Kendal stared at the eye socket of the old scull until she felt like her own eyes might just drop out of her face. The pencil rested still in her tense hand.
A hand rested lightly on her shoulder, jerking her out of her revere. “Don’t stare the thing to death, my dear girl,” said the friendly voice of Prof. Hopkins. He added a chuckle, which did help her to relax a bit. “It is rarely that I suggest to a student to spend more time looking at her paper and less at the object being drawn, but I think in your case this advice might be good.”
“Oh, ok,” said Kendal, rearranging the pencil in her hand. She drew a few halting lines and the professor moved on, apparently sensing that Kendal didn’t like people watching her when she drew. The last half hour of class passed slowly. Finally, the ancient clock over the door rearranged its hands so that they pointed at the appropriate time, and everyone put away their pencils and slotted their sketchbooks into their assigned shelves.
“Next class, remember, you are to have three twenty-minute portraits done. We’ll do a brief critique at the beginning of class, so I expect to see your best effort.”
Kendal was leaving the class with the rest of the students when something above her caught her eye. She looked up to the balcony-like loft space that provided a second layer to the art room just in time to see a pale face with a lot of messy black hair disappear. She right away guessed that it must be that strange girl, Ophelia, that Benny had told her about. Without thinking, she sped across the room and dashed up the spiral flight of stairs to the loft. Ophelia disappeared through a door and Kendal ran after her. But Ophelia was too quick for Kendal, and after searching a few of the passageways that branched off from there, she returned to the art room, disappointed.
She descended the spiral stairs and was for a second time that day startled by Professor Hopkins.
“Ophelia has permission to attend my classes,” he said.
“Oh. Does she like art?”
“Yes, she does.”
“Her model ships!” Kendal said, remembering what Benny had told her about and forgetting not to say her thoughts aloud.
“Yes, they are very good. Are you a friend of hers?”
“Not exactly,” said Kendal. “Sort of a friend of a friend.”
Prof. Hopkins smiled. “Good, I’m glad to hear she’s making friends finally.”
“Yeah, but he’s gone now,” said Kendal, unable to hide her unhappiness.
Kendal regretted saying anything about it. It was probably supposed to be a secret that Benny and the others had left on the Nereid. She only knew by way of a note Benny had left for her, which he had clearly written in a hurry.
“Yeah, um, temporarily. In town,” she lied.
“Of course,” said Prof. Hopkins and Kendal was quite sure that he had seen right through her lie.
Feeling very awkward about the whole thing, Kendal picked her bag and left, and Prof. Hopkins excused her with a knowing nod.
“Let me OUT!” Kendal lost her train of thought at the unexpected sound of muffled yells and bangs coming from somewhere along the corridor to the right. She turned and pursued the sounds.
“I just want to ask a few questions, calm down already,” said another voice, severe clear.
“I don’t want to talk to you!” shouted the girl whose voice was muffled.
Kendal rounded the corner and saw the stern form of the reporter girl she recognized as Piper Lee. Piper did not look at all happy to see Kendal.
“What are you doing?” Kendal asked, her mind already guessing at the answer.
“None of your business. Look, I’m not hurting anybody. I’ve been trying to talk to Ophelia for years now and she keeps avoiding me. This is just a necessary—”
“LET ME OUT!” The door shook violently, but Piper hung on to both the handle and her enforced calm.
“Piper, let her out,” said Kendal, doing her best not to get upset, but to remain cool and confident like the older girl.
“Mind your own business.”
“Piper, I will tell somebody,” said Kendal.
Piper sighed dramatically. “Alright, have it your way.” She opened the door and stepped aside, and Ophelia came tumbling out. “I’m sorry, Ophelia,” said Piper, clearly still annoyed that she would have to let her subject go.
Ophelia scrambled to her feet. Her hair was even more a mess than before and her cheeks were flushed bright red. She glared hard at Piper, and swayed back and forth ever so slightly. Kendal suddenly got the impression that Ophelia was going to attack Piper.
“Ophelia?” she said, tentatively approaching the girl. Ophelia paid her no heed but was now clenching and unclenching her fists.
Piper turned away to leave the scene, and that’s when Ophelia jumped. The little girl sprung onto Piper’s back, growling like a wild thing. Piper screamed.
Shocked, Kendal ran forward and began pulling Ophelia off the other girl.
“Ophelia! Ophelia!” Kendal kept saying the girl’s name as she pried her arms off of Piper. Suddenly Ophelia went limp and released Piper, sending Kendal stumbling back, the smaller girl still in her arms.
“Hey,” she said softly, some sort of mothering instinct kicking in, “It’s gonna be ok, you’re free now,” she smoothed Ophelia’s hair down behind her ears. Piper stood staring down at them, her own hair disheveled and her eyes filled with surprise.
The moment ended as quickly as it had come and Ophelia squirmed out of Kendal’s arms and disappeared down the corridor.
Kendal stood, up, anger tensing her muscles. “Not hurting anyone, is that what you said?” she asked the older girl.
Piper took out the band that held her hair up in a loose ponytail and pulled her hair smooth again. “I didn’t know she’d react that way.”
“Retaining someone against their will,” said Kendal, not willing to listen to Piper’s excuses, “I’d call that hurting somebody.
“Do you know I’ve been aboard this ship 10 years and still don’t know who the hell that girl is?”
“Don’t change the subject!”
“I’m not. Ten years. She’s not a student, although she does attend a few classes. She doesn’t look any older today then when I first saw her 10 years ago.”
“Locking her in a closet is not the way to—”
“That’s the first time I’ve gotten close enough to her to talk to her, and believe me, I’ve been trying ever since I started with the newspaper.”
“Maybe she’s none of your business.”
“Do you know anything about her?” Piper asked.
“If I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
Piper stared at Kendal for a moment, and her expression softened. “I know. And I am sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt her. You won’t tell on me, will you?”
Piper got this desperate look in her eyes. It would be a very bad thing for her if everyone found out what she had done. She might even get kicked out of school. They weren’t very tolerant of bullying about the Golden Thrush.
“Why shouldn’t I?” Kendal asked. Maybe Piper deserved to be kicked out.
“Because, because—” Suddenly there were tears in Kendal’s eyes and she stopped talking and turned away, clearly embarrassed.
Once again, Kendal felt this strong pity rise in her chest. “What’s wrong?” She stepped towards Piper.
Piper took a few deep breaths. “I’ll tell you,” she said, still not turning around. “Over ice-cream.” She turned then, and Kendal saw that her eyes were red but she wasn’t crying.
The two girls walked in silence through the ship till they came to the upperclassmen snacks bar. It was a large room with bright gold walls, patterned floor tiles, and big windows that currently displayed a nice view of the dock. Kendal had never been there before, and looked about curiously. It was nearly empty at this time of day, when most of the students were in classes. Piper ordered them two chocolate ice creams and led Kendal to a seat by the windows. She licked her ice-cream down to the cone before saying anything.
“Do you have a family?” she asked at last.
“Yeah,” said Kendal. “I’ve got a really annoying little brother. Mom and Dad both work for the government in Washington. You?”
“No, I don’t have a family.” Her voice was as flat as the top of her ice-cream.
“I’m sorry,” said Kendal genuinely. She guessed that Piper had been leading up to that, but she couldn’t figure out what it had to do with Ophelia. There were a number of students without families on the Thrush. These were the ones that were found with special abilities and adopted onto the ship.
“But I don’t have any talents either.”
“Oh, are you sure? Sometimes—”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Piper cut her off.
Kendal still didn’t understand how this was going to be about Ophelia.
“Ophelia,” said Piper. She then looked down and her ice-cream and nibbled violently along the edge of the cone for a full minute, as if trying to nibble her emotions back under the surface. “Ophelia and I are alike. I’m an orphan without talents, she’s an orphan with talents, but no place aboard the ship. She’s not a student. She’s not a professor. She doesn’t seem to do anything. Yet I’m convinced she does. I just have to find out what it is.”
“Why do you have to find out?” Kendal asked.
“I don’t know,” Piper went back to eating her ice-cream in silence.
And that was the end of the conversation. They finished their ice cream and Piper said, “Will you not tell? Please? I promise I won’t do it again.”
“Are you just going to give up on Ophelia, then?”
“Then how are you going to talk to her? There’s no way she’ll consent to it willingly now that you’ve locked her in a classroom.”
“Maybe you should have just tried to make friends.”
“If I can’t get close enough to talk to her, how am I supposed to do that? Besides, I don’t know how to make friends.”
“Ice-cream’s a good start,” Kendal wiped her fingers off on her napkin and grinned across at the older girl.
Piper blushed and stood up abruptly. “You should go, you’re not technically allowed in here, you know.”
“As your guest, I am,” Kendal said, standing up as well.
“Yeah, well,” Piper shrugged. “True, I guess. Now, are you going to tell on me?”
“Not for now, but you have to promise to leave Ophelia alone.”
“I—” Piper clearly didn’t know how to respond to that.
“You don’t want to get kicked out of school.”
“No. Alright, I’ll leave her be.”
“Good. See you around, then, Piper.” Kendal smiled and left the room, a strange giddy feeling of excitement ringing her ears. She promptly found herself lost and wandered about for at least an hour before she found her way to someplace she recognized. She realized as she did so, that Piper had never even found out her name. So much for making a new friend.