Slowly, Chiara opened the apartment door, slipping her shoulder and head into the room before letting the rest of her body follow. Her parents and Grant were nowhere in sight and the apartment was quiet. Gingerly, she tiptoed inside, letting the door shut with a soft click. The tattered blue fabric couch looked so inviting after the longest day of her life and, on top of that, there was a plate of cookies on the edge of the kitchen counter. Chiara grabbed one and rolled onto the couch, taking her first, scrumptious bite. It melted in her mouth.
When her mom had the time and materials to bake, she made heaven.
“And she’s back!”
Heaven was gone. Chiara slumped, burying her face in the back of the old couch and moaning softly.
“Can I finish the rest of my cookie before you guys interrogate me?”
Angela giggled, bending and attacking Chiara’s stomach with tickles, to which the teen promptly responded with wild kicks and suppressed laughs.
“Girl, you can have that entire plate of cookies! Just tell us! How did it go?”
“Did you behave like an Up?” Gregory demanded, sitting on the couch at her feet and twisting to face her. She sat up, shoving Angela’s hands away and cradling her cookie preciously. “I don’t want to hear that you acted like one of those black market punks just for kicks.”
Chiara rose her eyebrows. “Black market punks? You mean like Alan? Who provides us with the electricity discount? And Lou who-”
He rose a stalling hand. “You get the point.”
Grant tugged on her foot. “Did you bring me anything from lunch?”
Chiara smiled a little. “Check the front pocket of my backpack. I don’t know what it is, but it was really good.”
He grinned and shuffled on his knees to her backpack, digging out the bundled napkins and the treasures within. Angela squeezed in on the couch behind her, releasing her hair from its bun and running her fingers through it. Chiara closed her eyes. She liked it when her mom did that.
“Baby, I just can’t express enough how proud I, your father and I, are you getting in!”
Chiara slowly nodded, chewing her cookie absently. “I still don’t quite understand how that worked out. Even the letter from President Newhall didn’t explain anything.”
Gregory squealed roughly under his breath, squeezing his hands into fists by his mouth.
“You got a letter from May Newhall! That still boggles my mind! But, for real, how was your first day at this ritzy school?”
She met his eyes. He was giddy, leaning forward with open ears for details. Chiara glanced back at her mom, who was smiling broadly as she gently massaged her daughter’s head. They were not ready for the truth. They were too happy for her. The last thing Chiara wanted to do was destroy their hopes for her. At the same time, she knew they cared about her safety. They just did not believe her in the sense that attending this school was potentially, physically dangerous. If she reported that, then admitted her determination to finish school at the Globe, to show the Collective what was what, they would hate it all. There was only one way out of it.
“I had my doubts in the beginning, but...it’s cool.”
The Daltons released a joyful whoop and Angela danced in her seat, shaking Chiara violently. Chiara leaned back against her to make her stop, though she found herself laughing at her parents’ antics, watching Gregory leap to his feet and proceed to dance a jig on the old shag carpet. Grant pumped his fists, his mouth full of something elegant. Chiara felt they needed more.
“The teachers are phenomenal. They really know how to explain something and I feel like I’ve learned so much just on the first day! I’ve got a ton of homework, though.”
“Did you meet the Collective?” Grant mumbled around his food. Chiara slowly nodded and Angela caught her breath.
“Are they as handsome as they look in the newspapers? And the magazines and billboards and everything? Whenever I pass anything featuring Jay Newhall, I have to stop and just appreciate his symmetry for a second.”
“Hey!” Gregory started. Then he closed his mouth and shrugged. “So do I, I guess. So what are they like? Up close and personal?”
Chiara swallowed her cookie and chewed her lip.
Pompous? Bullies? Impossible? Idiots?
“I knew it! But tell us something we don’t know about them.”
No regard for personal space? Self-esteem issues? Chauvinistic? Rude?
“They seem to be very loyal to each other.” She smirked. “They kind of all walk around school in a pack, like puppy dogs.”
More like wolves.
“And Newhall is definitely the leader. The others do what he says, but they seem to like doing it.”
He might be threatening them.
“They’re kind of confusing, I guess.” She shrugged. “I can’t really get a good read on them yet. They’re out of my league, anyway.”
“Nonsense!” Gregory burst, throwing his hands out incredulously. “You, Chiara, are the daughter of Gregory Dalton, Jack of all trades and worthy provider! You are the very first Burrough Down kid to ever attend the Globe and you’ll excel because you are Chiara Dalton!” He leaned close and tapped her nose. She rolled her eyes, but smiled. “You are your very own league, and, if anyone places themselves above you, they’re not worth your time.” He rose his eyebrows. “Got that?”
Chiara nodded, her stomach glowing with a familiar warmth. Sometimes, her dad really got it right.
“Yeah. I got it.”
“Unless he’s a potential husband who happens to own a business conglomerate,” Angela added under her breath. Chiara moaned, dropping her head back against her shoulder.
“Mom, really? This was my first day of school, and you’re already matchmaking! Can we keep that to a minimum? I have a feeling I’ll be really busy for the next few weeks, especially. I actually have a lot of homework that I need to get to.” She swung off of the couch and took another cookie from the plate. “Call me out if you need any help with dinner.”
She pulled all of her textbooks from her backpack and laid them out across the chipped desk pushed against the wall of her tiny room. She sighed. Thermodynamics had assigned the most homework before the next day. Most of the other classes had big projects due at the end of the week with smaller assignments scattered through the weekdays. Thermodynamics it was. Chiara readied her homework planner and notes, scratching out her name at the top of a fresh sheet of paper.
She looked back. Grant’s head poked through her bedroom door. She smiled a little, jerking her head in a welcoming gesture.
“Come on in. Maybe I can teach you a thing or two about stupid subjects and why they should not be taught in schools.”
The twelve year old chuckled, closing the door behind him and skipping to lean his elbows against the desk. He ran his fingers over the glossy pages of the new textbook.
“These smell nice.”
“Yeah. It doesn’t even really smell like paper. You should smell the lobbies. I think they sprayed them all with a flower perfume or something. Even the boys have lovely scents!”
Grant laughed, making a face. “That’s so gross! Jay Newhall was on a commercial for cologne once.”
Chiara rolled her eyes. “Weirdo. He smells like he takes baths in...like, a garden or something.”
“You were close enough to smell him?”
“He got close enough to me.”
“Did you like it?”
Chiara rose an eyebrow to her little brother. He pursed his lips curiously, cocking his head quizzically. Chiara giggled.
“Okay, buddy, don’t you go getting ahead of yourself, too! Mom’s bad enough.”
He released a short bark of laughter. “Oh, I’m not gonna be the one marrying you off! I want you here. I miss you enough as it is, with you always at work, and now at school.”
She winced, spinning in her chair to face him. “Yeah, now, it’s actually school and work. But I don’t want you telling Mom or Dad, okay?”
Grant’s dirty blonde eyebrows spasmed curiously. “What? But Dad doesn’t want you working while you’re attending the Globe! He told you that.”
“I know, but…” She sighed, gesturing helplessly. “Does it look like we can afford that? We were relying on three incomes before. Now this one is a part time income and it’ll still hurt us. I have to keep working, Grant. We don’t have a choice.”
His frown was deepening and he turned to sit on her bed. “But...how will you have the time? And who will take you part time?”
Chiara drummed her pencil against her thigh. It was cold. She realized that she still had not changed from her uniform. Suddenly, she could not wait to get into sweats and a sweatshirt.
“I’m doing nights, just far away from Dad at the garage. Poky needs a new paper runner after Beck left for Minnesota.”
Grant’s eyes widened. “Paper runner? Cheech, that’s all night! How are you going to get any sleep?”
She managed a tight smile. “If I do it fast, I get home to bed sooner! Besides, I get paid per neighborhood, not per hour, so it can be as part time as I want.” She shrugged. “It’s not ideal, but it fits the school schedule, and it’s something I can just slip into the emergency fund so Mom and Dad never know until we need it. Please don’t tell them.” She shook her head, looking back at her thick textbook. “They’re working hard enough as it is.”
There was a long silence, then Grant’s arms wrapped around her from behind. She bit her lip and set down her pencil, holding his hands in front of her. She missed him.
“You’re a superhero. You know that?”
She smiled, blinking back the beginnings of tears. “Yeah? Well, remind me how to fly, so I can get those papers delivered faster. It might help.” She patted his hands. “Okay, let me go so I can get some homework done.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too, buddy.”
He slipped outside. Chiara sighed lightly, running her fingers through her hair. Working nights and attending school during the day was most definitely not ideal, but it was a reality that many in the Downs had to suffer. The Daltons had been lucky enough to scrape by on three sparse incomes for the past few years, Chiara going to school when she could. She had always been quick to catch onto topics and had mainly gone to school to take tests and make sure she was in the correct grade. Most teens simply did not have the time for homework. With her job at the dry cleaners and the odd ones she could pick up at the garage or anywhere else in the Burroughs, Chiara had been among their ranks.
Her family needed her to work, though.
She drew in a bracing breath and opened the Thermodynamics book to the assigned chapter.
A shallow knock on the window punched the breath from her lungs and she spun around. A familiar face smiled from the fire escape outside, nearly concealed by a bright orange knit scarf wrapped around her neck. Chiara released her breath and got up, flicking open the window lock. The newcomer pushed the window open and dropped down onto Chiara’s bed, rebounding to the floor so her fuzzy boots landed with a thump. She grinned, leaning her elbows on her knees and swaying back and forth as she cupped her chin in her palms.
“So? How was your first day of royal snob school?”
Chiara chuckled, shaking her head and turning back to the desk. “Is that what I called it?”
“Among other things, yeah.”
She smiled. “You should’ve taken credit for it, Holly! It was funny. It was as ridiculous as I anticipated, but now I’ve got homework. I can’t really talk.”
“It’s okay, I’ll watch. I don’t remember the last time I went to school. Scoot over.”
Chiara shifted so half the chair was open and her best friend in the world slid in beside her. She frowned.
“Sheesh. Letters and numbers? In the same book?”
Chiara rolled her eyes with a laugh. “Girl, you should see our Advanced Chemistry book!”
“No thanks!” Seventeen year old Holly Drake leaned her elbow on the desk and her forehead in her hand so her luscious brown hair draped over her in a glossy curtain. Her dark eyes fixed on her friend. “Really, how was it? I know your parents were really excited about you meeting the Collective.”
Slowly, Chiara swung her pencil to point at Holly. The visitor scoffed, raising her hands helplessly.
“Come on, they’re the most stuck-up fancy-pantses in the world and they just happen to have some of the most symmetrical faces on the planet! That’s no reason to fall in love!” She winked as Chiara lowered her pencil back to her notes. “You established that quite...loudly over the weekend.”
“Well, it’s true! The last thing I need is matchmaking, especially with these jerks.”
“So they’re as bad as you imagined?”
“I don’t know. I imagined them pretty bad.”
“They were monsters.”
Chiara tapped her pencil against her lips, narrowing her eyes thoughtfully. “I haven’t gotten a handle on Truitt or Vaughan yet, but Newhall is a complete nutcase who acts like he owns the school-”
“His mom does and he gets to enjoy torturing people because of it.” She rolled her eyes. “And he doesn’t regret it! He got right in my face and practically threatened me!”
Holly bit her lip. “I bet you handled that well.”
Chiara nodded in concession. “I can’t afford not to.”
Holly nodded thoughtfully, looking again at the Thermodynamics notes that made no sense to her. “Okay, what about Brody Hilton? You didn’t mention him yet.”
Chiara frowned, leaning back against the chair. “I don’t know. Before I knew who he was, I thought he might have been kind of cool. Then he showed himself as the rich kid I usually try to avoid and pretended not to recognize me.”
“That’s not cool.”
“Nope.” She shrugged. “I’m not letting it bother me. It’s not like we were friends or anything.”
“Cheech, have you found any potential friends there? I don’t want you being a loner the entire semester.”
Chiara cast her a baleful glance. Holly sucked in her lips, nodding in understanding.
“Okay. They’re all nutcases.” She laid a hand on Chiara’s arm and rubbed it gently. “I’m sorry. I was hoping it might have been better than you were picturing.”
Chiara shrugged again. “Making friends was never the point. I just need to make it through the semester and see what I can do about turning some of this bad attitude around.”
“You can’t change the whole school by yourself, Cheech.”
“I know. But I can try. And, Holly,” Chiara turned to her friend again, leaning in. Holly leaned her forehead against hers, meeting her eyes evenly. “They have an ice rink.”
Holly immediately straightened, her face hardening into a blank slate. “Cheech, you-”
“I know! But I can dream.” She smiled sadly. “It’s a beautiful rink, Holly.”
“You can’t skate again, Cheech.”
“I won’t. It’s just...pretty.”
“I’m sorry. That must be awful.”
“Yeah. Any idea how to activate entropy?”