Home > Very Wicked Things (Briarcrest Academy #2)

Very Wicked Things (Briarcrest Academy #2)
Author: Ilsa Madden-Mills

COLD.

I woke up in gradual phases, stirring around, trying to find a warm spot on the floor of our apartment. Tugging my old quilt around me, I rubbed my socked feet together, wishing we had heat. Mama had forgotten to pay the bills. Again. Not that heat did much good in this rathole of a building in the middle of the coldest winter Dallas had ever experienced. January. I hated it.

But in the end, the cold didn’t faze me.

Because the only thought burning in my brain was Would I eat today?

Off in the distance, I heard the high-pitched wailing of a police siren. Meh. They roamed all over this neighborhood. Welcome to Ratcliffe Heights, a long-forgotten section of Dallas lined with industrial parks, pawn shops, strip clubs, and methadone clinics. A dirty place, the factories here belched out fumes that hovered over the area like a grey fog. It suffocated me most days, clogging my lungs with the scent of people who’d lost hope.

My days were spent inside Beckham House, a run-down residence built in the thirties, now turned apartments. It had a certain charm, but was bookended by a liquor store on one side and a row of dumpsters on the other where teenagers smoked pot and did whatever. Real classy. On the bright side, the house was owned by a nice older lady named Sarah Beckham who had a dance studio on the first floor. I spent hours there, nose pressed against the glass wall, watching her and the little ballerinas.

Ratcliffe wasn’t for wussies. You had to be vigilant because people disappeared and wound up dead every day. Sure, most of them were crackheads and hookers, but everybody had a target on their back, even a ten-year-old kid like me. But I was tough and I never left the house without a steak knife or a sock full of rocks.

The public library was my favorite place besides the dance studio. There I’d wander inside the stacks for hours, devouring the books. Every now and then, when the librarians who worked the circulation desk weren’t paying attention, I’d remove the magnetic strip inside the flap and tuck the book in my coat. Amateur work, really. Even a two-year-old could do it. Much easier than stealing a candy bar from the local gas station, which I excelled at by the way.

Books about brave women in history called to me and one about Joan of Arc was my favorite. There was something inspiring about her, about a peasant girl who’d led a ragtag army to victory. I bawled when I read the part where her own country betrayed her, letting the enemy burn her alive at the stake. At nineteen, she’d sacrificed herself for something she believed in. She’d given her life willingly for those she loved.

My mama was no Joan of Arc.

Most days, she barely tolerated me. Just recently, she’d taken me from my real home: school.

“Life can teach you more than books, Katerina,” she’d announced one morning this past October as I dressed in my city-issued uniform. The navy skirt and white shirt were dirty because she hadn’t washed it, but I put it on anyway. I should have been at the bus stop already, waiting for my ride to Oakfield Elementary, but we’d overslept. Thirty-six days into the new school year and I’d missed eleven.

Her words made my heart dip because at school at least I had hot food and playmates. Earlier in the year, I’d been selected to be part of the gifted program. Even the chess club had asked me to join their group. I couldn’t just stop going.

School was an opportunity to get out of here.

“But, I want to go,” I’d told her. “And, it’s against the law for a kid to not go to school.”

That day, she’d sat at her battered dresser, trying to cover up the bruises on her face, uninterested in my plea. “The school doesn’t even know where we live. Besides, aren’t you smart enough?”

She’d walked to her closet, selecting a pair of shiny pants and a halter top. “And I graduated from high school and look what it got me: nothing but a whiny kid and bills I can’t pay.”

I’d missed school that day. And the three months that followed.

But now, I forgot about those things when my stomach growled, reminding me I hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s can of fruit cocktail. I wished I had waffles drenched in butter and syrup, maybe with some strawberries and cream on top. I sighed. No point in daydreaming. I knew our cabinets were bare.

The sound of tinkling music reached my ears, and I grinned from my bed on the floor. Sarah was starting her Saturday morning ballet class in the studio below. Eager to hear more, I pressed my ear to the hardwood, listening for her melodic voice. With her ballet skirt and beribboned shoes, she’d be down there dancing like a real live fairy princess, like Princess Odette in Swan Lake. And the little girls? They’d be in their usual black leotards and pale pink tights, twirling around the spacious wooden floor, like ballerinas inside a music box.

Beautiful.

But dancing wasn’t for me though because we didn’t have money. The sign on the studio door said lessons were fifty dollars a month, and I’d tried to save up all the change I could find, but I always ended up spending it on the vending machines downstairs when I got hungry.

More than hunger though, the loneliness ate at me, and on dark days when it threatened to swallow me up, I’d sneak into her vacant studio and play her music softly so no one would hear. I’d dance around and pretend I was a ballerina.

Someday, I’d take lessons.

Someday, I’d get out of Ratcliffe.

The music stopped, reminding me I should check on Mama. See if she’d made it back from her night out. When I’d gone to bed at midnight, she still hadn’t been home, making it almost two days since I’d seen her. Although this wasn’t the longest she’d left me alone. Being stuck in this apartment with me drove her crazy, I know. She’d get all jittery and pace the living room with hard eyes, like she wanted to punch something. I avoided her on those days, hiding in the studio until I heard her feet thud down the wooden stairs and leave. Sometimes when she returned, she’d have a roll of cash. It gave me shivers to think of how she got it, so I never asked. But I knew what her occupation was. She crawled into strange cars with men she didn’t know; she did things for them.

   
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