Author's note: This is a collab story I did with Varsha Vimal. The link to her story in Brittany's POV is below!
The rays of the early morning sun fell through the windows and brightened the dorm room, like a reminder that it was time to wake up. The others in my dorm slept on, but I crawled out of bed, careful to maintain the tranquilness as I stepped away from the others.
I was ready in less than half-an-hour. I scooted over to the table beside my bed and after I got hold of my calculus book and stationery box, and went to class.
I was the first to enter like always.
I liked being solo. Nothing was better than having peace and solitude to yourself. Opening my calculus book, I began to revise the sums one last time before the teacher entered. Something kept nagging at me that I wasn’t going to do very well on the test. I paid no heed to the voice.
The other students began filing into the class one by one, filled with busy chatter, their books in hand. No one noticed me.
The teacher, Mrs. Jen, strode in after a while.
“Good morning class, I hope you have prepared for the test. First, we’ll practice a few sums, and I’ll call you to solve it on the board.”
Mrs. Jen scribbled a few sums on the board and I copied them down.
“Ah, finally Brittany, we’ve been hoping you’d come,” Mrs. Jen said, making me shift my gaze to look at the doorway where the most popular girl, Brittany D’sal stood late as usual, her hair and face impeccably groomed to perfection.
“Sorry, Mrs. Jen,” Brittany murmured before she glided to her seat.
They didn’t seem to have noticed my presence although I was seated next to them, and I heaved a sigh of relief.
“Girls, who can solve this equation?” Mrs. Jen asked from the front of the class, her hand hovering over the first sum: an equation that appeared twisted but was easy if you could work around the logic.
I peered at the equation. I was certain I could get it right. But what if I was wrong? What if I made an error while solving it on the board? I was better off staying silent like the others. Let someone else take the challenge and get the possible spotlight.
Without thinking, my hand shot up into the air. I gasped. I would have withdrawn if I had the chance, but everyone was turned my way, their eyes fixed on me.
“Miss Winters?” Mrs. Jen looked astonished.
I patted down my skirt and walking towards the board. Mrs. Jen handed me the chalk.
I started scribbling the steps to the solution. Upfront, the sum appeared more conquerable. It went faster, and before I knew it, I was staring at the solution.
The class had gone mute, and for a moment, I broke into cold sweat, fearing that I had messed up terribly on the way.
“Is- is that correct?” I bit my lip, preparing myself to hear Mrs. Jen’s voice saying that I was wrong.
But Mrs. Jen smiled, “Why, yes it is.”
I gave a tiny smile before Mrs. Jen excused me to my desk.
You’re saved, for now, the voice woke up inside my mind, stirring.
I heard Hillary whisper something in Brittany’s ear. I could make out the word ‘showoff’. I tried acting as if I hadn’t overheard it.
“Did everyone study for the test?” Mrs. Jen had a sheaf of papers in her hand.
I swept my gaze across the questions. Mrs. Jen passed the paper along to Brittany and Hillary beside me, and for a moment, my eyes met Brittany’s. It was only for an instant, but I could sense her undecidedness. Surprisingly, she let her gaze down faster.
I jotted down my answers in the answer script. From the corner of my eyes, I could see Brittany shift her chair, her face indiscernible. I didn’t ponder over it much, knowing that the time was flitting by.
When I finished, Brittany was still writing. Her eyes darted my way several times, and I tried to shake off the uncomfortable feeling.
I flipped the answer script, ready to hand it in. At the same time, Brittany finished hers, and I shot her a bewildered look. She didn’t look like her usual, confident self today. Was something off?
I didn’t know. And I didn’t dare guess.
“Please be prepared for our next topic, have a wonderful day girls,” Mrs. Jen said after everyone had turned their paper in. The class milled out, but I dawdled around a little, being the last one to go out.
I wished to have friends. Upon arrival, everyone started hanging out in groups, staying with their own best friend throughout the day, even in the dormitories. Only I was a loner, never experiencing unique things I could only achieve with a friend by my side.
I wished people knew about someone called ‘Klara Winters’
* * *
It was early in the evening, and I was in my dorm, after classes, looking through my books. There was no one else within sight.
“Klara!” a voice from the dorm door made me jump. I craned my neck to look at Rachel, standing at the door.
“Mrs. Jen wants to speak to you.” Rachel said, “She told me to call you.”
I nodded, “Okay.”
I headed towards our classroom, wondering why Mrs. Jen had called me.
Was it about today’s test?
Was bad luck catching up to me?
Quickening my pace, I reached for the classroom door. I gripped the handle and pulled it open,
I did a double-take when I saw Brittany.
“Mrs. Jen, I’m sure that it was Klara!” Brittany’s arms were held out in protest, “Please believe me!”
“Well, she’s here now.” Mrs. Jen looked at me, unusually grave, “Miss Winters, I’m sure you know why I have called you.”
Unable to speak, I walked over to where the teacher and Brittany were. Both of them had their glance fixed on me as if I were a criminal.
“Sorry, Mrs. Jen?” My eyes moved towards the test papers Mrs. Jen had in hand.
Mine and Brittany’s
“Really, Klara?” Brittany rolled her eyes, “You didn’t know?”
“Miss Winters,” Mrs. Jen continued, clearly not fooled by my confused look, “Is it completely coincidental, that both yours and Brittany’s papers happen to be the exact same? Word for word, number for number? Even the cuts and slashes?”
Brittany shot me a malicious look, saying, “Mrs. Jen, I studied really hard. I wouldn’t imagine why Klara would want to sneak my answers in the pretense of them being hers.”
It struck me only then that both Brittany and Mrs. Jen were accusing me of copying in today’s test. Brittany was pinning the blame on me, and Mrs. Jen believed her completely.
“I thought you were honest.” Mrs. Jen looked through both our papers in her hands, “Especially when you managed to solve that tricky sum in class today. That must have been a fluke.”
I shook my head numbly. Amassing all my might, I said, “Mrs. Jen I didn’t copy anyone, least of all Brittany.” I wanted to continue, saying how I had prepared for my test, arriving early to class, how I had never stopped to look anywhere else while I was completing my paper. But yet, something stopped me from proving my claim. Something that told me no one would believe me anyway, that even Mrs. Jen would more readily trust Brittany’s words than mine.
Why was she popular and me so unknown to everyone?
Mrs. Jen looked at us both, her gaze switching back and forth. She tapped the oakwood table.
“Well, I can’t punish one of you without proof so both of you are in time out, Miss. D’sal, you know where to go, please escort Miss Winters there.”
I was filled with shock. Were we getting detention? I had never been to detention, but I had read all about it in books.
What did I do wrong to end up here? It was only luck that made Brittany and me have our seats next to each other.
I looked at Brittany. She wasn’t saying anything which was queer.
“Y-Yes ma’am,” Brittany’s voice quivered, as she shot me a placid look. I didn’t respond to her because I didn’t know how to.
We left the room, reluctant, our feet dragging. I was a step behind Brittany, and she strode ahead of me, unabashed, taking me down the twisting and turning corridors, while I fumbled around with my backpack.
I remembered on the first day here, when I promised solemnly, that I would be a sincere student, with a few good friends by my side, doing well in school. I remember how I had vowed I wouldn’t do anything to get detention, and how I would maintain that record.
So far, I have achieved none of those.
What would my parents think of me when they heard I was getting detention for cheating?
I held back a tear.
Brittany stopped and I almost ran into her. We had reached a carved, bamboo door from the 1900s, marked ‘DETENTION’ in big bold letters. Even Brittany paused to gaze at it.
“Why?” My voice was feeble.
Brittany had none of those fears, for, she pushed the door open without a second thought.
The moment I caught a glimpse of the room, I let out an involuntary gasp.
Downy white sofas were arranged next to an enormous water cooler. A gleaming desk stood a few feet away, covered with a bountiful of assorted snacks. In a distant corner, was a stack of storage boxes, filled to the brim with old magazines and newspapers. Dim lights decorated the ceiling.
“What is this place?” I sunk into one of the couches.
“A time-out room, didn’t you hear?”
I shook my head.
We were both alone, and I decided to ask her something I would never have had the courage to ask before:
“Did you copy me?”
My question startled her; I suppose she wouldn’t have expected me to corner her like that. I wasn’t yelling or demanding. My voice remained calm.
She bit her lip, her eyes averted, and nodded slowly.
“I’m sorry, I wanted to ace this test but I couldn’t study, you’re smart.”
“Um… thanks?” I wavered. For one, I was surprised and a little pleased that the most popular girl at school thought I was clever, but it was unacceptable.
“So you forgive me?”
“I guess, it’s not like the teacher believes me anyway, only non-popular kids get the benefit of doubt.” My voice was thick with resentment.
“Oh,” Brittany appeared to realize now, that this was what I thought of her: that all the support she received was because of her popularity and influence.
“Everyone knows you're ‘rich’,” I added, quoting the last word. Brittany had to know.
“But you know what, it doesn’t matter.” I said, memories of my family flooding my mind, “My parents worked so hard they got sick. They couldn’t even care for me but still managed to get me good education,” I had never told this to anyone at school, and the tears I had held back pooled in my eyes.
“Don’t cry,” Brittany cooed, “I didn’t know.”
“No one knows,” I wiped a tear, “And no one cares.”
We sat in silence. I retreated into my valley of thoughts. I wished I hadn’t told her everything and started weeping like that.
In the midst of all this emptiness, I abruptly caught a whiff of something. It was a strong smell, drifting across, spreading throughout the room, increasing in intensity, and refusing to go away.
“Do you smell that?” I snapped, straightening.
“N- oh yeah, I do.” Brittany stammered.
Both of us shot up from our seats and looked around, staying close to each other but our senses open.
“Smells like…” Brittany began.
“Fire?!” Panic wrapped us both, and we moved around more swiftly.
I spotted the door amid the dimness of the room: “The door, we have to leave,” I tried pulling Brittany with me.
“It’s locked,” She aimed a kick at the door which made her double back, her legs hurting.
“You ok?” I asked because she was jumping on one foot.
She only nodded.
“The door’s locked,” I gasped, “Now we’re trapped.”
“God, don’t freak out, let me think.” Brittany said, as if I was the one throwing a huge fit.
“Me?! I wasn’t the one who cheated and blamed someone else and now being the person responsible for us suffocating to death.” I said.
“Gosh, don’t be melodramatic,” Brittany rolled her eyes, “I said I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, whatever.” A ‘sorry’ wasn’t going to help.
“Are we gonna find an exit or keep arguing, ‘cause I know how to win one,” Brittany mocked.
I sighed, “What’s your plan?”
I was sure we were going to die, suffocate in this room and get swallowed by the fire. The heat grew even more fierce, threatening to fry us alive. The temperature had risen rapidly, and it felt like a tremendous furnace. We couldn’t hear anything at all: not even the screams or yells of panicked people.
My mind didn’t seem to work, though I knew we had to be fast if we had to save ourselves. I was dripping with sweat, and everything felt just so beastly.
“Don’t worry, we’ll figure something out,” Brittany said.
“You mean, you’ll figure something out.”
We weren’t even aware where the fire was coming from. What hope did we have?
“We’re gonna die.” I said, my voice a pitiful moan.
“Shh, we’re not,” Brittany sounded unsure herself now, too, “Can I tell you something?”
“I understand what you mean, it's not fair for you or anyone to be put down cause they aren’t liked by everyone.”
I gave a slight nod.
“I… I feel like there is more than meets the eye, you’re an amazing person and never forget that.”
“Wow, I can’t believe Miss. Perfect just complimented me!” I laughed, amazed that Brittany was saying this to me.
“I…Eek, a mouse!!!” Brittany gave a piercing shriek the next moment, and scrambled up the furniture, her face pale.
“Geez, it’s just a vertebrate.” I was surprised I could still laugh.
“Oh yeah Miss. Know-it-all, something that will bite you.” Brittany added with sarcasm.
“Where is it?” I asked.
I spotted movement in a dark corner of the room, a few feet away.
“Hey, look.” I said, bending over. The movement had long since disappeared, but I could make out neverending darkness where it had previously been.
“Is that…” Brittany scampered down and came beside me.
“A tunnel,” my lips curved into a smile, “We can definitely fit through there.”
* * *
We wasted no time at all in crouching down and trying to find a way through the hollow. The passage could have no end, the tunnel could cave in, and around a million other things could happen. But if it was a contest between getting burnt alive and making my way through a suffocating tunnel, I would take the latter any day.
I went first, since I didn’t want Brittany to think that I was a wimp.
I wished we had a torch or some source of light, we hunkered down and moved on our knees, elbowing ourselves further and further inside. The tunnel felt cold against my skin, a stark contrast to the sweltering room we had left behind. I could sense Brittany behind me, jostling her way through the narrow passageway. I couldn’t believe she wasn’t complaining. After all, hadn’t she been accustomed to luxury and lavishness all her life?
I suppose there was more to her than meets the eye.
The air inside the tunnel smelled like damp Earth and rain, and the interiors were growing colder and colder. Neither Brittany nor I opened our mouth to speak because we didn’t want to waste breath and use up all the air inside the tunnel too soon.
The passageway continued for what felt like several miles. It twisted inwards and spiraled around, leading Brittany and me on a wild goose chase. My knees started hurting from rubbing against the ground so many times
“Will this tunnel ever end?” Brittany said after several minutes, nearly out-of-breath.
“I don’t know,” I admitted, pausing for a brief moment before continuing on my way, Brittany right behind me. I told myself I had to be glad because we could no longer feel the heat of the fire, which meant we had come a long way and that we were free from immediate danger.
I seriously began to wonder whether there was any end at all. Would it twist and turn- forever? Would we have to keep moving forever? Of course not, at one point, we would get exhausted, and we would have to stop.
How long could we survive without food or water?
My throat suddenly felt dry, and my stomach grumbled. I hadn’t eaten anything after lunch, nor had I had a drop of water since the evening. I ignored those thoughts and focused on getting through this.
Right when I was about to lose hope that we were ever going to escape from this tedious journey, the tunnel widened, branching out into a larger hollow. Glad for space, I shoved through harder than ever and landed in a heap a few feet ahead. Brittany emerged from behind just a few seconds later.
“Now what?” she said.
"I’m not sure but I don’t feel like we’re enemies anymore. Though we weren't sure what was going to happen to us now or in the future, we would get through it together,” I said.
“Teamwork is dream work.”
Link to Varsha's profile!