Charm House, the old convent that had been converted into a boarding school for girls, was the last place Sadie Samson thought she’d find herself on a Friday afternoon— or ever.
The stone institution was at the edge of the forest, where brittle leaves lay in forgotten piles by the iron gates. It had a spindly bell tower jutting up from its center like a murder weapon, and the Virgin Mary statue above the entrance was missing an arm. So, yeah. The whole scene was beyond the scope of Sadie’s imagination. And yet there she was, seated in a dimly lit office across from a woman roughly her grandmother’s age, with a strict silver bob, red-framed glasses, and a nameplate that read Headmistress Flora. Outside, rain streaked down the arched windowpanes like tears.
“Do you know why you’ve been transferred to Charm House?” Miss Flora asked, without the tiniest bit of a British accent. This, too, was unimaginable. In the movies, headmistresses always had accents, especially at charm schools. They also had permanent scowls, thin lips, and beady eyes that could see straight into a girl’s soul.
But Miss Flora spoke the way everyone else in Timor Lake, Washington, spoke: bag sounded like beg; leg sounded like lig; and keg sounded like cake.
Why, yes, Miss Flora, I do know why I was transferred to Charm House, Sadie wanted to answer. I’m here because I’m too weird for middle school and no one wants to be around me, not even my own parents. But there was no point in saying any of that out loud; hearing it would only make her cry. Because without her parents, Sadie had no one. No siblings, no cousins, no pets. And friends? Friends were for people who fit in—not misfits with dark circles under their eyes, straw-blond hair that grew out instead of down, balloon-animal muscles, a heightened sense of smell, and anger issues. Instead, Sadie shrugged like she didn’t know the answer and waited for Miss Flora to fill the silence, the way grown-ups often did.
“According to this report,” Miss Flora continued, “on day three at Timor Lake Middle, you were rude and disruptive during a school assembly.”
“It was an accident,” Sadie insisted. “I didn’t mean to—”
“How was snoring while a firefighter shared safety procedures an accident?”
“I have trouble sleeping at night, so I get really tired during the—”
“And what about the Coach Frailey incident on day thirteen?”
“She told me to run.”
“And run you did.” Miss Flora peered over the rims of her glasses. “Two hundred meters in twenty-six seconds, is that right?”
“That’s almost a world record.”
“It is?” Sadie asked, like it was the first time anyone had told her she ran frighteningly fast. But fast only got her so far.
“How does a girl who can’t sleep have the energy to run like that?”
“I don’t know.” The doctors and therapists didn’t know, either. No one did. Because of that, Sadie was banished to a creepy institution—one that trick-or-treaters dared each other to visit on Halloween. One parents threatened to send their daughters to when they didn’t behave. But this was not a threat. It was real.
“And just this Monday there was an incident in Language Arts,” Miss Flora continued. “Do you remember it?”
Sadie nodded. How could she possibly forget?
She had been rehearsing her oral report for days. Recording it on her phone to make sure she was enunciating. Addressing the mirror to perfect her eye contact. Balling her fists to keep from fidgeting. But no amount of recording, addressing, or balling could have prepared Sadie for the real deal. The rows of expectant faces watching her. The hollow tremble of her voice. The shaking hands. The sweaty pits. The brain that knew every word of her presentation but had suddenly gone blank.
Desperate, Sadie looked down at her quaking iPad and checked her notes. As she did, her bushy hair fell forward and blocked her view. She swiped it away and returned to the screen, but it fell again. And again. And again. It was exactly the kind of embarrassing mishap Sierra Porter and Chloe Whitman lived for.
Sadie saw them smirking before she heard them. But thanks to her peculiar ability to hear things from far away, she was able to pick up on the quietest of whispers. So when Sierra leaned over and muttered “Hairy Poppins,” it sounded like a shout. Then came Chloe’s giggle, which jackhammered through Sadie’s eardrums and shattered her heart.
She wanted to run the way one needs to scratch a bug bite—with unstoppable urgency. Only where could she go? Teachers locked their classroom doors for safety. The windows were lined with protective bars. Like a ferocious animal pacing inside its cage, Sadie was trapped.
It was a familiar feeling. White-hot and blinding, it built and boiled inside Sadie whenever she was mocked. Ruth, her therapist, suggested she give this feeling a name. Make it real so Sadie could reason with it, the way one might deal with a temperamental toddler. She settled on Beast. Sometimes Beast cooperated. Sometimes it behaved. But in that moment, Beast had had enough.
So, did Sadie remember the incident? Um, yeah, she did.
“They called me Hairy Poppins,” she told Miss Flora, her throat dry and tight.
“I got angry.”
“And then . . .”
“I may have pushed over a few desks.”
“I tried to shout Stop! Only it didn’t come out like a word.” Sadie paused at the memory of that primal sound, so thundering it shattered windows and sent students running for their lives. “It was . . . I don’t know what it was. . . .”
Miss Flora leaned forward in her chair. She smelled like an exotic faraway land. Like chai tea with extra cinnamon. Maybe it was coming from the vials of amber liquid that lined her bookshelves. The ones marked L.S. Elixir.
“Sadie,” she began, then removed her red frames. “Do you know why you’re really here? The real reason?”
“Uh . . .” Had there been a few mishaps? Sure. But Sadie didn’t deserve this, and when the guidance counselor from Timor Lake Middle School had suggested the transfer, her parents didn’t think she deserved it, either. But one hushed phone call from Miss Flora had changed all that. And before Sadie could promise to try harder, she and her bags had been dropped at the iron gates of Charm House. They swore it wasn’t a punishment. They promised it was for the best. They said that they loved her more than anything in the world and that they would visit on parents’ weekend. Then they were gone.
“Do you know why I’m really here?” Sadie tried, her tears returning.
Sadie shifted in her wooden chair. “Will you . . . tell me?”
The headmistress tap-tap-tapped her clawlike fingernails on the desk, as if contemplating her next move. “Despite what the public has been led to believe,” she began, “Charm House isn’t a punishment for ill-behaved girls. It’s a safe haven. A last resort. A fighting chance at normal.”
Sadie scoffed. Normal? Was that even possible?
“Charm doesn’t mean what you think it means,” Miss Flora continued. “It’s an acronym that stands for Center for Human Animal Reform and Manners.”
She nodded as if human animal made all the sense in the world. “The girls at Charm House have a certain . . . light.”
“What kind of light?”
“An animal light. For reasons we have yet to fully understand, every student at Charm House has a big, bright animal living inside her. It’s an incredibly powerful gift . . . too powerful at times, I’m afraid.”