Authors: Josin L. Mcquein
Unfortunately, my first initial and middle name still spell “drain”—a far-too-accurate assessment of my life.
Dad’s hands tightened on the wheel again as he coasted into the “arriving” area, where other kids were climbing out of other cars. They gawked like they’d never seen a no-longer-quite-cherry-red truck outside its natural habitat of the mechanic’s shop before.
“Batter up, baby doll.”
Sports analogies are my dad’s mother tongue.
“You haven’t called me that since I was—”
“A real blond?” he teased.
“Young enough to count my age on my fingers,” I said.
“It’s nice to see the real Dinah again.”
“The real Dinah,” also known as the Dinah no one had seen since sixth grade, was how he referred to my choice of clothing before I actually had a choice. When my mother used me as her personal paper doll and paraded me down every pageant runway within a hundred-mile radius.
“Don’t miss your flight.” I shut the passenger-side door as he
shouted a last request for photographic evidence that I’d returned from the dark side to give Mom when he got home.
Over my dead body
Lightning was welcome to strike me down—so long as Brooks went first.
I counted the stone steps as I climbed toward the school’s entrance, tucked into the surge behind the twin blazers in front of me. One blond head and one brunette, both with the same blue band pushing back stick-straight hair—just like mine.
“Welcome to Stepford,” I mumbled under my breath.
Inside the Stepford Academy (Lowry definitely had an “academy” vibe) everyone looked alike, everyone moved alike, and everyone sounded alike. Apparently when perfect little rich girls grew up, their acceptable color choice darkened from pink to burgundy—the faceless drones and I were covered in it, thanks to a crested blazer with a diamond logo. Boys were stuck with blue, though it had transitioned from the baby palette of robin’s-egg to navy. Everyone was clearly labeled, so there was no way for one of us to forget our place, and no chance for an outsider to sneak in.
I was having a panic attack over the idea of home ec in a place like this. There would be chocolate chip cookies and pearl necklaces and frilly lace aprons involved, I was sure. If we were lucky, maybe they’d hand out gray face paint so we could go completely fifties-mom monochrome, like those old TV shows that rerun in the middle of the night. Then I could get Brooks for a partner and give him food poisoning; my lousy cooking skills would make everything the school’s fault, not mine.
Lowry was a fortress, with stones in the front wall as long as
my arm. The crowd carried me along, passing through a set of double doors with lead knockers that looked like they were built to withstand a major siege. It should have been a safe place—Claire should have been protected there.
Maybe she would have been if she’d ever made it inside.
I shoved the thought out of my head and wiped the stinging tears away. Weepy eyes and blotchy skin weren’t going to help me; they’d just get in the way.
“Could you tell me where to find the principal?” I asked a random girl in the hall while my fingers twirled the tiny golden bird on my necklace.
“The headmistress’s office is at the end of the hall on the right: Ms. Kuykendall.” The girl flashed a flawless smile that made her look like a flight attendant; all she needed was the drink cart.
The direction she pointed led past a row of arched windows where any other school would have had lockers. There was no chipped paint or trash on the floor. I missed the weight of my earrings and the click of the barbell that usually speared through my tongue. Knocking it against my teeth had become a nervous habit, and losing the sound made me sure someone would hear how loud my heart was beating or how fast my breathing had become.
The office took up the whole end of the hall and was made of glass walls so visitors could see inside. A secretary in a dark green business suit sat at the desk while a student filed papers away in a cabinet taller than she was.
“Good morning,” the secretary said when I opened the door.
“Good morning,” I said back, because I wasn’t sure what
else I was supposed to say. Something about the place made me want to be polite, almost like I was afraid they’d snap if they figured out I wasn’t one of them. “I’m supposed to check in with Ms. Kuykendall, I think.”
The secretary blinked at me behind her glasses.
“My uncle was supposed to call. Paul Reed.” I tugged on my necklace again.
“Oh! You’re Diana, of course! Come right in, dear.”
No, I was Dinah, but Nameless didn’t give me a chance to correct her. She waved me around the counter, leading me down another hall within the office itself.
“We were so sorry to hear about Claire. Such a horrible thing, especially for someone so young. And then to find out we’d be getting another young lady in her place … well, we’ve all been just rushing to adjust the papers and even out the classes. Not that it’s your fault, dear. Of course not, I don’t mean that at all. But now we’ve got one too few freshmen and one too many juniors, and—oh, I’m sure it’ll all get sorted.”
Claire had become paperwork. She was a chore.
The fist at my side got tighter, until it began to shake. I had to peel my fingers loose one at a time, and wondered that they didn’t crack out loud from the pressure.
We stopped outside a wooden door with the school crest set above the nameplate. “Kuykendall” didn’t look the way I expected. It sounded like there was an “r” in it, not a “y.” I was betting nothing here was as it seemed.
Nameless opened the door while I waited to be summoned, tamping down memories of the time I ducked into a restaurant to use the bathroom and the manager evicted me before I even
got close. I kept expecting someone to see through the pastel eye shadow and pink lip gloss I’d nabbed from Claire’s room and tell me to get lost, I didn’t belong there.
“Diana Reed to see you, Jane,” she said.
I groaned at the double butchering of my name.
“Go right in, dear,” Nameless said, holding the door until I complied.
Irrational fears aside, I’ll admit that most of my assumptions of what to expect from a private school headmistress came from TV and movies. (Until I was ten, most of them came from knowing that our neighbor, Mr. Dodds, had been kicked out of his house for having a mistress. I didn’t know a schoolmistress was different until I read Harry Potter.) So you can probably imagine my relief when what was on the other side didn’t involve doily explosions, offers of tea, or even (and especially) torture scenarios.
The inside of the office was as dark as the halls had been bright, with plenty of burgundy and blue. Two leather chairs with those heavy brass tack things sat in front of the kind of desk that belonged in a lawyer’s office.
“Diana?” asked the woman standing at a window behind it.
No tail. No horns. No hooves. Just an over-the-thirty-five-year-old-hill, ex-model of a woman whose hair made my shade look downright filthy. She pointed to one of the chairs, and I sat, careful not to let the casters squeak against the carpet when it rolled forward.
“Dinah,” I corrected. “Dinah Powell. Reed’s my uncle’s name.”
“Oh, good, I was worried someone had botched your paperwork. Mrs. Hotchkiss’ hearing is terrible, but it’s easier to deal
with than refiling you.” She pulled a slim folder from a drawer in her desk and flipped it open. “I understand you won’t be with us for the entire term.”
“I’m staying with my aunt and uncle for now, but I think they’re hoping I’ll like it and stay for good.”
They’d offered, more than once. Last spring, when Mom announced her anything-but-brilliant idea to pack me and Dad up when I finished tenth grade and trek cross-country, Aunt Helen had tried to get her to let me stay. She’d tried offers of better schools, like Lowry, or concessions of letting me stay with my friends, but Mom said no. The idea that I’d choose Aunt Helen and live in the world she’d stumbled into horrified my mother more than anything.
“I don’t imagine it’s easy to hopscotch from school to school so frequently.” Ms. Kuykendall had an accent, but I couldn’t place it.
I wouldn’t know. We’d only left New England in June. I’d never seen the inside of my school in Oregon.
“My parents expect me to come home once my cousin’s out of the hospital.”
“We were so sorry to hear about her condition. Has there been any sign of progress?”
“No, ma’am, not really.” Headmistress Kuykendall definitely struck me as a ma’am. “She opens her eyes sometimes, but the doctors say it’s more reflex than anything. They don’t say much when I’m in the room, so I don’t know a lot.”
If she caught the lie, I didn’t notice a change in her demeanor.
I knew plenty—more than the doctors or Aunt Helen or Uncle Paul. And I certainly knew more than the people who
thought Claire’s stint in the hospital was nothing more than a “condition” of some kind flaring up.
“I’m sure your aunt and uncle appreciate having someone around.”
That’s what people kept telling me. I really couldn’t see how having someone who reminded them of Claire, practically living her life, was anything short of horror movie material. But if they were willing to let me stay, I wasn’t going to question it.
“They told Uncle Paul I could get a uniform shirt here. Claire’s was too big.”
Despite batty Mrs. Hotchkiss’ ramble about me throwing off their student-teacher ratio, most of the problem with me replacing my cousin on the school’s roster seemed to stem from the difficulty of getting a new uniform so quick. Three days didn’t give them enough time to order one, but Claire and I were almost the same size, except up top. Somehow the twerp had managed to steal all my hormones, which meant I was still in a training bra while she could have gotten a gig at Hooters long before she was legal.
The headmistress opened another drawer and pulled out a plastic-wrapped blouse. I slipped it over the blue tank top I’d worn that morning and put the blazer back on. At least my friend Tabs’ mom had been able to alter
into a close imitation of tailored. Plus, it covered the wrapping wrinkles.
“Here’s your handbook and paperwork.” Headmistress Kuykendall handed me a burgundy folder embossed with the school’s crest. “Claire Reed” was printed in gold letters at the bottom.
“Have your aunt or uncle sign the forms, and bring them back to your homeroom teacher tomorrow.”
Thankfully, she’d moved on from any sort of conversation I was supposed to participate in. I was two seconds and half a breath from saying, “If the school’s so hard up for cash you have to recycle a two-dollar piece of folded rag paper, I’ll buy myself a folder and write my name in with a Sharpie.”
I stashed another piece of Claire’s life in my bag, where I could keep it safe, determined to preserve everything I could for her.
“You’re a few minutes late, but Mr. Tarrelton shouldn’t hold it against you, since you were here.”
She walked me to the door and held it open.
“Do I need a slip or something?”
“Abigail will handle it,” she said, then disappeared back behind her door without telling me who Abigail was or where I could find her.
That problem, at least, solved itself once I was back in the main office. Abigail was the girl I’d seen filing papers. As soon as I rounded the partition, she slipped her arm through mine and held on. I pegged her as the kind of person who would add “please” to a “Kick Me” sign on her own back, to be polite, so long as getting kicked meant she got to participate.
“Dinah,” I corrected.
“Oh! Sorry. People must butcher your name all the time.”
Yes. Yes they do. And I can never find one of those monogrammed ornaments at Christmas with my name on it, either. That always annoys me. Dinah comes out of the Bible, according to Uncle Paul. Christmas ornaments should cover the Bible names; they just should.
“I’m Abigail. There’s not much you can do to that, unless you want to call me Abby, which no one ever does.”
Yep. Definitely overeager. Her crazy curls were as energetic as she was, defying the evil headband to hold them in place.
“I’m the office page for first period. Where’s your class?”
“Um …” I fidgeted, jostling notebooks and pamphlets. “Looks like trig, with Tarrelton, in …”
“Two seventeen,” Abigail-not-Abby finished for me. “I have him next period. He’s fine, except he takes forever to explain things that really aren’t that hard to understand.”
and overeager. Oh, joy. This was not improving my first impression of Abigail-not-Abby, who went on my list of people to avoid, not because of her personality, but because she had found a way to keep her knee socks from falling down without having to half hop as she walked to hoist them back in place.
“Tarrelton’s close to my English lit class. Do you have Greystone?”
“No, it looks like I have—”
She snatched the paper slip out of my hand.
“Looks like you have Tripp for English lit when I have trig. You’re lucky. I have Greystone the Gargoyle—she’s a total troll.”
I smiled and nodded, pretending I didn’t want to staple her mouth shut.
“Mr. Tripp’s pretty cool. And he won’t make you do the new-kid-introduction speech, either.”
I tried to mimic Abigail-not-Abby’s perma-grin, but the muscles in my face revolted after twenty seconds. If the whole school was this happy, I was in trouble.
Abigail-not-Abby led me through the school’s main floor, our matched heels clicking and clacking in time as she pointing out key features like the cafeteria and the library. With all the doors closed, and all the students behind them, we could have been walking through a white marble tomb, or some old museum where you’re afraid to touch anything because it’ll set off alarms if you breathe too hard. Maybe I could use this for a sociology project when I got shipped back West:
Private School, the Total Immersion Experience
My Life in the Hive
“You probably figured this out already, but the two hundreds are on the second floor,” she said as we started to climb an actual staircase with carpet and rails, not the cement incline with a retaining wall we had at Ninth Street. “The ones are downstairs, and the threes are in the annex outside. If you have drama or tech theater, then you go out the main doors and take the left walkway all the way to the end. Gym’s down the right walkway, but it’s faster to cut through the building and go in the back.”