Chiara pulled the cover over her tattered jeans and baggy grey sweatshirt. She was far too tired to change into pajamas. It was all right, though. She still had four hours before she had to start getting ready for school, and her alarm was already set. Sleep enveloped her within seconds.
It buzzed angrily.
She rose her head, not bothering to blow her frizzy hair from her face. She whimpered lightly.
“It’s not fair.”
Chiara shoved herself to her feet and dragged herself around the quiet apartment, stumbling through the mundane process of getting ready for the day. She was slightly reassured by her father’s gentle snoring from the room he and her mom shared. He had come home safely from his night shift at the garage. That was nice to know. The Burroughs were dangerous at night, even for the locals. Even for her.
Clean and dressed in her burgundy school uniform, she slowly brushed her tangle of crinkled waves. It poofed up and out, getting frizzier with every stroke. Her face tensed. Finally, she threw down the brush and gave up. Her hair was fine the way it was.
Maybe a little makeup would make up for it.
A little bit of mascara and a touch of shiny lip gloss finished the process and Chiara stopped caring. Already, the school had labeled her as an outcast. Comments about her hair would be almost welcome in comparison to comments about her family.
She tied her mid-calf length black combat boots and smoothed her burgundy stockings to her knee. It was too cold to wear the flats she had been assigned. Chiara glanced at the day’s schedule before folding it and sliding it into her backpack. Her stomach twisted in irritation. Of course the first class would be Thermodynamics. Oh well. She could get the homework off of her hands. She had finished it not too long before heading out for her paper run, with too many questions on the side.
The teen was determined to learn.
Her eyebrows shot up in surprise and she looked around the corner into the kitchen. Angela sat on the counter stool in her pale purple pajamas, hugging a mug of steaming coffee in her hands. She smiled tiredly. Chiara frowned in concern, moving to her side.
“You okay, Mom? Why are you up so early?”
Angela shook her head incredulously, shrugging her slender shoulders. “Marina is sick and asked me to cover for her at the supermarket. She usually has the morning shifts.”
Chiara sighed, leaning her elbows on the counter. “So you’re doing a double?”
Her mom chuckled softly. “It’s not the first time, baby; you know that.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Come on, you need to get to school. Do you need a ride?”
“No, I’ll bike. It’ll be nice to get the exercise.”
“Okay.” Angela stood and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Be safe. I love you.”
Chiara hugged her tightly. “Love you, too.”
She pulled away and wheeled her bike out the door, down the stairs, and outside. She shivered. The wind was intense.
The wrought iron gates appeared too soon. It was still quiet and the enormous grounds were empty. Her bike wheels squeaked conspicuously as she moved towards the Home building. Chiara stored her bike in her locker and left most of her books on the shelves, keeping only her Thermodynamics textbook and notes. There was still an hour until class.
Chiara tucked her hands into her jacket pockets, looking out the front door towards the Physical Education building. She chewed the inside of her cheek, listening to her heart beat slow and loud. This place had the most beautiful ice rink she had ever seen, and she could never use it. Most figure skaters never got back to the same caliber after suffering a compound break. She remembered how unnerving it had been, staring at one bone protruding from her leg in one direction while her knee faced the other. The ice had been stained with blood. The doctor said she could never put the same amount of pressure on her left leg again.
That nixed figure skating completely.
Chiara sighed. That had been the first thing she found that she loved. There were others that she enjoyed and was good at, especially on computers and with mechanics of any kind, but ice skating would always be first in her heart.
She shook herself and hurried to the Natural Science building. Maybe she could study more until class started.
Quietly, Chiara pushed open the Thermodynamics lecture hall door and hopped up the first tier to her seat. She paused before sliding behind her desk. Another figure was already seated at the very top tier, slumped over the desk. Chiara frowned, skipping up the rest of the way to see the stranger better. Finally, she rolled her eyes.
Brody Hilton lay with his cheek resting on his arm, soundly sleeping. His backpack leaned against the wall behind him, but otherwise he looked like he had been there all night. Chiara scoffed, turning back towards her desk.
“I was awake.”
She waved a dismissive hand behind her, dropping to sit in her seat and dragging out her textbook.
“Did you want something?”
“Not from you,” she replied evenly, flipping through her notes to her circled concepts to study again. Holly had not been very helpful with most of the topics. She heard Brody sigh lightly.
“Why are you so persistent in being so rude?”
She rolled her eyes, keeping her back to him.
“Says the guy who acted like he had never seen me before when his boss was threatening me.”
“He didn’t threaten you.”
“So you’re admitting he’s your boss?”
“Wow.” He chuckled. “Sounds like you’ve got some bitterness towards us!”
Chiara spun her chair so she looked up at him at the top of the lecture hall. “Tell me, why shouldn’t I? You guys, the Collective, assign cards of condemnation, that give the rest of the school permission to do whatever they want to the people you don’t like. I’m from the Downs. There is no way I’m going to keep away from that long, is there?” She waved her hand invitingly. “From your professional opinion.”
Brody rocked his chair back and forth, smiling sleepily. “Let’s just say you haven’t made him all that happy.”
Chiara chuckled incredulously. “Yeah, as if yesterday didn’t tell me that! How about the others?”
“We all think you’re funny.” He shrugged as her face spasmed into one of confusion. “We’ve all been at this school since preschool. It gets boring! It’s always interesting to get a new face, someone who gets Jay all riled up.”
“Oh, he’s all riled up now?”
“He is. Honestly, I don’t know what he’s going to do. I’d be careful. Of course, it’s the other students you have to be watching, not the Collective.” He grinned. “Before you say it: yes, it’s because we don’t want to get our hands dirty.”
Despite herself, Chiara laughed. “Sounds like you’ve heard this argument before.”
“Once or twice.”
“Heard any good points that make you think twice about, I don’t know, making kids jump off of roofs?”
His smile faded. “That went too far.”
Chiara shrugged. “Than why not try to get that through to your boss’ thick skull? People are getting hurt,” She cocked her head. “And I don’t think that’s what you want.”
He sighed, lifting his shoulders helplessly. “Our job is to make sure that the people who belong here stay, and the weeds get exterminated.”
“Your job?” Chiara straightened. “Self-assigned, or…”
“Watch the rest of the school. They’re the ones who will be the biggest danger while you’re here. I think you’re starting to get the idea.” Another student, a lanky guy with glasses and a big grin, entered the room and, after giving the two occupants quick glances, made his way to his desk midway through the room. Brody looked back at Chiara. “I never introduced myself, did I?”
Chiara shrugged. “You didn’t like it that way, Wise Guy.”
He chuckled. “I’m Brody Hilton. Pleased to meet you, Chiara Dalton.” He drew out his Thermodynamics textbook and Chiara got the idea that the conversation was over.
She smiled a little and rolled her eyes, twisting back to her own desk. So far, Brody was the most likeable person on campus: minding his own business, laid back, not too talkative. In contrast to Jay Newhall, Brody Hilton was quite agreeable.
Still, it was best not to get too attached.
The lecture actually made sense this time, and Chiara found herself crossing out her questions. Her pencil flew and she nodded to herself nearly continuously. Things were looking good.
Her eyes flicked over her notes, over and over again, absorbing new information like a sponge. She had always been quick to learn and, once she accepted that this was a part of her life into which she had to put effort, it was not as hard as she originally anticipated. Chiara reached her locker and reluctantly closed her book to put it away. She opened the door and frowned.
Dangling from the crease in the top of the door was a red card with a skull and crossbones printed across.
There was a violent gasp behind her and Chiara looked over her shoulder. Felicity Reacher and her two minions stood with their weight shifted all to the same side, hands braced on hips, and jaws hanging open. Their eyes sparkled with joy. Felicity’s eyes flicked from the card to Chiara.
“Well, finally!” she breathed, touching her hand to her chest. “I don’t think I’ve ever, like ever, seen anyone get the Collective card so fast!”
She said it too loud. Suddenly, there were a dozen teens circling around her, eyes wide and mutterings washing over them like a wave. Chiara slowly closed her eyes, pressing her lips together and releasing a sharp sigh.
Brody had said to watch the crowd. He was obviously not on board with the Collective card, or at least that was the image he was portraying. This had to have been Jay.
Chiara turned to the crowd of students who had gathered around her, then felt her brow tighten as a familiar tuft of hair appeared over heads. The congregation hurriedly shut up and ducked out of the way as Jay Newhall, tailed by Dante, Oliver, and Brody, wove their way through to her locker. She leaned a shoulder against the row of lockers as Jay leaned forward, narrowing his eyes as he studiously scanned the bright red card hanging from her door. He rose his eyebrows, sliding his hands into his pockets.
“Huh. That looks familiar.”
Chiara scoffed, rolling her eyes. “I don’t know who ruined you and your sick sense of humor, but you’re not funny.”
Jay chuckled. “I think I am. Dante?”
The chocolate skinned son of the Mafia leader shrugged with a grin. “It’ll definitely be entertaining.” He winked at Chiara. She made a face.
The Newhall heir leaned a hand against the locker behind Chiara, trapping her in the tight space between his arm, the cold metal at her back, and his warm body, bundled in a dark grey overcoat and striped scarf. She met his eyes evenly, daring him to continue. He smiled, his eyes deadpan and piercing.
“Checkmate,” he breathed. He nodded slowly, driving the point home. “See you on the streets, Downs.”
Chiara cocked her head. “You’ll be out there with me?” She crinkled her face in mock pleasure. “How flattering.”
He chuckled, rolling his eyes upward with a self-satisfied smile. “Yeah, we’ll see how long you’ll last.”
She matched his smile, leaning back against the lockers and crossing her arms over her chest. “We’ll see how long you can keep this up.”
He winked. “Right.” He pushed himself away from her and swung his legs down the hall.
Chiara watched Dante and Oliver exchange amused glances and Oliver smothered a laugh with his popped coat collar. Dante flicked his head in acknowledgement to Chiara and guided Oliver down the hall to follow Jay. Chiara’s eyes flicked to Brody. He met her eyes, his sleepy expression nearly hiding the modicum of concern etched into his face. The Hilton heir threw his gaze wide, taking in the whole crowd of students, guys crowding to touch him, girls hyperventilating and not too subtly drawing out cell phones to take posed selfies with him. Somehow, Chiara knew what the expression meant.
They were the threat. They were the ones to watch.
That was what he thought. Chiara, though, wanted to nip the problem at the bud.
Jay Newhall was the seed.
Brody inclined his head meaningfully, then gently shouldered his way through the crowd to follow the rest of the Collective. Chiara watched him go. The more interaction she shared with him, the more she was convinced that he was not Collective material. He was not standing up for himself, much less the students around him. He had potential, but seemed afraid to use it.
Maybe she could help him, too.
Why was this school so packed with such pitiful characters?
Felicity hopped into her gaze, flipping her luscious hair with a smile bordering on evil. Miranda and Sophia giggled incessantly behind her. The Reacher girl stabbed a finger into Chiara’s face.
“You better watch your back, Downs,” she whispered. “Cause we’re all coming to get you.”
She spun away, flaunting her long legs as her posse followed. Chiara glanced around as the crowd dispersed, every one of the students casting her conniving looks and satisfied glances. She sighed lightly. No one seemed to want her here. No one thought she belonged.
That only made her more determined to stay.