Boarding School Blues
They were ready to start the mural.
During their first month at the academy, Cooper and Anakin talked about all the ways they could make their room pop with color and stand out. The problem was that drawing on the walls or marking them with paint would only land them in a big pile of trouble, but Cooper knew there had to be some solution they hadn’t thought about. It was Anakin who came up with the idea for a mural. Maybe they couldn’t draw on the walls of their dorms, but there were no rules against hanging up artwork, and if the artwork happened to be a mural that covered their entire bedroom wall, then so be it.
Getting permission to use extra art supplies from Anakin’s club teacher, Professor Ricci, proved to be no trouble at all. They found the man hanging self portraits outside the art studio. He twirled the curly ends of his pencil-thin mustache between his fingers as they explained their plan, and Professor Ricci practically gushed over the fact that anybody wanted to bring some personality into the drab, old dormitory rooms. “Uggh, my muse, my protege,” he said, placing the back of his hand against his forehead as if he might faint. “I can hardly bear it. Yes, of course you can use the supplies. Go forth. Create!”
After raiding what they needed from the art studio, they hauled the giant sheet of blank paper back to the suite. Naveen raised an eyebrow at them from the couch as they climbed the final stairs.
“Do I even want to know what you’re planning?” he asked.
“Probably not,” Anakin said, running his fingers through his styled hair. “Besides, it wouldn’t interest you anyway.”
Naveen rolled his eyes and returned back to the book in his hands. Cooper rolled his eyes back, and Anakin stuck out his tongue. Whatever, Cooper thought. Someone like Naveen would never understand. When their room looked awesome and his sucked, that would be his problem. Besides, no one could make art like Anakin. They were about to have the coolest room in the whole castle!
By the time Anakin created a few sketches of all the things they wanted on the mural, most of the night had passed, and the floor was littered with balled up and crumpled papers from Anakin’s sketchbook. Sprawled out on the bed, Cooper fought back an enormous yawn as he watched Anakin work. His roommate was busy penciling in guiding lines, pausing every few minutes to lean against the door and inspect his art through his framed fingers. Already Cooper could see how the drawing was coming to life.
“I promise it’ll be worth it,” Anakin said. “If I don’t take the time now, I might mess something up later, and then it’ll be too late to try and restart.”
“You’re the artist,” Cooper said, hovering over Anakin’s shoulder as he looked at the sketch pad. He couldn’t wait to see the life-size drawings of Detective Dackery. They planned to have themselves somewhere in the picture too. Most of the space had been filled up on Anakin’s sketch, but there was still a gap near the center of the page. Something was missing, something that would tie the whole piece together, but so far they couldn’t figure out what it might be.
“Sometimes you have to let these things sit for a while,” Anakin said. “When the time’s right, we’ll know what we need to add.”
As Cooper crossed the window overlooking the campus grounds, he was about to change into his pajamas when a light from outside caught his eye. It wasn’t like the warm glow from the homes nestled in the distant mountains. This light was a narrow pinprick and dim as it bobbed steadily in the darkness.
“What is that?” Cooper asked.
“There’s something outside the window. Some kind of light. It looks like it’s maybe at the lake.”
Anakin set his pencils back in their case before joining Cooper at the window. Together they cupped their hands over their eyes and leaned against the cool glass. The moon was bright enough to cast a pale glow over the autumn trees, but not enough to clearly see the lake or the boat house. There was no doubt about it, though. Something was drifting across the lake.
“Maybe it’s a ghost,” Anakin said.
Even though he didn’t really believe in ghosts, a chill crept up Cooper’s arms. “That’s not funny.”
“Ooooooh,” Anakin moaned, raising his hands above his head and turning on Cooper.
“Stop, or I’ll flick you,” Cooper said. “I’m serious. What do you think it is?”
Anakin waved it off and stepped away from the window. “Beats me,” he said. “Probably just some reflection. Anyway, we gotta hit the hay, or we’ll be wiped tomorrow. Come on.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Cooper said, taking one last glance at the spectral light before heading to his bed.
As he ditched his shirt and pants, Anakin snickered behind him.
“I see London, I see France,” Anakin sang.
“You’re gonna see the moon again in a second,” Cooper said and quickly stripped out of his underwear. He wriggled his butt at Anakin before slipping into his pajamas. Shaking his butt was starting to make him hard, so before Anakin could see, he turned off his lamp and tucked himself beneath the covers.
When Cooper woke up the next day, it should have been ordinary. It felt ordinary. But by the time he and Anakin sat with their food trays at breakfast, he knew something was terribly wrong. None of the other Valentias at their table seemed to know what was up, but there was no doubt about it. There was something odd in the way all the teachers scurried about.
Hushed conversations. Low whispers. Strange glances.
“What’s going on?” Cooper asked.
“Beats me,” Anakin said.
A few professors moved table to table asking questions. Some even scribbled down notes or typed a quick message in their phones. Two tables down, Kai Feng looked miserable. The older boy’s sunken eyes had dark pouches beneath them, and his eyes looked puffy like he might’ve been crying. Where was Jordy?
All around the room, students kept shaking their heads whenever the professors showed up at their table with more questions. At least he wasn’t the only one to notice how weird things had gotten.
Kai suddenly stood up before accidentally knocking his chair backwards with a loud clatter that only managed to draw all eyes in the room towards him. He barely had it back in place before he scurried out of the banquet hall. That was it. Things were too weird. Cooper needed answers now.
“Coop, where are you going?”
“I’ll be right back,” he told Anakin before chasing after Kai.
The late autumn hair burned Cooper’s nostrils as he raced outside the banquet hall. Kai was resting at one of the courtyard benches, his head buried in his hands. It wasn’t until Cooper drew closer that he heard the crying and hiccups. Cooper’s foot crunched against the pebbles on the ground, and Kai immediately wiped an arm across his eyes before facing him.
“Hey, Cooper,” he said, trying to put on a brave face. “Sorry, I just…needed a sec. Everyone started staring, and I panicked, I guess…”
“Can I join you? What’s going on?”
Kai motioned to the other side of the bench, and the hard granite stone was like ice against Cooper’s butt.
“It’s Jordy,” Kai said. “He never showed up last night.”
“What does that mean?” Cooper asked. A sharp spike of panic pierced his insides.
“After dinner last night, he said he needed to take care of something, but no one’s seen him since. Then Professor Bell got annoyed because he never showed up for their student council meeting either, but I don’t know where he is! And I don’t know what to do, either! I’m really worried, Cooper. What if something bad happened?”
Cooper reached out to steady Kai’s fidgeting hands.
“Hey, you can’t think like that. Maybe there was an emergency and his parents came by to get him. Did you try texting him?”
Kai nodded. “I did, but his phone’s off. Or the battery’s dead. I’m not sure.”
“He’ll show up, Kai. Everything’s going to be alright.”
Kai looked anything but convinced.
“He’s not the only one missing,” Kai said, an edge of bitterness creeping into his voice. “Turns out Xavier Jacobs is missing, too.”
Roman’s brother was missing?
Honestly Cooper wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He didn’t care much for Xavier, but he cared plenty about Roman. Did Roman know about his brother? What could have happened to the two of them?
“Listen,” Cooper said, shaking it a little to clear his thoughts. “Why don’t you come hang with us after classes tonight? It might help being around other people, you know?”
Wiping the back of his hand across his nose, Kai sniffled again before saying, “Thanks, Cooper. I’ll think about it.”
Cooper’s head swam with thoughts, doubts, and suspicions by the time he returned to breakfast. The moment he stepped inside, it was clear Jordy and Xavier were all anyone was talking about. The professors no longer moved around the room, but as Cooper glanced to the adults huddled together on the far end of the room, there was no mistaking the concern on their faces.
“I don’t like this, Coop,” Anakin said softly.
“I know,” he agreed. “We have to find out what’s up.”
Roman couldn’t shake the worry from his stomach.
It had grown from a seed into something fully rooted by the time classes started. During breakfast, when their flustered professors asked if anyone had seen Jordy, Roman and Fielding swapped nervous glances. They knew something had been off yesterday. Should they have said something then? No, it wasn’t his or Fielding’s fault that Jordy was suddenly nowhere to be found. Nobody knew what happened.
It wasn’t until Professor Lee came and told him Xavier was missing that Roman really started to worry. Like Jordy, Xavier was a no show after dinner.
“Roman?” Fielding asked, but Roman shook his head, not trusting himself to speak. His emotions were more unsteady than a ship in a storm at sea. How was it possible to feel so many different ways about Xavier disappearing?
The day only got worse. Everywhere Roman went, someone wanted to ask him about Xavier. Ask if he was alright. Ask if he needed anything. Ask how they could help. He knew they were just being polite, but with all the extra attention, Roman wanted to shake them all by the shoulders and shout at everyone to leave him alone.
Later in class, Professor Riviera could barely get a peep from any of them. Her words only fell on deaf ears when she told them not to worry. Worrying was all anyone could do.
If Roman had any hopes Professor Bell’s class would be better, they were quickly dashed. There was no smile on his face, no friendly banter. They were quick to get to their science lesson, and in a rare break of character, he even snapped at two girls whispering to themselves about the missing boys during his lesson.
No one wanted to talk in Professor Gray’s class either, and their reading teacher’s ghastly frown did nothing to break them from their sour mood. If anything, Professor Gray seemed the most distressed of all the teachers. His greasy thin hair looked like he hadn’t showered at all that morning, and his eyes were dark from lack of sleep.
It was only Professor Lee who sat them down to talk. She had just finished working out the math problem across her chalkboard when she lowered the hand holding her chalk with a sigh.
“Boys and girls,” she said. “You cannot let this eat at you. There is nothing to worry about. All of us are doing everything we can.”
Across the room, Cooper raised his hand, and Roman caught his glance before Professor Lee called on him.
“But Professor Lee, isn’t this super weird to you? People don’t just go missing.”
Professor Lee adjusted the base of her shirt and considered her words.
“It’s unusual, but tell me what worrying will do for you. No? No one? My advice for you all is to blow off some steam this afternoon during your clubs. Come back refreshed tomorrow.”
Easier said than done.
By the time Roman geared up at the rock climbing wall, he said nothing as he joined Cooper on the next climb. He gripped the holds too tightly, forgetting any of the technique drilled into him over the last couple months. Several times he misplaced his foot and smashed his knee or lost his hold and careened to the bottom.
“Roman, do you want to talk about it?” Cooper asked, placing a hand on his shoulder, but Roman shrugged it off.
“It’s fine, Cooper,” he said. “I don’t really wanna talk.”
“But he’s your brother…”
When Cooper tried again, the touch burned Roman, and without giving it a second thought, he lashed out and shoved Cooper back.
“I said, I’m fine!”
Great, now he felt like a jerk. Balling his fists, Roman ignored the hurt that flashed across Cooper’s face. He made the next climb alone and struggled the whole way up. When he finally reached the bell at the top, his muscles were tight with ache across his shoulders and back, but he could hardly feel them past his fury. He hadn’t had such a difficult climb since his first. His brain was running wild, filled with ceaseless thoughts. He refused to let himself worry. He didn’t care. It didn’t bother him at all.
As the harness carried him safely to the ground, Roy Rochester was barking orders to other faculty before they split off in a search party. Roman’s stomach gurgled with uneasiness as he prepared for another climb.
Lately, the campus grounds had grown darker and darker by the night. The shadows stretched like eager hands waiting to snatch Roman up as he walked to dinner. Fielding was extra clingy that night, nearly hugging Roman’s side the whole way through the castle’s dark corridors.
“I don’t like this, Roman,” he whispered. “What if something’s really wrong?”
“It’s not,” Roman said. “Xavier’s probably pulling some dumb prank.”
“But how do you know? You remember how Jordy looked the other day. We should say something to one of the teachers. We should—”
“No!” Roman shouted, wincing as the harsh words escaped him.
“But why not? Something happened, and you know it.”
“We don’t know anything,” Roman lied, ignoring his growing fears. “Please, just drop it, Fielding, okay?”
Dinner was filled with nothing but halfhearted clinks of forks on plates. Near the end, Headmaster Robinson took a rare stand at the podium and cleared his throat for everyone’s attention.
“No doubt many of you have heard by now about our two missing friends.”
Roman flicked his eyes to the empty chair pushed in at Xavier’s table.
“Rest assured, there is nothing to fear. For the time being, however, we are insisting nobody wander the campus alone. Until we know more, all students will adhere to a strict curfew following dinner each night.”
The groans after that were the loudest part of the whole dinner. Roman walked back to the dorms in silence. Outside their window, fat raindrops plopped against the panes of glass as lightning flashed in the distance. A low grumble of thunder washed over them as he climbed the final stairs up the spire. He didn’t believe in fate. Destiny was whatever he wanted it to be. But if everything that had happened was some kind of sign from the universe, Roman didn’t want to know where it was pointing to.
End Chapter 11
Copyright 2023 – Levi Holland
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