The Art of Love Letters

To M.B. Thanks for the memories.

Part I. Queen Bee

1. September 20th

"There she is..." murmured April, soft voice in awe, almost inaudible.

An answering glimmer of a smirk appeared on her friend's face as a girl with dark red hair, wind swept and attractively mussed, walked by them without a second glance. "And there she goes," Nancy said, not without some fear and respect. "Ah, Etchel. She's like...famous at Brooks Academy. Cross her once, and you might live to tell the tale. Cross her twice—well, let's hope they have enough of your body to bring you home from school in."

April smirked herself, then showed confusion. "Where's she heading to?"

Slinging a casual arm around her friend's shoulder, Nancy whispered conspiratorially, "Isn't she going to AP English?" She shook her head in commiseration. "Poor girl."

"Yeah," April said. "The new teacher is, like, really harsh, I heard."

Nancy smirked again, shaking her head. "It's not the teacher; you don't know the half of it. A certain person who's willing to cross even Etchel is in that class, making everybody's lives miserable."

"You don't mean—"

Nancy's dark hair was tied back in a ponytail, and it swished as she nodded her head. "None other."

"Oooh..." April moaned. "Poor Etchel."

Her friend checked her watch, grimacing. "Speaking of which, shouldn't we be getting to biology just about now?"

April slung her book bag, shifting the weight. "Man, I hate Mondays."

Miranda Etchel didn't care much for Mondays either. She had no problems with mornings or starting the week, but it just so happened that Mondays were when she had a double-block of AP English scheduled first thing at nine. Not coincidentally, the readings for the material they were reading—this week, James' The Portrait of a Lady—was due, and they were expected, in the words of the eleventh grade English teacher, Miss Clellan, to "discuss with a modicum of intelligence."

Honestly, Miranda was fine with literature analysis. She, unlike say, Nikki, two rows over and one seat back, could distinguish between a metaphor and literalness and could read without having to consult a dictionary every three sentences. But with an undying passion usually reserved for other people, she detested writing.

While this seemed strange for a student in the most demanding English class for the eleventh grade, nevertheless, Miranda had somehow managed to qualify for AP level English, without the slightest clue how to conjugate a verb to pluperfect tense, or diagram a sentence, or spell discombobulated without relying on spell-checker.

To be fair, those were mere mechanical problems and perhaps she could still be taught if someone would be bothered to take the time out of their day to assist with remedial lessons, were it not for one other thing that masked this one (admittedly large) problem. Miranda's observations were such a step above the average student's (never mind that they had some fundamental immaturity) that most of the uninspired nitwits at Brooks, weary of years of teaching, let her go by with nary a correction to her typo-laden essays full of grammatical blunders a child would wince at.

However this eleventh grade English teacher, Miss Clellan, was young and full of ideals, and much to Miranda's horror, stringent on matters regarding the mechanics of writing. She usually had some points docked for her constant spelling and grammatical errors, but two whole letter grades was a bit ridiculous, even for a fresh out-of-teaching-college teacher. The hapless girl suffered a hit in her grades, her normally high B's and low A's dipping into C's and D's.

Her parents would not be pleased when she came home this semester. Or at least Mom would. Dad and his opinion could go sod himself.

Despite this staggering tower of reasons to despise the class, Mondays, and the whole shebang, there was another, and this was the greatest by far. It turned her mere distaste into a grand passionate hatred.

"Miranda, would you care to join us?"

The girl stirred from her reverie, her cheeks flaming. "Er, sorry, Miss Clellan. Come again?"

The school marm, in spite of her youth, had the stiffest posture she had seen out of all her teachers at Brooks Academy. And Miranda had been here since preschool. Miss Clellan eyed the nervous girl with a hawk-eye blue stare, and held it for several long moments. She looked up, daringly held the gaze, inwardly wondering who spat in her cornflakes this time. But the teacher, the first to turn away, returned to her lecture on the failure of Isabel Archer's marriage.

A note landed on her desk, and Miranda, after a surreptitious glance at the peeved teacher, opened it.

We're on page _. On why Isabel's marriage to Osmond failed.

Miranda snuck a glance in the direction the note had came from. A freckled brunette, her hair in braids, winked back at her, and she gave her a returning smug grin in thanks.

"Any opinions on the concluding decision of The Portrait of a Lady?" asked Miss Clellan. She was holding up a worn Oxford edition of the book in hands with a lingering tan from the summer, long legs neatly crossed. She lifted a dark brow, and focused that laser-intense gaze two rows over and one seat back. "Since you were so eager to help out our daydreamer today, Nikki, would you like to offer an opinion?"

Her eyes were sharper than Miranda thought, and she made note of it. Clellan was fairly young. The earlier giggles subsided, and the class fell silent. Nikki's nose wrinkled in consternation, and her fingers twitched against her desktop. "Um, no, ma'am."

"Excuse me?" Clellan stood up, towering over her student. Nikki winced and swallowed. Though a part of Miranda's crowd, she was obviously not made of the same stuff.

"I'm sorry," Nikki admitted, "I haven't gotten that far in the reading."

Tthe woman rubbed the bridge of her nose in an expression of long-suffering. "Very well. Two demerits, Nikki. Do try to keep up with us next time."

Audible grumbling was heard from Nikki's direction, but with another sharp glance, it died away.

One good turn deserves another, albeit a little late, Miranda thought. Hurriedly, she raised her hand to distract the teacher, and Clellan called on her. "I was disappointed with the conclusion of Portrait, Miss Clellan."

The teacher seemed a little less put upon and said, "Do continue."

Miranda recalled the disgust she found welling up when she completed the novel yesterday evening, her voice derisive. "I remember reading on the blurb that the concluding decision that Isabel would make claimed to be as 'one of the most moving in modern fiction.' Well, I was not moved. I was rather disgusted by the cowardice she displayed, and the degeneration of her character by the end of the novel. She had the option of freedom from Osmond, and she was simply too afraid, or had become too cowardly, to take it."

Miss Clellan's brow furrowed and there was a silence that fell over the classroom. "That's an interesting conclusion to draw. Any others?"

In the corner, a long willowy arm was raised. "Yes?" said Clellan.

Miranda's narrowed when she realized just who had volunteered their opinion, her hackles raised. Oh great, here we go again.

"For someone who was merely reading and not digesting, that's precisely the uninformed opinion that an ignoramus would come up with." The voice was dry and toneless, and Miranda felt herself growing annoyed. "Isabel could have run off with Casper Goodwood, but that action in of itself would constitute cowardice, for would not Isabel be ducking the responsibility of her own actions in doing so?" Miranda drew in a sharp breath, her throat catching.

"She chose to marry Osmond, chose that life, even knowing and seeing the hints that he was just using her. That takes a great deal of courage, not cowardice, to see things through to the end. Any fool who has really lived would know this."

Attempting to control her temper and turning to face the blonde who regarded her coolly with disdain, she replied coldly, "Did you miss the entire first half of the book, or did you cheat with Cliff Notes?" Not bothering to wait for an answer, she pressed on. "Do you remember the remarkable creature that Isabel was, and what that horrible marriage did to her?"


Carole sat up and looked at her straight in the eye, and Miranda shuffled uneasily under that gray stare. It certainly beat out Miss Clellan's hawk-eyed gaze in sheer intensity. Drily remarking, "I have read the entirety of Portrait twice, at least not counting rereads, paying ample attention to integral passages, and probably ones you skipped over out of boredom." Seeing Miranda's twitch and flush, she pressed on. "Enough to get the point at least. "

Miranda snapped, "What's so hard about backing out of a bad decision?"

Carole regarded her coolly. "Sometimes change is necessary in life. You either adapt or die; we don't stay unsullied forever. It doesn't seem like you've ever learned this. Spoiled much?" Never once did Carole's voice change from coldly derisive, spoken in carefully modulated tones. "People are allowed to make mistakes; not all of can be perfect, Miss Etchel."

"I know that, MissSinclair."Despite knowing it was probably an exercise in futility, but unable to help herself, Miranda continued. "What of Isabel's own happiness? And what kind of idiot would stick around in a bad situation, knowing she was unhappy? There is such a thing as being too stuck in your ways, to the point of mule-headedness."

"Tell me, Miss Etchel, do you think Isabel would ever have been happy with Casper Goodwood?" Struck with the point, frozen, like an impaled butterfly, Carole only looked down her long nose at Miranda, and she felt her cheeks flame again. "You should have figured at least that much after how many times Isabel rejected him. And you've completely forgotten about Isabel's responsibilities to Pansy."

"What about her?" Miranda sneered, then froze. She realized she really had been made a fool of. Or had she made a fool out of herself?

"That's enough out of both of you!" Miss Clellan had finally succeeded in breaking in, the rest of the classroom having fallen into a hushed silence since the fight broke out. Nikki was giving Miranda a worried look, which she had been too angry to notice. The girl was flushed, trembling, while Carole seemed merely bored by the entire spectacle and had seated herself again, and going back to stare out the window, as she was doing prior to when Miranda had raised her hand.

"We can't be letting this happen every time we have a discussion in this class." Miss Clellan, unlike the cool-as-a-cucumber persona she took in her classes, was easily flustered outside of it. Now, however, she was beside herself, openly scowling at the both of them, her dark hair mussed from her pulling on it.

"Calm down," was all Carole would say.

"I just volunteered my opinion," Miranda complained, her voice taking on a bit of a whine. "Why is she allowed to humiliate me every single time?"

"'Opinions divorced from knowledge are ugly things,'" Carole quoted. Miranda looked confused, while Miss Clellan let out a weary sigh.

"Carole, I know you frequently disagree with Miranda, but couldn't you be a little less acerbic when you disagree?"

The girl shrugged, sending a ripple through long blonde hair at the movement. "I apologize, but I cannot tolerate vociferous, ignorant fools misinforming the entire class." She gave Miranda a contemptuous look, before glancing at Miss Clellan out of the corner of her eye. "If you really want to create a setting for discussion in your classroom, I suggest you call on other people besides those who are willing." Pale lips thinned. "It reflects on your teaching skills that more people aren't enthused about the material." A shrug. "But the education system here is already abysmal as a whole."

"Excuse me?" cried Miss Clellan. Miranda just glared at her.

Carole gave them both a disgusted glance. In that same dismissive, quiet voice, she stated, "You've wasted enough of my time." With that, she walked out, the door shutting in the same, almost-silent manner.

The remaining student and teacher exchanged looks, both deeply irritated. Miss Clellan muttered darkly, "That girl is impossible."

"You're telling me?" Miranda grumbled.

All in all, it was a typical Monday for AP English class.

Sandra watched, sympathetic and slightly amused, as her roommate paced the length of the tiny dorm, the cramped space making the action appear comical. "I can't stand that—that—!" Miranda was back in her dorm, ranting at her roommate who was reviewing her notes from physics, curled up with on her bed with an veritable explosion of stuffed animals.

"Vixen?" Sandra helpfully supplied.

"Vixen?" asked Miranda and they both started laughing. "Where did you come up with such an antiquated term?" she asked between giggles.

Sandra, pushing up her glasses, replied, "It's a medieval term for either a female fox or a malicious, shrewish woman, frequently quarrelsome. I find it rather fitting."

"Ah, I see," Miranda shook her head, the edge taken off her temper. Yet the pain lingered. Her voice took on a familiar mocking quality. "'Miss Etchel,' she says in that oh-so-polite language she uses, while she gouges your words in the neck. Who does Carole think she is?"

Sandra flipped a page of her notebook. "Someone a heck of a lot smarter than you."

"Gee, some friend you are."

The girl on the bed merely stared at Miranda, until the other girl had turned away, her cheeks red.

"Oh, shut up."

Sandra pushed aside a teddy bear, straightening up. "But the sad fact of the matter is that Carole didn't get into Brooks on a full scholarship for being an idiot."

Miranda's shoulders slumped and she let out a long breath, "What then? Carole herself rubs that in my face enough."

"Face it, it's probably one of the inescapable facts of your life. Nikki will always be behind in her classes and need your help catching up, Clellan's posture will always be ramrod straight, and Carole will always be able to beat your argument into the ground."

"Are you telling me I should just meekly acquiesce to whatever hand fate doles out to me?" Miranda sat down on her unmade bed with a huff.

"Never said that," Sandra's braces flashed at her as she grinned at her from across the expanse of the room. "Accepting what you can't change and rolling over like a whipped dog at the slightest bit of pain are two entirely different things."

Miranda blew her bangs out of her eyes, but they flopped right back in place. "Don't get it. Does fighting with Carole fall into the former or latter category?"

The other girl leaned across the space between the beds, and patted her hand comfortingly. "Don't worry, you're hardly a slouch in the brains department yourself. But not everyone can be a girl genius. Sandra's forehead crinkled. "Not to mention as the headmistress' very own protege, Candace can't even seem to dig up any dirt on her."

"Don't you think I tried that already after the first time she pulled this stunt in English?" Miranda sank back on her bed, an irritated growl wrenched out of her. "Topic shift. This is making me depressed. Got a date for the end-of-year dance?"

Sandra blinked owlishly from behind her spectacles. "Miranda, that's over seven months away!"

"You said to focus on what I can do about the future, right?" She rolled over onto her stomach, long hair spread out on the bed. "Hope I meet someone interesting," her eyes were staring dreamily up at the ceiling.

The other girl snorted. "Hoping to break your sixteen year dateless streak? I wonder why the popular Miss Etchel can't even get a date."

Sandra, as Miranda's roommate, was one of the few people who wasn't intimidated by her fearsome reputation, since she knew her so well. Luckily for Sandra, Miranda could take a joke, and they were accustomed to each other's ribbing. Miranda pointed out while laughing, "Yes, Sandra, duly noted that you're keeping count of the months until then." Sandra hid her face behind the mountain of pillows by the headboard. "Speaking of which, your boyfriend is where?"

"I, unlike you, care little for such things," Sandra muttered unconvincingly.

"Wonder who Headmistress Carr's precious protege is going with..."

"Who, Carole?" asked Sandra. "As much as I'd like to see her get humiliated like everybody else—" Miranda shot her an incredulous stare, "don't stare at me like that, Miranda, you're hardly Carole's only victim—said ice woman probably has no sexual inclination whatsoever." Sandra tapped her fingers together thoughtfully, "Hey, there's a thought."

"What is it?"

"Oh, nothing. Just wishing that Carole would marry someone just like her—"

"—and that I wish upon her children like her," Miranda finished, completing the paraphrased quote.

The dorm phone rang, and Miranda leapt off her bed to get it. "Hello?"

"Afternoon, Miranda, how were classes today?" Miranda smiled, relaxing her guard.

"Hold on," she said, and covered the receiver. "Sandra, it's my mom. Could I have some privacy?"

"Right," sighed Sandra getting up, dusting off her green plaid skirt. She picked up a stack of note cards and her physics notebook. "I can take a hint."

Miranda watched her leave, and turned back to the phone. "Hey, Mom. Classes were fine," she lied. She didn't want to get into her D+ on her A Midsummer's Night Dream paper in AP English. "How's you?"

"Oh, everything's swimming," her mom said breezily. "Don't you worry. Gertrude was helping me learn how to make filet mignon." Gertrude was the Etchels' gourmet chef.

Miranda's lips twitched. "How badly did you ruin it?"

Her mother scolded her, "Miranda, I don't ruin everything I cook."

"Mom..." sighed Miranda, "you know you can tell me anything."

A brief silence settled in, and Miranda counted the seconds off on the nearby alarm clock, its red numbers glaring at her. After seven seconds, there was a reluctant sigh. "It was borderline well-done, burnt. Mushrooms were actually pretty good that way."

She could almost imagine her mom wringing her hands, while Gertrude was scouring the burnt pan. Miranda snickered.

"Not funny," her mother replied grumpily.

"Well, all right," she relented.

"Listen, Miranda, I did call for a reason."

"What for?" She never saw it coming.

A deep breath. "Some bad news. Your father was supposed to take you for Thanksgiving break, as I'm going to be on a business trip. But I'm afraid he's going to be busy that weekend." Miranda felt the bottom of her stomach fall out, and she felt a dull stab of bitterness chill her.

"Busy what?" she growled angrily. "Working hard, I imagine." When her mother made a painful gulp, she immediately regretted the words.

"I don't know, honey," she said, tears in her voice. "I don't know."

Miranda bit her lip, choosing her words carefully this time. "Where am I supposed to go? Stay at Brooks over break?"

"I...I checked with Headmistress Carr," was the hesitant reply. "She says it's fine—her protege stays over breaks too." Miranda blanched and her face screwed up in revulsion.

"Great," she hissed. She slammed the phone back on its hook. Miranda pushed open the curtains, looking out at the green leaves outside, which were starting to turn. She clenched her fists on the window sill, angry at her father, Headmistress Carr for giving permission, and a special amount of hate for that brat Carole Sinclair. The sun was making its slow descent into the horizon, and she looked at it with squinted eyes.

Miranda didn't get to see her father often, and even if their relationship was antagonistic, she still...she shook her hair out of her eyes. No use dwelling.

Well, first chapter of the edited version. I really don't know...I'm really torn about posting the new version, as the the old version had some fans. But I just couldn't take looking at the way it was anymore. The first chapter doesn't deviate all that much from the original, but I basically extended this to encompass a full school year, which means...there's at least an additional twenty thousand words added, as well as comprehensive rewrite. I'm really vacillating here. Any suggestions?