Before moving into the dorm, I had obsessively checked and picked at every little detail of the upcoming school year. I made sure I had packed all my clothes, gathered all my supplies, and I read the school pamphlet a dozen times. I even set the alarm clock on my tablet to ring at 6 AM on the first morning of school. This was a lucky thing, because I spent the night before with my new girlfriend, and nothing could take my attention from her.
Lorelei and I awoke with a pair of gasps when my tablet began chirping from the writing desk. I sat up, rubbing my eyes and wondering what that awful noise might be. Lorelei buried her head under the pillow.
“Oh. Mph.” My voice was thick and dry. I shook Lorelei by the arm. “We gotta get up. School starts in two hours.”
She reluctantly pulled herself from the covers, and we stumbled out of bed together. I walked into the bathroom, but stopped when I realized Lorelei was following me. I turned around and put my hands on her shoulders.
“I don’t think we should shower together just yet,” I said. “You go. I’ll meet you in class, okay?”
Lorelei said nothing, but she nodded and gave me a quick hug. I pecked her on the cheek, and then she left. I closed the bathroom door and started getting cleaned up.
Worried thoughts nagged at me as I got ready. I was in a relationship now, but what did that mean? What were lovers supposed to do once they were together? I knew it wasn’t about sleeping together. It wasn’t entirely about kissing or hugging or other physical contact. Lovers weren’t even supposed to spend all their time together, or else they’d get sick of each other.
So what was it? What special thing was I supposed to do with Lorelei, now that we were a couple?
My mind mulled this over as I showered and got dressed. I debated asking Lorelei if she wanted to have breakfast together, but I decided against it. I had said we would meet in class, and I didn’t want to send mixed signals. With my tablet tucked under one arm, I ran out of the dorm and headed for the dining hall. Having my computer meant I could go straight to class after breakfast.
Sunrise happened right before I stepped outdoors. Weak sunlight cast long shadows over everything, but the morning wasn’t cold. I could be outside wearing a polo shirt and a pair of slacks, no jacket needed. Summer had been baking this campus for months. The mornings wouldn’t become chilly for another two weeks.
I hopped up to the dining room entrance. The very instant I pulled the door open, I was glad I had gotten up early. For the first time since coming here, I saw an actual crowd of people. The dining hall was full of girls, all of them older than me. A line stretched back from the front counter.
I had never been happy to stand at the end of a line, but I was perfectly pleased to wait in this one. The dining hall was noisy with chatter, laughter and clinking utensils on plates. After the line had moved forward a few steps, I began drawing looks from the other girls. Some of them glanced at me and whispered to each other. I couldn’t blame them, since I alone represented 25 percent of the first year class at this school. The three others of my grade were nowhere to be seen, so I ignored the uncomfortable attention by pretending to check messages on my tablet.
The line moved, and I got my breakfast with enough time to eat before class. I found an empty corner of one table and sat down. I fiddled with my tablet as I ate, hoping the older girls would leave me alone. The clock in the upper-right corner of my tablet’s screen ticked off the minutes. I finished my breakfast, and I didn’t wait for the other three first-years to show up. For all I knew, they had already gone to class and waited for me there.
I picked up my tablet and dropped my tray off by the front counter. I headed out of the dining hall, hoping I could find my classroom.
It was time for my first day of school.
The hallways were wide. The ceilings were high. The colors and textures of the school building were similar to the dorms, making everything feel big and important and wealthy. Thankfully the main school building was logically laid out, so I didn’t have to search long. Classroom 110, first floor, near the main office. The classroom door was already propped open, so I looked inside.
It was an ordinary classroom, but bigger than the ones at my old elementary school. It seemed bigger still since there were only five desks in the room. The teacher’s desk was in the far corner, and four student desks sat facing the front. Lorelei sat in one of those desks, and she faced toward the door as I entered. She must have heard my shoes clicking down the hall.
“Hi,” she said in that soft and cool voice. She smiled, stood and stepped across the classroom’s empty floorspace to greet me.
“Hey again,” I met her halfway into the room, and she took my hand. It felt good to touch her again. I looked around the room, regarded the four student desks. “So. This is it, isn’t it? There are really only four of us.”
“And next year, none,” said Lorelei.
A sobering thought. Even if someone cured Homewrecker’s today, it would take more than a decade for a new generation of students to attend class. I’ve been told that a fun part of school life is seeing the younger kids come in behind you, and seeing how you’ve grown in comparison. I would never know that feeling.
Lorelei could tell she had upset me, and she hugged me to make up. I let myself be hugged, closed my eyes and enjoyed the feel of it. She was freshly showered, and she smelled good.
“Whoa there!” came Cheryl’s voice, entering the classroom behind me. “Leave you two alone for two seconds, and look what happens.”
We both glanced back at the door. Cheryl came into the room, Bianca a step behind her. They both wore new school outfits, and I felt a happy twinge. Cheryl put a hand on my shoulder, almost peeling me away from Lorelei.
“What was that I just saw?” she said. “Was that a friendship hug, or more than that?”
I looked at Lorelei, wordlessly asking her what I should say. She shook her head slightly, answering that she didn’t want to decide. She let me choose to keep it a secret or not.
“It’s, uh...,” I swallowed, took a breath. “It’s more, I guess.”
Cheryl’s eyes opened wide. “For real? You’ve barely known each other one whole day! Did you do anything, last night?”
Bianca reached a hand around Cheryl’s face and covered her mouth. With that hold on her head, she pulled Cheryl back from me.
“Now then,” said Bianca. “What they do is none of our business. Come over here and sit with me. Class is about to start.”
Cheryl mmph’d against her hand, but didn’t struggle. They took two of the desks, sitting side by side. Lorelei and I sat in the other two desks, and I started pulling up school resources on my tablet. The other girls took my cue and did the same. We were sitting there less than ten minutes before the teacher arrived.
“Oh, how about that,” she said. “I thought you were going to be late. The girls who live on campus tend to get lazy, since it’s a five minute walk from bed to the classroom. Glad to see none of you are like that. Then again, the year just started.”
Our teacher, Ericka Bergstrom, walked up to the teacher’s desk. Even more than yesterday, she struck me as a beautiful and imposing woman. She wore a business skirt and vest, clothes accentuated her body without showing much skin. I hoped to be as beautiful as her when I grew up.
“Anyway,” she said, rummaging through her desk drawers. “The morning bell is going to ring in about one minute, so we might—”
The bell sounded, cutting her off mid-sentence. She stopped talking and held out her hand, as if to say, see what I mean? The bell wasn’t the harsh, blaring noise I had grown used to in grade school. A series of chimes rang through the school building. It was too loud to ignore, but still pleasant and melodious. It sounded like we were inside a grandfather clock that just hit 8 AM.
“So we might as well get started,” said Ericka, once the bell had stopped. “Usually, I like to start the first day of school by having everyone introduce themselves, but that doesn’t make much sense in this class. It’s part of school tradition to write the teacher’s name on the board, so let’s just do that and get the formality over with.”
She took two things out of the teacher’s desk, a tablet computer and a light pen. She set the tablet on the desk, then stepped up to the digital blackboard on the front wall of the classroom. With a few swishes and flips, she wrote Ericka Bergstrom on the board.
She faced us. “Got it? Let’s move on.”
She clicked a button on her light pen, and the blackboard reset itself to a blank screen. Clicking a few more buttons, the board lit up with directory pathing that led into an English folder on the school network. She navigated to a document, then pointed to it with a red laser dot coming from her pen.
“Please open this file on your tablets.”
We did as we were told, each of us thumping our fingers on our computers, finding and opening the file. A document opened on my tablet’s screen, two pages written with four large paragraphs. I gave the text a quick look over, but it didn’t make much sense. It looked like fiction, but one paragraph didn’t lead into the other, as if they were each lifted from different stories.
“Eyes up front, please,” said Ericka, taking back our attention. “I can’t have you previewing the assignment, and I’ll explain why. Carissa’s is a literary school, and that means we’ll spend about half of our school hours on language study. We’re also a private school, which means we don’t follow a state-standardized curriculum like public schools do. We don’t know what your education was like before coming here, so we need to cover some preliminaries to find out where each student is, academically speaking. That’s how we’ll spend the first week or so.”
Ericka folded her arms, nodded to our tablets. “We’ll start with this. I want each of you to read a paragraph. Once you’re done, you’ll paraphrase that paragraph, writing down the meaning that you understood from what you just read. Use fewer words than is in the source text. Don’t speculate about what isn’t there. Summarize only what is there, and try not to duplicate any sentences or phrases.” She pointed to each of us one at a time. “Lorelei, you’ll read and paraphrase the first paragraph. Maggie, you’ll do the second paragraph. Cheryl will do the third, and Bianca the fourth. I’ll give you twenty minutes to do this. When you’re done, you’ll stand up and read aloud what you wrote. I also need you to email it to me. Any questions?”
“Yes,” said Bianca, raising her hand. “I don’t think Maggie has your email exhaust yet.”
Our teacher leaned back. “Email exhaust?”
“Address,” said Cheryl. “She meant to say email address.”
“Oh, yeah.” Bianca smiled, embarrassed.
“All right,” said Ericka, though she wondered how someone could make that mistake. She looked at me. “It’s just my first name dot my last name at the school domain.”
“Thanks,” I nodded, hitting a few spots on my tablet to save her address in my contacts list.
“Welcome,” said Ericka. “As for our assignment, twenty minutes starts now. Get to it, girls.”
We began reading. I was halfway through my paragraph when I realized this task would be harder than it sounded. These paragraphs were out of context, talking about events as if the reader had existing knowledge of a whole story up to that point. Ericka had told us to paraphrase only what was there, but that would be difficult when I didn’t know what I was reading.
I read the paragraph twice, then began typing out the paraphrased version. I reminded myself that the teacher was trying to get a grasp on my language comprehension, so I shouldn’t worry about getting it right or wrong.
I had my paraphrase written with time to spare, as did the others. Ericka still waited until the twenty minutes had passed, giving us a chance to check our punctuation and spelling.
“Time’s up,” she said. “But you’re all done anyway, so good job. Lorelei, as soon as you’ve emailed your copy to me, stand up and read what you wrote.”
Lorelei clicked on a few things, then stood with her tablet in both hands. She gently cleared her throat, then read her paraphrase. Her voice was low and smooth, so we all listened closely.
“A merchant fisherman managing his ship’s finances.”
The classroom was silent for a moment, then Ericka smiled and laughed.
“Well!” she said. “That was fewer words than the original. Maybe too few. But I can’t expect different from you, Lorelei. I admire a person who can say much while speaking little. That’s good for now. Take a seat.”
Ericka looked at me. “Your turn, Maggie.”
“Okay,” I said, standing up and holding my tablet in front of me. “This paragraph was a long romantic yearning, apparently a woman pining for the man she loved, who had gone missing in action during some war or military movement. The paragraph begins with the author claiming that she’ll never know love again, but ends saying that she’ll try to move on and live her life.”
“Very good,” said Ericka. “Cheryl, you go now.”
“I sure will.” Cheryl stood up, began reading. “My paragraph seemed to be a snippet from some action sequence in a post-apocalyptic story. The main character takes a bullet to the shoulder, and he hides behind some rubble to take cover from his attackers. An activated grenade lands next to him, and he turns to run just as the grenade explodes. That’s where it ends.”
“Good for now.” Ericka nodded. “Bianca, you’re last.”
“All right.” Bianca stood up, tablet in hand. She took a deep breath. “The paragraph I was broken talked about a fish baron who has to shake strike patch down workers in some kind oil fields, and they excrete same window slam door. Hurt baron understand case try dig move dynamite danger up sky, but cake spinning alertly—”
She stopped when she noticed the looks on our faces, all four of us staring at her. Sick dread crept into my guts.
“Plastic?” she said to us, looking worried. “Can’t electric start making fly?”
“Bianca.” Ericka stepped up to her desk. “Are you all right?”
Cheryl stood up, taking Bianca by the hand. “She’s having an episode. She can’t speak straight, and she can’t understand us.”
“What?” said Ericka. “What kind of episode? Does she have a condition I don’t know about?”
“Whale back!” said Bianca, putting her hands on her face. “Whale back stunt under driver, cancer standing shot little—”
“Shh.” Cheryl put a hand on her head, stroking her hair. “Stop. Calm down. You’re okay. Let’s get Ericka to take you to the nurse’s room, and I’ll run back to the dorm and get your medicine.”
Bianca buried her face in Cheryl’s shoulder and whimpered. She sounded desperate and upset, but couldn’t say anything.
“Shh.” Cheryl tried to calm her. “It’s okay. Come on.”
“I’ll show you to the nurse’s room,” said Ericka, walking towards the door. She looked back at us over her shoulder. “Lorelei, Maggie, you two stay here. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Those few minutes became a half hour. Lorelei and I were left alone in the classroom, fretting over what we had seen.
“Look, Lorelei,” I said, tapping a finger on my desk. “You came here a week before I did. You must have talked to Bianca, and you must have heard her swap words.”
“Do you know why she does it?” I said. “Did you ever ask why?”
She shook her head. “No and no. Sorry.”
“Ungh.” I put my forehead down on the desk, let out a frustrated grunt. “I’m worried about her. Missing a word here or there is one thing, but she couldn’t even talk. You saw how frustrated she was. She was almost crying on Bianca’s shoulder.”
“Cheryl knows, I think,” said Lorelei.
“Then maybe it’s time she told us. We’re the only four students in this grade. If we don’t lean on each other, then what else is there?”
Lorelei said nothing, but I knew she agreed with me. We sat in silence for a few minutes, thinking our troubled thoughts. Cheryl came back into the classroom, but she was alone. She plopped down behind her desk, folded her arms and glared at the floor.
“Ericka made me come back,” she said. “I wanted to stay with Bianca, but she wouldn’t let me.”
“What happened?” I said. “Is Bianca okay?”
Cheryl shook her head, kept her eyes on the floor. “I don’t know. It’s never been this bad before. Usually she can talk normally after a minute or two, or she can take a pill and she’s fine in ten minutes. Not this time. When Ericka kicked me out of the nurse’s room, Bianca was crying and still couldn’t say anything, and Ericka was calling her parents.”
We sat for a moment, and I wondered if I should push the issue. I wanted to know why this was happening, but I was scared of what I might learn.
I leaned toward Cheryl. “You know what’s wrong with her, don’t you?”
She nodded, staring off into space, but said nothing.
“Then tell us,” I said. “We’re your friends. We’re the only people in your age in this whole school.”
“I know.” Cheryl closed her eyes. “And that means a lot, really. But it’s not my place. If Bianca wants you to know, then she should be the one to tell you.”
“What if she can’t tell me?”
“She’ll be able to talk again soon, probably.”
My shoulders slumped. Cheryl wouldn’t say more, so I gave up. The three of us sat in an uncomfortable silence for a while longer, until Ericka came back.
“Before any of you say anything,” she said, holding up her hands as she stepped up to the front of the room, “Bianca is fine. Her parents told me that she just needs to rest and be away from people for a while. I can’t say any more than that.”
Which meant that Ericka now knew the cause of Bianca’s problem, likely told by her parents.
“As for us,” Ericka went on, “we’re going to continue with our school day. Please make sure that you all emailed me your paraphrase, and—”
“Excuse me,” I said, holding up a hand. “What about Bianca? Does she just get left out of our lessons?”
“Don’t worry about her. I’ll help her catch up one-on-one later on.”
“Oh.” I lowered my hand. “That’s really nice of you.”
Ericka smiled, waved me off. “Hardly. I’m short of work as it is. Her falling sick is the best thing that could happen to me, since it makes me look busy for another day. But again, that’s not your problem.” She pointed at another document on the digital blackboard. “Now, if you’ll open up this file. We’re going to try this again, but this time with more technically-oriented writing.”
We spent the morning going through language skill exercises. I tried to concentrate on the work, but it was hard to focus. My friend was alone in a nurse’s room, suffering from some unknown illness. I should be there to comfort her, let her know someone cared.
That was strange, wasn’t it? I had known Bianca for just over a day, but I already thought of her as a friend. It didn’t matter how little I knew about her. She and I were half of the entire first-year class at this school. We shared a dorm, and we were going to spend the next six years together. We had better be friends, both for our own sake.
The morning hours passed, and the clock finally hit noon. A series of chimes rang through the school building, sounding lunch time.
“Looks like that’s it for now.” Ericka clicked a button on her light pen, clearing the blackboard. “Let’s break for lunch. Normally we’ll only take a half hour, but I need to make some calls, so let’s meet back here in forty-five minutes. See you girls then.”
I asked Lorelei and Cheryl to go eat without me. I told them I wasn’t hungry, and I would rather use the time to explore the school building. That was technically true, but I didn’t mention that I was looking for a certain room. I found that room a minute after the others left me behind.
The nurse’s office was only a right turn and down the hall from our classroom. It was a clean, white and sterile place, like a single room had been lifted out of a hospital and deposited in our school. The nurse’s desk stood in one corner, but no nurse sat there. Three beds were lined against the far wall, each lit with sunlight from the windows.
Bianca was the only person here. She sat up in the rightmost bed, her tablet computer in her lap. She looked up to see me standing in the doorway.
“Maggie?” she said. “Do I make sense right now?”
“Yes, thank god.” I went up to the bed and sat beside her. “I was worried about you.”
“Thanks, but you shouldn’t be.” Bianca clicked off her tablet, then she sighed. “This has been happening to me for a long time.”
“That’s more of a reason to worry. You really scared me back there. It’s like you were talking in a different language made up of the same words.”
Bianca nodded. “That’s how it seemed to me too. I felt like I was speaking normally, but you were all looking at me like you didn’t understand.” She tapped her finger on the tablet. “That’s why I was reading when you came in. It seems to help me get my words back in order.”
“Why do they get out of order?” I said. “I know there’s something wrong with you, but no one will tell me.”
She shifted uncomfortably. The bed made creaking noises beneath her. She looked away from me.
“I don’t think you want to know.”
“No, I do. I really do.” I leaned forward, took her hand in mine. “We haven’t known each other all that long, but I don’t care. I like you, Bianca. I consider you a friend. If you have a problem, I want to know about it so I can help.”
She let out a bitter laugh. “Sorry, you can’t help with this. And it’s nice of you to call me a friend, but we just met yesterday. How much is friendship worth if it’s given out that easily? Not to mention you and Lorelei—”
My heart pounded hard once. I squeezed Bianca’s hand, quieting her. “I thought you said that was none of your business.”
“It’s not, and I won’t make you say anything, but I am curious. I mean, if we’re friends, it’s only normal I’d want to know what’s happening in your romantic life.”
“Yeah, of course,” I said. “I don’t mind sharing. So we’ll trade? I tell you about me and Lorelei, and you tell me what’s wrong with you.”
“That’s fair.” She smiled. “So? Why were you two hugging in the classroom this morning?”
“It’s just what it looked like,” I said. “We’re, you know. Together.”
She raised an eyebrow. “That was fast. Did you two do anything last night?”
“Not much really. We kissed, and we slept together.”
Bianca gasped, and her mouth opened wide. “You two—?”
I waved my hands, trying to quiet her. “No! Not like that. We actually slept together. Like, real sleeping. I haven’t even seen her naked yet.”
That wasn’t quite a lie, since taking your shirt off doesn’t count as naked.
“Oh yeah?” she said. “And I wonder how long that will take. Some proverb says that the flame that burns brightest goes out soonest.”
“Ugh. I know.” I buried my face in my hands. “Maybe we’ll end up hating each other tomorrow. All I know is... I just....” My eyes welled up, but I tried to them back. “I love her. She’s so beautiful, and she’s calm and quiet and smart. Every time I see her my chest goes all fluttery, and I want to hold her and kiss her. I want to be the one person she talks to, even if she’s silent to the whole rest of the world.”
“That sounds better,” said Bianca. “Maybe you two will last as a couple, if you love each other that much.”
“I hope so,” I looked up. “But, anyway. I showed you mine, so you show me yours. What’s wrong with you?”
Bianca didn’t answer at once. She looked down at her tablet, let a few breaths go in and out. I was impatient, but I didn’t push her.
Her voice caught in her throat, and she coughed to clear it.
“I have a brain tumor.”
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