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The morning alarm claxon blares through my thick sleep and I swear, I just about fly out of my bed at the noise. I sit up, bleary eyed, heart pounding, and every girl around me is also groaning. Last night, it was chaos long after I got into my bed and pulled the covers over my face, as everyone was still arriving, claiming beds, going to the bathroom. They didn’t turn the lights out until almost four. Hardly enough time to get any sleep.

“Oh no, noooo . . .” Laronda in the bed to the left of me is turning over, and trying to cover her head and ears with the blanket.

On the other side, in a bed to the right of me is a brown haired girl whose name I don’t know—I guess she must have arrived in a different group later. She is looking dazed and kind of scared.

I don’t blame her.

“Bathroom stampede!” someone exclaims a few beds down.

And it happens. I rush to dig in my bag and pull out a toothbrush, soap, and a change of underwear, then hurry along with everyone else for one of the two bathrooms on each side of the hall. We stand in line.

“What time is it?”

“Seven-fifteen. What happens if we’re late?”

“I don’t plan to be late. Do you?” says a girl with a confident voice. I recognize Claudia Grito from last night, with her multiple piercings. She’s several people in line ahead of me, and she sees me staring.

“What are you looking at?” She directs a hard frown at me.

I say nothing; quickly look away. But it’s too late. I see her still watching me, with my peripheral vision. There’s a slow-burn sense of impending horrible familiarity about this. It’s the way bullies usually latch on to me at school, as soon as they notice I exist. I don’t know what it is about me that makes me such a bully magnet, besides being a know-it-all in classes—maybe the way I sometimes space out and look at things with drawn-out curious intensity. . . .

Laronda notices. She raises one brow, glances back and forth between Claudia and me, and gives me a questioning look. I don’t respond.

Few minutes later, we hit the toilets and the showers. The bathrooms are equally sterile and pristine, and there are stacks of clean towels, not to mention little bars of soap for everyone.

“Welcome to Hotel Qualification!” exclaims a skinny little girl with freckles and reddish hair as she grabs a towel and stuffs two soaps in her pocket.

“Hey, no hogging stuff!” Another girl pulls her sleeve.

“Says who?”

I try to ignore them as I attempt to take care of my own business in a hurry and try to get out of the crowded bathroom. As I back out of the shower stall, freshly showered, barefoot, wearing only a bra and underwear and still carrying my clothes and a towel, I slip on the wet tiles and collide with Claudia Grito, of all people.

“Hey, watch it, loser!” She turns from brushing her silky wet black hair that clings to her dark T-shirt, and elbows me in the gut.

“Sorry!” I manage to say, as I back away from her. Claudia is a little shorter than me, but she is powerfully built, sinewy muscle. She whips her hair out of her face, and her nose piercing flashes silver. She glares at me, looks me up and down, and mutters something in Spanish that I don’t want to know, but unfortunately I am in Honors Spanish class, so I know exactly what she said, and it’s ugly.

I break eye contact and get out of the bathroom without another word. I stand outside leaning against the dormitory wall and pull on my old jeans and purple sweater, then my socks and sneakers. When I am done, making sure my yellow ID token is still attached to the front of my sweater, I move past the crowds of girls running around getting dressed and head out the main double doors and down the stairs.

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