On the last day before fall break, when the honey locust trees were turning a glorious golden-yellow and the humid Texas air carried the faintest whiff of crispness, Ophelia Monroe punched Tipton High School’s head cheerleader in the nose.
She hadn’t planned on punching her. She never planned these sorts of things. Two minutes before, she hadn’t been planning anything beyond enjoying the last twenty minutes of hurdle-leaping practice before the final bell. She’d been jogging alongside a new kid—Josie, a fellow junior with a cute pixie cut and a developmental disability that made it hard for her to talk. They’d jumped a few hurdles in companionable silence, panting quietly in the warm tar-scented air of the track while Ophelia mulled over what to wear to the homecoming dance.
That was when she heard it.
The head cheerleader, Emily, was practicing a routine with the rest of her squad on the sidelines. Emily paused to shoot a glance at Ophelia and Josie as they came around the corner of the track, then smirked that horrible, cruel smirk of hers and made a comment just loud enough for them to make out, but not, of course, loud enough for the coach to hear.
At Ophelia’s side, Josie went stiff, biting her lip as she registered the mockery aimed at her. She fumbled the hurdle they’d been about to jump, catching her ankle on it and tumbling hard to the ground. Blood welled up on her shin.
After that, things happened quick. Before Ophelia had registered her desire to punch Emily, she had already leapt two hurdles and a bleacher, and her knuckles were making a deeply satisfying crunching sound when they connected with Emily’s formerly perky nose. Unfortunately, Ophelia only had a few seconds to enjoy that satisfaction before the track coach’s shrill whistle pierced the air.
“Monroe!” shouted the coach, shoving a hurdle out of the way as she rushed to the scene. “What on God’s green earth do you think you’re doing?” Behind her, the other members of the junior-year track team craned their necks, trying to see what had happened without getting close enough to look like they were involved.
Ophelia folded her arms. “Putting a bully in her place.” She lifted her chin but kept her gaze on Emily. Emily, who’d been rising to her feet with murder in her eyes just moments before, rearranged her features into “innocent victim” mode with the swift grace of a professional actress. She even got her eyes to water. Unless that was actually from the pain, Ophelia thought hopefully.
“Coach Lopez,” Emily whimpered, her voice thick as she pressed her wrist to her barely bleeding nose. “Ophelia attacked me. Doesn’t this school have a zero-tolerance policy for violence?”
Two of the other nearby cheerleaders cooed in sympathy and ducked down to help their leader up. The rest of the girls and the two guys on the squad edged discreetly away, one of them even giving Ophelia a smile of solidarity as he went. Ophelia felt another small flash of satisfaction, glad to know she wasn’t the only one upset by the other girl’s cruelty.
The coach bent down to examine Emily’s nose, then stood back, rubbing her temples and shooting a look at Ophelia. “Twenty minutes,” she muttered. “School’s over for the week in twenty minutes. All you had to do was not punch anyone until practice was over and the final bell rang.”
“It’s not like I just go around randomly punching people all the time,” Ophelia protested. She only punched bullies. And never more than once a month or so. Usually.
The coach held up a finger, silencing her. “I did not ask for a comment from you.”
Emily smirked, the expression marred by blood between her teeth. The urge to punch her again tingled through Ophelia’s body, but before she could do more than twitch in the cheerleader’s direction, the coach laid a restraining hand on her shoulder.
“She was making fun of—” Ophelia started to protest, but the coach cut her off with a sharp gesture.
“I’m sure she was,” Coach Lopez said. “But that doesn’t excuse resorting to violence, and it doesn’t make a difference in what you know has to happen now.” She sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose as Ophelia’s heart sank. Her next words fell like a blow: “Get yourself to the principal’s office and see if you can talk your way out of a suspension.”
Emily’s smirk widened—at least, until Coach Lopez pivoted to stab a finger at her. “And you, get to the nurse to have that nose checked. If I hear rumors of you making trouble for any of my kids again, I will have a very serious chat with your coach about the characteristics expected from a school representative of your level.”
Ophelia grimaced. Emily deserved more official discipline than a mere warning, but at least she wasn’t getting away scot-free. All Ophelia could do was pray that the other girl slipped up and made one of her trademark cruel remarks within earshot of a responsible adult sometime soon. Then maybe she’d finally be held to account for her actions.
Ophelia turned her back and walked over to Josie, who was picking herself up and dabbing at her wounded shin with a tissue someone had given her.
“You okay?” Ophelia asked with a glance at the wound. It looked like a light skin abrasion with a contusion—a bruise—already forming. She’d likely be fine, but she should get some ice on it to minimize swelling and any muscle damage. Ophelia said as much, and one of the other members of the track team loped off toward the drinks cooler to gather some ice.
“Monroe!” shouted Coach Lopez from behind them. “She’s fine; I’ll bandage her up. You need to worry about yourself. Move it.”
Ophelia stood with a sigh and started the walk toward the school—a low, red brick building that slouched against the horizon a few blocks away. It usually looked a bit worn around the edges, but now, with the bright golden and red autumn leaves in the background, it managed an air of dignity. The town of Tipton had been founded a few decades ago and not much had been replaced or repaired since then; flaking paint and heat-warped siding were a common sight, as when the town wasn’t being baked by the merciless South Texas sun, it was being battered by a passing tornado. The locals did take pride in a few of the town’s buildings, though, and the high school was one of them—mostly by virtue of housing Tipton’s true obsession, the football team. As such, the school had the honor of having its roof redone when the shingles started peeling up and new mortar applied to the cracks between the bricks when a rare winter freeze made the foundation shift. Nothing could make the building pretty, but at least it was well-maintained.
Ophelia was one of the few town citizens who felt more invested in the nearby forest than in the school. A faint longing to go there tugged at her even now, and she sent a glance in the direction of the woods as she stepped onto the sidewalk. The forest was actually a designated state park, full of majestic bluffs and hidden rivers and even a small patch of desert at the far edge. She jogged its trails as often as she could, especially in autumn when she could enjoy the beauty of the changing leaves. If she got suspended, though, her dad would surely ground her to the house for the entirety of fall break—and that weeklong stretch would be about as long as autumn lasted around here. That alone would be reason enough to try to argue her way out of suspension.
Worse than that, though, was knowing the look of disappointment she’d see on her dad’s face. He never yelled at her, never even squinted in that trademark angry glare that her mom always used to use, but his disappointment would be just as bad. He’d been through so much in the last year—their whole family had—and she hated to let him down.
She pulled open the door to the school and stepped inside. A blast of frigid air-conditioning smacked her in the face, cooling the sweat that had been gathering on her brow. The principal’s office was just ahead. She stepped slowly in that direction, stalling for time, trying to think of a way to convince the principal to give her a lighter punishment. Beyond her dad’s disappointment and the likely grounding, a suspension would look bad on her record. It could affect her chances of getting into a good premed school next year. And that she could not allow to happen. It was on her to keep her mother’s legacy alive.
A flash of gold from outside caught her eye and pulled her from her thoughts. She paused at a bank of windows, squinting at the honey locust trees in the forest across the street. The leaves of one tree were shuddering, a few falling to the ground even though no breeze touched any of the other nearby trees. There was a weird sheen to some of the leaves, too, almost metallic, while the shape of them didn’t seem quite right. They almost looked more like large fish scales than natural leaves. What sort of tree was that? And why had she never noticed it before?
An odd feeling shivered somewhere deep in her chest. It felt like…recognition? Hope? Puzzled, she raised a hand and pressed her palm to the window, stepping closer to peer at the tree as she tried to figure out what she was feeling and why.
And then the scales moved, pulling apart as a giant eye blinked open between them.
Ophelia gasped sharply and pressed her whole self against the window to try to see better. The eye in the woods was enormous, basketball-sized, and gleamed as golden as the scales. Disbelief and shock warred as she tried to understand what she was looking at. In a flash, every fantasy book she’d ever read, every swords-and-sorcery video game she’d ever played, rushed into her mind to give her the answer: a dragon.
She was looking at a dragon.
The eye blinked closed and the scales shifted as the trees rustled. The dragon—surely it couldn’t be a dragon, dragons weren’t real, but then what the heck could it possibly be?—vanished. Ophelia was left pressed against the glass staring at a completely normal cluster of honey locust trees.
She realized she was trembling. She took a step back from the glass and shook herself, hoping it might somehow reset her brain and make what she’d just seen make sense. She peered hard through the window again, but all that was there were the trees and her own reflection—lean face, light brown skin inherited from her Latina mother, freckles on one cheek, gold-brown hair pulled into a messy ponytail. There was no dragon. No weirdness at all.
“Ophelia?” called a feminine voice from down the hall. Ophelia flinched, startled, and whirled around. The principal, Dr. Caden, was leaning out from the office door with one eyebrow coolly raised. “Coach Lopez just called to inform me you were on your way.”
Ophelia opened her mouth but since she had no idea what to say or how to describe what she thought she’d seen, nothing came out. She turned back to the window again, at a loss.
Something else was moving in the trees now. No scales, though, and no giant eye—just a boy. He was standing close to where the—whatever she’d seen—had just been. Maybe there was a chance he’d seen it too. Ophelia had just shifted to take a step toward the door when the boy turned his head and she got a better look at him.
She paused. He wasn’t a student, even though he looked only a year or so older than her. In fact, she didn’t think he was a local, because he didn’t look familiar at all. And in a town as small as Tipton, that was deeply suspicious. She took stock of him quickly. He wore unusual clothing, something almost like matte chainmail shaped into a form-fitting suit of armor. It made him look like some sort of medieval SWAT team member. An emerald green hood was pulled up over his head. He was taller than her—not unusual, since Ophelia was only five-foot-two—but he looked as if he had at least a good foot on her in height, if not more. He was also drop-dead gorgeous. Above the carved cheekbones of a supermodel, his eyes shone a light brown with burnished copper undertones that reminded her of a fox. She could only see a little of his hair thanks to the hood, but could tell that it was also brown and attractively unkempt, curling in gentle waves over his forehead. He was staring back and forth between the school and the forest with quick, small movements that spoke of a predator’s precision. And his ears…
No, it must be an optical illusion, because of the shadows from his hood. His ears couldn’t possibly be pointed like some sort of elf or fairy from one of her books.
“Ophelia?” called the principal again, but Ophelia ignored her, too focused on trying to figure out what was going on.
A “dragon,” a strange boy loitering just off the school’s property—this had to be the setup for some sort of prank. Maybe by a group of Tipton seniors, who had been known to haze incoming freshmen, or maybe by the school’s homecoming game opponents. Ophelia tried to remember what the other team’s mascot was. She thought it was something like a pirate or a Viking, but maybe she was misremembering and it was actually a dragon. But even as she tried to force the situation into a logical perspective, there was a part of her that didn’t want to believe that it was a prank. That recognition inside her, that sharp hope…she wanted it to mean something real even though she knew it had to be impossible.
She pivoted back to the principal. “Tía Melissa!” she said, stabbing a finger at the window and accidentally dropping Dr. Caden’s formal title for the familial one she used to use for her mother’s friend. “There’s, uh… a lurker out there. He’s watching the school, probably setting up some kind of prank. I’m gonna see what he’s up to!” She darted toward the door, but Dr. Caden’s sharp call stopped her.
“And what are you going to do when you get there? Punch him, too?”
Ophelia stopped, hunching her shoulders and shooting a pleading look over her shoulder at the principal. “No…but I saw—”
Dr. Caden leaned further out of the office to peer out the window. “There’s no one out there now, Ophelia, and if there was, he’s probably just here to pick up a family member after class. And in any case, if he was across the street, he was on nature reserve property and not school property, which means he has every right to ‘lurk’ as long as he’s not harassing anyone or trying to film students or something.”
Ophelia looked back to the window. The boy had indeed vanished. So had that odd feeling in her chest, that strange sense of recognition and expectation that had stirred in her when she thought she’d seen a dragon.
She still felt like she needed to go out there—look for tracks, search for some sort of proof. She took a helpless step closer to the front door before Dr. Caden cleared her throat sharply, reining her back. Ophelia’s shoulders drooped and she turned around. Dr. Caden swept a hand at her office, her jaw set in hard lines as she waited.
Ophelia gave up—for now, anyway—and went to face her reckoning.
Dr. Caden’s office was as neat as it had always been. The walls were hung with diplomas and pictures, several of which featured her with Ophelia’s mother. The two women had been college roommates and best of friends ever afterward. Not that their close relationship would make much of a difference now. It was clear from the look in Dr. Caden’s eyes: Ophelia was doomed.
Ophelia slouched down into one of the flower-patterned chairs before the desk. Dr. Caden sat and lifted an elegantly manicured hand to flip open the thick file on her desk. Ophelia’s student record. The motion was just for show; Dr. Caden knew Ophelia’s record by heart, as she was the one always trying to get Ophelia to stop adding more citations to it.
Dr. Caden turned a page and tapped a fingernail on a line of text. “Last semester,” she started, “you hijacked the student broadcast channel to publicly accuse the prom committee of embezzling decoration funds.”
“That was proven true later!” Ophelia protested.
“And three weeks before that, you engineered a walkout to protest, and I quote, ‘the school’s de-prioritizing of disabled student accommodations.’”
“That was perfectly legit,” Ophelia replied stubbornly. “And also true. The school board dragged their feet for months on installing a new ramp after the old one was torn down. You were as frustrated as I was, remember?”
“Yes, but I didn’t engineer a walkout that turned into a riot.”
“I couldn’t help it if some randos got violent!”
“If I recall, you were one of those violent ‘randos’. You shoved the quarterback when he refused to join the walkout and started shouting that the ramp funds should be redirected to buy new team jerseys instead. That was how the riot started.”
Ophelia pursed her lips. “He’s twice my size. Short of hitting him with a tire iron—which I didn’t, even if I was tempted—nothing I did to him was going to leave a dent. Shoving someone doesn’t count as inciting a riot when he barely even stumbled from it. He’s an idiot anyway.”
“And violence is fine as long as it’s perpetrated against idiots?”
Ophelia slouched a little deeper into her chair. She had no quick comeback for that one.
Dr. Caden flipped the folder shut with a sigh. “Ophelia, you know I admire your spirit. You are one of the most promising kids I’ve ever known. Your heart is good; your desire to help others goes bone-deep. But you have a terrible tendency to leap into action without thinking. You could do a lot more good if you would take the time to think your actions through. As things stand, I really don’t know how you’re going to get out of this one without a suspension.”
Ophelia’s heart twisted. She swallowed. “Is there—is there any other way? I could do community service, or…something. If I have a suspension on my record I might not be able to get into Mom’s school next year.” Her throat thickened and she had to stop talking.
It had been eleven months since her mom died of a quick-moving cancer. On her deathbed, she’d told Ophelia to go and live a life as full of meaning as hers had been. Ophelia needed to honor that. So she was going to go to the best premed school in the state—her mother’s alma mater—to become a paramedic just like her.
Dr. Caden folded her hands and narrowed her eyes in consideration. “That girl you punched,” she said slowly, “she’s already been in some hot water this year herself. There have been whispers that she was involved in a hazing scheme that got a freshman’s arm broken, but I haven’t been able to get any proof. Coach Lopez said the fight today started because you heard Emily mocking one of our disabled students. If you’re willing to go on the record and share what she said, I might be able to take some disciplinary action with her.”
“Yes!” Ophelia said eagerly, jumping at the chance. “I’ll do it!”
“You’re still getting detention at the very least,” Dr. Caden warned.
Ophelia waved that off. Detention was just a chance to catch up on homework and her reading. It would eat into her jogging time a bit, but compared to suspension, that was nothing.
Dr. Caden uncapped a pen and scribbled a note. “Okay. If I remember correctly, the yearbook committee—which is down to just Lane now, I think—is working late today to try to finish some work before break, and she’s begged me to send any help I can. You may serve today’s detention there. You were in yearbook last spring, weren’t you?”
“Good. So you’ll help her finish her work today, and then you’ll serve another full week of detention after the break.” She handed a pink slip of paper with those details to Ophelia just as the final bell rang. Dr. Caden waited for the sound to die away and then flapped a hand at Ophelia. “Get out. And try to last at least a month before I have to see you in here again. It would be nice if we could catch up at family barbecues, rather than while discussing disciplinary measures in my office.”
“Yes, Dr. Caden,” Ophelia said, gratefully grabbing the paper and making her way back out into the hall. She let out a sigh of relief as she wove around the herds of students rushing for the exits. That had gone much better than it could’ve, though her dad would still be disappointed to learn she’d landed in detention. Speaking of which, she needed to call him—or maybe Luis, her older brother—to let them know she’d need to be picked up late. She paused to dig in her pocket, turning her phone back on now that the phone-use restrictions of the school day were over. While she waited for it to load, she glanced up. She was standing in front of the same bank of windows again, looking out at the honey locusts. She squinted, searching for any hint of the boy or the “dragon” again, but the only unusual thing she could see was a broken-off tree trunk.
She paused, looking at the trunk more closely. The stump was jagged, as if it had been snapped by a hurricane, and the top of the tree still had bright-yellow leaves even though it was lying on the ground. It couldn’t have been broken for very long if the leaves still had their color. She tried to recall if it had been broken when she was looking out the window earlier, but couldn’t remember. Something fluttered in her chest: a ghost of that painful hope from earlier. She scolded herself for it—it was foolish to think what she thought she’d seen could be anything but a prank—but just in case, she lifted her phone and snapped a quick picture of the stump. She might have to serve her detention now, but she decided that the second it was over, she was going into the woods to investigate what was going on. If it was a prank or a hazing scheme, she could catch its perpetrators in the act, and maybe give Dr. Caden more ammunition to use against some bullies. And if it wasn’t…well, she’d have to figure that out when the time came.
Ophelia turned away from the window and headed to the yearbook classroom to serve her detention. Soon, she would figure out what she’d really seen in the woods.
And whether there was any possibility it might truly be something extraordinary.