-Interlude 1-

“We have a new student today, class. Her name is Apricot Jones. Apricot, would you like to say hello to everyone?”

I stood up, pressing my knee-length skirt flat, then brushed a lock of my long brown hair behind my ear. Smiling at the teacher and offering an enthusiastic nod, I announced, “Hello, everyone. I’m Apricot Jones and I’m super excited to be here. This school has the highest rating of any other middle school in the area.”

A collective eye roll and groan washed through the room, but the other students could not dull my spirits. I begged my father for three months to enroll me here because of the school’s performance in academic standardized tests and college placement out of the high school across the street that this school fed into. I was most certainly going to make it work. I had big plans to become an astrophysicist and join the space program. It didn’t matter to me that magic had already provided all of the answers to successful space flight on the cheap. We still need good scientists with an understanding of the mechanics of the universe to push forward the boundaries of human knowledge. Only through advancing science could we further advance magic anyway.

“Apricot,” the teacher cut off the groans of my new classmates with a gentle voice. “We’re reading ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ this semester. You’re a couple weeks behind, but…”

“That’s okay, Miss Holyfield. I read it two years ago,” I announced, beaming with pride. But when I looked around the room, the other students were all glaring at me with the same malice I had come to expect from students in my last school. My smile faltered a bit, but I pushed back, rekindling it through sheer force of will. “I liked it quite a bit. It’s one of my favorite Dumas books, although ‘The Walking Drum’ was also very good. Currently I am reading ‘Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica’ by Sir Isaac Newton, ‘A brief History of Time’ by Stephen Hawking, ‘The Dragons of Eden’ by Carl Sagan, and ‘The Ashes of Worlds’ by Kevin J. Anderson.”

“You’re reading all those books at once, Apricot?” Miss Holyfield asked, a disbelieving eyebrow raised in my direction. Just like all my previous teachers.

“Yes, Miss,” I nodded.

“She’s lying!” the blonde girl seated next to my desk shouted, pointing at me.

“Now, Jennifer, it isn’t nice to accuse people like that. I’m sure Apricot is just joking with us.”

“No, I’m not,” I stated. “Newton invented Calculus to explain the movement of celestial bodies and his innovation led to our modern understanding of orbital mechanics and space travel. Carl Sagan was one of the best science communicators in history and did more to advance the growth of astrophysics than any single scientist before him, not to mention the dozens of minds he enriched and sent out into the world to advance our understanding of the universe. I’m going to be an astrophysicist. And I’m going to get into the space program and become an astronaut!”

“You’re a dork,” Jennifer spat at me, eliciting a rumble of chuckles from the rest of the class.

My smile deflated. Why couldn’t the other students let me be, no matter where I was? All I wanted was to read, learn, and not be ridiculed for my passions. Why was being smarter than everyone a crime worthy of derision, but being faster or stronger than everyone was something to be celebrated? Besides, I worked my butt off for my grades. Did they think it was easy?

“Jennifer!” Miss Holyfield snapped. 

“Sorry, Miss Holyfield,” Jennifer intoned, then narrowed her eyes at me as the teacher moved back to her desk to set down her attendance ledger.

“Well, I can see we’re going to have our work cut out for us in keeping up with you, Miss Jones. Hopefully we’ll give you a surprise or two along the way. For now, though, please take your seat and everyone open your books to the chapter on Salvador Dali.” Miss Holyfield turned toward the whiteboard and began writing as I sat down at my desk.

I retrieved my immaculate three-ring binder and freshly-issued textbook from my shoulder bag and laid them on my desk. Beside me, Jennifer leaned over and hissed in my ear, “You ~are~ a dork. And Apricot is a stupid name.”

Determination welled up inside me as Miss Holyfield explained about how Salvador Dali was known for keeping an Ocelot as a pet, and even managed to convince a woman in a restaurant that it was a house cat simply painted to look like an Ocelot. Apparently, she’d believed him and gone on about her meal. After all, he was Salvador Dali. Who was she to question him?

As I sat there listening to Miss Holyfield talk about Dali’s life and accomplishments, I tried to think of ways to make going to school and learning less traumatic. I had no idea why I thought going to a new school after mom had died would make a difference. Even a school with such amazing test results and college placement numbers. 

I was tired of being picked on just for being smart. But maybe being smart could help me stop the other kids from poking fun at me. Maybe what I needed was a cover, a different personality to show the world. A shield to protect myself with. Maybe what I needed was a disguise, like Salvador Dali claimed he had given his Ocelot.

After all, I had other talents. I had a black belt and piles of trophies from all the tournaments I’d been to through my dojo. I could be every bit the jock as the popular kids…

Chapter 1