She shuts her door. ‘That again?’ she says, looking straight ahead. She is hurt. Everything backs up inside me. School, control, distrust, and doubt, they all get shoved behind the hurt on her face.
I hear words, words from long ago that were snarled inside me. I’m sorry. So sorry. Words that were trapped in my head and couldn’t be said, frozen behind lips that wouldn’t move. And that made me want to say them more.
It’s okay, darling. It’s all right. Shhh. Everything will be fine. Claire answering over and over again when I hadn’t even spoken, looking into my eyes and reflecting all the pain she saw.
I get out of the car and lean down, looking at her through the window. Claire forces a smile. Her eyes cling to me. I’m so sorry. She rolls down the window. I say a dozen more redundant things—things we have already discussed—just to keep her from talking. I will take my afternoon nutrients. I will not discuss the accident. I will be outside at three o’clock. I will call if I need her.
I’m afraid she will have a last-minute change of heart, will control me in that way she does and force me back into the car just by saying my name. It is like we are both fighting for control of Jenna Fox.
‘I’ll be fine,’ I finally say, and thankfully, like a miracle, she le
aves without saying another word.
I turn and face the village charter. School. It is nothing more than an abandoned real estate office. I see the defunct sign dismantled and leaning against the side, almost obscured by overgrown weeds. Dusty blinds hang in the windows. A pale coat of yellow paint makes a faint attempt at sprucing it up. It looks more like an old farmhouse. Maybe it once was. Their emphasis is ecosystems? I went to a central academy in Boston—Claire told me—but even before she confirmed it, I knew. I remember when Kara, Locke, and I ditched a seminar. We were afraid but hoped we wouldn’t be missed among the hundreds of students who were in our class. I don’t know what a charter is like except that it is small. Hundreds, maybe thousands of students smaller than an academy. They go to school only a few days a week. What kind of students choose to go to such a small, run-down school when they could attend an academy with everyone else? It is different in every way, but since I can’t remember too much about the old ways, it shouldn’t matter to me. Why did I want to go to school again?
I walk up the steps and go inside.
‘You must be Jenna.’
The room is small. I could almost spread my arms out and touch each wall. It holds a desk and a large round woman, who is smiling at me. She already knows my name. I stare at her shocking orange hair.
I want to leave and flag down Claire.
‘It is Jenna, right?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Who are you?’
‘Mitch.’ She remains seated but holds out her hand. I take it. It is puffy and hot and amazingly strong as she squeezes my fingers tight. ‘I’m the facilitator, which means I do about everything around here.’
‘Except pull weeds?’
She hesitates for a moment and then laughs. ‘You’re going to fit right in around here, Jenna.’ She reaches behind her and hands me a small Netbook. ‘I just need you to fill out a questionnaire and then I’ll take you back with the others.’
I am relieved that the questions are basic, mostly wanting to know my interests and what I see as my strengths and weaknesses. Strengths? Easy. I don’t hold grudges. It’s difficult to hold a grudge when you can’t remember what they are. Weaknesses? Would forgetful be understating it? I go for something easier to interpret. Strength: history buff. Weakness: none. The last question makes me pause: why did you choose a school with an ecosystem emphasis?
I didn’t. Claire did.
‘Finished?’ Mitch asks.
Close enough. ‘Yes.’ I close the Netbook and hand it back to her. I remember why I wanted to come to school. I need friends. Not questions. I have enough of those already.
‘Fine then, let’s go meet the other students—and Dr Rae. She’s your principal teacher. Director, really. Most of the curriculum is self-guided, and each of you takes on the role of collaborator-teacher. But she will tell you all about that.’ She slides the Netbook into a file with four others, stands, and guides me through a doorway and down a hall that creaks under her heavy footsteps.
She opens the last door, and I follow her in. It is a large room with modern furnishings. At one end are chairs and three long library desks. At the other end of the room are a half dozen Net stations. In the center, taking up most of the room, are two worn leather couches and four sling chairs. I note that the chairs’ fabric matches Mitch’s cheddar-cheese hair. Two boys and one girl occupy them. None of them look like they could be a Dr Rae.
‘Where’s Rae?’ Mitch asks.
‘She’s conferencing,’ the girl offers.
Mitch raises her eyebrows. ‘With Mr Collins, I presume?’
No one answers. I conclude it wasn’t a question, because Mitch appears satisfied and moves on. ‘Let me introduce Jenna. She’s going to be joining your group.’
The boy whose back is to me stands up, turns, and I recognize him. He is the boy from the mission with the dirty hands and black hair. ‘Ethan,’ he says. He doesn’t offer a smile or a hand, but his eyes are clearly focused on mine.
The girl struggles to get up. She has a brace in each hand. ‘I hope to lose these soon,’ she says. She tucks one brace under her arm and reaches out her other hand. ‘I’m Allys.’ Her hand is stiff and cool.