by Amy Talkington
I heard voices returning to the common room. I dashed out her window, carefully pulled it closed and crept away into the darkness.
Malcolm had texted me extremely specific directions, taking into account which parts of campus were the most brightly lit (to be avoided, of course). In certain places, he even told me how many steps to take. I held my phone in my hand, cupping it to minimize the light, as I stole through the darkness.
I snuck around the back of the Art Center, along the tall wall that looked down on its spacious outdoor theater and fire pit, and then rushed past the old well. Following his instructions, I dashed into a grove of pine trees but stumbled on a pinecone and fell at the foot of a majestic weeping willow tree. As I stood up, I felt it again: a chill. It rushed past me, through me, almost. I turned. Nothing. Silence except for my noisy heart—frightened or perhaps just filled with anticipation.
When I finally arrived, I found Malcolm waiting for me, pacing between two trees. He wore his class blazer over a fully untucked oxford shirt; somehow he made the Wickham Hall garb look cool. And his even-messier-than-usual hair formed a silhouette like a wild and dark crown.
“Thank God you made it,” he whispered. His blue eyes popped in the moonlight, looking anxious. I laughed quietly. Everyone at Wickham Hall was so terrified of getting in trouble.
“Your comrade-in-arms wouldn’t abandon you in the field,” I assured him as he led me silently through some trees to a clearing where he’d spread out a blanket.
“Look,” he said. He lay down on his back. I lay down next to him and followed his gaze. There was an opening in the canopy of trees where we could see the brilliant moon. And stars. Hundreds of them. He took my hand. He held it strongly—with commitment. We lay there silently for a long while until he spoke.
“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.”
Of course I knew the poem; we’d just studied it in English lit. But I’d known it before Wickham. John Keats. “It’s beautiful. And impossible,” I said.
“You think so?”
“That’s what it’s about, right? The paradox. You wish a moment could last forever. But it can’t. We are not stars. And if we were, we’d be distant, immaterial. Alone. It’s pretty bleak actually.”
“I was trying to be romantic.”
He smiled and turned over onto his stomach. “It’s one of my favorites. Always has been.” He took my right arm in his hands, pulled out the green marker (he’d remembered it!), and carefully started to draw along the inside of my forearm. I didn’t look until he was finished. Two stars. But stars like you’ve never seen before—expressive, singular—more like Van Gogh’s than Rihanna’s. I smiled, and he knew I loved it.
Then he reached into his pocket and slipped a ring onto my finger. My right ring finger. My breath caught in my throat. I lifted my hand to examine: a gold Wickham Hall band with B.A./V.P. 1885 inscribed in Wickham Hall’s trademark font below the insignia. It gave me a weird feeling in my stomach.
“It was my great-great-great-grandfather’s.”
“Balthazar?” I whispered.
“How did you know that?”
“I have my spy ways,” I said, trying to lighten the mood, which suddenly felt very heavy. “Ways that involve myscholarship work-study assignment to record every name inscribed in the bricks in the catacombs.”
“1885. And V.P.—that means Victors President, right?”
He looked right at me. Silent.
“I know you can’t talk about it. And I’m not going to ask you to. But can you just tell me there’s nothing sinister about it?”
He laughed, surprised. “Yes, I can confirm there’s nothing sinister about it. Just snobby. Elitist. Stupid.”
I stared at him. “I’m trying to believe whatever that secret society is and does has nothing to do with us. And you remain steadfast.” I felt better. I’d said it.
“It doesn’t. And I will,” he said. We were face to face. Again. So close that his breath warmed me. We looked into each other’s eyes. Without thinking, I reached behind his head and pulled his lips to mine. And we kissed.
Had I thought first, I never would’ve done it. I’d never done anything like that before. Of course I’d fooled around with boys, but I’d always been passive. I’d never felt like that before. It felt urgent. Essential. I forgot about all the things I’d always stressed about during a kiss. Stupid things. In fact, there was no thought at all. I just kissed him. And he kissed me.
I have no idea how long it went on for, but when it ended—as effortlessly as it’d begun—he said it: “I love you.” Those three words every girl dreams about hearing. Every girl except me. I was terrified of those words, and he could see it on my face.
“It’s too soon?” he asked.
“No, I mean, yes, it’s just . . .” How could I explain I’d never said those words before? Not to anyone. Ever. Not even my parents. How could I explain I’d been moved from foster home to foster home for seven grueling years? How could I explain that, as obsessed as I was with the Romantics, I did not really believe in love?
I considered telling Malcolm everything, all these words and thoughts and feelings I’d kept to myself for so many years. I really did consider telling him, but right then we heard a faint crunching sound.
“What was that?” I asked.
He lifted his finger to his mouth.
I heard the sound again. Footsteps on fallen leaves. Someone sneaking up on us—probably campus security.
“I’m already in trouble with Mrs. Mulford,” I whispered.
He blinked a few times, concerned. I hadn’t told him. He thought for a moment, then said, “We need to split up. You go that way. I’ll go the other way and try to distract them. Okay?”
“Now!” he urged.
I jumped up and ran back the way I’d come. Around the graveyard, under the pines. Too scared to look back. A vision of being sent back home flashed into my mind. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go back. As horrible as Wickham Hall could be, it was better than home. I had my studio. I had Malcolm. I ran for my life.
I paused at the old well to catch my breath. I told myself how silly I was—this was not life or death. How silly I was.
I looked around—no one was coming—so I leaned on the well, trying to calm down. I looked into its blackness. Abyss. Then something suddenly rushed up from the dark, and that cold chill slapped me in the face. My head whipped back from its force. And that’s when everything went black …