Exclusive Preview: Prologue and Chapter One

Hello, lovelies!  For those who are FB savvy, the Prologue has already been sampled, but for simplicity’s sake, I’m releasing both the Prologue and Chapter One together.

Enjoy the taste of what’s to come, and please, comment here, wander over to Facebook or tweet me!

PROLOGUE

February 15th, 2009

Worn high top Chucks slapped and skidded along the mildewed concrete as she ran through the pitch-black tunnel, chest heaving as she gasped for air.  Small puddles of condensation from machinery and leaking pipes splashed against her bare ankles, trickling into her socks, warm and runny.  Blood, too, ran down into her shoes, sticky and thick, the wounds on her knees opening wider with each furious planting of foot.  Behind her, another chest strained for air as fists pumped at his sides, propelling him forward, unrelenting.

He was catching up.  She was going to die.

A solitary neon bulb flickered violently overhead, casting strobe-like beams of jaundiced light towards a side tunnel.  It was her destination, her one chance at survival.  Turning sharply, she dodged a chunk of red brick, nearly twisting her ankle in the process.  She could hear him curse under his breath, and a small part of her crowed victoriously at this minute achievement.  Keep running, keep running, keep fucking running.  Her scraped palms seized the handle at the end of the corridor roughly, yanking it open and thrusting herself into the labyrinthine tunnels beyond.  If she survived this, she vowed, she would resume her abandoned jogging regimen–hell, she’d run a goddamn marathon every month, if only she could live.

She dared not look over her shoulder at her mystery assailant; it was the sort of move in horror movies that sent girls tripping over their own two feet and she couldn’t afford such dire miscalculations.  The sound of his feet stomping behind her and the shadows were plenty.  She was pretty sure, from the eerie images cast sporadically along the walls, that he held a knife.  That was all she needed to know.

The building above was silent, deserted.  She had to get outside, had to start screaming up at the residences.  Someone had to hear her.  Someone had to save her.  The cacophony of his pursuit grew louder, and she began to panic, her pounding heart lodged in her throat.  Get out!  Get out of here!  With a frustrated grunt, she pushed harder, rounding the corner and taking the last six steps to freedom in twos.

A mistake.

Her right foot caught on the edge of the final step, sending her sprawling forward.  She caught herself on her left wrist and yowled in pain as something cracked in her hand.  She’d scrambled quickly to her feet, had dove at the crash bar leading to the school grounds, but it wasn’t enough.

With a swift motion, he seized her by the throat, yanking her back into the dim lighting of the stairwell.

She kicked and flailed, but it was useless; his hold tightened and her vision spun, spent lungs depleted immediately of air.  Her fingers pawed against his leather jacket, useless gestures as she fought against the looming darkness.  Instinct engaged: her knee swiftly met his groin, sending him stumbling backward in a flurry of obscenities.  She fell out onto the frigid earth, half-crawling in the snow as the crisp air made her breathing seize up.  She opened her mouth to scream, but only a hoarse hissing escaped her parched lips.

He’d choked the voice out of her.

She didn’t make it far on her wobbling legs and the tiny bursts of oxygen she managed to force down her trachea.  He fell upon her viciously just beyond the rear entrance to Ashbury House, striking her in the left temple with something cold and hard.  Streaks of colour shot across her vision as he rolled her over, marring his features.  Even still, in the light of the full moon, she knew her attacker’s face.  Bile rose within her as he caressed her cheek softly, shaking his head slowly.

“Why do you always run from me?  We could be so happy, Mary…”

Her lips silently formed her answer:  Fuck you!

As his hands seized her by the throat anew, her ears exploded in angry noises, sirens and bells whistling.  He startled, for a moment stepping into the role of prey.  Curses flew from his mouth, his words foreign to her as he dragged her quickly to the propped door she often used to return to her room undetected after hours.

“No time,” he murmured through the sirens.  His breath was sickly sweet, dead flowers and damp wood chips.

She blacked out at some point, coming to in her room–no longer her sanctuary.  The wailing sirens grew louder, albeit muffled in watery white noise in her head.  Her eyes stung as tears streamed down her cheeks.  In her head, she demanded answers from him, begged for mercy, but he remained oblivious to her.  Until suddenly, his hand was yanking her by her hair, heels thumping softly along the wood floors as they approached the center of the room.  A gurgle was her only means of resistance as softness enveloped her clavicle, then drew taut around her pale neck.  She understood him when her feet met the seat of the desk chair, and her eyes narrowed, fury rising within her.  They’ll believe I did it, and he knows it!

“Sorry, Mary,” he apologized in monotone.

Fuck you!  I’m not Mary!  she screamed inwardly as the undertow snared her ankle, dragging her deeper into the murky waves sloshing in her skull.

As he kicked the chair from beneath her sneakered feet and snapped her neck, she vowed vengeance.

ONE

Toronto;  September 5th, 2011

The house hummed with activity, a flurry of feet up and down the winding cherry wood stairs as the anxious woman gathered soothing and familiar trinkets, tossing them into an open backpack.  The man smiled reassuringly as he passed her, his own fears swallowed down as he reviewed the orientation package and student guide.  His wife had second-guessed this decision frequently over recent weeks, hushed whispers in bed, so as not to disrupt the tenuous hold sleep held over their progeny.

“I don’t like this.  How is she going to heal there?” she would often protest.

He’d shrugged each time, offering reassurance, “Nothing else has worked, and her doctor thinks a change in scenery will do her good.  If she’s on board, and this is what Autumn wants, I’m not going to discount it just yet.”

“But Neil–“

“Sarah, if she shows any sign of deterioration, we’ll pull her immediately.  She’s almost an adult now, legally; we have to give her some control and say.”

Neil stepped out onto the porch, eyeing the ash-coloured sky.  Not exactly the auspicious start he’d hoped for, but absolutely typical for Labour Day weekend in Toronto.  Perhaps normalcy boded well in its own way?  With a shrug, he jogged out to the crimson Ford Windstar in the driveway and threw open the door.  He paused before turning over the engine, noticing a bedraggled sheepdog on the sidewalk nearby.  Its white paws were toying absently with the carcass of a dead bird.  Somehow sensing an audience, the dog’s eyes wandered from its macabre new toy to gaze back at him.  No, not an auspicious start at all.

Neil suddenly needed a drink.

***

Three storeys above, the slender woman stared at the dampened fur of the dog.  Her fingers hovered over the keys of her laptop, awaiting her meandering mind’s attention as she sighed in frustration.  Rain.  Of course it’s raining.  The stray dog glanced up at her window, its own expression seemingly exasperated with the dreary weather, and Autumn snorted.  Don’t look at me, buddy.  Emerald irises returned to the open Word file on screen, digits dashing along the keys as she found new inspiration for her “assignment“:

Pathetic fallacy…  Defined as the echoing of events transpiring through setting and weather in a play.  Shakespeare was famous for this shit.  But to me, it’s just pathetic. 

Now music?  Music is the soundtrack of our lives, of our misery.  Ever notice how many of us turn to music in our times of despair?  Could anyone blame us, really, for finding the poetic words and soulful strains of a sad song more palatable than weeping and screaming?  Think about it. Watch a movie. Watch reality unfold around you. When people are utterly in despair, they tend to run off alone. We all have our safe place to cry and rage. We don’t really want company; we want understanding. We want someone to articulate what we cannot even begin to say, as our hearts bleed black and blue within our heaving chests. We lose language in our purest personal hells; music gives us our language back, in an eloquent and succinct package.  Johnny Cash knew exactly what he was doing when he covered Hurt by Nine Inch Nails:  he was singing his last words, anticipating what was soon to come. 

 But rain?  Thunder?  This is so cliché.  Poor little messed up girl goes to expensive boarding school for special help… isn’t that enough of a cliché in and of itself?

Autumn frowned, her right hand drifting up to tug at the sleek layered red locks tied at the nape of her neck.  This was ridiculous.  What the hell did this therapist bitch expect her to write?  He was off the table for discussion, as far as she was concerned.  Was she supposed to make up childhood traumas to scrutinize?

A pair of children skipped along the sidewalk in matching PVC raincoats–hers in Barbie pink, his an Army sort of green–and Autumn hit save on her document.  Perhaps the campus would inspire further introspection worthy of this stranger’s time.  Perhaps she’d just bullshit a few lines from Susanna Kaysen’s memoir and see if anyone noticed.  A plaintive mewing shattered her rage-laced reverie and Autumn’s eyes skirted the beige carpet, softening as she found the source.

“Pandora,” she cooed, swiveling in her chair and patting her lap. “My favourite familiar.”

The petite black cat leaped gracefully, landing on her legs with a purr.  Her front paws kneaded the denim-clad thighs gently before she settled onto her master’s lap with a satisfied chirp.  Autumn’s hand stroked her head lovingly, a small smile crossing her lips.

“You’re too cute, Pandora.  I wish they’d let me bring you to this place.  It would be a lot less lonely.”  Pandora squeaked in reply, rolling her head to the side and exposing her chin for scratching, “It’s bad enough I won’t have Miraj, or even Heather…”

As daunting as it seemed now, Autumn knew that enrolling in Casteel Preparatory Academy was the best decision.  The headmaster had made it clear to her frantic mother that the campus was very secure; surely, there was no way that he

No.  Not going there.

Footfalls on the stairs alerted her to impending intrusion.  Shutting the laptop roughly, Autumn lifted Pandora into her arms, cradling her as if she were an infant.  It’s time.  Her lips pressed gently to the back of the feline’s tiny head, eliciting a mew of contentment.  Pandora was her rescue from the Humane Society and they had always been bonded; how the animal would take her departure was one of her few genuine concerns about moving away.

A gentle rapping upon her door signaled her mother slipping into the dimly-lit room.  Her hands twisted together, the sleeves of her cashmere sweater oversized, the blue material clinging to her palms.

“All set?”

“Yeah, I just have to toss the laptop into the suitcase,” Autumn mumbled.  “Are you sure that I can’t take Pandora?  I could smuggle her in my backpack.”

“I checked sweetheart, and they’re strict on the no pets deal.  Allergies and all that.”  Her mother leaned against the doorframe, surveying the barren dresser and nightstand wistfully. “This place is a ghost town.”

Autumn ignored her mother’s remarks, rising to her feet slowly so as not to disrupt Pandora’s impromptu nap. “Hermione got to take a cat to Hogwarts.  Casteel may be expensive, but it’s not going to teach me magic.  The least they could do is let me bring my cat.”

“You could still change your mind,” her mother offered hopefully.

No, I can’t change it, Autumn thought, her heart pounding.  It’s for the best.  Not like anyone at Jarvis gives a shit about me anymore.  Heather hadn’t even called to say goodbye, but Autumn truly could not blame her.  She had perfected isolation in the last year, nestled safely behind the walls of her heart.  No one could be trusted.  No one who knew the truth could be safe.

“I’m going, Mom.”  Plunking the laptop into her suitcase, Autumn zipped it haphazardly while Pandora protesting at the jostling. “Can you bring that down?  Pandora’s not going to be very happy.”

“I got it,” her mother acquiesced.

“Thanks.”

It was scarcely a whisper, her reply, the sickening reality crystalline as her mother carried her most beloved worldly possessions down the stairs to be loaded into the van.  This cradling of her cat was a farewell gesture of comfort for both of them.  Cotton-mouthed anxiety rolled over her in a tidal wave, and Autumn bit her lip to hold the tears at bay.  It was for the best of all of them that she leave.  Just one more girl interrupted, shipped off to be forgotten.

She took the steps slowly, Pandora rumbling softly as she snuggled her against her breast.  Family portraits lined the off-white walls:  school portraits and Christmas greetings with fake nature backgrounds and often forced smiles.  Near the bottom she paused, staring at grade nine’s annual mugshot.  Her fingertips traced the shy smile, framed by shining rust-coloured locks dusting the black blouse she wore, but it was the eyes that kept her rapt.  Innocence lay within them.

Autumn missed it dearly.

“Sweetheart?” Her father stepped into the foyer, startling her slightly.  “We need to get on the road now.”

“Yeah, one sec.”  Autumn’s lips pressed to Pandora’s head, her arms squeezing her tight against her pounding heart.  “You be good, my little boo.  Don’t be too naughty, and don’t let them tell you that my bed isn’t yours now.”  Tiny eyes stared in panic as she placed her pet upon the stairs, scratching behind her ears.  “Love you, Pandora.”

“She’s going to be a mess without you.  Remember that week you spent with Heather’s family in Montreal?”

Autumn nodded, her chest aching as the cat meowed forlornly, circling her ankles.  “Give her extra treats.  The salmon ones she likes.  Oh, Pan…”  Bending forward, she kissed the feline’s forehead one last time then reached for her purse, dangling from the banister.  I have to do this, Pan, she thought.  I’m keeping you safe, too.

“C’mon, Autumn,” her father urged quietly, his arm wrapping around her shoulder.

Eyes directed forward, Autumn allowed herself to be steered out onto the porch, the thud of the door behind her erecting a wall around her battered heart.  No turning back now.  With a huff, she slid into the backseat, buckled herself in and glanced back towards her home.

A slender black cat reared up against the living room window, front paws pressed to the pane.

***

The thumping of rain against the windows of the van seriously hampered her enjoyment of her music, the jealous droplets competing with the drum lines from the Apple ear buds.  Growling low, Autumn edged the volume higher.  Whatever; Mother Nature is a woman, too.  Maybe she ran out of Midol.  Turning back to the small leather bound notebook on her lap, the micro-point pen flew along the pages, a mental file dump in progress.

It’s the end of Labour Day weekend in Toronto, and as usual, the weather is shit.  I seem to have this foolish wish for a different scenario year after year, but it never bears fruit.  I should know better; I’ve seen what dreams and wishes get you, and none of it involves a Prince Charming and a glass slipper custom-fitted to my dainty foot.

Florence + The Machine is just winding into one of my favourites, “Kiss With A Fist“, when my mother starts yapping at me about an hour after we’ve left Chez Brody.  I debate ignoring her, feigning innocence by virtue of the iPod in my hand, but ultimately decide hitting pause is less drama.  I love my mother very much, contrary to my behaviour; I just want to be left alone with my nausea and not-so-cheery playlist.  I’m trying to don the mental armour I will desperately need, and she is counterproductive to that.

“Hmm?”

“I asked you if you were still sure about this decision,” my mother repeats.

I shrug. “Sure, Mom.  I told you that I wanted a change of scenery, and I meant it.”

What I didn’t tell my mother two months ago, while we perused the information package from Casteel Preparatory Academy, was the impetus behind my congenial disposition, nor could I ever tell her.  The less she knew about the lingering threat to my life, the better.

“Because we could always keep you in Jarvis–“

“Mom,” I reply firmly, “No way.  Look, we just passed the sign for Erin Mills Parkway.  It’s stupid to debate this now.”

Her face falls and I immediately regret my tone.  I regret it even more when my father jumps into the middle of it, his own frazzled nerves rubbed raw.

“Autumn, she was just asking a simple question.  We’re going to miss you, believe it or not.”

I sigh, feeling contrite. “I know that, Dad.  I know you both mean well.  I’m just nervous, I guess.  I haven’t gone to school without Heather since grade three.”

This seems to satisfy them, and I am free to unpause my music.  Heather is–was?–my best friend of eight years, ever since some idiot boy tried to push her off a swing and claim it.  I threw sand in his face and earned a serious time out, along with a loyal friend.  Although, in recent months, things have been strained between us, mainly because I’ve taken to ditching classes and hiding near the beach with Miraj.  Heather tries, but she doesn’t know the whole story, so she can’t possibly fathom why I’m a miserable bitch now.

My parents are equally flustered with my “poor academic performance” and “lack of socialization“; it’s why they’re shipping me off to boarding school.  I honestly had no clue such things existed in Canada, let alone schools with programs for troubled teens.  I’m really hoping the joint is less horses and boot camp love and more like that flick Piper Perabo did way back, when Mischa Barton didn’t look like a coke whore.  I’m blanking on the name of it, but it’s Canadian and filled with lesbian affairs, confused sexuality and actual sword fights.  Oh, and a suicide.

Hmm.  Maybe not that part, then.  But the punch spiking and dancing to Violent Femmes appeals strongly.

Her father barely changed lanes in time to take the exit for the campus and Autumn’s head thumped against the glass as her body was jerked by the sharp turn.  Shifting in her seat, she continued to scribble upon the pages, the handwriting haphazard thanks to the highway traffic.  Not long now.  At least the sapphire blue and black plaid of the uniform looks good with my hair, which is more than I can say about the putrid yellow of that other school we checked into.  I wonder sometimes if my parents ever stop and marvel at the ridiculous cuteness of naming a child with bright copper locks, born in September, Autumn.  Ha ha fucking ha.  At least I wasn’t cursed with freckles like Lindsay Lohan; I’m not sure I could rock the Weasley look.

The iPod shuffled up a sombre track by Neverending White Lights as she caught sight of the first hints of campus through the trees, and Autumn hummed along as she scrawled frantically.  Oakville is a fairly developed city, but it still manages to hold an 80-acre boarding school tight within a plethora of vivid green trees.  I’m looking forward to the air quality here.  It has to be better than the endless churning of pollution in Toronto.

Hey, a girl takes a silver lining of any size when she’s crazy.

I’m not sure yet what precise brand of crazy I’m making in the neurotransmitter factory in my skull; my family doctor’s been taking bets with his associates on whether I’m bipolar or just depressed.  I love that notion, that “just” depressed.  As if depression was no big deal, some emotional hangnail.  Stay still, Ms. Brody, and we’ll have that removed in no time.  Radiohead used the word Just once; it ended in a mass of bodies lying down, waiting to die.  Fuck just.  Whatever’s wrong with me, it’s hell.  I can’t sleep, or eat much, and trying to read a textbook is a nightmare and a half.  I’m inclined to play at having ADHD and solicit Ritalin, but something tells me I’ll just end up like that old South Park episode, digging on Phil Collins’ music.

Now there’s a reason to commit suicide!  The man hasn’t done anything worth hearing since his reunion with Genesis.  He retired for the hundredth time a few months back; at least he apologized for his lesser catalogue contributions.

The Windstar turned right onto the main campus road, passing through wrought iron gates branded with the school logo.  Her heart halted suddenly, taken aback at the reality of the situation.  I keep telling myself this will make for excellent practice for university dorms, but it’s not quite the same.  Universities don’t hold you prisoner on campus all week long, nor do they force you to see a psychologist weekly.  I also wouldn’t have to wear a white blouse and pleated kilt everywhere.

“Which residence is she in?” her father asked as he reached a forked road.

“Um… Ashbury,” her mother answered after shuffling a few papers on her lap.

We veer left.  Evil goes left, so the saying goes.  It’s a video game thing, one of the useless tidbits of information I learned during my time as a cheerleader‘s best friend.  Try it out:  as you play any video game, keep track of how many times the Big Bad is on the left, be it through a door or after a turn in that cursed direction.  It’s crazy but it’s true.  Jocks know video games.

“Just over there,” her mother directed, gesturing towards a five-story structure, its walls covered with creeping ivy.

Autumn’s attention broke from her journaling, her inner narrator silencing itself and forcing her back to reality.  Hesitantly, she shut the journal and tucked it and her iPod back into her purse, taking in her surroundings.  Several other vehicles were parked along the roundabout before the building, denoted as Ashbury Residence by a pillar with signage in calligraphy.  Gardens framed the three steps and adjacent wheelchair access ramp spilling into the main entryway, a mix of annuals and perennials in a rainbow of colours.  Stepping out onto the driveway, Autumn noted a frazzled yet seemingly friendly woman with a clipboard, directing the other students and their parents with rambling and frantic hand gestures.  Her perfectly pressed suit defied the watery deluge, remaining as crisp as it was, Autumn assumed, off its hanger.

“Hello, there!” Frazzled Woman called out.  “Name, please?”

“Autumn Brody,” her father responded, stepping forward to greet Frazzled Woman.  “I hope we’re in the right spot.”

Autumn moved around to the hatchback, popping it open and yanking her suitcase out as she observed the quiet exchange between her father and someone she presumed would be one of her prison wardens.  Pages were flipped wildly, her father pensive until F.W. had an a-ha! moment, at which point she made a check mark on the magic clipboard.

Why yes, sir, we’ve been expecting this lunatic!  Did you bring your own restraints, or shall we supply the standard leather and buckles?

Her mother seized a duffel bag from the hatch as Autumn remained frozen, thoughts adrift.  Her elbow grazed her daughter’s arm, a gentle reminder to keep moving.  With a shake of her head, Autumn slowly approached her father and F.W., hoping she wouldn’t be expected to say much.  Her words were sacred, closely guarded against all intrusion.  Openness was what had brought her to this precipice.

“This must be Autumn!  It’s a pleasure to meet you.  I’m Carol, one of the guidance staff here at Casteel Prep.”  The clipboard juggled to the crook of her elbow as her right hand extended in greeting.

My condolences, Autumn thought.  Maybe you should just let me keep calling you F.W.  Aloud, she demurely replied, “Hi.  Where’s my room?”

Carol was briefly taken aback at the direct demand, but the smiled remained.  “You’ll be in 308, which is of course on the third floor, on the east side of the corridor.  It’s a double occupancy, as are the vast majority of our rooms, but you won’t have a roommate, so feel free to spread out a bit.”

Crazy is contagious.  Her parents had arranged this solitude – and apparently, they’d paid out the ass for it.  Not that she was supposed to be aware of that; Autumn was merely stealthy, haunting her home and hearing all she should not.  Like how her mother adamantly felt this was a bad idea.

Better boarded than dead, Autumn quipped to herself, tipping her mental hat to Ted Leo’s lyrical mastery.

“Is there an elevator of some sort?” her mother interjected, the duffel bag overwhelming her slight frame.

“Unfortunately, no; there are plans to construct one as we continue to improve accessibility,” Carol explained.  “If you require assistance, I can call for one of our senior students in the male dorm down the street—“

“Mom, it’s fine.  We can do this,” Autumn interrupted quickly.  No men.  No way.

“Sarah, give me that.  Why don’t you take that small box, the one with Autumn’s notes and photos?” Neil Brody offered, seizing the strap on her shoulder.

With a shrug, Sarah Brody relinquished the bag, walking briskly towards the van in search of the box.  Autumn signed a spot on the clipboard at Carol’s prompting – some check-in procedure of sorts, from the babbling she’d mostly ignored – and led the way up the steps into Ashbury Residence, her parents in tow.

The decor immediately summoned to mind the older corridors of the Royal Ontario Museum:  the low lighting cast faint shadows along the polished hardwood floors splitting off in a T formation, the structure itself a traditional blend of ancient trees and exposed brick.  A large bulletin board lay directly ahead, with several postings already dotting the corkboard.  It felt sturdy, strong, safe.

Autumn loved it.

The large staircase ran just to the right of the bulletin display and Autumn plodded forward, her suitcase thumping gently against her thigh as she ascended.  An elderly man passed them in the opposing direction – someone’s grandfather, Autumn presumed – but no other students were to be found.  This was pleasing to Autumn.  Her goal was anonymity here.  Wallflower status.  It had its perks, if you took Chbosky’s writing to heart.

The third floor was denoted by a bronze plaque, the number branded deep into its surface.  A temporary sign inserted in a metal stand indicated the direction of room numbers.  Unsurprisingly, 308 lay to Autumn’s left.  Perfect.  As she found her room, she couldn’t stifle a soft laugh:  it was the last room on the left, no less.  Destiny, Autumn thought wryly, pushing open the door with baited breath.

For a dorm, the room was fairly spacious, even with the duplicated beds, desks and other furnishings supplied by the academy.  A large window took up a good chunk of the wall farthest from the door, with the heads of the beds lined up either side, bookending it.  Around the corner to her right she noted what she assumed to be a small closet, given the sliding wooden door.  At the foot of each bed rested a small working desk with just enough space for a laptop, a lamp and perhaps a bottle of Diet Coke, while beneath each bed were several drawers for, Autumn assumed, clothing and assorted belongings.  The bathroom – half-bath, Autumn corrected herself; there was no shower – was around the corner to the left.

“This looks rather homey,” her mother remarked, relief in her voice.  “It would be a little crowded for two, but you’ll have plenty of space honey.”

Her father sat the duffel bed down on the right bed, moving towards the window and peering down.  “You have a great view of the quad, Autumn.  Should be rather inspirational for writing.”

Autumn smiled at her father, a rare moment of genuine happiness.  One of the many reasons Casteel Prep had won out was their specialization programs in the arts: while all students were required to take the standardized provincial curriculum, there were opportunities to study film, theatre, visual art, music and writing alongside their usual course loads.  It made for a potentially cumbersome program, but Casteel argued that the structured environment of a boarding school made for efficient time management.   Autumn had enrolled immediately in the Creative Writing course, offered as an approved substitute for her grade eleven English credit; her ultimate goal was to pursue a degree in Literature with a contemporary focus, but she also longed to write professionally as a career.  Her father had always supported her aspirations, even if the likelihood of success remained slim.  He’d merely suggested she consider teaching English as a back-up plan, to which she’d readily assented.  Her mother, although supportive, felt she was far too intelligent to waste her potential, and suggested law rather frequently as an alternative.

Autumn tossed her suitcase onto the left bed – having already decided it would be the one upon which she’d rest her head – as her room door swung open, admitting another polished suit of a woman.  This one was clearly in her late 40s, and by the way she carried herself, Autumn assumed this was a higher ranking official of some sort.  Prepare to curtsey, she quipped to herself, edging backwards.

“Is everything in order?” the woman asked her parents.

“Yes, thank you.  I’m Neil Brody, and this is my wife, Sarah,” her father said by way of introduction.  “And over there is Autumn.”

The woman smiled at Autumn, but she didn’t trust it; it didn’t reach her eyes.  It’s the Head Warden, she thought bitterly.  My very own Nurse Ratched, I presume.

“ I’m Elise Logan, the Headmistress of Casteel Preparatory Academy,” she replied firmly.  “I came to discuss the terms of Autumn’s stay as a new student and the expectations of her program.”

Yup, Nurse Ratched.  Ice pick lobotomy is on the menu for me, I’m sure.  Autumn settled defiantly onto the foot of her bed, summoning her best Jack Nicholson to mind.  Miraj would know how to handle this bitch.

The room door was shut briskly, her parents listening with concern as Nurse Ratched droned on about her expectations of perfection for her school-cum-mental ward.  Blah blah, stay on campus.  Blah-di-blah no males in the dorm – Good, Autumn thought – blabby-blah go to classes and curfew is ten.  Where Autumn’s ears perked up was the part about her special program for her mental disturbance, as Headmistress Logan called it.

“As one of our students in the behavioural support program, Autumn will be required to attend therapy at least once per week, or more often if deemed necessary by her case manager.  We also ask that for the first ninety days that Autumn not leave the campus on weekends for home visits.  This is to ensure she does not maintain contact with anyone encouraging negative attitudes and actions before we equip her to manage those interactions.”

“Oh,” Sarah mumbled, looking distraught. “I thought… Well, Thanksgiving is next month, and my mother is coming from Buffalo.”

If my mom cries, I am going to cut this bitch, Autumn growled in her head.  Thanksgiving at an empty boarding school?  Is that really supposed to be therapeutic?  Ratched patted her mother’s arm, nodding slightly.

“I do suppose we can make an exception for the holiday, but we would prefer if Autumn remain on campus until Saturday evening and return Monday morning.  Would that be amenable?”

“Yes, we can work with that,” her father assented.  “It’s just this holiday, Sarah.”

Autumn’s fingertips drummed along the windowsill as she stared out onto the quad, a rapid-fire beat.  Two guys were outside now, tossing a football back and forth between them in a nauseating Rockwell moment.  Trapped in Oakville for ninety days.  Lovely.  There was more blather behind her, names of school personnel and other crap she didn’t care about, and finally, Ratched shut the hell up.

“Well Autumn, I’ll see you tomorrow at nine,” she announced, far too pleased with this prospect.

“Huh?”

“For therapy, sweetie?” her mother prompted.  “Headmistress Logan will be introducing you to your counsellor.”

“Ah.  Cool.  Do I get a key for this place or what?” Autumn asked, her icy tone a challenge.

Logan raised an eyebrow, then patted her jacket pocket.  “Yes, I almost forgot.”  She passed the key to Autumn’s father, shaking his hand before moving briskly out into the hall without a backward glance.  Her heels stabbed the aging wood floors, a faint scrape-gouge noise that reverberated in Autumn’s skull.

“Was that necessary, Autumn?” her father asked quietly as he tossed the keys onto a desk.

“Absolutely.  She’s a miserable woman who seems far too delighted to keep me locked away here.”  Autumn shrugged her shoulders as she strolled over to the closet and yanked it open.  “Good call on the hangers, Mom; there’s like, five in here, and four of them look old enough to have been wielded by Joan Crawford.”

Her mother embraced her from behind, kissing her cheek.  “This isn’t about punishment, Autumn.  Promise me if it begins to feel that way that you’ll tell us, okay?”

Autumn smiled slightly.  “It’s going to be fine, Mom.  But if that woman finds a can of tuna in her air conditioning vent, it wasn’t me, alright?”  Her parents chuckled as she spun around, heaving a huge sigh.  “I love you guys, you know.  And I have my cell phone.  I might even have my charger, too!”

“I’m sure your mother will burn up your minutes, so don’t go making too many boyfriends,” her father gently teased.

“No boys,” Autumn replied firmly.  “I need to focus on my grades now.  Besides, aren’t boarding schools for lesbian activities?”

“I’ll give PFLAG a call when we get home,” Neil Brody fired back.  Autumn’s wry sense of humour was a genetic gift from the paternal side of the tree.

“Ooh, get a bumper sticker!” Autumn enthused.

“Alright, you two,” Sarah chided gently.  “As much as I’m going to miss your shenanigans, we do need to eventually move from that roundabout.  Is there anything else you need sweetie?  We could go try and find a Tim’s or a Starbucks that’s open—“

Autumn shook her head slowly.  “Mom, really, it’s fine.  You should go, beat the cottage traffic if you can.”

Embraces were exchanged anew, her parents taking turns to express all that remained unsaid:  her father’s arms were warm, imparting strength as if packing a survival kit for a long journey; her mother grieved, clinging to her as if it were a final farewell.  Autumn, too, felt a funereal pallor cast over their parting, a troubling sense that something loomed on the horizon, ominous and omnipresent.  She suddenly recalled an old episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the one in which Buffy struggles between her known world and the revelation that perhaps she’s been a schizophrenic in an institution for years.  The way her words shrunk in the air echoed Buffy’s goodbye to her mother, and it took all of her resolve not to collapse into tears at their feet, change her mind and beg to go home.

She had to be strong, make the hard choice.

“I’ll call you tonight,” her mother swore as her father gently led her to the door.

“Not too late; I’m pretty sleepy from the change,” Autumn replied gently.

“Love you,” Sarah Brody whispered.

“Love you back.”  Autumn forced her lips to curl upward.  “Now go, before you’re stuck behind five boats and pick-ups with crazy dogs!”

She did not watch them retreat down the hall; it only would have encouraged her mother to return, to beg for a change in heart.  They were closer than any mother and daughter Autumn knew.  Hell, Miraj avoided her parents at all costs, and Heather’s mom was usually too drunk to recall having offspring.  She choked on the stifling, musty air in the dorm room as she unzipped her suitcase, lungs seizing as she felt the absence of home.  It suddenly occurred to her that she was truly alone now: it was no longer just a state of mind, a prison of her thoughts and terror.  Setting her laptop on the windowsill, she kicked the floor absently, sneakers scraping on the polished surface with a faint squeak.

Ten months.  Two hundred and ninety-nine days.  Seven thousand, one hundred and seventy-six hours.  Four hundred and thirty thousand, five hundred and sixty minutes.  Perhaps not as melodic as Larson’s rock musical anthem, but it is how I will measure a year at Casteel, she typed, continuing her stream of consciousness.  Some of those minutes will be yours, whoever you are, but I will not measure myself by them.  There’s no sense attempting to measure up to normal’s standards when one is no longer normal.  I will measure in time, because it is my only constant between the old Autumn and the now Autumn.  I will measure by changes of season.

The summer closes in a tearful mother’s eyesMy namesake opens in loneliness and labels.  I eagerly await the moniker you assign me, so that I might complete the “Hello, My Name Is” sticker in the orientation kit.

She thrust open the window, inhaling the scent of rain as droplets continued to fall scattershot upon the freshly mown grass.  Her father was right: this was the perfect view for a writer, after all.