The first time I set foot in Penrose High School was on January 17th at 7:23 AM, right in the middle of the school year. It was not by choice. I pleaded and begged for some other option, any other option—home schooling, boarding school, a long stint in the Biodome. But no one gives you options when you’re sixteen. They wrap a blindfold around your head and send you down the plank, smiling and waving as you go. Have a nice fall!
My presumptions about Penrose were mostly right on the money. The whole school smelled of gym socks, sweaty and fresh from the foot. The walls were institutional-beige. So were the endless rows of lockers. The intermittent water fountains were labeled with “out of order” signs. A deafening mob of kids swarmed the main hall, shouting and shrieking with laughter. A large, hand-painted banner— “Go Terrors!”—stretched across the ceiling for about five seconds before some ADD-case took a running jump and pulled it to the ground. The first warning bell of the day was so loud it rattled my teeth, and was followed a tenth of a second later by angry voices barking like drill sergeants. “Let’s go, people! Move it! Move it! Get to class! Now! I said NOW!”
In short, public high school.
But there was one thing I was completely unprepared for that day, and it made the thought of a new life at Penrose almost intolerable. While the school itself was incredibly drab, the student body was dazzling. More specifically, the Penrose girls were dazzling. They were so fashionable, you’d think we were in Manhattan or Beverly Hills, and not Colorado Springs. Plus, these girls were well schooled in the art of being girls—coyly tilting their heads, pulling their shoulders back, constantly playing with their hair.
I’ve never been a girly girl. I wear faded jeans, Converse high tops, flat caps, and men’s blazers. While their hair was sleek and straight and shiny, mine was long and curly, pulled into a messy bun. That morning I felt like a funky little misfit at a Seventeen magazine fashion shoot. These girls were beautiful. And I was as beige as the walls.
Jostled on all sides, I hugged my second-hand leather satchel to me and waded through the crowd. It’s true that you never know how much you love something until it’s gone. At that moment, I desperately missed The Manitou Springs Girls’ Academy, the only school I’d ever known. Though it’s exclusive and insanely expensive, having a mom who taught there meant my education was nearly free. I’d known the same girls since the first grade, little hippies and free spirits, not stuck up like most rich girls. It was a place where you could be yourself and wear whatever you liked. I didn’t know that school could be any other way. But in the past couple of years, after the Big Tragedy hit our family, I started pushing my friends away, becoming more of a loner. Then mom got fired in the middle of the year, and I had to go, too.
After drifting up and down the main hall a few times, I finally found my locker: number 113. Definitely bad luck leftovers. I was busy unloading books from my satchel when I heard a nasally voice beside me.
“Is that your locker?”
The guy was short with a carefully-messed-up-then-lacquered hairdo. His long sleeved shirt was tucked into his jeans, like some kind of corporate manager. He worked the combination of the locker next to mine while shooting annoyed glances my way.
“Are you talking to me?”
He yanked open the door and threw his backpack inside. “Yeah, I’m talking to you. Who else would I be talking to? That locker’s been empty all year.”
I took off my coat, an oversized suede thing my dad had worn back in college, and hung it on the grimy hook. The locker smelled like moldy bread and had hard wads of gum stuck to the inside of the door.
“I know,” I said, “I just thought I’d break into it and leave all of my stuff inside.”
The short kid looked at me like I was crazy. “That’s messed up.”
I made a note-to-self: don’t waste good sarcasm on these people. As I was adjusting a small, magnetic mirror on the inside of the door, I felt a tap on my shoulder. The second I turned around, I was blinded by a camera flash.
When the bright dots on my eyes cleared, I saw a tall guy standing beside the locker to my left, fanning a Polaroid picture in the air. He was thin, and dressed in a long black London Fog overcoat and a checkered trilby hat.