Angel took a step back, her legs giving out from under her. Bryony barely caught her before she collapsed on the ground, and she fanned Angel vigorously with her notebook. All of Angel’s vision seemed to fade into black fuzziness except for those terrible words at the top of the exam rankings.
“No,” breathed Angel. She was starting to see black dots and her head felt like it was stuffed with cotton. Her body began to go completely limp. She could hear Bryony’s voice, but it was as if she was far away.
“Angel!” There was a light tap on her cheek. “Everyone, get out of the way! Stay back.”
Angel could barely feel Bryony help her walk over to the wall and gently lower her down so that she was sitting on the floor. She pulled her knees to her chest and lowered her head, trying to fight the sick feeling rising up her throat.
“Take some deep breaths,” said Bryony, placing her hand on Angel’s shoulder. “You’re so pale. Do you need some juice or a candy?”
Angel already was starting to feel a little better after sitting down and taking in slow, deep breaths. Looking up, she forced a small smile to reassure her friend and shook her head. “I’m good. Help me up?”
As Bryony pulled Angel up, a domineering female voice called out above the murmurs of the crowd, “What’s going on now? It’s like you all have never seen an exam ranking before.”
The students grew silent and began to part, revealing a tall girl with luxuriously wavy strawberry blonde hair and glittering, deep-set emerald eyes. She had elegantly shaped lips with the lower one being so full that it caused her to have a near-perpetual pout that complimented the usual fierce glint in her eyes.
It was Genevieve Ardemore, senior and the leader of Team Scorpion. She was both an impressive and much-feared presence on campus; she was praised as an impeccable work of art and spoken of with a lip curled in disgust or with a snicker hidden behind a disingenuous hand. She walked up to the electronic board with a couple of her teammates flanking her on either side. She glanced immediately at the name at the top of the list.
Her expression changed, her eyes widening and her lips parting. Her gaze shifted down to the next two names. After a silence that seemed to last for an eternity, she exploded into laughter, and her teammates joined in with her, though not quite as loud. She laughed and laughed, her face growing red, while the rest of the students, Angel included, watched her nervously. Angel had thought the sinking feeling in her stomach couldn’t get any lower, but now she felt even worse.
Genevieve finally took a long breath and sighed, wiping away a tear. She fought down chuckles as she spoke, projecting her voice for all to hear. “Third place, Genevieve Ardemore. First place, Jhémes Blake.” She then raised an eyebrow and let out a scoffing laugh, smirking at Angel with a taunting gaze. “And second place, Aynnhailleah Astrid! I never thought I’d see the day. It makes getting knocked down a place worth it since poor little Angelhas been pushed off her throne.” Normally, Genevieve was ranked in second place on exams, as she always tried her best to beat Angel, to no avail. “Where is Jhémes, anyways? I would love to kiss him right now to thank him for his service.”
“Are you sure it’s not because he’s hot?” someone called out from the back of the crowd. Genevieve whirled around.
“Hey!” she shouted, eyes blazing, and all the students withered under her glare. The ones directly before her flinched at the sharpness and volume of her voice. “You’d better watch yourselves.”
Angel’s shoulders drooped. She didn’t even have the energy to confront Genevieve. Bryony put an arm around her again.
“Ignore her,” whispered Bryony, beginning to lead her away. “She’s trying to get to you since she still can’t win against you.”
But I lost. To Jhémes Blake, thought Angel.
“Try not to think about it too much,” continued Bryony. “Think about . . . oh, we have our senior camping trip coming up soon! That’s going to be really fun.” Angel could tell from the tone of her voice that Bryony was trying very hard to cheer her up and steer her mind away from the mock exam. But behind them, she could hear the whispers rising.
“Is Jhémes going to be the top student from now on?”
Angel held in the words bubbling up in her throat until she and Bryony had exited the building and walked towards the front gates of the school. “I don’t understand,” she blurted, running a hand through her hair in agitation. “How could he beat me?”
“It’s okay,” said Bryony, putting a hand on Angel’s shoulder. “Don’t let it get to you, Angel. I’m sure he was just lucky, and besides, you just weren’t in the best condition. You’ll beat him next time. How about we thinking about next weekend’s camping trip instead? That’s going to be so fun.”
“How can I think of camping when my position has been stolen?” Angel whirled around to face her. “Jhémes Blake took my number one spot. And he’s on Team Verity—is he going to try to steal my team captain position too? I can’t let him do that!”
Bryony’s hand lingered in the air where Angel’s shoulder had been, faltering. Then she lowered it slowly. She hesitated before saying, “Angel, I know how upsetting and unusual this must feel. But you always tell me that a rank is just a number, that it doesn’t define me. That applies to you too, you know—you’re so much more than your class ranking.”
“I know I said that, but it’s not the same for me!” Angel huffed and ran her hand through her hair again. She crossed her arms. “You could be last place and it wouldn’t matter at all, but how can I be anything but first? It just doesn’t make sense, it’s not right, and it’s not fair either!”
Bryony’s expression was distorted, both shocked and upset, as Angel stalked past her and out the gates. Angel wondered if her friend would run after her and try to comfort her again, but there was no familiar, worried shout of her name, no footsteps pounding on the path behind her. She resisted the urge to peek back over her shoulder and kept walking down the mountain road instead.
The scenery and path seemed to fall away and zoom by as Angel remained absorbed in her swirling thoughts. This had to be the most humiliating and shocking moment in all of her sixteen years of life. Second place? It was like Angel’s world was falling apart.
“Hey, Angel, how’re you doing today?” called the security guard as Angel waved her student ID over the scanner on the gates at the base of the mountain leading to Peaks.
“Fine,” she mumbled, and she kept moving as fast as she could once the gates began to automatically slide open. She didn’t particularly care to converse with anyone, but she still wanted to be polite. After a moment, she called over her shoulder, “Have a good day, sir.”
“You too! You be careful, okay?”
Angel wondered why he had told her to be careful when he never really felt the need to before and she shrugged. She quickly put the man’s parting words out of her mind as she focused on navigating the brick building-lined streets to reach her destination.
Instead, as she kept moving, her thoughts were tossed in a tornado-like frenzy, always coming back to the image seared into her brain of her name listed below that of Jhémes Blake. She replayed her peers’ voices whispering, tinged with pity, and Genevieve’s gleeful jabs. Then she envisioned telling her parents that she had been pushed into second place by the boy who had only transferred to the school that very day, and she could see their faces morph with disappointment. Her father would sigh and shake his head the way he did when he spoke of an employee who had not met his expectations, and her mother would look away wordlessly with eyes filled to the brim with tears.
It was all Jhémes Blake’s fault.
It was at that moment, right as she reached the door of Café Destiny, her favorite café in Valley City, that her eyes began to spill over, and she felt the tension that had been building in her chest threaten to burst out into a heaving sob. Angel clamped her lips shut tightly, refusing to let a sound come out. She swiped at the streams of tears flowing down her cheeks and cried silently, her shoulders shaking with her efforts to restrain herself. Valley City was one of the more popular off campus hangout locations for Kennard students. It really would be pathetic if the world caught Aynnhailleah Angel Astrid crying over a mock grade, as unjust as the whole ordeal was—no one could understand how Angel felt.
After she had calmed herself down, Angel whipped her gold pocket mirror out of her purse and examined her face. She forced a smile. “At least you look beautiful when you cry,” she said to her reflection, observing that, as she had expected, there was not a single splotchy red spot around her eyes, nose, or mouth, unlike other people whom she had seen crying before. She sniffed, then straightened her shoulders.
“Well, what better way to feel better than to treat myself?”
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Next: Episode 2.2