Who cares who picks me up as long as I get to the school?
Who cares where I live if it’s not going to be with my mom and dad?
Philip walks us to the edge of the cleared parking lot before finally letting go of my suitcases. Macy gives him a quick hug goodbye, and I shake his hand, murmur, “Thanks for coming to get me.”
“Not a problem at all. Any time you need a flight, I’m your man.” He winks, then heads back to the tarmac to deal with his plane.
We watch him go for a couple of seconds before Macy grabs the handles on both suitcases and starts rolling them across the tiny parking lot. She gestures for me to do the same with the one I’m holding on to, so I do, even though a part of me wants nothing more than to run back onto the tarmac with Philip, climb back into that tiny plane, and demand to be flown back to Fairbanks. Or, even better, back home to San Diego.
It’s a feeling that only gets worse when Macy says, “Do you need to pee? It’s a good ninety-minute ride to the school from here.”
Ninety minutes? That doesn’t seem possible when the whole town looks like we could drive it in fifteen, maybe twenty minutes at the most. Then again, when we were flying over, I didn’t see any building remotely big enough to be a boarding school for close to four hundred teenagers, so maybe the school isn’t actually in Healy.
I can’t help but think of the mountains and rivers that surround this town in all directions and wonder where on earth I’m going to end up before this day is through. And where exactly she expects me to pee out here anyway.
“I’m okay,” I answer after a minute, even as my stomach somersaults and pitches nervously.
This whole day has been about getting here, and that was bad enough. But as we roll my suitcases through the semi-darkness, the well-below-freezing air slapping at me with each step we take, everything gets superreal, superfast. Especially when Macy walks through the entire parking lot to the snowmobile parked just beyond the edge of the pavement.
At first, I think she’s joking around, but then she starts loading my suitcases onto the attached sled and it occurs to me that this is really happening. I’m really about to ride a snowmobile in the near dark through Alaska in weather that is more than twenty degrees below freezing, if the app on my phone can be believed.
All that’s missing is the wicked witch cackling that she’s going to get me and my little dog, too. Then again, at this point, that would probably be redundant.
I watch with a kind of horrified fascination as Macy straps my suitcases to the sled. I should probably offer to help, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin. And since the last thing I want is for the few belongings I have left in the world to be strewn across the side of a mountain, I figure if there was ever a time to leave things to the experts, this is it.
“Here, you’re going to need these,” Macy tells me, opening up the small bag that was already strapped to the sled when we got out here. She rummages around for a second before pulling out a pair of heavy snow pants and a thick wool scarf. They are both hot pink, my favorite color when I was a kid but not so much now. Still, it’s obvious Macy remembered that from the last time I saw her, and I can’t help being touched as she holds them out to me.
“Thanks.” I give her the closest thing to a smile I can manage.
After a few false starts, I manage to pull the pants on over the thermal underwear and fleece pajama pants with emojis on them (the only kind of fleece pants I own) that I put on at my uncle’s instruction before boarding the plane in Seattle. Then I take a long look at the way Macy’s rainbow-colored scarf is wrapped around her neck and face and do the same thing with mine.
It’s harder than it looks, especially trying to get it positioned well enough to keep it from sliding down my nose the second I move.
Eventually, I manage it, though, and that’s when Macy reaches for one of the helmets draped over the snowmobile’s handles.
“The helmet is insulated, so it will help keep you warm as well as protect your head in case of a crash,” she instructs. “Plus, it’s got a shield to protect your eyes from the cold air.”
“My eyes can freeze?” I ask, more than a little traumatized, as I take the helmet from her and try to ignore how hard it is to breathe with the scarf over my nose.
“Eyes don’t freeze,” Macy answers with a little laugh, like she can’t help herself. “But the shield will keep them from watering and make you more comfortable.”
“Oh, right.” I duck my head as my cheeks heat up. “I’m an idiot.”
“No you’re not.” Macy wraps an arm around my shoulders and squeezes tight. “Alaska is a lot. Everyone who comes here has a learning curve. You’ll figure it all out soon enough.”
I’m not holding my breath on that one—I can’t imagine that this cold, foreign place will ever feel familiar to me—but I don’t say anything. Not when Macy has already done so much to try and make me feel welcome.
“I’m really sorry you had to come here, Grace,” she continues after a second. “I mean, I’m really excited that you’re here. I just wish it wasn’t because…” Her voice drifts off before she finishes the sentence. But I’m used to that by now. After weeks of having my friends and teachers tiptoe around me, I’ve learned that no one wants to say the words.
Still, I’m too exhausted to fill in the blanks. Instead, I slip my head in the helmet and secure it the way Macy showed me.
“Ready?” she asks once I’ve got my face and head as protected as they’re going to get.
The answer hasn’t changed since Philip asked me that same question in Fairbanks. Not even close. “Yeah. Absolutely.”
I wait for Macy to climb on the snowmobile before getting on behind her.
“Hold on to my waist!” she shouts as she turns it on, so I do. Seconds later, we’re speeding into the darkness that stretches endlessly in front of us.
I’ve never been more terrified in my life.
You Live in a Tower
Doesn’t Make You
The ride isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.
I mean, it’s not good, but that has more to do with the fact that I’ve been traveling all day and I just want to get someplace—anyplace—where I can stay longer than a layover. Or a really long snowmobile ride.
And if that place also happens to be warm and devoid of the local wildlife I can hear howling in the distance, then I’m all about it. Especially since everything south of my waist seems to have fallen asleep…
I’m in the middle of trying to figure out how to wake up my very numb butt when we suddenly veer off the trail (and I mean “trail” in the loosest sense of the word) we’ve been following and onto a kind of plateau on the side of the mountain. It’s as we wind our way through yet another copse of trees that I finally see lights up ahead.
“Is that Katmere Academy?” I shout.
“Yeah.” Macy lays off the speed a little, steering around trees like we’re on a giant slalom course. “We should be there in about five minutes.”
Thank God. Much longer out here and I might actually lose a toe or three, even with my doubled-up wool socks. I mean, everyone knows Alaska is cold, but can I just say—it’s freaking cold, and I was not prepared.
Yet another roar sounds in the distance, but as we finally clear the thicket of trees, it’s hard to pay attention to anything but the huge building looming in front of us, growing closer with every second that passes.
Or should I say the huge castle looming in front of us, because the dwelling I’m looking at is nothing like a modern building. And absolutely nothing like any school I have ever seen. I tried to Google it before I got here, but apparently Katmere Academy is so elite even Google hasn’t heard of it.
First of all, it’s big. Like, really big…and sprawling. From here it looks like the brick wall in front of the castle stretches halfway around the mountain.
Second, it’s elegant. Like, really, really elegant, with architecture I’ve only heard described in my art classes before. Vaulted arches, flying buttresses, and giant, ornate windows dominate the structure.
And third, as we get closer, I can’t help wondering if my eyes are deceiving me or if there are gargoyles—actual gargoyles—protruding from the top of the castle walls. I know it’s just my imagination, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t half expect to see Quasimodo waiting for us when we finally get there.
Macy pulls up to the huge gate at the front of the school and enters a code. Seconds later, the gate swings open. And we’re on our way again.
The closer we get, the more surreal everything feels. Like I’m trapped in a horror movie or Salvador Dalí painting. Katmere Academy may be a Gothic castle, but at least there’s no moat, I tell myself as we break through one last copse of trees. And no fire-breathing dragon guarding the entrance. Just a long, winding driveway that looks like every other prep school driveway I’ve ever seen on TV—except for the fact that it’s covered in snow. Big shock. And leads right up to the school’s huge, incredibly ornate front doors.
I shake my head to clear it. I mean, what even is my life right now?
“Told you it wouldn’t be bad,” Macy says as she pulls up to the front with a spray of snow. “We didn’t even see a caribou, let alone a wolf.”
She’s right, so I just nod and pretend I’m not completely overwhelmed.
Pretend like my stomach isn’t tied into knots and my whole world hasn’t turned upside down for the second time in a month.
Pretend like I’m okay.
“Let’s bring your suitcases up to your room and get you unpacked. It’ll help you relax.”
Macy climbs off the snowmobile, then takes off her helmet and her hat. It’s the first time I’ve seen her without all the cold-weather gear, and I can’t help smiling at her rainbow-colored hair. It’s cut in a short, choppy style that should be smooshed and plastered to her head after three hours in a helmet, but instead it looks like she just walked out of a salon.