Boarding School Blues
Blue Ridge Academy is the premier boarding school to attend—unless you’re Cooper Morrow, who feels like his whole life is about to be uprooted. After being outed as the new scholarship student for incoming 6th graders, Cooper will have to find a way to prove to everyone else that he belongs by making a few friends along the way. For Roman Jacobs, starting at Blue Ridge is the worst thing that could happen, especially when he feels like his older brother lurks around every corner, ready to make his life miserable. Join them across these 20 chapters, through various trials and ups and downs, as Cooper and Roman learn to navigate the uncertainties of middle school and discover the type of people they really are.
Cooper Morrow stretched out a scrawny arm and grasped the low-hanging tree branch as he pulled himself up with a grunt. There was nothing able to stop his smile as the afternoon sun baked into his skin, not even the sweat clinging to his back. As Cooper reached the last of the branches, the crickets chirped their hellos, and Cooper climbed up beside his best friend, Sawyer.
“Finally,” Sawyer said. “We’ll miss the sunset if you take any longer.”
Sawyer scooted over to make room, and Cooper rested against the scratchy bark of the honeylocust. There was nothing left to do but let his feet dangle and appreciate the view as the sun tiptoed toward the horizon.
Cooper loved the way parts of Misty Pines poked its head above the summertime trees. Maybe he could spot more of the town if he climbed higher, but the dangers of a branch snapping were too great. At least, that’s what his mom was always saying. Cooper closed his eyes and breathed in the sweet smell of pine on the wind.
“So, this is it, huh?” Sawyer asked. He gave a halfhearted smile as he rubbed the faded jagged scar running down his cheek.
“The view, or my last day of freedom?”
“Your freedom,” Sawyer corrected.
Cooper groaned and chipped away a piece of loose bark on the branch. “Don’t remind me.”
How was it fair Sawyer got a whole extra week of summer break, while Cooper had to leave in the morning for some uppity boarding school?
Sawyer gently bumped his shoulder. “You know I’m messin’, right? I’m sure Blue Ridge is gonna be great.”
Rolling his eyes, Cooper said, “Starting middle school without you and the other guys is gonna totally suck. I’m not gonna know anybody there.”
“You’re telling me Cooper Morrow is afraid of meeting new people? Hello, remember how we met?”
Cooper smiled as he got swallowed in the daydream. Two years before, during the summer after third grade, Cooper had been cruising the bumpy, neighborhood sidewalks on his scooter. He was at the right place at the right time when he came across the new kid, his red baseball cap too big for his curly brown locks as he scribbled on the ground with a bucket of chalk at his side.
The dog came out of nowhere. Barking and gnashing its teeth, it lunged towards the kid, one sharpened claw quickly finding a home on the boy’s cheek.
Cooper swooped in like a madman, barreling the scooter into the canine at full force. As he tumbled down to the pavement, the skin on his palms got scraped up, but at least the dog was spooked away. Cooper barely had time to get to his feet before the kid tackled him to the ground in a grateful hug.
And just like that, Cooper found an inseparable friend in Saywer.
How many times had Sawyer watched his back, too? Like last year, when Lance Buttface Johnson kept picking on Cooper because he didn’t have enough money for extra snacks at lunch. Sawyer spread a rumor around the 5th grade that Lance’s farts reeked and his pee smelled like old, smelly cheese.
Cooper sighed as the sky painted itself in hues of orange and pink. It wasn’t meeting new people that made Cooper afraid. He was afraid of never finding another friend like Sawyer.
“You’re gonna be great, Cooper,” Sawyer said. “Just promise me one thing.”
“Promise you won’t turn into one of those snobby, rich kids.”
Cooper blanched and stuck out his tongue. “Uggh, never.”
Sawyer pretended to sip from a cup of tea, extending his pinky as he spoke in a terrible English accent. It made Cooper laugh, at least enough to distract him for a little while. This was his last afternoon with his old life. After today, everything would change.
The station wagon rumbled along the misty gray roads of the Virginian mountains.
Buckled in the back seat, Cooper wondered when the never-ending trees would give way to something more exciting. Anything to peak his interest! But ever since his parents drove headlong into the blanket of fog swallowing the mountains around them, trees were all Cooper could see.
The brochure for Blue Ridge Academy sat unopened beside him. No way was he reading that boring pamphlet again. Cooper craned his head behind him. He’d give anything to climb in the open trunk, pull out his favorite Detective Dackery book from his suitcase, and get lost in the world of the famous duck detective rather than the one he was on his way to now.
He wasn’t super religious, but when his parents first applied for the scholarship, Cooper prayed the school would explode. Or get sucked into a black hole. Or at the very least, maybe his application would be rejected. Cooper didn’t care how amazing the school and faculty were supposed to be. Did his parents not understand his whole life was about to be uprooted? By June, they received word of his acceptance. By July, the deal was done. His prayers failed. God hated him.
Why did he have to be the one unlucky scholarship kid?
“We’re getting close!” his dad announced from behind the wheel. Cooper groaned like he did when he had an upset stomach.
“It’s not too late to turn around,” Cooper said before clunking his head against the window. It was his mom who twisted around in her seat and stretched her hand.
“Come on,” she said and wiggled her fingers towards him. “Give ‘em here.”
Cooper reached out and slipped into the warm comfort of his mom’s hand.
“I know you’re nervous,” she said. “This is a big change for all of us, but think about all the amazing stories you’ll get to share when we see you next.”
His dad cleared his throat. “And I’m sure things are even better than when I was there.”
Imagining his dad as a kid in the ancient, dusty classrooms of Blue Ridge did little to cheer him up. Anyone alive then had to be skeletons by this point.
“But Dad, what about my friends at home? What happens when they don’t wanna hang out with me because we never see each other?”
“I know it can feel overwhelming,” his dad said, “but the friends I made at Blue Ridge were part of my life for years after I graduated. Remember Oskar?”
Cooper rolled his eyes but nodded. During his dad’s fortieth birthday party last year, dozens of friends came to wish him well, some who Cooper had never seen before. One of the people who stuck around the longest was a well-dressed man with tan skin. He and his dad spent so long catching up that Cooper was sent to bed before the man left. It was only later when Cooper discovered his dad and Oskar had been roommates at Blue Ridge.
“I bet you’ll find an even better friend than I did,” his dad said.
That part, Cooper doubted. Sawyer was his ride or die—or at least, that’s the way things had been. What if by the winter break, Sawyer had already moved on and replaced him? Cooper would rather have his knees taken out by a sledgehammer and be crippled for life!
The GPS announced Cooper’s pending doom. Outside the window, iron bars followed the dips and curves of the hills along every twist and turn. Cooper wondered if the entire campus was gated in like a prison. What had he read on their site, that Blue Ridge Academy had over a thousand acres of land? The number meant nothing to Cooper, but at least if he hated the place, he could run away and live off the land as a hermit. How hard could it be?
His dad slowed and turned through the first set of gates, where the iron letters of BLUE RIDGE curved over the entrance. Well, Cooper thought, this is it—the end of my life.
More hills, more trees, more fog. Cooper squirmed against the leather seat of the station wagon. The car’s rumbling was starting to tickle his groin, and he reached a hand down to pinch his underwear and shorts away from his growing boner. Not only was he stuck going to the worst place on earth, but now he was stuck with yet another erection. Thanks, puberty.
Worse still, Cooper didn’t have a way to make it go down. Sawyer had told him once that if you stuck a quarter on it, they were supposed to soften eventually, but Cooper was broke, and he thought that advice must be nonsense, anyway. If it were true, surely they would have talked about it during family life at the end of 5th grade. Cooper sighed and adjusted himself one more time. At least the boner wasn’t super obvious.
The station wagon continued its jerky motions until they reached a second set of sealed gates. A tall security guard dressed in a dark navy suit blocked the path, his thick arms crossed over his chest. The car rolled to a stop in front of him.
“The letter,” his dad said, and Cooper handed the invitation up, trying his best to lean over while shielding his boner. The smell of freshly cut grass filled the station wagon the moment the windows rolled down, and the guard strolled towards his dad. A pair of dark, round glasses hid the man’s eyes, but Cooper’s skin prickled, especially once the man glanced his way. The guy was starting to freak him out. Seriously, who in their right mind wore sunglasses on a foggy day? They weren’t called fogglasses, after all.
“Hello,” his dad called out cheerily as the guard plucked the invitation from his hand. “We’re here for the new student drop-off.”
While the guard scanned the invitation, Cooper’s eyes drifted to the guard post, where a black German Shepherd sat leashed. Its beady black eyes bore into Cooper as it revealed its white fangs in a snarl. After the run in with the dog that nearly clawed Sawyer’s face off, Cooper had taken it upon himself to learn everything he could about canines. It’s what Detective Dackery would have done—learned anything and everything he could to prepare for the next case. Cooper knew a dog’s jaws were powerful. A single bite could snap his bones like a toothpick.
“Go on through,” the guard said, his voice like gargled rocks.
The gates groaned as they creaked and wobbled on their hinges, and the station wagon puttered through with a lurch as they crossed the second barrier of gates.
“Dad, did that guy seem a little off to you?” Cooper asked, twisting in his seat to stare at the guard as they drove past. Even with the man’s eyes hidden behind his sunglasses, Cooper couldn’t shake the feeling he was being watched.
“Guys like him are just doing their job, protecting the school and all that. No need to worry, buddy.”
“If you say so,” Cooper said, giving one last glance over his shoulder. He’d be fine if he never saw the man at the front gates again.
After following the road a while longer, his mom gasped in her seat as she leaned forward.
“It’s beautiful!” she exclaimed. “Cooper, look! Just like Harry Potter.”
It was the first thing anyone saw when looking online or at Blue Ridge Academy’s many brochures: an immense stone castle modeled after some old dead people who built a castle once in Europe, or something like that. At the different corners of the castle, eight towering spires stretched high into the fog, with four gigantic colored banners flapping in the breeze. Never in his whole life had Cooper seen something so enormous.
His eyes flicked down to a few kids dribbling a soccer ball in the manicured grass. Others threw a Frisbee back and forth or simply chatted back and forth in huddles. Another was even attempting to scale the trunk of a nearby tree. Cooper smiled. He’d have no problem making it to a branch like that.
As the station wagon puttered through, Cooper pressed his face to the window. How many of these kids were headed into 6th grade like him?
“This place is cooler than I thought,” Cooper said breathlessly.
“See?” his mom asked. “There’s the Cooper I know.”
A string of vehicles lined the curb as the station wagon pulled to a stop behind them. Adults dressed in the same navy suits as the guard from earlier helped direct students and their families inside the towering castle. This close to it, Cooper thought his new school might swallow him whole.
Cooper blinked. Both his parents had turned in their seats to look at him. His mom’s eyes brimmed with tears, and Cooper doubted his dad’s smile had ever been bigger.
This was it. They wanted him to give the final okay. He could still back out, he supposed; pitch a fit like when he was still a little kid. And his parents loved him enough that it would probably work.
But maybe, just maybe, there was a little part of him that was curious to see what happened; where things led. The unknown, the excitement, the nervousness, the anticipation, it wrapped him up like a ball of rubber bands, and he was bouncy thinking about what might come next. Sawyer’s voice echoed in the back of his mind: Promise you won’t turn into one of those snobby, rich kids.
Taking a steady breath, Cooper closed his eyes before giving his parents a nod.
“Let’s do this.”
Roman Jacobs nursed the bruise along his ribs as his mom drove down Blue Ridge Academy’s expansive driveway.
He didn’t need to see it to know how ugly the purple stain was on his stomach—Xavier made sure to leave a mark.
Roman cast a glance to his brother, who was too absorbed in his phone to pay him any attention, but that was fine. The last thing Roman needed was another painful reminder about where their relationship stood.
His eyes flicked down to the red Nike sneakers on his brother’s feet. His feet were getting too big for them, but Xavier wore them anyway. Kept them clean no matter what. For some reason, Roman’s last Christmas gift to his brother was pretty much the only sign Xavier still cared for him. Or maybe Xavier just liked having nice shoes.
Resting his head against the cool window of the Tesla, he tried picturing the last time his entire family had been together. Maybe it was during his eleventh birthday, or was his mom gone for work? He couldn’t remember. Even now his dad was off somewhere on one of his movie shoots. When Roman woke up that morning, he hoped his dad would have somehow been there to hug him and drive him to his first day of middle school.
But he hadn’t. And now once his mom was gone, it would be another four months before Roman saw either of his parents again. Already the homesickness was eating away at him.
His mom stopped the Tesla at the security gate, and Roman immediately recognized the broad stance of Roy Rochester from the other times he’d visited. He knew the professors had to wear special uniforms, but it always creeped Roman out how Roy always wore the exact same clothes, even down to the dark sunglasses perched on the bridge of his nose.
As his mom handed the papers with their updated photographs to Roy, Roman could have sworn the guard’s brow furrowed as he swept his gaze over Xavier. Soon after, the gates creaked open, and the Tesla whirred softly as they drove through.
Up ahead, there were hardly any cars parked at the roundabout in front of the castle. It made no sense why they had to get to Blue Ridge so early. The opening ceremonies weren’t until dinner, so what was the point? Besides, the moment his mom was gone, there’d be no one to stand in Xavier’s way.
The Tesla parked, and Roman opened the door, wincing as a sharp jolt of pain shot through his ribs where Xavier had punched him earlier that morning. He grit his teeth and tried not to show how much it hurt. If he did, it was like letting Xavier win all over again.
“Boys, help me with your bags,” his mom said.
Xavier didn’t say a word as he stepped beside Roman. There wasn’t even a glance. Every time Roman bent down to pull out another suitcase, it was like getting punched a second time. A third. A fourth. He was thankful as he dragged the last of the bags on the curb. Immediately, several adults in blue suits swarmed them and hauled the bags away towards the castle.
By the time Roman turned around, Xavier was already gone, making his way down the green fields to do whatever it was older brothers who didn’t want to be around you did.
He flinched as his mom’s hand fell on his shoulder.
“Try not to see the worst in him,” his mom whispered. “Growing up can be hard for anyone.”
“Yeah, except sometimes it feels like Xavier hates me.”
“I promise you, he doesn’t,” his mom said. “He’s just figuring things out. One day, you’ll understand too as you get older and your body starts going through the same changes.”
“Eww, Mom, really? A puberty talk now?”
She gave him a soft pat on the cheek. “Come on, wise guy. Let’s get you settled.”
Blue Ridge’s castle was a great stone beast, and the stairs stretched like a forked tongue down from the opening archway. Roman and his mom stepped into its mouth as they entered the shade. In an instant, the number of directions he could peel off to were overwhelming, and he wondered how people kept from getting lost.
From his last visit, Roman recognized the smooth, cobblestone walls, oddly pristine in their shape and condition. The castle wasn’t really built hundreds of years ago—it was only made to appear that way—but Roman still found it impressive. What held it all together? Why didn’t it come tumbling down? It must have taken forever to build.
“Do you think anyone ever gets lost here?” Roman asked his mom.
She didn’t break stride as they marched to their first destination, wherever that was. “I’m sure it’s happened before. Just make sure to ask for help if you do.”
“I’m not a little kid anymore,” Roman grumbled. The last thing he wanted to do was look like a lost child who couldn’t find his parents at the store.
Their footsteps echoed off the polished floor as they arrived to the long, glass office building attached to the side of the castle. Roman waited outside while his mom went inside to grab his schedule and dorm papers. He wondered what his room would look like. All students lived in one of the many tall spires around the castle, with the girls separated in their own wing. From there, if he remembered right, they were split up based on their year: the seniors lived on the bottom floor, while the new 6th graders had to climb up seven grueling flights of stairs to reach their room. It was bullshit.
Roman pulled the dorm paper from his mom’s hands when she returned and paled as the purple letters of Fuerza, the same house as Xavier, gleamed on the page.
“Does the universe hate me or something?”
“What? Fuerza is a good home,” his mom said. “It stands for strength, you know. Your father will be so proud to learn both of his boys ended up where he did.”
If his dad really cared, maybe he would have shown up. Roman chewed the inside of his lip. Fuerza was the last place he wanted to be. He wasn’t sure what any of the other Houses were called, but Roman would settle for just about any of them if it meant dodging Xavier.
The tears were threatening to build, and Roman shoved them down. “Mom, are you sure I can’t stay home with you? We can get a tutor like we do during the summer!”
His mom pulled him gently to one of the benches outside the office. She smoothed out her blue dress before patting the empty space. As he sat down, the overhead bell chimed as another family walked into the office. There was another young boy like Roman, but he didn’t pay any of them attention. He wasn’t at Blue Ridge to make friends. He didn’t want to be there at all!
“I know this is hard,” his mom said. “The first time Xavier left was really hard for him, too. But I promise you, Roman, the stories you’ll have to share, the memories you’ll make, they’ll all be worth it.”
She leaned in and kissed him on the forehead, the same way she used to all throughout his childhood. When he was really little and scraped his knee, kisses like that made him feel better. It made him feel like his mom was a superhero who could control all the bad things in the world.
But he knew better now. His mom couldn’t solve any of his problems. She didn’t understand anything at all about what he was going through, about how awful Xavier had been to him over the last year.
No, the only thing that would help Roman was staying as far away from his brother as possible.
End Chapter 1
Copyright 2023 – Levi Holland
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