My room felt like a prison cell.
Truth be told, it didn’t look like a prison cell—the walls were a pleasant cream color, decorated with a few football posters, and there were no bars on the window or anything. Still, the feeling remained.
Two desks stood on each side of the window, one of them clean and empty, the other bearing piles of books and notepads. A dark haired, square-jawed, broad shouldered boy sat on the lower level of the neatly made bunk bed, watching us.
"Hello, Mathew," said Mr. Calwin, stopping in the middle of the room. "Please meet your new roommate, Gordon. Gordon, this is Mathew."
"Hi." The boy gave me an evaluating stare the conveyed neither friendliness nor animosity.
"Hi." I nodded, wondering if he had been among the students who had witnessed my recent dash through the school corridors.
"Please, come in," said Mr. Calwin, gesturing at my parents who remained by the entrance. "I'm sure you'd like to see where your son will be living."
Mom stepped in first, her eyes still puffy from the tears. Dad followed her, his lips a thin line, his face still bearing that defensive expression he sported throughout the recent argument in the headmaster's office. It hadn’t been easy, convincing the man that a new student's freaking out and hiding somewhere for two hours wasn't a good enough reason to cancel his acceptance. It wasn't helping that my parents had begun to have second thoughts, too. By the time I had wandered into the headmaster office, my mother had only wanted for me to be found and taken safely back home. The headmaster had shared her opinion, and my father had been giving in when I had showed up and announced that I wanted to stay, after all.
I guess it the end what had convinced then to give me another chance was the fact that it would be hard to find another student to take my place, now that the school year had already started. The only reason I had even been accepted in the first place was because my predecessor had left for some reason, and there weren't many students ready to drop everything and move to Highbridge at this stage; everyone who had wanted to be in a posh boarding school was already studying in one.
I walked over to the bed as Mr. Calwin continued to elaborate to my parents on the quality of the mattresses and the attention to detail the school management was giving to the surroundings of the students in order to improve their learning experience. Mathew calmly watched my approach; once I stopped by the bed, clutching my suitcase handle and not knowing what to do with myself, he sighed and got up.
"I sleep on the top one," he said, jerking his chin in the direction of the top bed. "This one is yours."
"Okay," I said, a little too quickly, and added, "it's fine with me, I don’t mind sleeping on the lower one." Now I was clearly talking too much. The right amount of words to use in any given situation had always been a puzzle to me, and the safest path was usually to just shut up, which I did.
Mathew looked me up and down; then a corner of his mouth curved into a smirk, and he stepped closer.
"So you didn't find the exit, after all?" he said quietly, so that the adults wouldn’t hear.
I swallowed hard. So he had seen my failed escape attempt—and even if not, it was probably a story that was already circulating around the campus.
"No," I said.
"Welcome to Highbridge, then." He moved to the empty desk. "This one is yours." He pointed at the other one. "That one is mine."
I came closer, encouraged by the fact that he was still talking to me instead of throwing a tantrum over having to live with the crazy kid. Among the books and the papers on his desk, I glimpsed a couple of family photographs. On one of them, three teenage boys stood, hugging and grinning into the camera; one of them was clearly Mathew, but the larger boy in the middle looked familiar, too.
"Is this…your brother?"
"Both of them, yeah." He nodded. "That's baby Mike, and that's Owen. He's also studying here. A senior. Turning seventeen next week. "
The name brought to mind the shadowy utility room, the large silhouette in the dark, the 'Easy, Owen' coming out in a breathless whisper.
"I think I saw him today," I blurted. "He's…he shares a room with some blond boy, doesn’t he?"
"Huh?" Mathew's eyebrows went up. "What blond boy? He lives with Sai, the least blond guy you could find around here."
"Okay, I must have gotten it wrong," I said, sweating. "Just saw him with someone…just walking outside…maybe it wasn't him. Never mind," I finished awkwardly, my ears burning. What a stupid question to have asked. If the two boys I'd seen today lived together, they wouldn’t need to meet in utility rooms.
In an attempt to conceal my blush, I turned away and moved to Mr.Calwin and my parents who were still talking.
"So, you have about two hours until the lights-out," said Mr. Calwin, turning to me, "Perhaps we should let your parents go, so that you could settle down a little? Mathew will show you the showers and the common room."
"Maybe I should help you with the --" Mom began, pointing at my suitcase, but lowered her hand under my father's gaze. "Or maybe not. You probably prefer to unpack by yourself."
"He can take care of himself—right, Gordon?" Dad stepped over and put his hand on my shoulder. I breathed in the smell of his cologne and it suddenly stabbed me in the heart, the thought that I wouldn't smell it for a while, and wouldn't eat Mom's pancakes in the mornings, or argue with her about my reading habits hurting my eyes, or deal with any others of their quirks and habits that had annoyed me but had also constituted a large part of my life for more than fifteen years. I didn't feel angry with them anymore, just sad and lost.
"Yeah," I said, trying to fight the stinging in my eyes. "I'll manage."
I saw his Adam's apple go up and down as he swallowed hard, and then he reached out and drew me into a hug.
"Sure you can handle it?" he whispered in my ear, clearly meaning more than just the unpacking of the suitcase.
I wasn't sure about anything but the fact that there was a face somewhere in this building that I absolutely had to see again. I couldn’t tell him that, though, and I didn’t want to lie. So, I just nodded and squeezed him back.