Chapter 7 ★ Breckenridge

Breckenridge was a few miles from Quarterhill’s main tourist strip, but the Breckenridge girls rarely visited. The house mothers preferred museums and historical landmarks over the gaudy glory of Main Street. Ru’s mother used to take Colleen to Main Street every once in a while. Colleen remembered the haunted houses the most, though they never scared her. She admired the props and wondered how much time it took to build them.

Main Street wasn’t anything special, Ru said. Just ice cream shops and haunted houses and five different T-shirt stores all selling the same ten designs. Colleen silently argued she’d take an ice cream shop any day over Breckenridge. For once, she thought most of her housemates would agree.

Breckenridge itself was an attraction, though it didn’t get as much traffic as Main Street or Tanager Park. It was a historical site with very limited tours. Most people saw the house only from the street. A stark iron-spear fence lined the property, taller than any person Colleen had met. The gate was wide, made of a labyrinth of flat, uneven curls. Mother Fontaine told Colleen it was designed with the leaves of a tree in mind. Colleen thought of it more as the inner workings of a lock.

She wished Mother Fontaine was still there. Most of the girls knew her as Laura; she had been the only house mother who let the girls call her by her first name. She was also the only one who ever tried to talk to Colleen without giving up. Mother Fontaine had bought Colleen her first paint set. The two of them spoke more often in pictures than in words.

Colleen shoved the memory away. Tears threatened when she thought too long of Mother Fontaine. Proper young ladies hold themselves with dignity, Mother Kendrick said. They don’t blubber or whine.

The Breckenridge manor seemed miles away from the bottom of the hill, surrounded by towering oaks and maples. A few willows dragged their branches along the edges of a small pond. The manor was as wide as the high school gym, with lavender walls and navy shutters. Crew cut hedges and rosebushes wreathed the bottom of the house. The porch had a railing like a ribbon of white lace, and a neat row of wicker chairs, all of which stood abandoned at the moment. Neatly abandoned. Proper young ladies do not leave their chairs facing every which way, Mother Kendrick said. The rest of the house had the same symmetry to it, as if Mother Kendrick had spoken to it personally.

Mother Grace herded the girls through the gate. She was a tall and narrow woman, whose physical presence was about as scant as her mental one. Colleen could have easily mistaken her for a figure on TV rather than someone actually standing next to her. Under her eyes the girls wandered about the property and lingered on the porch before her plaintive instructions finally nudged them all through the door. Colleen was last. Her feet crunched slowly on the glittering gravel path, her eyes dragged over the ants climbing through the porch boards, on the coral roses bobbling in the breeze. Sunlight grazed the stained glass on the front door and cast a wheel of color on the floor.

Mother Grace disappeared as soon as the group was in the entry hall. Colleen looked everywhere but at the other girls, at the marble floor, velvet furniture, the chandelier with crystals like melting icicles. Most of all, the stairs to the second floor. Until Mother Kendrick came to take roll, Colleen would have to hide, then make her escape to the stairs. Once she reached her room, she would be safe. Mostly.

“Aww, look who made it home. And all by herself, too.”

Too late.

Ronnie Kail leaned in the doorway to the south wing, where only the house mothers were allowed. She was careful not to speak loud enough for her voice to carry to the next room. Colleen knew better than to acknowledge her, but there was nowhere else to go. The other girls were watching now, most with scorn, a few with pity.

Ronnie stepped in front of Colleen, her brown curls bouncing. She had a small face with huge eyes that made her look half her age, the perfect front for her snide, sharp tongue. Only Mother Kendrick seemed aware of Ronnie’s true nature. “What’d you learn in school today? Numbers, or letters?”

Mutters fluttered in Colleen’s ear. It was her own fault, bringing their attention on her with those “nightmares,” like they actually happen. Or maybe she really was just scared of the dark. Maybe if she didn’t have to have a room to herself, she wouldn’t be such a crybaby. The whispers of those who believed Colleen’s nightmares were worse. What if she dreams about me? What if she dreams about the house burning down? Don’t let her see me.

“Hi, Colleen!”

She turned, surprised by a new voice. Misty was now in full Breckenridge uniform. She looked strange in it, like she was too tall for it and at the same time too thin. It draped off her like it would on a hanger. “I saw you have a Carmody.”

Something shined in Misty’s hand. In the many lights of the chandelier, the object seemed to gleam on its own. “I collect them. Maybe we can trade.”

The room fell silent. Dozens of eyes locked on Misty.

“It’s not a Carmody,” Colleen said, voice tremulous. She brushed the tail of the dolphin with her fingertip. “My mother bought it for me when I was a baby.”

“You still are a baby,” Ronnie said.

That, on top of Misty’s frown, sent Colleen scurrying for the nearest corner with tears brimming in her eyes. The only thing that kept the tears from falling was the peculiar expression on Misty’s face. Her pale eyes went unfocused, her lips open, as if she was on the verge of speaking, but to no one.

Ronnie put on her sweetest smile and put a hand on Misty’s shoulder. Colleen was fairly certain that Ronnie was warning Misty not to make friends. But then, Misty’s face froze over. She slapped Ronnie’s hand away. Ronnie opened her mouth, but Misty spoke first.

Colleen didn’t hear what was said, but all the girls in earshot flinched. Ronnie actually recoiled, wincing, as if she’d been slapped in the face instead of the hand. Colleen had never seen Ronnie afraid. She liked it a lot less than she assumed she would.

Her stomach fluttered with Misty’s eyes found her again. Misty had the same calculating expression Ru had when working on a tough math problem. None of it mattered, though. By experience, Ronnie would have Misty seeing straight in a week. Ronnie was in charge of the house mothers, Quarterhill students were ignorant slobs, and the only one worse was Colleen Amundsen. Ronnie had surrounded herself with her friends now. Contempt laced her voice, but her hands trembled. It did seem awfully cold in the hall.

Once the house mothers took attendance, Colleen sprinted for her room. Well, as close as she could to a sprint without being scolded about her manners, which was little more than a stiff, brisk walk. She hurried past the sunburn-pink walls and fluff-filled rooms without looking twice. Her room had not always been on the far end of the north wing, but at a doctor’s request, she had been moved. She had a vague, unpleasant memory of the doctor and Mother Fontaine asking questions about her nightmares, and what she remembered about her parents.

The lone room suited Colleen well. She minimized contact with her housemates anyway. Early in the morning, usually before the sun rose, she peered down the hall, looking for lights under the other doors. She went through supper at the very end of the long, lace-covered table with her eyes firmly fixed on her plate. Whether she liked or hated what was served to her, she ate as fast as she could without being upbraided for table manners. At least most of the girls ignored her there. It was hard to get away with anything under the hawk eyes of Mother Kendrick. Colleen didn’t like being under her watch any more than being scrutinized by the girls her own age. She was always excused first. Whispers followed her up the stairs. There were no locks on the doors of the bedrooms; when Colleen wasn’t the first upstairs, she found things missing. A picture of her parents, one of her diaries. She stopped writing those after she found Ronnie reading the entries aloud to her roommate. The only house mother who didn’t act like the theft was Colleen’s fault was Mother Fontaine.

For this reason, she kept the dolphin pendant around her neck at all times, even when she slept. Mother Kendrick made her take it off, afraid she’d suffocate in her sleep, but she put it back on after bed check was complete. She could not afford to lose it, especially if it turned out to be made of precious stone. It might be the only thing she had with enough worth to get her away from Quarterhill when she was old enough. Or when she escaped.           

One summer night, she would pack all her things in her art supply bag. She would sneak some food away from the dinner table or kitchen, climb that tree on the west side of the property that leaned over the gate, and run as fast as she could before sunrise. Ru could lend her clothes so she wouldn’t be running in her easily-recognized uniform. She brought the subject up at school once with Ru, and dropped it after her little brother overheard.

“First of all, Quarterhill’s curfew is 11.”

“Who says someone’ll see her?” Ru shot back. “Besides, she’s tall, they might think she’s too old for curfew.”

Jayson shrugged his sister off. “Second, there’s no way you’ll get out of Quarterhill before sunrise, even if it is kind of small. You might be able to hide in Tanager Park for a little while, if you don’t think the Blue Star is coming to get you,” he rolled his eyes, “but I bet that’s the first place they’ll look for you. Joe Stalvey’s dad says that’s where they find the most runaways.”

The idea had already crumbled in Colleen’s head, but Ru wasn’t ready to give up. “Did Joe tell you that, or did you hear it from his dad?”

“His dad, when he was here on Career Day. A cop would know, right? Third, no one’s going to buy a tourmaline necklace from a kid. They’ll either think you stole it, try and find out where you came from and who your parents are, or they’ll try to steal it from you.

“How do you know?”

Jayson sighed. “Remember that time Randy broke a window on his dad’s van?”

Colleen had only met Randy Fresnel a few times, and was happy for so few meetings. He seemed like a compressed spring (“That’d explain why he’s so short,” Ru said) ready to launch with his mouth or his fists.

Colleen’s room was small and her possessions scant. A few carbon copies of her uniform hung in the closet, along with a puffy white parka and her pajamas, freshly cleaned. There was a set of plastic drawers, mostly full of things Ru’s mother saved from the Amundsen home before everything was auctioned off. A picture of Colleen’s parents and distant relatives, her great-grandfather’s engineering textbook with brown pages and a crumbling leather cover, a tiny wooden pot Colleen liked to play with when she was younger, a tape of Colleen’s mother playing violin. Ms. Hadley said Colleen’s mother had been a songwriter, and the money that was still being made by those songs would pay for Colleen’s entire stay at Breckenridge.

The room was different today. The floor had been covered by a plain yellow rug, but Colleen made a mess of it after the dream about Kelly. Her stomach still turned at the memory. At least the smell was gone, though it was replaced by the choking scent of sanitizer. All this she had expected. She was startled to find the other bed in the room occupied.

Three small, worn leather suitcases squashed the frilly comforter on the other bed. One case had its contents spewed across the bedspread, clothes, a pair of frayed, filthy sneakers, and a small makeup kit. The owner of that kit would have to learn to hide it, or it would end up in Mother Kendrick’s contraband bin, never to be seen again.

“Oh, so you’re my roommate?” Misty scoffed. “Good, I thought I’d end up with one of the annoying ones. Your name’s Colleen, right?”

Misty resumed emptying her luggage. Colleen’s nerves buzzed as she sat down on her own bed. She rummaged through her bookbag, her long hair obscuring everything but the sandy carpet. She heard Misty walk to the closet and back. Metal hangers clanged softly as they were set on the bar.

“Why are the other girls afraid of you?” Misty asked. “Especially that girl, Ronnie.”

“Um — I don’t think she’s afraid. But I do have bad dreams sometimes. And my birthday’s October 31st.”

Misty gave a short, confused laugh. “That’s it? Is 31 an unlucky number or something?”

Colleen stared in disbelief. Was Misty trying to make fun of her? “You don’t know about Halloween?”

Misty flung her hands into the air. “I don’t know about anything! Do you know how many times the house mothers yelled at me today? Over really petty stuff, too. Especially the old one.”

“That’s Mother Kendrick,” Colleen said. “She’s on second watch. She’s here until ten every day.”

“Does she let you have any fun? Or is that something ‘proper young ladies’ don’t do, as she would say?”

Misty’s voice flashed into an impersonation of Mother Kendrick’s, near-perfect only ten times more cantankerous. Colleen giggled, despite being nervous that Mother Kendrick could have easily heard. Misty smirked at her. “Really, do you just study when you get home?”

“I like to draw.”

Normally Colleen was hesitant about showing her works to the other girls, but Misty actually, genuinely seemed interested. She pulled out her sketchbook. The images within were mostly of outdoor scenery, different angles of the Breckenridge property with the house and birds and flowers she’d seen. Misty’s face lit up as she shuffled through the pages. “These are so pretty! Could you draw me something, maybe?”

That was a common request, one Colleen usually turned down. “I could, maybe,” she said quietly. “But you have to hide it from the other girls. They might rip it up.”

Misty’s silver eyes widened with shock. She almost seemed offended. “Why would they do that?”

Colleen’s voice came out thin through a suddenly tight throat. “Ronnie did, anyway. The other girls just laugh at it. They, um – they tell me my artwork isn’t any good. I’m not smart enough to make anything good. Maybe I never will be.”

Misty smiled, a bright, warm smile. Colleen wondered why she assumed Misty wasn’t capable of such a friendly face. “Oh come on! Don’t say things like that. You’re the nicest one here I’ve met so far, and you really do have talent. You should stand up for yourself more.”

“You think I’m nice?” Colleen said. “Even after I wouldn’t trade with you?”

Misty waved her hand dismissively. “I’d be mad if you did trade with me and then I found out it wasn’t a Carmody, except maybe if yours is made of diamond. But then I’d just feel bad because yours is probably worth a lot more. Hey, want to see my favorite?”

She tucked her fingers into her collar and pulled on a string beneath. It was a gray, silvery cloud pendant with an iridescent sparkle. Though it was easily the prettiest raincloud Colleen had seen, it was still sad. “A friend of mine back home gave it to me. It’s the only one I’d never trade.”

“It doesn’t look like the other Carmody jewelry I’ve seen,” Colleen said.

Misty’s eyes looked beyond Colleen, her cheeks rosy. “It’s not.”

There was a quiet moment before Misty noticed Colleen’s soft, questioning stare. Misty turned nearly as red as her hair. “Uh, anyway! Have you ever tried origami?”

Colleen let her question go unspoken. “Never heard of it.”

A binder of colorful paper squares came out of Misty’s suitcase. Misty chose a silver leaf, smoothed it out, and went to work on it. She folded, pressed, flipped, pulled hidden prongs from under the paper’s umbrella-like folds, until a bird sprang to life out of the sharp corners and points. “It’s a crane,” Misty said. “You want to learn how to make one?”

A smile cracked Colleen’s face. “Sure.”

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