On Wednesdays, I had grown into the habit of spending my free fourth period in the science center lounge with my friends until it was time for our meetings. Usually, only Larry, Sarah, and Walter joined me, so I was surprised to see Bella holding Walter’s hand as they entered the room.
“Hey. Where were you yesterday?” Walter asked as he sank into a chair. Sarah was in Larry’s lap in another chair, leaving the fourth chair free for Bella. She, however, elected to sit on the arm of Walter’s chair. Sarah and Larry had already begun whispering to each other. I was still wary of Bella after our last encounter, so I tried to avoid her eye as I answered Walter’s question.
“I met up with Eliot for dinner. I told you I was going.”
“But, you didn’t come to the library.”
“Oh. When I was getting my books, my lab partner knocked on my door. She had a few questions. By the time she left, study hours had already started and it was just easier to stay in my room.”
“That’s okay. I kept Walter company.” Bella ran a hand through Walter’s hair, which seemed to make him uncomfortable. “So, what time is your game, today? I want to cheer you on.”
Walter shifted slightly, probably trying to get Bella away from him, although it didn’t seem to work. “We’re away. Probably won’t be back until after study hours starts.”
“Oh. Well, then I guess I’ll see you during the break. Oh! I’ll get you dinner. Let’s see, what sounds good? Chinese takeout? I found one that will deliver to the edge of campus.”
My mouth started salivating. I suddenly had a craving for egg rolls. “Oh. That sounds good. Which one?”
Bella glared at me before turning back to Walter, completely ignoring my question. “So, I was thinking. Maybe tomorrow I could go running with you. I’ll meet you in your dorm at five-thirty.”
I pointed at her. “You’re not supposed to leave until six.”
Bella shrugged. “No one caught me last time. So, do you normally stretch in the common room or wait until you get outside?”
Walter sent her a curious look. “I stretch in my room. What last time?”
“Yesterday morning. When the fire alarm went off. I wanted to make sure you were okay. Maybe catch you in your pajamas. So, where do you run? Do you stay on campus?”
As Bella turned the conversation back to Walter’s running routine, I considered what Bella had just said. There was something not lining up, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
I thought about it for the rest of the free period. During the all-school meeting, I sat on the stage with the orchestra while a speaker with a thick accent shared her story about emigrating to America for religious freedom. It was probably a very inspiring speech. But, I was still processing Bella’s conversation.
It clicked so suddenly, I sat upright and resisted the urge to shout. I glanced across the stage to the rows of third-formers facing me. Larry and Walter were sitting in the second row, staring at the speaker in a way that suggested they weren’t really paying her any attention. Bella was beside Walter, glaring at me. I quickly looked away. I spent the rest o the period trying to figure out how to get Walter alone.
I waited until after Latin class, pulling him aside before we left the classroom. “I want to talk to you about something. Can you walk with me to math? I want to go the long way.”
Walter raised his eyebrows. “Why?”
“Because I don’t want anyone joining us.”
Walter shrugged and followed me through the maze of faculty offices to a back entrance to the building. There was no one within earshot as we walked to the Arts Center.
“So, I don’t really know how to say this.”
Walter smirked. “Did something happen between you and Eliot yesterday?”
“No. It’s about Bella.”
Walter’s face immediately fell. “Oh.”
“It’s just, I’ve been getting this like, weird vibe from her for a while now. And then, she mentioned the fire alarm. The thing is, I woke up as the trucks were pulling in. It was after six.”
“Well, yeah. I was already out for my run.”
“Exactly. But Bella said she snuck out to see if you were okay. That she was hoping to catch you in your pajamas. Walter, I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that she pulled that alarm.”
Walter stopped dead in his tracks. “Whoa. That’s a big accusation. You don’t have any evidence.”
“No, I don’t. And I don’t know what to do. I want to tell Sally, but if I’m wrong—”
“You have no proof. And the last time I checked, it was innocent until proven guilty. You know, when I had a problem with your boyfriend, I came right out and told you. I didn’t go making up fantastical accusations.”
There was a look in Walter’s eyes I had never seen before. It was dark and dangerous and I was afraid he might hit me. Instead, he stormed off towards his dorm, leaving me alone at the four-way intersection with tears in my eyes.
I didn’t share my suspicions with Sarah and did my best to focus on the last two classes of my shortened day. I was glad Sarah was excused from English due to a field hockey game because she probably would have noticed my sullenness. As it was, Mr. Johnson held me back after class.
“Melinda? Is everything alright? You usually participate more in class. You were very quiet today.”
“I’m not feeling well. I’m probably just hungry.”
“Then you better get to the dining hall.”
I nodded, but headed in the opposite direction. My stomach was too unsettled for food. I headed to my dorm instead.
Since I couldn’t talk to Walter, I thought about calling Eliot, tell him everything that had been going on, maybe get his opinion on my theory. But, he was still at school.
Frustrated, I lay on my bed with my writing journal. Before I could sort out my thoughts, my phone signaled an incoming message. I was being summoned to the Dean’s office. Immediately.
I made my way to the Stanton basement slowly. I had no clue what I had done wrong. I went down the outside steps and into the office. There was a u-shaped desk to my left, behind which a woman was busy typing on a computer. She looked up as I entered.
“May I help you?”
“Um, my name is Melinda? I got a message that Sally wanted to see me?”
“Oh, yes. She’s expecting you.”
The woman came around the desk and started walking along the corridor. She stopped at the first door on her right and knocked before opening the door. She stuck her head in and announced me before opening it all the way and ushering me in.
My dean gestured to me from behind her desk. “Melinda. Come inside.”
Mr. Birkenhead was leaning against a bookshelf behind the large wooden desk where Sally was sitting. He gestured for me to sit in one of the wingback chairs facing him. As I did so, I saw the other was occupied by a very morose-looking Walter. Sally spoke in a gentle voice.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
I shook my head.
“What can you tell us about Bella?”
“Melinda, this is a safe zone. Everything you tell us will remain confidential and anonymous and you will receive amnesty for any minor transgressions that involve you.”
I had no idea what she had just said. I looked towards Walter. “Um . . .”
He gave a half laugh. “You won’t get in trouble for whatever you tell them and they won’t tell anyone what you said.”
“I don’t know anything.”
Mr. Birkenhead tried. “Walter said you think she pulled the fire alarm.”
Walter sent me a pleading look. “Tell them what you told me this morning. About what Bella said.”
I sighed. “She said she wanted to go running with Walter and that she would meet him in the dorm to stretch at five-thirty. A.M. When I pointed out she couldn’t leave until six, she said she didn’t get caught yesterday. That she wanted to make sure Walter was okay. Maybe catch him in his pajamas.”
Sally gave a small smile. “Perhaps she didn’t realize what time the alarm went off?”
I shrugged one shoulder. “Probably.”
“But, you don’t think so.”
I shook my head.
“Can you tell me why you feel that way?”
I shrank a little in my chair and avoided looking at Walter. “Bella has been . . . I get uncomfortable around her. She pretends to be nice to me when Walter’s around, but when he’s not looking, she sends me dirty looks. Yells at me.”
“Why does she yell at you?”
I shrugged and looked at my hands. When it was obvious I wasn’t going to say anything else, Sally tried a different tactic.
“When did you first start seeing this dual nature? This being nice to you, then being mean?”
I stared at Sally’s desk as I thought back. “I think when they first got together. That first day, she brought him cookies she said she made in her room. Walter offered me one, but she sent me a look that made it clear he wasn’t supposed to be sharing them.”
Sally raised her eyebrows. “She what?”
“She gave me this like, mean, uncomfortable look.”
Sally shook her head. “No. You said she made him cookies in her room?”
“Oh. Yeah. Well, she said she had an oven in her room and that’s how she made them. She probably just stole them from the dining hall or something.”
Sally rose and exchanged a whispered conversation with Mr. Birkenhead before turning back to Melinda. “We’ll be right back. Would you two stay here, please?”
As soon as we were alone, I turned to Walter. “What happened?”
“I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
As Walter stormed away from Melinda, he realized she had echoed one of his fears. That there was something not right with Bella’s behavior. His suspicions were confirmed when he found her waiting for him in his common room.
He glanced around. “Bella. You’re not supposed to be here!”
“I saw you sneaking around with her.”
“I was waiting for you to get out of class. But, you snuck out the back. You’d rather be with her than me.”
“Bella, you need to leave. You’re not supposed to be in the dorm during the class day.”
“But, I want to spend time with you.”
“Bella, I don’t think this is working out between us.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think we should break up.”
“So you can spend more time with her?”
Walter shook his head. “No. I promise. There’s no one else. I just don’t think you and I are going to work.”
“But, you’re my boyfriend. I love you.”
Walter took a step back, raising his hand in front of himself. “Whoa. Bella. We hardly know each other.”
“But that doesn’t matter with true love.”
Bella took a step closer. Walter took another step back.
“I mean it, Bella. I think we should break up.”
In an instant, Bella’s face went from amorousness to anger. She glared at him with such fierceness, he was ready for lasers to shoot from her eyes.
“You want to be with her. Well, you’ll see. I’m the one you’re supposed to be with.”
She stormed out of the dorm, nearly colliding with Mr. Peters in the entryway. He looked at Walter with raised eyebrows.
“She’s not supposed to be here.”
Walter quickly held up his hands. “That’s what I was trying to tell her. Do you have a minute? There’s something I need to tell you.”
“I told all about what had just happened and how I was worried that Bella might have pulled the alarm. Next thing I know, he brings me down here and makes me tell Mr. Birkenhead. Then, he made me tell Sally. And when I mentioned what you had said, well, that’s why you’re here.”
“Are we in trouble?”
Walter shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
We sat in silence for a long time. Finally, Mr. Birkenhead returned carrying a purple duffle bag with my name embroidered above a pair of pointe shoes. I stared at him with wide eyes.
“My dance bag! Where did you find it?”
“Under Miss Sorrel’s bed, beside a toaster oven and some other items that were not hers.” He frowned. “Sally and I would like the two of you to stay here for a while. We will excuse you from your sports and other activities.”
I glanced at Walter. He looked as stunned as I felt. I shook my head. “But, we didn’t do anything wrong!”
Mr. Birkenhead held up his hands. “You’re not in trouble. We want to keep you here for your safety.”
Walter scoffed. “They think Bella might hurt us. I get why she’s mad at me, but why would she hurt Melinda?”
“She hates me.” After hearing Walter’s story, I had finally been able to name the look I had seen in Bella’s eyes. “She hates me and is jealous of me at the same time.”
Mr. Birkenhead nodded. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but based on what we saw in her room, it would appear Miss Sorrel has an unhealthy obsession with each of you. We think it would be in your best interest to remain here until we find her.”
I wasn’t going to argue with him. Neither did Walter. We moved into the waiting room, where we sat in silence while the secretary clacked away at her computer.
Eventually, Sally returned. Bella was with her. As soon as she saw us, I saw the anger flare.
“You! How dare you leave me for her!”
She grabbed a paperweight from the desk and hurled it at Walter. It nicked his eyebrow.
Sally and Mr. Birkenhead both took Bella by the arm, bringing her to Sally’s office and shutting the door. The secretary rushed to Walter’s side with a tissue.
“Oh, dear. Are you alright, Sweetie?”
Walter blotted the cut. “Yeah. It’s just a scratch. I’ll be fine.” He handed her the paperweight. “I think this is yours.”
A moment later, two campus safety officers came rushing into the room, knocking on Sally’s door. They entered without waiting for a response.
Mr. Birkenhead exited. “Walter. Are you okay? Do you need the infirmary?”
Walter shook his head. “Nah. I’m fine. It’s not even bleeding anymore.”
Mr. Birkenhead nodded. “You two are free to leave. Please do not speak of this to anyone.”
Walter gave a half smile. “I can tell people I broke up with Bella, right?”
The dean smiled. “Of course. Please don’t mention the fire alarm. Or what we found in Miss Sorrel’s room. Or this incident. Word will spread soon enough, I’m sure. But, I would rather you two not be the source.”
Walter smiled. “Believe me. I just want to forget all this ever happened.”
As Mr. Birkenhead returned to Sally’s office, I went over to the secretary at her desk.
“Um, I have a huge favor to ask. I’m supposed to be in class at the church right now. Do you think I can give you my teacher’s email and Sally can explain why I wasn’t there?”
The secretary smiled. “Of course.”
“Great.” I scrolled through my sent messages until I found this week’s homework assignment. I scribbled the address on a sheet of paper. “Thanks so much!”
“I’ll send one, too. As your mentor,” Walter offered as we made our way outside. “Actually, I can do that right now.”
He pulled out his phone and I watched him type furiously for a moment before glancing at me. “What’s his email?”
I spelled it out. When Walter put away his phone, I looked around. “Now what? I’m not ready to go back to my dorm yet.”
“I’m hungry. I barely ate all day. Let’s go to the MAC Attack.”
I liked that idea. While Walter ordered a burger basket with fries and onion rings and a soda, I opted for a cookies-and-cream milkshake. We brought our food to the bleachers on the football field. Varsity was away today, so we had the place to ourselves.
“I am so sorry you got dragged into my girlfriend drama.” Walter rubbed his eyebrow.
“You don’t have to apologize. Besides, I introduced her to you.”
“I’m sorry for yelling at you. I know you were trying to warn me about her.”
“You know how you said you have better taste in guys than I do? I’m starting to think I have better taste in girls than you.”
“Okay. Let’s make a pact. You have to approve all my girlfriends. And, if things don’t work out with you and Eliot, I get to pick out your next boyfriend.”
“Deal.” We clinked our paper cups together in agreement. “So, I’ve been so caught up in Bella drama, I feel like I’ve barely talked to you. What have I missed?”
“Well, Eliot and I are back together. And, I got an A on my last English essay. And on that last Latin quiz. And, actually, I’m like, doing really well in all my classes. Oh, and did I tell you about my new tap class?”
As I told Walter about joining Mr. Pablo’s class, I thought about how much my life had changed in just five short weeks. Although I had never asked to attend Hartfield, I could not imagine life anywhere else. I no longer found the classwork impossibly difficult but pleasantly challenging. Staying ahead in my classes was helping me tremendously. I had managed to find a good balance between my schoolwork and my friends. I even had a boyfriend. Even though my journey at boarding school was just beginning, I felt confident I would be able to face whatever challenges lie ahead.
To Be Continued…
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