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Chapter 3~4


She didn't fit in anywhere. She didn't know why. Was there ever anything so ridiculous as a sociophobic cheerleader? Girls like her weren't supposed to have any problems. They were supposed to be perfect. But Bliss Llewellyn didn't feel very perfect. She felt odd and out of place. She watched as her so-called best friend, Mimi Force, needled her brother and ignored her date. A fairly typical evening around the Force twins - the two of them bickering one minute or being spookily affectionate the next - especially when they did that thing where they just looked into each other's eyes and you could tell they were talking to each other without speaking. Bliss avoided Mimi's gaze and tried to distract herself by laughing at the jokes the actor on her right was telling her, but nothing about the evening - not even the fact that they'd been given the best table in the house or that the Calvin Klein model on her left had asked for her number - made her feel any less miserable.

She'd felt that way in Houston, too. That somehow she was not all there. But in Texas, she could hide it more easily. In Texas, she had big curly hair and the best backflip on the squad. Everyone had known her since she was a "wee chile," and she'd always been the prettiest girl in her class. But then Daddy, who'd grown up in New York, moved them back to the city to run for the empty Senate seat and had won the election easily. Before she could do a rebel yell, she was living on the Upper East Side and enrolled at the Duchesne School.

Of course, Manhattan was nothing like Houston, and Bliss's big curly hair and backflips didn't mean a thing to anyone at her new school, which didn't even have a football team, much less mini-skirted cheerleaders. But on the other hand, she didn't expect to be such a hick. After all, she knew her way around a Neiman Marcus! She owned the same True Religion jeans and James Perse T-shirts as anyone else. But somehow, she'd arrived for the first day wearing a pastel Ralph Lauren sweater with a plaid Anna Sui kilt (in an effort to look more like the girls featured in the school catalog), with a honking white leather Chanel purse on a gold chain slung over her shoulder, only to find her classmates dressed down in grotty fisherman sweaters and distressed corduroys. No one wore pastel in Manhattan or rocked white Chanel (in the fall at least). Even that weirdo goth girl - Schuyler Van Alen - displayed a chic that Bliss didn't know how to match.

Bliss knew about the Jimmy, the Manolo, the Stella. She'd made note of Mischa Barton's wardrobe. But there was something about the way the New York girls put it together that made her look like a fashion freak who'd never cracked open a magazine. Then there was the whole deal with her accent - no one could understand her at first, and when she said "y'all" or "laaahke," they imitated her, none too kindly either.

For a moment, it looked as if Bliss would be consigned to live the rest of her academic life as a borderline social pariah, a home-schooled reject when she should have been a Mean Girl. That is, until the clouds parted - lightning struck - and a miracle occurred: the fabulous Mimi Force took her personally in hand. Mimi was a junior, a year older. She and her brother Jack were like, the Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt of Duchesne, a couple who were not supposed to be a couple, but a couple nonetheless - and the ruling one at that. Mimi was the Orientation leader for new students, and she'd taken one look at Bliss - the pastel cardigan, the shiny bluchers, the awkward Scottish kilt, the quilted Chanel bag, and had said, "Love that outfit. It's so wrong, it's right."

And that was it.

Bliss was suddenly in the In-Group, which, it turned out, was just the same as the one back in Houston - jocky guys (but starting lacrosse and crew instead of football), uniformly pretty girls (but they were on the debate team and headed for the Ivy League) with the same unwritten code to keep out newcomers. Bliss knew that it was only by Mimi's good graces that she'd managed to infiltrate the sacred stratum.

But it wasn't the social hierarchy of high school that was bothering Bliss. It wasn't even her blown-out-straight hair (which she would never let Mimi's stylist do to her again - she just didn't feel right without her curls), it was the fact that sometimes she didn't even feel like she knew who she was anymore. Ever since she had arrived in New York. She would walk by a building, or that old park by the river, and a feeling of d��j�� vu, but stronger - as if it were embedded in her own primal memory - would overwhelm her, and she would find herself shaking. When she walked into their apartment on East Seventy-seventh Street for the first time, she'd thought, "I'm home," and it wasn't because it was home ... it was the feeling in her bones that she'd been there before, that she'd walked inside that same doorway before, that she'd danced across its marble floors in some not-so-distant past. "It used to have a fireplace," she thought, when she saw her room. Sure enough, when she mentioned it to the real estate agent, he'd told her it'd had a fireplace in 1819, but it had been boarded up for safety reasons. "Because someone died in there."

But the nightmares were the worst. Nightmares that left her screaming herself awake. Nightmares of running, nightmares of someone taking hold of her - as if she weren't in control - and she would wake up, shivering and cold, the sheets drenched with her sweat. Her parents assured her it was normal. Like it was a normal thing for a fifteen-year-old girl to wake up screaming so loudly her throat dried up and she choked on her own spit.

But now, at Block 122, Jack Force was standing up, and Bliss stood up too excusing herself from Mimi's attention. She'd stood up on impulse, just to be moving, just to be doing something other than just being a spectator to the Show That Was Mimi, but when she'd said she needed a smoke, she found she really did. Aggie Carondolet, one of the Mimi clones, was already snaking her way outside. Bliss lost Jack halfway through the crowd, and she flashed the stamp on her right wrist to the guard, who had to let people out and back inside due to the draconian smoking laws in New York City. Bliss found it ironic that New Yorkers considered themselves so cosmopolitan when in Houston, you could smoke anywhere, even inside a beauty salon, while you were under the dryer; but in Manhattan, smokers were consigned to the margins and left to deal with the elements.

She pushed open the back door and found herself in an alleyway, a small dark corner between two buildings. The alley between Block 122 and The Bank was a petri dish of warring cultural allegiances - on one side, preening hipsters in tight, expensive, European clothes, tossing their bleached hair over zebra-print jackets; and on the other, a scraggly group of lost children in their tattered and pierced clothing but an uneasy truce existed between the two parties, an invisible line that neither group ever crossed. After all, they were all smokers here. She saw Aggie leaning against the wall, hanging out with a couple of models.

Bliss rooted in her hooded Marc Jacobs car coat (borrowed from Mimi, part of the makeover) for her cigarettes and tapped one out. She brought it to her lips, fumbling for the matches.

A hand extended from the darkness, offering a small, lit flame. From the other side of the alley. The first time someone had braved the divide.

"Thanks," Bliss said, leaning forward and inhaling, the cigarette glowing red at its tip. She looked up, exhaled, and through the smoke recognized the guy who'd offered it. Dylan Ward. A transfer - just like her - to the sophomore class from somewhere out of town. One of the odd-ones-out at Stepford-like Duchesne, where everyone had known everyone since nursery school and ballroom dancing lessons. Dylan looked handsome and dangerous in his customary beat-up black leather motorcycle jacket over a dirty T-shirt and stained jeans. It was rumored he'd been expelled from a succession of prep schools. His eyes glittered in the darkness. He flicked his Zippo closed, and she noticed his shy smile. There was something about him - something sad and broken and appealing ... He looked exactly the way she felt, and he walked over to her side.

"Hey," he said.

"I'm Bliss," she said.

"Of course you are." He nodded.


The Duchesne School was housed in the former Flood mansion on Madison Avenue and Ninety-first Street, on prep-school row, across from Dalton and next to Sacred Heart. It was the former home of Rose Elizabeth Flood, widow of Captain Armstrong Flood, who had founded the Flood Oil Company. Rose's three daughters were educated by Marguerite Duchesne, a Belgian governess, and when all three were lost during the unfortunate sinking of the SS Endeavor during an Atlantic crossing, a heartbroken Rose returned to the Midwest and bequeathed her home to Mademoiselle Duchesne to found her dream institution.

Little had been done to transform the home into a school: among the prerequisites of the behest was that all the original finishes and furniture were to be carefully maintained, which made entering the building akin to walking backward in time. A life-size John Singer Sargent portrait of the three Flood heiresses still hung above the marble staircase, welcoming visitors into the magnificent double-height entryway. A Baroque crystal chandelier hung in the glass-windowed ballroom that overlooked Central Park, and Chesterfield ottomans and antique reading desks were arranged in the foyer. The shiny brass sconces were now wired for electricity, and the creaky Pullman elevator still worked (although only faculty were allowed to use it). The attic, a charming garret room, was transformed into an art center, complete with a printing press and a lithograph machine, and the downstairs drawing rooms housed a fully equipped theater, gym, and cafeteria. Metal lockers now lined the fleur-de-lis wallpapered hallways, and the upper bedrooms housed the humanities classrooms. Generations of students swore that the ghost of Mrs. Duchesne haunted the third landing.

Photographs of each graduating class lined the hallway to the library. Since The Duchesne School was formerly an all-girls institution, the first class of 1869 showed a group of six dour-faced maidens in white ball gowns, their names gracefully etched in calligraphy. As the years progressed, the daguerreotypes of nineteenth-century debutantes gave way to the black-and-white photographs of bouffant-haired swans of the 1950s, to the cheerful addition of long-haired gentlemen in the mid- 60s, when Duchesne finally went coed, leading to bright color photographs of winsome young women and handsome young men from the current crop.

Because, really, not much changed. The girls still graduated in white tea dresses from Saks and white gloves from Bergdorf's, and were presented with garlands of twined ivy on their heads as well as the requisite bouquet of red roses along with their diplomas, while the boys wore proper morning suits, complete with pearl-tipped pins on their gray ascots.

The gray tartan uniforms were long gone, but at Duchesne, bad news still arrived in the form of a canceled first-period class, followed by an announcement made over rustling static on the antiquated sound system: "Emergency chapel meeting. All students asked to report to the chapel at once."

Schuyler met Oliver in the hallway outside Music Hum. They hadn't seen each other since Friday night. Neither of them had broached the subject of encountering Jack Force outside The Bank, which was highly unusual, since the two of them dissected every social situation they experienced down to the minute detail. There was a studied coolness in Oliver's tone when he saw Schuyler that morning. But Schuyler was oblivious to his aloofness - she ran up to him immediately and linked her arm in his.

"What's going on?" she asked, tucking her head against his shoulder.

"Hell if I know." He shrugged.

"You always know," Schuyler pressed.

"All right - but don't say anything." Oliver melted, enjoying the feel of her hair against his neck. Schuyler was looking particularly pretty that day. She was wearing her long hair down for once, and she looked like a pixie in her oversized Navy peacoat, faded jeans, and broken-in black cowboy boots. He looked around nervously. "I think it has something to do with the crowd that was at Block 122 this weekend."

Schuyler raised her eyebrows. "Mimi and her people? Why? Are they getting expelled?"

"Maybe," Oliver said, savoring the thought.

Last year almost the entire crew team had been banished for illicit behavior on school grounds. To celebrate a win at the Head of the Charles, they had come back to school that evening and trashed the second-floor classrooms, leaving graffiti'd expletives on the walls and proof of their night - broken beer bottles, piles of cigarette stubs and several cocaine-laced dollar bills - to be found by the janitors the next morning. Parents petitioned the administration to change their decision (some thought expulsion too harsh, while others wanted nothing less than criminal charges filed). That the ringleader, a toothy Harvard-bound senior, was the Headmistress's nephew only added to the fire. (Harvard promptly recalled his admission, and the expelled coxswain was currently yelling himself hoarse at Duke.)

Somehow Schuyler didn't think that a simple case of bad behavior over the weekend was the reason the entire upper school was being called into the chapel that morning.

As there were only forty students in each class, the entire student body fit comfortably inside the room, taking their respective seats organized by grade: seniors and freshman in the front section separated by the aisle, juniors and sophomores respectively behind them.

The Dean of Students stood patiently by the podium in front of the altar. Schuyler and Oliver found Dylan in the back, at their usual perch. He had dark circles under his eyes, like he hadn't slept, and there was an ugly red stain on his button-down shirt and a hole in his black jeans. He was wearing his signature white silk Jimi Hendrix - style scarf around his neck. The other kids in the pew gave him a wide berth. He beckoned Schuyler and Oliver to his side.

"What's going on?" Schuyler asked, sliding into the pew.

Dylan shrugged, putting a finger to his lips.

Dean Cecile Molloy tapped the microphone. While she wasn't a Duchesne alum, like the headmistress, the head librarian, and almost the entire female faculty - and it was rumored that she'd been the recipient of a public school education - she had quickly acquired the velvet headband, knee-length corduroy skirts, and rounded vowels that marked the true Duchesne girl. Dean Molloy was a very adequate facsimile, and hence was very popular with the board of directors.

"Attention, please. Settle down, boys and girls. I have something very sad to share with you this morning." The dean inhaled sharply. "I am very sorry to inform you that one of our students, Aggie Carondolet, passed away this weekend."

There was a shocked silence, followed by a confused buzzing.

The dean cleared her throat. "Aggie had been a student at Duchesne since pre-kindergarten. There will be no classes tomorrow. Instead, there will be a funeral service in the chapel tomorrow morning. Everyone is invited to attend. Afterward, there will be a burial at Forest Hills in Queens, and a shuttle bus will be provided to take students who would like to attend, to the cemetery. We ask that you think of her family at this difficult time."

Another throat clearing.

"We have grief counselors on hand to assist those who need it. School will conclude at noon, your parents have already been informed of the early dismissal. After this meeting, please return to your second-period classes."

After a short invocation (Duchesne was nondenominational), and a devotion from the Book of Common Prayer, as well as a verse from the Koran and a passage from Khalil Gibran were read by the Head Boy and Head Girl, students streamed out with quiet trepidation, a low feeling of excitement mixed with nausea and real sympathy for the Carondolets. Nothing like this had ever happened at Duchesne before. Sure, they'd heard of other schools' problems - drunk driving accidents, child-molesting soccer coaches, senior boys date-raping freshmen girls, trenchcoat - wearing freaks wielding machine guns and gunning down half the student body, but those happened at other schools - on television, in the suburbs, or in public schools, with their metal detectors and clear vinyl backpacks. Nothing terrible was ever allowed to happen at Duchesne. It was practically a rule.

The worst thing that could ever happen to a student at Duchesne would be a broken leg skiing in Aspen or a painful sunburn from St. Barth's over spring break. So the fact that Aggie Carondolet had died - in the city no less just shy of her sixteenth birthday, was almost unfathomable.

Aggie Carondolet? Schuyler felt a twinge of sadness, but she didn't know Aggie, who had been one of the tall, pinched-looking blond girls who surrounded Mimi Force, like courtiers around their queen.

"You okay?" Oliver asked, squeezing Schuyler's shoulder. Schuyler nodded.

"Wow, that's heavy, man. I just saw her Friday night," Dylan said, shaking his head.

"You saw Aggie?" Schuyler asked. "Where?"

"Friday. At The Bank."

"Aggie Carondolet was at The Bank?" Schuyler asked skeptically. That made as much sense as Mimi Force being spotted shopping at J.C. Penney. "Are you sure?"

"Well, I mean, she wasn't technically at The Bank, but outside, you know, where everyone smokes downstairs, in the alley next to Block 122," Dylan explained.

"What happened to you?" Schuyler said. "We never saw you again after midnight."

"I, uh, met somebody," Dylan admitted, with a sheepish grin. "It's no big deal."

Schuyler nodded and didn't pry.

They walked out of the chapel, past Mimi Force, who was standing in the middle of a sympathetic circle of friends. "She'd just gone out for a smoke ..." they overheard Mimi say, dabbing at her eyes. "Then she disappeared... We still don't know how it happened."

"What are you looking at?" Mimi spat, noticing Schuyler staring at her.

"Nothing - I..."

Mimi flicked her hair over her shoulder and snorted in annoyance. Then she deliberately turned her back on the three of them and went back to reliving Friday night.

"Hey," Dylan said, passing the tall Texan girl in their class, who was part of the huddle. "Sorry about your friend." He put a light hand on her arm.

But Bliss didn't even acknowledge that she'd heard him. Schuyler thought that was odd. How did Dylan know Bliss Llewellyn? The Texan girl was practically Mimi's best friend. And Mimi despised Dylan Ward. Schuyler had heard her calling him a ?vagrant? and a ?wastoid? to his face when he refused to give up his seat in the cafeteria. She and Oliver had warned him when he'd sat down, but he wouldn't listen. "But this is our table," Mimi had hissed, holding a tray that contained a paper plate of dry lettuce leaves surrounding an undercooked hamburger. Schuyler and Oliver had immediately grabbed their trays, but Dylan had refused to budge, which had instantly endeared him to them.

"It was a drug overdose," Dylan whispered, walking between Schuyler and Oliver.

"How do you know?" Oliver asked.

"It's the only thing that makes sense. She passed out at Block 122. What else could it be?"

Schuyler thought: aneurysm, heart attack, diabetic seizure. There were so many things that could cause a person's untimely demise. She'd read about them. She knew. She'd lost her father in her infancy, and her mother was stuck in a coma. Life was more fragile than anyone ever realized.

One minute, you could be getting a smoke in the alley on the Lower East Side with your friends, having drinks and dancing on tables in a popular night club. And the next minute, you could be dead.


@by txiuqw4

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