Fate works in funny ways sometimes. You see, had Maya not stepped into Elme School on September the 1st of 2016, Oz would have failed his final exams, Charlie would not have discovered true friendship, William would have stayed a conceited asshole for life, Viktor would have lost himself and Helena would not have married for love. Of course, some of this seems rather cliché, but it is nonetheless true, because as you may have heard, fate works in funny ways.
Maya did come to study in Elme School, and their lives evolved in mysterious ways.
Through fleeting glances, quips, dangerous adventures and quite a lot of smoking, they changed a school and changed a law and maybe changed a country, but most importantly changed themselves.
There were perhaps a thousand little moments and realizations that led the six to enlightenment—in a more prosaic way: graduation—but each could pinpoint a second where they felt transformed… a life-changing experience. It is not for us to judge if they are correct or not in their choice, if they had not by then begun to grow, or if at that point they were still blind.
In any case, their story began with a little girl and a fake name.
7.30 a.m.: To Start A Year
Their first day was rather ordinary.
Elme School opened its doors at seven-thirty a.m, and a dozen or so students filtered through its massive wrought-iron gates. Those who knew each other chatted excitedly; the rest trudged through the park that surrounded the core of the school and on to the Main Hall.
Oz, Viktor and Helena had not arrived yet. The first was struggling to make his Shi Tzu dog swallow a pair of sleeping pills, and this endeavor had, so far, been met with two angry bites. Viktor was stuck in the traffic with his father, which always made for a very tense moment. Helena was waiting for her little brother Daniel to finish his breakfast.
About William—well, William wouldn't arrive for two weeks yet, but more on that later.
Maya and Charlie had arrived, though. Charlie's mom had just dropped them off with a few terse warnings about not getting into trouble. The teenagers were now plunged in a rather uncomfortable silence, as neither knew the other very well, and Charlie was rather shy.
There would come a time when they would laugh about those few first awkward hours—but again, more on that later.
All the same, their first day was rather ordinary.
7.39 a.m.: High Hopes
She dragged her heavy trunk through the iron gates, then off to the side, and released it with a sigh. The luggage was new—they'd bought it with the support committee's help—and bright pink, which was a color she rather appreciated, but one of its wheels had already broken. And she had yet to haul it off to her room, which was… God knew where. Should she take this inconvenience as bad omen? It certainly felt like a bad omen. Maybe she shouldn't be attempting to enroll at all. Maybe this school really wasn't right for her—
"This is it," huffed an out-of-breath voice.
Her eyes flicked up, and she took in her guide: a pale boy about the same height as her, but scrawnier, and with a full head of messy blond locks. He had nice blue eyes, she thought, and framed by even bluer glasses they were gorgeous—but this detail could not hold her attention, because as the time to register approached, she grew increasingly panicked.
"It's broken, isn't it?" She jumped at the remark. The boy was frowning at her trunk.
"Yes," she replied, rather unnecessarily.
His eyes went from the luggage to her face, and dropped to the uncooperative wheel again. "Would you like me to carry it up to your room then? That is—when we know which one they've assigned you…"
"No, that's alright. Besides, you've already got your own…"
"It's okay, I'll just…"
"No, I'm..." Couldn't he just listen? She wasn't worried about the broken wheel of her trunk—she was terrified that…
"Alright—if you're sure."
"I am." At this, she cast a nervous glance around and took a deep, trembling breath.
They were in a park of sorts. Tall elm trees, for which the school was named, framed the gravel path on which they were standing. Dawn filtered through their countless tiny leaves, which rustled under the September wind, and cast the ground in a broken grey light. Further along the track, she could discern an ancient stone fountain—five sculpted cherubs danced around the water jet, and the delicate work tickled some poetic part in her… But none of this managed to distract her.
The school administration was going to bust her for sure.
"We should go register you at the Main Hall before other students arrive, Maya," said her guide presently. He was very serious about using her fake name, and for this she was grateful. "If we wait any longer, there'll be a crowd…"
She smiled, because she could not quite express her fear, and grasped her trunk handle once more. Her mind flitted about anxiously—she grew bothered by the fact she couldn't remember her guide's complete name…. It was Charles… Charles Wis… "Something"—"Something" European even, but the last part really was unpronounceable.
She was trying to remember the precise arrangement of syllables when they came into full view of the school.
Despite her dry throat and churning guts, it was a mesmerizing sight. She'd read brochures and seen glossy pictures of the buildings—the renovated remains of a convent that dated back to the Renaissance, and had been nationalized—but seeing it in person was, as the cliché puts it, another thing entirely. The main building was a massive work of cream stone, carved with dim arches and deep-set windows. Two separated wings had been built against it at a perpendicular angle some years later—the dormitories—and the whole structure surrounded a vast paved courtyard, across which some students were dragging their trunks.
The school stood solemn and silent against the grey morning sky, and it seemed almost surreal to Maya that she would be spending a year there.
If she played the part. If no unforeseeable catastrophe happened…
"Um!" She started, realizing that Charles had backtracked to draw her out of her daydream, and instantly bit her lip. He guide was observing her with a bit of awkwardness and perhaps a little defensiveness. "I tried calling you by your… you know, your "name", several times… And you didn't react. You should maybe work on that."
She stared at him in silence for a second, a bit amazed that he hadn't realized how deeply frightened she was—then slowly nodded. "I suppose so. Thank you, Charles."
And they made their way across the courtyard, which was rather an ordinary trip for Charlie, but a tense moment for Maya. The Main Hall was as grand as she expected—two great marble staircases rested on either side of the room, and an antique chandelier hung from the ceiling. Though it was no longer used for lighting, its crystals sparkled, and it contributed to the grave atmosphere of the almost empty room… Indeed, only a few younger boys were present—they did not glance at either Maya or Charlie, busy mingling on the first steps of the left stairway.
Then Charlie led her through a wooden door to the school administration office, and her fear surged. A dozen tired students where already waiting in line. The volume was kept to a low hum, which broke off each time a pretty young woman called the next student out. Then the line sidled forward, and said student got their keys in exchange for a few signatures.
The whole scene unfolded in an eerily quiet manner, wrapped in a sort of early morning stillness, and this did not ease Maya's nerves. They waited to register and for a tense quarter of an hour, and she kept expecting a bang, a shout. Her mind ran over worst-case scenarios, and she forcefully tried to blank her thoughts.
Through this, Charlie remained silent and unhelpful.
But Charlie's mom had—without a doubt—forged her identity papers correctly, and the school had no reason to suspect fraud (did it?)… She spoke knew her back story, so there was really no danger of them guessing where she came from… And the secretary looked so nice (but Maya was still terrified).
Charlie filed his papers, and then it was her turn.
"Ok, Maya Black, sixth year," mused the pretty administrator. "Well, here's the copy of your birth certificate, passport… letter from your mom's tenant, bank account info, mobile phone bill, medical info and… where's the emergency contact info?" She briefly shuffled her papers, frowning, and Maya's heart skipped. "Ok—got it. All right, I'll just need you to sign here, here and there. Once more at the bottom of this page, lower right-hand corner…"
The woman handed her a cute pink pen, and Maya bent to sign the documents, flashing a nervous smile once she was done.
"Worried about your first day, are you?" said the secretary. "You shouldn't be—A sweet thing like you…" She scanned a list for Maya's name and the corresponding room number, then gave her a pair of silver keys. "There's an extra in case you lose the original. Don't give it to anyone else."
The ease with which she had been registered seemed surreal to Maya. "I won't," she said, her voice a bit hoarse.
"Boys aren't allowed in the girls' wing, you know," added the woman with a hint of a smile.
"O-Of course! I've never thought—" At this, the secretary grinned, and Maya felt her cheeks heat (surreal). "I'll keep the keys," she added faintly.
"All right." Another grin. "We're done for now. Come back at three p.m. to retrieve your student's card."
"Did Ms. Alfassi, er… did she say something inappropriate to you?" asked Charlie once she'd joined him near the entrance of the room. She shot him a quizzical glance, and he hurriedly added: "You seemed embarrassed…"
"No, it's just…"
A horrible thought seemed to dawn on Charlie. "Did she suspect anything?"
"No!" An awkward beat of silence. "She was saying I shouldn't give my spare to…" She bit her lip. "A boy."
"Oh!" He chuckled. Let a relieved breath out. "Well, of course you shouldn't… I mean, if you don't want to…"
"I was scared though…" she replied earnestly, a bit forcefully. "I've been terrified all morning, and you…"
"I—" he started, before falling silent, shame rising to his cheeks. "I'm really sorry, I didn't realize… I'm pretty confident in my mom's skills, and I didn't think you'd be so afraid."
"Well, be a bit more considerate in the future," she said softly.
He cast her a fleeting, self-conscious glance—and suddenly she thought she might laugh.
Because she'd been accepted in Elme School without a hitch, and the sun was rising (optimistic) and the year was just starting (she'd make it amazing). Her fear had dissolved and she felt so light, so buoyant, that she wanted to laugh… But his eyes were blue and soft, too blue and soft for her to snicker, and so she let him lead her to the courtyard, where an impressive mass of students were gathering.
8.00 a.m.: Wizard
"Hello, cousin! And hello… new girl."
Maya started and turned around. A lithe boy was approaching them with a carefree demeanor, though his battered trunk and bulging backpack weighed greatly on his figure. He considered her with her smirk that transformed into a wince as he hauled the luggage upright, and set his other bag down. Then he blew out a dramatic sigh.
"It gets heavier each year!"
Charlie shrugged. "Depends on what you bring." He eyed the backpack with suspicion.
"No, that's the boring answer, Charles."
Her guide raised his eyebrows and turned to Maya, who had been listening with a bit of a smile. "Maya, this is my cousin… Oz Dubois." He then waved to his cousin: "Oz, this is a girl my mother knows, Maya Black."
"Nice to meet you, Miss Black," grinned Oz. "You have a weirdly appropriate surname, if I may add."
"Because I'm black?" she inferred drily. "Well, you know, my skin is technically a very dark brown."
"Ah, you're one for technicalities," replied the boy in a spirited manner. He winked at Charles. "You two are going to get along fantastically."
"You're embarrassing," said Charlie.
Oz smirked. "Technically…"
Their discussion might have gone on, but Maya intervened, huffing. "Black might be a 'weirdly appropriate' surname for me, but Oz is weird, period." She felt rather rude saying this, but her nerves were frayed this morning.
"Touché," laughed Oz. He leaned closer to her, but addressed Charles. "This one's feisty."
"I'm here, you know," she told him, but her mind skipped to something else as she observed both boys. "Are you two really cousins? You don't look like each other."
It was true. Charlie was a blue-eyed blond with a smattering of freckles and a scrawny build; Oz had brown eyes and black hair, and possessed a sturdier figure. Perhaps the only traits they shared were a straight nose and curly locks.
"That's right,' said Oz. 'I'm prettier."
"His father is Chilean," explained Charlie more helpfully. "But our mothers are sisters."
"And I kept my mother's last name…" added Oz. "Unlike that one, here, who could be described as something of traitor…"
At this, Maya bit her lip. "Er—About that," she said to Charlie. "I can't seem to remember your last name… I'm sorry, it's just a bit hard to pronounce."
"Don't worry," he sighed. "Wisniewski. Comes from Poland."
"Is your dad Polish then?" Maya inquired.
"Er—his grandfather," replied Charlie. "We don't speak the language or anything…"
"Note that one down, Maya," quipped Oz. "Polish: the one thing he's not amazing at."
Charlie snorted. "If you spent less time with girls and more time studying, you'd get the same grades as me."
"No, definitely not," dismissed Oz. "Besides, I don't want to deprive all the world's women…"
"Definitely not," quipped Charlie. But he had noticed Maya was smiling, so his reply stung perhaps slightly less than he'd intended.
"Well, I should get registered," said his cousin at length. "Take care of my backpack… you know why. It was nice meeting you," he added to Maya.
"I'm glad to have met you too," she smiled. And she meant it.
8.10 a.m.: Star Wars
Mrs. Alfassi was quite fond of Oz, and spent an outrageous amount of time—as it seemed to other queuing students—joking with him about not giving this year's spare key to a girl. Of course, Oz was bound to give or lose his spare eventually, and she knew it too, but she could not find it in herself to admonish him.
As Oz signed the last documents and exited his office, he ran into someone he knew very well—quite literally, and he fell onto his rear.
"Viktor! You look cheerful…" He stood up, hauling his trunk up with him and considering his friend's expression. "Hang on, I think I just made a considerable overstatement…"
"Hello," said the student he had just collided with—though he hadn't fallen or budged on the impact.
This boy had been his best friend and dorm mate for the last six years. A grimace currently altered his fine traits.
"Did your daddy dear drive you to school?" lightly asked Oz.
Viktor shrugged. "Sure."
"What'd he say?"
"The usual." He seemed to search for a distraction, and the great amount of first years crowding the office provided him one. "I better start queuing," he sighed.
"No way," snorted Oz. "Eleven-year-olds are definitely contagious. You'll get chickenpox. Just come on—If you're with me, Alfassi'll let you cut the line for sure…"
Viktor did not argue the point, and a few pushes, shoves, and intimidated first-year squeaks later, he'd properly registered for another year at Elme School. The boys dragged their trunks out of the room and stepped out into the sunlit courtyard, Oz commenting on the girls they passed.
"Oh—Look at that, Amelie's definitely got a tan…"
"She's not my style."
Oz smirked knowingly. "No chick's your style except…"
"Jackass," retorted Viktor. "Speaking of—Have you seen Olivia yet? If she tries to knock you out again, I'm not intervening…" He gave Oz a pointed look.
"That one's crazy," lamented his friend.
"Never thought you'd complain about a paparazzi."
"But that one's crazy."
"You make them crazy."
Oz thought about it. "You're right," he grinned at length. "But anyway—on the same subject—would you believe Charlie's met a girl…"
"A girl?" echoed Viktor in a rather surprised manner. "You mean an artificial intelligence?"
"Harsh," snorted Oz. "No, a real chick. Wait a sec—that's her, see, near our bench…"
'Our bench' referred to a particular seat in the courtyard that stood near the edge of the park. Oz had engraved their names on it at the end of third year, and no other student had tried to claim it since. As it were, Maya and Charlie were in a deep conversation about, of all things, star constellations—so did not notice the two boys approach.
"Talking about Star Wars?" exclaimed Oz. "Don't even try, Charlie. Han shot first."
"No way. It's clearly Greedo," the boy fired back.
"Says the official version. But we're talking about the classy, cold-blooded Han Solo…"
Charlie frowned. "Official is real."
"Aand that's the boring answer, Charles." Oz smirked. "Anyway…" he added blithely, gesturing to Maya and then Viktor. "New girl, this is my friend, and friend, this is the new girl…"
"I'm Maya," said Maya. She smiled. "And my weirdly appropriate last name is Black."
"Viktor Klein," replied Viktor, and he laughed. "I see you've already met Oz."
"Are you German?" asked Maya, rather hopefully, upon hearing his last name. Her mom's boss had been named Klein, and her family had come from East Germany.
"That's right," said Viktor, a bit surprised. "My father's an expatriate…"
"He's fucking rich," empathically added Oz. "Volkswagen rich."
"Dad works for Toyota," frowned Viktor.
"Well, does that make him poor?" retorted Oz. And as both his friend and Charlie rolled their eyes, he added with great satisfaction: "My point exactly."
"Everything always seems to be your point," observed Maya.
Oz grinned. "I know, right? Hey—cousin dearest, did you watch my backpack?"
Charlie acquiesced and the brunet moved towards his half-opened bag to check. He affectionately patted a hand down the length of the coarse exterior and, sitting on their bench, pulled the sack unto his lap.
Viktor was struck with an awful suspicion. "Have you brought your dog again this year?" he asked with a hint of world-weariness.
"Of course!" exclaimed Oz. "It went so well last year."
"A dog?" gaped Maya.
The three boys exchanged glances.
"Yes," said Oz. "I've brought a dog. I'm not joking. He's in my backpack. Just here. Really. You can't tell."
She moved to the backpack, and Oz drew the zipper down a bit further to reveal a cute little golden snout. A drowsy bark escaped the bag, and when Maya tentatively approached her hand, a pink tongue darted across her knuckles.
"He's my dirty little secret," said the owner fondly.
"No one wants to know about yoursex life, Oz," snorted Viktor.
"That's not what I meant."
Maya beamed as the dog produced another happy bark. "What's his name?"
"Artoo, for R2D2."
"I call it Jabba the Mutt," muttered Viktor.
Charlie laughed at this, but Maya only grew increasingly confused. She glanced at the three boys and bit her lip. "I don't really know Star Wars…" she said.
There was a beat of silence. "You mean you haven't heard about Star Wars?" asked Charlie, rather puzzled.
"I mean that I know you're talking about movies, but… I've really never watched them. Or read any of the books. Are there books?" She suddenly wasn't sure of the fact.
Oz looked at her in wonder. "Han Solo? Princess Leia? Emo Anakin? Boring Luke?" She shook her head, missing all of the references, and started to feel anxious.
Meanwhile, Oz turned his head to Charlie. "But wasn't that what you were talking about when we arrived?" he asked, perplexed.
"No," replied his cousin. "Star constellations. They're different here than where she…" He did not say 'than where she comes from', because that would have been suspicious.
Maya tensed anyhow and strove to distract the boys. "In any case, I'd love to watch the movies…"
"We'll do that together," assured Viktor. "Oz has them on his laptop, I think…"
"Mine's got a small screen," lamented Oz. "We should use your expensive ShitBook pro…"
"It's not shit," defensively retorted its owner. "It's Mac!"
"Once again, my point exactly," said Oz. Charlie threw in a sarcastic remark about his inflated ego, and Maya sat on the bench, head spinning with all the quips.
Artoo poked his snout out of the backpack to lick her palm, and she laughed, feeling (truly) happy for the first time in weeks (months).
8.40 a.m.: Interlude
Olivia Markosa was a pretty girl of fifteen. She had short copper locks and glistening green eyes, and her skin was always perfect. She'd tried to slap Oz Dubois last spring, on account of him cheating on her—at least this was the version she liked to tell. Other than that, Olivia was the self-proclaimed editor-in-chief of The Elme Whisperer, allegedly the best—in reality, the only—newspaper of the school. She ran the Elme Whisp with her best friend Tanya Mbabazi, a shy but resourceful girl who acted as camerawoman.
Though Olivia considered her newspaper the epitome of good journalism, the daily—small articles were added online every morning—rather leaned on the tabloid end of the spectrum. It possessed a huge 'gossip' section, fueled by snarky or revengeful students. Though the page was headed by disclaimers precising the information enclosed hadn't been verified yet, a great part of the school population accepted the rumors as fact… This had led to bouts of bloody drama in the past. The Whisp also liked to announce new couples, tragic breakups and sordid extramarital affairs. Recently—more specifically: since Olivia had tried to slap Oz Dubois—the paper had also taken to following the "lying, cheating bastard" around so as to catch him in embarrassing situations. This endeavor had, so far, proven unsuccessful.
But another scandal was on the brink of being revealed, thanks to Olivia and Tanya's dedication.
Liz Lenoir—the headmaster's daughter—was busy kissing athletic and bad-tempered fifth year Marco Mendez… Tanya, who was a rather nice sort of girl, heard her heart break —she'd been crushing on the guy since the end of the previous year. Of course, she had only experienced a foolish, adolescent sort of love, but it was nonetheless very tough to see her hopes dashed on the first day of school.
"I don't—I don't want to photograph them," she whispered uneasily, lowering her head behind their hiding place—a trimmed rosebush.
Unlike Olivia Markosa, Tanya Mbabazi was not a spiteful person. She did not want to look at her crush kissing another girl, especially not the popular Liz Lenoir. She did not want to snap a shot of the couple, because she knew that if she had a photo she would keep staring at it and staring at it until she grew resentful, and she did not want to grow resentful. But Tanya Mbabazi was also meek, so when Olivia sighed in irritation, she readied her camera.
"This is big news!" affirmed the editor-in-chief, rolling her eyes. "We can't miss info like this on our first day back. People will be expecting scoops!"
'People' were, indeed, expecting news from the Elme Whisperer, though with more trepidation than excitement. However, Liz Lenoir was not expecting any news from the paper, because she'd chosen a secluded corner of the school especially to escape notice, and thought she had succeeded. She was planning on dumping Marco Mendez, who was a year under her and too clingy for her liking. She, herself, did not appreciate him much beyond his kisses… He did not follow any of her sexual advice, out of some misguided masculine pride; and conversation was too trite.
Neither Liz nor Marco noticed the discreet click of the camera. They were caught mid-kiss, limbs tangled and hair mussed. Olivia glanced at the photo and was happy: their targets were slightly off-center, but once edited, the snapshot would definitely attract attention for the day's edition. Tanya thumbed her zooming lenses and averted her gaze. Both girls remained wrapped in their thoughts for a few seconds, then the editor-in-chief beckoned her camerawoman and they slinked away.
None of them noticed the smudgy figure that had been caught on one side of the photo. But this detail wasn't of importance (not yet).
8.50 a.m. Girls
Helena Hu was a seventh year. She was calm and smart; she followed Mark Twain's advice about remaining silent in all applicable situations… Above all, she was a dutiful daughter and studied assiduously to meet her parent's expectations. This brought her in recurrent conflict with her younger brother Daniel (but more on that later). It also led Oz to pick frequent and undeserved fights with her—this was Helena's version of the story—and they had been "frenemies" since Viktor had introduced them. Besides that, Helena liked reading historical thrillers and sarcasm. She (secretly) enjoyed kicking her male peers' asses in sports, and often did… though she was careful not to gloat in their face.
Such was the state of things when Helena Hu approached Maya, Charlie, Oz and Viktor on the morning of September the 1st, 2016.
Maya, rather nervous despite the distraction of Oz's banter, spotted her from far away. She was rendered speechless—though she had not been speaking at that point, but in any case, she would have been. Helena Hu was striking… She possessed the haunting beauty of twentieth century movie stars, the kind one would glimpse in a frayed black-and-white picture and never forget. It was the light flush on her cheeks and the silky hair…. It was the black eyes where one could barely discern the pupil from the iris, black eyes glistening like wet stones—Maya forgot what she was thinking and remained captivated until the girl was but one arm's length away from their bench.
"Hello," said Helena.
"Hello," agreed Charlie.
Oz gave a slow salute. "And the harpy comes shrilling…"
Helena raised an eyebrow. "And the Shi Tzu comes yapping…" she retorted.
Oz laughed and she smiled. Then she caught Viktor's gaze, and they also said hello —both were a bit tense, and Maya wondered at it. She started when Viktor cocked his head to her and said, almost in an off-hand manner: "This is Maya Black, a girl Charlie's met."
"A girl?" echoed Helena, rather surprised. Oz snorted.
Charlie reddened under Maya's inquisitive gaze. "My mother knows her!" he snapped, crossing his arms in a grouchy—but endearing—manner.
"Oh, we know…" grinned Viktor.
"Is it easier that away?" wondered Oz.
"Easier with his mother?" repeated Maya, perplexed. She brusquely understood the meaning of her question and bit hard on her lip.
Oz choked on air and Viktor coughed to hide his laughter—Helena gave her a strange look and could not retain a huff… She slapped a hand on her lips but flushed. Her cheeks, however, had nothing on Charlie's scarlet glow. As blonds were wont to do, he had reddened to the roots of his hair, and appeared to be stuck between embarrassment and amusement.
Maya was somewhat mortified. "I mean…"
"Well, this one's feisty," breathed Oz.
She glared at him a bit. "Once again: I'm right here, you know…" But he had provided a sufficient distraction for her to avoid an awkward interrogation, and for that she was grateful.
In the subsequent beat of silence, Helena seemed to remember her manners. "Nice to meet you!" she smiled, inclining her head towards Maya.
'The new girl' replied in much the same manner, and they introduced themselves briefly. Helena was a seventh year—the only one of their group—and had come to know Charlie and Oz through Viktor, with whom she practiced Karate on Wednesdays. Maya did not reveal much about herself, opting for nods and smiles and evasive answers. They were still chatting when Oz's Shi Tzu gave a bark.
"You brought your dog again this year?" asked Helena upon hearing the yap, sharing a look with Viktor.
Oz scowled a bit. "I did."
"Where do you get such astoundingly bad ideas, I wonder?" wondered Helena.
"For the most part, in class…"
Helena rolled her eyes. "I can't say I'm surprised."
"Well," interrupted Viktor coolly. "I'm sure 'Dog' is on the list of banned items… and I know if it pees in my shoes one more time I'm locking it in the headmaster's closet."
"I'd tell them about your cigs," dismissed Oz.
Viktor raised an eyebrow. "Want to talk about what they'd find in your trunk?"
"You're not going to talk about that," affirmed Oz enigmatically.
"That?" repeated Viktor. He grinned. "Bit vague, don't you think? I was thinking of your secret pics of Taylor Swift…"
Oz seemed indignant. "You looked at those? Stalker."
Maya sent a questioning look at Charlie, but the blond shrugged, apparently at a loss. Helena seemed none the wiser, and went to sit beside the two while the boys continued their dispute.
"Have you seen your room yet?" she asked Maya, nodding at her keys.
"Er—No." She hadn't even looked properly at the number inscribed on the metalwork, but now saw she had been assigned room 302. "My trunk's wheel is broken, so I've got carrying it by hand to look forward to…" she sighed.
"I can do that," volunteered Helena. "I don't mind heavy stuff."
"Oh—That'd be very kind of you…"
Charlie, vexed, remembered that Maya had earlier rejected the same offer—only coming from him. "You're an extern," he objected, addressing Helena. "You won't know your way around the girl's wing."
"I will—I've been up to Claire's room sometimes," replied Helena, referring to a friend of hers. "And anyway, I don't reckon you visit the girls' wing much either… Or is there something I should know about?"
At this, Charlie blushed and fell quiet. Helena shot him an amused glance before rising. She approached Maya's bright pink trunk and hefted it, grimacing a little bit.
Maya bit her lip. "Is that…"
"Heavy?" finished Helena. "Yes, but I'll manage. We should go before my arm pops out of its socket, though…"
Maya nodded, bidding a hasty goodbye to Charlie and turning to Oz and Viktor. They were already watching Helena.
"Showing off, eh, Hu?" lightly asked Oz.
Helena snorted. "Just because you'd never be able to lift this thing doesn't mean I'm showing off…"
"I don't know. Does it?"
"It doesn't," said Viktor.
Oz elbowed him. "Wow, traitor is a good color on you, Klein."
Viktor punched him lightly on the shoulder. He didn't catch Helena's knowing smile, but Maya did, and she laughed a bit. Then Charlie made a clever remark and the girls were on their way… They passed through a grand hall, bumped a couple of younger girls with a camera ("Hey, are you a new student? What's your name? First impressions?" "Um…" "Oh, Helena Hu! We have to ask you a few questions about—" "No, I'm sure you don't."), and crawled up a flight of stairs.
"Um, are you sure this isn't too…"
"Heavy? No—I told you—I'll manage… "
Eventually, they stopped before a thick wooden door. The number "302" have been engraved in elegant silver script, metal glinting against the dark panel.
"That's it, right?" breathed Helena, grimacing as she set the trunk down.
"I think," said Maya. "Yes, that's what it says on the back of the keys… Once again—thank you. I'm, er, I'm so very sorry to have asked this of you…"
"No, it's okay," grinned the seventh year. "I couldn't let one those three idiots do it… Especially not Oz. He'd have found a way to harass a few dozen girls before even getting to your floor."
Maya frowned. "He harasses them?"
Helena looked at her with amusement. "No, I suppose not," she said at length. "At least, most girls like him enough not to see it that way." Then she nodded at the door, and briskly added: "You must be wanting to see your room… Shall we get you settled?"
She was, and they did. The room was simple and square, possessing a small bed, a desk and a closet in the same dark wood. A caramel toned rug stretched from the door to the window, a shade lighter than the leaf-patterned bedcover. Autumn light streamed through a high, arched window, tinting the furniture gold.
Maya let out a breath she had not realized she was holding. "It's lovely." A laugh escaped her. "It's really lovely!"
This was her room, a place where she lawfully belonged (almost). She was moving in and filling it with her stuff (she'd make it amazing). It would be her safe haven for a year, a room where she would contemplate autumn fading into winter blooming into spring, a room where she'd be happy (optimistic). She had been accepted into Elme School, and this day was perfect.
"It is," smiled Helena. "I'm sure you'll feel right at home."
"I already do," said Maya—and she meant it.
Helena stayed in Maya's room and helped the girl hang her clothes in the closet. They both chatted idly, sometimes pausing to munch on some biscuits Maya had brought in her bags.
"This dress is pretty," Helena smiled, running her hand along the fabric. "I love Japanese patterns."
Maya thanked her. She bit her lip and sat on her bed, smoothing the covers to calm herself. "It's very nice of you to help me," she repeated for the umpteenth time.
"Don't mention it," replied Helena (also for the umpteenth time). She laughed. "Actually, please stop mentioning it."
"Oh—I'm sorry," Maya hurried to say. "I guess I'm just a bit nervous. This is, er, my first time in such a fancy school…" She thought of the ancient stone buildings, of the excellent baccalaureate results posted on the school's official website.
"It's not all it's cracked up to be," replied Helena. "I mean—Oz is attending…"
"You don't like him, do you?" ventured Maya.
The other girl grinned. "The jury's still on, as it has been for the last four years." She turned to place three of Maya's shirts on top of the pile, adding: "Anyway, he has his own friends—him and Viktor, they hang out with other guys… So we don't always see each other."
"Oh," said Maya. "But this morning, they stayed with us…"
"Charlie's his cousin," explained Helena. "And he… didn't always have that many friends, except for Oz and Viktor. So…" She shrugged.
Maya had expected to eat with Viktor and Oz today, and felt disappointed to know they probably wouldn't be around. "Oh," she said again.
"You can always have lunch with me," suggested Helena in an encouraging way. "I'm an external student, though, so I won't be here on mornings and nights."
Maya smiled. She thought about Charlie and Oz and Viktor and thought that Helena really was beautiful. She thought about moving and being arrested and her mom rushing off to work. "I'd like that," she said presently.
Banishing the nostalgia, she rose to help Helena hang the last of the clothing. The seventh year gave a little hoot of victory. "Look at that! Unpacking is officially finished!"
9.50 a.m.: How It Goes With The Boys
Oz helped Artoo out of his backpack, and the groggy dog let out a muffled yap. "Don't worry," Oz murmured fondly. "We'll get you settled right in."
Viktor snorted. "So long as settling's not settling in my bed."
"Why would he go on your bed when he has mine?" huffed Oz.
Viktor shot him a disbelieving look. Oz was reclining on said bed, which was already undone. Around him were strewn a great many items, unfolded boxers draped over cellphones, card decks, pocketknives and a laser pointer. "By tomorrow, your covers will stink so much that your mutt will smell them over the reek of his own ass," muttered Viktor.
He returned to the task of unpacking his many belongings and Oz laughed. A few minutes of silence ticked by, only broken by Artoo's happy barks.
"Give me the cigs," ordered Oz at length.
Viktor was busy transferring clothing items from his trunk to their closet. "Sure," he said distractedly. "If you open the window."
"It is already open…" Oz waved vaguely at the ajar frame, as if that justified everything.
Viktor rolled his eyes. "Only by a crack," he replied, pulling out a pair of running shoes.
"Does it matter?"
"To those of us who've heard about personal hygiene—yes."
"Cool story. In other news: cigs."
Viktor muttered an annoyed word or two in a low voice, hunting for his traction bar. "If you really want a smoke, get them yourself," he added a little louder. He was sure he'd packed it in the same spot as his sweaters, but where was it now? "Move your lazy, addicted ass and…"
"I'm addicted to you," sang Oz.
"Hooked on your looove…"
"I said shut up!"
Irritated, he gave up on finding the traction bar and faced Oz, who was still reclined on his cluttered bed. Artoo woofed, jumping in Viktor's trunk.
"You're a shithead," he informed both his friend and the dog. He lightly kicked the latter away from his luggage, ignoring its panicked yaps.
"All the time except when I sleep," grinned Oz.
Viktor tossed him the cigarette pack he had in his pocket and returned to his trunk. Oz immediately lit one and took a long drag, savoring his triumph along with the nicotine. He watched the smoke unfurl from the paper, rising in lazy wisps to the stone ceiling… When he inhaled the cigarette's end would glow red, and the paper would be reduced to grey ashes… His first smoke of the year.
"Fuck," he said suddenly, surprised. "This is my first smoke of the year."
"Is that meaningful in any way?" inquired Viktor, but Oz ignored him, still fixated on the haloed end of his cig.
"It'll be over soon…" he said distantly.
"The smoke or the year?" asked Viktor.
"Oh, piss off," scowled Oz. "You just kicked my dog, so you don't get to be a smartass. I'm in a mood. The poetic kind."
There was a long stretch of silence. Artoo jumped on Viktor's bed, gave a satisfied barked and settled on the fluffy pillow.
"We have one more year before graduating," mused Oz. "One more year of mandatory brainwashing—also, free food… What do you reckon we'll do after?" When Viktor did not reply, he pursued: "I don't care much. I want to spend my time sleeping—and drinking, but I'll be doing that legally by then and it'll feel much less exciting." He grinned. "Actually, the best plan would be to get a rich girlfriend. No need to work, but a healthy amount of sex."
"Jackass," said Viktor. "Smart chicks don't settle with guys like you."
"Do they settle with Viktors?"
"God. Not in broad daylight, Bella."
"Does that make you Edward?"
Oz made a face. He took another long drag of cigarette and sat up, vaguely noticing that Artoo was drooling on Viktor's bed. "How was this summer?" he asked carefully, and Viktor understood that he did not just mean to chat about sunlight and beaches.
But he did not want to talk.
"Give me the cigs," he shrugged instead, and he opened the window fully, leaning on the sill.
Charlie Wisniewski had been a lonely boy throughout middle school and thought this would continue until graduation. He had never been invited to parties big or small, had yet to taste vodka and a girl's lips. Large groups made him uncomfortable, as did any uncontrollable situations, really. He had been obsessed with what others thought about him for all long time and was currently trying to get past this, but it was a difficult struggle.
Charlie at once loved his cousin Oz and resented him.
On the morning of September the 1st, 2016, Charlie Wisniewski busied himself with hanging clothing in his closet, setting his school stuff on his desk, and sighing. Then he hefted a massive computer out of his trunk. It was not technically forbidden to bring one, but Charlie doubted the headmaster quite envisioned such a mastodon when he imaged a laptop.
Charlie glanced at an opening in the ceiling, the outline of which could be faintly made out against the plaster, and huffed with determination.
"Duuude, where's the AC IN connector?" complained Oz, frantically searching his messy bed for the small grey cable.
"You never pack right," frowned Viktor.
"Shut up, Edward." Viktor held up a longer black wire, shaking it in front of Oz's distraught figure. "At least I found your microwave's plug-in…"
"How are we going to ever be able to play Fallout 4?" whined Oz.
Viktor stopped waving the plug-in to and fro and suddenly took a very serious expression. "There's a simple solution," he said slowly.
"Find your fucking cable."
Oz scowled and went back to tossing and turning his covers, uncovering the few shirts, many boxers and cellphones under his sheets in the process. Viktor, who had finished unpacking and smoking a good few minutes ago, set about to calming an excited Artoo. Eventually Oz found the connector, let out an exclamation of triumph, and threw the grey cable on the pile of PS4 related objects.
"Oz… Your dog just tried to pee in the microwave."
"Shush. I'm sure you're lying." Viktor seemed about to protest but Oz waived him off. "Bella, I'm into you for the muscles, not the brains. Shut up and start moving stuff."
At this both boys turned their eyes to the plastered roof, where a very faint white outline could be made out. After a few seconds, Viktor shrugged and hefted the microwave, swearing when Artoo set to whining and running just in front of his legs. Oz grabbed a chair and set it against the wall, but did not bother calming his dog—his cellphone had just buzzed.
The brunet took a curious look at it and shouted, "Hey! After we're done, Roman texted to say him and the other guys are down in the main hall. He says he's going to offer us our first cig of the year…" A smirk. "That's cute."
11 a.m.: Interlude bis
Olivia Markosa marched around the west wing of the school at a determined pace, high heels clicking. Behind her trailed a forlorn Tanya Mbabazi, camera in hand, eyes trained on the pavement. Both girls were headed to the school library, installed in a renovated chapel and buried deeper in the park. They could barely make out its angular, Renaissance-style roof through the canopy of elm trees.
"That cheating, lying douche is probably already there," muttered Olivia, pretty green eyes flashing.
She was referring to none other than Oz Dubois. Indeed, though smoking substances of any kind was strictly forbidden on school grounds, many students had taken to inhaling illicit substances behind the old chapel. The secret corner allowed for socializing as well as borrowing cigarettes or lighters, which smokers always seemed to lose. Oz was a notorious smoker and drinker and would undoubtedly be found there.
"He might be busy elsewhere," mumbled Tanya.
"Doing what?" scoffed Olivia.
But when Olivia and Tanya arrived at the smokers' corner, Oz Dubois could not be found. A few of his friends mingled around, laughing at something or another, but the cheating, lying douche himself was nowhere to be seen. Sighing, Olivia approached the only person from her year she could make out—Daniel Hu, Helena's little brother.
"Have you seen Dubois anywhere?" she demanded.
Daniel was of the shrewd kind and did not immediately reply, instead inhaling a long drag. "What do you want him for?" he asked presently.
"An interview," smiled Olivia.
She toyed with the iPhone in her pocket, casting a long glance at Daniel. He was beautiful like his sister, though perhaps his traits were a bit rougher, his face rounder. In any case, his cool and distant persona did not leave girls indifferent.
"Haven't seen him," shrugged Daniel.
Irritated, Olivia departed from the smokers' corner, her silhouette quickly lost in the trees. Tanya lingered for a few seconds more, not realizing her best friend had moved on before Daniel jabbed a finger in the school's general direction.
They did not see Oz pop out from behind an oak and gasp, "Is she gone?"
12 p.m.: Back to Maya
Lunch was a pleasant affair. Maya spent the hour with a few friends of Helena, all of them interns and eager to teach her neat tricks about the school. They also gossiped a little, and Maya gleaned a little on who was popular and who wasn't… Oz dropped by to say hello, imparted a few witty remarks to Helena's friends and winked at Maya, then was off on his way to join Viktor.
Later, Helena accompanied Maya to get her student's card. She did not question Maya on her uneasiness—in any case Mrs Alfassi delivered the card rather quickly and only asked for one more signature before waving them off, apparently keen to relax alone.
Upon coming back from the office and crossing the great sunlit courtyard, Maya spotted Viktor from afar and waived at him.
"Look," she smiled, drawing Helena from her musing. "Over there."
"Huh?" The seventh year scanned the school grounds and noticed Viktor's tall figure. "Oh."
Maya frowned at her new friend, noticing how she tensed. "Is something the matter?"
"Um… What? No."
Helena did not quicken her pace or move towards Viktor, and neither did he, but they nonetheless ran into each other in the middle of the courtyard, a few paces from the closest gaggle of people. Both of them looked around, stopped walking and exchanged a quick smile; Maya imitated them, a bit at a loss.
"Hello again…" said Helena presently.
"Hey," responded Viktor.
"Hi!" chirped Maya.
There was an awkward silence.
"How did…" started Helena, but Viktor was simultaneously asking, "Did you get…". He winced. "Sorry." She waved for him to continue, her expression remaining perfectly neutral, and he nodded. There was something tense about him—no, about them—that made Maya uneasy. "Did you get settled in all right?" Viktor asked her—she started when she realized he was indeed looking at her and not Helena.
"Yes! My room's great… and I had lunch…" she stumbled, searching for something to say, and settled for: "The day's been… great." She blushed, realizing how dull she sounded.
"Great," echoed Viktor, raising his eyebrows.
"Yes, you could say that," she said faintly.
Helena laughed and began to say to something, but a sudden, bright flash cut her off. The three spun towards the source of the light, squinting to distinguish its source, and Viktor stepped in front of Maya and Helena. Before them stood a pretty girl holding a sleek pink phone and what looked like her colleague, standing a few paces behind like her shadow, gripping a camera.
"Hello, friends," beamed the first girl. She had an amazing smile. "Can I ask you a few questions?"
"Certainly not," retorted Helena, just as Viktor snapped, "Get lost, Olivia."
"That's rude," sighed the visitor. "And here I was simply hoping have a nice, simple chat." She paused, and upon receiving no answer, plastered a self-assured smile on her face and asked: "Viktor, is there anything you'd like to tell Helena?"
"Not particularly, no," he muttered.
Helena glared at Olivia, but the girl ignored her and added: "Anything you'd like to tell William Selous?". She leered.
Viktor's jaw clenched and he scowled at her. "Fuck off." He brusquely pushed past Olivia, upsetting the burly girl hovering with the camera, and left without sparing a glance for Helena or Maya.
"That's too bad," said Olivia after he'd gone. She squinted, noticing Maya. "Oh, aren't you the girl from this morning?" she held her hand out enthusiastically. "What's your name?"
"Leave it, Markosa," interrupted Helena. "And don't come near me again." Her hand closed around Maya's wrist and she dragged her away from the pair, back towards the girls' wing.
Maya stumbled along, confused. Helena's grip was rather tight, enough for her wrist to feel a little sore. "S-Sorry for asking, but… what was that all about?"
"Olivia Markosa and Tanya Mbabazi run the Elme Whisperer," explained the seventh year rather briskly, her eyes focused on their destination. "The one and only Elme school student newspaper. It's not exactly Pulitzer material. They've turned it into a rumor mill."
"… Oh." Maya noticed Helena did not elaborate on who William Selous was or why Viktor had seemed so furious—but this was her first day, and she did not know the seventh year very well, so she refrained from pressing the matter.
Helena stopped in front of the door to the girls' dormitory and sighed, letting go of her friend. "Listen…" she began distractedly. "I'll be off to speak to… Daniel, my little brother. There's something I need to tell him." She paused, looking guilty. "Will you be fine on your own?"
"Yes, don't worry," hurriedly replied Maya. "I'll just go back up to my room and nap. I'm feeling quite tired as it is."
"Alright," smiled Helena.
They briefly hugged. "I'll see you tomorrow then?"
Helena waited till Maya entered the girls' wing and climbed her way up the first few steps, waving at her. Even when the sixth year had completely disappeared, she did not move immediately, closing her eyes. The altercation had drained her. After a few minutes, she nonetheless shook herself and made her way around the sides of the courtyard.
12:45 p.m.: Spare Change
Helena briskly crossed the short distance that separated her from room three-oh-five. Despite her quick pace, she was battling a great deal reluctance and apprehension—every step she took seemed to require more courage than the last. When she reached the wooden door that separated room three-oh-five from the rest of Elme School, she did not initially knock, pausing to take a deep breath and smooth her dark blouse. No, she did not want to do this. She did not want to do this at all. But she would be very disappointed in herself if she did not sort a few things out before the year started, so she straightened her shoulders and tapped on the polished door before her.
Though the act in itself seemed terribly important to her, and she felt as if she was crossing a point of no return, nothing initially happened. The hallway stayed deserted and the door did not fly open. The world did not fold. A few seconds of silence stretched on, and she felt her graceful pose wavering.
Then the door handle swung down and the door itself opened wide. Viktor appeared before her, looking a bit confused—but that surprise faded into weariness.
Helena did not know what to say, and after a few seconds of silent staring, he leaned against the door frame. "Hey."
She smiled and averted her eyes. "Hi…"
Behind Viktor's lean figure, room three-of-five was empty—and messy. Helena almost felt like asking where Oz was and whether they'd already taken Artoo the dog to the attic, but she swallowed her inquisitions and gripped the sharp, metallic object she'd been cradling in her left hand for the past few minutes.
"I am to give your spare back." She raised her hand, opening her palm, and held the keys for Viktor to see.
He did move to take them. Instead, she found he was gazing steadily her, as if evaluating her posture and expression. "Why?" he asked after a short while, and he almost sounded pained… but not quite.
And Helena knew how she wanted this conversation to go. "I don't have any reason to keep them, do I?" Her palm was still open in between the two of them and the keys were there, ready to be plucked.
Viktor did not provide an answer to her question. His mouth was working and he was looking past her now. Helena felt cold. Her arm was tingling a bit. She wished he would just hurry up and—and take his spare, make things simpler for the both of them—But when he did take the keys back, being careful not to touch her skin, she felt sorry.
The words were out of her mouth before she could think them through. "William won't come for another two weeks, you know,' she said a bit too loud. 'He lost his passport."
Viktor did not look at her. It dawned on her that informing him was a bad idea. "Did he tell you that?" he asked, feigning detachment.
He began closing the door before she could fully process things, and by the time she realized what was going on and began to feel properly offended, it was too late. Heat rose to her face. "Viktor!" she called angrily at the dark wooden door.
He did not reply.
18:45 p.m.: Inner City Blues
There was a knock on her door.
Maya startled awake, blearily swimming to consciousness through the tangled mass of her bedcovers. Sunlight flooded around the room's hastily drawn curtains, tinting the room with red.
Maya struggled to sit and then waddled to the door, not thinking straight. At the last minute, she checked that she was indeed wearing pajamas and that they were decent enough for her to answer the door—but as she proceeded to straighten the soft fabric of her top, nervousness crept who her. Who was knocking? Why? Had they discovered that—Anxiety was a bitch.
Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to open the door.
Contrary to what she was expecting, the person on the other side of the door was Charlie. He startled when he saw her, as if he hadn't fully expected to see her despite knocking on her door, and pushed his glasses up his nose.
"Er…" eloquently stated Maya.
"Hey!' replied Charlie, his voice a little high pitched. 'I—I thought you'd want some company for dinner…"
There was a pause. Maya bit her lip, confused. "… Is it dinnertime then?" Had she really napped that long? Should she have set an alarm clock?
"Oh." She looked around herself, blushing. "Oh". Pause. "Well… yes, thank you!' She looked down at her Disney pajamas, embarrassed. 'Can you just… let me get dressed?"
"O-Oh!' sputtered Charlie, as if only now realizing her pajamas were not evening attire. "Well, of course…"
Maya shut the door, shut her eyes, took a deep breath, and sank to the floor. Her heart was off kilter. If Charlie hadn't woken her up, she would have missed dinnertime… She had better get a hold of herself. After a few seconds, she grit her teeth and jumped to the wardrobe she'd set up with Helena in the morning, digging for something pretty but not too pretentious. When she was satisfied with her choice—some flats, jeans and a thin pink sweater, she made for the door and braced herself for more social interaction.
"Thank you," she told him quietly once she was done locking her door, looking at him straight in the eye. "Thank you for thinking to fetch me."
Charlie shook his head, and she caught him smiling.
They wondered down to the dinner hall, a great and dark room teeming with students. Maya quickly felt overwhelmed by the crowds and the general racket, but Charlie guided her to the long and winding queue that led to the food and pointed out the tiny table where he usually sat. As they waited, Maya found herself grow calmer and let her eyes wander around the room, soaking the details in. Though Elme School had long since switched to electric spots and lamps, an old chandelier had been left in the middle of the room as decoration and a reminder of the school's past. It swayed slightly from time to time, crystals shivering in the setting sun.
Maya sighed. "This hall is so… grand," she said, more to herself than to Charlie, but he caught on.
"Much of the school is."
"You're too indifferent to it,' she accused him blithely. 'You've been studying here your whole life..." She became a little wistful, deliberately ignored his gaze.
"There are still some parts of the school that amaze me!" he protested.
But she doubted he would ever truly understand how lucky he was. Nonetheless, he continued to speak, in a hurried voice: "If you want, I can show you my… my favorite studying spot tomorrow."
She imagined a quiet grove of autumn trees. "I'd love that,' she said earnestly, meeting his blue eyes. 'Thank you."
They gathered their food and ate dinner—Maya marveled at how great the veal was, and the garlic infused potatoes and—he walked her to the girls' wing, wishing her a quiet good night. She stumbled up three flights of stairs along with a great flow of students, quickly showered in a steamy common bathroom and staggered back to her room, exhausted.
Night was settling in, but she was too sleepy to contemplate the shadowy elms guarding her window, so she simply drew the curtains and promised herself to journal another time. Her head was a whirlwind of emotion and still echoed with the day's quips, promises and welcomes. She really needed to shut her eyes…
But a short time later, a sort of clicking noise awoke her. She pushed herself up, blinking her eyes into the darkness of her room, and blearily thought she'd forgotten to set her alarm clock. The clicking noise repeated itself. It seemed… the window was sliding open.
Howling with terror, Maya realized a man was breaking into her room.
AN: Hi! Thank you for visiting this story and congratulations to those of you who read all the way through... =) Please leave a review. Reviews are the oil in an author's engine.