Evernight Page 16

“Besides mine.” Mom put her chin in her hand, ignoring the entire elbows-on-the-table rule. “English, maybe? You’ve always loved that most.”

“Not with Mrs. Bethany.”

This didn’t earn me any sympathy. “Listen to her.” Dad was stern, and he set his glass down on the old oak table too hard, with a thunk. “She’s someone that you need to take seriously.”

I thought: Stupid, she’s their boss. What would happen if word got around that their kid was bad-mouthing the headmistress? Think about somebody beside yourself for a change.

“I’ll try harder,” I promised.

“I know you will.” Mom covered my hand with her own.

On Monday, I went into English class determined to make a fresh start. We had recently started mythology and folklore, both subjects I’d always enjoyed. Surely if I could prove myself to Mrs. Bethany in any area, it would be that.

Well, apparently I couldn’t prove myself to Mrs. Bethany.

“I expect that relatively few of you will have read our next assignment,” she said, as a stack of paperbacks made its way around the room. Mrs. Bethany always smelled slightly of lavender—feminine, yet sharp. “However, I imagine that virtually all of you have heard of it.”

The paperbacks reached my desk, and I took a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. From the next row of desks, I heard Raquel mutter, “Vampires?”

As soon as she’d said it, a weird sort of electricity seemed to crackle through the room. Mrs. Bethany pounced. “Do you have a problem with the assignment, Miss Vargas?”

Her eyes glittered as she fixed her birdlike gaze on Raquel, who looked like she would have gladly bitten off her tongue to have kept from saying anything. Already her one uniform sweater had begun to pill and look worn around the elbows. “No, ma’am.”

“It sounded as though you did. Please, Miss Vargas, enlighten us.” Mrs. Bethany folded her arms in front of her chest, amused by whatever joke she was playing. Her fingernails were thick and strangely grooved. “If Norse sagas about giant monsters strike you as worthy of your notice, why not novels about vampires?”

Whatever Raquel said would be wrong. She’d try to answer, and Mrs. Bethany would shoot her down no matter what, and we could go on like that for most of the class. That was the way Mrs. Bethany had amused herself during every class period so far, finding someone to torment, usually for the amusement of the students whose powerful families she obviously preferred. The smart thing to do would’ve been for me to shut up and let Raquel be Mrs. Bethany’s whipping boy for the day, but I couldn’t stand watching it.

Tentatively, I raised my hand. Mrs. Bethany barely glanced at me. “Yes, Miss Olivier?”

“Dracula’s not a very good book, though, is it?” Everyone stared at me, shocked that somebody else had contradicted Mrs. Bethany. “It has such flowery language, and all those letters within letters.”

“I see that someone disapproves of the epistolary form that so many distinguished authors employed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” The click-click of Mrs. Bethany’s shoes on the tile floor seemed unnaturally loud as she walked toward me, Raquel forgotten. The scent of lavender grew stronger. “Do you find it antiquated? Out of date?”

Why did I ever raise my hand? “It just isn’t a very fast-moving book. That’s all.”

“Speed is, of course, the standard by which all literature is to be judged.” A few snickers around the room made me squirm in my seat. “Perhaps you want your classmates to wonder why anyone would ever study this?”

“We’re studying folklore,” Courtney interjected. She wasn’t rescuing me, just showing off. I wondered if that was to put me down or get Balthazar to look at her. For days she’d been making sure her kilt showed off her legs to their best advantage every time she sat down, but so far he seemed unmoved. “One common element in folklore around the world is the vampire.”

Mrs. Bethany simply nodded at Courtney. “In modern Western culture no vampire myth is more famous than that of Dracula. Where better to begin?”

I surprised everyone, including myself, by saying, “The Turn of the Screw.”

“I beg your pardon?” Mrs. Bethany raised her eyebrows. Nobody in the room seemed to understand what I was getting at—except Balthazar, who was obviously biting his lip to keep from laughing.

“The Turn of the Screw. The Henry James novella about ghosts, at least maybe about ghosts.” I wasn’t going to start the old debate about whether or not the main character was insane. I’d always found ghosts really scary, but they were easier to face in fiction than Mrs. Bethany was in the flesh. “Ghosts are even more universal in folklore than vampires. And Henry James is a better writer than Bram Stoker.”

“When you are designing the class, Miss Olivier, you may begin with ghosts.” My teacher’s voice could have cut glass. I had to suppress a shiver as she stood over me, more stone-faced than any gargoyle. “Here, we will begin by studying vampires. We will learn how differently vampires have been perceived by different cultures over the ages, from the distant past until today. If you find it dull, take heart. We’ll get to ghosts soon enough even for you.”

After that, I knew to shut up and stay quiet.

In the hallway after class, tremulous with that strange weakness that always follows humiliation, I walked slowly through the throng of students. It seemed as if everyone was laughing with a friend except me. Raquel and I might have consoled each other, but she had already skulked away.

Then I heard someone say, “Another Henry James reader.”

I turned to see Balthazar, who had fallen into step at my side. Maybe he was there to offer support; maybe he was just trying to avoid Courtney. Either way, I was grateful to see a friendly face. “Well, I’ve read The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller. That’s about it.”

“Try Portrait of a Lady sometime. I think you would like that one.”

“Really? Why?” I assumed that Balthazar would say something about how good the book was, but he surprised me.

“It’s about a woman who wants to define herself, instead of letting other people define her.” He navigated easily through the crowd without ever taking his eyes from me. The only other guy who had ever looked at me so intently was Lucas. “I had a hunch that you might respond to that.”

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