2. Amanda [4]

She led her little pack into Oakwood’s front hall, and up the stairs to the fourth floor, where the new students were roomed. She asked whose new roommates had slept in, and then made everyone start pounding on doors up and down the hall. A few tousled heads poked out of doors, only to be dragged laughing or scowling into the hall in their pajamas.

“Hey, this is your orientation-leader talking – and no, I don’t mean I’m going to help you figure out if you’re gay or straight, you’re on your own there – and I’m telling you all to put some clothes on so we can get going! Believe me, there are some awesome secret places on this campus, and if you choose to go back to sleep now, you might never be able to tell your future kids how you crawled through Acorn’s airway ducts to try to get to the Dean’s office.”

A silence followed this little speech, and then some titters. But as Amanda left Oakwood, her pack had almost doubled, although most of them were still half-asleep. That’s okay, though, Amanda mused, I can’t wait until I show them the secret passageway in Treemont Dorms. They’re going to love those.

It was a true and rather odd fact that Valley U’s buildings had been designed by a slightly eccentric architect with an endless fascination for old palaces. Although most of the buildings looked merely classic and collegiate, some even with ivy clinging to them, they were all filled with some secret passageway or hidden nook or secret cellar room. Amanda knew that the professors knew about them all, as well as the staff – well, she assumed they all did anyway – and merely chose to turn a blind eye because of the fun and unique character it gave the university.

Mr. and Mrs. Adams [6]

While Mr. Adams was reacquainting himself with his old office, Mrs. Adams, who was the less nostalgic and whimsical of the pair, decided to skip going to her office and walk straight to Bloom Hall, the large auditorium where the first years would be gathering.

Mrs. Adams had long been a part of that faculty that spoke with the new students during orientation and made them feel welcome. Although she was sometimes gruff with her own students, believing usually that they could do better than they were, she firmly believed in keeping the kids’ confidences intact and making them feel as if they could do whatever they wanted if only they applied themselves. It was for this reason that she asked, year after year, to participate in many of the orientation seminars – the staff in the Office of Student Affairs agreed one and all that the students left Mrs. Adams talks with smiles on their faces and a sort of hope in their faces.

Mrs. Adams walked into Bloom Hall through the back entrance so she could walk onto the floor of the sunken stage when called. She greeted the other faculty who were going to speak at the event – entitled “What Valley U can do for U!” – and they all complained together about the involuntary cringe they experienced when they had read that title in the invitation to speak.

Soon enough, Mrs. Adams was sitting comfortably on a chair in the auditorium alongside her fellow professors, waiting for her turn to stand at the microphone. She let her mind wander as the Dean spoke of some of the boring technicalities that she knew backwards and forwards. Instead, she contemplated the students in front of her.

A good many of them seemed to still be half asleep – no doubt there had been numerous late night gatherings the night before, which had been the first night in the dorms. Mrs. Adams could tell that a good many of the new class wasn’t even present, and that those who were both present and alert were few. It was amazing to her just how young they looked each year. Four years changed people at that age, and she knew from experience that when she watched these kids at graduation in four years, they would look more like young men and women than like the kids barely out of puberty that they seemed today.

This made her think of what three years worth of growth had done to Claire. She hoped she hadn’t changed into too much of a woman just yet. She hoped that when she got to lunch and saw Mr. Adams, he’d be able to give her some good news – Marty having called or e-mailed, for instance.

“And now, Professor Adams of the psychology department will speak to you a bit about how you guys can avoid utter insanity during the coming months,” the Dean’s words, followed by tired titters from the students, broke into Mrs. Adams reveries and she got up with a smile and went up to the podium.

1. Mr. and Mrs. Adams [5]

Mr. Adams walked briskly up to Acorn, walking around the building so he could enter from the front instead of walk through the dank halls that led upstairs from the parking lot. When the semester was underway, he didn’t mind going through the back door; there were often students standing around it and smoking and usually he’d know a couple and would exchange pleasantries as well as a covert and rare cigarette with them.

Even so, it was always nice to enter from the main entrance to Acorn – the impressive double doors were thrown open, and all the carvings and metalwork on them was visible to those who passed. The doors had been donated to the university when a rich family who lived on the outskirts of Hartscreek had decided to tear down the private chapel they had on their property and build a large pool to replace it. Mr. Adams was always curious as to who put the idea in those people’s heads to give the university the doors instead of trashing them. Whoever it was, Mr. Adams was thankful. The doors seemed to him to be just right for the kind of building that Acorn was; imposing, ivy climbing up the walls and a couple of gargoyles leering from the eaves.

His office was on the top floor. He joked with his wife that he didn’t join her morning walks because he had enough exercise just climbing the stairs up and down from his office all day long. The building had an elevator, but it was only used by the cleaning staff and any students or faculty with disabilities. Everyone else was expected to walk. Mr. Adams supposed that one day his knees would pain him enough that he wouldn’t feel guilty applying to get a key for it, but meanwhile he took the stairs two at a time up to his office, hardly puffing at all.

When he got up to the third floor, he walked down the hallway and entered the last door on the left. His name was there on a little plaque, and as he unlocked the door for the first time since summer term ended, he breathed in the slightly musty air and felt right at home. He’d had this room ever since he’d been given tenure, and over the years it had become a sort of embodiment of his tastes. Two walls were lined with bookshelves, crammed with what he called the tools of his trade – everything from books by his favorite authors to literary magazines to anthologies. His desk held the old computer (which he never used) that the university provided him with as well as two cupfuls of pens and a stack of notepads and notebooks almost toppling over. There were also framed pictures of Mrs. Adams, Susan, and a family photo of Susan, Marty and Claire.

Mr. Adams sat down at the desk, laying his briefcase, which held his laptop, daily planner and another bulk of notebooks and pens. He sighed and took the picture of his daughter and her family and gazed at it.

“Marty,” he murmured to himself. “When are we going to hear from you again, my boy? And when can I see my little Claire again?”

Shaking himself, he put the photo back down and pulled out his laptop, ready to get to work on the various syllabi he had yet to complete.

1. Mr. and Mrs. Adams [4]

Mr. Adams jerked awake as the clock-radio on his bedside table began to talk loudly and cheerfully, advertising some sort of cereal. He grumbled, pulled one hairy arm out of the blankets and hit the button that turned the alarm off. He sat up in bed, rubbed his eyes, yawned and stretched before finally throwing the covers off himself and getting up. He winced as he rose, his back giving an ominous cracking sound while he straightened up.

“Love?” he called out.

“Downstairs!” Mrs. Adams yelled back. She was in the kitchen already, having gotten up an hour before to take a brisk walk in the cool early-morning air. She was still in her walking gear; New Balance walking shoes, gray sweatpants and a big black t-shirt still slightly moist with sweat. She was nursing a cold bottle of juice as she scanned the front page of the morning paper.

Mr. Adams traipsed into the kitchen, pecked her on her sweaty head and switched the coffee-maker on before heading to the shower. There wasn’t much hot water, so he soaped himself and washed himself off as quickly as he could, mumbling to himself under his breath “cold, cold, cold, cold…”

“How’s the hot water?” Mrs. Adams asked when he came out, threadbare blue towel wrapped around his waist.

“Brrr,” he said by way of an answer. “Need coffee.” Mrs. Adams laughed and went to turn the boiler on. Their house was one of those old ones that seemed to have been built with the thought that people wanted to go to their garage twenty times a day – the switch for the hot-water heater was there, as well as a liquor cabinet built into one wall and the fuse box on another. Mr. and Mrs. Adams’ cars were there too, although they only ever used Mrs. Adams’ white Ford, because she refused to carpool with what she called the “mid-life crisis car,” which was Mr. Adams red Miatta.

It was in the Ford, then, that Professors Adams set out in an hour later. It was early September, and their work was starting up again in a few days. The new student orientation was already underway, and Mr. and Mrs. Adams both had various meetings to attend as well as work that needed to be finished in preparation for the classes they’d be starting in a week’s time, when the autumn term officially kicked off.

The faculty parking lot at Valley U. was conveniently situated in a big square deep inside the campus, although somewhat an eyesore. Mr. Adams’ office was in Acorn, the literature and languages departments’ building, while Mrs. Adams worked in Mulberry, the social-sciences building. Both were situated on either side of the parking lot, and it was common knowledge among the students of Valley U. that they could witness a sweet display of public affection every morning at eight-thirty sharp, when the Adams Professors got out of their car and kissed each other before heading off in different directions for the day.

4. Claire [3]

The first thing that struck Claire as she entered the cool interior of Bill’s was the smell of bread. The bakery section was very near the door, and it made her realize just how ravenous she was. Her belly rumbled as she walked over the woman behind the counter of the bakery section. She stood and watched the woman for a moment; she was kneading dough. Claire was impressed. Can’t believe the neighborhood shop bakes its own bread, she thought. The smell was so good that she felt faint.

“Excuse me?” she spoke up, shyly.

“Yes, dear?” the woman behind the counter raised her head and smiled.

“How much is one of those rolls?”

“These? The whole-grain ones? They’re a buck each. Or a dozen for ten.”

“Okay, I’ll take a dozen please.”

The woman took her hands out of the dough and picked up a flat piece of cardboard which she deftly folded into a box. She then took the long metal tongs and took twelve of the warm rolls out of the glass display, put them into the box, closed it, and handed it to Claire.

“Thanks,” Claire smiled.

“Sure, sugar,” and she put her hands back into the dough in front of her and continued kneading fiercely.

Claire, having gotten a trolley, walked up and down the aisles of the store, getting the items her father had written down. She munched on one of the rolls as she walked, and found it delicious. It was so good that she promptly began another one upon finishing the first. It was hungry business, this grocery shopping. Still, she pondered, I like it. I like doing this alone. This is a good thing, Dad making us move here.

She brought her items to one of the unoccupied cashiers, marveling again at the possibility of there not being a line at a store – this would never happen in New York – and paid. The bag-packer was quick and efficient and looked like he was about eighteen years old. Claire eyed him as she thanked him, and thought that the lock of hair flopping into his eye was simply adorable. Her good mood was ruined, however, when she glanced at a big neighborhood noticeboard that was by the exit door. She saw various posters and fliers on it, but the one that seemed to bring a dark cloud over her was a big poster for a pep-rally that had taken place a few nights ago for the local high-school’s football team.

School, she scowled. I do NOT want to start a new school.

4. Marty and Claire [1]

Marty looked around the box-filled apartment. He breathed in deeply and smelled fresh paint and dust. He never thought such an unpleasant smell could be so sweet to his senses, but as he choked a little on the swirling dust he smiled, feeling the new beginning that this apartment represented.

It was on the top floor of a building in Old Town in Hartscreek. Marty had chosen the neighborhood because it wasn’t too far from Downtown, but was still safe and fairly quiet. Claire’s school was walking distance away, just a few blocks over, and he knew that this meant that Claire’s new classmates would be kids in the neighborhood, and she wouldn’t need to travel far in order to meet friends. Well, if she’d make friends…

Marty banished the gloomy thoughts from his mind and began to move boxes with a vigor he hadn’t felt in three years. Sweat ran down his face and his back as he fit together two new bookcases he’d purchased, heaved furniture around and started to methodically unpack boxes and put away nick-knacks and clothing.

Around noon, Claire emerged from her bedroom with sleepy eyes and tangled hair. She and Marty had arrived in Hartscreek with the U-Haul they’d rented the night before, had unloaded the boxes and furniture in a feverish rush and had driven quickly down to the nearest drop-off point to leave the van in order not to need to pay for it for an extra night. Claire had stayed up until four in the morning on her mattress on the floor of her new and still empty room, listening to music and trying to sleep. Marty, who’d woken up bright and early, hadn’t had the heart to wake her up.

“G’morning,” Claire mumbled sleepily, yawning as she walked through the rooms trying to find her father.

Marty, whose head was stuck deep in a kitchen cabinet where he was attempting to assemble pans in some sort of order that wouldn’t cause them to topple over with a loud noise every time the door was opened, hollered back that the kettle and the toaster were both already set up.

“Thanks,” Claire said as she strode into the kitchen. “Want some coffee too?”

“Ah,” he pulled his head out of the cabinet. “That’s the problem. We have absolutely no groceries yet. Feel like walking down to the store and getting us some essentials?”

Claire had just turned fourteen in July, and she’d thought for the longest time that she should have the right to be on her own more often. In Manhattan, though, her father had been overprotective and they both knew it. He’d told her, in a fit of exasperated honesty about a year before they moved, that he knew he was being ridiculous but no, she couldn’t go alone to Union Square on the subway, that he’d go with her over the weekend, and that if she absolutely, positively had to buy the CD she wanted that day, then she could go with a friend. This had led to Claire bursting into tears and screaming that he was blind and didn’t notice that she didn’t have any friends, before running to her room and slamming the door.

And now here was Marty not only allowing but actually offering Claire to go out on her own, in a new place that she wasn’t familiar with. She thought she knew what this was about. Old Town was safe and almost suburban, despite it being made up mostly of classic old apartment buildings. What could possibly happen to her between their building and Bill’s Food Stuffs, the quaint neighborhood grocery store? Nothing interesting, that was for sure, Claire thought. Still, it was nice to know that her dad was finally trying to give her some space.

“Sure, Dad,” she said, after mulling it all over for a moment. “Let me get dressed quickly and-” she continued, raising her voice as she walked back to her bedroom- “write me a list of what to get, okay?”

3. Heather [3]

“How are you, girl?” Jake said as he walked over to Heather’s usual booth. It was a small booth that only sat two. Sometimes Heather’s mother, Bella, would meet her at Lila’s and then the two would share the booth and a meal or sometimes just a dessert. Tonight, though, Heather was alone as she slid gratefully into her regular spot.

“I’m great, Jake, just exhausted,” Heather smiled at him. “Yourself?”

“Fine, fine, all fine,” Jake’s eyes twinkled. “Love is in the air, and all that. You know.”

Heather knew. Vicariously, at least. She’d watched the romance, or dalliance or whatever it was, flourish between Jake and Bo over the last three weeks of beautiful summer evenings. She’d been friendly with Jake even before, but he had seemed so droopy, so sad and sort of lost. But then Bo joined Lila’s staff, and Heather couldn’t be happier for the change that had come over Jake.

“My sister’s going to come over some evening this week,” Jake went on. “Well, I haven’t exactly asked her to yet, but I’m going to. I think she’ll like this place – and you’ll like her, too. I’ll ask her to come in the evening so you can maybe meet her.”

“Sounds great, Jake! I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“Yeah, a twin. Her name’s Amanda. She goes to Valley U. So, the usual?”

Heather nodded, and Jake bustled towards the diner’s kitchen to get her hot-chocolate for her. She stretched back and looked around the small space. At this hour, it was usually still empty, but Heather knew that if she stayed for another half hour, the place would fill up. Downtown Hartscreek was a hopping scene, and there wasn’t a night of the week when an eclectic crowd wouldn’t appear, as if by magic, at Lila’s: there were young professionals, coming for a dessert after a dinner somewhere else, or maybe just meeting up for a meal after putting their children to bed; there were club-goers, dressed in bright colors and skin-tight materials, catching some protein before a long night of dancing and drinking; there were the punkers, stocking up on fries and milkshakes before heading to the latest underground show. Heather loved to take them all in as she sat there, savoring the taste of her hot drink as she sipped it down almost agonizingly slowly.

Tonight would be no different, she hoped, as she lay her chin in her hands and stared across the room to where she knew Jake would be coming out in a moment with that delicious hot chocolate in his hands.