Another short story from my creative writing class! Enjoy 🙂 Also, today marks my third year on WordPress! Hurray!
Miss Papperman’s School for the Gifted Elite was both opulent and terrible. Referred to as “the bastille” by the students who attended it—sons and daughters of government officials, politicians, lawyers, doctors, ambassadors, and heir apparents—it instilled terror in every child that approached its leaden oak doors—not because the students were terrible, of course; the students were quite bright.
For Emilia Summers, the faded taffy bricks and dilapidated shutters, black with wood rot and stinking of mold, were nothing more than another stop on a long list of places she would rather not be. An unfortunate consequence of orphanage.
Lilian squeezed her sister’s hand, petite, white-laced fingers pressing insistently against the calloused skin. “Do you think,” she squeaked, peaking up at the decrepit school through a veil of lashes, “we will be able to find a mother here?”
Emilia shook her head. “This is not that kind of place.”
“Oh.” Lilian nodded, blonde curls bouncing. It wasn’t another minute, however, before her voice was ringing out again. “What are we going to do here?”
“Learn lessons,” Emilia said, drawing her lower lip into her mouth and chewing gingerly on a corner—a gesture much older than her thirteen years. “Mathematics, sciences, history, and language skills; things like that.”
Lilian accepted this new information with reserved silence, neatly folding her hands in her lap as they waited. They were perched on a carriage bench just outside of the wrought iron gate that separated Miss Papperman’s academy from, well, everyone else. They had been waiting exactly twelve minutes—Emilia knew because she kept checking the old pocket watch that she had stolen from their last home with the Bittermans before, once again, they had been sent away—and yet there was no movement from the grounds. In fact, aside from the coachman and his skittering dapple mare who had dropped them off with one meager trunk between them (apparently this far into the countryside they did not believe in cars) Emilia couldn’t remember seeing another living being whatsoever.
“Are you sure they are expecting us?” This time Lilian’s voice was like a fading bell, not much higher than a whisper.
Emilia’s head tipped to the side as the biting of her lip grew more adamant. “The letter most definitely said April sixth at two p.m. sharp.”
“That is correct,” came a barbed voice behind them, interrupting the silence. A woman had appeared on the opposite side of the gate, though Emilia couldn’t remember seeing her approach. She had a sharp nose that jutted away from her face and hooked at the end like a beak. Her shriveled lips pinched into a thin, bloodless line, emphasizing the paleness of her complexion and the large scale of her other features.
“I am Miss Papperman,” she snapped. “You are Emilia and Lilian Summers?” She didn’t wait for a response before spinning briskly on the soles of her feet, her gray carpet-dress swaying as much as the overly starched fabric would allow. “Follow me.”
* * *
There was a pond on the farthest corner of the school grounds, one that could not be seen from the windows of Miss Papperman’s office-apartment. It was tucked into the corner of the fence that surrounded the academy—red bricks ten feet high, the color of the school before one hundred years of weathering—protected by overgrowth and clinging ivy. The pond’s surface was mossy, smelling of greenery, fish corpses, and still water. The shadowy figure of what could have been a carp meandered close to the surface, bobbing just below the water’s edge, and disappearing back into the murk before Emilia could tell for certain. She wasn’t sure why she thought it was a carp, except that every time Mr. Bitterman had returned from his fishing-hole, weary and stinking of fish guts, he would always mention carp. If he was bustling and tart it was because only carp were biting that day. If he arrived at the house whistling “Daisy Bell” it was because the snappers were biting, or maybe the bass—as long as it wasn’t the carp.
Looking around, Emilia sighed. This was definitely a carp kind of place.
“You really shouldn’t be sneaking off on your own,” a voice said. He stepped forward from behind a cluster of undergrowth, wild grasses extra high near the brick wall. All five feet and six inches of him, his arms crossed over the chest of his uniform, creating wrinkles, a sneer on his lips.
She recognized him from her class—the fifth years—Daniel McGuill, governor’s son.
“What do you want?” Her voice was firm and his eyes widened in surprise. She hadn’t meant to be so forceful but she didn’t regret it. He was always leering at her from the other side of the classroom, through the clouds of chalk dust between instructors as the class president swiped away the history of the Opium Wars or several half-attempted solutions using the Pythagorean Theorem from the board. It had only been three days, but Emilia was already used to the stares, not just from Daniel but from almost everyone; some curious, most spiteful. She was one of the orphans, one of the two students who definitely didn’t belong. A charity case.
He brushed off the surprise of her last comment with a shrug, though he refused to answer, trudging forward and toeing at a pile of dirt clotted near the edge of the pond. He kicked it into the water, breaking the surface with a hollow plunk and agitated ripples, and the shapes beneath darted away. “How did you find this place, anyway?”
“I walked,” Emilia said simply, pursing her lips and brushing damp palms against the edges of her hand-me-down navy skirt, left behind at the academy by a past graduate. Emilia imagined that the girl, whoever she was, now lived as a farmer’s wife, enjoying the quaint solitude of milking cows in the morning, or as the mistress to Leonardo DeVelli, Magic Man Extraordinaire! Touring the globe and astounding the mind! Leaving Miss Papperman’s School for the Gifted Elite far behind her.
“What are you doing here?” she asked as a way to break the silence, though she didn’t much care. She just wished he would leave.
Daniel McGuill had dark, untrustworthy eyes. Emilia had decided that the first time she saw him. His eyes had glinted as she passed him in the hall outside of the history classroom, scrutinizing her. And when he had turned away to whisper something in a friend’s ear, resulting in a snicker in her direction, she had been quite certain she could never trust him. Now, watching him brush a hand through his hair—an unsuccessful attempt at nonchalance—she was sure of it. “I wasn’t going to,” he said at last, taking a step toward her, and she found herself with her back to the water’s edge. “But then I realized I was the only one who saw you leave the classroom, and I thought this would be a wasted opportunity if I did not—” He paused. “—invest quickly.” Words he had heard from his father, no doubt, Emilia thought as he took another step forward—the last step—closing the space between them.
Her stomach clenched and she leaned away, nose crinkling from the over-pungent smell of moss. She squared her hips above the soft earth, boots sinking a centimeter or two into the water-logged ground.
Daniel’s voice was lower when he spoke next and he leaned so far forward she felt the heat of his breath brush across her chin, humid and smelling of strawberry tart. “It is very important that you follow the rules here. Rules are meant to keep things in place. Including people.” When he pulled back his dark eyes glinted. “Know yours.”
The force of his shove was even stronger than she had anticipated and she sensed the loss of traction before she felt it; boots sliding, skirt lifting, arms flailing—
Submerged beneath the murky water, lungs tight in her chest, clamoring for air, she felt something brush against the back of her hand—then two somethings. It wasn’t long before the shadows she had seen beneath the water were swarming around her. She lunged for the surface, spluttering as she choked on water that was forcing its way down her throat.
The pond was shallow enough that she could stand once she’d managed her footing, and stockinged thighs protruded from the water just beneath her water-logged skirt. Emilia glanced to the edge of the pond but Daniel was gone. She imagined him staying for the splash and then leaving with a satisfied grin.
Her shoes were heavy, suctioning into the muddy bed of the pond as she trudged toward shore, stopping only when a jerking movement in her skirt pocket startled her. Her prodding fingers were hesitant as she lowered her hand to remove whatever it was inside. She winced when she wrapped her fingers around a slick object that lurched when she touched it. Collecting her breath—and wishing it was as easy to gather bravery—she pulled the thing away from her.
In her hand, floundering, its red-brown scales flashing beneath the sun, was a carp.