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There is a red dot in the middle of my index finger. It stings like crazy. Did the door just take my blood sample?
“Sorry, Ingrid. I should have warned you. Standard policy,” Ms. Agailya says as she approaches the doors. “We take a blood sample from each new student for security purposes. It’s used to formulate your key card, which allows you to access your permanent residence, your classes, and the recreational facilities.”
This sounds highly illegal to me. “But how? I just touched the door. Is it going to take my parents’ blood samples too if they touch the door?”
“We have some of the most brilliant minds here at Sparkstone. The software scans each fingerprint, determines its relation to a current student, professor, or other employee, and allows him or her to enter.”
“I see.” My finger has stopped stinging, but I’m afraid to go inside. “But the voice said DNA match confirmed. So you must have already had my DNA on file.”
“Yes, well.” Her pale face colours. “Our scouts are quite thorough when researching potential students. But we have to make sure…”
“Ms. Agailya? Would you mind taking this?” Mum calls from behind the car. She sounds out of breath as she lugs one of my suitcases from the trunk.
“You may go inside, Ingrid. We’ll be right behind you,” Ms. Agailya says.
When she turns around, I bunch up the fabric of my sleeves into my right hand and open the door. No alarms sound, and the door opens easily. Maybe the security system can read my DNA through my clothes. I shudder. Hopefully that’s the last of the creepiness in this town.
I’m in a lobby. There’s a set of stairs immediately to my right, and a security desk to the left. It’s occupied by another tubby guard, wearing an orange construction vest, who looks just as disinterested in protecting the school as the guard at the gate. He lifts his eyes from the Canadian Living magazine, looks me up and down, and then gets up from his chair. He grabs a black box from the desk, tucks it and the magazine under his arm, and disappears up the stairs. I keep a careful eye on him as he ascends. The ceiling is so high on this floor that I can see part of a hallway on the second floor. There are another few steps in front of me, leading down into a reception area. I smell bacon and eggs, and my stomach growls. The cafeteria must be somewhere close by.
Out the door windows, I see Mum and Dad struggling with my suitcases. I should go help them.
Light footsteps descend the steps beside me and stop suddenly. “No . . .”
I frown and turn around. Before me is a girl, about my age, dressed in green pyjama pants, a long T-shirt, and a white housecoat. Her curly blonde hair poofs out from her freckled, flushed face, and she’s a bit out of breath. Her gaze bores into mine; she’s staring at me as if she knows me.
“Hello,” I say, setting my harp case down carefully on the tiled floor.
The girl parts her lips to speak, but nothing comes out.
“Do you . . . do you need help?” It seems like a stupid thing to ask, but I don’t know what to make of her behaviour.
After a minute, the girl shakes her head of her intense stare and says, “Sorry. I just . . . I just woke up.” She grins, showing off the dimples on either side of her mouth. She runs her fingers through her curls to straighten them, but they just twist and frizz back as they were. “I was just makin’ sure you felt welcome. My first day, I didn’t have anyone. Well, except Misty I guess.” She laughs a little. Her voice is filled with a Texas twang. “Are you needin’ any help with your bags?”
“I think we’ve got them, thanks.” I lengthen the handle of the suitcase again. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Sunni. Sunni Harris.”
She grins again, and there’s so much warmth in it that I can almost smell fresh country grass and homemade pies and cookies.
“I’m Ingrid,” I say.
“You . . . know?”
Sunni bites her lip as embarrassment colours her freckled face. “Well . . . I guess, yeah, I do know. I saw your file in Ms. Agailya’s office when I was in there, and she deals a lot with . . .”
She trails off as Dad, holding a bag, opens the door and holds it open for Mum and Ms. Agailya. Mum wheels in another large suitcase while Ms. Agailya carries a small travel bag. Dad manages to slip inside before the door closes on him completely.
“Ingrid, honey, your keyboard is still in the car. I’ll go back and get it,” Dad says as he sets one of my suitcases down.
“You need any help?” I ask.
“No, I’ll be right back.”
Dad leaves and Ms. Agailya is about to go up the steps when she notices Sunni gripping the stair railing as if her legs are about to give out.
“Sunni Harris,” Ms. Agailya says, looking surprised. “You’re out here in your pyjamas. Is anything the matter?”
“Oh . . . no,” Sunni replies. She’s got a sheepish look on her face, and if I were her, I’d be embarrassed. “Just saw her comin’ in and thought I’d like to say hello, is all. I can show Ingrid to her room, if you’re busy, Ms. Agailya.”
“No, Sunni, you don’t have to worry about that. Thank you, though. Breakfast ends in a half hour. You might want to hurry or you’ll miss it.”
Sunni curls her hands and sticks them in her armpits, for warmth. “I already ate, actually.”
“Good. Ingrid, we shouldn’t keep Sunni from her morning routine.” She starts up the stairs.
Mum follows her, and I give Sunni one last smile. “It was nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, same to you,” Sunni says. “Look, one thing before you go.” Her gaze flickers up to Mum and Ms. Agailya, who are disappearing down the second-floor hallway, and to Dad, who is inching closer to the door with my keyboard carried across his shoulder, and then settles on me again. “Don’t eat the food, if you can help it.”
I frown. “Is it really that bad?”
Her cheeriness has been replaced with the solemnity of someone who has seen the darker face of the world. “Yeah. There’s this café down the road. Eat there, it’s . . . it’s still not great, but it’s better than everythin’ you can eat here.”
I don’t want to say so, but I’m pretty sure Dad already bought the meal plan. You have to, if you’re going to live in residence. And if you’re attending Sparkstone University, you have to live in residence.
“I’m sure I’ll get along fine,” I say.
Sunni’s smile is grim. “You probably will, yeah.”
Something in Sunni’s green eyes glue me in place. There are words she can’t say swirling around in her irises. A plea: please, listen to me. I place a firm foot on the step. I have to go. Mum and Ms. Agailya are already out of sight and I don’t want to get lost on the first day.
The door opens a crack. Dad is trying to get in with the keyboard. I hold the door as he strolls inside unsteadily, and again, refuses my offer to help. He nods a hello to Sunni on his way up the stairs.
“It was nice to meet you,” I say to Sunni, lifting my hand in an awkward wave. “I’ll see you later?”
“You count on it.” Her smile is more genuine, more relaxed now.
I pick up my harp case and race up the stairs after my parents and Ms. Agailya. I turn around to catch a glimpse of Sunni again but she’s already gone. Despite her weird preferences about the school’s food, I can see her being my first friend. Maybe there’s a place for me here after all.
There’s a hallway off to the left, and my parents are at the end of it, waiting. The carpet floor is worn, the lights hanging on the wall are dim, and there are faint scratches on the walls, as if someone had dragged her fingernails across the panelling. I can’t help but picture some poor student being pulled against her will to her room. University dorms are closet spaces at best. I prepare myself for the worst.
“My apologies, Ingrid,” Ms. Agailya says as she produces a key from her breast pocket. “My staff are not yet finished preparing your room, as we didn’t know your individual tastes. This room is only temporary.”
The key clicks sharply in the lock and the door opens, revealing an outdated hotel room. Flowery wallpaper, flowery bedspread, dark green carpet. It’s old, but it doesn’t matter because it’s huge. Twice the size of my bedroom at home, at least. The bed is on the back wall and it has a circular mattress. I’ve never slept on a bed shaped like a circle before. Everything looks slightly used—the four-drawer, wide oak dresser over to the left by the bathroom door, the scratched, bruised nightstand to the right of the bed, and the long, heavy, off-white curtains on the back window—but nothing smells old or musty. It’s antique. I don’t want to touch anything for fear of breaking something.
“This is only a temporary room?” I ask in disbelief.
“Yes. Again, my apologies,” Ms. Agailya says. She hands me a spare key from her pocket. “Keep it safe. There’s a charge for a replacement key if you lose it.”
I think it’s strange that a high-tech school has physical keys for its doors, but if they didn’t have my blood to make into a key card in the first place, I guess the key is necessary.
Dad whistles as he drops one of my suitcases onto the thick carpet. “Maybe we should get a room here. What do you say to that, Ingrid?”
“Oh, Craig, stop,” Mum says, hitting him playfully on the arm.
I flop backwards onto my new bed and immediately melt into the mattress. I don’t think I’ve ever lain on something so comfy. Sleep will come easily for me tonight. My eyes already feel heavy. “Do I have classes today?”
“Yes. After you’re settled, we’ll go to the registrar and sort out your major.”
“Ugh,” I say, rolling over and basking in the softness of the bed. “I could fall asleep right now!”
Dad chuckles as Mum checks out the room, probably inspecting it for cleanliness. I breathe in the scent of the quilt. It smells as fresh as the day the artisan put the finishing stitches in its intricate twirling-flower design. Large room, beautiful campus—this school has money. More money than any other university in Canada, maybe in all of North America. This is luxury I could get used to.
“Ms. Agailya? Ms Agailya!”
A young man’s voice—thick with a British accent of some kind—echoes through the hallway. He scampers into the room: six-foot-one, lanky build, cropped curly dark hair. He sports a leather jacket that looks as if it’s seen more than its share of action. I sit up instantly and mind my skirt and fix my hair. Guys in leather jackets can’t be ignored, under any circumstances. He smiles at me and his eyes are kind, and fiercely green. My grin betrays my pounding heart.
His gaze slides to my harp case, lying against the wall. He jerks his thumb at it. “You’re a musician?”
The first thing out of my mouth? “I like your leather jacket.”
His grin widens. “I like your leather boots. Knee-highs?”
“Knee-high, steel-toed, real leather. Got them for my birthday. From my mum.” I’m so giddy I’m practically bouncing on the bed. “They’re my faves.”
Ms. Agailya is not impressed. “Ethan Millar. You know you’re not allowed on this floor. It’s for girls only.”
“Sorry.” He face reddens, but I’m not sorry. I don’t think he is either, because he’s still smiling like a boy whose hand has been caught in the cookie jar. He hands her a folded note. “Professor Jadore wanted me to give you this.”
Ms. Agailya’s eyes sweep quickly over the note before she refolds it and sticks it in her breast pocket. “It seems I have a matter to take care of. Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, allow me to escort you to registration and we can get you sorted there. Ingrid, your tutorial starts in half an hour—normally I’d ask you to come to the registrar’s office, but we don’t like our new students, especially late arrivals, missing their first tutorials. Perhaps, Ethan, you could show her to her tutorial room?”
“Sure.” He turns his half-smile to me again and I melt a little bit more. “Did you need to unpack first?”
“No, I guess I can do it later,” I reply. “I don’t want to be late on my first day. What about registering my major? And how do I know what classes I’m taking, if I’ve never signed up for any?”
“Maybe Ethan will be able to explain how we do things here at Sparkstone. Normally, I would, but . . .” She opens the door and gestures to Mum and Dad. “I’m sorry, but I really must be going, and Ingrid must not be late for her tutorial.”
“Who is her tutor?” Ethan asks.
“Put her with Professor Jadore for now, and we can re-evaluate once her project for this semester has been decided. Room 216.” She clears her throat. “After my matter has been attended to, perhaps, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, you would appreciate a tour of the grounds?”
“Well . . .” Mum is hesitant. “We’ve got to get back to the city before it gets too late.”
“Of course, of course. I’ll leave you to say your goodbyes, then.”
Ms. Agailya steps gracefully into the hallway and leaves the door ajar. This bothers me more than I let on, but before I can dwell on it, Mum is hugging me so tightly that the air is forced from my lungs.
“Whenever you need us,” she says, “just call.”
Her tears stain my cheeks. Ethan leans against the wall next to my harp. I’m embarrassed; he shouldn’t have to witness this private moment between me and my family. I stay strong because I don’t want to cry in front of a stranger, especially since the stranger is a cute guy. Finally Mum lets go and Dad comes forward, smiling thinly to conceal his pride and his fear of letting go, and hugs me goodbye. Mum and Dad are the only family I have, and I’m the only child they have. I can’t disappoint them.
“We’ll visit as soon as we can,” Mum promises, wiping her tears with her coat sleeve.
I nod. “Have a safe trip home.”
And then like that, they’re walking away from me, out the door and into the hallway. The light catches Ms. Agailya’s silvery-blue eyes and makes them shine like precious jewels. With a last wave, they disappear from sight, leaving the door open.
I take a deep breath and let it go to dispel the anxiety and the sadness welling within my stomach.
“Um, we’d better get going,” Ethan says finally, stepping away from the wall. “You don’t want to be late for Jadore’s tutorial.”
I grab my backpack from among the scattered luggage—my laptop is in it, as well as a notebook and some pens—and follow Ethan out of my new room. “Is Professor Jadore strict or mean or something?”
Ethan grimaces. “Well . . . most of the students don’t really like her. She’s one of those people who never seems to be happy about anything.”
“Oh.” I lock the door with Ms. Agailya’s key and slip it into my skirt pocket. Together, we start down the hallway. “Will she be my only . . . tutor . . . then? What about lectures, or classes?”
He grins. “We don’t really have them.”
“What? But how—?”
“It’s almost all independent study in whatever field you choose. In the tutorials, there are small groups of six or seven or eight people and you discuss what you’re doing. They’re mixed so that no student in the same tutorial is studying the same thing.”
This isn’t what I had expected. I slow my stride. “You mean the students have to pay to go to school where they just do independent projects and talk about them? Sounds like anyone could do that themselves.”
“True,” Ethan admits, shoving his hands into his jeans pockets. “Except that at the end of the semester, the projects are reviewed and graded by top people in your field. And usually, the best of the best projects attract attention, and it’s easy for Sparkstone grads to get jobs that way, or at the very least, opportunities they wouldn’t get otherwise.” He shrugs.
“So, what are you thinking of studying?”
Music, I almost say. I massage my piano fingers. They itch to play. I had considered taking a year off to teach music or applying for a college or university where I could continue to study and learn, but my parents had strongly recommended that I choose something else. Something more “traditional” to study.
“Psychology, maybe,” I say instead. “Maybe sociology or another social science. I guess I haven’t really decided yet.”
“That’s all right. You’ve got two majors to pick. Just decide one soon and you can pick the other one later.”
“Two majors? Everyone has two majors?”
“Yeah. Sparkstone’s a bit different than other universities.” He runs a hand through his short hair.
“You can say that again,” I mutter.
“Ahh, it’s not so bad,” Ethan says. His hand lingers over my shoulder, as if he’s about to reassure me, but he withdraws it quickly with an awkward smile. “Just as long as you’re not a procrastinator. Last semester I left my art collection to the last minute. I spent three straight days painting, drawing . . . I went in to meet the woman evaluating my pieces and honest to God, I can’t even remember how the meeting went, I was so tired. I probably looked wrecked.”
He laughs at himself, and I find myself laughing too. We descend the stairs to the lobby area again. There’s no sign of Sunni. She must be on her way to class by now. Ethan opens the door and leads me across the street, around Rita House. The grass smells as if it was mowed yesterday and reminds me of the pleasant lime-green tones of a song in E major. Some students find shelter beneath randomly placed maple trees, where they read books and type on laptops, while others like us trudge towards a brick building across the curved roundabout road. The gold-plated sign above the double-doored entrance reads MacLeod Hall.
“Don’t you find it odd that they never explained all this?” I ask as I breathe in the brisk September air. “That it’s not on their website, or brochures? That they don’t advertise at the university fairs in high schools? Why wouldn’t they want people to know about this beautiful little town?”
Ethan shrugs again, his leather jacket making a comforting rustling sound. “I suppose it’s strange. But Sparkstone has its own way of doing things, you see. There’s all this secretive business but really it’s just to keep the ones who don’t deserve to be here out, and those who are worthy to be here in.”
I raise an eyebrow. “And who just is worthy of being here?”
“Well, you must know yourself, being chosen.” His half-smile is back. “The smartest, the brightest in their fields. Sparkstone handpicks them from across the world.” He points a thumb at his chest. “I’m a second-year. Was surprised last year that I got accepted to a university in Canada, without even applying, not a visa on me either. But, they got that all sorted, and here I am.”
“Where are you from exactly?” I’m terrible at discerning accents. My face heats—hopefully he doesn’t think I’m stupid for not being able to identify his accent, after going on about how only the brightest are accepted to Sparkstone.
“Outside of London. There aren’t many of us Brits here.”
I’m about to ask him more about his English heritage, and if he enjoys British science-fiction TV shows, but as soon as we step inside MacLeod Hall, I’m overcome with the feeling that I’m in high school again. A narrow lobby makes a sharp left, widens, and turns into a corridor. Lockers line the wall to my right, while floor-to-ceiling windows let in the late-morning sunlight to my left as we stroll down the hallway. A pair of double doors hides another wing and some stairs to another level. There are three classroom doors interspersed between the lockers. There’s no one else in the hallway except us—the students I saw before have been swallowed up by the classrooms—and it feels like the calm before the storm.
“Anyway, Room 216 is there,” Ethan says, pointing to the classroom door closest to us. “I have to go, or I’ll be late for my own tutorial.”
“Oh. I didn’t mean to make you late.” I clutch the straps of my backpack, feeling silly, not knowing what to do with my hands, not knowing what this guy expects of me, wanting to disappear but stay at the same time.
Ethan starts to head down the hallway towards the exit, but his gaze remains fixed on me. “I’ll see you later then, yeah?”
“Yes, definitely!” Inside, I’m cursing myself. That sounded too eager. “I mean, yeah, that . . . that would be cool.”
He smiles and shakes his head. “It’s my accent, isn’t it. Always messes with the ladies’ heads. Makes them . . .” He trails off, and his face turns a shade as dark as my hair. “How abouts I give you a proper tour after? That is, unless you’re busy unpacking or something. I’d help with that too but I don’t think Ms. Agailya would like me in the women’s dorms again without permission.”
“I’d like that. The tour, that is.”
“All right then. I’ll meet you here after tutorial, yeah?”
He waves goodbye. I face the classroom door. Through its tiny window, I see chairs arranged in a semicircle. There are already students in there. I should really go inside.
But . . .
I glance over my shoulder, to see if Ethan is stealing one last look at me. He’s not. The hall is empty. Oh well. It’s only the first day, and I’ve only known him for fifteen minutes. There’s no way—
I step forward and bump into someone who wasn’t there before. Startled, I lose my balance as my feet get tripped up in something long, thin, and hard. The floor rushes up to meet me.