All movement lurched to a halt. I raised my head from where it had been buried in my rucksack and fearfully glanced around the curtain. Outside was the platform. This was my stop.
I didn’t want to get off.
Light in the carriage was yellowish and nauseating and the lamps flickered intermittently, but even that was preferable to the growing darkness that waited outside. The windows had steamed up a little around the edges. Quietly, the doors hissed open. A draft crept in.
Who was I kidding? I couldn’t stay on the train and circle the country forever. I had nowhere to go now, other than Bellona city. Clenching my teeth, I forced my stiffened legs to move. Luggage on my shoulders and in my hands, I jumped down from the carriage onto the concrete below. Cold air clawed at my cheeks. The wind whistled through the tunnels like a trapped and frightened animal.
Footsteps built up like a drum and I was swept up by the river of people. Commuters swarmed toward the exit like a cloud of wasps. They pushed past me, pulling at my limbs and catching me with their bags. Swerving around the crowds, I scaled the stairs. It wasn’t much further now. I could see the rows of taxis parked outside. Gasping for air, I swam longingly towards the brick arches that marked my escape.
Space to breathe, at last. My teeth were chattering now. I hated crowds. I hated the cold. Having adjusted my bag straps, I wrapped my broken-zipped hoodie around me tightly, clutching the fabric to my chest.
Above everything else though, I hated cities. Cities were all exactly the same. Full of buildings, full of pollution. Full of irritable people. Or, at least that was what I thought.
Immediately, I felt that Bellona was something else. I didn’t feel safe. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. There was a dampness on the ground and a mist in the air. The streets seemed too narrow. Silhouetted in the falling sun, small buildings seemed taller than skyscrapers. It all seemed too close, as if the city was crowding me, invading my personal space.
Roads were drowned in the sickly honeyed glow of street lamps, which were coming to life as the daylight dwindled. Lit in orange from beneath, the buildings merged with the sky. I approached the edge of the pavement. Glancing left and right, I jogged across the high street while it was clear, soaking my feet in the puddles left by recent rain.
Escaping the open streets, I found my way to the bus station and caught a double decker heading out of the town centre. Soon after the bus had pulled away, the claustrophobic streets grew thinner still. Shops thinned out into hedgerows and shrubbery. Dense thickets of trees were tangled together, overgrown and fighting for sunlight. Painted facades had peeled away and dulled, with the pale remains of long-dead climbing plants still clinging to the walls, like a network of blood-starved capillaries. The roads roughened. We squealed to a halt beside a forlorn looking bus shelter, windowless and weather-beaten. I double-checked my collection of maps and travel plans. Time to move again.
Dusk was near by the time I reached my destination. The setting sun spiralled down towards the horizon, its diminishing light falling on the trees and buildings that surrounded me and casting long shadows across the ground. The sky looked like an ocean in turmoil. It was darkening to a gritty cyan and a pale gibbous moon hung low. Wisps of cloud lit in blue and grey streaked the night like smoke. In the semi-darkness, some of the brightest stars called out from between the clouds, their light pulsing faintly as they were choked by smog.
Gravel crunched under my shoes as I shuffled from foot to foot. I clenched my arms and shoulders in an attempt to stop them trembling. My breath spiralled outwards in a cloud. My hands began to burn and stiffen in the chill, seizing up from where they were wrapped in my sleeves.
All I could think about was how much I wanted to be at home. I hated this.
After all we’d been through, how could she send me away like this? I don’t want to be here.
I waited. Before me, fingers of wrought iron reached upwards, forming an inescapable gate that towered ten feet above my head. An enamelled logo was fixed into place above an intercom, barely tarnished, as if it was newly placed. The words ‘Genesis Heart School’ jumped out at me. I lifted a rigid finger towards the intercom, and pressed the call button for a second time.
Of all places, why would my grandmother have chosen a co-ed boarding school – one that sounded like it was taken fresh out of a cheesy sci-fi, at that? Didn’t we have some other distant relatives that I could live with instead?
Eventually, there was a bleep, followed by a rusty click, and the gate slowly shuddered open. Tentatively, I stepped through. My backpack was almost trapped as the gate promptly snapped shut behind me. There really was no going back now.
From what I could see in the low light, there were four or five blocks of classrooms, squashed together in a semi-circle. Most of the buildings were entirely in darkness, lit only by the tungsten glow from the occasional window. I could see scaffolding, climbing to the roof of one of the buildings. I’d known the school was newly built, but clearly it wasn’t even finished yet.
The nerves I had been trying to suppress were creeping back, festering in the pit of my stomach. I would be staying here until I completed my final year. I would have to face new classmates, new teachers, even new roommates, and undoubtedly they would all hate me just as much as everyone else did. Never in a million years would I be able to fix the huge mess I’d left back at home. I wondered how long I would last in this place with my uncanny ability to screw everything up.
Clouded by my thoughts, I staggered across the field. The grass under my shoes squelched, my feet sinking in. I was virtually dragging my feet through the sludge. My eyes drooped. I should have at least tried to sleep on the train.
I climbed two concrete steps to a door. Entering reception, I lowered my hood and smoothed down my coarse, blonde hair. “Sorry I’m late.” I greeted the receptionist, pulling my letter of acceptance from the pocket of my jeans. “I’m Jet Hawthorne, I’m due to start tomorrow.”
Frowning at the crumpled sheet I’d given her, she unfolded it and began to iron out the creases with her arm. After checking that everything was in order, she wheeled herself over to a chest of drawers. She rummaged in the bottom drawer for a few seconds before producing a key. “Women’s sixth form dormitories are up the stairs on the right. Room 52.” She dropped the key on the desk in front of me, before disappearing back into the office.
I picked up the key and placed it in my pocket. “Thanks.” I said, despite the fact that she had already left the room. With some effort, I found the exit, stumbled out into the corridor, and found myself facing a flight of stairs. The dark carpeted steps merged together in my tired eyes, making them look more like some kind of unclimbable cliff face.
Using the banister to haul myself up, I made it to the first floor, and found myself in a colourless corridor, lit softly by lamps mounted on the walls. Identical doors lined both sides, plain except for their dormitory numbers. Everything was quiet, except for the occasional laugh and the hum of conversation escaping from each room. The chemical smell of fresh paint brought water to my eyes.
With the dorm numbers guiding my way, I eventually found myself facing room 52. I reached for my key. Hesitating, I remembered my manners. Walking in on my new roommates unannounced probably wasn’t the best of ideas. I raised my fist and lightly tapped the wooden door in a rhythm.
All was silent for a moment, before there was movement from within. Heavy footsteps approached the door, and then it swung open forcefully. I staggered backwards, narrowly avoiding a door-related injury.
The girl standing there must have towered over me by half a foot. Tumbling lengths of auburn hair were scraped back, exposing the sharp contours of her face. Her smooth fringe did nothing to disguise her piercing green eyes- eyes that screamed hostility, warning me that I better have a reason for disturbing her. “Can I help you?” She leant towards me, making me back away from the door, giving me a look that made me think that I’d been threatened rather than asked a question.
“I’m Jet Hawthorne, your new roommate.” I explained.
The girl in the doorway twitched. Her body became tense all over, and her gaze darkened.
What did I say? Did she mishear me? “…Is everything alright?” I asked, my smile turning a little anxious.
Without a seconds warning, the girl turned heel and slammed the door in my face. The clang echoed through the hallway. The grin fell from my face. I froze still on the spot, taken aback. I found myself blinking a few times, to make sure I hadn’t imagined what had just happened.
Being a new student in a new school, I wasn’t expecting to be well-liked. On the other hand, I wasn’t expecting to have doors shut in my face from the moment I introduced myself. My stomach churned. I heard raised voices inside, and a few seconds later the door was approached again. It was opened cautiously. Someone with gentle features peered round, flashing me an embarrassed grin.
“Good evening.” She greeted, politely. “My name’s Alice. Welcome to Genesis Heart.” She was small in stature, but had a voice that rang clearly across the room. She reached for my hand and shook it firmly. “Jet Hawthorne, wasn’t it? Ignore my friend. She’s just not accustomed to the idea of a new roommate yet. Feel free to come in...” Alice released my hand and held the door open for me. I entered hesitantly.
The dorm was far bigger than expected. It easily housed four beds, without sacrificing floor or furniture space. At the far end, the sunset streamed in through the window spanning the wall. Books lined the shelves. Most made up a regular selection of fiction, but the top shelf was lined with a mass of paper and folders. Through an open door at the side, I caught sight of a bathroom, fitted with a big walk-in shower and bathtub.
Alice walked the room with light, graceful steps. On the bed furthest to the right, the red-haired girl sat, deliberately facing away from me, typing onto a netbook.
“This is you.” Alice explained, gesturing to the beds on the left.
I dropped my backpack on the floor, and it landed with a resounding thump. Ignoring the loud noise, I bent down and began unbuckling the straps.
“Could you be a little quieter?” Bridget demanded, a hint of malice to her voice.
“Bridget!” Alice interrupted. “Stop. Your antisocial tendencies aren’t Jet’s fault.”
I carefully began to organise my sketchpads and scrapbooks, and filed my stationary away in a drawer. Bridget, is it? I guess I would have known that, if we had actually been introduced. A whole series of retorts formed in my head, but I kept them to myself.
Seeming a little disappointed that she didn’t provoke a response from me, Bridget put in her earphones and shut me out completely. I untangled the heap of folded clothes and started to hang them up in a large empty wardrobe, whilst Alice lingered in the periphery, not doing anything in particular.
“Can I help with anything?”
I looked up. “Sure, if you don't mind... there’s a pile of books just inside my backpack, near the top; could you find somewhere safe to put them?”
"How many?” She laughed, reaching inside my rucksack. “Maybe you should invest in an e-reader.” One by one, she pulled out the books, stacking them into a neat pile. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something had been caught in between the pages. As Alice stood it slipped, fell from her arms and landed with a thump on the carpet. She cringed. “Did I drop something?”
I scrambled over to her. I knew I should have kept it on, but I was always so scared of the rusted clasp breaking when I wore it; especially when I'd been doing so much rushing around catching trains and buses. As soon as I caught sight of it, I snatched the necklace from the floor. I calmed down quickly. “Sorry. I don’t mean to get obsessive over my stuff….” I held up the necklace, inspecting it for damage. A polished black stone hung from a simple leather thread. Its smooth surface reflected the light from the window. Alice was staring at it, like she was curious to know what made something so plain so important.
“The stone is jet, like my name.” I explained. “It’s a keepsake of my mother.” I considered telling her more for a moment, but then stopped myself. I didn’t need to burden someone I had only just met with my life story.
By the time I was finished unpacking, it was getting late. Collapsing onto my mattress, I dusted any stray unhoused belongings onto the floor. I could deal with those tomorrow. At eleven o’clock everyone was lying in bed silently. I stared at the ceiling, reflecting on everything. I stretched my arm out onto the mattress beside me, and grabbed my phone, unlocking it. No new messages. No missed calls. That was unusual, but to be honest, I wasn’t in the slightest bit surprised. As far as I knew, my grandmother still hated me. My friends were probably too frightened to even approach me. I couldn’t think of anyone who would want to talk to me right now.
I switched off my phone and curled up on one side. It took longer than usual, but eventually I fell asleep.
When I finally pulled myself out of my sleepy haze, the sound of my alarm registered in my ears. It had been going off for ages, but in my desperation to stay asleep I had tuned it out. It was only when I opened my eyes that I remembered where I was. For a moment, lying there, I could have been at home. My grandmother might have woken me up with pancakes and coffee, proper coffee, like she did at the weekends. Unfortunately, there were no pancakes here. Nor was there any coffee, proper or otherwise. Instead, I had to rely on the futile attempts of a persistently bleeping alarm to rouse me. I was staring at a whitewashed ceiling, with no breakfast whatsoever. Groaning to myself, I silenced the clock.
I slowly stood up, with aching eyes and fuzzy thoughts, looking around and wondering why I couldn’t hear Bridget complaining. My alarm clock made what was probably the most irritating noise known to man, and it had been going off for a full three minutes.
It was only then that I saw the beds belonging to my roommates was empty.
I panicked. Am I late? Did I miss something?
I double-checked my clock with the one on the wall, and both read just after seven. School didn’t start until half past eight.
No one was in the bathroom either, and no one appeared whilst I had a shower. The hot water was soothing, especially since the muscles in my back and neck still ached after carrying around my enormous backpack yesterday. As I carefully stepped out, I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror. Bags were forming beneath my dark, round eyes; my skin looked paler than usual. Moving away from home had completely drained me.
It was only as I left the bathroom that I noticed the post-it note stuck to the door. I walked over, and peeled it off carefully.
Something came up. We’ll see you in registration.
Canteen is down the stairs, a little down the corridor on the left, if you want some breakfast. It closes at 8:20.
Your timetable is on the desk.
“Something came up”. Talk about ambiguous.
I pulled out my usual combination of casual jeans and t-shirt, and absent-mindedly pulled a brush through my hair.
Going to the canteen by myself was off the cards. I sincerely doubted that I would find anyone willing to socialise with me. To be honest, I wasn’t the best of company early in the morning anyway. So, instead, I decided to finish the pack of sandwiches I had bought on the train yesterday before they went stale. I licked my teeth, cringing at the bad taste left in my mouth. Hell, I needed a Cappuccino.
Then, I remembered my timetable. I scanned the room, before discovering a white envelope on the desk, lying next to Bridget's netbook. I picked it up, and tore it open.
For a while I had been concerned about my lessons; I didn’t know if the school would offer the subjects I wanted. I needn’t have worried. Except for the times, it was very similar to my old timetable. I wondered how much time I was going to spend getting lost. I thought Alice would be able to take me to my classrooms to begin with, and so I hadn’t worried about it, but apparently this wouldn’t be the case. With my sense of direction, I probably wouldn’t find my dorm again for about three days.
At quarter past eight, I packed a notebook and some pens into a backpack and sauntered out into the corridor, locking the door behind me. I made my way to the stairs. As I walked down them, I could hear the low hum of noise drifting from the canteen. It was obviously a popular place amongst the students first thing in the morning. As soon as I caught sight of it, a flurry of people began moving out into the corridor, and any intention I had of avoiding big groups of people immediately went out the window.
I made a point of avoiding eye contact, but even so, I felt some people staring at me. Were they glaring? Or just curious?
Preoccupied by everyone around me, I didn’t see what was directly ahead. I jolted as my shoulder rammed into somebody’s chest. Rebounding, and almost falling over backwards from the impact, I squeaked and just about regained my balance. I quickly composed myself and apologised.
“Sorry.” I looked up, and found the dark glaring eyes of a boy about my age. His face was ghostly white, and his frown looked somewhat like a permanent fixture.
“Watch where you’re going.” He growled.
“I will… sorry...” I said again. I hid my annoyance at his impoliteness. “I don’t suppose you know where classroom E5 is?”
He snorted, as if I had asked some sort of ridiculous question. “Find it yourself.” He stated, before pushing past me and walking off.
I stared after him in disbelief. Surely pointing me in a direction wasn’t difficult. Why was everybody here so uncooperative? Resigning myself to defeat, I stepped out into the crowd of people and continued forward.