St. Bellmore’s Cold Inside
Thomas Dobbs diary, November 18th, 1906
I’ve found it. After years of searching, studying, wondering… I’ve finally made the discovery of a lifetime. The Society has been pushing me to give them data, but I hesitated, fearing I was wrong about the source of the cave’s power. Now I am sure; the moon’s cycle is what drives it. This discovery will bring the Society great power, but I worry about the influence of the Guild….
On a Hill Outside San Francisco, 1907:
A strong wind whistled through the dormitory windows at the St. Bellmore’s School for Boys. It reached its sharp fingers under the thin blankets and snapped at the toes of the boys sleeping there.
It was almost the end of March, and the spring should have been embracing the countryside. Flowers should have been blooming, birds chirping. But high on the mountaintop of St. Bellmore’s School, it seemed as if the winter would never end.
One by one, the boys stirred in their beds, desperately tired but unable to shake the morning chill. Soon, the smell of porridge would creep under the doorway and through the cracks in the walls, rousing them fully as their bellies ached for relief from the burning hunger of growing muscle. For now, though, all was still quiet.
St. Bellmore itself was rather like a frosty wind; cold, unwanted, and unrelenting. It was at the top of a high mountain peak. A tall building that seemed to catch hold of the cold, but rarely hold onto the sunlight. The boys who lived within its walls were as isolated as the school. Their parents saw them rarely. Letters went into town only one a week, and were seldom returned. Often, the boys felt alone and forgotten. On a cold morning like this one, it was hard not to feel discouraged.
Miles Dobbs was the boy closest to the dormitory room window, and therefore, the one most susceptible to the draft. The chill hit his bed first, biting at his toes and causing them to ache with the early morning discomfort of a too-cold room. Miles stifled a groan of protest against the cold awakening. He squeezed his eyes shut tighter, trying as hard as he could to hold on to sleep for another moment; another instant where he could dream himself free of this miserable place.
In his sleep, in his mind, Miles was still home, tucked in tight in his warm bed in the small home he had shared with his father. In his dreams, he could stay there, warm by the fire with his father as he poured over maps and blueprints, making decisions that impacted the lives of men. In his dreams, Miles was important; loved; relevant. He was not stuck atop a mountain peak with a pack of boys nobody wanted or needed. His father was close by; not far away overseeing a new mining project. And the home they shared belonged to them both; it had not yet been sold off to pay for the new home his father had built.
This dream was particularly lovely. In the little house by the edge of town, Miles and his father were working together on a project. His father was pointing to a place on a map where the mining tunnels would begin. He was asking Miles what he would do next. Miles bite his lip and poured over the plans, thinking carefully and then pointing out potential challenges. He spoke to his father as one would speak to an equal. His father listened carefully, taking notes on his words. Telling him that his input was important.
But the cold did not care about Miles’ dreams, or his wishes. Instead, it cared only about stealing the warmth from his bones. It nipped and spread its chill until finally, with a long-suffering sigh, Miles opened his eyes, abandoning his wonderful dream. His eyes focused on the stained and puckered ceiling above him, and then lowered to the lumps of the other boys, all fighting hard against the cold under dingy and thin grey blankets. Miles pulled his knees up tight against his chest, trying to use his own body heat to warm his frosted toes.
To his surprise, a small shaft of light filtered through the window. It captured the swirls of dust and dirt in the air, but that only managed to make it seem more magical. Miles reached up and held his hand in the light, marveling at the small miracle.
Miles smiled to himself. His dream might be at an end, at least for now, but he still had ways to escape. Cupping his hands over his toes, Miles let out a small breath and imagined sweeping out the window on the wind itself. He imagined himself as a sprite with ice skates, shooting out of the crack in the bottom of the window and riding the frost around to the front of the school. He would skate as far away as he could, and then stop and look back at this place; this giant, angry, sad place, its sign creaking and shaking against the wind. From there, he would curse the place with faery magic, banishing it from the minds of all the children who had suffered here. Granting them new homes before he skated on to a new cold place with people who needed to be freed.
“What is it with this place and wind?” one of the boys groaned from the bed across the way.
Miles had often wondered the same thing. The cold mountain air and St. Bellmore: they were like a match made in hell. Somehow, he hadn’t known how bad it would be when they had first travelled here. Of course, the weather was more foreboding now than it was the first day he had seen this place. Miles realized only now that they would let parents visit exclusively in the times of year when the weather was kinder.
With a tinge of sadness, Miles let the vision of the frost sprite dissolve, and instead took himself inward, flying through his memories of his arrival in this place.
The steam carriage had come up the steep drive to St. Bellmore School, the wheels slipping and the engine puffing hard against the hill. Miles noticed that his father was looking at the school with a raised eyebrow, but Abigail clapped her hands together with forced delight. “Doesn’t it look magical, gentlemen?”
“It looks like a prison,” Miles said, pouting against the back cushions. He had resisted the entire idea of being sent away to school. He didn’t understand why his father refused to hear his arguments.
“Why can’t I come with you to the site?” he had asked.
“Because the place for young men your age is the classroom,” his father had said. “You will never have such an opportunity for education again. And if you don’t know your maths, how are you going to become a full partner in the company with me?”
It had been a solid argument, Miles couldn’t deny it. But secretly he was sure that it wasn’t his father who had decided on boarding school. He knew that, somehow, Abigail was behind it all. The Step-wolf, as he was beginning to think of her.
“Now Miles,” his father said as the coach bounced along the road. “This place comes highly recommended. Your mother spent a lot of time trying to find the right place for you. Maybe we should give it a chance.”
Not mother, Miles thought to himself, Step-mother. He didn’t remember his real mother, but he was sure she never would have agreed to leave him at the top of a frosty mountain in the middle of nowhere. Abigail had been kind enough so far, but there was something about her he just didn’t trust.
Right now, she was grinning at him like a goblin across the carriage. Her face was curved into a smile, but her eyes snapped with cold promise. His skin crawled as he watched her eyes slide across to his father. He knew something was wrong. He knew it. But his father wouldn’t hear anything bad about her, and after a time, he had stopped trying. He had worried, in fact, that somehow his father might choose Abigail over him.
Nonsense, he said to himself as the coach drew closer to the main doors. There was no reason to think that his father would pick this new woman over him. And his father had never steered him wrong before. Maybe he knew something about St. Bellmore that Miles didn’t know. Maybe he had a plan.
With that thought in mind, Miles set his intention to give it a chance. He would make his father proud. He would send him letters telling him about his grades, and his father would reply saying he missed him, and it was time to come home. “We’ll get a tutor,” he would write. “I don’t like you being so far from me.”
That had been six months ago, and he hadn’t seen his father since. The letters that had appeared at the beginning had stopped as well, and now Miles was alone. More alone than he had ever been before.
Fully awake now, Miles opened his eyes and returned to this time and place. He turned to look at the bed across from his. His best friend was there, dead asleep with his mouth gaping open. Miles laughed quietly to himself. Wyatt was nothing if not consistent. His dark hair was matted on one side and sticking up on the other. His teeth were too big for his small face, though Wyatt’s mother always told him he would grow into them. He was a strange, awkward looking boy of twelve; only a month younger than Miles himself.
“Wyatt,” Miles whispered. “Wyatt, wake up.” Wyatt’s eyes flew open and he sat up in his bed. For an instant, his eyes held a panicked fear, as if he couldn’t remember where he was. Miles watched as the look turned to relief, as his friend’s gaze locked on the rows of dormitory beds.
“What do you want? I was sleeping,” Wyatt whispered.
“I’m cold,” Miles said.
“What else is new?” Wyatt said. “You know the rules. No extra blankets for us. Mr. Acker won’t allow it.”
“A pox on Mr. Acker,” Miles whispered.
“Indeed. That would fix him good. What kind of pox?” Wyatt asked with a grin.
“What kinds are there?” Mile asked.
Wyatt twisted up his face, trying to think, but before he could say anything else, Chester whispered from the bed across from them.
“Quiet you two. Acker’s coming.” Chester pulled his thin blanket up over his face, so only his shock of red hair peeked out from under the covers. Miles and Wyatt looked at each other and dove back under their blankets as well.
Moments later, they all heard the dean’s footsteps echoing down the hall. The deep thump of thick, expensive boots were accompanied by the clicking of a small animal’s nails on the wooden floors. No question, it was Mr. Acker and his terrier (also known as the terror of St. Bellmore) Wringer.
The steps stopped and the boys heard the jangle of keys. After a moment of fumbling and a few curses, the dean of men slipped the key into the lock on the outside of the door, and with a click, it opened. The door screeched on its hinges, announcing his presence before he said a word.
“All right boys,” Mr. Acker said. His voice was clipped and nasal as always. It reminded Miles of the pinched, angry tones of an older female governess. It would be funny if he weren’t such a miserable person. “Rise now, and make your beds. Be quick about it, or the porridge trough will be empty before you reach it.”
“Yes, Mr. Acker,” the boys said in unison, jumping from their sheets.
Acker nodded. “Good men,” he said, his eyes moving from bed to bed, counting the boys. Satisfied that everyone was present and accounted for, Mr. Acker turned on his heel and walked away to the next dormitory, leaving the boys to make their beds as quickly as they could. Wringer gave a small snort and followed his master.
Shivering, the boys danced from foot to foot, trying to keep the cold from the floor off their skin. As soon as his bed was made, Miles flopped down on top of it to pull on wool stockings. Wyatt sat on his own bed, doing the same.
“Ah, that’s better,” Wyatt said, wiggling his toes. “Nothing quite like a warm sock.”
Miles grinned at him as they finished getting dressed for the day. “I’d trade my socks for a pair of long pants any day.”
“Now you’re dreaming,” Chester called out. “No long pants for us, gents, not ‘til we’re at least fifteen.”
“Maybe I could convince my mama to say something,” said Wilbur Longhouser, pulling his socks up. “With the weather as cold as it is, perhaps we could all do with some long pants sooner. It seems like a reasonable argument to me.”
Miles looked down at his brown plaid suit and smoothed out the vest. He wished he could wear trousers like his father, but at least they wore a similar style of suit. Most of the other boys wore dark navy or khaki-colored clothes, but Miles preferred to look like his father. It made him feel closer to him, even when they were apart. The uniform requirement was only that they dressed “sharp and proper,” which was part of how Abigail had sold them on the place to begin with.
“You can wear your own clothes, Miles,” she had said. “Won’t that be nice? You can still dress like your father even when you’re apart.”
“It would be better if we weren’t apart at all,” Miles had retorted, but his father had said nothing.
“Good luck getting Acker to agree to anything special just to make us more comfortable,” Wyatt replied, looking sadly at his short pants. “He’d rather we all freeze to death than give us an ounce of warmth.”
“It’s for our own good, you know,” introjected Percy, who was standing by the door, dressed and ready. “No point in complaining about it.”
“Oh go on, Percy,” said Wyatt. “Always so perfect. Must be nice.”
“It is rather nice, yes,” Percy said with a pinched look of self-satisfaction. “Now finish up, I’m hungry.”
The boys filed into two lines, and marched down to the hall. St. Bellmore’s was constructed of a series of long corridors. On the third floor were the younger boys’ dorms. The ceiling dripped in places, and the walls were covered in flaky paint. Against one wall was a line of pneumatic tubes, carrying messages between the school and other destinations around the city.
Miles ran his hand along one of the tubes as he walked past. A message shot through the tube, sending a vibration through his palm as it moved along on its way from the fourth floor down to the second.
Miles loved to think about where the message might contain. The fourth floor was where all the mail was sorted, and the first floor was where it was delivered to the students, so a capsule shooting from level 4 to level 1 might be an urgent letter from a well-connected parent; was it possible that his father had finally sent him a letter?
“My father told me the tubes are only installed in a few places this far outside the city,” Chester said.
“How did they get them installed here then?” Wyatt asked.
Chester shrugged. “It seems strange to me too. It’s not like St. Bellmore is important.”
“My father had them built into our new house,” Miles said proudly.
The boys lifted their eyebrows in surprise. “That must have been expensive,” Wyatt said. “Did he tell you how much it cost?”
Miles shook his head. Wyatt was always asking him questions like that, and he found them awkward to answer. His family had money, that was certain, but Miles didn’t have any sense of how much, or how well it was managed.
Miles wondered about the tubes all the way down to the first floor, where the boys were ushered into the cafeteria. There, Cook waited with a pot of grey mush. Wyatt wrinkled his nose as the cook slopped a portion into his bowl. “What I wouldn’t give for an egg,” he muttered to Miles.
“What was that, Mr. Holiday?” Mr. Acker asked, appearing from the shadows.
Wyatt looked up at him with dread in his eyes. “Nothing, sir! Just that… some extra egg would be…”
“If you’re not grateful for this porridge, I imagine someone else might be.” He took the bowl from Wyatt’s hands, and held it aloft. “Anyone interested in a second portion of breakfast today?”
All the boys looked away, trying to avoid eye contact with Ackers. All, that is, except Percy, who stepped forward with a greedy expression. “I’ll take it, sir, and happily.”
“Ah, Percy, yes. A man of solid appetites.” Acker handed the bowl to Percy, who took it without a backward glance. “And that, young Master Holiday, is what happens when we complain about that which is given to us.”
“It isn’t given, our families pay for it,” Miles muttered.
“Mr. Dobbs, do you have something to add?” Mr. Acker asked, leaning closer to Miles.
Miles pursed his lips and felt a quake of rage run through his body. He shook his head slowly, wishing with all his might that he could say something to this man; something that would take him down a peg.
His father would have said something, Miles thought to himself. “When you see injustice, son,” his father would say, “Make sure to do something about it. A courageous man is always the first to stand up for someone else when they are weaker.”
But as Miles clutched the porridge in his cold hands, he knew he had to think of what they were going to eat this morning; not what was fair. And his father, while noble and worthy, wasn’t here to help him.
“What was that, Dobbs?” Acker asked.
Miles shook his head, firing arrows of hot resentment at Acker with his mind. “Nothing, sir. I have nothing to say.”
“Exactly as I thought,” Acker replied. “No thoughts whatsoever. Not a thinker like your father then, Mr. Dobbs?”
At the mention of his father, Miles bowed his head. There would have been no greater compliment in Miles’ life than to be like his father. And no greater shame than failing to be like him.
With a small, snide laugh, Acker turned his back on the boys. Wringer followed along, growling at the boys they passed. Poor Chester was too slow to get out of his way, and found his ankles clamped between Wringer’s sharp jaws. He yelped, and the dog pulled away, seemingly satisfied by his show of dominance.
Miles watched Acker go, vowing revenge. He couldn’t stay here much longer and feel this weak; this powerless; every single day. Swallowing his anger, Miles turned to Wyatt with a comforting smile.
“Come on,” he said, putting his hand on Wyatt’s shoulder. “We’ll share.”
The two found a corner table and tried to blend in as much as possible. Wyatt ate slowly, trying to make sure he didn’t take too much of Miles’ food. “Eat,” Miles said. “It’s no good trying to be polite. I know how hungry you are in the morning.”
Wyatt smiled at him. “Thank you.” He spooned some of the porridge into his mouth. As he chewed the mushy food, he scowled over at Percy, who was moving on to his second bowl with great flourish. “We need to teach that Percy character a lesson,” he said.
“Teach him a lesson?” Miles asked, “How can we do that? He’s older and bigger than us, and he has more friends.”
Wyatt ate another bite of porridge before shaking his head. “I don’t know how, but I swear, I’m going to get him.”
Wyatt had a meeting with his Latin tutor after breakfast, so Miles wandered into the exercise yard by himself. He hated it when Wyatt wasn’t around. Chester would be all right, too, if he were available, but without one of them, Miles felt like he stuck out far too much.
Strolling through the yard, Miles kicked a rock or two before settling under an oak tree with his notebook. “Escaping from School,” he wrote at the top of the page, “A Wishlist.” Beneath the title, he started to write a list of things he would need if he were to get out of this place. Food, obviously, and clothes. A comb or brush. Extra shoes, if he could find them. And his father’s address.
His father had sold the little house he had been dreaming about. He had built a new house for them all. A new house for their new family, he had said. Miles had helped him with some of the plans, and had been excited about the prospect of a new place to live, but only now did he realize that he wasn’t completely sure where the new house was. Miles looked down at his list and realized that none of this would matter much if he didn’t have anywhere to go.
He was so caught up in the conundrum that he didn’t hear the sounds of danger approaching.
“Hello there, Dobbs,” said a sinister voice from above. “What are we working on here?” A hand reached down and snatched the notebook away from him.
Miles looked up to see the face of Josia Beets-- two grades ahead of him, and five times as big.
Scrambling to his feet, Miles held out his hand. “Give that back,” he demanded.
His raised voice caught the ears of the boys around them, and suddenly Miles found himself at the center of a growing circle.
“I’ll give it back when I’m good and ready,” Josia retorted, flipping through the pages until he found one that caused him to raise an eyebrow. “Look at this, boys,” he said, holding up the book. “‘Escaping from School: A Wishlist.’ Now why would a little bookworm like you want to escape from school. All you do is read, hey? You’re doing just fine here.”
Miles felt his face flushing red, but he didn’t say anything.
“Can you hear me, Dobbs?” Josia said. “I’m talking to you.”
Miles searched his mind for something he could say to Josia. Something he could say to all of them, but his thoughts had vanished; his mind was blank.
“Struck dumb then?” Josia asked. “That’s what you get, hanging around with those urchins Holiday and Ally. Not a penny between the two of them, and no brains neither. At least they have some height to ‘em, though.”
Josia towered over Miles, looking down on him. “Maybe if you ate all your breakfast, you’d start growing, too, Dobbs, what do you think?”
Miles’ face burned with shame. He opened his mouth, hoping he could think of a way to defend himself, but no sound came out.
Josia huffed gleefully. “Come on, boys,” he said, gesturing for the others to follow him. “This one hasn’t got enough fight in him to make it worth it.” He threw the notebook on the ground, and stalked away, taking the others with him.
Miles sat still under the tree until it was time for class. Then, he slowly rose to his feet and picked up his notebook. He took the long way around the building to his class, and arrived late. The teacher opened his mouth to say something, but shut it again when he saw Miles’ face. “Are you all right, Miles?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Miles without looking up from his desk. “I’m fine.”