"Good-bye, life." I sighed as I looked down from my bedroom window toward
the bus stop at the end of the street.
Everyone was there. All my friends. Lucy. Chloe. Ellie. Jess. Charlotte. They
were messing around, laughing and shoving each other as usual. There's
been some almighty humongous mistake. This so isn't right. I should have
been with them. I should have been going with them. A new start for all of us,
into high school.
I stared down at Jess, willing her to look up. She was my best friend, but
she'd probably be Charlotte's from now on. I bet she would. She'd soon forget
me. It was bound to happen if we went to different schools. She'd said that
she'd wave to me from the bus stop, and she hadn't even looked up. Not
once. She'd been too busy laughing with Charlotte. Instead of me. Not going
to cry, not going to cry, I told myself as the bus came rattling down the road
and Jess stuck her hand out to wave it down. It was too late—tears stung the
back of my eyes, and I knew I was going to blubber. Again.
I watched my friends get on the bus and disappear off around the corner. And
now the street was empty.
I was alone.
Well, almost. Bertie, who had been standing, watching with me, paws up on
the windowsill, looked up at me sympathetically and let out a soft whine.
I ruffled his black silky head. "And soon I'll have to say good-bye to you, too."
I sighed as I turned away from the window.
My suitcase was ready on the bed. Mom had packed it for me over the
weekend. New clothes. New uniform. Everything I'd need for my new school. I
shoved it off the bed and onto the floor, where it landed with a loud thud.
"Well, that's what I think of you," I said as I stuck out my tongue at the
I took a quick glance at myself in the mirror. A ginormous zit stared back.
"Go away," I said to it, but it took no notice and glared back at me defiantly.
I'd been lucky so far—I never usually got zits, but this one appeared over the
weekend to make up for all the months without. Right in the middle of my
forehead. If there was a prize for pimples, I'd win it hands down. You couldn't
miss it, no matter how much concealer I plastered on. And it was one of
those ones that you couldn't pop; it was an under-the-skin, lumpy one that
just glistened red and shouted, Whee, LOOK AT ME! Just what you needed
on the first day of school when you want to look your best. Not.
"Yuck," I said as I made a face at myself and pulled my hair back into a
ponytail. Big mistake. It only showed off my Award-Winning Zit more. Maybe
I should get bangs? I wondered as I pulled my hair loose again. Even my hair
was misbehaving today. I so wished that I had straight, blonde, fine hair like
Jess's and Lucy's, but no, I had a mass of boring, brown, kinky hair. I'd tried
straightening it, but it had still managed to get curly again. Great impression
I'm going to make. I look like a geek. A pimply geek.
"Gemma, GemMA," Mom called up the stairs. "Almost time."
I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. This was almost it. Good-bye
to my friends. My dog. My cozy bedroom. My life.
I took off my nightgown and put on the uniform that was hanging ready on the
back of the door. Prison outfit, more like. Black skirt, cream blouse, yellow-
and-black tie. I took another look in the mirror, hoping that by some miracle
in the last five minutes I had turned into Britney Spears and looked like a hot
babe, like she did when she wore a school uniform in that old video of hers.
No such luck.
"Don't call us," I said to my reflection. "We'll call you."
Mom had bought the uniform too big so that I could grow into it—only by the
look of it, that's not going to happen until around senior year. I looked
ridiculous. Anyone could see that the sleeves were too long, and the
shoulders hung off me. I might be going to a ritzy school with ritzy girls, but
my parents had to scrimp and save so that I could attend. A new uniform for
me every year wasn't an option. I bet none of the other girls have had to get a
uniform that they can grow into, I thought. I bet all their parents are so
stinking rich that they can have a new uniform every week if they want. It's so
not fair. I don't want to be going to a snobby school with snobby students. I
want to be going to the high school with my friends, where you don't have to
wear a uniform at all.
The trouble started last summer when some ancient great aunt left some
money to my parents in her will. With one condition—that the money was to
be used for "a private education" for me. Mom and Dad were on cloud nine,
even though there was one small problem. She hadn't left quite enough to
cover all the tuition. Only two thirds of what was needed. That didn't stop
them. They decided that "fate" had given me a chance, and they were going
to do all they could to make it happen. Mom got an evening job teaching
English as a foreign language on top of her normal job at the library, and Dad
started putting in extra hours at his garage. All so I could go to private school.
"What a lucky girl you are," everyone said.
"Opportunity of a lifetime," I heard over and over again.
No one asked me what I wanted. What I wanted was to kill that aunt. Only
she was already dead. No one asked me what I wanted at all, and on the rare
occasions that I dared to object to being separated from my friends, Mom
and Dad laughed and said that I'd soon make new ones. They really don't
understand what changing schools can be like.
I'd tried getting Dad on his own, but he said that I had to remember the
sacrifices that Mom was making for me.
I tried getting Mom alone, but she said that I had to remember the sacrifices
that Dad was making for me.
I tried my grandparents, and Grandma said that I was in danger of becoming
a "spoiled little brat."
Only Bertie understood.
And so I was off to Avebury, a new school where I knew I wouldn't belong. I
hoped that when Mom and Dad saw me cast out as an outsider and failing all
of my classes that they would remember the sacrifices that I made by giving
up my friends and going along with it, just to keep them happy. I had no
choice in the end. What with them working all hours and wearing themselves
out to give me what they thought was the "opportunity of a lifetime," I couldn't
say too much. I didn't want to be seen as a "spoiled little brat."
By now I was feeling quite sorry for myself, so I opened the closet, walked in,
sat on the floor, and closed the door. Maybe if I stay here long enough,
I thought, the back will fall through like it did in those C. S. Lewis books, and
I'll find myself in a magical land like Narnia. I knocked on the wood behind
the clothes. No such luck. There was no secret door there. Only the back of
the closet and then the wall adjacent to the bathroom. I knew it was a silly
Outside there was a scratching sound and a soft growl. I opened the door,
and Bertie leaped in to sit on my knee. I think he knew that something was
up. He'd sat in my suitcase last night as Mom packed the last things, and he
refused to move until she shoved him out. He hated it when the cases came
out. He knew from when we'd been on vacation that clothes being packed
meant that someone was going away.
This time, it was no vacation.
"It's so not fair," I said to Bertie as he licked my face in the dark. "Why did
that stupid aunt have to die and leave me money anyway? She'd never even
met me. Maybe she was miserable all her life and wanted to make sure that
someone kept suffering after she'd gone. Why couldn't she have left me the
money and said, Spend it all on clothes? Now that would have been worth
"Woof," said Bertie, and he began to make himself comfortable in my lap.
Since he's a border collie, he's not a huge dog, so it wasn't too bad, but I did
feel a bit squashed all the same. Not that I minded. His warmth and familiar
doggy smell were reassuring.
"Gemma, GEMMA," Mom called again, and I heard her footsteps coming up
"Shhh," I said to Bertie as we heard my bedroom door open.
"Gemma?" asked Mom's voice.
Unfortunately, Bertie woofed in response, and a moment later, Mom opened
the closet door.
"What on earth are you doing in there?" she asked as I looked up at her from
behind the hems of hanging skirts and pants.
"Nothing," I replied. "Looking for Narnia."
Mom stared at me quizzically. "Narnia? Well, if it was on our list, I'd have
packed it. Come on, come out. It's almost time for us to go."
I decided to make one last bid for freedom. I fell on my knees in front of
her. "Mom, please, save me from this terrible fate . . ."
Mom started laughing.
Why does everyone always think it's so hysterical when I'm being deadly
"I know it's a new start," said Mom as she sat on the end of my bed, "but
you'll love it when you've settled in."
"Won't," I said as I sat up.
"Of course you will. You'll make new friends in no time."
"Won't. Don't want new friends. I want to be with Lucy, Chloe, Ellie, Jess,
and Charlotte. They're my friends."
"You can still see them when you're home during your break. Come on,
Gemma—this isn't like you. You're a very lucky girl. Avebury is one of the
best schools in the country. Lots of girls would love to have this chance."
"Don't care. Don't want to go."
Mom laughed again. "See if you can stick out your bottom lip just a little bit
more . . ."
"Hmpf," I replied. "No one ever takes me seriously."
Suddenly, Mum sighed. "Look, Gemma. I'm not having this conversation
again. We've been through it a million times."
"Yeah, but no one asked me what I wanted. I wanted to go to the same
school as my friends. That's a good school too. I would be happy there."
"We only want what's best for you. This is . . ."
"I know," I said. "The opportunity of a lifetime. Only my life is over. Please,
Mom, please. Let me go with my friends. I'll work really hard. We should all
be starting high school together today, and instead . . ." I felt tears welling up
again. "Instead . . . I'm going to be all by myself. I won't know anyone."
"You'll know Sara Jenkins. She goes there."
I snorted. Mom didn't really know Sara. She lived in a swanky house on the
next street and thought that she was God's gift. Okay, so she had long
blonde hair and was really pretty, but she was mean. During Christmas
vacation, Jess and I saw her and her friends at the skating rink outside the
town hall. It was our first time ice-skating, and when we fell over, she thought
that it was hilarious. She pointed at us and laughed. She, of course, had
been skating for years and probably had a private instructor.
"Sara Jenkins probably already has a bunch of friends," I said. "She won't
even give me a second glance."
"Well, there'll be plenty of other girls in your position, Gem. You're probably
not the only person who will be starting today. Everyone's bound to be
nervous, but you'll pal up with people in no time."
"Huh," I said and folded my arms. "People make friends in seventh grade
when everyone is starting. By eighth grade, everyone's got their friends. The
groups are fixed. The cool kids. The geeks. The computer whizzes. The
nerds. The jocks. You don't understand how it works."
Mom stood up. "Now don't be childish, Gemma. You're twelve years old and
about to start at one of the best boarding schools in the country. You should
count your blessings. So, enough. It's time for you to start behaving like a
young lady. Now finish getting dressed and start acting your age."
I lay on my back. "Huh," I said again. "You really don't understand."
"Five minutes," said Mom. "And get up off that floor. Your uniform will be
covered in dust."
"Good," I said. "That's how I like it."
Mom rolled her eyes and took a card out of her pocket. "By the way, your
dad left this for you before he went to work this morning."
When she'd left, I ripped open the envelope.
Inside was a card with a black-and-white photo of an athlete holding a huge
silver cup. Inside, it said, "Winners never quit and quitters never win. So get
out there, walk tall, and show them what you can do. Love, Dad."
My eyes filled with tears again. I quickly wiped them away. What is the
matter with me this morning? I asked myself. I'm turning into a pathetic wet
drip, and I'm going to have a frog face with bloodshot swollen eyes and a big
red nose from blubbering so much.
Outside the window, I could see Mom beginning to load up the car. Her
normally glossy chestnut (highlighted) hair was scraped back into a ponytail,
and she had the teeniest bit of gray coming through at her temples. Oh,
bummer, I thought. My fault. Giving up her regular hairdressing appointments
had been one of the sacrifices that she'd made to pay for the school. At least
Dad didn't have to worry about hair. He'd lost most of his in his 30s. I'd said
good-bye to him last night since he started work so early in the morning.
He'd looked tired, as he often did on Sunday evenings. I was going to miss
him and Mom.
"Spoiled little brat," I told myself. "Start acting your age. Opportunity of a
I knew that there was no getting out of the situation. I'd tried appealing to
their better natures. I'd tried begging. I'd tried rolling on the floor and moaning
like a crazy girl, and clearly none of it was going to work. I knew how hard
Mom and Dad had worked for me, even if I hadn't asked them to. Maybe I
could go for a term, and then they'd realize what a mistake it was and let me
come back home. Yes, there's light at the end of the tunnel, I decided.
Darkest hour is before dawn and all that. With those thoughts in mind, I put
on my oversize blazer, applied a bit more concealer, and brushed my hair.
Bertie was looking up at me with big, sad eyes.
I felt my own eyes fill up again. This is ridiculous, I thought. All I've done
today is blubber, blubber, blubber.
I bent over and put my hand out to him. He put his paw in it in the way that
I'd taught him when he was a puppy.
"Bye, boy," I said as I shook his paw and stroked his head.
"Woof," he said back.
I straightened myself up. "Right, winners never quit and quitters never win," I
said to myself. "It's time to show the world that I'm not a quitter. It's walk-tall
time. And I'm going to show the world that I can do it."
I took a deep breath, opened the bedroom door, tripped on the carpet, and fell
flat on my face.
So much for my positive start. I hoped that it wasn't an omen.