I stood on the dock sending last-minute texts to my friends and trying to ignore the three adults. My parents’ lawyer, Mr. Black, lifted an umbrella to shield the woman who had introduced herself as Maren Canfield, Dean of Students at Seal Rock School. She finished signing the custody papers and returned the clipboard to Mr. Black. She appeared a no-nonsense woman, with a buzz cut, no jewelry or makeup, and a rain jacket bearing the logo of my new home: an elaborate S.R.S. Her voice was incongruously high and simpering as she called, “If you please, officer?” The damp and slightly annoyed cop knelt and removed my court-ordered ankle bracelet.
“I am sure Ms. Almstead won’t cause us any trouble at all. Will she?” She cooed. I threw her a withering glare, but I was thrown a bit off-guard by the intensity of her gaze. Disconcerted, I looked back to my phone, feigning indifference. Canfield gestured to the little boat waiting for us, “Your chariot awaits.” I had no choice but to climb aboard. The captain untied the lines, and the boat chugged away from the dock and with it, my last connection to my old life. I looked back and saw Mr. Black take off his absurd horn-rimmed glasses and wipe them clean of rain. When he felt sure I was too far off shore to make a run for it, he climbed into the back of my parents’ towncar and drove away.
In the boat’s cramped cabin, I sat on a ripped vinyl bench and steadfastly refused to meet the eyes of my new warden. She sat on the bench on the other side of the captain’s chair, regarding me silently with a weird fixed smile. I stared stubbornly at my phone’s screen, tapping out texts to friends who would never receive them. “Failed to send” my phone informed me, repeatedly.
“I’m sure they told you there’s no cell reception on the island, we are far too far, you know,” she giggled, then continued, “And you know I’ll have to confiscate all your personal belongings as soon as we arrive.”
Of course I knew. I knew all about the rules and regulations that made this so-called boarding school basically an Alcatraz for girls. My parents’ lawyer had argued in court that in light of my potential (aka, my parents’ money), I’d be better off here than in juvenile detention. He told me privately that I was lucky (aka, a white girl) I wasn’t being tried as an adult and heading to prison.
The captain cut the engines down to a putter and I lifted my head to try and see through the rain sheeting across the glass of the cabin. I cupped my hands and pressed my face against the window, trying to make out some detail, but saw nothing but shades of gray, the sea slightly darker than the sky. Suddenly a vast shadow emerged: a forbidding cliff of rock topped with towering conifers, which abruptly opened up into a small bay with a little bobbing dock.
“This is the only harbor on the island,” Canfield told me, “so don’t think you’re going to fashion a raft and escape. Don’t think you are going to make a heroic swim. This water will give you hypothermia in about ten minutes. Don’t imagine you can sneak aboard the supply boat when it comes. What would you do if you found a stowaway, Dave?”
“Toss ‘er over.” Muttered the captain through his thicket of a beard, not bothering to look away from his course.
“That’s right. Into the drink with you!” cried Canfield with demented glee, then in a theatrical whisper, “I know you’re going to try and run anyway. But you should know that when your parents enrolled you here, they signed a waiver that they will not hold the school liable for any injury incurred during an escape attempt. Even unto death.” Then she giggled again, as though this were a hilarious joke.
Captain Dave stole a quick glance at me over his shoulder. “This one’s too stupid to be scared. She’ll learn.” He snorted and shrugged, “Or not.”
We bumped up alongside the dock, and staff wearing S.R.S. jackets ran over and grabbed the lines, tying the boat fast. Canfield stood, “Ms. Almstead, welcome to Seal Rock School.” I gaped at the looming stone edifice perched on the rocky shore. It appeared almost an extension of the earth, stern and forboding. The dock became a gravel path that led straight into the massive front doors, and as they boomed shut behind me, I felt more out of place than I ever had in my life. Canfield, on the other hand, was clearly in her element.
She bustled me into her office calling to her assistant, “Bring Ms. Almstead’s new clothes, please!” I tried to be nonchalant as I undressed in front of her; I’d been naked in front of strangers plenty of times, but something about her made me want to cover myself. When she handed me my school uniform, I couldn’t put it on fast enough. Black nylon hiking pants, sweatshirt with the S.R.S. monogram, wool socks, huge cotton underwear and a big ugly bra. I tried a couple hiking shoes before I found a pair that fit. I looked like a mini-Canfield, but with way better hair. She put all my things (goodbye, phone!) into a duffel that disappeared into a locked storage room.
“This way,” she said. I padded behind her down an endless hallway lined with identical numbered doors. There was no one to be seen. “The other students will be out of class in about thirty minutes, so I’ll allow you this free time to yourself,” she opened door 31 revealing a tiny room. There was no chair, just some built-in bunk beds and closets. I went inside and stood awkwardly in the small open floor space. She stood at the door looking at me expectantly. Did she want a tip?
“While you are at Seal Rock Academy, you will address me as Dean Canfield,” she trilled.
I shrugged, “Or what?”
The change that came over her was terrifying, her brows drew together, her face drained of all color, and her lips thinned to a small pinched line, as she grated out through clenched teeth, “It would not do to earn punishment on your fist day, Ms. Almstead. You will address me politely and properly.”
“OK” I panicked, genuinely afraid of her in the moment. Her unibrow lifted in warning, and I stammered, “OK, Dean Canfield?”
As quickly as a cloud passing across the sun, her eyes cleared and she smiled, “That’s the spirit. You may not be a lost cause, after all. See you at dinner,” she said as she left, closing the door behind her.
I sat on the edge of the lower bunk and took a deep breath. My heart was racing with adrenaline, and my hands were literally shaking. I had never felt such a visceral fear. And for what? I walked to the small window and looked out. It was only 3:00 in the afternoon, but it was already getting dark, and the thick mossy woods grew right up to the building. I could have reached out and touched the dripping cedar branches, if it wasn’t for the bars on the window. I put my extra uniforms into the closet labelled “Courtney Almstead”. Apparently my roommate was “Cecelia Drake”. I took a quick peek in her closet, but it appeared identical to mine. No personal items of any kind. Not so much as a pretty rock from the beach.
Suddenly a tall blonde girl burst into the room, and let out a little squeal in surprise. “Sorry,” she said, gasping a bit as she controlled her breathing with her hand over her heart, “No one said I was getting a new roommate.” She glanced at my closet door. “Courtney, huh? And you saw I’m Cecelia, but call me CiCi.” She stepped back into the hall and knocked on the opposite door, “Mandi! Kaleigh! Come meet the noob!”
Soon, I learned CiCi was from LA, and had been at a real boarding school while her parents filmed on location around the world, but she got kicked out for trashing the Dean’s office and drinking all her booze. Kaleigh was from Charleston and was also sent as a court-ordered alternative to juvie. “My grandmother said she’d cut my dad out of the will if he didn’t get me under control, so here I am.” Mandi was from Boston, and her conservative parents sent her here because she ran away with her girlfriend, who used to be her tennis coach. We were friends already.
After a little while, I had to ask, “So, everything seems seriously tight around here. I don’t get it. Why can’t we use our own shampoo? And no books? Even in jail, they let us have books.”
The girls exchanged a furtive look. CiCi touched a finger to her lips before she spoke, “You can read in the library, you just have to leave books there. It’s not worth making waves. Just try and follow the rules.”
I smirked, “Why? Cause Canfield will spank me?”
Again, the furtive look between them. “Hush,” said Kaleigh, “Just keep your head down and do what you’re told. This isn’t like juvie. No one is checking up on us here.”
I frowned, looking at their faces for some sign they were exaggerating or hazing me or something. “Like, beatings? That’s not legal, is it?”
CiCi shook her head and pointed to her ear, then her eye before looking pointedly at the clock over the door. Was she telling me they were watching us? Listening? Then she said, “Remember--”
“OH! It’s almost five o’clock,” Mandi interrupted, “We had better get down to the Dining Hall.” I was not ready to let this conversation go, but all three fairly leapt to their feet and hustled out the door.
The Dining Room was nearly full by the time we took our seats. Even with almost one hundred teenage girls, the room was quiet, just a low buzz of conversation. Occasionally, there would be a burst of giggles or exclamation, quickly stifled. At the far end of the room on an elevated dais, Canfield and a few other dour women presided over the room like watchful gargoyles. After dinner, the four of us escaped to the game room for Scrabble. I wanted to continue our conversation, but the others avoided my gaze and kept up a constant stream of cheery chatter. Eventually, we were sent back to our rooms in time for the 9:00 lights-out.
In the darkness, I tossed and turned, desperate to talk about the strangeness of my day. “CiCi…” I whispered. She shushed me quietly. I swallowed my burning questions and waited. It had to have been close to midnight by the time CiCi crept out of her bunk and slipped into mine. She put her lips right against my ear, her breath warm and intimate.
“Never say anything they can hold against you. They are watching and listening all the time,” she breathed. I started to turn to spea, but she held my head steady with her hands as she continued, “I have been here eight months, and five girls have died. Dead, Courtney. All supposedly drowned trying to escape. After the second one, I was sure someone would come to investigate, but no one ever did. Or for the third, or fourth, or fifth. They just loaded body bags onto the boat and took them away.”
My heart lurched unevenly in my chest as I tried to process this information. It was inconceivable that all those families would just ignore that kind of criminal negligence. My parents’ lawyer, Mr. Black, would have this place shut down in a day if anything happened to me. I found CiCi’s story hard to believe. We locked eyes in the darkness, the faint nightlight from the bathroom barely giving shape to the outlines of her face. She put her lips to my ear again. “Believe me or not, just be careful. Don’t cross Canfield.”
I shook my head free of her hands and turned my lips to her ear. “There is no way five girls have died and their parents aren’t all over this place. That doesn’t make any sense.”
CiCi drew a deep breath and whispered again, “I don’t know,” she paused, “I think, maybe…their parents know? Maybe even…arranged for it to happen.” With that stunning suggestion, she slipped out of my bed and climbed back to her own bunk, leaving me to stew in my own thoughts until sleep finally claimed me.
The morning came too early, my night had been fraught with nightmares of my mom dressed as Captain Dave, laughing as she tossed me overboard, and my dad in a S.R.S. jacket zipping me into a body bag. I was exhausted when CiCi shook me awake for breakfast. As I sat eating my oatmeal, every glance from an adult now seemed heavy with threat. The girls wore masks of smiles, but their eyes were glassy with fear. The room was febrile with tension. How had I missed this yesterday? Or was I just imagining it because of CiCi’s ridiculous story?
After breakfast, we filed off to our classes. Administration had decided I was behind the other girls my age, since I hadn’t actually bothered going to school in almost a year. So it was lunchtime before I saw my friends again. I sat at our table and noted the empty place. I turned to CiCi, “Where’s Kaleigh?”
Her eyes were wide, and her nostrils flared with short panicked breaths, “I don’t know. She wasn’t in class this morning.”
I looked across the table at Mandi and saw her face was blotchy, and she surreptitiously wiped her snotty nose on her napkin. I started to panic, and almost jumped to my feet to run away. CiCi gripped my knee painfully, forcing me down. I relaxed back into my seat, and noticed the woman stationed at our table watching me carefully. Then Canfield came into the room, and everyone stood to attention. She spread her arms wide and spoke, in a voice dripping with emotion.
“Girls, I am afraid I have some terrible news. One of our family chose to try and leave our island, despite all the many warnings we have given you. I’m afraid Kaleigh Brooks drowned this morning.” There was a clatter that made all the girls jump. Mandi had fainted dead away, her slumping form overturning her plate onto the floor. Canfield snapped her fingers and a couple women rushed over to carry Mandi out between them. “We are clearly all overwhelmed with grief. Class this afternoon will be cancelled, and you will all be confined to your rooms. Consider well the opportunity each of you have to better yourselves here at Seal Rock School, and the sad, sad, fate that waits for those who try to leave us. Dismissed.” Her head tilted, and I could swear her eyes followed me as I filed out the room with the rest.
CiCi held my hand in a death grip as we scurried back to our room. She pulled me into the far back corner of my bunk, clearly hoping to be out of sight of whatever cameras may be in the room. She put her lips to my ear and whispered in a rush, “Last week Kaleigh said she thought she saw her dad’s lawyer get off the supply boat and head into Canfield’s office with a briefcase. She waited for a message from her parents or something, but Canfield never said anything. She thought she must have been mistaken, and it was someone else. But I think her dad wanted to make sure he got his inheritance, and paid Canfield to kill her.”
I stared at CiCi in horror as she gazed back at me earnestly, tears streaming down her face. Could Kaleigh’s own parents really have had her killed? I thought about my own parents. How distant they were. How they didn’t come to my court hearings, or seem to care when I stayed out all night. If I was being honest with myself, I had spent a lot of my life just trying to get them to pay attention to me. But they would never want me dead! They couldn’t know what kind of things were going on at this school. No one knew. That was the problem, everyone was too afraid to talk. I made up my mind in a rush. We were supposed to be allowed one phone call home every week. I’d go now. I needed to hear my mom’s voice. I needed to know they still cared about me, even after everything I had done. I needed to say I was sorry and ask them to get me out of here.
I ran down the hall and pulled up in front of Canfield’s office. I raised my fist to knock on the glass panel, etched with the omnipresent S.R.S. monogram, when I caught a sliver of the room through the small strip of clear glass in the “R”. I was stopped by a glimpse of the unmistakable old-fashioned horn-rimmed glasses of Mr. Black. My parents’ lawyer was standing across the desk from Canfield. My breath went out of me in a relieved rush. Thank god. He was coming to get me, they must have heard the rumors. My whole being felt lighter and my lips curled into a smile. Then he reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a thick stack of cash. My smile faded into horror as Canfield thumbed through the bills and nodded. I watched them shake hands, sealing my fate.