Prologue

Everyone has a secret. The depth and darkness of that inner truth can be the precursor that determines ones lifeline or, perhaps, eventually, personality. To err is human, so I'm told. But my mistakes and regrets were buried so deep, darkened my soul so black, that they were no longer secrets, but bars on a prison I trapped myself in, I guess. And if I opened that door, if I let them out, there was a strong chance that those who love me might never look at me the same. I couldn't live with that; I was the treasure in everyone’s life—the little girl who was born still, without hope of ever taking a breath. To show them what I truly was would be to destroy them.

They say that death blessed me with skin pale as the moon, soft as a rose petal, and lips coloured with blood. The day I was born, my parents held my tiny, dead body for a last goodbye, but all the tears in the world couldn't restore life. Until they did.

Mum always said my father’s love saved me—that as his hands touched my breathless form, I started coughing, which became crying and, finally, blue skin turned pink, renewing the room with hope. His large hands laid open, cradling this screaming child like a curious new stone and a breath passed before they could move, before they could dare to believe I was alive.

My mother named me for my grandmother, Amara, which means “everlasting.” But I no longer wear that name with pride; she was a woman of beauty and kindness, something I could not liken to. Not anymore.

How could that miracle, that child they proclaimed to be the “blossom of life,” have become something so dark, so tainted, that the wish they had for her to breathe would one day become the mistake they regretted?

I had ended life and, in that, was not worthy of mine any longer.

Chapter One

“Ara-Rose, hurry up. You’re going to be late.”

“Sure, Vic—uh, Mom,” I called down to the woman at the base of the stairs. “Just finishing my hair.”

“Your hair’s perfect,” she called back. I rolled my eyes, unwinding the long braid, then scooped the dark waves into a ponytail, pulling the elastic band out again after a few seconds to fluff it around my face. It was Murphy’s Law—to be starting a new school, in a new country, on a bad hair day.

With a deep huff at my reflection, I stood back; the girl in the mirror looked as miserable as my soul felt. Even the smile she’d practiced so many times just looked forced—overly polite. But it was the best we could do. On the bright side, I was lucky to have stayed so thin over the months. Even with all the emotions I’d been eating, my yellow dress still looked nice on me. Maybe too fem for school. Maybe not. I had no way of knowing what the kids over here wore or even if long hair was fashionable. For all I knew, I could be heading into a one-way popularity suicide jump. And I think, in truth, that’s why I wore this dress. I kinda wanted to just blend in—stay away from everyone. But being cast as a frigid dork on day one served my purpose too.

I turned away from the mirror, stuffed a summer cardigan in my bag and readied myself by the bedroom door.

Step one on Ara-Rose’s road to recovery: new school.

A lanky galoot passed me in the hall, giving a cool nod as he ruffled a hand through his bed-hair, shrugging his backpack onto both shoulders. Where I came from, that was something only dorks did.

“Hey.”

“Hey, Amara.”

“Sam,” I huffed. “I hate being called Amara, you know that.”

“I'm sorry.” His shoulders dropped. “You’re right. Butt-face suits you so much better.”

“Oh, yeah?” I said as he stalked down the stairs. “Well…it suits you better more.”

“Nice try,” he called, slamming the front door on my humiliation.

I slapped my own brow, shaking my head. My knack for sibling rivalry needed improvement.

“Morning, honey,” Dad said, coming out of his room at the end of the hall, wearing his suit and an expectant grin.

“Morning, Dad.”

“Nervous?”

I stood on my toes, pressing my forehead into his kiss. “No. I'm actually fine.” But my pathetic giggle exposed the truth my words buried.

“You’ll be okay. You just need to get back into living, honey. After all, it’s been two months.”

“I know.” I’d been counting the days. “But…what if someone says something mean and I start crying?”

“Says something about what?”

“You know.”

He clicked his tongue. “The scars?”

I nodded, my eyes on my feet.

“Honey, you are beautiful. And these—” I flinched a little when he touched my jaw. “The doctor said they’d completely fade, eventually, and for now—well, they’re barely visible. You’re still my beautiful girl.”

Beautiful? My lip quivered. “How can you even say that, Dad? Maybe I was once, but—”

“Oh, honey, don’t cry. It’ll be okay. Hey—” He squished my cheeks together. “Look, all the kids there are great. You’re going to love it, I promise. But you know the hardest part of a journey is always the first step. And look at you; all dressed up, lookin’ pretty, and you’ve got your little backpack. The hard part’s over now.”

“Um, actually, I think the hard part’s gonna be the whispers and stares when I walk into that school with a neon sign over my head that says ‘New’.”

He laughed once. “Would you like me to drive you?”

“Dad?” A frown replaced my pout. “It’s across the road. I’ll walk.”

“I could walk with you?”

“Yeah, right. That’ll really help me blend in, won’t it? I might even be lucky enough to get my head flushed down the toilet.”

“None of the kids there are like that. I think you’ll be just fine. Now—” he turned me toward the stairs and gave a soft shove, “—go to school. And don’t come home until you’ve been a normal teenager for at least a day.”

“Bye,” I called over my shoulder, vaguely aware of Dad following. I opened the front door and stepped outside, hearing it close behind me with a certain amount of farewell in the sound that did not permit return. I had been officially kicked out of the house for the day. No more moping, Ara-Rose. Time to move on. After all, they’ve been dead now for two whole months. Not like you should still be grieving.

“Boo!”

“Ah!” The sudden noise pushed my heart up my throat. “God damn it, Sam, you little butt-head.” I leaped off the porch step, dumped my backpack on the grass, and ran after him. “Come back here and I’ll make it quick.”

He ducked behind Dad’s car. “I’ll tell Mom if you do it, Amara.”“It’s Ara-Rose!” I stomped my foot.“Well, that’s a stupid name.”“Not as stupid as your face.”“Really?” He stood up, holding his hands out. “That’s all you could come up with?”I huffed, stomping once in his direction; he bolted behind the tree, cackling. “You’re such a pain, Sam.”“Rather be that than whiney and melodramatic.”“I'm not melodramatic. I'm expressive. There’s a difference.” I let my voice quiver a little and squatted down with my face in my hands, tucking my dress in first so my underwear wouldn’t show. He was about to see how melodramatic I could be.“Aw, sis, I didn’t mean’ta make ya cry...” he said, making the stupid mistake of touching my shoulder. I grabbed his wrist, calling on three years’ worth of self-defence training, and jammed my shoulder into his chest—flipping him onto the grass in front of me.“Ah!” He coughed out, rolling into a ball on his side. “How do you do that?”“Call me Amara again and I’ll be happy to demonstrate.” I dusted my hands off, stepped over the pile of Sam and walked to the curbside. But an invisible barrier stopped me; I merely watched the students across the road, filing up the stairs to my future daily obligation.“Bell’s gone, Ara-Rose. We’re late.”I shrugged.“Well, you might like after-school detention, but I don’t.”“You don’t have to babysit me, Sam. You can walk ahead.”He went quiet for a second; the call of teens laughing and a whistle blowing somewhere on the football field seeming suddenly really loud. “It’s not so bad there, you know.”“I’m sure it’s not. I still don’t wanna go.”“People’re really nice,” Sam offered. I looked up at him—all the way up. His height shaded me from the morning glare, leaving the simple, easy-going smile he inherited from my dad to warm the moment.“I don’t want them to be nice. I want them to leave me alone.”“That’s easy.” He shrugged, readjusting his backpack, then wandered onto the road. “If you want them not to like you, just be yourself.”“That’s it! I’m going to kill you this time, pest.”“You have to catch me first.”I charged after him, my sudden movement making him squeal like a girl, though it kind of sounded like a bumblebee. “I used to run track, Sam, remember? You won’t get away.”“Yeah, used to. But I doubt those twig legs could even catch a renegade granny with a walking-stick.” He took off again when I glared at him, and I bet he thought he’d escape, darting so gracefully over the grass, but he hadn’t counted on me being a little fitter than I let on—until I grabbed his shoulder. “Oh no, don’t kill me, I take it back.”I reached past his shielding hands and punched him. “Jerk.”“Ouch.” He rubbed his arm as I walked away. “You punch like a girl.”“I am a girl.”“Yeah, well, you owe me.” He caught up to me, grinning.“Why?”“Because I got you to school—without all the tears and fuss.”I stopped walking, turning to smirk at Sam.“Have a good day, sis.” He skipped off with a wide stride and disappeared into the building—now only a few steps in front of me.I stood staring up at it like some kid who found a wall of broccoli with their name on it, ignoring the increasing volume of Dad’s house calling my return. I refused to even give it a backward glance. If I did, I’d surely run back across the grass, screeching like Sam, and hide under my bed for the day.Instead, I bit my lip, considering the mundane scene beyond the glass doors with a bit of disappointment; it was nothing like American high schools on TV. Everything was plainly coloured and all the kids looked normal; no glamorous groups of girls walking down the hall, flicking their hair while guys parted for them. No one was dancing or singing and, thankfully, no slushies. There were lockers, though—greyish-brown ones. Not big enough to be stuffed inside.A few boys ran past me in a tight, sweaty group, tripping their way up the cement steps, ignoring my neon sign, despite the word ‘New’ having grown so big now it was making my shoulders sink. When the doors slammed behind them and the crowd parted, I braved step one, then step two, stopping dead at step three, catching sight of two heavy black boots—beyond the glass. My eyes traced them up the denim jeans to a black shirt, rolled up over the elbows of a guy. The head, however, was gone. Or rather, hidden behind the doorhandles. But one thing was for sure; he was looking this way—perhaps at me, standing dead still while people moved all around him, laughing and acting normal. And my nerve-wracked brain concluded one thing, practically screaming out loud, Sweet mother of all things inhumanly awkward, please do not let him be planning to greet the new kid.I dumped my bag on the step and grabbed my cardigan to cover my arms—hopefully to hide my face in too. Then, with my chin tucked toward the concealment of my collarbones, I threw my bag over one shoulder and continued with the inevitable.By the time I reached step seven, Mr Black Boots, with his hands in his pockets, had progressed forward as well. I closed my eyes and, praying he’d just disappear, pushed the door open, waking with a gasp when a hand grabbed my arm.“New?” said a girl with a very bright smile, her blonde ponytail bouncing behind her.“Ur, no.” I looked to where the boy had been standing and, thankfully, my prayers were answered.She giggled. “I’m Emily Pierce.” Her extended hand shook mine; I drew it back quickly. “Cheer Captain and—” she tilted her head, “—your self-appointed tour guide.”Self-appointed tour guide? I considered this bouncy girl for a second, forming an opinion on her that probably wasn't fair. But, as far as I was concerned, it really should be illegal to wear skirts that short to school and, so, maybe her perfect skin and confident disposition was a little threatening—maybe it forced a pang of jealousy in me, but I think I really just didn’t like this girl.The door swung closed behind me then, pushing me into the school with a whack on the butt. “I uh—” I moved out of the way for another group of people coming in. “I really don’t need a tour guide.”“Okay, but, good luck finding anything around here. Kids strip the labels off the doors and switch them around for just this sort of occasion.” She turned away. “If you want to be the laughing stock—”“Okay.” I caught up. “Fine. Where’s the office, then? I need to get a schedule.”“It’s this way.” She pointed forward, smiling. “So, do you have a name?”