Chapter Eight

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            A nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach was what I woke up to the next morning.

            I’d considered waking early, maybe fitting in a run before I had to leave for school, but the sensation didn’t feel like one that could be cured by a remedy of physical exertion. Even last night’s recurring nightmares had morphed into something different; where they previously consisted of fire, usually ripping through the fabric of Cirque Mystique over and over again until I could no longer bear to watch, they’d taken to focusing on something much closer to home.

            In the first, I’d been irreparably stupid, lagging miles behind the other students even in freshman classes. In the second, the same theme had been coupled with the ridicule of at least a thousand classmates, leaving me unable to walk down a hallway without being pelted by a shower of hard objects. The third had seen my mother as the teacher, a starring role in the worst of them all, deeming me so idiotic I seemed to lose the ability to speak at all.

            It ended up being that the fourth, in which the classroom I was sitting burned down to the ground with more ferocity than the circus tent, actually felt like a mild relief.

            When I woke, I went through the motions of getting myself ready: stumbling into the shower; brushing my teeth; pulling on the clothes most likely to help me blend into the background. I’d never given it much consideration before, but it appeared there was a whole art involved in escaping notice. I only hoped I’d pick it up quickly.

            The glittering black leotard still hung in my closet, its flashy sequins standing proud against their unassuming neighbors. I let my fingers brush over the material, reveling in the feel of its sheer texture against my skin, as if this mere action would be enough to transport me back. Eventually I had to force myself to step away, shutting the closet with unnatural purpose.

            “Good morning,” my mother greeted, when I ventured downstairs. Stood at the counter in the kitchen, she was piling an odd combination of ingredients into a blender. Among those were several eggs and a substance with the consistency of thick powder. “Health shake,” she explained, when she caught me staring.

            “Got it,” I said, sliding into a seat at the table.

            Several breakfast foods were already laid out on the surface, but my churning stomach didn’t seem up to any of them. Instead I opted for black coffee, though I’d always hated the taste.

            I wasn’t really sure what had come over me. One month ago, I’d have put no doubt in my confidence, permanently settled into a frame of mind that told me I could handle anything. I spent my days dangling over a live audience, clinging onto a bit of rope with my bare hands, not even bothering with a safety net.

            Corey Ryder was once effortlessly collected – almost as strong as I made myself out to be. And yet somehow, in the space of a few weeks, I’d become drawn into myself, threatening to crumble at the smallest opportunity. And I hated it.

            I’d flicked through several pages of the brochure before I went to sleep, but they’d failed to give any real insight into what my life at Franklin was set to be like. Though containing all the information I’d ever need to know about what items of clothing were strictly prohibited from the dress code, it was lacking on any front that told me what high school would really be like.

            “How are you feeling?”

            I looked up, having not expected these words to be floating across the space of the kitchen, let alone from the direction of my mother. It was her first attempt at a conversation deeper than “Is chicken okay for dinner?”, which had been bound to come at some point, but that didn’t make it any less alarming.

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