Friday, June 5, 2015

Nightingale update

Hey folks!
I'm currently working on two different manuscripts right now--one with Autumn Doughton (we had so much fun writing Steering the Stars we decided to write another one!) and, the one a lot of you have been waiting for: Nightingale!

For a while there I was feeling NO INSPIRATION for Nightingale at all and I was really disappointed thinking that maybe I waited too long to start it and it was too late.
I'm happy to report that I've been unable to stop thinking about Nightingale for a month or so now and though I'm writing a lot slower than I've done in the past (we're in the process of selling our house so we can move), I'm really happy with what I have outlined for this story.
What can I tell you about it so far?
Well, I'm SO glad you asked.

1) It will introduce a brand spanking new character named Wren.
2) There will be lots of Grey ;)
3) It will start off in Wamego, KS (which is a small town near Manhattan where Mia/Lark is from).
4) Though it will feature a new character, our old favorites will be present.
5) If you have a super keen memory for details, you might recall a little bit about the history on why the Light Elves decided to withdrawal from human interactions? That will play an important part of this new story. :)

I'm writing this story a little differently than I did with the Lark trilogy. This time I plan to write out the ENTIRE thing and then decide whether to publish it as one large book OR (depending on exactly how long it is) splitting it up into three books.

I have the entire storyline outlined though so right now I'm just going to write write write and then when I finish, I'll make the decision and I'll let you guys know.

If I do decide to release it in three different installments, each book will release very close together--I'm thinking one a month for three months.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Today only! 80+ giveaways for paperbacks, ebooks, and more!


Hello! Welcome to my page! I'm terrible about updating it but my goal is to do better this year so when Lizzy Ford came up with the Spring into Romance Facebook Hop I jumped right on! 

What a fantastic idea, right?! Lots of new authors to meet and prizes to win! 

For my giveaway, I decided to giveaway one of my books that is particularly close to my heart, Pieces of Me

Aria Watkins’s life was on the perfect path, or so she thought. She and Sean had big plans for their future together. They were going to go off to college, get married, and have 2.5 kids. But when tragedy strikes, it destroys the heart of Aria and she's afraid she'll never be the same. 
Heartbroken and confused, Aria starts college a completely different person. She hardly recognizes the broken girl she's become, but she can't seem to find the strength to put back together the pieces either. 

Enter Holden Whitmore. 

He's charming, considerate, and he's making it his mission to make her smile. 

At first, she isn’t impressed with him, but he’s persistent and soon she discovers there’s more to him than just a charming smile. 

Aria was sure she'd never be able to move on with her life, but there's just something about Holden that makes her want to try. 

When her tragedy comes full circle, she’s left with a choice: Keep holding on to the past, or move on and find her future...

If you'd like to win a signed copy (and some swag!) just enter below!

  a Rafflecopter giveaway

Next on the hop is Author M. E. Yildirim! Be sure to follow the links and have fun!

Friday, April 10, 2015

My "process"

The other day I realized something about myself--a pattern of sorts if you will.
It takes me approximately 3-4 months to write a book and then after I publish it takes me a month to "reboot".

Weird right? I mean, I'm like clockwork, but I'll get to that in a minute.

You see, I had been feeling like such a SLACKER lately because I hadn't had that need to write that I feel when I'm working on something. Honestly all I've wanted to do was binge watch TV shows (damn you, Netflix!) and clean...okay, maybe it's not so much that I WANTED to clean as much as I NEEDED to clean because we are in the process of selling our house so obviously I need it to be "show ready" at all times (which is challenging when you usually have 5 kids, 3 dogs and 3 cats in your home). My point is, if I wasn't binge watching a show, I was cleaning my house. Sometimes both at the same time because I like to multitask.

Anyway, so yeah, I hadn't written anything since Autumn and I publish Steering the Stars and I was feeling like this epic failure of an author. All sorts of thoughts were whirling around my head, but one question bothered me more than anything: Would I ever write again?

(I have overly dramatic tendencies sometimes)

Autumn and I had started talking about a new story to write together, but despite my excitement over working with her again, I just couldn't muster up the motivation to actually start it yet and I was feeling so guilty. I would try, but I'd just stare at the blank screen unsure where to even begin. Sometimes I couldn't even make myself sit down at my desk...what was wrong with me?

Then suddenly a few days ago the NEED to write hit me. I had an idea and I had to write it down as soon as possible. I scribbled it down with pen and paper and then that night I sat down to type it all out.
5 pages later I realized I had the start of my next solo WIP (and I'm super excited about it because it's going to be so different than anything I've written so far).

Then since I worked on something of mine, I went to Google Drive and opened the doc of the project that Autumn and I are going to work on and I wrote some more!

 It felt SO good to get those words written. They might suck and need some serious editing, but at least I had written something TO edit, you know what I mean? You can't fix a blank page after all.
It was a huge relief. I'm talking suddenly-the-sun-breaks-through-the-clouds sort of feeling.

But then, and I still don't know what made me think of it, but it just sort of hit me that I did the same thing before starting Steering the Stars....and again before Sea Swept.

In fact, once I went back and started thinking about it I realized I had done it with every single one of my releases.
(Here's where my nerdiness really shines through...I made a timeline):

February 2013: I released my debut, Lark
March 2013: I started In the Shadows (though that one took me longer because I was overwhelmed by the number of people who read it and were requesting the sequel and I was dealing with some medical issues that resulted in being diagnosed with cancer that June).
September 2013: I finally released In the ShadowsOctober 2013: I started working on Pieces of Me (and I finished it in November during NaNoWriMo).
December 2013: I released Pieces of MeJanuary 2014: I started working on Unfamiliar (and Like the Dawn on the side) with Komal Kant.
This was the first time I wrote two books at the same time. I focused more of my attention on Unfamiliar at the time since I was writing it with someone but I was definitely working on both.
March 2014: We released Unfamiliar
April 2014: I started really focusing on finishing Like the Dawn
May 2014:  Like the Dawn was released
June 2014: I started Sea Swept and its companion novella, Riptide (I finished both by September, but I wanted to try out the pre-order function so I had Sea Swept up for pre-order in October)
November 2014:  I published Sea Swept and the novella, Riptide
December 2014: Though Autumn and I had started the process of Steering the Stars, I didn't REALLY start writing until the end of December
March 2015: We published Steering the Stars

 And here it is April and I'm starting my next project(s).

See?!? A pattern! I have a "process"!

I'm so glad I figured this weird little habit of mine out because I was really feeling like a failure as an author. I mean, I was even beginning to plan out where I was going to apply for work when Jack started kindergarten (next year!) because I thought for sure I was just done. I was sure that the pool of ideas had dried up and I'd never again feel that drive or inspiration to put words on paper.

I'm soooooo glad that I was wrong. 

So there you have it. The most random and pointless blog post in the history of blog posts. I just really needed to write all that out because while it may be lame to you guys, it was an interesting thing for me to realize about myself. Most of all, I really just don't want to forget it because if everything continues like normal for me, I'll be due for another month of wasting time and feeling like a failure in August--September at the latest. ;)


Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Story of the Missing Scarf (and a giveaway!)


Erica: I have been coveting these Storiarts scarfs for AGES! Then after Autumn wore hers to NOLA in January I decided I MUST have one. I told my husband it was what I wanted for my birthday this year and it would be perfectly fine with me if he got it a little early (*cough*now*cough*).

Autumn: If it wasn’t obvious from my posts, I LOVED working with Erica on StS. Writing with her was like being at an extended slumber party. For months and months we chatted all day while we exchanged ideas and worked—her from Missouri and me from Florida. We were already good friends but co-writing the book solidified what I already suspected… Erica and I are destined to be lifelong friends and we make each other better. As we got closer to release date, I wanted to give her something symbolic to express this feeling and I remembered that she loved my Pride and Prejudice scarf. So I ordered one for her and got an adorable card and planned to send it to her house so it would arrive before the StS release. No joke, right after I ordered the scarf, she posted a photo of the exact same scarf on Facebook encouraging her husband to get her one for her birthday. My eyes went wide and I immediately messaged her hubby and said, “DON’T GET THE SCARF!”

Erica: So I had no idea that Autumn was so sneaky and wonderful and this beautiful scarf was on its way to me. If I did I probably would've sent her something WAY cooler than the outer space socks I found at a museum in KC that reminded me of her. Right after the release of the book, Autumn got the socks in the mail and asked if I had received a package from her yet. I hadn't. A few days later and still no package...

Autumn: I was getting so frustrated! Erica and I had both had the idea to get each other surprise gifts and hers had arrived (and btw, I luuuurved the socks because I am a space/NASA nut so they were perfect), but mine had not reached her and it had been well over a week since I’d mailed it. And, of course, I had sent it regular mail so there was no tracking for me to follow up with.

Erica: Finally, Autumn broke down and told me what I was supposed to be waiting on. I was even more excited and I checked the mail eagerly every day but the days came and went and NO SCARF!

Autumn: Weeks passed and meanwhile I heard from several people that I had mailed things to at the same time I mailed the scarf that either, 1) their package never arrived, or 2) their package arrived but it was damaged and parts were missing. Now, I’m not one to claim that I love the post office but I’ve never had a problem with it. In fact, say what you will about the cost of stamps but I still can’t believe that for less than fifty cents I can send a piece of paper to Montana. But having four packages go missing or get damaged in less than a week was bizarre and driving me crazy. I’ll admit that Erica and I may have gotten a little obsessed during this time.

Erica: Every day, Autumn and I checked in online about the case of the missing scarf. At first we assumed it had just gotten lost in the mail. Then more of her mail went missing and pretty soon our imaginations ran wild. She became convinced that the people that work at her post office extension (which she claims is really just a counter in a QuickMart??! WEIRD.) must be taking her mail and may have decided they wanted the scarf. We started planning how we could catch them.

Autumn: My husband works with computers so I seriously started hounding him to help me install a camera in the bottom of a box so that I could mail it to myself. He thought I was completely crazy but he’s used to my crazy so he went along with it. It’s not that I even wanted to get anyone in trouble; I just NEEDED to know what happened to the scarf! Also, by this time, more than a month had passed so I caved and just bought another Storiarts scarf for Erica and this time had it sent directly to her.

Erica: One weird thing is that Autumn and I talk every single day but we never talk on the phone. We message each other constantly. We text. We might even Skype, but I think in the years that we’ve known each other, we’ve talked on the phone maybe once. But one morning my phone rings and I look down and I see her name.

Autumn: Erica’s right. We never talk on the phone. But on this morning I had this weird compulsion to call her. I even questioned it and wondered if she would think me calling was strange, but I called anyway. Mostly, I wanted to tell her that I had just bought another scarf and it was on its way. So there I was standing on my front porch and telling her that a new scarf had just been purchased and was on the way after a month of waiting. As we were laughing about this, I see a mail truck turn the corner. This was odd in itself because my mailman always comes in the afternoon. He parks in front of the house and I see that it’s not my normal mailman and I just knew. I KNEW that he had the scarf. So here he comes, up the walk, looking ashamed with this completely destroyed package—seriously, the envelope had been taped up so many times that it looked like it had been through the apocalypse and both the addresses were illegible (I still have no idea how they found me), AND there were international stamps on it so I knew the scarf had been places. But the point is that it arrived.

Erica: We both laughed hysterically. And we knew right away that the scarf was special and it was meant for one of our readers. Autumn and I both have one and now one of you can have a Pride and Prejudice scarf and a paperback of Steering the Stars signed by both of us.

Autumn: Seriously, now the three of us can plan matchy-matchy outfits.

Erica: Just use the rafflecopter to enter and GOOD LUCK!


a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, March 30, 2015

Relocating and other tidbits

If you follow my Facebook page you've probably noticed that we are in the middle of trying to get our house ready to sell, packing and buying a new home! Life is a little chaotic at the moment to say the least. :)
I haven't started on anything new yet for that very reason.  Our house went on the market officially today and I'm really hoping it sells quickly so we can move and get settled as soon as possible!

Even though I'm not technically writing right now, I'm still thinking about what I want to write about and writing down notes whenever I think of a really good line or scene.

So that's what is going on in my little world!

Steering the Stars has been out for a few weeks now and the reviews are all great so far which is promising! I wish there was a way to get it out there more because Autumn and I both love this story so much. It's just hard because in the Indie publishing world YA isn't the "thing" in the current market so it's hard to get noticed. But we still have faith in our story and will keep promoting it wherever we can! In fact, we are getting ready to have an AMAZING giveaway! So keep an eye out for it!


Friday, March 6, 2015

Steering the Stars: Chapter 2

Chapter Two

To: Caroline<>
From: Hannah<>
Date: August 31
Subject: SOS

This is my official signal for distress. School is not going well. I repeat, SCHOOL IS NOT GOING WELL. I have so much to tell you about but have no time to explain right now.

After I finished reading Hannah’s email, I groaned and dropped my phone to the bed. I did a few calculations, trying to think if it was already tomorrow there or the middle of the night, but eventually gave up. I’d have to check that time zone app thingy I downloaded before she left me because my brain wasn’t working properly.
       It was too early.
       My caffeine levels were down to zero.
       And it was the first day of school.
       Normally I loved the first day. Maybe it was just me being an overachiever, but there was something about the smell of fresh paper and never-before-used pencils and new books that took me to my happy place. But not this year. This year I was dreading the first day of school like it was nobody's business.
       As I rolled over and burrowed further beneath the covers, an awful, queasy feeling came over me. The thought of having to endure junior year without my best friend was making me physically ill. I knew it was the age of cell phones and Facebook, but still. There was no doubt in my mind that this year was going to, in a word, suck.
       Okay, so maybe I was being a little dramatic, but there was definitely something wrong with me. I took stock of my symptoms. I was sick to my stomach and every few minutes I would feel like I couldn’t breathe, but I wasn’t running a fever—was I? I touched my forehead but my skin felt fine. Gah, this whole thing was crazy and stupid and I couldn’t explain exactly why I felt like this. I just wanted desperately for it to stop.
       Swallowing against a dry throat, I thought about staying in bed and not doing anything for the rest of the day. Maybe even the rest of the year. As it was, I certainly didn't have the energy or the desire to get up and get ready.
       After a few more minutes and a lot more wallowing, Aspen, my red and white Siberian husky, decided she’d had enough. She pounced on me and placed her paws on either side of my body and licked my face until even my eyelids were drenched in slobber. I tried to deflect but it was no use.
       “Geroffmee!” I shouted as we tumbled to the floor in an avalanche of pillows and blankets.
       I glanced back at my bed. Well, I guess that was one way to force me out of bed.
       Aspen circled me until I pushed to my feet and tramped down the stairs to let her out into the backyard. I leaned against the doorframe just watching her frolic and sniff the grass. It was starting to rain but she didn’t care. In fact, she seemed even happier. She just shook her body and bounded to the other side of the yard. I found myself jealous of her ability to adapt.
       Jealous of a dog.
       Yep. I was officially pathetic.
       I left Aspen outside and wandered back upstairs, trying to convince myself that a shower would help my rotten mood. It didn’t.
       Ten minutes later, I wrapped myself in a towel and I stared at my reflection in the full-length mirror. I was close to tears and everything inside of me was still all dark and twisty. Was this what it felt like to be depressed? Was I hurtling down the road to becoming an emo teen who wore all black and listened to crybaby music?
       I wasn’t entirely sure, but I was positive that despite knowing my father was just down the hall, I’d never felt so alone in the world. And, all things considered, that was saying something.
       I still couldn’t believe that Hannah had left this town. Oklahoma. Me.
       My best friend was off having an amazing adventure in London and I'd totally morphed into an ugly, green-eyed monster. Maybe the knowledge that I wasn’t as happy for her as I’d previously thought was what was making me feel sick.
       I reminded myself that if the roles were reversed and I had been the one who’d won an essay competition and was offered a place at my dream school, I'd probably have abandoned Hannah without a second thought.
       It was London after all.
       Buckingham Palace.
       Big Ben.
       Platform 9 ¾.
       Okay, so probably not the last one, but she'd promised to see King's Cross Station and I figured that was close enough to count.
       She was the writer though. She was destined for greatness and adventure and a big life. But me? I wasn’t sure what I was yet.
       “Caroline!” my dad called from the hall.
       “Getting dressed!” I hollered back.
       “Ten minute warning.”
       “I’m hurrying,” I lied as I stared at the wildly-patterned leggings, cream-colored top, and bright teal scarf that I had picked out last week with Hannah’s help. The shirt was okay, but those leggings? Yeah, who was I kidding? That just wasn't happening. Not even on a good day... and today was not a good day.
       I threw the leggings and scarf in a pile on the floor next to my desk before pulling out a pair of well-worn jeans and a plain top from my dresser drawers.
       As I dressed, I thought more about my predicament. It’s not like I could reasonably be mad at Hannah for jumping at the chance to leave. Logically, I knew this was an opportunity of a lifetime. But knowing that didn’t change the fact that I was stuck behind in boring Oklahoma. Sure, Libby Park was pretty and quaint. It had been voted the “Top Historic Town in the Midwest” three years running, but that didn’t make it cool. Certainly not London-cool.
       Even steadfast, always-there-in-a-pinch, Owen Kilgore had been radio silent for days. He was off doing new and exciting things too. After a lot of pushing from his parents, he had agreed to transfer to Holy Cross this year because their lacrosse team was much better than Northside’s and it would definitely boost his college scholarship prospects.
       Nope, I couldn’t blame either Hannah or Owen for leaving, but that didn’t mean that I had to like it. No matter how I looked at the situation, I was officially and completely alone. And, as I tried to wrangle my mass of curly red hair into a simple ponytail, I decided I wasn’t happy about it. Not one bit.
       “Caroline! If you aren't out in five minutes, you'll be walking to school!” Dad yelled up the stairs.
       The threat was actually pretty tempting, but a flash of lightning followed by a thundering boom quickly changed my mind. If it wasn't raining cats and dogs, walking would have been a much better alternative to sitting in my dad's old beat up work truck that smelled faintly of oil, grime, and cigarette smoke for ten minutes of what was sure to be awkward silence.
       “Fine,” I mumbled under my breath before shouting, “I'm coming!” as I grudgingly stomped down the stairs. He was waiting for me at the front door with one hand already on the doorknob and his toolbox in the other. He was wearing a plain white shirt with a red flannel shirt over it, dirty blue jeans, and his work boots. He must have a job today. That was, so far, the only bright spot in this very gloomy morning.
       I’d seen pictures of my dad from when he was in high school. Back in the day he looked just like Val Kilmer in all of his Top Gun glory. Sadly, these days the only thing he resembled was a broken man in grease-stained jeans.
       “What took you so long?” he said, looking down at the toolbox in his hands instead of up at me. He never looked me in the eyes any more. Even though it hurt, it wasn't hard to understand why he couldn't. With my mess of red curls, the dusting of freckles across my nose, and my pale green eyes, everyone said I looked just like my mom.
       “I couldn't decide what to wear,” I grumbled. I really wished it wasn't raining. The eight blocks on foot would probably be worth it just so that I could pop by Starbucks for a Pumpkin Spice Latte right now. Even when the world sucked all around me, I could always count on PSL to remind me that there were still bits of happiness out there.
       For the last two years, I’d ridden with Hannah and her brother. But this year, I'd be depending on my dad for rides until I could manage to buy myself a car. I’d piled on the babysitting jobs over the summer to save up and I was almost there. Just a dozen or so more nights of getting my hair pulled by the Rennert boys and I should have enough. It would probably only be enough to snag a junker but I wasn’t going to complain. I’d take anything.
       Before she left, Hannah had advised me to ask my father for help, but I wasn't about to go there. Dad couldn’t spare the couple hundred dollars I needed or handle an extra insurance payment. God, he could barely cover the bills as it was.
       He was a contractor who was scarcely able to stay afloat in work. And it had been that way ever since Mom died.
       Plus, the old Victorian house we lived in wasn't exactly cheap to maintain. Even to these standards, I thought as I looked around.
       Mom had had huge plans for this place… historic tours or maybe even a bed and breakfast that would one day be featured in a five-page spread in Architectural Digest. But, like everything else, the house and the dream had faded when she had. Now I just hoped that the walls and the roof would hold through the winter.
       “Well, c'mon before we're both late,” he muttered as he handed me an umbrella.
       “Thanks,” I said as I took the umbrella from him. I grabbed my bag from the hook in the hall and dragged my feet out the door. The world outside was cloaked in a grimy grey. I blamed Hannah for this too. As if it wasn’t enough that she had abandoned me, it truly seemed that my bright and sunshiny best friend had taken the sun and all of its warmth with her.
       “Good morning, Mr. McKain,” a familiar voice rang out, surprising me. I looked up to see Henry, Hannah's older brother, walking up the sidewalk toward us holding a cup from Starbucks. Could it possibly be a delicious Pumpkin Spice Latte? My heart thumped with anticipation.
       Henry had on hoodie with Northside Buffalos written in red lettering across the front. The hood was pulled up, but his face still glistened with stray raindrops. He and Hannah had that weird sibling quality where they looked alike but not really. They both had light brown hair that faded to soft gold at the tips and wide-set eyes that seemed to shift between smoky blue and grey. Today Henry’s eyes seemed more grey than blue as though they were reflecting the dreary sky and my mood.
       “Caroline? Are you okay?”
       “I-I…What are you doing here?” I asked, secretly hoping that the coffee cup in his hands was for me.
       “Um, it is the first day of school, right?” he said as he handed me the coffee. My hero!
       “Yeah,” I answered, taking the cup from him gratefully and letting my hands absorb the warmth. Mmmm, it was definitely a PSL! Fall in a cup and so good for the soul.
       “So—I'm here.”
       “You're still going to give me rides?” I asked, dumbfounded.
       “Of course I am. Why wouldn't I?” Henry frowned, which drew my attention to his mouth and square chin. He hadn’t bothered to shave this morning and I could see a light smattering of stubble along his jaw. Hannah always complained if Owen didn’t shave, but if I was being totally honest, I kind of liked the scruffy look. It was rugged and… hot. Not that I was supposed to be thinking of Henry as hot. What was wrong with me this morning? He was Hannah’s brother and a taken man.
       “I, uh… I just figured with Hannah gone, you wouldn't bother.”
       “You know I'd never let ya down,” he said with an easy smile. “Remembered your favorite coffee and everything.”
       “Okay great, so Henry will take you to school,” Dad said, not even bothering to hide the relief in his voice. “See you this evening, Caroline. And thanks, Henry.”
       “Right. Bye, Dad.” I waved to his back as he hurried away.
       “Should we get going?” Henry asked, bringing my attention back to the fact that we were still standing out in the rain and, unlike me, he didn’t have an umbrella.
       “Yeah, sorry.” I raised the umbrella, stretching it as high as I could in an attempt to shield us both from the downpour. Henry, quite a bit taller than my five feet two inches, laughed as he took the umbrella from me and held it high enough for both of us. He rested his hand on the small of my back and my body suddenly rippled with an involuntary shiver.
       “Cold?” he asked.
       “Mm-hmm,” I mumbled. Better to fake a chill in September than admit that my body just spontaneously combusted at his mere touch.
       “So are we picking up Elise too?” I asked hesitantly. Elise and Henry had been dating almost as long as Hannah and Owen had, which meant forever in my opinion. But, unlike Owen, I didn’t particularly like Elise Rivers. Call me crazy but blond, big-breasted and bitchy was not my idea of someone I wanted to spend time with. But I wasn’t a guy so what did I know?
       “No,” he said a little harshly before adding, “We broke up.”
       What? My brain was screaming with this new information. Though I’d never thought Elise deserved him in the first place, this was an unexpected development. Of course, I wasn’t sure that any man, woman or beast on the planet could ever really deserve Henry Vaughn. “Really? What happened?
       “I caught her messing around with some jackass from Holy Cross at a field party a few weeks ago,” he said.
       “What?” I sputtered. “Hannah didn’t mention it.”
       “I didn’t exactly hire a skywriter if you know what I mean.”
       “Right.” I shook my head. “God, Henry, I’m so sorry.”
       “No worries. I’ve had time and I’m fine with it,” he said with a casual shrug, but I could tell he was still hurt by the betrayal.
       If I didn’t like Elise before, I really hated her now. I wanted to press the issue, squeeze out all the dirty details but I could tell Henry didn’t want to talk about it, so I let it drop. I’d definitely have to ask Hannah about this later.
       The ride to school was a little awkward. Maybe it was because we’d been discussing Elise, or maybe it was because it was just the two of us and we’d never hung out without his sister. Not that we were hanging out. Henry was just giving me a ride to school and that was all. Actually, the more I thought about it, the more I thought that Hannah must have put him up to it. Yep, that would explain why he showed up this morning. She must have read my sad email and begged her brother to rescue me.
       So, that begged the question: was a pity ride to school better or worse than having your dad drive you to school? I couldn't be sure. Both options made me feel pretty pathetic though I knew which one I preferred. It was a no brainer. I’d take the pity ride with Henry any day. Especially if it came with a pumpkin spice latte. I took a sip of my glorious caffeinated coffee.
       “Have you talked to Jellybean much?” Henry asked, finally breaking the silence as he pulled into the school parking lot. Jellybean was a nickname Hannah’s family started using when she was a baby, and it stuck.
       “Yeah, I got a message from her this morning.”
       “Yeah, cool.” I didn't know what else to say and the uncomfortable silence inside the car was becoming unbearable so I figured it was time for me to make my exit before this got any weirder.
       “Well, thanks for the ride,” I said awkwardly. I did a wave/shrug thing before turning to fumble with the door handle. Then, of course, my foot caught on the strap of my bag which caused me to tumble out of the car. Nice. Real smooth, Care.
       “You okay?” he asked, jumping out of his side of the car with obvious concern while at the same time trying not to chuckle at my expense.
       “Yeah, I'm good. Fine. Golden.”
       “At least you saved your coffee,” Henry said, pointing to my still upright cup.
       “Right. You gotta have priorities. So… see you later. Or not. Whatever. Bye!” I scrambled like an idiot to make an escape.
       Yep. I should've just stayed in bed wallowing. Too late now.
       Little did I know that my day was about to get even worse and it wasn't even officially 8AM yet…
       “Ah, Miss McKain!” Mr. Kant, the school counselor, waved when I entered the building. He was panting like he’d been walking too fast and he had a phone gripped in his hand. “I’m so glad I ran into you before first period. I was going to have to come and find you.”
       “Um, okay?”
       “Let’s head into my office. We have a slight problem.”
       Dread filled me. What could possibly be wrong? I had never ever ever had a problem at school. The only time my name was called during announcements was to commend me for perfect attendance. And the only reason Mr. Kant even knew me was because he ran a peer counseling club and Hannah and I had both been members freshman year.
       “Can you tell me what it is?” I asked nervously as I followed him to the administration office. I had a photography class first period and it looked like I was going to be late.
       “Just a moment.” We walked past a group of students who Mr. Kant assured he’d see in turn, and ended up in a corner office. I tried to make myself as comfortable as I could on one of two stiff wooden chairs situated in front of his desk. You’d think a counselor would have comfortable chairs to be, you know, counseled in. But I’d only been sitting for about five seconds when my butt and back started to hurt. I noticed Mr. Kant’s chair was plush and comfy looking.
       After sitting down, he wheeled himself over to a filing cabinet and started rifling through a drawer full of papers. My nervousness kicked it up a few notches.
       “The first day is always hectic so we try to help out in different ways,” he told me. “I’m working on clearing scheduling kinks.”
       “It seems that the photography elective you signed up for last year is full so you’ll have to switch to an alternative class,” he dropped this information in my lap as though it wasn’t a big deal.
       But it was. It was huge. I was not a go-with-the-flow kind of person. I didn’t just change class schedules on a whim. I calculated. I weighed options. I planned. And I had planned on taking that class.
       “What do you mean?” I asked, fighting against the desperation in my voice. “I signed up for this class last year. It was supposed to be guaranteed.”
       Mr. Kant, a.k.a., “The Troll Messing With My Schedule,” swiveled his chair away from the files to face me and said, “I think you understand that nothing in life is guaranteed.”
       “But…” my voice trailed off and I shook my head. “I don’t know how this happened. I was supposed to have this class to work toward being a yearbook photographer.” Hannah had encouraged me to go for it. I was already decent with a camera but I needed the class to even be considered for the yearbook position. If I didn’t take it this year, there was no way I’d get the position next year.
       “You are only a junior,” he said, like I was unaware of what my grade level was. “And you are aware, of course, that seniors get scheduling priority. Next year, that will be you, and you can organize your schedule how you like.”
       “But we’re talking about this year.”
       “Yes, we are.”
       “Can’t you just slip me in? It's just a photography elective. It's not like it's a core class,” I argued. What was happening to me? I never argued with adults. I was a model student. I was a sit-in-the-front-row and never-even-tardy kind of girl.
       This wasn’t fair.
       I’d signed up for that class last spring. Hannah and I had talked about it extensively. She’d left me one of her cameras specifically for this purpose. I was counting on this. It was the only thing I had to look forward to this semester.
       “You’re right. Photography is an elective, and you have other options for an elective. Good options.”
       “Please don’t do this to me,” I said, now dangerously close to tears. I could feel my throat tightening and my eyes burning. “I’m begging you.”
       “If I made special arrangements for every student then where would we be?”
       “But it’s not for every student. It’s just me.”
       Mr. Kant, who I was now upgrading to “Jerkface,” didn’t seem even remotely sympathetic to my plight. He sat back in his chair and sighed. “That’s what everyone says.”
       “But I have a perfect record!” I wasn't about to give up yet. “I've never even so much as skipped a class. I get straight As!” Okay, so there was that time last year when I got a B in Calculus, but it was a B+ so that’s practically an A. I mean, hello, it was Calculus! “You can't make just a tiny exception?”
       “Miss McKain, I'm sorry but I can’t.”
       “I really can’t,” he said, shaking his head. “You’re going to have to choose something else for that time slot.”
       “Okay, fine. Whatever,” I conceded. Now that I knew I was getting nowhere fast, I wanted to get out of this office as soon as possible. Hopefully before I burst into tears in front of all the other students who were waiting to speak to the school counselor.
       He considered whatever was on his computer screen and said, “Your choices for first period electives are Intro to Theater or Marine Biology.”
       I choked on a laugh. “You're joking.”
       “Afraid not, Miss McKain.” A note of real annoyance crossed his voice, as though I was purposely being difficult. So what if the line of students outside of his office was growing restless? I wasn’t the one who screwed up my schedule. This wasn’t my fault. “Now, are you going to pick a class or will I have the honor?”
       Theater or Marine Biology? These were not good options in that they both sucked.
       I couldn’t help but feel like if Hannah were here, none of this would be happening. She'd have somehow convinced Mr. Kant to give me the class because she had that kind of power over people. I called it the Hannah Effect. And, if all else failed and she couldn’t get Mr. Kant to relent, she’d probably have dropped another class herself so that we could suffer through Romeo and Juliet or learn about the mating habits of squid together.
       “I’m waiting,” he said impatiently, giving me a pointed look.
       I found myself wondering, what would Hannah do? Costumes and bright lights or salty water samples and dead crab carcasses to examine?
       “Theater,” I said quickly. I just might have to get a bracelet custom embroidered with WWHD? to get me through this year.
       “Excellent.” Mr. Kant nodded and typed the change into his computer. He printed out the new schedule and handed it to me. “You're all set.”
       “Fine,” I told him ungratefully as I stared down at the slip of white paper. It looked innocuous enough, but it was solid proof that major suckage was ahead.
       “Intro to Theater,” I read quietly, my insides going icy cold. Theater. Theater. That meant acting. Being on a stage. In front of other people.
       Was I crazy? For all of my life, I’d made a point of staying off the radar. I didn’t go to school dances. I didn’t date. I didn’t make a spectacle of myself. If you searched “wallflower” in the dictionary, I was confident that my name would be listed under the derivations.
       Fingering the paper schedule, I realized that my sudden burst of Hannah-infused gusto had been a huge blunder. I swallowed and lifted my chin, but before I could tell Mr. Kant that I’d been joking and really wanted to spend first period learning about red algae and sea turtles, he looked past me to the line of students waiting outside his office, waved his hand and shouted, “Next!”

The walk down C hall—a hall I had never once been down—seemed painfully long. My stomach was in knots and my head was killing me. I located the classroom by the number plaque nailed over the door. I had every intention of sliding into a desk in the back row. Preferably in a dark, dank corner where I could blend into the shadows and no one would notice my presence.
       Except there were no desks.
       There were just two rectangular tables surrounded by a few mismatched metal chairs. There weren’t nearly enough seats for the number of students already gathered in the classroom, but nobody seemed to mind. They were sitting on the floor and the windowsills and on a handful of bean bag chairs that were scattered throughout the room.
       There was so much chaos everywhere I looked that my stomach started to feel swishy.
       Bright, sparkly costumes were draped over hangers and haphazardly thrown onto rolling racks. Posters of Broadway shows were pinned cockeyed to the walls with bright red and blue thumbtacks. On a low circular table near the back window there was a box full of random props. I spied a pair of purple goggles, a plastic microphone bedazzled with rhinestones, and a green wig that looked like it belonged in a Dr. Seuss book.
       The whole scene made me want to turn and run, but before I could backtrack, a tall, willowy woman glided through the door, effectively trapping me inside.
       “Hello, actors and welcome to Intro to Theater!” she greeted us enthusiastically. “My name is Nina but—” she bowed her head and sighed, “—alas, the administration insists you all call me Mrs. Cobb.”
       A few people laughed. I nervously backed myself up safely against the nearest wall and tried my best to be invisible.
       Nina, or Mrs. Cobb, could have been twenty or fifty for all I could tell. She was wearing all black—loose gaucho pants, a flowy blouse, and pointy-toed shoes. The only splash of color was a bright orange and pink skinny scarf that actually looked more like a knitted necktie than anything else. Her hair was long and dark brown with heavy bangs that fell in a blunt line straight across her forehead.
       “Let’s circle up!” she called out, pushing at the thick frames of her glasses. “We’re going to play a couple of getting-to-know-you games. Maybe even try a little improv on the first day.”
       Circle up? Was she serious?
       The rest of the class got busy pushing aside the tables to make a wide enough space in the middle of the room to accommodate everyone.
       “Is she going to make us all join hands?” I asked the air.
       “She probably will,” said a cute boy I semi-recognized. “Before the bell rings, we’ll all be singing ‘Kumbaya’ and telling each other our deepest fears.”
       “No… not really?”
       He laughed at my expression. “No, you’re safe. She’s just going to go over the basics today. If she actually calls anyone up for improv, it will be with volunteers.”
       “Thank God. I’m not nearly caffeinated enough.” I took a breath. “Um, by the way… How do you know all this?”
       “I’m actually assisting for the class,” he told me.
       “Oh.” Well, that explained it. I looked him over again, taking in his sculpted hair and dark brown eyes. He was looking more and more familiar to me. “Are you…?”
       “Miles Sloan,” he offered.
       That’s right. Northside was a huge school, servicing Libby Park and two other nearby towns, but after a while you started to notice the same people and put them into categories. Miles was one of the drama kids and I was pretty sure he’d played Captain Hook in last spring’s Peter Pan show. I hadn’t seen the play—just the posters—but I remembered Hannah talking about it. “I think you were lab partners with my best friend last year.”
       His eyebrows moved. “In chemistry?”
       “Hannah Vaughn?”
       I nodded. “Yep.”
       “Ah…” Something sparked for him. I saw it move across his face. “I remember... You used to wait for her after class. You’re the friend.”
       The friend. That’s how I was known.
       “Hannah’s an angel,” he continued. “She saved my ass in that class.”
       She had mentioned something about covering all the lab assignments because Miles was cute but far from the brightest bulb in the chandelier. “She’s good at that.”
       The tables were still being moved around. Someone had knocked over one of the garment racks and another girl caught her sweater on a fake sword so now a huge cleanup effort was being coordinated. I was fine hanging back like this with Miles.
       “So, how is Hannah doing?” he asked.
       “Oh, she’s good. She’s in London this year.”
       “For the whole year?”
       I wanted to say, Yes, and thank you for the reminder. Instead, I mumbled, “Uh, yeah.”
       “That’s awesome. I bet she’s having a blast,” he said, smacking his lips. “She does the writing thing, doesn’t she?”
       “She does. She’s actually in a great writing program there. It’s like…” I searched for something more to say. “It’s a really big deal.”
       “Very cool.”
       And it was. It was the coolest. That was what I had to keep reminding myself.
       In the center of the classroom, Mrs. Cobb lifted her arms and swung them around her body. “We are ready!”
       We all sat down and she explained the rules of the getting-to-know-you game. We would go around the circle, each telling two truths and one lie. The people sitting on either side of us had to guess which of our statements were true and which one was false. Shockingly, I’d actually played this at a sleepover in the fourth grade. I remembered it being like a very tame version of Truth or Dare.
       “Should you really be playing this game?” I whispered to Miles. “Since you’re the teacher’s assistant, it seems kind of unfair. Shouldn’t you be… I don’t know... assisting?”
       He smiled at me. “The teaching assistant title is a loose one. Mainly this is just Mrs. Cobb helping me fill in one of my elective spots,” he confided. “I’m already in her advanced class this afternoon and I’m also a member of the drama club. For this class, I’ll have to help with grading and do some busy work, but I’m hoping once we get into the play, I can use the time to practice lines and run through my scenes.”
       “The play?”
       Miles didn’t get a chance to answer. The game had moved fast around the circle and we were up.
       The “facts” I told about myself were lacking in drama and beyond lame. The first truth I shared was that I had never left the state of Oklahoma. The second was that I had an unhealthy addiction to coffee and pretzel M&Ms. The lie I told was that I was allergic to nectarines.
       Miles picked out the lie right away, but since he was the first student to talk to me aside from Henry, I decided not to hold it against him.
       “How did you do that?” I asked him when the game and the rest of “circle time” was over and we were retrieving our bags from where we’d all dumped them by the windows.
       “How did I do what?”
       “Figure out my lie so easily.”
       “The key to lying is to not hesitate. Works every time.”
       “I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, smiling at him.
       He grinned back.
       Talking to Miles wasn’t the same as having Hannah here—not even close—but it was pleasant. His jeans were way too tight and he had on copious amounts of cologne, but he seemed nice enough. Maybe we would become friends. And, maybe this class wouldn’t be so bad after all.
       “Thank you all for joining in today,” Mrs. Cobb said over the scrape of tables and chairs being moved back into position. “Tomorrow, we’ll talk about elements of acting and the fall production. As you all know from the form you were given when you signed up for the class, participation in our show is mandatory. This means your afternoons from mid-September until December will be occupied!”
       “Did she really just say that?” I asked Miles.
       He just laughed. That wasn’t the response I was hoping for.
       “I mean it,” I pushed. “I signed up late so I didn’t see anything about a play…”
       “You’ll be fine.”
       “But I won’t be,” I said firmly. “I don’t do stuff like school plays. I can’t even give speeches in class.”
       “It’s okay,” he said in a reassuring tone. “Participation is required, but there’s no way everyone is going to get a part. Especially not in this class.”
       “Are you sure?”
       The dismissal bell rang out shrilly and students started to push past us.
       “I’m sure,” he told me. “You have to go through the audition just so you understand the process and get the experience, but that’s all. The people who don’t get speaking parts will be put in the chorus or given a job backstage. There’s plenty to do.” He lifted his hand and started to list the tasks on his fingers. “Make up, costume stuff, design work, and there’s even going to be set building.”
       “You said… the chorus?”
       Miles moved his head. “It’s a musical. I don’t know which one yet, but, between us, I’m hoping she picks West Side Story. I’ve always wanted to play Tony.”
       It was bad enough that I had to take a theater class but now I was going to be expected to audition for a musical?
       “Do you sing?”
       In the shower, but that was about it. “No…”
       “Play an instrument?”
       I thought of my mother’s piano, sitting at home gathering dust. “I used to play piano but—”
       “Well, there you go,” Miles said. “Caroline, I’ve got to get moving, but I’ll see you tomorrow. Okay?”
       “Sure,” I replied absently. My mind was already someplace else.
       As I wandered out of the classroom, I considered the possibilities. Maybe I could run away. Or perhaps I could still get that spot in Marine Biology. Because, all things considered, researching the mating habits of squid didn’t sound so terrible anymore.

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Copyright 2015 Autumn Doughton and Erica Cope
All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Steering the Stars: Chapter 1

Chapter One

To: Hannah<>
From: Caroline<>
Date: August 24
Subject: Leaving on a jet plane…

Or more accurately, just left on a jet plane…
I just got home from the airport but I already miss you! Message me when you land and take lots and lots of pictures. Remember that I’m living vicariously through you.

It was raining.
      This shouldn’t have been a surprise because the first thing I’d read about England when I started doing my online research was that it rained, like, all of the time. But as I looked out the curved plane window over a sludgy sky and a tarmac slick and black with rain, my throat grew uncomfortably tight.
       The flight attendant’s voice came over the intercom. On behalf of the airline and the entire crew, I’d like to welcome you to London, where the local time is eleven-oh-seven.
       The plane wheeled closer to the gate and I felt the woman next to me lean over my back, crowding my space. I could smell her perfume and feel her breath creeping across the skin of my neck.
       “It’s raining,” she said like this wasn’t totally obvious. We’d been next to each other since New York, and by now I knew that her name was Deena. She was from Rhode Island and she had three grandkids and a dog named Pugnacious. He was a pug and according to her, he loved to dress in wool sweaters and even in pants. Pants on a dog? I had my doubts.
       “I was hoping for good weather,” she said as though a little offended. She was patting down her grey curls and sniffing.
       What could I say? “Mmm-hmmm.”
       Before she could push the weather issue, the plane came to a full-stop, the seatbelt light clicked and everyone on board, including Deena and I, started to pack up.
       I gathered a rainbow of pens and balled up my sweatshirt and stuffed them all into my messy backpack. Deena bent over to put away a half-eaten pack of Tic-Tacs and the book on the history of saltwater taffy that she’d barely even looked at.
       She turned to me as we stood, both of us slightly stooping so we wouldn’t bump our heads. “It was good to meet you. Good luck with your sister and your new school.”
       “Thanks and you too,” I said, cramming into the center aisle.
       The rest of deplaning was a slow and silent ordeal. We dragged ourselves and our neck pillows and pudgy carry-ons past the cramped seats and through a twisting florescent-lit loading bridge until we spilled into a busy customs terminal. I blinked, trying to adjust to the new space, and took a breath. When I turned my head to tell Deena goodbye, I saw that she was already walking away, pulling her red rolling suitcase behind her.
       Suddenly alone, I rubbed my thumb across the star-shaped pendant hanging from my neck and started reading the signs. I needed to figure out where I was supposed to go next.
       Was it only two days ago that Caroline had asked me if I was scared to be moving for the whole freaking year? At the time, I’d been cutting tags off all my new clothes and had been too amped about London and my new school to feel anything but excitement. But, as I navigated the customs line, answering questions about whether or not I was smuggling meat or dairy products into the country, my stomach began to slither and hiss like a pit of disturbed vipers. Yep. What I was feeling was something close to scared.
       A guard in a dark blue uniform stamped my passport and shooed me along. I shifted my bags, swallowed, and walked through a set of sliding glass doors. They whooshed shut behind me and I scanned the crowd, not knowing exactly where I should be looking. I was anxious. Uptight. Dad had said that Felicity would be the one picking me up from the airport, but would my half-sister even recognize me? Should I have made a sign or worn a flashy red hat? What if she didn’t show and I wound up homeless and living down by the Thames in a cardboard box?
       My out of control thoughts screeched to a halt and I spun around. Felicity, my father’s daughter by a first marriage, was walking toward me with a purposeful stride. She was easy to recognize with her wide pool-blue eyes, perfectly sloped nose, and even features. Her fashionable suit and heels hinted that she had come straight to the airport from work. That’s when I realized that I had no idea what she did for a living.
       How strange was that?
       We shared DNA.
       This was technically my sister and I couldn’t tell you her job title or her favorite animal or what kind of music she liked to listen to.
       Hell, I didn’t even know her middle name.
       “Hannah!” Felicity called again. The sleeves of her tailored green jacket bunched in at the shoulders as she lifted an arm to wave me over.
       I took in a deep breath to feed my nervous lungs and walked a little faster. “Hi!”
       “How was your flight?”
       “Fine. I mean, not really. It was cramped and horrible and way too long but you know how that goes. By the end I was hoping the flight attendants would just hand us all parachutes, open up the door and let us jump out.” I tried to smile but it was all wonky on my face. My cheeks felt weird and I knew the amount of teeth I was showing was downright obscene.
       Her forehead wrinkled as she looked me down and up. “You’ve certainly changed since I saw you last.”
       “Ah, gaining a few cup sizes in the boob department will do that,” I said as I patted my chest. This was a total joke. I was flat as day-old soda and I figured I always would be. My mother was a dancer turned dance teacher and she’d passed on her hipless, buttless, boobless body to me, but not her grace or athleticism.
       Felicity looked confused.
       “I’m joking,” I clued her in.
       “Of course.” She forced out a laugh. Can you say AWKWARD? “Well, it truly is great to see you.” More uncomfortable laughter.
       “Um, you too.” The snakes in my stomach hissed.
       “Well then…” Felicity leaned forward and we did one of those hugs where your bodies don’t really touch. When she pulled back, one of my duffel bags was swinging from the crook of her arm and she was shaking her head. “I’m sorry Michael and the girls aren’t here to meet you.”
       Michael was Felicity’s husband, and “the girls” were Grace and Chloe, their five-year-old twin daughters. I had never met any of them.
       “That’s okay. We have the whole year to get to know each other.
       “I assure you that everyone is looking forward to having you stay with us. The girls haven’t been able to stop talking about it, and I should probably warn you that they’ve started decorating your room with their latest artwork. It’s quite abstract.”
       “I’m sure I’ll love it,” I said, fidgeting with a loose thread dangling from the hem of my wrinkled t-shirt. Her suit and perfect hair were making me feel all kinds of shifty. Like I should have tried harder and worn a nice blouse or put on lipstick or at least fixed my ponytail. “This is… just… thank you again for having me. I still can’t believe that I’m actually here. In London.”
       “I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never really had a sister and I suppose neither have you.”
       With these stilted niceties out of the way, we got busy situating my suitcases on a sort of rolling cart, finding a SIM card that would work in my phone, and exchanging some of my American dollars for pounds.
       Felicity warned me the car ride from the airport would be a long one so I settled into the front seat, trying not to be freaked out by the fact that she was driving from the right side of the car and I was sitting on the left without a steering wheel in front of me. But it was weird and I caught myself cringing every time a car passed us.
       “How are your parents?” she asked, shifting the car into third gear and jerking her left foot off the clutch. Even in heels she seemed to know what she was doing with a car.
       “Good I guess. My mom’s studio has taken off. She started to offer aerial dance and it’s become, like, the thing,” I said, using air quotes, “for middle age women in Libby Park.”
       “What’s aerial dance?”
       “Basically, these ladies wrap themselves in sheets and hang from the ceiling like they’re part of Cirque du Soleil. Kind of like yoga but a foot off the ground.” I shrugged. “It’s weird but at least she’s busy. And Dad’s company opened up a new development in Missouri last month. It’s been a bit of a mess so he’s been travelling a lot to get things in order and make sure the foreman on the project knows what he’s doing.”
       “Is astronomy still his hobby of choice?”
       “Yep,” I told her with a nod. “He’s nerdy as ever and has been known to wake me up at three in the morning to ask if I’m interested in seeing a conjunction or Neptune in opposition. The answer is always a resounding no.”
       We shared a quiet laugh. “And what about Henry?”
       I thought about my brother, who, I realized with a start, was Felicity’s brother also. “Oh, you know… he’s Henry. Since he’s going to be a senior this year he thinks he knows pretty much everything. The reality is that he knows about as much as a slice of banana bread.”
       Felicity’s blue eyes darted to mine and back to the road. The car lurched into fourth gear. “Which is?”
       “Absolutely nothing.”
       She humored me with a chuckle. “And your boyfriend? Dad mentioned he was some kind of big hockey star?”
       “Lacrosse,” I corrected before twisting to look out the rain-splattered window. I definitely did not feel like talking about Owen. Not now. And definitely not with Felicity. “So, where are we?”
       She bobbed her head. “Brentford and Gunnersbury Park are up ahead.”
       Whatever that meant. “Huh.”
       A weighty silence stretched out between us. The snakes inside of me had calmed, but I was still nervous. I scratched my elbow. I coughed. I studied the other cars on the road for a while. Then I sifted through my bag and pulled out my phone to double check that the new SIM card was in working order. When my email loaded, there were two new messages from Caroline and one from Mom. Nothing from Owen.
       Felicity cleared her throat. “You must be excited about your new school. Dad tells me you want to be a writer.”
       More than anything in the whole world.
       I put the phone face down in my lap and flopped back against the seat. “Yeah, Warriner is supposed to be the best. I’ve thought about it every day for the last three months and I still can’t believe it’s real.”
       Last spring, I’d stumbled upon an essay competition for aspiring teenage writers based in the London area. The prize was a partial scholarship and a position at The Warriner School, a school with a killer creative writing department.
       It was a longshot. It was such a longshot that I didn’t tell anyone—not even Owen or Caroline—when I sent off the essay and my application packet.
    Then it happened.
       In May, I received an envelope in the mail—the big, fat, good kind of envelope—and it was time to come clean. Mom and Dad were furious for about five minutes and then they were sad and then they started talking logistics. I suggested looking for a boarding house or some kind of city dorm (if that even existed), but they straight-up laughed in my face. Staying with my half-sister was the only option.
       I knew I had a great thing going at home, where I had the perfect boyfriend and friends and I was a shoo-in for assistant editor of the school newspaper. But, the truth is that getting into Warriner and making the move to London was an adventure. And after a lifetime in Oklahoma, an adventure was exactly what I wanted.
       Yep. This whole thing felt like the plot twist I needed—like a golden ticket to another kind of life. A more exciting life.
       “It will certainly be different from Oklahoma,” Felicity observed.
       I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the car window. I was smiling softly. “That’s the plan.”

To: Hannah<>
From: Caroline<>
Date: August 25
Subject: Hello?
omgggggg!!! Not to sound pathetic or anything but, WHY HAVEN’T YOU MESSAGED ME?! It’s been well over a day. Were you whisked away by an Ed Sheeran look alike? Or better yet, Ed himself? *wink, wink*
Can’t wait to hear about what your sister is like! Write me soon. And by “soon” I mean RIGHT NOW!

To: Hannah<>
From: Cecilia<>
Date: August 25
Subject: Checking in
Hi Jellybean!
I hope you’re settling in and getting to know your sister. So proud of you.
Love you,

To: Hannah<>
From: Caroline<>
Date: August 26
Subject: Earth to Hannah
Is anyone out there?

To: Caroline<>
From: Hannah<>
Date: August 27
Subject: Hannah phones home
Sorry! I know I promised to email every day and I officially suck. My only excuse is that it’s been crazy getting settled and figuring things out. Supposedly, English is our common language but everything is confusing. For instance, cookies are biscuits, pudding seems to be more like bread, chips are called crisps, and french fries are called chips. What gives?
The city is both amazing and scary. It’s so much bigger than we even imagined and I’m almost afraid to go out and get lost. Yesterday, I did brave a bus and check off some big things like Harrod’s and Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. And, yes, I tried to distract the guards by picking my nose but they didn’t take the bait ;)
So far no Ed sightings, though I am vigilantly on the lookout as promised.

To: Owen<>
From: Hannah<>
Date: August 27
Subject: hi

I made it. Just thought you might want to know.

To: Hannah<>
From: Caroline<>
Date: August 28
Subject: Details please
Sooooo jelly!
How’s your sister? Her husband? Your nieces? The house? Your room?
Have I mentioned that I am stuck in Libby Park and am living vicariously through you???

To: Caroline<>
From: Hannah<>
Date: August 28
Subject: Re: Details please
My sister (that is so weird to say) seems great but we haven’t actually spent much time together. Things are a little awkward which I guess is normal considering we’re strangers. Her hubs, Michael, seems nice enough but he works a lot. Chloe and Grace are LOUD and STICKY but the cutest. You know how I wondered how I’d be able to tell them apart? Well, Chloe just got hot pink glasses so that solved that. Both of the girls are in love with my makeup case and my nail polishes and have been trying to talk me into painting Professor Pufferton’s nails.
And, the house is this really cool Georgian style walk-up, which basically means it’s like a two-story apartment.

To: Hannah<>
From: Caroline<>
Date: August 28
Subject: Re: Re: Details please
Ummm… Who is Professor Pufferton?

To: Caroline<>
From: Hannah<>
Date: August 28
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Details please

The cat.
To: Owen<>
From: Hannah<>
Date: August 29
Subject: Seriously?

The silent treatment is getting old. I know that you’re hurt but call me or email me, okay? At this point, I’ll take a smoke signal or even an owl. ANYTHING.
And, before you even ask, I haven’t told Caroline what’s going on. Please, please don’t talk to her until I have a chance to explain. You know how sensitive she is.

To: Hannah<>
From: Cecilia<>
Date: August 30
Subject: School forms

When you go in to school tomorrow, don’t forget to take that packet of paperwork I put in the zippered pouch of the lime green suitcase.

To: Hannah<>
From: Caroline<>
Date: August 30
Subject: The longest year

Tomorrow is the first day of school. I know I’m supposed to be optimistic, but I have it on good authority that it’s going to SUCK. How could it not? Seriously. A year. A whole year of you living in England and me staying in Oklahoma. I still can’t believe it...
I know I sound like a sad sack but I do hope you are having a blast (even though I kinda hate you right now for abandoning me…JK…sorta).  Just promise me that when you win the Pulitzer one day you’ll remember me.
PS: And, don’t forget your umbrella!

To: Caroline<>
From: Hannah<>
Date: August 31
Subject: Re: The longest year

Remember you? You’ll be my date.
And, I’m telling you that your day is NOT going to suck! You are going to walk into Northside High and show everyone who is boss (or at least who discovered an awesome frizz-reducing conditioner this summer). I’m sure by the time lunch rolls around and Derek Warren is shoving Pixie Stix up his nose, you won’t even miss me.
As I type this I’m staring with dread at my new school uniform. I was going to send you a picture but I don’t want any official evidence that I ever had so much wool and polyester on my body at one time.

       “Phew,” I wheezed as I walked into The Warriner School, twisting rain from the ends of my hair and wishing that I had paid more attention to Caroline’s email and carried an umbrella.
       The heavy door fell shut behind me and I did a quick scan of the office. To be honest, it was like any school office, with walls the color of masking tape and dark brown Berber carpet and the faintly antiseptic smell of new paper and lemon cleaner. The school crest was front and center, stenciled in white, blue, and gold paint just above a large reception desk where an older woman with short grey hair was quietly typing on a computer.
       Students were around. It seemed like the usual first day stuff—mostly kids waiting in chairs outside of what I guessed was the headmaster’s office. I noticed one kid in particular. He was slumped over with his head cradled in his hand, drawing in a sketchbook. From this angle, I couldn’t see his eyes, just his hair—a mess of tiny black curls—plus a bit of dark skin with the hint of broad cheekbones, and a wide, almost pretty mouth. But his looks weren’t what caught my attention. It was the drawing. It was abstract—a series of concentric circles, all layered on top of each other—and it was completely amazing.
       A shrill voice jolted me out of my head. “You’re late.”
       “Excuse me?” My shoes squelched as I turned left and spotted a girl about my age leaning against the wall with her arms crossed in front of her body. Her outfit mirrored my own—boxy blue blazer with red piping and an embroidered patch over the breast, white collared shirt, a shapeless skirt, and dark tights that ended in clunky leather oxfords.
       “You’re late,” she repeated.
       I wiped cold raindrops from the tip my nose and stammered, “S-sorry. With the rain and being new to the city, getting here took longer than I thought it would.”
       Motionless, the girl stared at me and clicked her tongue.
       Confidence drained from me like water pouring from an open faucet. I felt my shoulders slump and my breathing change. I wasn’t normally the type to be intimidated easily, but this girl… well, she was intimidating. Maybe it was her perfectly parted dark hair or her unfriendly expression. Everything about her came off so severe, she might have stepped right out of a pamphlet for a deeply religious school or some kind of military camp.
       Even though I wanted to curl up into a ball and roll right back out the door, I forced myself to smile and stick out my hand. “I’m Hannah.”
       “I know who you are.” The girl uncrossed her arms but she didn’t take my outstretched hand. “You’re Hannah Vaughn, sixth form transfer student from America,” she went on, assessing me with critical eyes. “I’m Ava Cameron, one of the lower sixth prefects.”
       I’d read Harry Potter and researched enough online to know that prefects were class officers that were able to hand out detentions or demerits. Sort of like hall monitors on steroids.
       “Ah, hi?” I tried. “Nice to meet you?”
       Deep creases appeared at the sides of her mouth. Maybe that was her best attempt at a smile?
       “As a prefect and a fellow member of the writing program, I’ve been given your schedule and have agreed to acclimate you to our school.”
       Lucky me.
       She produced a piece of paper and pointed to it. “On Mondays, you begin with a double period of economics. Then, a fifteen-minute break and maths.”
       “And when do I take my writing classes?” I asked, leaning in and trying to decrypt the complicated-looking schedule. “That’s why I’m here.”
       Annoyance flitted across Ava’s face. “We move into specialties after lunch. But as I was saying…after maths, you should report to the dining hall for a thirty-minute lunch period. After that, you take accelerated composition in the McCabe Building.”
       A body pressed into my space and a head covered in sunny blonde curls poked over my shoulder to get a look at the schedule. “Brilliant! You have that class with me.
       I blinked at the head. It belonged to a ruddy-cheeked girl with a wide, gap-toothed grin. “Um, hi?”
       She stepped around to my front and grabbed for my hand. Once she had a good grip, she shook it vigorously. “I’m Tillie Hoover.”
       “I’m Hannah,” I said and my relief was palpable. At least Tillie here didn’t look ready to sentence me to latrine duty or tar and feather me.
       “Oh, I know. And let me tell you, it’s been ages since we’ve had anyone new and exciting around here. I can’t wait to show you around and introduce you—” Abruptly, she stopped and lifted my hand up to eye level. “Oooh, I love your varnish! What’s the shade called?”
       I figured she meant my nail polish.
       “Oh, I think it’s called Afternoon Breeze,” I told her, curling my fingers to my palms. My nails were short and square and painted a soft robin’s egg blue. The bottle had been a going away gift from Caroline. She’d held it up to the outside of my house and said, Just in case you forget the color of home, all you have to do is look down.
       “It’s fantastic,” Tillie said, nodding. “I looked all summer for a shade of blue that wouldn’t make my skin look waxy but I never found one.
       “If you like, I could bring it in for you.”
       Warm brown eyes squinted at me. “You would do that?”
       “This is not a beauty school,” Ava injected. “And painted nails break uniform code.
       Tillie scrunched up her nose. “Oh, bollocks. That rule is never enforced.”
       “Still,” Ava said, gruffly clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “Didn’t you read the student handbook, Hannah?”
       “I tried.” And I did try. “I just didn’t manage to make it past paragraph two before falling into such a deep sleep that I woke up with drool caked to the side of my face.”
       Tillie giggled but Ava was undeterred. “I know things are done differently in America, but here we do have rules.”
       Oh God. I could sense exactly where this was heading. This was the smugness Henry had warned me of repeatedly. Remember that they hate Americans, he’d said, chucking me on the chin as we’d traded goodbyes at the airport. They think we’re a bunch of ignoramuses with a cache of guns and red Solo cups. Be sure to prove them wrong.
       I needed a reset button. That’s all.
       If I could only go back three minutes and start this conversation all over.
       I blinked and looked around. To my total embarrassment, everyone in the office was staring. The kid with the sketchbook had stopped drawing. Even the receptionist was looking this way. I wondered if I should offer to pop some popcorn for them to munch on.
       “It’s just nail polish,” I whispered.
       Ava gave her head a shake. “Transfer students always think they’ll be given preferential treatment.”
       “No, that’s not what I meant.”
       Tillie rolled her eyes. “Oh, please get off it, Ava.”
       Ava pursed her lips and widened her stance. “I’m not on anything. I simply think it’s a matter of—”
       “Girls, I see you’ve met our new student!”
       A man emerged from behind the reception desk. His clothes were tailored, his skin was bronzed like he’d spent the summer lounging on a beach in the south of France, and his hair was long and styled with a bit too much gel to be considered casual.
       “Miss Vaughn, is that correct?”
       “Y-yes.” How did all these people already know my name? Had the administration sent out some kind of missive to the entire school?
       The man shook my hand. “Your essay was just wonderful. We’re so pleased that you won the writing contest and were able to join us all the way from America. Aren’t we, girls?”
       Ava’s nasty expression flattened to something just this side of friendly. “Of course, Mr. Hammond. Tillie and I were just about to accompany Hannah to her first course of the day.”
       Whoa. I looked back at the man, who I now realized was Ethan Hammond, the head of the writing department. This was him—the man who had chosen my essay and sealed my acceptance to Warriner.
       “Mr. Hammond?”
       He smiled. “The very one. I believe I’ll be seeing you this afternoon in my classroom.”
       “Oh… I mean...” Way to make a good impression, Hannah. “I’m looking forward to it.”
       “We have a rigorous curriculum but I am always available if you have any questions or concerns. And I won’t bite. At least not on the first day.” He laughed loudly at his own joke. “I’m certain Ava and Tillie will make sure you feel comfortable as you familiarize yourself with school grounds.”
       “Absolutely, Mr. Hammond,” Tillie piped up. And, no, I didn’t miss the dreamy way she said his name.
       His green eyes crinkled at the corners as he tipped his gaze toward me. “Hannah, I know you have a lot to think about at the moment, but if you permit, I’d like to suggest squash to you. We have a mixed team—that’s boys and girls for one sport. I’m not supposed to actively recruit students—you understand,” he said, leaning toward me conspiratorially. “School  rules. But just between us, we are desperately in need of players this year if we hope to make any progress with the team. Ava and Tillie can share the specifics with you if you find yourself in the least bit interested.”
       “Squash?” I looked around. Most of our audience seemed to have lost interest, but the black kid with the sketchbook was closely following the entire exchange. His lips were clamped and his cheeks were puffed out as though he might burst into laughter at any minute.
       “Quite a few of my writers participate,” Mr. Hammond said seriously.
       “Squash?” I asked again.
       Tillie nodded encouragingly. “You know… squash?”
       She wrinkled her nose. “With racquets? And a ball?” When I didn’t respond, she shook her head in frustration. “For your sport?”
       At that, I laughed and flapped a hand dismissively. “Oh, thanks for the offer but I don’t play sports.”
       Her eyes rounded. “But you must!”
       Mr. Hammond said, “You may want to reconsider. Nearly every student at Warriner participates in an athletic. It’s not a written requirement but it is highly encouraged. We like to think of it as way to engage your peers as well as the faculty.”
       Sure, I signed up for new experiences when I moved to London but running around and getting sweaty was not one of them. “I don’t think…”
       Ava spoke over me. “For girls, we have lacrosse, netball, and hockey.”
       Mr. Hammond lifted a finger. “And don’t forget about squash.”
       “Right,” she added, turning back to me with unhappy eyes. “And squash. I’m one of the team captains this year.”
       “I’m not captain, but I play on the team,” Tillie told me.
       Mr. Hammond cocked his head. “So what do you think?”
       I rocked back on my heels, hoping they would read my discomfort and realize I was about as sporty as a station wagon. But that didn’t happen. If anything, his stare became more expectant.
       “Hannah?” he asked.
       OH. MY. GOD.
       My heart was drumming and I could feel tiny beads of sweat forming up near my hairline. Blood rushed behind my ears.
       I should have said no and laughed in their faces but I felt trapped. Panicky. Desperate to make a good impression on my teacher. Desperate to make a new friend in Tillie Hoover.
       Adrenaline rushed through me and my traitorous mouth formed the word before my brain could fully process the seriousness of the situation. “Okay.”
       Tillie clapped with delight.
       “Brilliant!” Mr. Hammond flashed me a megawatt smile. “We’ll discuss our practice schedule this afternoon. The official squash season doesn’t begin until late November and until then we only meet on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays. And as for uniform—don’t worry too much as I’m sure we’ll be able come up with something in your size for today.”
       The practice schedule?
       Squash season?
       My stomach was going sour. “Great.”
       “Wonderful,” he repeated, nodding and heading for the exit. The moment the office door shut behind him, Ava rolled her eyes and the boy with the sketchbook really did start to laugh.
       For my part, I couldn’t move. I just stood there with a vacant expression on my face, staring after my new teacher.
       “Oh God,” I wheezed.
       What the hell?
       Was it possible that I agreed to play SQUASH?
       “You don’t even know how to play,” Ava’s disgusted words found my ears.
       “No,” I confirmed. “But I guess I’m going to figure it out.”

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Copyright 2015 Autumn Doughton and Erica Cope
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