“This Handbook was created as a supplementary learning tool for young witches and wizards. All young magicians should look to their tutors as their primary source of instruction and knowledge.” - A Handbook for the Young and Magical. Introduction.
Alton lay on his side, watching the red numbers on his bedside clock change and listening to the heavy breathing of his roommate.
The town house and the street outside were quiet. Of all the places Alton had traveled for his studies, this was one of the nicest. Too bad it also came with one of the worst tutors.
Edgar Daniels was a small, thin man with a nasally voice and a perpetually bad attitude. He ran his house like a military base and Alton was public enemy number one. It wasn’t Alton’s fault he was smarter than his tutor.
Though Daniels probably wouldn’t hate me so much if I didn’t point it out.
Alton looked across the room at Brandon. As far as roommates went, Brandon was decent. As far as wizards went, Brandon was horrible. He didn’t even seem interested in magic. He didn’t do the readings or the exercises. He’d sleep in everyday if it weren’t for Alton, and he spent more time texting girls than he did studying.
Alton sighed. Brandon was probably the most normal wizard Alton had ever met.
Alton rolled onto his back and closed his eyes. Daniels hated him and refused all his requests for a new tutor or to let him do more advanced magic. Brandon was nice, and they got along fine, but he was distracted and often needed the lessons repeated to him. They were holding Alton back.
Snoring broke the peace in the quiet room.
Alton’s eyes snapped open and he looked at the time. One o’clock. Daniels would be asleep.
Now that he knew Brandon was sleeping soundly, Alton threw off the sheet and quietly got out of bed. He grabbed his phone from the side table and went to the door. Turning the handle slowly, he managed to open it without the latch clicking. He was probably being overly cautious. Daniels slept with earplugs and an eye mask. The chances of him waking up were slim.
Door open, Alton crept down the hallway, sock feet slipping soundlessly over the hardwood. He paused at Daniels room to listen. There was no snoring yet, but the door was shut and there was no light coming from underneath the door. Alton continued down the hall to the stairs and made his way to the living room.
The space consisted of two leather loveseats, a coffee table, some paintings, and four bookcases. No TV. No video games. No fun in Daniels’ house. That didn’t bother Alton. He’d come for the books.
Most of the shelves were bare except for a few framed photos and potted plants—the kind of nick-knacks people that don’t read think belong on bookshelves. The top shelves were the only ones with books on them. There was an assortment of classics, cheap paperbacks, and one collection of four older volumes. Alton used the light from his phone to read the spines.
An Examination of Complex Enchantments: Volume I.
Alton slid the first book off the shelf, then paused, holding his phone against the cover to block the light. He thought he’d heard a noise.
He went to the doorway and peeked out. The house remained dark, Daniels’ door at the top of the stairs was still closed. Alton went back into the living room, closing the door quietly behind him. He placed his palm flat against the wall and cast a minor enchantment.
The already quiet room became dead silent. No noise would escape, if someone pressed their ear to the door, they would hear nothing.
Alton sat down on one of the loveseats and opened the book. Using the light from his phone again, he read over the table of contents. He skipped the introduction and historical notes chapter and flipped to the part on Advanced Enchantments of Inanimate Things. The first exercise was simple, Alton had seen it outlined before in a book he had similarly borrowed from his last tutor. He’d need the next volume to get any new information.
He had just stood up when he caught something move out of the corner of his eye, causing him to spin around.
The door to the living room was open and Daniels, dressed in a plaid bathrobe and worn blue slippers, stood in the doorway scowling at Alton.
“The problem with simple soundproofing enchantments is that you also impede yourself from hearing anything on the outside,” Daniels said, crossing his arms over his thin chest.
Alton sighed and returned the book to the shelf. He knew that. He knew you had to add a second layer to the enchantment so that it wasn’t soundproof both ways, but he hadn’t thought Daniels would wake up.
“I didn’t mean to wake you, Mr. Daniels” Alton said, trying to smooth over the situation before he got a lecture.
“You didn’t. I was already awake.”
“At one in the morning?” Alton asked, turning back to his tutor.
Daniels had an unpleasant look on his face, like he was chewing on a lemon and trying not to show it. “Yes. You have a visitor.”
“A visitor?” Alton asked in surprise.
Daniels turned and walked away. “He’s in the kitchen,” he called over his shoulder.
A visitor? In the middle of the night?
The kitchen lights were on, something you couldn’t tell from the bottom of the stairs. Alton cursed himself for not making sure Daniels was in bed before sneaking a peek at the books he’d explicitly expressed were off limits.
At least the visitor got me out of a lecture.
A stranger sat at the kitchen island, stirring a cup of tea. Alton had no idea who might want to speak with him so badly that they’d come to his tutor’s house at one in the morning.
The man stood as they came in and held out a hand to Alton. His black coat looked a little too thick for the time of year, but so did the dark green sweater he wore beneath it. He had a close-cut beard that hadn’t yet decided if it wanted to be white or gray, like the old men who dressed up as Santa and sat in malls at Christmas. Beyond that, there was nothing jolly about him. He was thin, with a nose that had been broken more than once and wrinkles around his eyes and forehead. They distorted his face in a way that didn’t touch his eyes, which appeared ageless.
“I’m Professor Victor Orvius. I apologize for the hour,” the man said. “I have business to attend to back home or else I would have postponed meeting with you until daylight.”
“That’s alright,” Alton said, shaking Orvius’s hand before sitting on the stool across from him. “It’s not like you woke me.”
“You’ve had many tutors,” Orvius said. His voice was hoarse, tired. He claimed to be in a rush, but his tone was patient as he casually went back to stirring his tea.
“Yeah, five including Professor Daniels,” Alton said.
“It’s unusual for a student to be moved so much. Your previous tutor told me it was because you surpassed their studies and they had nothing left to teach you. Is that correct?”
“I requested to be moved.” Alton said, wondering why these questions were important. “I felt like my tutor couldn’t teach me anything new.”
“You were ill placed then. Did you not take a test?”
“And you did poorly?”
“There are no wizards in my family,” Alton said. “When I was tested, I didn’t know anything about magic. I couldn’t answer a single question.”
“You’ve advanced significantly since then.”
Alton shrugged. “I read a lot.”
“Yes, your tutors mentioned that.” Orvius removed the spoon from his teacup and tapped it on the rim to remove a few clinging drops before setting it on the counter. Alton watched him as he sipped it and appeared to find it satisfactory.
“I’m looking for a student like you, Alton. I have a new method of instruction that is challenging and slightly… unorthodox. I need a quick-witted pupil capable of learning things without constant guidance from myself.”
That sounded perfect, exactly what Alton had been looking for. A way to advance, a way to really prove what kind of wizard he could be.
It sounded too good to be true.
“I’ll take my tests in a year,” Alton said, cautiously, trying to figure out the man’s motives. “I need to pass if I ever want to practice magic on my own.”
“My instruction will only better prepare you for the Chamber’s examinations,” Orvius said.
Alton nodded slowly as he thought about the offer. “What’s the catch?”
“As I said, the instruction is experimental, so I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t question my tactics while you’re studying under me. Aside from that, there’s no catch. I’ve already filled out the necessary forms for the transfer of a student and another boy is lined up to take your spot with Professor Daniels. If you accept, your transfer will be just the same as the ones you’ve done before.”
“He’s a professional by now,” Daniels added, “a flight risk.”
Alton ignored the slight. He’d made up his mind. “I’ll do it.”
“I have some tests for you first,” Orvius said, not blinking an eye at Alton’s agreement, “to make sure you’re as good as I’ve been led to believe.”
“Right now?” Alton asked.
Orvius removed an orange from the fruit bowl sitting on the far end of the island. He placed it on the counter between them. “Enchanting.”
“Giving an inanimate object a property it wouldn’t otherwise possess.” The definition rolled off Alton’s tongue without hesitation
“Very good. Do it.”
Alton looked at the orange. He’d come to realize that the difference between a good spell and a great one was in its execution. The trick was to perform it without anyone noticing. You had to make every move, every twitch, look natural. Spell Casting was fairly easy to do undetected, but Enchanting was much harder. You had to actually touch the object you were manipulating.
Alton opened a drawer in front of him, removing a knife. He held the fruit with his fingertips and began slicing. When it was in four even pieces, he put down the knife and sat back on his stool.
“Maybe he didn’t understand the objective,” Daniels said, smiling smugly as he looked at the mundane orange slowly leaking juice onto the countertop.
Orvius picked up one of the slices and pulled off the peel, popping the piece of orange into his mouth. Alton watched as he chewed, but his features never wavered.
Come on, who doesn’t like chocolate?
“Very good,” Orvius said when he had finished his bite of orange.
“What?” Daniels asked, looking shocked. “He didn’t do anything.”
“Do you have a napkin?” Orvius asked, looking at his fingers, sticky with orange juice.
Daniels was all but pouting as he retrieved a napkin from the cupboard and brought it to Orvius who wiped off his hands as best he could before he balled up the napkin, setting it aside.
“Spell Casting,” Orvius said.
“Like dueling?” Alton asked. “I’m not sure we have enough room for that in the kitchen. We could go outside, but we might alarm the neighbors.”
Orvius smiled, an ever so slight turn of his lips. “A simple spell will suffice.”
“Anything I want?”
Alton drummed his fingers on the counter, acting like he was taking a moment to decide, but he had already put his spell into motion, using the movement of his fingers to prompt it in the direction he wanted. A stream of white shot across the counter from Alton’s fingers towards Orvius’ discarded napkin. It made no noise except for a quiet creaking sound.
Orvius picked up the napkin, now frozen solid. He scrunched his fist around it, breaking the fragile, frozen paper which crumbled onto the counter.
Daniels snorted, obviously not impressed. It was a simple spell, true, but Alton’s execution had been spot on. Nothing extravagant, just effective and discreet. Wizards liked to be theatrical, but in a duel, it was too easy to anticipate your opponent's move from their body language. It was the silence of magic that made it so effective and dangerous. Give away your spells with dramatic flicks of the wrist or throwing of the hands, and you’ve given up your edge.
Orvius said nothing, ignoring the broken bits of napkin already beginning to thaw, and took the knife Alton had used, holding it up in front of him. “Illusions.”
“On a knife?” Alton asked.
Orvius nodded again. “There are two types of Illusions.”
“Optical: manipulation of the eye of a particular individual so only they see the change,” Alton defined. “Physical: manipulation of an object so everyone that views it is misled.”
Alton considered a number of his favorite illusions but couldn’t figure out how to use any of them on a knife. He needed to come up with something fresh and decided to start with a physical illusion. He focused on the knife and the air around it, how it caught and reflected the light, and before long Orvius was holding a stainless-steel mirror. The handle, with its decorative floral design, had stayed more or less the same, but the blade had been stretched like dough into a flat metal oval. The little teeth of the blade were still visible on one side, and the center of the oval was reflective, like mirrored glass.
Daniels walked around to Orvius’s side of the island to get a better look at the mirror.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, for my second trick….
Alton focused on Daniels’ eyes and how they brought in the dim illumination from the pot lights beneath the cabinets. He anticipated his view of the mirror from behind Orvius’s shoulder and made his eye see something that wasn’t there. Orvius saw his own reflection while Daniels saw his ex-wife standing right behind him, arms crossed, waiting in the doorway of the kitchen—just as Alton had seen her that one time she’d barged in looking for a watch she accused Daniels of selling.
Panic stricken, Daniels spun towards the doorway behind him. Finding it empty, he turned back to scowl at Alton.
“You little…” Daniels growled.
“Very good, Alton,” Orvius said, putting down the utensil which had returned to a simple, silver blade.
“You don’t even know what he did,” Daniels objected.
“He fooled you.”
Daniels shut up.
Orvius laced his fingers together and laid his hands on the counter before him. “Summoning.”
Daniels opened his mouth in surprise but was just as speechless as Alton.
“You do know what Summoning is, do you not?” Orvius asked, still sitting patiently.
Alton nodded. “The conjuring of demons from their realm to ours.”
“I don’t want anyone summoning demons in this kitchen!” Daniels said.
Alton wasn’t too thrilled about summoning demons either. “I’ve read about it and know how to do it, like, theoretically, but never actually summoned anything.”
“That’s fine,” Orvius said. “Your theoretical understanding will do, for now.”
“So, is that all?” Alton asked, hoping he could now get a few hours of sleep before morning.
“I believe so,” Orvius said. As he stood, his elbow knocked his mug of tea, spilling it across the counter.
Alton hopped off his stool. “I’ll get napkins.” He turned and opened the cupboard, searching for the napkins that were hidden behind two interlocking elephant salt and pepper shakers.
Alton paused in his search for a moment, mentally cursing himself.
This is probably a test. I should have used a reversal or evaporation spell.
But Daniels was constantly going on about “magical reliance” and rebuking him for using it when he didn’t need to. He thought it would just seem sloppy if he did it now, so he grabbed a fistful of napkins and turned back to the island.
He barely saw it slicing through the air before the knife was inches away from his chest. It paused just in front of him, tip first—perfectly aimed to plunge into his heart—before it ricocheted away, hitting the lip of the counter and then clattering across the tiles. Alton stared after it, shocked.
Orvius took a newsboy hat from his jacket pocket and calmly placed it on his head before nodding towards the counter, turning the tea to droplets which quickly dispersed into the air.
Daniels was staring wide-eyed at Orvius.
The knife had never touched Alton, but he wasn’t entirely confident his lungs hadn’t decided to give up breathing anyway.
“Do you always keep that defense spell around you?” Orvius asked.
Alton felt air return to his body, his chest heaving with the release of the sudden indrawn breath he’d been too afraid to let go. “Yes.”
“Impressive. It must be exhausting. Spells and enchantments are one thing, but a constant shield…” Orvius said. “But it’s unpredictable. You don’t want dangerous spells bouncing off like that knife did. You should keep it closer to you; tuck it around your skin.”
So, it had been another test, unlike anything Alton had expected—and he had passed?
“Does this mean you’ll teach me?” Alton asked.
“Our plane leaves in two hours. Go pack your things.”
Alton wasn’t entirely comfortable with the fact that his new tutor had tried to kill him, but one look at Daniels’ unhappy face had him up the stairs and throwing his things into a suitcase.
“Let the witch trials and the Renaissance be a lesson; refrain from performing magic in front of non-wizards. Modern science would crucify us faster than any religion.” - A Handbook for the Young and Magical. Section one, chapter 1.
The flow of bodies, the smell of coffee brewing at midnight, the fluorescent lights—airports were familiar places to Alton now. Two years ago, he’d never been on a plane and now he made his way through customs like clockwork.
As Alton followed Orvius through the airport, he dug his passport out of his bag. They’d want to check it again at boarding. He flipped open the black passport book to make sure his ticket was still where he’d put it. It was, slipped into a clear plastic pocket on the left side. On the right, a younger image of himself stared back at him from his passport photo— an awkward smile because no one had told him he wasn’t supposed to, barely-there freckles across his cheekbones, blue eyes, and blond hair, the shade some girls paid a lot of money for. He was sixteen in the photo. It had only been taken a year ago, but just enough had changed that airport security always looked twice. His cheeks had sunken in, losing the chubbiness of his youth that he hadn’t noticed he’d had until it was gone. His hair was cut close to his head on the sides now, only slightly longer on the top rather than the unruly curls that he’d had to push away from his eyes before the photo had been taken.
Alton nearly ran into Orvius who had stopped at gate nine. He looked up at the departures information flashing on a screen behind a stewardess.
“Canada?” he asked.
“Am I what?”
Alton rolled his eyes. Orvius had been like this since leaving Daniels’ house. Silent mostly, only begrudgingly answering Alton’s questions.
A feminine voice sounded over the speaker announcing their flight was ready for boarding.
Orvius led the way to their seats. Alton sat by the window and Orvius by the aisle. No one sat between them.
Alton only had his carry on and Orvius hadn’t brought anything beyond a novel and a paper he’d picked up at the airport, both of which he slipped into the pocket on the seat in front of him. They sat quietly while the passengers around them put their things in the overhead and settled into their seats.
Once the flight attendants had finished their safety demos, and the plane was heading down the runway, Orvius opened his book and began reading.
Alton got the hint, but he couldn’t keep his questions to himself.
Maybe if I start with something small, he’ll talk to me.
“So, where are you from?”
“New York, but I live in B.C. now,” Orvius said into his book.
Alton chuckled. “Do they have many wizards in New York?”
Orvius raised an eyebrow but didn’t look up from the page. “There are wizards everywhere. You think they only come from small fishing villages?”
“No, but every wizard I’ve met has been from someplace small. You know, away from it all. I guess I just can’t imagine coming into my magic in a big city like that.”
“You mean manifestation incidents?”
Alton shrunk in his seat a bit, looking around at the other passengers. Everyone was either talking amongst themselves or too focused on the take off to pay any attention to them. Still, it felt strange talking about magic in public like this, but obviously it didn’t bother Orvius.
“I almost drowned,” Alton said quietly. “Had my head cracked open on the rocks before being tossed around in the waves.”
“Your last tutor told me. It was your own stupidity,” Orvius said. “You’re lucky your magic manifested at all. Usually if it’s your own fault, your magic won’t save you. Out on the shore during a storm. Reckless—”
“I went in after my sister,” Alton interrupted, louder than he’d intended. “She shouldn’t have been there, that was my fault, but my friends and I always used to go out to the lighthouse during storms, watch the waves hit the rocks. She wanted to come, and I felt bad leaving her behind. She wanted to feel the spray from the water and got too close, slipped on the rocks—there one minute and then gone. I rushed over and didn’t see her, so I climbed down the rocks after her.”
Alton sighed. “Maybe it was my stupidity—there are signs you know. If anyone falls in, there is a number to call, and they tell you not to go in after anyone—but it was my sister.”
Sometime during Alton’s explanation, Orvius had put down his book. “How was she?”
Alton laughed. “Fine. Got her little body squished between two rocks right where she fell, still a few feet from the water. My buddies found her and got her out. She cut her arm up pretty bad, but I don’t think she even needed stitches.”
“How did you manage to survive?”
They were in the air now. The seatbelt light was off—and around them, people were putting headphones in and trying to make themselves comfortable enough to sleep in their seats.
Alton lowered his voice. “A shield. I couldn't breathe, and swallowed half the Atlantic before it happened, but then there was this wall between me and the water. I can still feel it. My skin’s wet, but I can breathe, and I’m not being bashed against the rocks anymore. I couldn’t control it though, so I just kind of got thrown around in the water until the storm calmed down. Luckily it was only a few hours, Mom couldn’t believe it when they found me washed up and intact—mostly. They had to shave my head, so they could sew me up—it took months to heal—I was bald for the longest time.” Alton ran his fingers through his hair, finding the scar that made the part in his hair take a jagged turn.
“It must have been very traumatic for you,” Orvius said.
Alton shrugged. “Cool story though. I guess I’m the boy who lived,” he winked at Orvius who stared back blankly.
Alton took his fingers from the scar. “Never mind. What I’m trying to say is that every wizard I’ve met has had their magic brought on by the elements, or animals, or even accidents with farm equipment—not everyday fears for a city goer.”
“Well, your partner is a city goer so try to be sensitive of others' experiences.”
“Wait, partner?” Alton asked, sitting up straighter. “What partner? I thought you’d be tutoring me privately.”
“No. The new structured curriculum I have planned will prepare you for a very difficult challenge to test your new skills. Part of that curriculum is teamwork. Something tells me you need work in that area.” Orvius opened his book again.
Alton slumped down in his chair. He should have known better than to expect to be tutored alone. Too good to be true was right. Every student he’d been paired with so far had held him back. He tried to be optimistic but was already imagining the ways this new partner would get in his way.
While he’d been silently fuming about this new information, he’d eventually fallen asleep. The smell of coffee woke him. He opened his eyes to find Orvius reading the newspaper he’d bought and two white paper cups on the foldout tray in front of him.
Alton sat up, stretching, and Orvius handed him a cup.
“Coffee?” Orvius asked.
Alton thanked him and greedily took the cup between his hands.
Orvius gestured to the empty seat between them where there were some milk and creamer cups and some packets of sugar.
“I didn’t know how you took your coffee.”
Orvius narrowed his eyes.
“Kidding. I take my coffee black.”
Orvius stuck up his nose at that and took a sip from the other cup.
“What? How do you take yours?”
“I drink tea.”
“You’re missing out.”
The look Orvius gave him implied he doubted that very much.
Alton took a sip of his coffee. A moment ago, it had smelled delicious, but it wasn’t sitting well in his stomach. He put down his folding tray and set his cup on top of it. A sudden bit of turbulence had him reaching for it again to steady it. His stomach lurched with the plane.
“I think I’m going to vomit,” he whispered to Orvius, who was still reading his paper.
“An eight-letter word for a card game played with pegs,” Orvius mumbled.
“Starts with a C.” He pointed to the crossword on the page in front of him.
“Did you hear me?” Alton asked, holding his stomach. “I’m going to be sick.”
Orvius turned back to his paper. “Don’t be.”
“And how do you expect…. Oh.” Alton looked at the passengers sitting across the aisle. “But there are people around.”
“You passed most of my tests with the utmost discretion. An admirable ability in so young a student,” Orvius said.
Alton had never done magic in public. Mostly because if anything went wrong, the Chamber would be all over him, probably banning him from ever using magic again.
Orvius is my tutor now and if he says it’s okay....
He pulled his duffel bag out from under his chair and unzipped it to rummage about the mostly dirty clothes until he found what he was looking for. Orvius eyed him as he removed a Hello Kitty PEZ dispenser, opening it up and filling the core with a handful of yellow candies he’d bought in the airport.
I thought to buy candy, but no Graval? I am tired.
He Enchanted each candy as they left his fingers, giving them properties that would soothe and settle his churning insides. It had taken him a long time to get that Enchantment right, and many of his attempts had made him more nauseous. One instance had him vomiting for hours. He’d never tried duplicating other drugs, but he knew some wizards did. You could make a living selling Enchanted pills—and not the kind that cured upset stomachs.
Once he’d filled the PEZ dispenser, Alton popped the head back and took the yellow candy between his teeth. He swallowed it whole and then took another, letting the second one dissolve on his tongue.
Orvius was still looking at him in confusion.
“It’s my sister’s,” Alton said, holding up Hello Kitty. “She wanted me to have it.”
Orvius returned to his paper, saying nothing.
The pilot’s voice came on the speakers then—announcing first in English, then in French—that they were beginning their descent into Victoria.
With no luggage to pick up, they got out of the airport quickly. A shuttle was waiting for them in the front. Orvius showed the driver their passes, and they went to the back of the small bus to sit down. The seats were comfier than the plane even if they were closer together. Alton had to sit with his bag on his lap.
Alton stared out of the window, past Orvius, as the shuttle left the airport and got onto the highway. To Alton’s surprise, their surroundings became less populated as they drove, stopping at gas stations along the way to let people off. Eventually the only thing to see in the dim light outside were trees. Hundreds and hundreds of trees.
“Cribbage,” Alton said, watching the forest flash by.
“Hmm?” Orvius had been reading his novel again and looked up at him for the first time since getting on the shuttle.
“An eight-letter word for a card game played with pegs. Cribbage.”
Orvius returned to his book without responding, but the corners of his mouth crept up just so, betraying his smile.
This highway has to end soon, Alton reasoned. Victoria was an island after all, they couldn’t drive forever.
Just as he was thinking this, the shuttle stopped, and Orvius nudged him to get off.
There was no gas station here. Alton found himself on the side of the highway, bag over his shoulder, staring down a dirt road with the end nowhere in sight.
“It’s not so long a walk as it looks. Come on.” The shuttle drove off with its few remaining passengers and Orvius started down the dirt road.
Alton followed, looking at his phone. The time had automatically adjusted itself in the airport. It was eight PM. While flying, he’d missed a whole day.
The forest was louder than Alton had expected. Birds and chipmunks and a stream bubbling somewhere close by that he couldn’t see from the road. Orvius walked ahead of him silently. After only a few minutes of walking, a house appeared ahead. It was a long one-story house with a deck that wrapped around the front. It looked like something you’d see at a ski lodge with its log cabin facade and thick stone chimney.
The area had obviously been cleared in order to put the house where it was, but the forest had reclaimed every inch around it as if the house had grown there by happenstance just like the looming trees.
Orvius took a key from his pocket and let them in the front door. The interior of the house matched its exterior. It had the feel of a cottage; old woven rugs practically beaten into the rough hardwood, a warm stone fireplace, and big exposed beams in the ceiling. It looked like Noah’s ark had capsized and a home had been put beneath it.
“You take a left at the kitchen and go all the way to the end of the hall,” Orvius said, voice quiet. “Your room is on the right. The bathroom is across the hall. I expect you to go to sleep once you put your things away. Lessons will start first thing tomorrow.”
It was still early, but Alton didn’t argue. Traveling had exhausted him. He nodded goodnight and went to find his room. He passed the kitchen, one other door, and a tall mahogany grandfather clock before reaching his own door.
It was a spacious room with a double bed, a wardrobe, a small desk, and an old piano in one corner. Alton didn’t bother with the lights. He left his shoes by the door and threw his bag on the bench seat at the piano before going right to the bed. He sat down and sighed with relief as the mattress sank comfortably beneath him. He removed his socks and jeans, leaving them in a heap on the floor and crawled beneath the covers.
It was almost silent. The grandfather clock ticked away the seconds outside his door. Alton imagined its brass pendulum rocking, echoing down the hallway. Sighing, he decided he would have to mention it to Orvius in the morning because he wasn’t going to get any sleep if that kept up.
He was unconscious as soon as his head hit the pillow.
When Alton woke up, he had to dig his way free of the fluffy mattress. What he’d taken for comfort the night before had tried to suffocate him while he slept. He sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing his eyes when he heard the strange noise.
Alton looked up at the ceiling, realizing that the unidentified sound had woken him.
Alton looked out the window at the driveway, but the noise seemed to be coming from above.
Unable to find the source of the sound, he decided food was a more urgent matter. He picked up his jeans from the floor and dug his phone out of the left pocket before dropping them in a heap again. He had one text from his mother asking if he had made it to church last Sunday.
She was going to kill him when she found out he’d just packed up and moved back to Canada without telling her, even if he was on the opposite side of the country.
Alton dug a pair of sweatpants out of his bag and threw them on before leaving his room, glaring at the grandfather clock as he passed it.
The kitchen was full of morning sunlight, pouring in from the picture windows. A bench style window seat ran beneath them with a couple of stiff needlepoint pillows at each end. Alton took a seat at the large oak table in the middle of the room. The counters were clean, there were no dishes in the sink and no smell of bacon or hash-browns in the air, so Alton figured he hadn’t missed breakfast.
He put his phone on the table in front of him and ran his fingers through his hair, thinking about how long it had been since he’d showered.
“Someone has hella’ bedhead this morning.”
Alton turned and found a girl standing in the entrance to the kitchen. She was wrapping a pair of earbuds around a cell phone which she then placed on the table next to his.
“Morning,” Alton said groggily.
She ignored him and opened a cupboard, standing on tiptoes to reach the top shelf. She wore a pair of black jeans with the knees ripped out and an oversized denim jacket decorated by an assortment of patches.
Alton tugged at the hem of his blue t-shirt. It had his old high school logo printed in the corner; the rest of it was a mess of wrinkles.
She closed the cupboard and went to the window seat with a granola bar in hand. “You got a name?”
“Are you Orvius’s daughter?”
She raised an eyebrow at him and bit off the top of her granola bar.
“Granddaughter?” he guessed again. She looked about his own age.
She shook her head and tucked her short black hair behind her ears. It framed her face, lying along her jawbone, bangs just stopping short of impairing her vision.
“Student,” she said between bites.
“Oh.” Alton tried to hide his surprise. Students were always paired in twos—except in special cases with private tutors—and always two boys or two girls. This arrangement with Orvius was becoming more and more unusual. “Orvius told me I’d be getting a partner. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Peer. Not partner.” She kicked her mismatched sock feet up on the bench beside her, reclining against a pillow that read ‘Home is where you are’ in bright red letters. “Having mommy problems?”
“What?” Alton asked, taken aback.
“Your mom wants to know if you’ve been pious. You haven’t responded, so I assume the answer is negative.”
Alton looked down at his phone. He’d left the message between him and his mother open, but she must have eyes like a hawk to have read it on her way by.
“I just saw it this morning; I haven’t had a chance to respond yet.” He pushed the button on the top of his phone, turning the screen to black, then touched the silver crucifix he always wore under his bed shirt. “When is breakfast?”
She wiggled her half-eaten granola bar. “It’s fend for yourself around here.”
This just keeps getting better.
Alton slid off his stool and started opening cupboards. He found mostly spices, dried pasta, and boxes of fig newtons amongst multiple stacks of canned soup. “Is there any cereal?”
“Porridge,” Reagan replied.
“There’s pancake mix.”
“I’ve never made pancakes.”
“Pity. I could go for some pancakes right now.”
“You’ve never made them either?”
She shook her head. “No, I have, just don’t want to.”
Alton sighed and went to the bread box where he discovered half a loaf of something that had more seeds and oats than it did bread and a single bagel. He chose the bagel and popped it in the toaster.
“Toaster’s broken,” Reagan said, after he’d pushed the lever down.
He turned to her. She had her legs pulled up under her now, her pale knees showing through the holes in her jeans. She shrugged at him and took the last bite of her granola bar.
Alton tugged up the lever of the toaster and took his bagel to the stove. Opening the oven door, he put the two halves face down on the rack and turned the oven on. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the counter while he waited.
Reagan was looking out the window at the garden and flower beds that filled the backyard, acting like he wasn’t there. Alton studied her, forgetting to be self-conscious of his disheveled clothes. He’d thought Orvius had picked elite students, but she was so unlike what he’d expected. He wondered if she thought the same of him.
Alton turned to check on his bagel and found a small cream-colored envelope lying on the stove between the top two burners. It was addressed to him.
He looked to Reagan again who was ripping open a similar, brown envelope of her own. She removed a little folded sheet of white paper and began to read.
Alton wasted no time catching up. The scrawling script was handwritten, the ink barely dried.
Library. Half past ten o’clock.
Alton tucked the note back in its envelope and looked at the time on his phone. 10:15.
“Shit.” He took his bagel out of the oven and put half in his mouth, carrying the other half in one hand and his phone in the other before hurrying out of the kitchen.
Back in his room he found towels neatly folded on the end of his unmade bed. He put his phone on the nightstand and stacked his bagel on top while he scarfed down a massive hunk of barely toasted bread and dug in his bag for a clean t-shirt and pants. Reagan poked her head in, knocking on the open door.
“Hey, bedhead. The library is down the other hall. First door on your right.”
“Thanks!” He said through a mouthful of bagel.
She rolled her eyes and left his room. He heard the door next to his open and shut. Then heavy metal music came blaring through the walls.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Alton glared at the wall before quickly gathering his clothes and towels, rushing across the hall to shower.