Apologies for the length of time between chapters! I haven’t been able to devote as much time to writing now that school is back in session.
“I’ve decided I’m staying where I am.”
Sophie added wryly, as an afterthought, “That’s not going to make Sarah and Leah hate each other any less.”
Ms. Ver and Sophie had withdrawn into Invocans shack after class. Ms. Ver wanted to make sure Sophie was still satisfied with her roommate situation, but Sophie’s quiet aside registered like a slap to the teacher.
“Leah started as Sarah’s roommate,” Sophie started to explain, but Ms. Ver stopped her.
“I know, I know.”
Well, of course she knows. She runs our dormitory.
Sophie and her teacher seemed to share the same frustration. Sophie confessed, “Leah wants me to room with her, and Sarah just wants me to cut ties with Leah.”
Ms. Ver let out a tsk. “Well, who are you going to pick?”
Sophie stared at Ms. Ver, startled by the question. “Neither. Er, both. I’m not picking between them.”
Ms. Ver nodded with a faraway look in her eyes. “Ah. Well then. I always do what I can to settle disputes…And now that you’re here, I think this problem can be solved.”
Voices drifted down the hill. After peeping her head out a window frame, Ms. Ver informed Sophie that her next class had arrived.
“Better get to Latin, Sophie. Thanks for helping me settle the room situation.”
Sophie didn’t move from her stump seat. “When can I talk to Mr. Hickks?”
Ms. Ver turned around to face Sophie. All of a sudden, her amusement was gone. “Yes. He’s going to speak with you this afternoon. I’ll make sure of it.”
Ms. Ver’s unspoken thoughts seemed to suggest, I’m sorry, we’ve made you wait too long. I’ll get you to him today if I have to march you there myself.
The words sounded so natural, they just slipped into the back of Sophie’s mind. She was used to hearing words in her head. Most of the time, they were hers, and if not, they belonged to people in animal form.
That’s why Sophie didn’t bat an eyelash when Ms. Ver’s voice whispered in her brain. It was only after her teacher had sent her on the way to Latin, and Sophie relived the moment, that her thoughts snagged something that didn’t make much sense.
I need to stop reading into people’s faces so much, Sophie realized. It’s starting to mess with my head. Because there was just no way that Sophie had read her teacher’s mind.
* * *
After school, Sophie’s mind was completely consumed with the prospect of speaking to Mr. Hickks again. She knew exactly what she wanted to say. Did your sister come for my family? What does your school and your Heart have to do with me? I know there’s something you’re not telling me. And I don’t think it was a coincidence that I found the Heart on the same night the kidnappers came…
Sophie dragged Leah to the highest platform to talk in private. Deep down, she felt unstable; her far-fetched theory wasn’t very reliable. Maybe Leah could add some insight. Either way, the more she thought about it, the more Sophie felt that Invocans had something to do with her family’s kidnapping.
“Mr. Hickks is finally going to meet with me again,” Sophie muttered. “But I wanted to talk to you before we do. I had a thought yesterday—about how we found the Heart on that night.”
Sophie shared her theory. Out loud, it sounded almost as believable as the Cat Club’s conspiracy. Nevertheless, Leah’s eyes were wide as she pondered the possibilities. Sophie knew that any rumor was enough to spark Leah’s interest, so at least Sophie knew that Leah would humor it.
“You think she kidnapped them looking for the Heart?” Leah echoed, aghast. “But, how do you think she knew it was there?”
Sophie’s eyes were wide. “I don’t know, but it all fits, to me at least. Mr. Hickks literally owns the land. We’re already connected. I’m going to ask him about it later.”
“You’ll have to tell me what he says!”
Leah and Sophie lapsed into silence as they watched movement on the ramps below. Suddenly, something whizzed past their shoulders, and Sophie jerked back in surprise. Behind them, a tiny sphere bounced to the other side of the platform.
“Where did this come from…?” Sophie wondered, chasing after it. When she caught it, she exclaimed, “It’s a grape!”
As she stood, Leah yelped, and another grape sailed over the railing and smacked Sophie in the forehead. She blinked, caught the grape before it fell to the ground, and hurried back to peer over the rail.
“It’s Sarah,” Leah announced in contempt, pointing to the bridge below.
“LEAH!” Sarah hollered, jumping and waving.
She revealed another grape and aimed it at Leah, but it managed to hit Sophie again, this time on the shoulder.
“Why is she throwing grapes at us?!” Leah hissed, gripping the railing tightly as if to muster up the strength to shout, “STOP! THROWING! GRAPES! AT US!”
This was enough to merit a few discordant protests from the students on the lower levels, each of which were effectively ignored.
“Not ‘US’, Leah!” shouted Sarah. “Just YOU!”
“What did she say?” Leah asked.
“She said she wasn’t throwing grapes at us, just you.”
“MS. VER WANTS TO SEE YOU!” Sarah’s shout echoed a few times before fading.
“Why didn’t you just say so,” Leah grumbled. “WHERE IS SHE?!”
“COME WITH ME.”
Leah sighed with furrowed brows, and they began the long journey down. Sarah was proud to be leading Leah into what she clearly expected to be a telling-off. “Ms. Ver is right by the kitchens.”
The teacher was looking oddly smug when her students arrived. “Thank you, Sarah.”
“You’re welcome!” Sarah turned, smirking, to leave.
“Nope, Sarah, I need you for this too.”
That’s when things started to feel very terse.
“It’s been long enough. I’m fixing your room assignments.”
Leah looked at Ms. Ver suspiciously.
“Leah, you’re going to be moving in with Sarah and Sophie!”
Leah’s mouth fell open. Speechless, she looked from Ms. Ver to Sophie and then to Sarah, who appeared equally paralyzed.
“Wha—” Leah stammered. “But—but—but—Ms. Ver, you know we can’t stand each other!”
“I know, and that’s why I’m doing it.” Ms. Ver smirked. “I’m tired of seeing you two fight. By making you share a room, I’m hoping you’ll fix that.”
“But it’s Sarah who hates me!”
“No, Leah hates me,” Sarah retorted. Her eyebrows were deeply furrowed, and helpless rage drifted over her face.
“But neither of you hate Sophie. At least you’ll get to room with a friend.” Ms. Ver stared sternly at both of them. “Leah, you can move your things now. I want this implemented by tonight, please.”
Leah swallowed as though choking back an irate outburst. Sarah ran off without a word.
“Sarah, get back here! Goodness, I’m not even done yet!”
Sarah stopped and wheeled around, ten feet away, but didn’t come any closer.
“Once you start getting along better, come see me about swapping back. Okay?”
The girls nodded.
“Any questions? No? Alright. You can go, now.” Ms. Ver left for the backyard.
Leah looked down to her feet and scuffed the floor with her shoes. “Guess I’d better go move my things.” Her tone was bitter, and Sophie had the sense to leave her be.
Alone, Sophie remained motionless in the vast hall. She couldn’t help grinning, albeit wryly, at what had just happened. Sophie didn’t know what to expect tonight—only the certainty that life was going to be very different for the next few weeks.
Even as she stood in thought, a door opened on the other side of the atrium, by the front doors. Sophie hardly noticed the sound of squeaking hinges, but when she heard footsteps clunking on a low balcony, she turned around to spy Mr. Hickks emerging from his office.
He hadn’t noticed Sophie yet, and he came out with his lips drawn in a slight frown. She wasn’t as happy to see him as she had expected to be. Mr. Hickks wore the same gray suit he usually did, but it looked strange on the frame of a seventeen year old. However, he was not wearing the gentle, warm expression that Sophie had yet to see him without.
The schoolmaster spotted her and waved her over, obviously surprised to see her standing by the kitchens. Apprehensively, Sophie made her way to his balcony. Due to all the questions spinning in her head, she expected her mind to be clouded with uncertainty, but instead, her thoughts crystallized into focused points. She was prepared, but still nervous in case there was news on her family.
Mr. Hickks greeted Sophie politely when she reached the top of the stairs. He held the door for her, and she entered his dim, stiflingly warm office.
“Have a seat at the table.”
Sophie took the same chair she’d sat in last time. Mr. Hickks did likewise, across from her, and began speaking even before he’d settled in his seat.
“Well Sophie, to be honest, the reason I haven’t met with you again is because there’s not much news yet. I’ll cut to the chase—the kidnappers are more elusive than I expected them to be. Neither the volunteers nor the police have found any motives or clues.” As though he’d flipped a light switch, Mr. Hickks’s eyes were suddenly sympathetic in Sophie’s presence.
“The volunteers are helping?” Sophie had never guessed who was out there looking for her family. A vision of Pierre and Clarissa wandering through her neighborhood flashed to mind. The thought made her skin prickle. “Which ones?”
“You don’t know them—they don’t work here. However. They found a lead two nights ago. But so far, it’s yet to yield any answers.”
“What kind of lead?” Sophie breathed the question fiercely.
“A scent trail a few miles from your house. It’s very stale and hard to follow, but it matches your house’s smell.”
Hope glimmered in Sophie’s heart, but her fists clenched in an attempt to repress her excitement. “Where does it go?”
Mr. Hickks’s eyebrows were raised, signaling wonderment. “We don’t know yet, but I hope they lead to your family.”
Sophie’s tongue toyed with what she had been planning to say for so long. The words were right there, ready to be born and eager to be answered. “Ms. Ver brought the Heart to Invocans class yesterday.”
Sophie stared hard for any reaction in the schoolmaster’s eyes, but his emotions were effectively concealed. Perhaps the remark meant nothing to him. Sophie continued: “She said that it being in our house was a mystery.”
Aha. There was the uncertain flicker. Mr. Hickks’s shield was now engaged, and Sophie sat back, satisfied. “Mr. Hickks, how can you ask me to be more open when you’re not even telling me everything?”
She waited for him to recoil, or to scold her, or to remind her of his authority and send her away. To her surprise, however, Mr. Hickks broke out in a grin, barked a laugh, and angled his head towards her as though in approval. His dark hair flopped forwards, dissipating any pretense of formality. Mirthfully, he wondered, “Sophie, do you even realize when you do it?”
Flummoxed, Sophie struggled for a response. “What? Do what, sir?”
Mr. Hickks used a hand to smooth his hair back. He shook his head as if to banish the amusement. “Nothing, I’m sorry. It doesn’t matter. Alright, Miss Conifer, tell me what’s on your mind.”
Sophie’s eyebrows arched in disconcert, but she went on anyway. “I think that whoever took my family has something to do with this school. I was trying to think of reasons—Why us? But then I realized, we had the Heart in our house, which could have made us a target.”
Mr. Hickks ruminated thoughtfully on the idea.
“When Ms. Ver told us about your sister, I thought maybe…”
Mr. Hickks inhaled sharply, and he finished her sentence quickly. “And you thought she was behind it.”
Sophie mistook his tone for dawning realization, and she continued with increasing fervor. “Yes! What if she didn’t go back to a peaceful life? I don’t know, what if she lost the Heart or something, but then she wanted it back!”
Sophie cut off when she noticed Mr. Hickks staring at her, oddly still, gaze strangely empty. He was silent for one long moment, in which Sophie felt herself withdrawing again, drifting back into that uncertain hermitage of the mind. Am I wrong? Am I right? She waited for the schoolmaster, in all his mysterious wisdom, to ultimately accept or deny her suggestion. His word would be the final truth.
He finally spoke.
“Sophie, that’s a very good thought. It would fill in a lot of blanks for me if that was the reason. But it isn’t possible.”
And then he finished: “My sister is dead.”
Sophie felt like she’d been hung upside down. Dead?! How? Why? Ms. Ver hadn’t mentioned that at all!
Subdued, Sophie murmured an apology. Her theory toppled to the ground, and all she could do was stare at the rubble and allow herself to sink once more into the murky depths of the unknown.
“She died many years ago. But I don’t put that part of the story into the lessons.”
Sophie really didn’t know what else to say. She felt awful for bringing it up, even though there was no way she could’ve known the truth.
Hickks didn’t explain how, or why, or any of the other details Sophie was curious about. Asking those things aloud would have been insensitive. Instead, the subject was quietly changed, and Sophie made up for her perceived blunder by answering all of Mr. Hickks’s school-related questions with verbosity. He was very interested in what Sophie had learned so far in Invocans.
Despite the fact that it turned Sophie’s clue hunt backwards, the meeting brought peace to her mind and renewal to her spirits. Even if there hadn’t been a solid lead to discuss, at least Sophie was up to speed. Knowing there was nothing to know was better than being left in the dark. Somehow, at the end of the meeting, Sophie still trusted Mr. Hickks.
Sophie’s first course of action after being dismissed was to seek out some more comfortable clothing. She was still in her uniform and couldn’t wait to put on some yoga pants.
Sophie entered the bedroom and found Leah unloading her things with the ardor of a doomed prisoner. She was crouched at her new dresser, piling clothes from large heaps into the drawers.
Leah greeted Sophie glumly. “I never thought I’d ever be back here. How long do you think I’ll last?”
Sophie really couldn’t empathize. “You won’t last at all with that attitude.”
“Hm. Well, at least we’re in the same room now.”
Sophie went into the closet to change. Unfortunately, the closet was notoriously Sarah’s domain, and a strange odor reeked from the back, where Sophie did not care to venture. She was in and out as quick as possible.
“Wow, beware the inside of the closet,” Sophie gasped, emerging in gray pants and a flowy teal shirt.
Leah turned around curiously. “What, why—ACK!” The fumes from the open door reached her nostrils, and Leah leaped up to slam the door. “What is IN there?!”
“I don’t know, but let’s just keep it closed forever!”
Leah grumbled, “We’re going to have to have Sarah clean that out.”
Sophie murmured her assent. “Is there other stuff left in your room? I can go get it.”
“Yeah—well, the rest of it is wrapped up in my comforter. You might need some help fitting it up the stairs.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Downstairs in Leah’s room, a mountain of lavender blankets dominated the center of the floor. Sophie heaved them into her arms, staggering as they melted limply into her body, and wobbled out of the door.
The blob of blankets was so wide that it blocked the entire stairwell, much to the annoyance of the girls coming down from the porch. Some of them assisted in the manipulation of the wad, which made the trip up so much easier. Sophie thanked them breathlessly when they reached her room, where being able to shove the blankets through her doorway was the most satisfying moment in her life.
The blob burst, and blankets spilled all over the floor.
After that, Sophie helped Leah unpack the rest of her items, and by the time they finished, the third bed was decorated and ready to sleep in. There were now three obvious sectors to the room—the one that resembled a tornado; the neat and sleek purple one; and the side where an orange velociraptor peeped out of the covers.
Now that Leah was officially a member of room seven and Ms. Ver could be satisfied, the move was complete. Sophie and Leah headed down into the deepest layer of the girls’ dorm, where it was warm and cozy, with plenty of couches, and lit with golden lights, to play chess.
“Oh! Nobody’s at the board! Sophie, you have to fight me at chess,” Leah demanded.
“Or, play me. However you want to say it. Have you ever played before?”
“Of course! My family used to play chess all the time.”
The board had its own table in the back of the den. Overly squishy armchairs faced each other, and Sophie sank into the one on the white team’s side.
Leah settled into the other armchair with a gleam in her eyes. “Now, I’m no member of the chess team, but I do like to think I’m pretty good…”
Sophie grinned with a sly look in her eyes. She also had a few tricks up her sleeve.
Back and forth went their turns. At first Leah seemed to be winning, but Sophie’s strategic formation at last fell into place, and she locked Leah’s king into checkmate.
The game had acquired a few spectators who were thrilled when Sophie won. Leah had proved a difficult opponent.
Abigail McHale wanted to challenge Sophie, but at that point, Sophie was ready to relent the board. It was almost dinnertime, and Sophie hadn’t finished her homework. She wanted to brush up on her survival notes for tomorrow’s quiz.
The next day, it was raining by the time Ms. Milady tested the Novuses on emergency situations. One by one, they were required to demonstrate the proper responses to choking, heart attacks, snakebites, concussions, deep cuts, and getting lost. All of them passed, and none of the choking dummies died. Thank goodness. At the end of class, Ms. Milady brought exciting news; their tests were on Monday, and whoever passed would finally be permitted to freely roam the grounds.
For the remainder of the week, Leah and Sarah completely ignored each other. Sarah refused to enter the bedroom when Leah was inside, but even after she conceded to the importance of sleep, Sarah never so much as glanced at Leah, and vice versa. Sophie had hoped that the two would realize how ridiculous their feud was, but so far, the prospect was bleak.
Meanwhile, Sophie dutifully relayed to Leah her meeting with Mr. Hickks. They spent a fair amount of time musing over his burst of laughter and twice as long combing their brains for other explanations as to why someone would kidnap a family. It was just the sort of thing that felt natural to do, even if speculations weren’t going to get them anywhere.
When they weren’t theorizing, Sophie and Leah spent hours outside riding horses and hanging around with Connor, Jack, and Hayley. Sophie felt herself being drawn towards their antics—the freedom with which they flew through life, speaking their mind; and not only that, but acting on their whims. Sophie remembered her promise to Leah and wondered if she could change in the way she was asking her friends to. She hoped so.
Between lessons and after school activities, the rest of the week flashed by. On Friday, the Novuses could hardly sit still during Invocans, because that afternoon their private sessions would begin. They were given the whole class to practice Invocans with the group, but everyone had questions, and the practice couldn’t feel real until each of them arrived at the preordained session which they had been envisioning so passionately in their minds.
Sophie’s first private practice session was held a short walk into the woods from the Invocans shack. Down a tiny path was a clearing with a pond at the center, surrounded by reeds and cattails. (It was the same location Sophie had first attended Leah’s Invocans class.) There were two picnic tables, while on the other side of the pond was an Invocans outhouse just like the one Sarah had used.
The session was thirty minutes long. Sophie’s only task was to meditate and practice the Invocans process, which she did with her eyes closed at the table next to the water. Ms. Ver looked on from nearby.
A moist wind breezed through the trees, causing stray droplets to shower down from above. The sky remained morose and gray, but the rain had stopped for now, leaving the atmosphere cool and damp.
Sophie closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind, but immediately found that the water on her seat made concentration impossible. She couldn’t focus if her clothes were damp; the chill sent her nerves complaining. Nevertheless, she remained motionless, hands clasped across the tabletop, eyes closed and mind wandering.
Focus. Focus. Focus on not thinking, Sophie ordered herself.
She was keenly aware of the passing of time. Sophie hoped, any minute, to Invocans—as if it were that easy—but thoughts and water droplets kept pounding her head, and her eyes wouldn’t stay closed, and her socks were bunched miserably in her shoes.
The irony was apparent. The more Sophie told herself to focus, the less she was able to do so. At the end of the session, Sophie was fully disheartened. She understood—and Ms. Ver even more so—that no Novus was ever successful on the first practice. Still, Sophie took the ‘failure’ as a personal blow, and left the session with dashed hopes and a strange sense of shame.
Her classmates all turned up with similar dashed hopes. It was by an unspoken expectation that they regrouped once their sessions were complete. The Novuses gathered in the empty lunch pavilion, where Sophie found her dismay mirrored on the faces of her classmates.
“How did your practices go?” Kate asked. “For the record, mine was awful. It was too cold to focus on anything. We ended up talking instead.”
“I think the idea of sitting and merely ‘focusing’ is not an effective strategy,” spoke Watson. “I’m going to ask around and see if I can’t find some better methods.”
Ira laughed at both of them. “It was just the first day. Nobody Invocanses on the first day. I enjoyed the nap.”
“You napped?!” Watson exclaimed. “Why?”
Ira poked him sharply. “Watson. Something would be very wrong with me if I fell asleep at a wet picnic table.”
“That’s exactly what I was about to tell you.”
“Well, I’m with Watson, the focusing trick didn’t work for me,” Sophie sighed. “In fact, it made it worse.”
“We just have to get used to it,” Aiden suggested brightly. “You know, like falling asleep.”
Ira arched an eyebrow, smirking. “Didn’t we just establish that’s a terrible idea?”
Aiden frowned. “You can’t force yourself to fall asleep, and you can’t force yourself to Invocans,” he clarified.
“Ah. Coming off the nap joke, I was confused. What do you think is the normal amount of time for someone to Invocans, anyway?”
Sophie sifted through her memories to answer Ira’s question. “Uh, I think Leah said that her class took one and a half quarters? Quite a few weeks, anyway.” Hearing her classmates’ stories softened Sophie’s disappointment. Already, her bitterness was fading.
“So much for the Heart making Invocans easier,” Ira muttered.
“I wish Ms. Ver would spend more time talking about the Heart,” Watson lamented. “I really don’t understand it, and none of the other teachers will answer my questions.”
“Mighty shady business,” Ira agreed.
“Well, what exactly are you asking them that’s so off limits?” Kate wondered, amused.
Watson cocked his head and narrowed his eyes as he always did before indulging in his love of elucidation. “I’m only wondering about the tangibility of powers, and how Hickks manipulates them. For instance, is it possible to take away someone’s Invocans?”
Kate sat back as though blown away. “Whoa.”
Meanwhile, Ira leaned forwards and crossed her arms, brows furrowed seriously. “Well, is it?”
Watson shrugged with wide affronted eyes. “That’s the thing, I don’t know! Nobody will tell me how Invocans works—just what it does. Lowly Novuses aren’t allowed to know such secrets.”
“Oh wait, here’s something I want to know,” said Ira. “Who brought back the Heart?”
Watson let out a chuckle.
“I know, I’m hilarious,” Ira reflected dryly.
Watson shook his head. “Sorry, I was just imagining all the possible conclusions. I don’t know, Ira, but I would love to find out. Ms. Ver won’t be the one to tell us, though.”
Sophie knew it was only a matter of time before the whole school would be asking that same question. Did keeping the answer matter? Sophie thought back to the hours of theorizing she and Leah had spent.
Do I really want the whole school making theories about me?
The answer was no.
Of course, maybe her classmates should know. Did she trust them that much?
Trust wasn’t the deciding factor. In the private recesses of her heart, Sophie savored the secret shared between Leah and herself. At least for now, Sophie would not share it.
“More than likely it was someone who’s been here awhile and knows what to look for,” Watson supposed. “Imagine if they found it at a yard sale! Hah. Think Hickks’s sister has yard sales?”
“Nah,” Ira said. “Maybe we can investigate, though, at some point this weekend.”
Watson brightened and faced Ira with a gleaming grin. “How about tomorrow?”
Later that afternoon, Sophie returned to the living room with Ira and Kate. They claimed the largest couch and settled down to get their homework done, and not a moment too soon: The downpour had resumed, and all above them was the thunderous sound of rain streaming through hundreds upon thousands of leaves.
“It’s been raining almost the whole week,” Kate muttered glumly.
“What, you don’t like the rain?” Ira sounded surprised that anyone would shun a rainstorm.
“No, and don’t you dare try to convince me to join you out there. You think I’m scary now? Wait until you see me sopping wet.”
Ira enjoyed afternoon jogging, a hobby she was faithful to no matter the weather. “I don’t think you’re even remotely scary, Kate.”
“Not even when I talk in my sleep?”
With all the chatter, homework took twice as long as usual. However, Sophie was glad to have friends that didn’t save their work for the weekend. Together they had earned themselves forty-eight hours of freedom.
Later that afternoon, Ms. Ver entered the living room to tack the chore sign-up sheet on the billboard. To most of the girls in the dorm, this was the action that signified the true start of school. For the rest of the year, their meals would depend on their level of responsibility and time management.
Thankfully, Leah and Sophie had talked out the chores beforehand. Since Sophie loved to garden, she knew she would want to sign up for any task hosted by Ms. Milady. Under Milady’s category were three jobs: Lawn care, garden care, and ‘park service’.
Garden care drew Sophie’s eye, so she signed her name on one of its three blanks. She didn’t know if she’d be working on vegetable gardens or decorative landscaping, but the description instructed her to meet with Ms. Milady at the barn on Sunday afternoon, so that’s what Sophie would do.
Late that evening, when dinner had ended, something happened that tied a ribbon on Sophie’s whole week. Leah and Hayley were in the living room trying to teach Sophie how to weave when Sarah entered the room.
Spying Sophie, Sarah’s face lit up and she made as if to rush over until she noticed Leah, who was oblivious. Sarah turned on her heel and headed the opposite direction.
“Leah, quick!” Sophie exclaimed. “I dare you to say something nice to Sarah.”
Leah was caught off guard. “What?”
“Come on, before she gets up the stairs!”
Hayley laughed silently.
Leah groaned, but was helpless under the gaze of her witnesses to turn down the dare. So she called, “Hey, Sarah, I like your—sweater!”
Sarah whirled around, sweaterless and bewildered. “Uh, thanks…?” She continued on her way, disappearing upstairs.
But the interaction was complete. Often, it is the simplest words that banish the simplest feuds, and this would prove true for the old enemies.