Lycia did not want to return to the school the next day, but she wanted answers. She was determined to find the person who had waved at her from the window. Maybe they would help her understand what was going on.
Lycia tried to look as confident as possible as she entered the school. The other students stared at her with even more disgust than the day before. Lycia did her best to ignore them.
The morning bell rang, and Lycia still didn’t know where her classroom was. She was going to have to swallow her pride and ask someone. She looked for a teacher, someone with authority, but all she saw were students.
“Excuse me,” she said to a boy who was loping past.
His eyes darted in her direction but he didn’t stop.
“Hey!” Lycia called, refusing to be ignored.
The boy turned to her, rolling his eyes and slouching his shoulders.
“Do you know where I can go to find out what class I’m in?” she asked.
The boy stared blankly at her and made a snorting noise. Lycia waited patiently for an answer, but when he finally opened his mouth it was only to spit at her feet before continuing down the corridor.
Lycia stepped back from the repulsive foam as two girls ran past, their ponytails swinging wildly behind their heads.
“Wait up, Amy!” One girl said to the other.
“Come on, Chelsea,” Amy called as she entered one of the classrooms. As soon as Chelsea caught up, their identities mingled once more.
Lycia followed them. She didn’t know what else to do. If she wasn’t meant to be in their class, maybe Chelsea and Amy would have the courtesy to point her in the right direction. Maybe.
The classroom was a drab, windowless box. There were no posters or charts on the walls, and the blackboard was blank. Wooden desks and plastic chairs were scattered around without any apparent arrangement. A mound of broken chairs was piled up against the back wall. The other students chose the desks that were furthest from the mound, leaving Lycia to sit alone at the back of the room.
The students took out their notebooks. They began to work diligently, even though no teacher had arrived yet. Lycia didn’t have a notebook, or even a pen, and she wasn’t about to ask to borrow from anyone. Chelsea and Amy had sat among the other girls and Lycia could no longer distinguish them. Lycia kept her head down, pretending to be engrossed in examining her wristband. She struggled to maintain the confident demeanor she had started the day with.
Something small hit her in the back of the head. She resisted the urge to look around and see what it was or where it had come from. A second projectile bounced off the top of her head and landed on her desk. At first she thought it was just a piece of scrunched up paper. When she picked it up, she saw that the paper was tightly folded into the shape of a star. She focused stubbornly on her desk as the stars continued to rain down on her. The throws became more frequent and more erratic. Half of them sailed right past her. Behind her, she heard a sigh and the shuffling of feet. Lycia stiffened as a long, thin hand curled over her shoulder.
“Honestly,” said a bored, drawling voice next to her ear. “Isn’t throwing paper the universal sign for ‘turn around and look at me I’m trying to get your attention’?”
Lycia twisted around in her chair, shrugging the hand off her shoulder. She blinked in surprise at the boy standing over her. He was a stark contrast to the rest of the school’s male population. He had a tall, lanky physique, his skeletal frame almost lost in the folds of a long, black trench coat. Everything about him was sharp and pointed. He was almost handsome, in a rakish way. The boy stared back at her through a veil of shaggy black hair. His narrow face split into a sinister grin as he poured a handful of paper stars all over Lycia’s desk.
Lycia raised her eyebrows at the odd boy. He looked like death; a pale and spindly specter. But the bright blue lights that were his eyes burned with more life than the whole town of Greenwood put together.
“Come with me,” he said. He dropped to his knees and scrambled into the mountain of broken chairs at the back of the room.
Lycia looked around to see if anyone had noticed. The students simply continued to write in their books.
The boy’s voice echoed from within the chairs. “Come forth! Join us in our fortress of fractured seating!”
Lycia cautiously rose and approached the mass of chairs. She knelt down and peered through the gap that the boy had crawled through. After a moment’s hesitation, she followed him.
The tunnel of chairs opened up into a makeshift den. Beside the boy sat a plump, round-faced girl. She wore a tattered black dress that was torn in the most elegant of ways and her long, dark hair fell in waves around her shoulders. Everything about her was soft and curvy; the perfect antithesis to her angular companion. The girl regarded Lycia with large brown eyes and gave a shy smile. Then she crawled and hid behind the boy, who was staring at Lycia with fascination.
“We haven’t been properly introduced,” he said, and stuck his hand out just inches from Lycia’s nose. “Aster Hammond.”
Lycia awkwardly maneuvered herself into a sitting position in the cramped space. “Lycia Golightly,” she replied. She put her hand out to shake just as he pulled his away again.
“You could be a super hero with a name like that,” he said cheerfully.
Lycia stared at him indifferently and crossed her arms over her chest.
“This quiet little thing is Meg Steele,” he said, waving his hands with great enthusiasm at the girl, as if revealing a grand prize to an audience.
Meg gave a self-conscious wave.
“It was you,” Lycia said to Aster. “You waved at me from the window yesterday.”
Aster grinned. “Have you eaten?” he asked, digging through his school bag. He handed a chocolate bar to Lycia, who took it gratefully. Aster stroked his chin and pursed his lips as though he was deep in thought. “Are you on the run from the law?” he asked.
Lycia was unprepared for such a line of questioning. She stared at him, unsure of what she should say.
Aster’s eyes darted around suspiciously, as if checking that no one was eavesdropping. He leaned in close. “I am,” he whispered.
Lycia’s eyes narrowed. “No you’re not.”
Aster’s mysterious demeanor dissolved, and he smiled sheepishly. “Well, maybe not the kind of law you know about yet. Doesn’t that sound excitingly intriguing?”
“Not really,” said Lycia.
Aster’s cheerful expression crumpled slightly.
Lycia rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’m intrigued. Why are you running?”
“Indeed,” Aster mused. “Why are we running?”
Lycia looked around at their fortress of chairs. “This doesn’t look like running. It looks like hiding.”
Aster smirked. “To the untrained eye, perhaps.”
Awkward silence hung between them until Aster spoke again. “Well, Lycia, I suppose someone should say welcome to Greenwood. I wish I could tell you that it is a wonderful place and that you’re going to love your new home, but that would be telling a lie. I suppose we’re the first people to actually talk to you.”
“Well, one boy spat at me, but I don’t think that counts,” said Lycia. “And there were these two girls who interrogated me about my clothes and hair.”
“Chelsea and Amy,” said Aster. “They’re a nasty pair those two, never quite sure what they could be up to.”
“Never quite sure which of them is which either,” said Lycia. Seeing no hint of surprise in Aster or Meg’s expression, Lycia nervously added “Actually, I can’t tell anyone apart.”
“This is Greenwood,” said Meg, as if that would somehow explain it.
“Stay here,” said Aster, crawling back through the opening in the chair fortress. “I’m going to show you something.”
Lycia peered through the gap and watched him creep up to a girl’s desk and snatch away the notebook she was writing in. The girl didn’t notice at all, and continued to scrawl, unperturbed, on the surface of her desk.
Aster hurried back into the chair fortress and handed the book to Lycia. “See what good students they are?” he commented. “Bent over their desk being good little girls and boys, even without a teacher. Have you seen any teachers, Lycia? Any adults at all?”
“I’ve seen my mom,” she replied as she opened the book. She looked at the pages and muttered, “What the hell?”
The first page was covered in tiny circular spirals. The next page contained only one large spiral that had been traced over multiple times. She flicked through the rest of the notebook. There was no writing, no calculations, no schoolwork at all. Only spirals, thousands and thousands of spirals.
“What is this?” Lycia asked.
“In some classes they draw stars as well,” Aster said, holding up one of his paper stars. “I decided to outdo them and make three-dimensional stars. I’ll show you how to make them. All you need is a narrow strip of paper. You sorta tie one end in a knot and fold the rest around it…”
Lycia wasn’t listening to him. She stared at the notebook, utterly perplexed.
The bell rang. Pages rustled and chairs scraped as the students got up and exited the classroom. They were loud and rambunctious once again. Aster and Meg took their schoolbags and crawled out of the chair fortress. Lycia followed them, not knowing what else to do.
They left the classroom and walked through the corridors, Lycia glancing through the occasional grimy window at the water-logged courtyard. Now and then, Meg would turn to give Lycia a friendly smile, but her shyness made it come out more like a nervous twitch, and she would move closer to Aster’s side.
“The only girls likely to talk to you are Chelsea and Amy, who you’ve already met,” said Aster, strutting along without looking at Lycia. “And if any boys approach you, it will probably be Matt and Ben.”
“Why only those four?” she asked.
“It’s their role,” said Aster. “The girls are spies. The boys like to play henchmen.”
“Watch out for the boys,” Meg added.
“How come?” Lycia asked, but Meg didn’t seem to want to elaborate.
“What Meg is trying to say,” Aster offered, “is that compared to my gentlemanly ways, the boys at this school are no more than feral dogs.”
“How is it that you two aren’t the same as the rest of them?”
“Because we still think for ourselves,” he said, before changing the subject. “Are you still hungry?”
Lycia nodded. “I was going to stop by the canteen.”
“I’m afraid the canteen isn’t really the sort of place that you can just stop by. It’s the only place where there’s food in Greenwood, but it’s run by the students, which means they aren’t too willing to hand food out to… well, us.” He reached into his bag again and produced a stash of chip packets and a dark red apple, pushing them into Lycia’s hands. “We steal as much as we can when we get the chance and store it at my house. You should come over after school.”
Lycia hesitated. Going to a person’s house meant that they had become your friend, and she didn’t want to make friends. She just wanted to know why she was surrounded by identical students who spent the day silently drawing spirals and stars. She dropped the food into her bag and fell behind as the other two kept walking.
“Listen, thanks for showing me around, but I should probably go find out… uh, if I should be in the star or the spiral class, so I’ll see you around, maybe.”
“Whoa, hang on!” Aster cried, grabbing Lycia by the shoulders. “You can’t go off on your own like that.”
“I think I can manage on my own,” Lycia said, pulling away from Aster.
“No, you can’t,” he said. “Not in Greenwood. You need to stay with us.”
Lycia narrowed her eyes. She didn’t like being told what she could and could not do. She especially didn’t like the way this boy seemed to think that she should be dependent on him. She didn’t want to be at this school, and she didn’t want to become involved with any of its students. If they couldn’t tell her what was going on, then she just wanted to go home, stay in bed, and avoid reality altogether. She was about to tell Aster she would be fine, when she felt a sharp tug on her hair.
“Aster has a new dolly to play with, hmm?” a husky female voice crooned behind her.
Lycia turned around and was confronted by another girl who did not look like the others. The girl was nearly as tall as Aster, which made her look intimidating despite her delicate frame. She wore the same sort of clothes as all the other girls, yet on her they looked more suitable. Her skirt didn’t ride up as high, nor was her cleavage as exposed. Her hair was dark brown instead of blond, tied up with a red ribbon in a low ponytail.
The brunette walked toward Aster, who backed away from her until he was pressed against the wall of lockers. Meg moved out of the way, fists clenched and eyes glued to the other girl.
“Hello Morgan,” Aster said in a cold voice.
“It looks like you’ve made a new friend, Aster,” Morgan replied. “Are you going to be polite and introduce me?”
“Morgan, this is Lycia. Lycia, this is Morgan,” Aster said, trying to avoid eye contact with Morgan.
“Lovely to meet you,” said Morgan. She didn’t take her eyes off Aster.
“Where’s your boyfriend?” he asked.
Morgan smiled. “What’s the matter? Are you scared?”
“Oh no, not at all,” he replied. “I love it when Simon’s around. I always have far too much blood in my veins and it’s so thoughtful of him to beat the excess out of me.”
Morgan laughed softly. “You have no courage whatsoever, do you?” she muttered, and walked away.
Lycia rubbed her sore scalp and watched Morgan vanish around the corner. “Who the hell was that?”
“That was Morgan.” Aster said.
“Alpha female, queen bee… psycho bitch,” Meg whispered, her sweet demeanor fracturing for a second.
“So I guess she still thinks for herself, too, huh?” Lycia muttered.
Aster stared down the empty corridor after Morgan. “She thinks for all of them.”
Suddenly Meg stiffened. She grabbed Aster by the hand. “Simon’s here!”
At the other end of the corridor, a hulking figure appeared. If Morgan was a more magnificent version of the other girls, Simon was a more dreadful version of the other boys. His hair was dirtier, his face spottier, his disproportionate torso more stooped and muscular.
When Lycia turned back to Aster and Meg, the two of them were already sprinting away in the opposite direction. “Hey!” she yelled, running after them.
They ran through the school. When Lycia looked behind her and saw no pursuer, she slowed to a jog and called out, “He’s not chasing you!”
Aster kept running without looking back, and Meg slowed only to grab Lycia’s hand and drag her along with them. They kept running until they reached the swinging doors that led to the bathrooms.
“See you on the other side,” said Aster as he disappeared through one door and Meg pushed through the other, dragging Lycia behind her.
Before Lycia had a chance to grasp what was happening, Meg had pushed through another door. They now stood on the footpath behind the school. Aster burst through another door and almost collided with the two girls. Lycia stared back at the hideous school building and at the doors they had just escaped through.
“Why are there doors out onto the road through the bathroom?” she asked in bewilderment.
“A design flaw,” Aster said, panting from the run. “But a damn good one in my opinion. Let’s go.”