October 24, 2016
“Though some may reach for the stars,
Others will end behind bars.”
The words play in my mind, my eyes closed as I dance the bow across the strings of the violin. She and I are a team, moving and breathing in unison, producing a sound that transforms this cold, lonely dorm room into a makeshift Carnegie Hall. A momentary paradise.
Some violins sound too bright, better suited to cheery occasions like Christmas concerts or wedding processionals. Not this one, a walnut-brown Maggini on loan from Professor Teller. It’s full of dark tones and blue notes that grow icier as I move my bow closer and closer to the fingerboard.
It sounds like me.
My phone starts to vibrate, rattling against the desk, and for a moment my hopes rise. But then I hear the tinny clanging bells and remember. It’s only my stupid alarm clock.
I open my eyes, and without thinking, my gaze flicks toward the mirror on the opposite wall. Just like that, the spell is broken. I’m not the star violinist anymore. I’m the girl with the scar.
I turn away, switching my focus to the careful packing of my violin and cueing up a playlist on my iPhone, which launches with a whimsical, horn-drenched score by Alexandre Desplat. One of my favorites. The music steers me, nudging me through my morning routine. Lord knows I wouldn’t be able to get up most days without it.
I keep my back to the mirror while I button the stiff white collared shirt emblazoned with Oyster Bay Prep’s crest, and zip up the navy plaid skirt that cuts just above the knee. A navy jacket, kneesocks, and penny loafers complete the look, and for a moment I think I hear Lana’s snickering voice. “I bet you this uniform was dreamed up by a creepy old dude on faculty, indulging in some sort of schoolgirl fantasy.” She had a point there. I look about twelve years old in this getup, but my taller, better-endowed classmates might as well be playing dress-up for the cover of Maxim.
It’s almost time to face myself, but first I wash up in the little sink I had installed in my room. Anything to not have to stand in line with the other fourth-floor girls, all of us brushing our teeth in unison while staring at our reflections. No, thank you. I’d rather just zip in and out whenever I have to use the toilet, keeping my head down until I’m back in the safety of my room, which Headmaster Higgins was sympathetic enough to let me keep as a single.
The clock flashes 7:50, and I know I can’t put this off any longer. Grabbing a tube of my latest overpriced concealer, I turn to face the mirror.
In the initial weeks following the accident, I used to hold my breath and dream that it would be gone—that my face might have magically healed on its own, without any need for a surgery so expensive it would require Mom to file for bankruptcy. But I’ve learned my lesson since then. There’s no such thing as an overnight miracle, and when I look now, the jagged edge is still ever present, running down my cheek like a frozen teardrop.
I examine my scar in the mirror, turning my head this way and that as I apply the concealer with its dainty little wand. With each new product I try, I can’t help but hope that this will be the one that finally delivers on the advertising’s promise: “Erase your most unsightly blemish!”
Yeah, right. All this concealer manages to do is tint the scar orange. But it doesn’t matter. Even if I did manage to cover the scar, it would still be there—still the first thing they saw whenever they looked at me, the rumors of That Night forever associated with my name.
It’s funny, because I never even used to care how I looked. All that mattered was how well I played. I guess it’s true what they say, that you don’t miss something until it’s gone—because the day I transformed from a decently attractive girl into the Phantom of the Opera’s sister was the day my wildly ambitious dreams devolved into just one: to look normal . . . or maybe even pretty.
With a sigh, I hoist my schoolbag over my shoulder and stick my earbuds into my ears. It’s time to leave the little haven of Room #403.
I open my door to the typical morning scene in the dorm hall: bleary-eyed girls yawning their way into the bathroom with toiletry bags in hand, their type-A counterparts thundering down the stairs as though they’re ten minutes late instead of early. The social butterflies are darting in and out of each other’s rooms, taking selfies and trading accessories, and it’s hard to believe that for a minute I was one of them.
Even with my headphones on, I can hear two of my classmates saunter up behind me, their conversation a low hum punctuated by a loud burst of laughter. I’d know that laugh anywhere. And that’s when it happens—a sickening lurch in my stomach. A moment when my vision turns pixelated. A fuzzy memory pokes its way into my consciousness, edging out the music playing in my earbuds, and I can feel myself falling again, my body tumbling over a precipice, the earth scratching at my face.
I let myself sink down onto the top stair, ignoring the weird looks I’m surely receiving. Inhale, exhale, I chant silently, until the feeling of dread lifts, and Alexandre Desplat’s horns and piano return to my ears.
It’s just another day, Nicole, I remind myself. You’ve gotten through it before. You’ll get through it again.
Oyster Bay Preparatory School is the kind of place you’d find in a Thomas Kinkade painting, with its quaint cobblestone walkways, lush lawns, redbrick walls, and arched windows. It oozes privilege and peace, a little bubble existing only for the fortunate ones who were good enough, smart enough, talented enough, to make it inside. You had to be the best to pass the entrance exams and get in. Okay, maybe a certain few didn’t need to worry about that, but most of us did. So it’s nearly impossible to walk through the velvet-carpeted hallways without feeling a twinge of pride, looking upon the portraits of presidents, artists, and geniuses lining the walls, luminaries who were once just like us, sitting in these same classroom seats. Sometimes I wonder if that’s what keeps me here—the idea that one day, I could be a legend on the wall. At least in portraits, they can paint away any flaws.
The school is shaped like the letter H, with our sleeping quarters, known as the dorm wing, making up the left building. Joyce Hall of Music & Arts is on the right, while the adjoining wide structure between the two buildings is what the school brochure calls “the crux of it all,” Academics Hall. You can probably guess which wing I’m most loyal to. My violin is the only reason I’m here.
My first class of the day is Biology: Genetics & Ethics, a class I used to look forward to because of who I shared it with. But when I enter the classroom, shaking my hair in front of my face like armor, I notice one of the desks is empty.
Brianne Daly, the one friend I can still count on, gives my hand a squeeze as I slide into my seat next to hers.
“Hey. Notice something weird?” she asks.
My eyes fly to the empty desk.
“I mean, have we ever made it to class before Mr. Isaacs?”
That’s true. Our biology teacher is a stickler for punctuality, so this is a first. The final bell rings, the minutes stretch on, and still no Mr. Isaacs. Brianne and I watch as the rest of the class celebrates this temporary freedom. Lizzie and Felix, the senior class’s newest It Couple, take the opportunity to squeeze into one chair and make googly eyes at each other, while the social butterflies flit around their desks, talking loudly over one another to be heard above the Kendrick Lamar track blaring from Charlie Fields’s portable speakers. No one wonders what’s keeping our teacher. No one cares.
And then I feel Brianne nudge me in the ribs.
“Look at his face.”
I follow her gaze to where Mr. Isaacs is finally walking through the door, his expression dumbstruck, as if in a daze. His trademark horn-rimmed glasses are missing, and as I take in the red blotches on his cheeks, I realize he’s been crying. I can’t look away. I’ve never seen an adult cry before. Mom always held it in, waited until she was behind the closed door of her room.
Mr. Isaacs reaches the podium in front of the whiteboard, and for the first time he looks lost in his usual place. Charlie turns off the music, and without our teacher so much as saying a word, everyone takes their seats. My classmates might have been blissfully ignorant seconds ago, but it’s clear from Mr. Isaacs’s demeanor that this isn’t going to be a normal school day. Not even close.
His mouth opens and closes twice before he finally finds his voice.
“I’m sorry—so sorry—for what I have to say.” He takes a shaky breath, then stares straight ahead at a point on the wall. “One of your classmates, he . . . he was found dead early this morning.”
I see Brianne’s jaw drop, I hear the gasps around me, but my mind can’t process it. And then Mr. Isaacs says a name.
I’m dreaming this, of course. It’s the worst kind of nightmare, but the sweetest relief will be mine when I wake up. I pinch myself so hard I nearly draw blood. Not dreaming.
A roar rises up from my stomach and chokes me. An animal inside struggles to get free, to hurl itself at the teacher and send claw marks gashing down his tearstained cheeks for telling us this lie, for making this mistake.
And then I feel her eyes burning a hole into my back—the girl who made me hate the social butterflies. I turn and meet her glance, taking in the frozen expression and trembling lower lip. Our classmates congregate around her, stricken and wailing, clueless that they are comforting the wrong person.
I stare down at the hardwood floor. Where are my sobs, my screams? I can’t seem to make a single noise, even though my cries are deafening in my mind.
Lana is still looking at me, and as the realization hits that he’s gone, that she and I are all that’s left from the mess of our triangle, I feel the desperate urge to crawl out of my skin and disappear. I jolt out of my seat and make for the door, blind to the police officer entering the classroom just as I’m making my escape.
And I run straight into the policeman’s chest.
September 7, 2015
The second I spot him, I know. This is the boy I’ve been hearing about. He’s there under the oak tree, oblivious to the rest of us, focused instead on juggling a soccer ball between his feet. I watch him, and something pulls at my chest.
I’m clearly not the only one who notices him. It seems like most of us returning juniors are putting on a show this afternoon, pretending to be interested in each other’s summer stories, pretending we care, when we’re really just staring through our sunglasses at the new guy. We never get boys like this at Oyster Bay Prep. Our male classmates are all the same: bland, blond sons of the patriarchy, with their old-money manners and hand-me-down sense of humor. None of them have a clue how to get you really interested—how to push you up against a wall and kiss you like they actually mean it. I can tell, just by watching this stranger with the soccer ball, he can. He’s different—dark, muscular, with the body of a man, not a boy. His eyes have a glint to them, like someone dreaming up a wild dare. There’s nothing too safe about those eyes, nothing familiar.
“Isn’t that what’s-his-name? You know, the congressman’s son?”
Stephanie’s voice snaps me back to reality. In just a few minutes, our headmaster will quit her long and boring welcome-back speech and the barbecue will begin. How many girls will make a beeline for the hot new guy, competing to be first, to be the one who gets to show him around campus? I’m not about to sit back and count.
“I’m going to go find out,” I tell Stephanie with a fluff of my hair.
He looks up as I come closer, and I thank the Lord we didn’t have to wear our lame uniforms to the barbecue. My silk romper is so much more flattering, with its deep V-neck, figure-skimming shorts, and sapphire shade that sets off my bronze skin and dark hair. I catch his eyes roving over me appreciatively, not in the creepy way of men wolf-whistling through their car windows, but in the way I always imagined my future boyfriend would look at me. Like he can’t believe his luck.
“Hi. I’m Lana Rivera.” I hold out my hand, giving him my best flirty smile. “I’m guessing you’re a transfer?”
As if I didn’t already know.
“Hello, Lana Rivera.” He flashes me a grin as he shakes my hand, and a dimple appears in each of his cheeks. “Yeah, I just transferred from St. John’s in DC. I’m Chace Porter.”
“So, what made you leave DC? Running from something?” I joke.
He laughs, his face flushing. I take a step closer, noticing the color of his eyes. They’re a bluer gray than they appeared from afar, a shock of brightness against his olive skin and brown hair.
“I’m here because of soccer, actually,” he replies. “Your school recruited me.”
Knew that already. I bite my lip, considering whether to go for the blatant flirting or keep it coy. I go for the flirting.
“Well. It looks like our school got lucky.”
My efforts are rewarded. Chace breaks into another smile, bigger than the first, and it gives me a bubbling feeling in my stomach, a sensation I can’t remember experiencing since I was a kid ready to rip open a present on Christmas morning.
“Looks like I got pretty lucky myself, meeting a total knockout on my first day.”
His eyes twinkle, and there go those dimples again. I suck in my breath. This is happening.
“You’ve got some good karma working for you,” I say, aiming for a breezy tone. “Especially since I was just about to offer to show you the ropes around here.”
“Really? That sounds much better than getting the tour from Mrs. Braymore.”