Becky lay on her bed, sketchbook splayed before her, the stubby end of a pencil in her charcoal-stained hand. On the other side of her closed doorway arriving students rushed, mothers sniffed back tears, and fathers or brothers grunted after depositing trunks and bags. Completing the shadow of a lone tree, Becky kept her gaze on the black, whites, and gray of her landscape. She kept hoping to fall through, to walk between the trunks she’d drawn, to swim in the lake’s mountain-cooled waters, to fly among the birds dotting the sky, but the page remained as solid as the carefully tucked sheets under her tummy.
Sighing, she shoved the weathered book aside, and planted her face into the dent of her straw-stuffed pillow. The scent of hay and musk filled her pert nose, and seeped under her skin. Her cardigan’s wool scratched her arms but she wrapped the pillow close and shut her eyes.
Even in the darkness, however, she couldn’t escape the tell-tale sobs of farewells, the excited banter of new introductions being made and of old friends reacquainted, or the bustle of exploration filling the dormitory’ s hallways.
Pushing herself up, she scooped her pencils into their leather case and stuffed it and the sketchbook into her satchel. She brushed the lint from her pleated kilt and rose. Draping the satchel across her budding chest, she adjusted the weight so the bulky sack rested on the evergreen and navy plaid at her hip. Then, with her hand on the door’s latch, she braced herself before opening the slim entry to her room. Keeping her eyes downcast, she darted out, closed the door behind her, and made a swift vector for the stairwell at the end of the corridor.
“Excuse me,” she repeated while whittling through a cluster girls by Vivian’s gaping threshold.
“Beautiful,” said one. The others murmured in agreement.
Becky caught sequins and power blue silk gleaming with the afternoon light spilling through the room’s sole window. The same watery panes occupied her outer wall, but Becky couldn’t imagine anything in her possession causing such a fuss.
“Excuse me,” she whispered and nudged her shoulder at a brief hole between bodies.
Her bump inspired a squeal.
“Watch it,” said an unfamiliar, ginger-haired girl with tortoise rimmed glasses.
Becky flinched and pressed on. Eyes seemed to latch onto her back as if they had claws.
The ginger-one huffed. “Who does she think she is?”
“Don’t you know? She’s the Grant girl.”
A round of understanding oohs cascaded through the clutch. Squashing rising nerves at Vivian’s terse explanation, Becky descended the spiral stairs and bolted for the oak door. A concrete garden lion propped the entrance open, allowing the train of luggage to enter unimpeded. Becky darted out onto the gravel walkway before a pair of brothers on either end of a buffed trunk led a procession of blond ringlets adorning a mother and daughter who tilted their heads together with hushed whispers while clinging to each other’s arms.
Once outside, Becky skirted the line of those waiting to enter, the idling cars circling in the roundabout and manned by drivers or waiting butlers, and the clumps of families gathered for a final exchange.
Ignoring the assortment, Becky set her gaze on her bicycle waiting in the rack shaded by an overgrown rhododendron heavy with bright pink blossoms. The rusted frame and split leather seat stood out among the polished steel and plump cushions of the rest locked alongside. Grasping the handles, she jerked her bicycle free, the pedals clunking as they knocked adjacent spokes.
She winced and hoped the rub hadn’t left a scratch. Needled comments sprang to mind, nonetheless. She recalled one from her dormitory’s Lead about proper care and respect of superior property. The remembered sneers and tittered chuckles blended with the clacks of gears as her tires dug ruts into the gravel while she backed away from the rack.
Turning from the ivy-covered brick, Becky aimed her front tire at the maple-lined walkway leading into the school’s ample estate.
“Hey, you there!”
Becky ignored the shout and swung her leg over her bicycle seat, her kilt’s edge hitching to reveal her knobby legs above the frayed tops of her knee socks.
“You, with the bicycle, wait!”
Cringing, she planted one foot on the stone and peered over at the owner of the nearing and hurried steps.
A lanky boy in the gray uniform of the neighboring dormitory waved. He cupped a bulky camera in one hand, and carried a tripod with its cloth covering in the other. Grinning, he slowed at her back tire and set the legs into place.
“Mind if I take your picture?”
Becky frowned. “Why?”
“I’m the new school photographer.”
“I’m taking pictures for the newspaper. We’re doing a story on Arrival Day.”
“I’m not arriving,” said Becky. “You should take pictures of them.” She tipped her chin at the dormitory’s crowds.
“I’ve got plenty of those,” said the photographer, mounting the camera and securing the cloth on top. “I want to get something different.”
“Different?” Becky scowled but she softened her expression as he flushed.
Becky shook her head and gazed down the empty stretch of maple-flanked gravel. “You’re new aren’t you?”
“Yes. I’m sorry. I should have introduced myself properly.” He wiped his hand on his slate trousers and offered his cleaned palm. “Richard Witherton the Fourth.”
Becky stared at him, and then remembered her manners.
“Rebecca Thatcher,” she said quietly while shaking his hand.
Richard straightened and puffed out his bony chest. “May I take your picture Ms. Thatcher? I’m certain it’ll add some interest to our newspaper’s story.”
His shoulders slouched beneath an uncertain shrug. “It’ll be diff…a change from shots of luggage and teary goodbyes. I have enough of those to illustrate a whole book.” He raised the cloth backing and stepped back, peering through the sight. “This way we can show what activities the new students can do.”
“None of the other girls ride,” said Becky.
Richard glanced over his camera stand, his eyebrow cocked. Becky watched his gaze drift across the sparkling rack.
“All those are for show,” she said.
“Can’t you see the difference?” Becky gestured at her bicycle’s battered frame and well-used tires with their tar patches.
“I see what you mean. You should get a new one.”
Becky rubbed a spot of rust off the handlebar. “Maybe one day.”
“Well, I better get a shot before then.” He lifted the camera’s cloth and vanished beneath, obscuring the emerging grin lighting his face.
Becky sighed and kept her eyes on the loose stone by her scuffed buckskins. “I don’t—”
“Just look down the road,” said Richard, his voice muffled. He waved to indicate the obvious. “Like you’re about to leave.”
“I’d like to,” she whispered and gazed down the shadowed trail.
“Like that,” said Richard. “Now hold for just a second.”
Becky rolled her eyes away from the lane and landed on the flanking rhododendrons. Clenching her mouth tight, she sat as still as the lion statue holding open the door. Richard’s camera snapped and whirred, the puff of smoke tingeing the summery air with sulfur.
He emerged from beneath the cloth. “Perfect.”
“How can you tell?”
“I have a knack for knowing good portraits when I see them.” He patted the camera. “This isn’t my first jaunt as a photographer.”
“Where are you heading, anyway? There’s nothing but hills and lakes around here.”
“Just…away,” said Becky.
“Well, I hope to see you—”
Richard pivoted at the sound of his name. Following his gaze, Becky spotted the dark locks and perpetual smirk of the newly elected Student President of the boy’s dormitory, Charles King.
“What are you doing over there?”
“Taking pictures,” said Richard, cupping his hand to his mouth to accentuate the shout.
“Of who? The Grant girl?”
Becky winced and tilted her bicycle, resetting her feet on the pedals.
“Grant?” Richard frowned, and turned to her. “I thought your name was Thatcher.”
Becky gave him a lean smile. “Welcome to Xavier.”
She pushed off the gravel. The front tire wobbled but she gained enough speed to steady and rode off.
She kept straight, pedaling without a destination in mind but comforted by the growing distance from King, from Richard, from the ivy walls and silk dresses and kept facing forward even when a second snap, whirr, and puff sounded above the grind of rubber and stone.