EPIGRAPH

"Bring me back to the dark school—to the dark school of childhood: to where tiny is tiny, and massive is massive."

―――

01.

THEY WERE SITTING on two small oak benches, placed strategically across one another, under the shade of a broad fig tree. Flaccid fruit that wore the yellowing coat of decay hung crookedly from the tapestry of sun-burnt leaves above them like dream-catchers that only knew nightmares.

They had been sitting together for the past two hours, entirely silent, waiting for the sun to heave itself above the horizon. When it finally did, Ryder lit a cigarette, as if in celebration. He was on the sunnier side of the equation, so weak rays of sunshine caught his face at odd angles, bracketing the dark violet rings that hugged his under eyes as well as the translucent skin around his temples and jaw.

Teddy languidly wrapped an arm around his midriff. Unbothered, Ryder continued to take long, heady drags of his cigarette. He seemed to have gotten thinner over the past three months, far more angular and harder on the eyes than the others remembered him being.

Vincent ran a hesitant palm along the curl of oiled black hair that fell across his forehead. As if by habit, he adjusted his tie and cufflinks as well.

"I thought you'd quit," he commented, somewhere between all of that. "You wrote that you had."

Ryder yawned, then groggily said, "I had. Yes. Over summer."

"And now?"

He flicked ash onto the grass. "Not so much."

Around them, The Imperial Academy was coming to life. Polished oxfords slapped on cobblestone, the sound a crash through the low hum of engines and dragonflies. Boys shouted profanities in lilted accents and dragged thick leather suitcases behind them. Mothers reapplied lipstick, pressed perfume-scented kisses on fair cheeks. Fathers shook hands, grasped shoulders, laughed heartily into the morning air that carried the faint smell of overripe fruit.

Still, the five of them sat under the dying fig tree, biding time in the depths of shadows, nonchalantly watching hundreds of boys spill into the Victorian school building which was the same colour as clouds full of lightning. From where they sat, the poison ivy that clung to the crumbling brick looked like thousands of serpents trying to scale the school walls.

Teddy groaned softly to himself, "Another year." He shifted in his seat to find a more comfortable position and settled on curling his head onto Ryder's chest.

Ryder nudged him away. "Another year," he repeated callously, "and the noose tightens."

They all paused to look at him. Even Eli, who had spent the entire morning scribbling vehemently into a notepad, and Johnny, who had been quietly reading a poetry collection to himself.

Ryder didn't meet any of their stares. He pressed his cigarette into the wooden armrest, twisting it in a way that looked like he was trying to fabricate a black hole with the dying flame.

Vincent repeatedly traced his index finger along the ornate pattern on his cane while he thought. When he finally spoke, his voice was low. "Why'd you have to say things like that?"

"Because they're true?"

They all knew that Ryder had spent his summer on campus with the principal of The Imperial Academy, Dr. Arkwright Sheridan, and a handful of other boys who also had no homes to return to. Those three months had changed him, but then again, it had changed all of them. They all looked sharper, ready to cut.

Or break.

The issue was that that year's summer persisted, despite it being the middle of autumn. Refusing to be forgotten, begging to be believed, it settled among the gaps between their bodies and their silence, and spread outwards until they were entirely enveloped in the deadly embrace of remembrance which was the equivalent of drowning at sea. Nowhere to go but under, back into the realm of forged living and static screens. Nothing to see for miles except all the things you'd once hidden away in a closet spilling back out into the inescapable open.

The sea, no matter how perilous, was a loyal enemy. It swallowed their secrets. As long as it was there, depositing salt and sediment between tentative toes, none of them would know why Vincent had a cane, why Eli was suddenly left handed again, why Ryder looked like he'd dragged himself out of a grave that wasn't his own, why Teddy wore silk gloves, or why Johnny was reading love poems by W.B Yeats.

As long as they sat there, under the broad and dying fig tree with half smiles stitched onto their mouths and the hesitancy of a question mark haunting every sentence that they spoke, the sea would widen, and lap viciously at their ankles.

Behind them, the school bell, which signalled morning assembly, began to toll, and with it, time. Cathedral hymns, thousands of hands clasping at once, sand slipping through a cusp of fingers, an entire ocean cocooned in a marble-white shell. The rhythmic sound of each event stopping and starting again, echoing in harmony with the bell through the endless telescope of time.

Ryder was the first to succumb to the hypnotic trance, perhaps being the most habituated to it. He stood almost immediately. Back straight, body rigid, hands fisted and shaking as if an earthquake was folded inside every finger.

The others watched his movements, which appeared learned in a way that one could not unlearn, with bewilderment.

The question drifted unanswered across the sea between them.

Where do we go from here, if not back under?