Akarnae – Lynette Noni

“Honey, if there was any other way, your mother and I would take you with us in a heartbeat.” Alexandra Jennings stared out the car window into the dense forest and sighed deeply into her phone. “I know, Dad. But it still sucks.” “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” came her father’s reply. “But the International Exchange Academy is one of the best schools in the country. They’ll take good care of you.” Alex only just managed to hold back the words that tried to leap from her tongue straight down the phone line. Take me with you! she wanted to scream. Don’t abandon me! That was exactly what it felt like her parents were doing, even if it wasn’t their fault. They’d been offered the opportunity to study under a famous archaeologist—a once in a lifetime invitation—but there was a catch. They couldn’t take anyone with them, which meant Alex was being shipped off to a boarding school for the rest of the school year—eight whole months. And it got worse. Not only were they leaving her behind, they were also headed to some middleof-nowhere dig-site in Siberia—as in, Russia—which was in a complete communication dead-zone. No phone coverage.

No Wi-Fi signal. Not even a postman. Alex literally wouldn’t be hearing from them again until they returned at the beginning of June for the summer holidays. “I just hate that I won’t be able to contact you,” Alex said, not for the first time. “What if I get bitten by a tick and end up with Lyme disease?” Her eyes scanned the thick woodland. “It’s a definite possibility. And don’t even get me started on how many wild animals Wikipedia says are in the forest up here. What if I get eaten by a bear? Or a cougar? I won’t be able to call you and tell you what happened!” Her father’s amusement rang clearly through the connection. “In the unlikely event that you’re mauled to death by the wildlife, you won’t be able to call anyone.” “True,” Alex acknowledged.

“But no one else will be able to call you on my behalf, either. That means you’ll miss my funeral and you’ll never get any closure about my death. You’ll always wonder if it was a wolf or a bobcat that enjoyed Alexandra à la carte.” Her father chuckled. “I’m going to miss your sense of humour.” “Dad, I’m being completely serious here. Carnivorous animals are no laughing matter.” He wisely ignored her and instead said, “Your mother’s making weird hand gestures at me. I’m guessing the Valium have finally kicked in. I made her take a double dose—you know how much she hates flying—so I think the peacock-bobbing and flapping arms mean she wants to talk to you.

I better put her on before she takes someone’s eye out.” Alex smiled into the phone. “Probably a good idea.” “I love you, sweetheart. The time will pass quicker than you realise.” Before she could respond, a crinkling noise sounded through the earpiece as he handed the phone over. “Alex?” came her mother’s somewhat slurred voice. Another ten minutes and she’d be out cold— which was for the best, since she really didn’t do well on planes. “I’m here.” “I don’t have long, they’ve just started boarding our—hic!—flight,” she said.

“But I wanted to say —hic!—goodbye, again.” Alex frowned at the back of the seat in front of her. “Are you all right?” “Fine, fine,” her mother said, hiccupping again. “I just had a little drink to help wash down the sedative. Hic!” “I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to mix alcohol with those drugs, Mum,” Alex said, failing to keep the humour from her voice. “And you know, statistically speaking, you’re more likely to get kicked in the head by a mule than to die in a plane crash. You’re going to be fine.” “Of course I will be.” Her mother’s words became even more slurred as the medication continued taking effect. “And you will be, too.

I know you wanted to come with us, but this is really for the best. Hic! You’ve been stuck following us around the globe for your entire life—it’s time you settled in one place and had a chance to make some friends your own age.” Her mother had a point. Moving countries every few months while her parents chased the next big archaeological discovery hadn’t helped Alex’s social development. She didn’t have any friends—she wasn’t even sure how to make friends. High school politics were beyond her understanding; she had no idea what to expect from her new school. It wasn’t like she could just go and sit beside someone in the sandpit, eat dirt with them, and declare a state of ‘besties forever’. She was too old for that now. People would just look at her strangely. “You’re right,” Alex said, mustering up as much optimism as she could.

“I’m sure everything is going to work out great.” “That’s the—hic!—spirit,” her mother replied. “Now, I better go before the purple monkey eats my last banana. Hic!” Alex pulled her phone from her ear and looked at it quizzically before returning it once more. “What did you say?” “I said—” She was interrupted by Alex’s father in the background. “Time to board, Rach. Say ‘goodbye’.” “I have to go, Alex,” her mother said. “I know you’re going to have a fabulous time at the—hic! —academy. We’ll see you in June.

Not long now!” Clearly the meds were doing their job, especially if eight months equalled ‘not long now’. But Alex didn’t want to ruin her mother’s happy buzz, so she kept her mouth closed. “I love you, baby. Be careful, but have fun!” And with those final words, a quiet click disconnected the last phone call they’d share for a long, long time. Feeling disheartened, Alex turned to look out the car window again, noticing that there were many more trees surrounding them now than before. It was clear evidence of just how easily a few hours of driving had transported her from her most recent home in Cannon Beach, Oregon, to somewhere on the outskirts of Mount Hood National Forest. The change in scenery from the rocky coastline to the thickening woodland was startling, and Alex couldn’t help but feel like she was already a long way from her comfort zone. “Miss? We’re here,” her driver finally said. They’d stopped in a private driveway barricaded by two massive, wrought-iron security gates. A sign woven into the steelwork spelled out the words: ‘International Exchange Academy’.

The driver spoke quietly through the intercom and a moment later the gates opened without so much as a creak. They moved slowly up the narrow, tree-lined path until they reached the academy itself. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Alex muttered at the view out the window. The academy really wasn’t all that different from the stereotype she’d envisioned—big, ostentatious, gothic even. But the students? They looked miserable. All of them wore tight, uncomfortable-looking uniforms despite the fact that it was Sunday afternoon and there were no classes until the next morning. And they didn’t appear to be doing anything; they were just loitering aimlessly. It was as if they had nothing better to do than wait for someone to come along and break into the monotony of their boring existence. Looking at them, Alex seriously doubted she’d be able to follow her mother’s advice to ‘have fun’. When the car pulled to a stop, she noticed a group of students mingling near a gaudy, medievalstyled water fountain.

They weren’t smiling. They weren’t laughing. They were barely even talking amongst themselves. All Alex could think was that she would be more likely to make friends with a rock than any of the students scowling in her direction. Don’t judge by appearances, she told herself. First impressions weren’t always accurate, right? Alex might not like being abandoned at the academy, but she was determined to at least try and make the most of her stay. And that meant keeping an open mind, regardless of the unwelcoming vibes coming from her new classmates. “I’ll take your bags,” her driver offered, interrupting her thoughts. “You should head into the administration building and speak with the headmaster.” Alex grabbed the enrolment papers from her bag and handed the rest of her luggage over.

She wasn’t an official student yet since her parents hadn’t had the time to properly enrol her before leaving. “Which way do I go?” she asked the man as he started to walk away with her belongings. He pointed to the closest building and left her standing on her own while the zombie-like students just stared at her. Right, let’s get this over with , she thought, gathering her courage. She wasn’t an animal in a zoo, and she didn’t appreciate all the speculative glances directed her way. Nevertheless, she held her head high and headed towards the administration building. As she walked around the fountain she flicked through her paperwork once more—partly to avoid looking at the creepy gargoyle statues around the water feature, partly to avoid making eye contact with the other students, and partly to make sure everything that needed to be signed was, in fact, signed. Alex was so distracted by her papers that she barely heard the whispered, “Fish out of water, think we should help her?” and the corresponding, “Absolutely. We wouldn’t want her to choke.” Before she could properly register the words, something slammed into her, causing her to stagger forward.

She managed to regain her balance just in time to avoid a messy fall into the grungy-looking water. “Oh, I’m so sorry!” a girl around Alex’s age said. “I’m so clumsy sometimes.” “It’s okay,” Alex assured her, straightening up. “No harm done.” “Brianna! You’re always getting in the way! You almost sent the new girl into the fountain. What kind of a welcome would that have been?” said another girl who stepped up beside them. “Really, it’s fine,” Alex said again. She didn’t want to cause any problems before school even started. It was bad enough that she was transferring mid semester.

“It’s fine?” the newest girl repeated with a toothy grin. “Hear that, Brianna? She said it’s fine.” Alex wasn’t sure what to make of their exchange. Their identical beaming smiles put her on edge, so she quickly excused herself. “I have to go and see the headmaster, but I’m sure I’ll see you both around.” “Oh, allow us to help,” the non-Brianna girl said. “It’s the least we can do. You wouldn’t want to go to the wrong place and cause a—” Her timing was perfect, really. The moment Alex took her first step forward, Brianna ‘accidentally’ tripped over her own feet again. She bumped hard into Alex who had nothing to hold on to and no room left to find her balance.

With her arms cartwheeling uselessly, Alex fell straight into the fountain. The moment her head broke through the surface of the water, she heard non-Brianna gleefully finish the last word of her sentence. “—splash.” The previously quiet courtyard erupted into laughter. “Welcome to the academy, Newbie.” Alex scowled at the two girls in front of her as she swiped her sopping hair out of her eyes and pulled herself out of the fountain. She ignored the continuing laughter and marched towards the administration building, determined to put as much distance between her and the uniformed—and mean—zombies as possible. Barely five minutes had passed since she’d arrived at the academy and already she knew her parents had been wrong. Judging by her classmates’ welcoming committee, there was no way she was going to have an enjoyable time, nor was it likely she’d make any friends. Not a single person had tried to help her out of the fountain—they’d all been too busy laughing at her.

That told her all she needed to know. She would just have to grit her teeth and get through the next eight months, and once her parents were back, she would never have to return to the academy again. She trudged forward with bitter resolve and tried to air out her enrolment papers, but there was nothing she could do since they were just as soaked as she was. At least the ink hadn’t run, that was something. Alex entered the building and paused when she caught sight of her reflection in a mirror just inside the doorway. Her clothes were stuck to her shivering body, her long dark hair was stringy and wet, and her normally warm brown eyes were darkened by her turbulent emotions. She shook her head and turned away from her bedraggled appearance. So much for making a good first impression. Dripping water all the way, Alex headed over to the reception desk. “Can I help you?” asked the lady seated there, without so much as a glance upwards.

It was probably for the best since Alex was leaving a small lake on the pristine floor. “I’m here to enrol,” Alex said. It didn’t take a genius to hear the misery in her voice. “Name?” the woman asked. “Alexandra Jennings.” “Take a seat, Miss Jennings.” Alex shuffled over to a line of chairs and sat down with a squelch. She still couldn’t believe what had transpired outside. She wondered if it was too late to try and call her parents one last time—and convince them to find a way to smuggle her away with them—but she knew it was useless. Their plane had probably already taken off; they were likely long gone.

She was on her own. “The headmaster will see you now,” the receptionist said, still not bothering to glance up. “Down the hallway, third door on the right.” Alex rose from her seat and headed down the brightly lit corridor, soon losing sight of the reception area. If only things could be dif erent, she thought sadly, knocking on the headmaster’s door. There was no answer, so she tried again, louder. When still no call came to enter, Alex shrugged and turned the handle. It was dark inside the room. Pitch-black, in fact. “Hello?” she called out from the doorway.

“Is anyone in here?” Just as she was about to retrace her steps and go back to the reception, the room exploded with light. Alex had to hold her hand up to shield her eyes from the sudden brightness. When she was able to lower her arm again, she stared in shock at the sight before her. “What the…?” she whispered. I must have hit my head when I fell into the fountain, she reasoned. It was surely the only explanation for the view in front of her. The doorway opened into a small forest clearing. Sunlight streamed through the canopy of evergreens and their shadows dappled the mottle-coloured forest floor. The surrounding trees continued further than her eyes could see, with no school buildings in sight. “It must be some kind of optical illusion,” Alex muttered to herself.

She glanced behind her and took in the sterile walls of the corridor before she turned to face the forest again. She couldn’t wrap her head around the different scenery, but something about the dense woodland captivated her attention. I’ll just have a quick look around, she thought. No one will know. Then I can come back and meet the headmaster. Decision made, Alex quickly stepped through the doorway before she could change her mind. She expected to hear the crunching noise of dried leaves under her feet, but instead the ground disappeared and suddenly, impossibly, she was catapulted through the air. The wind rushed past her, whooshing by her ears as she flew along at what felt like the speed of light. Just when she thought she might throw up, everything stopped. Alex’s heart thumped wildly in her chest.

She lay spread-eagled on the ground but had no idea how she’d landed. Her eyes were shut tight, but she could feel the leafy forest floor underneath her; she could smell the woody scent of pine cones in the air; and she could hear noises—branches creaking, birds singing, wind whistling through the trees. Hesitantly, she opened her eyes and looked around, finding herself lying in the middle of the forest clearing she’d seen through the doorway. But the doorway itself—and the administration building— was nowhere in sight. The good news was that her airborne journey had somehow dried out her sodden clothes and hair. She wasn’t even damp anymore. The bad news was that she had no idea where she was or how she was supposed to get back. Alex sighed and threw her arms out to the sides, sending leaves scattering. “This new school sucks.” Two “That was quite the entrance.

” Alex jumped to her feet, but she had to wait for the resulting dizziness to pass before she was able to look up and find the owner of the unexpected voice. “Hello,” he said when he had her attention, a slight smirk playing at the corners of his mouth. Alex had to blink a few times before she could fully appreciate the picture in front of her. He was, without a doubt, the most staggeringly attractive man she had ever laid eyes on. Almost unnaturally so. She guessed him to be in his late twenties or early thirties, and he had honey-coloured hair and bronze skin. He wore black from head to toe, the material finer than anything Alex had ever seen before. The tailored long-sleeved shirt was open at the collar and tapered by a belt at his waist, meeting a pair of leather-like trousers. The contrast between his tanned skin and dark clothing was breathtaking. But more than anything else, it was his strange golden-coloured eyes that captivated her attention and clouded her mind.

“Forgive me for startling you,” he said formally, gesturing towards himself. “My name is Aven.” “Aven?” she repeated, sounding as dazed as she felt. Seriously, he was practically inhuman with his Greek god-like beauty. It wasn’t her fault she was distracted. “That’s an interesting name.” “Yes,” he agreed, his tone pensive. “I suppose it is.” He looked at her like he was waiting for something. Oh.

Right. “I’m Alex,” she said. “Alexandra Jennings, really, but most people just call me Alex.” Aven moved his hand towards her and she tentatively reached her arm forward, expecting a firm shake, but he surprised her by bowing slightly and pressing a tender kiss to the back of her wrist. “Charmed,” he said, his eyes smouldering. That’s right, smouldering. It was something she’d only ever read about in books before, not actually witnessed. Alex was surprised when her legs managed to keep her upright. She desperately hoped he wouldn’t notice her blushing. Or swooning.

Alex pulled her hand back and tried to clear her foggy brain. She couldn’t figure out why she was so affected by his presence, even if he was on a whole new level of gorgeous. It was only the observation that he seemed to know exactly how he was affecting her that allowed Alex to regain some of her composure. She moved a step away from him, hoping the distance would help. His brow furrowed slightly at her less than discreet movement, but his expression cleared quickly. “Any chance you can explain what just happened to me?” she asked. He raised one perfectly sculpted eyebrow. “What do you mean?” “Well…” Alex gestured to the forest around them. “I just walked through a doorway in the middle of the administration building and then, uh, kind of flew here. Where is ‘here’, by the way?” Aven was looking at her with a curiosity that bordered on incredulity.

“You walked through a doorway and ended up somewhere completely different?” She shrugged. “I know it sounds mental, but it’s the truth.” After a lengthy silence where he stared intently at her, Aven said, “That is… most interesting. Tell me, Alexandra, where do you think we are?”

.

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