It was the worst day of my life, and it was the best one.
I didn't expect Highbridge to be a pleasant place, so, in a way, it didn't disappoint. The drive through the forest surrounding the school was the only good thing, all the greenery flashing by the car's windows soothing me a little. Eventually, the trees ended, and we found ourselves in front of a green hill, topped by a huge colonial mansion that loomed over the tidy green lawns and the empty pathways.
As Dad's old Nissan climbed the hill, slowly passing the neatly trimmed trees and the bushes that lined the road, I couldn't quite shake off the feeling of unreality. The complete absence of people gave the place a haunting tinge. I knew everyone was in lessons but that made it feel no less surreal.
Finally, we rolled up to the main entrance and stopped. Dad turned off the engine, and, for a moment, everything was quiet. No chirping of birds, no voices, no people. Nobody came out to help us with our luggage—but, of course, this was a boarding school, not a hotel.
I helped Dad to get my suitcase out of the trunk while Mom just stood there, watching us, her hands clasped in front of her, a pitiful attempt at an encouraging smile on her lips. Dad almost closed the trunk on his finger and cursed, then quickly looked around as if expecting to be reprimanded. I wondered if they were nervous because they were about to dump their only son here at the mercy of strangers, or maybe they just felt out of place.
Our car was too shabby, our clothes too simple, our dull lineage included zero senators or judges. We didn’t belong here and, no matter how much they wanted to deny it, they felt it as much as I did.
The only difference was that they got to drive away and I was to stay and deal with it.
"It looks nice," said Dad , squeezing my shoulder. "And the forest…they say students can take walks there. You like nature, don’t you?"
I shook his hand off, grabbed my suitcase, and headed for the entrance. If they were going to betray me, I didn’t have to make them feel good about it.
"Gordon, please." I heard Mom's steps behind me on the gravel driveway. "Don’t make a scene. We've talked about it. This will open so many doors for you. Allow you to leave behind all the…troubles. Start a new page."
I kept on walking without looking back, and eventually the two of them just settled into a steady pace behind me. We reached the heavy wooden doors in silence.
Before I could touch the handle shaped like a lion’s head, the door opened, and a man in a brown tweed jacket stepped out. He was barely taller than me. My parents towering over him like giants made me feel irrationally embarrassed.
"Welcome," he said, extending a hand to Dad, then looking at me. "Gordon, is it?"
I nodded, and followed my parents in shaking his dry, bony hand.
"I'm Frank Calwin, your math and physics teacher," he said. "Don't worry, it's only been two weeks, so you're joining us early enough. There won’t be much catching up to do. Come in, I'll take you to the headmaster."
His friendliness only added to my general nervousness. As he ushered us along the spotless corridors, the feeling deepened. The marble floors, the wooden panels on the walls, the portraits of people in old fashioned clothes, a chemical smell of some detergent—everything was wrong, unfamiliar, scary. I didn't belong here. I felt cold, and sweaty, and I couldn’t bring myself to take a deep breath, as if the air itself was poisoned.
As I trudged after my parents and Mr. Calwin, the sensations grew worse. I felt sick. The shining floors and the tall windows shimmered and shifted at the edge of my vision. I shook my head, trying to calm down, to avoid the panic attack that was clearly coming, but to no avail. I couldn't stay here, I just couldn't.
I looked at the backs of my parents with hatred. They'd brought me here. They were probably sick of having to deal with my little issues. Out of sight, out of mind. They could have waited for a couple more years for me to finish high school—but no, they’d chosen to get rid of me right now.
A piercing ringing rolled around the corridors. I stopped abruptly before realizing it was a bell marking the end of the lesson.
The doors along the corridor opened and the place began filling with boys. Dressed in identical dark blue trousers and blazers they ran and walked and talked, and the corridor was suddenly so utterly filled with noise that I had to drop the handle of my suitcase and press my hands to my ears.
It was too loud and too crowded, almost like in my old school, but worse, because I wasn't prepared for this, I didn’t have a safe place to hide, and now I was surrounded by people, an ocean of them, their curious glances slashing at me like knives. I couldn’t even see my parents anymore, and when I tried to lower my hands the noise stabbed at me again, forcing me to squeeze my head even harder.
Some of the boys stopped to stare at me, and I could see their faces, turning to each other, their lips whispering, stretching into evil smiles, recognizing me for what I was.
The easy prey.
I turned around and ran.
If I could only get back to the car, there would be nothing they could do, not with me clinging to the door handle. They’d have to cut my hands off to make me stay. I wasn't going to stay here, thank you very much, it had been a mistake to ever think that I could.
So, I ran, taking turns, narrowly avoiding collisions with some of the boys, bumping into others, barely registering their angry shouts and yelps of surprise. There were faces everywhere—baffled, frowning, laughing. I could swear some of them were deliberately getting in my way, doing everything to prevent me from finding my way out. I turned into another corridor, then another, now completely lost. The main entrance continued to elude me, but at least the place was getting less and less crowded with every turn I took.
I ended up in some desolate corridor with stairs leading up to the second floor at the end of it. Underneath them, there was a door. Guided by the mindless need to hide, I grabbed the handle and pulled, and, to my surprise and relief, it opened.
I stepped inside to discover that it was some kind of a utility room, with mops and shelves with bottles of detergent and other stuff I couldn't make out. The chemical smell was stronger here, but I didn't care, because it was dark and quiet here. I stumbled over to the far corner and slid down the wall, hiding behind the metallic stacks, and there I sat, hugging my knees, breathing hard like a survivor of some terrible accident.
I don't know how long I was there. The bell didn’t ring again so I guess the lessons were over for the day, the students probably doing their homework in the dorm or attending some extracurricular activities Dad had been so excited about. I didn’t care.
My breathing had long since calmed down, and the panic had subsided, but I was still reluctant to leave. Facing my parents and Mr. Calwin wasn't something I looked forward to. At least it was clear that I couldn’t stay here. They couldn't take crazy kids in, right?
There was some noise at the door, and I tensed, listening. It opened slightly and then the light was momentarily concealed by the silhouette of someone stepping into the room. Then, someone else entered, pausing briefly in the doorway before slipping inside and closing the door behind him.
That was the moment when the worst day of my life has turned into the best one, because that's when I first saw the most beautiful person in the world.