Hours worth of sweat dry on my skin, my clothes. I’m comfortable for the first time since I got into mom’s car in OKC. It’s amazing, every time I cross that threshold.
Other students complain about the crossing. Even my roommate, who claims it’s hard work to get through, like walking through a wall of mud. For me, it’s a light caress, followed by stepping into the cooler world… or whatever Umbrum Hall really is.
When we were P1s, we used to debate about where Umbrum Hall actually exists in space and time. There were the proponents of the Dr. Who answer who believe that we’re still in the pantry of the farmhouse, but it’s just far larger on the inside than the outside. A few kids argue that this is the same location in an alternate universe, but I can’t believe in a reality where even an alternate Oklahoma isn’t hot and gross this time of year. And the elf-squad holds forth that we’ve simply stepped into a fairy realm. The instructors promise that we’ll learn all about it when we’re cadets, in a couple more years.
Me, I stopped caring about two weeks into the argument. I’ve got better things to do with my time. I’m here to learn, so I lug my baggage on through the colonnade of the cloister.
You always land in the colonnade of the cloister. There is a door there, one that I assume leads back to the farmhouse entry, but I never opened it. A big wooden door with an arch at the top, it has elaborate ironwork extending out from the hinges, like metal vines growing across the door. I suspect if I do open it, I would just see a fancy broom closet, just how I see a pantry when I look over the threshold in the farmhouse. A seeming.
But I move on. The cloister is an old stone courtyard with ivy growing along the arches. The sun is obscured by thin clouds, making it bright in the courtyard, but not stinging hot like outside the farmhouse. In the center of the courtyard, there’s a little fountain that makes tinkling sound, joined by the music of wind chimes that I have never seen. The smell of spring water wafts out from the fountain. Butterflies flit around the various white flowers planted in the court, and bees buzz. A couple of times, I’ve seen ducks. Right now, though, we’re sadly duck-free.
I’m told that this part of the hall is meant to look like old English universities: Cambridge and Oxford all tumbled together into courtyards, arches, and spires we can see from the courts. I have to admit, it does look a lot like those movies about the fake magic school that we try to avoid talking about—the H Place. That’s why this part is called the English Hall. The cadets have their own hall—the Portuguese Hall—modelled on buildings or schools there, I assume. The two wings are attached at a covered commons area in the middle, one we have to cross anytime we go from one hall to the other. Together, the two wings are called Umbrum Hall.
But because I want to ditch my bags more than I want to admire the architecture, I trundle down to the end of the colonnade, through another door, and into the main body of the hall itself. To the left there’s a small reception area where the porters work. This is one of their bumper times of year, because everyone tips them to get their bags taken up to their rooms. I wheel my mismatched bags up to their counter.
“Mary Quirk, P2,” I tell Mr. Frank, the head porter. I slide the envelope my mom gave me across the countertop.
The grizzled old bear of a man slips the envelops into a pocket without checking inside. “How’s your mom doing these days, Quirk?”
It’s weird to me to think that my mom came to school here. There’s nothing magical about her, but every time I run across one of the older people working here, they always ask after her. “Doing pretty well,” I answer, rote by now. “Excited ‘bout the new school year.”
That last part is a lie. My mom always says summer isn’t long enough. She teaches in Oklahoma City—well, it’s a smaller school district inside Oklahoma City—and every year she sighs a lot before school starts again. She loves teaching, she says, but there are a lot of other parts of the job that aren’t fun.
Frank leans over his counter and whispers, “Any word on your brother?”
Is that why his name is Frank? Because he doesn’t pull his punches? “No, nothing, sir.”
My brother is gone, has been gone since I was twelve. Four years ago—no, almost five—Daniel was off hiking in the mountains in Oregon, off to see Multnomah Falls. He just disappeared. No one wants to say it aloud, but everyone’s pretty sure he’s dead.
I’m pretty sure. The way I see it, if he was coming back, he would have a long time ago.
“Well, I would love to hear if he came back,” Mr. Frank adds. “Had a lot of potential, that one.”
Yep, everyone loved Daniel. I’m chopped liver by comparison. I lift my duffel bag over the counter and scoot the wheelie bag around the side. “I’ll be sure to tell you, Mr. Frank.”
“The P residential wing will be closed until 4:30,” Mr. Frank adds before I can escape. “Fog. You’ll need to stay out here.”
The Mystical Fog is the one thing that keeps this place from descending into filthy chaos. You get together a hundred or so potentials and they can create a huge mess. I’m told some of the cadet wings are worse, even though there are far fewer cadets, but some of them are older than twenty-one, so maybe alcohol is involved.
You know how you never see anyone cleaning their rooms at the H Place? That’s not the case here. We clean our rooms. But the day-to-day grime? The spray from people’s sneezes? The oily handprints on the walls, the dirt tracked in from the greenhouses? The Mystical Fog eats that, leaving behind a surface that I’m told is clean enough to eat off.
My mom claims the fog also eats cell phones and cigarettes, but that sounds iffy to me. What I do know—from my roommate—is that the fog can really do damage to a human who gets caught in it. That’s why we’re warned every time it’s deployed. As far as I know, none of the potentials have been stupid enough to test their luck.
So I can wait. This part of the hall has the common area for the potentials. We can all cram into this hall, but we don’t do that often. The comparisons to famous fictional schools of magic are pretty obvious, but at one point last year all the P1s—that’s us P2s now—decided we would no longer refer to the H Place. Not aloud, at least. So… yes, there’s a big hall with long tables and high arches overhead, but there aren’t any fancy banners, and we don’t eat magically appearing meals. The school has staff for that, and we potentials mostly eat in the smaller dining hall near the kitchens.
Currently there’s a batch of P1s gathering in the commons, and I try to give them a cheerful wave as I walk past, just wanting to get out of there before anyone asks me to answer questions. They look so young, even though I’m only a year older. I slide out the back door and into another cloister, heading toward the heart of Umbrum Hall. And at the end of the colonnade, there it is—the greenhouse.
That should probably be The Greenhouse. Or even better, The Greenhouses.
There are a pair of glass doors with green dividers between the panes. I open one door and step inside. The air is more humid than outside the farmhouse here, but it’s shady. The smell of plants and damp earth surrounds me. All along the central gravel walkway, greenery grows up the room’s columns, in beds and pots on either side. All beautiful, I guess, but this isn’t really my thing.
This room has ferns, hostas, white nodding anemones, and a thousand other plants that love the shade. There are other parts of the greenhouse with soaring glass ceilings that house trees and vines and flowers that love the sun. The only way I know what the various plants are called is that my roommate, Isla Rivera, told me. That’s who I’m hunting down.
I make my way through the shade rooms and cross through another doorway into a sunnier part of the greenhouses. There I spot Isla to one side of the hall, reeling out a sounding line into the main cistern that waters all the trees and greenery. Like me, Isla is on the short side, and we can borrow each other’s clothes, which is kinda nice. She also has dark hair, but while I possess the pasty paleness of my Scottish, English, and French ancestors, Isla’s mostly Hispanic with some Native American in there, more than enough to keep her family registered as part of the Muskogee tribe.
As I approach, Isla starts reeling the sounding line back in. Once she gets to the wet part, she makes a note of the depth in a notebook that’s sitting on the reddish ceramic body of the cistern. This is some sort of science project she started last year. She actually stayed here over the summer to work on it. I haven’t decided what the point is, and she’s been keeping that to herself.
She glances up from her notebook, spots me coming along the path, and waves her ring-encrusted hand. “QP!”
I will burn the fingers off anyone else who calls me that. It comes out sounding like Kewpie, one of those weird, round-faced dolls. I don’t need the nickname to remind others that my face is round. But Isla calls me that because my name—my full name—is Mary Rose Quirk-Portillon. QP.
After my dad left, I asked my mother if she would mind if I used her maiden name. Just Quirk, not Quirk-Portillon. There were a lot of reasons for that, but mostly I didn’t want to start at high school where everyone would know me as a Portillon. I would be Daniel Portillon’s little sister, Mr. and Mrs. Portillon’s daughter. And that name change does work most of the time. Isla’s the only student here who knows that I’m a Portillon, and I can deal with the occasional staff member or teacher who wants to ask me questions about my perfect older brother.
But Isla knows my full name because she saw it on the door of our room before I arrived last year. She’s never once given me away. This is because she’s the most awesome person I know.
She comes away from the cistern to give me a hug, then steps back, looks at me, and says, “Still rocking the dog collar?”
I sigh. “Not gonna change.”
Way back in junior high, I decided to sport a goth look. I have white skin and black hair, so it’s natural for me. I meant it ironically, like a joke, only… no one ever picked up on the irony. So much for expecting sophistication from the junior high crowd. The weird part is that, after a while, I discovered I like it. I like my black fingernails, I love my spiked dog collar, and it also makes it easy to decide what to wear every morning. Black t-shirt, jeans, boots. No fuss.
Isla got it right away, too—that it’s ironic, but also sort of not ironic. That is one of my favorite things about her.
Today Isla is wearing one of her vast selection of t-shirts that say things. Today’s is Sleep well, I’ll most likely kill you in the morning, one of her dozen or so Princess Bride shirts. She always wears fifteen rings on various spots on her fingers, each one—she’s told me—blessed by her mother and her abuela. Her family’s close, even if she didn’t go home to see them this summer. They write a lot of letters.
We end up sitting on a bench built around the trunk of the jacaranda tree. This one has delicate fringy leaves, but in spring it drops purple flowers everywhere. We chat for a while about my non-exciting summer—I worked at a grocery store—and then we talk about hers.
Her adventures sound way better than checking out a million health food enthusiasts per day, because between experiments, Isla secured Professor Simonsson’s permission to explore the school. She went all through the various greenhouses, down to see the underground water supply, and got to know every courtyard here. All in interest of learning more about the plants, of course.
The thing about potentials is that most of us arrive here with some idea what our talents are. I found out early via the D&D incident: I can set things on fire. And put out the fire, too, which is good.
But Isla knew for years before she got here. It runs in her family—she’s an earth witch. Isla’s in touch with all the plants and soil around her. She understands their interactions and can use her power to make them work better together. Not surprisingly, her family owns a small organic farm outside Tulsa where fancy restaurants come to get their magically awesome produce.
That’s why any moment she’s not studying, Isla’s here in the greenhouses. And old Professor Simonsson is thrilled to have her, so Isla gets to do whatever she wants here.
“But I want you to come see it,” Isla says, grabbing my arm like it’s important.
Admittedly, my mind wandered when she started talking about the cisterns. “Uh, fine.”
She bounces on the bench. “Good! We can go this weekend, explore a few.”
What have I gotten myself into? But clearly, she’s excited, so I’ll play along. “Sure thing.”