“Hey, Leah, I like your scarf!” Sarah bundled past Sophie and Leah in the breakfast line. She wore a red sweater despite the morning’s budding warmth.
Leah looked down at herself, hands up in exasperation. “I’m not wearing a scarf.”
It had only taken one sentence to dissolve over a year’s worth of hostility. Like frost at dawn, the chill between Sarah and Leah slowly began to melt.
Sophie thought the breakfast line on that morning was especially torturous. Perhaps the first inkling of spring fever had infected her, and she’d grown impatient. The weather played a part in her restlessness. It was that perfect temperature for running through the fields, absorbing the youth of spring. The breeze was soft and subtle—an imperceptible motion that stirs a soul to long for flight. Birds trilled merrily all around, flitting from the pavilion to the top of the school and back again. Sophie wanted the line to move as fast as their wings.
Her classmates, in line behind her, were just as antsy, but their conversation was interrupted without warning when an almighty racket rose from the leafy canopy above. Sophie craned her neck, startled by the violent rustling, just in time to spy an enormous feathery body launch itself off one of the school’s highest branches.
Sophie couldn’t restrain her astonished outburst. With flapping loud enough to be heard from the ground, a gargantuan bird with a wingspan longer than Sophie’s own father lifted away on the wind. Its shadow swept over the field and multiple students. Conversations paused as heads turned to the sky.
The beast let out an eerie shriek, and all the songbirds scattered. A group of Profectios whistled back at the creature before it soared up on a thermal and disappeared, brown and tan plumage and all, over the forest.
“Uh!” Watson’s exclamation was guttural, and his eyes looked ready to pop out of socket. “Did you guys see that?!”
“What? I missed it,” Leah joked, and the line inched forwards as though nothing had happened.
“That was a bearded vulture!” Watson uttered. “Gypaetus barbatus! Here, in North America! Eight foot wingspan, and they could break your arm with their mouth.” He looked prepared to chase after it into the woods.
“You forget where you are right now,” Leah reminded him.
Watson was speechless for a second. “Somebody turned into that?!”
“Unless there was a jailbreak at the zoo,” Ira piped up.
“I want to do that!” Watson stared longingly at the horizon.
The line moved up again, and the group rounded a bend in the wall. At last, food was in sight! Sophie’s stomach growled in anticipation, but now all thoughts of breakfast were gone from her mind, and she couldn’t shake off the size of the vulture. What if I turn into a bird? She could only imagine what the weightlessness of flight would feel like.
Sophie was almost close enough to grab a plate when a shout resounded from back at the front doors.
Chills raced down Sophie’s spine. Professor Wolfe’s snarls could be heard by anyone, from anywhere, and always demanded an audience’s full attention. That is why the meadow fell dead silent, and its occupants froze, at the teacher’s outburst.
Every pair of eyes swung in Ira’s direction, as though the mention of her name had triggered a universal radar. Eyes were the only things that moved as friends followed the gazes of their friends. Wolfe stormed forth, needing no more direction than the crowd’s collective stare to reveal her quarry’s location.
Ira’s muscles tensed. She was pale and paralyzed, but her flicking, calculating eyes betrayed her wild panic. She made as if to bolt, but there was nowhere to run.
There was a moment of silence. Wolfe had still not seen Ira. And then…
“YOU ARE LATE TO DETENTION!” The shout resonated theatrically through the meadow. Clearly, Wolfe meant to humiliate her.
Ira’s teeth clenched. “Detention?” she burst out hotly. Her reputation was on the line, and she bristled under the scrutiny of her peers.
“What, you expected a free pass? I thought, from such a blatant disregard for the rules, you’d already made plans to see me.”
Now Wolfe stood directly before Ira, imposing her aggressive stature. Cool yellow eyes bored into Ira’s.
“What are you talking about?” Ira demanded. Her posture radiated defensive thorns, but only to mask her guilt. Sophie couldn’t help getting caught up in the heat of the emotions, wondering what offense was terrible enough to merit a public accusation.
“I’m referring to your jog out of bounds yesterday afternoon, Miss Opaca.” Wolfe’s voice was now level, audible only to the closest witnesses.
“I—that—I didn’t even go very far!”
To Sophie’s left, Leah shook her head with a knowing smile, but was wise enough to stay out of it.
“That’s beside the point. You had the chance to take initiative and own up, but you didn’t, so I’ve come to gather you for your sentence. Come with me.”
Disgruntled and bewildered, shocked into submission, Ira stepped out of line and followed Wolfe back into the school. After the pair disappeared, conversations continued as though nothing had happened. The line moved once more, and at last, Sophie received a plate heaping with pancakes and syrup.
Ira’s incarceration left her classmates in slight shock, but Leah and her friends were not remotely perturbed by the spectacle. In fact, they found it amusing.
“I didn’t expect her to actually go through with it!” Leah laughed on the walk to the pavilion.
Hayley shrugged and admitted, “I gotta hand it to her. She wasn’t kidding.”
Sophie’s classmates tagged along a few feet away, clearly hoping to find out exactly what the implications of detention were.
“I give her five out of ten,” Connor declared. “No, I guess six, for risking it. Getting caught, though? How many times did we get away without getting caught?”
Hayley scoffed. “Only, like, twice? We were scaredy-cats at the beginning of last year; we barely risked anything.”
As they entered the shadow of the pavilion, and the spread of stone tables beckoned students to their seats, Watson whisper-shouted into Sophie’s ear, “Quick, before they sit down! Ask them about detention!”
“Do it yourself, Watson!” Kate whisper-shouted back. “Are you shy?”
Leah, only a few feet away, could hear every word. “Do what?”
Watson shifted awkwardly. “Uh, detention. We wanted to know the duration, punishments, and processes.”
Leah nodded, flashing him an amused grin. “Oh, Ira is definitely in for it. When you’re caught breaking a rule you have until the next day to turn yourself in. If you don’t…Wolfe comes to get you. Honestly though, we’ve all been there. Depending on if you resist or not, she ups your punishment. Ira will probably be working until lunch…”
Watson’s lips puckered sourly at the news. The Heart investigation would have to wait.
Sophie and her classmates retreated to the back of the pavilion, where their table was nestled beside one of the concrete pillars supporting the roof. This nook was especially cozy because the meadow’s barrier of bushes, trimmed flat, walled in the back of the pavilion, blanketing the corner with shade and the illusion of security.
“So what do you guys want to do today?” Kate wondered through a mouthful of pancakes. This morning, her ponytail arced out of the back of a blue ballcap, and a pair of sunglasses dangled from her T-shirt. Clearly, she was hoping to do some hiking.
“We could still do the Heart interrogation,” Watson suggested, twirling his fork through the syrup puddle on his plate.
Kate shot him down immediately. “Nooo thank you. I think that’s a thing you can wait until later for.”
“But let’s definitely not go hiking,” Aiden mused.
“What? Why?” Kate demanded, alarmed.
Aiden arched an eyebrow innocently. “You tell me.”
Kate fingered her sunglasses. “I mean, I see no reason not to. We can go down to the barn and walk the trails. It’s not rainy like yesterday.”
“Have you been on the garden trail yet?” wondered Sophie.
“Yeah, I went last Sunday. It was really pretty. We should try a new trail today,” Kate asserted.
Watson didn’t look terribly thrilled at the idea. “I–”
“You’re coming, Watson,” Kate interrupted before shoveling down the rest of her pancakes.
Sophie would be glad to visit the barn again, even though she’d be spending plenty of time there over the next week. I wonder if I’ll be the only one doing garden care.
“What chores did you guys sign up for?” Sophie said, changing the subject before Watson could object to hiking again.
Aiden responded, “I picked out park service!”
“Oh, I almost did that one!” Sophie exclaimed. “I chose garden care instead…You’ll have to tell me how park service goes.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what it’s for, but it sounds fun. We’re meeting at the barn tomorrow afternoon.”
“You’re gardening?” Watson asked Sophie, brows knitted. “Huh. So are you interested in plants?”
“Yeah…They’re a hobby of mine.”
“Interesting. Do you have a garden at home?”
The mention of home stung sharply, but the anwer was yes. Sophie nodded.
“What’d you sign up for, Wats?” Kate prompted.
Watson’s brown eyes flickered in annoyance. “Livestock management. And don’t call me that.”
“Livestock management?” Kate burst out, astonished. “I did not see that coming! Out of everything on that list, I thought for sure you were gonna pick housekeeping or something. By the way, I can come up with a lot worse than ‘Wats’.”
“Housekeeping? Disgusting.” Complacently, Watson explained, “Sophie likes plants, and I like animals. And ‘management’ connotates supervision, meaning less manual labor for me.” His confidence faltered. “Er, hopefully.”
“Well, let’s pray Watson’s chores don’t force him to work,” Kate laughed. “Too bad none of us signed up for the same thing. Ira picked housekeeping,” Kate said with a significant glance at Watson, “and I went with barn organization. I asked around—we’ll be sorting out tools and cleaning sheds.”
“Sounds riveting,” Watson muttered.
Kate clapped her hands together. “My thoughts exactly! You never know what you’ll find in an old shed.”
After all their plates were clear, Kate hurried the Novuses out of the pavilion and on the trail to the barn. A day like this couldn’t be wasted, after all.
The Novuses chose to explore the river trail, which was a cool and humid path that drifted lazily along the fringes of the pigpens and goat pastures, following the trickle of a stream through foggy lowlands and forests, where the air pressed into the earth and adorned itself like a silk garment over the scenery, creating wispy tendrils of mist that danced and twirled towards the sky.
The farther the Novuses tracked the stream, the thicker grew the fog. Soon, they departed from the rooting pigs and bleating goats and descended into a wooded valley where a second stream converged with the first. Here, mist drifted along like the ghost of a river, washing the brittle foliage around the path in soft, silent white.
Gradually, the path widened, and somewhere under the cover of fog, the stream deepened, extended its banks, and became a river, which the Novuses could only hear until they broke from the clouds and found themselves along a route that still retained a wintry vestige. To their right, the river bubbled and frothed parallel to the trail.
It was a peaceful walk, and the fresh, thrilling, earthy scent of the outdoors filled Sophie with longing even greater than the restlessness of that morning. The wilds of Hickks Academy were, to her, as endless and as vast as anyone’s imagination. Possibilities hung heavy under every leaf, blade of grass, and whisper of wind. Somehow, this place was wilder than any wood Sophie had ever been in. Perhaps it was because Sophie knew that it was all at her fingertips–or would be, after tomorrow’s survival test.
As the walk came to a close, Sophie felt a pang of impatience and a sudden frustration at her reserve. She wanted to run, and laugh, and climb trees and ride horses—and fly! But she couldn’t–not until she passed Monday’s tests, and not until she could Invocans, and not until her family was safe and Sophie could be at peace.
Ira was released from detention at noon. Halfway through the lunch hour, she silently rejoined the Novuses at their table, flames in her eyes. When Watson asked how detention was, she scowled at him, shoved her plate away, and replied shortly,
“The punishment was fine. Wolfe’s the intolerable one.”
“Well, what’d you do?” Kate wanted to know.
Ira allowed herself a proud smirk. “Scrubbed out all the nasty watering tubs at the barn. All of them. And let me tell you, they were pretty darn full of slime and algae.” Still, her eyes gleamed, and Sophie knew she wasn’t telling the whole story. One way or another, Sophie reflected, the detention must have done its job. Ira’s pride was wounded—perhaps by the morning’s scene—and that, Sophie guessed, had been Wolfe’s intention all along.
Later that afternoon was a short King of the Hill competition—Ultimate Frisbee for anyone who wanted to play, which Sophie did not. She was horrible at catching the disk; she was tired from the morning’s walk; she wasn’t even entirely sure how to play. She did end up watching the game.
Kate and Aiden participated, and they had a blast. As Novuses, they were allowed to earn points for any team they wanted, so they chose to support Leah’s team, Artiodactyla, the quadrupeds with cloven hooves. (As if they needed any more team members!)
The game was insanity, having amassed five teams, which wasn’t even half the school’s total amount but was far too many for Ultimate Frisbee. In the end, Canidae (Pierre’s team) won. It was hilarious watching Pierre spin-jump to flick the frisbee and yodel ridiculous phrases to confuse opponents; he was definitely the loudest and most engaged player, and his students weren’t far behind. Canidae seemed to operate on an extreme level of closeness and rapport; they moved as a pack and stole the whole show. No wonder they’d won last year.
Sophie was a little uneasy to learn that Ira and Watson ended up doing their investigation after all. They hadn’t discovered anything new, which Sophie was glad for, but she was also half hoping Ira and Watson would find something astonishing about the Heart’s past so Sophie could solve her own mystery.
~ ~ ~
On Sunday afternoon, Sophie, Aiden, Watson, and Kate followed the green-laced path down to the barn. Here, where the soil was fertile and the atmosphere pleasant, spring had arrived in the form of vivid green grass shoots sprouting up within an ocean of brown—brave forerunners of the sunny days to come.
In the lovely weather, the barn’s two tractors were awoken to bush-hog the dead grasses and weeds, making way for fresh growth to emerge. Although the Great Field was left untouched, the pastures surrounding the barn and the back of the school were tended noisily all day.
Sophie and her friends arrived at the barn and went their separate ways to find the managers of their chores. Sophie stopped by Ruby’s pasture to say hello and then found Ms. Milady at the gardening shed, which was at the back of the compound. The shed was open, encouraging fresh air to revive months of wintry lifelessness, and the finest planting tools were strewn about the front, surrounded by a neat arrangement of soil bags and trays of seedlings.
One boy was already there with the teacher, and at the sight of him, Sophie stopped dead in her tracks.
Sophie knew this boy was an Advehor—she’d seen him occasionally at the lunch pavilion talking with Hayley. Sophie knew he didn’t get along with Connor and Jack. But Sophie also knew he wore a blue uniform on school days, a uniform whose navy hue was so rarely witnessed on campus Sophie half forgot it existed.
The boy was an Omnivore Soul. And suddenly Sophie was paralyzed, having heard about but never seen—never met—any O-soh other than Hayley Summers, who was so disparate to what Sophie believed an O-soh would be, and so remiss to reveal even a hint of her avowedly mythical abilities—that Sophie believed Hayley to be an exception to the rule, while the O-soh elites—who must exist, though Sophie had never caught more than a glimpse of one or two blue polos—operated on a higher level than anyone else at the school.
Here was this boy, an O-soh whom Sophie knew nothing about and was predisposed to believe possessed a nobler, wiser, and more enlightened identity. Here was this boy, who likely held much more power than Sophie ever would, who experienced both sides of the Invocans balance and shared a connection with Mr. Hickks himself. Here was this boy, whom Sophie was prepared to respect and learn from…
…This boy who turned to say hello to Sophie and fell flat on his face. He scrambled to his feet, stumbled over a bag of topsoil, and promptly planted one foot in a tray of seedlings, which elicited a sharp reprimand from Ms. Milady. When he finally regained his balance (and composure), he dusted himself off, perhaps slightly embarrassed, and said, “Don’t worry about me, guys!—I’m a professional.”
“Yes, that I know,” replied Ms. Milady with a disappointed glance at the sprouts. “And now our squashes are squashed.”
“Whoops.” The boy then turned to Sophie. He had wavy russet hair that dangled over striking, ice-blue eyes; he wore a grubby green shirt and khaki shorts. “Hey, are you Sophie? It’s just us in the garden this week. I’m Russel.”
Sophie broke out of her stupor and introduced herself. Embarrassed at her presumption of Russel’s character, Sophie immediately tasked herself with discerning Russel’s nature. When he’d tripped, Sophie’s lofty expectations of him shattered, leaving her with a first impression that likewise fell flat. This needed to be corrected.
“Nice to meet ya, Sophie. Well, two people’s better than just me, like last year.”
Ms. Milady clapped her hands together, creating a cloud of dust. “Alright! Gardening. It’ll be great to have you helping out, Sophie…Last year it was mostly just me and Russel.”
Russel cut in, “I’m her nephew, so I’m obliged to.”
Ms. Milady rolled her eyes. “This week we’ll be planting the veggies, getting an early start so you can have fresh food over the summer. On your assigned days you’ll come out at around four to the garden patches just past the chicken coops—you probably saw them on your way here, Sophie—all that tilled soil—and this week we’re planting squash…Well, maybe not after Russel murdered half the batch…”
“They’re still salvageable!” he protested.
“…Squash, snow peas, broccoli, kale, lettuce…”
“Isn’t it an odd time for squash?” Sophie wondered.
Russel nudged the wounded seedlings with one foot. “Nah. If they die that’s fine. Nobody likes squash anyway!”
“I like squash. Salvage as many as you can and just put them in plot 7C. Well, Jake’ll be there most of the week, and he’ll give you the plot charts. I don’t need to teach you planting charts, do I, Sophie?” Ms. Milady already knew about Sophie’s green thumb.
“No, I’ve used them before.”
“Great. So you know what to do. Okay, orientation is over!” Ms. Milady pulled out her phone and glanced at the time. “I’ve got another group of students to debrief now at the utility barn. Russel, go ahead and finish that and I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Ms. Milady hurried off on the dirt path and disappeared over a hill that had been freshly-cut that morning. The afternoon was becoming quite warm, and the sweet smell of hay blew in Sophie’s direction.
“We’ve been sorting out this shed and bringing the seedlings out of the greenhouse,” Russel declared to Sophie, “getting ready for planting.”
“Ah.” Sophie tried hard to push past the bright blue label she’d initially slapped on Russel. Who would have thought—doing chores with an O-soh who happened to like plants?
Sophie stayed to help, feeling like she ought to prove her agricultural expertise to someone as important as the survival teacher’s nephew. It only took thirty minutes to stack the topsoil under the overhang, lay the trays of seedlings on top of the rows, listen to Russel gripe about squash (“I stepped on them on purpose. Like I said, I’m a professional…You don’t like squash, do you? Good.”), and organize the gardening tools.
Ms. Milady was not right back; when she finally returned, she complained that half the kids who’d signed up for lawn care didn’t know how to use a weedeater, and they weren’t too keen on learning, either. When she did get back, Milady was pleased to find the shed neatly spruced with seedlings basking in the fresh air.
“Great work, guys. Have fun this week.”
On that note, Sophie headed for the path home.
Russel had proven to be an amiable companion. He reminded Sophie of Pierre, for he carried himself in a carefree manner, but there was something a little more wild about him—a little more intense, and buoyant, and flighty, and sharp. If not evident in the things he said, something in his movements reminded Sophie of a beast whose levity could not be tamed. Sophie might have compared him to Hayley, because in some imperceptible way, the two were just alike, but she could not, because the two were also starkly individual to one another. While Sophie was reluctant to replace her unfounded projection of Russel with an equally abstract inference, she had seen enough of Hayley and Mr. Hickks to understand that Omnivores had a certain air about them that could not be explained by logic.
Sophie did leave, then, with one supposition confirmed. Something about O-sohs did set them apart from other (Invocansers); an odd aura that was wild and tranquilizing at the same time.
Although some of it was certainly a psychological reaction to the awe in which O-sohs were held by the rest of the students, Ms. Ver had taught Sophie enough Invocans for her to know there was truth to what she was feeling. Omnivores are like power sockets. They bring your ability to life. This was how the Heart worked; Omnivore Souls were the same, but on a smaller scale.
On Sophie’s way back to the school, she pondered these things. I’ve felt like that around Hayley, a little bit. Or, I used to. Not really near Mr. Hickks, though. I wonder if your influence has to do with what you Invocans. Russel definitely seems like an O-soh. Was that what it feels like to have your powers increased? If being near an O-soh makes it easier to Invocans…unless I was imagining it all…But if I wasn’t—if I wasn’t, it means I do have Invocans! Sophie felt her heart skip a few beats and she realized, for once, that she no longer felt insecure about Invocans.
Sophie was eager to garden over the week, but not everyone was so pleased with their chore. That evening, Watson arrived late to dinner in a fresh blue T-shirt with his hair slicked back. His hard expression did not match his clean attire.
“You look spiffy,” Kate observed. “What’s the occasion?”
“Ugh. I won’t even talk about it,” he huffed indignantly. “Let me just say that they really need to be more clear on those chore lists.”
Watson’s hair was wet—he’d just showered.
“Do tell.” Kate propped her chin up and leaned in.
Watson’s eyes flicked around in irritation, as if he was upset with the whole school. “Well. When they said livestock management…they meant managing the livestock. In other words. Getting into the cage with the animals. And wrestling them to the ground.”
“HAH!” Ira burst out. “No WAY! I should have picked that!”
“I was there!” Aiden exclaimed. “It was not that dramatic for everyone else! Watson is just…not an animal person.”
“Oh, give me a break,” Watson growled, scooping up a spoonful of dumplings.
“I thought you loved animals,” Kate teased. Watson could not defend himself through his mouthful. Yes, he liked studying animals…but getting his hands dirty was another thing.
“He got covered in mud,” Aiden continued, happily picking up the parts of the story Watson would’ve rather left out. “I thought they weren’t going to let him do the chore, but he still passed the practice somehow.”
“Aww, Watson,” Sophie moaned sympathetically.
Watson wanted to protest, but Ira interrupted.
“So what were you wrestling, Watson?”
“Goats,” he answered shortly. “Young goats without their horns fully in.” Watson, who knew everything about animals, expected the others to have sympathy on him over this fact.
Ira did not. “Watson! Tackled by a baby goat?!”
“Well when the horns are little like that you can’t—and the mud was—and you know how they get when they’re teenagers—” Watson was far more flustered than he should have been, and Kate waved her hand dismissively.
“We’re just messing with you, Payne. I’m sure you’ve read books on goats and you know all about how to take them down and whatever. But now you have a funny story to tell people! Eat your dumplings. You’ll feel better.”
Watson was happy to oblige if it meant ending the conversation.