The room where Mollie was to spend the rest of the year — or more — was on the first floor of the four-story middle school dormitory, a ten-minute walk from the main school building. The station wagon parked in the driveway was gone by the time Sister Maria got downstairs, having attended to various administrative matters on her way. Dusk had turned the sky azure and the school empty … but for a few senior students hanging about on the front steps, exchanging notes. The dorm wasn’t buzzing with much activity either.
It was adequate, this room, like her sisters’, except with fewer beds. It had two of everything—beds, chairs, cupboards, study tables, and table lamps. The bed by the window with a beautiful view of the woods and the brook was taken. The bed next to the door was to be hers.
“Now, unpack your things and come downstairs in fifteen minutes,” said Sister Maria. She tapped the dial of her wrist watch and smiled. “That’s 7 by the wall clock. Now, hurry, scoot. You haven’t got much time if you want the best piece of Mrs. Banerjee’s delectably sweet and tarty apple pie!”
The cafeteria, as the new kid in the school found out, was what her folks would call a big “mess”. It was in a long, low-roof building that made an L-shape with the dormitory on the right. It was big from the inside and bustling. Like the entire school was here. Already, the long tables arranged in rows across the length of the cafeteria were filling up with girls of all shapes and sizes. They sat on benches instead of chairs. No slouched backs. Forks, spoons, and butter knives.
Sister Maria guided her to the freshly scrubbed stainless steel counter, where women in starched whites, hair nets, and gloves served food to a factory line of pupils dressed like her. Mollie’s stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten all day, and the prospect of stuffing herself with food other than mom’s slam-dunk khichddi cheered her up. Hooked by the scent of fragrant rice and fried potatoes, she reeled toward the counter, unmindful of the waiting many, both eyes on the tray stack at one end.
A hand pulled her back before she could cut the line.
It was Sister Maria’s. She frowned, amused.
“Before you get back in line,” she said playfully, “you might want to meet someone who’s going to help you figure out how things work around here. Lucky for you, she’s also your roommate and is one of the shiny beacons of Black Fort Ridge.”
Mollie caught on to a few words here and there and seemed perplexed by the incomprehensibility of what was being said to her, driven solely by her growling tummy. Till she saw the girl standing next to her: chummy-faced, playing the princess in an open carriage, waving to anyone around, oblivious to who waved or didn’t wave back. Her pigtails wagged with her bobbing head and she adjusted her horn-rimmed glasses yet again, blinking faster than a fluttering butterfly. The glasses covered most part of her blotchy face.
“Mollie,” said Sister Maria, “meet Orlinda.”
“Hi, my name is Orlinda,” the girl in pigtails burst out, turning toward her, flashing her brace-strung teeth. “How do you do?”
She shot her hand out, eventually opening her eyes long enough to see who it was that she was offering her hand to. The smile on her face disappeared momentarily, and she pursed her lips and sighed. It was the new girl from the corridor who’d made a face at her, when she hadn’t even done a thing. But just as suddenly, she straightened up, growing an inch taller, you’d think, and resumed the impression of being “your highness”, waving at the faceless populace. Mollie was but a ward new to her daily processions.
Orlinda searched for and grabbed the new pupil’s hand and shook it. “It’s a pleasure making your acquaintance.”
Mollie just stared. “Likewise,” she said finally. “Could we get some food now? I am starving.”
Sister Maria chuckled. “Of course, scoot you two. And Molly, be nice.”
“Yes, Sister Maria,” she mouthed, not meaning a word.
At the food line, Orlinda hesitated over a sticky pumpkin stew, holding up the line, much to Mollie’s impatience. “You don’t plan to stick out your tongue at me again, do you?” she asked Mollie, studying her expression from the corner of her eye.
“No,” replied Mollie straight-faced.
“Why’d you do that anyway? I was being nice.”
Mollie shrugged. “Some things just can’t be helped, I suppose.”
Orlinda moved up the greens, the chicken, and the fries to the pie stand. “Have some greens too, they’re good for you,” she chided at Mollie right behind her who had skipped the “good for you” greens and stacked her plate with French fries. There were two whole pies on the stand.
“The last of the lot, dearie,” said one of the women in a hairnet who had a glass eye. “Just in time.”
No sooner were these words spoken that a gaggle of girls cut the line and claimed the pies. Leaving only crumbs for the two of them.
Orlinda sighed. “Well, sweets aren’t good for my teeth anyway. Really hard to clean the braces afterward. Saved me a lot of trouble, if you ask. I say, let their teeth rot for a change.”
Mollie shrugged. She could have gone after the girls. Why she would have even tricked them to give up on the pies. But that would have been too much work for something she didn’t care for much in the first place. Had it been fries though … well … that would have been a different case altogether.
They found their way to a deserted table at the back, near the exit. They set their trays down and Orlinda sat facing the crowd, her back to the wall, while Mollie sat across from her, no interest in anything else but the food.
“So, where are you from?” asked Orlinda, forking through the spinach leaves and corn. On second thoughts, she should have gone for the fries, too. She eyed Mollie’s tray, but resisted reaching over and grabbing some for herself. Mollie had clearly no use for forks and knives. And was scooping spoonfuls of fries and shoving them into her mouth. Like chugging coal into a steam engine.
“Huh?” said Mollie, munching.
“Willow Street.” Another mouthful.
Mollie stabbed the plate with the spoon, making horrible clanking sounds. “Long way from here. That’s where.” She could have snapped the spoon into two right then. Or flung it at someone and taken out their eye.
“Okay then,” said Orlinda and quickly changed the subject. “So is this your first time in a boarding school?” she asked instead.
“What do you think?”
“Don’t know. I have been here all my life.”
Mollie chomped on a chicken leg like it was a Christmas present from Santa Claus. “A local school,” she said slowing down. “You wouldn’t know it. GSV—Gyan Sagar Vidyapeeth. Did you say you’ve been here all your life?”
Before Orlinda could respond, the gang of girls who’d stolen their pies was at their table, making a courtesy stop before exiting the mess.
“Don’t tell me Pigtails here is telling her same sob story all over again. She is, isn’t she?” The girl who spoke, so obviously the leader, was of a slender built and had soft, angelic features. Her long, straight hair fell down to her waist in a sharp U, the trademark puff at the front held in place by a headband in school colors. Like a crown made of hair.
She looked down at Mollie with bright, angelic eyes and flashed a dimpled smile. You could have thought they were the best of friends.
“Orlinda. Really. By now you should know that no one cares. She’s an orphan, big deal. Like the rest of us don’t have any troubles. Now, had she been left out by the chapel in a wicker basket and a baby blue comforter with a mysterious note in hand, or a strange scar on the forehead, now that would have been a story. Right, girls?” The girls, who could have passed off as her shadow clones, sniggered behind. And Orlinda hiccuped, mid-sob.
“Well, it’s her business, isn’t it? I bet you find your hair straighteners the most fascinating things in the world.”
The leader of the gang fumed, glaring down at the two of them, her nose going a hotter shade of red, and made for the door. Her posse following suit.
Mollie looked at Orlinda as if seeing her for the first time. “So, you don’t have any parents, brothers, or sisters?” The idea itself seemed incredible to her.
“Hm-hm,” replied Orlinda between sobs. “I have a distant aunt who put me in here … if that counts.”
“I have eight brothers and sisters and a pet hen, M,” beamed Mollie. “I am the youngest one. The odd one out. So practically an orphan myself.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” said Orlinda, though she had stopped sobbing and was wondering what to ask next.
“What’s it like?” she asked. “To have a family that big?”
“Nothing different than this,” said Mollie, resuming her attack on the chicken leg now stripped down to its bone. “A house full of people up to no good, that’s what.”
Orlinda paused a while, tracing the patterns on the wooden table absentmindedly with her fork. “I think there may be a difference.”
She went quiet. And Mollie cast aside the drumstick and fiddled with the leftovers on her tray.
“Sorry,” said Mollie. “Mom says I can be—what’s the word—a bit thoughtless, like this, sometimes.”
Orlinda broke into a toothy, brace-bridled grin. “No worries. I do hate it when people are all careful around me when they talk about their families. Like they are afraid to hurt my ‘feelings’. Except for Ina, of course. That girl, who was here? She doesn’t care for anyone’s feelings.”
She made a funny sad face and Mollie laughed.
“Want to see something funnier?” asked Mollie.
Orlinda shrunk back in her seat, suspicious of what Mollie had in mind. “Okay,” she said skeptically, half expecting Mollie to tug at her pigtails when she reached over the table and took off her horn-rimmed glasses.
“What…?” protested Orlinda, blinking even faster to adjust to this sudden change.
“Just wait a minute.”
Mollie put on the glasses, stretched her eyelids apart, pouted her lips, sucked in her cheeks, and made a blowfish face smashed against an invisible windowpane. Orlinda broke into peals of laughter and they went back for another helping.
It was proper dark when they returned to the dormitory. The staircase that opened into a hallway on each floor was a busy thoroughfare now. Students getting off, racing up and down. At each turn, there was a window seat with a view of the ridge beyond, which was now a dark outline in the moonlight. Though no one hung about.
“TV time,” explained Orlinda. “And then it’s lights out.”
“Where does it all end?” wondered Mollie as she avoided a barrage of giggling girls, one with wet hair, rushing up the stairs.
“Eight-graders, don’t ask.”
The door to their room hadn’t even shut when Orlinda burst into a grin and clapped her hands with delight. As if struck by an incredible idea.
“I say, Mollie, let’s be friends.”
“Huh?” Mollie was eyeing the mess she had left on the bed. The clothes were still to be hanged in the cupboard, the books yet to be arranged on the table. And then there was the matter of the window … and the brook outside.
“Like pals, you know?” she continued. “You watch my back, I’ll watch yours. A secret sisterhood…the works…. It’d be fun.”
“Right,” said Mollie, ignoring that. “Listen, can I take your bed?”
“But you’re already unpacked over there. Besides, this is my favorite side.”
“Well, you want us to be friends or not?”
“Then, move your stuff here and I’ll move mine over there.”
“No ifs or buts, otherwise the deal’s off.”
“What deal?” blurted Orlinda, looking wide-eyed, her glasses magnifying the effect. “Oh! Right. Fine. You win. But just so you know, I’ve peed on the bed three times.”
If she had hoped to deter Mollie with this ruse, it didn’t work. Mollie considered this for a moment and then dismissed it with a wave of her hand.
“No worries, Ollie. From where I come, nearly everyone has peed in mine. It was practically soaking Niagara Falls with Ronny, the youngest of the boys.”
Orlinda laughed, throwing herself back on her erstwhile bed. Nobody had ever thought of giving her a pet name, let alone call her by one.
“Wait till you meet Shelly,” said Orlinda mistily, wiping the tears from the corner of her eye. “She’s going to love you.”