Stella

Stella is leader of the maliciously exclusive elite at Temperley High; new girl Caitlin has lived a quiet New York life. Not everyone’s happy to be under Hamilton rule, but if Caitlin puts a foot wrong, it's a long way down…

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2. Chapter 1

Caitlin Clarke

 

By the time it was clear to me that, in high school at least, popularity and notoriety were one and the same, I was powerless to reverse the effects of either.

The cards and gifts by my bedside, the anxious visitors and my buzzing cell phone made it clear that I wouldn’t be returning to anonymity any time soon. It was too late by then anyhow: on the night I should have beaten Stella Hamilton to become Head Girl of Temperley High, I was having jagged glass splinters removed from my face (they tell me I was under for that bit but I swear I felt it) and learning, as the blessed anaesthetic wore off, that not all my classmates had been as lucky as I had.

Lucky was such an overused word that I felt like screaming whenever I heard it. I was lucky to be alive. I was lucky to have fallen onto smoking rubble rather than the concrete paving seventy feet below. I was lucky I only had three broken bones. I was lucky I wouldn’t be permanently scarred.

I wasn’t ungrateful; of course I understood what I’d escaped. But sometimes, as I lay in that creaky, uncomfortable bed, having my blood taken three times a day and waiting for my leg to knit itself back together, being left behind didn’t seem so lucky after all.

Not that I knew any of this when I started Temperley High halfway through Junior Year (or Lower Sixth, as they would call it). Back then I had no idea girls like Stella Hamilton even existed. Campion Hall, my prep school in Manhattan, was pretty normal – a school where we didn’t wear a full face of make-up every day of the week; where we didn’t select our classes based on the number of boys in the group; where we didn’t choose the shortest skirt we could find for Gym (from Baby Gap, if necessary) and wear it doggedly throughout the year, even in the snow. And although my memories of Campion might be slightly idealized in the wake of events that followed, I’m sure we didn’t backstab each other in the variety of ways I witnessed, and sometimes participated in, at Temperley High. We couldn’t have, because Campion students tended to survive beyond graduation.

 

‘Your mother and I have some news,’ announced my dad one November evening. ‘We’re moving to England.’

‘Who is?’ I asked, looking around the dinner table. ‘All of us?’

I already knew that he and my mom were having problems (the fights, which I usually tried to ignore, had reached fever pitch in recent months), but I wanted to hear him say it.

He looked wary. ‘No. Your mother and Charlie will be staying here.’

‘Are you getting a divorce?’ I blurted out.

My little brother Charlie looked at me, startled, and I could have kicked myself, even though it wasn’t my fault. I hadn’t raised the subject in front of him, or caused the marriage to fail.

Dad nodded as he explained, in words that I understood but Charlie couldn’t, that divorce was imminent, but they still loved us and respected each other a great deal. Mom was looking daggers at him and I wasn’t convinced by the mutual respect part.

We were eating chicken – a soggy take-out that Mom always picked up on the housekeeper’s night off – and I chewed a piece of meat until it was elastic, because the motion prevented me from crying. I gave Charlie a supportive smile that wobbled, patting his cheek before turning my attention back to my parents.

‘Why do I have to move?’ Dad was a litigator and was losing me in the finer points of their proposed separation. Not that I didn’t care, but it made sense that I was most interested in my own fate. ‘Why can’t I stay here?’

He sighed. ‘You’re the reason I’ve decided to make this move, Caity. I’m not entirely happy with the education you’re getting—’

‘Why not?’ I said, knowing I sounded defensive. ‘I get straight As! I’m the class librarian! I make honour roll every week! How can you not be happy?’

‘I know all that,’ he said. ‘And we’re very proud of you. We just feel –’ I looked at Mom for support, but she shrugged helplessly – ‘that you’re becoming introverted.’

My dad was English, so it stood to reason that he believed a British high school education was the best in the world. He went to some big private (except he called it public) school where the Prefects beat him and made him build fires for them and he was convinced it was all character-building and nurturing. But it was still hard to believe he wasn’t satisfied when I had the highest GPA at one of the best schools in the county.

‘What’s wrong with me?’ I persisted.

I hated sounding pathetic, but I could never figure out how to please him. Most fathers would have been happy with a daughter who got perfect grades, went to church and only socialized with boys he had pre-approved.

Mom finally stepped in. ‘Nothing’s wrong with you, Caity.’

She sounded upset, as if my dad had deviated from a prepared statement, and she broke off for a second to bite a stubby fingernail, as she always did when she was anxious.

‘Your dad just feels – we feel – that Campion isn’t giving you the edge that great Colleges like Yale will be looking for.’

I turned back to Dad. ‘So where are you sending me? Your old school?’

He shook his head in horror. ‘Good lord, no! That’s no place for a girl. I’ve found a boarding school close to London that I think will suit you. There’s a great emphasis on music, sport, drama, art – lots to get involved in.’

‘Boarding school?’ I whispered.

He nodded smoothly. Mind games, I decided: trying to make me think it wasn’t a big deal. It was hopeless to argue with a lawyer and it made sense that Mom was always compliant. He was just too smart.

‘You know I work long hours. This way you’ll be around friends all the time rather than on your own with your head in a book.’

‘But I’m no good at art or music or drama,’ I said. ‘And I never get picked for any sports teams. That’s why I like school – because I can concentrate on studying.’

My artistic attempts were less accomplished than Charlie’s and I couldn’t imagine anything more terrifying than performing on stage. Even reading book reports in class brought me out in hives.

‘I know you like studying,’ he said patiently. ‘And of course that’s important. It’s just that there’s more to life. I don’t want you to look back on your high school years and regret not going to a football game, or your prom, or doing a school play.’

It wasn’t in my nature to argue back, and it would be pointless anyway. From listening in on his telephone calls (I had a phone in my room and sometimes there was nothing on cable but reruns), I knew he’d been discussing working abroad for some time. He’d made up his mind well before making me his excuse, whatever he wanted to pretend.

*

I excused myself and trudged upstairs. Our house in Carnegie Hill ran across three floors and my room even had its own walk-in closet and dressing room. I felt uneasy about these things, especially since our housekeeper Rosa had told me about her studio apartment in Woodside where her three little children shared a bed, but at least I knew how fortunate I was.

In my bathroom I carefully washed my face and stared into the mirror. I knew what he really thought: that I was boring. My school blouse was buttoned to the neck and my skirt ended below the knee. I wore thick tights and ballet flats. I only wore mascara on special occasions and my eyebrows were bushy. Hell, even my underwear was boring. I’d never had a boyfriend and my weekends were spent looking after Charlie or studying with classmates for extra credit. I’d never assessed my life so harshly before, but, although it embarrassed me, it was secure, predictable and governed by boundaries and rules that I understood. Was that so wrong?

 

Saying goodbye to my friends and the home I’d lived in all my life was bad enough, but everything paled in comparison with leaving Charlie. He was more than my baby brother; I flat-out adored him. Mom’s research at Columbia kept her from home on evenings and weekends, and since we’d grown too old for babysitters I’d been the one to take him to school and put him to bed, arrange his play dates and organize his reading chart. I took as much pride in his development as if he were my own baby, and sometimes I liked to pretend that he was.

I loved his curly black hair and serious eyes; the gap where he’d lost a baby tooth falling off the jungle gym; the Band-Aids that peeled off his knees. How could I leave him to the kids who threw his lunch out of the bus window and made fun of his Spongebob socks? The thought of him growing up without me was agonizing even without worrying who would take my place. No one else knew our secret handshake; the cartoons we watched in bed; the prayer we said to keep the vampires away (at least I told him it was to keep them away). I cried for Charlie every day, and that was before I’d even seen Temperley High.

Mom figured less in my grief, perhaps because she was an easy scapegoat and being mad at her made my misery easier to bear. Besides, I saw even less of her than I did of Dad.

We left between Christmas and New Year, a dead time when Charlie had lost interest in his presents and was starting to whine about going back to school. Miserable to the core, I turned away from Mom at the departure gate. She looked tired and her dark hair was starting to go grey at the temples. Even though I hated myself for it, I wished she would try harder to look nice. Apart from her fuzzy hair, she was hardly ever out of a lab coat – or a lab, period. It wasn’t surprising that Dad had stopped noticing her.

I clung to Charlie, kissing the top of his head and telling him not to forget me. He stared up at me, bewildered.

‘Please, Caity,’ Mom begged as I released him. ‘Don’t blame me for this.’

She held my hand tightly and I knew without looking that she was crying. I steeled myself against it, because losing my brother was bad enough without thinking about her too. I shrugged and picked up my hand luggage, wishing she’d stand up to Dad. Maybe then he wouldn’t have spent the last seventeen years, and probably longer, having affairs with every woman he met. Despite a PhD and tenure at Columbia, she put up with him as if she deserved to be treated like crap. I was not going to end up the same.

‘Charlie needs me,’ I burst out, even though he could hear. ‘Who’s going to take care of him?’

Mom spoke quietly. ‘Caity, I know you’re devoted to him, but I think it will be good for you to be around kids your own age without so many responsibilities.’

‘But you don’t even know him. Do you know what he likes to eat after school, or his favourite Saturday morning movie? Do you know that he won’t sleep without the Nemo toy I got him for his birthday?’ I was crying now. ‘Do you even notice anything that doesn’t fit under a microscope?’

I bit my lip too late. Dad was already ushering me away, but not before Mom’s face crumpled with hurt. The last thing I saw was Charlie struggling against her as he tried to run after me. I could still hear him wailing on the other side of Security, and, although it was wrong, I felt almost glad.

 

I resisted visiting my new school, ignoring Dad as he tried to read me quotes from the website. I’m sure it’s fine, is all I remember saying before I resumed crying for the rest of that freezing English New Year in an echoing Belgravia house. I ran up an enormous phone bill to my friends back home, happy in the knowledge that Dad would be furious when he saw it, but despite the dutiful chorus of ‘We miss you!’ at the end of every call, I knew my departure had made little difference to the gang. After two years at Campion, I had to admit that Dad was right: exemplary grades didn’t make a lasting impact, and soon no one would even remember me.

On the last day of my vacation I forced myself to take a cab to the King’s Road and trail around in the rain, carrying a stack of British fashion magazines so I could at least try to fit in. Dad let me use his Amex for essentials and I brandished it defiantly, letting a personal shopper choose me smart, tailored clothes that InStyle promised would make me look like a Sloane (even if I wasn’t entirely clear on what that meant).

 

Campion was almost one hundred years old, but Temperley High was on a different scale of ancient. The thick trees that surrounded the campus made it totally invisible from the outside world, and we drove down a long, dark drive which widened to show a stone-fronted mansion house with pillars at the door. There was a fountain in the courtyard decorated with hideous lions and fish, and everything was completely ordered and symmetrical. The trees, plants, paths – even the wisteria that grew around the school windows – nothing was a millimetre out of place. It was so immaculate that I thought we’d come to an English castle instead of a functioning school.

‘Oh God,’ I whispered in terror, gripping the car seat.

Dad seemed choked up with pride. ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ he beamed. ‘Do you think you can be happy here?’

Ignoring this incredibly stupid question I looked upwards, as if for a sign that I would be okay. A wooden clock tower topped the building, and my glance caught the slight figure of a girl leaning far out of its window and watching us. She had a cigarette in her hand, and her long blonde hair cascaded down, catching the wind and fluttering. The sunset made it flame, lighting up her face.

Suddenly she was gone, so quickly that I couldn’t be sure I’d seen her at all.

‘The clock’s stopped,’ Dad commented, following my gaze. ‘Twenty to twelve. You’d think they’d fix it, with the amount of money that must go into the upkeep of this place.’

This sort of irrelevant remark was typical of him. I watched the window in case the girl reappeared, but nothing of her lingered except a plume of smoke way up above and a faintly reverberating laugh.

 

Dad started making excuses as soon as he could, barely staying long enough to unload my cases before he raced off to enjoy his new freedom. He waved out of the window as he disappeared while I stood numbly, my hands clenched so tightly in my pockets that one of them tore through the silk lining.

My housemistress Mrs Denbigh met me inside the white-marbled entrance hall. She didn’t seem very strict, and at least the room she showed me to in Woodlands, the Sixth Form girls’ boarding house, wasn’t as austere as I’d imagined. I unpacked my familiar belongings, hiding my favourite plush rabbit under a pillow and arranging my framed photograph of Charlie next to the narrow bed. I fought back the urge to cry as I kissed the glass.

‘Goodnight, baby,’ I whispered as bravely as I could.

Although I tried my best to sleep, alternately reciting the Periodic Table and emptying my mind, I lay awake until dawn, staring into the dark and wondering what was going to happen to me. If I’d known, I might have climbed out of the window and swum back to New York.

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