PART ONE - FEBRUARY

Chapter 1: An Uncle I Didn't Have

I stared at my test and cursed the day they'd decided to add letters to math. I'd stayed up half the night studying and the equations in front of me still looked like alphabet soup. Concentrate, I told myself as I clenched my teeth, you know this. I took a deep breath and focused on the question – marks didn't matter, impressing my parents didn't matter: the only thing that mattered right now was this problem. Come on. Focus. Clarity washed over me and I dropped the tip of my pencil to the page.

A sharp knock on the classroom door broke my trance. The room had been silent save for the frantic scribbling and the sporadic pacing of our teacher, Mr. Rabish, a short, middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a particularly gifted eye for catching cheaters. I glanced up from my algebra exam and saw the principal's face framed in the metal door's rectangular window. Mr. Rabish crossed the room, and, after a brief exchange with Principal Andrews, stepped into the hallway, closing the door behind him.

My classmates exchanged bewildered looks. Mr. Rabish leaving the room during an exam was not something that happened – ever. He lorded over his classroom as if it were his own personal kingdom. In his absence, however, everything changed. Within moments Bobby Brewster was trading furtive glances between the screen of his smartphone and the door. Indira and Candace had also reached for their cells and were now leaning across the aisle in front of me comparing something on their screens. Candace was the captain of the junior girls' volleyball team and Indira had appeared in a bunch of TV commercials, so they were practically worshipped around here. Even if they got caught, they'd never get anything worse than a reprimand: not only did all the guys fawn over them, but teachers always seemed to buy their lame excuses, even Mr. Rabish.

The actual cheaters were the only ones who still had half their attentions focused on their tests. While I refused to stoop to their methods, I couldn't blame them. Even I found algebra impossible and I was supposed to be a math genius.

In grade school, I'd won all the math contests. Now, it was a battle I fought because my parents were so damned proud of those stupid awards, as evidenced by the shrine of plaques and trophies mounted in our rec room – an unintentional daily reminder that the whole "gifted with numbers" thing had turned out to be a no-go.

I did my best to shut out the furtive conversations springing up around me, and turned my attention back to my test. I'd barely had a chance to figure out where I'd left off when a hush fell over the room. Mr. Rabish was back.

"Mildred," my teacher said. "You need to go to the office."

"Now?" I asked. What could be so important it required me to be hauled out in the middle of an exam? And how exactly did they expect me to keep all these rules and formulas crammed in my brain? "Can't I go after the test?"

Mr. Rabish shook his head. "Sorry. And you'd better take your things."

I shoved my pencil and eraser into my backpack, but left the test on the desk. I'd likely have to write it all over again, but at least Mr. Rabish would see I'd been ready, for whatever that was worth.

I could feel the stares of my classmates as I walked to the door, but I avoided making eye contact with any of them. I already knew they would gossip about this, and I refused to give them more fodder. Never let them know you're scared. When you're in tenth grade and still look like an eighth-grader, those were words to live by.

As I passed Indira, she tucked a wayward strand of curly blonde hair behind her ear and looked at me as if she was considering me for the first time, which she probably was. I heard Marcus Slovovich stifle a laugh at the back of the room and someone else whispered something I couldn't make out, but I just kept moving. I had no more idea of what was going on than they did.

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