Mom's waiting for me in the car, busying herself with her phone. She doesn't look too happy so I wait politely outside. I'm not that stupid. At one point she takes the phone from her ear and repeatedly stabs the screen with her finger, then yells at it and throws the phone on the dashboard. Still fuming she beckons me in.
"Bad connection?" I ask when I hop in.
She frowns at me but says nothing. I smile back, all sweet and innocent.
Well, if I behave nice and proper, Mom shouldn't be too angry. At me. I wonder what that call was about. We nearly hit a passing motorbike when Mom pulls out of our parking spot. The biker swerves just in time, avoiding a collision with our truck. Even though Mom who's at fault she utters a stream of profanities that would get her fired quicker than any of my stunts ever could. I decide not to mention the phone call. At all. Instead, I picture myself on such a machine, a low, sleek chopper, black with painted flames and lots of chrome, riding into the sunset.
"Stupid bikers," Mom rumbles.
Her mood isn't improving when she takes the wrong turn and we end up on a dead-end street. It takes two garbage cans and the loud complaints of an orange cat before we're facing the right way again. 'Sorry,' I silently apologize to the cat. I don't think it was Vago, but one should always apologize to any feline. They secretly rule the world, after all, or at least they think so.
We continue towards the school with a couple of detours without further inconveniencing cats, garbage cans, or leather-clad bikers. Mom goes from angry outburst to controlled mutter to deadly silence the closer we get. And then she suddenly slows down and pulls over.
She doesn't respond but looks out the window at what once must have been a charming little cottage. The outside walls are still up, but the windows, doors, and roof are gone. Ivy has taken possession of the place. It is surrounded by a meshed fence, with a big sign stating 'Friendly Builders LTD, A Kind Company - Under Development - No Trespassing.' The fence has become rusty, suggesting this place must have been under development for a long, long time.
Mom takes out her phone and snaps a picture. She studies the screen for a while, then slowly nods. "Well, well…"
"What do you see?" she asks, pointing at the ruin.
I shrug. "A fence surrounding an old house. Well, a couple of walls, so I guess it's more of a ruin than anything."
She shows me her phone.
I compare the image on the screen with the real thing outside and shrug. "Looks the same to me."
Mom nods, and puts the lever into 'drive' again, not explaining anything. I'm not even asking, she is like that. Besides, we're about to arrive…
At Nuttley's High.
... which is larger than I expected. Trees surround the main building, offering limited protection against the sun. Still, the grass looks inviting even if it's a kind of fading green mottled with sickly brown patches. It seems not even a good sprinkler system can beat this summer sun during the hottest time of the year. Beyond what I assume to be the main building there are other trees and roofs. There's yelling and running in the distance, followed by a whistle and underscored by a rolling bass. The sports team likes its music loud.
There's a gate in the fence that separates the school grounds from the dusty public parking lot, with a bored guard sitting on a folding chair outside his little guardhouse. Through the bars of the iron-wrought fence, I watch a group of girls sitting on what's left of the grass, and absent-mindedly I catalogue the cameras, metal detector and spikes. At least they've got some security, nothing which would stop me, but... who is it for? Maybe the fence is to keep the students and teachers in?
The gate itself resembles the one on the cover of the Merzhyn Emris book, except for the missing skulls. Instead, it has a sign which reads 'Nuttley's High'. There are some faint remnants of the slightly less flattering 'Nutty's High', but they're almost invisible. Almost. Whoever the jester, he or she used some good quality paint.
Outside the gate is a large car park, hosting half a dozen school buses that share the sunlight with a motley collection of trucks and SUVs, two Camaros, and a familiar-looking motorbike in chrome and black and flames. Same bike, same guy. He takes off his helmet whilst we park in one of the empty 'visitor' spaces. I prepare my most apologetic smile and throw it at him. A pair of the bluest eyes I've ever seen look back at me. He first stares at me, then his gaze shifts to the truck and grimaces. The biker raises his hand and is about to make a rude gesture, then shrugs and smiles back at me, dragging his hand through his tousled black hair. He has a great smile. Great ass too, though I try not to watch as he saunters away. I fail. The guard just waves the boy through, not even getting up from his chair.
"It is nice," I admit, obviously referring to the school. "Looks better than that last hell..."
Mom grunts something like 'be a lady' and I shut up.
"It pays well, too," she adds and grabs her briefcase. "All right, so here we go..." She pauses for a moment, then sighs. "Now let's do this right, all prim and proper and... smile, Ellen."
I follow in shocked silence.
Mister Nuttley - Director James Nuttley, namesake but not related to the founder of Nuttley's, thank you - is a short rotund man wearing a tweed jacket and, I can hardly believe it, checkered pants.
He also sweats a lot.
"Missus DeRidder, welcome, welcome..." I expected a made-up British accent, but he's all Midwest. He gestures Mom to enter, then tries to close the door with half of me still outside. It hurts, if mostly my pride. Mom turns and raises one eyebrow above her rimmed glasses. "My daughter Eleanore," she introduces me in a tone of 'never mind her'.
Nuttley re-opens the door, letting the rest of me in. He pokes his head into the hall, glances left and right to make sure there are no witnesses before he hastily closes it again. "Oh. Oh, welcome young lady. Sorry about that. I thought you were one of the freshmen. Have a seat, have a seat..."
I stare at him, hard. I'm not wearing a 'My Little Pony' backpack, and I've replaced my barbies with shotguns years ago. The director hastily sits down in the worn leather chair on his side of the desk, as if taking cover. Mom kicks me, harder. I can't stifle the 'oomph' completely. There's a nasty gleam in her eyes that makes me look away and study the office.
Nuttley's desk is a large oak affair, the size of a retired aircraft carrier. It makes the office look smaller than it is. The desk is empty except for a phone, a nameplate, and a crystal pen holder, holding a silver pen. To the left two high windows let in the afternoon sun. In between these stands a glass case with trophies and other memorabilia. The opposite wall is all shelves, stuffed with the kind of dusty old books no one ever reads. Two of the lower shelves contain more recent, colorful stuff, mostly magazines. At the bottom, there is a long row of numbered books, serious, leather-bound tomes with embedded numbers in gold-leaf print. Years counting down to... I squeeze my eyes... Is that 1897?
Director Nuttley follows my gaze. "Ah yes, young lady. Nuttley's High has a great history going back more than a century. It wasn't called Nuttley's High then, mind you. Perhaps you will be our next protege to venture out into the world and proudly represent... uh..." He finally seems to notice my all-natural purple manes, and his sales pitch falters. His eyes flick a few times between Mother and me… Mom's other eyebrow goes up. Now I’m in for it.
The director coughs. "Nuttley, yes. Well, anyway. Welcome to Nuttley's High, Miss and Mrs. DeRidder."
"Jessica," Mom replies in a sweet voice that makes me want to throw up. "Just call me Jessica. And it's Miss." She puts her hand on top of his. He blushes and I roll my eyes.
"Miss Jessica, yes. Well, may I suggest to have my assistant introduce the school to your lovely daughter, whilst you and I handle the boring paperwork? Coffee?"
"A splendid idea," Mom says. "One sugar, please. She turns to me. “Darling, you won't mind, do you?"
I assume, no, I hope - no. I pray the 'darling' part refers to me.