“Reality is merely an illusion, although a very persistent one.”The Westin Academy, accessible only after four tiers of steps, loomed above the city on a platform of grassy grounds, hedge lined avenues, flowerbeds and fountains.
Esther reached the top of the North Quad and paused to catch her breath. The courtyard shone with cold spots of rain puddles. A clothy zip snapped her attention to her left.
“You never have a brollie, do you?”
Esther smiled. “It’s not raining.”
Ro hooked the umbrella on her arm. “It will be.” She turned her head and lifted up a section of thick brown hair. The underside was shaved into a three inch square with two hot pink strips. “Check it out.”
Esther rolled her eyes. “You shouldn’t get bored.”
“Mum shouldn’t bring her work home.” Ro shook her hair back, covering the spot. She fell into step with Esther as they crossed the Quad. “I still can’t believe you’re in 12B. That just sucks.”
“With all the refuges coming in from the midland prefectures…”
“They need to split them up! I mean we’ve been in the same class since forever.”
Esther stared down at her shoes. “If…If I had been here at registration…”
Ro’s fingers wrapped Esther’s arm. “It’s okay. We still have lunch together. And I’ll wait for you after school. No matter how much clean up duty you get saddled with.” She bumped Esther’s hip playfully. “It’ll be great. No worries, right?”
Esther gazed up at the building.
“Worries. No worries, Es. Say it with me, now…Esther?” Ro followed her gaze. Two boys stood in the semi-protected darkness of oak trees lining the main thruway to Gentlyn Hall. White smoke curled up from closed fists.
“Ah, what the—Stupid loiterers. Go to class, Sinclair!”
“Ro!” Esther hissed. She tried to hide behind the bigger girl, nearly tripping her.
“Oh stop it. He probably doesn’t even remember you.”
A boy with white blonde hair half turned. He gave Ro a glare and an energetic gesture utilizing the two fingers holding his cigarette. The other laughed. They threw down the cigarettes and turned up the Quad. Another boy pushed off from against a tree to join them. Esther squinted. She peeked further around Ro’s umbrella, her hat sliding down her forehead. The boy shoved his hands deep into the pockets of a military coat while Tobie Sinclair escorted the little group back to the path.
Icy air pricked her throat as she gasped.
“That’s him!” She launched herself off Ro’s arm.
“Hey!” Esther pelted up the thruway. “Wait!”
“What the…” Ro’s voice faded as Esther left her behind.
Esther stopped at the tree line, still smelling of smoke, and bent into a stitch in her side, hands on her knees. A pair of very shiny new shoes rotated towards her. She glanced up and pushed her hat back. Tobie’s blue eyes were dark with annoyance even as a calculating smile twisted his lips.
“So you’re back, freak?” He crossed his arms, the other boy flanking his side like a pompous body guard in training; crowding her view of the third. “They let you out of the loony bin, crazy girl?”
“You must have lost your mind; running up to us like that.” Gus, a tall boy with sandy red hair, his Westin uniform jacket tied around his waist, rapped his knuckled against the top of her head. The hat slid down her forehead, teddy bear ears flapping. “Hello? Earth to crazy girl?” He cocked his head towards Tobie. “Don’t think anyone’s home, boss.”
Tobie laughed but started walking backwards. Ro was coming up the Quad. “We got plenty of time. 12B, right little late register? Come on, guys.”
Esther tried to ignore a spasm of panic cinching her chest and continued to stare at the boy that had to be Holon.
“How did you get here?”
He glanced over his shoulder impassively, hands in his coat pockets. “I walked.”
“Walked?” Esther cried. “How could you walk—”
“To a cab.” He turned to follow the other boys in the wave of their laughter.
“Wait! You have to let me repay you! Or at least give you your pass back.” She fumbled with her satchel.
“I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“I have it…Just hold on.” She hunched over her pencil case, trying to get the zipper open.
“Just a sec!”
“Esther.” Two hands were on her cold cheeks, lifting her head. Calluses scraped against her chin. “It’s alright, Esther.” The rounded tone filled her ears; familiar in its liquid ease of vowels but somehow too faint to trace back from the already fading memory.
The world softened. The rush of the kids in the quad faded away. The expressionless face with the darkest eyes she had ever seen gazing down at her an inch away blotted out the world.
Something folded over her knee and slid down her leg. A soft rattle punctuated the eerie calm. Sound rushed forward with an icy thrill, sweeping away the warmth cupping her cheeks. Her hand rested in her bag, now flopped open over her leg, fingers gripping her pencil case. Two spiral notebooks and her Tic Tacs spread over the bricks. Ro was coming up behind her and the boys were four steps in front. Holon was half turned away. Everything was as it had been. Or as it had always been.
“Es?” Ro’s hand was on her shoulder. She jumped, pencils clattering together in their case. “You okay?”
Tobie snorted. “Come on, Holon.”
They melted into the growing crowd of students.
“Esther?” Ro’s pressure deepened. “Es?”
Esther grabbed the notebooks and mints, shoved her pencil case back into her satchel and straightened.
“Man, didn’t know Sinclair and Gussy are recruiting for the Douchbag League,” said Ro, glaring after the boys. “That must have been a refugee, yeah? ”
“His name is Holon. Holon Hughes.”
“And you know that—” She stopped as Esther slid her thumb over a small square of laminated paper, smudging away the powder from her compact.
Ro’s eyebrow arched. “So you did run into him this morning.”
“I guess…” Esther shouldered her bag. “Did he just—”
“Completely burn you in front of half the A group?” Ro spat fury at her feet. “He’s here ten minutes and already that prep Tobie—”
A chime of bells, echoing from the bell tower of Gentlyn Hall, rang in the distance.
“Ugh! Sorry, Es. Gotta get to the pool house! Why is it half way ‘round campus?” Ro went from standing still to full tilt. “See you at lunch!” she called over her shoulder.
Esther let the wave of hurrying students push her towards the sophomore buildings. She hugged her satchel, watching her steps in the fuzzy framework of her hat.