Chapter 3: Alex
...... Like a horse, Alex Griffin breathed in the sharp smell of freshly mowed grass through angry flared nostrils. Far into the meadow, his back to the school, he stood motionless with one hand balled into a fist and the other clasping a spiral-bound sketchpad like a shield of individuality against his new world of cookie-cutter uniformity. His eyes cast down, he saw his brown shoes, brown shorts and dark green blazer; he looked like a tree with knees.
...... Even though alone on an open meadow, he felt trapped. He wanted to run away, but there was nowhere to run. Then, looking up, he saw that he wasn't even entirely alone; a man in a golf cart was going around placing flag-sticks into holes--transforming the pristine field into a golf course. He hated golf, and his dad didn't like it either. His dad said that a golf course was just an underdeveloped cemetery.
...... A shadow passed over the meadow. Alex raised his gaze yet higher and saw big dark clouds galloping across the sky. He felt a thrill of danger, imagining that a storm might come and he could be struck by lightning and killed. His father would be sorry then. His father would really be sorry that he'd abandoned him at this horrible school. His dad had said it would be good for him; with superb teachers and not all that many kids, he'd get lots of personal attention and he'd learn to focus, learn to harness his rampant imagination. Alex shook his head in indignation. His dad had even laughed when the carousel organ played 'Alexander's Ragtime Band'. He said it was a good omen. Yeah, right! Alex bit his lip and vowed to do his very best not to learn anything at Amdexter School. But he knew the real reason he was here; his dad was just too disorganized now to take care of him.
...... When the golf cart had gone, Alex wandered over to one of the flag-sticks. It was shorter and thinner than he'd expected, different from those he'd seen on TV golf--when he was baby-sat by his uncle who loved the game. Yuch! I'd almost rather watch nursing home commercials.
...... He yanked it from its cup and held it like a spear. It was no more than six feet long. But even with the heavy metal ferule at the end that went in the cup, it balanced well. Maybe on kids' golf courses, the sticks are shorter.
...... Against the distant background of wild tribal calliope music and the chaotic cries of the natives, he made a few passes at a rabid wild boar with foot-long tusks. Alexander Griffin, Bengal Lancer. He wondered what a Bengal was. A tiger, I think.
...... The distant carousel music stopped and Alex swiveled around. He saw the carousel's lights snap dark and kids streaming away from it toward Founders Hall. The party's over. Dinner time and despite himself, he was hungry. He returned his lance to the golf cup, then started trudging toward the school. When he reached the newly-deserted carousel he stopped, captivated by the sight of it looming forlorn against the unsettled sky.
...... While his father had been at the garden party, Alex had wanted to ride the carousel but didn't. He didn't want his father to think there was anything about the school he could possibly enjoy. But it did look like fun. It really would be fun riding it in a rainstorm. Alex peered at the horses. The shiny varnish and lacquer probably makes them waterproof. He glanced skyward. It didn't look like rain, after all.
...... Impulsively, Alex dropped to the grass and unclipped his ballpoint from the wire coil of his sketchpad. Flipping through the dense menagerie of animal drawings, he found a blank page. Sitting with his sketchpad resting on his knees, he stared analytically at the carousel. It was the largest one he'd ever seen. The horses, four abreast, looked bigger as well. The outer ring of horses was broken at opposite points by two bucket-like sleighs for small children. Sleighs with seatbelts. He let his gaze wander to the deep interior, to what looked like an octagonal lighthouse. At its summit, rafters splayed out supporting the peaked roof and the cranks that propelled the horses up and down. The lighthouse walls supported an array of small framed mirrors and there were gargoyles jutting out--looking especially menacing with the carousel lights off.
...... Alex sketched one of the horses. Quickly then, he sprang to his feet and padded toward the Big Quad, and then onward to Founders. He was hungry--and late. And what good would it do to get into trouble on his first day--especially if his father wasn't around to observe it?
...... He slipped through the Founders Refectory entrance and took a seat at the furthest bench. Someone, probably the headmaster, was speaking at the head of the hall. Alex placed his sketchpad on the table and listened--reluctantly. It didn't seem as if anyone would be able to get food until the guy finished talking. Alex was alone at his table. He didn't mind; he wasn't particularly in the mood for company. But sitting alone made him feel conspicuous; everyone would know he'd come in late.
...... Just then, another kid slid in beside Alex--another latecomer. The kid gazed at the headmaster with an expression of rapt attention. But then Alex noticed that the kid wore ear-buds and that there was a music player in his pocket.
...... The headmaster welcomed the kids to a new school year, introduced the new classics master, George Hogwood, the new social studies master, Neville Thomas, and the new chaplain, Brother Kenji Wakabayashi. Then he explained there were really two schools now.
...... As the man droned on, Alex scanned the dining hall and saw some benches with kids wearing grey shorts. For the most part, they looked bored. Eventually the headmaster finished up by saying there'd be another party at the carousel this evening at seven-thirty. And the carousel would be open for rides. "Casual Dress," he said, with a smile. "For you new boys, that means no school blazer and cap."
...... I guess I'll get a chance to ride it after all.
...... When the headmaster had returned to his seat at the head table, the other late kid took off his ear-buds. "Boy," he said at a loud whisper. "The guy's just as much as a windbag as he was last year." He stuffed the ear-buds into his pocket. "I'm Todd Liddell," he said in a voice suggesting he was an important kid in the school.
...... "I'm Alex Griffin."
...... "I'm a third form dormitory row-prefect," said Todd, pausing for a moment as if waiting for his words to register. Then he slid out and headed for the food service. Alex followed, piled his tray, and returned to his place. But Todd didn't come back. Looking around, Alex saw him palling around with kids at another table.
...... Alex ate his dinner in the anonymity provided by the clinking and clattering of dishes and cutlery. And with the added noise of a big room of boys talking and bantering, it would have taken an effort for someone to talk to Alex--and no one did. Lonely in the room filled with strangers, Alex scarfed down his dinner and skulked away.
...... The third floor of Amdexter was one big room with a shower room at one end and a house master's apartment at the other. A wide aisle down the middle separated the second form dorm from the third. Each of the dorms was divided into rows of six beds and locker-like closets. The closets were as wide as were the beds. On the left sides of the rows, the arrangement was bed, closet, bed, closet, bed, closet. And on the right side, closet, bed, closet, bed, closet, bed. The arrangement made each row a separate little enclave isolated from its neighbor. The central aisle was at one end and a window made up of six little panes was at the other. Painted black as they were, the wood strips separating the panes looked like bars. Looking through the window, Alex saw the Feynman School dorm across the Dalambertian, its windows glowing orange with the reflected light of the setting sun. He wiped a hand across his eyes. During the day, he could almost tolerate being away at school. But now, with night approaching, he longed to be at home. A wave of homesickness washed over him.
...... Alex turned his gaze onto his new home: bed and closet. His bed was the closest to the window. Under ordinary circumstances it would be his preferred location. But, although it afforded a small increase in privacy, it meant he would have to pass a gauntlet of bunks and kids whenever he needed to go in or out. Now, during the dinner break, the row was deserted.
...... Alex worked the combination lock on his closet, changed out of his un-casual clothes, put his sketchpad on the closet shelf, and then locked up again. He turned sharply and headed for the the stairs. Maybe the party would blot out his homesickness. In fact, maybe that was what the party was for.
...... Alex crossed the Dalambertian and made his way to the carousel. Clearly, he'd arrived too early; the place was nearly dead. He walked to two tables set a couple of feet apart which acted as an improvised gateway to the carousel. But the carousel hadn't yet been turned on. Alex stuck his hands in his pockets and let his nose lead him away toward good stuff.
...... There were tables and chairs for casual sitting around. And there were tables of punch, milk, cake, and cookies with a few masters overseeing them, but other than himself, no kids wandered around. And with the dark, motionless carousel looming over everything, it didn't feel much like a party. Then a master unlocked a metal box next to the carousel and threw a few switches. The carousel's lights came on, adding a multicolored brightness to the darkening sky. The music came on as well--circus music. Suddenly, it did feel like a party. Kids began to arrive. The lights and the music seemed to suck them from the dorms.
...... Under a master's direction, the kids queued at the gateway tables for rides. But they weren't big kids. The fourth and fifth form kids didn't seem interested. Alex thought they probably felt too old for it. They congregated mainly around the food.
...... When the queue had grown large enough that he wouldn't feel conspicuous, Alex joined the line. A few minutes later, he saw Todd in the company of two other kids. They swaggered toward the line and queued at the end of it. But whenever the master controlling the gate looked away, Todd and his cronies sneaked up a few places. Alex thought it was strange that none of the other kids on the line complained.
...... But the line went fast--it was a big carousel--and Alex got his ride. When his horse stopped, he dismounted, darted away to grab a snack, and then went through the line a few more times. Soon after, one of the masters held up his hand for silence. The music stopped, and the master sent all the second-formers up to their dorm to prepare for bed. He said the third-formers would have an additional forty-five minutes--except for the ESAP boys who would have just thirty minutes more. Since their party was the previous night, they had to go to bed at their normal hour. As for the forth and fifth-formers, they had another hour and fifteen minutes.
...... The bigger kids still seemed uninterested in rides so, with only third-formers riding, the gate became superfluous; anyone could ride whenever he wanted. Alex rode a few more times and afterwards he sat on the grass and watched the horses go by. He wished he'd brought his sketchbook.
...... Then he saw three kids coming towards the carousel. With laughter and horseplay, and with their pockets bulging with tennis balls, they mounted horses. The carousel ponderously spun into motion and the boys began tossing tennis balls back and forth--a game of catch on horseback. Some balls they caught while most spun off onto the grass. Alex jumped to his feet, picked one up--it was bright yellow with the letters ESAP marked in black--and pitched it to one of the kids. The kid caught it and, with a smile, pitched it back. For the rest of the ride, Alex both scooped up wayward balls and played catch with the three riders.
...... But the ride ended sooner than it should have; with a flip of a switch a master ended it.
...... "Please get off the carousel," he said. "What you're doing is dangerous. Someone could fall off and get hurt."
...... "But," said one of the kids, the one with brown, badly behaved hair, "that's what the carousel is for."
...... "Off, please," said the master.
...... "Okay, okay." The brown haired kid dismounted and jumped to the ground.
...... "You'll find," said the master as the other two boys joined the brown haired one, "that sir goes a long way at this school."
...... Alex, as he was a party to the tennis ball tossing, walked to stand beside the other three kids.
...... "Yes, sir," said the brown haired kid.
...... "Jawohl," said the tall, thin, blond kid in a respectful tone of voice.
...... The master paused. He seemed to be deciding whether the boy was being insolent.
...... "Yes, sir," said the third kid, the smallest of the three.
...... The master let out a breath, nodded, and walked away.
...... The brown haired boy turned to Alex. "Hi," he said. "I'm Kip."
...... "I'm Alex." Alex handed his collection of retrieved tennis balls to the three kids, who stuffed them into their pockets.
...... The other two introduced themselves, and then Kip suggested cookies. They ambled toward the strong chocolate smell, then snagged paper plates of gooey chocolate cookies, paper cups of milk, straws and napkins--and then found a table. The straws by themselves were a mark of a special occasion; in the refectory, there were no straws. As the three ESAP boys sat, they tore off the ends of the straw wrappers and blew them at each other. Kip had taken two straws and so got off a second shot. Then Kip stuck the straws up his nose and blew bubbles in his milk.
...... Alex was impressed--not so, a passing master.
...... "That's disgusting," said the master. "Stop that at once."
...... "Yes, sir," said Kip, freeing his nostrils while the other boys giggled.
...... After finishing their snacks, the four boys wandered around together. They had an impromptu game of catch--the Paul kid was really good. Then, padding further from the carousel and its circus lights, Wolfgang pointed skyward and identified some of the brighter stars and told the stories about their constellations. They talked about animals--Alex was thrilled that Kip was also an animal nut. They went back for another carousel ride and more snacks, and by the time the announcement came that the ESAP boys had to return to their dorm, Alex felt he'd made three good friends.
...... "We've got to go," said Wolfgang.
...... Alex sighed. Even though he had fifteen more minutes of party time in front of him, he'd had enough. "Yeah, I may as well go back to my horrid dorm, too."
...... "Horrid?" said Kip as the four boys started walking. "Our dorm is really nice."
...... As they ambled down the central path in the Dalambertian, Paul described their dorm and then Alex described his.
...... "Boy," said Kip "I'm glad I'm not in your school."
...... Alex compressed his lips and stared straight ahead.
...... "Why did you come here?" said Wolfgang. "Amdexter, I mean."
...... Alex flushed. "I didn't come. I was sent." He felt a tide of sorrow wash over him. "My mom died and my dad didn't think he could take care of me."
...... "That's tough," said Kip.
...... As Alex trudged up the stairs to
his dormitory, he felt his energy fall away at each step. When he reached the
landing, he knew he was ready for bed. Under the covers, he could forget about
this dumb school. And the party worked; he was too tired to feel homesick.
...... He'd hoped that, since he'd left the party early, he'd get back first and be alone in his dorm row. But that Todd kid was already there.
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