Inside my bedroom I looked at the mirror and a stranger stared back. I barely recognised myself, my school uniform was pristine. My mum had done some intricate styling to my hair and as my eyes travelled down my bright white knee-high socks were sticking out of brand new shiny shoes, the kind little girls wear. The irony is I am not so little. I am fifteen. I looked so different to my usual care-free style. My hair was usually down loose. I usually customised my uniform a little bit and most of all I missed my doc marten boots. I was dreading seeing my friends and the rest of the students at school. Most of them thought I was a freak already and this would give plenty to tease me about.
“Catalina” my mum yelled from downstairs making me jump.
I rolled my eyes and slung my bag over my shoulder, a last glance at my reflection and I knew I couldn’t delay any more.
“Coming” I called back, trying my best to keep my tone neutral.
I hurried down the stairs and headed for the door, but she was there, waiting to inspect me. She started to fuss over little details and I tried to let her have her moment, but I drew the line when she started to try and straighten a single strand of hair.
“Stop fussing mum, I am going to be late”
I leaned in to give her a quick peck on the cheek and rushed out of the door.
My name is Catalina Moss (Cat to my friends) and today was the annual calling. I go to TopMount High school, it’s alright as schools go, but it is a little run down. The buildings need some repair in places, but I like it. I would be happy to spend my last couple of years of school there, but my mum has big plans for me, she wants me to get into the illustrious Phoenix Academy, everyone is obsessed about the place and today a few will get that chance.
I walked the familiar route to school, which took me past the Academy. I have passed by the high imposing walls daily for the past four years. I’m not quite sure how high they are, but I still remember when Ian Brown and Callum Davis tried to peek over the top with Ian standing on Callum’s shoulders. They were both the tallest boys I know, but they weren’t even close to reaching the top.
I always thought the walls looked out of place. Middle Hampton was a nice enough town, plenty of greenery and all of the houses looked the same. Gardens were all well maintained and fences and walls were rare, everyone wanted people to see how good their houses looked.
So the high ornate sandstone walls that always looked so clean and perfect, seemed more imposing and they seemed to go on for miles, it was far from welcoming, it sent a clear message that whatever was inside was private and not for prying eyes. The wrought iron gates further down were no more welcoming. The large carved sign on the wall said ‘Phoenix Academy’ in ornate lettering. On the gates was a less welcoming sign, a large rectangle sign affixed to one of the gates said ‘DO NOT ENTER’ in large red letters.
I always thought that this was an odd sign as this was the main gates to get in, but anyone who was allowed to go in there had a code for the keypad next to the gate, some even had remote controls in their cars so that they didn’t have to unwind the window.
I had to admit that I had always admired the vehicles that arrived, they sure made our call appear so small. I would be lying if I didn’t wonder what it was like inside, even when you looked through the gate you saw little but more high wall and a fancy driveway that snaked up towards the left.
I wasn’t a bad as others at my school. I have lost count of the times I have seen them pressing their faces up against the bars of the gate or crowding around a vehicle as it arrived, there had been times where people had tried to sneak in past the gates, but there must be some CCTV or something because they never got far before some pretty serious looking security guards would appear and see them off.
It was crowded more than usual today, but I didn’t linger. I was just keep to get today over with. Even when I arrived at school everyone was talking about the same thing. Nothing would distract them from the annual calling.
Today a lucky few students will be chosen to attend an open day at the Phoenix Academy, depending how well they do during that day, they would be invited to join. The head and deputy from the Academy spend almost a month reviewing all of our records and talking through with the teachers. Some years they choose as many as two dozen, others they choose as few as three. Everyone was excited about the potential, but not me. What chance do I have? I am not consistent enough. My mum and stepdad were always disappointed in my school reports. Sometimes I was utterly brilliant at a subject, other times I was just okay at it. I couldn’t understand it either – sometimes I just got things, it’s like a switch is flicked inside my head. Even with physical education I am inconsistent. Most of the time I am one of the last to pass the finish line, but a few times I have been the fastest. It has happened for years, but seemed to be happening more often just now.
I am pretty sure that when I die, the inscription on my gravestone would be ‘Catalina Moss – Inconsistent in everything’
* * *
The atmosphere in school has been exactly what I had feared, I spent the morning trying to feign interest as my friends gushed over their chances. I had a fair few snide comments about my appearance today and even though I was expecting them, they still smarted. Still it wasn’t as bad as I had feared because many others had clearly been gotten at by their parents.
Finally the time of the assembly arrived and I could at least amuse myself when the head and deputy head of the Phoenix Academy arrived. They were such an odd couple. The headteacher, Mordecai Sorenstein was a very short man, but what he lacked in height he made up for in girth. His perfectly round head looked too small to be part of the rest of the body and he always had the same goatee beard, which had an odd flash of white that stood out from the black.
In contrast the deputy headteacher Zara Witchall was incredibly tall and so slender, her skin was incredibly pale and her hair was a pale blonde. When they stood side by side they looked like polar opposites of each other. It would be the highlight of this whole day.
Taking my seat near the back I was flanked by my best friends Molly Sanders and Isaac Jones. They had clearly been dressed by their parents too.
Our own headteacher Bernard Snodgrass took to the stage and the room fell into a hushed silence.
I zoned out a little during his speech. It started like most of his monologues. He did his usual big one about every single one of us had so much potential, we just had to harness it and we shouldn’t be disappointed if we weren’t chosen.
Molly was transfixed, but Isaac was like me, he was fidgeting in his seat and kept poking me in the ribs. Our silliness ended however when Mordecai Sorenstein was invited to speak. Despite his size, he had a commanding presence and when he spoke his voice was rich and it was impossible to ignore.
I found myself hanging on his every word, even though he was talking to a whole room of people, I felt like he was talking to me. I found myself feeling resentful against anyone who gets the calling.
It was finally time to find out who that would be. Mordecai invited Zara to join him, she held an ornate gold envelope in her hands. I found myself gawping as she gracefully moved, it was almost like she was gliding. Her eyes scanned the crowd and I felt like she lingered on me, her stare was intense and I felt strange. Time seemed to freeze and everything was a blur except for Zara and Mordecai, they both stared at me intensely and their smiles were wide.
The words didn’t make sense, their lips weren’t moving, but the words were so clear in my head. They both smiled at me, then at each other and suddenly the room came back into focus. My heart was pumping and I scanned the room and no-one, not even Molly and Isaac were paying me any intention.
Zara passed Mordecai the envelope and he addressed the room.
“This year we were impressed with the high calibre of students and your headteacher and his staff have made a number of recommendations. Taking their thoughts into consideration as well as our own investigations we have chosen seven students to join us at this years open day. They are: Francess Dunn, Meg Gibson, Kyle Sinclair, Alex Finley, Jakob Pieterson, Sienna Widener and Catalina Moss.”
None of the names surprised me, they were all excellent students, but then he said my name. I thought for a moment that perhaps I had imagined it, but the sudden squeals of delight and hug from Molly made it seem more real.
I looked over to Mr Snodgrass and instantly regretted in, he looked at me with utter contempt. Something told me that he wasn’t expecting my name to be called. Any glimmer of hope that he had recommended me and was impressed with my potential disappeared.
I was called up to the stage with the other six and we lined up to shake hands with Sorenstein and Witchall, when my time came I shook hands with Witchall first, as I did my vision changed, everyone I looked at appeared to have a visible aura around them. It went back to normal when I let go. Shaking hands with Sorenstein was even stranger, the moment we touched I felt like a surge of electricity had entered through me, my mind went blank then I found myself in a strange room with Sorenstein. It wasn’t familiar to me, but it felt like I belonged, he was showing me some sort of book, as I tried to focus on the pages my mind snapped back to the present and I was back in the room.
After being made to pose for photos and answer many questions we were shown to the staff room where we were presented with information packs for the open day, which was happening tomorrow. I still couldn’t believe that I had been chosen, if nothing else at least I would see inside the academy and learn what is beyond the high wall.
The information pack felt heavy in my hands, the folder was black, with purple markings, which mirrored the dress code of the academy, After some tea and cake we were all sent back to our classes. I was struggling with the attention, but at least most of it was positive. The rest of the afternoon was a blur.
* * *
Arriving home a small part of me considered not telling my mum and stepdad till later, but the moment I opened the door I was pounced on, the look on her face meant she obviously knew what was going to happen.
“The school phoned…” she gushed.
My step dad, Bill pulled me in for a big hug and patted my back.
“So proud of you kiddo.”
My mum didn’t stop talking the rest of the evening, she was beside herself with excitement. I was really looking forward to seeing behind the wall, but it was only an open day and competing against six of the top performing students at Topmount High was never going to go in my favour.
After hours of talking and being sociable I was able to excuse myself and go to bed. I was exhausted and managed to get to sleep quickly, but my dreams were so very strange and vivid and I woke up several times in a cold sweat. The only problem was, I kept forgetting what they were about.
The journey took less than three minutes, I had suggested walking, but my mum insisted on driving. I shouldn’t grumble about my step dad, or Bill as I call him, he’s a nice enough person, he took on my mum despite her having a child, he has treated me well over the years, even when I haven’t deserved it.
When we got to the gate the ‘DO NOT ENTER’ sign no longer felt as imposing. Bill rolled down his window and keyed in the passcode we were given and the date opened. The car followed the path up and to the left and after a longer than expected drive we parked the car in a small car park and got out, all three of us awestruck at what we could see.
The building was impressive, It was quite gothic in look, but it had some modern features mixed in. I couldn’t help sneak a look at some of the students that were relaxing on the grounds. There was a wide range of ages. Phoenix Academy catered to children from 11 years old.
I couldn’t help but admire the uniform, my current school uniform had been pretty drab, plain black skirt or trousers, with a white blouse and a school tie and black blazer, but this uniform was actually quite trendy. The boys wore a plain trouser, with a shirt and a waistcoat, sporting the schools colours of purple and Black. The girls wore a purple and yellow tartan skirt, with a black blouse and a half length tartan tie, one of the girls had a purple blazer, that was shaped and fitted to her body. Not that I would admit it to my mum or step dad, but i’d probably like it here for the uniforms alone.
My mum and stepdad, were chatting animatedly about the look of the building, my eyes were more drawn to the handful of people gathering near the door, it was obvious that they were other families who had been invited to the open day.
We joined the small crowd and I smiled awkwardly to the other students, none of them looked nervous, they looked like they belonged here already.
“Hi, pleased to meet you. I’m Jeannie, this is Bill. Isn’t this so exciting”
I watched as my mum greeted the other parents, she couldn’t hide her excitement and it bothered me that some of the other parents seemed to look down on her.
Just as I was losing the will to live, trying to engage in small talk, the large front doors creaked open and Sorenstein and Witchall appeared. I looked over at my mum and Bill and their faces were a picture.
“Greetings and welcome to Phoenix Academy. I am the headmaster, Mordecai Sorenstein and this is my deputy, Ms Zara Witchall. I do hope you enjoy today, please follow us and we’ll take you inside.”
As the pair turned around and made their way and we all followed close behind. Passing through the large doorway I felt so small, once inside I was in awe, this wasn’t like any school I had ever seen, not in person or on TV. The carpet we walked on was thick and plush, the burgandy red looked almost regal, the wallpaper that adorned the walls was equally impressive, the walls were also covered in many photographs, showing what looked to be staff and students, some must have been from the past given their attire, unless this school was big on fancy dress.
As the crowd stopped I looked around, the vast room we were in was beautiful, an impressive grand staircase dominated part of the room, there were a number of large wooden doors, which led to unknown locations, each had a plaque, but I couldn’t read them from where I was. The grand staircase was well carpeted, and the bannisters was ornate, in the same wood as the large doors. There were more framed photographs that dominated the walls, in various sizes, part of me started to feel a tad uneasy, with so many eyes looking at me.
Mr Sorenstein and Ms Witchall had stopped at the foot of these stairs to address us all, a part of me expected him to stand on one of the stairs to appear taller, next to his deputy, but he didn’t. Despite how small he was, when he spoke his voice bellowed in this large room.
“Thank you, so much for accepting our invitation. It’s our great pleasure to provide a full scholarship each year to those we feel have potential. The seven of you assembled have shown such promise and we look forward to spending the day with you to see which of you will qualify for our scholarship.”
He paused and craned his neck to look up at Ms Witchall who looked down at him and smiled broadly.
“I would like to just take a moment to explain the format of the day. The Parents and guardians will accompany myself and Mr Sorenstein whilst we explain more about what our academy is about and what we have to offer, whilst the seven candidates will be taken on a tour by two of our star pupils. They will be given a number of aptitude tests and then we willl reconvene in the dining hall for lunch.”
My heart sank at the words aptitude tests and a glance over at my mum was torturous, all traces of hope seemed to vanish, she tried to smooth her features quickly and smile it off and I couldn’t blame her.
Finally I get through those gates to see inside and they want to test me, Miss Inconsistent to see if I am a fit. Well if nothing else at least I get to see inside the building, I will do my best to enjoy the tour and just do my best at the aptitude test.
I looked over to Sorenstein and Witchall and they were both staring at me again, just like at yesterdays assembly the room fell out of focus and it was like only the three of us existed.
“Give into yourself” a voice said in my head.
I tried to respond, I wanted to ask how, but I was mute. The room started to come back into focus and the others were oblivious as to what had happened. Again I wondered if I had imagined it, but just before the parents were led away Sorenstein winked at me and his mouth twitched into a smile.
I had no time to react, because as quickly as they left the two star students arrived to begin our tour. The girl was very beautiful, she had pale skin like Witchall and her long blond hair framed her face and she exuded confidence. She was no match to the boy though, he was her polar opposite, his skin was golden and warm, his jet black hair stood out his face was welcoming. His smile lit up the room and for a moment our eyes locked I suddenly felt relaxed and fearless. My shoulders relaxed and my mind focussed. I no longer cared about how I would do in the tests, I was ready to just enjoy the day, suddenly I couldn’t wait to get started.