Isle of Night
September 6, 2011
“Outside?” I asked, suppressing a shiver. The Initiates had led me to the ground-floor foyer, where I stood, stripped to my underwear. I’d hurt my ribs in the fall, and my trembling intensified the pain.
Along the hallway, a few doors were cracked open, and I spied wary eyes witnessing my torture from the safety of the dorm rooms. Even though we’d all been issued the same ugly, regulation beige bra and granny panties, the shame of it burned my cheeks.
It was the only thing that burned, though. My teeth had begun to chatter and I was already nostalgic for all that heat. The front door was open, and I contemplated the black and gray swirl of starlit snow outside. Why had I found the Hot Party uncomfortable? The concept was unthinkable now.
“What’s the punishment?” I huddled into myself, chafing my arms in vain. “Parading around half-naked, or is it the pneumonia I’m contracting?”
“Neither.” Someone shoved me, and I lurched forward, catching myself before I fell. “It’s the running.”
“And you just earned yourself an extra lap, smart-ass.” I thought I recognized the redhead’s voice.
The ache in my ribs turned to nausea. Running. That explained the white Nikes they’d let me put on, dug out from the bottom of my pack.
“Four laps around the quad,” Masha said. “Take every corner.”
I nodded, wriggling my toes in the running shoes. The soles were soaked and squeaky from the showers, but despite it, I was pathetically grateful. I wouldn’t put it past these girls to make me run barefoot in the snow.
“Every corner – no matter how dark,” another Initiate ordered. I felt another push.
Masha leaned close, purring in my ear. “We’re watching.”
A survival instinct clicked to life in the recesses of my brain. I bounded forward, springing out the door, determined not to feel the final shove I knew would come.
The night air seared my lungs. I told myself it couldn’t be that cold – the snowfall had actually brought the temperature up to what I estimated was mid-forties. If I just kept moving and got this over with, the weather wouldn’t kill me.
Those girls, they could kill me. This wouldn’t.
But I wasn’t athletic. I’d never run a mile in my life, and I raced too quickly down the path. I wasn’t even halfway to my first corner and already my throat ached with each breath. A cramp seized the side of my belly, a claw with icy talons.
I forced myself to slow my pace, but the cold made my gait awkward, and my legs thudded along like frozen stumps. I was chilled to the core, my flesh puckered into tight goose bumps. As I pumped my legs, my arms, I became aware of strange things – the cold slab of flesh that was my butt, the way the skin of my legs felt so cold, it burned.
I approached the first curve and made sure to stick to the far outer edge, even though a giant, gnarled hedge reached over the path like it might curl down and swallow me. The Initiates had scared me with the thoughts of bogeymen hiding in the dark.
Not bogeymen. Vampires, I corrected myself. It was vampires who hid in the night, waiting to grab me. I was still getting used to the thought.
But the Initiates had made a mistake by inadvertently warning me. I’d been straining to see amid the eerie silhouettes of branches, expecting a monster, and so wasn’t surprised when I saw him.
At first I thought it was a statue. Standing still as death, with a lifeless gray complexion to match. Ambient moonlight shimmered on his face, making it gleam.
He might have been carved from stone but for the glow of his eyes. They weren’t red, like in the movies. Just a shimmering, steely glint. A predator waiting, watching in the night.
It wasn’t the headmaster, either. This one had black hair and black clothing that merged with the shadows. In his pallid skin, I saw that he wasn’t truly alive. But his eyes told me neither was he truly dead.
Those undead eyes tracked me. They seemed to glimmer into a grin as I neared. I told myself it was my imagination.
My heart exploded into high gear, but I forced myself to keep my pace. Forced my arms and legs to pump neither faster nor slower.
He hid in the shadows, but something told me he wouldn’t do anything. Something told me these vampires craved an audience. I assured myself of this I ran toward him, into the blackness of the hedgerow.
A whisper echoed in the leaves. The sound didn’t originate in a single spot; rather, it cloaked me from all around, a hiss that felt as ancient as the land. “Run.”
Adrenaline dumped into my veins. I tasted it, sour on my tongue. But with it came fury. Torture and hazing and monsters lurking in the dark. I’d hoped for some sort of special college for geniuses, but this macabre mockery of a school? This was definitely not what I’d signed up for.
I relished my anger. Let it bloom into determination.
I didn’t see or hear the vampire again. My thoughts distilled to two single, bright lights. Vengeance. Freedom. I’d make Lilac suffer, and then I’d get out.
Ronan had said the only way to get off the island was to succeed. I’d wanted to stay under the radar. I’d thought I could quietly do well and then find a way to escape. But Lilac had screwed that up for me. Now all the catsuits knew who I was. I was no longer anonymous – I was the girl who’d fallen in the shower.
By my third lap, my feet had cut an irregular band of black footprints through the melting snow. The rhythmic thump-thump of my pace mesmerized me. The path was slushy and muddy and squished with each stride. All I knew were these sounds. All I perceived was the up-and-down pounding of my breasts. The up-and-down of my frozen cheeks as each step threatened to jostle the flesh free from my skull. The air still stung my lungs, but I forced my focus instead on the white cloud of each exhale.
Thump-thump. Vengeance. Thump-thump. Freedom.
I knew three things: I was cold. This was Lilac’s fault. Lilac would pay.
When I reached the dorm at the end of my final lap, my Proctor Amanda was standing outside, waiting. She was a vision, standing still and tall in a fitted coat. She’d donned her hood, and it haloed her face with a cloud of fur. Her dark skin was luminous in the watery moonlight.
I was watching her, not my step, and I slipped, catching myself with a hand to the ground before I toppled all the way.
“Careful.” She chuckled. “The snow’s a bit dodgy.”
“Yeah.” I stood and dusted myself off. My hands ached to the bones with cold – I felt they might shatter from it. “I got that.”
“Care for a pointer, dolly, before you head back in?”
The moment I stopped running, I’d started to tremble. My face was a frozen mask, too cold to speak, so I just nodded jerkily, my curiosity piqued.
“Them’s wolves, not girls. You let this stand, and boo, Lilac’s the boss of your little pack.”
Lilac had to pay – Amanda didn’t need to tell me twice. But how?
By now, I was shivering violently, my brain was addled, and I could only stare dumbly in reply.
“And he tells me you’re the clever one? Listen,” she said simply, as though she had to explain something to a particularly dim child. “Lilac wins this round, you’re as good as snuffed. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But our girls are wolves, and Acari who smell weak don’t last long.” She kicked at the snow, fighting a smile. “Now, then . . . Your roommate’s like a babe asleep in her bed. And have you felt how cold the snow is?”
I looked at her like she was insane. I was practically hypothermic, and she was asking me if I knew how cold the snow was. “N-no, I’m finding it quite balmy, actually.”
“Drew,” she scolded sharply.
I cursed myself. She may be my Proctor, but she was still an Initiate.
“Drew,” she said again, more kindly. “I promised Ronan I’d help you, but I can’t paint you a picture.”
She told Ronan she’d help me? Had he asked her to look out for me? If he and Amanda were that close, were they, like, that close?
I forced myself to focus on the matter at hand. “A picture,” I repeated.
“You might . . . say . . . bring our Lilac a memento.” She looked meaningfully at the snow. “Let her know you was thinking of her.” Her thinking sounded like finkin’.
Finally I got her gist.
“Whatever you do, make it fast,” she said. “You need to get inside before you catch your death.”
“B-beats evisceration,” I muttered. My cheeks were so frozen, I could barely from the words.
She swung on me. “For fook’s sake!” she whispered in an angry hiss, sweeping her eyes left and right. “Don’t you ever let anyone hear you say that, or you’ll wake belly-up under the stones.
“That’s more like it. Now, keep your trap shut and start acting clever as they say you are.” She began to walk away. “Cheers, dolly. Go get some sleep.”
But I didn’t. Not right away. Even though my body was quaking uncontrollably, even though I’d lost feeling in my fingers, I bent to gather snow. I scooped it into a huge mound, carrying it in my arms. It seized my aching joints with a burning cold. But the thought of Lilac asleep in her warm bed numbed the pain.
My legs thudding clumsily under me, I staggered back into the dorm. The blast of heat sent relieved tears streaming down my cheeks. I made it up to our room. Though soaked and shivering, I bypassed my bed. I didn’t grab my blanket, my towel, my coat.
I went straight for Lilac.
She was sleeping soundly, her lips parted, hands pressed, palms together, under her cheek as though in prayer. Her shinning hair swept behind her on the pillow, gleaming and perfect, even in sleep.
She was vulnerable, and I stood for a moment, savoring the power of it. I felt creepy, like an intruder, hovering there, staring.
But then I smiled. And I dumped the mound of snow in the crook between those peacefully bent arms and that long, pale neck.
Lilac’s shriek was piercing enough to shatter glass.
“What the –?” She sprang from her bed, hopping free from her tangle of blankets. “Fucking snow! This fucking place.” Panting and screaming, she frantically brushed snow and ice from her body. “What the fuck? Who the –?”
She spun on me. “You! I’m gonna kill you.” She jabbed her finger toward me, her eyes looking as if they might bug from her head. She was like a madwoman, the front of her hair soaked and hanging in limp strands around her face. The neck of her flannel nightgown was plastered to her. “I’ll get you for this, Charity. Oh, I will get you. It’s on.”
But I found it hard to care about her threats when I was about to freeze to death. My body was wracked with tremors now, bones locked and muscles spasming from the cold. I’d despised the showers earlier, had sworn never to stand under hot water again. Now I couldn’t get there fast enough.
I turned and stumbled to the washroom. Lilac’s shrieks followed me down the hallway.
A few girls peeked from their doors, questions in their sleepy eyes. “What happened to her?” one asked me.
I shrugged. “I must’ve tracked in some snow.”