Read Breathless Online

Authors: Jessica Warman

Tags: #ebook, #book

Breathless (6 page)

“I didn’t think I’d have to wear my meet suit for practice—”

“These
are
our practice suits,” Jamie says, frowning at Grace behind her back. She mouths a few more choice words in Grace’s direction and gives me a little smile. Jamie has braces on her teeth, and since she’s just barfed all over the pool, she needs to
brush.

“Oh. I didn’t realize. Well, what do you wear for meets?”

Grace doesn’t blink. “We wear our meet suits.”

“Okay. Well, what’s the difference between our practice suits and our meet suits?” Swimsuits are expensive. I can’t imagine having a custom suit printed just for practice.

“We wear our practice suits for practice. We wear our meet suits for meets.” Grace pulls on a maroon sweatshirt that says “CAPTAIN” in big white block letters across her chest. “Got it?”

I’m standing naked in the middle of my dorm room, toweling off from my shower after practice, when an unseen hand slips a heavy ivory envelope beneath my door. Inside the envelope is an invitation to the annual—no kidding—
tea party
for Woodsdale girls. It says the dress code is “white glove.”

I don’t know what “white glove” means. I’m still shook up by how intense practice was, how mean Grace was, and I don’t want to risk showing up in the wrong pair of freaking
gloves
for a tea party.

When I first met our house mother, Mrs. Martin, she’d made me promise I’d come straight to her with any questions or problems. The tea party is definitely both.

“I was thinking I’d skip it,” I tell her, standing in the doorway to the hall that connects her apartment to the rest of the dorm.

“Oh no, sweetie. It’s compulsory.”

“Compulsory?” I raise my eyebrows, put my hands on my hips, hoping she’ll admit she’s only kidding.

“Mandatory,” she repeats, like I don’t know what “compulsory” means. “If you don’t go, you’ll get a demerit.” She shakes her head at me. “You don’t want to start your Woodsdale career that way. Besides, tea parties are fun. You’ll see.”

Before I know it, I’m blinking back tears. “I don’t have any white gloves.”

“Oh, honey. Come on.” And she leads me down the hallway, into her home, past the kitchen and the living room, where her husband is asleep in his bathrobe on the sofa. Once we’re in her bedroom, she goes to a bottom dresser drawer and produces a stack of impossibly white gloves in all different sizes, each of them ironed crisp and cleaner than anything I’ve ever seen. “Don’t be afraid,” she tells me, winking. “You aren’t the first new girl, you know. You just have to understand what people expect from you.”

I pull a glove over my palm, my fingers still wrinkled from swimming all morning. “What do they expect?”

She seems surprised by the question. “Well, they expect you to succeed. They expect greatness. And”—her powdered nose wrinkles—“oh, I don’t know, a sense of gratitude. Have you ever read
King Lear
?”

I shake my head. It’s already far more of an explanation than I was expecting.

“I’ll show you—right here.” We go to the bookshelf in the living room. She plucks a leather-bound copy of Shakespeare’s
Collected Works
off the shelf, goes directly to a bookmarked passage, and reads aloud: “ ‘Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low. An excellent thing in a woman.’ You’ll read this . . . in senior-year English, I think.” She replaces the book on the shelf and reaches outward to squeeze my gloved hand. “But remember it now.”

From the sofa, her husband—who I’d thought was asleep—sits upright and gives us both a big grin. “Best advice you’ll ever hear, sweetie,” he says, winking at me before lying back down and turning up the volume on the TV.

Everything here is monogrammed: the awnings on the front porch of the headmaster’s house; the stone walkway leading to the front door; the napkins, the teacups, the plates—they all bear the Woodsdale Academy insignia, which is a large capital
W
with a smaller capital
A
formed in the
W
’s center, all contained within a circle. I can hear Will hissing over my shoulder; I can almost feel his breath and smell nicotine and rotten teeth and teaberry gum. He says, “Kind of looks like a pentagram, doesn’t it?”

Everybody sits around sipping from teacups that barely hold anything, balancing their elbows on crossed legs while the female faculty wander about, mostly talking to each other.

“There you are,” somebody says from behind me. It’s Estella. Her friend Lindsey is beside her. They’re both smiling.

“Hi,” I say.

“Hi,” Lindsey says.

Estella narrows her eyes. “I think you forgot something.”

Oh, God. I’m probably wearing the wrong shade of pastel, or my skirt is an inch too high.

“Your name tag,” she supplies. “Over there, on the table in the foyer. If Dr. Waugh sees you without it, she’ll come over and bother us.”

I stare at their name tags.
Lindsey Maxwell-Hutton. Estella Delilah Brinkley-Wallace.
I suddenly feel incredibly inadequate with only two names. I can sense these girls, with their lineage on such display, staring at me with what must be pity, sizing me up based on my borrowed gloves and my simple name: Kathryn Kitrell. It looks ridiculous in calligraphy, even on the paper name tag.

I follow them—I don’t know what else to do—to the corner of the living room, where we can lean against one of the wall-to-wall bookshelves.

Lindsey puts me at ease almost right away. “I wish we could take these stupid gloves off,” she says, talking around a mouthful of egg-salad sandwich. “I have to borrow them from my mom every year. She keeps them in her nightstand drawer.” Lindsay shudders. “I’m afraid she and my dad use them for some kind of weird sex game.” She holds out her hands, asks the question to nobody in particular: “Who still wears white gloves? Freakin’ Queen Elizabeth?”

Let your breath out,
I think. I never have to remind myself when I’m swimming; only on dry ground. “I know, right? I’ve never owned a pair either. I had to borrow them from Mrs. Martin.”

Estella—who is drinking coffee, not tea—perks up. “That cow,” she declares. Her voice is so sweet that everything she says, no matter how nasty, sounds pretty. “You’d be smart to avoid her. I mean”—her gaze rakes me up and down—“once you return those gloves.”

Estella’s name tag takes up two full lines of script: “Estella Delilah Brinkley-Wallace.” I’ve never met anybody—not anybody—with any one of those names, let alone all four of them. Her face looks like it could have been sketched by Michelangelo. She would look more appropriate in a toga, a crown of olive leaves adorning her crimson hair.

Then it dawns on me. “Your last name is Wallace? As in—”

“Wallace Hall,” she finishes, grinning. “That’s right. My father donated the building to the school two years ago.”

“Your
step
father,” Lindsey murmurs.

“Either way. So, Katie. Tell us all about you.”

I’d assumed Estella wasn’t the least bit interested in me. But her gaze is steady and almost fascinated. Nobody like her has ever shown an interest in me before.

“Ummm . . .”

“Where are you from? Why didn’t you start last year?” Her tone is verging on accusatory.

“Well, I’m from Pennsylvania, and I didn’t start last year because . . .” I shrug. “I don’t know. My parents just decided to send me this year instead.”

“Really?”
She raises one perfectly groomed eyebrow, the mildest grin on her face. “Are you sure you didn’t get kicked out of your last school? Why would your parents just decide out of
nowhere
to send you here?”

I can feel my eyes widen. The whole room seems to get smaller. When I open my mouth, my voice is shaky. “They just did.”

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” Lindsey asks. She seems genuinely interested, kind, excited to meet someone new. She’s pretty, soft and curvy, and is wearing a shade too much makeup. Even though it’s the first time I’m talking to her, there’s something kind of desperate about her. But she seems genuinely nice, and I like her already.

When she asks about brothers and sisters, I stare down at our hands—at all of our hands, white gloves pulled taught and flawless over our fingers—and all I can think about is Will and the blood everywhere the last time I saw him. I remember watching from my window as Donny George stood with a hose in his backyard, rinsing the blood from his kids’ swing set, spraying down the concrete walkway in his yard. It took him forever. As I’m thinking about it, I can feel my shin aching where I fell on the cinderblocks in the Georges’ yard and took a chunk out of my flesh.

The words leave my mouth before I can stop them. “I had a brother,” I say.

“Oh.” It takes them a moment to fully understand. Then Estella says,
“Oh,”
and leans forward just a little; I can hear her breath quicken. She nods her head, satisfied. “So
that’s
why you’re here?”

I nod. Part of me wants to punch her in her beautiful face. She’s so
entertained
by me. “Kind of.”

“Oh, my God.” Lindsey puts a hand on my arm. “That’s awful, Katie.”

Estella puts her hand on my other arm. Her grip is tighter than Lindsey’s. “Do you mind if I ask . . . what happened?”

I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to lie, but I can’t imagine anything more awful than the truth. “There was an accident,” I say.

They both nod, looking at me differently now. For a few awkward seconds we stand there, nobody speaking, all three of us sweating in our gloves. Estella seems to glisten, even though she continues to drink coffee so hot that I can still see steam rising from its surface.

“So. Well. Where are you going to volunteer?” Lindsey wants to know.

I’m grateful for the change of subject. “Oh, I haven’t decided yet.”

“But you know it’s mandatory?” Estella asks. She closes her eyes for a moment, like she’s so irritated that she can hardly contain herself. “Everything at this stupid place is mandatory.” Even though I don’t know if I even like her, I know I want to be her friend. She’s so annoyed by everything, so intimidating, that just standing there talking to her—knowing she can bear being around me—makes me feel good.

All of the Woodsdale Academy students are required to volunteer for five hours a week. According to the school literature, volunteering is designed to “foster a bond with the greater community and a sense of responsibility to mankind.” I’m guessing it’s really because it looks so good on college applications.

“I read to blind people,” Estella says, “Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.” Then she whooshes the idea away with the flick of her wrist. “But you can’t do that, because all the blind people in Woodsdale are already taken.”

“Why don’t you come to the soup kitchen with me? My mom organizes the group for Saturday mornings. We start next month,” Lindsey offers.

“Ooh, that might be good,” Estella reasons. “Since you’re on the swim team, you’ll have all kinds of Saturday-morning meets. That means you’ll almost never have to actually go volunteer.”

I don’t have any reason to say no. “Okay, sure. But wait—your mom is in charge of the volunteers?”

Lindsey nods.

“But where do you live? I mean, where do your parents live?”

They look at each other, and then back at me, confused. “We live in Woodsdale.”

“So . . . why do you live on campus if your parents live in town?”

Estella opens her mouth like she’s about to say something, closes it, opens it again. “Because it’s . . . you know . . .
boarding school.

“Oh. Right.” The idea of living so close to your family while still living on campus seems silly. I mean, why pay all that extra money for room and board when you could just drive your kid to school every day?

“So you two knew each other before you came here?”

“All our lives,” they say, almost in unison.

There’s a brief pause. I can’t think of anything to say. Finally, I shift my focus to Lindsey. Her smile is constant. “I think it will be fun to volunteer,” I say.

Estella narrows her eyes at me. “Katie, are you a Democrat or a Republican? Because if you’re a Democrat . . .”

“We aren’t old enough to vote,” Lindsey says, putting another triangle of sandwich in her mouth. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes it does.” Estella licks her lips. “My mother’s first husband was a Democrat.”

Lindsey stares at the ceiling. When I follow her gaze, I notice that even the exposed wooden beams are painted in a maroon-and-white checkerboard pattern. “You mean your father?”

“Yes.” Estella presses her lips together. “My biological father.” And she sighs, saying, “You should meet my sister. She’s also a Democrat. She’s at Princeton now, but let me tell you, she’s headed nowhere in life.”

There is a smear of egg salad at the edge of Lindsey’s mouth as she grins at me and says, “My mother says that Estella is a living example of the trauma divorce inflicts on families.”

Estella whips her head to the side, glaring. “Really, Linds?
My
mother says you need to stop eating carbs.”

Lindsey blinks at me, still smiling. “See what I mean?”

The next few days are filled with swimming practices so intense that, by the end of the week, my muscles ache so badly I can barely get up from a sitting position by myself. Each day, I come back from practice expecting to find that Madeline Moon has arrived, but every night I go to bed by myself, in my otherwise empty room. I usually fall asleep early, exhausted from practice, and as I drift off I can hear the sounds of the other girls talking and giggling in their rooms, keeping their voices low so that Jill doesn’t come banging on their door.

After about a week of tentative talk with Lindsey and Estella, Lindsey comes knocking at my door one night, just as I’m about to fall asleep.

“It’s nine thirty, Katie,” she says when she sees me in my pj’s. “You weren’t going to bed, were you?”

I shrug. “I have to be up early for practice.” It’s actually the latest I’ve stayed up all week.

Lindsey moves past me, into the room. And then, before the door has a chance to close behind her, Estella pushes herself in.

She watches as I yawn. I stretch my arms over my head, wincing. She snorts. “What are you, eighty years old?” She laughs out loud.

Other books

The Devil You Know by Victoria Vane
Inheritance by Loveday, Kate
Cruel Harvest by Fran Elizabeth Grubb
Die Once More by Amy Plum
Weak for Him by Lyra Parish
Sometimes Love Hurts by Fostino, Marie