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Ben West spent summer vacation growing a handlebar mustache.
Hovering over his upper lip—possibly glued there—was a bushy monstrosity that shouted, “Look out, senior class, I’m gonna tie some chicks to the train tracks and then go on safari with my good friend Teddy Roosevelt. Bully!”
I blindly swatted at Harper with my comic book, trying to alert her to the fact that there was a mustachioed moron attempting to blend in with the other people entering campus.
“I know I should have made flash cards for the poems that Cline assigned,” she said, elbowing me back hard, both acknowledging that she wasn’t blind and that she hated when I interrupted her monologues about the summer reading list. “But I found Mrs. Bergman’s sociolinguistics syllabus on the U of O website and I’m sure she’ll use the same one here.”
The mustache twitched an attempt at freedom, edging away from West’s ferrety nose as he tried to shove past a group of nervous freshmen. It might have been looking at me and Harper, but its owner was doing everything possible to ignore us, the planter box we were sitting on, and anything else that might have been east of the wrought iron gate.
“So,” Harper continued, louder than necessary considering we were sitting two inches apart, “I thought I’d get a head start. But now I’m afraid that we were supposed to memorize the poems for Cline. He never responded to my emails.”
Pushing my comic aside, I braced my hands against the brick ledge. The mustache was daring me to say something. Harper could hear it, too, as evidenced by her staring up at the sun and muttering, “Or you could, you know, not do this.”
“Hey, West,” I called, ignoring the clucks of protest coming from my left. “I’m pretty sure your milk mustache curdled. Do you need a napkin?”
Ben West lurched to a stop, one foot inside of the gate. Even on the first day of school, he hadn’t managed to find a clean uniform. His polo was a series of baggy wrinkles, half-tucked into a pair of dingy khakis. He turned his head. If the mustache had been able to give me the finger, it would have. Instead, it watched me with its curlicue fists raised on either side of West’s thin mouth.
“Hey, Harper,” he said. He cut his eyes at me and grumbled, “Trixie.”
I leaned back, offering the slowest of slow claps. “Great job, West. You have correctly named us. I, however, may need to change your mantle. Do you prefer Yosemite Sam or Doc Holliday? I definitely think it should be cowboy related.”
“Isn’t it inhumane to make the freshmen walk past you?” he asked me, pushing the ratty brown hair out of his eyes. “Or is it some kind of ritual hazing?”
“Gotta scare them straight.” I gestured to my blond associate. “Besides, I’ve got Harper to soften the blow. It’s like good cop, bad cop.”
“It is nothing like good cop, bad cop. We’re waiting for Meg,” Harper said, flushing under the smattering of freckles across her cheeks as she turned back to the parking lot, undoubtedly trying to escape to the special place in her head where pop quizzes—and student council vice presidents—lived. She removed her headband and then pushed it back in place until she once again looked like Sleeping Beauty in pink glasses and khakis. Whereas I continued to look like I’d slept on my ponytail.
Which I had because it is cruel to start school on a Wednesday.
“Is it heavy?” I asked Ben, waving at his mustache. “Like weight training for your face? Or are you trying to compensate for your narrow shoulders?”
He gave a halfhearted leer at my polo. “I could ask the same thing of your bra.”
My arms flew automatically to cover my chest, but I seemed to be able to conjure only the consonants of the curses I wanted to hurl at him. In his usual show of bad form, West took this as some sort of victory.
“As you were,” he said, jumping back into the line of uniforms on their way to the main building. He passed too close to Kenneth Pollack, who shoved him hard into the main gate, growling, “Watch it, nerd.”
“School for geniuses, Kenneth,” Harper called. “We’re all nerds.”
Kenneth flipped her off absentmindedly as West righted himself and darted past Mike Shepherd into the main building.
“Brute,” Harper said under her breath.
I scuffed the planter box with the heels of my mandatory Mary Janes. “I’m off my game. My brain is still on summer vacation. I totally left myself open to that cheap trick.”
“I was referring to Kenneth, not Ben.” She frowned. “But, yes, you should have known better. Ben’s been using that bra line since fourth grade.”
As a rule, I refused to admit when Harper was right before eight in the morning. It would lead to a full day of her gloating. I hopped off the planter and scooped up my messenger bag, shoving my comic inside.
“Come on. I’m over waiting for Meg. She’s undoubtedly choosing hair care over punctuality. Again.”
Harper slid bonelessly to her feet, sighing with enough force to slump her shoulders as she followed me through the front gate and up the stairs. The sunlight refracted against her pale hair every time her neck swiveled to look behind us. Without my massive aviator sunglasses, I was sure I would have been blinded by the glare.
“What’s with you?” I asked, kicking a stray pebble out of the way.
“What? Nothing.” Her head snapped back to attention, knocking her glasses askew. She quickly straightened them with two trembling hands. “Nothing. I was just thinking that maybe senior year might be a good time for you to end your war with Ben. You’d have more time to study and read comics and…”
Unlike the tardy Meg, Harper was tall enough that I could look at her without craning my neck downward. It made it easier to level her with a droll stare. Sometimes, it’s better to save one’s wit and just let the stupidity of a thought do the talking.
She rolled her eyes and clucked again, breezing past me to open the door.
“Or not,” she said, swinging the door open and letting me slip past her. “Year ten of Watson v. West starts now. But if one of you brings up the day he pushed you off the monkey bars, I am taking custody of Meg and we are going to sit with the yearbook staff during lunch.”
“I accept those terms.” I grinned. “Now help me think of historical figures with mustaches. Hitler and Stalin are entirely too obvious. I need to brainstorm before we get homework.”
* * *
Messina Academy for the Gifted—the Mess—was the only nondenominational private school in a fifty-mile radius. At some point in the mid-seventies a bunch of disgruntled academics from the local university had taken over a foundering Jesuit school, turned the chapel into the state’s first high school computer lab, and started only letting in students who passed the three-hour entrance exam.
From the outside the Mess seemed like any other private high school—four hundred kids in uniforms whose tuition had one too many zeroes. But inside we were even weirder than the poor saps at the Catholic school across town. Sure, we had sports and proms and cliques, but we also had electives devoted to the physics of Star Trek and the chemistry of emotions.
In short, we were the smart kid school, Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters minus the mutant abilities—unless you counted the polyglots and concert violinists as mutants, which wouldn’t be entirely unfair. The Mess was where parents stuck their prodigy kids when they didn’t want them attempting nuclear fission in the garage or going off to college at twelve.
The school handbook included a lengthy list of regulations, the first of which was a gag rule against any discussion of the results of your entrance exam—to keep IQ-based bullying to a minimum. Legend had it that Mess kids used to walk around with their IQ numbers pinned to their uniforms so they could only associate with “their own kind.” Since that sounded like the beginning of a Battle Royale kind of dystopia, no one complained about the gag rule. It was bad enough that they publicly ranked us once a month.
Senior year was not going to be a picnic. Just because we’d spent last year prepping our college applications did not mean that we got to slack now, as proven by my schedule: Calculus, Russian literature, Programming Languages, the Economics of the Third World, and—my first class of the day—the History of the American Immigrant.
Meg had opted out of the American Immigrant class, insisting that having to do any in-class discussions of the Joy Luck Club would end in her crying her mascara off and calling her grandmothers to apologize for being an ungrateful second-generation child. This left me and Harper without our usual third seat to save. I settled into a desk in the center of the room and took off my sunglasses, stuffing them into the front pocket of my bag and resuming blending in with the rest of the khaki-pants-and-white-polo-clad members of the senior class.
Our teacher, Mr. Cline, started ticking off the roll sheet. The whiteboard behind him had his name scrawled lopsided across it like a poorly thought out marquee.
“Cornell Aaron?” he read, his pencil poised to make checkmarks.
Over the sound of Harper’s heart going pitter-pat next to me, a familiar voice said, “Here.”
I peeked over my shoulder and saw Cornell sitting a few seats behind Harper, his arm raised in the air. If you went in for that young Lando Calrissian, future-prom-king kind of thing—which Harper did—Cornell Aaron was pretty much perfect, from his shaved head to his penny loafers. He spotted me and waved.
I waved back and turned around. Harper tried to shrink in her seat.
“You look kind of greenish,” I whispered to her.
“Nothing, huh?” I asked under my breath. “Nothing sure got taller over the summer.”
“Shut up,” she hissed back.
As Mr. Cline continued reciting the names of our classmates, I looked around the room, waiting to see an unfamiliar face. TV and movies would lead you to believe that the first day of school was the day a handsome stranger walked in, possibly in a leather jacket or harboring some kind of deep dark secret, like an abusive family or fangs.
But there were no handsome strangers. Mike Shepherd was sitting in the front of the room, picking at a zit with a vacant expression. Brad Hertz and Nick Conrad were already passing notes back and forth. Mary-Anne France was putting on more lip gloss than was medically advisable.
“Beatrice Watson?” Mr. Cline read.
“Trixie,” I corrected automatically.
Call me vain, but being called Beatrice made my skin crawl. I don’t care how much my parents had loved my great-grandmother. I had nothing but respect for GG Bea, who had been a pilot and liked to refer to Amelia Earhart as “Eleanor Roosevelt’s girlfriend,” but that didn’t change the fact that Beatrice was a terrible name.
“Trix, not recommended for kids,” Ben West said loudly from somewhere behind me.
I craned around in my seat, leaning into the aisle so that I could see him from around the girl sitting between us. It was hard to focus on his face with that thing under his nose, but I managed, focusing instead on the mop of unbrushed hair on his forehead.
“How did you get in here?” I asked.
He scoffed and his mustache spazzed out. “Through the door, Trix. Did you climb in through the window? I would have paid to see that.”
“Ben West?” Mr. Cline asked, ignoring us.
West half-raised his hand in a limp salute. “Right here, friend.”
“Yes, thank you.” Mr. Cline frowned before gesturing to the pile of textbooks dwarfing his desk. “Please come check out a textbook and return to your seats.”
There was a screeching of chairs as the class swarmed toward the front. The girl behind me shoved her way forward, getting trapped in the traffic jam. I watched as Cornell stood to the side, letting Harper sneak past him. She thanked him breathlessly.
I considered, not for the first or last time, how much easier life would have been if one of them had been born with a backbone. They’d been doing this awkward flirt shuffle since freshman year after an incident involving a pepperoni getting stuck in Harper’s hair and Cornell gently retrieving it. Ever since then, it’d been all furtive glances and Harper sighing and Cornell being extragentlemanly whenever she was around.
I’d considered locking them in a closet together when we’d been roped into helping the yearbook staff the year before, but Meg pointed out that it would have been “inappropriate” to barricade our best friend in a closet by piling a bunch of desks in front of it. I still stood by the fact that it totally would have worked and I wouldn’t have spent all summer listening to Harper muse about what Cornell was doing at his summer internship in Washington, DC.
“If a look could knock someone up,” Ben West muttered behind me, “Harper would be blown up with Cornell’s triplets.”
I didn’t turn around. I was busy throwing up in my mouth. “That is the worst thing anyone has ever said out loud.”
He grinned. “That’s not even the worst thing I’ve said in the last half hour.”
“Which proves that you continue to excel at being an awful person,” I said, glancing at him over my shoulder. I couldn’t stop myself from giggle-snorting at his old-timey mustache again. “Seriously, West. The mustache? You look like Mario. You just need a plunger and a self-fertilizing hermaphroditic dinosaur.”
I pushed forward, fighting against the tide of people holding the weighty tome that was to be our textbook for the semester. It was a college-level text and didn’t even include the extra academic articles and novels we’d be covering. I took a moment to wonder whether or not I should have taken the British Imperialism class with Meg.
“I will take that as a compliment,” West said, following behind me. “Mario is a hero. Saving princesses and clearing pipes? The man deserves a medal.”
“You deserve a straightjacket. Or a muzzle. Possibly both. You could do it up Hannibal Lecter style and save us all the trouble. You could pay someone to wheel you from class to class.”
“How many name drops can you get in to one insult? It’s like you aren’t even trying. I could easily compare you to—”
I spun to face him again and tilted my chin up so that I wasn’t staring straight into the jut of his Adam’s apple. “A summer’s day?”
“Dry and unpleasant?” he said, twirling the end of his mustache nefariously. The sound of the whiskers crunching together was awful. “I could see that. It doesn’t capture the full scope, though. Maybe a summer’s day in Death Valley with nothing but yogurt to drink? And a swarm of wasps.”
“You always go one too far.” I sighed. “I can actually hear you scraping the bottom of the barrel of your limited intellect.”
We got to the front of the room and Harper bumped me with her arm, throwing me a warning look that pointed out that I should stop sniping at Ben West. Scowling at her, I scooped up a book and shoved past West on my way back to my seat.
Most of the new senior class at the Mess had started at Aragon Prep, Messina’s warm and squishy sister school. From kindergarten to eighth grade, Aragon had spent countless hours teaching all of us how to socialize with our peers and have fun with our education. And then the Mess spent four years making us forget all of that crap and get ready to go to college and/or take over the world.
That’s why the class list was posted constantly. Outside of the attendance office, locked in a Poly(methyl methacrylate)—Plexiglas—case, the class lists were posted in order of rank on the first of every month. Just to keep the student body with a healthy—and occasionally nervous-breakdown-inducing—sense of competition.
I had done the Rank Tango with Ben West throughout junior year. One month, I’d be third, then he’d replace me. He’d managed a 103 percent in Statistical Anomalies—beating me by one percent—and I’d stayed firmly stuck at number four for the rest of the year.
We’d been playing this game for as long as I could remember. Despite the lazy insults and his nonstop blathering on, Ben West was always there to sweep a victory away from me. When I won the geography bee in third grade, he’d won the spelling bee. When I’d trounced him at kickball, he’d wiped the four square court with me.
And that didn’t even include the incident with the monkey bars.
All I wanted was one win that he couldn’t take away from me. If I could dethrone him from the number three spot in our class—Cornell and Harper were one and two, respectively—and stay there until graduation, I would be able to dance out of the Mess with no regrets. A decade of battles with Ben West would be worth it if I won the war.
I retrieved a pencil and my Spider-Man binder from my bag. Flipping the binder open to the first fresh sheet of sweet-smelling college-ruled notebook paper, I dated the top right-hand corner. T-minus 179 days until graduation.
“‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she with silent lips,” shouted Mr. Cline, his voice suddenly booming with theatrical intensity. “‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”
He looked around the room with narrowed eyes, breathing heavily.
“This is the promise of ‘The New Colossus,’” he said in a reverential whisper. “Written by whom, Miss France?”
Mary-Anne cocked her head at him. “Emma Lazarus.”
“Correct,” he roared, spinning to the whiteboard to scrawl the name under his own. “Emma Lazarus, a Sephardic Jew from Portugal. The voice of the disenfranchised immigrant!”
As he started listing the accomplishments of Emma Lazarus and the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, my pencil flew over the notebook paper. We hadn’t even opened the textbook and I was already a page of notes in.
Just a normal first day at the Mess.
To: Messina Academy Students
From: Administrative Services
Welcome pupils, new and old, to the Messina Academy for the Gifted.
As you enter this morning with your proverbial clean slate, you may note some changes to our institution. Thanks to a generous donation from the Donnelly family, we have secured a second mass spectrometer with electrospray ionization capabilities.…
Copyright © 2016 by Lily Elena Anderson