Matt and the others fled the classroom following the gold heralds. They passed through various hallways, each one more different than the last until they left the school entirely. A garden with small trees and shrubs sprung up around them. The sky shimmered with deep blues, and high above, a series of lights lit the world as if several dozen suns worked to create daylight.
They walked along a white cobblestone path until they reached a wall of tall hedges. Two giant fairies made of marble held back the encroaching leaves creating a massive entryway that their path continued through.
“This is the Garden of 1000 Kindnesses,” Megan said. “We’re basically free to go anywhere here, and if we need to find our way back to our room or to the classrooms, we just follow the path with gold stones.” She pointed at the right edge of the walkway where the stones sparkled with the auriferous metal. “Gold takes you where you have to go, here. It’s the first kindness in the garden.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Orin said. “If every gold path takes you where you need to go then how can you tell you’re on the right way?”
She gestured behind them.
When Matt glanced back, he noticed that the stones had changed to a metallic red.
“What happens to the kids who try to leave the garden?” he asked.
“They come back.”
“What do you mean they come back?” Orin asked.
She shrugged. “It’s the second kindness. Whenever someone tries to leave, they always reappear wherever they’re supposed to be.”
“So,” Orin said, “If we don’t know how to escape the garden, we can’t?”
“Look at it this way,” she said, “if we try to leave and go the wrong way, it won’t kill us.”
Orin snorted. “So you say. But you haven’t tried to take off.”
She shrugged. “I like it here.”
His eyes narrowed. “Don’t you miss your family?”
“Well, yeah, but they don’t miss me.”
“How you figure?”
“Because my replacement is there. In fact, all of your replacements are there.”
As everyone took in the gravity of what that statement entailed only the sound of their footsteps broke the silence.
The thought of someone living Matt’s life while he wasn’t there sent a chill down his spine. What if his replacement got him grounded? Or worse, what if when he returned, his parents would rather have his double because he was the perfect version of Matt who didn’t argue back or play games too much?
“No,” Orin said. “I guarantee that if I have a double, they’re dead by now.”
“You sure?” Asia asked.
He nodded. “And if they’re not, they will be soon.”
“Man. Your family is messed up,” Samuel said.
He studied the teenager as he clenched his jaw and tightened his hand into a fist.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You’re a liar,” Matt said drawing Orin’s near-black gaze. “No family I know would do something like that to their own kid.”
“Heh.” Orin smiled and ruffled Matt’s hair then trotted ahead, getting closer to the heralds.
Matt scowled at his retreating form.
“Not everyone here is from a good family,” Megan said.
“Sure, but he basically said that his parents killed him. That doesn’t happen.”
“I don’t know what kind of place you were raised, but not everyone comes from a nice family,” Asia said.
“What? You’re saying your parents have tried to kill you?”
“No. My parents are awesome. But I have some distant family members who don’t live in the best situation. Let’s just say that when we have family reunions, I hear some unpleasant things.”
“You’ll see once you meet the others,” Megan said.
They exited the hedge maze and continued along the path until they reached arched double doors that stood alone in a small meadow. The heralds pushed the doors open.
Matt almost jumped in surprise as they led into a hallway with gray and blue marble tiles. Wood panels his mom called wainscoting covered the bottom third of the wall.
“I got it from here, heralds!” Megan said. The gold statues bowed to her and began to slither back the way they had come. “Everyone, please reach toward the wall.”
She stepped in front of everyone like a tour guide and held out her hand. A gold key appeared.
Matt did the same, and a blue crystal materialized in his palm. He frowned. When he looked to the others, he discovered that they also had keys that looked nothing alike.
“This is your personal item. You don’t have to worry about ever losing it because it’s soulbound to you. To get it back all you have to do is enter this dorm then do this. And when you want to go to your room, it will guide you.”
Orin held a sizable green emerald and frowned. A laser-like light shot from it onto the floor in the shape of an arrow. It pointed down the hall.
Matt’s own sapphire key did the same, while some of the others who had metal keys had to deal with them nearly jumping out of their hands, at least that’s what Matt assumed since they all jerked forward a step.
“Hey,” Samuel said, “what about food? They’re feeding us, right?”
“Oh, yeah. Food will show up when you get hungry. It’s the fourth kindness.”
“But I’m hungry now so why haven’t any enchiladas shown up?”
“Maybe the garden thinks you should go on a diet?” Asia said.
“I don’t need a diet,” he said with a grin, “I just have a little fluff."
Matt stopped worrying about the group. Instead, he trudged back out the door.
“Where are you going, Matt?” Megan yelled.
He looked back. “I want to find a way out.”
Orin appeared conflicted. “I have to figure out magic on my own over the next two days. If you still haven’t discovered anything I’ll help you explore.”
“Guys,” Megan said, exasperation evident in her voice, “it’s pointless. The garden is huge. In class, they said it was like, several hundred miles long. Even if you knew what direction to go, it would take weeks to walk across without some kind of flying carpet.”
Matt continued to walk toward the garden.
“And just because you won’t go hungry doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous!”