The bus’s doors opened with a tired wheeze, letting in a blast of icy wind that startled the students at the front. They grabbed their jackets, pulled them on, and darted out before the driver could lean over the partition, their actions causing a Mexican wave of activity.
Headphones were pulled out of ears or hung around necks, those who’d taken them off pulled their jackets, jumpers and coats back on. Books were closed, hand held game consoles and mobiles were tucked away, and conversations changed in pitch, turning from bored comments and idle wonderings to excited murmurings that spread quickly and grew louder.
Sat at the back of the bus with her legs curled up beneath her, her iPod on full blast, and a good book, Pearl Colton didn’t notice the commotion until someone flicked the book so hard that it struck her nose. Blinking, she looked up at a guy a little 0lder than her. Emphasis on the looking up – he was tall, and rather broad. Definitely a rugby-type kind of guy.
“C’mon, bookie, it’s time to get off. Unless you want to go all the way back to London?”
Pearl jolted upright, swung her legs down onto the floor, and peered around the rugby-type. People were queuing up to get off the bus, shaking their legs and complaining about their sore butts. Sticking her bookmark in place, she slammed the book shut, jammed it into her backpack, and stood, all a little too quickly. Her deadened legs buckled and the blood rush went right to her head. Rugby-type put a large hand on her shoulder to steady her and grinned.
“You been drinking back here, bookie?”
Pearl rolled her eyes. “Oh yeah, totally. I smuggled a whole pint past the bag checkers and drank the lot.”
Rugby-type’s grin grew wider, and he gestured for her to go ahead of him as they followed the other back-benchers down the aisle. “Neat,” he nodded slowly. “A bookie with sarcasm.”
Swinging her backpack over one shoulder, she glanced back at rugby-type and flashed him a smile. “Hey, lots of bookish people are sarcastic; it’s just that most of them are afraid of being smushed by guys like you, or are smart enough to keep their witticisms to themselves.”
A gush of warm air from the heater passed over Pearl as she stepped out of the bus and blew her long blonde hair about her head, and she shook it to get the hair out of her face. Turning on the balls of her feet, she watched her fellow students swarm around the driver as he unlocked the storage hold at the back and began calling out the names written on the luggage as he plucked bags at random and held them out to the waiting horde. It was colder out here, even with her thick woolly jumper, so she crossed her arms over her chest, jammed her hands into her armpits, and stomped her feet to get warm.
“Damn,” rugby-type muttered, hopping down beside her, “it’s cold.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious. Go collect your Nobel Prize.”
Rubbing his hands together, he gave her a sideways look, then reached up and yanked his beanie off, letting loose a springy mass of dark brown hair that stood out in all directions. Pearl had to swallow the urge to giggle. Rugby-type rolled his eyes and held the beanie out to her. “You want this?”
Eyebrow cocked, Pearl looked up at him. “Is this one of those ‘want it? Can’t have it’ jokes where you hold it up just to watch me hop after it?”
“Youch, you’re kinda cold.” Going down onto both knees, he grabbed her by her elbows and bowed his head and whispered, “Who hurt you? Who hurt you so badly that you cannot find it in you to trust?”
“Doofuses like you,” she replied, attempting to shake his hands off. Rugby-type threw his arms about her waist and clung on, and she laughed. “Anyway, I thought you were cold?”
Leaping to his feet, rugby-type shrugged and wadded the beanie into a ball. “I am, but you look colder.” He passed it back and forth between his hands for a moment, then, gripping it by the top with his thumb and forefinger, offered it to her.
Pearl sighed, took the hat, and pulled it on. She brushed her hair back off her shoulders and faced rugby-type. “Pearl Colton, by the way. Hi.” She held out her hand.
“Benny Cascella.” He took her hand and shook it.
“Your name’s Benny?” She laughed, then clapped a hand over her mouth and cleared her throat. “Sorry.”
Benny slid his hands into the pockets of his jeans and gave a lazy one-shouldered shrug. “Naw, my name’s Benjamin. My gran had a white Terrier called Benjie, though, and my family used to call me that. Didn’t like it, and didn’t like being called Ben – it’s too short – so I got people to call me Benny instead.”
Pearl nodded in understanding, glanced off to the side, and noticed that the crowd around the bus driver and the luggage hull had thinned enough for two more people. “We could make a club, me and you, of people with old-people sounding names,” she called out, turning to look back at him as she made her way over to the crowd.
Several students later, Pearl finally got her suitcase from the driver and took it with a polite ‘thank you’. The driver grunted and passed Benny his suitcase without even looking at her. Eyebrows raised, she turned and followed the stream of students along the cracked pavement and up the college’s wide driveway.
Clearveil College was wide and squat, with three main buildings connected by sheltered walkways branching off from the reception and administration area, forming a loose triangle around the courtyard. Stood on the long concrete steps leading up to the reception’s glass doors were two students in bright yellow shirts that read ‘STUDENT UNION; WE’RE HERE TO HELP!’ In comic sans. One of them held a banner in her hands, the same mustard yellow as the shirts, though this had the college’s name and slogan stitched onto it. Her friend, meanwhile, held a stack of flyers and started to hand them out to the horde of newcomers.
Smiling prettily, the girl with the banner spoke out once everyone, Pearl and Benny included, had taken a leaflet. “Welcome to Clearveil College, a hive of technology that will ensure you receive the necessary tools to grow and learn as part of a mature community.” She glanced over at her friend who folded the remaining flyers and plastered on her own smile.
“Here, we’re sure you’ll make friends who’ll stay with you for your entire life, and gain experience through various activities and trips.” Pausing, the second girl pursed her lips and gestured to the doors behind her. “If you would now go on through to the amphitheatre, you’ll be separated into your dormitory groups. Once you’ve been settled in, your dorm reps will welcome you and give you a briefing of the dorm rules.”
The two girls got a brief half-hearted round of applause, and then the group was moving past them and into the warmth of the administration building.
“Wow, that was a rousing first-day speech. I’m totally inspired.” Pearl muttered as she passed through a secondary set of wood panelled doors. Glancing back, she nudged Benny. “Five quid says they were offered extra credit to stand there and do that.”
Benny’s face split into a wide grin, his tongue caught between his teeth, and he held out his hand. “Done.”
She slapped it. “Awesome, you better not dodge out on giving me that fiver, then.”
“You’d better not skip on giving me that fiver,” he shot back.
The amphitheatre was a great big round room, like a bowl, with cinema chairs marching back in long rows, and set in the middle of it were two desks. A sign above one read ‘girls’ and the sign above the other read ‘boys’.
Looks like there’s no such thing as mixed dwellings here, she thought, and turned to flash Benny a smile. “I guess I’ll see you another time,” she said, adjusting the strap of her backpack. Benny ran a hand through his messy hair then stuck it up in the air and waved dramatically until he was out of sight, lost amongst the college guys crowding the boys table.
The dormitories at Clearveil were set apart from the rough triangle that formed the main block of buildings. In fact, they were so far back that the back door of the girls’ dormitory was built into the wall that surrounded the campus. When the dorm leader showed them this, the door almost whacked some passer-by in the face. Because of this, the door was supposed to only be used as a fire escape route – Pearl figured that the party-goers probably used it as a way to sneak in and out. Aside from that particular door, there was a kitchen, a large common room, and then the rooms themselves.
Pearl’s room was on the third floor, more an overlarge cupboard than an actual bedroom, but was quite nice nonetheless. The three cardboard boxes she’d packed were stacked by the wardrobe when she arrived, and she dumped her suitcase and backpack on the bed, which, to her surprise, had already been decked out with bedding.
Pearl opened the wardrobe and frowned. There were still clothes hanging in there, a whole literal wardrobe of them. Hesitant, she chewed her bottom lip and brushed the back of her hand against some of the shirts. Something wet pattered against her skin, and she looked up. Wedged through the gaps of the hangers, the decapitated head stared down at her with hollow black eyes, its mouth frozen in a bestial snarl. Blood trickled over the swollen tongue and splattered the back of her hand. Pearl screamed.
© Copyright 2017 Charleen Langley (ClaireBearandMyrnin). All rights reserved.