Ninth grade is everything I didn’t want it to be. I flung my backpack over my shoulder and made my way down the crowded hallway through a sea of royal blue blazers and plaid skirts.
“Five weeks down and only thirty-five more to go,” I muttered as my sneakers squeaked on the scuffed floors, my nostrils flaring at the intrusive scent of pine cleaning solution and freshly sharpened pencils.
I reached my locker, thankful to be out of the mob, and scratched at the neck of my collar. The wool fabric itched against my skin. I hate these uniforms.
Everything about ninth grade sucked, but nothing was worse than my classmates. How can we be the same age and be so infinitely different? I wondered for the hundredth time. I felt like a thirty-year-old woman trapped in a fourteen-year-old’s body, surrounded by babbling toddlers. I stepped to the side, shuddering as one of the boys hollered at the top of his lungs while slamming his friend into a locker, sending a shock wave of vibrations down the row of metal. I had zero to nothing in common with any of the boys in my year, and this adolescent display proved it.
I welcomed the cold steel under my fingertips as I swirled the dial on my combination lock, momentarily escaping into my favorite daydream—that I wasn’t at St. Hope’s High School but instead back in Ambrosia Hill with my Aunts Luna and Stella. And Billie.
Lately, my only escape from high school had been burying myself in the gothic novels I kept stashed away on a shelf in my locker. I found great comfort in sketching the characters from each book I read. Reading gave me an excuse to slip away from the teenage drama and tune out the gossip from everyone around me, but I couldn’t lose myself in the popular romance fantasy tropes. I found teenage vampire novels a joke. Even though I’d tried reading a couple of them for the sake of reputation, I’d never made it past page thirty. I reached inside my bag and thumbed through a copy of my latest read—The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling. I held it in my hands like it was a life raft in a storm, my only protection from the annoying teenage angst and sophomoric jokes that bombarded the halls of high school. All I wanted to do was sit in the back of my next class and get lost within its pages.
Liv screeched behind me, snapping me back to reality. I held the book against my chest like a shield.
“Omigod, the autumn dance is, like, happening so soon, and you girls still don’t have dates?”
I flinched as I turned around, bracing myself for Liv and her gaggle of sycophants. I glared as Liv flicked her buttery-blonde hair behind her shoulder.
“You do realize you’ll be a total loser if you show up alone?” Liv turned to face me, angling herself like a spotlight. I could feel the weight of everyone’s stares as Liv settled her cold eyes on her favorite target—me. She raised her voice, making sure everyone in the hallway could hear her say, “Only lesbos go to a school dance with other girls.”
I rolled my eyes, mentally preparing for Liv’s next words. She was nothing if not predictable, and I waited for her to toss her next barb.
“Isn’t that right, Zinnia?” She never missed an opportunity to call me out on being a lesbian, and her band of idiot friends giggled as if she’d told a hilarious joke. I flung open my locker door a bit too aggressively, hitting the boy next to me. He looked at me, startled, and I offered a small frown as an apology as I tried to steady my temper. Liv was coming for me, and I needed to be ready.
The annoying click-clack of her high-heeled boots came to a stop behind me. Her cloying perfume was a noxious cloud invading my space, threatening to make me sick. I sighed loudly, leaning my forehead against a shelf in my locker, buying myself a few steadying beats as I took a deep breath, tossed my backpack aside and turned around to face Liv. She was so close to me I could feel her warm breath on my neck, and it made me want to vomit all over her school blazer.
“Um, a little space, please?” I quipped as I placed a hand on her shoulder and moved her back a step. “I thought I was the gay one?” Liv’s band of morons grinned as they looked from me to Liv, elbowing each other in the ribs, their guffaws echoing off the metal lockers. Anger flashed in Liv’s eyes.
Oh boy, I just added fuel to this fire. But I knew Liv, and I knew to defeat a bully like her was to stand my ground. I was the only teen in high school who could out-punk Liv. Being her best friend all through elementary up until junior high had schooled me on what type of person she was. Even though she was St. Hope’s biggest jerk, I knew her secret— Liv was just as insecure and fragile as the rest of us. However, she was a champion at hiding it behind a veil of cruelty
“Ugh, try to keep your hands off me, gay girl.” Liv tossed her long hair over her shoulder. “Everyone knows you’re obsessed with me, but ew, I don’t want to catch your lesbo germs.”
I rolled my eyes before picking up my backpack. “Right, because being gay is a virus and you’re afraid that you might catch my lesbian bug and make out with me.” I turned my back on Liv as I swapped out my textbooks for my next class. “Get over yourself, Liv. Homophobia has been out of style for years.”
She growled as her lackeys tittered around us. I could feel Liv’s temper boil like water in a kettle.
“You’re just avoiding the truth—no one here wants to touch your lesbo-butt and go to the dance with you.” Liv looked behind her and raised her arms at the crowd that had gathered around us. “Anyone willing to be Lesbo-butt’s date to the dance?”
I cringed. Lesbo-butt, guess that’s my new nickname for the school year. Awesome. Thanks, Liv.
Thankfully, almost no one at St. Hope’s cared that I was into girls. The only one who was a bully about it was Liv. But that didn’t mean the school wouldn’t line up for one of Liv’s targeted rants. Everyone at St. Hope’s liked a good show, especially when it came at someone else’s expense.
Liv pointed at a random boy. Henry, a boy from my geometry class, looked over his shoulder, his face coloring when he realized Liv was talking to him. “How about you? The boy in the back? You’re not cute. I can’t imagine you have a date.” His face flushed crimson as he dropped his gaze to his feet. “Take Lesbo-butt to the dance. I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you can convert her to liking boys.”
I spun on my heel, my hand raised and itching to slap the smug look of cruel victory off Liv’s face. Instead I lowered my hand to finger the amethyst pendant at my throat, the heaviness of its chain settling me like an anchor. Needing to calm down, I willed my temper to ease.
“You’re such an idiot, Liv. You can’t convert a biologically gay person to straight and picking on Henry for not having a date is just low.” I glanced at the faces behind Liv and slowly returned my gaze to meet her cold blue eyes. “Why don’t you stop worrying about what everybody else is doing and just ask Jayden to the dance yourself, instead of making these pathetic attempts to get his attention?”
Liv flared her tiny nostrils as her eyes grew wild. Snickers were echoing behind her back, and I watched as her face turned as red as her lipstick. She curled her lips as she searched for a new insult. Liv’s pale hand whipped over my head to snatch a photo off my locker door.
“Who’s this, Lesbo-butt? Is this your boyfriend in Hicksville?” Liv pivoted on her heel to raise the photo to the crowd like a trophy. “I mean, maybe I’m wrong, but do you guys know if this is a photo of a boy or a girl?” Her eyes glittered with malice. “It’s just so confusing. It must be a girl because Lesbo-butt only likes girls. But omigod if it doesn’t look a lot like Harry over there.”
The boy ducked his head, staring at the floor as he mumbled, “It’s Henry,” but Liv didn’t pay him any attention.
Instead, she turned to face me, a defiant hand on her bony hip. “Does it have a name, Zinnia? Maybe that might help us decide if you’re into boys or girls these days.” Liv touched a finger to her chin and cocked her head, pretending to be in deep thought. “Wait, don’t tell me. Its name is Bobby.” Liv shook her head, her lips twisted in a cruel smile. “No, no, no, that’s not right,” she hummed, studying the picture before a flash of mischief danced across her smug face. “I remember now, its name is Billie. Am I right?” Liv shrugged with a malevolent laugh. “Guess that doesn’t help much with an androgynous name like Billie, does it?”
She turned to Henry, who looked miserable with humiliation. “Looks like you might still be in the running to take Zinnia to the dance, Harry.”
I lunged at Liv, snatching the photo out of her fingers. The photo tore in two, and Liv grinned at me as she waved her half of Billie’s photo in my face. I shook with anger as Liv hooted.
I held my half of the photo with shaking fingers. “Liv, you’re such a psycho! You know Billie is a girl, but you’re being a total jerk because you’re jealous that she’s hotter than Jayden.” Liv’s grin snapped shut and her eyes narrowed at me. Her idiot friends bounced their eyes back and forth between us, grinning like a pack of bloodthirsty hyenas. “And by the way,” I continued, “everyone knows you’re obsessed with him. You’ve been drooling over that boy since second grade, but you don’t have the guts to tell him.” My voice bellowed out louder than I had meant to, and I realized I was yelling.
I looked down at the torn photo in my hand. An emerald-green eye stared back at me. I snapped my locker shut and stuffed the photo in my back pocket. “And his name is Henry, not Harry, you bully!” I slammed my shoulder into Liv’s as I made my way through the snickering faces and stormed off into my next class.
I slid into my seat seconds before the bell rang and stared down at my desk. Everyone else was already seated, and I could feel their eyes on me. I sank deep into my chair at the back of the room, glowering. I was certain the entire science class had heard Liv roaring at me in the hallway. My science teacher Mr. Kurt lifted his head, glancing at me through his smudged glasses, his eyebrows raised in concern. I offered a weak smile and hung my head low.
My stomach churned as I cupped my mouth with my hands, swallowing hard to repress the urge to vomit. The classroom reeked of dill pickles and rubbing alcohol, and I moaned. Could this day get any worse? I had totally forgotten we were dissecting frogs this week, and my mouth filled with bile as the image of my aunt’s toad Merle danced in my mind. I swallowed hard against the rising nausea at the mental image of me dissecting the corpse of a helpless frog. The last thing I wanted was a dozen sets of eyes gawking at me while I mutilated a dead creature.
The teacher droned on about the upcoming dissection, and students were called one by one to the front to claim a dead frog. I ran my hands through my shaggy blonde hair before reaching for my phone. I needed a friend to commiserate with. A real friend, one who always made me feel better. Billie was a diehard animal lover. If anyone knew how to get out of dissecting a frog, it would be her.
Billie’s penetrating green eyes stared back at me as I looked at my screen saver. Her long, willowy arm was wrapped around my shoulder as we sat by Lake Cauldron, the sun setting behind us. It was a picture taken of our last day together before I had to leave my aunts’ house in Ambrosia Hill and return to the city with my mom.
My heart had broken the day I’d said goodbye to Billie. Even though Billie was not my girlfriend, my feelings for her were beyond platonic. The crush I’d tried to repress all summer long had exploded into full, deep feelings that I’d never imagined I could have at fourteen. But they were there, and I couldn’t deny that I liked Billie, thought of her every day and missed her even more than that. Even though we never spoke about any feelings for each other, I was confident she felt the same way, and I was eager to get back to her and confess my emotions face to face, like I should have before my mom and I had left Ambrosia Hill behind.
Liv attacked me, again.
I texted Billie, my thumbs flying over the screen.
And now Mr. Kurt has us dissecting amphibians.
I hit send on my phone with a sad face and frog emoji.
Billie replied immediately.
Tell Mr. Kill that dissecting a poor creature is against your religion, and you want to go to the library and do a report on the anatomy of a frog instead of brutally and inhumanely cutting open a dead corpse with a scalpel.
She sent an angry face emoji, then a gif that said, “Frogs are friends, not food,” with a pair of frog legs jumping off a table. At that moment, I missed her and her pet pig Bacon more than ever, almost as much as I yearned for my familiar kitten, Opal. I swallowed a lump that formed in the back of my throat and choked down my tears.
Billie was just getting started. I saw the three dots that indicated she was typing.
And tell Liv to go shove it. I hate that she bullies you! Don’t let her get to you, Zinnia! She’s just jealous you have the strength to be who you are. Her fake and bake tan butt could never be as strong as you.
I smiled at her text as I wiped a tear from my eye. Mr. Kurt called my name from beside the classroom’s freezer. Before I put my phone away, I saw one last message from Billie.
You’ll be back here with me before you know it, City Girl.
How I wish I were there now, I thought for the millionth time. Next summer seemed like an eternity away. I had begged my mom to move to Ambrosia Hill. After Dad had divorced her and moved away to Brazil, there was no reason for us to stay in the city.
“Dad’s gone, you’re not married anymore and our family and friends are in Ambrosia Hill. We belong with the aunts.” I had pleaded with her that morning before I left for school. Mom had only looked at me with a sympathetic face, the one universal to moms all over—the expression every mom has when their kid wants something they won’t give them. I loathed that look and wanted her to see things my way for once.
Because of her, I had to keep my identity a secret—no one in New York City could know that I came from a lineage of green witches. Over the summer, I had written my name in my own Book of Shadows and claimed my heritage as a hereditary witch. It angered me that my mom had forfeited her birthright to become a witch and instead chose to live a normal life. A normal life would never be available for me. Being fourteen, in high school, an openly gay girl and a witch? Well, that was an overload of baggage for one teen to handle on her own. What I needed most in my life was community, and my people were in Ambrosia Hill, not in the city attending high school at St. Hope’s.
“Zinnia.” My mother had sighed. “My career is in the city. I’ve worked too hard at the law firm to quit now.” Mom had tucked a strand of my blonde hair behind my ear as she inhaled a deep breath.
“But you could open your own private practice in Ambrosia Hill,” I had implored, “and do environmental work instead of tax law, which I know you hate.” I had wiggled my eyebrows at her, as if I were dangling a juicy worm as bait on a hook.
Mom had laughed as she shook her head. “You make everything seem so easy, Zinnia. Effortless, even.”
I had wrapped my arms around her neck, pressing my forehead to hers. “That’s because it can be, Mom. All we have to do is go. Let’s just pack up and go.” It was more of a plea than a request, and my voice had broken into a brittle whisper.
Mom had shaken her head, and I knew the answer was no. It was the same answer she had been giving me all through September and October since we’d returned to our small apartment, far away from my great aunts’ witchy house on Ambrosia Hill—my other home, my real home.
“It’s October, your favorite time of the year,” Mom had chirped, trying to distract me, but it didn’t work. Nothing cheered me up anymore. “How about we go to Autumn Week in Greenwich Village? I bet they will have cider and caramel apples. We can even get our pumpkins there and carve them later this evening.” Mom clapped her hands together, trying to convince me to muster up some enthusiasm for her plan. “We can watch a scary movie!” She pointed a finger in the air. “But not too scary. I will have nightmares without your…” Her words trailed off, and I knew what she was going to say. She missed my dad.
“Sure, Mom. Why not?” I had replied with a shrug as I slung my bookbag over my shoulder and drifted out of the front door for school.