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“Could you give it a rest?” Alicia said during study hall. She’d been leaning forward, obsessing out loud about her latest cheerleading drama, but now she flung herself back in her chair. “They’re not here, Jane.”

“Who’s not here?” I asked. When she didn’t buy it, I said, “I was listening. I was. You said that for the tryout, you have to be able to do a split or you’re eliminated.”

“I said you don’t have to do a split. You can just squat if you have to, which you would have known if you weren’t so busy acting dramatic.” She widened her eyes and gave a fake gasp. She drew her hand to her chest. “A split?” she mimicked. “You have to do a split?!”

I felt myself blush. I glanced around, praying the Bitches really weren’t here.

“God,” Alicia said. “You’re embarrassing yourself and you don’t even know it.”

I twisted the metal wire of my spiral notebook, because I did know it. Other people acted natural in group situations, no problem. But not me. Especially when there was a chance someone might see.

Alicia gathered her books and shoved them into her backpack. “Stupid me, I thought you actually cared about my boring, pathetic life.”

“I do,” I protested.

“Uh-huh.” She glared. “Well, all I can say is that if you do become popular, you have to take me with you. Swear?”

I groaned. “I thought you said to stay clear of them. I thought you said they were evil.” I made spooky fingers, which she swatted away.

“I did, and they are,” she said. “Do you swear?”

This was so like Alicia, to warn me away from something—saying it was for my own good—and then want that very thing if there was a chance it might really come through. Would I take Alicia, if given the opportunity? Would she take me if the situation were reversed? It sounded so stupid, you have to take me with you. As if it were a prison break.

“Oh my god,” Alicia said, and I realized I’d taken too long with my answer.

“I swear, I swear,” I said.

“I’m leaving. You’ve given me a headache.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“Yeah?” she said. “You should be.”

Didn’t see the Bitches in the hall. Didn’t see the Bitches in the bathroom. Didn’t see the Bitches in the library, where I ate lunch in order to avoid pissy Alicia.

I did, however, see Camilla Jones. Camilla was a freshman, like me and Alicia, although she often forgot to act like it. She read battered textbooks on post-modernism, for example, and she used words like “socio-economic” even when teachers weren’t around. Today she wore a dusty rose leotard and a wrap-around skirt, and she’d secured her bun with serviceable brown bobby pins. She always wore her hair in a bun, because she was really serious about ballet. Ballet and weird literature theory shit, those were Camilla’s things.

Looking at Camilla, what occurred to me was, Huh. She’s not obsessed with the Bitches. This was a new thought, and I tested it in my mind to see if it held up. At lunch, Camilla usually sat with the drama kids, although she invariably kept her nose buried in one of her books. Did she get all twittery when the Bitches entered the cafeteria? I didn’t think so. I didn’t think Camilla got twittery, period. And I couldn’t remember her ever complimenting one of the Bitches or getting tongue-tied around them or gazing at them surreptitiously from across the room.

No. I was sure she didn’t. Which meant that Rae was a big juicy freak, as of course I’d known all along.

I crumpled my granola bar wrapper and stood up. I walked over to Camilla’s carrel.

“Hey,” I said. I didn’t really know why.

She lifted her head. She seemed surprised that anyone was talking to her.

“Um … what are you reading?” I asked.

She flipped her book so I could see. It was called Artifacts of Popular Culture.

“Huh. Is it any good?”

“It’s all right,” she said. She paused, then added, “Did you know that Barbie dolls can grasp wine glasses, but not pens?”

“Pens? You mean, like to write with?”

“And Astronaut Barbie’s spacesuit is pink, with puffed sleeves.”

Her disgust was apparent, so instead of saying, “Well, that’s to make her look cute,” I kind of laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s definitely what I’d wear if I were an astronaut. Well … see you!”

I left, and my brain spun back to the Bitches. Maybe Camilla was impervious to their charms, but I wasn’t, especially after they’d lavished me with one-on-one attention. Why had they treated me that way only to leave me in the cold?

See? I told myself. It was a joke. They were stringing you along for their own amusement, and now they’re done. What were you thinking—that your life was honestly going to change?

Then I came back with, But who said anything about hanging out together at school? Not Keisha. Not Bitsy. Not Mary Bryan. Maybe the hanging-out part comes later, after you pass the test.

And then my stomach got spazzy and I had a panic attack right there in the hall. Kyle’s party was only a day away, and what if the Bitches didn’t arrive to pick me up? What if they did?

During my humanities elective on early religions, as Lurl the Pearl tried to explain parthenogenesis to Bob Foskin for the hundredth time, I claimed a vacant research computer and spread out my notes so that it would look like I was working on the day’s assignment. The Camilla factor had punched a hole in Rae’s “powers from beyond” theory, but I thought I’d Google the Bitches and see what came up. Even though I knew it would be nothing.

“Nossir,” Bob Foskin complained from his desk at the front of the room. “Just ain’t no way a chick can make a baby on her own, goddess or no goddess.”

“Fertility. Creation. Rebirth,” Lurl the Pearl droned in her gravelly voice. “There are mysteries in the world that aren’t meant to be understood.”

“I don’t know nothing about that,” Bob said. “What I do know is that every mare needs a stallion, if you catch my drift.”

A few kids tittered, but I tuned them out. I jiggled the computer’s mouse, and the “Lady and the Beast” screen saver disappeared. When I got to Google, I typed in “Sandy,” “Crestview Academy,” and after a moment of thought, “died.” No hits, of course. I tried “Crestview” and “witchcraft,” but again got no hits. I cleared the search line and typed in “bitches,” just for the hell of it. The list I got filled zillions of pages. First came the obligatory “female dog” stuff, and then the entries got more interesting. Tokyo Bitches, IQ Bitches, Cricket-playing Bitches. I found one site called Mature Bitches, which must have slipped past the school’s blocking software, because when I pulled it up, I was bombarded with porn pop-ups. If I ever needed a perverted granny, I knew where to go.

Something brushed my leg, and I jumped. A cat—small and dark with clumpy fur. The feral cats were always prowling around in here, probably because Lurl the Pearl was the sole teacher who didn’t seem to mind. And usually I didn’t either. Usually I felt sorry for them, because they were so mangy and bedraggled. Other students complained—a girl named Alice was allergic and brought in a note from her doctor—but Lurl the Pearl didn’t do anything about it. “Focus, please,” she’d said, blankly surveying both the class and the cats.

The cat nudged me again and let out a squeaky mew. Usually I didn’t mind—but today I didn’t want to touch it. Rae’s story had done that if nothing else. But I didn’t want to not touch it, either, just because of Rae’s malarkey. I gave the cat a quick scratch, then wiped my hand on my jeans and scrolled further down the list on my computer. Chess Bitches, Vegan Bitches, Snarky Bitches … hmm. The description for Snarky Bitches read, “For girls/women who are Bitches, plain and simple.” I double clicked on the address. The screen blipped, and a hot pink site logo popped up.

“Have we finished the assignment?” Lurl the Pearl asked from behind me.

I smothered a cry. She was mouth breathing down my neck. Quickly I clicked the back button, and the list of “bitch” sites reappeared. Shit, shit, shit. I clicked again and again to get back to the Google homepage.