Mrs. Atkinson ran a tight ship at Oakham Elementary. She was hard but fair; at least that was in her opinion. It was also the opinion shared by most of the students and other members of staff. She certainly would not have believed it possible for a student, let alone two students to be out of bed after curfew. She sat at her grand mahogany desk, scanning documents under electric candle light, making annotations in green pen.
“May I come in?” said a voice from the doorway.
Mrs. Atkinson looked up just as Ellie Webster; a student of Oakham Elementary, who was out of bed after curfew opened her eyes. Ellie was in the forest that bordered the school, having sneaked out of her dormitory to meet her best friend, Jake. Jake was at that moment hidden somewhere in the undergrowth, and Ellie had just finished counting backwards from ten. She ploughed through the bracken, the coarse bushes tearing fresh holes in her cardigan as she went. Ellie cared little for her clothes and as the result of previous explorations, her jeans bore holes in the knee, and her trainers, holes in the toe.
Mr. Harrison stood at the doorway, wearing a roguish smile and clutching a bag of soft mints in his hand.
“Stanley,” said Mrs. Atkinson. “Please do. Forgive me, I was in a world of my own.”
The deputy head entered, and placed the mints on the desk.
“The door was open, so I…” he faltered.
“Quite.” She managed a weak smile.
Mr. Harrison settled himself into a chair and popped the bag of mints.
“My sister sent me some sweets,” he explained. “It’s erm - it’s my birthday today.”
“Oh, Stanley,” said Mrs. Atkinson apologetically. “Of course it is. All these years, and I quite forgot.” She ran her fingers through jet black hair, pushing it away from her face. “I’m sorry.”
He waved away her apologies, dropped a mint into his mouth and offered her the bag. Mrs. Atkinson hesitated, then took one and reclined in her seat, sucking thoughtfully.
Ellie ducked suddenly, crouching low to the ground, like a tiger waiting to spring. She was deaf, and in order to make the game as even-handed as possible, Jake wore a school tie around his head to cover his ears. She could already see him; his tie was jutting out from around his head like rabbit ears. She giggled. He was a good sport, but rubbish at hiding.
She edged nearer, feeling the twigs beneath her feet snap as she went. When she was within a couple of feet, she dropped back down to the earthen floor, watching carefully as he peered out from his hiding place. She smiled and shook her head; she had always been far better at this game than he was. She paused a moment longer, watching the rabbit ears flit about as he moved his head from side to side. She counted backwards in her head; three – two – one. Then she sprang up from her patch of foliage and made a grab for his back. He moved just in time, but his tie had become dislodged.
Strictly speaking, she had found him and therefore, the game should have been over, but neither one of them would have it end there.
Mr. Harrison looked about the office as the two of them sucked in silence.
“By the way,” he said with his mouth still full. “Have you heard anything of our great protector?”
“Not for months,” said Mrs. Atkinson, rolling her eyes.
“disturbing,” she finished.
Mr. Harrison bowed his head and touched his hands together as though in prayer. “I suppose they’ll be in touch when term starts,” he said.
“But of course, with such an influx of students coming to us from the St. Jude’s disaster,” went on Mr. Harrison. “It can’t help but make one wonder.”
“I know,” said Mrs. Atkinson with a grim expression on her face. “Believe me, Stanley; I know,” She was very tired, and as her glance wandered from Mr. Harrison to her paperwork, it rested on a small picture frame on her desk, depicting her and a man with two small children. “But what use is wondering,” she said. “We’ve always known that it is too late for our generation, but for the youngsters…”
She stopped herself short, putting a hand over her mouth. Mr. Harrison stared at her, unsure whether her expression bore one of revulsion for the mint she had just swallowed or because she had almost allowed her darkest fears to leave her lips.
She straightened up in her chair and said, “you don’t have children, do you Stanley?”
Tradition would generally have their game develop into a mad chase through the forest. Neither Ellie, nor Jake would really consider the game to be over until one of them was pinned to the floor and ready to submit. She picked up the tie that had fallen to the ground. She sniffed at it as though she were on the trail of it’s scent.
Jake tore through the forest ahead of her. He could run faster than her, that was for sure, but Ellie was a master at playing the long game. She grinned wildly, then darted off in a different direction to the one he had taken. She knew that instinct would lead him to their tree house. They had built the house in that particular tree precisely because it was their favourite in the forest. It was not only tall, but grand. Its trunk was so vast, and gave rise to so many further branches, it was as though the tree were pushing the surrounding trees out of its way. It had extended itself a bit of a clearing around the base, but grew quickly up into a mass of leaves and branches, and Jake and Ellie’s house was constructed so far towards the top of the tree that it was quite invisible from the ground, looking up.
It was to this tree that Ellie now came. She climbed up to the first level of branches and wrapped her cardigan around her middle. The light was definitely fading from the sky with greater haste that this time last week. She shivered and waited.
Mr. Harrison popped another mint into his own mouth and said thickly, “what’s on your mind, Yvette?”
She sat still for another moment, then leant forward in her seat. “I feel the flight-to-freedom programme is in jeopardy. Our protector has been too silent in his communications; ominously silent. His actions I’m afraid, to coin an old-fashioned term, are speaking far louder than his words.”
Mr. Harrison gulped and dabbed the corners of his mouth with a sleeve. “What do you mean ‘in jeopardy’?”
After a few minutes Ellie could see Jake moving stealthily through the surrounding undergrowth. He was moving with caution, as though he knew the tree might possibly be guarded. She watched his crouched form as he inched closer to the trunk and did her best not to laugh.
Glancing over his shoulders all the while, Jake skipped the last few steps and placed a hand against the tree, as though it were a check point he had reached and where he might now be safe. Ellie looked down at him as he hovered directly below her feet, then she let the tie slip from her fingers.
Jake watched as the tie fell before his eyes in momentary bewilderment. In the second it took for his brain to process what was this meant and where the tie must really have come from, Ellie landed on him from above. She pinned his arms down into the soil, her knees clamped tightly around his waist. He struggled in vain to topple her, but she was in too strong a position. She laughed manically as he struggled again.
“Ok, ok, ok,” he said.
Mrs. Atkinson had risen from her chair and was looking out of her office window. She watched the sky as it darkened resting her hands upon the sill. “It is out of our hands. They could cut the programme at any time.”
Mr. Harrison had been watching her with interest, and he now attempted a reassuring chuckle that rang slightly hollow. “They can’t just cut the programme,” he said.
Mrs. Atkinson turned and looked at him sharply. “I think you’d be surprised just what the Legion are capable of.” She crossed her arms. “I’m sorry, Stanley. You come here on your birthday for a chat and all you get is scaremongering.”
“It’s fine,” he said, shaking his head.
Mrs. Atkinson’s expression took on a faraway quality, and she glanced back outside. “All we can do is play our part,” she said; more to herself. “We must aim for a one hundred percent pass rate in this year’s Level Twelves.”
“One hundred percent?” Asked Mr. Harrison doubtfully.
She turned a set face of determination on him. “And one hundred percent next year,” she said firmly.
Jake had known Ellie since their very first year together in Oakham. He had managed to learn some sign language, and this was generally how they communicated with one another; but since his arms were currently pinned to the ground by his side, he was forced to speak.
Ellie moved her face closer to his so as to make out through the dusk what he was saying.
Ellie continued to hold him down, throwing her head back and laughing hysterically. He knew the rules as well as her. Only a full admission of defeat would do.
“Ok, ok,” he said grudgingly. She inspected his lips again and waited for the words. “You win,” he said. “I give up.” She relaxed her arms and allowed herself to sink down upon his chest, which was heaving with exhaustion. They looked at each other for a moment longer in satisfied silence, then she allowed herself to roll off him and they both lay on their backs, looking up into the tree.
In that moment, when Ellie sank down upon his chest and it crossed Jake’s mind that she might be about to kiss him for the very first time, Mrs. Atkinson was standing at her office door with Mr. Harrison. She locked the door behind them and they made their way out into the corridor.
“If you would like to continue this discussion I suggest we walk and talk,” she said. “I must do my dormitory checks.”
Mr. Harrison stuffed the remaining mints into an inside pocket of his jacket. “Why don’t you let me do the checks for a change?” He said. “You could have an evening off if you like.”
“Thank you, Stanley,” she said. “But it is not out of an overdeveloped sense of school duty that I do these checks. It is not term time yet. No,” she said, “I do these additional checks for my own peace of mind and, as such, it would be quite out of the question to expect someone else to perform them on my behalf.” She smiled at him. “But thanks all the same.”
Ellie and Jake meanwhile had climbed to sit at the top of their tree. The sky above them glittered with stars and the final veils of night were being drawn across the sky and they both knew that they would have to be back in their beds soon.
Jake pointed to a star that was far larger and brighter than the rest. “What do you suppose that one is?” he said. Ellie sat leaning on her elbows. She looked up at the star and shrugged without interest. Jake jabbed her in the ribs and said, “don’t you think it’s beautiful?” Ellie smiled a slow, deliberate smile and shook her head. Jake muttered something as he turned away from her, and Ellie had to hit him to remind him to face her when speaking. “I said I think it is,” he said defensively.
Ellie nodded slowly; thinking. Then she composed a question for him in sign. “Why does it shine so much brighter than all the rest?”
“That’s just the way it is,” said Jake with the air of a man of the world. “I suppose no two stars are the same; just like people. Some shine brighter than others.”
Ellie nodded then signed, “Maybe some are just further away than others.”
“Come on,” said Jake, obviously slightly nettled. “It’s getting late. We ought to get back before Atkinson checks in on us.”
They slipped and slid their way down the trunk of the tree until they landed with muffled thuds on the leafy ground. Without pausing Jake flung his school tie loosely over his head and strode off purposefully in the direction of the school gate.
Ellie had to run to catch him up. She hadn’t meant to hurt his feelings but he was funny when he got what she called sentimental about things. He strode out, his face a set frown and into an unoccupied hand that swung carelessly at his side crept Ellie’s. Jake was at first taken aback. He looked at her, surprised but she only returned his gaze with an unfathomable smile. Of all the school students she was the most curious and perplexing and it was for that reason Jake had always been so drawn to her. He offered a small smile in return as they neared the school perimeter fence, then one at a time, they ducked under a purpose built hole at the base of the fence and with nimble precision scurried over the tarmac within.
They hoisted themselves through a kitchen window; the same small window that they always used. The kitchen opened onto a small canteen that was only ever used by staff and beyond that was the grand main hall. From here it was relatively straight forward to get back upstairs and onto the dormitories. The building was ancient and the staircases majestic and they had to clamber up three of them before the parting of their ways.
When they reached the top Jake gave Ellie’s hand a gentle squeeze.
“Be careful,” he whispered. “Atkinson will be on patrol. We’re late.”
Ellie nodded. Between her and the girls’ sleeping quarters there was one final adjoining corridor to her right. She strode purposefully forward but as she approached the intersection she caught sight of Mrs. Atkinson and Mr. Harrison walking up the adjoining corridor towards her. They appeared to be deep in conversation and hadn’t seen her. Ellie withdrew and pressed herself up against the near wall but she couldn’t stay there. If the teachers reached the junction and turned left they would be upon her. If they reached the junction and turned right they would reach her dormitory before her and surely see that she was not in bed.
She had to pass them and she had to do it now. Every moment that she hesitated she was more likely to get caught. She peered carefully round the corner. They were now talking so earnestly that she felt she should be able to cross the corridor without them seeing her but no sooner had this thought occurred to her then both teachers looked up. She withdrew sharply, swallowed a deep breath and peeped round once more. Neither was speaking now and both were looking straight ahead as they walked. Ellie would have to wait until one of them spoke. Surely then they would turn to face each other again and she would have a split second window to make her move. She stood patiently, waiting for her moment.
They were getting dangerously close now. Ellie concentrated on her breathing and tried to control her rising panic. She shrank into the shadow, back against the wall, while still keeping an eye on them.
It was Mr. Harrison who spoke first. Ellie saw his pace slacken suddenly as though a thought had crossed his mind and her heart fluttered in anticipation. She stared at him until his lips began to move and watched his mouth form a question knowing that Mrs. Atkinson was bound to shift her gaze to him at any second. She gathered herself to run for it and saw Mr. Harrison saying “so, if the flight-to-freedom programme were to be cut this year…” Mrs. Atkinson’s mouth opened to frame a response, but in that moment, Ellie was gone.
She dashed straight across their path and towards her dormitory door on the other side. She had no idea whether she had been seen or not but she could not stop. She must just make it to her bed. If she had been spotted, she would soon know about it. She slipped open the bedroom door where nine other girls slept peacefully. Tip-toeing nimbly over to her bottom bunk, she slipped noiselessly under her sheets, drawing them up to her chin so that her outer clothes would not be noticed.
In what seemed like only a matter of seconds the door opened again and Mrs. Atkinson stood silhouetted in the frame. Through the bedroom window, the light from Jake’s brilliant star cast a cold glow across the floor to Ellie’s bed. With that and the light that came in from the door, she felt as though she were spotlighted but lay with her eyes determinedly closed, trying to breath naturally and waiting for the stern hand of officialdom to land on her shoulder and hoick her out of bed, but it didn’t. After what seemed like an eternity, Ellie sensed the light subside and knew the door had been closed again. She opened her eyes slowly and stared through the window. From here Jake’s star seemed almost as big as the moon.
As she gazed critically at it a puzzle began to frame itself in her mind. What on earth had Mr. Harrison been saying? She played it back in her mind; “if the flight-to-freedom programme were to be cut this year.” What on earth would make him suggest such a thing?