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My head strikes the floor and pain radiates through my body.
First thought: At least Ethan isn’t here to see me fall.
Second thought: I shouldn’t have worn these gigantic leather boots today.
Third thought: Ethan did seem to like my boots though.
I groan and climb to my feet as I wipe off my skirt and check for bruises. No major damage, except for my pride. A woman stands in my periphery. I feel her watching me, silently, unapologetically.
“I didn’t see you there, sorry,” I say. I just want to get into the classroom now. Hopefully none of the students saw me fall. That would be embarrassing.
“I did not see you either,” the woman replies.
I frown. “How could you not see me when—”
I look up at the person responsible for my fall. The six-foot-tall woman is dressed in a green business suit that brings out her skin’s copper hues, but she also carries a long, thin black cane. That’s what I must have tripped over. Reflective sunglasses obscure most of her face and mirror my surprise. Guilt drives into my chest like a slippery knife.
“I’m sorry,” I say, covering my mouth. “I didn’t know you were . . .” It seems like a bad word to say. “Blind.”
“And I don’t believe we’ve met.” Her voice is a bit gravelly and contains an accent, maybe German? The woman clears her throat. “You are the new student?”
“Yes. I’m Ingrid Stanley.” I stick out a hand but then think better of it. “I was just going to my tutorial.”
“Room 216?” the woman asks, knocking her cane against the door. “You are in my tutorial, then. I am Professor Jadore.”
I clear my throat and think about what Ethan had said about her. “Nice to meet you.”
“In the future, Ingrid, I prefer my students to be on time, sitting in the tutorial room before I arrive.” She taps her cane once on the floor. Through the window, I see the students inside looking out at me. I blush. “Just because I’m blind doesn’t mean I don’t know you aren’t there.”
Meekly, I nod, and then remember her condition at the last minute. “Yes, Professor.”
It’s unsettling to look at her face. Something about not being able to see her eyes makes Professor Jadore a hard woman to read. I’m about to help her with the door but she finds the knob just fine. Of course, she probably does this every day! Tucking a stray lock of hair behind my ear, I follow the professor into the classroom.
There are ten chairs in the semicircle but only eight students present. There are no desks. My attention is captured by a hand frantically waving in the air—it’s Sunni. She’s looking more presentable now, dressed in a turquoise shirt with fluffy sleeves and clean, dark skinny jeans. The dark shadows beneath her eyes persist, though they don’t affect her cheery disposition. I sit down in the empty chair beside her.
I part my lips to say something to her, but she shakes her head slightly. She points at her notebook, where she’s scrawled: I had a feeling you would be here with us.
Us? Before I can ask, Jadore’s cane taps the floor twice and any chatter in the room ceases immediately. She finds her seat facing the semicircle, feeling the back of the chair to ensure its existence, and then sits. The cane rests across her lap. She curls one hand around it, as if she intends to use it to strike at any moment. “We’ll keep this meeting to under a half hour, since I know you are behind on your projects. And I know some of you haven’t started your projects yet.”
I feel a lump in my throat. I’d forgotten this semester started almost a month ago, during the first week of August. We had no idea—the acceptance letter had been vague about the semester’s start date, and unless you’re already a current student, communicating with Sparkstone seems next to impossible. If Ms. Agailya hadn’t called yesterday, Mum and Dad would’ve waited another week to drive me up here.
Each student gives Jadore an update about his or her project. The first is an Asian girl named Jia, and she’s writing a paper about child abuse and the abuse of women and comparing it to the treatment of women and children in ancient cultures. Next to her, a tall, muscular black guy named Wil talks about something complicated involving computer engineering and mathematics. He polishes the razor-thin frames of his glasses as Professor Jadore advises him on the finer points of a particular mathematical theory. I have no idea what Jadore’s speciality is as far as academics goes but I figure that she must be well versed in a lot of different subjects to advise everyone in the room.
I’m in awe of the variety of projects happening in such a small, sleepy town. I hope that I can come up with a project that sounds half as smart as what Jadore and the other students are talking about. I have to impress them if I want to fit in.
The girl sitting between Wil and Sunni is next. She smacks her gum and plays with her stretched earlobe. Pierced septum, pierced eyebrow—I wonder if her tongue is pierced as well, and if it’s even safe to chew gum with a pierced tongue. She sits with one foot perched on the seat while the other swings impatiently back and forth.
“Misty. Where are you at with your project?” Jadore asks.
Her eyes, encased in heavy mascara and shadow, flicker up in a silent challenge. They make her light skin look deathly pale. I’m not sure if she’ll respond. If she weren’t chewing her gum so loudly, she might be able to get away with pretending to be absent.
“It’s comin’ along,” she says, snapping her gum again. “Doin’ more research, just like you said.”
“Good.” Jadore’s long, painted nails drum across her cane. “But I expect more of you, Misty. Your analysis of the romance languages last term was not worthy of a Sparkstone student.”
Misty shrugs. “I’ll try harder, I guess.”
The edge in Jadore’s voice makes it clear that her authority won’t be challenged. Beside me, Sunni stiffens. Misty ignores Jadore’s remark and pulls part of her gum out of her mouth, creating a long string.
Jadore moves on. “Sunni?”
“Yes, Professor?” Sunni replies. Her voice wavers slightly.
“Tell me about your analysis of the Venus flytrap and the prey that manage to escape it. Have the beetles that escaped shown any sign of intelligence that the others did not? You were running several experiments last week. How are they progressing?”
She steals a glance at me before replying. Her cheery demeanour seems to vanish under Jadore’s scrutiny. “Actually . . . Professor . . . I spent the past few days workin’ on somethin’ else.”
Jadore tilts her head. If not for her sunglasses, I would have guessed she was looking directly at Sunni. “Something else?”
“Um . . . yes, Professor. See, while I was doin’ some research in the library a few days ago, I came across this website, and there was some information on this guy. Maybe . . . maybe it’s not important.”
“Perhaps not. But if it is pulling your attention away from your project, you must report that.”
Sunni’s fingers play with a loose thread on the stitching of her jeans. “Yes, Professor.”
“Tell me what you’ve been studying instead of the Venus flytrap, Sunni.”
Jadore’s command cannot be ignored. A pang of fear twists around my spine as Sunni answers in the smallest, mousiest voice. “Joseph G. Campbell.”
The name seems to strike a chord with Jadore. Her back straightens. “Joseph G. Campbell?”
“Yes. He’s a theoretical physicist—or was, I’m not sure if he’s still alive, and, uh, anyway, he had some interestin’ theories about”—Sunni looks to Misty and Jia for support—“um . . . somethin’ called multiverses.”
“I am familiar with Joseph G. Campbell’s work.” Jadore’s response is slow and deliberate. “And I know it has nothing to do with biology, or insect psychology, or any kind of psychology.”
“Yes . . . I know . . . I was just . . . I just found it interestin’, is all.”
“If everything you found interesting was included in your study, Sunni Harris, the world would not have enough paper to print and publish it. Keep your focus, and you will do well.”
Sunni leans back in her chair and plays with her fingernails. “Yes, Professor Jadore.”
“One more question. On what website did you come across Joseph G. Campbell’s work?”
Sunni freezes. Her bright green eyes grow wide. “Well . . . uh . . . it was just a footnote on Wikipedia, for some book, that happened to be in the library.” She bites her lip, as if she’s already said too much.
“A Joseph G. Campbell book here, in our library?” Jadore raises a thin, sculpted eyebrow. “His written works are rare and out of print, and difficult to find. What treatise was it?”
“I . . . I don’t remember . . .” Sunni looks to me for help, but I’ve never even heard of this Joseph G. Campbell and would be no use even if I wanted to help her.
Jia speaks up. Her voice is quiet, like Sunni’s, but carries the maturity of a wise sage. “Excuse me, Professor. I was there. I was helping Sunni that day. The book was called Campbell’s Multiple Verses and we only looked for it for ten minutes. It was very hard to find much information about this man online, and Sunni was just curious about him.”
“I see. So you didn’t find the book?”
“No, Professor,” Jia replies. “We went back to our respective studies.”
Jadore seems to chew on this for a moment. “Very well. Sunni, I expect a more thorough update from you tomorrow.”
“Yes, Professor,” Sunni says softly.
Jadore looks around the circle and then speaks, her tone unchanged. “Ingrid. I hope that you have gotten a sense of what we expect here at Sparkstone. Have you any idea what you would like to study this semester?”
“Um.” I clear my throat. Clear and concise, that’s what Jadore seems to want in an answer. “Something to do with psychology. Or music.”
“You are a musician?”
“A . . . pianist, actually. And a harpist. I have my Grade 9 piano from the Royal Conservatory, and I just passed my Grade 4 in harp, with first class honours.”
This actually makes Jadore smile. “You will make a promising addition to this tutorial, I feel. I look forward to your updates.”
A sigh of relief escapes me. Good. I’ve impressed the professor. Even Sunni is smiling at me. I won’t be labelled as stupid or not smart enough, hopefully. “Thank you.”
I quietly take out my notebook from my backpack and make some notes about potential majors and project ideas. After another ten minutes or so of Jadore questioning the other students, we are dismissed. Some students, like Misty, leap from their chairs and leave the room as quickly as possible. Sunni lingers, waiting for Jia and Wil. Jadore remains frozen, like a statue, and stares out the window with her blind, shaded eyes. There’s nothing left for me to do, so I head for the door.
“Hey, Ingrid,” Sunni says. She follows me into the hallway, with Jia and Wil not too far behind. “So you’re settled in, then?”
“They gave me a temporary room, yeah,” I reply. I wonder if I should ask her about the blood samples and why she told me not to eat the food. I decide this might be too weird to mention out of the blue. “The room is pretty nice, but I’m looking forward to seeing what my actual room looks like. They say they customize it to your tastes?”
“Yeah.” Sunni bobs her head and smiles, but her eyes are saying something different again, as they were when I met her in the lobby. She touches my arm with her warm fingers. “Listen. I know what it’s like to be new and not know anyone, so if you’re needin’ help, or if you’re needin’ someone to give you a tour . . .”
I blush. “Oh. Well, someone already offered to give me a tour.”
“Who?” she asks.
“Um, this guy named Ethan. I met him when I arrived.”
“Ethan Millar? He’s on my floor,” Wil interjects. “Nice guy.”
“He’s very cute,” Sunni adds. The sparkle is back in her eyes.
“I thought he had a girlfriend,” Jia says.
Wil shakes his head. “That girl Kimberly? No, they’re just friends.”
“How do you know?” Jia nudges him lightly on the arm, and a brief, awkward silence descends upon the group. Wil smiles a bit, adjusts his glasses, and says nothing.
“I just met him. He offered to show me around,” I say, shrugging, hoping that I don’t seem too interested in him.
“You shouldn’t trust everyone you meet.”
I turn around. It’s Misty. I hadn’t even realized she’d been standing behind us the whole time. She bites off part of her thumbnail, painted black, and spits it out on the floor. Her stare challenges me to react to her behaviour.
Sunni just smiles and squeezes Misty’s arm. “I’m sure Ethan’s fine. Besides, Ingrid can trust us.”
Even Misty softens a little at Sunni’s touch. I’m not sure why trust is such an important issue. I tell myself that she’s just trying to make me feel welcome, but I’m getting that unsettling feeling in my stomach again, as if something is very wrong but I just don’t know enough to see what it is yet.
“Here he comes,” Sunni says.
I whip around, and Ethan’s weaving his way through the bustling hallway. I wave and he waves back, smiling as he approaches us.
“Hey!” he says.
I hug my notebook closer to my chest. “Hey.”
His eyes sweep over Sunni, Misty, Jia, and Wil, who are hovering around me. “You . . . still up for a tour?”
“Yes, definitely,” I reply, maybe a little too quickly.
“I was going to stop by the greenhouse, so I’ll tag along with you two, if y’all don’t mind,” Sunni says. “I have a key, so we could sneak a quick peek inside, if you want.”
“Sure,” Ethan said.
Oh. We aren’t touring alone.
“Yeah, and I could get us into the tech building, up the road,” Wil offers.
“The psych lab where I do work isn’t that exciting,” Jia says quietly, with a small smile. “We could always tour it later.”
“Hey, I’ve got nothing else to do this afternoon. It’s up to Ingrid what she wants to see.” There’s a sparkle in Ethan’s eye, a kindness that reaches out and touches my stomach and twists it into knots. He doesn’t seem upset that they want to join us, so I try not to let it bother me.
“Greenhouse, tech building—that all sounds good to me,” I reply. “I saw some shops down the road, maybe we could check those out sometime too?”
“The tech building is near the bakery, and the café,” Wil says.
Sunni’s eyebrows rise. “We could get a bite to eat there.”
I am feeling a little hungry, and I do have ten dollars cash on me. I think back to what my dad said about the meal plan, how expensive it is. Maybe, just for today, I could go out, but I have to be careful not to make it a habit.
Jia and Sunni quickly map out the most efficient route around campus that will hit all the highlights. Misty is playing with her phone, bored. Why is she here if she doesn’t want to come? Maybe she’ll leave us alone. She catches me staring. “What?” she spits.
“Nothing. I just . . .” I glance at her cell phone and reach for mine in my skirt pocket as I try to come up with an excuse. “I thought we didn’t get great reception way out here.”
All right then.
Everyone else is stuffing their bags into the half-lockers. I stand awkwardly with Misty. She doesn’t have a backpack or a notebook or anything. I shift the straps on my shoulder.
This laptop is going to be heavy to carry around campus.
Ethan steals a glance at me. “You can put your things in my locker for now, if you’d like.”
My insides leap with joy. “Sure, thanks.”
“I think there are a few lockers still available for rent,” Sunni adds as she reattaches the lock on her locker. As it clicks shut, her grip tightens on it, and she lingers there, as if caught up in another thought. Wil approaches her cautiously, but Sunni waves him away.
I wonder what that’s about.
I give my things to Ethan and he carefully puts them in his locker. “I don’t really use my locker much, since my paintings don’t fit in here, so just let me know whenever you want to use it. The combo lock is ten, twenty-four, thirty-five.”
“Thanks.” My face feels hot.
We leave MacLeod Hall and head towards the greenhouse, since it’s the closest. Sunni sticks close to me with Jia at her side. Wil walks ahead of us, hands in his pockets. He walks with his head down, because he’s so tall, I guess. Misty trails behind, still fooling around with her phone.
Ethan is on my right. I try to think of something clever to say to him, but Sunni pipes up first. She fires off a million questions: Where am I from? What do I like to do in my spare time? I tell them about my musical accomplishments, and Sunni squeals in excitement.
“A musician! That’s exactly what—!” She cuts herself off with a nervous laugh. “I mean . . . that’s great.”
I blush and steal a glance at Ethan. He’s also beaming at me.
“I guess I could play for you sometime,” I say.
Sunni looks away and nods, but the sadness is in her eyes again.
“You okay, Sunni?” Misty says from behind us.
“Yeah, fine,” Sunni says, throwing Misty a wide grin that seems insincere.
“You sure?” I ask. “I mean, I don’t have to play for you, I just thought . . .”
Sunni shakes her head. “No, no, it’s not that. Just . . . don’t mind me. Just . . . have a lot on my mind right now.”
“About what Professor Jadore was talking about, your project on Joseph G. Campbell?”
Jia sucks in her breath and holds it, as if I’ve just said a bad word. Sunni looks conflicted. “I shouldn’t have mentioned that,” she says quietly. “And neither should you.”
“Why?” Ethan asks. “Joseph Campbell, as in Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell? What’s so bad about him?”
“Not that Joseph Campbell. Joseph G. Campbell,” Sunni replies, her voice barely a whisper. “Just . . . I don’t know. His name isn’t that respected in academic circles, by those who actually know his name. It’s probably better y’all don’t say anythin’ about him in tutorial or anywhere else. All right?”
“Okay,” I say. I make a mental note to look him up later when I’m alone.
Ethan shrugs and reaches into his pocket. “I spend most of my time in a studio alone, so I won’t say his name to anyone. Anyone want some gum?”
“I’ll have some,” Misty says. She speeds her walk and catches up with the rest of us, holding out her palm.
“Didn’t the doctor tell you not to chew gum with your tongue piercing?” Jia asks. She looks uncomfortable.
Misty shrugs. “I’m not letting anyone tell me what to do with my body.”
Ethan punches out a piece into Misty’s hand and turns to me. “Gum?”
Usually I’m not a big gum person, but since Ethan is offering . . .
He pulls out the plastic holder for the gum, revealing two pieces left in the pack. “Aw. Here, just take it. I’ve got tons back in the room.”
“Oh, thanks,” I say, pocketing the pack and mentally inscribing likes gum onto the list I’m compiling about him. So far hot British accent and re-watch all David Tennant Doctor Who episodes to fawn over likeness are the top two entries.
We’re almost to the greenhouse. It’s across the road from the cluster of residences, right on the roundabout, near the main street that would take us into Sparkstone’s shopping district and private suburbs. The entire building is see-through. Cultivated greenery twists its way to the top of the structure. Behind the building is a group of maple trees, which acts as a privacy barrier between the main road and the goings-on inside the sheer greenhouse. I see two people inside, watering plants and making observations on a clipboard. I wonder how they install the blood-taking door system on a building made of wood and thick, transparent tarps.
Sunni digs out a white swipe card from her pocket. On the door, I see a mechanical black box with a pinprick of red light shining on the side.
So there is some sort of digital system to let people in and out. I know it’s in the school’s best interest to keep everything secure, but who’s going to steal stuff from a greenhouse? This is a little ridiculous.
“We won’t stay in here long,” Sunni promises. “I don’t wanna interrupt the others.”
“What sort of plants do you grow here?” I ask.
“Oh, a bit of everything!” Sunni’s eyes light up as she launches into an explanation of every flower, every vegetable, every bit of greenery that she’s studied and grown. Misty, who had been texting, puts her phone away and gives Sunni her undivided attention. I’m also listening, until something odd catches my attention.
Behind the greenhouse, in the array of maple trees, someone is kneeling over a large, black ventilation system. At least, I think it’s a ventilation system. It seems odd, though, to have such a thing on a greenhouse. The man—dressed in a guard’s one-piece, navy-blue overalls uniform and an orange construction vest—tinkers with the mechanical system. He hums a tune that ascends the scale in the key of A major, switches briefly to C minor, and descends the scale again in A major. The tune starts slow, in two-four time, and then speeds up to the point where all the notes seem to be hummed at once, and then just as abruptly, he slows the melody again.
I veer away from the group and peer around the greenhouse. I don’t want to get too close and disturb his work, but the tune has piqued my curiosity. He happens to lift his head and wipe sweat off his brow, and that’s when I recognize his face.
It’s the guard from the gate.
This isn’t suspicious, I tell myself as I back away slowly. The guy probably has lots of jobs around the campus.
But then I see it’s not a hand holding his wrench. It’s a tentacle.
I barely suffocate a scream.
“Hey, Ingrid! What are you looking at?” Ethan asks.
The rest of the group hurries towards me, except Wil. He’s stopped, one hand resting on his temple.
My scream wasn’t quiet enough. A snarl twists the guard’s face. The tentacle drops the wrench as it slithers back up his sleeve.
“What is that guy?” I ask.
I get no answer from my newfound friends. Ethan looks puzzled. Wil moves in slow motion towards us, concentrating on something else. And Jia . . . Where is Jia? She was just here a second ago.
I take my gaze off the man for one second. Just one. When I look back, he’s barrelling towards us. Towards me. The hatred in his gaze is so fierce I stumble backwards—into Sunni.
“GET DOWN!” she screams, and shoves me out of the way.
I hit the walkway with a thud. My head spins and the ground rumbles. What sounds like a lion’s roar echoes throughout the campus. I start to get up but Sunni holds me down and covers my eyes.
“Hey! What are you—?”
“Don’t look,” she whispers in my ear. “Please. Just don’t.”
“Why? I need to see. What’s going on?”
I wrestle with Sunni’s grip but she’s stronger than she looks. The roar comes again, but this time, screams follow. Sounds of explosions and something gurgling and claws ripping through clothing—is someone being ripped apart?
Misty yells something but no one responds, and I smell grass burning. I have to do something.
There’s a cell phone in my pocket.
Even this far out on the prairies 911 must work.
“Just . . . let . . . me. . .” I throw Sunni’s hand off my eyes.
Fire burns the lawn and creeps dangerously close to the greenhouse. The two people who’d been working there before are gone. The guard is also gone: in his place is a five-foot-tall lump of beige and red flesh and a large, screaming mouth with circular rows of small, dark teeth. Hundreds of tentacles writhe and squirm in the air. And Misty, she’s running towards the monster, yelling profanities, running into the fiery wall that surrounds the creature.
No. That’s not right. The fire, it’s coming from Misty. Her hands are shooting fire and ice, coating the greenhouse in icicles and patches of ever-burning flame.
“Is this . . . real?” I ask.
Within arm’s reach, Ethan is out cold, cuts and scrapes marring his freckled face. I have to make sure he’s okay. Trying to shake Sunni, I feel a sharp stabbing pain boring into my temples, and Wil is running for me, hands outstretched, and then . . . darkness.