Boarding School Blues
Outside the glass office building, Cooper’s dad glanced through the scheduling and dorm papers until his bushy eyebrows wrinkled with his forehead.
“Forgot your way around here?” Cooper asked.
“Ha ha,” his dad said plainly. “One of my old teachers is now the headmaster. We didn’t have the…greatest understanding.”
“What your father means is that he liked to cause trouble,” his mom said as she plucked the scheduling sheet from his dad’s hands.
“How’d you get in trouble?” Cooper asked, but his dad was quick to raise his hands in self defense.
“Really, it was nothing. Some light pranks, innocent vandalism, that sort of thing. But maybe try to keep a low profile until you get settled in.”
“Cooper,” his mom said, “you’re in Valentia. How exciting!”
His mom pointed to the red, swirling font of Valentia where the words House of Bravery were inscribed beneath.
Cooper didn’t get the big deal. The names didn’t mean anything. They were a silly way to figure out where you were in the castle, that’s all. They didn’t mean he was special in any way.
“Well, it’s no Ehre,” his dad started to say, but a swift elbow from his mom silenced him. “Oww, I mean, Valentia is a great place to end up!”
His mom bent over with her hands on her knees. “Race you to the top?”
As they sprinted down the castle’s corridors to the dorms, they encountered all sorts of lavish furniture and architecture. Cooper had no way to put a value to it all, but it must have been easily more than a hundred times what his own house was worth. It reminded him of the field trip they took back in fourth grade to some dead guy’s fancy estate. Blue Ridge completely dwarfed that building, but its rooms had a lot of similar furniture inside.
Finally they reached the top of Valentia’s spire. Sunlight gleamed through the stained-glass windows and onto the cherry hardwood floor. There was a whole bunch of fancy furniture that looked like something you’d find in his grandma’s place, but Cooper didn’t care about any of that. His eyes were locked onto the TV setup and gaming system in the corner, way bigger and nicer than anything he had back home. At least there’d be something to cure his boredom when he wasn’t in class.
Along the gray, stone walls were towering portraits of dead old guys Cooper didn’t recognize. Most of them looked stern or angry, but the man in the final portrait looked almost bored as he stared off in the distance at something beyond the artist.
“He’s a little grayer now, but that’s definitely Headmaster Robinson,” his dad said.
“Are you gonna get me in trouble for being your son?”
“What? No, of course not. Probably not, anyway. At least, I hope.”
Past the main suite was the largest and shiniest bathroom Cooper had ever seen. His shoes squeaked against the shiny, black marble tiles as he poked his head inside the shower area. On either end was a separate shower head, and Cooper’s stomach squirmed at the idea that he might have to share a shower with another boy he barely knew. At least the toilet had a door for privacy.
Checking his dorm papers again, Cooper headed to the first bedroom, marked with a shiny brass 1 above its door. Giving the door a quick knock, he felt like an idiot when no one answered. Of course they wouldn’t—he was clearly the first new student to arrive in his dorms.
Cooper wondered what his roommate would be like. Hopefully someone funny like Sawyer, or maybe someone who loved to climb like him. Honestly as long as the person wasn’t a jerk, Cooper would be happy. The last thing he needed was another Buttface Johnson in his life.
Inside the bedroom, two twin beds draped in red covers faced each other on opposite ends of the room, with a separate nightstand and dresser for each, along with a small joint walk-in closet to share. Like with the suite outside the dorm rooms, sunlight bathed the room through the tall window against the wall. The bedroom was huge, big enough to squeeze two or three of his own bedrooms inside.
Cooper wondered how he might decorate his side of the room. Or would his new roommate want to do something together?
Turning around, he was startled to see his parents standing together, smiling as his mom rested her head against his dad’s shoulder.
“My little man,” his mom whispered.
“Mom,” he groaned, “It’s just 6th grade. Really, I’ll be fine.”
His words trailed off, and before Cooper could put up any more false bravado, he tackled his parents at the same time they smothered him in a hug. The perfume from his mom filled his nostrils, and he nearly cried, realizing he wouldn’t get to hold his parents for the next few months after they left.
“We’re going to miss you so much,” his mom said.
“Be sure to write us all the time,” his dad said before kissing the top of his head.
“Remember your schedule—opening ceremony at 6 o’clock.”
“Give yourself plenty of time to get there.”
“Maybe go with a buddy.”
Cooper’s head was spinning with his parents’ last minute instructions. “Guys! I love you both, but really. I think I’ll be okay. Dad, if you survived this school, I think I can manage.”
“What does that mean?” his dad asked.
“I think,” his mom said, taking her husband’s hand, “Cooper’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’s smart, brave, friendly. He’s a perfect fit.”
Cooper smiled at his mom, and in the quiet, his dad asked, “And I’m not those things?”
They all turned their heads as someone stomped up the final stairs to the top floor of the suite.
“Phew, finally! Out of the way! Coming through!”
Cooper’s parents parted like clouds on a breezy day as a tall mousy-faced boy with high, rounded cheeks reached the landing. His brown, styled hair was neatly arranged in a swoop as the ends of each strand curled up. The yellow infinity scarf sitting on the boy’s shoulders began a chain of strange, mismatched patterns, styles, and colors in all of his clothes. It was like the kid chucked a handful of darts to see which clothes he was supposed to wear that day.
Peering down at the papers in his hands, the boy looked up and seemed to finally notice Cooper standing in the doorway of Room 1. He looked back down, scanned the papers with his finger one last time, and crumpled the papers in his pocket.
“You must be my roommate,” the boy said as he strolled up to Cooper. “The name’s Anakin Adams.”
Cooper froze, staring at the boy’s outstretched hand. This was his new roommate? Definitely not what he was expecting.
“You’re supposed to shake it,” Anakin said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
When Cooper shook the kid’s hand, his arm was nearly rattled from its socket.
“Nice swag, by the way.” Anakin walked a circle around Cooper, giving his clothes an appraising glance like he was ready to auction them off. “Very street urban.”
“Uhh, thanks?” he said. “I’m Cooper. Cooper Morrow. So is your name, like, from Star Wars or something?”
He figured all kids from rich families must have had strange names.
Anakin shrugged. “I guess. It’s definitely more my parents’ thing though. I only really like the lightsaber fights. Check it out. Is this our room?”
Stepping past Cooper, Anakin inspected their bedroom, while Cooper walked back to give his parents one last hug goodbye. He wasn’t convinced Anakin would be the forever friends that his dad and Oskar were, but at least their first conversation hadn’t gone down in flames.
One of his dad’s knees cracked as he stooped down.
“Remember what I said about your Headmaster,” he said. “He’s a good man, but a strict one. Just keep that in mind.”
“I will, Dad. I love you.”
“And please try not to do anything reckless. No climbing trees!”
After embracing one last time, Cooper fought the urge to chase after his parents as they finally descended the rounding staircase to the base of Valentia’s spire. As their footsteps faded among the growing voices from other students below, Cooper prayed he wasn’t making a terrible mistake by staying at Blue Ridge.
Roman climbed the seven long flights of Fuerza’s spire alone.
The only way forward was to harden his heart. That was how he would survive. Even still, he nearly cried out as his mom drove away down Blue Ridge’s long driveway. Now it was just him.
Without much to do until the opening ceremonies, Roman figured he might as well see what his home for the next ten months would look like, so he followed the student map in his hands until he reached the boys’ section of housing, and then, Fuerza’s spire.
As he climbed, Roman prayed Xavier wasn’t in his suite. Or if he was, Roman hoped he wouldn’t be seen. The rounded stairs hugged the outside wall of the spire with a small landing at the start of each suite. When he reached the floor for the 8th graders, he paused. He thought he might have heard some snickering from further inside, but after peeking around the entranceway and seeing no one there, Roman dashed up the remaining steps, wincing with each sharp, jabbing pain at his ribs.
At the top, the suite for the 6th graders was identical to the ones he’d passed along the way. Fuerza’s purple colors lined all the carpet and furniture. The silence and sunlight pouring through the window was calming. No one would bother him here. As expected, his bags hadn’t been brought up yet. He remembered something about the front office lady saying they’d be there after dinner, but it didn’t matter. There was nothing inside that Roman needed right away.
Instead, he went to the bathroom, where his shoes squeaked like a trapped mouse with every step. The counter top held two sinks beneath a wide, frameless mirror. Lifting the tail of his shirt, Roman grimaced as the purple-plum bruise appeared. He could almost see the contours of Xavier’s knuckles along his ribs. Every deep breath was another painful reminder.
Roman hated the way the boy in the mirror stared back at him—hated how much his pointed face, his blond hair, and steely blue eyes were spitting images of Xavier’s. Along the walls of his house were pictures of their father around their age—his mom always joked that if their dad could be plucked from those photos, she could pass the three of them off as brothers.
Roman buried his fingernails into his palm and slammed the top of the counter.
Leaving the bathroom behind, Roman went to Room 2 and closed the door shut before picking the bed closest to the window overlooking the campus. He wasn’t sure how long he sat huddled on the purple covers, staring blankly at the forest-covered mountains in the distance. Maybe if he didn’t move long enough, he’d be forgotten about, left alone. Maybe he’d even disappear entirely. No one would miss him.
Even as new voices and footsteps reached him from the suite, Roman didn’t move. What was the point? He began to wonder whether the window pane at the top of Fuerza’s tall spire might open up when his bedroom door barged open and thunked against the wall.
Standing in the doorway was a pale boy in clear-framed glasses. He ran a hand through his curling, strawberry-blonde hair before locking eyes with Roman on the corner bed.
“Oh,” was all the boy said, his expression a mixture of surprise and something Roman didn’t recognize. The boy’s eyes danced over Roman’s body before he stammered with a blush and backed out of the bedroom.
A flurry of voices argued outside before the boy returned, this time herded along by a woman with long hair the same orangey shade as the kid’s.
“Ahem,” the woman coughed, giving his shoulders a firm squeeze.
“I-I’m sorry I left without introducing myself,” the boy said, his eyes anywhere but on Roman. “I’m Fielding Everest.”
What an unusual name, Roman thought, glancing between the boy and his mother, although he supposed his own name wasn’t exactly common either.
“Delighted to meet you, dear,” Fielding’s mom said with a buttery smile that stirred something up inside Roman.
“Roman,” he managed, figuring he should actually get off the bed and introduce himself properly. “Roman Jacobs.”
The woman’s eyes grew wide in recognition. “I think I know your father! Well, my wife actually, but Jacobs, as in the director, Gerard Jacobs?”
“Mom,” Fielding said, “stop.”
“Oh, hush,” the woman said, conking the side of her son’s head.
Roman nodded and she came up to shake his hand. Actually, shake was putting it mildly. Both her hands gripped Roman’s, and it looked as if the woman might cry. This was never a reaction he’d gotten before. Whenever people were interested in his father, they spoke to him, not Roman.
Mrs. Everest squeezed him in a hug, and Roman’s face smushed against her pillowy breasts. They were suffocating, and he fought the urge to push the woman away as he stood stiffly with his arms at his side.
“Mom, boundaries!” Fielding shouted, and Roman caught the tail end of a southern drawl in his raised voice.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and stepped back to wipe the tears from her eyes. “You’ll never know how grateful we are to your father. He was my wife’s big break. Ahh, look at me. Such a mess. Excuse me.”
The two boys waited awkwardly as the sound of nostrils blowing into a tissue reached them from the bathroom. Fielding still refused to really look at Roman, so he tried breaking the ice instead.
“Moms, right?” Roman offered. “Always doing embarrassing stuff like that.”
Fielding offered a meek smile, finally looking up at him. “Tell me about it.”
“So, your mom’s…”
Fielding’s face flushed. “Yeah, she’s gay. That’s not a problem, is it?”
“I was going to say an actress, but no,” Roman said. “Of course not. Why would it matter?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Fielding said with enough sting to make Roman flinch. The drawl was back in his voice, but Fielding relaxed his shoulders and frowned. “Sorry, it’s just some people have issues with them. With—”
Fielding’s mom came back, her face now cleaned up, and she stretched her jaw like she was trying to wake herself up.
“Well, I guess this is it,” she said. “I’ve got to take care of a few things before I go, but try not to get into too much trouble. I love you, sunshine.”
Roman heard the muffled groan even as Mrs. Everest smothered her son in a full-bodied hug. Seeing the two of them burned something inside Roman, and he turned away. What did he care how other families were?
After she left, Roman was ready to continue quietly ignoring each other, but Fielding seemed to have other plans in mind.
“So, why were you sitting up here all alone?”
“I…uhh…” Roman paused, not sure what to say. His mind flashed to Xavier, the aching bruise on his ribs, the emptiness inside his chest, the window. “I don’t know.”
“Well, come on, let’s go outside. It’s a nice day, and I saw some kids throwing a Frisbee.”
“I don’t know,” Roman said again, worried Xavier might see him and ruin things.
“Is that all you know how to say?” Fielding asked. “Come on, let’s go.”
Before Roman could protest, Fielding grabbed his hand before running the opposite way, tugging Roman with him. It annoyed him at first, being pulled along by this kid he barely knew, but seeing the way Fielding’s smile lit his face, a different emotion fluttered through his heart as their hands clasped together too perfectly. Maybe this once, he could take a chance and see where things led.
When they reached the first of many steps at the top of the spire, Fielding shouted, “Last one there’s a rotten egg!”
“Oh, you’re on!”
They scurried past Mrs. Everest and a few other families before jumping the final steps. As they ran, Roman began to pull ahead, not far now from the large stone staircase leading down to the grassy fields. He was just about to turn back and taunt Fielding, when a figure stepped from around the corner.
“Woah, hey!” Moving too fast to stop, Roman recognized too late the navy suit of one of Blue Ridge’s professors. When they collided, a handful of papers sprang up and careened like feathers to the ground as the man fell back on his butt.
A sinking pit spread through Roman’s stomach. Not an hour into his time at Blue Ridge, and already he was done for. He scrambled to collect the papers, but the man stopped him.
“Really, it’s fine.” The man’s eyes widened with recognition as he took a good look at Roman, and he laughed. “Well, if you aren’t the spitting image of Xavier. You know, I think I remember him saying he had a brother on the way.”
Roman shook his head in confusion.
The man seemed almost disappointed as he pointed to his face. “Professor Bell? Xavier’s math tutor? Surely, he’s mentioned me.”
This was Professor Bell? Back when Xavier was happy to share about his life at Blue Ridge, the name Professor Bell popped up often. He’d always sounded like one of the cool professors, and Roman just tackled him to the ground. Great.
“He’s mentioned you before,” Roman mumbled, trying to avoid the man’s stare. God, what an idiot he was.
Professor Bell brushed any potential dirt clinging to his suit pants before waving it off. “Well, I would have preferred our hellos to be done in the classroom, but it’s a pleasure all the same. Do me a favor? Try not to plow anyone else over.”
Professor Bell walked away, but before he left their sight, a hand reached back to rub his tailbone.
Beside him, Fielding smacked a floppy hand into Roman’s chest. “Oh my god! I can’t believe you just did that!”
“Shut up,” Roman muttered.
“You were like, ‘Whoosh,’ and he was like, ‘Watch out!’ and then BAM! I thought you were gonna get expelled for sure!”
“I said, shut up!” Roman shouted. “Anyways, you wish I had gotten expelled.”
Fielding’s eyebrows furrowed. “Huh? Why’s that?”
“Because that was your only chance to beat me!”
Before Fielding could react, Roman sprinted the remaining distance outside to the fields, breaking through the threshold and into the sunlight.
End Chapter 2
Copyright 2023 – Levi Holland
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