Boarding School Blues
Levi Holland

Chapter 3

As the storybook castle loomed above, Cooper and Anakin kicked a soccer ball back and forth. It beat being stuck in their room the rest of the afternoon, and as the mist covering the grounds began to clear, the day was getting nicer by the hour.

The mountain breeze tickled the back of Cooper’s neck as he passed the ball forward, thankful for the few seasons of rec soccer he played a couple years ago. At least he was doing better than Anakin, who kept having to chase the ball down each time he jabbed it with his toe.

All day it seemed like they’d met new people. Cooper’s head was spinning with all the names he had to remember. The moment he learned one person, it was like a new one appeared out of nowhere to introduce themselves. How was he ever supposed to manage?

Thankfully one person Cooper didn’t have any trouble remembering was a Latino boy named Jordy Diaz. He was all personality, from the tips of his Jordans all the way to the top of his floppy head of thick dreads. The moment Jordy spotted the two of them, he jumped right in as if they were old friends who’d known each other for years.

There was something about Jordy that everyone seemed to love, even the really big kids. Jordy was only an 8th grader, lean and scrappy and not very tall yet, but hardly anyone passed by without stopping to high-five or fist bump Jordy along the way. Now as he rainbowed the soccer ball over his shoulder with ease, Jordy’s richly tan skin glistened in the sun. Cooper was drawn to him like a magnet.

When Jordy asked what house they were both in, he jabbed a thumb into his chest. “You lucked out with yours truly. Not only am I a Valentia like you, but I’m also a Blue Ridge Buddy.”

“Blue Ridge Buddy?” Cooper asked.

Jordy juggled the ball between his feet while Anakin removed his scarf and set it neatly on the grass.

“Kind of a dumb name, I know. Think of it like the student council. I help out new students like yourselves, organize events, team bonding, things like that. Most of us are older, but I guess they saw something special in me.”

“That’s really cool,” Cooper said truthfully.

“Well, just know if you need anything, I’m the guy to ask. Just say the word!”

Cooper thought back to what his dad said about Headmaster Robinson right before leaving. What were Jordy’s thoughts on their principal? Maybe the man had completely changed from the person his dad remembered. It had been over twenty years, after all.

“Hey, I’ve got a question,” Anakin said. “Do all the teachers live with us or something, because yuck if so.”

“That’d be pretty terrible, right?” Jordy agreed with a laugh. “No, take a look behind you. See that path?”

Jordy pointed toward a winding cobblestone path stretched far across the grassy fields. Every so often, a set of unlit lampposts dotted the path until both the path and the lantern disappeared from sight deep into the woods.

“That’s where the professors live. Only Headmaster Robinson and a few others stay in the castle, but they have their own wing. It’s a bit of a walk, if you ask me, but the professors’ houses are pretty cozy, like a little village. If you want, I can show you guys around.”

“That’s alright,” Anakin said. “I think I’ll pass.”

“Suit yourself,” Jordy said as he passed Cooper the ball.

When Cooper asked about the different students at Blue Ridge, he learned that Blue Ridge Academy only accepted a total of thirty two students every year, sixteen boys and sixteen girls. Eventually those 6th graders became 12th graders, and every year, a new bunch came in to fill the gaps left by the graduating seniors.

“Your classes are intermixed, of course,” Jordy said. “You’ll share classes with the other girl Valentias and the newbies from Fuerza as well. They’re the ones with all the purple.”

Anakin’s kick went wide, and as he hunted down the ball, Cooper wondered about the other two roommates from their suite. What were their personalities like? Would they want to hang out together outside of class? Would they even like him?

“Cooper, watch out!” Jordy called.

A football spiraled straight towards his head, and Cooper had just enough time to duck before getting plowed down by an older boy. He tumbled to the grassy dirt and landed on his butt. Standing above him was a tall, thin boy whose short, pale-blonde hair gleamed white in the sunlight.

Further away, another boy laughed and shouted out, “Way to go, Xavier!”

Xavier leaned over and stretched out his hand, but when Cooper went to grab it, Xavier continued past him and plucked the football from the ground instead. It wasn’t until he stood that he glanced down at Cooper.

“Sorry about that,” he said, sounding anything but sorry. “Guess I didn’t see you there.”

Cooper was about to shout back where this jerk could shove his football when, out of nowhere, Jordy ran up and slung an arm around Xavier’s neck.

“Come on, Xavier,” Jordy said. “Don’t be like that. What do you say we help my buddy Cooper out and give him an apology?”

Before Cooper got tackled, everyone was minding their own business, hanging out with whatever friend cliques they’d huddled up in, but now…there was only staring, silence, and loaded breaths ready to fire with whatever came next.

Xavier seemed to notice, too. After a quick glance around, he spat in the dirt beside Cooper before forcefully dragging him to his feet. Cooper thought his shoulder would rip from its socket. He couldn’t be sure what he saw warring across Xavier’s face—a frown, maybe, or something else—but it was gone as quickly as it appeared, and without another word, Xavier ran off with his friend.

Cooper brushed the wavy brown hair from his eyes. When Jordy and Anakin ran over, they practically spun him in circles inspecting him for any dents or damages. Other than his palms stinging a little and the grass stains on his shorts, Cooper was alright.

“Dude, Jordy,” Anakin said, “you’re like a freakin’ superhero. I thought that guy was gonna beat the shit out of you.”

“He could try,” Jordy said with a sly grin. “But then I’d have to bust out a little Judo on him.”

“Is he always like that?” Cooper asked.

Jordy shrugged. “Didn’t use to be, I guess. Try and give Xavier some distance, if you can. You know what they say about sleeping dogs and all that.”

“Yeah, well he seems like a royal jerk to me,” Anakin said. “Besides, Cooper didn’t even do anything. Xavier was the one who started it. If you ever end up kicking his ass, I want a front row seat.”

Cooper laughed with Jordy, and soon they joined a few others who had taken to the grass, kicking the ball until the sun plunged towards the nearby mountain peaks. The sweat was beginning to sting his eyes, and Cooper was grateful as a heavy bell chimed from somewhere deep within the castle walls.

“Looks like it’s time for the opening ceremony!” Jordy said. “We better get moving.”

“Come on,” Anakin said to Cooper. “Let’s hurry inside. I want a good seat.”

“Wait, your scarf!” Cooper said, and Anakin bumped fists with him before throwing it back over his head with his other mismatched clothes.

Rushing up the rounded staircase leading into the castle’s main entrance, Cooper and Anakin followed the stream of students until they reached the wide, double doors of the banquet hall. Inside, crystal chandeliers hung from the high ceiling around the room, casting light across the four different colored cloths covering each table. Near the back of the room was a raised platform where many adults were already seated at the long, rectangular tables stationed there. Each of them was dressed in the same, identical navy blue suits.

From the covered platters along the side wall, a delicious smell like seasoned meat wafted his way, making his stomach growl. Cooper wasn’t sure if it was possible to eat himself into a food coma, but he thought it was worth a shot.

With Jordy’s help, they found their table, draped with a red cloth for Valentia. Already two other boys were seated, and a couple girls across from them. Cooper and Anakin took two of the open seats.

“What’s up? You must be our other suitemates,” the first of the boys said. “I’m Naveen.”

Naveen’s coppery skin reminded Cooper of a penny, and his smooth, dark hair was streaked with auburn. They learned Naveen and his twin sister Nadia, another Valentia at the table, were originally from south Florida.

“And then our mom’s from India, but our dad’s Irish,” Naveen said, waving his words away as if he’d shared them a thousand times before. “It’s a long story how they met.”

Beside Naveen was a boy with a thick accent named Julian, whose short sandy brown hair crested like little waves on his head. Apparently he came from Poland two years before, where most of his time before Blue Ridge was spent getting tutored in English at a private school in New York City.

“English still tough sometimes,” he said while concentrating on his words. “But I get better more each day.”

“Is Poland nice?” Cooper asked. He’d never been out of the country before.

Before Julian could answer, Anakin tugged on the yellow scarf around his neck. “Yeah, well my family’s also from New York City. It’s basically the greatest city on the whole Earth.”

Naveen was quick to counter. “New York is not the greatest city.”

“Is too!”

Cooper rolled his eyes. Not even five minutes had passed, and already drama was starting.

Julian leaned between their two arguing suitemates and said, “Is nice, Poland. Cooler weather. Where’s family from?”

“Me?” He blinked, not sure how to answer. Anakin and Naveen both paused to listen in. “Nowhere special, really. It’s a small town called Misty Pines in Virginia. Pretty sure my parents spent their whole lives there!”

Something made Naveen squint his eyes and ask, “What do your parents do?”

But before Cooper could answer, a fierce clinking pierced the chatter inside the banquet hall. All eyes fell upon an older man with salt and pepper hair hunched at a podium in front of the other professors. Each of his lanky arms stretched like branches from a tree as he lifted his glass into the air. His was the only Blue Ridge uniform with black and purple trim. Right away, Cooper recognized him from the painted portraits hanging on the walls of their suite.

With a raised chin, the man cleared his throat and panned across the four 6th grade tables, making it a priority to lock eyes with as many as he could. Cooper couldn’t keep the chills running down his arms when the man swept his gaze over him.

“My name is Headmaster Robinson,” he said. “Welcome to Blue Ridge Academy.”


Headmaster Robinson’s smile made Roman shiver in his seat. The stripes of gray in their principal’s hair, along with the fierce gleam in his eye, reminded Roman of a tiger hunting for prey.

When Headmaster Robinson spoke about the four Houses of Blue Ridge, it was with great pride as he explained their meanings: Valentia, red house of Bravery; Sagesse, blue house of Wisdom; Ehre, green house of Honor; and finally, his own—Fuerza, purple house of Strength.

Everyone cheered loudest for their own house, and their applause swelled like a crashing wave inside the banquet hall. Roman joined the Fuerzas in pounding their fists on the purple table cloths in a show of might. There was no doubt about it. Fuerza was the best house to be in.

Roman paused in his cheering to take in his suitemates. First there was Ivan. Roman wasn’t convinced Ivan was really in 6th grade. The kid was huge and built like a tank, and he already had the faint outlines of a mustache on his upper lip. He was so lucky. Even his voice was husky—a lot more like Xavier’s than the rest of their squeaky little-boy voices.

Then there was Wyatt. He thumped the table with the rest of the Fuerzas, but each of his strikes came about as loudly as Wyatt spoke, which hadn’t been much at all. Actually, Roman thought, had he even heard Wyatt speak a full sentence since dinner started? He’d have to figure out a way to get him to talk. Roman found himself admiring Wyatt’s long sandy brown hair and the way he kept it parted in a swoop. He shook the thought from his head before that funny, fluttery feeling that something popped up could settle in his stomach.

As he did, Roman locked eyes with Fielding who gave him a toothy grin. Despite his best efforts, the butterflies hit his stomach anyway.

“Of course,” Headmaster Robinson continued, “each of our houses are led by our extraordinary faculty, who you will continue to meet throughout your long journeys here.”

The professors came up in groups of four, each introducing themselves briefly before stepping back. Professor Bell was met with thunderous applause from many of the upperclassmen around the room. Fielding snickered and poked him in the side.

“Roman, now’s your chance. Tackle him before he gets away!”

“How about I tackle you?” Roman shot back.

Other than the abundance of love for Professor Bell, most of the teachers at Blue Ridge were greeted about the same until a man stepped up with black, wiry hair that fell like strings from his head, Professor Gray. Hushed whispers filled the room.

Fielding only shrugged when Roman looked to him for answers. None of the 6th graders understood the sudden shift in mood until fragments of words reached Romans ears:

“…why would they…”

“…not even alumni…”

“…only professor…”

“…not one of us…”

Professor Gray’s face remained stoic as Headmaster Robinson returned to the podium. As he cleared his throat for silence, it took longer for the tables to quiet, but in the end, all eyes fell back on the leader of the school.

“Before we begin our celebration tonight, I would like to take a moment to introduce this year’s scholarship student, offered as always to an incoming 6th grader in the community. I expect you will all give the warmest of welcomes to this year’s recipient, Cooper Morrow.”

Even without Headmaster Robinson gesturing to Valentia’s table, there was no way Roman could have missed the expressions of shock, confusion, and disgust aimed toward the wavy-haired boy hanging his head.

The uncomfortable silence was only made worse by the occasional burst of halfhearted applause. The same stigma around Professor Gray would stick to this kid like molasses. There were those who belonged, and those who couldn’t.

“Lastly, I would remind you all of your responsibility in upholding Blue Ridge’s code of conduct. You will find all of this information in your handbooks found in your dorms later tonight with your belongings. Failure to obey these rules could lead to immediate expulsion.”

Roman scoffed under his breath at the idea. He wished. If he thought there was a way to get Xavier out of the picture, he’d take it in a heartbeat. Maybe if Xavier made his life miserable at Blue Ridge, Roman could break the rules himself and get away for good.

When Headmaster Robinson finished, the doors to the banquet hall burst open, and a line of kitchen staff dressed in white buttoned shirts streamed inside. In their arms were plates stuffed with mashed potatoes dressed with buttery gravy, a brown sugar bake over sweet potato casserole, and pyramids of fresh, steaming bread rolls. As Roman dug into the food with the others at his table, it was like entering food heaven. Even Ivan looked satisfied as he stuffed his face.

Across the room, Roman locked eyes with Xavier at the 8th grade tables. The moment he did, his brother ducked his head, pretending to busy himself with the food on his plate as the Fuerzas around him laughed. As if reminding Roman who was responsible, the pain from his bruise reared its ugly head. Xavier didn’t want anything to do with him at Blue Ridge. He’d made that painfully clear.

After his plates were emptied and cleared, Roman forced a smile and gave Fielding a playful shove.

“You about ready or what? I’m beat!”

Fielding’s eyes brightened. “Sure, if you’re ready. How about you guys?”

Ivan frowned as the waitstaff took his plate from the table, but Wyatt gave a silent thumbs up for the both of them. Roman refused to glance Xavier’s way as they stood from their seats and pushed the chairs in.

Outside the banquet hall, the dim glow from the electric lanterns hanging on the walls made every corner dance in thick shadows. More than once, Fielding brushed against his arm as they walked back to their suite.

“This place gives me the creeps at night,” Fielding whispered beside him.

“Yeah, bet you don’t wanna wind up lost around here.”

“No kidding,” Fielding agreed.

An image of the Valentia boy, Cooper, flashed through Roman’s mind, and he was thankful to have his suitemates by his side. Making the walk together helped put his nerves at ease. And above all, as he climbed the seven flights of stairs with his suitemates, Roman was especially thankful, for the first time in a while, not to feel utterly alone.

End Chapter 3

Copyright 2023 – Levi Holland
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