The pre-teen and teenage years suck. I haven’t met one person who would voluntarily return to those awkward years. Our bodies are physically and chemically changing and are pretty much out of control. All. The. Time. We struggle with raging hormones, pimple outbreaks, the joys of finding our first crush, and the devastation of losing our first love.
Now imagine being thrust into an extraordinary school during these delicate years. Yes, I know you just flashed to the X-Men or Harry Potter movies. Everyone seems to know more about you than you do, every moment fills you with an odd sense of déjà vu, and you have to battle all the typical teenage woes and discover your identity—all while trying to keep the entire world in balance. (Deep breath.)
Yes, that’s my story in a nutshell. To understand it fully, though, there’s no better place to start than at the beginning. The summer of 2012, to be exact.
Respect the changes that are to come.
Love and balance,
“I’ve never heard of this academy,” Mr. Jones said without uncrossing his arms.
“Oh, many of the world’s greatest minds have attended,” the dark-haired woman explained, seemingly unaffected by his cold cynicism. Her fingers flew over the keys of the laptop she whipped out of her bag. “This is the campus,” she said, turning the screen toward him.
Emily tried to see the images from around the corner where she was spying, but mostly saw only the back of the strange woman’s head.
“Look at those trees, Robert. That reminds me of our trip to New Orleans,” Mrs. Jones said and leaned her head against her husband’s broad shoulder, gazing longingly at the screen.
“It should. The North Shore Academy is located in Mandeville, Louisiana, which isn’t far from New Orleans.” The woman continued with her spiel, explaining everything from the uniforms to the enforced curfews and the rigorous curriculum.
Emily wrinkled her nose at the mention of uniforms and curfews. Still, the idea of living away from home—at a school that wanted her—made her eleven-almost-twelve-year-old mind do cartwheels.
“So, this is akin to a military school?” Mr. Jones asked as he leaned in for a closer look. Having served in the Air Force, he hoped his children would follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, complications with Emily’s birth made the couple unable to have any more children, and Emily showed no interest in pursuing her father’s career path. Besides, he still believed that women were best suited to be housewives and mothers, not warriors.
“I suppose you could look at it like that,” the woman said, clearly contemplating the parallel she’d never considered before. “But it’s more of a unique education for those who exemplified certain skills on the annual state testing. Emily was one of the few this year who met our criteria.”
Mrs. Jones beamed with pride and touched her husband’s thigh. “What a great opportunity for Emily.”
Mr. Jones held up his hand to gain control of the conversation. “The one thing you haven’t mentioned is how much this elite private school is going to cost me.”
The woman smiled and nodded as if she was expecting this question. “We do not charge tuition. The students are in a kind of work-study program that assists with their costs. Additionally, our alumni donate generously. Here,” she said and reached into her bag again, pulling out a pamphlet. “This provides all the information you’ll want about our Academy and others like it around the world. If you have questions, my number and email are on the back. I hope you can appreciate that this is a great opportunity for your daughter.”
The woman collected her things and stood to leave. For the first time, Emily got a good look at her. She was a tall, slender woman with a kind face that matched the intonation of her words. She walked gracefully to the door, flashing a smile toward Emily, who was still in spy-mode. There is something very familiar about that woman, Emily thought.
“Thank you, Ms.”— Mrs. Jones looked down at the pamphlet to find out how to address the woman.
“Please, just call me Maggie.”
“Well, thank you then, Maggie,” Mrs. Jones said as she opened the door. “We will be in touch.”
July came and went, but Emily’s parents hadn’t shared with her any decisions they’d made about whether she would attend North Shore Academy.
“What do you think about the school that woman came to talk to us about?” Mrs. Jones said to Emily one morning as they were watering plants in their garden.
Emily always enjoyed summer mornings with her mom when her dad was at work. Her mom seemed less stressed during these times. “You mean Maggie?” Emily still felt that strange familiarity. “It sounds alright,” Emily said. In truth, since Maggie visited their home a month and a half ago, it was all Emily could think about.
Mrs. Jones set down her gardening tools and looked at her daughter. “Your father is still on the fence, but if you really wanted to go, I’m sure I could persuade him,” she said.
“Yeah,” she admitted to her mom, “I think I’d like to give it a try.”
Emily hugged her mom goodbye for the third time before walking up the brick steps to the front door of North Shore Academy. It was a warm, late summer day, and a small rainstorm had just swept through, making the air smell fresh and leaving little puddles on the steps. The heavy-looking front door was open, and a few adults stood in the foyer to greet the arriving students and direct them to the hall where orientation would begin. Emily took one last glance back at her old life before stepping into her new one. Her mom was standing outside the passenger side of the car while her father was subtly revving the engine, anxious to start the drive home.
“Welcome, Abecedarians. It pleases me to welcome you on your first day at North Shore Academy. I am Theodore, the Headmaster. But please, call me Ted.” The tall man at the podium looked at the faces of the twenty new students, studying them as if he was looking for something—or someone—in particular. His tanned face showed the beginnings of aging but didn’t change expression the entire time, so Emily figured he didn’t find who or what he was looking for. “The first year at the Academy is the most intense and mentally exhausting of your years, but I’m proud to say we have never had a student leave voluntarily.”
The new students looked back and forth at each other, worried and confused by the wording he chose.
He continued. “That being said, we expect a lot from our Abecedarians, and following the rules is not a choice. You will be interviewed by our instructors and counselors and then assigned to a residence hall. From there, you will take your belongings to your hall. Your Hall Director will assign you a room, go over the rules with you, and serve as your mentor, counselor, and leader for your years at the Academy.”
The crowd of twelve-year-olds began whispering among themselves.
As Ted held up his hand to quiet the students, a cool breeze swept through the room. It was difficult to suppress a shiver, but it succeeded in getting the students to calm and refocus. “I am looking forward to watching you grow and change.”
Ted lowered the microphone and stepped aside for a short, red-haired woman. Emily thought she looked like a pixie or fairy but kept the comment to herself. “Please come to the front when I call your name,” the woman said in a chilly voice that didn’t match her appearance. “Madison Montgomery,” she began. The girl standing next to Emily moved forward and then was taken to another room by one of the adults standing along the wooden walls of the hall.
“Justin Bingham,” the pixie lady continued, and a boy from the front of the student group jumped up and was escorted away, just as Madison had been. She kept calling names, and the number of remaining Abecedarians dwindled. Emily felt nervous and looked down at her hands.
“What if this is just like the Holocaust,” the boy next to her whispered, “and they’re taking us to a death chamber?”
Emily noticeably jerked and blinked in surprise at the boy. “That’s a horrible thought!” she declared in a loud whisper as she really looked at the boy for the first time. Familiar, she mused and recalled Maggie being that same sort of familiar, which was strangely calming. She tried to play it off cool and added, “Besides, I’m not Jewish.”
“Brandon Miller,” the pixie woman called.
“Welp, that’s me,” he said and stepped forward. “Wish me luck.”
“Luck, Brandon Miller,” Emily said with a grin. He’s cute, she thought, and sincerely hoped they all weren’t about to be gassed.
The few remaining kids were called up one by one until only Emily remained in the echoey hall that reminded her of an empty room in a museum.
“And you are presumably Emily Jones,” the woman said, still speaking into the lowered microphone.
“Yes,” Emily replied, somehow feeling her voice fill the room, although she didn’t believe she spoke any louder than usual.
“Come with me, Emily.”
A delicate hand touched Emily’s shoulder, and she turned to see Maggie standing there. It felt like she was seeing an old friend. She smiled at the woman who, upon closer inspection, could be mistaken for her aunt or older sibling. Not that Maggie was old. Emily guessed she was maybe in her late twenties. Then again, Emily didn’t have much experience guessing people’s ages correctly.
“I was glad to hear your parents decided to let you attend,” Maggie said. They walked through the doorway into a hall that seemed to be endlessly lined with closed doors. On the walls were painted portraits of people probably long dead whose names Emily didn’t know. Again, some of them looked familiar. Emily passed it off as probably having seen them in history books at her old school.
Maggie steered Emily through the last remaining open door into an office. “I think the whole uniforms thing won my dad over,” Emily admitted. The room was nice for an office—light furnishings in stark contrast to the dark wood on the floors, walls, and ceiling of the main hall and hallway. There was also a pleasant scent that seemed to be isolated in the office, like fresh-baked cake and cinnamon.
Maggie smiled gently and motioned for Emily to take a seat on the light blue suede couch. Emily was glad to be sitting after being on her feet for the last hour, saying goodbye to her parents, and then listening to Ted speak. “Thank you,” she said. “Would you like a glass of water?” Maggie asked. She
began to pour some into one of the two glasses.
“Yes, please.” It was humid—more humid than it seemed to get at home—but the hall where they gathered seemed to have better airflow than the office, and Emily hadn’t noticed it much then.
Maggie joined Emily on the couch and handed her a glass of water with a lemon wedge and three blueberries floating among the ice cubes. It seemed strange that a woman Emily didn’t know—aside from their two-minute walk down a hallway and a passive smile at her home months prior—would know her favorite way to drink water. She was about to ask if her parents mentioned the water when Maggie spoke.
“Do you know me?”
That was not the question Emily was expecting. “Umm . . . you’re Maggie, and you came to my house,” Emily answered haltingly, unsure what she was really being asked.
Maggie laughed, a soft and sweet-sounding laugh, not mocking Emily at all. “Yes, that is the obvious answer. Let me ask it this way. Do I seem familiar?”
Emily felt flustered, frustrated by the questions, and allowed her twelve-year-old temper to get the better of her. “Is this some kind of joke? Is this what everyone else is being asked? How do you know what I like to drink? What is this place?”
Maggie waited patiently for Emily to finish her outburst and took a deep breath before responding. “No, this is not a joke. I don’t know what the others are being asked. I will answer the drink question later. And this is North Shore Academy. Any other questions before we continue?”
Emily stewed and felt a little embarrassed by her outburst. She was mentally gathering a list of questions to fire at Maggie but supposed they could wait until her temper flared again. She shook her head.
“There are different degrees of knowing people. Do you agree?”
Emily nodded but remained silent.
“You know the person who delivers the mail, even though you might not know his name or his favorite color.”
“Bob and blue,” Emily said.
“Okay,” Maggie said with a small chuckle. “What I mean is that there are strangers you know by sight and with whom you are simply familiar, and there are people, like family and friends, whom you know more intimately, correct?”
Again, Emily silently nodded.
“We are making progress.” Maggie smiled, still warm and friendly, and without a hint of frustration. “When you first saw me, was I a stranger, or did it feel like you knew me? Pick any degrees of knowing you wish to use.”
Emily slid her thumb to intersect a bead of condensation from her glass before it dripped on her leg. “You looked familiar,” she finally admitted, “but I don’t think I’d ever seen you before.”
“Has this happened with other people?”
“Brandon Miller.” Emily nodded and bit her bottom lip. “And those paintings in the hallway look familiar. Are they in history books or something?”
“Probably not in any history book you’ve been exposed to, but they are important people.” Maggie paused for a moment and stood, taking a book from the bookshelf that was behind her desk. “As are you.”
Emily had flashbacks of being sent to the principal’s office in the third grade when she got in trouble for pushing a boy into a mud puddle and was lectured on the importance of how everyone is valuable and should be treated with respect. She let out a long sigh while Maggie thumbed through the pages of the book.
“What about these people? Do you feel any connection to them?”
Emily tilted her head at the picture and then took the book from Maggie to look more closely. Her brows furrowed. She felt a familiarity, yet also something akin to panic that she couldn’t remember why. “Yes,” she finally admitted but remained focused on the picture that looked like it was taken during World War II.
“This is Ava,” Maggie began, pointing at a woman who was probably the same age as Maggie, but somehow looked older—or wiser, perhaps. Emily felt a deep sadness as she looked into the pictured eyes of Ava. “And these two with her are Adya and—”
Emily interrupted Maggie. “Lydie,” she whispered.
Maggie smiled and nodded, taking back the book. “Yes, that’s Lydie.”
“How would I know that? These people probably died before I was born. I mean, this was taken back in the olden days. My great grandparents were alive then.”
“You’re right. These people were dead before you were conceived.”
Emily thought that was an odd way of phrasing it but didn’t have time to form a question before she felt something inside her change. It was like a burst of energy or an adrenaline rush. While it didn’t make sense, she felt like a part of her had awoken, and she understood.
Maggie saw the change in Emily but didn’t offer any explanations. She simply took a drink of her water while continuing to observe Emily, who was pushing the moisture around her glass of ice water. Maggie exchanged her glass for the journal on the table and wrote some notes.
In the silence, Emily fished one of the blueberries out from beneath the ice cubes in her drink and then set the glass on the table beside Maggie’s. Emily could’ve sworn they both had ice water when they sat down, but now only hers had ice remaining. She thought Maggie noticed, too.
“We’re almost done here,” Maggie said as she set aside the journal. “I just need to ask a favor of you.”
With a tilt of her head, Emily responded, “What is it?”
“I’m a little embarrassed, but I’ve been gone recruiting for weeks and forgot to have someone water my plant. Do you think you could fill this cup from the sink in the bathroom down the hall and water it for me while I have your belongings sent to your new room?”
“Water the plant? With the sink water? Now?” There was so much in the request that confused Emily.
“Yes. Please?” Maggie handed Emily a white coffee mug with the phrase, This might be wine written on the outside.
“Alright,” Emily said with a shrug and walked out of the office.
Emily had no idea which door was the bathroom down the hall. With most of the doors still closed, she was concerned she would walk in on someone else during their weird interview, so she kept walking until she reached the hall where they began their day. “Hello?” she whispered. No one was in the room, so she continued to the foyer and the building entrance, where she saw the red-haired pixie woman. “Excuse me,” she said as she stepped closer to the woman.
“All the Abecedarians are heading to their halls. I think you are . . .”
Emily cut her off, feeling a new panic on being left behind and failing this simple task Maggie had assigned to her. “I’m really sorry, but I just need to find the restroom.”
“Oh. It’s down the hallway, the eighth. . . .” The fairy woman paused and seemed to be counting. “No, the ninth door on your left. Can’t miss it.”
“I guess I did.” Emily chuckled nervously. “Thanks.”
Emily briskly walked back through the hall and started counting doors as she passed them. On the seventh door, she nearly ran into a person stepping out. “Oh! Sorr—” She stopped short when she realized it was Brandon.
He chuckled and held up a candle. “They have you running errands, too?”
“What are you doing with that?” Emily asked, feeling pleased she had run into him again.
“Taking it to Adamina.”
“Who?” Emily asked.
“Umm, that short ginger lady who called our names.”
“Oh, I thought she would’ve had a pixie name like Faye or Lily,” Emily giggled.
“Huh. She does look like a little fairy or something.” He shrugged. “Have fun getting your wine or water or whatever.”
“You, too,” she replied and then realized it sounded stupid.
As they walked in opposite directions, she called out without looking back, “Glad you didn’t get gassed.”
Emily thought she heard him chuckle as he rounded the corner into the hall. She collected herself and continued counting down doors until she reached the ninth. It looked no different than the previous eight doors, closed and unmarked, so she knocked. “Hello?” After hearing no reply, she slowly opened the door.
It was not a bathroom of the type Emily expected, not that she had put a lot of thought into what the school bathrooms would look like. She assumed they would be just like the bathrooms at her old school, satisfactory enough to do your business, but not really inviting. Girls are stereotyped as clean, which is far from true if you’ve ever been in a public-school restroom. This bathroom, Emily decided, belonged in a spa for wealthy people. Everything was so clean. It practically had that cartoonish gleam added to bathroom cleaning product commercials. The floors looked like white marble, and there were fresh flowers and lit candles throughout. Emily snickered at the thought that this could possibly be the destination of the candle Brandon was taking to Adamina. The sink was unlike any sink Emily had known. It was more like a water feature in the middle of the room, with flat spouts for the water to fall gently from when you put your hand in front of it. The water cascaded onto a pile of stones with small, leafy, happy-looking plants growing from it. There was airflow in the room, too. It reminded Emily of a spring day when she was a little kid, the kind of day where the sun’s warmth kissed her skin and made her light brown hair flutter like a superhero cape behind her.
The best way Emily could think to describe the bathroom was balanced and in harmony. She knew if she repeated the thought to anyone, they’d laugh at her for thinking of a bathroom in that way. Maybe she would use it as a way to talk to Brandon again and see if the boy’s bathroom was the same. I mean, he did suggest they were marching off to be killed, so at least he had a mind for ridiculous ideas.
As Emily filled the mug with water, she became aware of something she hadn’t previously noticed before; the bathroom was void of mirrors. How were girls supposed to check themselves after using the toilet? “Very strange,” she muttered and finished filling the mug.
Upon returning to Maggie’s office, she realized she didn’t ask how much water to put in the plant. She knew from gardening with her mother that it was just as easy to kill a plant by overwatering as it was by under-watering.
Maggie’s plant was a beautiful orchid, sapphire blue blooms with two long stems. Emily studied the plant and observed that it looked slightly wilted and sad. Could a plant be depressed? She set down the mug and held the pot in her hands. No, this plant wasn’t in the right place, but it wasn’t under-watered. Emily looked around the room and decided on the table beside the couch. After setting the plant down, she drew the sheer curtain closed, which allowed the flower to receive the needed light but keep it safe from direct sunlight. Emily added just a small amount of the water and set the mug on Maggie’s desk. Before leaving the room, she admired the blue flowers once more and felt like the plant was happier in its new spot.