chapter 1 - don't let it get to you, elle

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ELLE

The rapid clicking of the camera shutter fills the room as I effortlessly move into various poses, my body fluid and graceful. Each click captures a moment in time, freezing it forever with a burst of bright light. The black satin dress clings to my curves, exuding elegance and confidence. I can feel the energy in the air buzzing with creativity and passion as excitement pulses through me. This is where I belong.

The renowned photographer watches me closely, offering words of praise and encouragement as we work together. The atmosphere is serene and focused, making it the perfect canvas for our artistic collaboration. Wrapping up the shoot, the sound of applause fills the room as the staff members show their appreciation, and I thank everyone for their hard work.

Eager to see the results, I make my way over to the photographer. She proudly shows me each stunning image, and I'm filled with an overwhelming admiration for her talent and artistry. Each photo looks like a masterpiece, showing both my outer and inner strength that leaves me breathless.

Suddenly, a deafening alarm breaks the peace. I look around the room, taking in the commotion and puzzled expressions on people's faces. The shrill sound doesn't resemble a typical fire or weather alarm, but then it hits me with a sudden jolt, reality snapping back into focus.

I slowly lift my head from my desk, my body feeling heavy. Sunlight floods through the sheer white curtains, clarifying the dust motes dancing in the air. What time is it? My hand reaches for my phone, still blaring with the insistent alarm that I swiftly silence. Glancing at the home screen, my eyes widen when I see that I only have twenty minutes before I need to leave for school. A frustrated groan escapes my lips. "Shit."

I let out a deep sigh and set my phone back down on the cluttered desk, stretching my arms in the air to relieve my aching muscles. The habit of falling asleep at my desk has practically become a sport—the ever-growing mountain of crumpled papers and empty snack wrappers serve as trophies. A textbook also gapes open, its pages sprawl full of sticky notes in a mix of neat print and frantic chicken scratch. A cold cup of tea sits beside a wilting daisy, the remnants of a more peaceful attempt to stay awake giving way to the potent brew now seeping bitterness into the ceramic mug.

It's a chaotic landscape.

It's been a month and a half into my senior year at Harlock International Academy, a prestigious private school where wealth drips from the polished marble floors and manicured lawns. It feels like a world away from my childhood public school. Sure, the uniforms at Harlock are perfectly tailored, and the guest speakers are CEOs and celebrities, but sometimes...a tiny part of me misses the messy freedom of public school lunches and the shared laughter (and groans) over pop quizzes.

I bring my hands up to my face and lightly pat my cheeks to wake myself up fully. I feel something stuck on my cheek and peel it off, glaring at a Post-it page marker. Pushing myself away from my desk, I stand up to prepare for the day ahead of me. A yawn escapes my lips as I rotate my right shoulder, trying to ease the soreness from sitting hunched over for hours.

With my essentials in hand, I make my way to the bathroom across the hall. The wooden oak floor, a hallmark of our mid-century modern house, feels cool beneath my bare feet. The creak of the white wooden door, accented with a chrome handle, is a familiar sound as I soon step into a haven of steam and warmth. After a short shower, I towel off and slip into my neatly pressed school uniform.

Descending the staircase with its clean geometric lines, the scent of freshly brewed coffee and toasted bread hits me. I walk into the open-plan kitchen—the heart of the home. Natural light pours through the large windows in front of the kitchen sink, bathing the sleek walnut cabinets and terrazzo countertops.

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