It was raining when Mr Cooper pulled up once again in his little black van. Apart from Chelsea and Melissa, my parents, and a young man who’d been loitering at the bus stop all day but was Definitely Not An Undercover Policeman, Don’t Be Absurd, the streets were deserted. At least Chelsea and Melissa’s parents had let them come and say goodbye; that was something. I thought I could feel the eyes of neighbours on us, peeking through curtains and around corners. Waiting for me to climb into the van and out of their lives. I was probably imagining it.
The things I was taking with me fit into a single suitcase. Electronics were banned and my scholarship included a stipend for new school supplies, so there wasn’t much to take except clothes and mementos. I could have taken stationary and stuff, but I wasn’t sure what I’d need. Did mages do the whole quill-and-ink thing like in the stories? Maybe they did, if we weren’t allowed electronics. It’d be easier to just figure everything out and buy it at the school.
Mr Cooper stepped out of the van, gave me a bright smile and offered one hand to help with my bag. I handed it to Dad instead. Mr Cooper didn’t seem offended; he just opened the back of the van for Dad. I tried to ignore how dark it looked in there.
Chelsea threw her arms around me and squeezed. “Ugh, you’re actually going off on a magical adventure!” she groaned. “I’m so jealous!”
“There’s absolutely nothing in the entire world that can dent your optimism, is there?” I asked weakly, trying to draw a full breath.
“Your heart’s full of curses. Mine’s full of positivity.”
“I only have one curse.”
“Still too many.” She let go, making room for Melissa to step forward and hug me rather more gently.
“Try not to die,” Melissa advised solemnly.
“It’s just a school,” I pointed out. “You don’t all have to be so dramatic.”
“I’m sorry, did you just accuse us of being dramatic? You? Kayden, King of Drama?” Melissa pressed the back of her hand to her forehead and swayed in an exaggerated swoon. “So cursèd am I, so burdened with this potential for harm. Stay back, stay back! Lest the dark spirit within me throw YOU off a school roof, too!” She tottered backwards, gave a gasp, and fell back into Chelsea’s arms.
I looked at Mum. “Why are your friends’ children idiots?” I asked.
“Because they had a really terrible role model,” she said, raising her eyebrow.
“Aww, you called me a role model. You do respect me.”
She swept me up into a hug. “Write often,” she said, kissing my forehead. “If we don’t hear from you for a week, your Dad will buy a gun on the black market and track the school down.”
“I’d better remember to write then,” I said. “Could be a bit awkward otherwise.” I glanced at Dad, who winked and mimed shooting invisible enemies.
“Are you ready?” Mr Cooper asked.
I nodded, letting go of Mum. Dad gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze as I climbed into the back of the van.
The van was, as I’d expected, full of seats and not much else. There was a small window in the wall separating the back from the front; I grabbed a seat where I could see the road over Mr Cooper’s shoulder.
“We’re picking up two more new students today,” Mr Cooper explained as he started the engine. “The older students will arrive on the weekend before school, but we like to give newcomers a bit of time to get oriented. I think you and the other Australian initiates might be the earliest arrivals this year.”
“How big is the school?” I asked.
“That’s… kind of hard to answer. Refujeyo is an international school and parts of it are… segmented. But there’s plenty of space, and we try not to let the classes get bigger than fifteen students, except in special circumstances.”
I felt my eyebrows shoot up of their own accord. “Only fifteen per class?”
“We try,” he shrugged. “It’s not always possible. But magical classes benefit from supervision. I know you don’t intend to become a mage, but you’ll have to take the basic magical theory classes anyway; they’re a core part of the curriculum, along with maths, science, all that. English isn’t a core subject for obvious reasons, but if you want to go back to common school next year and are afraid of falling behind we can get you into – ”
“It’s fine,” I said quickly. “I’m sure I can catch up on English next year.”
In the rearview mirror, I saw him hide a smile.
I sat back in my seat, realising how little I knew about the place I was going. There had been an awful lot of papers and pamphlets; I’d read them all and they seemed very informative at the time, but on reflection they hadn’t really said a whole lot. I didn’t know what kind of uniform the school had or even what sort of stationary they used. I didn’t know the school’s size or much about the curriculum. I did know that the school’s official language was Ido, but that I’d be fine with just English. I did know what my scholarship did and didn’t cover, and what I had and hadn’t been allowed to bring. Come to think of it, I knew what I needed to know to prepare and get in the van, and very little else.
I leaned forward again, glanced outside, and immediately forgot what I’d been meaning to ask. When I’d zoned out about a minute before, we’d been driving through town. Now, all I saw was the endless red expanse of the Australian desert. Of course, a lot of Australia is desert, but if there had been any in my hometown I was pretty sure I would have noticed.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“At our next pickup,” Mr Cooper said. “Wait here.” He got out, and I leaned forward through the little window to get a better view. Yep… that sure was desert. Sand and scrub bush and all that. I looked harder, searching for some kind of clue about how exactly we’d gotten there so fast that was more satisfying than just wiggling my fingers and saying ‘maaaagic’ in a spooky voice, but I wasn’t really an expert on deserts.
Before I could think about it too hard, the back of the van opened, and I was distracted by the scruffily dressed girl who clambered in, clutching a small backpack to her chest with one arm. She looked about my age, was aboriginal, and didn’t seem half as intimidated or confused by the whole situation as I had been. Her curly hair was cut to her jaw length, and she blew a wisp of it out of her face as she took a seat in the back of the van, hugged the backpack to her chest, and avoided looking at me. But that was all background detail to what I’d just noticed.
Among the dark freckles on her cheeks was a single pale mark, just under her right eye. A bit of raised skin; it looked like a small imperfection, maybe a tiny wart or scar. But I knew better. I saw the same mark every time I looked down at my own chest.
It was a witch mark. The entrance wound for a curse.
This girl was like me.
She shot me a glare, and I realised I’d been staring. I looked hurriedly away, my mind racing. Mr Cooper had said we’d be picking up other students, but I’d assumed he meant mage students, not people like me. On, man; it must really suck to have a curse in your eye. The one in my heart was bad enough, but at least I could cover that with a shirt and no one could tell. Anyone who knew what a witch mark looked like would see what this girl was right away.
I’d never met another cursed person before. Not knowingly, anyway; I figured there were probably other people like me around town, carrying on in secret, but we didn’t exactly have support groups. This girl was the first person like me I’d knowingly met, and I wanted to ask her everything – what does your curse do? How long have you had it? Why are you in this van – did something go wrong for you, too?
Instead, I tried, “My name’s Kayden,” in the wobbly voice of an idiot.
“Kylie,” she replied quietly, hugging her bag tighter. She didn’t seem to want to look me in the eye. Or talk at all.
I realised with a start that she had no idea that I was like her. Should I tell her? ‘Hey, guess what; I’m cursed’? Seemed a little blunt. I couldn’t exactly casually let her see my mark; taking my shirt off in a windowless van with a strange girl seemed like the wrong move.
The van stopped again. I looked up; we weren’t in the desert any more. Somewhere on our journey, the air had cooled and the silence had been replaced with the sound of heavy traffic; we were in a city, although I wasn’t sure which one.
“Last passenger,” Mr Cooper announced, and got out of the van.
“Did you see how we got here so fast?” I asked Kylie. She shook her head.
The last person to get in the van was, by all rights, more interesting-looking than Kylie or me, although his lack of any apparent witch mark made him less interesting in my personal book. He was tall, thin, and gave the distinct impression of someone who, when he was old enough to grow a proper beard, would immediately shape it into a goatee. He was dressed in the neat dark pants and shirt of someone who wants to look as formal as possible without going so far as to wear an actual suit, and the suitcase in his hands was thin, high quality, and leather. As an adult he’d probably look incredibly distinguished, but as he was about my age, the effect was more like a very tall ventriloquist’s dummy.
“I’m Max,” he said, giving us both a sort of greeting nod, which I found myself returning automatically.
“Kayden,” I replied.
“Kylie,” Kylie said, still staring straight ahead.
Max’s eyes locked on the witch mark on Kylie’s face, and I knew immediately that he wasn’t cursed. The expression on his face didn’t reflect the kind of surprise and delight that I’d felt. He stared at Kylie more like she was an interesting scientific specimen.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but do you happen to be carrying a curse?”
“Do you happen to be carrying manners?” she snapped back without looking at him, her hands clenched so tightly that they shook.
Max flushed and looked away. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. Honestly, I admire the strength of anybody who can carry such a burden. How long have you – ?”
“Dude,” I said, “she obviously doesn’t want to talk about it.”
“Of course,” he said, falling silent. The van trundled silently on while Max kept sneaking glances at Kylie’s witch mark. I figured I could probably break the tension by revealing that I was cursed too and make Max the odd one out, but if people were going to start looking at me like that when they found out… instead I contented myself with glaring sharply at him whenever he started staring.
Fortunately, the ride wasn’t very long. When I thought to look out the windscreen again, there was no trace of the city; we drove through a valley of green grass dotted with flowers. The van stopped, and moments later, Mr Cooper was opening the doors.
“Welcome,” he said, “to the Haven.”