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When Combat Training is finally dismissed, it is close to 5:30 PM.

I think I am dead.

No, really, I am a disembodied spirit dragging around a skinny meat carcass made of Pain and Fail that was just made to do crazy things with itself it has never done before. Almost two hours of lunging forward on shaking legs and unsteady feet, and then trying to do weird stuff with hand motions with the person across from you in the other row.

Lucky me—for the whole afternoon I’ve been paired up with some small wiry kid who looks like a freshman or even a middle schooler, and oh yeah, he is just a happy athletic bundle of horrid energy.

Damn you, Joshua Bell and your enthusiasm for Tae Kwan Do or whatever martial art you happen to think you know from your local Philly dojo, and now you think you can kick my useless butt in this Er-Du. . . .

I grumble to myself as I climb up the stairs to the third floor Girls’ Dormitory, clutching the banister with both hands. My hair is in ratty wet tangles, so—reminder to self—next time, put it up in a ponytail before Agility or Combat Training.

Dinner is at 6:00 PM, so there’s time to kind of collapse onto the cot for fifteen minutes, or maybe take a shower, because yeah, I am pouring sweat. Okay, so are most of the other Candidates in my class. (I saw them crawling up the stairs like roadkill all around me, so, yeah.)

I consider the situation, and shower wins out. And so I get in line in the bathroom, and fifteen minutes later I am decent, and wearing my only other change of clothing. Hope there’s a laundry room on premises.

As I’m rummaging through my bag next to my cot, looking for a spare hair rubber band for dealing with my wet hair, I see Claudia Grito and next to her Olivia and another one of the bully girls, and they are just a few cots away, and heading toward me. . . .

I quickly look back down at my stuff, and pretend very hard I don’t see them, as if that might steer them away. But, no such luck.

“Hey, what’s this I see, a little drowned rat?” Olivia says with a smirk, stopping right in front of me and taking hold of my hairbrush that’s lying on top of my blanket.

I look up. Olivia’s looking all perfect and cleaned up after our Combat class, down to the freshly applied makeup and blow-dried auburn hair.

Meanwhile Claudia comes up on the other side of me and she is a little sweaty, but negligibly so, in a sexy bitch kind of way, with a few strands of her black hair loosened. She should be reeking, but instead there’s a deep musky perfume scent coming from her, which I bet guys just go crazy for. She leans in on me and says, “So, Gwen Lark. . . . What are we gonna do about you? You’ve been a bad girl. You know that, don’t you? A very bad girl.”

“They have cameras here . . .” I say, and my voice sounds wimpy and pathetic.

“Of course.” Olivia moves in closer, and she then sits down right next to me on the cot, still holding my hairbrush. “But all they can see is how we’re all just friends, and hey, we’re smiling, right?”

“That’s right.” Claudia starts to smile too, and then she’s running her hand through my hair. I feel a slow steady tug that becomes intense then painful.

“And hey, look, we’re such good friends that we’re gonna brush your hair for you,” Olivia says. She picks up the hairbrush and presses it hard against my scalp, then starts pulling it down, so that the pins dig into me, hard, and at the same time they snag on the kinks in my wet unbrushed hair. . . .

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