Chapter 1 - Christopher Morgan High School
“Mom, have you seen my bag? I swear I left it by the front door…” Gabriela shouted from the hallway, rummaging through the jackets on the hanger. Her wristwatch was already showing seven-twenty, so if she didn’t hurry, she was going to be late for her orientation tour. “Damn it!”
Something bumped into her leg, wrapping around it like a monster tentacle and almost toppling her to the ground. Gabriela looked down, meeting the gaze of one of the triplets — Hugh's brown puppy eyes watched her pleadingly as she tried to free herself from his grip. His upper lip curled as if he was about to cry.
“No go!” he shrieked, tightening his tiny hands around her. “Sis stay and play!” he insisted. As the calmest and quietest of her siblings, he rarely caused trouble, but when he did, he was stubborn till the very end.
“I have to go to school, Hugh. Let go, we'll play later,” Gabriela sighed, patting his head. “Have you seen my bag?” He shook his head, still not letting go. “Mom!”
Julie and Peter, the other two-thirds of the triplets, sprinted into the corridor at high speed, bumping into each other and falling down with a dramatic cry. Gabriela puffed a strand of hair that had escaped her ponytail as she watched them push each other and scream at the top of their voices.
“Mom!” Gabriela shouted again, and a second later her mother finally appeared from the kitchen, her messy brown hair flying in all directions. There was a fresh coffee stain on her shirt and one of her socks was missing, but she proudly raised her hand, shaking Gabriela's backpack.
“I found it in the washing machine,” she announced, glaring at Hugh. The little boy shrunk guiltily, hiding behind his sister’s leg. “One of those devils must have hidden it there. Here you go, sweetie.” She handed her the bag and Gabriela tossed it over her shoulder, grabbing her school jersey from the hanger. “Hurry and go or you'll be late. I’m sorry I can't drive you, but by the time we get them ready, school will be over.” She laughed dryly, stepping next to Gabriela and pulling Hugh away from her.
“It’s fine,” Gabriela muttered, slipping into her tennis shoes.
“Good luck, sweetie. I hope all goes well!”
"Mom! Mom! Mom!" Julie and Peter started shouting one over the other, pulling their mother's sleeves to catch her attention. She sent Gabriela another helpless smile, then turned around, ushering them into the living room with promises of cartoons and cookies.
Gabriela hurried out of the apartment, closing the door quickly before one of them had the chance to dash out. She paused for a moment, letting out a tired sigh, before descending the stairs to the ground floor. It would probably be in her best interest if she started leaving home before the little devils woke up, but that also meant her mother had to deal with all three of them alone since daybreak, which was an impossible feat.
Adjusting the bag over her shoulder, Gabriela hurried down the street. She could take the bus or walk for half an hour, so she settled on the latter. As much as she wanted to conserve energy for what awaited her back home, she couldn't handle the people and noise of the bus.
The Tinleyside neighborhood was a busy little place with one main street running from one side of it to the other, and hundreds of small ones, branching chaotically in all directions and holding mostly small shops and three to five-floor residences. It was much quieter compared to the big city she was used to, but even though she had lived here for less than two weeks, Gabriela felt more at home than anywhere else before.
The fact that nobody knew her helped a great deal with that.
As she arrived at Christopher Morgan High School, she stopped at the tall gate surrounding the premises, eyes scanning the grounds on the other side of the door. The parking lot wasn’t big and there were barely any cars parked in it — she had learned quickly that finding a parking spot in Tinleyside was as easy as winning the lottery, so most people got around by foot or bike. The distances weren’t that great either, so that was absolutely fine with her.
Students in black and red uniforms fluttered around in groups, laughing and talking loudly with their friends. Some hurried toward the proud yellow building looming above them while others lingered outside, going as far as sitting down in the grass for a leisurely chat.
Gabriela adjusted her bag, heading for the main building with her stomach in a knot. There was supposed to be a guide from the school waiting for her, but she had no idea what they looked like or where they would wait for her. Her best bet was getting to the entrance and hoping they would find her.
She took a seat at the top stair, moving her bag in her lap and looking around. Her new school was a step down from the old one, but it had a cheerful, lively atmosphere. That was to be expected, considering that her old one was among the most prestigious schools in the region and a lot of rich kids went there. In Christopher Morgan High School, there didn’t seem to be such an obvious division between classes or cliques.
Gabriela turned at the sound of her name, looking up. A girl stood next to her, her straight dark hair hanging down as she leaned forward, offering Gabriela her hand. The unfamiliar girl was wearing an unpretentious headband that kept her hair out of her heart-shaped face, making her big brown eyes pop even more. She was a small thing, no more than five-two, with chubby cheeks and an almost childish expression. Her smile didn’t leave her face even for a second, and she constantly fidgeted as if she had gulped down a dozen coffees and had no idea how to control her own body anymore.
“I’m Harper. I’m a senior here and your guide today!” she announced with a bright smile, pulling Gabriela to her feet. “I hope you didn’t have to wait long.”
“It’s fine,” Gabriela muttered, looking away. Harper was wearing the same clothes as all the other girls — a knee-long black skirt and a white button-up shirt paired with a red-and-black jacket with the school’s insignia on the chest. Gabriela’s eyes stopped on the badge that hung proudly on the girl’s chest, saying ‘I’d rather be writing!’ and she stared at it curiously.
“Awesome!” Harper chirped, clapping with her hands so Gabriela looked back at her face. “Come on, we have about half an hour before class, so I’ll show you around. If you have questions along the way, don’t be shy and ask.”
Harper led her inside the building, guiding her through a maze of corridors while pointing here and there and naming random places. She even provided Gabriela with a hand-drawn map of the place, although the writing on it was so bad that it was impossible to read.
There were already a lot of students running left and right, filling the corridors with laughter and chaos. Harper evaded them skillfully, pulling Gabriela towards the wall as two boys in tracksuits sprinted past them.
“It’s a little noisy, but most students are really open and friendly. Still, you should always pay attention when you’re in the corridors,” she said with a smile. “Or you may end up with a bump on your head or a scraped knee.”
Gabriela nodded, following her down another corridor, then another.
Harper took her to get her class schedule and fill out the necessary forms, then they left the main building, making their way through the backyard where, as Harper explained, most students spent their free periods or ate lunch when the weather was nice. The space was wide and open, grass covering most of it, with enough picnic tables to accommodate at least a quarter of the school. The yard connected the main building to the north and east annex buildings and the gym, so it was the quickest route to go from one to the other.
“We also have a lot of extracurricular activities and clubs,” Harper blabbed on after explaining the history of the school and its latest academic accomplishments. “The girls’ basketball team won sixth place in the regional competition, and the boys’ volleyball team almost qualified for Nationals last year. We also have a badminton team, track team, and a football team, if you’re interested in sports.”
“Is there a girls’ volleyball team?” Gabriela asked without thinking.
“Yep. They didn’t do too well last year, but I heard that after the summer training camp their captain vowed that they’d train so hard that going to Nationals would be a piece of cake,” Harper chuckled, greeting a couple of girls who waved at her from the nearby table. “Are you interested in volleyball? I think they are accepting new members. There was a notice about tryouts this Friday. You should go.”
“Sure,” Gabriela mumbled noncommittally.
“You aren’t much of a talker, are you?” Harper laughed dryly. When Gabriela looked at her, the other girl blushed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it in, like, a bad way! It’s just that compared to me, you’re very quiet. Sorry for babbling so much!”
“It’s fine,” Gabriela said awkwardly. “Where to next?”
“Right!” Harper said, regaining her previous cheerfulness. “Next is…”
Gabriela’s head snapped in the direction of the voice and her eyes widened as she noticed the ball flying towards them. Judging by the trajectory and the force, it was going right towards Harper’s petrified face.
Gabriela moved on instinct, stepping in front of the other girl and catching the ball a mere inch away from her own nose. By the time she lowered it down, a guy had stopped a few steps away from her. She had to crane her neck to meet his eyes, and for a moment she stared, taken aback by his bright red hair spiking out of his head like a flame.
“Nice catch, shortie!” He grinned, his attention moving to Harper for a second. “Sorry about that. We were just messing around and the ball escaped us.”
“It’s… fine,” Harper squeaked, her face two shades paler than before. Her eyes darted towards the ball, then towards Gabriela’s face before her guide forced a smile.
“Can I have my ball back?” the red-haired guy asked. Gabriella glanced at the group of boys behind him, all wearing black sports suits with the school’s mascot — a devil — embroidered on the chest and back. Most of them were as tall as him, a few even taller, and all were watching them with curious eyes.
She moved the ball in one hand, extending it towards him.
“For a volleyball player, you should be more aware of your surroundings,” Gabriela said, letting the ball fall to the ground just as his fingers were about to touch it. The red-haired guy’s eyes widened as he watched it bounce twice before stopping at his feet. His teammates burst into laughter, booing at him playfully. “Come on, Harper, let’s go.”
Gabriela grabbed Harper’s elbow and pulled her forward, painfully aware of their eyes on her back. The red-haired guy shouted after them, but his words were muffled by another burst of laughter and even more teasing.
“How did you know he was from the volleyball team?” Harper asked when they finally entered the north annex, safely surrounded by walls.
“The ball,” Gabriela replied. “It was a volleyball ball.”
“So you really are a fan? Or a player?” Harper smiled, pointing to the left, so they took another turn. There weren’t so many people in the north building so they could comfortably walk without looking left and right out of fear of being tackled down.
“Sure,” Gabriela murmured.
They continued walking for another minute when Harper finally stopped next to one of the doors. There were already students inside, but they had five more minutes until the beginning of the class.
“So, this is your English classroom,” Harper explained, tapping on the plate hanging on the wall by the door. “Will you be able to get to Math from here? It’s also in the north annex, so it shouldn’t be too hard…”
“I’ll figure it out. Thanks.”
“Oh, okay then. Good luck with your class!” Harper smiled, stepping away from the door so Gabriela could go in.
“Thanks. See ya.”
“Um, Gabriela,” Harper called just as Gabriela was halfway into the classroom. She stopped, looking over her shoulder with her eyebrows raised. “Do you have any plans for lunch?”