Matari Academy

Chapter i

My name is Jamie Gale. I wish that I could tell you that my life was an exciting tale of adventure, but it's not. In fact, it's probably the least exciting story you would ever hear. I won't bore you with it. It's so boring, I don't even want to tell about it.

Let's just say that I'm fifteen and nothing has ever happened to me. Nothing exciting, anyway. Plenty of boring things have, believe you me, and they're not worth repeating.

Fifteen years I've been waiting — for 'my chance,' for something big to come along and just smack me in the face, for something to yank me from this boring life and throw me into some excitement.

And then, one day, it did.


Beginning at Matari

"Welcome to Matari Academy, students. I hope you're all enjoying yourselves."

An older woman stepped up to the microphone. She was aged with white-blonde hair, still hinting at beauty in the spotlight. Mild and mannered, primed and proper. As she called attention, the thousands of students in the gymnasium turned to listen. The gym didn't appear any larger than normal, and the students weren't packed, and yet they all seemed to fit.

They were visiting Matari Academy for a sort of 'open house' day. The founder, Clarence Matari, insisted on using his vast fortune to create a school to make up for the short-comings he dealt with as a child. It competed with every secondary school in the world. Some may argue this point, but they had never been there themselves.

It wasn't the architecture that drew in the students, nor the common classes. It wasn't the campus covered in lush green grass nor the castle-like buildings or the plush couches in the bathrooms, nor the paintings on the wall that shimmered in the sunlight, and it certainly wasn't the stacks of textbooks. But then, what was it? We don't know. Even those of us who attended — even just for the open house — felt a silent but magnetic draw to it. It offered a sense of freedom, the freedom that comes from handing a newly-licensed driver the keys to a sports car.

Here at Matari, there were only two rules. These rules were hung, painted, on a yellowed piece of parchment in the grand hall of the office building:

-All students must take and pass and entrance exam, as well as have the authority signatures of two teachers,

-And no student may hold a criminal record; those who knowingly commit a crime while attending Matari are to be expelled.

Two rules. Almost four square miles of school and only two rules. Upon these three rules, the school was founded and now a reality.

The problems, as often for children, came from the parents. No one knew where Matari had come from. It was once a condemned school on an otherwise-empty lot in what had once been the 'bad' side of town. Since its notorious bombing a few years ago, no one had gone near it. Then, seemingly overnight, the majestic campus appeared. It was like dropping ink on a map and the school was there when it was wiped away. It was the kind of school that would take hundreds of years to make a proper name for itself, yet approached outsiders as one that was already of high-standards — crisp letters, printed on expensive paper and wax-sealed, and teachers who conducted themselves as if they weren't aware the rest of the world even existed, because it was not as grand.

Now the school was working on attracting its first year of students.

The buses just came one day, an military-dressed escort announcing that all tenth-grade students were to come to the open house and first entrance exam, if they wished. A day without classes was something we couldn't resist, test or no test, so we all more than happily boarded. Three busses managed to fit all of us.

Anyone from the nearby town of Gennoua to all the way from Africa and China could come to take the test. Cultural differences were welcomed with open arms.

When we arrived, we found thousands of other students roaming the campus. They, too, had been pulled from school without warning. There were no parents, no seniors, no kindergarteners, just thousands of curious tenth graders.

And so, for the past few hours, we've roamed freely. We went around the courtyard fountains, through the gardens, up and around the buildings, exploring every nook and cranny we could get into. Only the dormitories seemed closed to us. This assembly in the gym was the first required thing we'd done all day.

There was a magic in the school that called to us. Especially to me.

"Well," the blonde woman continued, "settle down everyone. I'm sure you're all anxious to be let back out, but there's something we must address before that happens. Some of you may have figured out by now that we're recruiting our first year of students, and hopefully many of you will attend, but before any of you can be accepted, you all must go through a test, if you will, to determine if you are eligible."

She smiled as we all moaned. I felt a tensity in her words that struck me like a blow to the chest. A test? I sucked at tests.

"Yes, it is unfortunate. If I had my way, you could all come back Monday and we would begin, but the rules stand and I don't make them. I am also saddened to say that some of you may not wish to attend. When the tests begin, you may make your way out to the busses and you will be taken home. In the meantime, those that do wish to try their luck…"

She waved her arm. Two men standing on the wall stepped forward militarily. They pulled on long, gold tassels and the large, thick curtain moved aside. Below the bleachers were three stone tunnels built in, leading down into the darkness. They were darker than a night with no moon.

"…you may take the chance and go through these doors."


The Entrance Exam

"I'm scared!" Jane squeaked. She squeezed my arm so tight my fingers turned purple. I tried to push her off, but she refused to go. "Don't leave me, Jamie!"

"Do you really think there's something to be afraid of in there?" My fingers lost circulation. That girl had a good grip. "They wouldn't put something dangerous in a tunnel for a test they wanted kids to pass."

"You don't know! Parents want us to go to normal schools, too, and kids get knifed in those all the time there!"

"They're not gonna kill off their potential students, Jane. I can tell. I got a good feeling about this."

"But, Jamie!"

"I'm going, with or without you."

"Wait! This is, like, a test, right? Th-Then maybe we should… you know, think about this logically?" she gulped.

"What's to think about? There're three tunnels. We pick one and go through. It's a matter of mathematical division: only one tunnel will go all the way through so only a third of us will make it to the end."

"And what about the other two tunnels? What happens to all of them?"

"They… probably lead outside or something."

"So what if it's a maze? We could get lost — it's so dark in there! And I suck at puzzles," she sobbed, clinging all the tighter.

"Jane, my fingers are turning blue, I think you should let me go."

Before my circulation returned, the blonde woman — Mrs. Domaint — came over to us. She walked silently and we leapt when she touched our shoulders. Jane screamed like a horror movie victim and leapt behind me.

"Sorry, girls," she laughed, "but you seemed worried about the test. Don't be. Every path leads to the end. As long as you reach that end, nothing bad will happen to you."

"Then what's in there to stop us?" Jane gulped.

"It looks as though your fellow classmates are flooding the tunnels. It looks stuffy. Would you like to wait and have some tea with me? It would be a shame for two such pretty young girls to be smothered to death before the end of even the first test."

Jane gulped and clung tighter.

"Children these days just don't seem to understand patience. I'm glad to know you ladies are so much more controlled."

Jane almost refused to go with us, but she was clinging so tightly to me that she was forced to follow. Mrs. Domaint led us to the back where two men in black uniforms — the ones who had pulled the tassels — were guarding a white lawn table that more deserved to be out in the sun waiting for a tea party. They had black masks with gold filigree in the same patterns as on their clothes, but a third walked up without a mask. His black hair and golden eyes matched the colors of the uniform, his skin almost as white as the whites of his eyes. His hair was just long enough to tie back in a stubby ponytail at the nape of his neck.

He paused when he saw us. "Professor, what is this?"

"These two lovely ladies are going to join me for tea, Gilton," she smiled. "Prepare two more places, would you? Sit, sit, my dears! It makes me feel old to sit while you both stand!"

The two masked men pushed chairs up behind us. Jane leapt aside, but the masked man followed her around until she was seated. As soon as he let go of the chair, she shuffled it closer to me and grabbed my arm again.

"Don't be so nervous, my dear," the woman laughed. "I'm not going to bite. Gilton might, but not me."

Jane cowered behind me to hide from Gilton now.

"It would be absolutely delightful if you two would tell me your names."

"I'm Jamie Gale."

"J-Jane Pathwaye, ma'am," Jane gulped. It was a wonder Jane didn't freak out just going to the grocery store.

Mrs. Domaint smiled. "I don't believe I have ever set eyes on two more mature young women. I haven't been called ma'am a dozen years! Oh, I think we're going to be good friends, the three of us."

It was hard not to notice that she looked directly at me when she said that. Direct eye contact.

"Now, tell me — Jane, Jamie — how long have you two known each other? You look like good friends."

"Not long."

"We just met this morning. In the registrar's office." Jane's face turned pink and she looked away.

Actually, she had been saved in the registrar's office — by yours truly. Two boys from her school were picking on her and I accidentally knocked them over with my boot to their rears. A few rude words were passed that would have made a mother cringe and then I threw a heavy bookend at them from the counter and they ran away. Jane had been glued to my side ever since, cutting off my circulation in gratitude.

"I see," the woman smiled. "How wonderful! New friendships can sometimes turn out to be very strong ones. Mine and Gilton, for instance. Twelve years ago, almost to the day, we met. It was at school, now that I think about it. We were partnered together for a class assignment and we've been glued at the hip ever since."

Gilton cleared his throat uncomfortably. She smacked his stomach with a laugh. "You know it's true, Gilton! He was just a little boy when we met, if you can believe that. And just as cranky as he is now."

"Oh, look, your tea is here," he interrupted. He set the tray down from the cart a masked man wheeled in. His ears were red.

"I'm afraid they had to guess what flavor you would like. Matari is known for its many flavors of tea, but that only means we don't know what to make our standard," Mrs. Domaint said with embarrassment. "I do hope you like what they've prepared. The boys in the kitchen have an… amazing giftto guess what a person craves."

Jane squeezed my hand blue under the table as she forced a smile.

"These men were also the summer staff here — they're amazing cooks. They can whip up anything you'd like to eat, anything at all. Maybe… some chocolates, perhaps?"

She snapped her fingers and a masked man pulled out a silver plate of chocolates, leaning it toward us. Jane reached for one first — maybe unconsciously — and grabbed one, finally releasing my hand. "They're Reese's!" she gasped. Her eyes went wide and she popped the rest into her mouth. Then she paused and turned red. "Sorry. They're my favorite."

"Not at all, we're glad you enjoy them. They love to hear compliments."

Jane's eyes turned to the tea. She was thirsty, but didn't know if she could trust it. We all watched as she slowly picked it up and took a tiny, cautious sip. "…It's delicious! Mint, chocolate, and peanut butter!"

"And what about yours, Jamie Gale?" Mrs. Domaint turned to me with an expecting glance. Jane was too distracted by the chocolates to notice, but it gave me the chills.

I looked down at the cup of greenish murk. It was different than Jane's, that much I knew. Hers was a dark brown. I didn't really like tea, but I took a small sip. "I can't… quite figure it out."

"Is it sweet?"

"A little."

"Sour?"

"No."

"Orangey, perhaps?"

"Like sorbet. Orange and strawberry… and a little chocolate… and something else. It's really good. What's in it?" I looked at the masked men, but neither of them answered.

"Well, it looks like the lines have thinned out. I suppose you two should go now. It wouldn't be wise to miss this challenge. Feel free to take as many sweets as you'd like."

"Yes, let's go." Jane leapt to her feet and tugged me up. She grabbed a few chocolates from the plate, winking at the masked man who brought it, and tugged me off.

"I'll see you both at the end of the test," Mrs. Domaint waved.

"Come on, Jane, keep up!"

"I can't run as fast as you!" she panted.

"Oh, come on, it's not even half a lap."

"And?"

I slowed down and waited for her to catch up. She closed her eyes and lunged, but plowed into me and knocked us both over instead of stopping. "My goodness, how can you run so fast?"

"I took marching band for three years."

"Three?"

"Tuba. Lots of working on our feet. Guess my legs got strong."

"You should try out for track — you could place in the Olympics."

"Nah, not my style." I pulled Jane to her feet and tugged her toward the hole. "We're gonna have to hurry. Everyone else has a big head-start."

"But the lines are gone."

"I don't want to get left behind — what if they only let in the first so many people who make it to the end? I'm not passing that up."

I ran the rest of the way to the entrances and waited for Jane to catch up again. There was no effort to get inside, but we pretended like we had made it just in time. "Let's go in the left."

"Why?"

"Instinct. Mine usually lead me right."

"Lucky. Mine once led me to fall into a sewer." We walked to the opening. "I don't know, Jamie, it looks… darker in there than in the others."

All three tunnels had a hint of glowing light at the end — one tunnel yellow, another purple, but this one teal. "The light's just aren't as bright, c'mon."

"I bet people are being dropped onto poisonous spikes as they go in," she whined.

"Don't say stuff like that — you'll jinx us. Just come on." I grabbed her hand and threw her inside, running. A few moments later and I almost crashed into a wall. A fork in the road.

"Which way?" Jane panted.

"Mm… right."

I grabbed her hand and forced her along again, going as slow as I could stand. "Are you sure? Sh-Shouldn't we keep our hands on the wall so we can solve it like a maze or whatever?"

"It's instinct, Jane, I fly on it."

"Another fork — slow down!"

"Left!" I laughed.

"Oh, you're just making this up as you go!" she accused.

In the blink of an eye, the lights on the walls vanished. I stopped running, letting Jane catch her breath. "Now what?" she wheezed. "I think it's a dead end."

"No, it's not. We just can't see what's in front of us. Come on, this way."

I went to the rock on the wall — a palm-sized one — and tugged at it. "What're you doing? You're going to break it off? That's electric — you'll zap yourself and get in trouble! Isn't that vandalism? What if they're on a circuit? You could blow all of it! We could never make it out of this alive! I knew it, we're gonna die!"

"Relax." I lifted my foot a few feet up and kicked the rock off. A small but bright teal rock fell off, no wires or strings attached. "That doesn't look electric to me."

"Me, neither."

"Oh well." I picked it up.

"Don't touch it! What if it's radioactive?"

"Would they put thousands of students into a tunnel with radioactivity?"

"You don't know that they wouldn't."

I rolled my eyes and walked away with the rock glowing in front of me. Jane ran back and grabbed my arm. I guess she was more afraid of being left behind than she was of the radioactivity. Even radioactive mutation would have been an uplift from my boring life.

It was a few very long minutes later that the light fell upon a door. "I don't like this, Jamie. We haven't seen a single other person down this road — what if we were supposed to turn back? You know, show that we're not totally suicidal?"

"She said that if we made it to the end, we'd be accepted. I'm going to trust her." I took Jane's hand and opened the door slowly. In the middle of the room was a pillar, a brighter glowing rock shining down on it.

"Is that a sign?"

We walked closer to read the large poster wrapped around the pillar. There was a red hand-print that said place hand here. I reached for it, but a spider leapt on my hand.

I screamed. Jane nearly passed out. I smacked my hand hard against the stone pillar, both a pop and a squish following. "I think… its dead now…," I gulped. I lifted my hand slowly. A large bruise was already forming. A bruise or spider juice, one of the two.

"Jamie Gale, don't you ever do that again! I almost peed my pants because of you!"

"Oops."

"Don't you 'oops' me! What were you thinking?"

"It said touch it, so I did. Well…," I set my hand down, "…now I did."

The ground shook a little and Jane tackled me, knocking us over. "It's an earthquake — we're all gonna die! What'd you do? This is scary — I wanna go home!"

"We can't go back. If we do, we'll never be allowed back."

"Sure we will! They'll understand that we're sane! That's probably what they want from us — please, let's go back!" She wrapped her arms around my midsection to stop me from going, but I struggled on.

"Let's just go through the tunnel, alri— HOLY CRAP, is that a spider?!"

Jane sprung back, trying desperately to get it out of her hair, but that wasn't where I was looking. "Get it off, get it off, get it off!"

I put my hand on her shoulder and turned her around. On the far side of the room was a giant spider, its fangs glistening in the dim light. They were as big as my hand, at least. Its eyes were the size of my fists, and all eight of them stared hungrily at us.

We ran through the far door as fast as we could, but it chased us, all eight hairy legs running just as fast as we were. "Jamie, I can't run anymore! Don't let it eat me!" she sobbed. "I don't wanna die!"

"I won't let you — just hold on and take this!" I paused just long enough to pull her on my back, handed her the glow stone, and started running again.

"How are you doing this? Are you a robot or something?"

"Ha! You weigh less than my tuba did all summer! Just hold the light out in front of us and don't look back."

Jane leaned forward on my back and stuck her arm with the rock out ahead of us. Her hand made it shine only out ahead, like a flashlight. "Look, there's a door!"

"Where?"

"You just passed it!"

"Oh. Well, I hope you don't mind if I don't turn back!"

"I can't hear it anymore — slow down."

I slowed and collapsed against the wall, setting Jane down. "Phew… Never did that with a tuba before… Can you… see it?"

"No. Not anymore."

All at once, the spider crashed through the stone wall just a few feet away. I leapt to my feet and grabbed Jane's hand, running again. More and more, with the new gnashing behind us, Jane turned to look. "Knock it off — I can't see were I'm going!"

We crashed into the door in front of us, concealed black wood against a black stone wall, and fell through the doorway. The moment we landed, the door slammed shut. The spider's angry howls came through the wood, as well as the scratching, but it never broke through and eventually left. We lay panting on the stone floor, my face so red I could burst.

"CONGRATULATIONS!"

We leapt. An automan, very closely resembling a Lego character, stood beside another podium in the center of the bland room. There was a stack of papers dwindled down to only about twenty left.

"Look, Jane, we made it to the next spot!"

"Yeah, great… I'm thrilled."

"You made it through the first test! CONGRATULATIONS! You made it through the first test! CONGRATULATIONS! You made it through the first test!"

I walked up, tested for strings above the papers, and took two. "Here."

"Don't touch it!" Jane squeaked. "What if there's another—"

"I don't think there's going to be, Jane."

"—through the first test! CONGRATULATIONS! You made it through the first test! CONGRATULATIONS! You made it through the first test! CONGRATULATIONS! You made it—"

"Make that thing to shut its face before I have to shut it for him."

"SO RUDE!" it hissed. The eyes on the automan turned red and the lights in the room flickered away until only the rock in Jane's hand glowed. The ground shook and the lights came back on. The podium was gone, and with it, both doors opened.

"J-Jamie?"

"Yea?"

"You don't look so good."

"Th-The door's open," I shuddered. "And now it's really cold — can't you feel it?"

"You're probably just cooling down from the run. Let's go before that spider comes back and we have to do it again." She grabbed my hand and pulled me through the far door that had opened.

We went a few good meters down the stone path — right on the edge of a deep fall — when Jane decided to look down. "I-It's a long fall," she commented.

"I'm sure. Get away from there before something—"

A loud snarl rang out from behind us, just as the door slammed shut. Jane leapt and almost fell, but I pulled her back.

We stared in horror at the shadow, only to realize it was a stuffed wolf attached to a speaker. Jane sighed and buried her face into my shoulder. "I can't take much more of this… I wanna go home."

"We can't. I can't. I'm not going to be scared off by giant spiders and fake dogs… that move?"

"Move? Move? What move?" Jane gulped.

"D-Dogs… with long… nasty… sharp teeth — RUN!" I grabbed Jane and began running again, though much slower this time. The thing gave chase, but was very slow.

"I knew this wasn't a good idea, they are trying to kill us!"

"Just keep mov—"

The ground below us collapsed and our section of the stone ledge crumbled away. We screamed and fell, but landed on something rather stiff. "A-A net?"

"And another ledge!" I shouted joyously. I climbed over, my feet falling through the netting a few times, and climbed up to help Jane after me.

"CONGRATULATIONS! You made it through the second test! CONGRATULATIONS! You made it through the second test!"

"Not again," Jane whined.

I picked up the new papers on the podium beside the man and stuffed them into my pocket. After a few more moments of the robot's rantings, I looked over him.

"What're you doing?"

"Maybe this guy can help us. You're, uh… doing a good job, Mr. Robot."

What seemed like an oily tear trickled from the robot's eyes. It threw its mechanical hands in front of his face. "No one's ever been so nice to me!"

I backed away nervously as it began to shake and its head twisted around and around like an owl's. It burst in a shock of light. Little metal pieces went flying everywhere, and they turned into little glowing bits like a rain shower frozen in time. I poked one and it glittered and fluttered around before stopping somewhere else.

"Jamie, what are those things?"

"Haven't you noticed… that neither the spider nor wolf leapt while we were standing still? They only attacked after we started running."

"So what? You just made a robot's head explode — good job," she grumbled. "What if the other robots want revenge?"

When she shifted her weight, Jane knocked her arm against three little specks. They went from a shimmery white to an angry red and zoomed around her, fleeing to the other side of me where they turned white and calm again.

"I don't think they like you," I laughed.

"Yeah, well, good for them. Now what do we do?"

"See those walkways?" I pointed out to three skinny stone sidewalks, floating in midair across the large, seemingly-bottomless pit. "We'll just walk across."

"Right, like we'd just walk across that stupid ledge we fell down?"

"Precisely. It led us to the second robot and stack of papers, so we might as well go with the flow."

"No way! I am not walking across the big, long, dangerous thing. It falls and we never come back."

"Then you can stay here. By yourself." I took a few steps toward it.

"What? You're just going to leave me? You can't!"

"Where is that written? I can and I will if you don't want to come along. Jane, I've got my own reasons for needing Matari — I need it, not just want it — and if your reasons aren't as important to you as mine are to me, then that's your problem. If you were as determined as I am, then you would charge across these walkways, but apparently they aren't, so… see 'ya around, Pathwaye."

I waved over my shoulder and walked out across the bridge.

"Wait! Alright, I'll come with you," she sobbed, running to catch up. "But no running this time?"

I was good with heights, but Jane apparently was not. She almost tackled me over the side more than twice by the time we got half-way. Somehow or another, the little specks of light from the robot came and followed us — or me, at least — and gave off so much light we didn't even need that glowing rock. We dropped it to see how deep the pit was. We couldn't see the light or hear it hit bottom. We gave up waiting and decided that we just wouldn't fall.

Half-way across, there was a loud rumble from above. We looked up to see a black boulder heading toward us from above. "Run!" I threw Jane out of the way, but was knocked from the walkway. It held, despite being crashed through, but I fell. Jane got to her feet slowly and looked down over the edge for me. The silver specks from the automan collected around me and lifted the boulder and myself back to the walkway.

"That… was the scariest thing ever," I panted, collapsing beside Jane. She threw her arms around me so tightly I could hardly breathe.

"Never do that again, Jamie Gale!"

"Heh, like I tried."

As if joining a group, we girls, white specks, and now the boulder — which half-floated, half-rolled after me — continued across the walkway. "Talk about creepy," Jane whispered.

"I wouldn't insult the things around here anymore, Jane. The specks already hate you for it." I smiled and laughed as another one turned red and buzzed around Jane's head.

The third — and final — automan was waiting for us on the other side of the walk-way. "CONGRATULATIONS! You've passed the third test! CONGRATULATIONS! You've passed the third test!"

Jane walked proudly up to it, tossed two papers toward me, and stared down the robot. I wondered what she would do, but she stroked the thing's head. "Y-You're a good robot."

The robot's eyes narrowed and it shouted, "SUCK UP!" before bursting into green flames. When they disappeared, only a heavy coil of metal wire remained.

I laughed.

"Oh, yes, har har, hilarious," Jane grumbled. " 'Suck up,' — I'm not a suck up!"

"Who are you yelling at?" I laughed again. "He turned into a pile of wire — I don't think he can hear you anymore."

"Laugh it up, why don't you?"

"Do you hear that?"

We both paused. Up above, more voices came.

"You're mental, Mikey, I don't hear anything."

"I could've sworn I heard someone laughing!"

Jane snuck back to me and grabbed my arm. "Scary!"

"Hear that?" the boy squeaked again.

"No, Mikey, I don't. Would you shut up and get us out of here?"

"It's not like I want to be here," he whined. He had a very squeaky voice. Probably nervous — or the girl with him was real pretty.

"JAMIE!" Jane squealed. She leapt back from me quickly, looking over herself. Her whole body was beginning to disappear, her body transparent but with little blue specks. I reached for her hand, but I went right through her. It was a strange, cold sensation, the little blue specks each like ice floating in water. A moment later and Jane was gone. Mikey and the other girl above began to scream, too, and then everything went silent.

My head spun. The silvery little specks began bouncing around me and the boulder came up and knocked my legs out from under me. It caught me, getting under me like a horse. Then it began to fly.

I screamed and held on tight, but it flew straight up, pressing me against its cold stone skin. It went up about forty or fifty feet before zooming off to the side, straight into a stone wall.

҉

Jane, Mikey, and a pretty girl with brown hair re-'materialized' in the back of a large room, full and bustling with the other students who had made it across. "I think," Mikey wheezed, "we were just… transported."

"Go figure."

"It was like Star Trek!" he yelped, a bright smile on his face. "How cool!" He had a nerdy voice with freckles to match, thin-rimmed glasses on his nose. The girl, Clarissa, was obviously annoyed with him. They had an 'I know you from school, nerd-who-did-my-homework, so you're coming with me,' relationship.

"Oh, look!" she gasped. "Trixie!" She ran off into the crowd, leaving Mikey and Jane alone.

"Looks like you've been dumped," Jane shrugged.

"I guess so. It's always like that. Aw, I don't mind," he growled to himself. He picked himself up. "I'm used to it by now — nine years of it have hardened me!"

"Wanna come with me? My partner disappeared, too."

"Can I?" he squeaked, about to cry.

"Sure, Mikey."

"How did you know my name?" he gulped. "No way — are you, like, a stalker?!" His eyes lit up.

"I heard your, uh, friend — you're a little close there, could you back up? — say it before."

They found seats in the back of the room and began to talk. Apparently Mikey was nerdier than he looked, and Jane totally liked it. She loved Star Trek, too, as well as some of the other shows he mentioned. They hit it off well.

According to the big clock on the wall, nearly twenty minutes passed. As the second-hand hit the twelve, a teacher — an older man — appeared on the stage with the help of the glittering blue lights that had taken everywhere to the room. His voice was calm and quiet, but everyone could hear him as if he was standing right beside him. "Greetings, students! I hope you all enjoyed our haunted house!"

iii. The Second Entrance Exam

"Greetings, students! I hope you all enjoyed our haunted house!"

"Haunted house?" A wave of gossip spread around the room. It was silenced like magic with a wave of his hand. "In exactly thirty seconds, everyone in this room will pass this first admittance test—"

"First? But we went through three down there!" someone shouted.

The man held up his hand again and everyone was silent. "As I was saying, in twenty-two seconds, everyone in this room will pass and everyone else will not."

"Where's Jamie?" Jane gulped. "There's no way she can't be here — she's the only reason I got through!"

Mikey, though he had never met her, felt just as sure it would not be fair. Jane was now officially his only friend, and any friend of hers would be a friend of his, he decided. He looked through the crowd, just like Jane, though he had no idea what Jamie looked like.

The countdown began. Fifteen seconds. Fourteen. Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven…

A loud rumbled came from the ceiling and the students leapt from their seats.

Nine. Eight. Seven. Six…

A large opening appeared above the man's head, dripping a few small rocks down. They, somehow, missed his head as if he had an invisible umbrella over him.

Three. Two. One…

Jamie Gale fell from the ceiling like a dead body and landed on the stage.

҉

I heard screams. It sounded like wherever I was, it was full of people. I opened my eyes and found Jane right beside me, out of breath. "Jamie?"

I pushed myself up stiffly and rubbed the back of my neck. "Yeah… I think I—"

The boulder fell from the ceiling and landed between my spread knees, the silvery dust sparkling down around me like a glittering rain.

"Times up," an old man said proudly, checking his watch. "Thank you, ogre. I'm sure the girl appreciates it." The hole in the ceiling formed into a smile and it closed yet again. "Now, if you two would take your seats, it appears it is time to begin."

I stared up at the giant stone ceiling that had just moved. A number of the students in the room were doing the same, all gawking. Jane and I exchanged glances and ran for the back of the room.

My boulder tried to roll after us — scaring the living daylights out of people — but was trapped in its little dent. The glitter helped it out and pulled it off to the side. "And thank you," the man said again. The boulder and glitter disappeared behind the back-stage curtain.

"Why the hell was there a haunted house test?" someone shouted. "That has got to be the stupidest thing on the planet! Why would you even do it?"

"Simple!" the man grinned. "They say this school is haunted. You have to be brave to be able to attend here. After all, you'd be living here."

Everyone went silent and the old man smiled.

"But it's brand new! There's no way someone could have died here already!"

"I assume you're not counting all of the men who gave their lives in the construction of this building, their ghosts floating through the halls, looking for people who would never believe a new building could be haunted…"

The girl who had asked went silent.

"It's just lucky for you that no construction workers died here!" he laughed. "Now, let me introduce myself — I am Dean Lakesview. It's a pleasure to mean you all, and I'm proud that so many have passed the first test. Of the 15,000 students who were here today, roaming the campus, a mere six-thousand of you remain. You should all be very proud of yourselves — but don't get a big head. This was, by far, the simplest task."

A few of the students looked around nervously at their competition. I really wasn't registering what he said. I was still trying to remember what happened. As soon as the boulder flew toward the wall, a tunnel opened… and then it was all black until I opened my eyes on the stage. My forearms itched a little, though, and felt like they needed lotion.

"And, alas, now comes the part that I'm sure you're dreading. The written test. I hope you all still have your papers that were passed out during the haunted house?"

"Haunted house?" I whispered to Jane. She nodded silently. "That's all it was?"

"Scary, huh?"

"Through those doors beside you," the man continued, "are three testing rooms. Merely pick a room and fill out your papers. The room does not matter, just make yourselves comfortable."

The two of us and that poor nerd boy — Mikey, was it? — looked down at our crumpled, torn, and folded papers. They were blank. "How are we supposed to—"

"I warn you all, though; if you can cheat on these papers, it will be a miraculous feat. I'd more than love to see it, actually!" He snapped his fingers and his body vanished in a puff of smoke.

"Jane? Was it just me, or did he seem a little—"

"—loopy?"

"Good, it wasn't just me. Well, Jane, uh… Mikey, was it? Let's go."

"Lead on, oh fearless leader!" Mikey laughed. We both paused (Jane shrugged it off and pushed me forward; "It's normal," she said) and we continued on.

Out of the three rooms, I must have picked the strangest, though we didn't figure that out at first. "I just got a good feeling about this," I shrugged.

"Aw, who cares?" Jane scoffed. Despite her demeanor, she was still checking over her shoulder for spiders, wolves, and falling rocks.

We stepped inside and were surrounded by what looked like the same classroom we had seen through the door, only if it had been sitting in a swamp for thirty years. There was a thick mist all around, the desks and chairs — which were made of tree stumps — were covered with ivy, and there were large trees and hooting animal noises all around.

"This is way more Lord of the Rings than Star Trek," Mikey murmured, taken. "Aw, what happened? Now it's just nerdy."

"I kinda like it," Jane sighed. "It's Jumanji or something."

"Or Tarzan? Jane?" he sniggered.

I set the trend and sat down first, taking out my papers. For being so misty — from which I was already dampen — the papers were amazingly dry. I sat down and picked up the pen waiting on the desk — not that I knew what I would write without words — ink appeared on the page, on all of the pages. It was like the mist was inking them on, or the mist or lights were revealing invisible ink. What had once been plain white was now a light lavender color, the words in dark purple. I looked at Jane's — the same only pink — and Mikey's in blue. "Weird, huh?" I scoffed.

Neither of them had noticed, but they were amazed when they looked down and saw the colored paper. "What do you think they meant by it would be hard to cheat? There are no proctors, no teachers, no cameras… Nothing."

"Maybe they're just trusting us?"

"Or the papers have different questions," Jane offered. She compared them with mine, but they were word-for-word the same.

"Or maybe they do have cameras, they're just hidden."

"Mikey, this room is humid. There's no way a camera would survive. It would start an electrical fire and kill everyone."

"Oh yeah. Sorry, leader."

"Why are you calling me 'leader'?"

"Is that bad?" he squeaked nervously. His face turned red. "H-How about Commander or General or something?"

"Or you could just call me by my name. You know, that's what it's for."

"Where's the fun in that, General?"

I cringed. "…On second thought, go with Leader."

"Aye-aye, Leader!" he saluted.

The test was strange, asking about things that couldn't be copied. What courses we've taken in school, how you see yourself, personal info… "No wonder we couldn't cheat. I guess I can't exactly steal Jamie's birthday, huh?"

At the bottom of the paper was a final question — the piece that made it a 'test'.

Essay: For what reason do you wish to attend Matari Academy?

Sure, easy enough in theory, but harder when you had to put it into words. I looked up to see what Mikey and Jane were putting. They were both finished, waiting on me to finish. I looked sheepishly away and sighed deeply.


Home Life

I found nothing to put. Sure, it was so obvious to me, but I just never came up with anything. I took the test home that night, along with all the others who couldn't think of anything. "As long as you mail it in before Friday, it will be accepted as an entry. Good luck, students!"

We were all taken back home on the busses shortly after six. As the bus began to pull away, I waved goodbye to Mikey and Jane, boarding another. All three of us went to school in the same town, but it was big enough for more than four schools and each of us seemed to attend a different one.

"Mom, I'm home."

She was standing in the little, apartment-sized kitchen that I thought was rather pathetic, stirring the stir-fry on the stove. For some reason, it smelled horrible. The food at Matari's cafeteria had been amazing. How come Mom could never cook that well?

"You're late," she mumbled. "School ended hours ago. Where have you been?"

"At the Academy. Have you heard about that place?"

"Do they have one of those 'after-hours', 'know where your kids are' things or something?"

"No, they're, uh… trying to recruit students for their first semester. I was thinking about—"

"I don't know why you bother," she sighed. "You know we can't afford any kind of tuition. You shouldn't be so selfish about the family's money. It's hard enough sending you to public school with all the little charges they slip in — field trip money, lunch money—"

"But, Mom, it's not expensive. I can pay for it out of my paycheck."

"Jamie, I know you care a lot about your education—"

Not really, I thought.

"—but we just can't afford anything else right now. We're still paying off those braces, and your school books that you lost—"

"I didn't lose them, Michel stole them! I told you that a thousand times."

"And that computer of yours?"

"That I never get to use?"

"Don't take that attitude with me!" she snapped. "If you're not going to be helpful, then just go upstairs and do your homework!"

I rolled my eyes and stomped up to my room, all the way in the attic. I know Mom meant well — maybe — but she never handled money well. By all normal means, we should have a good house, good food, a good car (at least one), and a good computer. Maybe even a yard in the back for a dog, but ever since Dad shipped out, Mom had only done three things with her life; stay home, spend money, and drink. She partied so much that she could never have another child — and there went my dream of getting a baby brother for Christmas.

Meanwhile, I had to go to school, take on a part-time job just to make ends meet, and clean up the house while Mom sat and drank. I always noticed that about two days after I deposited my paycheck, there would be a substantial amount missing. Since I was a minor — only fifteen, — Mom had control of all my money. She always denied taking it, but who else could have? Even after confronted with the withdrawal slips I found in her purse, she denied it and sent me to her room for going through her purse.

I took off my clothes — which were cleaner than I expected after everything that happened — put some cortisone on my itchy forearms, and put my work uniform on for work at WeinerBasket. A pretty average fast-food restaurant that somehow managed to get one very dirty very quickly. I reheated the pre-cooked hamburgers, hot dogs, and fried up the French fries.

I snuck a few bites of food from Mom's pan while she wasn't looking and bit them. They tasted horrible. I dropped them down for the stray dog in my front yard, Bingo, to eat, but even he turned up his nose. "I don't blame you boy."

I patted his head and walked to where my bike stood. He barked or growled at other people, but never me. He was some kind of mutt, but I never knew what. He just seemed like a breed all his own.

My bike was gone. I ran back inside. "Hey, Mom? You seen my bike?"

"You rode it to school, didn't you?"

I slapped my forehead. I rode it to school, got picked up for Matari, and then Matari took me home. My bike was still at school — if I was lucky. It would be a complete waste of time if I went to school for it first, so I grabbed my old skateboard and rode it down the sidewalk with Bingo chasing me most of the way. He walked me to work every afternoon.

I was late — my shift was half-way through — and I got yelled at for it. My boss was a jerk, but I didn't really mind. He was only there twice a month and the vice-manager was really nice and really pretty. She let me get away with things. Everyone liked her. "Why are you so late?" he snapped. I tried to get to my post at the back kitchen, but he continued to block my path.

"I had a school thing — won't happen again."

"School's been back for two weeksandyou're already showing up late? This is going on your record. If I hear of this happening again, you're getting a pay cut."

Cheaper to cut someone's pay than fire them and find a new guy for full-price, I grumbled to myself. I couldn't argue out loud if I wanted to keep my paycheck, though, so I nodded and went to relieve poor Richie who was supposed to go home an hour ago. To make up for being late, I worked until closing and helped clean up. The manager didn't notice because he left ten minutes after I got there, but the vice-manager made sure to make a note of it.

I grabbed a bag of real food — as real as junk was — and ate outside my house with Bingo. Mom was too drunk to realize the front door was locked and all the knocking meant someone was there, so I eventually had to climb in through the window. My keys were at school in my locker, the building now locked for sure.

The first thing I saw when I fell inside were my papers, neatly on my bedspread:

Essay: For what reason do you wish to attend Matari Academy?

"Why do I want to go there? Because I don't want to be here anymore."

I woke to my cell phone ringing the next morning, vibrating loudly on my wooden dresser. I picked it up out of habit and flipped it open, only to press it against my pillow as I fell back asleep.

"JAMIE!" Jane's voice called.

I woke up again and held it to my ear. "Hello? … Jane? What're you calling me how?"

"What? I got your number off the registration yesterday. Remember?"

"Oh. Okay. That nice is…"

"Jamie? Are you awake?"

I rubbed my eyes again, having fallen asleep twice in the middle of the same conversation. "Y-Yeah, I'm asleep."

"Aren't you at school or something? I was worried I'd catch you in class, but at least I'd leave my number — you're not in class, are you? Look at the front of the room, is the teacher staring?"

"No, I'm… still in bed."

"Lucky! My school started hours ago."

"Really? How early was that?"

"Eight."

"Mine, too," I yawned.

"Jamie? It's 10:00. Why are you still—"

"TEN?!" I gasped. I leapt so hard I fell off the bed. "My alarm didn't go off — I'm gonna die — gotta school get — TEST! Bye!"

"Call me at lun—"

I hung up before Jane could finish, threw on the first clothes I found, and ran out the door to the garage for my bike. "I'm so late, and Mr. Patrick's giving a history test today — AHH! I left my bike at school!"

I ran like crazy — Bingo barking at my heels — and arrived just as the tardy bell was ringing for the class after history. I decided not to talk to an angry history teacher and be late for PE (where my teacher would be just as angry at me) and went straight to the gym.

I was still late. "Jamie Gale," she growled, "you are four minutes late! Got that? Four! That is a disgrace! Do you have any idea how much time that is?"

"…Four minutes?"

"Don't play smart with me! If you came in four minutes late at the end of a race, you would practically be disqualified! You're lucky I'm letting you in the locker room at all!"

"Yes, coach, thank you, coach…"

"We're out on the track fields today, go ahead and change. You have ten minutes."

On the way out, I ran into Maida, the only sane person at school. That's why I was friends with her. "'Bout time you got here. I was worried when you missed the history test. You never skip on a test day."

"Very long story, Maida."

"How was it? The Academy? Was it amazing like the papers say?"

Maida was in 11th grade and never got to see Matari.

"It was beautiful and amazing! Like magic! There was this crazy haunted house we all had to go through — I loved it — and I met this girl named Jane who latched on to me the whole time — cut off circulation a few times — and I had to carry her through the haunted house when this giant spider came chasing after us—"

"No, I mean, at the real Academy, not your dream last night."

"Oh. I guess… That was just a dream, huh?"

"Had to have been. A giant spider?" she laughed. "Get real."

"Well, it was beautiful, all the same."

"…Something wrong with your arms?"

I stopped scratching my forearms. "Got any lotion?"

"Oh, yeah." She pulled some from her bag and I slathered it on.

"Did you ask your mom about going? Full time, I mean?"

My shoulders sunk. "She said no."

"Why?"

"Said we can't afford it. The thing is, it's not expensive. Less than $100 — and it's a one-time payment. I mean, I could pay for it!"

"Then do. She can't complain about that."

"I'm sure we need a parent's signature. There's no way around it. We're still minors and therefore bugs for the adults to squish."

"I'm sorry, Jamie. I know you really wanted to go. I was all ready to have you as my competition!"

"How come we're all the way out here and now on the track or whatever?"

"Something you need to learn about high school, Jamie — the coach never cares about the people not in her sports teams. I'm not in track, therefore I don't exist. I'm a freeloader who deserves to die, same as you, and same as all the other girls in class who aren't Kayla, Candace, or Sarah."

"Oh."

"But you could totally be in track — you're way fast. Go up there and beat them!"

"Track's not my thing. I love to run, but in circles? Boring."

"…Did Matari look like a hundred-dollar school?"

"More like a one million dollar school. I can't believe tuition is so cheap! They probably don't have good plumbing or something. There's flowers in vases around every corner, a cafeteria to give any country a run for its money, and they even allow pets! I could take Bingo with me!"

"Wish I could go, but it would be pretty pointless to change back into being a tenth grader just to take the same classes I've already taken."

Maida had skipped out of being in tenth grade just last year. "Oh, here's your big chance!"

"For what?"

"Coach is leading the track girls to the starting position — race 'em and beat 'em! Then you can turn her track offer down and watch her beg to have you."

I know she meant it as a joke, but I got up anyway.

"Where you going?"

"To run!" I laughed. "Like you said, I wanna see her squirm!" I got to the starting line just as the coach blew the whistle. I expected to feel sore after running with the light but heavy 120-pound Jane on my back, but I felt lighter than ever. No pain or tension anywhere.

I shaved six seconds off the school's star's best time, and I was just going easy. Maida greeted me at the finish line and gave me big hug.

"Jamie Gale!" the coach shrieked. I leapt.

The other girls began to laugh. "She's gonna get it now." Beating the track girls was never allowed — in theory or joke.

"What are you doing?"

"Running," I panted, smiling.

The coach's face turned so red I thought it would burst. I couldn't tell who was angrier — the coach or the track star I just beaten. For my 'antic', I got after-school detention. Another week was added for skipping my history test.

I was glad of the sudden freedom lunch gave. It was nice to wear normal clothes, thought I noticed I was dry. Surely I had worked up a sweat in all that running?

I found my bike — still in place — in front of the office and hopped on as my phone rang. "PSST! Hey, Leader!" Mikey laughed.

"Mikey?"

"That's right! Care to join me and the Janester for some lunch? We're— HEY!"

"Sorry, Jamie," Jane said quietly, "Mikey took my phone. He was trying to summon something with it earlier — wanna meet us for lunch? We're at Sundaes for ice cream."

"Sure. I'll be there in three minutes."

"Three? Jeez, you're close. Or are you skipping again? Mikey and I had to skip our last class to get here with time to get back."

"Lucky me, right? Leader's prerogative. I'll be there soon. Buh-bye." I hung up and caught Maida staring at me curiously.

"And who was that?"

"The friend I met yesterday."

"Uh-huh," she smirked. "So that's why you want to go to Matari so bad — to meet boys."

"Boys? What're you talking about? That was a girl."

"Named 'Mikey'?"

"No, that was Mikey, the Star Trek nerd. I was talking to Jane."

"Sure you were. They were both 'sharing her phone', right?"

"Whatever," I rolled my eyes playfully. "I got a date with them in three minutes. See ya."

"Uh-huh, whateverdon't get distracted, you love-struck puppy!"

Jane and Mikey were outside of Sundaes already, eating under the picnic table. "Leader! We saved you a spot!" Mikey waved. Jane looked relieved to finally have another girl there.

"There's been an under-dose of estrogen around here — it was driving me nuts!" she said, but only after Mikey went for food inside.

When he returned, be brought us all ice cream. "Here's your sundae," he smirked.

I poked at it. "What's wrong?"

"It's not as good as Matari's …"

"That's it, Jamie, you're a genius!"

"I am?"

"We can go back to Matari for lunch! The cafeteria! I bet they'd let us."

"Do you really think they'd let us back on campus just for lunch?"

"I doubt it. We're not students."

"Yet," Jane argued. I hung her head disdainfully. Ever, I thought. "Did you finish your essay?"

"You didn't finish?" Mikey asked nervously.

"I got plenty of time. All week, remember?"

"Don't let time get away from you — put it in the mail Thursday so it gets there before the deadline."

"Actually, I just don't know what to write. What'd you guys put?"

"I said I wanted to go to Matari to get away from all the stupid, selfish jerks at my school who started rumors about me! Even the teachers think I'm a lesbian, thanks to them!"

Mikey went red. "They do? You are? Since when?"

She smacked his arm. "I'm not. That's my point."

"Oh. Right."

"I want to be able to start over somewhere with new people — it'll be like going off to college early! Plus, it's structurally beautiful. I've never seen a more eye-catching campus."

"I agree," Mikey and I smirked.

"I guess… what Dean Lakesview said was right. We can't cheat. We all have our own motives for wanting to attend."

"Well, I guess I have time to figure it out," I sighed. "After my week of detention for missing my history test, I'm gonna lose my job. I'll have plenty of time."

"Put all your efforts into getting into Matari, then! Focus on nothing else! Don't eat if you have to!" Mikey cried fervently.

Jane smacked his arm. "Don't tell her to be anorexic, girls have enough trouble with that as it is!"

"What? You do? Since when?"

"Don't worry about your job, Jamie."

"Yeah, I heard on the tour yesterday that they have little odds-and-ends jobs around campus."

"You could be a mail carrier," Jane smirked. "You can deliver messages when the phones break down since you're so fast. Those teachers won't even know the difference."

"I still have to write the essay," I grumbled. "And it does have to be an essay, not just one sentence."

The thought darkened my mind until I realized I was late for class.


Too Late

I had more than enough time to think of a topic for my essay in detention, but it made no difference. The day I was going to turn in my paper, Dad drove up. The sight sent Mom into shock and we spent the weekend at the hospital. She didn't wake up until Monday.

By then, it was too late for me to realize that I had not only not sent my paper, but that I couldn't find it. The paper wasn't in my room, clothes, or bag. It was gone, and so was my whole chance at Matari. Without that essay paper, I was nothing but a howl of the wind during a tornado. Nothing special about me… Just the way it had been my whole life. I flopped onto the bed and wished I could be struck by lightning right there and then.

Maida, Jane, and Mikey all seemed to be more upset about it than I was. Physically, at least. Instead of crying or freaking out, I went into a hazy trance. I barely spoke and just sort of sat there.

Monday, I took Maida to lunch with me since she kept giving nudges about having lunch with a guy. Then I left her with Mikey and Jane and went inside to get the food. When I came out, they were talking like friends.

"Did you get a letter, Mikey?" Jane asked. Maida seemed into the conversation, too, though she had nothing to do with Matari.

"Yesterday," he whispered back. "It said the next stage was in the auditorium Friday night. Yours?"

"Same. Looks like we're in."

"What about Leader?"

"I guess… she won't be getting an acceptance letter because she never sent in her essay."

"That sucks! You said she was the only reason you passed the haunted house in the first place, it's so not fair."

"Life never is," Maida said sadly.

I sat down suddenly and all of them leapt. "Oh. Leader. We didn't see you there."

"How're you holding up?" Jane asked, patting my back.

"Okay," I said bluntly, staring off into space. "I… got offered a place… on the track team this week. I still want… to go to Matari, but I guess… it's useless. I mean, I should go for track, right? It's… what I can get."

"Don't worry, Leader! If there's any way we can get you in, we'll do it!"

"We'll sign a petition!"

"We'll go to the board and ask for sanctuary!"

"I don't think that'll help, guys… but thanks."

"Why so down, honey?" Dad asked. I hated his pet names, but put up with them because he didn't come around a lot.

"I lost my application."

"For what? Getting a new job? I agree — that manager you have is crazy."

I plopped down on the couch. "You know that Academy they built? Matari?"

"Just reading about it, actually." He held up the newspaper. The front page picture was of Matari's gates. It made my heart flutter, and then I remembered I would never have it and it sank down to my stomach. "You weren't… trying to get in, were you?"

"You sound surprised."

"Honey, I know you must want a really good education — you wouldn't try so hard otherwise — but we just can't afford any kind of tuition right now. I guess it was bad to leave your mother in charge of the finances while I was gone, but—"

"But I can pay for the tuition — it's not that much!"

"It is according to this!" he gasped. He held up the article again. "I've never seen tuition rates so high! Not even a year of this will blow through a navy man's enlistment bonus. Unless you got a job as the president's secret spy, you're never going to get in."

I looked up at the article. It had a chart. According to race, age, sex, and GPA, you paid anywhere between $10,000 and $35,000. From where I stood, I would be paying about $26,000. "Every quarter?" I gawked.

I slunk sadly up the stairs to her room. How strange. They said that the tuition was only $69. How could they change it like that? Had they lied or was this Melissa Lyon reporter the liar?

"You got a letter, by the way. Don't know who sent it. Looks like they'd rather have it burned than returned." He handed me a thick brown mailing envelope with my name scribbled neatly across it. "Probably just junk mail."

I took it upstairs and opened it on my bed.

You've Been Accepted

to attend enrollment of the first year at

MATARI ACADEMY.

Your presence is required on the date of September the 3rd

at the time of 7:45PM sharp

inside MATARI ACADEMY's Auditorium of the Arts.

Formal wear is preferred.

The letter looked hand-written, but was perfectly spaced across the page. It was signed at the bottom by Dean Lakesview and two supporting teachers — Mrs. Domaint and Gilton. Gilton was a teacher? I shook it off. Who cared? I was in.

How?

Another paper and another envelope from inside of the envelope fell out. It was the paper I had lost, the lavender one, a bubble-wrapped shield made of gold with an X across the middle and red and black checkered colors, and a small thing that looked like a giga-pet. It was gold with a black, ebony-stone face. A note was attached:

Present the following as an invitation of merit at the assembly.

I looked over my essay paper. It was the one I had written on, but it was different. There was an answer on the bottom. The paper had only allowed three lines of writing, and expected a paper to be stabled to the back — or so I had assumed — but at the bottom of the page was a message.

Because I don't want to be here anymore.


The Final Exam

Friday night, September the third, came after a long week at school. I hadn't spoken to either Jane or Mikey or even Maida since the day we all went to lunch — presumably because they didn't want to upset me — but I decided to surprise them and just show up. During detention, I held my acceptance letter inside the history book I was 'studying'; during class, I was touching the shield keychain on my belt loop; after school, I was imagining what it would be like to be at Matari as a real student.

I had seen dorms during the open house, but hadn't gone inside. They were the one place not open to us. Now I would be going there to live. Only one thing bothered me about the letter. It mentioned a third test. Okay, so the haunted house and paper were the first two… what else was there? They had already taken a physical and mental, so was this next one a spiritual one? I had never been any kind of spiritual before in my life, but I prayed that there would be no questions from the Bible or Buddha's wisdom or anything.

After work on Friday, I told my boss I might not be back the next day because of school. He wrote out my severance check right there and then. Oops.

To pass the two hours before 7:45, I went to spend some of my money. After all, if it touched the bank, Mom would get to it. I might as well spend it instead — except for that $69 entrance fee that I was still holding out on.

I went to the store and wandered around, mainly at the lobster tank (I considered buying one and keeping it as a pet) and the bakery where I watched the cakes being iced. It occurred to me after the third birthday cake they iced that it might be getting late.

7:32. I was ten minutes away from the campus on bike, so I ran out and pedaled like all hell was after me until I reached the Academy (I did better under stress sometimes).

There was a line outside with masked men checking for key chains at the front gate. I felt my belt loop instinctively, my heart racing. What if I had dropped it? …No, still there.

Three couples got into horse-drawn carriages as I rounded the corner and threw my bike against the fence. Then I noticed my fatal flaw: formal wear. Not that I had any anyway, but everyone else being dressed up made my patched jacket and dirty jeans seem very dirt cheap. My socks didn't even match.

I was about to cower away when I heard a loud, "LEADER! OVER HERE!" Mikey and Jane stayed in line — to not lose their place — so I ran to them.

"You're here!" Jane squealed.

"Did you come to see us off?"

"We thought you wouldn't show up!"

"No, I… I got accepted." I shook the keychain on my belt loop proudly.

Jane's jaw dropped. "No way! How cool!" She grabbed me and squeezed me tightly. "S-Sorry. I fell on my heels. Not used to them. What are you wearing?"

"I… had no dress. I mean, it was in the cleaners. In London. Couldn't get it back in time."

"Aw, you should've told me," Mikey whined. "I have plenty of dresses."

"Unusual statement for a boy to confess."

"They're my sister's. She went to prom, got married, and went to four other weddings as a bridesmaid in the course of two years — and she's about your size. I would've brought you one."

"That's… okay. Germ-o-phobe," I lied. "No sharing clothes for me."

"Eh, I understand. There are many perils in the microscopic universe, Leader, you're right to be afraid."

"How did you even get accepted? Not that I'm arguing, I'm just curious. Did you find your paper and beg them?"

"I bet it was us asking sanctuary," Mikey said proudly. "They told us no, but I knew they were hiding a soft spot."

"That wasn't it — you were just pitiful in there! If you hadn't gotten on your knees, they might have listened to us." Jane smacked his arm.

"Actually, he must've been right. I got this back." I held up my paper, laughing at the thought of Mikey begging to let me in. "It's not even my handwriting."

"How unfair," Jane squeaked. "I had to write a whole essay, you wrote one sentence. Weren't you the one who said 'no one-sentences'?"

"I thought you said you weren't complaining," I smirked.

"C'mon, ladies, we're next! Ooh, this is so exciting — we get to ride in a carriage!"

The masked man was reluctant to let me in, but had no choice after he saw my keychain. The three of us piled into a carriage, pulling Jane and her heels inside. Jane and I talked while Mikey stared out the window. "Did you hear about the newspaper article on Matari?"

"No."

"My dad told me about it. He said Matari was charging the highest tuition ever. Now that I think about it, maybe just being able to pay is the third test."

"Golly, I hope not! Maybe they got the name wrong or something."

"They didn't. The picture on the front was Matari."

"They never said anything about a high tuition."

"I heard it was $69," Mikey chirped. His face was plastered to the window, fogging it up.

"It had better not be," I whined. "The high one, I mean. I lost my job for Matari."

The carriage stopped and the masked man and Mikey helped us out. Compared to Jane's blue-sequined dress, I felt very out of place, but I made myself as proud as possible as I went inside. The seats in the auditorium were tagged with student names, and somehow, Jane and I were placed together, Mikey in the row just about three feet away. The clock behind the podium said 7:42. Just as before, the moment the second-hand struck the 12 at 7:45, a man appeared. They closed and locked the doors.

"Creepy," Jane whispered. "Still don't buy my theory that they want to kill us?" I nudged her in the stomach playfully. Actually, her theory was making more sense, but I just felt like there was nothing to be afraid of.

Mrs. Domaint stepped to the microphone, tapping it gently. "Hello everyone. I'm sure you're all ready for the third test to begin. Have you all read or heard about the newspaper article?"

"Oh no," I groaned.

"Matari sent a select article to every newspaper in town, each detailing the flamboyant costs of this Academy. I would like to tell you now that tomorrow morning, every paper in town will be announcing that the article was a fake and that every single one of you that has shown up here will be attending Matari."

Applause went up amongst the students. Jane and I were just trying to make their hearts start again. "Matari Academy is not a public school, but it is not elite to those who can afford it. It is elite to those who earn it. All of you have been tested, and now passed. You've been faced with hallucinatory gasses that made you believe falling stones, giant spiders, wolfs, floods, bottomless pits, and poisonous snakes were stalking you, but none of them were real. You all have taken the responsibility of creating your writing and discovering what you find best about yourself. Now, all of you are here, at the final stage, because you didn't lose hope for Matari in those news articles. Your numbers have been whittled from 100,000 to 20,000 to 7,000 to now only 2,000. I hope you all feel as elite as you are and are proud of this honor. You have earned it."

More applause broke out, but it seemed more ceremonious. I found myself clapping without realizing it. Gilton rose to the microphone and most everyone hushed. "Come up in an orderly fashion and present your chains," he ordered. "From there, you will be directed to your next course of action. All of you — if there are no more problems — will be attending this school from this point on. Next week has been set aside and committed to designing your schedules. You will be shown around campus in an orderly fashion. Those in need of a dorm will do so after you have obtained a uniform."

"Oh my gosh," Jane squealed, "this is so exciting! You know what's even better? Those jerks from my school aren't here!"

"Your old school," I corrected. We both squealed quietly.

As the students began to make their way to the stage, someone came knocking loudly on the door. "C'mon, let me in! I'm supposed to be in there right now!"

A masked man pulled a curtain over the door. "…I guess getting here on time was one of the big factors, too, huh?"

"I'll say. And I was almost late," I cringed.

The three of us made our way slowly to the stage, the line taking forever. Gilton was taking everyone's unresponsive giga pet and put some kind of chip inside. "To track us everywhere we go, of course," Mikey whispered. He pulled himself onto the stage to try and sneak a peek, but Gilton didn't show anything.

We handed over our keychains, got them back, and then were sent to greet the teachers and go to the next room. Dean Lakesview, Mrs. Domaint, and a man named Kirkland who was the science teacher. He reminded me a lot of Santa Claus, a bushy white beard, belly, and glasses that sat more on his mustache than nose.

"Ah," Kirkland said to me, "I can smell the swampy mist about this one. You took your exam in my swamp room, didn't you? I think we're going to get along nicely." He took my hand and shook it.

Mikey, who was behind me, ran up and stole Kirkland's hand. "Oh wow, so you're the science teacher — I can't wait — I love science — absolutely love it — I can't wait for classes to start — what kind of supplies do you think we'll need? — are we going to blow anything up? — oh, I love blowing things up in science class — it just adds a wonderful, smoky aroma to the room — don't you agree, professor?"

"Yes," he grunted, pushing the hand off. "You appear to have the swamp mist about you, too, though you're definitely… different."

Gilton turned around with a glare. "Kirkland, we don't have time for your chatting. Get these students moving. We still have a long line and an even longer night ahead of us."

"What's the problem?" he asked with a smile. "If it's going to be long, at least it can be pleasant."

"These students now have a strict curfew — which I will allow not even a professor to interfere with unless noted by the Dean. Move along, students."

The Dean stuck his head out, further down the line, with a smile. Gilton's face went red. The three of us ran off into the other room giggling. It was a long way — I had to help Jane with her heels and it made us slow — and I felt bad for Gilton.

The next room was full of papers lined up on tables. "They're in alphabetical order," Mikey said. "I'll get yours!" He ran off into the crowd and started fighting the mob for the papers. We girls sat on the back bench, Jane taking her heels off.

"Isn't this exciting? I can't believe we're actually being accepted. I wonder what our old teachers will say? We just spoke with them yesterday and now we're never going to see them in class again!"

"Aw, man — I just spent the last week in detention for nothing! I totally could've gotten away scot-free if I'd just put it off…"

"At my school, if we didn't make up our detentions, we didn't get to graduate or transfer out or go to dances or do anything else but school. Sometimes they wouldn't even let us eat in the cafeteria."

"Our school is Matari, now. We can leave all else behind us. I guess next week will be helpful for going back and getting everything out of the way. My gym locker is still full and I have about thirty vials of random chemicals in my science locker. And Maida, of course."

"I liked her. She was nice. Hard to believe she's a year older than us."

"She skipped a grade. Kicking herself now! Who would've thought graduating early would cause such a mess?"

Mikey ran up, a scratch on his cheek and panting. "I got… our papers… Leader…"

"Mikey? Are you alright?"

"It was a little… wild up there… but I made it!" He collapsed dramatically at our feet.

The entrance doors shut and Gilton walked in with the others from the stage. "Everyone, pay close attention! Before you leave this room, you will take one of these papers with you to your old school. Monday morning, your teachers will sign you off. You need their signatures or you will not be allowed in until you have them. Take one form — no more, no less. There are only so many copies."

Professor Kirkland chuckled behind him. "An unfortunate problem with our computer system — the people using them don't know how to save." Gilton wasn't amused but Domaint laughed so he didn't said nothing.

"Once you've finished your paperwork, you may go through those doors. Take a form by the door. That's all." He walked militarily — and rather angrily — into the next room with Mrs. Domaint and Professor Kirkland.

"More paperwork? Just how much do they need?"

"Just one page," Mikey cut in. "It's, like, our own personal files!" He stared off into space for a moment. I was just waiting for the little sparkles to appear behind him like you saw on cartoons. "…I just thought of something really awesome!" he gasped loudly, startling both of us. "We should have a password!"

"Mikey, what is going on in that big, dense head of yours?"

"Think about it! In every show or movie or book you've ever seen where something scientifically horrendous happens — like when someone's brain is switched into another person's body — they always say 'Why don't we have some kind of password for times like this?!'. Now we can be prepared before that happens! And with all the strange stuff going on here, who are you to argue, Janester?"

"Is that your only selling point, Mikey?"

"And it would be tremendously awesome. Please, Leader? Please?" he begged. Literally. He got down on his knees and begged. I laughed again, imagining him grabbing hold of Gilton's leg and begging for my sanctuary.

"Here we go again," Jane sighed.

"Fine. Our pass-code is: 'Mikey is a dork.'"

"A mega dork," Jane corrected.

"Works for me," he smirked. "Oh yeah, here's your file, Leader." He handed me a manila folder with my name written in sharpie. It was the same handwriting as on the acceptance letter. Inside were a few forms and papers to be filled out, but most of it was already done.

"Those forms… Mikey, go get them." I pointed and he leapt up.

"Aye-aye, Leader!" He ran to get them exuberantly.

"He's really dedicated considering he was dumped on us."

"I'll say. I didn't think he'd actually do it. But since he has… where's that paper we need to fill out?"

Jane stuck her tongue out. "Health record. I'm leaving it to my parents."

"I'm the parent at my house. Mom's an idiot and Dad's always out of the country."

"Lucky. My parents are control freaks. They listen in to everything I do or say. They probably think Mikey and I are engaged with how many times he's called me. You're lucky I never gave him your number."

"Here you are, Leader!" he saluted, handing out the papers. "And for you, Janester."

"Must you call me that?"

"You called me a mega-dork," he smirked.

"Let's go," I interrupted, laughing. I stood up and headed to the door. "We can finish the paper later, I wanna see what's behind those doors."

"Aye-aye, Leader!" he saluted again. Through the next door was a ballroom-looking place. There was a small pool-fountain in the middle — safely sectioned off and guarded — and two more tables. The tree adults were standing around the table, talking.

"Ahh, we have company at last," Kirkland grinned.

"I bet they skipped the paper work," Gilton glowered. "Alright, kids, Professor Kirkland and Mrs. Domaint are going to show you around the uniform closets and get your sizes. Just grab the sheet from them and pick up a dorm sheet if you need one. They're on the wall. Then you're free to go."

"Mikey—"

"Aye-aye, Leader!" He ran to the far wall and grabbed all three of them dorm forms. He was back before I felt like finishing.

"You're good. You can even read minds now."

"All in a day's work, Leader." He snapped to a Star Trek salute.

Jane and I followed Mrs. Domaint to the back room while Mikey had poor Professor Kirkland — I could hear Mikey pestering him all the way back. They were measured and set up with a uniform, handed in a uniform back folded in half.

"Your real uniforms will come in soon. In the meantime, this is a security measure. Poor Gilton is going crazy with all these different shirts and pants."

"These aren't them? You have thousands of them in there."

"True."

"But those aren't them?"

"Nope. We've ordered better ones — these are just to fill in until they come in. Freak accident with their shipment." She patted our heads and let us go. Mikey was already out with a black uniform bag over his arm, still chatting with poor Professor Kirkland.

"Guys! Ready to go? I wanna ride in the carriage again! I already called my parents, you two okay? Need my phone, Leader?"

Jane grabbed her sleeve. "Don't do it," she whispered, "he'll have your number!"

"I rode my bike," I shrugged quickly.

"But it's dark out. Shouldn't you have your parents take you?"

"Mom hasn't driven in months — she's too 'busy'. C'mon, carriage-boy, let's go."


Acceptance Ceremony

The Monday was hectic. Gilton was very strict, very OCD, and insisted on everything being perfect. Mrs. Domaint said he was the head of security and disorder made his job a lot harder, but even so, he was about to rip his hair out by the roots before lunch even came around. Sad thing was, we were all behaving.

All 2,000 students — exactly — showed up that morning in our new uniforms, bright and early at 8AM as we would have any other school day. I'd spent all weekend filling out forms, but was as awake as anyone else. Mom was too drunk to get any information out of, and in the process of looking for my shot record, I found the copy of my bank card that Mom always got my money out with. I ripped it up.

By Monday, I was ready and eager to move into a dorm — packed and everything — but I found out we wouldn't move in until we had our teachers' sign off. Gilton had great pleasure in ordering all of us back onto the busses and hearing us groan. I, again, rode on a different bus than Mikey and Jane.

I had no idea how enjoyable it was to walk up to all of my teachers and tell them to sign a paper and be rid of me forever. All of her teachers signed it eagerly, except for coach. She almost hit me with the clipboard when I told her I would be going to the new school, which was sure to be a competitive rival. Maida was happy for me, though. We hugged one last time and I had to run before the coach found me in the locker room. I gathered all of my things into a duffel bag — gym clothes, science clothes, and locker contents — and was glad to know that I had about $10 on my lunch card that I got back in cash.

Jane said, over the phone, that two of her teachers were crushed. One started to cry, but better yet, the two boys who had picked on her were too angry to look her in the eye.

We all met at the cafeteria when we got back. Mikey and Jane seemed happy enough, but then again, they'd had company. We ate loads of pizza, sushi, fried cheese, and fries. Everything in the cafeteria was delicious and we fell in love with it — even the vegetables, which all of us had hated before.

A very tired Gilton came in through the doors and told everyone to turn in their dorm forms before they left. Jane and I signed up for rooms beside each other, but we felt bad for Mikey. He got stuck with a total pretty boy — that I was totally not ashamed to say was hot — named Tyler. Everyone was even given a key to their dorm room before the afternoon.

Jane and I went to our rooms right away. The building was beautiful. It looked like white ivory stone — the boy's was black ebony — and was at eight stories high, the top being completely white-tinted glass. "Is that even possible?" Jane whispered excitedly.

Out back were currently-empty stables, a tennis court, and a giant lake with the biggest goldfish anyone had ever seen.

"Isn't it incredible?" I stared down at the goldfish through the tall glass windows of the third story. I could see them, even now. Beautiful white Koi that reflected all the way up to even the fourth and fifth levels. We took the stairs the whole way just so we could see out the glass between ivory frames. "Like a mad-man's dream," I murmured. "What floor are we on?"

"Fourth. One more…," Jane panted.

We reached the fifth floor — I was barely even panting, though I reached it long before Jane — and began searching for our rooms.

"Can't be… much farther… can it?"

"According to this… they're just—" I stopped in front of the doors. "…right here."

Jane stuck her key in the door and it opened to the side electronically. "What do you wanna bet Gilton's got these on security? 'After five-o-clock, no one may enter or leave the room!'" she laughed. "That would suck."

"I wouldn't say that if I were you."

"Why not?"

"There's a camera right there." I pointed to the corner of the ceiling and pushed Jane inside, smiling and waving at it.

The room was a rectangle with a long desk that covered the entire far side, leaving room for the window to shine through a pure white lace curtain. On the desk was a computer — bright orange and silver — and a matching laptop in a box. "Hope I got one," I murmured.

The bed was on the door-side of the room, and was a bunk bed with a couch on the bottom instead of a mattress. It was orange, like her computer, and she sat down on it. "Orange is my favorite color!" Jane squealed.

"I wonder what my room looks like." Her head perked up. "Just wondering if it's a coincidence — you and orange. I've never had a favorite color."

"You poor, deprived child," Jane sighed. She rubbed her hands over that couch like she had never seen felt anything so amazing before in her life.

Between the desk and the bed on the left of the door was a door, not a closet. "Bathroom?"

"My own?!" Jane gasped, leaping up. She pushed past me and looked inside. A long, thin bathroom with a large square shower at the end. A white toilet and a white marble sink with a soap dispenser, two tubes of toothpaste, and two toothbrushes on a wire rack beside the shiny mirror. Jane checked under the sink. "Someone went to a lot of trouble," she grinned.

I was more focused on the far door through the bathroom. There was a sign in foam letters with my name on it. There was a matching one on Jane's door, but she never noticed it. She was checking out the back cabinets and seeing what all was in there. "Towels, wash cloths, wash clothes, shower shoes… They thought of everything." She turned back to the shower. "There's a curtain in here. Wonder what that's for— where're you going?"

I opened the door into the other room. "Are you crazy?! That's someone else's room! You can't go in there!" She leapt onto my back, but only got carried inside instead. "Stop it! You can't go in there!"

"Can, too," I smirked, dropping Jane off on the black satin couch.

The walls were white, the curtains black, the computer black and white, the couch black, the bed white, the pillows black, and the doors all black. I looked around strangely. "Looks like a yin-yang gave birth all over my room."

"Your room?" Jane asked in disbelief. "You're… black?"

"Guess so." I walked to the desk and opened my new laptop. Black. Shiny, smooth black. "Strange, huh? They're giving us two computers…"

"So what? They're amazing! It's probably, like, a maiden voyage gift or something. I hear that on Oprah, for the sixteenth season opening, everyone in the audience got a new car. Something like that."

"Hope my sweet sixteen will be like that, but it makes me wonder. What's the catch here? We pay less than a fast-food paycheck for tuition, we get free uniforms, this amazing school, free food, and two computers? Where's the catch?"

"Maybe there just isn't one."

"There's always a catch, Jane. I just… have to find it."

" 'Have' to find it? What's wrong with being blissfully ignorant? Just enjoy it!"

"I can't until I know the downside. It's a personal flaw in my brain."

"Well, suit yourself, Leader, but I'm going to enjoying myself." She flung herself back into her room through the doors and landed on her bright-orange carpet. "These rooms are the bomb!"

She crawled onto her bed and disappeared inside of the thick fluffiness. Her mattress was so soft she sank down nearly a foot into it. "This is awesome! And these pillows — just look!" She held up one bigger than she was.

"Yeah, they're only missing the complimentary chocolates," I grumbled. I continued to look around the room for a leaky pipe or an unpatched wire. Maybe this 'Dean Lakesview' guy is really an axe murderer and he's luring us all in for a grand execution…

Jane popped up in her face, a piece of chocolate between her fingers. "Found it."

"Okay, now I know there's a catch."

Jane sighed and sat down at my desk. "Look. Looks like a letter from the big man himself."

"Dean Lakesview?"

"Gilton." She handed an envelope to me and sat back.

"'Dear Miss Gale… We are happy you're attending, blah, blah, blah, your classes are as follows, blah, blah, blah, and we hope to see you Monday. Signed, Gilton.'"

"Wonder if I got one."

"Hoping for his autograph?" I sniggered. Jane's face turned red and she dashed into her room. Did she have a crush on Gilton? I shook the very idea from my mind.

"Here we go," she said, coming back with a brighter face. "I just… wanted to know my classes." She grabbed both of our papers and compared them. I continued to look around the room. No faulty water lines (that I could see), no frayed wires (that I could see), no mice, rats, or roaches (that I could see)… "Just stop being so suspicious and enjoy it all! Take it in while you can."

"While I can?"

"You know. Before you… do find something to say is the catch. Be blissful. Breathe the air."

"Yeah, whatever." I sniffed the air and almost choked on my saliva.

"These classes are longer than I'm used to, but there's less of them — thank goodness. Do you think it's a year-round school? I hope not."

"That wouldn't even be considered a 'dang' on my chart," I said proudly, inspecting the window. "I would rather be here twenty-four/seven than back home for three months with my mother."

"You don't like your mother?"

I didn't answer.

"I hope I like my teachers. I hate it when I get stupid teachers who don't know what they're doing."

"This coming from the girl who sees no evil in this place."

"It's still a school, and school is… bad. Then again, seeing as how Matari has been for me so far, I just might like all of my teachers!"

Bzzzt Bzzzt Bzzzt Bzzzt Bzzzt

"Is that your phone?"

"Mine's on silent."

Bzzzt Bzzzt Bzzzt Bzzzt Bzzzt

"Yours?"

"Silent."

"Close your eyes and listen for it."

Bzzzt Bzzzt Bzzzt Bzzzt Bzzzt

I followed it to a latch in the wall, a strange-looking phone vibrating. "Hello?"

"Good, you found your phone. Just because you've been assigned a dorm, you have yet to be instructed to stay there permanently. Vacate the dorms until given instructions to inhabit."

"Who is it?" Jane asked.

"Gilton," I whispered. "Yes, sir. … Yes, sir. … Yes, sir. … Yes, sir. … Okay. I mean, yes, sir! … Yes, sir, goodbye." I hung it up quickly with a cringe. "We gotta move."

"Why?"

"Gilton's not happy. We're not allowed in here."

"Why are you so upset what cranky-butt wants?"

"Because he's on his way over."

That afternoon, I felt more than depressed enough for the entire world. How could I leave that amazing dorm room like that? It was wonderful, beautiful, and perfect except for its lack of a television. "You're late again," Mom snapped. "Where were you?"

"School."

"Your principal called. Talked like you were dead."

"Nice to know you mourned before you started making stir fry."

I didn't sleep well that night, stuffed in the bed that I had been in since I was a child. At least I hadn't gotten in my bed like Jane had. Jane was suffering more than I was, missing that big, soft, squishy mattress. I tossed and turned all night, longing to be six feet off the ground and only a few feet from the ceiling…

I woke the next morning to my alarm. 7:35. No, not my alarm. My alarm was set for 8:00. I checked my phone. Jane was calling. "It's about time you woke up! I've been trying to get hold of you for an hour now!" She was speaking in a hushed whisper, nervously.

"What's up?" I yawned.

"Cranky-butt security guy is blowing a gasket because you're not here."

"Why would that matter? School hasn't—"

"There's a dorm meeting and you're the only one missing. …And now he's glaring at me for talking on the phone — get your butt over here!" She hung up quickly.

I was at the school, in my uniform, in less than ten minutes. Gilton was tapping his foot impatiently, refusing to start because he didn't wantto repeat himself. I apologized 100 times and sat down beside Jane. "I called you a dozen times," she insisted. "You never picked up. We were supposed to start over an hour ago."

"How come you got the message, but I didn't?"

"I woke up with a letter on my pillow beside me."

"Oh. Creepy."

"Nah. I think they use carrier pigeons or… something."

Mrs. Domaint had to take over for Gilton before he blew his head off and called everyone's attention. "We would just like to make it clear that although all of you have been assigned a dorm, the official school year begins Monday. Next Monday. Until then, there will be no staying the night. Feel free to wander the halls, live in them, sleep in them, but when the campus closes at five, it's time to go home. Trust me, you just might miss it after a while."

"The dorm or our home?" I whispered to Jane. She snickered back.

Gilton looked at Mrs. Domaint approvingly. "Gilton is having a stress attack from telling everyone this separately, and he apparently doesn't sleep since he's been up plotting this for hours, so we're sorry to wake you all up so early." He glared at her out of the corner of his eye.

We were all dismissed, and the three of us wandering students managed to meet in a back corner. On the way out, Gilton handed us all a supply list. "More wasted paper?" I sighed. He flicked me over the head.

"Just get them before Monday. Since you have everything else you need, stay away until then."

"Enjoy your summer, kids," Mrs. Domaint waved, keeping Gilton in check. Mikey and Jane left as quickly as they could, but I snuck back to see Mrs. Domaint.

"Um, I had a question." Gilton sighed heavily and knocked his head on the stone pillar behind him. "I heard before that pets are allowed?"

"Do you want a pet to come with you or just to get one in general?"

"Well, see, I have this dog…"

The next morning, Gilton and Professor Kirkland stopped by my house in a carrier truck to get Bingo. It was five a.m., but — according to Gilton — time was important and waiting just to do something was pointless, so five a.m. it was.

Bingo was appointed to Gilton's security department since I had no legal claim over him, and was to be trained as a guard dog. I thought the idea wasn't a far-off possibility — maybe — but Gilton loathed the very idea of a dog. Professor Kirkland just liked to pet him. "Well, so you must be Dingo." Bingo crouched down and growled. "Oh, my mistake. Bingo. Sorry." Bingo forgave him. "Well, time to take you away." Bingo snarled, his fur puffing out and his teeth showing.

"Altou, just grab the mutt and get in the car," Gilton whined. "I don't have time to—"

"I got him," I called. I came out in my pajamas with a brand new leash in my hands. "C'mere, Bingo, wanna go for a ride? We're gonna take you to Gilton's place, and then I can see you whenever I want, okay?"

Bingo let me hook him up and we hopped in the back of the truck. "Where's the girl?"

"She's riding in the back, Gilton."

"What for?"

"To keep the dog clam. He's afraid of enclosed spaces. Told me so."

"You and your talking-to-animals…"

I could hear them through the window, but ignored what they said and opened it. "We're all set back here. Anytime, Mr. Gilton."

His shoulders sagged and he sighed, but we drove on. I left the window open so he would be sure to hear me. "Yeah, you're going to like living with Mr. Gilton, aren't you boy? He's gonna feed you and bathe you and give you tummy rubs and pick up your doo-doo — won't that be fun?" Bingo barked in response, and I think Professor Kirkland laughed before Gilton glared at him. "And he'll probably even have growling contests with you, too. He's really good at growling. He does it all the time."

"You do realize I can hear what you're saying, don't you?" he snapped. Bingo growled, but his tail wagged to show he was only playing. He jumped forward and shoved his snout through the window, drooling on Gilton's shoulder. "I don't know how she tricked me into taking this mutt."

"Hey! He's not a mutt." I put my hands over his ears as it to shield him. "He is a purebred mixture, like chocolate milk."

We arrived at Mr. Gilton's building at the very back of the campus. It was a small, stone building that looked more like a shed, but once inside I found out it had 7 sub-floors, each filled with top-secret spy equipment… that he wouldn't let me see. But he did let me see the room where Bingo would be staying.

"Chain him up to that doghouse before you leave."

"He doesn't need a chain. He'll be fine on his own, won't you, boy?" Bingo barked and sat down, wagging his tail. "See, Mr. Gilton? He doesn't need a chain."

"I won't be woken up at 2 in the morning because he felt like moving around. I am a very light sleeper and I prefer to sleep when I have the chance."

"But Mrs. Domaint said that you didn't sleep."

"I'm not a vampire," he growled, trying to control himself. "Now chain up the dog or I'll do it for you."

"Aw, it's okay, boy, you'll grow on him." I kissed Bingo goodbye and hooked him up to the chain. He looked after me sadly. As soon as I left the two of them alone, Bingo began to howl and rolled over onto his back.

"No, you stupid dog, stop making that noise!"

"AWROOOO!"

"I said shut up! I won't listen to this!!"

"AR-AWROOOOO! AR-AROOO!"


Before-School Entertainment

"So, Jane, I was wondering if you wanted to go swimming later. You know, to pass the time."

"I was planning on going school shopping this afternoon. Want to meet me in town and we can go together? My mom won't let me out of her sight if she thinks I'm going to be alone, and she insists on having someone go with me to shop."

"I was just thinking about just getting my stuff at the campus store. Wanna go later?"

"Sure. After the pool, of course. So…what time does the pool open?"

"Ten."

"And just what are you doing up so early?"

"I passed my dog along to Mr. Cranky-butt. I can't wait to see how tired he is after a night of Bingo's howling."

"Aw, that's horrible! Making Bingo live with Gilton."

"It's alright. He's used to people ignoring him."

"Gilton or Bingo?"

"Both," I laughed.

"Okay, so 10'oclock at the city pool. I'll be there!"

I met Jane at the pool at 10AM sharp as her mom was dropping her off. "There you are! I've been waiting for hours."

"Jeez, you're bored. Mom, this is Jamie. My friend from Academy, remember?"

"Oh yes, the one from the entrance exams. I remember."

"We're gonna go shopping once we're done, so pick me up at Academy around five."

"You girls shouldn't spend so much time there. You're going to be sick of it once you're full-time students."

"All the more reason to spend time there while we like it, right?"

"I'll see you this afternoon, Jane. It was nice to meet you, Jamie, and thank you for being her friend."

"Mom," she hissed. "C'mon, let's go." She grabbed my arm and dragged me toward the doors. "Bye mom!"

"It was nice to meet you!" I yelled over my shoulder.

"I heard that they purposely had to reopen the pool for Matari because the manager took some oath to always be open during the summer, and since its still Matari's summer — isn't that cool? That means that only the kids from Matari are going to be there! Class bonding in the works."

"If you say so."

"Don't tell me you're still suspicious. What could go wrong? It's an amazing school, and you know that you're excited about going."

"I'm more excited about living away from home. I mean, even if I'd just been offered a dorm and still attended my old school, I'd be happy."

"Don't say things like that! You're a full-fledged Matari student now."

"Speaking of which, I wonder what they're mascot is? I mean, don't school have mascots for sports teams and stuff? I don't wanna go around saying 'I'm a Matari student' forever. I wanna say 'I'm a Matari Death Bringer' or something ferocious like that."

"They've only been open three weeks. Give them a chance to break in their hallways."

We weren't even close to being the first ones in the water, even though the pool had only been open 10 minutes. The whole pool was already full of the other students that I recognized from the final assembly. We might not have been first, but we certainly weren't going to stick around to slip in slowly. We went head-first off the high dive and played water tag for almost an hour.

"Wow," Jane laughed, "that was the most exercise I've gotten all year! You sure are fast at everything, Jamie. Running, swimming, bicycling, testing… What are you slow at?"

"Waking up," I smirked. "Unless, of course, someone's calling me to say that I'm late… Then I can usually snap up pretty quick, and suffer for it later."

"Lucky. My parents send my little brother in to wake me up. You hungry yet?"

We went by the snack bar — I got a soda, she got a soda, cookies, and a pack of sour straws — and twenty minutes later, she puked from the chlorine and sour straws. We evacuated and went to the city park instead, sitting on the swings.

"What was your old school like, Jamie?"

"Just like every other school, I guess."

"My school thought that if you weren't popular and laughing all the time, you were depressed and needed medication. They also made those of us who were "too quiet" go to therapy sessions to help us 'reach out' to our fellow peers — who hated us."

"What kind of school was that?" I scoffed.

"A prep school…"

"Oh. My mom hates the idea of prep schools. Mainly the part of the tuition cost."

"Yeah, that's why my mom thought I should look into Matari. She said that she'd transfer me if I really wanted to go, just because it was cheaper, but I wanted to go for a lot more reasons than that."

"Like what?"

"Remember what I said before about those guys telling the school I was a lesbian?" she asked nervously.

"Yeah. So what?"

"One of the popular girls at school talked a lesbian girl to kiss me, and then had her boyfriend snap a picture of it. The next day, it was all over the school — flyers, posters, everything. And then the teachers only ragged on me because of it, said it was PDA and inappropriate. And after that, those boys started spreading the rumors that I was dating her. It was bad enough having to go through that, but then I had that girl in my PE class every day, and all the other girls told us to go make out in the shower room if we wanted to be left alone."

"Hey, do you want a smoothie? I'm getting hungry."

"Thanks for your sympathy," she said blandly, "it really means a lot to me."

"It's in the past, remember? You said so yourself. What does it matter what some punks at your old school said to you? After all, we're Matari Death-Bringers now!"

We made a stop at WeinerBasket and got more food — the thought of more food suddenly made Jane's stomach pains go away — and then we ran to the campus store for supplies. "You still have the list that Gilton gave you?"

"Yup. I didn't dare leave it — I had to drop poor Bingo off with him this morning. We should go say hi to him before we turn in tonight. Wanna meet him? He's cute?"

"Dogs don't like me."

"Bingo likes just about any one I introduce him to."

We spent about two hours in the bookstore. I bought three shirts — with the money I didn't deposit from my last paycheck — pencils, pens, notebooks (with really cool covers you could draw on and pop off if you didn't like them later), all before we moved onto find backpacks. It took us nearly twenty minutes to find the notebooks we wanted because they had over 200 styles, different colors among them, and their pencil/pen selection was even better.

On the far back wall was what we were looking for. An entire 10-by-35 foot wall dedicated to the fabric wonders of carrying things. For added convenience, they were catalogued in a 'magazine' that showed all the styles.

"Now this looks just up Mr. Gilton's alley of 'organized'."

"Yeah, in an almost creepy way." She looked down at her watch. "Wow, it's barely three. We still have plenty of time before my mom gets here."

"Good, then we can drop all of our stuff off in the room before they kick us out tonight." I was busy searching through the catalogue.

"Why are you getting a new bag? Isn't your old one good enough? I mean, the new school year just started, so it shouldn't be worn out that much."

"I haven't gotten a new bag in almost four years now — I'm getting a new one." I studied every picture carefully, and picked out a perfect one. A side backpack with a changeable strap so I can switch it from side to shoulder with a simple hook of the clip. I usually got tired of one variation or another before halfway through the school year, so this was pretty perfect.

We checked out — a grand total of $70 on account (we were each given $100 to spend at the beginning) — and picked up the keys to a rentable golf cart for campus use. I tried to convince Jane to grab one, too, so we could race, but we spotted Mr. Gilton outside and decided against the idea.

"What are you two doing?"

"Shopping, Mr. Gilton. We're trying to get ready for next Monday before everyone else does — man, you look tired. Is something wrong?"

He glared, specifically at me. "That mutt of yours didn't stop barking all morning. I couldn't sleep."

"Go for the bones, Mr. Gilton. He loves 'em. See ya." I gassed the cart and we drove over to the dormitory. Thanks to my handy-dandy new stretchable backpack, we got everything up to our suite in one trip. "I'm gonna go save Gilton's rear," I told Jane, working on her computer. "I'll be back later."

She waved some form of departure and let me leave. I bought a bone at the store and hurried to the security building. I pounded on the door, calling for them, and a monitor blinked to life beside me, Mr. Gilton on the screen. "Miss Gale, what could you possibly want now?"

I could still hear Bingo howling in the background, so held up the bone. "I'm just here to save you."

The door unlocked mechanically and I barged in. "Bingo! Darling, I've brought you a bone!"

Bingo ran up to me and pounced, knocking me over. He took the bone without a second's hesitation and ran back into his little room to chew on it. "Well, what do you know? He likes it in there now. Good thing, huh, Mr. Gilton?"

"If you say so," he growled, pulling ear plugs out. "Now would you do me a favor and not distract me anymore?"

"Okay, see you tomorrow—"

"Monday. Don't come back until Monday. I don't want people here until Monday."

"Monday. Got it."

The door opened again, this time with Mr. Kirkland. "Good morning, Professor," I said.

"Good afternoon, Miss Gale," he chuckled. He lifted a vial in his hand. "Gilton, I've brought the, uh… medicine you requested."

"Good. It's about time." He swiped it and took it into Bingo's room.

"What was that?"

"Just a little something to help Bingo behave."

"YOU'RE POISONING HIM?!" I was ready to pounce on him, but Professor Kirkland stopped me.

"It's just a formula I put together today. Just watch."

Mr. Gilton took off the cap of the vial and pulled out a tiny needle, which he inserted into Bingo's leg before either the dog nor I could counter. Nothing happened.

"…Was that supposed to be impressive?"

"No, but this will be," Gilton smiled for the first time that I had seen. "Bingo, sit."

He sat. And not only did he sit, he sat perfectly poised and erect, his eyes focused on Mr. Kirkland's hand.

"Lie down."

He plopped himself down and kept his eyes on Kirkland's hand.

"Impressed yet?"

"What did you give him?" I gasped.

"Just some medicine I whipped together. Now, Bingo, listen to Mr. Gilton and don't be too loud while he's trying to concentrate."

Bingo actually nodded and then returned to his bone. Professor Kirkland patted me on the head and bid me farewell. "I'll see you in class Monday morning, Jamie. You'll be surprised at just how much we'll get done in such a short time."