Boarding School Blues
“We’re gonna get in so much trouble for this.”
Anakin paced around the bedroom, fidgeting with anything he could get his hands on. After picking up and putting down one of his colored pencils for the dozenth time, Cooper was ready to strangle him.
“Would you stop?” Cooper shouted. “No one’s making you go, you know.”
“Of course I’m going with you guys. What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t?”
Cooper took a deep breath. It was nearly 10 o’clock. This was it. Maybe their one chance to find answers down at the boat house. Maybe ever again.
“It’s time,” Cooper said.
After shutting their lights, Cooper eased the bedroom door open. He half-expected to find his professors outside, tapping their feet as they waited to bust their plan before it had even begun, but the suite was empty. There was only the low hum coming from the bathroom fan.
If anyone happened upon the two of them as they made their way outside, they’d be done for. Cooper held his breath each time they crossed the next suite down, carefully dipping his head around the corner to check nobody was there.
They were nearly caught as they passed the 10th grade suite. An older boy was walking from the bathroom to his room, a toothbrush shoved in his mouth while he idly paced the suite in only a pair of plaid boxers. Cooper froze in the stairwell, silently pleading the boy wouldn’t turn around and catch them. The moment the older boy turned his attention away, Cooper and Anakin scurried down the rest of the stairs. His heart was racing a million miles by the time their feet touched the bottom.
Hugging the walls as they snuck along through the corridors, Cooper knew they weren’t out of the woods yet. Not until they met up with Roman and Fielding and made it outside the castle walls. They crouched in the shadows outside Fuerza’s staircase, waiting for their friends to show. Several tense, quiet minutes passed, and one time they even heard the faraway echo of another adult’s feet, but at last Roman rounded the final bend down the stairs. Fielding was right behind him, constantly checking his rear to make sure they weren’t followed.
Cooper stepped out from his hiding spot to wave them over.
“What now?” Roman asked as the four of them stood in a circle.
“The boat house,” Cooper said. “Try to stay quiet until we’re away from the castle.”
The main entrance was the most exposed but the quickest way out to the castle grounds. Thankfully, there wasn’t a student or teacher to be seen, not with Headmaster Robinson’s curfew in place. What they were about to do was crazy, maybe insane. Cooper imagined how furious Headmaster Robinson would be if they were caught, but if he was right, if the boat house held an important clue, then the consequences were worth the risk.
As they reached the stone landing, a dog’s bark echoed in the distance. Cooper traded glances with the others, but there was no going back now. Roy was out there. Searching. Hunting. They all knew the dangers.
“Let’s go,” he said.
The brisk night air stung Cooper’s lungs as he huffed down the sloping hills towards the boat house. With little light to guide his way, he was careful not to roll his ankle or lose his footing. Behind him, Anakin and Fielding were gasping for air, and twice they had to stop to let them catch their breath.
When the boat house finally came into view, Cooper shuddered. Caution tape surrounded the building and stretched around the borders of the lake. It was a reminder to everyone that death lived on these waters.
Cooper shuddered as he faced the ominous, creaking frame of the boat house. He didn’t believe in superstition, but as he tightened the scarf around his neck against the late autumn breeze, Cooper could almost sense Jordy with them.
“How’re we supposed to get inside?” Anakin asked.
“Let’s smash a window open,” Roman said.
“Are you actually crazy?” Fielding asked.
Cooper stepped forward and raised the band of caution tape guarding the boat house before ducking underneath. He held it up for the others.
“Remember what we’re here for,” he said, “We’ll do whatever it takes.”
They were risking everything by breaking curfew, by leaving themselves so exposed. If Headmaster Robinson caught wind of what they were up to, they’d be kicked out of Blue Ridge by morning. Getting to the boat house unnoticed was only half the battle.
Cooper’s feet clunked against the old wooden boards as he led the way to the front door. The inside of the boat house was pitch black through the cloudy glass, and the doorknob had the chill of death as Cooper twisted it.
“It’s open,” he said.
“I can’t see a thing,” Fielding complained, peering his head through the open doorway.
Anakin asked, “Maybe we should turn on the lights?”
“No,” Cooper snapped. “Remember you can see the boat house from our room. Someone will spot us right away.”
“Well, then how are we supposed to see?”
Cooper scratched his head, trying to remember the layout of the boat house from when he tried searching for clues a couple days earlier. There was the lantern on the back wall. That should let them see without being too bright.
“I’ve got an idea,” he said.
Cooper headed inside, and the darkness sucked him in. Suddenly it was hard to breathe, and the whole boat house seemed to wobble as the lake water lapped against the wooden supports below the planks. Almost at once Cooper stumbled into a metal stand, nearly knocking it over as he regained his balance. The harsh clang made him flinch, and the boat house seemed to mock him with its strange creaks and groans.
“I’m alright,” he called out.
“God, this place smells awful,” Fielding whined. His voice was nasally as if his nose was pinched.
Moving more carefully with his arms outstretched, Cooper heard his friends shuffle carefully inside while he inched towards the back wall. A small counter blocked his path to the wall, but after that, the lantern should be hanging from its hook beside the old splintered door.
Anakin sneezed a couple times in quick succession. “Sorry,” he apologized. “Must be something in the room.”
Cooper felt like he’d been walking for an eternity by the time his hands brushed against the counter top. His fingers slicked through something gross and oily, and he wiped it away on his pants. As he kept moving, his fingers bumped into what felt like a thick, glass container, and immediately it started to wobble. His hands shot out to steady the object before it could tip over and shatter. The last thing they needed was to leave behind any evidence.
“Guys, I’m close,” he called out.
Something tingled his nostrils, and Cooper brought his fingers to his nose. Whatever liquid his fingers had touched was really sharp in his nostrils. It smelled a lot like the cleaning supplies his mom used to scrub the floors at home—a weird mix of chemicals and lemons. Anakin sneezed again as Cooper wiped his fingers and kept moving towards the lantern.
“Hey, Sneezy?” Fielding asked. “Can you try not to spray it everywhere?”
“I’m sorry!” Anakin shouted through another sneeze.
“Does anyone think that smell is a little familiar?” Roman asked.
Cooper made it. The moment he touched the nylon lining of the life jackets, he knew he just had to reach up a little more…and…there. Got it! Lifting the lantern off its hook, Cooper fumbled around until his thumb brushed against the flip-on switch.
“Found it!” he shouted.
The room was bathed in the amber glow of the lantern. All at once, Cooper saw his friends spread out near the open doorway. Anakin was in the middle of another sneezing fit as Fielding shielded his face, but Roman was staring in open-mouthed horror as he pointed behind him.
“Cooper, watch out!”
A cloaked arm wrapped around his neck, and Cooper’s scream died in his throat as he struggled for breath. He tried swinging the lantern at the person behind him, but his arm was batted away, and the lantern flung to the floor. The light spun around the room and made his head dizzy.
Even worse, the terrible citrus stench from before burned his nose, and Cooper nearly gagged as he choked for breath. What was he supposed to do? Nothing was working! He tried digging his feet into the floorboards and shoving back, but anytime he did, his feet got knocked out from under him. He was losing air fast!
“Let him go!” Roman shouted, and something thunked fiercely above Cooper’s head before shattering on the floorboards. There was a pained grunt from a man’s voice as Cooper was shoved to the ground. When he landed, tiny glass fragments buried into one of his palms, and Cooper cried out in pain.
Before he could get to his feet, the man fled past and shoved Roman into one of the life jacket stands before breaking past Anakin and Fielding like they were little more than gnats. Roman toppled over backwards with the stand, and by the time any of them could get their bearings, the door to the boat house clattered open, and the man was gone.
“Roman!” Fielding shouted.
“I’m alright,” he said, groaning as he rolled to his side. “Just a little sore.”
Anakin ran over to Cooper. “Are you okay?” he asked. His shoes and knees crunched into the tiny shards of glass as he leaned down.
“Fine, I think,” Cooper said, but his hands trembled. Pinpricks of glass jabbed at the palm of his right hand, and little streams of blood trickled to the floor.
The moment Anakin stooped down, his nostrils scrunched at the smell, and he turned away as a bout of violent sneezes overtook him. The odor wasn’t cleaning supplies at all. Cooper wasn’t able to place it at first, maybe because of all the other mildewed smells in the boat house. But as he brought his fingers close to his nostrils, there was no mistaking it. The smell was a lemon cologne.
Cooper’s blood ran cold as he stumbled to his feet. How could he have been so stupid not to notice?
Fielding quickly ran outside and back in before shouting, “He’s gone! At least, I think he is. Guys, we have to go back. This is too dangerous!”
“We aren’t going back,” Roman said firmly as he helped Cooper to the small sink anchored to the wall. When Roman turned on the faucet, Cooper hissed as bits of glass and blood washed down the drain. The soap was only going to make things burn more, but he had to get the wound clean. Behind them, Anakin sneezed again.
“Who was that guy? Am I the only one freaking out here?”
“We should have seen it before,” Cooper said, wincing as he carefully stretched his fingers under the running water. His hand still burned, but there wasn’t time to waste. “The smell as soon as we got inside. Anakin sneezing. There’s only one person I can think of who wears anything that smells like that.”
Roman nodded in understanding.
They both knew who their assailant was.
Under the glow of the lantern, Roman pulled Fielding closer to the door while Anakin wrapped Cooper’s injured hand with his scarf. The cool air rushing into Roman was ice in his lungs, but at least he could finally breathe again.
When the lantern flicked on, Roman thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. In the brief instant before his body went on autopilot, he remembered seeing the shadowy outline of Professor Gray’s nose and the disheveled strands of hair sticking out from his cloak. Everything else about the man was smothered in shadows.
The glass bottle was in his hands before he could think. He only wanted to save Cooper. Roman was secretly hoping the throw would be enough to drop Professor Gray. He knew he’d struck him enough to sting, but their professor ran like a coward before they could stop him. At least Cooper was alright. Mostly, anyway.
There in the doorway, Fielding’s hands shook as violently as his voice, even as Roman reached out to steady them. “You guys can’t seriously be thinking about going after Professor Gray, can you? It’s literal suicide! He just nearly killed Cooper!”
“Fielding, I have to do this. Xavier still needs help, and if there’s any chance he’s still alive…no, I know he’s alive. I have to go after Professor Gray.”
“What if you get hurt?” he asked.
Roman leaned his forehead against Fielding’s and closed his eyes. “We can’t let what happened to Jordy happen again.”
The floorboards creaked beside them.
“We need both of you to go and get help,” Cooper said. Anakin’s yellow scarf was scrunched around his hand, wrapped tightly against the wound. Whatever bleeding had happened before had stopped for now. “You guys have to tell Headmaster Robinson. We don’t know who else can be trusted yet.”
“Why should we trust him, though?” Anakin asked. “Why should we trust anybody?”
Honestly, it was a good question. There was nothing to say Professor Gray wasn’t working alone. And there was still the possibility that Cooper had been right all along about Roy Rochester. But at some point, they had to roll the dice. Like it or not, their headmaster was their best choice for getting the help they needed.
“Tell him, tell everyone,” Roman said. “Don’t stop until everyone in the castle hears about it, for all I care.”
“Come on,” Cooper said as he stepped out of the boat house. Already, he was walking towards the thick black woods beyond the lake. “We’re running out of time.”
Roman began to follow, but before he could make it far, Fielding shouted, “Wait!”
He turned in time for Fielding to tackle him in a hug. Roman stumbled back, barely keeping his footing as Fielding choked the life out of him. Even through their sweaters, Roman could feel the pounding of Fielding’s heart. Or was it his own heartbeat going nuts? When he broke away, Fielding’s eyes were wide and misted. They both knew how dangerous things had gotten.
Roman gasped as Fielding kissed him, and in the brief moment his lips parted, their tongues swiped, sending tingles down Roman’s arms. Inevitably his penis wasn’t as nervous as the rest of his body, and Roman shifted in place as he boned up inside his pants.
When he broke away, Cooper and Anakin were pretending to stare elsewhere.
“Say something,” Roman said with a scowl. “I dare you.”
“No, no, it’s fine,” Anakin said quickly. “I think it’s cool!”
“Please come back,” Fielding whispered, and Roman pulled him in for another hug.
“I will,” he said. “I promise. Now, go. We need you guys.”
Fielding wiped his nose and nodded before running towards the castle with Anakin. It would take them a few minutes to get back and likely a few more to reach Headmaster Robinson. After that, Roman couldn’t guess. It all hinged on their headmaster believing the two of them.
“Let’s go,” he said to Cooper.
The chilly darkness wrapped its arms around Roman, clutching onto him, refusing to let go. This was it. No matter what happened next, there would be no turning back. They already knew what Professor Gray was capable of committing. Jordy’s body was a testament to that. One way or another, Roman was finding Xavier tonight.
As they reached the cobblestone path leading into the woods, even the lampposts failed to illuminate much beyond the high wall of shrubs on either side of them. Cooper slowed down, eyeing the torn gaps in the shrubs with scrutiny.
“This was the place,” he said. “With Roy and his dog.”
Roman stopped with him to catch his breath. “Still think he’s in on it?”
“Who knows?” Cooper asked and shrugged. “We should get off the path, though. The last thing we want is for anyone to see us coming.”
Pushing through the shrubs was simple enough, but Roman couldn’t help flinching every time his feet crunched through the dead autumn leaves and decaying branches. Every little noise was like glass breaking. There was no way Professor Gray wouldn’t hear them stomping through the underbrush. Worse still, once they left the path, the forest swallowed them up in total darkness, and Roman only had the faint outlines of trees to guide himself along. Somewhere above, an owl hooted from its perch, and something skittered past their feet through the underbrush. The entire forest sucked at night.
“We’re here,” Cooper whispered, as the forest thinned out, and spots of light appeared in the dark.
They crouched at the edge of the clearing as they took in their surroundings. This was where the professors lived. From what he could tell, the homes were all ranch houses, each surrounded by tall, white picket fences. It’d be impossible to see through the gaps unless they pressed their faces up close. How were they supposed to tell which one belonged to Professor Gray? He could be hiding in any one of them!
Roman followed Cooper out of the woods as they ran in a crouch alongside the first fence.
“Where are we going?” Roman whispered.
“I don’t know,” Cooper admitted, “but we need to get somewhere we can see better.”
Around the corner, the cobblestone path coiled from the forest through the neighborhood like a slithering snake. At each house, the path forked, leading up to a set of stone porch steps. Not a single house had their lights on. If not for the lampposts along the path, the neighborhood would be bathed in darkness.
Cold seeped into Roman’s bones, but he bit his cheek to distract himself. Rubbed his arms through his sweater. Stamped his feet to get warm. Blew hot air into his hands. Just as he was beginning to think they should move to somewhere new, a light winked on from inside one of the houses across the path.
“Cooper, look,” he whispered.
“I know. I see it.”
“I’m gonna get closer.”
“Right behind you,” Cooper said.
Roman squatted as he crept around the front yard of the next house. His heartbeat spiked as he tried controlling his breath. He needed to stay invisible by blending with the shadows. Crouching beside a nearby oak tree, Roman leaned against the bark and rubbed his palms together. The chill made his teeth chatter. Catching Professor Gray was one thing, but dying from the cold wasn’t something he was interested in.
The light from the house flicked off, and Roman nearly growled in frustration, but then the door opened, and a tall figure stepped out, something clutched in his grasp. Roman couldn’t see what it was from this far away. The door made little sound as it closed, and without warning, the figure dashed away from the building.
“That’s him!” Cooper whispered. “It’s gotta be!”
“Yeah, but where’s he going?”
The good news about the dark was that Professor Gray would need night vision to see them spying. All Roman could make out was the man’s silhouette as he moved like silk through the clearing.
Should they run out and tackle him? Try to corner their teacher and make him confess? No, that wouldn’t do any good. They needed to make sure Xavier was safe first. That must have been Professor Gray’s house they just saw. If everything went as planned, Headmaster Robinson would be on his way with backup any minute now, and Roman could point them in the right direction. But how much longer would that take, and did Xavier have that kind of time?
Roman held his breath as Professor Gray halted in his tracks, shifting the bundle he held into one hand while the other gently touched the side of his head.
“What’s he doing?” Cooper whispered.
“Probably still reeling from the knock I gave him,” Roman hoped.
Professor Gray adjusted course, and for just an instant, he stepped beneath the light of the lampposts. The first thing Roman recognized was the black cloak from the boat house crumpled in his hands, but when he stared up at the man’s face, Roman gasped.
For a moment, his brain shut down. He didn’t believe it. Hadn’t he seen the oily strands of Professor Gray’s hair extending from the hood of his cloak? Hadn’t they all recognized the smell of his lemon scented cologne?
So then why was Professor Bell the one holding the cloak?
His dark hair fell like sweaty strings down his forehead, barely covering the ugly purple knot blooming across his temple. Eyes darting wildly, Professor Bell adjusted the cloak and took a panicked look around before sprinting away from the house.
Roman could only trade horrified glances with Cooper. His stomach churned as he tried to swallow back the sour lump that was stuck in his throat. How could they have been so wrong?
End Chapter 16
Copyright 2023 – Levi Holland
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