Pretty Reckless (All Saints High, #1) by L.J. Shen
The tiles under my feet shake as a herd of ballerinas blazes past me, their feet pounding like artillery in the distance.
Brown hair. Black hair. Straight hair. Red hair. Curly hair. They blur into a rainbow of trims and scrunchies. My eyes are searching for the blond head I’d like to bash against the well-worn floor.
Feel free not to be here today, Queen Bitch.
I stand frozen on the threshold of my mother’s ballet studio, my pale pink leotard sticking to my ribs. My white duffel bag dangles from my shoulder. My tight bun makes my scalp burn. Whenever I let my hair down, my golden locks fall off in chunks on the bathroom floor. I tell Mom it’s from messing with my hair too much, but that’s BS. And if she gave a damn—really gave one, not just pretended to—she’d know this, too.
I wiggle my banged-up toes in my pointe shoes, swallowing the ball of anxiety in my throat. Via isn’t here. Thank you, Marx.
Girls torpedo past me, bumping into my shoulders. I feel their giggles in my empty stomach. My duffel bag falls with a thud. My classmates are leaner, longer, and more flexible with rod-straight backs like an exclamation mark. Me? I’m small and muscular like a question mark. Always unsure and on the verge of snapping. My face is not stoic and regal; it’s traitorous and unpredictable. Some wear their hearts on their sleeves—I wear mine on my mouth. I smile with my teeth when I’m happy, and when my mom looks at me, I’m always happy.
“You should really take gymnastics or cheer, Lovebug. It suits you so much better than ballet.”
But Mom sometimes says things that dig at my self-esteem. There’s a rounded dent on its surface now, the shape of her words, and that’s where I keep my anger.
Melody Green-Followhill is a former ballerina who broke her leg during her first week at Juilliard when she was eighteen. Ballet has been expected of me since the day I was born. And—just my luck—I happen to be exceptionally bad at it.
Enter Via Scully.
Also fourteen, Via is everything I strive to be. Taller, blonder, and skinnier. Worst of all, her natural talent makes my dancing look like an insult to leotards all over the world.
Three months ago, Via received a letter from the Royal Ballet Academy asking her to audition. Four weeks ago—she did. Her hotshot parents couldn’t get the time off work, so my mom jumped at the chance to fly her on a weeklong trip to London. Now the entire class is waiting to hear if Via is going to study at the Royal Ballet Academy. Word around the studio is she has it in the bag. Even the Ukrainian danseur Alexei Petrov—a sixteen-year-old prodigy who is like the Justin Bieber of ballet—posted an IG story with her after the audition.
Looking forward to creating magic together.
It wouldn’t surprise me to learn Via can do magic. She’s always been a witch.
“Lovebug, stop fretting by the door. You’re blocking everyone’s way,” my mother singsongs with her back to me. I can see her reflection through the floor-to-ceiling mirror. She’s frowning at the attendance sheet and glancing at the door, hoping to see Via.
Sorry, Mom. Just your spawn over here.
Via is always late, and my mother, who never tolerates tardiness, lets her get away with it.
I bend down to pick up my duffel bag and pad into the studio. A shiny barre frames the room, and a floor-to-ceiling window displays downtown Todos Santos in all its photogenic, upper-crust glory. Peach-colored benches grace tree-lined streets, and crystal blue towers sparkle like the thin line where the ocean kisses the sky.
I hear the door squeaking open and squeeze my eyes shut.
Please don’t be here.
“Via! We’ve been waiting for you,” Mom’s chirp is like a BB gun shooting me in the back, and I tumble over my own feet from the shockwave. Snorts explode all over the room. I manage to grip the barre, pulling myself up a second before my knees hit the floor. Flushed, I grasp it in one hand and slide into a sloppy plié.
“Lovebug, be a darling and make some room for Via,” Mom purrs.
Symbolically, Mother, I’d love for Via to make my ass some room, too.
Of course, her precious prodigy isn’t wearing her ballet gear today even though she owns Italian-imported leotards other girls can only dream of. Via clearly comes from money because even rich people don’t like shelling out two hundred bucks for a basic leotard. Other than Mom—who probably figures I’ll never be a true ballerina so the least she can do is dress me up like one.
Today, Via is wearing a cropped yellow Tweety Bird shirt and ripped leggings. Her eyes are red, and her hair is a mess. Does she even make an effort?
She throws me a patronizing smirk. “Lovebug.”
“Puppy,” I retort.
“Puppy?” She snorts.
“I’d call you a bitch, but let’s admit it, your bite doesn’t really have teeth.”
I readjust my shoes, pretending that I’m over her. I’m not over her. She monopolizes my mother’s time, and she’s been on my case way before I started talking back. Via attends another school in San Diego. She claims it’s because her parents think the kids in Todos Santos are too sheltered and spoiled. Her parents want her to grow up with real people.
Know what else is fake? Pretending to be something you’re not. I own up to the fact I’m a prissy princess. Sue me (Please do. I can afford really good legal defense).
“Meet me after class, Vi,” Mom quips, then turns back around to the stereo. Vi (Vi!) uses the opportunity to stretch her leg, stomping on my toes in the process.
“Oops. Looks like you’re not the only clumsy person around here, Daria.”
“I would tell you to drop dead, but I’m afraid my mom would force me to go to your funeral, and you legit aren’t worth my time.”
“I would tell you to kiss my ass, but your mom already does that. If she only liked you half as much as she likes me. It’s cool, though; at least you have money for therapy. And a nose job.” She pats my back with a smirk, and I hate, hate, hate that she is prettier.
I can’t concentrate for the rest of the hour. I’m not stupid. Even though I know my mother loves me more than Via, I also know it’s because she’s genetically programmed to do so.
Centuries tick by, but the class is finally dismissed. All the girls sashay to the elevator in pairs.
“Daria darling, do me a favor and get us drinks from Starbucks. I’m going to the little girls’ room, then wrapping something up real quick with Vi.” Mom pats my shoulder, then saunters out of the studio, leaving a trail of her perfume like fairy dust. My mom would donate all her organs to save one of her students’ fingernails. She smothers her ballerinas with love, leaving me saddled me with jealousy.
I grab Mom’s bag and turn around before I have a chance to exchange what Daddy calls “unpleasantries” with Via.
“You should’ve seen her face when I auditioned.” Via stretches in front of the mirror behind me. She’s as agile as a contortionist. Sometimes I think she could wrap herself around my neck and choke me to death.
“We had a blast. She told me that by the looks of it, not only am I in, but I’m also going to be their star student. It felt kind of…” She snaps her fingers, looking for the word. I see her in the reflection of the mirror but don’t turn around. Tears are hanging on my lower lashes for their dear lives. “A redemption, or something. Like you can’t be a ballerina because you’re so, you know, you. But then there’s me. So at least she’ll get to see someone she loves make it.”
Daddy says a green Hulk lives inside me, and he gets bigger and bigger when I get jealous, and sometimes, the Hulk blasts through my skin and does things the Daria he knows and loves would never do. He says jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius, and I’m no mediocre girl.
Let’s just say I disagree.
I’ve always been popular, and I’ve always fought hard for a place in the food chain where I can enjoy the view. But I think I’m ordinary. Via is extraordinary and glows so bright, she burns everything in her vicinity. I’m the dust beneath her feet, and I’m crushed, and bitter, and Hulky.
Nobody wants to be a bad person. But some people—like me—just can’t help themselves. A tear rolls down my cheek, and I’m thankful we’re alone. I turn around to face her.
“What the hell is your problem?”
“What isn’t?” She sighs. “You are a spoiled princess, a shallow idiot, and a terrible dancer. How can someone so untalented be born to the Melody Green-Followhill?”
I don’t know! I want to scream. No one wants to be born to a genius. Marx, bless Sean Lennon for surviving his own existence.
I eye her pricey pointe shoes and arch a mocking eyebrow. “Don’t pretend I’m the only princess here.”
“You’re an airhead, Daria.” She shakes her head.
“At least I’m not a spaz.” I pretend to be blasé, but my whole body is shaking.
“You can’t even get into a decent first position.” She throws her hands in the air. She isn’t wrong, and that enrages me.
“Again—why. Do. You. Care!” I roar.
“Because you’re a waste of fucking space, that’s why! While I’m busting my ass, you get a place in this class just because your mother is the teacher,.”
This is my chance to tell her the truth.
That I’m busting mine even harder, precisely because I wasn’t born a ballerina. Instead, my heart shatters like glass. I spin on my heel and dart down the fire escape, taking the stairs two at a time. I pour myself out into the blazing California heat. Any other girl would take a left and disappear inside Liberty Park, but I take a right and enter Starbucks because I can’t—won’t—disappoint my mom more than I already have. I look left and right to make sure the coast is clear, then release the sob that has weighed on my chest for the past hour. I get into line, tugging open Mom’s purse from her bag as I wipe my tears away with my sleeve. Something falls to the floor, so I pick it up.
It’s a crisp letter with my home address on it, but the name gives me pause.
Sniffing, I rip the letter open. I don’t stop to think that it isn’t mine to open. Seeing Via’s mere name above my address makes me want to scream until the walls in this place fall. The first thing that registers is the symbol at the top.
The Royal Ballet Academy.
My eyes are like a wonky mixed tape. They keep rewinding to the same words.
Via got accepted. I should be thrilled she’ll be out of my hair in a few months, but instead, the acidic taste of envy bursts inside my mouth.
She has everything.
The parents. The money. The fame. The talent. Most of all—my mother’s undivided attention.
She has everything, and I have nothing, and the Hulk inside me grows larger. His body so huge it presses against my diaphragm.
A whole new life in one envelope. Via’s life hanging by a paper. A paper that’s in my hand.
“Sweetie? Honey?” The barista snaps me out of my trance with a tone that suggests I’m not a sweetie nor a honey. “What would you like?”
For Via to die.
I place my order and shuffle to the corner of the room so I can read the letter for the thousandth time. As if the words will change by some miracle.
Five minutes later, I take both drinks and exit on to the sidewalk. I dart to the nearest trash can to dispose of my iced tea lemonade so I can hold the letter without dampening it. Mom probably wanted to open it with Via, and I just took away their little moment.
Sorry to interrupt your bonding sesh.
“Put the drink down, and nobody gets hurt,” booms a voice behind me, like liquid honey, as my hand hovers over the trash can. It’s male, but he’s young. I spin in place, not sure I heard him right. His chin dipped low, I can’t see his face clearly because of a Raiders ball cap that’s been worn to death. He’s tall and scrawny—almost scarily so—but he glides toward me like a Bengal tiger. As if he’s found a way to walk on air and can’t be bothered with mundane things like muscle tone.
“Are we throwing this away?” He points at the lemonade.
We? Bitch, at this point, there’s not even a you to me.
I motion to him with the drink. He can have the stupid iced tea lemonade. Gosh. He is interrupting my meltdown for a lemonade.
“Nothing’s free in this world, Skull Eyes.”
I blink, willing him to evaporate from my vision. Did this jackass really just call me Skull Eyes? At least I don’t look like a skeleton. My mind is upstairs with Via. Why does Mom receive letters on her behalf? Why couldn’t they send it directly to Via’s house? Is Mom adopting her ass now?
I think about my sister, Bailey. At only nine, she already shows promise as a gifted dancer. Via moving to London might encourage Mom to put Bailey in the Royal Ballet Academy, too. Mom had talked about me applying there before it became clear that I could be a Panera bagel before I’d become a professional ballerina. I begin to glue the pieces of my screwed-up reality together.
What if I had to migrate to London to watch both girls make it big while I swam in my pool of mediocrity?
Bailey and Via would become BFFs.
I’d have to live somewhere rainy and gray.
We’d leave Vaughn and Knight and even Luna behind. All my childhood friends.
Via would officially take my place in Mom’s heart.
Hmm, no thanks.
Not today, Satan.
When I don’t answer, the boy takes a step toward me. I’m not scared although…maybe I should be? He’s wearing dirty jeans—I’m talking mud and dust, not, like, purposely haphazard—and a worn blue shirt that looks two sizes too big with a hole the size of a small fist where his heart is. Someone wrote around it in a black Sharpie and girlie handwriting, Is it a sign?—Adriana, xoxo and I want to know if Adriana is prettier than me.
“Why are you calling me Skull Eyes?” I clench the letter in my fist.
“Because.” He slopes his head so low all I can see are his lips, and they look petal-soft and pink. Feminine, almost. His voice is smooth to a point it hurts a little in my chest. I don’t know why. Guys my age are revolting to me. They smell like pizza that has sat in the sun for days. “You have skulls in your eyes, Silly Billy. Know what you need?”
For Mom to stop telling me that I suck?
For Via to disappear?
Take your pick, dude.
I shove my free hand into my mom’s wallet and pluck out a ten-dollar bill. He looks as if he could use a meal. I pray he’ll take it before Mom comes down and starts asking questions. I’m not supposed to talk to strangers, much less strangers who look like they are dumpster diving for their next meal.
“Sea glass.” He thrusts his hand in my direction, ignoring the money and the drink.
“Like the stuff you get on Etsy?” I huff.
Great. You’re a weirdo, too.
“Huh? Nah, that shit’s trash. Orange sea glass. The real stuff. Found it on the beach last week and Googled it. It’s the rarest thing in the world, you know?”
“Why would you give a total stranger something so precious?” I roll my eyes.
“Um, hello, attention span much? Weren’t you the one who just said nothing in this world is free?”
“Who said it’s free? Did you get all your annual periods today at once or something?”
“Don’t talk about my period!”
“Fine. No period talk. But you need a real friend right now, and I’m officially applying for the position. I even dressed the part. Look.” He motions to his hobo clothes with an apologetic smile.
And just like that, heat pours into my chest like hot wax. Anger, I find, has the tendency to be crisp. I really want to throat punch him. He pities me? Pities. The guy with the hole in his shirt.
“You want to be my friend?” I bark out a laugh. “Pathetic much? Like, who even says that?”
“Me. I say that. And I never claimed not to be pathetic.” He tugs at his ripped shirt and raises his head slowly, unveiling more of his face. A nose my mom would call Roman and a jaw that’s too square for someone my age. He’s all sharp angles, and maybe one day he will be handsome, but right now, he looks like an anime cartoon character. Mighty Max.
“Look, do you want the lemonade and money or not? My mom should be here any minute.”
“And she can’t see us together.”
“Because of how I look?”
“No, because you’re a boy.” I don’t want to be mean to him even though, usually, I am. Especially to boys. Especially to boys with beautiful faces and honey voices.
Boys can smell heartbreak from across a continent. Even at fourteen. Even in the middle of an innocent summer afternoon. We girls have an invisible string behind our belly button, and only certain guys can tug at it.
This boy…he will snap it if I let him.
“Take the sea glass. Owe me something.” He motions to me with an open palm. I stare at the ugly little rock. My fist clenches around the letter. The paper hisses.
The boy lifts his head completely, and our eyes meet. He studies me with quiet interest as though I’m a painting, not a person. My heart is rioting all over, and the dumbest thought crosses my mind. Ever notice how the heart is literally caged by the ribs? That’s insane. As if our body knows it can break so easily, it needs to be protected. White dots fill my vision, and he’s swimming somewhere behind them, against the stream.
“What’s in the letter?” he asks.
“My worst nightmare.”
“Give it to me,” he orders, so I do. I don’t know why. Most likely because I want to get rid of it. Because I want Via to hurt as much as I do. Because I want Mom to be upset. Marx, what’s wrong with me? I’m a horrible person.
His eyes are still on mine as he tears the letter to shreds and lets the pieces float like confetti into the trash can between us. His eyes are dark green and bottomless like a thickly fogged forest. I want to step inside and run until I’m in the depth of the woods. Something occurs to me just then.
“You’re not from here,” I say. He is too pure. Too good. Too real.
He shakes his head slowly. “Mississippi. Well, my dad’s family. Anyway. Owe me something,” he repeats, almost begging.
Why does he want me to owe him something?
So he could ask for something back.
I don’t relent, frozen to my spot. Instead, I hand him the lemonade. He takes it, closes the distance between us, pops the lid open, and pours the contents all over the ruined letter. His body brushes against mine. We’re stomach to stomach. Legs to legs. Heart to heart.
“Close your eyes.”
His voice is gruff and thick and different. This time, I surrender.
I know what’s about to happen, and I’m letting it happen anyway.
My first kiss.
I always thought it would happen with a football player or a pop star or a European exchange student. Someone outside of the small borders of my sheltered, Instagram-filtered world. Not with a kid who has a hole in his shirt. But I need this. Need to feel desired and pretty and wanted.
His lips flutter over mine, and it tickles, so I snort. I can feel his warm breath skating across my lips, his baseball cap grazing my forehead and the way his mouth slides against mine, lips locking with uncertainty. I forget to breathe for a second, my hands on his shoulders, but then something inside me begs me to dart my tongue out and really taste him. We’re sucking air from each other’s mouths. We’re doing it all wrong. My lips open for him. His open, too. My heart is pounding so hard I can feel the blood whooshing in my veins when he says, “Not yet. I’ll take that, too, but not yet.”
A groan escapes my lips.
“What would you have asked of me if I took the sea glass?”
“To save me all your firsts,” he whispers somewhere between my ear and mouth as his body brushes away from mine.
I don’t want to open my eyes and let the moment end. But he makes the choice for both of us. The warmth of his body leaves mine as he takes a step back.
I still don’t have the guts to open my mouth and ask for his name.
Ten, fifteen, twenty seconds pass.
My eyelids flutter open on their own accord as my body begins to sway.
Disoriented, I lean against the trash can, fiddling with the strap of my mother’s bag. Five seconds pass before Mom loops her arm around mine out of nowhere and leads me to the Range Rover. My legs fly across the pavement. My head twists back.
Blue shirt? Ball cap? Petal lips? Did I imagine the whole thing?
“There you are. Thanks for the coffee. What, no iced tea lemonade today?”
After I fail to answer, we climb into her vehicle and buckle up. Mom sifts through her Prada bag resting on the center console.
“Huh. I swear I took four letters from the mailbox today, not three.”
And that’s when it hits me—she doesn’t know. Via got in, and she has no idea the letter came today. Then this guy tore it apart because it upset me…
Kismet. Kiss-met. Fate.
Dad decided two years ago that he was tired of hearing all three girls in the household moaning, “Oh, my God,” so now we have to replace the word God with the word Marx, after Karl Marx, a dude who was apparently into atheism or whatever. I feel like God or Marx—someone—sent this boy to help me. If he were even real. Maybe I made him up in my head to come to terms with what I did.
I open a compact mirror and apply some lip gloss, my heart racing.
“You’re always distracted, Mom. If you dropped a letter, you’d have seen it.”
Mom pouts, then nods. In the minute it takes her to start the engine, I realize two things:
One—she was expecting this letter like her next breath.
Two—she is devastated.
“Before I forget, Lovebug, I bought you the diary you wanted.” Mom produces a thick black-cased leather notebook from her Prada bag and hands it to me. I noticed it before, but I never assume things are for me anymore. She’s always distracted, buying Via all types of gifts.
As we ride in silence, I have an epiphany.
This is where I’ll write my sins.
This is where I’ll bury my tragedies.
I snap the mirror shut and tuck my hands into the pockets of my white hoodie, where I find something small and hard. I take it out and stare at it, amazed.
The orange sea glass.
He gave me the sea glass even though I never accepted it.
Save me all your firsts.
I close my eyes and let a fat tear roll down my cheek.
He was real.