“No excuses, the rules are clear. Put your hand on the desk.”
Nia Simmons squinched her toes deeper into her shoes and cringed. Which hand should she pick? She needed the left to write with. The right then. She put her hand on Miss Dorman’s desk. It felt cool and smooth. Her skin left sweat marks where it touched. The ruler whistled down. Whap! Whap!
“I expect better behavior from now on,” said Miss Dorman. “Otherwise we’ll have to take more drastic measures. Wash the tears off your face and go to class.”
Nia slid behind her desk just as the bell rang. She kept her right hand in her lap and squeezed her pencil with the other. She faced forward, pressing her lips together. Mrs. Wells shuffled her papers. “Let’s see, where were we? Ah, Huckleberry Finn, chapter 3. Everyone get your books out.”
“Pssst!” It was Eddie, leaning half-out of his desk and craning his neck for a look at her hand. “Got whacked?” he asked.
Nia clenched her teeth. She was supposed to be done with crying! It didn’t hurt that bad. But she felt stupid. She shrugged.
Eddie grinned. “What’d you use, a flashlight?”
“Yeah,” said Nia. Stupid idea.
He stuck out his hand, palm down, as if she could see the marks of old rulers there. “Bunch of us in the boy’s dorm used to do that too. Got whacked scores of times. Nothing to be ashamed of.” Eddie winked and tapped his head. “Gotten smarter though. Meet me by the oak at recess.”
“What’s that, Mr. Combs?” Mrs. Wells appeared between Nia and Eddie’s desks.
“Ah,” said Eddie. He grinned at her. “I said it’s time to get smart. And there’s no better way to do that than read Old Huck Finn.”
At recess, Nia skirted the edge of the building, then crossed the yard towards the oak tree. She paused. Eddie and a bunch of other boys sat on the ground underneath it. Others hung upside down from the branches. What was he going to tell her anyway? Maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe she should go back inside, hide in her dorm room. But he’d been nice that morning.
Eddie waved at her, then came over.
“Hey,” said Nia. She squinched her toes in her shoes.
“How’s your whack?”
It stung. Nia flexed her hand and shrugged.
Eddie grinned. “Who got you?”
“Dorman,” said Nia, and shuddered. “I didn’t know she patrolled at night.”
“Gives me the creeps,” Eddie laughed. “Did she take it away from you?”
“She’ll give it back, maybe in a week. Got anything for the meantime?”
Nia shook her head.
“What do you like?”
“Me too,” Eddie nodded. “Tell you what, I have something for you. Wait for an hour past curfew, then stick your pillow under your bedspread to leave a lump. Sneak down to the big loo at the end of west hall.”
“That’s the boy’s bathroom.”
“Yeah,” Eddie grinned, “you said you liked adventures.”
Nia swished her feet between her sheets. She shivered. Cold sweat clung to her back. She rolled over and lay still and stiff. Her breath huffed, forming a cooling cloud between her mouth and the pillow. Did she like adventures? She wasn’t sure anymore. She ought to get out of bed now. It’d been an hour. She could always change her mind halfway there. She could run back quick and jump under her sheets. She didn’t want to move. But she couldn’t sleep. She’d lay awake wondering. Eddie wouldn’t grin at her again. What if he waited for hours? That wasn’t fair.
Her legs shot out from under the blankets. Nia flung them off and jumped out of bed, landing on her toes. She grabbed her pillow, thumped it up, and stuck it under the bedspread. Was that good enough? She hoped so. She hesitated, peering through the dark at the other dorm room beds, the other sleeping lumps. Were they pillows too? No, she heard the other girls breathing.
The floor pressed against Nia’s bare soles. She shivered, flung a sweater over her nightgown, and rushed to the door. She pressed her lips together, gripped the handle, turned it. The door gave a soft squeak, like an exhale, and swung open.
Nia jumped through, gasping. Cool air flooded along her calves. The darkness paled, made gray by the hallway skylights. She couldn’t stop to think. If she did, she’d lose her nerve. She ran on her toes, holding her breath. Down the hall, down the steps, right at the corner. She passed the kitchen where the refrigerator buzzed and grumbled and throbbed. Her heart expanded like a ballon. It left its place in her chest and rose, up and up. It squeezed through her throat. Nia clamped her teeth together, she sucked air through her nose. She should turn around and run back. No. She shuddered. Back was worse than forwards. And look! There was the bathroom just ahead.
What was she thinking? She couldn’t go in there! It was the boy’s loo! Stupid, stupid. What if Eddie had lured her there? What if he didn’t want to help her? What if he—
She’d come all this way. She wriggled her toes on the tile floor and found her grip, ready to fly back down the hall. Nia pressed her ear to the door. It felt solid and comforting against her skull. She scrunched her forehead. What was that sound? Soft and flickery, like a breeze whispering in oak branches. Nia compressed the door handle. It clicked. She leaned in. She got a glimpse of the room, bathed in yellow light. She heard an intake of breath. The room plunged into darkness.
Nia slipped inside and closed the door behind her. She paused, listening. Water gurgled in the pipes. She heard a scuffing noise. The air felt heavy, as though the room were full of people holding their breath. “Eddie?”
Click! Whoosh! Light flooded the bathroom. At the far end of the room hovered five white faces, peeking out of the shower stall. They let out a collective breath. Eddie managed a weak grin. “Simmons.”
“Gave you a scare?” Nia felt like laughing. Her balloon heart deflated and whizzed back down to her chest. She felt solid and buoyant.
“My fault,” Eddie padded out of the shower stall, hair ruffled, pillow creases on his cheek. He wore pajamas and thick socks. “I forgot to tell you about the special knock. Come on over, there’s room on the bench.”
Nia paced past the bathroom stalls. They were all closed. She saw feet underneath them and heard rustling paper.
“Move over, Larkin, give Simmons some space.”
Nia slipped into the shower stall. Four boys slouched on a bench against the wall. They wore pajamas. Each had their nose plunged deep in a book.
“Have a seat,” said Eddie. He plopped down on the bench, reached underneath it, and brought out a heavy bag. “What do you feel like? Swiss Family Robinson or Lord of the Rings?”