billings Girls had thrown me out of the house for betraying Noelle—a crime of which I’d since been absolved—so I was the only one of us who didn’t have to move.
“Our room doesn’t even have a view,” Portia said, glancing at Tiffany.
“We’re looking out at the Dumpsters behind the gym,” Tiff confirmed, sticking her tongue out slightly.
“And the closets? They don’t even hold my coats,” Portia, added, flicking her long dark hair over one shoulder. “I mean, WTF? What did we do to deserve this?”
“Nothing,” Astrid put in. She’d dyed the tips of her black hair white and had on more green eyeliner than strictly necessary. But as always, it worked for her. “It’s bollocks. This is the school’s fault, not ours. They’re the ones who let loony Ariana Osgood and her half-baked sister Sabine in here in the first place. Why should we be punished because their admissions process is total shite?”
Everyone muttered their agreement, shifting in their seats, getting riled up.
“We have to do something, right?” Shelby said. Her dark blond hair was pinned back in a prim bun and she wore a houndstooth jacket over a white T-shirt and pearls. As always, her iPhone was out and vibrating on the table in front of her. “I mean, this is my senior year. I can’t spend the rest of it living in that . . . hovel.” She gave a shudder. “It’s completely ridiculous.”
“It’s like we’re not even us anymore,” Constance said.
“Noelle, you have a plan, right?” London asked, biting her bottom lip.
Thirteen pairs of desperate eyes turned to Noelle. She removed her sunglasses slowly, folded them, and placed them on the table in front of her. She laid both hands flat over the frames for a moment as she took a breath. When she lifted her eyes, she looked around the two tables. A tingle of excitement raced down my spine. Whatever Noelle had in mind, it was going to be good. I could feel it.
“Ladies,” she said. “It’s time to move on.”
“What?” I blurted, voicing the sentiments of every shocked person in earshot.
Noelle looked me dead in the eye, her brown bangs swept sideways like a curtain drawn over her face. “This is it. Billings, as we know it, is gone. We’re going to have to accept it.”
I felt as if my chair was shaking beneath me. Then I realized it was me. I was trembling in my seat.
“Don’t say that,” I replied. “It can’t be over. There has to be something we can do.”
“Like what?” Noelle said, arching one perfect eyebrow. “What’re you going to do, little piggy? Build a new house out of straw?”
I clutched the edge of the table. What was wrong with her? London was right. Noelle was always in charge. She always, always had a plan. And Billings House meant more to her than anyone else at these two tables. Of that I was certain. How could she possibly be giving up so easily?
“She’s right, Reed,” Tiffany said, leaning back in her chair. “The house is gone. I think this is going to be a tough one to overcome, even for you.”
My heart started to sink, but I yanked it up again. A tough one even for me? The girl whose boyfriend had been murdered by one of her best friends? The girl who’d almost been shot less than a month ago? The girl who’d been stranded on a deserted island for a week and left for dead?
If I could handle all that, how could I not handle this?
“No,” I said. “This is not over.”
“Reed,” Noelle said in a condescending voice, “there’s this little thing called knowing when to quit. A smart person can see a lost cause by daylight.”
“Well then call me an idiot, because I’m not giving up,” I replied, crossing my arms over my chest. “Billings is my home. Our home. I’m not letting it go that easily.”
Come on, Noelle. Say you’re with me on this. You have to be.
But Noelle scoffed and shoved back from the table. “I’m getting a bagel,” she said as she stood. “Anyone else want to join me over here in Realityville?”
Ever so slowly, they started to follow. Portia, Shelby, Vienna, London, Amberly. They shot me sad, sorry looks as they trailed after her.
Fine. Let them follow her—for now. I was going to prove her wrong. Somehow, I was going to convince them. I looked around at the rest of my friends, most of whom were now eyeing me with nervous hope. Somehow, I was going to bring us all back together.
And for maybe the second time in her life, Noelle Lange was going to have to admit that she was wrong.
- Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers |
- 240 pages |
- ISBN 9781416984702 |
- March 2010 |
- Grades 9 and up |
- Lexile ® 760L
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