A man in a black suit was waiting for me. He had polished shoes and white gloves, holding a sign that read Wickham Hall. It was written in the same font I’d seen on their website. I’d call it “ye oldy worldy.” But that’s just me. It’s the kind of font you can’t really read. The kind that screams to the world, “We’re so important, we don’t care if you can read our logo.” It’s the kind of font you’d see on a gravestone in London. Not that I’ve been to London. But I’m into fonts. It’s part of what I do.
The man looked at me with—well, pity might be a little strong. But it was certainly on the pity spectrum. Perhaps it was just sympathy. He noticed my fingernails and asked if I needed to go to “the powder room.”
“It’s not dirt. It’s ink,” I told him. “It’s permanently there.” The pity turned to something more like poorly veiled disgust. “No, not like tattoo ink. Like pen ink. I draw things.” He nodded his head like he couldn’t care less.
I’d said, “I draw things,” as if it were no big deal. Just something I do, like take a shower or go to school. But it’s all I do. Or at least it’s all I do that matters. I was certain it was the reason I was standing at baggage claim at Boston’s Logan Airport headed to the best prep school in the country for my last two years of high school. My grades certainly didn’t get me into Wickham Hall. I assumed it was my portfolio. I’d worked on it for months. I knew it was my only hope of getting out.
The man was surprised by how little I’d packed. One duffle bag for my clothes. And one very heavy suitcase.
“Shoes?” he asked as he lifted the suitcase with effort from the carousel.
“No, books, vintage magazines. Ink.” For my collages. I brought as much as I could carry. I wasn’t going to take any chances with the Wickham Hall school store.
As he rolled my bags to the car, I got my first taste of humidity. I’d always heard of it, and now it was hitting me in the face, as thick as the paint on a Monet canvas. I’d never been east of the Mississippi. I’d never even been east of the Grand Canyon. Fine, I’d never been east of Las Vegas. I’d hardly been out of Las Vegas. We went to Reno once. That was our biggest family vacation to date. My parents aren’t big on vacations. Not because they don’t like not working—they love not working—but vacations cost money. And that they never have.
So you can imagine what I thought when the man approached a limousine. I’m not kidding. A black stretch limousine. With tinted windows. “I was kinda more expecting a good ol’ American school bus. You know, the yellow ones?”
“Not at Wickham Hall.”
AFTER WE LEFT THE Boston area, I tried to roll down my window. But it was locked. I could see in the rearview that the man had noticed, but he didn’t offer help. Finally I asked. He obliged. I stretched out across the back seat, lying on my back so I could look straight up toward the sky. The sky and trees became blurry fields of color—blue, white, and green—stacked like a Rothko painting. Except Rothko almost never used green.
When I sat back up, we were already in New Hampshire, where Live Free or Die is on every license plate. What a state motto. Much better than Nevada’s All for Our Country—what does that even mean? Live Free or Die is something I could get behind, and not just because it contains my name (phonetically). It’s passionate and romantic. I like all things Romantic. And I don’t mean mushy, cheesy romantic. I mean truly Romantic with a capital R. As in Byron, Shelley, Keats, and of course, William Blake.
Live Free or Die. It made me think of how Modigliani’s muse Jeanne Hébuterne jumped to her death while pregnant with their second child the day after he died from tuberculosis. Or how the Dada artist René Crevel gassed himself the day before the Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture planned to censor his work.
There are countless stories from days past, but it’s hard to imagine someone actually dying for freedom or even for love these days—in this country at least. Everyone I know is way too apathetic to consider it. My parents rarely bother to vote. Even the guys at school who talked about joining the army, all they care about is job security. No one says he wants to do it for his country or for freedom. But maybe that’s because they think it’d sound lame. It wouldn’t sound lame to me.
Would I die for freedom? For love? I liked to think I had that in me, but how can you die for love if you’ve never felt it? And I don’t just mean I’d never had a boyfriend. I mean I’d possibly never felt love at all. The social worker said it was a protective mechanism. Maybe it was. I had four different foster families before I was finally adopted. I was practically bred not to love.
Or maybe it’s just that I got matched with the wrong family. It could happen, couldn’t it? Just ending up with the wrong parents, the same way you could end up with the wrong guy on an Internet date.
Headed to the far north finger of the state, we passed through Manchester then Concord, and after several more hours, penetrating deeper and deeper into woods that were more dense than I’d seen before, we approached a tall stone wall. I recognized it immediately from the website. It’s something they tout: fully enclosed within a wall built in 1781. I think it originally had something to do with the Revolutionary War. We drove along the perimeter for some time. It was so much bigger than I’d imagined. I wanted to say something to the man, but to be honest, he kind of scared me. So I saved it. Instead, I pulled out my moleskin notebook and ink.
WE WERE RUNNING LATE. The man made sure I was aware it was not his fault but rather due to my plane’s delay.
“Tardiness is not tolerated at Wickham Hall,” he snipped. He told me he’d take me straight to Main to join the transfer tour. I asked him if I could skip it. But he said no, it was required—then shut the window between us, ending the conversation.
I looked at my reflection in the tinted glass. Just a trace of me but enough to see the unfortunate circles under my eyes and a silhouette of my dark, tangled hair. The locket I always wore around my neck glimmered like a disco ball as the light came and went. I started to raise the back of my sleeve to wipe the shine off my nose, but we turned and the gates opened as we passed a security booth. My focus shifted from my reflection.
A stretch of perfectly manicured gardens unfurled as far as I could see. I’ve always questioned the so-called perfection of surfaces. If you looked close enough, there was always a flaw. And sure enough, in the distance beyond those gardens, the jagged outline of an old cemetery crowned a plump green hill. That was more like it. Out the other window was a cluster of big Colonial buildings. We’d studied Mount Vernon in history class, and they looked just like four Mount Vernons—each imposing and symmetrical, painted white with black shutters and capped with a pointed cupola.
Then we passed a spectacular Victorian mansion, its gingerbread trim delicately elaborate. And another one. And another. Signs out front announced these were faculty housing. I wanted to ask him to stop, but then I saw the Art Center. This one I’d studied of course. It was the reason I wanted to come to Wickham Hall. Designed by Rem Koolhaas, it was, according to the website, their only modern building. The school had called it a “perfect celebration of art.” They were right about that, at least. To me it looked like an explosion of everything I loved. I couldn’t wait to go there, unpack my suitcase, and actually have a studio.
Up until now, I’d worked in my room. I had to cover my floor with painters’ drop cloths because our apartment had wall-to-wall carpet. My mother said if I got a single drop of paint on it, I’d have to pay for it myself. When it wasn’t too hot, I’d work in the alley or in a park nearby. But it was almost always too hot.
I’d just spotted a Gothic chapel in the distance when the limousine stopped in front of the main building. The man came around and opened my door before I thought of it. He waved me toward a small gathering of students at the top of the stairs.
“Your things will be waiting in your dorm: Skellenger,” he said, then closed the door and drove away.
There was a small group of five or six students halfway up the steps of Main, following a girl with straight blonde hair. They were all dressed similarly in what the school website called “class dress”—dress shirt, tie and sport coat for guys and, for girls, a knee-length skirt and a blazer.
I called out to the blonde. No response. I ran up the stairs.
“Olivia Bloom. You’re late,” she snapped once I’d caught up. Not exactly the warm greeting one might have hoped for when coming clear across the country to attend a new school.
“Sorry, my plane was delayed.”
“Well, we’re on a tight schedule.” Then she got back to her tour, perturbed to have been interrupted. “Where was I?”
One of the fawning male transfers said, “Presidents.”
“Yes, as I was saying, two of the most illustrious presidents of the United States lived in those rooms,” she said, gesturing up to the windows of Main. Then she motioned over to the Mount Vernons. “And two others lived over there. Google it if you don’t already know. The point is: Wickham Hall has a rich history, renowned alumni, and a powerful network that extends around the entire world.” She spoke as though delivering a soliloquy for an unseen camera. “Now, come along. We have a lot to see.”
She turned her back on us and scaled the stairs. From behind, I couldn’t help but stare at her hair. I’d never seen such straight hair cut in such a straight line. Surely some blog would proclaim this the perfect bob. But to me it looked like a piece of tracing paper wrapped around a head.
We entered the lobby of Main, a stately, masculine sitting room with a hand-carved fireplace and massive pewter chandelier. It looked like the kind of place where cigars were smoked . . . or pipes—definitely pipes. Strangely, there were no students lounging in the deep leather chairs. I realized I hadn’t yet seen a single student on the campus aside from our small group.
Perfect Hair led us through the lobby to a small door and then down a spiral staircase that was so narrow we had to walk single file. I was last, so by the time I reached the bottom of what seemed like hundreds of steps, I’d missed the beginning of her speech. Not that I really cared.
“And you may or may not have heard the frivolous rumors that Wickham Hall is haunted. Students have passed ghost tales down from generation to generation, mostly as a means of diversion. And non-Wickies like to snicker about our ghosts because, frankly, there is nothing about us in the real world they can snicker at.”
“Wickies?” I asked.
“Yes, Wickies,” she replied, completely without humor, then turned to lead us down the dark hallway. I lingered back and looked around. I paused at an arched doorway and looked inside—a small nook—as she continued. “We call these the catacombs. They connect all six of the original academic buildings. And, as you can see, they are not, in fact, haunted.”
Right then, the lights went out. Pitch black. The group had moved several yards ahead, but I could hear our guide trying to remain calm. I laughed quietly—because it was as if a ghost were protesting its nonexistence (not that I believed in ghosts)—but, right then, I felt it. I turned quickly to look. It felt like someone had opened one of those giant freezer doors at the grocery store—that cold burst of air. Except here there were no doors. No windows.
“Hello?” I called. I waved my arms.
The guide assumed I was talking to her. “Is that Olivia? We’re up here! Please don’t get separated from the group!”
I moved toward her shrill voice and the general rumble rising from the group of nervous transfers. “Everyone follow me,” she barked. “Stay close!”
Just as I caught up with the group, there came a long and anguished howl. A textbook howl, really. One of the transfers screamed and grabbed me. Their chatter got louder. The panic was palpable. The guide had to yell to be heard. “Everyone calm down! Please! I’m leading us out the fastest way!”
We started up some steps, rough and uneven underfoot, as if they were stone. And I could smell the dankness. While the other transfers whimpered and whispered, I still felt calm. We were inside a protected fortress, after all. What could happen? I had no idea I’d be so calm in the face of fear. I just listened to each pulse of my blood, surprised I could actually hear it pound in my ears. And I felt my heart banging through my chest like in an old Loony Tunes cartoon.
As we mounted the stairs, a faraway shriek rose eerily from somewhere deep in the catacombs. One of the guys pushed me aside to save his own life. Nice. We all moved to get out of there as fast as possible, piling on top of one another.
“This way!” the guide yelled, sounding quite overcome herself. We came around a bend to blinding bright lights and thundering noise. Oxford shirts. Blazers. Laughing faces. Perfect teeth. Lots of them. Kind of like those paintings by Yue Minjun—everyone laughing hugely and wearing the same clothes—except all these people weren’t Chinese. In fact, none of them were.
I looked up and saw Gothic arches. To my left were some men and women, all delighted, and a pulpit. We were in a chapel. On stage. In front of the entire school. One of the men onstage approached a microphone, stifling a chuckle. “Welcome! Welcome transfers to Wickham Hall! Did you get a fright?”
I looked to my fellow transfers. They were all quick to smile and play along, pretending that was absolutely the most charming greeting they’d ever received. I stood in disbelief. Disoriented, but mostly shocked.
The man at the microphone, wearing a stiff blue suit, went on. “I’m Headmaster Thorton. We always welcome our new transfers with a grand prank. And, thanks to our star thespian Abigail Steers, we got ’em good!”
Our guide, apparently named Abigail, stepped forward and took a bow. And then another one. The students cheered, and I noticed some adults I had to presume were faculty members also clapping and cheering for her.
“So that was supposed to be funny?” I didn’t plan to say it. The words just fell out of my mouth. It wasn’t accusatory. It was a sincere question. I was truly grasping to understand what was going on. The headmaster went silent, and I knew he had heard me. Everything went silent, and everyone was looking at me. Accusing me. Or so it seemed. I’m sure it wasn’t that bad, but I’m not the type to stand onstage and make accusations. I’m the type who hides in her closet, drawing. For an instant it all felt very dramatic.
But the headmaster ignored me, turned away as if I’d said nothing, and looked out to the student body, continuing his well-oiled speech. “As I was saying, welcome. You, transfers, are the chosen few, carefully selected to fill the scarce open spots at Wickham Hall. You will spend your remaining years in preparatory school getting the best education this country has to offer. But, be forewarned, we are an institution of traditions. Big and small. From our beloved Headmaster Holidays to our secret societies, we are founded on a tradition of excellence, of high performance, of, dare I say, perfection.”
That’s when I noticed him. He was standing next to the headmaster, still looking at me, even though the others had turned away. Dirty blond. His expression was different from the others. Not disapproving or shocked. It almost looked like wonder. I noticed his shirt was partially untucked. And his teeth were not perfect, either; one buckled ever so slightly in front of the other. Our eyes met, and I quickly looked away. But I could feel his gaze linger. I desperately willed my face not to flush, my lips not to purse. Suddenly I was aware of every single muscle in my face. I even think I invented some. I tried to focus on the headmaster’s words.
“As you all know, this is Wickham Hall’s sesquicentennial. We’re celebrating one and a half centuries as the country’s premier secondary school. We celebrate Wickham Hall’s birthday every year with Fall Festival, but this year, we have a very special alumni celebration planned.”
He kept talking, but I no longer heard him. I looked up at the Gothic ceiling, but all I saw were those mesmerizingly imperfect teeth.