Dad drove me to Mactyra in the black sedan we'd rented at the airport. Mom was in the passenger seat, having made the long flight from Arizona to show her support. Phil had felt it best that he show his support from afar. I was sorry for the man, I really was, and I didn't blame him for distancing himself from this freak show. He'd probably been apprehensive when he heard his hot, older girlfriend had a sixteen year old daughter. That said sixteen year old was a freshly convicted felon probably triggered 'Back away slowly' signals in his pea-sized, baseball-shaped brain.
Actually, convicted was a strong way of putting it. There was enough evidence to convict me but I wasn't going to be charged with anything, what with my being a minor and such, as long as I didn't repeat my mistake. Mistake here being the operative word for 'hacking into top secret US government files and accidentally setting off one of their security systems'. I had dutifully promised never to do it again, and I meant that. My days of setting off security systems were behind me. From now on, I was going to disable the damn things before I hacked in anywhere.
Dad kept shooting me funny little looks in the rearview mirror. He wasn't coping with the whole situation, as Renee delicately put it, at all well. I think he would have preferred if I'd started dressing in black, dyed my hair and pierced miscellaneous parts of my body, or even started smoking and riding a motorbike, maybe indulged in a little petty theft. At least then he would have known how to act. It could have been categorized as adolescent rebellion and there would have been a clear way to proceed. As things were, I sat harmlessly in the backseat of his car, dressed in the clothes of the good daughter who made the honor roll and never put a toe out of line, indistinguishable from that girl in all aspects but one. I possessed a shiny new criminal record, the kind the police file under Treason. I personally think that classification is a little unfair. A lot unfair, actually. I looked up treason on whatever random website came up first on a Google search, and my impeccable source informed me that the definition of Treason was:
noun (also high treason) [mass noun] the crime of betraying one's country, especially by attempting to kill or overthrow the sovereign or government.
I had to object to that term being applied to my case. Nothing would have come of my brief foray into confidential and highly sensitive material if I hadn't carelessly overlooked one virtual tripwire.
The car wound through layers and layers of dense forest. It had been miles since our last sighting of a signpost and the road was progressively becoming less like a road and more like a trail. My iPhone sat on my lap, carefully monitoring the internet connection strength. We were up the side of a forsaken mountain - I wouldn't put it past these people to be living without basic electricity. I was also keeping a surrepitious eye out for telephone lines. The SatNav announced directions every few minutes, in a voice which inspired homicidal thoughts, and Mom would hurriedly rehash everything it'd said in an almost more annoying voice. Dad hadn't yet made any comment and it was going on three hours since we'd all loaded into the car. I was impressed. Doubtless all those fishing trips had honed his patience. He seemed to not even hear the ruckus in the seat next to him. He just kept watching me in the mirror, looking disapppointed, angry, conflicted and bewildered with expressive puppy-brown eyes.
Mom and the SatNav were shouting, each scrambling to be heard over the other and my iPhone screen suddenly flared to life, having found a strong signal at long last. The road took a startling uphill turn to reveal, over the tops of lush green trees, a glimmering, marbled, iridescent silver-white-blue lake brushed across the earth before a magnificent, towering castle of a building. I couldn't have said how old it was; certainly the oldest building I'd ever seen in my life before then, older by far than any building in the US. It was different from any other old buildings I'd seen. It wasn't a mausoleum or a rotting testament to bygone days. Mactyra was
breathing, still living. It embodied all the history it had seen, but it was still fiercely part of the now. It took my breath away. All the splendor and beauty of Pemberly married to the shadow and mystery of Northanger Abbey.
The black sedan pulled up before the huge carved doors uncertainly, like Dad doubted he had the right to park his car in so imposing a driveway. I shared the sentiment. We all sat like vegetables in our seats, awed and out of place, and I don't like to think how long we might have sat there if the doors hadn't opened and a remarkably handsome man in his mid-twenties hadn't made his way down the wide stone steps to the car.
"Mr and Mrs Swan, I presume?" He asked politely, shaking my father's hand and my mother's. He was tall, taller than my father, but he was young, his face unlined and warmly tanned, his pale blond hair falling attractively over his forehead and into his bright, smiling blue eyes. His accent was well-bred and elegant, but the warm, friendly edge around his vowels corrected anyone who might think he was English. The kindness in his eyes, and the aura of wisdom and benevolence surrounding him reminded me of Dumbledore. If Dumbledore had been a lot younger and undeniably hot.
"Ms. Higgenbotham these days." Mom said coyly. "But please, call me Renee."
I suppressed the urge to gag with practised ease. Dad lacked such practise, and so looked faintly disgusted as he introduced himself. "Charlie Swan."
The blond man smiled good-naturedly. "I'm Dr. Cullen, the headmaster here."
Both of my parents looked surprised. I felt smug. I'd really hit the nail on the head with the Dumbledore thing.
"You're very young." Mom purred. Dr. Cullen looked like he was trying very hard not to hear her suggestive tone.
"Mactyre School has been run by my family for generations." He explained. "I'm aware it's unorthodox nowdays."
"Unorthodox sorta describes your whole set-up here." I said, drawing the good doctor's attention to me for the first time.
"You must be Isabella." He greeted warmly, reaching to shake my hand. His grip was strong and firm, but not challenging or aggressive. "I've heard great things about you."
"You can't have been talking to the FBI then." I joked. "They have nothing good to say about me."
Beside me, Dad winced. For some of us, it was apparently still too soon for jokes. Dr. Cullen seemed to appreciate my attempt at humour though.
"Do you have any delicate equipment?" He asked. "Or can I have the staff bring up your luggage?"
This surprised me, but I tried not to let it show. I hefted my laptop bag. "I'll bring this, but I suppose your staff can handle the rest." What little of it there was. Most of my clothing had been deemed unsuitable for Irish weather, according to the guidelines on the school website.
"Wonderful." Dr. Cullen gestured up the steps and led us into the school, my mother's eyes trained on his ass and my father's raised to Heaven. He launched into the obligatory spiel about the world-class education I'd be receiving, assuring my parents that after three years at Mactyra I'd excel in my SATs, or the Irish Leaving Certificate, or any exams I felt like taking, as well as guaranteeing me my choice of the top universities in the world. I trailed after the trio, admiring the stone carvings outside the doorway and the rich tapestries in the front hall. We walked deep into the school before we encountered any other students. Despite the setting and the pale grey uniforms they all wore, there was a air of informality about. A few students seemed to be hurrying to classes but most lounged around the corridors, talking idly. They all nodded respectfully to Dr. Cullen as he passed and I received more than a few curious and appraising stares. I felt like should be bearing a sign that read 'Fresh Meat', not that it wasn't already obvious. My jeans and sweater, rumpled after the long flight, felt particularly inadequate in contrast to the sharp blazers and pleated skirts of the Mactyra students.
"The Computer Labs are that way, Isabella." I looked up to see Dr. Cullen pointing down a hallway. "But I won't give you the tour just now."
"Why not, Dr. Cullen?" My mother's disappointment was poorly concealed.
"We allow other students to show new arrivals around." Dr. Cullen said. "It gives house-mates a chance to get to know one another."
"House-mates?" I asked. He fell into step with me.
"Yes, sleeping and general living quarters - dorms, basically - are separate buildings from the main school, though naturally still on school grounds. If you'll follow me, we should reach your house in a few moments." He quickened his pace slightly and my parents fell a little behind.
"How many students in a house?" I asked. I was relieved I no longer had to trail after the adults. This was going to be my home, so by my reckoning, my questions were more important than Mom's inept flirting.
"Roughly twenty." He told me. "Twenty-one in your house, I believe. Well, twenty-two now."
I nodded, absorbing this silently. Dr. Cullen led me past a large open courtyard in the centre of the school. The glass dome of the ceiling let sunlight fall onto classical stone benches and flowerbeds in colourful bloom. Mom and Dad followed, walking in uncomfortable silence.
"Your house is for international students." Dr. Cullen continued. Dad grasped the conversation like a life raft.
"You keep international students separate?" He asked, managing to sound suspicious and disapproving with the grace of a born cop.
Dr. Cullen laughed. "No,no. We don't curtail the students' socialising at all. The fact that international students have separate houses is only a coincidence, simply the way the school evolved. Mactyra didn't accept students from outside Ireland until the 1940s."
"That's very late." Mom commented - her first intelligent, coherent statement of the day. Dr. Cullen shrugged.
"We were a much smaller school in those days." He ushered us through an open archway onto a manicured green rimmed by forest. I could hear a sports game somewhere, students calling and the dull thwack of balls, but the playing field was out of sight. Houses sprouted in odd places across the grounds, in a catalogue of styles from various eras, but the strangeness was harmonious. Students were scattered around the grounds, on picnic blankets or sheltered at the base of trees, talking, laughing, studying. There were two boys, a little older than me, fighting over by a clutch of ornamental trees, a group of students egging them on. They weren't just rough-housing, they were actually fighting, using serious martial arts and Matrix-style kicks and leaps. I turned to see Dr. Cullen regarding them with an amused half-smile. He noticed me watching him, and set off across the green towards a jutting finger of forest. I followed, my parents crowding at my heels, to the forest and then along a wide, airy path. The boughs of the trees spread over our heads but the effect was not claustrophobic, more protective. Dr. Cullen didn't lead us far into the woods. The path was short and stayed in the shallows of the forest, close to the school itself. It was too narrow for a car, but spacious enough to easily fit three people and the light was bright and friendly. There was a little birdsong from the trees, but the area was too clearly inhabited to be home to the wild creatures of the forest. It soothed me. I hadn't realised how ill at ease I was until a few lungfuls of the grass-and-flowers scent calmed my nerves.
The house we came to fit naturally into the woodland scene. I felt it had been there a long time, long enough that the forest was used to it. It blended with the nature around it, rather than carving out a place for itself. Long grass pressed to the walls and ivy crawled along the doorway and around the pillars of the porch. The great imposing stone steps were cracked and bold little weeds poked their flowers through the gaps. The house was old, even if it didn't have the weighty years of the main school. I guessed the style to be Georgian, not that I had the faintest idea of those things. It was beautiful, I thought, and not neglected, despite its weary look. I took an instant, magnetic liking to it.
"Your room is on the fourth floor." Dr. Cullen said quietly as I finished my appraisal. "You're sharing with Rosalie Hale, from New York. She's an excellent student. You two should get along."
"Right." I said, my throat suddenly dry. Dr. Cullen's tone was kind.
"Your parents have to come with me, to sign some documents. We'll leave you to get settled in."
I turned to face him, mouth falling open in horror. I wasn't ready to be left alone in this strange, alien place, wasn't ready to just walk inside this unreal, fantastical house and meet my room-mate with the sophisticated name, meet my other house-mates, who were surely just as uncanny as the students I had seen in the school. I needed my parents, at the very least for a few minutes longer. Dr. Cullen couldn't take them away, not yet.
Before I could give voice to any of this, Mom bulldozed past Dr. Cullen to enfold me in an embrace. "Honey, you have a wonderful time, okay?" She ordered, effusive as always. "We'll come see you at - well, we'll make plans. Email me, okay?"
I nodded into her shoulder. "Bye, Mom." I felt like something else was expected of me, like I should apologise. But I had, many times. I was sick of hearing the word 'sorry' in my own voice, and no matter how much I said it, there was no magical salvage of the situation.
Dad looked at me, and his eyes were so sad that I hated myself. I wanted to fling myself at him, to bury myself in a hug and feel like a six year old, safe in the impenetrable fortress of Daddy's arms. But his aged brown eyes were reflecting pain and all-consuming disappointment back at me, and the unconditional love I wanted to claim was fled. He cleared his throat and spoke gruffly.
"Be good, Bells."
"I will." I promised, fighting the choked-up feeling that was closing my throat. He nodded stiffly, then looked at Dr. Cullen.
"I hope you lot keep the boys out of the dorms." He said, serious as a heart attack.
"Absolutely, Mr. Swan." Dr. Cullen said solemnly.
Dad nodded. He half-lifted his arm, to... I don't know. Hug me? Shake my hand? Wave, even? Whatever it was, he let his hand fall back to his side.
"Bye, kiddo." He said sadly.
"Bye, Dad." I whispered back, because my voice was still hoarse from trying not to cry. But the 'kiddo' made me feel better, let me know that despite everything we were still fundamentally okay. That helped me gather myself enough to turn my back on the three adults as they walked away, and walk bravely through the unlocked mahogany door of the house.