He slackened his arm and pushed the needle into his wrist, depressing the plunger to let the liquid inside rush through his veins. Just as he did every morning and every night, he let a warm shiver pass through him, his eyes fluttering shut as the effects took hold almost instantly. The medication loosened his muscles and relaxed his mind, making his worries seem insignificant in the moment. It wouldn’t last long, though. It hadn’t been working very well to calm him down for quite a while now. How could it, when the event that would change his life forever was less than a day away?
He shook his head, dropping the needle back into the paper bag. There wasn’t time to think about that right now, and worrying would do him no good, either. Pushing himself to his feet, he hurried to the door and pulled it open. Mother was already at the entrance. Her hand was reaching for the doorknob, and she pulled back when he revealed himself from behind the door. “Oh. Good morning, Peyton,” she said. “I was just coming to get you for breakfast.”
Peyton walked out into the hallway, smoothing out his shirt. “I was just taking my medication. Sorry.”
“You don’t want to be late today, do you?”
He looked away. “I know, Mother. I’m sorry.”
“Mm-hmm.” Mother fell quiet for a moment, bringing them to an awkward silence. When she did start speaking again, her voice was quieter. “Your father’s still asleep, but I’m sure he’ll be awake soon. I made muffins for you all this morning.”
Sure enough, the hallway was thick with the sweet scent of nutmeg and cinnamon, and it only got stronger as Peyton approached the kitchen. Father would be sure to emerge from his bedroom at any moment from the smell, bedraggled and baggy-eyed, ready to give Peyton and Mother morning kisses before he devoured three muffins with a swig of orange juice to wash them down. It was so strange to think about how that wouldn’t be happening again— not for the next four years, at least.
“What’s the matter? Pumpkin muffins are your favorite, aren’t they?” Mother asked, resting a hand on his shoulder.
Peyton pulled away. He slipped into one of the four seats at the kitchen table. “You know what the problem is. I’m nervous about tomorrow. And… and today too, I guess.” He looked to the wall. The clock read 9:20. There wasn’t much time to eat before the bus arrived. “We have to do the speech today, remember?”
“There’s no reason to be nervous. Your father and I got through the speeches, and the Academy easily. Why should you be any different?” She slipped a muffin and a sliced apple in front of him. “Kendall and Olive will be there to help you if anything happens, too. There isn’t any need to worry.” He didn’t respond. She frowned. “Peyton?”
Peyton forced a smile onto his face. “I guess you’re right.” He swallowed the chunk of muffin half-chewed and stood up. “I have to go now. The bus will be coming soon.”
Mother grabbed the apple and thrust it into Peyton’s hands. “Take the fruit, at least. I don’t want you to be hungry.”
“Thank you, Mother. I’ll see you later.” He stepped forward, giving her a quick peck on the cheek. “Save some muffins for me before Dad eats them all, please.”
“Peyton—” Mother began, but Peyton was already by the door, swinging it open to allow the sweet, late-summer air to rush in. He swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat, and bounded down the steps before Mother could get another word in.
Of all five districts that made up the City, most people said that Silverhill had the best scenery. Peyton wasn’t the best person to ask about that— he had never been to any of the other districts, after all— but from what he’d seen in his fourteen years the view was very pretty. Lush trees and shrubs sculpted into perfect spheres dotted the entire area. Instead of the man made walls that enclosed the other four districts from the Outskirts, a towering gray line of rocky mountains replaced them, giving the district its namesake. The townsfolk were as proud of that as they were of their pastel-coloured bungalows and cottages. Peyton tried to savor it all as he walked down the cobblestone walkway. This was the last time he could do this, and it was important to make it count.
The bus eventually did come into view despite his deliberate pace. The double doors swung open with a hiss as he approached. Climbing up the steps, he pressed his thumb into the screen at the head of the seats. A green light flashed, and the doors shut behind him. He found a seat in the back and sat down just as the bus began to pull away, a tinny voice announcing, “Now departing for 3197 Chrysanthemum Lane: Miss Campbell’s Primary Learning School for Young Children.”
Most of the seats on the bus were empty. Those that weren’t empty were occupied by other children who attended primaries with him, none of them quite old enough for him to really befriend. Half of them still needed their parents to escort them around the town. Neither Olive or Kendall were on the bus— they lived closer to the school and could walk there together regularly.
Peyton pressed his cheek against the window and shoved pieces of the apple into his mouth. No other buses occupied the road yet, so he could see the neighborhood clearly. The brightly colored houses transitioned to brightly colored booths and boutiques the further they went. A pair of Seeker agents wound through and around them in what had to be their second or third patrol of the day by now. Donned in navy uniforms with large black birds perched on their shoulders, they nodded and waved at the bus as it passed by. The bus drove by a couple playing with their young child, two women conversing, a man tending to his flowers. Everything was so tranquil. So peaceful. Peyton frowned. Of what little he knew about the Academy, it would be nothing like peaceful, quiet Silverhill. How would he be able to cope?
There wasn’t much time to think about it. The bus began to slow, pulling up to its destination. It was always a short drive, even with Peyton’s home nearly on the edge of town. He would have been able to walk, if only he hadn’t been so late. Maybe he would walk home with Olive and Kendall today. He rose to his feet and hurried down the stairs, walking up to the peach bungalow that he had called his second home for the past nine years.
There were still people mulling about in the lobby. Class hadn’t started yet, thankfully. Peyton returned the waves thrown at him by the loitering students and parents before he entered the doorway near the back. About thirty children between the ages of five and fourteen sat in clusters of desks— older children in the back, younger in the front. Most of them were talking to each other in hushed tones, while others colored, read, or played with small toys. Olive’s big, frizzy red hair distinguished her from the others immediately— her enthusiastic wave helped too, of course. Kendall sat next to her as usual. Peyton felt the corners of his lips pulling upward. He hurried to the back of the room, slipping into the empty seat across from Olive.
“Peyton!” Olive hopped forward, a grin spreading across her face. “Can you believe it? All we have to do is get through today, and then we’ll finally be going to the Academy! Can you even believe that it’s finally happening? Are you excited? What about the speech we’re giving today— are you excited about that, huh?”
“Y-yeah. I guess I am. For both things.” He shrugged, looking down at his folded hands. A small pile of note cards sat in the corner of the desk, and he reached to pick them up. “What are these?”
“They’re for the speech we’re giving.” Kendall sat up straighter in his seat. “We’ve been working on the memory notes. Remember?”
“Oh. Yeah.” Peyton tried to laugh as he flipped through the cards. Of course. They’d spent hours at his or Kendall’s house over the past few weeks, slaving over the two and a half minute long oral presentation. How had he forgotten? He bit the inside of his cheek. “I remember…”
Olive reached over and patted his hand. “Don’t be nervous. You know that it’s all just generic stuff every other graduate’s said. We’ll be fine. And I’ll pick up the slack if you get all stuttery or anything.”
Peyton let the silent and you probably will dissolve between them. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right,” he said at last. “I’m just lucky to have you two here to help me. And I’m lucky that I won’t have to go to the Academy alone. It’d really suck to have to go by myself and not know anyone there. I don’t know how I’d be able to manage.”
“Shh.” Kendall brought a finger to his lips. He twisted around to look to the front of the room. Peyton raised his head, watching as Miss Campbell walked into the room. A flutter in his stomach tickled his lips and turned them upward against his will.
“Hello, class!” Miss Campbell clasped her hands at her waist, smiling brightly when everyone returned the greeting. “I’m sure you all know that today is a very special day. Yes, it’s the last day for us all, but it’s the very last day for three of our students.” Her gaze flickered to the back of the room. With it, about thirty other pairs of eyes followed. Peyton tried to hide his face.
“Today,” Miss Campbell continued, turning to the blackboard behind her, “is the last time Kendall, Olive, and Peyton will be here as students. This time tomorrow, they’ll be off to attend the Academy, ready to start the next part of their lives and be one step closer to becoming productive members of society.” She pulled away from the blackboard to show three names and a rather crude drawing of a set of buildings. “Why don’t we give them all a big round of applause?”
Clapping and cheers filled the room. Peyton’s cheeks burned. It wasn’t that big of an accomplishment, really. Everyone went to the Academy once they turned fourteen.
Miss Campbell continued, the applause dying down as her voice grew louder. “Those of you who have been with me in the past years know that the advancing students always deliver a speech to the others before they leave. Kendall, Olive, and Peyton have actually decided to collaborate on their speech, and deliver it together.” She nodded at them. “Come on up, you guys. Now class, please remember to be quiet and respectful. You all will be up there one day, in a few years— that includes you Francis, please do not stick your tongue out at them! You wouldn’t like that if you were the one giving the speech, now would you?”
Peyton tried his best to ignore the giggling that bubbled between the students. He rose with Kendall and Olive, running his fingers along the edge of his cue cards. The faster he could get this over with, the better. Walking to the front of the room, he turned to face the class, sandwiched between Olive and Kendall. Who was going to speak first? He looked down at his cards— there weren’t any numbers signifying the order in which they would be spoken.
He looked up. Olive was smiling at him encouragingly. Oh. He swallowed, his eyes sweeping over the expectant audience. “Um. Today— today I want to thank you all.” Which cue card was he supposed to use first? His hands shook as he fumbled through them. “I cannot even begin to describe how much you all have helped me— helped us— learn and grow as people for the past nine years,” he said. “We leave this place knowing that we couldn’t be any more prepared for this next step in our lives.” He paused to flip to the next card. “Each and every one of you, whether if you’re a fresh new face in the classroom or if you’ll be joining us at the Academy next year, have all had a positive impact on our education and— and our f-future.”
He trailed off, hastily skimming the cue card. Olive suddenly jumped in. “The three of us know full well that all of you will go on to do great things. You will excel here, in the Academy, and beyond, contributing to the success of our City and making it a better place to live. Don’t miss us while we’re gone, but rather take comfort and inspiration in the fact that we are one step closer to becoming productive members in this lovely world of ours.”
She stopped. Peyton could see her look over and nod at Kendall. Kendall took a tiny step forward, clearing his throat. “We would like to thank our parents and Miss Campbell for their bright spirits, intelligence, and encouraging nature most of all. Miss Campbell especially. If it hadn’t been for her, we might not be up here right now, just a day away from the next step of our lives. She has done much good for us and we are sure that she will continue to do great things in the future. I ask my fellow students to take full advantage of everything she teaches us, for it will surely help you out in the future.” He looked up and deftly folded his cue card in half. “Thank you for listening.”
Miss Campbell and the students burst into applause. “Very nice, you three,” Miss Campbell said. “I am so proud of you all. What they said is right, class. All of you have the same amount of potential, and I’m sure that each of you will go on to do amazing things once your time to advance comes. Now, why don’t you three return to your seats? I’ll talk some more about what exactly the Academy is for the rest of us.”
Peyton followed Olive and Kendall back to their desks. Sitting down in his chair, he stared down at his twitching fingers, listening to Miss Campbell wipe away their names to begin her lesson on the Academy. It was tradition— there was always a lesson on the Academy whenever students in the class moved on up. Every year for the past nine years, Peyton had listened to Miss Campbell’s lesson on the Academy. He could probably teach it verbatim by now. Thank goodness he didn’t have to, though. He would probably blow it. Just like he did with the stupid speech.
Miss Campbell began to scribble words on the blackboard. “The Academy, or secondaries as it is sometimes called, is where all children between the ages of fourteen and eighteen go to live and learn before they’re sent off to work in the City. It’s almost like living here in Silverhill, except most of the townspeople would be kids the same age as you all. Of course, there are adults there to teach and take care of the students, so don’t get any silly ideas!” She smiled at the giggling that passed through the room.
“The four years that the students spend at the Academy is spent undergoing a rigorous academic regimen to prepare them for the rest of their lives out in the City. What a student will be doing once they leave, of course, is decided by said student’s strengths and interests that they display while attending the Academy.” She turned to face the class once more. “What do you all wish to be chosen for once you enter the Academy? How about you, Peyton? Is there anything that you would want to do, more than anything else?”
Peyton jerked up. “M-Me?”
“Yes. What would you like to do when you’re grown up? What do you look forward to?”
He hesitated, voice faltering. Everyone was looking at him. Francis’s hand was placed in front of their mouth in what looked to be a snicker. Olive smiled brightly at him, and Miss Campbell tilted her head, patient but expectant.
Finally, he found the strength to open his mouth. “I— um— well… I think I want to be some sort of doctor, or— or a scientist, maybe. I guess I’ll be looking forward to all the science classes. To learn more about the things that we can’t really learn much about here. And it— it would be cool to do research, and help people when I graduate.”
Had that been the right thing to say? Apparently, it had been, because Miss Campbell’s warm smile only grew larger. “A doctor or scientist? A lovely choice, Peyton. I wanted to be a scientist when I was your age, but the Academy’s officials decided I would be better off as an educator instead. Now, I wouldn’t change anything for the world. I’m sure you’ll love whatever you are assigned to do, just like I do.” She turned back to the board and continued to write.
“Th-thank you, Miss Campbell.” Peyton slouched in his seat, his cheeks growing hot. Was she being genuine with her praises? He couldn’t see anyone that the Academy taking him seriously if she didn’t. Olive and Kendall were already so much more confident and articulate. Peyton knew that they both wanted to work in the similar fields as he wanted to. What if they did better in the Academy? There would be so many more people their age there, many with similar interests and goals…. would Kendall and Olive abandon him if he ended up holding them back?
He squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head. Don’t think stuff like that. You’re being silly. The three of them had been friends since they had been born. Why would things be any different in the Academy?
As if hearing his thoughts, Olive glanced toward him. She tilted her head. “What’re you thinking about?”
“Oh— um, nothing, really. Just getting lost in my thoughts a little. That’s all.”
“Yeah, I understand.” She chuckled under her breath, then began to fidget in her seat. “I’m just so excited! Only a few hours to go, right?” She looked to the clock on the wall. “Twenty minutes to go until we’re out of this place forever.”
“Yeah. The last day is always just a little over an hour, don’t you remember?”
“Oh. Yeah. Of course I remember.” The clock read 10:40 already. It was almost scary how fast time was passing.
“Mm-hmm.” Olive leant back in her seat, teetering on the two back legs. “Want to walk home with me?”
“Oh— sure. I want to take everything in before we have to leave tomorrow.”
“One last good memory?” Olive leant forward again, the chair’s metal legs clunking back into place. She barely paid attention to the annoyed glances shot her way. “That’ll be nice. One last peaceful walk before we get thrown into all the chaos and hard work, hm?”
“Yeah. Y-yeah, that’s right.” He nodded. “Are you going to walk home with us too, Kendall?”
“I’m planning on it.” Kendall tapped his fingertips on the desk. “Can you two please talk a little more quietly, though? I’m trying to listen to the lesson.”
Olive pouted. “We’re already whispering. And the lesson isn’t anything you don’t already know, anyway.” Kendall didn’t respond, and Olive snorted. “Sometimes you can be so uptight.”
“He’s right, Olive. We don’t want to annoy anyone,” Peyton said. “Let’s just quiet down until the lesson’s over.”
The chalk striking the blackboard punctuated Miss Campbell’s words. “I’m almost done now. Just hang tight for a moment.” She looked back to the class, that ever-present smile gracing her face. “The last thing I’d like to speak about is the facilities within the vicinity of the Academy. I don’t know much about them, but what I do know is that some important things do go on in there.” Her eyes rested upon Peyton, Kendall, and Olive. “This applies to you three most of all, so listen closely.
“Even though they’re situated in the middle of the Academy, those facilities are among the most prestigious places to work in the entire City. Only the best of the best are allowed to enter those buildings, let alone work there full time. Many secrets are held in those buildings.” Her face brightened. “Perhaps if you three work hard enough, you will be chosen to work in there after you graduate, or perhaps even visit during your time studying in the Academy. I know it would be a great honor for any of you to be given that privilege. Just a little bit of inspiration before I send you off.” She clasped her hands by her hips again. “Class is dismissed! If you’re planning on staying, please remember and respect the rules, as well as the toys. If not, I’ll see you all next month! Be sure to tell me all about your adventures over break when we get back.”
Kendall at last broke his impeccable posture to stretch. “That’s already one thing I don’t like about the Academy. Their lessons start just as the primary classes’s teaching time ends. We’re just thrown into everything the day after we arrive.”
Olive shrugged. “I guess the people in charge over there want us to adapt quickly.” She jumped to her feet. “Let’s go!”
“Wait just a moment, please.”
Olive pivoted around. “Oh. Hi there, Miss Campbell.”
“Hi, Olive.” Miss Campbell nodded at her. “I’d just like to have a quick chat with Peyton, if that’s okay? It won’t be long.”
“Me? Um, okay.” Peyton glanced back at Olive and Kendall. “I— um, you two can walk ahead, if you want. I can catch up later.” He watched them turn away, walking out into the lobby. Hopefully they wouldn’t go too far without him. He looked back to Miss Campbell, swallowing. “What— what’s the matter?”
“I just wanted to make sure that you’re alright, that’s all.” She brushed a strand of hair from her face, leaning down so they were face to face. “The days leading up to going to the Academy are stressful for everyone. Don’t think for a second that you’re embarrassing yourself, or that you’re inadequate in any way. Have you been taking your medication as you should?”
Peyton felt his throat constrict. “Of course I have, Miss Campbell. I’m sorry— usually I don’t act like that. It’s just— I was just—”
“Relax, Peyton.” She rested a hand on his shoulder. “I remember how nervous I was for my first day. You can imagine how long ago that was. I was acting almost exactly like you, really. Maybe even worse. What I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t feel bad about your nervousness— even if it’s unnecessary. I’m sure your friends feel the same way, even if they don’t show it as much as you do.”
Your first day couldn’t have been very long ago. You don’t look that old. The words died on Peyton’s lips as he looked up into her face, his cheeks suddenly warm. “I— okay. I understand. I’ll try to do better, so it won’t happen again. I— I mean, I know it won’t happen again, because this is my last day here, but— um—” he took in a deep breath. “I’ll try not to be nervous anymore, okay?”
Miss Campbell laughed. “Trust me, Peyton, there’s no need for you to be nervous. You’re one of the brightest children I’ve had the pleasure to teach. I’m being one-hundred percent honest. I’m sure you’ll do great at the Academy.”
“W-wow. Really?” He swallowed, forcing away the blush he just knew was spreading on his face. “Thank you, Miss Campbell! I’ll do my best. I promise.”
“I’m sure you will.” She lifted her hand from his shoulder, allowing him to relax a little. “Are there any other worries you’d like to talk to me about?”
Peyton hesitated. There were a countless amount of questions flying through his head, too many for him to even flesh out properly. What was he supposed to ask? Dumbly, he opened his mouth, and words came tumbling out. “The Academy— what was it really like for you? What did you do during those four years? And what happened after?”
The flicker of emotion flashed across Miss Campbell’s face so quickly that Peyton wasn’t able to decipher exactly what it was before it disappeared. “That’s for you to figure out on your own, silly,” she said. “Every person has to discover everything the Academy has to offer on their own. Trust me, you’ll be fine. Now—” she raised her hand and waved him away— “Kendall and Olive are waiting for you, aren’t they? You should go and catch up to them, and have a nice, peaceful walk on the last day.”
He stepped back, staring at Miss Campbell and her ever-smiling face. Eventually, he nodded. “Yeah. I should. Um— thank you for teaching me for all these years, Miss Campbell. I really appreciate it.”
Miss Campbell walked forward, closing the gap Peyton had created. Her arms stretched outward, and then they were suddenly wrapped around Peyton, and he could only stand there and try and control his breathing as his cheeks set ablaze. He managed to calm himself down enough to wind his own arms around her, but she was already pulling away by then. “You’re welcome,” she said. “I’ll try my best to come and see you off tomorrow, alright?”
“Okay. I’ll— I’ll see you tomorrow.” He stepped backward again, only tearing his eyes from her face when he forced his feet to turn him around. There were still students in the classroom and the lobby. Any one of them could have seen his exchange with Miss Campbell, he realized with a wince. At least he wouldn’t be around to see them judge him for it tomorrow.
He walked out into the lobby, then to the door, pushing it open. Kendall and Olive were waiting for him just outside. They smiled as he walked out of the building, Olive walking over to wrap an arm around his shoulder. “What did Miss Campbell want to talk to you about?”
Peyton shrugged, staring down at the cobblestone ground. “She just wanted to make sure I was okay. I was acting nervous, she said. I-I’m fine, though. She said she would come and see us off tomorrow.” He swallowed. “I— I’m going to miss her.”
Olive pulled him closer with a mischievous grin “We already know that you’re going to miss her. You make it so obvious. But don’t worry. I’m sure there’ll be other teachers at the Academy for you to—”
“No! Not this again!” He pushed her away, hoping his frustration wasn’t betrayed by the involuntary heat in his cheeks or the smile threatening to appear on his face. “I don’t— it isn’t— can’t we just go home, now? Please?”
Olive laughed. “Of course, of course. Let’s go, Kendall.”
She suddenly skipped away, and Peyton and Kendall had to hurry to catch up to her. Most of the other students and their parents had taken the bus, or had already walked far enough that the three of them had the road all to themselves.
It was quiet. The drone of the summer insects was only disturbed by Olive’s incessant chatter and Kendall’s occasional grunt or hum in response. Peyton tried to take it all it in for one last time. This was the last time he’d be able to ever do this again. The thought dampened his pleasant mood no matter how hard he tried to push it away. What had been going on with him in the past few days?
He craned his neck to look up to the sky. A pair of Seeker birds coasted lazily above him, their shiny black feathers a smudge on the otherwise light blue surface. Peyton shivered, a twinge of discomfort prickling the back of his head. This was the last day he’d be considered a child. He’d be getting his first taste of freedom less than twenty-four hours from now, his first taste of independence and freedom. He’d finally be able to experience just what the City truly was. So then why did he feel so uneasy?