$.99 THROUGH NOVEMBER 1
From the moment she enters the world of her new boarding school, Blight’s Academy, teenage sleuth, Poppy Farrell, finds danger. From a strange encounter on a train platform, to evidence of a murdered student in the woods that surround the ancient, gothic buildings, life at Blight’s Academy grows more menacing by the day.
Poppy and her friends, Clair and Georgie, must outwit their Shadows, older girls assigned to mentor them, but who coldly follow them wherever they go, like their shadows. There is a dark secret at the heart of Blight’s Academy: disappearances, deaths, and conspiracies pervade the wooded grounds, flicker in the stained glass windows, tinkle like a music box lullaby through the turreted halls.
Enter the world of The Shadows where witchcraft is afoot. Young Adult or Old Adult, this story is guaranteed to send a shiver up your spine and keep you turning the pages far into the night.
Book Rated: PG
e x c e r p t
Alyne de Winter
All Rights Reserved
Cover Design by Melody Simmons of eBookindiecovers
“Your nightmares follow you like a shadow, forever. ”
― Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project
NOTES ON THE BRITISH SCHOOL SYSTEM
Blight’s Academy is a boarding school in England. Though most non-Brits have probably read Harry Potter, many readers may still not understand British school year allocations. I have listed them here for reference:
1st year age 11-12 – Year 7
2nd year age 12-13 Year 8
3rd year age 13-14 Year 9
4th year age 14-15 Year 10
5th year age 15-16 Year 11
6th year age 16 – 17 Sixth Form (First year)
7th year age 17- 18 Sixth Form (Second year)
In The Shadows, Poppy, Clair and Georgie enter Blight’s Academy at year 9. Being older students they bond easily. They are also assigned Shadows—-girls from the Sixth Form who traditionally mentor the Year 7 students.
Trains were always late. Once the first one went off schedule, all the rest followed suit. Though she was annoyed and a bit apprehensive, for she’d never taken such a long journey on her own before, Poppy Farrell felt it would be a sign of weakness to stop short and go home. After all, they were holding a place for her at Blight’s Academy, one of the most prestigious all girls’ boarding schools in England. Mum had worked hard to get them to accept her coming in as a 9th Year student. Though it was far from home, on 700 acres of rolling hills and woods, Mum had decided it was the safest environment for her increasingly wayward fourteen-year-old daughter, a daughter who’d insisted that she was old enough to make this trip on her own and now had to see it through.
Traveling into the countryside, woods grew close against the tracks. Poppy could see them through the windows on both sides of the train, trunks close together, branches arching over like a tunnel. Poppy didn’t like woods. She was a city girl, a London girl. She didn’t trust trees.
She had to change trains again at East Grinstead. She’d hoped it was a proper town. Instead, she was left alone on an isolated platform. Behind her was a station house as grey and closed and empty as if it hadn’t been serviced in a hundred years. And encroaching all around, leaves rustling in the wind, were the woods.
Setting out at 4:00 in the afternoon, Poppy had never dreamed that the crowded train stations of the city could give way to this utter desolation. Why did the trees seem to be watching? It was a ridiculous idea, but the feeling persisted. She glanced around. Not a soul met her gaze. She was out here alone with the woods, and the silence, and the twilight.
A gust of wind rushed up her back. She shivered with a sudden chill.
The air was heavy, as if it was going to rain. If she hadn’t missed her connections, she would have gotten to Blight’s in time for supper. She let go the handle of her suitcase, set down her black backpack, with its Blight’s Academy logo of a castle inside a ring of black thorns on the flap, and checked the time on her mobile phone. The light flashed up like a signal. It was almost 7:00!
Where had the time gone?
“Stupid,” she mumbled, annoyed at how long this trip was taking.
She put the phone back into the pocket of her brown corduroy jacket, pulled her long, layered auburn hair off her neck, and pulled the collar up. Her feet in their little tan cowboy boots, skinny jeans tucked in, felt firm, planted, the rest of her at sea.
There was a bench under the eaves of the station house, but Poppy felt too uneasy to sit down. Besides, she was reluctant to step back from the sight of the tracks and their promise of the next train. Across the tracks, and a little further down, was another deserted platform, and more woods.
It was so quiet. Poppy wasn’t used to quiet. As if by magic, a single light came on under the eaves of the station house, lighting up a schedule posted by the shuttered window. Taking out her phone again to check the time, Poppy strolled over to look at it.
“Next train… 7:45… It’s so late!” How did people live out here with such lousy service?
The trees across the tracks went still, and seemed to stare. Poppy scanned the area again for signs of human life, then worried about who might show up. She was all alone out here. What if some gang-bangers came along? Or…
If Poppy allowed it, her imagination would get the better of her. She’d read too many mysteries and crime novels. Watched too many horror films. Her mother never understood how such a young girl could be interested in all that morbid stuff. But for Poppy it wasn’t morbid. She just liked to puzzle things out, solve things, such as how to get to her first day at a new boarding school on her own. She didn’t know the train would drop her off in the middle of nowhere and she’d have to wait for ages by herself. It reminded her of that old film, The Blair Witch Project.
Now she wished she’d let Mum drive her.
You’re always so headstrong, Poppy…
Mum’s constant litany.
What am I going to do with you?
Her younger sister Daisy, chiming in: You always have to have your own way!
But she was fourteen. It was time to be independent. She was an Aries, after all.
She needed to talk to her mother, so punched in her phone number at home. Mum would probably throw a wobbly knowing Poppy was out here alone in the wilderness, but what could she do? The phone rang and rang. The answer phone came on.
You’ve reached the Farrell residence. Please leave a message.
Poppy fumed. “Hi Mum. Just letting you know I’m almost there. My trains have been late. Don’t worry about me.” She flipped the phone shut and put it back in her pocket.
From somewhere came a screech. Heart hammering, Poppy hoped it was a train coming. She looked up and down the tracks both ways, but saw no light. Another screech came, this time she could tell it was coming from behind her, in the woods at the back of the station house.
It must have been an animal.
A high, shrill cry echoed up through the trees. Ah! Ah! Ah!
Perhaps it was an owl. They had owls in London. In the back garden,
A splat of rain hit her face.
Thunder rolled, long and loud, then fading off.
The sky brightened, then went dark.
Poppy buttoned the top button of her jacket, tugged her collar close again, and headed for the awning of the station house. The bench was coated with a thin layer of moss. Looking for a bare patch of whitewashed board, so as not to ruin her jeans, she sat down.
Where was that train?
Sounds of breaking branches and strange noises coming from the woods sent her rocketing to her feet. Shaking with raw panic, she inched her way out to the platform, into the rain, and stared at the darkness between the trunks of the trees.
The single light from the station house shone on something white coming through the woods. Two hands appeared, pushing the branches apart. The scratched face of a girl came through, and then her whole body followed.
Her long blonde hair hung in hanks; her dress was torn. She was shaking as badly as Poppy was who just stood there, gobsmacked.
“Who are you?” Poppy shouted over the thunder that crashed. A sheen of lighting blanched all color from the frightened girl’s face.
The girl’s eyes slid from Poppy to the backpack still sitting on the platform. The girl opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“What? What’s the matter?” Poppy grabbed her suitcase and backpack and took them under the awning. “Are you all right?”
The girl jumped, then looked back at the woods, the leaves now pattering in the rain. She stretched her hand out toward Poppy, pointing her finger at the backpack.
“Don’t go there,” she said. “Don’t go to Blight’s Academy.”
“What?” Poppy couldn’t believe her ears. Blight’s was a highly regarded boarding school. It was safe. Mum said so.
“Don’t go there. Please, don’t go to Blight’s Academy! Go back! Go home!”
The wind blew the girl’s long, straight hair over her face and seemed to blow her words away, for though her mouth was moving, Poppy heard nothing.
A loud whistle and a beam of light on the tracks heralded the train. It was coming in Poppy’s direction.
“The train’s coming,” Poppy cried over the din, running to get her suitcase and backpack.
“Don’t go!” the girl shouted. “Please, listen to me!”
The train pulled up with a loud screech. Poppy opened a door in the last car and shoved her bags inside. She had one foot on the steps when thunder banged like a china cabinet falling over. The girl’s face went livid white, her eyes so black, and her lips so red, she looked ghastly.
“What are you going to do?” Poppy shouted. “I’m leaving.” She shut the door.
The train jerked and squealed and began to go. Poppy grabbed a seat and watched the girl through the window. She was running around on the platform, waving her arms around, when a dazzling streak of lightning came down. The train was too far down the track to see what happened next, but Poppy thought she heard a horrible, gut-wrenching scream.
“Oh my God,” Poppy murmured. She put her hands over her heart to stop it hammering. How awful for that girl. It was like she was mad or something.
Poppy got up to stash her suitcase in the luggage rack, and realized her legs felt like overcooked pasta. She just got it stowed, and was slipping into a seat with her backpack, when the door at the end of the car slid open.
A tall, burly fare collector came in, hand out for her ticket. He had a little ticket- selling box hanging on the front of his blue uniform making Poppy think of a toy wind-up monkey.
“Got your ticket, miss?” he asked.
“Yes.” Poppy pulled the ticket she’d bought at Victoria Station out of her jacket pocket, and handed it to him.
“Where you getting off?” he asked.
“Blight’s Academy,” she said. A moment ago, she’d have been proud to say those words, but that girl coming out of the woods and acting crazy had shaken her confidence.
The fare collector frowned and nodded. “Of course. It won’t be long now.”
“Sir, did something bad happen there? I mean—-I met a girl on the platform—-”
“I don’t know,” the fare collector said, lifting his nose as if to avoid a bad smell. “I haven’t heard a thing.”
Poppy studied the man as he slid back out through the door from whence he’d come. He’d say that to anyone. Even of he had heard something bad, he wouldn’t say what it was.
Poppy slouched down in her seat. Occasionally she looked out the dark, rain-spattered window, back toward the platform where that poor girl had been raving and hopping around, wondering why it seemed that some kind of unseen force had been trying to warn her off going to Blight’s, to delay her and, now, to stop her. Hopefully, someone at the school would tell her what was going on. Perhaps the girl had been expelled, or something. It was only the twilight and the woods that charged the atmosphere with foreboding.
The lights flicked on overhead. Poppy sat up and looked around. She was the only passenger in the car. The dark zipped past the windows, and once in a while, a patch of clear, moonlit sky whizzed past.
She opened her backpack and took out a book she’d bought on the Internet with her allowance money: The Biggest Secret by David Icke. This was her biggest secret: Poppy adored conspiracy theories. These were the best mysteries of all. They made her think.
As she closed the backpack, the logo of Blight’s Academy stared up at her: a ring of black thorns around a red-brown school building that looked like a castle. For the first time she noticed, just above the door, a tiny five-pointed star.
The logo was a bit disturbing, she supposed, with the thorns and the star. But weren’t most hedgerows full of thorns? Hadn’t she heard they were meant to keep intruders out?
That girl back there was off her rocker. That was all.
There was a theory at the back of Poppy’s mind, about the Web of Wyrd. She’d heard about it in a film and then looked it up on the Internet. It suggested that all events in the world were connected, that seemingly unrelated people were thrown together along the strands of the Web to be caught up in the same Fate, and, if one dug deep enough, one would find that seemingly random events were linked. Many of the most famous crimes in history, the ones she’d read about, turned out to have all sorts of weird interconnections. Were conspiracies involved, or the unseen workings of the Web of Wyrd? If it were the latter, Poppy hoped she hadn’t been caught on the same strand as that girl back there.
David Icke had a theory that the royals practiced black magic and had done so for thousands of years, that maybe, they’d created the Web of Wyrd to run the world their way. Was that a conspiracy theory, or what?
She sighed. How her friends would laugh if they knew what went on in her head! There were no conspiracies or Webs of Wyrd, really, but coincidences were amazing.
The woods were pressing against the train on her side of the car, branches sliding against the windows. Poppy flinched away. Why did the woods frighten her so much, but not horror films, or these conspiracy things? It was only nature. It wasn’t like the woods were full of witches….
When were they going to get to Blight’s? Would she find her way in the dark? Would the shuttle be waiting at the next station to pick her up? She checked her mobile phone for the time.
God, she was late! Would they even let her in?
She thought back to the first delay in London: that drunk jumping in front of a train at Camden Town tube station. He was the one who’d held everything up. Why would anyone do that? Being run over by a train had to be painful as hell, and besides, if someone wanted to end their life, it seemed damned rude to inconvenience everyone else in the process. Mum would say she was being selfish to think that, but it happened so frequently, people falling in front of trains at Camden tube, that reports about them had become part of the ongoing babble and squawk of the city.
But, then there was that girl on the platform back there….
What had happened to her?
Was it a coincidence that, on a single journey, two people had fallen off a train platform?
Or could it be something to do with the Web of Wyrd?
Whistle blaring, the train lurched around a bend, knocking Poppy over on her seat.
Oh my God!
Poppy covered her ears at the memory of the girl’s scream. She wondered if the girl had been struck by lightning, and was lying dead on the tracks. Hopefully, she’d made it across to get the train going the other way.
Poppy groaned. She was sick of worrying about it.
The train blasted its whistle again, and slowed.
A bell was ringing.
“Blighton-Moss Station! Alight here for Blight’s Academy shuttle service.”
Poppy stuffed her book back into her backpack, then hurried to retrieve her suitcase. She was waiting at the door when the train screeched to a halt.
The door of the train slid open on perfect darkness.
Luckily, it had stopped raining, though the air still smelled wet and green and the wind was high in the trees, threatening another downpour. The darkness was somewhat alleviated by the whitewashed planks of the platform and the set of white wooden steps going up to the road. There was no stationhouse here, only a bench under the sign for Blighton-Moss.
Poppy dropped her bags on the platform. As the train roared away, she gave her eyes time to adjust to the minimal light.
Being a city girl, Poppy had never experienced complete darkness before. There had always been light from office towers and shops and streetlights and cars. Even on holiday, they always stayed in cities, or in seaside resorts where hotels stayed open all night.
And Blight’s was surrounded by 700 acres of rolling hills and woods… the website said.
How dark would it be there? How quiet?
“I’ve got an over-active imagination.” This was another of Mum’s litanies about Poppy’s character. “That’s all.”
She gripped the handles of her bags. There was no way but forward.
The white steps took her up to a road that curved into the trees. A little way down was a white sign: Blight’s Academy Shuttle Service. On the post beneath it was a schedule, and a yard back from the road was a bench.
Weary to her bones, Poppy sat on the bench to rest. She took her phone out of her pocket and looked at the time.
It was very late, almost 9 o’clock. Too late for a shuttle to come and pick her up.
She scrolled through her contacts for the phone number at Blight’s. Finding it, she pressed the Call button.
She pressed again.
A notice appeared on the screen. She’d run out of minutes.
Poppy stared at the phone. “But that’s impossible! I just topped it up.”
She closed the phone and put it back in her pocket. She had no choice but to walk. The sign had an arrow on it pointing to the left, where the road curved into the woods.
Poppy looked to her right. The land was more open that way. There was a house and a large field down that way. Perhaps she could just knock on their door and ask to stay the night.
Of course, that was a silly idea. No one would take a stranger in.
There were streetlights at intervals, most likely for cars. It was a comfort having something to guide her.
A roll of thunder threatened another round of rain.
She shrugged on her backpack, grasped the handle of her suitcase, and headed in the direction the arrow pointed.
As tall trees loomed above her on both sides of the road, Mum’s voice nagged in Poppy’s mind: Go on, then. Take yourself off. But don’t cry to me if you get lost.
I’ll not get lost. Stop treating me like a child!
You are a child.
Then Daisy piping in, Hey, Pops, at least if someone murders you, we can read about it in the papers.
Poppy squeezed her eyes shut. Stop, stop, stop! Okay. They were right. But she wouldn’t cry. No.
How long would she have to walk? She had no idea where she was or where the bloody blazes she was going.
Thunder boomed softly high, a wave of light fell down.
Poppy looked up at the sky. The moon was full and bright. There were loads of stars. They shed light on the trees so that she felt as if she were walking between living walls of light, diffuse light, full of shadows, but enough to see by. Perhaps there was never total darkness on earth. Only people in cities shut the light out completely.
The combination of rain and clear night sky was curious. Where were the thunderclouds? Maybe the weather shifted more quickly out here, or the full moon drove the clouds away. Whatever the reason, she was glad it wasn’t raining.
The road ended at a dual carriageway. It was eerily empty of traffic, but she would have to be careful crossing it. A car could come out of nowhere, and she had no desire to end her days as road kill.
It was oddly dreamlike crossing the black tarmac of the dual carriageway, with no cars, and the moon and stars overhead. The were three lanes of black with two stitched white lines to cross, a green belt, then three black lanes with two white lines, to hop, and then she was free.
Feeling excited, as if she’d leapt some mythological hurdle, Poppy took up the road again on the other side. It was no more than a lane, really, with tall trees on both sides. Wild flowers scented the night air all the way to the end where a massive wrought iron gate crossed her path.
The scarlet letters of Blight’s Academy were framed in fancy curlicues along the top of the gate. A great square lock in the center, where the two wings of the gate joined in the middle, was bound with a chain.
Poppy peered through the bars at a long, long drive.
She moaned with weariness. Though she’d arrived at Blight’s, her destination still seemed so far away.
She shook the gate. Of course no one was here to let her in. It was after 9 o’clock.
Hoping Mum had texted her, Poppy took out her phone and opened it. The light was out. Dead. Her phone was dead. But how could it be? Temper flaring, she almost threw it on the ground.
The cold was beginning to penetrate. She wrapped her arms around herself and jumped up and down to get her circulation going. What was she to do?
There was a caretaker’s cottage under a clump of trees just inside the gate. A large bell hung from the gatepost with a long rope attached. Poppy gave up feeling guilty about the lateness of the hour, and pulled the rope.
Clang… clang…. clang… echoed loudly in the darkness.
Out of the cottage, into the chill and damp, came an old man carrying a lantern. He held the light up and squinted into Poppy’s face.
“Well?” he said.
“My train was late. I missed the shuttle. I’m a new student here.”
“I suppose you expect me to believe that. I suppose you expect me to let you in.”
“Please do, sir. It’s very miserable out here. I’ve come such a long way.”
Poppy turned so that her backpack with its badge of Blight’s Academy would catch the old man’s light.
The old man squinted and set his lantern down. He made a great show of producing a key ring, looking through his keys, and fiddling with them before he undid the chain and pulled it through the bars. Then, with a long, black key, he stabbed the great lock, turned it, and with a squeal of iron, pulled the gate open.
“I suppose you’re all right,” he muttered, moving aside to let Poppy in.
“Thank you, sir.”
“We’ll see how much you’ll be thanking me a week from now.”
“What do you mean?”
The gatekeeper ignored Poppy, looping his arm through the key ring and picking up his lamp.
This stonewalling made Poppy more nervous than she already was. “What do you mean, sir?”
“You run along now. Don’t pay me no mind. Just scurry along.”
Poppy felt depressed. The drive went on between rows of trees and intervals of lawn, lit only by misty globes of light. The school building must be very far away because she couldn’t see it. The girl’s voice played in her head. Don’t go! Don’t go to Blight’s Academy! Turn back!
Thunder rumbled like wind in the sky. Lightning flashed.
What if the girl on the platform was right? What if Poppy were making a terrible mistake to continue on toward Blight’s?
Still, she’d come so far. She had no choice but to carry on. She grabbed the handle of her suitcase and started up the drive.
“Pretty red hair you’ve got there,” the gatekeeper called out. “Take my advice and mind your Ps and Qs.”
Poppy felt another wave of apprehension. Minding her Ps and Qs was not her strong suit.
As she watched the old man limp back to his house, a rustling sound drew her attention to the clump of trees behind it.
The old man waved his lantern toward the sound. “Get off you two. I won’t have you playing your tricks around here.”
Poppy stared woodenly at the dark hollows of the trees, wondering who was there. The thud of the cottage door closing, told her to get moving. It was late.
Her backpack weighing heavily on her shoulders, Poppy trudged warily toward the school. Her feet dragged uncertainly. Glancing at a mist-filled holly tree standing alone on the lawn, she couldn’t help thinking how ghostly it looked in the moonlight.
Goosebumps traveled up her arms. Maybe she should go home.
There was movement, the whisper of feet over grass. Peering into the gloom, she saw the shadows of two small boys running to hide behind the holly tree. She stopped and waited to see if they would come out and speak to her. When they didn’t, she left her suitcase and went to look behind the tree.
There was no one there, only a teenage doll’s head hanging by its hair in the holly leaves. There was a red stain under its chin, the red berries below giving off the unsettling illusion of blood dripping down.
What strange little boys. Was this one of their tricks?
They were gone without a trace, and so quickly. Poppy backed away from the tree and the doll’s head, and returned to her suitcase on the drive.
There was a slight dip in the drive, then a rise and finally, there, up ahead, was the vast, Neo-Gothic facade of Blight’s Academy. Its gables, turrets and chimney pots, battlements, tall, dark windows and grand entrance gave Blight’s the dual air of a stately home and a prison for the insane.
The full moon lit the autumn trees around the building the color of blood.
Poppy covered her eyes. She really was anxious. Perhaps Mum was right about horror movies. They left bad impressions in the mind.
The drive ended in a circular forecourt going around a tiered marble fountain with a Greek goddess in the center. Water splashed down around the graceful figure in moonlit spangles. The sound was soothing after the storm, as if the wildness of nature had finally been contained in a man-made vessel. Poppy felt safer that way. She’d always preferred Regents Park to the Heath.
Running across the front of the building was an impressive marble porch, the stairs running up between two urns of red flowers, and two more stairways sloping down at either end. Poppy went up the center stairs, crossing an area of black and white tiles to the door. The leaded glass pane, just above the lintel, bore the design of a five-pointed star.
Sighing with exhaustion, Poppy rang the doorbell.
No answer. No intercom either, by the looks of it. Shouldn’t they be expecting her?
There was a bronze knocker, the head of Medusa, on the door. Poppy banged it down. As the noise echoed through the building, she looked around. Over her left shoulder, and quite a way back, was a circle of columns, like a little Greek temple, on top of a green mound. Dark woods encroached behind it like a dense wall, treetops a ragged row against the sky.
Poppy turned back to the door, banged the knocker again.
Down on her right was a pergola covered in ivy and wisteria. A gravel walkway went through it toward a large outbuilding that looked like student housing. There was a patch of lawn, then, running down along the side yard of the main building, a lofty hedge held back the mass of irregular shadows that was the woods.
Those little boys were nowhere in sight.
Shoulders aching, Poppy slipped her backpack off and set it beside her suitcase.
It was all so quiet and dark.
No one answered the door.
“Hello! Is anybody in there? Hello!” Poppy gave the knocker another hard bang! In a surge of frustration, she leaned on the doorbell. It tinkled feebly inside the building like a flipping glockenspiel.
“What am I supposed to do? Wait out here all night?“ She said to the door. She hugged herself. “It’s cold! Where is everyone?”
Poppy checked her phone again.
She was gazing at the pergola wondering if she could spend the night in there, when she heard a voice calling from above.
Poppy stepped back, ran down the stairs into the forecourt, and looked up at the roof. A girl was up there, the moonlight shining on her pale blonde hair. The girl leaned out over the parapet and waved.
“Please help!” Poppy called up to her. “My train was late and I missed the shuttle. I’m a new student here. How do I get in?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll come down and let you in. Just stay there.”
Both relieved and on edge, Poppy took advantage of the wider view and looked around some more. Way down the lawn, beyond the Greek temple on its mound, the white dome of the tennis courts glowed like the moon rising out of the earth. Closer to the school building, directly to her left, a stone chapel thrust its pale spire up against the blackness of the woods. Candlelight flickering dimly behind the stained glass windows told her that someone was inside. Thank God that girl was coming down to let her in. She would hate to interrupt a person at their prayers.
All around, the wind whispered through woods that seemed to go on forever.
Light glimmered through the windows of the school from the top floor all the way down to the bottom. At last, the door opened. A delicate, ethereal girl stood there with a branch of candles. With her short, trendy blonde hair, violet eyes, and a clingy white jumper over a white sateen skirt, she glowed.
“Can’t they afford electricity around here?” Poppy asked.
The girl laughed.
“Oh, do come in. I’m Clair Montague. I arrived earlier on.”
“I’m Poppy Farrell. I got lost.”
“Oh! You’re my roommate. Come on in.” Clair grabbed Poppy’s arm and drew her over the threshold. “My God, you got soaked.”
Indeed, Poppy’s clothes were still dark and clingy with damp. No wonder she was cold. As she was gazing around the ostentatious, if not baronial, front hall, Clair stepped out, grabbed her bags and began hauling them inside.
“I’ll do that,” Poppy said.
“It’s all right,” Clair said, setting the bags on the carpet. “All in now. That backpack is heavy. I don’t know how you carried it all this way.”
“I’m a very determined person,” Poppy said. “Headstrong.”
She was standing at the open door and about to close it when thunder snapped. A flash of lightning brightened the path back to the gate.
Poppy shivered. “It’s been doing that all the way here. Yet it stopped raining an hour ago.”
Clair stood by her side and shivered as well. “I’m so glad you made it. I hate being caught in a storm almost more that being alone in a new place at night.”
A woman’s voice came from the dark.
“Do you, now?”
Candlelight flashing down the main staircase drew Poppy around.
An older lady in a pale, filmy dressing gown, her dark hair drawn off an oval face that must have been strikingly beautiful in her youth, stood on the stairs with a candle. The flame lit her face in such a way that it seemed to float in the darkness.
Eyes fixed on Poppy, the lady descended the stairs.
“What happened? Why have you arrived so late?”
“My tube train from London was over 40 minutes behind schedule which made me miss my connections. After that, everything was late,” Poppy said.
Glancing at Poppy’s backpack and rain-darkened suitcase, the lady came to the bottom of the stairs. “I’m sorry to hear that. You should have rung. I would have sent the gatekeeper out to fetch you.”
“I tried. I couldn’t ring the phone number—-”
“Oh yes. Those telephones don’t always work out here so far from civilization.” The lady smiled. Her brown eyes were large and seemed to have been made to see in the dark. “What is your name?”
“Poppy Farrell. I’m sorry if I woke you. Luckily, Clair was watching out for me.”
“Well, it must have been terrible walking all this way in the storm. I’m Mrs. Wick, headmistress at this school.”
Mrs. Wick was so stately that if Poppy had been wearing a dress, she would have curtsied. For some reason her mouth went dry. “Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Wick.”
“I hope you shall be happy here, Miss Farrell. Miss Montague is your roommate. Like you, she is coming in as a 9th Year student, so we felt you would begin with something in common. Miss Montague, show Miss Farrell to your room.”
Mrs. Wick ascended the stairs. The light of the candle shone through the edges of her diaphanous gown, creating a fiery glow around her. Poppy was amazed at the length of her hair. It fell straight and dark from a band at the top of her head to below her knees.
Poppy’s stomach was tense with worry. It didn’t seem like the right time to bring up the terrifying events of her journey, but she couldn’t hold back.
“Mrs. Wick, did anything bad happen here? I heard a rumor…”
Poppy held her breath as Mrs. Wick turned around.
“Did you? Well, I can’t imagine what about. Now that you’re here, all the girls are accounted for. You should not listen to gossip, Miss Farrell. Blight’s Academy is one of safest places on earth.”
Mrs. Wick looked down at Poppy from the upper step with such finality, that it stifled her need to explain about the girl on the platform. “All right.”
“Sounds like an adventurous night.” Clair smiled as if it must have been such fun.
“I suppose so.”
Poppy glanced around at the dark wainscoting and green damask walls, the beamed ceiling, the Persian carpets, the suits of armor standing between the few doors closed along the lobby.
“We shall address your questions in the morning,” Mrs. Wick said. “You run along, now. To bed, to bed, to bed.”
“Good night, Mrs. Wick,” Poppy said.
“Good night, Miss Farrell. I shall immediately inform your parents that you have arrived.”
“Good night, Miss Montague.”
“Good night, Mrs. Wick,” Clair said.
Clair’s large, violet eyes grew wide as she watched Mrs. Wick go up to the stairs. The girl had the slightly dog-like air of those always eager to please. Poppy could never be like that, though at times she wished she could fake it.
As Mrs. Wick disappeared into the darkness above, Poppy thought her the strangest woman she’d ever seen. Perhaps the girl on the platform had been put off by the headmistress’s obvious eccentricities, or had felt threatened by her dark, magisterial air. It seemed Mrs. Wick was unaware that one of her students went missing hours ago, or at least didn’t want to discuss it.
“Come on,” Clair said, grabbing the handle of Poppy’s rolling suitcase. “Our suite is very nice, you know. I can’t wait for you to see it.”
Poppy picked up her backpack. “Are the beds comfortable?”
“I haven’t slept in mine yet. They look fairly cozy.”
Poppy yawned again. “I probably wouldn’t notice tonight anyway.”
Clair picked up her flaring candle branch and led Poppy down the middle of the entrance hall. They passed a flower arrangement and a few suits of armor to another stairway deeper in the building.
Poppy took her phone out. The little screen was dark, the phone dead.
“I wish I could call my mum,” she said.
“There’s a pay phone over there,” Clair pointed her candles toward an area under the front staircase. “Though Mrs. Wick did say she would call.”
Poppy looked across the hall to the ancient pay phone with its heavy phone book on the shelf below. In her exhausted state, it seemed like a long walk. “I suppose so. I’ll just email her when we get to our room.”
“Have you got your laptop?”
“Its in there,” Poppy pointed at her suitcase. “That’s why it’s so heavy.”
“It certainly is.” Both hands around the handle, Clair tugged the suitcase up onto the steps.
Wall sconces softly lit their way up the stairs. The sound of Poppy’s hard-packed suitcase bumping on the steps jarred the otherwise total silence.
“Do you know anything about Mrs. Wick?” Poppy asked.
“Only that she’s headmistress and teaches Drama, Choir and Literature.”
“She certainly looks dramatic and literary with her candle and her long hair. We do have electricity, don’t we?”
“Of course. I just found this candle branch and lit it up. It suits my mood tonight.”
They came to a landing and another flight of stairs.
“How high are we going?” Poppy asked, a bit breathless.
“Second floor.” Clair was straining to pull the suitcase up each step. Poppy picked up the bottom to help.
“I haven’t seen one, but then I don’t like them. Especially in old buildings like this.” Clair’s shoulders tensed with fright. “Great, clunky, rattling old things.”
“What were you doing on the roof?”
“I was waiting for you. I was worried. You were so late, and then the full moon was up, so I went onto the roof to look at it and watch out for you.”
“In a lightning storm?”
“The towers at the back are higher than the roof. It was safe.”
Clair may have looked delicate, but she clearly wasn’t. Poppy felt lucky to have such a roommate.
At the top of the stairs, they took a right turn. The walls were whitewashed and stenciled with medieval motifs. There were paintings. The dark woodwork gleamed. This floor seemed older than the ground floor, as if, while areas that were opened to the public had been renovated, the private, living quarters had been left in the distant past. Poppy hoped that neglect didn’t apply to the plumbing.
Clair stopped at a door on the corner where the hallways crossed and pushed it open. With a loud sigh, she dragged Poppy’s suitcase in, left it in the middle of the floor, and fell down on the nearest bed.
“Oh, that was heavy,” she said, rubbing her arms.
“Was yours that heavy?” Poppy asked, coming into the room.
There were three casement windows above a long window seat. Moonlight streamed in so brightly Poppy wondered how they were going to sleep. She set her backpack on the window seat and rolled her suitcase to the far side of the second bed. They were twin beds, separated by two bedside tables with lamps, all identical. The carved, wooden bedsteads looked like antiques; the red coverlets and pillows looked as if they’d come from Marks and Spencer’s. A short corridor led to a surprisingly spacious sitting room under Tudor beams, with a fireplace, a TV, and a Victorian fainting couch amongst vintage sofa and chairs. Off in the corner was an alcove that looked like it might be the kitchen. Backing down to the middle of the corridor, Poppy found the door to the bathroom, and went in.
Snapping on the light, she gladly found a sink and mirror, and a deep claw-foot bathtub, including a shower attachment, standing on the mosaic tiled floor. The toilet was rather tall with a chain flusher. There was a linen cupboard beside the sink with enough shelf space for an army.
Poppy looked in the mirror. Her face was drawn and pale, making her freckles seem darker. Her hazel eyes were bloodshot and her hair looked like a bonfire, its natural waviness having gone haywire in the damp weather.
“A bath. That’s what I need,” she whispered.
But first she had to go back to Clair.
Clair was sitting up now, scratching her head so that her hair stood up every which way. In normal light, her skin was not as pale as it had looked, but slightly tanned in the way of people who have Scandinavian ancestry.
“Do you like our rooms?” she asked without turning around to face Poppy.
“Pretty posh,” Poppy said. “I’m surprised.”
“Well, our parents are certainly paying for it.” Clair turned around, grinning. “There are enough are shelves for a small library at the back of the sitting room. And satellite TV.”
“I saw the telly,” Poppy said. “I can’t believe they’d allow it.”
“Well, apparently they aren’t completely 19th century. There’s also a fridge and a cooker, running water, and a corner with two desks and computer hook-ups.”
“Oh my. I really feel at home now,” Poppy said. “Does the toilet flush?’
They both burst out laughing.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Clair said. “I was afraid you wouldn’t make it.”
“Aren’t you comfortable here?” Poppy asked.
“A bit on edge, I suppose, with the moon and the storm.”
“You’re not alone. There was this girl on the platform back there. She seemed to know the school, like she was another student here, or something. She kept saying, Don’t go. Don’t go to Blight’s Academy. Practically pleading with me. Why would she do that?”
Clair hunched her shoulders. “I don’t know. I’m not sure I’d want to know.” She laughed nervously.
Poppy sat on what seemed, by default, to be her bed and lay back. “I’m done in.”
“Then I’m glad you chose the right bed,” Clair said. “Of course, I’ve had time to test them both out and take the best one. So what held you up?”
“Oh, some drunk jumped onto the tracks at Camden tube. The usual.”
“Unfortunately.” Poppy got up, opened her suitcase, and rummaged around for her nightshirt, her toothpaste and toothbrush. “That’s London. Camden Town gets more than its fair share of lunatics, though. I think it’s because the tube station was built over the former cottage of old Mother Damnable.”
Clair raised her eyebrows in surprise.
“Yes. Old Lady Red Cap. She was a witch. Her house was filled with spirits and demons. All the witchfinder generals in England couldn’t clean it out.”
Poppy laid her night gear on the bed, dropped her slippers on the floor.
“That’s horrible. Oxford is full of ghost stories, but nothing like that,” Clair said.
Poppy lifted her backpack onto the bed and opened it. Out came her David Icke book, a Daily Mail newspaper from the tube, a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie, and her fresh, new diary with a black leather cover.
“Yes. I fancy demons push people onto the tracks and they disappear because I’ve never seen a stretcher coming in or out.”
Clair pointed at the David Icke book with its powder blue cover and giant orange titles. “What’s that?”
Poppy grinned like she’d caught the canary. “A hobby of mine. Research. True crime, ancient mysteries, and conspiracy theories.”
Clair looked askance at Carrie, the blood-soaked figure of Sissy Spacek, from the film version, staring up from the cover.
“Really! I’d be too frightened. You… you’re much braver than I am.”
“I’m not. I mean… some of it’s creepy, but also interesting. Like the great puzzle of life. Things are never what they seem.” Poppy giggled. “Evil lurks in the shadows.”
“Well, my dad’s a solicitor, you know? A criminal lawyer.”
“Oh!” Clair seemed relieved. “That explains it.”
“What does your dad do?”
“He’s a professor of ancient history at Oxford. We were living in Turkey before I came here.”
“Oooo. You’ll go to Oxford, I suppose. After here.”
Clair shrugged. “I’d rather go abroad. Maybe study fashion in Paris or Milan.”
“Or art. I figure I’d get both in fashion, plus a way to earn a living.”
“You’ll probably get married and won’t have to bother working.”
“What about you? What do you want to do?”
Poppy considered. She wanted to do everything. “Forensics. Private investigator. Or maybe a true crime author.”
Clair wrinkled her nose. “I could never do anything like that. I couldn’t bear looking at crime scenes and autopsies. Ew!”
“I like to figure things out. I guess it’s because of my dad. His stories are so interesting. He helps a lot of people.”
Clair rolled her eyes. “For a price.”
“Of course. How else could he afford to send me here?” Poppy waved her hands around the general poshness of their room.
They laughed. Clair had such even, shiny teeth. She was so pure.
“Do you mind if I take a bath?” Poppy asked. “I feel grotty.”
“Loo’s over there.” Clair pointed down the short corridor. “There’s lots of hot water.”
Clair watched Poppy go into the bathroom. The sound of water running into the bathtub told her she would be alone for a while.
Her eyes fell on Poppy’s books. She turned the gory cover of Carrie facedown on the coverlet, picked up the David Icke book, and opened it to a random page.
“The Biggest Secret… What’s the biggest secret? That the Queen is a reptile?”
There were pictures inside. Sculptures of dragons mixed with serpent-headed gods and horrible snake men, then the Pope and Washington D.C. and Princess Diana’s car crash. Clair cringed. It was all so lurid. She hoped Poppy wasn’t going to bring bad energy into her life. She seemed like a nice girl, but her interests were so macabre. Clair was sensitive and psychic. She needed her environment to be spiritually clean.
She dropped the book back down on the bed, and went to sit on the widow seat to stare out at the moon.
Poppy’s talk about the girl on the platform didn’t help Clair’s mood. Since her own arrival around 5:00 she’d been anxious. But why and what about, she wasn’t sure. She’d woken to bright sunshine streaming in through her bedroom windows this morning in Oxford. By the time her mother had driven them into Surrey, the atmosphere changed to a kind of purplish gloom with sun sparklers. Clair hadn’t liked being left alone on the steps of the school building. Her mother driving out through the gate had an air of finality. After waving goodbye, a tall, hard-looking lady, not Mrs. Wick, but a Miss Grimshaw, had shown her to her room. Once Clair’s baggage was deposited on the floor, Miss Grimshaw escorted her down to the ground floor Common Room, and left her in one of its overstuffed chairs to watch Coronation Street on the big screen TV.
Clair hated TV. She’d rather read or draw or think about the dark, handsome Jeremy Saunders, one of her father’s favorite students, who sometimes visited for drinks. Clair liked to write as well and had kept an illustrated journal since she was nine. Lately these included fantasies about Jeremy. She hoped someday to be a famous artist. Fashion was her mother’s idea. She’d been a model and still had connections that she felt would help Clair rise in her career. Clair liked clothes, but when she tried to draw fashion designs, other, more potent, images crowded into her imagination, things she picked up in the ethers, like ghosts and witches and mystical trees. Far fetched though it seemed, these pictures came to her from someplace outside of herself, from dreams or a world of spirits.
As Clair half-dozed in front of the telly, more girls trickled in. At 6:30 they were called to supper in the Refectory. A long banqueting table ran down one side of the room facing a sea of round, detached tables covered in white linen that filled the space to the opposite wall. A fireplace, floor to ceiling windows and three chandeliers added to its grandeur. The Blight’s Academy brochure described this room as the ideal setting for wedding parties. Clair wondered if this was meant as a hint to future brides, though how they were going to meet their future husbands in a girls-only school was a mystery.
Then around 7:00, in the middle of the pie and mash, a storm rolled in. It continued raining and thundering until after 8, yet the moon glowed white in a sheer black sky. It was surreal.
On the window seat, Clair hugged her knees and looked out at the night. After supper, she’d come up to her room hoping her roommate had arrived, and found the bed across from hers pristine. Feeling anxious, she’d gone exploring, eventually climbing up to the roof. The sight of lightning flashes in a starry sky had been astonishing, as unnatural as a sign of doom in a Shakespeare play, or a portent of Armageddon in the Bible.
Poppy was here now. She seemed really nice, but this Biggest Secret thing… and that Carrie book…. Hopefully these subjects wouldn’t dominate their conversations. She’d had enough of that with her older brother.
The water stopped running in the bath. There were sloshing sounds.
Clair stood up and took her nightgown out of the drawer where she’d put it earlier. It was white cotton with lace trim like something from a Victorian novel. She took off her jumper and skirt, and slipped the nightgown on over her head. She always wore shades of white, and only pearls or cameos for jewelry. Her cream flannel dressing gown hung in the wardrobe. Beside it was her school uniform in its plastic dry cleaner’s bag with five blouses and several pairs of hose. Students at Blight’s Academy wore a black blazer, black jumper, black tartan skirt and a white shirt. She sighed. Black felt wrong for her, but she’d have to get used to it. She put her dressing gown on, then went back to the window seat.
The full moon had flown high above the trees, leaving the grounds below in deep shadow. Out in the distance, she saw the headlights of a car coming up the drive. A sleek, black car, a Mercedes Benz, circled the fountain, and pulled up into the forecourt.
The headlights went out, leaving only moonlight to see by.
The tall, erect figure of Miss Grimshaw came out onto the wide porch, and then hurried down the stairs toward the car.
A chauffeur stepped out, and opened the car door behind him. A tall woman, wrapped in what looked like a fur coat, emerged and followed Miss Grimshaw into the building.
Who was this?
The chauffeur went around to the other door at the back of the car and opened it. He seemed to be struggling with the bags or something.
Oh well, Clair thought. Perhaps it was another teacher arriving.
The moonlight made everything appear mysterious and suggestive.
Poppy came out of the bathroom in a cloud of steam, drying her hair with a towel.
“I feel so much better now.” Poppy glanced at Clair. “You’re ready for bed.”
“I am,” Clair said. “First days away from home are tiring.”
“I agree. Especially when it’s been so weird.”
“Do you sleep with the lights on or off?”
Poppy’s eyes slid around the room. “Is there a nightlight in here? I don’t like the moon shining in.” She dropped her towel and went to close the heavy curtains over the windows.
But for the lamp on Clair’s bedside table, the room went dark. The leaded glass pane above the door, with its five-pointed star, was lit from outside.
“There’s a light on in the hall,” Clair said, pointing to it.
“I see,” said Poppy. “Have you noticed the star shape in the glass? There’s a big one above the front door.”
“Yes. I suppose so.”
What was Poppy driving at? She had a funny look in her eyes regarding the star. “Do you think it’s a pentagram or something?”
“Maybe.” Poppy sauntered around. “It’s on the school logo, so I suppose they think it’s important.”
“You mean it symbolizes something?”
“Pentacles are for protection,” Clair said.
Poppy wandered toward the sitting room. A tinkling sound passed overhead.
Poppy stopped. “Did you hear that?”
“Yes,” Clair whispered, searching the ceiling with her eyes.
The tinkling sound came back, echoing louder with each soft footstep.
“It sounds like a music box,” Poppy said.
“It does,” Clair replied. “But… who?”
“Sounds must really carry around here. Do you suppose they spy on us? Through the air vents or something?”
“Oh, no! Why would they do that?”
Each tinkling note was clear as crystal now, fading in as if whoever carried the music box was passing directly above them. Clair shivered at the thought of spies.
Poppy was looking at the ceiling. “Did you hear the footsteps?”
Clair focused her hearing. “I hear the music box again, but not the feet.”
“It’s very distinct. I wonder what’s going on up there?” Poppy pointed straight up at the ceiling where the sound seemed quite loud.
“I think this place is full of nooks and crannies.”
Poppy’s eyes widened like a night-prowling cat’s. “What if Blight’s is haunted?”
“Don’t say that!”
Poppy burst out laughing. Clair couldn’t help herself, and laughed so hard she cried. It was like a pressure cooker releasing, to laugh like that.
“We are ridiculous, aren’t we, Poppy?”
“I’m not sure,” Poppy said, sitting on the side of her bed.
Poppy’s serious tone sobered Clair. Her eyes strayed over the ceiling as the chiming of the music box glimmered away. Something about the sound of the music box made her feel as if she had to sneak into bed. She got in silently and pulled the coverlet over her head.
High winds beat against the dark, curtained windows. Rain tapped on the glass.
Poppy glanced over at Clair who seemed to have fallen asleep right away; her pale hair gleamed in the wan light coming in from the hallway. Despite the footsteps and the music box, she obviously felt relaxed enough to sleep.
Wishing she could feel the same, Poppy sat up in bed, set her bedside lamp on dim, and opened her diary. In her mind’s eye she saw the girl on the train platform again, running around in terror as if she were trying to ward something off. The train passed, its thunder burying her screams.
Poppy muttered as she wrote the incident down. “She wanted to go in the opposite direction. She may have tried to cross the tracks. What could have happened to her?”
The morning alarm bonged like a church bell through a fog of her dreams.
Poppy opened her eyes in the darkness and flipped her phone open.
Whatever she’d been dreaming about so vividly, fled.
She moaned. Poppy Farrell was not a morning person. She sat up, rubbing her eyes, and stretched. Clair sat up like a vampire in her coffin, with a kind of wall-eyed stare.
“I hate waking up in the dark,” Poppy said, going to the curtains to open them.
“I kind of like it,” Clair said.
Poppy smirked, then pulled the cord. The curtains flew open. “It’s still gloomy out.”
“I like that.” Clair left her bed, and curled up on the window seat. “It looks mysterious out there.”
“Kind of grey,” Poppy said. “Do we have any teabags in the kitchen?”
“There’s an electric kettle. That pamphlet on the table—-it says breakfast is from seven o’clock to eight, then we meet in the Assembly Room.”
Poppy went into the bathroom to brush her teeth and wash her face. Her eyes looked puffy. She yawned. “I suppose first class is at 8:30 then,” she shouted to Clair.
“Haven’t you checked?”
“No. I was too busy being freaked out last night.” Splashing cold water on her face helped Poppy to wake up and took some of the puffiness down.
“My first class is History. What’s yours?”
“The same, I think,” Poppy said through her toothbrush.
“That’s good. I’m glad we’ll be together. I hate new places and meeting people. I guess I’m a shy.”
“I understand.” Poppy came out into the hallway, feeling better. “It’s all yours. I’m having a cup of tea. Want one?” She headed for the kitchen.
The kitchen was tiny rectangle with white painted cupboards going all the way up to the ceiling, and one bright window in the end wall glowing above a quaint built-in table and benches. Below the cupboards was a countertop of blue and white tiles. Below the counter were drawers filled with silverware and all the kitchen utensils one could ever desire, and more cupboards.
Poppy opened an upper cupboard and found it stacked with Blue Willow china plates and bowls. In the next cupboard was a collection of dainty bone china cups and saucers with flowers on them. Those were always too small for Poppy’s taste. Two sips, and no more tea. She preferred a mug, but couldn’t find one. Blight’s must have mugs for sale. These places always did. A big black mug with the Blight’s Academy’s logo stamped on the side, thorns and all, had to be available somewhere.
Clair came in. She was already dressed in the school uniform: black tartan skirt and black jumper over a white blouse. She was pulling the black blazer off its hanger and looking at it quizzically.
“It seems too hot in here for a jacket,” she said.
“Maybe the classrooms are drafty.”
“Your uniform is in the wardrobe with your name on it. Mine fits pretty well.” She examined the hemline at her knee with distaste. “I hope yours does.”
There were teabags in one of the cupboards, and a package of water biscuits long past their use-by date. Not much else. Poppy clicked the full kettle on, put two teabags in a china pot, then went back to the bedroom. She’d forgotten to unpack the rest of her suitcase; her personal clothes were probably rumpled past ironing.
Her fresh uniform hung in a plastic bag in the wardrobe, including five blouses and other accessories. Poppy hung her own clothes on the railing, then put the uniform on. The logo from the backpack was embroidered on the blazer pocket: a red building in a circle of black thorns, a tiny five-pointed star above the door.
“Now, I am the property of Blight’s Academy,” Poppy announced to Clair as she drew her jacket on. “How do I look?”
“Like a student,” Clair said. “Like me, only more hairy.”
Poppy quickly plaited her hair and secured it with a rubber band. “Now?”
“Like a child.”
They both burst out laughing. “Cheers” Poppy said, holding her teacup, pinky up.
“Cheers!” Clair touched the rim of her teacup to Poppy’s.
Without milk or sugar the tea was scalding and bitter. Poppy hoped it wasn’t an indication of what they were in for.
The dining room was noisy and crowded. Where had all these girls come from? Seven levels worth, fifteen girls each, sat around linen-draped tables set in discreet sections of the room. Two levels of Sixth Formers, lower sixth and upper sixth, sat with the teachers. The difference between the incoming students and the Sixth Formers was striking. The new girls were as fresh-faced and bubbly as children, while the older girls were polished and poised, conversing quietly amongst themselves with airy superiority. It was odd, but the way the Sixth Form girls watched the 7 Years gave Poppy the impression of wolves watching a warren of rabbits.
The food was spread out, buffet style, on a long table going down the middle of the room. After yesterday’s ordeal, she was starving. The queue was long, and the smell of fried eggs, sausage, beans, toast, made it unbearable to wait her turn. Poppy wondered how the students here felt about queue jumping.
At last, she and Clair were sitting at a table by the fireplace, plates fully loaded and steaming. Poppy gulped her orange juice in one go.
A tall, imposing blonde woman with sharp grey eyes, paced up and down the middle of the room, scrutinizing each student. Clair said it was Miss Grimshaw, second in command to Mrs. Wick. Poppy felt that she must be head wolf.
“I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her,” Poppy whispered.
“I don’t intend to,” Clair replied. “I think she must be ex-military.”
“Not ex, by the look of her.”
Mrs. Wick wafted in wearing a rather dressy grey brocade dress, her long, dark hair done up in a massive plaited bun on the back of her head. Rhinestones twinkled at her earlobes, neck and wrists. Her makeup was a bit strong for the daylight hours, as if her interest in theater extended to everyday life.
Mrs. Wick rang a little bell. “Girls!” the deep, velvety voice warbled out. “Finish up! In ten minutes we shall all meet in the Assembly Room at the end of the hall.”
“Ten minutes from now!” Miss Grimshaw took out a stopwatch and set the timer.
Poppy laughed from sheer horror at such exactitude. “I can’t believe it, Clair!”
“Oh my God,” Clair mumbled.
Miss Grimshaw walked between the tables, looking down at each girl’s plate.
“Eat up. Eat up, now. Let’s go.”
“I’m going to get indigestion, if this keeps up,” Poppy said.
Miss Grimshaw was right behind her chair. “Are you always late?”
“I’m almost finished,” Poppy said holding up her half empty plate. “See?”
Miss Grimshaw nodded and paced off. Poppy watched Miss Grimshaw hover around the next table, and wondered how long she would be able to stand it.
The Assembly Hall was a large old-fashioned room with oak wainscoting, and a decorative plaster ceiling with a large crystal chandelier. The floor length windows were festooned with swags and drapes of forest green velvet. The furniture consisted of a grand piano and what appeared to be one hundred trunk-boxes, the size of pirate chests, in each corner of the room. Since the lids of these boxes were flat, most of the girls were sitting on them, while the youngest, Year 7 students, stood uncertainly around. Each box had a wooden plaque on the front bearing a girl’s name in swirling pastel letters arched above a candy-colored picture from a fairy tale.
This struck Poppy as rather childish. They were teenagers now, after all.
Her name, Poppy, was inscribed above an image of Three Monkeys: See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil. She grinned to herself, wondering how Blight’s could already know her so well. Clair’s name was in lilac above a picture of Sleeping Beauty in her coma. Poppy took a seat on the lid of her box, and looked around the room. Eliminating the Sixth Formers, she counted seventy-five boxes and seventy-four girls.
Someone was missing.
The new girls’ corner was drenched in morning sunlight streaming in through the tall windows. Having investigated the meaning of esoteric symbols, Poppy could not help equating their position in the east with sunrise and new beginnings. They merged into the group of 8th Year girls who moved into the south to share space with the 9th Year girls in the west. Poppy and Clair were in the west, strangers to the girls in their own age group who chatted amongst themselves like old friends. The Sixth Form girls held court in the shady northern quadrant of the room. North signified the dark moon and winter and death, or passage to a new life. It all made sense.
As Poppy’s eyes slid from face to face, a few girls stood out. In the west with her and Clair was a beautiful half-caste girl, very slim with long, cloudy black hair, dusky skin and deep grey eyes. Her features were fine, her expression warm. She half-sat on a box with the name Georgina painted in blue curlicues above a picture of the Emperor’s Nightingale. Over in the north, a willowy girl with bleached, punkishly teased, blonde hair and lots of black eye-liner, looked at the floor as if she were lost in thought. Another older girl with Goth-black hair, white skin, a heart-shaped face with large, wide-spaced green eyes, sprawled on the lid of a box with the name Vanessa above the picture of the queen from Snow White standing before her magic mirror. This one, despite the leveling effect of the uniform, gave off a kind of glamorous intensity, holding Poppy’s attention like a black cat. Sitting on her box, her long, dancer’s arms, legs and head artfully arranged, she was the most beautiful girl in the room. Beside her was the exact opposite: an awkward, pudgy, pasty-faced girl, with frizzy brown hair wrapped into two disheveled plaits, who sneered at everyone with obvious disdain. Poppy decided to steer clear of her.
Sitting in chairs off to the sides of the room, the faculty members were difficult to see. Though most of the teachers seemed to be women, there were a couple of male teachers. One of them was younger and quite good-looking. Poppy couldn’t help wondering what he had to endure.
The double doors crashed open with such fury that the crystal pendants on the chandelier jingled. Miss Grimshaw strode toward the front of the assembly, followed by Mrs. Wick.
Mrs. Wick stood beside the piano, hands clasped before her as if she were about to break into song, and cast a gracious smile around the room.
“Good Morning girls. For those of you who are new to Blight’s Academy, as well as those returning for another year, welcome. I am Mrs. Sibyl Wick, headmistress, instructress in Drama and Literature, and director of our world-renowned Choir. As you all know, Blight’s Academy, is one of Britain’s finest residential schools for girls. As such, I am sure you will find your time here to be highly stimulating, not only intellectually, but creatively. This year, you are in for a special treat. The famous actress, Miss Diana Harrow, graduate of Blight’s Drama School, is to direct our school play!”
Mrs. Wick beamed a smile around the room. Miss Grimshaw applauded, encouraging the students to do the same. Soon the room was noisy with it.
“Diana Harrow?” Poppy whispered to Clair. “Is she still alive?”
“Shhhh!” Clair hissed.
Mrs. Wick glanced sharply at Clair, then turned on the smile again. “As you will see, each of you has a tuck box with your name on it. Inside are snacks and various items such as tea bags, pot noodles, biscuits and sweets. Living as we do so far from civilization, the ability to pop down to the corner shop in order to indulge the odd craving is impossible, and one often needs fuel for those late night studies. With care, the contents of your tuck boxes should last out the year.”
“I wonder if there are fags in here,” one of the girls whispered, tapping the lid of her tick box.
“Our excellent crew of housekeepers shall make sure that all of your tuck boxes are installed in your rooms later today. Now, for the new girls, I would like to introduce your instructor in Maths, Biology, and Sport, my assistant, Miss Charlotte Grimshaw.” Mrs. Wick applauded as the imperious, black-suited Miss Grimshaw strode across the room to face the girls.
“Greetings to all of you. I hope you’ve all found your tennis skirts and hoodies with your uniforms this morning. We shall have a match this afternoon so I can see how fit you are. Exercise, as it tones the body, also sharpens the mind.”
The beautiful Sixth Form girl, Vanessa, stretched, tossed her long black hair and re-arranged her body like a ballerina going through an exercise. The plain girl sneered, while the punk girl with the eyeliner lifted her nose as if she caught a whiff of dirty socks.
“I hate sport,” Clair whispered.
“I won’t play you, then,” Poppy said.
Miss Grimshaw displayed her large teeth in what passed for a smile.
There was a sturdy old file box on the piano bench. Miss Grimshaw picked it up and began walking around the room, handing out large keys with colorful ribbons tied on.
Mrs. Wick’s voice rose above the ensuing chatter. “You have all been assigned chores.”
The room groaned.
“Miss Grimshaw shall hand each one of you a key to the room you are responsible for. The name of the room is on the ribbon. Keep these keys safe. We don’t have spares for all of them any more.”
Teeth glaring, Miss Grimshaw handed Poppy a key that said Library on it. Poppy accepted in gingerly, wondering how many books she’d have to dust. Clair’s key was tagged: Science Lab. Poppy had to look twice, but she was sure she saw Miss Grimshaw stroke Clair’s hair as she passed. Indeed, Clair’s face was suddenly crimson.
“What was that about?” Poppy whispered.
“I don’t know.”
Poppy hoped it wasn’t going to get weird here. It was bad enough being surrounded by woods. Maybe that girl on the train platform was right.
Above the murmuring of girls comparing keys and moaning about their chores, came the mad jingling of Mrs. Wick’s little bell.
One of the students was coming around with a basket of envelopes.
“Girls, girls, girls! Attention, please. Miss Genaka will hand each of you an envelope. You are to take your sim cards out of your mobile phones—-”
A collective moan filled the room.
“Put them in the envelopes and write your year allocations and full names on them. It is necessary to remove all distractions so that you will focus on your studies. You may email your families and friends, but all calls shall be placed by Miss Grimshaw or myself, as the need arises.”
There were louder moans at the loss of their phones than had been for chores, accompanied by the grudging snap of sim cards being removed. Poor Miss Genaka, an exceedingly polite, doe-eyed Asian girl was treated to an assortment of snarky looks as the girls tossed their envelopes, sim cards inside, back into the basket.
It was no great loss, Poppy thought. She couldn’t get her phone to work out here anyway. And it had strangely run out of credit… She placed the sim card in the envelope, used the felt-tip marker Miss Genaka handed to her, and wrote her name on the front. She carefully placed her envelope in the basket, returning the pen with a sympathetic smile for Miss Genaka.
“I didn’t ask to do this,” Miss Genaka whispered. “They are all taking it out on me.”
“It’s because they can’t take it out on Mrs. Wick,” Poppy whispered back. “Cheers.”
Miss Genaka moved on.
The bell started ringing again.
“Now girls!” Mrs. Wick shouted. “We have one more venerable tradition here at Blight’s. So that our newest girls may more easily adapt to life at the academy, we assign to you a kind of big sister from the Sixth Form. These are called your Shadows. They will look out for you, and be there for you in all ways. It is to your Shadow you go with your questions, and to your Shadow that you confide all your little troubles. Your Shadow is your guide and your protector as long as you reside at Blight’s Academy.”
Nervous laughter broke out.
Poppy looked around into the wide eyes of the girls around her, wondering if she and Clair were to be subjected to this venerable tradition. She was pretty sure she was old enough to figure things out by herself. The Shadows… How close would they stick?
As Miss Grimshaw called off the names, assigning oldest girls to youngest girls, the room seemed to revolve in haze of dread for Poppy. The youngest girls sounded excited to be paired off with the older girls, but unlike Poppy, they were still children. Clair seemed apprehensive as well.
Mrs. Wick delivered the news. “Vanessa Stevens, you go to Clair Montague.”
The beautiful, Goth girl got up and was coming toward Clair.
“Isabelle Lilly, you go to Poppy Farrell.”
It was with horror that Poppy watched the pasty-faced girl stand up and start coming her way. Oh no! Not that one!
“Hermione Ashe, You go to Georgina Summerville.”
The black-eye-liner girl with the bleached blonde hair moved to join the half-caste girl who smiled as if she were pleased. Perhaps she should be.
“Hello.” The pasty-faced girl was sneering at Poppy. She put her hand out. “I’m Isabelle Lilly.”
Poppy took the cold, clammy hand, squeezed it quickly, and let go.
“Hi. I’m Poppy Farrell. Pleased to meet you, I’m sure.”
A head taller than she, Vanessa was sliding around Clair. “So. Clair. How do you like it so far?”
“It’s all right,” Clair said.
Isabelle kept sneering at Poppy. Poppy rolled her eyes. Was this the only expression this person had?
Georgina glanced over at Poppy as if to deflect Hermione’s wide, staring eyes.
The bell was ringing again.
Relieved at the distraction, Poppy jumped to attention. Everyone turned to face the front of the room.
Mrs. Wick jingled her bell again. “All right, girls! You may continue to get acquainted later on. Time waits for no man. We shall meet in the theater in ten minutes.”
The room erupted into girlish babbling and the crush began. While their Shadows were still facing Mrs. Wick, Poppy nudged Clair toward the exit.
“Where’s the theater?” Clair hissed.
“Follow them.” Poppy pointed at the older girls trickling out the door.
In the hallway, the student body went left. Poppy followed with Clair. She could feel Isabelle and Vanessa right on their backs. Georgina caught them up, and smiled. She seemed a bit out of breath, as if she were in fight-flight mode.
“Hi. I’m Georgie.”
“Hi. Poppy.” Poppy pointed herself, then at Clair. “Clair.”
“Hello,” Clair said.
From the tail of her eye, Poppy saw Hermione pull up to join Vanessa and Isabelle.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Georgie said. “My roommate never showed up. I don’t know what happened to her.”
“Maybe she’s just late,” Clair said.
Poppy’s stomach went cold. She’d noticed the unassigned Shadow and the lonely tuck box. Maggie, it had said above a picture of the Gingerbread Man running away. She wondered if the girl on the platform had been Maggie.
The three girls huddled together like sheep being herded by three collies. Sitting on a chair against an open door labeled Sick Room, was a rotund woman in a white nurse’s uniform knitting a long, red scarf. On either side of her were two, round, identical twin boys of about six years old, who reminded Poppy of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum from the Alice Through the Looking Glass.
“Those boys,” Poppy whispered to Clair. “I think I saw them in the yard when I first arrived.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Crumpelwitt. Harvey. Hervey.” It was Vanessa’s voice behind them. Isabelle’s voice grunted the same greeting.
How am I going to live with this? Poppy thought. Why me?
Clair was hunching her shoulders; Georgie was looking over hers.
They followed the herd upstairs and through a set of open double doors into a large, empty room with mirrored walls and, at the far end, a proscenium stage and another grand piano. Prominently displayed on the wall, between two of the mirrors, was a portrait of the actress Diana Harrow. Hair coiffed in an early 1980s brunette bouffant, her neck dripping in diamonds, her shoulder pads in lilac silk, the pride of Blight’s Academy’s Drama School had been painted in her prime.
Mrs. Wick was already at the front of the room, waiting beside the piano as the students crowded in. Poppy braced herself for the sound of the bell.
“Quiet girls! Give me your full attention!” Mrs. Wick shouted, her voice was sounding hoarse already. “We at Blight’s Academy are especially proud of our Drama Department. Our reputation for dramatic training is known throughout the United Kingdom, Europe and beyond. As you all know, our greatest graduate is Miss Diana Harrow, Golden Globe nominee, and star of stage and screen.”
This was obviously a bid for applause. Miss Grimshaw came through the room clapping her hands, her eyes darting around as if to snare anyone who did not follow her example. Poppy tapped her fingers together reluctantly. She’d never been a fan of the sulky Diana Harrow.
“She is here with us this semester to direct our school play. She will not only direct, but, out of gratitude for her success, has pledged a lavish donation to the Drama Department.”
Smiling, Mrs. Wick extended a brocade-clad arm, drawing attention to the glamorous old portrait of the actress, and holding the gesture for the applause.
Under a spate of loud shushing from Miss Grimshaw, the din subsided.
Mrs. Wick went on.
“This is also a personal reunion for me. Miss Harrow and I were students here at the same time. But after graduation, our paths divided. She, of course, went on to stardom. But I sacrificed fame and, yes, fortune, to return and teach you girls.”
Miss Grimshaw and the older girls applauded loudly, prompting the younger ones to clap. Poppy wondered how many of them were old enough to have heard of Diana Harrow.
“Now, after much deliberation, Miss Harrow has chosen to help us produce one of our favorite plays: William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth.
“They’re not supposed to say it,” Poppy whispered to Clair. “It’s bad luck.”
“Shhhh!” Clair put her finger to her lips this time.
Mrs. Wick looked daggers at Poppy, and waited for the applause again. It rose in bursts. Miss Grimshaw stalked past the finger-tapping Poppy, eyed her up, and snapped her fingers three times sharp.
Poppy’s ire rose, but she clapped. Were they to be trained like dogs?
“Auditions will begin this afternoon,” Mrs. Wick said. “All of you are required to read for parts.”
A few moans went through the room.
“Even if you don’t want to.”
Mrs. Wick stepped back, leaving room for Miss Grimshaw to take the floor.
“Now girls, follow me to the tennis bubble. Try-outs are to be held before luncheon.”
Miss Grimshaw lifted a chrome whistle that hung from a chain around her neck and blew it, piercing everybody’s eardrums. Clair covered her ears, laughing with Georgie who did the same.
“I hate sport,” Clair said. “Besides, I’m hungry. I want my tuck box.”
Georgie laughed. “Me too.”
Poppy scowled at them. “Don’t be silly. It’ll be fun.”
“Don’t waste time, girls!” Miss Grimshaw shouted, heading for the door.
A powerful force buffeted Poppy’s back. She turned to find Vanessa, Isabelle and Hermione right behind them, urging them to go.
Clair kept her eyes straight ahead as she followed the crowd in the direction of the white dome that delineated the tennis courts. She didn’t need to turn around to know that her Shadow was behind her; she could feel the air pressure drop.
Unlike Poppy, who was obviously irritated by this Shadow thing, Clair’s response had not been so instantaneous. She’d been lucky, of course, having a cool, beautiful girl like Vanessa to mentor her. Isabelle was such an unattractive person, no wonder Poppy was upset. Poppy had turned quite aggressive and was practically stomping up the hill. She should at least try to be friendly and stop acting like her Shadow was her warder. It was a very bad way to start.
“Those woods are creepy,” Poppy said, tilting her auburn head toward the Greek temple on its mound. The circle of alabaster columns and the sculptured dome stood out whitely against the dark green shadows of the trees.
“I don’t feel that way,” said Clair. “I love the woods.”
“You’re mad,” Poppy said.
The trees rustled. A chill passed through her limbs. Poppy might be right. These woods weren’t like the woods back home in Oxfordshire. There was something gloomy about them. Deciding this may be due to the decaying energy of autumn, she focused on the green lawn under her feet and kept walking.
Clair and Poppy turned toward the voice. Georgie was hurrying up to them, smiling.
Vanessa and Isabelle had stopped several yards away to talk to Hermione. They weren’t any closer to Poppy and she than any of the other girls, and weren’t even looking their way. Poppy was silly to be annoyed by them. All those conspiracy theories were making her paranoid.
“May I join you?” Georgie asked.
“Of course,” Clair said.
Clair held her arm out, and Georgie looped hers through it. Poppy did the same on Clair’s other arm.
“Now we are a force to be reckoned with,” Poppy said.
Georgie leaned in. “What do you think of their choice of a play? Macbeth?”
“Shhhh! You’re not supposed to say it!” Poppy hissed.
“Poppy!” Clair pulled her elbows in close.
Poppy rolled her eyes. Georgie laughed.
“What’s wrong, Clair?”
Clair glanced around at the light slanting through the bright autumn trees. There was a sort of medieval chapel at the edge of the woods, down by the school building. Unlike the churches she’d attended in the past, this chapel seemed to be swathed in veils of murk. “Atmospheres always get to me. There is something about this place.”
“I told you,” Poppy said.
“Well, we’re here,” Georgie said, unlinking her arm from Clair’s.
They’d arrived at the tennis courts.
“I can see why they call it a bubble.” Poppy said.
The fence that went around the three tennis courts was high, supporting a huge umbrella of white fabric designed to keep the rain from pouring in, and tennis balls from flying out. It seemed a bit over the top, no pun intended, reducing the vigorous outdoor sport to the parlor-like status of ping-pong.
Poppy was already running in through the gate to get a racquet.
It was hot playing tennis under the dome in her school uniform, but they hadn’t had time to change. It felt good to run around anyway, smashing a tennis ball. Poppy never got enough exercise. She was always restless and needing to let off steam. Clair on the other hand, was a wimp. She sat on the sidelines holding the top edge of her racquet against her forehead as if she wanted to disappear behind it.
That was all right. Clair was a different sort of person, more dreamy and feminine than Poppy. Georgie was different again. She seemed to enjoy playing but didn’t seem to care about winning. Poppy cared about winning a lot. She liked to win.
Miss Grimshaw supervised, walking up and down like the Gestapo, the whistle that hung over her ample bosom glinting. The way she eyed the girls up was intense, even invasive. It made Poppy so uncomfortable that by the time Miss Grimshaw ordered her onto the court to face Isabelle across the net, she was wound up and ready for battle.
Good move, Grimshaw! Poppy thought. Playing against someone she disliked only super-charged her competitive spirit.
Poppy sized Isabelle up. Despite her ugly face, her figure wasn’t half bad. She was tall, and through pudgy-looking, fit, and looked comfortable with a racquet in her hand. Her practice swings were a bit intimidating. She was relaxed and fluid, and flaunting a backspin that Poppy was afraid would have her running around like the village idiot.
Gritting her teeth, Poppy narrowed her eyes and gave Isabelle her hardest Clint Eastwood stare.
Let Isabelle show off! Poppy was still going to wipe her out. She had her strong points. Though smaller than Isabelle, she could hit a flat first serve at around 90 miles per hour. Though her accuracy suffered, she slammed a lot of aces. Her practice partner back at her old school had tried to teach her the proper swing, but ended up teaching her how to kiss. He was the reason she played like her hair was on fire.
“When you’re done ogling, it’s your serve,” Isabelle said, snapping Poppy out of her fantasy.
Poppy felt her face turn beet red. “I was not!”
The girls on the sidelines broke out into snickers. Poppy was surprised how many of them had gathered around to watch.
“Enough!” Miss Grimshaw barked at the girls. “Miss Farrell, I believe it’s your serve.”
Poppy aimed for the far edge of the service box, hoping to strike before Isabelle was ready.
The ball whizzed right into the net.
“Fault!” Miss Grimshaw cried.
Poppy cursed silently. Now she would have to slow down on her next serve and lose a major advantage, increasing her chances of losing the rally.
Isabelle was laughing at her. “I’m sorry, Poppers. I didn’t know you were such a loser.”
Poppy blushed again. “The better to beat you, my dear.”
“Girls, girls, girls!’ Miss Grimshaw shouted.
This time, Poppy’s aim was true. The ball smacked into Isabelle’s chest at 100 miles per hour.
Isabelle screamed and fell to the ground. As she lay there moaning, Miss Grimshaw came striding over, her eyes like fireballs.
“Fifteen love,” Poppy yelled, as Grimshaw’s hand gripped the collar of her shirt.
“What do you think you’re doing, Miss Farrell?”
“Don’t get cheeky with me.”
The other girls were gathered around Isabelle, helping her to her feet. If looks could kill, Isabelle was about to burn Poppy at the stake.
“Sorry.” She pulled out of Miss Grimshaw’s grasp and watched Isabelle steady herself at the net.
Poppy had to go again right away, not give Isabelle a chance to regain her strength. In a surge of adrenaline, she nearly whiffed the serve, striking the ball with the top edge of the racquet. Isabelle wasn’t ready for it, but the serve was so slow she had time to recover and deliver a solid backhand stroke.
Poppy lunged wildly. She shanked it, and sprinted to the opposing baseline.
It was too late for Isabelle to switch the angle of her stroke, and Poppy was just quick enough to make it to the ball in time and spank it back.
Now they had a nice rally going. Isabelle’s wicked topspin and equally wicked backspin were forcing Poppy to make a lot of off-balance shots and half-volleys. It was all she could do just to hit the ball over the net. Finally, right when Poppy was out of position, far from the net, Isabelle executed a drop shot.
The ball fluttered over the net. Poppy charged, but she wasn’t going to make it in time. The ball bounced once, and the backspin whirled it back toward the net. Poppy leaped at the ball. Despite being in mid-air, she managed to smack it with all her might. Only problem was, the frame on her racquet was parallel to the ceiling.
Poppy drove the ball so high, it tore into the sky, leaving a hole in the tennis bubble.
Some of the girls jumped around and cheered.
The whistle blew.
“Miss Poppy Farrell, get over here!”
Isabelle was bent over laughing and snickering. Poppy flipped her racquet around and smiled at her Shadow, a silent F-bomb exploding in her mind.
“Thanks!” she shouted and waved.
“Miss Farrell!” the voice roared again.
Approaching Miss Grimshaw was like walking into a black wall with big white teeth.
Poppy mopped the sweat from her brow, and began to strip off her jumper. “Yes, Miss Grimshaw?”
“You obviously enjoy sport, Miss Farrell, but you must learn to play with more finesse. From now on, you must learn to hold back, not go charging at it like a bull in a china shop. In your zeal to beat Miss Lilly, you have ruined the tennis bubble.”
“But isn’t the whole point to win?”
“Yes. But not like a barbarian running at the gates. Here at Blight’s, we strive for cooperation. Collaboration. This is only exercise. You must learn to get into the flow, Miss Farrell. Curb your need to be better than others.”
Poppy looked askance at Miss Grimshaw. Who was she to talk about barbarians?
“I don’t know how to hold back without letting the other person win,” Poppy said. “I mean, psychologically.”
“Learn, Miss Farrell. Learn, or it will be no more tennis for you. We can’t have you destroying school property.”
Miss Grimshaw called lunchtime, and released everyone from the tennis bubble sheep pen.
Poppy strode down the hill toward the school building feeling completely imploded inside. She could hear Clair and Georgie running up behind her, but she didn’t turn around. She didn’t want them to see the tears stinging her eyes.
Hands grabbed both her elbows.
“What was that all about?” It was Georgie, her pretty face full of concern.
“I’m not supposed to play to win,” Poppy said.
“What?” Clair said.
Georgie laughed as if she couldn’t believe it.
“I’m supposed to hold back and not destroy the tennis bubble.”
Georgie snorted a laugh. “It’s so stupid.”
Poppy laughed. Clair laughed. Soon they were stumbling down the slope, doubled over and laughing. At the bottom, they stopped to catch their breaths.
“What’s so funny, girls?” Vanessa sidled up to them and stood next to Clair.
Isabelle stood in front of Poppy. Did she ever stop sneering? She had these long, narrow teeth all crammed together in her mouth like a row of old nails.
Hermione came up to Georgie, and wrinkled her brow. “Something hilarious?” she asked.
Hermione seemed soft, but Poppy sensed the iron in her. Had these girls ever been fourteen years old, young and carefree like Poppy, Clair and Georgie? Poppy shuddered at the thought that she might turn out like them. Perhaps Blight’s was the wrong school for her. She needed to be able to be herself.
Clair and Georgie had gone quiet. Their Shadows obviously knew they’d been laughing about Poppy blowing a hole in the tennis bubble.
“Nothing. We’re just hungry,” Georgie said.
“That’s right,” said Clair. “We’re weak from hunger.”
“Do you have any idea how expensive that dome was?” Vanessa said.
“Now it has character,” Poppy said, grabbing her two friends. “Stand aside. We don’t want to miss lunch.”
They hurried toward the school, leaving their startled Shadows behind.
In the dining room, the long buffet table was steaming with hot savories. Yet when Poppy looked under the various stainless steel lids, she found various colors of slop. Pressing her lips together with doubt, she ladled recognizable chicken curry and rice onto her plate, topped them with chutney, and other discernable garnishes, and added a piece of nan bread. Thank God they had her favorite drink, Ribena, the small individual cartons piled in an ice bucket.
Clair and Georgie had preceded her back to a detached table and were setting their dishes down. Poppy sat with them, facing the empty fourth chair. Thoughts of the girl on the train platform flooded into her mind.
“Your roommate never showed up, did she?” Poppy said.
“Not yet.” Georgie stabbed a piece of chicken with her fork, looking at it as if she didn’t quite know what it was.
“So, are you all alone in your room, then?” Clair asked.
“Hmmm. I hope not,” Georgie said, chewing.
“I wouldn’t want to be alone here.” Clair drew her shoulders up.
“Why not?” Poppy didn’t think it was right to frighten Georgie for no reason. “There are locks on the doors.”
“Then what if she comes?” Clair said.
“Then they’ll let her in.”
Poppy had a feeling Georgie’s roommate would not come. Would never come. She had to have been the girl on the platform warning Poppy not to come here. Don’t go to Blight’s Academy! Poppy shivered at the memory.
What had happened? The girl must have arrived early, before anyone else. How could Poppy find out about who she was? There had to be a record of student arrivals and departures. All the girls were expected to sign in and out at the Administration Desk.
“Do you know her name, Georgie?” Poppy asked.
“Margaret something. That tuck box with the name Maggie on it… had to be hers.”
“Hmm.” Poppy drank her Ribena, and looked at her plate. She wasn’t sure she was hungry. “Are you going to eat this stuff?”
“Why not?” Clair asked.
“It’s not too bad.” Georgie swallowed a forkful of spinach down. “But I hope this is just first day food. I’d hate to go for months on this.”
Poppy pushed her plate away. “Well, I’m not eating it. I wonder what’s in our tuck boxes.”
“Oh, Poppy, you can’t go all year without eating,” Clair said. “You might as well get used to it.”
“I’ll have my Mum send me food from London. We do have a kitchen, you know.”
Clair moved her chair closer to Poppy, beckoning Georgie in. She directed her gaze across the room where Isabelle, Vanessa and Hermione seemed to be deep in conversation. Vanessa looked over her shoulder as if to check on Clair.
Clair expelled a startled breath. “If they’re supposed to help us, why does it feel like they’re just… watching us all the time?”
“Because they are,” said Poppy.
“It’s very off-putting,” said Georgie. “I thought Hermione seemed all right, but now I don’t know. She’s hardly said a word to me.”
“But, why would they spy on us? What do they think we’re going to do?” Clair said.
“Who knows?” Poppy said. “I think they want to figure us out. To know everything about us.”
Georgie looked aghast. “Why would they be like that? Maybe they’re just watching us to make sure we don’t need anything. You know. Just over-doing it a bit.”
“A bit?” Poppy said.
“I think Georgie’s right,” Clair said. “We’re just misinterpreting. We’re being paranoid. They want to make sure we’re all right, that’s all.”
Poppy sat back in her chair and glanced at Miss Grimshaw, then at Isabelle and the others. “Gee, I wonder why.”
“Grimshaw’s staring at us,” said Clair, turning her head away.
“They’re all so cold and distant,” Poppy said. “Not friendly at all.”
“Maybe they’re uncomfortable, as well.” Georgie’s eyes were glinting, as if her nerves were rising. “I mean, it is kind of a lot of responsibility watching out for us. I’d give them the benefit of the doubt.”
“Yes,” Clair said. “If we warm up, maybe they will too.”
Poppy put her head in her hands. If only she hadn’t been assigned that horrible Isabelle Lilly she might feel more relaxed. She wondered who Maggie’s Shadow was meant to be. Maybe she could swap Isabelle for her.
“That was a stodgy meal.” Clair’s voice cut through Poppy’s reverie. “I’m sleepy.”
Georgie pushed her empty plate away with a lethargic hand. Clair smiled at Poppy with heavy eyes. It seemed like all the 12 year olds in the 7th Year corner were staring into space like zombies. Everything seemed louder: chairs scraping, dishes clattering, voices fading in and out. Blinking to clear her head, Poppy looked over at Vanessa, Isabelle and Hermione. They didn’t seem zoned out. They seemed sharp as hawks.
Their faces were beginning to blur.
Some of the Shadows were going into the new students’ corner and helping girls out of their chairs. The girls were following them out, like sleepwalkers.
Vanessa was behind Clair’s chair.
“Come, Clair. It’s time to go.”
Clair got up, and before Poppy could say a word, floated away with Vanessa.
“Georgina.” Hermione was behind Georgie’s chair. “Come. We have to go.”
Georgie stood up and almost fell over. Laughing, she let Hermione lead her off.
Poppy stood up to face Isabelle, and silently followed her out.