As she stepped onto the bus with suitcase and owl cage in hand, Anna Chu looked behind her one last time at her stern-faced father and her smiling mother. “Bye,” she said, already homesick, though she hadn’t even left yet.
Her mother gave her a soft “goodbye, Anna” in return, and waved to her, while her father just nodded and said, “Be sure not to get into trouble.”
As Anna turned around and ascended the few steps toward the clearly exhausted bus driver, Mrs. Speaks, thoughts of leaving her home behind for another few months flashed through her head, and how it should be perfectly normal. This had been happening for four years now – well, not the bus part. This time around, the train system was completely inactive due to her best friend’s father, an immensely powerful Dark wizard named Abraham Thorn, attacking the places where the trains passed underground. And by “underground”, Anna knew that to mean the Lands Below, the entrance to which the Confederation derived their immense power.
The aboveground method (coupled with judicious use of a Time-Turner on Mrs. Speaks’ part) was really the only option for faraway students who were averse to Muggle transportation methods to get to Charmbridge Academy (and Anna’s father certainly was averse to Muggle transportation).
It was a shame, Anna thought as she walked morosely to a booth inside the magically-expanded bus interior and set Jingwei’s cage on the table, that she didn’t know how to Apparate yet. She did know the theory, but there was a whole lot of practice that went into learning, if you didn’t want to Splinch yourself, or worse. She’d heard some horror stories from other Charmbridge students.
The bus wrenched away from the gate of Little Wuyi with a loud sputtering of the engine, towards the Bay Bridge and the Automagicka, and Anna almost laughed at herself as the bus got moving and a rumbling rose up through her feet. Of course. Alex. For some reason, it always came back to her best friend, Alexandra Quick. As Anna sat down by herself, listening to the sound of the engine echoing around the spacious double-decker furnishings, she thought of how she had been thinking all summer about Alexandra.
There was not a day that went by that she didn’t worry about how Alex was doing without a wand (it’d been snapped when she fought John Manuelito in the Charmbridge basements last years), or what Alex would do without Anna there (the more she thought about it, the more she realised that her own presence caused Alex to show more restraint, even though it did sound a bit egotistical), or when she’d see Alex again, if ever. This last notion was made even more tenuous to think about when she considered that Alex only had about six years to live, by the terms of the bargain she had made with the Generous¬ Ones of the Lands Below.
Last year, however, Anna, David, and the Pritchard twins had made a genuine effort to find a way for Alexandra to somehow get out of the bargain, or at least make the limited years she had left more livable with the Confederation breathing down her neck.
They’d also managed, in between doing their citizenship projects, to find out one of the reasons that Abraham Thorn was so opposed to the Confederation’s existence: his daughter Claudia (whom Alexandra had believed for most of her life was her mother, until last Christmas) had been magically made sterile by the Governor-General of the Confederation about a decade before Alex was born. Anna had painstakingly learned how to copy her father’s official seal, and they had owled the Confederation records offices with a request for information. She was still scared to death of her father finding out about that little bit of crime coming from his otherwise pure and unsullied daughter.
But it wasn’t the time to think about that. Anna was going off to school; her father had things to attend to, being a Congressman and all, and he hopefully wasn’t going to find out anyway.
Then again, it was a miracle that she’d been allowed to go back to Charmbridge at all, Anna thought morosely. It was only due to Alex’s expulsion that her father had even considered it.
She stared out the window as the blue-black waters of the San Francisco Bay receded behind her; the bus glided smoothly between the Muggle cars on the east end of the Bay Bridge, and turned gently towards an exit that only those with magic could see – a trollbooth for paying the fare for the Automagicka. Apparently Mrs. Speaks had an exemption of some sort, because the chain normally blocking the way to the magical freeway vanished in a puff of steam, and the bus drove through.
I might as well just waste time until someone interesting gets on, she decided, and she reached below her seat for the smaller of her two suitcases to extract a book from within. It was a Muggle “science fiction” novel called At The Seventh Level, and she had happened upon it while in a used book shop in the Mission District. It drew upon many Muggle cultural references and idioms, and despite her Muggle mother, Anna had never really been interested in non-wizarding literature before (preferring magical authors like Melchior Anderson and Belinda Raditsky). There wasn’t much of a frame of reference for her to go by; nonetheless, it was interesting enough so far.
Not even a book, though, would compensate for the feeling of emptiness that had taken Alex’s place as her constant companion.
In reading, Anna had fallen asleep on the table in front of her. The book lay open in front of her – or rather, stuck to the side of her face. She had been so tired that she didn’t even noticed when her eyes were gradually closing, and now she was at Charmbridge, and Jingwei was hooting at her. Along with all the rest of the students that Mrs. Speaks had to transport from Alta California and the Oregon Territory. There were a pair of loud girls upstairs, laughing and mocking something in a celebrity gossip magazine, she didn’t know what – it was a miracle that she’d managed to wake up at the end of her trip rather than in the middle.
Anna had been awoken by the noise and bustle of people getting their luggage off the racks in the back of the bus and then plonking them down on the worn hardwood floor. She looked up, peeling the pages of the old beaten-up paperback off her sweaty, tired face, and decided to wait until most of the rest had alighted. It would be less of a hassle, and people wouldn’t talk to her or stare.
The noise gradually quieted down somewhat, and Anna finally slid out from the booth and pulled her suitcases out of the seat beside where she’d sat. Trudging up to the front of the bus under the load of many textbooks and changes of clothes and a now very big great horned owl, she thanked Mrs. Speaks for hauling her and the others on the bus all the way across the country – to which Mrs. Speaks, with a bleary-eyed look at Anna, replied, “It’s my job,” and waved her off the bus onto the grassy area which preceded the Invisible Bridge.
The Invisible Bridge did not vanish suddenly under Anna’s feet, nor did a morass of bloodthirsty crows come out and nearly tear her apart. In fact, it was a rather boring trip across, as trips across the Invisible Bridge went.
Having entered the school grounds and stepped through the front doors of Charmbridge Academy, Anna made her slow way to the girls’ dorms in Delta Delta Kappa Tau. A moment before she pushed open the door to the room that had been hers for the past four years, she caught herself subconsciously expecting to wait for Alex to arrive. It wasn’t yet dinnertime – in fact, it was hardly even four o’clock yet. On a normal start to a year, she and Alex would go down to dinner in the cafeteria together, probably with Constance and Forbearance, or perhaps with David. They’d be chatting about what kind of trouble Alex would get into this year, whether it’d be a week before she saw her name on the notice board, how hard each of their classes were in comparison to the others’.
But no year was truly ever normal, and this year was going to be even more abnormal than past years. Mostly because Alex wasn’t going here anymore. Anna chastised herself mentally – of course Alex isn’t here, she let a crazy baby mummy onto the grounds and brought a murderer with it, who unleashed an evil demon from the Lands Beyond on the whole school – but still, it was weird. And it was going to stay weird all year.
That was, if school even lasted all year; what shifted restlessly in the back of Anna’s churning mind was the fear that Charmbridge would be next on Abraham Thorn’s target list; after all, he’d gone after Baleswood Academy and the New Amsterdam School the previous year.
There was nothing she could do about any of this. She would tire Jingwei out very quickly if she tried to keep in contact with Alex as often as she wanted to, and there was no Floo communication allowed in Charmbridge. There wasn’t really a witching equivalent of the Muggle e-mail system; someone should really invent one, she thought. It’d be really useful in situations like these. Anna took off her shoes, placed them neatly beside the bedpost at her feet, then lay down and stretched her legs to get rid of the soreness that came with being on a bus too long. She stared up at the ceiling for a moment, before closing her eyes and rubbing her face with her hands.
Anna desperately wanted to talk to her best friend, even though it was next to impossible. Just for the sake of talking to her. Alexandra had stuck by her through thick and thin over the past four years, made Anna grow a spine, and it was really awful that she wasn’t coming back for this year or any years after this. She glanced across the room and noticed that somebody had forgotten to remove the bed there. Perhaps it was just to spite her, to make her relive all the memories that she had of Alex.
Honestly, the next best option was to talk to Constance and Forbearance, because they’d seen Alex over the summer at the Jubilee – Anna hadn’t been able to convince her parents that the Jubilee was a necessary thing for her to be at – and so she’d probably be able to ask them about Alex.
However, it was painful having to ask somebody else (even if they were the twin definitions of trustworthiness) what they’d seen of Alexandra. Anna supposed this was partly because she felt guilty that she herself hadn’t been keeping up with Alexandra very much, but another part was the stuff that’d been circling through her brain all summer about her best friend. There were feelings she’d been having for a long time, and she couldn’t deny that they were very strong, but she didn’t know what would happen if she voiced these thoughts aloud. Anna even struggled to think about them without feeling awful about it.
Maybe C&F would know what to do.