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Just a Matter of Timing

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Eve Baird arrived at Elaine Fisher High School bright and early the morning of September 16th. School was already almost two weeks in and she had some concerns about starting her new job so late, but the principal, who had hired her, had assured her it wouldn’t be a problem. The parking lot was still fairly empty at seven AM, and she took a moment to enjoy the warm sun on her back as she leaned into the back seat of her SUV to look through her bag and make sure everything was in order. A small, older car pulled into the spot next to her and a slightly gawky man in a light-coloured suit hopped out.

“Hi there,” Eve tried, figuring it couldn’t hurt to introduce herself to the other staff. “Nice morning, isn’t it?”

“Hm?” Already half-turned away from his car on the way towards the school, the man turned back and looked at her, as if surprised to be seen and spoken to. “Uh, yeah, hi.”

“Eve Baird,” she introduced herself, shutting the door of her car and hoisting her bag onto her shoulder. “I’m the new guidance counselor.”

“Didn’t know we needed a new guidance counselor,” he said, almost to himself, with a slight frown. Then he ran a hand back through his dark, slightly messy hair and slapped on a smile. “Flynn Carsen. Librarian. I doubt we’ll see each other around very much. Nice to meet you though.” With a curt nod he turned away again and headed inside.

“Yeah, nice to meet you too,” Eve muttered to herself, hoping that the other faculty members were more personable. Adjusting her backpack over her shoulder, she shook her head and followed him inside, turning left towards the main office once in the door. She glanced around the front foyer as she passed through, but Carsen had already disappeared.

“Hi,” she said, a little uncertainly, to an aging woman at the first desk in the office. The woman glanced up. She had thick, dark-rimmed glasses and hair that was still mostly dirty-blonde cropped smartly to her chin. Her dark suit was crisp and spotless.

Before Eve could introduce herself as planned, the woman stood up and came around the desk. “You must be the new guidance counselor, right? Ms. Eve Baird.”

“Uh, it’s Colonel, actually,” Eve answered.

“Really!” The woman smiled, and Eve, though still a bit uncertain about the situation, found herself admiring how the older woman’s features could go from hard to warm in no time flat. “May I ask with whom?”

“NATO,” Eve answered. “I know, I know, weird career change. But things have been intense in the field the last few years and I was recommended a change of pace. Not an easy decision, but it seemed like a good idea, ultimately.”

“Well, I certainly won’t mind having another woman of discipline around here, Colonel Baird. You can call me Charlene,” the older woman told her, turning to look through the papers on her desk for a moment.

“Thanks. Um, I’m supposed to be meeting Mr. Judson…?”

“Mm, he told me you were coming. An emergency meeting with a parent came up, so he’ll see you this afternoon. He asked me to do the paperwork and the tour and all that.” Charlene produced a contract from a folder on her desk and handed it to Eve. “Have a look at that today and get it signed and back to me by the end of the day, if you don’t mind. I assume Mr. Judson’s told you a bit about our school’s situation?”

“Not very much,” Eve admitted, resting her backpack against the edge of Charlene’s desk to tuck the contract inside. “We really just did the usual interview and basic hiring stuff. All over the phone, too.”

Charlene huffed. “That man… You know he’s retiring, too? Principal here for forty years and then he retires mere weeks into a new school year. Won’t let us give him a proper send-off, even. Says he just wanted to get the year started off right and then slip out quietly.”

“He didn’t mention that at all,” Eve answered, frowning.

Charlene sighed heavily. “Well, it’s nothing for you to worry about. He’s leaving Mr. Jenkins in charge, who’s been our vice-principal for nearly as long as Mr. Judson’s been principal. Bit of a shut-in, but an exceptionally good man, I assure you. I’m sure you’ll get along with him well. Mr. Judson insists that he deserves to have been principal years ago – he’s always been loyal to the school, and he has family history here. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there.” She waved a hand. “Let me show you to your office, first of all. We can talk as we go.”

Charlene led Eve out of the office and halfway down a hallway across the foyer. “We haven’t had a good, dedicated guidance counselor since Ms. Noone left us years ago. It’s really just been other faculty filling in where needed. You’re sorely needed here,” she said as she unlocked a door and led Eve through a small, sparse waiting room. Everything was slightly dusty, as if no one ever came through. On the other side was a small office with a window and another locked door. “We’ve decided that we’re going to give you the files for all the students who most need the counseling services. More standard cases will continue to be handled by other staff on an as-needed basis. They’ll share the other office over there-” here she gestured across the waiting room to another door. “-and this one is all yours. We cleaned it up and everything. Our tech teacher told me he’d be down this afternoon with your account information, so the computer’s all yours once you can get onto it.”

Eve put her backpack down on the desk and glanced around. The office was fairly empty – a desk, a computer, a bare bookshelf, a couple of chairs – but she didn’t expect trouble working with it. “How does a school this size go years without its own guidance counselor?” she had to ask.

Charlene sighed again. “We were a well-funded institution for years,” she explained, “but things have gone downhill recently. Student population is still pretty high compared to other schools in the area, but it’s decreased in the last five years or so, and the school board has tightened up on us. Keeping things under budget has been hell. I’m afraid your benefits aren’t going to look anything like what you’re used to from the army.”

“I was prepared for that,” Eve admitted with a laugh.

“Good. Shall we take a tour?”

Charlene walked Eve up and down the halls and stairwells of the high school, pointing out important rooms and giving the best explanation she could of the school’s layout, not to mention a few key points of its history. Eve could tell the old building had once been in much better repair, and found herself disappointed that the school board was letting it fall apart. They navigated their way between little knots of students, trickling in one busload at a time as 8:30 approached.

“I left the library for last,” Charlene was telling her, “because it’s the other thing we were hoping to get your help with. By the end of last year it had reached a truly spectacular level of disrepair – it just wasn’t functional any more, to say nothing of whether it was up to code. Over the summer we had to find a contractor who could renovate it and stay within our budget. It’s going to take a few months. In the meantime, our librarian, Mr. Carsen, is taking the opportunity of the library’s contents being moved to storage to do a long-overdue inventory check. But the ridiculous man is spreading himself too thin. He can’t give input on the redesign, completely reorganize, do a full inventory, and fulfill his role as an admittedly underutilized student resource all by himself.”

“So you want me to help manage all that,” Eve surmised as they reached the library doors, which were cordoned off with caution tape and had a notice on the window informing students that the library was closed for renovations.

“Well, ideally, we’d love a few students to help,” Charlene explained. “But we haven’t got any volunteers yet. If you can come up with any way to get some involved, I encourage you to do so. I’m leaving it all in your hands. But Mr. Carsen also needs someone to keep an eye on him. He’s resistant to help, but he’s bitten off far more than he can chew, and there’s only so much that we can do for him in administration. We’re busy enough as it is.”

Eve narrowed her eyes. “He doesn’t know you’re getting me to do this, does he?”

Charlene looked at her knowingly for a moment, her smile thin. “You’ve already met him, I take it.”

“In the parking lot,” Eve confirmed. “He’s… less than friendly.”

“Well, then, you see what I mean,” Charlene said, throwing her hands in the air. “He’s a brilliant man, he really is. Absolute genius. He’s got twenty-two degrees, if you can believe that. I’ve worked with him for a decade. But he’s also an idiot. He hardly knows how to interact with students – he only does just barely well enough to keep his job.”

“Well, let’s get this over with,” Eve muttered, but not without a hint of a smile.

She followed Charlene into the library, which was bigger than she’d expected from her tour around the rest of the school. It was also in total disarray. Most of what she saw was empty shelves, miscellaneous bits of garbage left over from packing, and a stack of boxes sitting by the door, presumably waiting to be moved. “Flynn!” Charlene shouted into the library, cupping her hands around her mouth. “Where the hell are you?”

He came running out of the shelves, and Eve had to suppress a laugh. The man ran with all his limbs at once, flying in every direction. He scrambled to a stop when he saw her standing with Charlene. “Oh. You,” he greeted, balking.

“Yeah. Me,” she answered, arching an eyebrow.

“Flynn, I understand you and Colonel Baird have already met,” Charlene started.

“Yeah. Parking lot. Just doing the tour I guess?” Flynn answered shortly, apparently antsy to get back to whatever he’d been doing.

“No,” Charlene responded, crossing her arms. “Flynn, you’ve got too much on your plate and I don’t have time to stand around breathing down your neck. Colonel Baird, when she’s not busy down in the guidance office, is your new handler.”

“What!?” he squawked. “Charlene, I do not need-” he turned to Eve. “Listen. I’m sure you’re very nice and everything. But I don’t need a ‘handler.’ I’ve got everything under control here.”

“Mm, no,” Eve answered, placing a hand on her hip. She’d come in willing to cooperate with the guy, but she didn’t appreciate being condescended to. “Mr. Judson hired me, and this is a responsibility I’ve been given. We’re going to work together whether you like it or not, Mr. Carsen.”

“You’re perfect,” Charlene told her with a grin. Then she turned back to Flynn. “I’m handing all of my executive power on this project to Colonel Baird. You still bring budget issues to me, but everything else goes through her.”

Flynn clasped his hands together for a moment, pointing at the two of them with his index fingers. He seemed to be thinking, but then he said, “…Nope. I’m going to go talk to Judson about this.” With that he stepped forward and pushed past them, out the library doors.

“Excuse-” Eve was ready to follow after him, but Charlene shook her head.

“Don’t waste your breath,” she advised. “Mr. Judson will set him straight. That man is about the only person in this world that Flynn consistently listens to. You may as well go get settled into your office. The school day starts in a few minutes and I’m sure you’d like some time to get sorted. Until you get your computer login, hard copies of all your students’ files have been put in the filing cabinet in your office.” She handed Eve the keys. “I’ve got to go get ready for the morning announcements. Let me know if you need anything.”

--

Eve didn’t have much to add to her office. A pencil cup on the desk, a few sticky notes and paper clips in the top drawer, three books and a signed photograph from her old team on the shelves. She wasn’t a person who tended to have many things. But at least that meant it didn’t take her long to get started. After glancing over and signing her contract for Charlene, she started in on the files in the cabinet, putting aside a few for students that she thought she’d like to speak to. There were over a hundred students assigned to her specifically, and all of them were important cases for one reason or another, but there were a small handful that seemed high-priority, and she wanted to try and get to know those kids before anything big came up for her to deal with.

After lunch, Mr. Judson knocked on her office door. She quickly let him in, pleased to finally shake the hand of the man who had hired her. “It’s my pleasure,” he insisted with a warm smile.

They sat down and he leaned against the desk, getting straight to business. “I’m so glad to finally have another guidance counselor in the school, Colonel,” he told her. “I’m sure you’ve heard, we were really quite sorely in need of your services.”

“Charlene told me a bit about it, yes,” Eve answered. “I can’t believe the board has let this slide for so long. I was sure a school with a population this large would be getting at least a little bit more attention.”

“We’ve been on and off the chopping block a few times,” Judson admitted. “The only thing that’s saved us from closure the last two times they threatened is that there aren’t any other public high schools near enough and large enough to take on our student body, even if you split them up. The closest school is Benwick, and it’s a private institution. But we’re still hurting for resources.”

“Well, I’m glad to help however I can,” she said with a nod. “Improving the school and its environment is my job, so I’ll do my best.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” he said. “A new guidance counselor was the one big thing I really wanted in place before I felt like I could leave. I want to know my students are being looked after. And the rest of my faculty are wonderful, and of course I’m leaving the school in excellent hands with Mr. Jenkins, but I really had to be sure that the students would be looked after on an individual level. They’re the most important thing.”

“I agree wholeheartedly, Mr. Judson,” Eve told him. She liked the man even more now than she had on the phone; he was wise and caring and she could tell he loved his job for all the right reasons. “I’m glad to find myself in a place where I feel like I can have a positive impact.”

“Very encouraging,” he said with a smile. “Now, I know Charlene gave you the tour and got you settled in. Is there anything else I can do for you this afternoon?”

“I think I’m doing okay for now,” she told him, glancing around the office as if something relevant might pop up. When it didn’t, she looked up and offered him another smile.

“Excellent.” He patted the table as he got to his feet. “I encourage you to drop by the staff room after school and try to meet the other staff if you can; they’ve heard you’re here and they’ll be curious, I’m sure. Otherwise, I’m at your disposal for the next week and a half, and then you’ve got Mr. Jenkins.”

“Thank you, sir,” Eve said, getting up to shake his hand again. “So good to meet you. I’m sure we’ll talk again soon before you go.”

Near the end of the day, Eve took her contract and three files down to the main office. “Hey, Charlene,” she asked. “Is there any way I can request meetings with these students?”

Charlene lifted her glasses and flipped the files open, peering at the names. “Yes, I think that’s a good idea. For all of them. I’ll write up letters to send to their homerooms tomorrow morning. Do you prefer morning or afternoon appointments?”

--

Early the next day – a Wednesday – Eve was trying out her new computer login when there came a gentle knock at her office door. She got up and let the girl in with a smile. “You must be Cassandra,” she greeted.

“Yeah.” The student held up a piece of paper. “I was told to come down and meet you.”

“Have a seat,” Eve invited, gesturing to the faded blue chair on the near side of her desk. She went back to her seat and gave the girl a quick once-over. The wavy, flaming-red hair stood out first, of course, but a timid smile, bright blue eyes, and a colourful, cheerfully feminine outfit came soon after. Royal blue sweater-vest over a floral blouse and a bright yellow pleated mini-skirt. Despite her shyness, the girl had a warmth about her, and Eve liked her immediately.

“So you’re the new guidance counselor, right?” Cassandra asked before Eve could introduce herself. “I heard something about you on the announcements. We’re supposed to give you a warm welcome.”

“If you want to,” Eve answered, smiling a little. “My name is Eve Baird.”

“So… are you having meetings with all the students, or just the dying ones, Ms. Baird?”

Eve was a little taken aback; she hadn’t expected the girl to be so direct. Cassandra didn’t seem hostile, though, so she didn’t go on the defense. Instead she figured this was a young woman who would appreciate honesty. “It’s Colonel, actually,” she started. “I know a lot of folks use civilian titles when they leave the service, but I’ve never known anything else. ‘Ms.’ just doesn’t sound right.” She smiled.

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize. I’ll remember that. You were in the army?”

“NATO counter-intelligence,” Eve confirmed, and smiled a little more at Cassandra’s surprised and impressed look. “Feel free to spread that around if you like. I don’t mind inspiring a little healthy fear.” She winked, and Cassandra grinned. Good. Any student she could make more comfortable with a well-placed joke was going to be easier to work with. “Anyway, to answer your question, no, I’m not meeting with all my students. Just a few. The ones I think I’d like to get to know ahead of time, in case anything important comes up.”

Cassandra tucked her hands under her legs, clearly a little nervous. “That makes sense. Sorry for being glib with you.”

“That’s all right. I understand you’re in kind of a difficult situation, Miss Cillian,” Eve assured her.

“Just Cassandra’s fine,” the girl said with a shrug. “And yeah, I guess you’d call it that. How much do you know?”

“Just what’s in your file,” Eve answered, tapping the brown folder on her desk. “Which is a little sparse on the medical side. And your academic record, so I know you dropped out of all of your extracurriculars last fall when you got your diagnosis. Spent a little time away from school, then came right back and managed to keep your grades up. I’m impressed; that can’t always be easy.”

Cassandra shrugged again, looking down. “I don’t know. Classes aren’t hard…”

Eve waited a beat to see if Cassandra was going to finish her sentence, then finished it for her. “But life is.” The redhead nodded. “Cassandra, I want you to know, you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. But I’m here as a resource for you, and I encourage you to take advantage of that if you can. Anything you tell me is entirely in confidence; it won’t leave this room.”

“Except in cases where the safety of myself or another student is immediately threatened by another person, in which case it’s your legal duty to report it,” Cassandra pointed out.

“Yes, exactly,” Eve agreed, a little bit surprised. “I wasn’t going to leave that part out, you know.”

“I know the policies,” Cassandra said, shrugging a third time.

“It seems to me like you know a lot of things,” Eve told her.

“I guess so.”

Eve sighed and folded her hands on the desk. “Cassandra, I’m here for you. Whether that means you want to vent about your situation, ask advice, or just get regular run-of-the-mill help with your academics. You can leave now that we’ve exchanged names, or you can stay if there’s anything you want to talk about.”

There was a pause, and then, for the first time since they exchanged names, Cassandra looked up and met Eve’s eyes. “What does my file actually say about the tumour?” she asked. “No one’s ever told me how specific the school’s record is.”

Eve flipped open the folder on her desk and paged through the file for a moment. Licking her lips, she paused to work out the word in front of her before trying it out loud. “You have an oligodendroglioma, diagnosed just under a year ago. Seizures, hallucinations, synesthesia. We have contact info for your doctors. Not much else.”

Cassandra nodded, eyes going back to the desk. “It’ll be a year in two weeks,” she said. “Getting the diagnosis was… weird. Scary. My parents are doctors, but not for this kind of thing. My mother’s a vascular surgeon, my father’s a cardiac specialist. When I started having seizures they obviously knew something was wrong, and they had the resources to get me in to a neuro clinic pretty fast. But going from a couple seizures to full-blown hallucinations and an incurable tumour diagnosis in the course of three months is… overwhelming.”

“I can’t even imagine,” Eve answered, her heart already breaking for this poor girl. She’s only sixteen, she thought.

“I couldn’t keep up with all the extra stuff I was doing, suddenly knowing I’m going to die. I mean, probably not… really soon. But too soon, you know?” Cassandra’s leg bounced nervously. “I won’t go to college, I guess. What’s the point? So I just kind of… quit everything. Mathletes, science fairs, trivia team, peer tutoring, music lessons… all of it. None of it seemed to be building toward anything anymore. I keep my grades up because I don’t know any other way, but that’s all I do.”

Eve was grateful that Cassandra was opening up to her. It seemed like a lot of this had been trapped inside for a while, with no one for the girl to talk to about it. “Do you miss any of it?”

Cassandra thought for a moment. “Not really,” she said eventually. “Sometimes it could be fun, but mostly I did it for my parents, and most of the fun disappears when you’re being pushed as hard as possible. I do miss knowing people, though. Those things were the only reason anyone knew who I was. At least I was on some kind of social map, even if it was only other nerds who knew me. No one really talks to me or knows who I am anymore.”

“Can I make a recommendation?” Eve asked. Cassandra nodded. “I think it would be really, really good for you to be part of something outside of classes again. Doesn’t have to be something you’ve done before, doesn’t even have to be at the school. But it sounds to me like you need to be part of something that puts you around other people.” Cassandra glanced down at the floor again, and Eve sighed. “Will you consider it, at least?”

“…Yeah. Okay,” the girl agreed finally.

“How about you come meet with me again in a few days and we’ll talk about it a little more?” Eve suggested. She cast around her desk for a moment, then pulled the sticky notes out of her drawer and jotted a few things down on the top one. “I don’t have cards yet, but here. There’s my email and my phone number in this office. You give my suggestion some thought, and we’ll work forward from there.”

“Okay.” Cassandra took the sticky note that Eve was holding out and stuck it to the cover of a book inside the bag she’d placed on the floor next to her chair. “That’s all for today?”

“Yep,” Eve confirmed. “You’re free to go.”

Cassandra got up from the chair and headed out. Halfway out the door, she paused and glanced back in. “Thanks, Colonel Baird.”

“No problem, Cassandra.” Eve gave the girl a smile, and then the door was shut again.

Eve barely had time to start checking her new email account after Cassandra left before another student came in without knocking, plopping himself unceremoniously into the chair on the other side of her desk. She looked across at him, one eyebrow arched high. A young Asian kid, hoodie hanging open over a graphic tee, one leg propped up over the arm of the chair.

“You must be Ezekiel Jones,” she said drily.

“That’s me,” he answered with a grin, and she was slightly surprised by his Australian accent, though she hid it tactfully.

“I was told not to expect you to show,” she informed him.

“Yeah, I considered skipping,” he admitted with a nod. “But I heard you were army and I got curious. What kind of school hires its guidance counselors out of the army? They must want to get a handle on me more than I realized.”

“News must travel fast around here.”

“Well, I’m the kinda guy who always hears it first.” He reached into the pocket of his sweatshirt and produced a crumpled letter, waving it in the air. “So I heard you wanna talk to me?”

Eve folded her hands on the desk. “That’s right,” she agreed. “Doesn’t have to take long if you don’t want it to. Just wanted to meet face-to-face before anything too significant comes up. I hear you’re a bit of a troublemaker.” If he was expecting a hardass, she didn’t mind being one.

“A bit? I must be slacking. I’m the troublemaker…” he glanced at his letter again. “…Baird.”

“That’s Colonel Baird,” she corrected him.

“Really! Cool.” Ezekiel crammed the letter back in his pocket, then looked at her desk. “Hey, is that my file? What’s it say?” He reached for the folder near her hands, but she managed to pin it down before he could snatch it.

“Ezekiel Jones,” she answered. “Fifteen years old, tenth grade, average marks even though based on your transcripts you could obviously be doing better.” She raised an eyebrow. “Probably too smart for your own good, in fact. Prankster with a worrying habit of knowing all the rules and all the loopholes. Chronic class-skipper. And as of recently, petty thief. Not to mention the fact that the school hasn’t managed to successfully communicate directly with your parents since early last year.”

For just a fraction of a second, she thought she saw worry flash across his face. “Well, they’re pretty busy,” he said nonchalantly, recovering quickly. “And we don’t have a landline.”

“Mm, that’s what it says,” she agreed, deciding this wasn’t a kid she could get through to by pushing. “They have cell phones?”

“I’m not supposed to give out the number,” he answered evasively.

“All right.” That line of questioning wasn’t going to get her anywhere today. “Anything you need to talk about, Jones?”

“Not really,” he said, shaking his head.

“Great.” She handed him a sticky note much like the one she’d given Cassandra. “Here’s my contact info until I get cards, in case you do need me. I’ll have an eye on you, got it? Get back to class.”

“Back?” he scoffed. Clearly he hadn’t been there to begin with. But she gave him a pointed look, and he sighed. “All right, fine. I’m going, Colonel. See you ‘round.”

Because Ezekiel didn’t stay nearly as long as Cassandra had, Eve had a longer break before her next appointment. She managed to submit her formal request for business cards and read through some of the booklet of school policies that Charlene had given her. Around eleven there was a single hard knock at her door, and she let in her third appointment.

Jacob Stone wasn’t especially tall, but he had a much bigger build than either of the other two. Surly, too. Dark hair styled upward, still a bit tanned from the summer, rumpled flannel rolled up to his elbows and half-buttoned over an old t-shirt, beat-up workboots. Eve knew the type; she’d seen enough of them come through the army. She’d whipped more than a few of them into shape, too. Sitting silently in the chair across from her, waiting for her to speak – he didn’t intimidate her in the slightest.

“Jacob Stone,” she greeted simply. “I’m your new guidance counselor. Colonel Eve Baird.”

“Hi,” he answered gruffly.

If he wasn’t going to give her anything to work with, that was fine. She didn’t mind doing the talking. “I thought we should meet properly before anything important came up that needed my attention. I prefer to know my charges before any emergencies, and you seem like the kind of guy who might cause one.”

“That so?” he replied, and she began to detect a hint of a southern accent.

“All right, pal,” she said with a sigh. “A year ago you quit football despite having been a strong player and you stopped interacting with your peers almost entirely. You’ve been getting into fights with other students, both on and off campus. And you’ve been letting your marks fall ever since, when you were barely pulling average to start with. At this rate you’re not going to graduate with the rest of your class in June. What’s going on?”

He shrugged. “Just ain’t good at school.”

“Here’s the thing, though,” Eve disagreed. “I spoke to your English teacher yesterday afternoon when I was being introduced to other staff. She’s certain you’re smarter than you let show. You slip sometimes, I hear, let on how much you know. It comes out in your answers in class and the essays you hand in. Based on your middle school transcripts and standardized test scores, I’m guessing she’s right.”

Jacob shifted slightly in his chair, and Eve smiled a little bit inwardly. She was beginning to get a feel for the kid’s tells – he was trying to think his way out of the corner she was backing him into. She had always read people well, and she’d dealt with so many different kinds at NATO that she’d developed a knack for working out idiosyncratic body language pretty fast. He probably thought he was closed off – arms crossed, gaze hard, posture relaxed but all his muscles tensed as if for escape. She wondered for a moment if she should use the one other thing she knew, then decided she may as well. She had no idea if he’d ever come back to her of his own free will if she didn’t make the extra effort now.

“Ms. Lewis did mention one other thing she thought I should know about you,” she ventured.

“And what’s that?” he asked, almost challenging her. But his arms tightened slightly against his chest.

Eve stretched out her hands on the desk in front of her. “She was telling me about a board-wide essay-writing contest that students are encouraged to enter. She collects the submissions and sends them on to the school board before the deadline in May. She doesn’t normally read them, she told me, but last year one of them caught her eye because she didn’t recognize the student’s name. James McKelvie. She stopped to have a closer look and ended up reading the whole thing. Phenomenal work, she said. But as she suspected, there was no student by that name at the school. Never had been.”

“Weird,” Jacob answered casually, but his whole body had gone stiff.

“Ms. Lewis recognized things about the work, though. Certain turns of phrase, certain ideas that had been alluded to but never fully explored by one of her students. She’s quite certain the essay was yours, Stone.”

He was quiet for a moment, and she hoped she’d played her cards right. “Well, obviously it didn’t win.”

“They can’t give the prize to a student whose name and contact information are fake, pal.”

He sighed deeply. Then, finally, “Shit.”

“Watch your language,” she warned him. “I agree, though. Surely you thought of that?”

Another long pause before he spoke. “Didn’t really want the prize,” he admitted slowly, casting his gaze down to the floor for the first time since he’d arrived. “Just wanted to see how it’d do. Thought maybe they’d release the name even if they couldn’t get in touch. You know, see if anyone could find the guy, or somethin’.”

“I won’t tell Ms. Lewis,” Eve informed him on a hunch. He relaxed ever so slightly. “I can’t. Everything we talk about here is strictly confidential unless a student’s safety is in immediate danger. You know that, don’t you?” He only shrugged. There’d been a lot of that today. She carried on. “Stone… why would you throw your grades out the window like you’re doing? You’re obviously brilliant.”

“Grades don’t hardly matter when all your old man ever talks about is makin’ a man of you and goin’ back where we came from. Guy ran the family business into the damn ground, that’s why we’re out here – that ‘n I halfway think he’s avoidin’ the state police for some kinda fraud or somethin’. But he makes out as if we’re goin’ back to Oklahoma any day now and pickin’ it all right back up. Doesn’t give a damn about my grades, all he wants is a son who can work hard and will take over for ‘im one day.” A lot of bitterness came bursting forth from the young man; Eve was almost taken aback. He’d gone from completely laconic to angry and verbose in a matter of seconds. She didn’t wonder now why he got into so much trouble, though.

“You know you don’t have to do what your father plans for you, right?” she asked him carefully. “You’ll be eighteen in less than a year. I know it’s not a simple thing to get out from under parents’ thumbs, but it’s possible. Especially if you take advantage of the intellect you clearly have.”

Jacob shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “You don’t just… leave your family.”

“The most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life,” Eve told him slowly, waiting for him to meet her eye before continuing, “is that you make your own family.”

“Can this be over now?” Jacob asked, frowning.

Eve sighed. “Fine.” She peeled off and passed him another sticky note, prepared earlier. “This is my contact info until I get cards sorted out. Hang onto it, and come back to me if you need anything. And,” she added pointedly, “Stay out of trouble.”

“Sure,” he answered without conviction, snatching the note and stuffing it into the pocket of his jeans.

“I mean it,” she called after him from the office door as he crossed the waiting room. “I don’t want to see you back here again except on your own terms.”

Chapter Text

It had only been two days by the time Cassandra showed up at Baird’s door again, knocking gently even though it was ajar. “Colonel Baird?” She didn’t want to interrupt anything

Baird looked up from her work in surprise. “Cassandra, come in. I didn’t expect you back so soon. How are you?”

Cassandra stepped inside, but didn’t sit. “I’m fine,” she answered, fidgeting with the handle of her bag. “I was thinking about what you said, and I heard on the announcements this morning they’re looking for a couple student volunteers to help go through the library inventory during the renovation. Can I do that?”

Eve turned her pen in her fingers for a moment, thinking. Cassandra was their first volunteer, so unless there was a flood coming in behind her, it wasn’t going to be a very social job. But at least it would be a start. “That would be great,” she responded. “There hasn’t been much interest yet, but I know Mr. Carsen and I would really appreciate your help.”

Cassandra nodded, smiling shyly. “Okay. I like libraries. I thought it’d be something I could do that wouldn’t be too overwhelming.” She kind of looked forward to it, even. Since she’d quit all her clubs and other activities, she’d been spending a lot of time at home, and she was finding that she didn’t like it very much – neither when she was alone nor when her parents were home. Something quiet she could do at the school sounded good, and she liked books.

“We’re officially starting in on it next Thursday afternoon,” Baird told her. “We’re thinking maybe an hour or so after school each day, though if there are days you can’t make it that’s fine. Come meet me here at the end of the day next Thursday and we’ll get started from there, sound good?”

“Yeah,” Cassandra answered with a smile. “I’ll be here.”

--

It was a new week and Ezekiel Jones had absolutely no interest in being in science class. Astronomy could not be any more boring. So instead he was going exploring. He’d never thought to try the sub-basement last year; he had heard it was barely used. Recently, however, he’d caught wind that pretty much the whole thing was storage, just packed full of old stuff that rarely got pulled out any more, and that was just interesting enough to pique his attention. Probably wouldn’t be anything exciting to discover, but it would be better than learning about moon phases again.

The door that led down there was keyed access only, but that had never stopped him before. Most of the locks at Fisher High were old and easily bypassed; he didn’t even need to pick a lot of them. He slid his bank card between the door and the jamb and had it open in moments. Normally he used his student card instead – far more expendable – but they hadn’t been distributed yet for the year. Opening the door quietly, he slipped through and shut it behind him, even locking it again. Then, using his phone as a flashlight, he headed cheerfully down the stairs.

At the bottom of the stairs Ezekiel turned his phone light back off as he emerged into a hallway lit by dimming old incandescent bulbs. No fluorescents – that’s how you really knew it was an old, disused part of the school. Even the hall was lined with boxes, both plastic and cardboard. He whistled softly as he puttered along, poking into the first room on his left and finding nothing more interesting than some falling-apart and definitely-missing-pieces anatomy models and skeletons from science classes past. Since science was precisely what he was avoiding, he turned back out the door.

Back in the hallway, still taking his sweet time, he let his eyes take in the many boxes. Near the stairwell most were covered in dust, but further down were newer, cleaner ones, ones that clearly hadn’t been down here nearly as long. Ranges of numbers, completely meaningless to Ezekiel, were scrawled haphazardly across the sides of most of the boxes in permanent marker.

He abruptly stopped whistling as he heard a sound from a door down the hall. The light was on and the door open; he heard the thud of a heavy box being put down and then a murmur of voices. Frowning, he turned through the nearest door into a dark room. It was his understanding that there was almost never anyone down here – what were the chances there would be today? He was still standing a few steps inside the door, toying thoughtfully with his phone, when a tall figure stepped into the doorway.

“Jones,” Baird said, resting her hands on her hips. “Shouldn’t you be in class?”

“Damn, Colonel!” Ezekiel answered, jumping only slightly. “You move quietly! Who knew?”

She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Want to explain what you’re up to down here?” she asked him.

He grinned. “Oh, you know, just indulging my inquisitive mind, like every young person should do in school,” he told her cheerfully.

“Wow.” Baird leaned against the doorframe and flicked the light on in the storage room so that she could see him better. He occupied more or less the only empty space left in the room. “So where are you supposed to be right now?”

“Well…” He was going to say something clever, but he caught her impatient look. “Science,” he admitted.

“Mm, I figured as much.” She pursed her lips, thinking for a moment. “Say, Ezekiel, how’s some detention sound to you?”

“Aw, c’mon, Colonel, I’ve got things to do today,” he whined.

“No problem,” she said with a nod. “What I’ve got in mind won’t need you until the end of the week.”

Ezekiel narrowed his eyes. “What are you making me do?”

“Something I don’t think you’ll like very much,” she told him with her own irritating grin. “Come by my office on Thursday after school and I’ll give you the details. And don’t even think of skipping, because I’ll track you down.”

He frowned – he was suspicious, but he also found himself respecting her a little not only for threatening him openly but also for managing to sneak up on him. “Fine.”

“Now get to class.”

--

“It’s only been a week, Stone.”

Jacob hung his head, not out of shame but some instinctive desire to hide the bruise on his cheekbone, as if Baird could have missed it. “How d’you know I didn’t just… fall?” He cringed slightly, already aware of what a terrible attempt at a lie it had been.

“Kids talk about fights, pal. There’s not a thing you can do to stop them, in fact. And believe it or not, the staff overhear that stuff sometimes.” She sighed. “Come on. How hard is it not to get into these things? You can just walk away.”

No I couldn’t, he thought to himself, but he only shrugged. “Just happens.”

“You know I can’t let this slide, right? Even when you keep it off school grounds, I have to discipline you for it.” She raised her eyebrows at him.

Jacob bristled. “What about Rudy?” he demanded. He knew he’d provoked the guy, he wouldn’t deny it, but he didn’t want to be the only one punished.

“Oh, believe me, he’s not getting off the hook. But I’m not putting you two in the same room if I can help it. He gets in-school suspension for the rest of the week. I have something different in mind for you.”

Jacob groaned and rolled his head back. He didn’t like the sound of that at all. “What?”

“Detention. At least a week. I’m going to have you help out after school with the library inventory project, starting tomorrow.”

At that he met her gaze, peering at her suspiciously for a moment. “Why’m I gettin’ off lighter’n Rudy?”

Baird drummed her fingers against the desk for a second. “You’re the only one with visible injuries. He keeps bragging about winning the fight. And reports say he threw the first punch. So.”

Jacob had trouble buying that. It was just like Rudy Dupree to go about claiming he’d won the fight even though Jacob had thumped him soundly; even if she hadn’t heard that, surely she’d heard that Jacob had been asking for it. He’d been taunting, and he knew someone had heard it; there were at least five different versions of everything he’d said already in circulation. It didn’t seem like Baird was being straight with him, but on the other hand, he wasn’t going to complain. Rudy deserved whatever he got and a few quiet afternoons of hauling books around didn’t sound so awful. “Yeah, fine.”

“Good, since you don’t get a choice.” Baird stood and waved him out of the office. “Go back to class. Come back here tomorrow afternoon.”

--

When Cassandra arrived in the waiting room outside of Colonel Baird’s office, there were already two boys there, seated facing each other on the flattened old couches. One of them – older than herself, she guessed – sat silent, arms crossed, watching the other with what she might’ve described as a glare if only he seemed to care more. The other, younger, Asian, was chattering away in an Australian accent, apparently uncaring whether he was being listened to or not. He stopped mid-sentence when he noticed Cassandra approaching slowly, bag clutched in both hands. He smiled and waved her into the seat next to him.

“Hey. You been given library duty too? We suffer together, then. Ezekiel Jones.” He offered her a hand.

She sat down and shook it carefully, a shy and slightly confused smile on her face. “Cassandra Cillian. Um, I volunteered for the library thing, why are you here…?”

“Oh, okay. Nerd then. Yeah, thought I’d heard your name somewhere. Well, that’s fine, I guess. We’re doing this for detention.” He gestured across to the other guy. “That’s Jake Stone.”

“Don’t call me Jake. We’re not friends,” the older boy said, leaning forward in his seat. He had an accent, too; southern. He glanced at Cassandra. “It’s Jacob. And you don’t have to listen to him, he talks too much for it to be worth it.” Then he looked at Ezekiel again. “And don’t just call the poor girl a nerd outta the blue like that, kid. Is it so hard to be polite?”

“Okay!” Cassandra squawked, a little more forcefully than intended, but it seemed like the only way she was going to get a word in edgewise. “Thanks, but I don’t need defending. ‘Poor girl’ isn’t better,” she told Jacob, raising her eyebrows, and he sat back in his seat, looking just the tiniest bit embarrassed. “And you’ve heard my name? How? We definitely haven’t met,” she said to Ezekiel.

He shrugged, grinning. “You sure?”

“I have an eidetic memory. I’m quite sure,” she answered emphatically.

“Fair enough,” he agreed with a nod. “Well, I know who everyone is if they’re worth knowing about.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been worth knowing about,” Cassandra said. It wasn’t self-deprecating; she stated it like a simple fact.

“Give yourself a little credit,” Ezekiel replied. “Until a year ago you were the star of every academic extracurricular, and you went on to represent Fisher High at the national STEM fair in your grade nine year – first ninth-grader from this school ever to go that far.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Aren’t you younger than me?”

“Yeah, grade ten.”

“How do you even know that, then? You weren’t here yet!”

Ezekiel shrugged, grinning even more. “Jacob over there isn’t that different,” he told her, jabbing at Jacob with one thumb and eliciting a frown from the older boy. “Football star, ladies’ man, all-around popular jock his freshman and sophomore years. Then last year he quits football, starts fighting, and becomes a big scary lone wolf I’ve been warned more than once not to cross.”

“I… know who Jacob Stone is,” Cassandra answered softly, glancing sideways at the boy in question. “I might not run in the same circles, but it would be hard to have spent three years here and not hear his name.”

“All right, super. So we all know each other now,” Ezekiel said cheerfully.

“Great,” came Colonel Baird’s voice. The three of them looked over and saw her standing in the door to her office, leaning against the frame. “Glad the introductions are out of the way. We ready to go?”

“Yes!” Cassandra said, jumping to her feet quickly. She wasn’t sure why she was so antsy about this. Jacob and Ezekiel got up as well, and the three of them turned to follow Colonel Baird as she crossed the room and headed into the hallway.

“Okay, team,” she told them, leading them across the front foyer towards the library. “We’re going to lug a handful of remaining boxes downstairs for Mr. Carsen, and then start in on the work down there.”

“What’s the work?” Ezekiel asked.

“You’ll see if you can wait ten minutes, Jones. Less, maybe. I believe in you.” He rolled his eyes as she pushed open the library doors. “Mr. Carsen, are you in here somewhere?”

There was a clattering sound somewhere deep in the stacks, like several things falling over, and then a moment later the librarian came scrambling out from between the empty shelves and came up short just in front of them. “Hi! Hello! Are these our helpers?”

“Looks like,” Baird responded.

Carsen peered at the three of them in turn, eyebrows furrowed. Cassandra shrank a little under the scrutiny, uncertain what he was looking for. Then he sighed and threw up his hands. “All right. Well. Let’s get moving, then. Everybody grab a box.” He gestured to the couple of boxes that were left around the door. The three students exchanged glances and then did as they were told, Jacob immediately going for the largest one.

Carsen turned and faced into the library again. “Hey! I’m out for the day, gotta go do some stuff downstairs! See you tomorrow!” he shouted, hands cupped around his mouth. There was no response.

Ezekiel leaned over to Cassandra as they followed the librarian and the guidance counselor down the hall towards the basement door. “Who was he talking to?” he muttered.

“No idea,” she admitted.

Downstairs, the five of them trooped almost all the way to the end of the hall, passing the rows of boxes that Ezekiel had glanced over earlier in the week. Cassandra looked at a couple of them and commented, “Oh. They’re the books. These are Dewey decimal numbers.”

“Very good!” Mr. Carsen commented from the front of the line. “Miss…?”

“Cillian,” she called back. “Cassandra Cillian.”

“Spectacular.” He led them into a room almost at the end of the hall, and they put their boxes down on a large old table in the middle. “And these two?” He pointed to the boys, glancing at Colonel Baird.

“Jacob Stone, Ezekiel Jones,” she informed him. “Cassandra volunteered. These two are our indentured servants.”

“Oh, good. What are they working off?” Carsen responded, grinning.

“Getting into fights and cutting class, respectively,” she responded, trying to keep a straight face.

“Excellent.” He clapped his hands and rubbed them together, turning back to the three students. “Ready to get to work? There’s a lot of inventory to check.”

“Hang on,” Ezekiel said, holding up a finger. “Are you telling me we need to go through all of these boxes to see what’s in them?”

“Yes,” Carsen answered quickly. “We have to check them against the card catalogue, make note of what’s missing or in bad shape and needs to be replaced, completely reorganize them, and get the full collection sorted out for easy restocking once the renovations are done.”

Ezekiel groaned loudly, but Cassandra smiled brightly. “Well, that sounds like fun,” she admitted.

“Not the worst job ever,” Jacob conceded.

“No, I’m pretty sure it is,” Ezekiel told him.

“Where do we start?” Cassandra asked the librarian.

“Mm, good question,” he admitted. “Well, these on the table are stragglers that weren’t where they belonged to begin with, so let’s put those aside. My thought was just to start at triple-zero and work our way up from there?”

“That makes perfect sense!” Cassandra agreed, ignoring Ezekiel’s eyerolls next to her. “Do you know where they are, or will we need to go hunting?”

“The latter,” Mr. Carsen admitted. “But all the boxes are labeled, so that shouldn’t be too bad. I think they’re in this room somewhere.”

The five of them set about inspecting the stacks of boxes against the walls, and the right ones were located before long. Jacob and Colonel Baird hauled a couple of them over to the table and Cassandra opened one up.

“Ooh… oh, that’s very musty,” she observed, waving a hand under her nose. She was too late to chase the powerful scent away, though, and took a couple of steps back from the table. “Must, mold, mildew… train horns blaring… tastes like old milk… cladosporium…” She swayed on the spot, eyes misting over as she murmured something about her great uncle’s house, Uncle Rob, before he died, his house had been so humid, they had to take out so many walls – fingers flicking through the air in front of her face, she started listing off what sounded like nonsense.

“She’s naming household mold species,” Mr. Carsen noted with a frown. “In Latin.”

Then she swayed again, and Jacob jumped across the space between them, getting behind her and putting his hands on her arms to hold her up. “Cassandra?” he asked gruffly, but she didn’t seem to hear him. He glanced up at the others in concern as they drew closer, her mumbles growing less and less distinct. “Cassandra,” he repeated, a little more urgently, as she went silent and sagged against him.

“Hang on. I have the contact information for her parents and her doctors upstairs,” Baird said. As she turned to leave, though, Cassandra’s gaze cleared again.

“No, no, don’t call my parents,” she groaned, putting a hand to her head. “I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?” Baird asked, sounding skeptical.

She nodded. “I’m sure. The smell was just really strong. Synaesthesia, then hallucinations…” she sounded short of breath, and her eyes were closed against the light. She was still leaning on Jacob.

“That sounds like something I should call your parents for,” Baird said, not convinced.

“Please, Colonel, it’ll pass, really,” Cassandra answered. “I’d really, really prefer you not call my parents for anything less than a full-on seizure.” She opened her eyes and seemed to notice herself leaning into Jacob. Murmuring a quiet thank you, she pushed herself off of him and unsteadily back onto her own feet. Frowning deeply, he stayed behind her, hands hovering by her elbows.

“Oh,” Mr. Carsen said, as if she’d just answered a question he’d been wondering about. “It’s a brain tumour, then.” The silence following was completely dead. Cassandra looked up in concern at Baird, Baird looked sharply at Carsen, and Jacob and Ezekiel exchanged confused and worried glances before looking back at Cassandra.

After a long pause, the librarian seemed to realize what had happened. “Oh. Oh, dear.” He straightened up, biting his lip. “I take it that wasn’t public knowledge.”

“I didn’t tell him, Cassandra,” Baird said firmly. “Like I told you, everything you and I talk about is private.”

“No no!” Mr. Carsen added quickly. “No, I just guessed based on the symptoms you described. A frontal lobe anomaly of some kind was what made sense.”

Cassandra swallowed. “It’s something I try not to share too much,” she said quietly. “I just want to get through high school, Mr. Carsen.”

“Yes, of course. I’m – I’m sorry.” Awkwardly, he adjusted his skewed tie and looked back over his shoulder at the open box on the table. “Well, we won’t talk about it. It stays in this room. Right, boys?” He didn’t wait to see if Jacob or Ezekiel would respond. “I’m sorry about the smell. There was a leak in the girls’ washroom over the library a few years ago, and one corner of one shelf got very wet. We’ll put those on the list to replace. From now on, um… well, you don’t have to touch those, and we’ll have someone else open the boxes, maybe, just to be sure.”

“Thank you,” Cassandra said, rubbing her arm and looking at the floor.

“Back to work, then,” the librarian said with a decisive nod. He went back to the table and started sorting through the smelly books himself. “Mr. Stone, could you find another box for Miss Cillian to have a look at?”

“Yeah,” Jacob answered. He took another worried glance at the back of Cassandra’s head and then went back to the stack against the wall.

For a few minutes everyone was very quiet as they started to unpack the contents of the boxes and lay them out on the table. Then Cassandra sighed very heavily. “I know you’re wondering,” she said, without looking up. Across the table, Jacob and Ezekiel slowed in their work and glanced at each other.

“It’s okay, Cassandra,” Baird said. “You don’t have to share anything you don’t want to.”

“I’m just going to put it out there,” Cassandra said, sighing again and looking up. She braced her hands against the edge of the table. “It’s a great big brain tumour, right here.” She pointed at her forehead. “An oligodendroglioma, if you care. About the size of a grape. It’s why I dropped out of all my extracurriculars. It’s going to kill me. Not soon, but sooner than I’d care for.”

Jacob licked his lips. “Cassandra…”

“I really, really don’t want pity, Jacob,” she told him earnestly. “That’s why I don’t tell anyone. I just want to go through high school like an even kind of normal person. I don’t want everyone to think of me as the dying girl.”

He was quiet for a second, then he nodded. “Okay.”

There was a pause, and then Ezekiel started to move again. He wasn’t looking at Cassandra, and she didn’t know whether it was avoidance or an attempt at respecting her wishes to be treated normally. “Well then,” he said. “That out of the way, I’m starving. Anyone have any food?”

“I have carrots,” Cassandra offered.

“Ew,” Ezekiel answered.

Please,” Mr. Carsen interjected, distressed. “Do not eat while you’re handling the books, Mr. Stone.”

“I’m Mr. Jones,” Ezekiel pointed out.

“I’m Stone!” Jacob said quickly. “Jeez, you’re gonna mix me up with him? That’s just insulting, Mr. Carsen.”

“Sorry?” the librarian offered, glancing up at the two of them and shrugging. “Your names rhyme, I don’t know what you want from me.”

Cassandra giggled across the table, a tiny snort escaping before she could put a hand over her mouth. Ezekiel laughed outright, making her laugh more; the other three tried to hide their amusement, but as Cassandra kept laughing she snorted again and they all cracked grins. Baird tried hard to keep working even as she bit down on her smile, but Carsen had to close the book he was inspecting and lean against the table. Jacob, who had been really trying to stay offended, was at war with himself now.

“You’re not helping,” he accused, pointing at Cassandra with one finger and fighting to keep on a frown, but the corners of his mouth turned up against his will. “Cut that out.” She only giggled more.

“Come on,” Baird said, attempting to recover her stern persona. “You two are in detention, this isn’t supposed to be fun.”

--

“Do me a favour,” Baird said to Carsen after they’d sent the students home. “Next time you deduce any kind of personal information about a student, run it past me before you blurt it out.”

He hung his head, shuffling through some old books uncomfortably. “I do feel badly for that, you know,” he admitted. “I just… well.”

“You’re not good with people. I figured that much out.” Baird leaned on the table, her expression softening just a little. “But come on, Mr. Carsen. They’re just kids. And a little on the vulnerable side, all three of them, if we’re being honest. Don’t treat them like glass, but be kind. It makes a difference.”

He nodded, still not quite meeting her eye. “I suppose you’re not wrong,” he mumbled, sniffing the pages of a much-too-old book about server maintenance. He pulled a face and added it to the ‘list and replace’ pile. “You know, Mr. Carsen sounds so weird coming from a colleague. You can just call me Flynn.”

“All right, Flynn,” she said, sighing and smiling a little. “I suppose you can call me Eve.” She paused, considering. Then she added, “Down here. If we’re upstairs around students, Colonel Baird is probably preferable. Can’t have anyone thinking I’m soft.”

Flynn chuckled, glancing up at her face again. “Okay. I can probably manage that.”

Chapter Text

On Friday afternoon, Ezekiel was crossing the cafeteria with two fat, greasy slices of pizza in his hand when he noticed Cassandra sitting by herself at a table in the corner, next to the oft-ignored vending machine that dispensed only flavoured milk. He considered briefly, then changed his path, heading towards her and plunking himself casually into the seat next to her.

“This spot taken?” he asked when she looked up at him in surprise.

She raised an eyebrow. “Well… no,” she said, her tone suggesting that it should have been obvious.

He only smiled. “Cool.” He tore into his pizza, still talking with his mouth full. “I’ve seen you sitting here alone before, haven’t I?” he asked.

Cassandra hesitated, then nodded. “Yeah. I used to go to the library sometimes, but…”

“Right. Well. No good to have you keep sitting here all by yourself,” he said with a shrug. “Now that I know you, I’m happy to join you.”

Clearly taken aback, Cassandra put down the pen in her hand and closed her notebook. “Um… I mean. Thank you, I suppose?”

“You’re welcome.” He flashed that irritatingly self-important grin that she already knew was a bit of an act, and she rolled her eyes, smiling despite herself.

“What do you usually… do at lunch?” she asked slowly, uncertain where to go from here.

“All kinds of things,” Ezekiel said with a shrug. “Sometimes I go outside, sometimes I walk into town… I have a handful of people I might sit with every so often... Sometimes I go exploring around the school. There are lots of options. What about you?”

She fidgeted with her unpeeled clementine, rolling it around on the tabletop. “Usually I stay here. Like I said, no library to go to any more. I do homework sometimes, or read… or listen to podcasts once in a while.”

“You really just sit here all period?” he asked, lifting an eyebrow. “We’re gonna have to do something about that, Cassandra. That’s a bit too boring, even for a nerd like you.”

“Well, my apologies,” she said, rolling her eyes. She wasn’t sure whether she should be amused or defensive, so her tone was somewhere halfway in between. On the other side of the room, near the cafeteria doors, someone caught her eye – it was Jacob.

“Hey,” she called out to him, waving. “Would you like to sit with us?”

He slowed for a second, glancing at her only briefly. Then he frowned and shrugged her off with a soft grunt, continuing on his way.

Cassandra exchanged a confused glance with Ezekiel. “What’s his problem?”

“Not a clue,” Ezekiel answered, shrugging. “Guy’s not exactly a teddy bear, though.”

“I don’t know,” Cassandra said. “He’s gruff, but he seemed nice enough, yesterday. You know, once we got past the initial unfriendliness. He was helpful when I was hallucinating, and he laughed with us. He loosened up a bit after that, I thought.”

--

The three of them met that afternoon by the door that led down into the basement, waiting for Baird to meet them with the key. She was running late, and they were still standing there even after all the students around them had closed their lockers and made their way outside.

“I’m telling you, I can have it open in five seconds flat,” Ezekiel was saying, still pointing at the lock.

“D’you want to get all of us a longer detention sentence?” Jacob asked him grouchily.

“Just you two,” Cassandra reminded him. “I’m volunteering.”

“Come on. It takes no time at all. Look, all I need is one card and a good thump.” Ezekiel pulled out his wallet and waved a card in the air, but as he moved towards the door jamb, he was interrupted by a voice down the hall.

“Really that eager to get into detention, Jones?” Baird asked drily as she approached.

“Well,” Ezekiel answered easily, turning to face her, “I figured if you didn’t show and we bailed out, we’d be on the hook for skipping, and I don’t really feel up to detention squared.”

“Luckily, I’m here now,” she told him, raising an eyebrow. She held up the door key. “Sorry I was late. I was pulled into a last-minute meeting.”

Ezekiel sighed and put his wallet away, and Jacob smirked. The three students followed Baird into the basement and down the hall to their new home base, hitting light switches as they walked.

Thursday’s books had been cleared off the table and sorted into boxes with new labels. The four of them grabbed a few new boxes from the wall and hoisted them onto the table. “Here, Cassie,” Jacob said, moving over next to her. “I’ll empty this out for you in case of any funky smells, and then you can sort ‘em.”

Cassandra blinked, taken by surprise for several reasons. Trying to pick one thing to question, she stammered, “Did – did you just call me Cassie?”

He paused, looking over at her. “Yeah, guess so. That okay?”

Eyebrows furrowed, she stared at him for a second. “Yeah, I – I guess it is,” she answered finally. Seeing the confusion on his face, she explained, “I’m just… not used to it. Not very many people have ever called me that.”

He smiled a bit, his brows betraying a shade of something between puzzlement and concern. “Seems pretty obvious to me,” he said, laughing slightly.

“Yeah, I know, I just…” She paused to think about it. “I don’t know. I guess I haven’t spent much time around people who were inclined to give me anything even resembling a nickname.”

“Oh.” He didn’t seem to have a response for that, and after a moment he turned back to his task. Cassandra leaned to one side to shoot a confused look past him at Ezekiel, who only raised his eyebrows and shrugged. Lunchtime Jacob and after-school Jacob seemed like two entirely different people, but neither Cassandra nor Ezekiel had any explanation for that.

“Toss me the ones that need replacing,” Ezekiel said as Cassandra started to organize the books that Jacob was placing on the table. “I’ll work on the list.”

“Can’t help noticing you taking the lightest job available, Jones,” Baird pointed out casually as she unpacked a box of her own.

“Yeah, well, the sorting doesn’t suit me,” he answered lightly.

“Come on, Ezekiel,” Cassandra ribbed him, crossing the room to the vast wooden card catalogue that was pushed against the far wall. Climbing up on a stepstool, she opened the first drawer and swapped out the bundle of cards in her hand for the next set. “It’s not hard. You just have to make sure the titles in the catalogue are all accounted for and the books are all catalogued.”

Ezekiel eyed the card catalogue suspiciously. “Bloody waste of an entire forest, is what that thing is,” he complained.

“Do you not know how to use a card catalogue?” Jacob asked him incredulously, almost offended at Ezekiel’s ignorance.

Ezekiel frowned at him. “Who needs it when Google exists?” he demanded. “Besides, are you telling me you do know how to use it?”

Baird watched with interest as Jacob bristled at the accusation. “It’s – it’s not that hard,” he excused himself, breaking eye contact. “Damn simple, actually.”

“It’s antique,” Ezekiel persisted. “It’s defunct. A basic database on a twenty-year-old computer would be better than this. Hell, I could write that program in half an hour.”

Cassandra smiled down at the work in front of her, shaking her head at the argument. She liked the work: checking each book against the information on its corresponding card, stacking up the cards for missing books, writing down corrections or information for missing cards on a notepad. It was simple and focussed and let her go through so many interesting books. “It’s unusual that we don’t have any kind of computer database for all of this,” she admitted. “But I don’t mind the job, and it really isn’t hard. You’re just stubborn.”

“That’s true,” Ezekiel admitted. “But it’s gotten me this far.”

“I actually asked why we don’t have a database,” Baird cut in. “I mean, these books have check-out cards in them and everything. The system is ancient. Charlene told me they had computers for a number of years, but they didn’t have the budget to maintain them after something went wrong, and eventually it was easier just to go back to the old system than keep trying to get the computers to cooperate. On top of that, Mr. Carsen and Mr. Jenkins both dislike computers, so they were fine going back.”

“What does Mr. Jenkins have to do with it?” Ezekiel asked.

Baird glanced up. “He was the librarian before he went into administration and Mr. Carsen took over,” she explained. “I hear he still likes to get his fingers into it. We might see him around once in a while, while we’re working on this.”

The discussion was interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Carsen himself, a border collie on his heels. “Cal, sit,” he ordered immediately, pointing into an out-of-the-way corner. “Lie down.” The dog did as he was told, and Carsen nodded and looked up to greet the others. “Sorry I was late. I had to take Excalibur to a vet’s appointment during last period; I just got back a few minutes ago. How are things going?”

“Fine,” Baird answered, narrowing her eyes at him in confusion. “Why are you wearing a crown?”

“Hm?” Carsen reached up onto the top of his head, touching the dull metal crown that sat there, studded with bright blue plastic gems. “Oh. This. I got pulled over on the way down when I went past the drama rooms; they wanted to see if I had any more Shakespeare I could spare. This caught Cal’s eye and I think I put it on after I took it away from him.” He took it off and placed it on Cassandra as he walked past her. “Could one of you return it on the way back upstairs?”

“Sure,” Cassandra answered, removing it and putting it on top of her notepad. Then she looked over at the obedient dog again, as Ezekiel and Jacob were both doing as well. Baird sighed and gave Carsen a meaningful look over the table. When he looked up and noticed he looked puzzled; she rolled her eyes, glanced at the students, then jerked her head towards the dog.

“Oh,” Carsen said aloud. “Um… this is my dog, Cal.”

“Are we allowed to say hi?” Ezekiel asked.

“I guess so,” Carsen said slowly. The three of them grinned and jumped away from their work, hurrying over to the animal. He stayed dutifully on the floor, but his tail thumped against the ground as they crouched down to visit him.

“He’s gorgeous,” Jacob said, stroking one hand down the dog’s back. He glanced over his shoulder at the librarian. “Purebred?”

“Mhm,” Carsen responded with a nod. “Actually I got him from Mr. Judson. He owned Cal’s sire, and bred him regularly. Cal was the leftover in his litter, no home found, and Mr. Judson knew I was living alone at the time… it’s been almost ten years, actually. I brought Cal home not long after I started working here.”

“Gettin’ a little old, aren’t ya?” Ezekiel asked the dog affectionately, ruffling his ears. “Well you don’t show it one bit.”

“No, he’s in very good health,” Carsen commented. “But we go to see the vet regularly to keep him that way.”

“Do you bring him to school very often?” Cassandra asked. “I’ve never seen him.”

Carsen shrugged. “Really only after school sometimes, when it won’t cause a fuss. Mr. Judson used to bring Cal’s father Clarent to school all the time, but almost no one knew because he just slept under the desk all day.”

“Now that I know this is such an animal-friendly environment, I imagine things are really going to change,” Ezekiel said with a grin.

Carsen shot him a deep frown. “Don’t you dare,” he said immediately. “Cal is extremely well-trained. I won’t have you bringing just any random animal in here to make a mess of my books.”

After a few more minutes Baird badgered the students into getting back to work, reminding Ezekiel and Jacob that they were still in detention. All three were reluctant to part with the cheerful dog, but they did as they were told. Before long Jacob and Ezekiel got back to bickering about card catalogs vs. computers, an argument in which Mr. Carsen very quickly took Jacob’s side. After another three quarters of an hour, the students were dismissed. Cassandra grabbed the prop crown before leaving, figuring she’d drop it off in the drama room on her way to her locker.

Upstairs she and the boys parted ways in the foyer and she headed down the far hallway on her own. She was still puzzling as she walked over the difference between Jacob’s behaviour during the day – cold and grouchy – and after school when he was suddenly friendly and likable, if a little grumpy still. She rolled the crown in her hands, lost in thought and not really paying attention to where she was going; as a result she nearly walked right into the girl in the hallway.

Coming up just short of a collision, Cassandra looked up at the unfamiliar girl. She was taller than Cassandra, dark-skinned and athletic looking, with brown hair brushing her shoulders and a smirk on her face. Cassandra froze in place, and the other girl’s smirk only grew. She took the crown out of Cassandra’s hands and placed it lazily on her own head. “Hi,” she said.

“Um,” Cassandra started, trying not to get tripped up by how pretty the girl was. “I – I don’t think I know you?”

The girl shook her head. “I don’t go here,” she said, her tone a little superior. “I’m from Benwick.”

“Ah,” Cassandra answered. “And you’re here because…?”

“Mr. Dulaque had to drop in to talk to Mr. Judson and brought me along. Hey, by the way, you’re Cassandra Cillian, right?”

Cassandra stiffened, the back of her neck prickling. “Um, yeah, how did you-”

She was interrupted. “I’m Lamia,” the girl said, not bothering to offer a hand. “Mr. Dulaque wanted me to speak to you, actually. He heard about your academic record and wanted to offer you a spot at Benwick.”

--

Monday afternoon came after a quiet weekend, and the three of them found themselves in the basement with Colonel Baird and Mr. Carsen yet again. Cassandra bounced about on the balls of her feet, humming softly as she worked.

“What’s got you in such a chipper mood?” Jacob asked after a few minutes watching her out of the corner of his eye.

“She’s been like this since lunch,” Ezekiel told him. “You’d think someone kissed her.”

Cassandra rolled her eyes. “No, I just really like picture day,” she said, fiddling with the collar of her blouse as if she was about to be on camera again. “It always puts me in a good mood.”

“No one likes picture day,” Ezekiel challenged. “At best it’s some class you get to miss but boring as all hell, and more often than that it’s a pain in the ass.”

“Language,” Baird reminded him absently, not looking up from her work.

“It’s the only time my picture ever gets taken,” Cassandra explained, flipping the page on her notepad over to jot something down. “It’s fun because it’s different.”

Jacob frowned, and Ezekiel put down the book he was looking at to lean over the table. “That’s… an exaggeration, right?” he asked, concerned.

She glanced up and shook her head. “I’ve had my picture taken… twelve times for school, now, and once for a newspaper article about that STEM fair in grade nine.” Her fingers flexed as she did the mental count.

“And that’s… that’s all?” Ezekiel asked in disbelief. Cassandra nodded.

Ezekiel looked at Jacob for reassurance that that sounded crazy; Jacob could only raise his eyebrows and shrug. Frown deepening, Ezekiel stared down at the table for a second, then dug his phone out of his pocket and came around the table to where Cassandra stood.

“Oh,” she said in surprise as he tucked himself behind her shoulder and held his phone up in front of them. “What are you doing?”

“Selfie!” he announced, slapping on a smile. She just barely had time to do the same before he hit the shutter. “Not bad,” he said, showing her the photo. The two of them looked fine; in the corner, on Cassandra’s right, Jacob was scowling in Ezekiel’s direction. Cassandra giggled.

“There. Now you’ve got more than just school photos and the newspaper,” Ezekiel told her, still looking at his phone as he returned to his own spot. “Hashtag detention hashtag got caught hashtag I’ve had worse company.”

Baird, still doing her best to ignore him, rolled her eyes; Cassandra laughed again. Mr. Carsen, who had been reorganizing boxes against one wall to make later sorting just a little easier, glanced over for the first time in a while. “I don’t know much about detention, Mr. Jones, but I don’t think you’re supposed to be taking selfies here,” he pointed out. “Get back to work.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ezekiel muttered. “Please, man, I’m begging you, let me digitize all this.”

“Worry about the job you have,” Mr. Carsen responded, grunting as he shifted another heavy box.

Thirty minutes later, the three students emerged from the basement and looked out the nearby window to see that what had been a drizzle earlier in the day had turned into a lashing downpour. “Damn,” Ezekiel commented, eyebrows raised. “Good thing I already have a ride.” He glanced at his phone and added, “And they’re here. I’ll see you guys tomorrow.” Shrugging his jacket on, he headed out, he turning a corner into the foyer and pushing his way through the front doors.

Cassandra bit her lip as she looked outside. “I hope it lightens up soon,” she said, as much to herself as to Jacob.

“D’you have a way home?” he asked, looking at her sideways.

“Kind of,” she answered, glancing back at him. “I can take the bus back to my neighbourhood, but not from the stop across the road. I need to hike a few blocks to catch the right route.”

Jacob regarded her for a moment, then sighed, shoulders dropping a little. “You want a lift? I’ve got my truck.”

She looked at him in surprise. “Oh, no, I don’t want to inconvenience you,” she said.

“It’s not a big deal. ‘M in no rush to get home,” he told her.

Cassandra looked into Jacob’s eyes for a second, wondering if there was something there she recognized. Then, self-consciously, she answered, “Maybe you could just take me to the bus stop? That way I’m not putting you out too much.”

“Deal,” he said with a nod.

“Okay. I just have to go back to my locker first.”

“Me too. I’ll meet you at the doors.”

Shortly the two of them darted out into the parking lot, coats shrugged up over their heads. In spite of the rain, Jacob went to open the passenger-side door of the old pickup for her before climbing in himself. He was quick to start the engine and flick on the windshield wipers, letting them do their work for a moment while Cassandra wiped the water off her knees.

“Where to?” he asked.

“Oak and Sterling, please,” she replied.

He nodded and set off. For a few minutes they drove in silence, the engine rumbling loudly to fill the space. She thought about asking him why he was so much friendlier after school than during the day, but she had a feeling that it was too early yet to get an answer to that. Before long they reached her stop, and he pulled over to let her out.

“Thanks,” she said earnestly. “I really appreciate it.”

“No problem,” he told her. “You won’t be waitin’ too long, I hope?”

She glanced at the clock on his dashboard and shook her head. “Five minutes, tops. And there’s a shelter.”

“Okay.” He watched her reach for the door, and as she opened it, he said, “Cassie.” She looked up again, and he smiled, a little self-consciously. “I’m glad you like picture day so much. It’s nice for you, that something most of us think of as a chore can be fun.” There it was again, something in his eyes that she almost knew, something he wasn’t quite saying. She smiled brightly.

“Thanks, Jacob.” She paused, then added, “I like working with you. I wasn’t sure at first, but you’re a really nice guy.” Pulling her jacket over her head again, she hopped out.

Jacob watched her for a moment, expression thoughtful, a hint of a smile pulling on one corner of his mouth.

--

On Wednesday afternoon, Cassandra stood by the school’s front doors, swaying slightly. Her hands were clasped nervously. She had eaten fast, told Ezekiel she had an appointment, and slipped out of the cafeteria.

Thankfully, she didn’t have to wait long. Lamia strode up to the doors and let herself in. “How are you, Cassandra?” she asked smoothly, and Cassandra was struck again by how intimidatingly attractive the older girl was.

“I-I’m fine,” Cassandra said quickly. “And you?”

“I’m doing well,” Lamia answered, her mischievous smile growing. It wasn’t like Ezekiel’s mischievous smile, Cassandra thought – there was something to Lamia’s that was a little less playful, a little more dangerous. “Shall we, then?” She turned and pushed back through the glass doors, Cassandra following close behind.

They were crossing the brick-paved entry to the school towards the parking lot when Jacob appeared, probably coming from his truck, Cassandra assumed. She went to wave, then paused, remembering that he still didn’t really talk to her during the day. This time, however, when he noticed her, he also noticed Lamia and did a double-take, stopping in his tracks.

“Oh!” Lamia said, sounding delighted to see him, albeit not a good kind of delighted. “Jacob Stone! Fancy meeting you here!”

He frowned deeply. Not responding to Lamia, he turned to look at Cassandra. “What’re you doin’ with her?

“Oh, um,” Cassandra started quickly, but Lamia interrupted, taking another step towards Jacob.

“Well, I haven’t seen you in a while,” she said, her voice teasing. “God, look at you. You’ve let yourself go, haven’t you?”

Cassandra furrowed her brow, puzzled. Not that she had known him before a few weeks ago, but Jacob certainly wasn’t sloppy-looking, nor, as far as she could tell, any worse for wear than he’d been in past years. Jacob still didn’t respond to Lamia, his expression only darkening further.

“I can’t believe you quit football,” Lamia continued. “You had such promise. And now look at you. What a slob! It’s a crime to waste talent like that, really.” She sighed dramatically. “I guess you just didn’t have what it takes to follow through on all that, hm? What a shame.

Jacob’s gaze flicked to Cassandra again, who was very confused by the exchange. Noticing his glance, she floundered. She wasn’t used to confrontation like this. Her silence drew out a moment too long, and Jacob grunted in frustration and turned back towards the school, stalking off with his hands shoved into the pockets of his grubby leather jacket.

“Um-!” Cassandra made to turn after him, worried, but Lamia put a hand on her arm.

“Come on, we should get moving. They’re expecting you,” she said, smiling just a little too smugly. Then she pulled a worried Cassandra over towards an SUV that was idling over in the bus pickup area.

--

Cassandra had heard stories about the facilities at Benwick, but they almost didn’t do the place justice. A huge institution just beyond what qualified as ‘uptown,’ it had an enormous property of well-kept fields and tracks. The building was a big, modern-looking thing, somehow resembling – to Cassandra – a medieval castle if it had been designed by spotless Scandinavian minimalists. Everything seemed to be smooth and white, or else made entirely of glass to let the sunlight pour in. Their science labs were top-of-the-line, their computers were state-of-the-art, the swimming pool – swimming pool! – was Olympic-sized. Every department in the school had a bigger budget of its own than Fisher High must have for their entire year, Cassandra thought, running a few quick calculations in her head. She cut herself off, not wanting to grow too distracted while she had things to pay attention to.

“This is my favourite gym,” Lamia was telling her, the last stop on their twenty-minute tour. “They put it in last year. It is so much better to play in than those other two.” Cassandra – who had gathered by now that Lamia was an accomplished athlete – could tell no difference between this gym and the others, except that it was somehow even bigger.

Lamia glanced at a clock on the wall as she led Cassandra back into the wide hallway. “Mr. Dulaque should be out of his meeting by now. Let’s go down to his office and check, shall we?” Cassandra blinked, glancing back at the clock herself. According to her phone, it was right. That was new. No single clock at Fisher High could be depended upon for total accuracy – it was usually best to check at least three of them and average them out.

Mr. Dulaque’s office was very ornately and luxuriously furnished, especially in comparison to the rest of the school. Dark woods, rich fabrics, and vintage hardcovers filled the room. The principal was standing over a large decorative globe, spinning it thoughtfully, when the secretary let the two girls in.

“Ah,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. He was an older gentleman, tall and dignified and even more intimidating than Lamia was, though in a different way. “You must be Cassandra Cillian. Take a seat,” he offered.

She glanced at the chairs, all heavy wood and plush cushions, and perched gingerly on the edge of one of them. Lamia dropped into the one next to her, lounging comfortably. Dulaque crossed the carpet and took a seat at his elaborately-carved mahogany desk, folding his hands and facing the girls with a mild smile on his face.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he told Cassandra. “I’ve heard a great deal about your academic achievements.”

Cassandra licked her lips, uncertain. “I’m sorry, sir, I’m just curious – who from?”

“Oh, a variety of folks,” he assured her. “I happen to be acquaintances with a few people from the Northwest Science Expo, among others.”

A vague answer. Cassandra shifted in her seat, trying not to think about how unhappy she’d been during her last science fair circuit. “I see.”

Mr. Dulaque smiled a little more, apparently detecting her discomfort. “Miss Cillian, we would love to have a student of your talents at Benwick. And we’re prepared to offer you a scholarship to attend. You could only be a boon to this institution.”

“I’m…” Cassandra paused, trying to figure out how to respond to that. “I mean, I’m perfectly happy at Fisher. I don’t know that a transfer is the right thing for me right now.”

“I feel strongly that it would be to your benefit,” Mr. Dulaque countered. “And I can offer you incentive. As I’m sure you’ve begun to see from your tour with Lamia, we have far better programs here at Benwick than you can get anywhere else in Oregon, or in fact most of the Pacific Northwest, whether you want to pursue science or something else. And we have a top-notch accommodations team that can work with you to find the absolute best ways to balance your academics with your health situation.”

Cassandra bristled slightly, always unnerved to discover that someone else knew about her tumour without her having told them, but this time she decided to skip asking how he knew. “I’ve had no particular trouble with that at Fisher. And there’s an annual tumour research fundraiser at our school that I really care about, too.”

“We’ll hold a bigger one,” Mr. Dulaque said immediately. “And the school will match all donations. I assure you, Miss Cillian, we can offer you more than Fisher High can in any way. I think Benwick would be a great fit for you.”

That offer was, at least, enough to give her pause. More funding meant more and better research and that wasn’t something that only benefitted her – that could do a lot of people a lot of good. She’d faced more than just her own illness since she was diagnosed. She’d been to the support groups, knew other kids who were terminal. She wouldn’t wish this on her worst enemy. Any kind of progress could change lives – save lives.

“I… I don’t know,” she answered, slowly this time. Feeling like she had to excuse her indecision, she added, “It’s just a very big change.”

“Of course,” Mr. Dulaque said. Turning to Lamia, he suggested, “Maybe we could give her a more extensive tour sometime soon? I know she has to get back to Fisher High, but I’m certain that an afternoon spent with us would be eye-opening.” He glanced at Cassandra again. “What do you think?”

“Um, I guess I could do that,” Cassandra answered. “What did you have in mind?”

“Why don’t I call your principal this afternoon and set something up for next week?” Mr. Dulaque offered. “Lamia can come pick you up at lunch hour again, and we’ll have you excused from your afternoon classes so that you can spend a little more time with us.”

“Well… okay,” Cassandra said with a nod. “Yeah, I wouldn’t mind that.”

“Sounds great,” Lamia said, hopping readily out of her chair. She looked at Cassandra and nodded towards the door, and Cassandra almost wondered if the older girl even winked at her. Flustered, she got to her feet.

“Lovely to chat, Miss Cillian,” Mr. Dulaque said, reaching across the desk to shake her hand. “I’m so glad you’re considering our offer. I’ll try to make arrangements with Mr. Jenkins for Monday, how does that sound?”

“Sure, I think that’s fine. It’s all, um, very generous of you,” Cassandra responded. “It was nice to meet you.” Then, still nervous, she followed Lamia out the door and back upstairs.

Lamia and Cassandra were taken back to Fisher High by the driver in the SUV, who Cassandra had to assume worked for the school, even though that seemed outrageous. Most of the drive she was distracted chatting with Lamia, who at this point she could swear was outright flirting with her. This was completely baffling, frankly, but she didn’t entirely mind.

“You would do so well at Benwick, Cassandra,” Lamia was saying, touching Cassandra’s wrist lightly. “I can tell Fisher High is only holding you back. With all of the opportunities at Benwick, you could do so much.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Cassandra answered, clearing her throat and glancing down at her lap. “I’ve slowed down on a lot of things for… well, for a lot of reasons.”

The SUV dropped her off out front and Cassandra returned just in time to slip into her next class before the bell. That lunch had seemed ridiculously long, and there was a lot running through her head now. She spent much of the afternoon mulling over what she had seen and what Lamia and Mr. Dulaque had offered her.

In the basement after school, Jacob didn’t seem to talk to her much, and she wondered if the relationship between him and Lamia was really that bad. Clearly there was history there she wasn’t privy to. Despite his silence, though, he still readily unpacked boxes for her, putting aside anything he deemed even remotely smelly.

--

“Last day of detention?” Cassandra asked Ezekiel as they met outside the basement door on Thursday afternoon. To her surprise, he merely grimaced.

“Well, it should have been,” he answered.

She crossed her arms. “What did you do?” she asked, quirking an eyebrow. “Really, Ezekiel, it’s only been a week.”

“Got caught snagging some test answers,” he admitted. “In my defense, it was a very unfair test.”

“Weren’t you just bragging to me two days ago about how you never get caught?” she hassled him. “What’s all this about?”

“Streak of bad luck?” he suggested with a shrug.

“You can’t depend entirely on luck in life, Ezekiel,” she admonished him, laughing a little.

“I don’t know. I kind of like it,” he told her. “Anyway, I got two more weeks of detention for that, so you’ll be seeing more of me. I guess there’s worse company though.”

Jacob, coming down the hall toward them, cursed as he overheard that. “Goddamnit, do I have to keep puttin’ up with you?”

“What? Shouldn’t you be out of here after today?” Ezekiel asked.

Jacob pursed his lips in irritation, then shook his head. “Another week. Baird caught wind that I was going to fight Tim Dawkins.”

“Were you?” Cassandra asked, startled. Jacob was tough, but Tim Dawkins was a giant.

Jacob glanced at her, frowning slightly, then seemed to decide it was okay to talk to her today. “I dunno. I was definitely thinkin’ about it,” he confessed with a shrug. “Anyway, Baird figured she’d nip that in the bud, whether I’d made a decision or not. ‘Preventative measures,’ she called it. Think she’s tryin’ the hardass approach.”

“Is it working?” Colonel Baird asked, emerging from a nearby door. Jacob jumped slightly, and Ezekiel and Cassandra turned away to hide their amusement.

Cassandra planted herself between Jacob and Ezekiel at their table today, citing efficiency given the roles they had started to settle into – Jacob unpacking boxes, Cassandra checking books against index cards, Ezekiel repacking sorted material. In actuality, she was a little anxious after Jacob had been silent yesterday and thought she’d feel more comfortable next to Ezekiel if he kept it up again. To her pleasant surprise, though, Jacob seemed to have cooled off at least somewhat. He was still keeping a little distance, but at least he was talking to her.

Halfway through their hour, he nudged her shoulder and held out a folded piece of paper, grinning.

“What is this?” she asked, taking it from him.

“Have a look,” he told her with a nod.

She unfolded the page, skimmed a few lines of messily handwritten text, and then looked up at him in confusion. “It was in one o’ the books,” he said, tapping a hardcover in front of him.

Understanding dawning on her face, she looked back at the page, her expression shifting as she tried to settle amongst a variety of conflicting emotions. “We really shouldn’t be looking at this,” she said, not quite convincingly.

“What is it?” Ezekiel asked, his curiosity piqued.

“I don’t know,” Cassandra said, more to Jacob than Ezekiel. “I feel like we should get rid of this. You know, out of respect. It’s, um… clearly very personal.”

Impatient, Ezekiel snatched it out of her hand and danced a few steps back as she protested. “A love note!” he observed delightedly. His grin only grew as he scanned the page. “Oh, boy, and he’s really going for it, damn.” Glancing at the names at the top and bottom, he said, “I know Rachel, but I don’t think I’ve met Calum.”

“He’s not especially worth meetin’,” Jacob said, still entertained. “Kind of boring. Kind of obnoxious. Clearly fond of the purple prose.”

“Oh, don’t be mean!” Cassandra admonished, although clearly she was a bit amused as well. “Putting yourself out there like that is really hard! And obviously she rejected him, so!”

“All right, that’s enough of that,” Colonel Baird said, rounding the table and taking the paper from Ezekiel’s hands. “Cassandra’s right, this is very personal. It’s not for us to see.” On her way across the room towards the recycling bin, she happened to glance down at the page, and the three students watched as she worked hard to swallow her simultaneous amusement and concern. Jacob exchanged another grin with Cassandra before turning back to his work.

--

By Monday afternoon Cassandra had worked herself into a considerable bout of anxiety over her next trip to Benwick. Thursday and Friday had been good days, where she’d found herself getting along really well with Ezekiel and Jacob after school. She really liked the feeling of having friends again and spending time with people she actively liked. Ezekiel had continued to spend his lunches with her – once again, she had just told him in vague terms that she had an appointment – and she felt like she was really getting to know him. It was lovely, she couldn’t deny.

Lamia came to pick her up again and, for the second time in less than a week, Cassandra was flustered to realize she was being flirted with again. Even with the vague feeling that Lamia’s motives might not be entirely genuine, it was hard not to be flattered. After all, the girl was stunning. And, Cassandra soon realized, she was funny too – the redhead found herself giggling away at Lamia’s jokes as they drove uptown towards Benwick.

Mr. Dulaque had arranged for various classrooms to be kept empty and teachers to be made available so that Cassandra could learn more about the programs available at Benwick. She spent time – Lamia alongside her the whole afternoon – with a math teacher, an English teacher, one of the foreign languages teachers, a history teacher. The most time was left at the end of the day for her to visit with Benwick’s best science teacher in the best science lab, generally used as a biology classroom.

Mr. Bors was old and a little crusty and clearly very smart, but as he showed Cassandra around the high-tech biology lab and talked about their programs, she began to feel like he had a distinctly superior air about him. He knew he was a genius, and running the best program in their corner of the nation, and shaping the minds of some of Oregon’s brightest – and richest, Cassandra felt it was worth noting – students, and he had no trouble letting it all go to his head. She found it a little distasteful.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, as she was toured around and shown the equipment and talked to about The Future, a second train of thought was running. It kept comparing the circumstances at Benwick with those at Fisher. She’d be lying if she said some of the tools and opportunities this presented didn’t raise her pulse (up to about 92 beats per minute) but the excitement was tempered by the wounds still sore from her last science fair season. Her parents had pushed so hard that part of her never wanted to go near another experiment. And while it was true that Fisher’s science department didn’t have a third of the resources Benwick’s did, she loved her teachers. Sure, none of them held the three PhDs that Bors did, but they were down-to-earth and personable and more excited to learn than to show off.

That subterranean train of thought (a subway of thought! How cute!) began to drift back to Mr. Dulaque’s offers. That big fundraiser was still weighing on her. But, then… if he was offering to start it, that meant there wasn’t anything like that at Benwick yet. Did she really want a fundraiser started in her honour? Surely her privacy could be protected if that was her preference, but she’d still know she was the reason. And did she like the idea that the school ran the fundraiser just in order to recruit her, rather than any genuine desire to affect change? Did it matter, in the end, the intent behind the money, if it all went to the same cause?

She glanced at a clock and noticed that it was past the end of Fisher High’s school day. Ezekiel and Jacob would be down in the basement with Colonel Baird and Mr. Carsen already, halfway through their mandatory hour of service. Now there was another snag. The connections were recent, but they seemed important. Cassandra barely knew Ezekiel yet, but she sensed a sort of kinship with him, and was really excited to spend more time with him. He’d been kind to her so far, and it had been a long time since her last good friendship. And Jacob… she still hadn’t figured him out just yet, but she had a feeling there was a lot below the grumpy outer layer, and that deeper Jacob was both appealing and intriguing. She hoped to explore that further, if she could.

Before she knew it, a bell startled Cassandra out of both her subway of thought and her attention to Mr. Bors. He glanced up and frowned. “Mm. End of day. I’m sorry, Miss Cillian, I have an important department meeting to get to. I do hope I’ve helped to convince you, though. You’d be such a strong addition to our school.” He nodded to her and set off.

Lamia led Cassandra out of the room and they moved slowly down the hall, surrounded by the traffic of students rushing to get out of the school. Lamia waited until the rush died down to speak, leaving Cassandra feeling very awkward.

Finally the halls were quiet again, and Lamia turned to Cassandra, leaning in and smiling her slightly-dangerous smile. “So what’re you thinking?” she asked. “I think the choice is pretty obvious, myself. You’d clearly do well here with us. And with me.” Her smile grew.

Cassandra bit her lip, flustered yet again by the girl’s behaviour. “I, um…” Blinking and glancing down, she took a deep breath. “You know, this school seems really impressive. It’s true you have… a lot to offer. Benwick, I mean.” She screwed her eyes shut, trying to plan out her next sentence so as not to embarrass herself. “That is, you know… I think in another life you and I might’ve been great friends, and all. But I’m starting to carve out a bit of a space of my own at Fisher High recently, and that means a lot to me.”

She met Lamia’s eye again. The girl leaned back with a sigh and an eyeroll, her friendliness disappeared. “God, I’ve been so nice to you for like a week and a half,” she muttered. “This is exhausting.” Then she reached behind herself and opened a door, her other hand grabbing a startled Cassandra by the shoulder.

“What-?” Cassandra managed to squeak in alarm.

“Later, loser,” Lamia said, shoving Cassandra through the door and slamming it shut, leaving her in the dark. An unnerving little click followed, and a moment later Cassandra’s suspicions were confirmed when she urgently jiggled the handle, to no avail.

“What kind of door locks from the hall side and not the inside?” she squawked in alarm. Turning around and putting her back against the door, she pulled her phone out of the folds of her skirt and woke it up, shining the light around her. She was trapped inside a small janitor’s closet.

For a few moments she pounded on the door and shouted, but there was no response. Willing herself not to panic, she sat down on a stepstool and looked at her phone again. The battery was dangerously low, and she moaned.

“Okay. Okay. This is fine,” she told herself. She took a few deep breaths. Then she opened her text app, stared for a moment at the available names, and selected Ezekiel.

She knew she was in a janitor’s closet. She knew she was on the second floor of the north wing of Benwick. She knew the door was locked and no one was coming to help her right now.

She managed to shoot off one text to Ezekiel before her phone died.