Authors: Lee French
Tags: #young adult, #female protagonist, #adventure, #fantasy, #ghosts, #urban paranormal
Girls Can’t Be Knights
For Aiyre and Evan
Table of Contents
“No wonder nobody wants you.”
The voice, belonging to a boy who barely knew her, made Claire freeze in the hallway. She had been content to walk away until then. Standing there, she heard the sniggers, snickers, and whispers that said they had an audience now. She clenched her hands into fists and she rounded on him. Storming back to him and his friends, she wanted to smack away that wide, smug grin plastered on his pretty face.
“Say that again,” she dared him, her voice low and threatening.
“How cute.” His grin changed to a sneer and his cool stare incensed her more. “Guys, look. This piece of ass—”
Her fist caught him under the chin, clacking his teeth together and jerking his head up. In rapid succession, she punched him in the kidneys and thrust her knee up between his legs. When he doubled over, she clasped her hands and drove her elbows down on his back. He curled up on the ground in front of her. With the crowd and his friends stunned into silence, she glared all around.
“Anybody else want a ‘piece’ of this?”
“What’s going on here?” The teacher’s voice broke the spell over the teenagers. Everyone suddenly had someplace else to be—except the boy’s allies.
“This girl just snuck up on Brian and beat the crap out of him!” As Brian’s buddy spoke, Claire noticed him tucking his cellphone out of sight. He’d probably filmed the whole thing. Later, if she looked, she’d undoubtedly find it online with the beginning edited off.
She didn’t bother refuting him. No one would believe her. They never did. Instead, she shoved Brian with a foot and crossed her arms, glaring at the teacher and silently daring him to grab her arm or ear to drag her away.
The teacher obviously didn’t recognize her, and she didn’t know his name. “Boys, help Brian to the nurse’s office. You can come with me to see the principal.” He reached out for Claire, then thought better of it and pointed instead.
She marched to the front office with the teacher shadowing her every step. In a fit of petulance, she stopped at the door and refused to open it, but some other teacher foiled the gesture by exiting a second after she got there. Inside, the front office had a warm, homey feel. The decorations used the school colors of blue and silver, and included a cabinet with polished trophies from various events.
“Sit,” the teacher snapped, pointing at a black plastic chair. He knocked on the door marked
. When he heard a voice tell him to come in, he left Claire under the watchful gaze of the secretary outside it. This thin, spindly woman had welcomed her five days ago with a warm, grandmotherly smile. Now, her stern frown made her think of a schoolmarm, the kind that would snap a ruler across your fingers if you dared whisper to your neighbor.
Claire dropped into the chair in a huff, crossed her arms, and refused to look at the secretary. Instead, she glared at the wall, picturing what would happen next and bracing for it. Getting thrown out of this school already would probably get her shoved into the alternative school, the one where all the troublemakers and pregnant girls go. That guy Brian shouldn’t have said those things, though. He should’ve just kept his fat mouth shut.
The door opened and the principal followed the teacher out. Mr. Gary stopped in front of her. “Hello, Claire,” he said in a Serious Principal Voice. “Come into my office, please.”
Since he went to the trouble to say “please,” she stood and did what he wanted, arms still crossed over her chest. Inside, she flumped down on one of his chairs and slid into a slouch.
Mr. Gary closed the door and sat in the black executive chair behind his large wood desk. He had a round, pleasant face with a prominent nose, and kind brown eyes. “Claire, I didn’t think I’d been talking to you again so soon.”
She grunted in acknowledgment because he left a pause that invited some kind of comment.
“I understand things are difficult for you.” He clasped his hands on top of the desk, leaning toward her. “It’s always hard to be the new kid transferring in during the middle of the school year. But Claire, fighting is never an appropriate response to anything.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Am I just supposed to let people walk all over me?”
“No, of course not. But that doesn’t make fighting acceptable.”
“I thought this school had a ‘zero tolerance’ policy against bullying and harassment.”
Mr. Gary took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Claire, you’ve only been here for five days.”
“Yeah, so I guess all that stuff Brian’s been saying for three of them is nothing.” She refused to meet his eyes.
“Claire, why did you throw the first punch?”
She rolled her eyes. These little chats always went exactly how she expected them to. “Whatever.”
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to put a record of this incident in your file. In addition, you’re going to write an apology to Brian.”
That got her attention, and she stared at him, dumbfounded. “Excuse me?”
He set a blank piece of paper with the school’s letterhead and a ball point pen on his desk, and pushed them toward her. “You’re going to write an apology to Brian Avery, for hitting him without provocation.”
“Without—” She jumped to her feet. “Do you have any idea what he’s been saying to me? Of course not, because he always makes sure there are no teachers around. And his friends too!” She thumped his desk with both hands as she leaned forward. “Hey, Claire. Hey, look at me when I’m talking to you. Check out that nice piece of ass. I heard you’ll spread those cheeks for anybody who asks. Hey, don’t ignore me, bitch. No wonder nobody wants you.” When she finished, her nostrils flared and she ground her teeth.
Mr. Gary frowned and his brow furrowed. “Did anyone else hear any of that?”
“Of course they did,” Claire snarled. “Do you really think they’re going to tell you about it, though? As if. Brian and his buddies are football jocks. They’re popular and everybody likes them. Or pretends to.”
He sighed and pushed the paper at her. “Claire, I’ll check into your allegations personally, but it still doesn’t excuse throwing the first punch. All you have to do is write out an apology for making the argument physical.”
Outraged by the unfairness of this, and knowing exactly what Mr. Gary would discover when he “investigated,” Claire snatched the paper and pen and stalked to the door. “Whatever,” she growled.
“In addition,” he said, his voice firm and hard, “you’ll stay in the office for the remainder of the school day, and you’re suspended for tomorrow. Come back on Friday.”
“Just what I need,” Claire snapped, “a day off to ponder my misdeeds.” She stormed out, slamming the door behind her. Ignoring the secretary, she crumpled the paper into a wad and flung it and the pen away. Before anyone could stop her, she darted out the front door and ran. That jerk, blaming her for reacting to what Brian had said. That ass had gotten what he deserved. He would have to live with the knowledge that a girl beat him up, which suited her just fine.
The bell rang, signaling the end of lunch. Claire slipped through a break in the chain link fence separating the school from Grant Park. Someone startled her by hissing from behind a nearby tree. She spun and, when she saw who it was, put a hand to her chest to take a deep breath. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.” Drew yanked on the zipper of his backpack and shrugged it on. “Are you cutting class?” His shock of curly, red hair needed to be cut.
“Sort of. I just got suspended.”
“Crap. What for? How long?” He pushed his glasses up his freckled nose and reached for her hand.
His honest concern cooled her anger, and she squeezed his hand. “Just tomorrow. For beating up that Brian guy on the football team.”
“You should do what I do and steer clear of all of them.” He squeezed her hand back and gave her a shy smile. “They don’t matter. How long are either of us going to be at this school, anyway?”
“Yeah, I know. It’s just not fair.” How she would love to sit down and talk to Drew right now. For a wild moment, she met his gaze and had thoughts of dragging him along with her as she ran away. But he needed good grades as much as she did, and he had a better chance of getting them. “You should go. You’re gonna be late for class.”
“Oh, crap, yeah. Come back with me, Claire.” He tugged on her hand, pulling her a step toward school.
With a shrug, she let go. “Nah. Bring my homework for me?”
“Yeah, sure.” He stepped back to her and kissed her cheek.
She rubbed the spot, warmed and pleased, and watched him run off to class. When she switched homes, she usually had to meet all new kids. But once in a while, like this time, she wound up in the same place as someone she already knew. She and Drew had been in the same group home before. His presence gave her something to cling to, someone to trust and believe in. Besides, he was cute.
Hurrying through the park, she dodged around an adult she thought might be a gym teacher and jogged past the tennis courts. She slowed to a brisk walk once she left the grounds, aware that running stuck out like a red flag to cops watching for truants. Her favorite striped knee socks in red and black made her stand out enough already. Not knowing this part of the city well, she picked a direction and walked with her head up and a purposeful stride. The first rule of not getting caught: act like you belong and know what you’re doing.
A dog barked at her as she strode down the street. It darted from its house until it reached the end of its chain. Churning up the grass on the edge of its front yard, it scrabbled to reach her and kept barking. She shied away from it and kept going. Three houses down, a cat on a low fence hissed at her and arched its back, scooting sideways with its tail up until it leaped at her. It scraped at her leg through her sock, making her squeal and stumble. She kicked to dislodge it and sprinted away. Another block down, a crow dived at her head, only missing because she happened to have paused to check her leg.
Either she’d accidentally walked through a spray of bacon perfume, or the entire world wanted to punish her by making all the local animals freak out. All she’d done was defend herself against a stupid bully. She knew how guys like Brian operated. He’d taunt her from a distance for a while, then after a few weeks, he’d find a way to get her alone. Every time she thought about that first time this kind of thing happened, she wished her father could still be around to glow with pride. He’d been the one who taught her how to throw a punch, after all.
Before he died. Before the fire. Before she’d lost everyone and everything that ever mattered. He’d promised to teach her how to swing the fake sword he used to act out battles with his friends. He’d promised to teach her to drive too, and lots of other things.
Crazed barking interrupted her thoughts and memories. This time, no chain stopped another lunatic animal. She stared in disbelief for a moment, then turned and ran for her life from this new demented dog. Dashing up the street with it chasing at her heels, she tripped over a curb and went sprawling, scraping her palms and knees. Ignoring the stinging, she scrambled to her feet and kept going.
Another cat darted out at her from nowhere, scraping through her sock with its claws, then hissing and falling back. She tripped again and staggered to collapse onto a park bench. Exhausted and confused, she curled up into a ball and gripped the locket under her shirt, hoping against hope that someone or something would make all this stop.
Tariel’s silver hooves clopped along the city streets. On her back, Justin held a paper map, checking the street signs as he tried to follow their progress with his finger. “Unless we’re really lost, it should be the next left.”
“That’s what you said at the last intersection.” The horse’s words sounded like a whinny to anyone else.
“I know, but this time I’m sure.” He folded up the map and stowed it in the back pocket of his jeans. “One of these days, I’m going to get the hang of this job. And then I’ll be