I sit down in a middle chair in the far left part of the auditorium. Marble pillars and dark navy curtains line the walls, and the only lights are directed on the stage. More and more people file in, and the taste in my mouth turns funny. I want to swallow but am afraid I won’t be able to.
I’d told her this was a bad idea!
But Thalia, honey, listen! You have the opportunity to change the way things are! You could be a hero for us…
I lick my lips, but my tongue is dry. How? I don’t have any abilities! The empire probably wouldn’t even have me killed because I’m no different than the normal people. The only reason they hunt down Gatekeepers is because they’re afraid of us. A long time ago, Gatekeepers ruled. Maybe they were bad? Mom doesn’t know, and my old school was aware of undercover Gatekeepers. So, they never talked much. Too afraid of us, I guess. It never made sense to me. Gatekeepers were meant to protect! I’m sure I’ll learn more about it here.
My heart starts pounding, and I look to my right to see a tall girl with her hand on her hip. She tilts her head and smirks.
“Sweetie, the freshman sit up front.”
Freshman! I thought there were only freshman today. Well… that would explain…
“Sorry,” I mutter. I try to get up too quickly and almost stumble. Blondie’s entourage snickers while I make my way to the outside of the row. My cheeks are burning, and I already know that they’re redder than my mom’s car.
Great! First day, and I’ve already drawn attention to myself in looking like a complete idiot!
I try to stick to the dark walls as I move towards the front. All I wanted was to fit in…
The panic starts rising in my throat when I see a man take the stage. He takes a mike… Oh no! He’s tapping the mike! It’s about to start!
I’m walking as quickly and gracefully as possible, looking for the youngest looking group. When do the freshman rows begin? How do these people know where to sit? Why doesn’t this place have a freshman day! I hear someone whisper after me, “You’re not supposed to go up the aisle that way,” but it’s too late.
“Can everyone please take a seat? We’re about to begin.”
Am I the only one standing? I can’t just sit on the floor! Can I? No! That will definitely label me as a freak! An empty seat! Where! Where’s an empty seat!
I see one on the second row of this far left aisle. But it’s right in the middle.
I make it to the end of the row and try to imagine myself squeezing past fifteen people. All the blood drains to my feet.
“Hey, can you tell them to scoot down?”
I look down at the boy sitting in front of me at the end of the row. He glances up just as the whisper takes effect. All the navy moving over in dim light looks like a wave.
“Are we all… uh… okay, good.” The man with the mike smiles as he shakes his head. “Freshmen…”
“Thanks,” I whisper to the boy. He nods without looking at me. My cheeks are still burning, but at least I’m not sitting on the floor.
I’m almost too mortified to listen, but apparently the guy on stage is the secretary of the academy. Mr. Arman. He tells us where we can pick up our schedules. They’re separated by the first letter of every last name at the cafeteria, and on the back of every freshman’s schedule is a map.
I already know I’m going to get lost, but maybe with all these freshman, I won’t be the only one.
Mr. Arman then tells us the rules – as in, what won’t get you kicked out. We all have to keep certain grades and participate in at least one extracurricular activity. It’s already been picked out for us based on our applications, but we can pick up some more if we want.
I will not be picking up any extra work. I’m already stressed enough…
“Alright! Everyone, you’re off!”
It was more chaotic than I imagined, but less than what would happen in my old school. Then again, this place is more than five times the size of Everwood Elementary.
I follow the other freshman, who follow the upper classmen. I try to keep a eye on the boy who helped me, and I feel my cheeks burn when he looks at me and smiles.
Have I made a friend?
At Everwood, the Gatekeepers usually stuck together. We knew who each other were because of services and meetings. The people I hung around weren’t the only Gatekeepers at the school, and we sort of had an idea of who they were. Gatekeepers just have a certain sense about them. Maybe only other Gatekeepers notice? I’ve never noticed if normals caught all the quirks and stuff, but I’m basically a normal so.
“Hey, I’m Luke.”
“Huh? Oh, I’m… Thalia. Knight.”
Could you be any more awkward? Focus! This isn’t a place to let your guard down!
He smiles, like he finds my lack of social skills charming. “Knight, huh? I’m a Terra, but we’re both freshman so we may be in some of the same classes.”
We go up a flight of stairs, then another. The floors are a checkered pattern of black and white marble, and chandeliers hang over every set of stairs. People of every race and nation are here, all wearing the same uniform. I overhear two whispering excitedly in what sounds like Chinese. Who is a Gatekeeper like me?
The cafeteria is worse than leaving the auditorium. Loud. Unorderly. Chaotic. Every Gatekeepers nightmare.
“I’ll see you later, Thalia,” Luke said with a wave.
And… I was alone.
I just sort of followed people around and looked at the letters assigned to each table before finally finding the K’s. It was at the end of a row and a complete disaster. Envelopes with scratchy writing on the back were scattered everywhere. I sighed and began to grab one after another and turn them over? Did the people just throw them if it wasn’t theirs? Something nudged me.
A girl with red hair tied back in pigtails took a lollipop out of her mouth.
“Hey, let me know if you find a Karlene, K?”
Are these people even real? It’s like they’re caricatures of something that should only exist in cartoons.
“Okay.” I didn’t even think to tell her my last name, but she was off already on her way to the other side of the table. I sigh when I pick up the “Kaiser” envelope again.
“Hey!” Karlene girl grins at me from across the table. The inside of her lips look redder than they should. “I think that boy is staring at you. Guess he thinks you’re cute, huh?”
I look at the only table next to us in time to see a boy quickly look down as his cheeks turned bright red. Karlene laughs.
“Freshmen, huh? Yeah, I can tell. I found mine, by the way. But thanks.”
“Oh! Uh, have you seen a Knight? Maybe?”
“Yeah.” She picks up an envelope at the far end. “Here ya go, kid.”
“Thanks.” I’m too relieved to be annoyed. Sure enough, ‘Knight, Thalia’ is scribbled on the back. I sit down and open it as neatly as I can. I always manage to tear these things.
Five classes. Okay, that’s not so bad. I scan over them, but my heart stops when I look over the third class. I can’t turn away.
What? What is that supposed to mean? An uneasy feeling stirs in my stomach. It would be a class of them shoving lies down everyone’s throats, and I would be forced to sit there and listen. And agree.
I hear something and look up. Three boys are standing around a column and laughing at me. My blood drains to my feet.
“Hey! Aren’t you supposed to be with the other kiddies over by the library?”
“What?” I ask. Where did they get that? His little sidekicks snicker, and the one who called out to me grins.
“Here, I’ll show you.”
Show me! My stomach rises to my throat. Could I trust these goons? What if they decide to take me somewhere away from everyone else and–
Before goon number one takes two steps, someone touches my arm.
I look up expecting Karlene to rescue me again, but instead I see the boy from the “L” table.
“Come on,” he says quietly.
Relief washes over me, and I get up to follow him. Honestly, what was I thinking? This is basically like a high school. It’s not like I was on the back end of some lawless street at night.
“Don’t get lost!” goon number one calls out. The “L” boy sighs and leads me through all these hoards of people. He doesn’t say anything or even look at me until we reach a giant pair of double doors with a bunch of kids gathered round.
“Hey! Hey Thalia!” Luke runs up to me clutching his schedule with a smile. “Let me see.” He lifts mine up, and my heart starts to pound again when I see my third class. “Aw, we only have our fourth class together, but that’s to be expected. They group people by last name.”
“Yeah, mostly. Except for some of the classes that we’re all mixed around in.”
“We have the same last class.”
“No, that the gifted class. Everyone has that, but we’re separated by room numbers. 401? You’re in the music floor. What music? Do you sing?”
“No, I play violin.”
“Oh, cool.” Luke catches “L” boy watching us and smiles. “Hey, what’s you’re name?”
“A Locksey! Wow, you’re brothers are legends here.”
Maxton seems to force a smile, and Luke looks at me. “He has five older brothers and they’ve all been to the academy. Do you know how crazy that is?”
“Wow,” I say with as much fake enthusiasm as I can manage.
“I bet you guys have a ton of the same classes.”
Maxton and I only smile as a response.
“Oh! There’s Jason! I’m going to go check my schedule with him. See you in fourth, Thalia.”
And he’s gone.
I look back at Maxton who is also staring after Luke. His dark green eyes look glazed and disinterested. I would’ve at first mistaken him for the really timid type, but he seems more like the type who just looks tired all the time.
He catches me staring, and his eyes widen and his cheeks flush red again.
“So…” He holds up his schedule.
“Oh! Right…” I laugh as casually as I can, which probably only made everything worse, and hold up mine alongside his.
Every. Single. Class.
“Well…” I mutter.
“I figured,” he says quietly. “Especially when he said you were on the music floor.”
“Oh really? What instrument?”
I look at his schedule again.
“You have a sixth class.”
“No, that’s afterschool.”
“Oh.” I laugh nervously again. What is up with me doing that! “I’m not doing one of those.”
“Yeah,” he says quietly.
“Do you happen to know where all the classes are already?”
“Oh! That is a relief.” I grin. “I’ve already made a fool of myself so many times, I’d just like to get through this semester without standing out as ditzy or something.”
He smiles and looks down. We stand in awkward silence for a few minutes until my palm begin to sweat from how uncomfortable I am. I glance around, praying that Luke would come back.
“Do you live here?”
“What?” I look back at him.
“Do you live at the academy?”
“No? Is that a thing? I didn’t know…”
“You must already live in the Capital then. If you live close enough, living away is an option. That’s the same with me. I live in the Capital.”
Before I can respond, the dark brown, elaborately carved doors to the library open with a groan. All four hundred of us quieten to silence. A woman stands holding the curved handles. Tall. Silver hair. Wearing all black and navy. She looks around with narrow glaring eyes. My heart starts to pound. She looks like a witch.
“Do you know her?” I whisper to Maxton. He continues to stare directly at her with wide eyes and discreetly shakes his head.
“Hello children.” She smiles, a very thin and dry smile.
Hello children. She definitely sounds like something. Does she want to cook us and eat us?
“Many of you think the hard part is over, since you’re already in the academy, but what you don’t understand is that half of you will probably be kicked out before the semester ends. This isn’t game of childhood anymore, and this isn’t an ordinary school. Unless you have something to offer, you will be ejected.”
Yep. She could probably be the poster child for the World Empire.