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It happened in Biology when Troy, the kid who liked to chew paper, blinked at me through his Stephen Hawking glasses and said he would be honored to go to the dance with me. If it had just been Troy, I wouldn’t have been so mad, but Troy was the final paper-chewer who sent me over the edge. Earlier, I’d learned I had supposedly also asked Harrison, the kid who wore a Justin Bieber button on the lapel of his school blazer, and Frankel, the lead singer of the Wanna-be Lounge Lizards, a band that serenaded the Hartly cafeteria every Friday with Sinatra tunes.
Three dates to Homecoming. I didn’t even want one.
And so when I found out Melissa Blankley was to blame, I lost it.
Rage is like that. It builds up inside of you, like pressure in a teapot, until finally when the steam is so hot, so big, you let go—because really, there isn’t another choice. And everyone lets go differently. Some people use body language—tight lips, a simple eye-roll. Others swear and name call. A few actually become violent, and throw punches or people.
Some of us burn stuff.
Although, not always intentionally.
Don’t ask me how everything caught fire. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before.
And because it was so frightening, I hope nothing ever happens like that again.
“Teenage girls are genetically wired to be unkind to each other.” Uncle Mitch adjusted his glasses and met the hostile gaze of Dr. Roberts, making me proud. Uncle Mitch rarely met anyone’s gaze head-on, not even his students at Yale. “It’s in their DNA. They have to compete for mates.”
“But they do not have to burn down the science room.” Dr. Roberts tapped his pencil on the pile of papers on the desk in front of him and fixed me with his cold stare. He had an uncanny resemblance to manikins: plastic-looking hair, too perfect teeth, and flawless skin.
“But I didn’t—” I started.
Uncle Mitch sent me a warning glance, and I bit back my words. Before our meeting with the principal, he had made me promise not to speak. You are your own worst enemy, he had said. I silently glared at Dr. Roberts.
“As I told you before, we have several eyewitnesses—”
“But teenage girls—” Uncle Mitch began.
“Not just the girls,” Dr. Roberts interjected, “but several of the students including the son of the president of the school board. And Mr. Beck,” Dr. Roberts added.
I liked Mr. Beck, and I hated him to think I would do this. Even though maybe I had. Not that I had meant to.
“It was an accident.” I refused to be hushed by Uncle Mitch’s foot pressing against my leg. “I don’t even know how it happened.”
Dr. Roberts tapped, tapped, tapped his pencil.
“According to Mr. Beck,” Dr. Roberts looked down at his papers, “sparks flew from your fingertips.” Tap, tap, tap. “Can you explain this?”
“Would it matter if I could?” I folded my arms, leaned back in my chair, and kicked Uncle Mitch with my saddle shoe. Ditching the Hartly uniform was the only upside of expulsion I could see. Goodbye, tartan plaid pleated skirts. So long, itchy red sweaters, and knee-high socks. Adios, clunky black and white saddle shoes. But as I thought of what changing schools really meant, I blinked back tears and hoped no one would see.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Roberts said. “Evelynn is an excellent student—a credit to Hartly and a reflection of the outstanding academic program we here at the academy espouse.”
He sounded like he was giving a speech at a school fundraiser and begging parents for more money. I glanced at the papers on his desk and saw my name at the top with a red slash through it.
“Of course, she’s an excellent student!” Uncle Mitch exploded.
I gaped at him. Uncle Mitch never exploded—except when he accidentally ate dairy—but that was a different, smellier sort of explosion.
“Which is why I’m sure she won’t have any problem adjusting to the public school,” Dr. Roberts continued.
Public school? Yes, please.
Uncle Mitch gave a small, almost imperceptible shake of his head.
“Because I was fairly sure you would feel that way,” Dr. Roberts leaned forward, “I took the liberty of speaking to Evelynn’s grandmother.”
Uncle Mitch blanched and refused to me my questioning gaze when I kicked him. I kicked him harder.
He didn’t flinch, but continued to give Dr. Roberts his best death stare. Uncle Mitch doesn’t have x-ray vision like superman, but with his dark hair, blue eyes, and square jaw, he sort of looks like him. Not that he would ever wear tights. He mostly wore button down plaid shirts with a pencil and small notebook in the pocket, khaki pants, and leather penny loafers. Today, in an effort to dress up for the occasion, he’d worn his favorite wool sports jacket with the frayed cuffs.
Dr. Roberts placed his elbows on the table. “As you are aware, Faith Despaign Academy is an excellent school, and as a former trustee—”
Uncle Mitch pushed to his feet. “This meeting is over,” he said through tight, white lips.
“Have you consulted with Evelynn’s parents?” Dr. Roberts also stood.
Uncle Mitch gave Dr. Roberts a silencing look. “I am Evie’s legal guardian.”
“I just thought Mr. Marston would like to know. I rather hoped to meet him.”
Of course, he did. Everyone wanted to meet my father. Money makes insta-friends.
“I had hoped to see Sophia, Mrs. Marston, as well,” Dr. Roberts babbled, flushing, obviously trying not to look like the money grabber that he was. “Is she—”
“Still in India,” I said.
“I’m sure she’ll want to be appraised of this situation.” He paused and smiled at me. “I knew your mother when we were kids. You remind me of her.”
For a moment, he looked almost human. I tried to picture him with his heavily starched suit and slicked back hair standing beside my mom’s red corkscrew curls and random freckles. They didn’t belong in the same room. Maybe not even on the same planet. They were definitely different species.
“We grew up together,” Dr. Roberts continued. “That’s why I felt comfortable contacting Mrs. La Faye.”
Uncle Mitch headed for the door.
Dr. Roberts scrambled after him. “I would have hesitated to dismiss Evelynn if I hadn’t known she had a place at Faith Despaign.”
Uncle Mitch spun on his heel. “Did Beatrix set this up?”
Dr. Roberts reeled back. “No-o,” he stammered. “How could she?”
Uncle Mitch studied Dr. Roberts through slit eyes.
“Arson is a serious crime.” Dr. Roberts visibly wilted and slunk behind the safety of his desk. He shuffled the papers that wore my name. “Again, I’m very sorry about this, Evelynn and Dr. Marston, but I’m sure you’ll find Faith—”
With an angry grunt that sounded a little like the noise Scratch, our bulldog, makes when he has to move, Uncle Mitch headed for the door.
My uncle stalked down the deserted hall, out the door, and down the steps. The acrid smoke smell still hung in the air even though the fire had been put out days ago. I tried not to look at the black cavernous hole that had once housed the science department.
I hurried to stay next to him. “Do you want to tell me about my grandmother?” I asked, my voice shaking.
“No,” he said without looking at me. “Do you want to tell me how the fire really started?”
Uncle Mitch increased his speed, and I trotted beside him in my clunky saddle shoes. “But—don’t you think having a grandmother is something I should have known before now?”
He stopped and met my gaze. “No.” He strode away.
I stared at his back, realizing I had never seen him angry before. Never. Not even when my friend, Bree, accidentally backed into his 1958 T-Bird with her 2000 Toyota Corolla, or when Scratch was a puppy and chewed up one of his loafers, or when I accidentally knocked over his moth habitat, and we had larvae everywhere in the house for months. Mrs. Mateo had been really mad, but Uncle Mitch hadn’t said a word and just went back to recreating the moths’ home.
Thinking about all the many ways I’d disrupted his solitary life made me once again grateful I’d gotten Uncle Mitch in the divorce. Dad got Maria, Mom got Fred, and I got Uncle Mitch. I had definitely won. But at the moment, my curiosity was having a face-off with gratitude, and curiosity was winning big time.
“I’m sixteen years old!”
“Fifteen,” Uncle Mitch corrected. “Your birthday isn’t until January.”
“I know when my birthday is. What I don’t know…or didn’t know…was I have a grandmother!” I stopped chasing him and watched him stalk away from me. “Isn’t that something someone should have told me?”
“No.” He didn’t turn around, but marched toward his car.
I ran, afraid he would drive off and leave me in the nearly empty parking lot. I climbed in the T-Bird, closed the door, and stared at him.
After sticking the key in the ignition and putting the car in gear, he met my gaze. “I promised your mom and dad.” He lifted his shoulder in a defeated shrug. “You’ll have to ask them.”
“Did my grandmother know about me?” It stung that not only would my parents and Uncle Mitch keep such a huge secret from me, but that the mysterious Beatrix grandmother hadn’t even wanted to know me.
Uncle Mitch, grim faced, didn’t answer, but steered his ancient car out of the parking lot and down the tree-lined street. Red, gold, and yellow leaves fluttered past the window.
“Do I have a grandfather I don’t know about?”
“Aunts, uncles, cousins?”
He didn’t answer.
“So, I do.” I chewed on this. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” Anger, frustration, and curiosity built like a dark cloud. Growing warm and agitated, I curled my hands into tight fists.
Taking three deep breaths, I looked out the window and watched the familiar landscape flash by. I had lived on Elm Street my entire life. I had started Hartly in kindergarten. I didn’t even know anyone who went to Faith Despaign.
“Where’s this school?”
For a moment, sympathy flashed in his eyes. “North Harbor, off the Merit.”
“It’s expensive, then.” I knew my dad had money, but I’d always assumed my mother’s family was poor. I don’t know why, except my mother was always, as Grammy Jean used to say, a free spirit in sandals. Mom wore long gypsy skirts and gauzy blouses even in the winter when everyone else wore itchy wool.
A thought struck me. Maybe Mom’s clothes were more than just a fashion statement! Maybe, like me, she had a temperature problem.
I scrounged through my bag, looking for my phone. Then I remembered. Sticking out my hand, palm out, I said, “I want to call my mom.”
Uncle Mitch glanced at me before reaching into his pocket and pulling out his phone.
“Aw, come on! I can’t even have my phone for two minutes?”
“By orders of your dad, you’re grounded.” He slapped his phone into my palm.
“Ugh.” I started to press Mom’s number, then froze.
“What’s the matter?” Concern touched Uncle Mitch’s voice.
I shook my head, blinked back tears and stared out the window. How could I ask my mom—or anyone, really—if she sparked, too?