Foster Bridget Cassidy © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Mom and Dad chatted softly as I gazed out the taxi window. Occasionally, the driver would point out a well-known sight, or something of interest. My parents oohed and aahed, but I barely registered the words. My thoughts focused inward, to the red-eyed man, his desperate pleas for forgiveness, and the total absurdity of the situation. When my mind dwelled on the event from my youth, the rational side wanted to dismiss it as a daydream, or some sort of hallucinated episode. The man had disappeared. That sort of thing didn’t happen in real life.
Yet here I was. Following the clues that could easily turn out to be nothing more than a figment of my imagination.
“And ’ere we are,” the cabbie said, pulling the car to a stop. “Marke Staple University. Very prestigious.” He turned around and smiled at me. “You’re a lucky one to get in.”
Mom leaned forward eagerly. “Not lucky at all! Collin got a full scholarship! He’s very bright.”
I wrinkled my nose and unbuckled my seat belt. “Thanks for the ride.”
I climbed out and gazed upon the school’s gothic spires. They sent ominous shadows stretching across the school grounds. One at the center of the campus stood higher than the rest. I recognized it from the school’s website. And the coin. The familiarity of it made my heart ache. So close.
The driver got out of the car and opened the trunk. He lifted our bags out and set them on the sidewalk. Dad slipped him a few American dollars, which he took with a wink. “Thanks a lot. And good luck in your studies.” He waved before climbing back inside and disappearing the way we came.
“So, here it is,” Dad said, following my gaze to the spires. “Kinda creepy.”
Mom lightly smacked Dad’s shoulder. “Travis! Don’t say things like that. It’s an old school, with old architecture.”
“And old ghosts,” Dad muttered, then shot me a mischievous grin. “I hope you don’t venture out at night.”
I laughed, and the tension filling me lessened. A bit.
Dad threw his arm over my shoulder and pulled me in for a side hug. “Come on, kiddo. Let’s check this place out.”
A man in a butler-type uniform headed our way, a trolley in front of him. He stopped in front of us and gave a formal bow. “Mr. and Mrs. Frey? I’m Stephen, Mr. Helmer’s coordinator. We sent a car to pick you up, but apparently they were stuck in traffic and didn’t make it on time. You’ll be compensated for the fee, of course.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Dad said.
Stephen dipped his head, graying hair falling over his eyes, but when he rose, he didn’t look happy with Dad’s dismissal of the taxi fare. “Mr. Helmer will be here shortly, but he sent me ahead to collect your luggage.”
“Thank you,” Mom said as he loaded our bags onto the trolley.
“I’ll get them delivered to your rooms.” Another bow, then he scampered off.
“That’s awful nice,” Mom added. “A car to pick us up—even if we missed it—and a butler to carry our things. What else will they do for us?”
“Well, they’re giving me a full scholarship,” I said, walking forward. “That should be plenty.” The tuition here was enormous. I had been lucky they’d offered me a scholarship, or else I never could have afforded this place. Millionaires sent their children here. Mom and Dad barely made enough to send Mindy—my older sister—to Florida State. This was on the other side of the Atlantic.
Mom and Dad followed my lead. We stepped past the stone gate and onto campus. As soon as my foot touched the ground on the other side, a tingle ran up my spine. I glanced around, wondering if they had a laser or infrared camera pointed at us. Nothing looked out of place. No obvious surveillance. With the next step, the chill vanished, so I dismissed it as a fluke and pushed it from my mind.
The campus was constructed of stone buildings, most sporting tall spires. Nothing in Florida even came close to this. In age or in design. An odd sensation permeated the air, almost like the change in air pressure on an airplane. A hum sounded just a decibel below hearing.
“Which way should we go?” Dad asked.
Mom pointed to a small sign in the grassy area in front of us. “Freshman orientation. That way.” She gestured to the right.
We started in that direction, but an older gentleman jogging toward us slowed our steps. I recognized his face—Patrick Helmer, the dean.
“Mr. and Mrs. Frey,” he called out, waving his hands over his head.
We stopped and allowed him to catch up. When he did, he smiled broadly, adding more wrinkles to his kindly face. “And Collin, of course,” he said to me. “I’m glad you made it in safely. I’m Patrick Helmer, the dean.” He shook all our hands enthusiastically. “I must apologize for the mix-up with the car. We must have copied your flight time incorrectly.”
“It was no problem,” Mom said. “The cab driver got us here quickly.”
“We wanted to do more, Mrs. Frey, to show how excited we are to have Collin here.”
Mom smiled, happy for someone to be singing my praises.
“We were just heading to orientation,” I said, gesturing in the direction we’d been going.
Helmer waved his hand dismissively. “No, that’s for the ordinary students. You don’t need to listen in. If you don’t mind, I’ll give you a tour of the campus.”
“That would be lovely,” Mom said. “Are you sure you’re not too busy?”
“Never too busy to assist our new literature students. We take pride in both our programs, but literature is the jewel in our crown. Collin won’t want for anything while he’s in our care, Mrs. Frey.”
Some of the tension left Mom’s shoulders at his words.
“Now, this way.” He led us deeper onto campus. “Marke Staple is a very old, very selective school.”
“I know,” I said. When we’d returned home from Colorado, I had looked into this place. I had the whole history of it memorized. And when I’d found out they only had two degrees—literature and business—I had applied myself to my studies and set my sights on getting here. “You only select five students a year to be in your literature program.”
The dean grinned. “Correct. And we are very happy you selected our school, Collin. I know you had plenty to choose from.”
I nodded, but it wasn’t true. Oh sure, my grades were so fantastic I could have gone to almost any I chose, but Marke Staple was the only place for me. My encounter with the red-eyed man cemented it.
“This”—Helmer said, lifting his hand toward the closest building—“is Lapris Hall. It’s the administrative building. My office is in there, as well as all the other teachers’. If you have any problems, you can find your solutions there.”
The building was two stories, with a dozen windows on this side. At each corner, elegant spires rose twice the height of the building. Atop each spire was an animal statue. A dog. A cat. A bird. A turtle. Curious. Most ancient buildings like this put statues of people or crosses, or at the very least gargoyles.
Helmer noticed my study of the spires and leaned close to me. “Wards,” he said softly. “They protect us.”
I shivered again, wondering what a university would need protection from.
He continued walking. Mom and Dad followed, but I lingered. Something about the building…wasn’t right. There was a haze that drew the eyes to the top, to the spires.
“Come on, Collin,” Dad called.
I pulled my gaze away and hurried after.
“This,” the dean said at the next building, “is Regalia Hall. All your classes will be in here. Besides the Staple Spire, it has the most original stonework. Only the west wall was affected by an earthquake in 1734.”
This building had one spire over the entrance, although several cats sat atop the buttresses. If four protecting Lapris Hall were enough, why did this building need a dozen?
“English departments are all the same,” Dad said, lifting his chin to study the detailed stonework. “And I bet the teachers all look like Dracula. That’s how it was at my college.”
Helmer laughed. “We don’t have any vampires on staff. A few hybrids, perhaps, but nothing dangerous.” Then he met my eyes and winked.
We continued around the rectangular campus, passing the café, and then the math building, the economics building, and other places the dean said I would have no use for. With only five students in each year, the literature program hosted twenty students total. The business program had four hundred. Naturally, most of the space would be devoted to their courses.
Finally, we reached the dormitories. There were three: lined in a row on the south side of campus. The school’s rock-wall perimeter stood just a few feet from the rear of the buildings.
“The men’s dormitory is on the left,” Dean Helmer said, gesturing. It was two stories, lacked any spires, and was identical to the one on the right. “The women’s dorm is on the right. The staff’s in the center.” The staff’s building was taller, and had two enormous statues peering down at the students’ dorms.
“Let me guess,” I said, nodding up toward the statues. One was a lion, the other a tiger. “They’re meant to keep us in after curfew.”
The dean chuckled and clapped a hand on my shoulder affectionately. “Ah, Collin. I do wish we could set them to that task. Unfortunately, we rely on resident assistants to enforce the curfew. Our statues are simply meant to ward off any danger.”
“Ah,” I said as if that made perfect sense.
“Now, why don’t we leave you to get settled into your room. You’ve got your room assignment?”
I wiggled my phone. “Yeah, it’s in my email.”
Helmer nodded, then turned to my parents. “Mr. and Mrs. Frey? If you’ll join me in my office, I’ll go over the finer points of Collin’s scholarship. Give you our emergency contact information. Get yours in return. That sort of thing.”
Mom looked at me, hesitating. “Will you be okay on your own?”
“I’m fine, Mom. I don’t want you and Dad being overbearing when I meet my roommate.”
Helmer glanced at his watch. “We can meet in an hour at the cafe for dinner? Will that suit you, Mrs. Frey?”
She nibbled her lip, but dipped her head. “All right. We’ll see you in a bit.”
The dean smiled. “Wonderful! Michael is your RA, Collin. Ask him if you have any questions.”