I rub my eyes as I lean back from the library window and stare out at the view. My study books are piled up around me, a mess of paper and hastily scribbled notes. I have my midterm tomorrow, and I am in no way prepared.
Then again, when am I ever prepared for anything? I have a reputation among my friends for being as scatty as a kitten.
Everyone else in the library seems to be studying hard, but I can’t tear my gaze off the view. As I shove an elbow against the hard, chipped wood of the table, place my chin in my hand, and stare out at the city, I watch the clouds rolling in from the coast. They’re dark, laden with rain, as gray as the side of a gunmetal battleship.
If I could just put as much attention into studying as I am into watching them, maybe I’d have a chance of passing tomorrow.
Yeah, fat chance.
I’ve had a problem applying myself recently.
From paying my rent on time, to shopping for groceries, to studying – I leave everything until the last minute.
Except for one thing.
Calling my grandmother. Like clockwork, every single Tuesday and Friday night, I sit down at 5 PM, and I call her for a good hour.
My parents aren’t dead or anything, and I have a few siblings dotted around the country, but my grandmother has always been… I don’t really know how to describe it. I won’t call it a lifeline, because I’m not depressed or anything. But grandma Jones is… comforting.
I have two other sisters and a brother, and they’re way more accomplished than me – and there’s a lot there for a grandmother to be proud of. But for some reason, she’s always looked after me fiercely, always told me she understands the unique pressures on my shoulders.
What pressures? I’m just ordinary – special in no way.
But to Grandma Jones, I’m something else entirely.
Someone suddenly sits at the table, shoving in close beside me.
I whip my head around, my short ponytail playing around my ears, and the cute plastic dice hairband I found on the street clanking hard.
It isn’t some forward guy about to ask me out in this packed library. Nope, it’s Lisa.
She leans right back in her chair, crossing her arms and fixing me with a disappointed expression. She clucks her tongue and shakes her head, her short brown bob bouncing around her neck. “Do you call that studying?” She points from the window then grinds a finger into the open textbook in front of me. “I call that wasting time.”
I wince, bring up a hand, scratch my temple, then shrug. “I’m just having a break. A much-needed rest. It’s important to allow everything to sink in,” I try.
She looks at me deadpanned before snorting. Then she leans over, grabs my textbook, and closes it with a thwack that echoes around the library.
“Would you mind keeping it down?” I hiss as I lean forward, pry the book out of her hands, and tuck it under my arm protectively. A few people along the long table have glanced up to shoot us deadly looks. “I really don’t want to get kicked out of here.”
“Really? Do you want to get kicked out of University? Because that’s what’s going to happen if you don’t study.”
I press my lips together and push a hard breath through my nose. “Very funny. Like I said, I was just taking a break. I can’t study all the time.”
“No, you can’t. And I agree – you do need a break. As long as you earn one. Which is why I’m here.” Lisa leans back in her chair, showing her perfect athletic balance as she pushes the seat onto two legs and yet doesn’t tumble all the way backward and clock her noggin on the hard floor.
I arch an eyebrow in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
“Party,” she says excitedly, bouncing forward, the chair rocking back onto all four legs with another way too loud thump.
I wince. But half of my mouth ticks up into a smile. “Where, when, and why?”
“The new club Sonos,” she says, shoving out her hand and counting on her manicured fingers, “tonight, and as for why, as a reward for studying. So study.” She leans in, goes to pat my left shoulder, but then grabs the book from under my right arm and thwacks it back down on the table with an even louder sound than before. One that draws a lot of suitably pissed off mutters.
“Jesus, can you please keep it down?”
“As long as you study,” she says as she leans forward and taps the book lightly. “I’m going to test you this afternoon, and if you pass, you can come. And don’t worry, I’ll pay the fee.”
I smile, but it’s a glum move. “Just how expensive is this new club?”
She shrugs, opening her lips and running her tongue back and forth along one of her canines. It’s the usual move Lisa makes whenever the question of money comes up.
You see, I’m poor, and Lisa is rich. I only made it into this University on a bursary scholarship. One I will very probably lose if I can’t get myself together.
Lisa? Well, like most of the other kids in our classes, she’s full fee-paying. Her dad is a businessman – runs some kind of financial consultancy firm.
She’s rolling in it and always has been. From her designer clothes, to her perfectly manicured nails, to her almost weekly facials, Lisa Carlisle screams money.
Me? Ah, let’s see. I’ve never had a manicure. Heck, I don’t even own nail clippers – I just bite the damn things to the stumps. My clothes? They’re from thrift shops. As for my face? People have remarked that it’s pretty on occasion, but in that kind of rugged way you get with people who just don’t care. Kind of like a boulder opal – a spark of something special fully surrounded by plain old rock.
Lisa leans forward and taps my book again. “You don’t need to know the cost – like I said, my treat.” She winks at me.
I press my lips together and grumble. “You can’t keep spending all your money on me. It’s not fair.”
“To who exactly? You’re my best friend, and unlike some of my other friends,” her voice drops, “I know you’ve got my back. I like to bring you along to these things, because I know you’re not going to use me to try to get ahead on the social ladder – like everybody else who’s going to be there. I trust you. I want you there. So I’m going to pay for you. So I’m gonna repeat again – it’s totally fair, and it’s up to me how I spend my money. Now, you’re coming,” she says flatly, her tone a ringing, strong one, making it clear that this is a categorical order and that she will not accept further discussion.
I lock my elbow on my textbook, claiming it as territory as I drum my fingers on my face. “Do I get a say in this?”
She drops a little of the act, sitting properly for the first time as she shrugs. “Up to you. I kind of thought you would want to come. It’s been a while since you’ve been out. Plus, this is going to be a hell of a party. This new club – Sonos – is apparently being funded by Richard Hargrave,” she says. Her eyes sparkle. Not too many people can actually make their eyes sparkle, but ever since I met Lisa in my first class, I got the distinct impression that she’s been practicing that very move most of her life.
My eyebrows crumple. My fingers pause on my cheek, too. “Richard Hargrave, Richard Hargrave,” I mutter to myself under my breath, trying to figure out why that name seems to ring a bell.
Lisa waits several seconds then rolls her eyes. “Richest man in the city. Socialites Today ranked him as the number one bachelor in the country. Self-made billionaire. Okay, not exactly self-made – his daddy was a millionaire, but still, that’s a considerable rank climb.”
I arch my eyebrow on the term rank climb. Why is it that Lisa and most of the other rich kids in school seem to refer to gaining more wealth like it’s some kind of game?
Then I let my eyebrow drop as I realize I do know who she’s talking about.
“He recently donated a couple of million dollars for a new science school on campus,” Lisa continues, bringing up a hand, making star fingers with it, then promptly counting off the guy’s fantastic exploits. “He has his own freaking orphanage like he’s out of some kind of Dickens novel,” she adds.
I don’t bother to point out that the owners of orphanages in Dickens novels weren’t usually the good guys.
“And what else? God, I don’t know – all round good rich dude. Point is, he’s going to be there tonight. Point is, this is his club. And the point is,” she leans forward, now cupping her chin in her hand as she rests her elbow on the other end of my textbook and leans in, her eyes sparkling even brighter, “this is going to be one hell of a party. It’s my reward to you. If,” she leans forward and flicks the book with her free hand, making it jolt, “you study. You’re a smart kid, and I don’t want to see you getting kicked out of Uni just because you’ve been distracted this year. Got it?”
I smile. “Thanks, Lisa,” I say genuinely.
“It’s settled, then. Study hard, and I’ll see you tonight.”
“I thought you were going to test me first?”
“I will. Or maybe I won’t. I know you’re a girl who never goes back on her word,” she waggles a finger in front of my face, “and that’s why you’re my best friend. Now, wear something pretty.” She shoves up, twirls, and walks away.
I watch her go. Then I turn back to my books. For several seconds, I want to watch the clouds racing in over the city, I want to watch them as they block out the bright sunshine and cast the tall towers of downtown into shadow.
Then I realize Lisa’s right – I’ve never been a girl who goes back on my word. So I tuck my head down, open my textbook, get my pen, and study.
Inside, I prepare myself for tonight.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been out, and I know whatever happens tonight, I will have earned it.
The rest of Elements of Fire Book One is available from most ebook retailers.