The next morning was frigid. Sophie arose and expected to find her slippers by the bed, where she’d left them, but they were completely gone.
Sophie shivered; her feet got cold easily and fluffy slippers were something she considered a necessity. I put them right here!
“Have you seen my slippers?” she finally conceded to ask Sarah, who was already awake and fiddling with her laptop.
Sarah grunted. “Oh, yeah. Thanks for letting me borrow them.”
She leaned over the edge of her bed and groped through the dark depths below. When Sarah withdrew, Sophie’s slippers were grasped triumphantly in her fingers.
Sophie took them gingerly, but they looked unharmed for the most part—there was just a bit of cat fur on them. “Thanks,” she said, finally able to protect her toes.
“How do you like my new slippers?” asked Sarah suddenly, bringing two more slippers out from under her bed. They were brownish-black and slightly blobby. “I had to use yours as models for mine.”
Sophie observed them, then recoiled in shock. “Did you make these? Out of cat hair?“
Sarah beamed. “Yep. Sure did! Needle felted them, in fact. Out of my own cat hair…I’m joking,” Sarah added hastily at Sophie’s uncertain laugh. “It’s not…my cat hair.”
Sarah tossed her slippers over her shoulder, where they landed on her bed and were instantly lost among the piles of fabric.
After putting on fresh uniforms, Sophie and Sarah headed downstairs. At the foot of the stairs, Leah was chatting with Hayley again, but as soon as Sarah made an entrance, Leah recoiled to the other side of the fireplace. At the same time, Sarah disappeared to another side of the room.
Later that morning, Sophie had to ask: “Leah, what’s up between you and Sarah?”
Leah didn’t give a response, instead coming up with a suggestion as though she hadn’t heard Sophie. “Hey, here’s an idea! Why don’t you swap rooms? You could have a whole room all to yourself, or you could bunk with me and Elaine. You wouldn’t have to worry about Sarah.”
“Leah, I don’t think Sarah is that bad. I’ll give her at least a week.”
“You’re running out of time, though…”
Despite what she told Leah, Sophie’s emotions were conflicted on the inside. Sarah was talkative and constantly in motion, reminding Sophie of both of her sisters—simultaneously fun and draining. But at the same time, Sophie yearned for solitude, where she wouldn’t lose her thoughts.
Although they had probably only spent about two hours total together, that night Sarah was comfortable enough to show Sophie her stuffed animals.
“This is Tigey and Tigette. The two are madly in love…They’re gonna get married soon, I just have to find a guy to do it. Do…you have any stuffed animals, Sophie?”
Although Sarah stroked her stuffed tigers thoughtfully, facing away while she spoke, Sophie could envision herself being held under intense scrutiny. Sophie had fancied a stray suspicion about Sarah’s actions, and from it she realized: This was a test. Sarah was more cunning than she let on, or perhaps Sophie was reading too deeply into Sarah’s mannerisms. By revealing something personal, Sarah was asking, subtly, if Sophie would accept her.
A little thrill went down Sophie’s spine. Yes, she had brought her stuffed velociraptor, Speedy Feet, from home. He had never seemed very significant, though. Until now, he had simply been something to stave off homesickness, or maybe deep down, he was there to cultivate it. Either way, the toy was Sophie’s only symbol of life before everything changed.
As Sophie reached for the covers and slowly dragged Speedy Feet into the light, he became a symbol of something new. Sophie answered Sarah’s question, and resolved an undecided sentiment of her own. The past was the past. Sophie wanted to move on.
Sarah kept on as though nothing had happened, fawning exuberantly over Speedy Feet. Sophie marveled at her own dramatization of a conversation about stuffed animals, and began to doubt if Sarah had really planned it all this way. Nevertheless, Sophie’s mood began to shift; and, abandoning her reservations, she opened herself up to Sarah.
Ultimately, it was Sarah who opened up to Sophie. Her momentum increased after meeting Speedy Feet. She moved on, boasting her prized rock collection, which was comprised completely of smooth river stones, and afterwards, Sophie was introduced to Sarah’s fleeting interest in arts and crafts. Every once and a while, Sarah explained, she would get the ‘crafting bug’ and throw something together.
“But I never pay for supplies,” Sarah made sure to inform Sophie. “Everything comes from…nature. Or,” she added as an afterthought, “I borrow it.” Sarah winked.
Sophie rarely needed to put in her own words. For hours past curfew she nodded along to the flow of Sarah’s thoughts. Just when Sophie was feeling concerned with how late it was getting, Sarah cut off abruptly.
“Getting tired?” Sarah wondered.
“A little. Maybe we should head to bed.”
Sophie slept well that night.
* * *
Ms. Ver had moved on from the fundamentals of Invocans, now discussing its real-world applications. That day, she explained to the class what their Invocans journey would look like, and laid down the safety and rules:
~No performing Invocans outside of training until opposite forms had been acquired.
~Sneaking, evasion, or deception by use of an animal form would be even more severely punished.
~Actual Invocans practice would take place on Friday and Saturday afternoons, one-on-one.
~After finding their first forms, the Novuses would have a two-quarter time limit to find their opposite ones. When asked why, Ms. Ver ignored the question.
All this was in preparation for Monday, when Ms. Ver would begin to teach them how to Invocans.
Meanwhile, shadowing Leah’s class, Sophie was privy to a very intriguing Advanced Invocans lesson.
“This weekend, while you practice your carnivore forms, don’t forget. Invocans requires strength of mind—most especially, certainty. If you go into this weekend’s practice with a doubt or a distracted mind, you will not achieve what you are looking for. For instance, if you go into your session believing you are a Wrath, you will never find your other form. When using your mind for a task, be careful where you let it wander. In other words, beware the self-fulfilling prophecy. When you are doing math, you focus on the math, even if you aren’t going to become a mathematician. When attempting Invocans, you focus on the Invocans, even if you ultimately will not be able to do it. Focus. You have nothing to fear.”
* * *
After school that day, Leah and her friends were out in the woods, and Sophie’s classmates had dispersed throughout the building. (Actually, Sophie was pretty sure that Ira and Kate had decided to sneak out of Novus bounds, but she wasn’t about to mention that out loud.)
It was at that moment when Sarah appeared from nowhere, startling Sophie as she struggled through math homework.
“Hey, it’s a beautiful day, wanna go outside?”
Sophie jumped; Sarah had tiptoed up behind her and tapped her shoulders.
“I’m working on homework,” Sophie protested, pointing at her scribbly worksheets.
“Ah, come on, you have the whole weekend for all that! I can show you the swimming hole and the Squirrel Tree.”
Sophie pursed her lips. “Isn’t that out of my bounds? I haven’t passed my survival—”
“Sh-sh! Nobody has to know,” Sarah pressed.
Sophie sighed inwardly. Rules were rules, and they represented barriers she preferred not to climb over. “What if we went to the barn instead?” Sophie suggested.
Sarah shrugged, but conceded to Sophie’s request. “Sure. We can visit Ruby and go hiking. Or horseback riding!!”
Sophie had never ridden a horse before. (There were a lot of things Sophie hadn’t done, because she wasn’t the kind of person to try new things.) At Sarah’s persistence, however, Sophie decided to learn that afternoon.
Clarissa was there to whip Sophie into shape, spending a long time going over safety, steering, and commands. The ever-present Pierre, who was supposed to be transporting wheelbarrows of compost, would often linger just long enough to gift Clarissa and Sophie with one of his own pearls of horse wisdom, which were usually ignored. After an hour, Sophie was allowed to ride on the garden trail, which was short and safe. Clarissa wouldn’t trust Sophie on any other trail yet.
“Don’t let him eat anything with the bit on,” were Clarissa’s parting words when Sophie left the training arena.
Sophie’s horse was named Ed, and although he was two heads taller than her, he was gentle and patient in his movements. Being on top of him—feeling so tall, so in control—filled Sophie with awe. Why haven’t I ridden a horse sooner than this?
The garden path was nothing short of gorgeous. At the trail’s entrance, two breathtaking redbuds displayed their branches, laden with blooms that burst with the rich pinkness of spring. In the wind, these flowers whispered, filling the air with a murmuring that mimicked the sound of a river.
The trail wound past landscapes overflowing with green hosta, showy coral bells, and patches of primrose, all of which reveled in the shade cast by other redbuds. These trees, which Sophie also knew as ‘forest pansy’, concealed and contained the garden trail beneath their generous spread of vivid fuchsia blooms.
The redbuds weren’t the only pansies along the path. The brightest, flashiest element of the garden was the sheer multitude of actual pansies nestling in the mulch, encircling other arrangements and enveloping the bases of the redbuds. These pansies showcased every possible color—a path of blue ones here, and some yellows there, forming a gradient into a swirl of reds and purples…They smiled, beaming their vivacious colors throughout the entire walk.
The garden was perfect. Sophie was stunned by the skill and expertise of whomever had designed and executed it. A plant enthusiast herself, Sophie had always dreamed of creating something like this—something that could calm any spirit who laid eyes on it. An inexplicable freshness pervaded the atmosphere, in its sights and smells and sounds, that made it otherworldly.
The walk was over in ten minutes on horseback, but Sophie insisted on returning by foot to admire the landscape again. When Clarissa heard how much Sophie had enjoyed the trail, she was delighted.
“You should let Ms. Milady know! She designed it.”
Later that afternoon, Sophie finished up her homework before realizing again—it was Friday. The weekend was already here!
I’ve already been through a full week of school.
Sophie looked around. This place had already begun to feel like home.