Thursday, February 11, 2016

Valentine's Day at Magic School

This story is for all of you who feel like you're made of "different stuff" than everyone else.

Valentine’s Day
Magic School

Love. Honesty. Integrity. Kindness. Insight. These are the virtuous pillars that each Magister must ever pursue, for in their presence, neither evil nor selfishness shall thrive.
            --Brimolde Bell, Magister and Founder of Bell’s Academy

The cloying, sweet smell of chocolate wove its way into Aggie’s sleeping mind, and before she even awoke, she knew someone had enchanted the fountain in the main square. Why anyone would want a fifty foot hot fudge fountain in the middle of campus, even on Valentine’s Day, was a mystery to Aggie, but it seemed to happen more years than not, at Bell’s Academy of Magic.
Aggie groaned and rolled over, burying her face in her golden-goose-down comforter. She didn’t have anything against chocolate, in sensible quantities. She even enjoyed the occasional bit of chocolate cake or hot cocoa. At least she had enjoyed those things before she came to the academy. The hot fudge fountain, however, had an aversive effect on Aggie, and she’d trudged through too many chocolate-permeated Valentine’s Days, now, to ever really enjoy chocolate again.
Breakfast was a panoply of strawberry roses, red velvet pancakes, raspberry smoothies, and heart-shaped omelet’s. Everyone, from the cooks and groundskeepers, all the way up to Principal Fritherton, devoted considerable time and creative energy to making each holiday celebration thematically cohesive, and memorable. Valentine’s Day, however, was always the most extravagant day of the school year.  After all, love was the first of the five pillars of virtue that Bell’s Academy attempted to instill in every student-magister to grace its halls.  
Aggie sat at the table closest to the cafeteria door, and sipped her strong, black tea. The commotion over breakfast was more intense than usual, as students exchanged cards with their friends and sweethearts, received teleported packages from their parents, and guffawed over the rumor that Magister Palmer would be proposing to Magister Li-Jing by the hot fudge fountain at high noon, wearing nothing but a diaper and a set of cupid-wings.
Aggie had been a student at Bell’s for eight years, but she had never received a Valentine. She was one of only three scholarship students who’d ever been admitted, and her family didn’t mark Valentine’s Day, much less have the money to celebrate it. With eleven children, and a small dairy farm, her parents had never paid heed to the holidays, and Aggie had never felt the sharp pang of yearning for something that she didn’t have. She hadn't felt that sharp pang, that is, until she was surrounded by the boisterous, wealthy youths of Bell’s Academy. By now, of course, that sense of yearning, that longing for connection, had become as well-worn and familiar as the faded winter jacket that had belonged to four of her older sisters before it was handed down to her. Aggie yearned for a friend, she yearned to feel a sense of belonging and, in her most secret heart of hearts, she yearned for a Valentine.
It wasn’t that Aggie was disliked by the other students at Bell’s. They were, in fact, uniformly kind to her, including her in study groups, inviting her to parties, and even to their homes over summer break. Aggie’s status as an outsider had less to do with cliques and schoolyard politics, than with the fact that she was made of different stuff than the other student-magisters. Aggie was quiet and reserved. She preferred reading to most any other activity, and she found herself utterly captivated by the study of magic. While she did her part to reciprocate the kindness of her classmates, Aggie had never managed to grow genuinely close to any of them, and at times, like today, she despaired of ever finding friendship and love. Tired of her thoughts, she swallowed one last hot gulp of tea, popped a single strawberry in her mouth, and headed off to Advanced Alchemy. Studying was the best way to distract herself from the smell of chocolate and the threadbare ache of loneliness.
Two lectures, and an hour at her hedge-witchery practicum later, Aggie had almost managed to put thoughts of Valentine’s Day out of her mind, and now she headed briskly across the main square with a peppermint and ginger sachet held against her nose to block out the overwhelming odor of chocolate. A growing crowd forestalled her progress, however, and Aggie backtracked. Students were streaming into the square from all directions and, when she didn’t immediately find an easy path through the milling bodies, Aggie took refuge atop a picnic table. From that vantage, she determined that she would either have to physically force her way through the crowd, or she would have to wait for it to dissipate. She sighed through her scented sachet and resigned herself to waiting. At least Magister Palmer, standing on a portable stage near the fountain, was fully clothed, his diaper and Cupid’s wings nowhere in evidence.
As noon approached, the crowd began to hush. Aggie could see that several of Magister Palmer’s favorite students were ushering Magister Li-Jing onto the stage. As the noon chimes rang out from the clock tower, Magister Palmer began to juggle. Within seconds, he was juggling five, then six, and then seven rubber balls. For almost a minute, the crowd watched, breathless, as Magister Palmer kept the balls in constant motion and whistled an old country tune. Then, with a piercing whistle, reminiscent of a rocket, he hurled one of the balls far into the air where, at its apex, it seemed to pause for one long moment, and then burst into a star shaped bundle of confetti. Faster, the magister whistled and faster he hurled the balls. Faster and faster they exploded into bright shapes of colorful paper that sparkled in the sunlight. Aggie gasped and exclaimed along with the rest of the crowd, and for a moment, she even forgot to hold her sachet against her nose. Then, as quickly as the display had begun, it was over and Magister Palmer was whispering something in Magister Li-Jing’s ear. The latter nodded, they exchanged locket necklaces, and the students clapped with riotous enthusiasm. Aggie tucked her sachet into her pocket and clapped along, before surreptitiously dashing away a tear from the corner of her eye. She would never want it done in front of an audience, but she couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to have someone love her enough to make such a fuss over her.
The remainder of the school day passed in a swirl of lectures, and then Aggie found herself back in the cafeteria for supper. The meal of steamed beets, pickled artichoke hearts, and lasagna was served by candlelight, with a three-piece orchestra playing in the background, but Aggie was too tired and hungry to properly appreciate the atmosphere. While Aggie yawned her way through a second helping, easy chatter, and carafes of sparkling cranberry juice flowed up and down the tables. Several boys showed off the stuffed dragons their girlfriends had given them, and Pablo, the most popular senior at Bell’s, received a singing hologram from a famous actress.
After dinner, most of the students and Magisters drifted into various parlors and libraries around campus, while Aggie climbed the steps to her tower bedroom and settled into her rocking chair to read. At half past nine, she set her books aside and stretched. It really hadn’t been such a bad day, though she could have done without the assault on her nose, she decided. Perhaps next Valentine’s Day, she’d take the initiative, and enchant the fountain so that it flowed with pink lemonade. Aggie smiled to herself, relishing the fantasy of beating the hot fudge pranksters to the fountain. She needed a supply list for the enchantment, she decided, and then startled at the sound of a knock at her bedroom door.
The guest was draped in a thick cloak and deep hood, but there was something about her that made Aggie trust her immediately.
“May I come in?”
Aggie opened the door wider for her guest. The woman moved with a decisive confidence that Aggie admired as she stepped into the room, swung the door closed, and pulled back her hood. Aggie took a step back in surprise, gathered herself, and then stepped forward again, to lay one hand on a familiar cheek.
“Are you really…?” Aggie was breathless.
“I am.” The woman smiled and Aggie saw crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes. Fascinated, she ran one finger over the crinkles.
“How…how old are you?”
“I’m forty-five,” the older woman said, and took Aggie's curious hand into both of hers.
“You’re twenty-eight years older than I am.” Aggie marveled as she searched the still-smiling face for more clues. “It sounds so…so old.” She blushed, then added, “But you look good. I mean, you don’t look old.” She took a deep breath. “You look happy.”
“Oh, Aggie, you have no idea. That’s why I’m here. Because I know you’re not happy. I know you’re lonely. But it’s going to get so much better, sweetie. You just need to hang in there.”
Aggie felt the sting of tears behind her eyes and the older woman must have sensed them too, because she gathered Aggie into a warm embrace.
“Does someone ever…will someone ever love me?” Aggie asked as she leaned into the strong shoulder of her future self.
Aggie-from-the-future squeezed her younger self, then set her back at arm’s length so that she could look into her eyes. “This is important. I need you to remember this, darling. Okay?”
Younger Aggie nodded.
“Many people love you, Aggie. You will be surprised by how many people love you. But most important, Aggie, I love you. I love you. Always remember that. Love yourself.”
Younger Aggie sniffed and tears streaked her cheeks. Aggie-from-the-future hugged her again.
“I wish I could stay longer, but I can’t. I have to go now, but you’ll remember, won’t you?”
Younger Aggie tried to smile through her tears, but gave a little hiccoughing sob instead. “I promise. I’ll remember. I love myself.”
“Good girl,” Aggie-from-the-future said, and then she pulled up her hood and disappeared from the room.