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Raji begins her junior year at Octavia Pompeii Academy
Raji stood on the stage with the other forty-nine cadets. She wiped her cheeks with shaking fingers and watched Fuse where he stood beside his mother in the third row of the audience. Everyone was on their feet, clapping for the new junior class.
I should not be up here, she thought. I took his place at the academy and I had no right to do that. She glanced around at her fellow students. There were forty-eight boys and one other girl; Elizabeth Keesler. Liz stood next to Raji, gripping her hand tight.
Eight girls were among the 250 students on the first day of competition, but by the end of the week, only Raji and Liz had made it through to the top fifty. Vincent Fusilier, or Fuse as his friends called him, had been in the competition too, but didn’t score high enough to join the new class.
Fuse has been in school for the past nine years and I have never spent even one hour in a classroom. How unfair is this? I shall ask Dr. Pompeii to remove me and give my place to— Raji’s thoughts were interrupted by Dr. Pompeii returned to center stage. The audience quieted down and took their seats.
Dr. Pompeii leaned forward, placing her hands on the podium. “Standing before you is the junior class of Octavia Pompeii Academy for the year 1926.” Her voice was sur-prisingly strong for a petite woman of forty-three. She waited for the new wave of applause to subside. “Parents, guardians and friends, say good-bye to your children for the next four months, because they will be hard at work until Christmas vacation.”
Raji heard a loud whistle and knew it was Fuse. She waved to him and smiled, hoping he couldn’t see the tears streaming down her face.
“The city of Richmond donated land for this academy in 1918,” Dr. Pompeii said. “In the eight years since then, no female students have entered the junior class, so it gives me great pleasure to welcome Elizabeth Keesler and Rajiani Devaki.” She paused to glance at Raji and Liz, and then she turned back to the audience. “The first women to attend our academy.”
“Did you hear that, Raji?” Liz whispered. “She called us women.”
“More like two wimpy girls,” someone said in a low voice from behind.
Raji and Liz looked around, to their right, but saw only a dozen grinning faces.
“They won’t make it through the first week,” another boy whispered, from the left.
The girls jerked their heads that way, but didn’t catch the culprit.
“I bet they run crying to mommy before Wednesday night,” said another boy. “One of them is bawling already.”
Raji heard stifled giggling and looked to see who it was, but Liz stopped her. “We’ll see about that, won’t we?” Liz whispered.
“Yes,” Raji said, but she was resolved to tell Dr. Pompeii she wanted to give her place to Fuse. But that would leave Elizabeth as the only girl to put up with the boys’ teasing and taunting. She glanced at Liz. She is strong enough; she will be able to stand up to them on her own.
“I’m afraid of heights,” Liz said. She winked at Raji.
Raji sat on her bed, watching Liz where she stood on a wooden chair while Pepper Darling adjusted the length of her skirt. “Miss Pepper,” Raji said, “I must need talk with Dr. Pompeii.”
“Why?” Pepper took another straight pin from between her red-painted lips.
Raji’s thoughts were always in Hindi, but she spoke in English, most of the time. “I want give my place to Fuse.”
Liz and Pepper turned to stare at Raji.
It was the morning after the introduction on the stage and Raji had spent a sleepless night in the girls’ dormitory room where she and Liz shared the four-person quarters.
“You can’t.” Pepper slipped a pin into the bottom edge of the ankle-length tan skirt.
“You’re kidding,” Liz said, “aren’t you, Raji?”
“No, I am not belonging here.”
“You’re right about that,” Pepper said. “Turn around, Keesler.”
Liz looked over her shoulder and down at Pepper. “She has as much right as anyone else.” Liz was tall and slim, with curly auburn hair.
“Maybe,” Pepper said, “but being a chess whiz won’t get her through the first six-week exams.”
Pepper glared up at her. “Have you seen Devaki’s school transcript?”
“Neither have I. You know why?”
Liz shook her head.
“Because she doesn’t have one. I don’t think the girl has ever been to school. Get down so we can see how your jacket fits.” Pepper was twenty-two and secretary to Dr. Pompeii. Liz was sixteen and Raji fourteen.
“She went to school in India.” Liz stepped down from the chair and slipped into the jacket Pepper held for her. “Probably they don’t even have transcripts there.”
Pepper glanced at Raji and raised an eyebrow.
“She is true, Liz. I have not never been in school.”
“In that case,” Liz said, “how did you get invited to the competition?”
“This is the strange thing I am not understanding any-way. Until that moment when Dr. Pompeii say my name and give number for the competition, I not even knowing this happen to me.”
“How about it, Pepper?” Liz said. “I thought it was good grades in school that got us invited to compete for the academy.”
“Yeah, that or…” She lifted the padded shoulders of the jacket and glanced at Liz’s hands. “You want the cuffs below your wrists, like that?”
Liz shook her sleeves out and looked down. She reached to pull her left cuff up a half inch. “Right there.”
Pepper rolled the cuff under to pin it. “Or exceptional intellectual ability.”
Liz’s jacket was a royal blue blazer with a coat-of-arms embroidered on the left breast pocket. The crest consisted of crossed tennis racquets behind a knight chess piece. White blouses and yellow ties, along with high-top black shoes, would complete their uniforms. The colors and style were identical to the boys’ uniforms.
“What is meaning of this thing you said, Miss Pepper?” Raji asked.
“Smarts, I guess,” Pepper said.
Liz grinned at Raji.
“Put your skirt on, Devaki,” Pepper said, “so I can pin it up.”
“But why to bother? I will not need uniform.”
“I’m just following orders. ‘Pin up their uniforms for the seamstress,’ Dr. Pompeii told me, so I’m pinning up the uniforms. If yours is to hang unused in the closet for another year, so what. Besides, you can’t give your place to anyone.”
“It is my place, why I cannot give it?”
“If you drop out, Dr. Pompeii will replace you with one of the four alternates.”
“Is Fuse one of these alternates?”
“That’s classified information.”
“What is this you are saying?”
“It’s a secret,” Liz said. She removed her jacket, being careful of the straight pins.
“But you know about this secret, Miss Pepper?”
“Why not you tell me?”
“Well, then it wouldn’t be a secret, would it? Hurry up with your skirt, I’ve got about fifty reports to typewrite.”
Raji removed her red and green sari, laid it on the bed, straightened her slip, and then stepped into the long skirt. She held it at the waistband to keep it from falling from her hips.
“You skinny little thing.” Pepper folded a large tuck at Raji’s waist.
“Hey, dreamer-girl,” Liz said from her bed where she sat pulling her stockings on. “You’ve got that look again.”
Raji glanced at her roommate. “I know.”
“You better hurry up if we’re going to get some pancakes before the boys gobble them all up.”
“I not very hungry.”
“But I am and you know how I hate dining alone with ninety-eight juvenile boys.” One hundred teens made up the student body at the academy—fifty juniors and fifty seniors.
“Dopey, sappy, idiotic, inane…”
“You think Fuse juvenile?”
Liz sighed and stood to slip her dress over her head. She soothed out the pale blue linen and then straightened the bodice “No, Raji. I think Fuse is a prince.” She turned her back to Raji, holding the ends of the fabric belt out behind her. Their school uniforms had not yet come back from the seamstress.
Raji took the belt and pulled it tight, tying it in a large bow.
“He’s sweet, adorable, intelligent,” Liz said, “and, let me see, what else did you tell me?”
“Yes, all that.” Liz took another dress from her closet and tossed it to Raji. “Let me ask you this; if he’s so brilliant, why was he not in the top fifty after the competition?”
“Rodger Kavanagh beat Fuse in tennis.” She held the tailor-made dress up by the shoulders, thinking how beautiful it was. “And chess also.”
“Kavanagh didn’t take Fuse’s place. Kavanagh beat the pooh-pooh out of everyone, except you in chess.”
“You let me wear your nice dress this day?” Raji stood to hold it to her body while kicking her right foot out to ad-mire the colorful material.
“Sure, if you’ll wear it to the mess hall and watch me eat a stack of pancakes.”
Raji smiled and lifted the hem of her pink nightgown to pull it over her head. She tossed the nightgown on her bed, and then stepped into the dress. “I sorry, Liz, but I miss him so much.” She pulled her waist-length hair from the collar and reached behind her neck to button the dress.
“I miss my puppy dog too, but there comes a time when you have to let go.” Liz took her hairbrush from the dress-er.
Liz made a motion for Raji to turn around so she could brush her hair. “Because I would rather learn the finer points of solid geometry than lie by the fire all day with a smelly dog licking my face. Your hair is really long. Have you ever cut it?”
“Sometimes I wonder.”
“About a haircut or a smelly dog?”
“That’s better.” She dropped the brush on her unmade bed. “Now, let’s go hit the mess hall and see how many stupid wise-cracks we can stand before we scream bloody murder.”
Clayton Appleby, a junior, glanced at Liz as she sat next to him. “Hey, Keesler.” He licked maple syrup from his fingers and picked up his black knight. “Do you have to eat while we’re playing chess?”
Raji took the seat across the table from Liz, keeping her knees together as she scooted onto the bench. She smiled at Clayton, and then glanced at the chessboard. She shook her head ever so slightly and reached for her knife and fork.
Clayton put his knight back where it was.
Andrew Wiggins looked from Clayton to Raji and back again. “Come on, Devaki. I would have checkmated him in three moves.”
Liz stifled a giggle and picked up the butter dish. “Wiggins,” she said as she spread butter on her pancakes, “you couldn’t checkmate a moo cow.” She handed the butter to Raji.
Andrew glanced at her and then at the pawn Clayton had shoved forward. “I’m sorry, Keesler,” Andrew said as he took the pawn with his bishop, “that you heard about the senior boys calling you a cow.”
Someone down the table laughed and Liz leaned for-ward to glare at him. “Well, at least they don’t call me a Chess Nut.” She took a bite of dripping pancake.
“Hey, waiter,” Clayton said. “More syrup here.” He held up the empty carafe.
“Yes, sir,” said the senior student on serving duty. He wore a long white apron over his school uniform. “Any-thing you say, sir.” He came along the aisle behind the benches and pushed his way between Raji and Andrew.
Raji glanced at the senior and leaned away from him.
The senior poured warm maple syrup from his large pitcher into the smaller one in Clayton’s hand.
Raji had just taken her first bite when another senior at the table behind her, clinked his fork on an empty glass. “Hey, waiter,” the student said. “I need more milk.”
The senior at Raji’s side turned toward the other stu-dent, still pouring syrup and leaving a trail across the white tablecloth and onto Raji’s plate.
Raji saw the syrup overflowing her plate and reached to pull it away.
The senior pretended not to notice anything wrong. “I’ll be right there, sir,” he said as he continued to spill the warm sticky liquid across Raji’s plate and then into her lap.
She cried out and pushed the syrup pitcher away.
“Hey,” the senior said as he dumped the rest of the syrup on Raji’s chest. “You hit my arm.” He raised his voice. “Now look what you’ve done.”
“I did not,” Raji shouted. She jumped up, grabbed a linen napkin, and tried to wipe the syrup away, but she felt it soaking through to her skin. “Why you do this thing to me?”
“Blockhead,” Liz said to the senior. “You did that on purpose.”
The senior with the empty milk glass laughed and then several others followed suit—laughing and pointing at Raji as she daubed at the sticky liquid.
The serving senior grinned like a fat Cheshire cat as he watched the brown syrup run down her dress, all the way to the floor.
At that moment, Raji heard the shrill sound of a police whistle and thought someone was coming to reprimand the senior for making such a mess.
Everyone turned toward the side door of the mess hall where a large woman stood with her arms folded and her feet spread apart. She wore the school uniform of blue and tan. The shiny whistle dropped from her lips and then dangled on a chain around her neck. “Five minutes!” she shouted.
The senior with the now-empty syrup pitcher, turned to hurry away toward the kitchen while all the other seniors immediately grabbed their trays and left the tables. They lined up to dump their scraps in a large garbage can. After cleaning off their plates, they placed the trays and dishes on the counter of a long window opening into the kitchen area. Workers removed the dirty dishes as fast as they piled up while more student-workers began clearing away the remaining food from the serving line.
“Why the hurry?” Clayton asked as he watched the seniors file out the side door.
“Probably heading for class,” Andrew said.
“Liz,” Raji said. “This nice dress you loan me, now ruined.”
“Don’t worry, it’ll wash out,” Liz said. “I think we better go.”
The two of them took their trays and left the table to stand in line with the other juniors, where they slowly worked their way up to the window to leave their trays on the counter. It seemed that as soon as all the seniors left the mess hall, the clearing of the counter came to a standstill, forcing the juniors to wait for a place to pile their trays.
“Why those students in kitchen?” Raji continued to wipe her dress with the napkin, but with little effect.
“Maybe they earn extra money that way,” Liz said.
“They look not so happy.”
“Come on, we have to go find our first class.”
Liz and Raji joined the queue of students going out the side door where the large woman stood. She kept her eyes on a wall-clock to her left. When the girls reached the door, the woman handed Raji a slip of pink paper.
“Thank you,” Raji said, glancing at the piece of paper.
“Name?” The woman poised a yellow pencil over her clipboard.
“Rajiani Devaki,” Raji said.
“What’s this?” Liz asked when the woman handed her a pink slip.
“You’re late.” The woman was of normal height, but her legs were too long, giving her an odd appearance with her short torso and thick neck. If her jacket had been black, she would resemble a long-legged penguin. “What’s your name?”
“A demerit!” Liz exclaimed. “Why?”
“I said, you’re late. Now give me your name and move along before you get another one.”
“Elizabeth Keesler,” Liz mumbled.
“Why we get demerits?” Raji asked Liz as they left the mess hall.
“Ten seconds after eight.” Liz glared at her pink slip. “That old battleaxe gave us demerits for being ten seconds late in leaving the mess hall. How ridiculous.”
“We must find our first class,” Raji said.
“Yeah, World History, but we need our notebooks and pencils.” Liz led the way back to the admin building where the girls’ dormitory was located.
“And I need change dress.”
When they stepped into their room, Raji saw three slips of pink paper on her bed.
On one side of the four-story hotel lay a collection of reclaimed bedsteads, iron tractor wheels, potbellied stoves, and a wide assortment of rusting and rotting fragments of civilization. To the other side of the hotel was a boarded-up factory that once produced pulley blocks and ship rigging for the American Navy. The faint white-painted lettering of “Richmond Block Mill” could still be made out on the clapboard wall of the deteriorating building.
A man wearing a shiny blue suit and a black felt hat stood on the cracked cement steps of the hotel, surveying the neighborhood with an expression of satisfaction. He took two more steps up and turned to gaze across the James River toward the mansions mounted on the wooded bluff like so many sparkling diamonds on a fat dowager’s necklace. He shaded his eyes to get a better look at one particular home standing out like the center stone in a string of glittering jewels.
The dark young man removed his hat and studied it with disdain, perhaps thinking of the comfortable turban he had left behind. He climbed the final steps with his hat in his hand, and entered the dusky hotel lobby.
At the desk, he hesitated a moment before signing the register, and then he wrote a name with careful, deliberate penmanship.
William Fortescue, the clerk who was also the janitor, bellhop, and owner of the Hotel Belvedere, turned the register to read the man’s name. He glanced at the young man.
The new guest smiled.
“Where’s your luggage, Mr. Albert Manchester?”
Mr. Manchester stared at the clerk for a long time, as if trying to understand something.
“Bags,” Fortescue said. “Where are your bags?”
“Ah, I am seeing your words in clarity now. Bags to be deposited in near hours by native porter.”
Fortescue looked the man over, trying to figure out his ancestry. “Native porter?”
Mr. Manchester nodded.
“Fine, then. Two-fifty for the night, or ten dollars for a week.”
“Two nights must be the extend of my deliverance.” He took a large fold of banknotes from his front trousers pocket, peeled off a one-dollar bill, and handed it over.
Mr. Fortescue took the dollar bill and smoothed it out on the counter top. “Am I to assume you plan to pay for your room ten hours at a time?”
“I wish for purchase two nights including one day also.”
“You want me to take five dollars from this single?”
Mr. Manchester reached to the side of his head to push the thick hair back, and then he scratched his cheek. “This money denominations are not at all clear to me.” He took a ten-dollar bill from the wad and handed it to the clerk.
Mr. Fortescue smiled, returned the one-dollar bill, and then made change from the ten.
The new guest placed a dime on the counter and put his folding money away.
The clerk glared at the dime for a moment before picking it up. “Supper promptly at seven o’clock.”
“Yes, sir. I am in complete understand. And now, if it is convenient for one to direct us to telegrapher’s orifice.”
Fortescue grinned at the man’s butchering of the English language. “Two blocks down,” he jerked his head to the left, “then across the railroad tracks.”
“Thanks to you, sir.” He left the hotel, walked briskly to the telegraph office, and sent the following cryptic message to a Mr. Kartoom in Queens, New York:
Inquired female sighted. Await instruction for disposition of same.