Authors: Ilsa Madden-Mills
Briarcrest Academy Novel
© 2013 by Ilsa Madden-Mills
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Lina and Tabatha
have secrets and scars they keep hidden from the world.
you, my lovelies, for all your sweet laughter and late night texts.
of all, thank you for sharing your stories and friendship with me.
are three souls who get each other, without reservations,
my husband, the best beta reader a girl could have.
my Viking, for reals, babe.
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question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or are they crazy?”
Yeah, that’s not an easy word to say. Yet these often
mispronounced staccato syllables have been ticking in my brain like the click
of my piano teacher’s metronome for the past fifteen minutes . . .
. I tapped my fingers to the beat.
This obscure word was coined by Thomas Carlyle in his
, so it’s not surprising the organizers
selected it for the Belltone National Spelling Bee. Even the best speller might
be thrown off by it, maybe because the /w/ is pronounced as a Germanic /v/ or
maybe they make the rookie mistake of forgetting to capitalize the beginning.
But four years ago, I’d made no mistake at that renowned
spelling bee. I’d been perfect, since screwing up was not allowed in my family.
In my last year to compete and at the age of fourteen, I’d nailed
beating out the pimply, homeschooled kid from Rhode Island in round six.
My IQ tested at 162 and most considered that genius level.
Yet, I still had to work my ass off for the spelling bee, studying the
two-hundred-page word list and thirty thousand flash cards for two hours a day,
four days a week. For an entire year. In those days, I was quick to remind
people that Einstein was a proven horrible speller.
My mother snapped her fingers in my face. “Nora Grace,
please stop slumping and sit up. Good posture improves your overall
attractiveness. You know this.”
I straightened my back.
“Mr. Cairn’s about to call you to the podium,” she said.
“Don’t let me down.”
She twisted her lips as she scanned over my new dress and
brown sandals. “That yellow dress was a
bad idea. It completely washes
you out, and I’m surprised my assistant picked it out. She usually has better
taste. Please don’t wear that—” she gestured at my outfit, “terrible ensemble
again.” She sighed. “At least you didn’t wear those disgusting cowboy boots.”
I gripped the edges of my chair, refusing to acknowledge her
last remark. Did she think I was stupid? I’d known to not wear my boots in
front of her, not when I’d be wearing her handprint on my cheek later for the
infraction. I pushed her from my mind and stared down at my note cards,
concentrating on remembering everything my speech coach had taught me.
She continued her lecture as she focused her attention back
on the headmaster of Briarcrest Academy. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you shop
for an appropriate outfit. Now that Geoffrey has resigned, the station is in
chaos, so I’ll be working more hours and staying at the apartment in the city.
It can’t be helped,” she said, shrugging her impeccably suited shoulders. “I do
worry about you though. Princeton is only a few months away, and you’ll never
make it past freshman year if you don’t stop daydreaming. We expect big things
from you, Nora.”
She checked me out again, this time directing her critical
gaze to my waistline. “Mona mentioned you haven’t been weighing yourself each
day, and I’m concerned. You must
forget how fat you were.”
I peered down at my size five dress and sucked in. Mona, our
housekeeper, reported everything I did. She probably kept a log that told
Mother when I peed.
“Oh, and I do have some exciting news I’ve been meaning to
tell you. Finn’s moving back to the house after Christmas,” she said with a
smile. “Houston isn’t working out for him like he thought, so he’s going to
work downtown with your father’s law firm.”
I swallowed down bile at what she’d said. Everything was
always about Finn, my half-brother. Why didn’t she give a shit about
I glanced around her to peek at my dad, but he wasn’t even
listening to Mr. Cairn or to us. He had his phone out, texting. He didn’t want
to be here.
From the stage, Mr. Cairn was finishing up his spiel, “. . .
to Briarcrest Academy’s Senior Registration and Open House Night. This fall
marks our hundredth-year anniversary, and we look forward to celebrating this
event all year. And now, to welcome our incoming seniors, last year’s junior
class president Nora Blakely will be speaking to you. An asset to our Academy,
she was not only the Belltone National Spelling Bee Champion four years ago,
but she’s currently the editor of the yearbook, the co-captain of the debate
team, and an early recipient of the esteemed James D. Gobble Scholarship to
attend the University of Texas. She’s an exemplary role model for all of us
here tonight.” Mr. Cairn smiled benignly down at us in the front row. “Without
further ado, please give a hand for Miss Nora Blakely.”
Polite clapping ensued.
“Go get ’em, sis,” Finn said to me as I rose to walk up the
wooden steps to the stage. Shocked to hear his voice, I turned to see that he’d
obviously slipped in late and had been sitting right behind me the entire time.
I felt myself draw up inside. He wasn’t supposed to be here, not when it was a
week day and he lived four hours away. Deep in my gut, I realized Mother had
told him to come. And he always did what she said. So did I.
As I looked at him, the shuffling sounds of people sitting
in hard chairs swelled in my head and then shrank in the oddest way. Vertigo
hit me, making the gymnasium spin around wildly, like I was on a
merry-go-round. Freaked out, I gained control by fisting the sides of my dress
and biting the inside of my cheek until I tasted the coppery tang of blood.
Seeing him had made me crack even more.
I shuddered in revulsion, taking in his gaunt face and
red-rimmed eyes with sagging skin underneath. Cocaine. Someday, it would take
away his handsome visage completely and leave it in ruins. His clothes screamed
money though, from the tailored suit to his Louis Vuitton watch. Just like me,
he was pretty on the outside.
His hands twitched nervously, calling attention to the long,
jagged scar on top of his right one. That nasty gash had taken eighty-five
stitches at the emergency room, and if he rolled his sleeves up, it would
stretch all the way up to his elbow. As I stared, he flushed red and dropped
his head to stare at his shoes, like the answer to all life’s questions were
lying on the dirty gym floor. They weren’t.
I suddenly wished I was high. At least I wouldn’t remember
what I’d done.
I turned my back to him and walked away. He was nothing to
Making my way up the steps, I smoothed down my dress and
tried to breathe evenly, so I could give my well-prepared speech—all about how
freaking wonderful it is to be a student at BA, how super-terrific it is if you
study hard and make good grades, and how awesomely fantastic it is to be rich
and smart in a crappy little world. Right.
I snorted. If these people only knew the dirty truth about
me. How weak I was. How I was dying a little bit every day in small doses.
Would they look at me differently? Treat me like a pariah?
internal voice whispered.
Shake it off and breathe
, I ordered myself. I sucked
in a long breath through my nose and exhaled through my mouth as I moved
forward to Mr. Cairn, whom I’d privately nicknamed Mole, albeit a rather nice
mole. With his gray hair and squinty eyes, he looked deceptively unassuming,
but he also had keen instincts and even keener intelligence. Nothing much got
past Mole. Even now, his beady gaze probed my expression, and I think maybe he
could see my cracks. Automatically, my body went into beauty pageant mode, and
I sashayed toward him robotically, the new sandals Mother hated clacking
against the stage.
It was time for the dog and pony show.
Looking at me warily, Mr. Cairn politely moved aside and
took a nearby seat on the stage, along with our second headmaster and various
esteemed, contributing alumni who helped make BA one of the top private schools
in Texas. I nodded, giving them my practiced fake smile and turned to face the
audience. With the glare of the bright spotlight in my face, it was hard to see
much past the first row, but I saw my parents and my best friend Mila, along
with her parents.
I also made out Drew Mansfield, my once secret crush since
seventh grade—may he rot in hell for screwing me and then dumping me last year.
He’d shattered my heart, and I dreaded seeing him and his crooked smile at
school, day in and day out. In the cafeteria. In class. At debate.
At least Finn was gone, his seat now unsurprisingly empty.
It had always been hard for him to face me in the light of day. The night is
where he reigned.
The rest of the audience sat in darkness. Waiting.
I’ve stood in front of the podium too long because I can see
Mother glaring at me, covertly motioning with her hands for me to start. Dad’s
lips have thinned, and I can see the impatience settling on his face. He
probably had an important meeting at the courthouse to get to. Was that my
future? To follow in his footsteps, blindly doing whatever society expected? Or
would I turn out like Mother? Clawing my way to the top of the network ladder,
reaching for stardom on national television.
Is that what it took to be happy?
The audience began murmuring, becoming antsy. After all,
they expected me to deliver a rousing speech about the merits of BA, proving to
them that the forty-two thousand dollars a year they paid was worth it. I
couldn’t disappoint them, yet my mind went blank as I stared into that dark
abyss, that giant hole of emptiness. Maybe I could have stood there all day,
refusing to face my future, but it wasn’t permitted.
I commanded myself to smile again and turn on the charm, but
my body rebelled.
. That had
happened before. And stage
fright wasn’t a possibility, not when I’d been in front of people and on
display my entire life, just like Mother’s precious china. No, my body’s
unwillingness to perform was entirely new. On edge, I tried again, digging deep
inside the core of me, searching for the Nora they expected to see, for the
girl people claimed was brilliant.
I licked my sudden dry lips,
shocked by my body’s refusal to obey. Where was the girl who could win an
Academy Award for her depiction of a well-adjusted person?
I couldn’t let them see the real me, the one that was
obscene and gross. They’d hate me; they’d be disgusted by me. As they say here
they’d ride me out of town on a rail.
Panicked, I fiddled with my note cards, shuffling them
around on the podium. I had to give this speech flawlessly, and if it wasn’t
dazzling and worthy of the Blakely name, Mother would be mortified. She would
I tried to smile for the third time but got nothing. Just
nothing. Not even a facial tic. I began to wonder if I could move at all. I
felt frozen in place, like someone had zapped me with a ray gun.
Is this where it would all end? Was I going to break down
and let this audience see my shame?
God, please no.
I hung my head,
remembering my sins. My ruin.
My now sweaty hands gripped the note cards as my heart
pounded, so loud that I would swear the people sitting on the front row could
hear the blood whooshing through my veins. They were all staring at me like I’d
lost it. I had. I’d finally stepped off the razor’s edge I’d been walking for
I closed my eyes and thought of
the word around in my head, letting the syllables soothe me. My words always
made me feel better. Only it didn’t work this time because I’d broken wide
open. Like a cake that’s been baked too long, I was done.
I released my note cards to the floor and watched as they
fluttered down like frightened little birds, escaping at last. I raised my head
and faced the audience. Clearing my throat, I leaned over the podium until my
lips were right on the microphone and delivered my new opening remarks, “Fuck
Briarcrest Academy, and fuck you all.”