Gray and Cold
A RUSTY PORCH SWING creaked in the early morning hours of mid-August with such a squeal that frightened away the birds searching and pecking for their breakfast. But the teenage girl, with olive skin and hair an unnatural shade of black with burgundy highlights, seated in it didn’t care.
Daphne Werring missed the noisy din of Atlanta’s busy streets. The symphony of engines, horns, and sirens used to lull her to sleep every night in her Buckhead apartment that sat three stories above a corner Starbucks. Her parents moved the seventeen-year-old and her two younger brothers, Joshua and Max, to rural Georgia—just outside of Athens—to experience a quiet life.
The Werrings had always wanted to raise their children away from the crime and corruption of the city but kept putting it off in favor of their careers. Daphne would soon be finished with high school and the way her life was turning out made them realize that they’d already put it off way too long. If they’d waited any longer it would be too late. Mrs. Werring was an investigative journalist who had always dreamed of starting her own local events magazine. Athens would bring that dream to reality with the University of Georgia hosting college football games and its reputation as an artist’s and musician’s Mecca. Mr. Werring was a state prosecutor who’d made a successful living putting criminals—and possibly even some innocents—behind bars. He could have earned a higher salary in corporate law, but he settled to keep some moral standing for his children to look up to.
Daphne couldn’t care less about her father’s moral standing. She was just beginning to find herself when they packed up and moved with barely a week’s notice. She finally had a boyfriend; finally found a group of friends she fit in with. So what if they all wore black and donned multiple piercings in places that no one would think of jabbing a sterilized needle? They understood her. She felt a kinship to them. Daphne was no longer the tiny, awkward stick figure with too-big ballet slippers and wide set Chinese eyes as the children teased her. She belonged.
Unfortunately, they were not the kinds of friends Daphne’s mother and father envisioned their daughter fraternizing with. She was from a respectable family and therefore would have respectable friends. Daphne would roll her eyes and grunt at her parents’ hauteur. Why couldn’t they understand? The friends she made were real friends, not the ones who pretend to like you and then turn around and stab you in the back when they think you’re not watching. Daphne had a few of those as well. It’s all their fault, she thought. If they hadn’t taunted her into coming to that stupid party, she wouldn’t have knocked out Kiera, the district attorney’s daughter, and Daphne’s parents would never have found out about her boyfriend, Rocks—the drummer in the band, Death to Unicorns. That was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. One week later, they packed up the Escalade and drove to their new home. And Daphne hated the world.
From the front porch of her new home—an old Victorian on Morton Road, just on the outskirts of Athens—Daphne could see the sharpened spires of Neverland Academy. They stuck up out of the distant pines like crocodile teeth. Her brothers would be starting the semester there next week. They’d be boarding there as well, even though it was only a few miles away. Daphne’s mother was worried that with her starting up the magazine—and keeping close tabs on Daphne—she wouldn’t have enough time and attention to give the boys. “It’d just be easier for everyone if you just lived at the academy,” she told them. “At least for this semester. It would help you make some new friends too. Then, once things have settled down and the magazine is running smoothly, you can come back home and commute to school if you’d like.”
Daphne would be attending a different school, since Neverland Academy was for boys only. She was so not looking forward to starting her senior year at a new school. She wished she could just get her GED and move back to the city, away from this miserable, lonely existence. Besides, there are too many mosquitoes here, she thought as she slapped one guzzling from her arm.
Something about the spires frightened Daphne, and yet enticed her at the same time. Like most girls her age she was curious. She sat, listening to the creaking of the porch swing as she pushed off on her toes, back and forth, and watched the spires intently. The iced coffee she sipped did nothing to stifle the beads of sweat emerging from her forehead. Somehow the humidity seemed worse out here, away from the city. It was probably only because back at home she spent most of her time indoors, but she wouldn’t admit that to herself. She searched for more reasons to hate this place. And she found plenty.
The squeal of the screen door behind her made Daphne lurch, spilling a few drops of her coffee onto her bare legs. Some of it seeped into the hem of her blue and black polka dot pajama shorts.
Max stumbled out the door, dressed to the nines in his school uniform: crisply pressed khaki trousers, white button up shirt, burgundy blazer and matching tie. His black shoes were already scuffed up from wear.
“Max! You made me spill my coffee!” Daphne snorted.
“Why aren’t you dressed yet?” Max asked, combing his hand through the thick tuft of dirty blond hair on his head. “We’re leaving soon.”
“It’s only 8:30. And the school is right there. What’s the rush?” Daphne licked some coffee from her wrist while she feebly tried to swipe the puddle from her leg.
“There’s a lot we have to do.” Max fingered a tattered brochure, crinkled with over handling. “There’s the tour, the interviews, not to mention we are moving in today. And I’m sure mom and dad want to drill the headmaster and professors before they leave. It’s gonna be a full day, sis.”
Daphne snatched the brochure from Max’s hand. “Hey, give that back,” he whined.
“I’m just looking. Chill, okay?” Daphne’s eyes were drawn to the logo, a golden N and A interlocked together. Something seemed odd about it, but she couldn’t discern why. The burgundy background was cut with stock photos of boys happily walking the campus and sitting in the grass with books. Daphne snorted to herself and shook her head at how lame it looked. Real school is nothing like that. Who did they think they were fooling? Oh yeah, mindless little boys and their optimistic parents.
Daphne carefully opened the brochure, trying not to rip the whitened folds, though they were already torn at the top and bottom edges. Inside the cover was a professional headshot of an older gentleman, maybe in his early fifties. He looked to be a large man—not fat, but thick. His dark gray receding hair with silver frosting at the hairline matched his trimmed beard. The man was smiling in the photo, but something seemed wrong. Daphne could feel chills climb her spine when she looked into his eyes. They were like glass. Gray and cold.
“Daphne!” A voice sang from inside the house. Daphne tried to ignore it. She was in no mood to speak to either of her parents this early in the morning.
Suddenly the screen door flew open and Josh stood in the gaping entrance. His dark brown hair was still damp from his shower, but he was dressed nearly identical to Max, only his shoes were pristine, reflecting the bright sunshine into Daphne’s brown eyes. She had to squint and turn her head to the side to avoid being blinded.
“Daph, mom’s been calling you. We’re leaving in, like, ten minutes. You’d better hurry up.” With an annoyed huff, Daphne closed the brochure and tossed it at Max, who deftly caught it. Josh stepped outside and held the door open as he polished his wire-rimmed glasses with his tie.
“Coming!” Daphne called out grudgingly, pushing past her brothers and stomping into the cool, air-conditioned house. She was so not looking forward to another long, boring day. But at least she’d get out of the house.
The inside of the car was freezing. Daphne clutched her shivering arms, wishing she’d brought a sweater or maybe even a parka. Her mother was from Vermont and the colder it was the more comfortable she was. So any time Daphne spent with her mother she was bound to be cold. Sure, it was stifling hot outside, but this was ridiculous.
In a hurry to get ready, Daphne skipped her usual shower and threw on an old tee shirt—which was so small it showed her belly button ring when she raised her arms—and jeans. She didn’t really care how she looked. The place she was going would be full of boys, but she hadn’t planned on taking any home with her. She had a boyfriend back in Atlanta. And she was going to hold on to him as long as she could. Long distance relationships were a pain in the ass, she knew, but Rocks was in a band and if their relationship continued she’d have to get used to him being on the road anyway, away from home. Not only did she care deeply for him, but she would also do just about anything to anger her mom now. And that meant continuing her relationship with the boy she’d been forbidden to see.
As she cradled her arms in front of her chest, trying to conserve some warmth, Daphne stared out the window of the back seat at the passing farmlands and forests. Her brothers rested quietly in the center row of the Escalade, a complete 180 from their usual behavior of exchanging punches and sneers. Although she hated the country, Daphne was fascinated by her surroundings. She was a city girl, through and through, and the thought of being lost in a forest terrified her. But at the same time, the risk-taker in her wanted to. Just once, at least. She needed some excitement in her life, especially since everything screamed boring around here. She made a mental note to try it sometime, especially since her being missing for a day would freak out her parents. Beyond the stretch of forest came a huge pecan grove. Trees stretched as far as she could see, all lined up in diagonal rows, something outside the realm of nature. She giggled a little at the preciseness of it all after seeing the mass chaos of the woods before.
After about fifteen minutes of driving along curving backroads, they turned onto a single-lane dirt road. “J. Roger Way,” the sign read. The sign looked rather old with paint chipping away at the last word.
“Are you sure this is the right way, honey?” Mrs. Werring asked.
“That’s what the GPS says. I can’t see the spires anymore, can you?”
“No, the trees are blocking them.”
Less than half a mile on to J. Roger Way they had reached their destination. The front gate at Neverland Academy was closed, but a guard, dressed in a suit similar to the boys’ uniforms, quickly approached the car and, after confirming the family’s arrival, proceeded to open the gate. Daphne once again stared at the logo, which was a large bronze piece mounted on the front of the wrought iron gate. It was all one piece she could see as the gate opened inward, attached only to the right side of the gate. Just then, she realized what it was about the logo that looked so peculiar. It had been changed from something else. The way one line of the “A” extended down in a straight line through the horizontal line. It was so clear to her now. It used to be a “T.”
The driveway into the property must have been a mile long, Daphne thought. It seemed endless, though it was picturesque. Ancient sycamore trees stretched into a protective canopy, which created a natural tunnel down the drive. Every now and then a patch of sunlight would poke through the dappled green tent above.
“Look, there it is!” Max cried out, cutting through the nervous tension the boys were emitting.
Daphne leaned over and peered through the gap between the front seats where she could see through the windshield. Up ahead the trees parted and a massive building with white columns grew closer. Daphne couldn’t believe her eyes. This couldn’t be the same place she’d seen over the treetops. This looked like something straight out of Gone with the Wind. The driveway curved, circling around a massive marble fountain where three mermaids leaned against large jagged stones. The one on top stretched up onto her arms and appeared to be spitting the water straight up into the air, where it dribbled down onto the others. Daphne’s father pulled the car around the circular driveway and stopped at the front entrance.
Daphne continued to stare at the fountain, entranced—she’d always had a strange fascination with mermaids, the way some little girls loved unicorns—while her family discussed the architecture and confusion about the gothic spires on an old southern plantation manor. Intrigued by its beauty and puzzled by its symbolism, she couldn’t imagine why there would be a statue of mermaids at an all-boy institute.
She whipped her head around to find that the car was empty and everyone was waiting for her.
“Can’t I just stay here?”
“Are you crazy?” her father bellowed. “It’s almost ninety degrees! You’ll cook yourself to death in there!”
“No,” Daphne protested as she climbed out of the vehicle, pulling her shirt down over her belly. “I mean can’t I just stay outside while you guys do your thing? I’ll stay in the shade, I promise.”
Mr. and Mrs. Werring shared a pensive glance.
“We don’t know how long this is going take, Daphne,” Mrs. Werring said. “We could be here for most of the day.”
“I know. I’ll just hang out by the trees over there. And if I need to come inside I’ll just find you.”
“I’m afraid that will not be permissible,” a deep voice with a thick Georgia accent blared from the top of the steps by the entrance. The family turned around and gazed in awe at the large, well-dressed man leaning on an exquisite ivory inlaid cane. He wore a pristine black suit, glossy black shoes, and a burgundy tie that matched Max’s and Josh’s blazers. His thick silver-gray hair was pulled back neatly into a low ponytail and his mustache reminded Daphne of some cartoon cowboy the way it grew down the sides of his mouth and just below his chin. Daphne instantly recognized him as the man from the brochure. While a few years older than the photo, he still gave her chills.
“No one under the age of eighteen is permitted to roam the grounds without adult supervision.” The man sneered at Daphne in a way that made her skin crawl like ants were scurrying through her veins, and yet his demeanor was elegant and conservative. The kind of person any parent would trust to look after and educate their child.
A movement out of the corner of Daphne’s eye caught her attention. She couldn’t be a hundred percent sure she saw anything but when her eyes focused on a garden fence just to the side of the old antebellum mansion she could have sworn she saw a flitting shadow.
A wet, hacking cough drew her attention back to the creepy giant. After straightening a sharply pressed white handkerchief in his pocket, he eyed each member of the Werring family, pausing when he met Daphne’s nervous eyes.
“I am Headmaster Byron Trappe. Welcome to Neverland Academy.”