Ismira © 2015 by Gordon Clemmons.
All rights reserved.
Published by Lamplit Creations
1st Edition October 2015
Published in the United States of America
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Good things come in threes. This story is dedicated to three wonderful women in my life:
To Nina for your love, encouragement, and perspective.
To Lorissa for your friendship, understanding, and time.
To Shawn for your insights, inspiration, and courage.
When I found out I had cancer at age twelve, I was grateful. I was relieved. My secret was going to be put to rest with one cut of a surgeon’s knife.
Fear came only when the doctor told me that my chances were excellent. His words stole my elation. I squeezed my mother’s hand as he spoke, and I lay my head on her shoulder. My tension relieved her, I think. It told her that in my hour of need, she was the one I needed. And I did need her. But I didn’t fear my cancer. I feared that my cancer wouldn’t go far enough.
A week later the oncologist gave me what she thought was wonderful news. They planned to remove just the one (the right one if you must know). I cried when she told me, but it’s okay for boys to cry when they have cancer.
Maybe it was the drugs, or maybe it was just the breathtaking anger of being so close to my dream only to watch it pass me by. Whatever the cause, I couldn’t keep my secret any longer. As I lay in my hospital bed, waiting in pre-op to be knocked out, I took my one opportunity to be free. I licked papery lips and forced out a single word to give myself momentum.
“Mom?” I said.
She was staring at the television, intensely not watching it. One of her hands gripped the corner of my sheets so tight that her knuckles were dots of blush on bone-white skin.
“Hmm? What’s up, babe?”
I hesitated. I considered retreat. “Mom, can’t they take both?”
She turned to face me, fully in the moment now. Her hand released its clutch. “Take both what?”
I swallowed. “Both . . . you know.” I pointed between my legs, and my plastic IV lines made soft click-sliding noises.
She stared at me, uncomprehending. Then a light came into her eyes, dim but quickly growing. It spoke of old memories reawakened. Had she always wondered? All those times she’d watched me gazing at the wrong magazines in the checkout lines. My interest in her clothes and makeup that went beyond a boy’s normal curiosity. Or maybe it was deeper than that. Maybe it was a thousand subtle things that weren’t quite boyish enough.
The silence between us stretched on and I wondered if it was too late to go back.
“Mark?” she asked. Her voice was cautious. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I want them to take both. I don’t want either of them.” I tried to swallow again, but my throat was too dry. “Mom, I’m a girl.” I worried that the last word—the only real word in my life—came out too soft. I said it again, louder. “I’m a girl, Mom. I always have been, and if I have to keep these . . . things,” I rapped the sheets over my groin, “I’m going to be scarred for life. I’ll be turned into something I’m not, forever. And Mom? I’m scared.”
Her chest heaved. I couldn’t tell if she was struggling against tears or if she was hyperventilating. Before she could answer, the anesthetist breezed into the room. He said something in a cheery voice that I didn’t hear. I took Mom’s hand and slipped my fingers between hers, keeping her focus.
“Mom,” I said. “Please. Ask them to do it. Tell them to. It’s my body and it’s what I want.”
“I—” Mom stood up from the foot of the bed, maybe to make room for the anesthetist, but probably to give herself time to process.
The doctor said something else, this time in placating tones. Mom cried. Dad returned from one of his many bathroom breaks, and he looked from Mom to me to the doctor. Could he sense the tension?
The last thing I remember before the drugs pulled me under was my mother crying and burying her head in Dad’s embrace. I thought about how good it felt to finally share my burden.
I came to like a diver in a deep lake. Consciousness loomed somewhere above, but it would only come in its own time. I remember thinking, the depths had to be respected, whatever that meant. I was pretty loopy. In that murky haze, I remember thinking, they didn’t remove the clock. The ticking tock is still clicking down here in the depths, but the depths have to be respected.
And then I was awake, and Mom and Dad were there, holding my hands and crying and smiling. The relief was so plain on their faces that I couldn’t be angry. I couldn’t ask the only question I needed answered. I didn’t care if they’d cured me of cancer. I didn’t care if the surgery went without a hiccup. I only wanted to know if they’d disarmed the bombs. Had they saved me from myself?
But I already knew the answer. I could feel it still there with a trembling hand. So I said nothing and smiled back and accepted their hugs and kisses. I was lucky after all. I was a survivor.
Little did I know, it was the second cancer that would try to kill me.
Not long after my surgery, Mom sat me down in the small kitchen of our Cambridge apartment. She said Dad wanted to be part of it too, but that she thought this might be a mom-only talk for the time being. I fidgeted and nodded, half frightened, half relieved.
“We should discuss what you said to me before your surgery,” Mom said. “Don’t you think?”
She pushed a glass of chocolate milk across the table to me, knowing it was my weak spot. The woman was diabolical. I stared at the beads of condensation around the outside of the glass, slowly tracing meaningless shapes onto its cool surface with my thumb.
When I didn’t say anything, she continued. “How long have you felt this way? Was that . . . Was it just the meds talking?”
I looked up at her. “Are you asking me how long I’ve known I’m a girl?”
She looked uncomfortable, but she nodded.
“I don’t know. Always? How long have you known you were one?”
She actually laughed at that. It was warm and surprised. “Okay,” she said. “Fair enough. But . . . how sure are you? And I’m not trying to belittle your feelings, hon, I promise. This is just something I’ve never dealt with. I want to understand.”
I stood up and hugged her, and she gave another surprised laugh. Her perfume was always so subtle, and I savored each time I got close enough to smell it on her neck. I held her by the shoulders at arms-length and looked her in the eyes, because that’s what serious people always did on television.
“Mom, I’m a girl. I was born with boy parts and I don’t know why that happened, because I’m a girl. And I’m scared because I’ve read about what’s going to happen to me soon. Any day now maybe. I keep hoping I’m going to change into a woman when puberty hits, but I know that’s not what’s waiting for me. I’m Cinderella wishing for magic that’s never going to come.”
Mom returned the hug and rubbed my back in that soft finger-naily way that only moms can. “Oh baby,” was all she said.
“And Mom?” I stepped back again so she could see how serious I was.
“I don’t want you to call me Mark anymore. I think people should get to pick their own names anyway, but that’s not the point. Mark’s a boy name. And I understand why you picked a boy name for me, but I’m not a boy.” It all came out. The thoughts I’d had for so long, sometimes in the form of shapeless longings, other times in clear inner-monologues. The more I said, the more conviction I felt.
“Well I—” Mom’s voice was thick with coming tears. I thought I might be in for a guilt trip, but she sat up straight and cleared her throat. “What do you want to be called then? Martha? Martina? If you’d been a girl, we were going to name you—”
“Ismira,” I said. “My name is Ismira. I found it in a list of Turkish names and it spoke to me.”
That caught her off guard. “Oh,” she said. “Okay. And I guess it wouldn’t be helpful of me to point out that—”
“That we’re not Turkish? I know that, Mom. It doesn’t really matter where it’s from, does it? I fell in love with it the moment I saw it. It’s such a beautiful name, and I want to be beautiful.”
A tear rolled down her cheek and her upper lip trembled. She let out a long sigh. “I don’t know how to respond to that,” she said. “You’re the most beautiful thing in the world to me.”
“You have to say that. You’re my mom.”
“Even if I didn’t.”
“Mom?” I said.
“Yes, Is—Izzy? Can I call you Izzy for short?”
“Fine. But Mom?”
“Will you help me be a girl?”
Maybe Mom had secretly wanted a girl. She’d been unable to have more children after me. Or maybe she was willing to be a little more indulgent because of what I’d been through with cancer. Whatever the reason, she did help me. She saved my life.
We researched together, Mom and I. We sat on her bed at night with the window air-conditioner humming and her tablet between us. We read and we learned. And there was so much to learn! An entire subculture to discover, and a glossary of jargon to memorize with words that sounded foreign and exquisite. Sometimes we just browsed makeup and dresses and watched junk-food reality TV, and that was equally special.
Mom and I became girlfriends. That’s not to say she stopped being a mother—she still took no lip or rule-breaking from me. Nor did we suddenly leave all difficulties and fights behind. But we bonded in a special way, and that’s the memory that shines brightest for me.
Mom helped me get drugs with interesting names, like antiandrogens and GnRH analogues. They prevented my hormones from making me masculine, and that was my biggest concern. No facial hair, no deepening voice, no heavy jawline.
She wouldn’t budge on the estrogens and progestogens though. Those would give me feminine features like hips and boobs, but she said I could make that decision when I was eighteen and that it wouldn’t hurt me to wait. I longingly watched other girls my age develop, but I didn’t fight her on the issue. She’d already accepted so much.
For three years I was hopeful and mostly happy. Three years of hopefulness seems like a pretty good deal looking back on it, but at the time it was just time. I had to remain Mark Fuller at school because correcting my gender wasn’t a checkbox option when signing up for classes. I got a lot of heat from people, but there was some support too.
I turned sixteen hoping for a car and a swelling in my chest. Instead I got a swelling in my abdomen. Ever had the flu? Well this was like the super-flu to end all flus. I hurt all over in my joints, in my head, even in my one sad, neglected testicle.
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Say that five times fast. It landed on me like a sumo wrestler, and I had the bruises to prove it.
Once again, Mom and Dad were my rock. They were strong and weak in all the right places. Even when I vomited all over the interior of Mom’s car, she kept a level head. She said, “Well Izzy, if you’re going to yak in it, you might as well learn to drive it.” And she let me steer us home. We were already in our neighborhood, but it was still a thrill.
The wigs were pretty great too. My favorite was a silvery-blue bob that I thought accentuated my eyes. Mom agreed. Mom the Strong.
Her strength was her tell. When she finally started to break down, I knew I probably wasn’t going to see the other side of sixteen. When she couldn’t meet my eye without getting that glossy, pre-cry look? That’s when I knew my time was almost up.
At my next checkup I was given a month to live.
So there I was, on the edge of the abyss. I lay in a hospital bed (maybe even the same bed I’d been in when I spilled the beans to Mom lo those many years ago), whacked out on drugs and in a delirious state. People passed in and out of my vision. Doctors, nurses, relatives from Christmas past. They asked me questions, or they told me how strong I was. Then everything faded. The outside glow of the window, the sounds of the life-support machinery, the footfalls in the hallway—they all faded into dark silence, and I knew I was going.
Only I didn’t go, gently or otherwise, into that good night. I recovered fully. Miraculously, some said. The doctors all shook their heads and said they’d never seen anything like it. My parents were beside themselves. I think they must have cried for two days straight. Not me, though. I felt numb. You don’t tangle with a tiger like acute leukemia and come out of it unscathed. I emerged weak and depressed. Miserable might be a better description. Isn’t it strange how everyone telling you how lucky you are—how grateful you should be—can make you feel just the opposite? Maybe I’m just a contrarian.
I reached another year, I blew out seventeen candles, and I wished to be reborn as a girl. I would accept the cancers and the pain and the scars, I told my candles, but couldn’t I just be myself?
My hair grew back faster than I expected, and my strength returned in a matter of weeks. So many positive things filled my life, but facing the start of another school year left me empty. I felt like life had no real meaning. Why had I gone through so much and fought for so long? Just so I could study boring subjects and learn things I would never use? Was it so I could be teased and humiliated by my peers? Or was it so I could get a job and make money to pay bills and then die anyway?
What the hell was the point? (I think it was Sophocles or maybe Plato who said that.) I thought about the faces of all my friends from the hospital. The ones who hadn’t made it. They’d have given anything to be in my shoes, and that only made me feel worse.
It’s true, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. Did I contemplate suicide? Naturally. Who in our world, after being dealt enough bad cards, doesn’t consider it? It was Mom and Dad that squashed the idea before it could take any real shape. Everything they’d been through to help me fight—all the sacrifices they’d made and the premature gray hair that stood as evidence. What a slap in the face it would be to them after everything we’d gone through.
So I carried on as a teen cliche, glum and disillusioned. I stuck to my room mostly, blinds closed, dreading the coming school year. Another year of people whispering behind my back, only now they could add “chemo-camper” to the list of insults and speculations. Another year of teachers fumbling over a boy’s name for a girl’s face while kids snickered and coughed insults under their breath.
It was dark, but I think there’s some truth to that old saying about it being darkest before the dawn, because at that lowest low in my life, I got my invitation. The invitation that changed everything.
It’s unusual to get mail of any kind as a teenager. Mail is for old people. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule, like when you’re a survivor of a serious illness. But this wasn’t something from the hospital mailing list (my parents did a pretty good job of filtering that for me), and it wasn’t a letter from a well-wisher. It was a single piece of gray card stock, folded in half and sealed with a blue sticker. And it was made out to Miss Ismira Fuller. My name. My chosen name.
When Mom handed me the card and I saw what was printed on it, I scrambled up from my cocoon of sheets and tucked my hair behind my ear (it really was growing fast). I read and reread the front of the card, looking from it to Mom and back. Then I felt awful.
The joy and relief on Mom’s face told a story. It said, “Oh thank god.” It said, “There’s still some light in my baby’s eyes.” And it said I’d been scaring her with my depression, maybe as badly as my cancer had scared her.
“Mom,” I started. I wanted to apologize for everything I’d put her through, but a new thought took me off course. “Wait, did you tell someone? Did Dad?”
“Tell someone what?” She glanced down at the card. “Oh, about your name? Honey, no offense, but it’s not something we talk to people about. I think we’re getting an A for effort in the acceptance department, but it’s not exactly a topic we share with the neighbors.”
“Fine,” I said. “But you’re the only ones who know.”
I turned the card over in my hands, feeling its dry coarseness. Feeling the weight of potential.
“Who’s it from?” she asked.
“I dunno. There’s no return address. Mom, it’s okay if you told someone.”
“Izzy,” she said, fixing me with her enough-is-enough look. “I haven’t told anyone—not even my therapist. Not about your name is anyway. Okay? Now are you going to open it or not?”
She came and sat beside me, warm and smelling of fabric softener. My thumbnail sat poised between the letter’s closed halves, ready to tear through the sticker.
“Maybe you should open it,” I said, setting it on her lap.
She pushed it back to mine. “If you really want me to I will, but it’s addressed to you. Why don’t you do it quickly, like taking off a Band-Aid? If it really scares you, open it and show it to me without reading. I’ll let you know if it’s safe.”
I looked at her sidelong and she gave me a wink.
“Nooooo,” I groaned. “I want to see it. I’m just nervous.”
I turned it over again and ran my fingers over my name, feeling the inked lines pressed into the paper. Then I broke the seal and unfolded my missive.
Leit Academy requests the pleasure of your company in October to be part of the school’s opening year. You will take part in an advanced studies program that will provide college credit and training in today’s cutting-edge fields, including computer science, bioinformatics, and genetics.
Upon your successful completion of our three-year program, you will receive an accredited bachelor of sciences degree at an age when most people are starting their sophomore years in college.
The costs of your tuition, housing, meals, and materials have been prepaid in full by the estate of Ulfred Leit.
You will receive a cellular phone in the mail shortly after receiving this invitation. It will provide you with all the necessary information, as well as the Student Terms of and Conditions agreement. Signing this agreement will effectively enroll you as a student at Leit Academy. Should you decline our invitation, you are welcome to keep the phone for your own use.
We eagerly await your arrival this autumn.
Dean, Leit Academy
Even after a second and third reading I had no idea what to make of it. I hadn’t applied to any schools, and I’d never heard of Leit Academy. “Is this a joke?” I asked. “Ulfred Leit has a school? I thought he died.”
“He did,” Mom said. “Earlier this year. It was all over the news.”
She took the card. The frown lines between her brows deepened as she read, and she shook her head slowly. “I don’t—” she started, then paused, staring into space. “I might have read something about this. A few years ago, before . . .”
Before I was dying and no longer needed to worry about an education. That was the subtext.
“Do you think it’s real?” I asked.
The frown stayed on Mom’s face, but she pulled out her phone and began tapping away. This was Mom in detective mode (one of my favorite modes for Mom, by the way, except when it was turned on me). I watched over her shoulder.
“Hmm,” she said. “Here’s their website. Well darn. It’s just a name and address. So they’re in North Carolina. That’s a long haul from us, kiddo. Oh, and here’s a link to their accreditation info, but we can look that up later. Let’s go back.”
She scrolled through a list of search results. There were several news posts about the school, most of them mundane. One headline grabbed my attention and I made her scroll back to it.
IS LEIT ACADEMY A HOAX?
JEFFERSON T. HELMS
If you live in Western North Carolina as I do and you have children, you might think you know all of the top private schools in the area. I certainly thought I did. Well, ladies and gents, you probably haven’t heard about the hot new secondary school that opens near South Mountains State Park this October. That’s because they don’t seem to want our children or our business.
Leit Academy was founded and funded by the late Ulfred Leit, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how much involvement he had with the school’s development. Some speculate that it was just another tax write-off, or a PR stunt from a man known for making headlines that were in his best interest.
“Bombast and piffle is all that man ever spewed,” decried his sister in-law, Evelyn, when asked about Ulfred’s intentions for the school. “How in blue hell should I know what his plans were?”
I phoned the school to ask them about their admissions policies, and I was told by one Winifred Tebris that the school had very specific criteria for selecting students. According to Ms. Tebris, Leit seeks only the brightest young minds. When I asked how one applied to the school, she said, “Not to worry. If you meet our requirements, we’ll find you.” Then she hung up on me.
Well, kind readers, in my twenty-seven years as a journalist and op-ed writer, I’ve never encountered such gall from an educator. You can be sure that I’ll find out more about this academy, but in the meantime I—
I stopped reading and Mom, sensing that, put down her phone.
“This isn’t very much to go on,” she said, and I could hear the worry in her voice. “They want you to come to some boarding school in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a card and a phone?”
The idea of starting over in a place where no one knew me filled me with something I hadn’t felt in a long time. It filled me with hope. They already had my name right, and from that small seed a garden might grow. I could make friends without a history. It would be school without the baggage. Or at least without extra baggage.
“I want to go, Mom.” I gave her my best pleading sad-face.
Her frown returned. “I don’t know, Izzy.”
“Mom, it’s a free college degree. And I could be myself there.”
“And it’s a million miles away. I almost lost you, Izzy. Twice. Your dad and I have been very flexible with you, and very accepting, but this?” She held up the card. “It’s too much. What if you had a relapse? Or what if it is a hoax? What if one of a million other things happened to you and I couldn’t get to you?”
“I’m sure they have hospitals in North Carolina.” Even as the words came out, I knew I’d stepped over the line.
She was now in angry-mom mode (my least-favorite). “That smart mouth just sealed the deal, miss. Your dad and I both have good jobs, and you can apply to any of the hundred colleges in the Boston area after you graduate high school.”
I wanted to rail, to stomp my feet. I wanted to make her understand. But she was right, and that made it more frustrating than anything. We’d been through too much together. She and Dad had given so much to me. So I resorted to sulking and resumed my angsty-teen lifestyle. But not for long.
As it turned out, the fates weren’t through with me. A week later, Dad lost his job, leaving Mom as the sole breadwinner. He was an executive at some boring company, but, according to the arguments I heard through the heating vents, it would take him months if not years to find another job at the same level. Suddenly the mountain of my medical bills loomed much larger, and the idea of paying for college for me seemed too difficult.
In the end, Leit Academy’s offer was too good to pass up. In the end, it was too good to be true.
Given Ulfred Leit’s renown for tech marvels and innovation, I guess I had visions of chic, modern buildings and auto-piloted futuristic cars zooming across an open campus. To be honest, I was so concerned about what the students would think when they saw me (would they see a boy or a girl—a loser or someone interesting?) that I didn’t put a lot of thought into what the campus would look like. I certainly didn’t expect my first encounter to be with a chicken.
As the taxi drove away down the winding, two-lane blacktop, I felt like a hitchhiker in an old movie. To anyone watching, I must have looked like a leaning palm tree growing out of an island of luggage. The air was warm for October, but a cool breeze tossed my dark hair and rustled the leaves of a thousand ripe soybean plants in the fields behind me. Autumn sure knew what it was doing in the Carolinas. Endless golden farmland stretched away to my left and right. The occasional gnarly tree or graying barn dotted the landscape, but I could see clear to the Appalachians under a blue sky. Carolina Blue, I supposed.
An old mailbox on an older wooden post stood on the far side of the road. Peeling stickers on its side spelled out:
LEIT ACAD MY
Two brick columns that had probably been in great shape during the Civil War framed a leaning wrought iron gate behind the mailbox. Beyond that, a gravel driveway wandered into a forest of fall colors.
Oh yeah, and there was the chicken.
It bobbed its tawny head and—I’m not making this up—it crossed the road. Why, you ask? Apparently to investigate my luggage. Maybe I looked like the sort who carried grub worms and corn. Maybe it worked for the TSA.
“Hello,” I said, brushing escaped bangs out of my face.
The chicken clucked a response that sounded very business-like. Just doing my job, lady, it seemed to say. No time for chitchat.
While my new friend strutted around and pecked at my bags, I fished in my backpack to find my phone. As promised, it had arrived the day after I’d received my invitation. It came with no packaging and no instruction manual, and instead of an Apple or Samsung logo flashing across the screen when I turned it on, bold white letters proclaimed: ISMIRA OS – Leit Academy.
As I pulled the phone from my backpack, the sound of an approaching car rolled over the hills. I grabbed up most of my luggage and shoved the rest away from the road with my foot. The chicken clucked in protest, but I shooed it into the field and away from the oncoming car.
It was another taxi. It might have been the same taxi I’d arrived in, and for a moment I thought it was. Had I left something in the passenger seat? But it was a different driver. A different car.
It rolled to a stop, and the passenger-side door opened. A lanky boy with tousled hair and crooked sunglasses stepped out. He had on skinny jeans and a t-shirt that read: RECTUM? DAMN NEAR KILLED’EM! When he spotted me, he paused, mid-exit.
“Is this the place?” His voice carried a pleasant sort of rasp. And did I hear a foreign accent?
“Uh . . .” I said.
He grinned. “Must be. When has my oracle of a phone ever lied to me?”
After paying the driver, the boy slowly extracted his luggage from the trunk using only his left arm. His right arm hung unmoving by his side throughout the process. On several occasions the driver tried to help him, but the boy waved her off. When all the bags were finally out, the taxi made a three-point turn and sped away.
My new acquaintance walked right up to me and stuck out a hand to shake. It was his left hand and, even after watching his one-armed luggage moving, it put me off guard. I recovered awkwardly and we shook.
“Mace is the name,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“Um’izzy? Is that Swahili?”
I laughed nervously. “No, it’s just Izzy.”
“Oh, okay. What’s that short for?”
It was the sort of question most people wouldn’t think twice about. It was conversational. But, being trans, I couldn’t stop my mind from running with it. How did he perceive me? Did he wonder if Izzy was short for Isaiah? His smile seemed natural enough. I’d go so far as to say it was a warm smile. And good grief, Izzy, chill out.
I decided to try a little attitude to test the waters. “Why does it have to be short for anything? What’s Mace short for?”
His smile grew bigger. “What are you short for?” he said, pretending to pat me on the head.
He stood on his toes to show how he could tower over me. I wasn’t short—not really. It’s all relative, I guess, but I was actually on the tall side for a girl. Mace, however, was very tall. Over six feet. And it was nice to feel smaller. Not timid or frail, just . . . smaller. What I liked to call my Inner Trans Voice piped up like a game show host inside my head. Size differences between males and females of a species is part of something known as sexual dimorphism!
“Izzy is short for Ismira,” I said. “It’s Turkish.”
He nodded sagely, stroking his chin. “Well that’s good, Ismira, because I love Turkey.”
And just like that we were friends. I never did find out whether he meant the country or the cold-cut.
“Is this your first time in the Carolinas?” he asked.
I nodded. “You?”
“First time I’ve been anywhere but home since I was nine. Where ya from?”
“Boston. Well, Cambridge.”
“Oh, one’a them yankees my pappy always warned me about.” He dropped the boondocks accent, reverting to his natural, interesting accent that I still couldn’t place. “Does that make you a Red Sox fan?”
“I—” Girls don’t like sports. But that’s a stereotype. But what if it’s a stereotype he follows? Well then to hell with him. Jeeze, Izzy, turn down the crazy. “Yeah,” I managed.
“Better than the Yankees, right?” He watched me over his sunglasses and his eyes read playful rather than confrontational.
“Damn right,” I said. “What about you?”
“Me? I’m not really into baseball. Or football. Or any sports really, except for curling.”
It was my turn to stare. “You’re joking.”
“Oh, you don’t know about the wonders of curling?”
“We’re talking about the same thing, right? A bunch of people sweeping an icy floor and screaming at each other while someone throws a rock at them? That sounds like a kind of punishment in violation of the Geneva Conventions.”
His grin landed somewhere between charming and adorable. “Oh, I’ll convert you. Just give me time.”
A clucking sound interrupted us. The chicken had returned to the roadside, bobbing and high-stepping between us. It crossed the road and started pecking at the ground around the mailbox.
“Um. Nice chicken,” he said. “Did you bring it as a pet or for food?”
An embarrassing snort of a laugh escaped my throat before I could stop it. “It’s not mine!”
We watched the bird in silence for a moment, then Mace took all three of his luggage handles in one hand and nodded toward the gate. “Shall we?”
I hoisted my bags. “Sure.”
What an odd pair we must have made. Mace’s suitcases all fought to go in different directions, and I probably looked like an abused Sherpa limping along under the weight of my duffel bags.
“Did you get a phone too?” he called over his shoulder.
“Sure did.” I dropped my bags by the mailbox and pulled out the phone to show him. “Hey, does yours show your name when you start it up?”
“Yeah, I know. What’s up with that?”
I shrugged. “I was hoping you might know. Mine—”
My screen lit up on its own, bright blue. Large white letters appeared: WELCOME TO LEIT ACADEMY!
My jaw dropped (it really did). I turned the screen so he could see it, and he pulled out his own phone. Sure enough, his showed the same message. Then we both jumped as the iron gate started moving. It didn’t creak and swing open like a cemetery entrance, but instead slid silently to one side.
“Huh,” Mace said. “Glad I packed more underwear.” He set off down the path, rebellious bags in tow. I followed.
The path was covered in leaves and canopied by those not yet fallen. It felt like stepping into a kaleidoscope. As we walked, a hawk dropped from an unseen perch and winged its way down the winding trail ahead of us.
“Whoa,” Mace said. “Do you think that’s a good omen or a bad one?”
I hitched up my bags. “I don’t believe in omens.”
“Oh neither do I. But I think it was a good one. I mean, that’s something straight out of Lord of the Rings.”
“Or Kickboxer,” I said.
He stopped walking and I almost ran into his back. When he turned around, he bore an expression so intense that I thought I’d made him angry somehow. When he spoke, it sounded almost cautious. “Are you talking about the second-greatest Jean Claude Van Damme movie ever made?”
I laughed, relieved. “I most certainly am.”
“Oh man,” he said. “I think I’m in love.”
A kind of nervous energy fluttered through me, starting in my stomach and working its way up to my blushing face. Fear chased excitement. Alarm followed something else—possibly an impending bowel movement. It’s just something people say, I told myself. He’s not flirting. To keep him from seeing the panic on my reddening face, I slipped past and continued down the trail.
“Hey,” he called after me. “What other movies do you like?”
We trundled on, discussing music and television, and somehow the walking and talking got rid of the nervous knot in my chest. I learned his full name (Ernest Burgis Mason), and that he went by Mace to avoid the humiliation that came with names like Burgis in school. I agreed with him that it was borderline child abuse, but I kind of liked the name Burgis.
We must have covered half a mile or more before we had our first encounter with another student. A thin girl with a long sheet of dark hair stood beside rolling luggage, one hand on her hip, the other holding her phone to her mouth.
“Why can’t he?” She spoke at the phone rather than into it, apparently interested only in telling rather than listening. “Put Daddy on the phone. No, put him on.” She glanced up when we came into view, and I waved (Mace couldn’t wave, what with his good arm wrangling his luggage). Instead of waving back, she gave an exasperated roll of her eyes and turned her back to us. “Daddy, come get me. No, I don’t care what we agreed. I don’t care! This place is in the middle of nowhere, and I’m standing in the middle of some forest that’s probably full of crazy rednecks.”
Her one-sided argument faded as we walked away and rounded another turn in the path.
“She seemed nice,” Mace said, and I laughed.
The rhythmic sound of the wind in the trees ebbed, replaced by the trickle of distant voices. The trickle became a torrent of conversation, shouts, and laughter, and we emerged into a clearing filled with people our age. There were small groups of twos and threes, and plenty of loners looking lost, but most of the kids stood in a big crowd around two giant oaks that bookended a large white house.
“This can’t be it,” I said. “Can it? I mean, it’s beautiful, and I love the columns and the black shutters, but there’s no way we can all fit in there comfortably.”
Mace scratched his head. “Maybe they have more buildings back in the trees. Ooh, or treehouses! How cool would it be to have classes up in the branches? Or what if—”
A group of adults emerged from a different path to our right. One of them—a little person with bright blue pigtails—must have overheard Mace, because she stopped beside us and let her friends continue on.
“This is just the entrance,” she said to us. Her eyes were an arresting golden color that shimmered in the leaf-filtered sunlight. “I’m Bridget. You’ll call me Miss Dax in the classroom, but Bridget will be fine in casual settings. Over the years, some have ventured so far as to call me Bridget the Midget, but I wouldn’t advise that.” Her golden eyes flashed, and I had the sneaking suspicion that Miss Dax was not one to mess with. Our nervousness must have shown, because she smiled and waved her hand. “Oh, I’m a teddy bear, don’t worry. It’s Collins you want to watch out for. Big as a grizzly and just as mean. The trick is chocolate-chip cookies. He’s a sucker for them. Anyway, we’ll gather you all up soon in front of the house. There’s an orientation of course. Can’t start the term without that. But for now, take a walk around and meet some of the other students.”
“Oh,” I said. “Okay, thanks.”
“If you want the best view, I’d suggest heading down to the lake. Everyone should see the school from the surface before we go inside.”
“Uh,” I stammered, feeling like an idiot. “Sure, thank you.” I hadn’t seen any lakes, ponds, or even puddles, but my discomfort levels were maxing out.
She walked away in the direction of the house, waving to some of the other students. Mace turned to me when she was out of earshot. “That,” he said. “Was bizarre. I think I peed a little when she said ‘Bridget the Midget’.”
I stifled a laugh. “I know. And what was she talking about? See what from the surface?”
“Well.” He craned his neck and scanned the area. “The trees seem to open up behind the house. Maybe there’s a lake back there.”
“Want to check it out?” I let my bags fall to the ground.
“Wild horses couldn’t stop me.” I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or genuine.
We milled through the students and past one of the great trees. Beyond the house, the land sloped down and the trees thinned. More students sat in groups in the disparate patches of sunlight, chatting and enjoying the weather.
“So . . .” I said. “Am I picking up an accent?”
“Not that I’ve noticed,” Mace said. “But I’ve only known you for half an hour.”
“Smart ass. I mean do you have an accent?”
He shrugged. “I guess I still do. I mean, we all do, right? But mine is muddled. I lived in Namibia until I was nine. My parents were with Doctors Without Borders over there. Then Mom got sick and we moved to the D.C. area. It’s where they’re from. Anyway, I guess I still have a bit of Namibian dust on me.”
“Well that makes my white-bread life in Cambridge sound pretty dull.”
“I love white bread,” he said with that hard-to-read smile.
I noticed a quartet of boys sitting on the lawn ahead of us. They were laughing and shoving one another and, well, being boys. When we passed, one of the four leapt up and fell into step beside me. He was almost as tall as Mace, but his biceps stretched his sleeves, and his hair was neatly trimmed.
“Hi,” he said.
I looked at him and then down at my feet. “Hi?”
“I’m Fen. What’s your name?” His words came out hurried, like he wanted to get to more important details but knew he had to go through the formalities first.
“Izzy,” I said.
“And I’m Mace.” Mace held out his left hand and his arm brushed my stomach.
“Not talking to you, friend,” Fen said, his eyes not leaving me. He ignored Mace’s outstretched hand. “So, Izzy, you look like you could use a guide. I’ve been here for a few hours, and I’d be happy to show you around.”
Mace let his arm drop, but I took his hand in mine before I could think about what I was doing. Insulting my friends—even new friends—was no bueno. Close friends had been few and far between in my life, so I might have been a bit more ferocious about it than was normal.
“We’re doing just fine,” I said. “Besides, I like exploring. The joy is in the discovery, right?”
I glanced over at Mace. He was staring straight ahead and doing a poor job of hiding a smug grin.
“What, with this guy?” Fen finally looked at Mace. “Come on.”
“He’s my bodyguard,” I said, feeling sassy. “And he has a license to kill. I’m Belorussian royalty if you must know.”
Mace barked a surprised laugh, and for a moment Fen’s charming prep school smile faltered. Only for a moment though.
“Whatever you say,” Fen said, shaking his head. “I’ll see you around, then. When you want a man, just give me a call.”
I rolled my eyes. “Bye.”
Mace mimed vomiting. “What a dill-hole.”
I laughed—something I seemed to be doing a lot with Mace. “A dill-hole? That’s a new one on me.”
“Just something my dad says.”
After Fen returned to his group, I let go of Mace’s hand. “Sorry about that.”
“Well you should be,” he said. “I hate when cute girls hold my hand. I can’t begin to explain what a downer that is.”
Before I could stop it, a hiccup of nervous excitement came up like a helium-belch. I slapped both hands over my mouth in horror and probably went three shades of red, but Mace was either deaf or incredibly polite. He strolled along as if nothing had happened.
We walked down the hill and the clearing widened. All I could think was: Be careful, Izzy. You have to be careful, because you might like this guy already. And it’s okay to like him, but you better not LIKE him. You know that will never work.
“Iz?” Mace said, breaking my thoughts.
“Don’t you want to know about my arm? Everybody else does.”
“Sure,” I said, “but can’t a girl be considerate? If we’re going to be friends, you should cherish this while it lasts, because I’m kind of an ass once you get to know me.”
He grinned and shook his head. “Nice.”
“So what happened? Did your professional arm-wrestling career come to a screeching halt when you reached the world championships and had to face off against a grizzly bear?” I sucked in a breath in mock surprise. “Ooh, are you the one-armed bandit I always hear about?”
He was really laughing now—a good, long laugh. “A one-armed bandit is a nickname for a slot machine, Iz.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well that makes much more sense. But enough sidestepping. Spill it. We can trade war stories.”
“Oh?” His eyebrows raised. “You have some to tell?”
He nodded. “As you wish. Shortly after we moved back to the States, Mom was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. A year later she was gone. It was just me and Dad, and he did the best he could. Single dad, hero of the PTA, and all that. By the time I was fifteen or so, we’d worked out a routine. Things were almost normal again when I started getting these horrible back pains. Turns out I’d developed ependymomas on my spinal cord. They’re a kind of tumor. They worked their way up my spine and into my brain, and I was supposed to die. You know how you can never get a straight answer out of a doctor? Well there had never been a universal consensus about my condition throughout my treatments, but every one of them agreed I was a goner.”
He took a breath. “I came close. It was the weirdest thing. One day I overheard someone telling my dad that he should make funeral arrangements, and the next day I was improving. A week later I was eating everything in sight and I felt great. Better than great. Well, except for this.” He slapped his right arm with his left hand. “The ependymomas left me with a souvenir. But there’s always a silver lining. I can spin in place really fast and slap the hell out of someone.”
“That’s seriously scary,” I said.
“Oh, don’t let my deadly weapon scare you. I’m a pacifist.”
“No, not that. Your story. It’s almost identical to mine.” I tucked loose hair behind my ear.
He raised his eyebrows. “Do tell.”
I gave him the short version of my past, sticking only to the leukemia. Because how would the conversation go otherwise? Oh yeah, and one of my balls was removed. But don’t worry, I still have the other! Then I could turn right around and walk back to Massachusetts.
“We should buy a lottery ticket,” Mace said when I’d finished. “What are the odds that we’d meet right off the bat?”
“That depends,” I said. “I’ve been wondering about the invitation ever since I got it. Thinking maybe it was too good to be true, you know? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t apply to any boarding schools. My name wasn’t on any lists except the funeral mailers. But Leit found me somehow.” And they knew my chosen name. “I dunno, maybe they gave some free rides to cancer kids. That was Dad’s theory.”
He nodded, considering it. “Stranger things have happened, I guess. I didn’t apply here either. I wasn’t even going to come, but Dad researched it and said getting a free college degree was a no-brainer. He said some time away would do us both some good too.”
Mace put his good hand in his pocket and slipped into silence for a bit. I didn’t push. Eventually he shook his head and stared up into the trees. “After everything Dad and I went through with my treatments, and with Mom . . . I think he’s scared. I’ve seen him some nights, sitting at the dinner table with a pile of medical bills. My medical bills. He just stares at them and runs his hands through what’s left of his hair.” Mace sighed. “Anyway, maybe you’re right. Maybe some of us got scholarships or something.”
“It’s still weird, though, right? With the phones and everything?”
“Totally bizarre,” he agreed.
We found the lake. It was kind of impossible not to. It wasn’t the sort of country pond you find dotting rural landscapes; it was massive. The far shore was distant enough to be hazy and indistinguishable from the trees on its banks. Beyond that, low mountains rose like colossal piles of autumn leaves. As beautiful as its surroundings were, the water itself was the most captivating feature. It reminded me of postcards I’d gotten from a survivor-friend who’d traveled to Puerto Rico to celebrate his recovery. Crystal blue.
Mace gripped my shoulder, then pointed.
“What?” I asked, too distracted by his touch to really focus on anything else.
“I have no idea what,” he said.
I looked at him in profile and saw astonishment on his pale face. When I followed his pointing finger I realized why.
Deep below the clear waters, an enormous dome rose from the lake floor. It was hard to tell just how big it was from so far away—even harder due to the water’s distortion—but it had to be the size of a city block. Maybe bigger. Dozens of smaller structures connected to the dome through transparent tunnels. It was like a giant wheel with the central dome as the hub.
A cloud passed over the sun, and a million tiny lights were made evident in the underwater campus. They flickered along the tunnels and buildings like stars in an undersea galaxy. With the clouds came a strong breeze, and the vision rippled under the buffeted surface. Other students stood along the shoreline, equally enamored with the sight of our new school.
I finally understood Miss Dax’s words.
“Well done, Ulfie,” Mace whispered.
I could only stare.
A tall man with round glasses and graying hair stood in front of the house, his arms raised to get everyone’s attention. He wore a light gray sweatshirt that matched his hair and contrasted against his impossibly-dark skin. When he spoke, it was low and melodious.
“Settle down, settle down. Yes, that means those in the back too. Good. My name is Terrance Collins, and I only tell you my first name because I know you little hackers and hackettes would find it eventually. You can call me Mr. Collins or Tailspin. If you call me Terrance or Terry, I won’t respond. And if you call me Mr. T, well . . . I pity the fool who tries.”
He lowered his arms. “Leave your bags up top. We’ll see that they get to your rooms. If you haven’t put your name on them, do so now.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “This is the Gatehouse. It’s how we mere mortals get in and out of the school proper, and it’s where you should all go now, single-file. Let’s move it.”
With that, he leaned back against one of the giant columns and wedged a toothpick between his lips. As students shuffled past, he nodded to them and chewed on the splinter.
“Collins,” Mace said, turning to me. “Isn’t he the one Miss Dax warned us about?”
“I think so. He seems nice enough. What’s with that nickname, though? Tailspin?”
A playful grin came over Mace. “Maybe he’s a dancer?”
I tried to picture the giant man pirouetting in ballet slippers and snorted a laugh. “I’m thinking no.”
“So,” he said. “What do you think is behind those doors?”
“Oh, probably a meat-processing plant where we’ll be ground into sausages or something. Nothing out of the ordinary. What’s your theory?”
“I really hope it’s a giant version of those vacuum tubes that banks use in their drive-throughs. I’ve always wanted to ride in one.”
“Ooh, yeah. Yours is way better.”
As we mounted the porch, a familiar voice spoke behind me. “So what were you in for, Izzy? Cancer, right? Or were you one of the healthy ones?”
It was Fen. I wanted to ignore him—really I did—but my curiosity was too much to bear. And I’ll admit it; getting attention from a boy because I was a girl gave me a strange thrill that made me want to smile and then slap myself.
“What are you rambling about back there?” I asked, trying to sound bored.
He came up beside us, and an Asian boy next to him laughed into his hand. “She doesn’t know. I thought all the students here were supposed to be smart.” The boy fained a surprised expression when I glared at him. In a sorry-not-sorry tone, he finished with, “No offense.”
Mace started to say something, but held his tongue as we passed Mr. Collins. The teacher’s big eyes watched us with a sort of amusement. Whatcha gonna do about that insult, kid? his look seemed to ask. When I faced forward and resumed walking, the big man shrugged his shoulders.
“Howdy, Tailspin,” Fen said as he passed, as if they were old friends.
“Keep it moving,” Collins said. Mace and I grinned.
We passed through the double doors and our eyes adjusted to the dark interior. Where the house’s walls and doorways should’ve been, there was only sloping concrete. The floor led us below ground-level and onto the center platform of what looked like a subway station. To our left, a line of small, open-top cars slid towards us, each with three chairs and a space for a wheelchair. On the right, those same cars moved away into a dark, descending tunnel. The students ahead of us hopped into the cars on the right and were carried away. It was like a theme park ride without music or lap-bars.
As I watched the procession, I realized something. There was an unusually high number of people in wheelchairs. Have you ever wondered why there are so many handicapped parking spaces at grocery stores? Well there would be a shortage at Leit Academy. At least one in ten students rode in a wheelchair or had obvious prosthetics.
There were some sweet rides. Some of the students were clearly gear-heads with a knack for engineering. One girl’s chair seemed to steer itself through the crowd as she chatted with a friend. She made lots of gestures with her hands and never once needed to watch where she was going.
I stepped to the side and waited for Fen and his friend to move on. As curious as I was about what Fen had said, I got a bad vibe from him, and I wanted to enjoy discovering this underwater school without being hassled. Fen had seemed interested in me when Mace and I first met him, and I’d seen the way teenage boys acted around girls of interest.
Case in point: a boy from my old school had it bad for one of our classmates. He flirted shamelessly with her in homeroom every day. He would do something stupid, and she would giggle and roll her eyes, and so it went. Then one day he took it too far. He picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. She squealed and begged for him to put her down, but he spun her around instead. The whole thing was embarrassing enough, but he lost his balance and dumped her over a desk. Long story short: the girl needed three stitches, and everyone on my side of the classroom learned firsthand that she wasn’t a natural blond. The moral of the story is twofold. First, semper ubi sub ubi. Second, stay away from stupid boys.
Fen and his friend shuffled past. “Aww, I think you scared her,” his friend said. Fen laughed.
“No, honey,” I replied. “It’s just that I ordered a turd-free car.”
Fen laughed at that too and punched his friend on the shoulder. The pair ran off down the platform, taking turns being shover and shovee.
Mace fist-bumped me. “Nice.”
I hopped into the nearest car and Mace followed. Life was feeling pretty good.
For several minutes we rode down into the earth in almost total darkness. Faint white lights lined the sloping walls at even intervals, and occasionally someone’s phone would blaze to life, but otherwise it was pretty creepy.
Around the time I started to go from mildly nervous to to full-blown frightened, the car lurched and we leveled out. Mace and I sat up straighter when we saw the line of cars and students stretching into a tunnel of blue-green light ahead. I had the impression of entering a wormhole in a science-fiction movie. What we actually entered surpassed anything I’d seen from special effects.
“Whoa,” was all Mace could manage.
“Shyeah,” I breathed.
We rolled into one of the glass tunnels on the lake floor. Faint sunlight shimmered and rippled through deep water, casting alternating stripes of light and shadow through the leaves of great aquatic plants that rocked slowly in the currents above. A trio of turtles swam alongside our car, lazily stroking and paying us no mind. Fish darted between the plants and rocky outcroppings. Everyone had their phones out, taking photos and shooting videos. Shouts of amazement moved back through the trailing cars like a wave as each new set of students emerged from darkness into water-light.
“I didn’t know this kind of stuff lived in lakes,” I said. My neck ached from the strain of looking up, but I wasn’t about to stop.
“I don’t think they do,” Mace said. “At least, not in any I’ve heard of. Have you ever seen a lake this blue before?”
“I’ve never seen a lake in person before. We always went to the beach.”
Far ahead, the central dome of the school emerged from the deep blue like some great eye on the face of the world. Other connecting tunnels came into view, and we spotted teachers and students walking through them.
Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Mace and I about the tunnel. A few students forced their eyes closed and seemed ready to try crawling their way back to the surface.
Before we reached the dome, we glided into another covered tunnel that housed our exit point. A strong gust of air buffeted us when we passed through, and our ears popped from an increase in pressure. Most of the students climbed out onto the platform, but some seemed to want to go around for another ride, and no one stopped them. Mace and I hopped out.
The central dome reminded me of a sports arena. A wide, glassed-in walkway ringed an inner stadium, and a circular stage sat low in its center like the pupil in an iris of seats. The dome itself rose a hundred feet overhead, providing a glossy window to the lake beyond and creating eerie acoustics with the drone of a hundred voices. A few adults stood at intervals, herding us around and inside.
We took our seats, and Mace produced a silver dollar in his left hand. He rolled it down his knuckles and back up again. “How many students do you think are here?” he asked. When he noticed me watching his trick, he dropped his arm and the coin vanished. “Sorry, it’s just a thing I do. When you only have one good hand, you have to keep it nimble. Also, how else am I going to be the fastest gun in the West?”
“An understandable concern,” I said. “What with all the gunslingers in these here parts. And I don’t know.” I looked around. “I’d guess there are maybe a hundred people in here so far. Plenty more to come, though.”
The minutes passed, and students continued to file in to the arena. Two girls sat directly in front of Mace and me, and I recognized one of them as the girl from the trail. Apparently Daddy hadn’t come to get her. She flipped back her long, dark hair and breathed a sigh of disgust. “Are they serious with this place?” she said to the girl beside her. “I went from fresh air and hot surfers to a glass prison under a lake at the ass-end of the world.”
Her friend nodded vaguely. Everything about the other girl was short. Her stature, her blond pixie hair, and apparently her attention span.
“How can you not love this place?” Mace said to them.
Both girls turned to stare. Pixie-head seemed indifferent, but Daddy’s girl looked annoyed. “Was I talking to you?”
“Probably not,” Mace said. “But we’re all friends here, right? In it together? A brave new world? I’m Mace by the way, and this is Ismira.”
“And I’m leaving,” said the long-haired girl. She got up and sidled out of the row of seats, muttering about the injustice of her life. Her pixie-headed friend shrugged and followed.
“You’re a charmer,” I said, grinning.
“Oh, the girls, they flock to me.”
Just then, a large woman in a knee-length skirt and blood-red blouse took the stage. “Settle down, settle down.” Her words filled the dome from a hidden speaker system, but I doubted she needed the assistance. As out of breath as she sounded, I was sure her brassy voice could carry to the back of the stadium all by itself. “Hello everyone, and welcome. I’m Winnie Tebris, and I’m the dean here at Leit Academy. What an exciting time for all of us!” She turned in place, taking in the students and flashing a toothy smile that didn’t seem to reach her eyes. “I already know quite a lot about you, and I’m certain you will all work hard to excel in your studies.”
She turned again, still smiling. “I’m also the student adviser here, so you should come to me with any concerns about your academic career. I’m sure you’re all tired after a day of travel, and I know you’re eager to see your new rooms, but before I unleash you on the school there are a few things to get out of the way.
“First I want to tell you what you’re in for. Your classes will require your full attention, but they will teach you a great deal. If you make it through the three years of coursework, you’ll be well on your way to a very lucrative and, dare I say, fulfilling career in the sciences, which is of course our specialty. We’ll cover bioinformatics, genetics, computer programming, philosophy, and of course English to help us all better communicate with one another.”
Murmurs of discontent stirred in the crowd.
Tebris raised a finger. “No groaning now. You’ll be thankful for your time here. In the end, you’ll be glad you had it. Please give your professors the respect they’re due, and please do the same for your fellow students.”
She turned in a circle with her hands held wide, exposing sweat stains under her arms. “All of the rules are listed in the school guide which you will find on your phones. We will offer you a great deal of freedom here, but if you’re caught breaking any of these rules, you will be sent home immediately. You will return to your previous life.”
She lowered her arms and stood in a silence broken only by her labored breathing. When it seemed she wouldn’t continue, the room filled with a stir of voices. Tebris raised her hands again to quell the chatter. “I hope you enjoy your time here. I hope you show us something special.”
She cleared her throat. “Now, if you’ll all take out your phones and open your Leit Academy app, we’ll get you on your way.”
I had seen the app icon when I got the phone, and of course I’d tried to open it, but it never did anything. I tapped the icon. Instead of the usual nothing, a beautiful interface popped up with several menu options: MESSAGES, MAPS, DOCS, and GRADES.
Tebris spoke again, sounding a little less winded. “Everyone have it? Good. Let’s select the maps option and find the dormitory icon in the list of favorite places. It’s the one shaped like a house.” She held her phone high as if we could make out her screen from beyond the front row. “See it? There are other preset favorites for finding your classrooms and points of interest, but for now let’s select the dormitory icon.”
I tapped it and up came a map of the school. The three dimensional outline zoomed in on the large round area in the center that I recognized as the dome we now sat in. It was labeled AQUATIC THEATER. The zooming continued until the map centered on a green dot labeled “Ismira Fuller”. A blue line led away from my icon, tracing a path out of the theater. Arrows pulsed and moved down the blue line, guiding me.
“Wicked,” I said.
“What?” Mace asked but quickly followed with, “Oh!”
The chatter of the crowd swelled and Tebris raised her voice to be heard. “I’m sure you can all manage from here, but come speak to me if you have any questions. We’ll see you bright and early tomorrow for your first day of classes!”
Most of the students stood and milled out of the theater. There was plenty of bumping and tripping as people paid more attention to their phone map than to their surroundings. After the bulk of the crowd cleared away, I stood and looked down at Mace. “Shall we?”
He nodded, still staring in wonder at his phone. We joined the tail-end of students and headed into the surrounding hall. “Does yours take you left or right?” Mace asked.
“Left,” I said.
“Me too. But I think your phone is just stalking mine.”
“Your phone wishes.”
As we walked out, I glanced back at the stage. The pouty girl and her pixie-headed friend stood talking to Tebris, who nodded and patted her shoulder. Then we were out in the surrounding hall and I lost sight of them.
Our maps guided us into a glass-like tunnel labeled Dormitories-A. The sun must have set because everything beyond the transparent surface was black. Only that wasn’t true. Through the dark waters to either side I could faintly make out the lights of other nearby halls and buildings.
“Hey,” Mace said, sounding nervous. “Have you ever studied any of the stuff she mentioned? I mean aside from English. I’ve never even heard of some of those subjects.”
I patted his back. “I’m in the same boat. I did some really basic programming in school, but I’m guessing this is going to be on another level.”
The glass passage ended in a low, wide building. Metal doors slid open and closed as each group of students passed through. Just ahead of us, a redheaded girl stood riding on the back of another student’s wheelchair and shouting, “Jump! Jump!” The boy in the chair gave it the gas, striking the wheels with his palms. They hit the ramp divider with enough speed to lift them several inches off the ground, and the pair squealed in excitement. When they bounced down inside the dorm building, the driver grabbed a brake lever and they skidded sideways to a stop. His passenger leapt off, laughing and high-fiving him.
As I watched them, a terrible thought occurred to me. What if there were different areas for boys and girls dorms and I was directed to a boy’s dorm? I could say there was a bug in the app I supposed. But what if there were communal showers? Could I last the school-year without someone walking in on me?
The doors whooshed open with another blast of warm air and we stepped through. A dozen or so students sat on sofas and around tables, most of them engaged in conversation or playing games. On the far side of the room, hallways led away left and right. Two options. Two genders.
“Left or right?” Mace asked.
My heart beat rapidly. I looked down at my phone. “Left,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, and we both spotted the signs for the boys and girls dorms. “Duh.”
Sweet relief. It was a girl’s dorm for me. “Well,” I said, feeling awkward. “See you around.”
“Hey,” he said. “Maybe we can grab dinner later? Together?”
“I’d like that. Text me when you’re ready.”
He waved and walked off down the hallway. I instinctively pulled out my earbuds and started to put them in. I stopped myself. Constant music and hoodies and slouched posture were all standards of the old me. They were how I distanced myself from others—how I protected myself from their attention and confusion and distaste. Wasn’t I trying to start fresh at Leit?
I pocketed the earbuds and used all my energy to smile at a pair of passing students. They smiled back.
Are you ready for this? Everyone at Leit had private rooms. The long hall reminded me of a hotel, complete with numbered doors to either side. The arrows on my phone led me almost to the end of the hall before turning into a pulsing red circle. Room A-76. A latch-click sounded as I approached the door, and it opened with a soft hiss. A second door opened beyond it, revealing my new home.
“Oh my god,” I whispered into both hands.
A king-size bed sat in the center of a low-lit room. Where the far wall should have been, floor-to-ceiling glass reflected back my silhouette from the bright hallway. When I entered, the lights flared brighter, filling the space with a warm glow. The floor looked like aged hardwood, but after kicking off my shoes and entering, I was surprised to find it soft and warm underfoot. For several moments I just stood and flexed my feet into the surface like a cat.
My bags lay beside the bed, neatly arranged. A desk and a bookshelf fit neatly into the curved walls, and a door on the left opened onto a private bathroom.
I ran to the bed and collapsed onto the cool, firm surface, giggling and rolling around like an idiot. Then I was up again, exploring. The bathroom had a walk-in shower and marquis lighting around the large mirror. The desk had a stack of books and a lamp. And there was the glowing screen on the wall by the entrance. I tapped it and a menu popped up. With a slide of my finger, the lights in the room dimmed and then brightened. Then I saw the music option.
There was so much to pick from. Whatever I searched for, it had. Even the obscure stuff I’d picked up from my parents. I finally settled on a mashup that fit my mood and turned off the lights.
I closed my eyes and let the music swell around me.
When I opened them, it was to find more wonder. Luminescent jellyfish swam outside my window, pulsing slowly. It couldn’t be real.
A chime from my phone broke my trance. It was a message from Mace.
Mace: ARE YOU SEEING THIS?!!
Izzy: No words. None at all.
We traded texts of ever-increasing hyperbole before finally agreeing to meet in the common room in half an hour for dinner. I fell back on my new bed, arms out, and I thought I might burst from it all.
On our way out of the dorms, another pair of students joined us. They asked if we were going in search of food, and we all agreed to hunt for it together.
“I’m Indigo,” the girl said. Her voice was deep and matter of fact, and her dreadlocked hair was colored to match her name. “But call me Dig. Everybody does. This is my brother, Lamar, but he doesn’t talk much.”
Lamar nodded and waved. They both wore matching round-rim glasses that made them very owl-like.
“We’re twins,” Dig continued. “But you wouldn’t know it. I’m smart and beautiful, and he’s dumb and ugly.”
Lamar rolled his eyes and let fly a flurry of hand gestures. Sign language, I realized.
“What’d he say?” Mace asked.
“He said that I’m the ugly one, and that—” She patted Lamar to get his attention. “What was that last part?”
Lamar’s signed again, very slow and very exaggerated. Who knew sign language could be sarcastic?
“Ah,” Dig said. “He says that I’m the ugly one, and that if I were a dog, Mom would’ve had to shave my butt and teach me to walk backwards.” She signed something back and Lamar flipped her off, but both grinned through the whole exchange.
“You guys like sushi?” Dig asked. “My map says we can get some in the building next door.”
Mace scratched the back of his neck and scrunched up his face.
“Well don’t worry,” Dig said. “It looks like they have all kinds of stuff.”
Lamar led the way, occasionally signing something to his sister. He smelled like most teenage boys that I’d encountered—a mix of clean laundry and deodorant. Indigo smelled like earthy spices. Mom once took me to a head shop to buy a bandanna after my chemo, and the incense in that shop smelled a lot like Dig. It was pleasant but exotic, and that seemed to suit her. Dark skin, darker eyes, and piercings beyond counting.
The sushi place was in a food court made to look like a Tokyo subway station, complete with tracks that disappeared into the shadows at either end. Dishes were served out of the windows of twin subway cars, food-truck style, and tables filled the platform.
“This is rad,” Mace said, watching the crowds of students and reading the various menus.
I ordered some avocado rolls, and the lady behind the window swiped my phone over a reader. That was it, I had food. No money, no fuss. Mace grabbed a burger at the next window, and we returned to our dinner companions at a long table.
As we ate, Mace and Dig talked video games. Both of them, it turned out, were die-hard players of Shadows of Bane, an online RPG that claimed to have a player population larger than some first-world countries. I tried to remember the handful of signs I’d learned in elementary school, and Lamar coached me through some others. Best of all, he taught me all the really dirty stuff. His smile was infectious and he was a patient teacher (with everyone but his sister).
Throughout the meal, I noticed a pattern. Mace would glance at me and then drop his eyes. Sometimes it lasted only a second, but other times it seemed to go on for half a minute or more, until I returned his look. Then he’d blush and stare intently at his plate. I didn’t know what to make of it, because boys had never looked at me in that way before. No one had. Was he being analytical? Trying to figure me out? Trying to put his finger on what it was about me that seemed off? (Hint: my gender.) The more he looked, the less sure I was.
“So,” I said when there was a break in the talking, “This other kid we met said something that confused me. I had leukemia, and he seemed to know about it without me telling him.”
“Totally bizarre,” Mace agreed, leaning in. “He seemed to be saying that a lot of people here had survived illnesses. Sounded like he’d gone around and polled the other students while we waited for orientation.”
Dig pointed at Lamar with her chopsticks. “He had Wilms tumors. They’re in the kidneys.” She shook her head. “He wasn’t supposed to survive it. I didn’t think he would. And then, poof, one day he was better. It was unheard of.” She leaned back in her seat. “But I’ve never had so much as the flu.”
Mace and I stared at each other in surprise. Lamar signed something that caught Dig’s attention, and she nodded. “He’s right. I was hoping he’d bite it so I could get his comic book collection. Alas.”
Lamar pointed at Mace and raised his eyebrows. “What about you?” he signed.
Mace gave them the brief version of his fight, and everyone shook their heads in amazement.
“What are the odds?” Dig said when he was done. “Three out of the four of us have almost identical survival stories?”
“That’s exactly what we said.” I almost dropped my chopsticks in my excitement. “And that was only when it was just Mace and me. This is weirding me out.”
“We should ask some of the others,” Dig said. “See what they’ve been through.” She yawned. “But not tonight. I’m beat.”
For a while we sat in quiet contemplation, finishing our food and trying to wrap our heads around the oddness of it all.
“Do you guys think it’s going to be crazy-hard tomorrow?” Dig asked, breaking the silence. “I wonder if they’re going to throw us in the deep end and see who comes up swimming?”
Lamar patted Dig on the head with a condescending sad-face, and Dig swatted his arm away.
“I’m kind of scared,” I ventured. “About all of it, I mean. I’m scared they’re going to realize they made a mistake and send me packing.”
Mace rubbed his eyes. “I’m glad I’m not the only one.”
Dig looked at each of us over her glasses. “It’s going to kick our butts, isn’t it?”
That was all it took to break the tension. We laughed because, while it probably was going to be difficult, at least we’d be in good company.
Coming out of a deep sleep to the sound of screaming is not the way I typically like to start my morning. I sat up fast enough to feel light-headed. Somehow I’d managed to wrap myself in my sheets like a mummy, and between the sheet-wrap, the screaming, and the disorientation of waking up in an unfamiliar place, I had a brief but intense bout with panic.
The screaming came from outside in the hallway. If someone wasn’t being murdered, they were at least being dismembered to make such noises. I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl. I guess in hysterics we all sound the same. I unrolled myself and awkwardly one-leg-hopped out of the last clutch of sheets. By the time I got both doors open, the screaming was just outside my room.
A red-haired boy stood in the hall, wide-eyed and sobbing hysterically. He wore nothing but his underwear. Both his hands were torn and covered in blood, and he used them to pull at his hair as he wailed. All down the hallway, heads poked out from their doors and watched in horrible fascination.
His eyes met mine and locked on. “You,” he said. His voice was raw from the screaming. “You have to help me.”
He shambled towards me, hands leaving his matted hair to reach, pleadingly. My first instinct was to help, but he scared me in a way nothing ever had. In the time it took him to cover the distance, my mind raced back and forth. Should I retreat to my room and shut the door? Should I try and calm him down?
I held out my hands, more in a warding off gesture than anything, but he took them. His fingers, hot and sticky from blood, slipped around mine and squeezed tight enough to hurt.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said, trying to pull my hands free. The sound of my voice had an immediate effect. He stopped his forward movement and stared at me, open-mouthed. “What’s your name?” I asked. If I could keep him distracted, maybe a teacher would come.
He pulled back and narrowed his eyes, a far-sighted person trying to read at arm’s length. Then his mouth opened wide enough for me to see the fillings of his back molars, and he let forth a fresh scream. He let go of my hands and started pounding on the walls to either side of my head. His hot breath and spittle hit my face. I winced and started to slide down the wall.
Then it was over.
His scream ended in a gurgle, his eyes glazed, and he fell to the floor like a marionette with cut strings. I stood with my back against the wall, trembling and trying not to see the awkward angle of his knee, willing myself to look away from his blank, open eyes.
A crowd had gathered in the hall, and everyone started talking at once. A few people shouted in fright when they saw the body. One by one they parted, and Mrs. Tebris pushed her way through the throng.
“Okay, alright,” she said. She was still in her pajamas and she sounded flustered and angry. “Everyone back to your rooms. Let’s give him some air and some privacy. That means you too, Ismira.”
“You’re not in any trouble,” she said, cutting me off. She knelt beside the boy, but looked up at me. Her face softened a little when she saw how frightened I was. “Young William here has a history of acute panic attacks, and I think claustrophobia got the better of him. Poor thing must have hyperventilated until he passed out. Oh, and just look at his hands. Probably for the best that he passed out when he did.”
“But I don’t think he passed out, ma’am,” I said. “Is he breathing? It was like—”
“Okay, Ismira. No point in speculating. Doctor Robins will be the one giving the diagnoses tonight, as soon as we get William to the medical facility. Just get back to bed, okay?” Her face was flushed and sweaty, and she sounded kind of panicked herself.
“Now, Ismira,” she said, her voice no longer warm.
I backed through the second of the two doors into my room, and watched as men in scrubs arrived to help Tebris carry the marionette-boy away.
I messaged Mace, Dig, and Lamar, but got no response. It was only four-thirty in the morning, and it was possible they hadn’t heard the commotion. I crawled back into bed, but every time I closed my eyes I saw William’s wide unseeing eyes. Each time I neared sleep, I heard the sickening sound of his head smacking the rubber-grip floor. In the end I resorted to hugging one of my pillows and watching videos on my phone until dawn.
“What will they come up with next?” Mace said, shaking his head. “Do you think they have Oompa Loompas in the back making it all?”
“House elves,” Dig said. “Obviously.”
I sat down beside them and followed their gaze. A conveyor belt rolled along between the tables, bringing a moving feast of pancakes, French toast, eggs and hashbrowns, and oatmeals of every variety. I’d read about sushi restaurants in Japan and Europe that used the same system, but nothing on such a grand scale.
None of it looked appealing to me.
“Top o’the mornin’ to ya, Iz.” Mace reached for a plate of French toast. His attempt at an Irish accent was terrible.
“Guys,” I said. “Did you hear the craziness that went down in our dorm last night?
Mace paused, mid-grab, and Dig looked up from her cereal. I told them all about Will and Tebris and the confusing events from my dark and early morning. “And guys,” I said. “When I left my room this morning? Will’s dried blood was still on the wall by my door.”
“Well that’s . . . something,” Mace said. “You know, my cousin used to have really bad panic attacks—I’m talking crippling—but I don’t remember him ever passing out. He probably wished he could pass out. Those things are no joke.”
“But I don’t think he did pass out,” I said, feeling frustrated by my inability to explain it all. “Gah, I wish you could’ve seen it. It was like he was an electric toy and someone shut off his power source. He just turned off and collapsed.”
“Maybe he had a stroke,” Dig said. She’d returned to her breakfast. Apparently her appetite was unaffected by my trauma or Will’s fate.
I stared down at the table, going over it again and again. “Maybe. I dunno. I think I’m going to find the hospital today after classes. You know, to check in on him.”
“I’ll go with you,” Mace offered. “If you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. I’m really hoping by this afternoon I won’t be so creeped out about the whole thing, but I would love some company.”
“Well,” Mace said, cutting off a piece of French toast with his fork. “I’m usually better at creeping people out than vice versa, but I’ll see what I can do. Hey Lamar.”
Dig’s wiry, bespectacled brother waved and took a chair.
“Bet you didn’t know black guys could have bed-head,” Dig said. Lamar used some of the dirty signs he’d taught me the night before.
My appetite was nonexistent, but I forced myself to eat some yogurt and drink a glass of apple juice. I regretted it almost immediately. The others made conversation, and I nodded along with it, hoping my stomach would settle before class.
Eventually Mace stood and picked up his empty plate. “Alright, ladies and gent, I need to swing by my room before class, so I’m gonna hit the road. Going to see if I can find my way there without my phone this time. Wish me luck!”
We all waved, and I watched him go. His lanky frame and his goofy hair made me think of a front-man in an 80s New Wave band. I wondered what it would feel like to hug him. Would he feel soft and warm? Would the muscles of his sides and back be firm?
“I think I’m going to head out too,” I said. “Maybe I can catch a ten-minute nap in the classroom before the teacher gets there.” I took out my phone and let it guide me away.
Dig had been right about being thrown into the deep end, but it turned out I was a pretty good swimmer. My first class was Genetics with Mr. Collins. “Tailspin” Collins to his friends (and to his best friend, Fen, I thought, rolling my eyes). He lectured from the front of a small theater-style classroom with a glass ceiling. To his side, a three-dimensional holo-display showed us DNA in all its splendor. Tailspin would idly flick his wrist while speaking, causing the double-helix to expand in size until it filled the classroom. After making his point, he’d shrink it back and carry on talking.
The information came fast and heavy, but it sank in easily. I’d always been a middle-of-the-road student, and I never thought of myself as a quick learner, but somehow this material stuck. Most of the other students seemed to absorb it too, so I figured Tailspin was just really good at his job.
Second period was English with an actual English person, and third period reunited Mace, Lamar, and I. That wasn’t the only reason it became my favorite class of the day, though. Miss Dax, the diminutive blue-haired teacher from my arrival, handed us each a shiny new tablet to keep. We learned to write computer programs in languages with names like Perl and Python, and again the learning came easy.
I fell instantly in love with coding. When the chime sounded to tell us it was time for our lunch break, I stayed behind and kept working.
“Looks like we have a natural,” Miss Dax said, passing me on her way out. “Just don’t forget to eat something. You’re skinny enough.”
I nodded and kept typing.
Fourth and fifth periods weren’t classes at all. At least, not yet. All of the students filed into the Aquatic Theater where Mrs. Tebris informed us that we were to pick elective courses for fourth and fifth periods. Our first day was for learning about the classes that were available.
“First up are the life sciences.” She pointed to the display behind her. “Everything from organic chemistry to bioinformatics. If you have an interest in biology, why not augment it with some of these courses?” She worked her way through several more slides, each one describing a set of courses available in computer science, physics, chemistry, or electrical engineering.
“You’re welcome to come up and speak with any of the teachers,” Tebris said. “You have until tomorrow morning to choose. Your phones will prompt you when you wake up to pick your two courses, and they will update your class-to-class mappings accordingly.” She paused and looked around. “I see looks of concern on some of your faces. Not to worry. You have a week to change your mind if it turns out you picked something that’s not right for you.”
When it was over, most of the students filed out, but I stayed behind. I stared at the sunlight that shimmered through the glass dome, and I breathed. The Will Situation, as I’d come to think of it, had faded in its dire importance. I still planned to visit him, but I was less worried that I’d never sleep again.
“Hey,” said a familiar voice. Mace lowered himself into the seat beside me using only his left arm. He smelled nice. It was pleasant and understated but definitely intentional. I ran my fingers through my hair and then sat on my hands to prevent future stupid gestures. “What’s shakin?” he asked.
I took a deep breath. “Oh, just taking it all in. I’m still trying to accept that this is real.”
“Who says it is?” he nudged me. “I know what you mean, though. It’s like living in a Bond villain’s base.”
That made me smile. “Do you know which electives you’ll take?”
“Probably one of the languages,” he said. “Not sure about the second one though. I’ve always been interested in gadgets and electronics, so maybe an electrical engineering class. What about you?”
I shrugged. “That network theory class sounded cool. I need to think about it though. I’m kind of digging programming.” Already I was thinking about the next app I could write. “Hey, were you serious about coming with me to the hospital later?”
He reared back in mock horror. “When am I ever not serious? I’m like one of those old white guys on the front of money. I’m serious business, lady.”
I shook my head.
“But yeah, no,” he said, dropping the act. “I’d be happy to go. Want to meet back here after sixth period?”
“I would like that very much, Mr. Mason.” I stood and shouldered my bag. “See ya.”
He gave me a small salute and watched me walk away.
For my sixth and final class of the day, my phone led me to the chain of moving cars that connected the school to the Gatehouse. Two dozen students shuffled around, confused about what to do next. Fen was there, along with his friend, the Asian boy I’d traded insults with. I thought his name was Bruce or Bryce or something (I later found out it was Leonard—how the hell?). I looked around to see if Mace, Dig, or Lamar were there. No such luck.
“Sorry I’m late,” a voice said from behind us. A twenty-something woman in a skirt and flats jogged into the room, a tablet under one toned arm. “I hope everyone got the updated class route. I’m Alexis Nakal, but call me Lex. I’ll be teaching all of your math courses here at Leit.”
A pencil sat behind her ear, peeking through ink-black hair that fell over tattooed shoulders. She took the pencil and tapped her tablet with its eraser, then put it between her teeth. Just like that I had my first girl-crush.
“Yeah . . . looks like you all made it. Okay, good. It’s such a beautiful day up top that I thought we could spend class outside? This girl will never get fully adjusted to life on a submarine.”
The crowd voiced eager approval. Apparently Lex wasn’t the only one feeling a little claustrophobic.
My classmates filtered into the passing cars, but I stayed back and took an empty one. It’d been a long day with an early start, and I wasn’t feeling particularly social. Before the car could make its way out of the chamber, Lex hopped in beside me and sat down.
“Hey Izzy,” she said. “How’s your first day going?”
“Um, okay. How do you—”
“Know your name?” She smiled and tapped her temple with her pencil. She smelled like brown sugar and cinnamon. “Memory like a steel trap. Also, we have something in common, so I read up on you.”
The warm air blasted us from overhead as we cleared the chamber and moved into the transparent tunnel. My ears popped and I forced a yawn to try and clear them. Blue lake-light painted our skin, turning Lex into some gorgeous alien.
“We do?” I asked.
“Indeed we do.” She winked. “Hemizygosity.”
I stared at her blankly.
“S-R-Y?” she said.
When I continued to look confused she laughed, but it was a warm laugh. “I guess you’ve only been in Tailspin’s genetics class for a day, so I’ll let it slide. You’ll learn about it soon. Okay, no more word games. I’m trans, Izzy.”
I looked around in a panic to see if any other students were in earshot. The cars behind us were empty, and the pair of girls in the car ahead didn’t seem to have heard. But what was she thinking, saying that out loud?
“What?” I whispered. It came out in a hiss.
Lex’s smile fell a little and she followed my gaze. “Oh, they can’t hear us. They’re both deaf. See them signing?”
“That just means that one of them is deaf,” I said, still whispering.
Lex’s faltering smile became a grin. “I like your deductive reasoning skills, Izzy. But you can trust me on this one. I memorized the profiles of every one of my students.” She tapped her temple again. “Steel trap, remember? And I would never tell anyone or say anything about you without your permission. Believe me when I say I understand the need for privacy.”
I nervously straightened the hem of my skirt. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She nodded slowly and gave me a look that said she was reevaluating me. “That’s okay,” she said finally. “But know that if you ever want to talk about . . . anything. You can talk to me. Got it?”
I nodded almost imperceptibly.
As we rolled along, the shock and fear faded a little, and curiosity took the front seat. Curiosity and something else. Hope, maybe?
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“What’s not to understand?” She had her pencil out again and was making a note on one of her folders. “I was born with these stupid Y chromosomes. I didn’t ask for them, but I got them all the same.”
“No, I understand that. I just didn’t expect there to be anyone else trans here, especially not a teacher.” I watched her closely. “Are you being straight with me?”
“I am,” she said. “And I am. Straight that is. Are you?”
Lex laughed. “It doesn’t matter. I’m a straight woman is all I’m saying. I like dudes, get it? And yes, I’m being honest with you. I just wanted to let you know you have someone here who understands what you’re going through. No one can completely know what you’re experiencing, but I’ve been in your shoes, that’s all. And Izzy? I’d appreciate it if you keep this between us. I’ll keep your secret and you keep mine. That way we’re on even footing. Cool?”
I nodded hesitantly. My head was suddenly exploding with questions. In typical fashion for me, the dumbest question came out first. “How do you look so good?” I asked. “Sorry, no offense. It’s just that so many of the trans women I’ve seen, I can . . .”
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Ismira Fuller is dreading the coming school year. Beating cancer was hard enough, but the prospect of being bullied again is almost too much to bear. All she wants is a fresh start in a place where no one knows her past. When she's invited to attend a secretive boarding school far from home, she dares to hope for that new beginning. Questions of how she got into a school she never applied to quickly evaporate when she arrives on campus. Who has time to worry when everyone has private rooms, tomorrow's technology, and crush-worthy classmates? Still, something about her new school doesn't feel quite right to Izzy. Too many classmates have mysterious near-death survival stories for it to be a coincidence. And there's the nagging concern that someone at Leit Academy may have a strange power over the students. With help from her new friends, Izzy must use her wits and courage to discover what lies behind Leit Academy's facade, all while overcoming bigotry, the pain of love, and her own villainous hormones.