Chapter 1:

Dear Lila Simmons,

Congratulations on your select admission into Faith Heights Academy...

How could a piece of paper lie so flaccidly, yet so dauntingly? It folded together of its own free will, as if sparing me the shadows of its sycophantic content, gold and black. There was no use ignoring it, though. It was a done deal- a sealing of my fate from the moment I broke the letter's damned seal.

There was no explanation. And there was no backing out.

My parents read through the letter about a thousand times more than I could stand to. I suspected they also wanted the papers framed. The two of them rang everyone in the phone book before I'd even been made aware of the shining envelope's presence. And it wasn't like I didn't understand what a monumentally big deal this all was. The letter before me claimed my future. It signed away my fate to a contract of academics and bright lights and finesse that I doubted I'd find in any other secondary institute.

With my mother's giddy assistance, it only took us only a day to pack the essentials. The letter stated that I was to relocate to the academy as soon as possible upon receiving their confirmation. Faith Heights had offered me one day to say goodbye to my friends, although that was probably one of the few perks to have come out of the acceptance so far; I didn't have time to drag out the farewells, or dwell on how much I'd miss them.

Our old, rusted Ford was crammed with my belongings, along with enough frozen meals and snack packs to feed the school's body. My parents, steaming thermoses clutched in their hands like holy grails, ushered me towards the backseat. But I couldn't follow. Not yet.

I forced my gaze off the packed car, the letter in my hand, and turned back to the line of slouching bodies crammed onto our small grass yard. I ran up to each of my four friends – having appeared on my lawn to see me off- and gripped them in quick embraces.

"Don't get into too much trouble without us." Crystal teased, brushing a long strand of chestnut hair off her cheek.

From beside her, Tom nudged me before pulling me into a second hug. My glasses clunked against my nose as I was crushed into his chest. My head barely reached his lanky shoulders- a fact we'd both been mocked for on numerous occasions.

"Yeah, because Lila's always been the loose cannon of the group." Tom winked. "Who knows what she'll do to the school without us there to reign her back?"

Alice giggled, the light laugh almost akin to the morning birds sounding from the roof. "She might start cussing." Her hazel eyes widened in mock horror. "Or reading during class."

I raised an eyebrow, smiling in spite of the rigid nerves tensing my muscles. "You never know. This could be my chance to get in touch with my inner anarchist."

My parents honked from behind us. I let out a long breath, before reaching for each of my friends one final time. Nathan had been oddly quiet, subdued- but he was most likely still half asleep. Tufts of tousled black hair stood up from his scalp, like shoots growing towards the climbing sun. Each of my dishevelled friends stood in their pyjamas, eyes still bleary with sleep. The drive to Faith Heights would take at least six hours, and I wanted to make it onto the freeway before peak hour. I was being delegated to the backseat for the start of the journey, but once we began passing the tourist attractions, I'd no doubt be driving while Mum whipped her polaroid out and Dad tried to navigate with the usual faded, coffee-stained maps. I had only received my driver's licence a few weeks ago after turning seventeen, but since then, I'd been voted as the designated chauffeur on our family outings, a position I was more than happy to fill.

I waved through the back window as I buckled in, and we reversed out onto the road. The five of us had been a stable team for years, through awkward puberty spurts to nervous breakdowns during exams. Tom was the lanky, self-proclaimed athlete of the group- despite spending most of his time indoors playing video games, eating the potato chips Crystal always managed to pilfer from her work. Still, he was probably the only reason any of us ever saw sunlight. Alice, bearing a craze of bright blonde curls around her tiny frame, always seemed to have enough positivity shining out of her ass to power a line of solar panels. Crystal had been my closest friend since primary school, and in the decade I'd known her, I'd only seen her out of baggy singlets and patchy yoga pants a handful of times outside of school. She folded her arms as she began disappearing from view, but I knew her grumbling expression was a front I'd miss.

Nathan was the closest thing to a dark horse our group had to offer. In the time we'd known him, we'd seen his goth phase, punk rock phase, and a short stint as a backwards-cap-wearing fusion of Will Smith and Fonzie. Two short months after we'd talked him out of his cap, our school's teachers confronted him with a harsh reality: if he was unable to improve his grades, he'd have to repeat the year. Within a week, as if it were as simple as reciting the alphabet, Nathan transformed his rocky D- grades to logic-defying A+ results. We soon found out our enigmatic friend was a closeted genius. Yet, with his career ambitions not seeing past working part-time in his dad's car dealership, he was content with a life of indifferent C's.

My own status in the group was something a little more tricky to diagnose. I was sure I had just as much of an irreplaceable attribute or two, but looking back at my friends, I could only think of myself as some sort of sarcastically-inclined glue. That was part of the reason why my acceptance into Faith Heights was so difficult to accept; statistically, it made no sense. My schooling transcripts from the last year had been patchy at best, and I was hardly the sporty or charismatic type. I had no idea what had made my application stand out amongst the thousands of others- but I supposed I'd find out once I arrived.

I was to board at Faith Heights Academy for the next two years. Having summer lodging meant I could take additional first-year university classes if my grades were adequate, but it also meant that visits back home would be that much more limited. My friends had hugged me with the finality of a grave; it was like they thought they'd never see me again. And I'd hugged them back just as severely.

I spent the first hour and a half of the drive alternating between napping and reading through the orientation package I'd received along with the letter. It didn't take much longer for Mum to relinquish her driver's seat in favour of sightseeing. The current scenery was nothing we couldn't appreciate back home, but the drive would take us along the coast, allowing plenty of chances for tourism ploys. I was more than happy to take over the wheel; the driver always chose the music, meaning I could remove the Cyndi Lauper CD that had been playing on a loop for the past five days.

As we edged closer to the coast, Mum began squealing at quirks in the landscape, like a child heading to Disneyworld. That was the way it had always been with my mother, the illustriously caffeinated Ellie Simmons. As a child, she'd entered me and my older sister in cross-state beauty pageants, until she realised that I was more interested in listening to the nightly news than choreographing a dance routine to the latest Alicia Keys song. As I'd grown up, we'd gradually switched roles. I made our lunches every morning, while Mum arted around in our basement in paint-splotched overalls, before going to work at her café in town. Every month she was hanging up new paintings around her shop, renovating or reorganising the seating arrangements. It was a favourite pastime of ours to sit at the front bench of the café after I finished school, and watch the customers' reactions to her quirky, abstract and sometimes crude artwork.

Dad worked as a mechanic at the garage a couple streets over from her café. They'd met one morning over a disagreement of mishandled change for a large latte, and my mother had offered to make it up to him with a coffee date every morning for the next week, provided he cleaned his hands before coming in next time.

They'd been married in the pavilion outside the café eight months later, and my sister and I had followed shortly. Mum had always joked that I'd exited the womb with a case of Benjamin Button's disease; I had the youthful impulsivity of a senile accountant, and the eyesight of a collective retirement village.

Which made my admission into the academy all the more baffling. I had my strengths, but they were nothing that a school like Faith Heights would be interested in. I couldn't understand how I'd been accepted, but then again, I struggled to comprehend how valid their methods of entry were.

There was never a chance of parents enrolling their child through conventional means; the school was filled what seemed like centuries in advance, and vacancies always went to legacies first. There were only a handful of scholarships offered each year, students coming from all over the country, - sometimes internationally - to study at the institute. I applied annually, of course, as everyone did, but it was like buying a chocolate bar in the hope of finding a golden ticket. It was less likely than winning the lottery. No one ever expected to actually be accepted. I couldn't even really be certain as to how credible their scholarship applications were. Aside from a suspiciously short academic test submitted online, the application had posed the strangest questions, seemingly irrelevant to any conceivable form of education.

I could remember at least four of the questions presented:
1. Describe your dream holiday location, in any country, during any time period.
2. Write a short paragraph detailing your relationship with your immediate family.
3. Do you possess any phobias? If so, which?
4. Do you prefer to rely on your intellect, or intuition?

Christ, they'd even asked for my favourite colour. As if that had any bearing whatsoever on my academic value. I would have dismissed it as a hoax application- if my friends hadn't also completed it with confusion. There didn't seem to be any set answers, no way to flip the questions to make you seem uniquely esteemed or deserving. It was just as much guesswork as it was based on an insane amount of instinct.

It had been implied in televised interviewswith Faith Heights' professors that scholarship recipients were primarily chosen based on the essay portion of the application. Every year, it was thesame criteria: Write an essay, of creative or reflective format, based on your own past experiences, and how theyhave influenced you. It was frustratingly vague, and I would have much preferred to complete a calculus test than a creative piece, but there was no point dwelling on it now.

Or ever again.