It all began with Valen’s wall.
It was white, like all others in her house, save for the large gouge next to the door. Her father had thrown one of her unicorn collectibles during a fight with her mother, shattering it into hundreds of pieces. The violent act had left the unsightly mark. Though Valen hated that part of her room, she left it exposed; it served as a reminder of everything she wanted to escape.
But one morning, she woke to find that section of the wall smooth and perfect.
Her father denied any involvement. Why would he fix something he didn’t have to see every day? Her mother laughed musically before taking another pill.
Were it not for other odd occurrences, she might have forgotten the strange incident. But items she believed lost forever appeared in her closet. The first long-lost treasure was a bracelet she made in the fifth grade. She had worn it for only a few months before a fellow student threw it down a sewer grate. The second was a stuffed monkey she accidentally left at camp when she was nine. But the third was the unicorn her father had shattered when she was six. She nearly screamed when she found it neatly wrapped in a sweater on one of her shelves.
Valen was not a fanciful person.
She didn’t believe in magic, karma, predestination, kismet, serendipity, destiny, or even luck. Her feet were planted firmly on the earth, and her mind was always on her studies. While other teenagers took the time to dream, she remained resolute that she would never change her life if she did not attain her goals. For this reason, she ignored the strange phenomenon completely. Considering, however, that it revolved around her closet, she knew it was time to leave home.
Her parents did not object.
They had never taken any interest in Valen’s coming and goings and weren’t about to start. Truth be told, they never seemed to look at her…not really. When they spoke to her, they looked over her shoulder as if meeting her eyes was confusing. Her mother barely acknowledged Valen’s presence, and her father hid in the basement when he was home. Even when she told them she had been accepted into the prestigious Southbrook Academy--the school their little town based most of its economy around--they offered only a muddled ‘congratulations.’
Valen did her best to forget her mother’s first response to the news: “But you’ve never been particularly talented at anything.”
How her stomach had sunk when she’d heard those words.
There were so many gifted athletes and artists at the private school. What could the entrance committee possibly see in her? She was merely one of the local kids the Academy was forced to accept every few years. Everyone else in her grade was fiercely talented or from wealthy, influential families. But Valen knew if she worked hard, if she didn’t allow herself to be distracted, she would excel. She was determined to find herself at Dartmouth or McGill--somewhere far away from the family she was cursed to suffer.
Now, at the age of seventeen, she was getting her first taste of freedom.
She found a room for rent in an old mansion. It was clean and bright, but best of all, it was a ten minute walk from the downtown library. The creaky building was in need of some repairs, but the landlady provided three meals to her student lodgers. It was the ideal location for a dedicated student.
The small inheritance from her grandmother she received when she was fourteen was finally put to use after years of saving. It paid eight months’ worth of rent up front. It wasn’t enough to get her to university, but sufficient to keep her focused so she could get the scholarships she needed.
Living alone wasn’t much different from living with parents who ignored her. Still, she cried herself to sleep the first night. After that, she blocked out the pain. Without them around to undermine her confidence, she could leave town without any emotional ties.
Her best friend was her biggest supporter. Endearingly shy, Ivan was also that effortless scholar every school seemed to have. Southbrook Academy had tried to recruit him from the local school in the seventh grade, but family obligations forced him to refuse. In grade ten, however--the same year Valen had been admitted--he finally accepted. He barely cracked open a book, but managed to achieve some of the highest grades in the school.
Valen’s determination, however, provided her with the top grade in every subject. By sacrificing every spare moment, she surpassed everyone’s expectations. Ivan would visit her place and ‘study’, which meant escaping his deserted home to play video games on his iPhone while lying on her bed. He also enjoyed the clandestine routine of sneaking through her bedroom window; the elderly landlady didn’t approve of girls having boys in their rooms.
Valen loved having him over. He was an entertaining companion, if not a studious one and reminded her to eat. She was shrewd enough to take his advice; no one could ever accuse her of not being prudent.
“You should take a break,” Ivan said, shifting on her timeworn bed.
The room she rented was light and airy, but the furniture was old, creaking whenever it was disturbed. Valen had woken up early and studied for the past hour.
Ivan tapped something on the screen of his phone. “The early bus comes in fifteen minutes; my guess is that you’re reading the same sentence over and over without actually knowing what it means.”
Valen looked up from her notes and rubbed her eyes. They were always blurry when she’d been staring at one thing for too long. “I just don’t understand what’s so great about Charles Dickens. Why does Mrs. Talbot devote so much time to his books? Is it to sabotage me?”
Ivan chuckled at her sour expression. She grumbled with frustration, made her way to the bed, and stretched out beside him. Nudging her with his elbow, Ivan brought her attention to a video on his phone. He shifted over. She plopped her head on his shoulder and felt her stress wash away; being close to him was so comforting. They watched the newest viral video for a few minutes before Ivan offered his encouragement.
“You don’t have to understand Dickens to get a scholarship to Dartmouth,” he said before switching to the next video. “Besides, you still have the top mark.”
“Only because I always turn in my essays early so I can rewrite them twice before the due date. I want to go back to studying the philosophers; fiction just doesn’t make any sense. Those people never existed, and even if they did, it’s stupid to tell their story. It’s all funneled and diluted through a third party narrator. Why should we trust Dickens, anyway?” She sighed and studied the periodic table she'd tacked to the ceiling.
“You just don’t like the romance,” Ivan stated.
“Because it’s ridiculous!”
“And yet, he’s considered one of the greatest writers of all time. Maybe that’s the question you should be asking… What is it about Dickens that still resonates today?”
“Thank you, professor.” Valen was annoyed, but she knew he was right. Rare was the occasion that he wasn’t.
Without thinking, she flung an arm casually over his chest and gave him a warm hug. His eyes never left his phone, but he smiled at her rare show of affection. No matter what the rumours around the Academy might be, there was no chance they would become a couple. Valen was too focused to consider dating, and Ivan had been in love with the mayor’s daughter since the eighth grade.
He was, however, the only person Valen trusted. And she happened to be the only person that made him feel comfortable.
Valen loved remembering when they met at orientation. They’d seen each other and nodded, acknowledging they were in similar circumstances. After a moment of staring into her eyes, he’d extended his hand and told her to call him Aiko instead of Ivan. He shared the same name as his father, so his family combined the first syllable of his first name and the only syllable of his last name to create something new. Ivan Koe had become Aiko.
She’d laughed, blurting out that in Japan, the name Aiko was only for women. Next thing she knew, she was admitting to her embarrassing obsession with manga and anime. But Ivan hadn’t immediately dismissed her as a hopeless nerd, and hadn’t been insulted that she’d feminized his nickname. Instead, he’d asked questions about why she enjoyed manga so much. They’d had a good laugh and spent the next few years in each other’s pockets.
A telltale beeping from Ivan’s phone signalled it was time to walk to the bus stop. Despite it being her choice to wake up before dawn, Valen groaned in frustration. Her friend jumped from the bed and pulled at her toes, prepared to haul her out if need be.
“No slacking until after you get your PhD.” He laughed when she stuck out her tongue, nodding in approval as she got to her feet. “Then, and only then, are you allowed to stop being sensible.”
She made a face and grabbed her school bag. “I may be boring, but that’s what’s going to get me out of here.”
“There’s nothing boring about you.” Ivan tugged at her long, disheveled hair. She giggled, slapping at his hands as she pulled it into a fraying hair tie. “You don’t know it yet, but you’re a force of nature.”
She shoved him playfully before they left her room through the window. “Yes, that’s me exactly. A very sensible force of nature.”
Ivan took the large jump from the roof of the garage to the roof of the shed first. He wasn’t a natural athlete, but taking the leap every day made it an easy feat. When he found his balance, he turned and helped Valen. Then they hopped onto a pile of wooden crates. From there, it was a short distance to the ground.
As always, they teased each other on the way to the bus stop. Veering into her, Ivan accused her of getting in his way on purpose. He feigned outrage and suggested she finally admit her undying love for him. In retaliation, Valen placed a tuft of muddy grass on top of his head. Laughing at his horrified expression, she sprinted the distance to their destination with Ivan chasing after her.
As they waited at the bus stop, panting and giggling, Valen realized her life was going according to plan. When she escaped this town, it would be easy to forget she had ever lived here. Though Ivan’s first choice for college was Notre Dame--meaning they wouldn’t see each other next year--she knew he would keep in touch. They were friends forever, no matter the distance.
For the first time in her life, she felt a blissful warmth in her chest; everything was perfect. She would find happiness.
But then Sedge intruded upon her notice.