Masquerade (Working Title)
Sixteen-year-old Bex Dae just wants to disappear.
Her friends at school have abandoned her, her parents are missing and thought to be dead, and her grandmother’s health is steadily declining. Painfully shy, Bex does whatever her friends ask in order to keep them in her life. She keeps a low profile at school getting grades just high enough to get into a decent college and stay off of the principal’s radar. Not difficult since people don’t seem to remember her anyway.
When a boy tries to steal her grandmother’s fire opal ring, Bex sees something she can’t believe. The boy can wield fire and she meets a fox man who can wield blue flames and water, but when she wakes up the next morning she’s confident it was all a dream. Until she receives an invitation to a masquerade ball. Something she’s only read about in books. Grandma encourages her to go and once there she’s given an old looking skeleton key, instructions for the key, and a glimpse of what she’d thought had been a dream.
Following the instructions for the key, Bex opens a door to a parallel world within our own where she learns that she is in training to keep up the seal that keeps the parallel world of magic from her own boring world. There she meets the Curator, the man who threw the masquerade and gave her the key. She’s introduced to other students who will also become keepers of the seal, the world of magic, and the classes that they will be required to take to keep up the seal. They travel through the villages and the cities within the parallel dimension meeting the creatures that live there, elves, human-animal hybrid people, dwarves, orc and more.
But someone wants to break the seal between worlds and start a war.
When the onyx stone that controls all powers within the world is stolen, Bex learns that her grandma’s fire opal ring, the stone that can stop all powers, will be the next stolen. With the help of her new found friends Pary Shirvani, and Ren, a fox demon, they’ll discover what happened to Bex’s parents, who is after the stones, and how to stop them before the seal is broken releasing magic into the world and the enslavement of the human race.
Hillary slams her fist down on the table. I jump. Sitting in the library hearing only the sounds of pages being turned and hushed whispers, I wasn’t expecting the smack of flesh against wood. Books scatter across the freshly lacquered surface and I have to gather up the chips that fell out of their bag and onto my sandwich before they grow soggy. I glance up to see Hillary holding her cellphone in one hand, her eyes never straying from the screen, and a sketchbook in her other hand. It’s larger than the notebook in front of me and I clench my pencil. I know why she is here.
“I need four sketches,” she says, not glancing up from her screen. Hillary is a pixie-like girl, much shorter than my own five-foot-five, and fifteen. Almost a year younger than I am because her birthday falls in the spring. Her caramel blonde hair is pulled into twin braids that hang past her shoulders. She’s dressed like she walked off of a page from Teen Vogue. Her parents shop in Phoenix at the large malls and department stores that our little town doesn’t have anymore.
I take a deep breath. I want to tell her no. I don’t like selling my sketches to the kids around school, nor do I like sewing them onto shirts, bags, and other items, but the students around here like customization and I’m one of the only ones who actually knows how to embroider. Grandma taught me.
“Don’t give me that look,” she says with a hint of snark, though I can’t understand how she knows what look is on my face. She hasn’t looked up from her phone to see what I’m thinking. Maybe she knows without me ever having to say a word. Do I give the same look every time? Or is it the look I have when I’m thinking and everyone that’s ever had a class with me knows it? “Do you want that matching friendship necklace or not?”
It sounds childish sharing friendship necklaces at fifteen, but I want one. I want to fit in with my group of friends. When they had decided to pierce their ears for a third time, I went too and pierced my ear. A hole which has now closed. At the time I’d thought it was cool because they had said it was, but as I got older I realized how ridiculous it looked to me. When they came up with super hero code names for each other, the Pink Pinkie, the Indigo Index, I wanted one too. But I hadn’t been included in that trip to the mall. I hadn’t been given a nickname. They’d forgotten me the same way they’d forgotten my birthday over the last few years. The same way they forgot to call me over the summer.
“It’s the first day of school,” I say, my voice low and tight. A sweat breaks out along my forehead and the back of my neck. I don’t like confrontation. I’m afraid what Hillary will say. Will she be angry that I don’t want to do it? Will I be able to fix it if she is? “Did you spend all of the money from last year?”
Hillary looks up from her phone this time, her gray eye’s meeting mine. They’re narrowed, the gray almost disappearing. This is not a question she wants me to ask. And one I doubt will have a good answer, if any answer at all. “Does that matter?”
Sort of, I want to say since I never saw a dime from the money we’d earned. We were supposed to go to a waterpark with that money. The movies. Shopping. Instead, my phone hadn’t rung all summer and I’d sat around watching soap operas with Grandma. It wasn’t different than most summers. In the past there had been the occasional birthday parties, but as we’d gotten older those birthday parties had come less and less often in favor of kids taking trips with their families and doing things I couldn’t afford. It got to the point where Grandma insisted I stop looking at Facebook. At all the parties and trips that I wasn’t invited to. But I didn’t.
“We’ve got orders. We’ve been getting them all summer. You can do them, can’t you?” she asks, her voice has a syrupy sweetness that hadn’t been there before. A sound that makes me ill. Her too big eyes have widened to the size of saucers giving her an almost doll-like quality. It’s difficult to say no to her when she looks like a sad puppy and I curse myself for not being able to stand my ground. But I know what will happen if I don’t. I will think. I will worry. I will wonder if she hates me. If we’ll be friends in the morning. I will consider ways to fix our friendship. My mind will run through various conversations we may have. Some of them will be things I know I’ll never say. What I truly feel. The hurt that she has caused. They will be smart, witty things that never seem to come to me when I’m face to face with someone. Some of them will be what I will actually say to her. My relenting and completing the task.
“I can do them,” I say, taking the sketchbook from her. I open to the first page. Notes of what the kids want, the type of designs and pieces of clothing to be embroidered written on the lined paper tucked into the front flap of the sketchbook. Hillary’s handwriting is a lot like her. Petite, innocent, but sharp.
“Great,” she says, returning her concentration to her phone. She doesn’t need to pay attention to me any longer and it shows. “I’ll get you the purses and clothing tomorrow.”
Before I can agree or say anything else, she leaves the library. I’m grateful she’s gone. I know that Hillary isn’t a friend. None of the people in my group are, but I can’t leave them. I have known them since kindergarten. We have been friends since that first day when Mrs. Ludwig sent us out to recess and I was chosen last for red rover. Maybe we’ve never been friends and I’ve been following them around for the last eleven years. Because that’s all I know how to do. Follow.
I finish my lunch even though I’m not supposed to be eating in the library. The librarian doesn’t bother me or scold me about it. I think she’s known me long enough that she’s aware how my friends treat me. She was the librarian at my middle school and moved to the high school when the last librarian retired. She knows I am not a messy person and that I will clean up whatever mess I make. She knows that the library is my home. I’m grateful for her trust.
The high school is spread out and bigger than the middle school. Grandma hadn’t been able to bring me to the meet the teacher’s night this year. Age is catching up with her. It takes me more time than I would like to find my next class even though I’d spent last year wandering these buildings. The halls are overrun with students. A sea of faces and hair and backpacks. They aren’t all nice and I know that I won’t ask any of them for directions. I’m afraid to speak with them. Rejection terrifies me.
It’s still unseasonably warm for August. The summer and monsoon rains are coming to a close leaving humidity behind. I check myself a couple of times to make sure I’m not sweating and that it isn’t noticeable. Arizona doesn’t get humid often, but after the rains there is thick moisture in the air. That’s when I notice the one face that doesn’t belong. He’s dressed in a nice dress shirt, not a t-shirt, and jeans. His hair reminds me of raven feathers ending in tips of liquid silver and there’s something about the angles of his face that reminds me of a fox. And then I see the ears. Not on the sides of his head where they should be but pointed and standing straight up like a fox or a wolf. In the palm of his hand is a swirling ball of liquid, water I think, and he tosses it up and down like a ball. I try to stand on my tiptoes to get a better look, pushing through the crowd of students. A breeze kicks up pushing my hair in front of my face and swirling dirt and leaves around me. When I clear my eyes, the boy is gone.
When I enter the classroom for honors English, I’m five minutes late. The teacher isn’t happy with me, but he doesn’t make a big deal out of it since it’s the first day of school. I take a seat at the front of the class, one of the only remaining desks. There are people on either side of me, but I don’t know them. Well, I do know them, but they aren’t people that I’ve talked to before. They don’t glance up when I take my seat and I don’t make eye contact with them either. It will take several months for me to warm up to them, if I warm up to them at all.
The teacher, a tall man with a wide middle and skinny chicken legs, walks around the room dressed in a Hawaiian dress shirt and khaki pants handing out syllabi for the year. His dark hair is graying in several patches and his black framed glasses press into the skin around his eyes. We discuss the upcoming year, how the course will go, what is expected from us since this is an honors class. I expect this much from English. I’ve been in honors since sixth grade when testing showed that I was reading at an eighth-grade level in fifth-grade. Not a huge jump, but enough to make me feel important.
I’m quiet through class. When the teacher instructs us to take notes, I do. When he tells us to put something away, I don’t hesitate to follow. But I don’t speak. I don’t look around the classroom to catch the eyes of the other students. There are no private jokes for me to join in on. The boy to my left is someone I used to be friends with, but he doesn’t talk to me now. Apparently I was supposed to call him during the summer. I didn’t know. I thought that he would call me, and I waited patiently, but he never did.
One of the older students, someone I recognize from band, comes into the room. There isn’t much time left in the class, left in the school day. She carries a note the pink color of the office slips. I focus on the book the teacher has handed out as our first read. Those notes are never for me. I don’t meet with the principal. By all accounts I am a model student. Never the best, but never failing either. I’m happy to stay in the middle. The upper middle where I’m not noticed, but enough that I will get into a decent college if I want. I haven’t decided that yet.
She hands the teacher the slip and leaves the room ignoring the stares and chatter from the boys in the room. She is a pretty girl, dark skin, dark eyes, wavy hair. Striking. I continue to read through the first chapter of the new book. I don’t enjoy required reading. There is something about the fact that it is forced upon me that makes it less enjoyable, but I will read it because I want the good grade.
“Miss Dae,” the teacher says, waving the slip at me. He presses his glasses further up his nose making the impressions on his temples from the arms of the glasses deeper. “You’re wanted in the office.”
My chest tightens. Heat rises up my neck and into my face where I know it will leave redness. I gather my things without a sound. Murmurs make their way around the room, but I can’t hear them past the blood rushing in my ears. I don’t get called to the office. This can only mean one of two things, something has happened to Grandma, or I am meeting with the principal. Neither one of them are options that I am comfortable with.
I sling my messenger bag over my shoulder. I’ve never been one for carrying around normal backpacks. The messenger bag makes me feel like Indiana Jones. Like I’m getting ready to go on an adventure. Do something amazing and world altering. Not walk the halls of the local high school. I take the slip from the teacher while the students around me start catcalling. My face burns to the tips of my ears. I scurry out of the room as quickly as possible.
The walk to the office doesn’t take long. While I’m walking, I look over the pink slip of paper, but it doesn’t have information. Simply my name, the date, and a request to meet with Mrs. Kapp. I chew on my lower lip. What does Mrs. Kapp want? Am I in trouble? No. It’s the first day of school. There hasn’t been enough time for me to do something bad. Which I would never do. Did I forget something I was supposed to do? Last year I’d spent one of my electives running notes for the office, but I hadn’t signed up for the elective this year and as far as I know, last years mistakes don’t pass on to the current year. That must mean something has happened with Grandma.
I sit in a chair, a large blue cushioned seat made out of light yellow wood, that makes me sit at an almost ninety-degree angle. I clutch the pink slip of paper in my lap wrinkling it over and over in my hand. The other hand holds the water bottle I take sips from. I don’t know what to do with myself, so I crinkle the paper and sip the water and wait.
Mrs. Kapp comes out of her office with a kind smile on her face. She’s the same height as I am making her less intimidating than most principals I’ve had in the past. Her raven colored hair is cropped closely to her head in a spiky pixie cut that accentuates her thin face rather than hiding it the way longer hair would have. Her dark blue eyes meet mine in an intense gaze that doesn’t match the soft smile on her face giving me mixed signals. Am I in trouble or not?
“Please, come in Miss Dae,” she says, waving me into her office.
I slide my water bottle into my bag and heft it over my shoulder. Mrs. Kapp patiently waits for me to gather my things and walk past her. She smells like new clothes, her dress suit crisp, and powdered makeup. It’s not a pleasant smell but it isn’t one that makes me wrinkle my nose.
“Am I in trouble?” I ask, my voice barely above a whisper as I pass her. She closes the door behind both of us and motions for me to take a seat across from her desk. The chairs in this room are the same as in the waiting area. Light yellow wood, gray-blue cushions, sharp angles that forces the user to sit straight and formal. They match the pale yellow of the wooden desk she sits behind. There is a laptop on one corner, a large calendar planner in the center, and several pens in a cup on either side of the calendar. Colors—red, green, blue—mark the rectangles of the calendar, but I can’t read what they say from where I sit.
“Yes and no. More of a warning, I’m afraid,” she says, pulling out a blue office chair. It’s wheels rattle as it rolls across a piece of clear plastic matting that covers the matching blue carpet. When she takes her seat, she has to give the chair a couple of pumps to make sure it’s high enough that she looks like an adult and not another student.
I don’t know what to say to this. A warning? I’ve never had a warning before. I try to think of what she could be warning me against. Eating in the library? That isn’t really a rule, just a request by the librarians. Even though most of them don’t follow through with their scolding anyway. I wrack my brain for anything I may have done wrong in one day, but I come up with nothing. I keep my nose clean, as Grandma likes to say.
“Miss Dae, I’ve noticed that you’re spending quite a bit of time with Miss Robertson again,” Mrs. Kapp says. She places her elbows on the desk and clasps her hands together.
My brow furrows. “She’s my friend.” I’m not sure how she can call our meeting in the library hanging out, but I understand her meaning. Whatever I’m in trouble for, it has to do with Hillary.
Mrs. Kapp nods, but her eyes narrow. “Rebecca, we warned you against your soliciting at the school last year.”
A lump forms in my throat, the heat rising along my neck and tightening the back of my scalp. “No, you didn’t.”
She purses her lips. “Miss Robertson was told not to continue your soliciting at the school and to pass the word along. It’s against policy to sell things to other students, not to mention your copyright infringement on the characters you draw is against the law. You can’t take money for them.”
My stomach clenches. Hillary mentioned none of this to me last year. Tears well up in my eyes. I dig my thumbnails into my palm to distract myself and keep the tears where they belong. “I didn’t know.”
Mrs. Kapp watches me a bit. I struggle to keep the wavering tears from sliding down my cheeks. Think of something else. Think of something else. They seem to always appear when I don’t want them to, the tears, connected to all of my emotions, but I don’t like people to see them. “I suppose that’s a fault on our end. We should have met with you as well.”
I nod, though I don’t know why I’m nodding.
“Did she ask you for more designs?” she asks, her voice softening. Mrs. Kapp feels sorry for me the way most adults do when they realize how alone I am though I am often surrounded by many girls.
I don’t want to get Hillary in trouble, so I don’t say anything. But my mind wanders to the notebook she’d given me at lunch. The one sitting in my messenger bag in between my math notebook and my science notebook. If she asks to look inside she’ll see it, and then what?
“Rebecca, you’re a smart student,” she says, turning to her laptop. She taps a couple of keys on the keyboard and waits while the machine whirs and comes to life. “You’ve got an almost perfect grade point average. A’s and B’s. You’re well on your way to college.” She keeps her gaze focused on the screen, her eyes darting back and forth as she scrolls through my records. “You could be a straight A student. You have the potential. All of your report cards imply that you are lazy.”
“I’m not lazy,” I say, hurt by the words. But she’s right. I’m smart enough to get straight A’s, but I don’t. I don’t put the energy and dedication into my schoolwork that I should. I suppose I don’t feel motivated to. Grandma doesn’t care what my grades are, so long as I can get into college. And I don’t want the praise and pressure that comes with being a top student. I like living in the shadows. Invisible to the world.
Mrs. Kapp nods. “Well, the last thing we want is for you to put your chances of college in jeopardy because you decided to break school rules.” She presses the tips of her fingers together again. They form little steeples and I’m reminded of a rhyme I learned in church. Her attention is back on me instead of the laptop.
I want to melt away. Sink into the cushions of the chair, but I can’t. I know what she is going to ask me, but I’m only a sophomore. I haven’t given a lot of thought to the next week let alone my future.
“Rebecca, you’re going to be sixteen in a couple of months,” she says, her voice more businesslike than before. “Have you started to consider what you’re plans will be for college? Unlike some of the students here, you will be eighteen early enough that you can earn college credits your senior year if you wish. You’ll likely only have half a day of classes if you keep taking electives at the rate you are.”
I nod. I’d done that on purpose. Some people talk about how great high school is, but I am not one of those people and I doubt looking back on these years of my life I will be one of those people. “I don’t know what I want to do yet.”
“Have you met with your guidance counselor?” she asks.
I wonder when she thinks I would have had time. It’s the first day of school and last year, freshman year, none of the counselor’s asked us what we wanted to do or be. There weren’t many of us who knew at fourteen. I shake my head.
“I highly recommend that you meet with her. I think it would be beneficial for you and maybe give you some insight on the coming year. Help you prepare for the SAT’s or the ACT’s, if you’d rather.” She turns back to her laptop again, taps on a few keys then writes something down on a watermelon colored post it note.
She hands it to me and I notice that it has a date and time written on it along with a room number. “I’ll talk to Miss Robertson as well and make it clear that selling on campus is not allowed.”
I give a slight nod, but my mind isn’t on Mrs. Kapp and her words. I’m wondering what Hillary will think. Will she be angry that we got caught? Of course she will. Hillary is perfect and under the watchful eye of her mother who teaches art at the high school. Will she blame me? I’m almost one hundred percent certain she will. This does not bode well for whatever remains of our friendship. I want to tell Mrs. Kapp all of these things, but I don’t. I’m not sure it matters if I do.
The bell rings signaling the end of sixth period. I’ve missed an entire class that I didn’t even know where it was or what it was. I hadn’t taken the time to memorize my schedule since I’d gotten it that morning. Mrs. Kapp clasps her hands in front of her again, elbows resting on the desk.
“I’ll let your last teacher know about your absence,” she says fixing a kind smile on her face once more. But there is something wrong with her smile. It isn’t real. It’s one meant to placate students and help them feel at ease, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. She doesn’t smize, as Tyra Banks likes to say.
I nod and gather my things once more. I toss the crumpled and sweaty slip of pink paper into the waste bin beside her door and leave the office. My heart lunges in my chest and my stomach remains tight. I’m afraid. Afraid of being noticed. Afraid of being in trouble. Afraid of Hillary and what this will mean for whatever is left of our friendship. The remaining friendships I have in our group.
The rest of the afternoon drags on. Heat and humidity infiltrates every classroom and hallway mixing in with the smells of hundreds of students. And not all the smells are pleasant colognes or perfumes. Flies zip in and out of open doors and windows landing on every surface. I try to focus on my classes, but it’s difficult. The first day doesn’t require a lot of work on my part. Just a lot of introductions to the classes. A lizard darts into my last class causing a bit of a stir, but otherwise everyone is lethargic in the heat.
When the final bell rings, I dart out of the room and bypass my locker. I should stop and unload the books and binders I’ve collected throughout the day, but that takes time. Something I’m dangerously short on. I don’t want to be standing around when Hillary gets out of class. Her older sister, a senior with a nice creamy colored Nissan Altima, will give her a ride home. I just need to get past the student parking lot before she does. There are enough students streaming toward the buses that I blend in. Disappear. And that’s all I want out of life. To disappear and not be noticed.
The buses are crowded, more so than I expect for the first day of school. We’re trapped in a heated sweat box bouncing over asphalt roads that are in sore need of repair. The windows are down, but they’re tiny and up high. They don’t offer enough breeze to cool the bus. Students chatter around me, but I ignore them. I pull my phone out of my bag and take a look at the screen. I have three missed messages. I swallow, my finger hovering over the home button that will unlock the device, but I don’t touch it. These messages are from Hillary, and I’m not sure I want to know what any of them say.
Whatever friendships I had left are gone.