The lady with the droopy mouth driving the red and white bus laughed at me when I told her I was getting off at the Exeter Street stop. “Good luck kid,” she had smirked. But I didn’t like the fuzz on her chin or the greasy grey streaks in her ginger hair, so I decided to ignore her.
When I got off the bus, the crunch of the chalky gravel under my feet reminded me of home, and I felt the worms in my stomach for the first time since Mallory put me on the bus back in Chicago. But that was because the driver lady was yelling at us, saying I couldn’t ride alone if I wasn’t 13 yet. Mallory lied and said I was, but I’m actually 12 until next week.
I’m not really mad that she sent me to Upper Lakes Academy. It’s just been the two of us since dad died and she's been getting on my nerves. Besides, I’m a lot of trouble, so it’ll be good for me. Anyway, school starts in two days. Mallory told me that I’ll be here until Christmas, so I should try to get along with everyone. But I’m not interested in making friends. I already have friends and they told me we’d still text all the time and I’d see them on holidays, which reminded me, I needed to let them know I made it.
*Just got here...bus sucked*
I waited for a few minutes, but my phone didn’t chime. They must be busy.
I looked around my new room, hoping to see somewhere to hang up my posters, but the walls were grey cement. Who builds a place with cement walls? Peeking out of the plastic blinds covering the window of my room, I noticed a view of the lake. There’s definitely more greenspace out there than in Chicago. And probably fewer rats.
A voice from behind startled me, almost causing me to yank the cheap plastic blinds from their rollers. I turned to see a boy much taller than me taking a few hesitant steps into my room. It looked like he had gotten his growth spurt. I hadn’t gotten mine yet. Dad told me once that it'd hit one day, but he also told me he'd come home, so I’m not sure I believe him anymore.
Looking at this other boy, I noticed he reminded me a lot of my friend Isaiah, but this guy had tight waves, and not the long braids Isaiah wore.
“What’s up?” I asked, eyeing him suspiciously. I had never liked people in my room. Straightening up and puffing out my chest a bit, I did my best to look intimidating.
“I think this is my room."
The other kid seemed quiet, and a little nervous, which seemed strange considering how much taller he was than me.
“No man, this is my room.”
The tall boy looked down at a crumpled piece of paper in his hand before glancing back at the number on the door.
“They messed up then. They gave me room 37 too.”
I shrugged. Neither of us seemed sure of what to do, but only a minute passed before one of the teachers stood at our door. I smelled him before I saw him. An overwhelming stench of sour pine and tobacco – I could almost taste it as he stepped through the doorway, peering down at us from behind his rimless glasses. He sneered as he consulted a pale yellow form on the clipboard in his hands.
“Keenan Thompson and Adam Diggs?”
The other boy, Keenan, and I glanced at one another before nodding nervously.
“You’ve been mis-assigned. Gather your things, you’re being relocated to room 4.”
“Both of us?” I had to ask - I thought I was going to have my own room.
“Yes, both of you. Get your belongings and follow me. Oh, and Mister Diggs, is it? I do hope you’re not planning on desecrating the walls of your room with that nonsense?”
He gestured to my soccer posters littered across the bare mattress before shooting me a mean look and stepping out into the hall. Grumbling under my breath, I shoved everything I had already pulled from my suitcase back inside, zipping it roughly and slamming it on the floor. Keenan stood patiently nearby, waiting for me to finish before following me out to catch up with the teacher as he led us both around the dormitory hallways until we finally stood before room 4. As I reached for the handle, he stepped in front and blocked my way.
“I’m the Dorm Master for this floor, boys," he lectured, "should you require assistance during your time here, you may call for Master Haine. Now, we have several rules I expect you both to follow.”
I shot a glance at Keenan, who looked as if he was listening closely to Haine’s instructions. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes – I hadn’t expected to room with anybody, especially not a stickler.
“Is this amusing to you, Mister Diggs?”
“No sir,” I said, looking lazily back up at Master Haine. He must have seen my eye roll. Letting out a gruff exhale, Haine continued, staring directly at me while he finished his lecture.
“This is a men’s dormitory, therefore there are no women allowed past 5:00PM. If a girl is found in this building after 5:00PM there will be consequences. Bed checks occur each night at 10:00PM sharp. If you aren’t in your bed, there will be consequences. Room checks occur each month. Refer to the list of prohibited items laminated on the back of your door and make sure you know what is and is not allowed in this room. If prohibited items are discovered during room checks there will be - ”
“Consequences?” I asked, interrupting.
Hain’s top lip curled.
“Cause problems for me, Mister Diggs, and this will not be a fun semester for you.”
Shutting the door firmly behind him as he left, I couldn’t help but let out a snicker.
“Did you see that Keenan? What an idiot.”
Keenan had moved to the bottom bunk and was sitting quietly, thoughtfully, his legs crossed.
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t rile him up.”
Rolling my eyes again, I threw my suitcase up top. I was glad Keenan had sat on the bottom bed. I was a top bunk kind of guy anyway. Stepping up on the first rung of the ladder, I unzipped my suitcase and again pulled out my soccer posters. The bright oranges and lime-greens of the jerseys would liven up the dull cement walls. As I tugged on the bundle of posters that I had awkwardly jammed back inside my suitcase in room 37, I saw a speckle of red and blue - my dad's casket flag. I felt my ears burn white-hot. I forgot that I had swiped it from the mantle on my way out of the door that morning. I'm not sure why, but for a second, I couldn't breathe.
“Hey, it’s Adam, right?” Keenan had stood from his bed and had walked over to the bedroom door. He was scrutinizing the list of “do’s and don’ts” plastered on the back. I ignored him, shoving the flag as far down in my suitcase as I could. Instead I grabbed the small box of thumb tacks I had stolen from Mallory’s desk and hopped off the ladder, walking over to the desk beside the window and began trying to shove them into the corners of the posters, struggling to pierce the concrete.
Keenan sighed. "Adam, I don’t think we’re allowed to put things on the walls."
I ignored him again. But even though I didn't care what the laminated list said, it wasn’t going to matter. The walls were unyielding, and my thumbtacks kept bending.
“Whatever, it doesn’t matter. I can’t get them in.”
Frustrated and unreasonably angry, I let my posters fall to the ground and forcefully threw the case of colorful tacks on the desk, allowing them to spill out and drop on the dull, sticky vinyl floors.
“Sorry,” said Keenan, coming up behind me and putting a light hand on my shoulder, “hey, I was thinking about checking out the fieldhouse, wanna go?”
Without thinking, I balled my fist, whirled around and punched Keenan across the jaw, sending him stumbling backwards into the closet doors. In stunned silence, Keenan looked at me with wide eyes, and slowly raised a hand to feel the split lip that had started to bleed.
My phone. Heart pounding, I hurriedly grabbed it from the top bunk and ran out of the room, following the hallway back towards the main door I had come through earlier. I needed to get away from the dorm and back outside – this building was starting to drive me crazy. And I felt bad for hitting Keenan. I had no idea what came over me.
As I pushed through the massive doors that guarded the entrance to Presidio Hall, I felt a bit better when the sun hit my face. But that relief didn’t last long. Looking around, I noticed that all the buildings on campus looked exactly alike. All of them three stories, all of them square, and all of them built with the same muted red bricks. Couldn’t they at least plant some trees on the roofs like back home in the city? Even the sidewalks were all paved with the same white cement as the walls in the dorm. Frustrated, I grabbed my phone out of my pocket and started walking. I wasn’t sure to where, but if it was away from Presidio, that was fine with me.
The first two months felt like two years. I had turned 13 but no one cared, least of all me. Mallory called but I didn’t answer. And they didn’t have soccer here, they had field hockey. I took one look at the grey and white uniforms on the first day of tryouts and walked off the lawn. The knuckle gloves had reminded me of the pallbearer gloves shoved into my desk drawer at home. It pissed me off. Classes were weird too. Instead of desks, we all sat at big, round tables and had discussions. Conversations about philosophy and the lessons in our books. I hated it.
Keenan had been all right. I had avoided him for a few days after punching him, but that’s hard to do when you live with someone. I finally said I was sorry for hitting him. He said it was okay. He’s actually kind of cool. I found out he’s a little bit older than me. He turns 15 in the spring. For some reason he took a year off before starting at the Academy. We hang out sometimes, but he has a lot of friends and I prefer to be alone.
The worst part has been Master Haine, or “Hiney”, as I call him behind his back. It was easy enough to avoid him – you could always smell him coming. But he had it out for me. I’d ended up in plenty of evening detentions for no reason, including tonight.
Glancing down at my phone as I made my way across campus, I noticed I only had 12 minutes to make it back to Presidio from the library before Hiney would be coming around for bed check. I was relieved when I saw the top of Presidio come into view and sped up, ignoring the cramp in my leg from kneeling on the library floor for so long, shoving all the books back in their slots. With only a few minutes left to get back to the room, I had to hurry. Bursting through the boring wooden doors, my heart sank as I smelled that sour pine. I didn’t need to look over to know who I’d run into.
“Cutting it close, Mr. Diggs.”
I grit my teeth and forced my mouth to stay shut.
“Go on, then. Wouldn’t want to miss bed check now would we?”
Pushing past, I was only a few steps from my door when I felt his hand on my shoulder. Balling my fist, I remembered how it had felt punching Keenan, and let out a breath to calm down.
“Did you need something, sir?”
“Well, Mister Diggs, I noticed you’re out of dress code. That’s the third time this week, so that's a detention. Tomorrow. Library 5:00 o’clock.”
My vision pulsed and I could feel the vein on my forehead throbbing as I watched Hiney scratch a few notes on his clipboard before handing me a yellow slip, and walking away with a grin whistling "When The Saints Go Marching In".
Seething, I looked down and saw that he was right. My shirt had come untucked as I was running across campus trying to make it back to Presidio before curfew. Throwing open the door to my room, I crumpled up the yellow slip and threw it in the trashcan by my desk and started to pace, ignoring Keenan’s curious glance from his bed.
“Adam, you okay buddy?”
I couldn’t take it anymore. I whirled around and slammed my open hand into the closet, rattling the door in it’s tracks.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Get off my ass Keenan, it’s none of your business.”
Keenan’s brow furrowed. Standing, he walked over to the door and slipped on his shoes.
“Come on man, let’s go.”
“Go where? It’s past curfew. I bet Hiney’s sitting at the end of the hall just waiting for one of us to open this door.”
“Then we won’t use the door.”
Keenan nodded towards the window. I scoffed. The school had screwed shut all of the dorm windows – I had tried for months to get them open, desperate to find a way into the greenspace. For a school named “Upper Lakes Academy” it was pretty ironic that the campus didn’t actually allow access to the only lake nearby.
“Yeah right. I’ve tried it, it’s no use.”
Keenan cast a sly grin my way before walking back to his mattress and pulling out a screwdriver, quickly returning to the windows and getting to work on the locks.
“Are you kidding me Keenan? Where did you get that?”
“You stole it from the shop?”
“I borrowed it,” almost as if on cue, the lock hinge popped off, and Keenan pushed the window open and climbed out. For the first time since I got here, I laughed.
"Are you coming?" Keenan whispered, popping his head back in the window.
I'm not sure why, but I hesitated. For some reason, the greenspace felt, well, scary. At least the dorm was familiar. Swallowing the mysterious lump in my throat, I nodded and climbed out the window, stumbling slightly. Keenan was already halfway to the lake. Sprinting after him, I instantly felt my irritability with Hiney disappearing. I followed Keenan around the water's edge towards a big Oak tree. By the base of it I saw a hidden orange blanket. Keenan pulled the blanket back, revealing a blue plastic tub. He sat next to it and popped off the lid, pulling out comic books, candy bars, and a small bottle of vodka.
“Woah,” I mused, looking at his stash, “I thought you followed the rules.”
Keenan laughed, “the rules only work if everyone plays by them.”
He handed me a candy bar. For a moment, we sat there in the quiet, until I could feel Keenan’s curiosity making the atmosphere heavy.
“Why are you such a jerk, man?”
His question caught me off guard. Why did he think I was a jerk? I only punched him once, and I apologized.
“What are you talking about?”
Keenan scoffed and decided to stand, leaning against the tree looking down at me.
“You never talk, you lash out, you don’t have any friends – I mean, what’s your deal?”
I was still confused. I had friends, just not here. And I only lashed out at people who annoyed me. Which, I supposed was everyone. And I’ve never really been much of a talker. Okay, so maybe Keenan had a point.
“There’s no deal, I’m just who I am, I guess.”
“Bullshit Adam. Seriously, what’s your problem?”
Keenan was starting to annoy me. He was a nice enough guy, but he had everything going for him out here. Star student, great field hockey player, lots of friends, and a dad that visited almost every weekend.
“You wouldn’t get it.”
“Yeah? Try me.”
“Okay, fine,” Keenan had pissed me off, “my stepmom shipped me off when my dad died. My friends don’t text me back anymore, and I hate field hockey. Does that answer your question?”
Keenan was quiet. I suppose he had nothing to say. As I heard him sit back down, I kept my focus on the water until he spoke.
"Adam, I started school late because when my mom died, my dad had cancer and I had to take care of my sister,” for the first time since I’d met him, Keenan sounded tired, “right after I lost my mom, I almost lost him too. I was angry, but I decided to talk about it. And, you know, it helped.”
It took me a second to realize what he meant.
“Who did you talk to?”
"It doesn't always have to be a person, man." Keenan glanced over at me before nodding up at the clear, star-freckled sky. After a few moments sitting together in the greenspace, listening to the babbling water and rustling catkin, Keenan reached over and put his hand on my shoulder, using it to push himself up, but I didn’t mind.
“I’m headed back in. I’ll leave the window open.”
“And Adam? You can use the screwdriver whenever you want.”