Steering the Stars: Chapter 1

Chapter One
Hannah



To: Hannah<vaughn.hannah@hotmail.com>
From: Caroline<cbmckain@gmail.com>
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.
-Care
________


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.
       “Yep.”
       “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?
       “Hannah!”
       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<vaughn.hannah@hotmail.com>
From: Caroline<cbmckain@gmail.com>
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!
Caroline
____________

To: Hannah<vaughn.hannah@hotmail.com>
From: Cecilia<vaughn_cecilia@yahoo.com>
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,
Mom
____________




To: Hannah<vaughn.hannah@hotmail.com>
From: Caroline<cbmckain@gmail.com>
Date: August 26
Subject: Earth to Hannah
Testing…
Is anyone out there?
____________

To: Caroline<cbmckain@gmail.com>
From: Hannah<vaughn.hannah@hotmail.com>
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.
Hannah
____________


To: Owen<kilgoman24@gmail.com>
From: Hannah<vaughn.hannah@hotmail.com>
Date: August 27
Subject: hi

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


To: Hannah<vaughn.hannah@hotmail.com>
From: Caroline<cbmckain@gmail.com>
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???
#sorrynotsorry
____________


To: Caroline<cbmckain@gmail.com>
From: Hannah<vaughn.hannah@hotmail.com>
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.
#yourewelcome
Hannah
____________



To: Hannah<vaughn.hannah@hotmail.com>
From: Caroline<cbmckain@gmail.com>
Date: August 28
Subject: Re: Re: Details please
Ummm… Who is Professor Pufferton?
____________

To: Caroline<cbmckain@gmail.com>
From: Hannah<vaughn.hannah@hotmail.com>
Date: August 28
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Details please

The cat.
____________
To: Owen<kilgoman24@gmail.com>
From: Hannah<vaughn.hannah@hotmail.com>
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<vaughn.hannah@hotmail.com>
From: Cecilia<vaughn_cecilia@yahoo.com>
Date: August 30
Subject: School forms

Jellybean,
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.
XOXO
Mom
____________

To: Hannah<vaughn.hannah@hotmail.com>
From: Caroline<cbmckain@gmail.com>
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.
-Caroline
PS: And, don’t forget your umbrella!
____________


To: Caroline<cbmckain@gmail.com>
From: Hannah<vaughn.hannah@hotmail.com>
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.
TTYL
Hannah
____________

       “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?”
       “No.”
       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.
       Squash?
       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.”
       Uniforms?
       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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