“Just be yourself,” my mother said, as if that was easy. Which it isn’t. Ever. Especially not when you’re fifteen and don’t know what language you’re going to have to speak at lunch or what name you’ll have to use the next time you do a “project” for extra credit. Not when your nickname is “the Chameleon.”
Not when you go to a school for spies.
Of course, if you’re reading this, you probably have at least a Level Four clearance and know all about the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women—that it isn’t really a boarding school for privileged girls, and that, despite our gorgeous mansion and manicured grounds, we’re not snobs. We’re spies. But at that moment even my mother–even my headmistress–seemed to have forgotten that when you’ve spent your whole life learning fourteen different languages and how to completely alter your appearance using nothing but nail clippers and shoe polish then being yourself gets a little harder—that we Gallagher Girls are far better at being someone else.
(And we’ve got the fake IDs to prove it.)
I felt my mother slip her arm around me, heard her whisper, “It’s going to be okay, kiddo,” as she guided me through the crowds of shoppers that filled every square inch of Pentagon City Mall. Security cameras tracked our every move, but still my mother said, “It’s fine. It’s protocol. It’s normal.”
But ever since I was four years old and inadvertently cracked a Sapphire Series NSA code my dad had brought home after a mission to Singapore, it had been pretty obvious that the term normal would probably never apply to me.
After all, normal girls probably love going to the mall with their pockets full of Christmas money. Normal girls don’t get summoned to D.C. on the last day of winter break. And normal girls very rarely feel like hyperventilating when their mothers pull a pair of jeans off of a rack and tell a saleslady, “Excuse me, my daughter would like to try these on.”
I was anything but normal as the saleslady searched my eyes for some hidden clue before she slowly said, “Have you tried the ones from Milan? I hear the European styles are very flattering.”
Beside me, my mother sighed and fingered the soft denim. “Yes, I used to have a pair, but they got ruined at the cleaners.”
And then the saleslady pointed down a narrow hallway. A small spark appeared in the corner of her eye when she said, “I believe dressing room number seven is available.” As she turned to walk away I heard her softly whisper, “Good luck.”
And I totally knew I was going to need it.
We walked together down the narrow hall. I heard my mother close the dressing room door, and then our eyes met in the mirror as she asked, “Are you ready?”
And then I did the thing we Gallagher Girls are best at—I lied.
We pressed our palms against the cool, smooth mirror. I felt the glass grow warm beneath my skin.
“You’re going to do great,” Mom said, as if being myself wouldn’t be so hard or so terrible. As if I hadn’t spent my entire life wanting to be her.
And then the ground beneath us started to shake.