“Lourdes Rodriguez?“ Headmaster Ballard asked, arching his eyebrow as he did so. Lou returned his gaze with a hard-eyed stare of her own, one she had perfected in Juvie, back in San Diego. She was pleased when Ballard swallowed and looked away first. “Well then, welcome to Willow Prep. I hope you'll be happy and content here. As you are undoubtedly aware, this is a vastly different environment than that to which you are accustomed.“ Ballard looked down at an open file before him, his expression hardened as though he did not expect to enjoy what he would say next. "I expect your past,“ he stressed the last two words very distinctly, “will remain just that: your past. There is zero tolerance here at Willow Prep for violence of any kind. Is that understood?“
Lou sighed on the inside but managed to keep emotion from showing. Yet another gift from years of foster care, group homes, and Juvie; years of case managers and counselors, psychs and nurses, bored doctors and interns. Everyone of them disinterested in her until they became as nameless and meaningless to her as she was to them. Over time she had learned the best way to navigate through them was to give nothing, offer nothing. She had been prepared for a speech of this kind, after all, how often did an orphaned, teenage Latina delinquent get offered a full-ride to one of the country's most exclusive and elite prep schools?
The whole affair was still something of a mystery to Lou. Four months before her initial meeting with Headmaster Ballard, she had been sitting in her two-person room at a group home - Brianne's Home for Girls - a virtual twin for Elspeth only this time with more dark girls and less Latinas, and three thousand miles away from San Diego. Sitting, dreaming of becoming a female wrestler for the WWE. During her stint in Juvie Lou had become involved in mixed martial arts fighting, learned with extreme efficacy how to channel her rage and emotion into fighting. By the time she had been moved to Brianne's, thanks to the help of her MMA coach at Juvie, a woman who had herself lived at Brianne's and knew the Director, Lou had not been beaten, not once. Her nineteen bouts had all ended in KO's. A year and a half at Juvie and she was undefeated. Numbers she proud of, though she had no one to share that pride with. Her trainer had been an angry woman otherwise, the kind who took out her own failure at having an MMA career on her students. She cursed them for everything they did, good and bad. Lou had had no friends in Juvie, being both feared and respected too much to enjoy intimacy in such an insular place. The two of them had found a lot in common. But even had things been different Lou would have been alone, it was how she preferred, how she had come to expect life was. Any other way seemed alien enough to be fantasy, incomprehensible.
Lou had only lived at Brianne's for five months when the home's Director, Ms. Duval, called her to the Director's Office.
Ms. Duval was a kind-spirited Jamaican woman with a dour expression which never wavered, coupled with an oversensitive feeling for the poor self-esteem of the girls at Brianne's.
“Well, um, Ms. Rodriguez. Yes.“ Ms. Duval picked up some papers and nervously straightened the stack before cough lightly and smiling, without losing her dour expression, at Lou. “There's someone here to see you, dear.“ Ms. Duval always called the girls “dear”, whether punishing or rewarding, it did not seem to matter. “Perhaps congratulations are in order, hmmm? You certainly walloped that boy last week. I have yet to tell you, I was quite proud, dear.“ Ms. Duval nodded, looked over towards a little side room off her office. Leaning towards the room, she shouted, “Oi Lady! Mrs. Chuttum? You may come in now.“
Lou couldn't help herself, she assumed a fighting stance. Her head floated in the memory of the MMA fight earlier in the week when she had knocked out a boy two years older than herself, in less than five minutes. Her fists flexed back and forth from balled up to not and she bounced on her toes. Ms. Duval did not notice, she was stared, still dour, but also apprehensive at the woman who came from the side room. “Dear, this is Mrs. Chuttum, she's here to talk witchu.“ Ms. Duval said, her eyes stuck on the woman. Lou's head whipped from Ms. Duval to the woman, who was out of place in the shabby surrounds of Brianne's and Ms. Duval's office. The woman was quite old, though Lou wasn't sure she could have placed a definite age to the woman, Mrs. Chuttum. Her face was smooth, hair a creamy blond, liberally sprinkled with white. Her posture was confident, even regal. She wore a light yellow pant-suit which looked terribly soft and luxurious, with only light touches of makeup and single, spangly gold bracelet below a hand with a single, platinum ring. If Lou had had to guess she might have said the woman was somewhere between fifty-five and seventy.
The stately woman nodded at Lou and said, “Isabel Chatham.“ She extended her hand towards Lou. Lou stared at the hand for a moment before deciding to shake it, which she did vigorously. The woman's skin was soft and callous free, unlike the roughness of Lou's. A certain elegance hung about Isabel Chatham. Lou smelled her delicate, flowery perfume, it sent Lou's mind reeling: why is this lady here?
What does she want with me?
“I'm quite happy to finally meet you Ms. Rodriquez.“ Mrs. Chatham said.
“Lou.“ Lou replied, unsure why, but suddenly feeling very comfortable with the elegant woman. Her face didn't change though, Lou had an ingrained wariness about her now, possibly permanent, and she kept her emotions tightly coiled within. Besides, comfortable or not, she thought it might be fun to throw this white-bread lady off.
At least until I know what the senora wants.
“I am sure you are curious why I am here.“ Mrs. Chatham said, her voice as sweet as her perfume. Lou gave no reply other than a glance over at Ms. Duval, who smiled encouragingly, even through her dourness, much in the same way she did just before one of Lou's bouts. Lou really wanted something be out of place on Isabel Chatham but her finely tuned instincts had already accepted the woman as formidable. Nothing came from either of them, no evidence of anything unpleasant. Mrs. Chatham continued.
“I represent the Willow Society. We offer a yearly scholarship to a student of merit and potential to attend The Willow Prep School. Your Director, Ms. Duval, submitted you to us and I am pleased to inform you: you have been chosen.“
Lou interrupted. “A scholarship? “ As soon as the question was out her mouth Lou remembered the test Ms. Duval had all but dragged her into taking. Only five of girls at Brianne's had taken the test and only Lou had finished it. Ms. Duval had been very mysterious about the purpose of the test; saying only there was a prize available for the highest score. Lou had put it out of her mind the minute she walked out of the testing room. On to the next fight. Lou had thought There was no way she expected to actually achieve a winning score.
Mrs. Chatham pursed her lips at the interruption but smiled and carried on indulgently. “The scholarship is for tuition and expenses at The Willow Preparatory School, in Manhattan. Have you heard of it?“
Lou had. The school was quite famous having produced three Internet billionaires, as well as the top performing students in New York City, the entire nation. Mayor Goldberg spoke on television about Willow Prep, flattering the school often, especially when trying to use its success to forward his own educational policies, as a re-election tool. Lou enjoyed politics and made a point of watching news on NY1 frequently. Still Lou gave nothing away as she stood before Isabel Chatham.
Mrs. Chatham was undeterred. “The scholarship would see you through graduation at Willow Prep. The award includes living expenses for housing near the school.“
Ms. Duval slapped her hand on her desk and beamed at Lou, actually lost her dour-expression for once. “Don't tha just beat all, dear?“ Her smile was infectious. Lou refused to smile back. But her mind raced.
Housing near the school? Did that mean she would not have to remain at Brianne's? What about clothing? Could she still do MMA fights?
Darker thoughts intruded. Would the other kids look down on her for being a poor orphan? Would a lack of family and funds prevent her from really being a part of the school, some charity-case of a mascot?
Those thoughts burned up in Lou's mind like water on a hot griddle. As soon as they were thought up they fizzled away. She simply didn't have the inclination to really care if she fit in, she had lanced that fear.
“How much is it worth?“ Lou asked, her mouth barely opening. Maybe she could gauge it by that number. Mrs Chatham arched an eyebrow questioningly. Ms. Duval's dour expression returned and she leveled a steely gaze at Lou.
“That is not a question I can easily answer,“ Mrs. Chatham began. “But in terms of expected costs, the scholarship generally covers about five hundred thousand dollars, for a child in your circumstances.“ Lou knew Isabel Chatham meant penniless orphan, but Chatham's expression was so kind and mild Lou could not summon up the desire to be bitter.
Five hundred thousand dollars? They wanted to spend a half million dollars on me? Lou struggled not to let her jaw drop. Her eyes widened slightly despite her control attempts.
“OK. I'm in.“ Ms. Duval slapped the table again, louder and more exuberantly than before. She began to rise, arms outstretched as though she would hug Lou, but when Lou neither moved nor reacted Ms Duval remembered Lou was not a hugger and she quickly dropped her arms. But Ms. Duval's face was so lit up with pride she acted rather like she had won the scholarship and not Lou. A little stirring of affection for the woman burbled in Lou but she smashed it down.