Black Fort Ridge All Girls Boarding School loomed large on the horizon, like a red-brick vulture training its eyes on its prey from high up, ready to swoop down and grab it the moment it felt safe. In the fading noon light, it looked even more ominous.
Mollie shuddered at the thought of entering this cavernous fortress of no return. If her mother had been there, she’d have wrapped around her legs and begged her to take her home. But then her parents had just stood by the driveway, watching her being hauled away by the Great Tyrant M. Not once attempting to stop her.
So what if there were no schools that’d take her in. So what if her sisters couldn’t handle a joke. It wasn’t the first time she’d pulled a stunt like that, in the good ex-principal’s words. She’d expected her parents to look the other way like they did with the rest of her pranks. What she hadn’t expected was Great Aunt M playing the disciplinarian. Not just picking up the slack, but whipping the very horse out of the barn.
She was too proud to ask the perpetrator of all her woes for mercy, knowing fully well that no amount of coaxing or weeping or howling was going to melt her heart and get her away from this place. Besides, it was obvious that her family didn’t want her home. And if they didn’t want her, she didn’t want them either.
She scanned the gothic façade of the school and shivered.
At least not till they begged her to come home.
So, instead of latching on to Great Aunt M’s cloak for comfort, which she so desperately needed, and dragging her back to the station wagon to get the hell out of there, the youngest one drew her huge suitcase, loaded with clothes and knickknacks, closer to her chest, bracing for what was to come. In her crisp new uniform that looked more like a pink-topped white tent than a shirt and a pant skirt, and a hairband that attempted futilely to fence her unruly hair, weighed down by the weight of her school bag half her size and the gloomy presence of Great Aunt M, she looked like a stubborn wild animal chained down against her will.
When emerged from the echoing ravines of the main school building an elderly sister, dressed in a pale blue sari—prayer beads with a cross at the center held firmly in one hand.
The elderly sister and Great Aunt M shook hands like they were old friends, and soon they found themselves walking down the modern lobby, up a zigzag staircase, through one of the ancient arched corridors, to the principal’s elaborate lair: the elderly sister terrorizing loitering pupils back into their classrooms, or somebody else’s for that matter; Great Aunt M clanking her cane on the marble floor, lamenting the absence of an elevator, and considering the establishment of one in a new wing that she planned to sponsor in her late husband’s name; and the youngest one struggling against gravity, offsetting the weight of her large backpack with the weight of her humongous suitcase, almost hiding behind it, swearing under her breath.
A horse-faced teacher in a buttoned-up vest marched past her, followed by a ruddy, spotty-faced girl in horn-rimmed glasses and pigtails, who fumbled behind her, carrying a load of history books that rose before her like a Mayan pyramid. She glanced sideways at the new pupil and smiled sympathetically. The youngest one stuck her tongue out in response. If it wasn’t for the baggage, she would have stuck her leg out and spread this lame-ass teacher’s pet flat on the floor.
The spotty-faced girl squirmed, shrugged, disappointed, and scampered on to close the gap between the horse-faced teacher and her.
The elderly sister, Sister Paulina, turned out to be the principal of this Bleak House. She was tall, Godzilla-like, though pitted against Great Aunt M, anyone would seem of a slender built. The youngest one had not seen such short gray hair that shone so much, without a single strand out of place. Her shoulders were well-rounded. The fall of her sari, soft like her rose-tinted wrinkly face, fell in a straight line behind her. She seemed to have a perpetual hunch that tall people like her often got when surrounded by people of shorter height. She moved about with the agility of a cat, here by the window a moment, surveying the grounds for mischief, here by the table, going over a few documents that required purposeful, concentrated signing, here by the bookcase, in search of a volume that she must share with Great Aunt M, and then in a sitting area where the two caught up over a hot cup of tea poured from a very English-looking tea set.
On the whole, Sister Paulina was like a pitcher plant that she’d heard about in a class (not that she’d attended many of those in her short academic life): harmless, even motherly and sweet on the outside, luring you into a false sense of security with her soft curves and genial smile, only to snap her thorny jaws and tear you apart by the limb, till you resembled the straight lines she carefully hid along her length and in her surroundings—the fierce unibrow, the meticulously arranged silver stationery on the rectangular table, the crisp lines of her unsmiling mouth.
When it was time for Great Aunt M to leave, this silver-haired principal picked up a silver bell from its silver stand and rang it three times. In came a wafer-like woman of modest height, also in a pale blue sari. This seemed to be the uniform of choice for the sisters of any age or rank. But unlike the principal, it was hard for the new pupil to imagine anyone being afraid of this young, friendly looking sister who had a swing to her walk.
“Good evening, Sister Maria.”
“Good evening, Sister Paulina.”
“Here’s the new pupil we were expecting. Please escort her to the room where she will be staying. Also, ask one of the girls in her class to show her around.”
“Certainly,” said Sister Maria.
“You,” she spoke to Mollie next, “you will begin classes from tomorrow. Like any student of this school, I expect you to be on your best behavior — at all times. No exceptions will be tolerated. Understood?”
Mollie nodded dumbly.
“Come, let’s get you settled first,” offered Sister Maria to Mollie, her voice gentle and kind, unlike the Principal’s. Hauling her suitcase, guided by the hand of the young sister that gently maneuvered her toward the door, Mollie turned and gawked foolishly at her great aunt, hoping for a change of heart. But any sign of sympathy was missing from her large, composed self. If her great aunt was waiting for her to finally break down and plead, she was sourly mistaken.
Great Aunt M spoke from her high-backed chair. “Now, little one,” she said in her calm, matriarchal voice, leaning forward on her cane, “I ought not to be saying this, but try not to stand out. You’ll do well not to get into any trouble here — if you know what is good for you.” She stared down at her in all earnestness. Her beak-like nose scrunched up in scrutiny. “And don’t for a moment think that pulling stunts will get you back home. Any shenanigans, and you will be living with me next. And I warn you, you will not appreciate that one bit.”
Mollie shriveled and nodded faintly in response. Great Aunt M at home, with her entire family as a buffer, was one thing. Great Aunt M on her case 24×7. No way.
“Yes, Great Aunt M,” she said and followed Sister Maria out of the office. If worse came to worse, she’ll have no choice but to run away .