"Hello, Laura. Welcome to the Ulrich F. Gephardt Academy for Unruly Girls."
"You're safe here, at least from your father's hitmen."
"What if I don't know who I want to be?"
"What do you think, Laura? Are you an Unruly Girl?"
The Ulrich F. Gephardt Academy for Unruly Girls was founded outside Oshawa in 1886 to help young, troubled women turn their lives around. In 1889, U. F. Gephardt changed the mission, refining the girls to become his personal army. Gephardt retired to the Century Manor Asylum in Hamilton after suffering a nervous breakdown. The Academy, however, still continues, helping troubled and troublesome girls get an education and a good start in life, whatever their ambitions are.
The Great Jennifer Round-Up
Monday mornings always arrived too soon for Laura. If she ruled the world, she'd make the week metric, with half the days weekends. All she'd need is a small, dedicated army, all loyal to her. Or maybe just an island for just herself. Laura smiled. A tropical island, fully stocked with the best cappuccino and all the delicacies she could eat.
"Hey, sleepyhead!" Autumn's voice broke through Laura's dream. "Get up! You don't want to miss your first class."
Laura flipped over in bed. "Yes, I do." She felt tugging on her covers. "It's too early to be morning."
"You want to go to your first class. We all have it. English."
"I already speak it." Laura held on tight to her blankets.
"No one misses English, Laura. No one."
"Then I can be first." A second pair of hands took hold of the covers. With a yank, they were ripped out of Laura's grasp. "Hey!" She opened her eyes to see who stole her blankets.
Skye beamed down at her from the foot of the bed. "Good, you're up." She tossed the blankets back at Laura. "You missed breakfast."
"No, she didn't." Autumn faked gagging. "Really, you didn't miss a thing."
"Anyway, it's too late to get to the cafeteria for anything."
Laura rolled out of bed. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes. "I don't eat breakfast." The new girl looked over at her roommates. "Dressed already?"
"Rule One, Laura," Autumn said with exaggerated patience. "Besides, who wants to go to class in her pajamas?"
Laura shuffled towards the kitchenette. As she passed Autumn, she smelled vanilla and cherry. "Perfume?"
Autumn blushed. "What about it?"
"I need coffee."
"You need to get dressed," Skye said. "We want good seats."
Laura held up a finger. "You want good seats. I want coffee."
Autumn took the new girl by the shoulders. "Skye can get your coffee started." She gave Laura a push towards the bathroom. "You need to get cleaned and dressed."
"I need clothes!"
"I'll get them. Go get started." Autumn shoved Laura into the bathroom.
Coffee in hand, a green blouse with a grey skirt on, Laura followed Skye and Autumn to the first class of the day. The room had desks for thirty students arranged in an oval along the walls. Most of the desks already had a girl sitting at it. Caitlin sat prim and proper, her legs crossed under the desk, hands folded and resting on the top. The red-haired girl wasn't the only student sitting in that manner; Laura saw Cassie in the same pose, making it look far more natural than Caitlin's stiff version. Several seats around Caitlin were empty. Skye and Autumn quickly claimed them, leaving one just behind the redhead open. With a mental shrug, Laura took the desk. "Okay, what's going on?"
Without turning, Caitlin answered, "I have no idea what you mean."
"I mean, wait." Laura leaned in closer. "Makeup? Caitlin?"
"We're allowed to wear makeup, Laura. There's no rule against it."
"You didn't wear makeup over the weekend. Let me see."
Caitlin craned her neck to look behind her, trying not to break her pose. "I don't know what you're finding strange."
"That's Russian Red lipstick!"
"I like the colour." Caitlin returned to facing the door.
Laura slumped in her chair. "I don't have enough caffeine to handle this."
Autumn nudged her. "You'll see soon."
Skye nodded. "Oh, definitely."
All heads in the class turned to the door as a an older man, Laura estimated in his thirties, entered. His blonde hair was a curly mess, but he was clean shaven. "Good morning, ladies."
"Good morning, Mr. Baker," the girls chorused. Laura only took a long draught of her coffee.
Mr. Baker looked around the room, taking attendance. "I see I have a new student." He crossed the classroom floor to approach Laura. "And who do we have here?" He gave the new student a warm smile.
Feeling all eyes on her, and not all of them friendly, Laura stammered. "Laura. Laura Jones. Sir."
"Oh, no need for formality here." Mr. Baker spread his arms wide and turned to face the rest of the class. "We're all friends here, right?"
"Oh, yes," Cassie said. The other girls murmured approval.
"Right." Laura couldn't keep the disbelief out of her tone.
Mr. Baker knelt beside the new girl. "What books have you read in your previous classes?"
Laura stared. "I, uh, well, it's, um, it's complicated." She swallowed.
"You were assigned books, yes?" His soft brown eyes gazed into Laura.
"I, uh, I didn't exactly." Laura played with a loose strand of her blonde hair. "I was home schooled."
Mr. Baker took one of Laura's hands into his. "That's perfectly fine, Laura." He gave her another smile. "Don't feel like you have to participate today. I'll give you time to catch up." The teacher stood up. "Class, do you remember where we left off? Camille?" Mr. Baker turned to face a tan girl with brown hair.
"We were reading the sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning," the girl answered.
"We were, indeed. Open your books to sonnet number thirty-three. Caitlin, care to read it?"
"Yes, please." Caitlin swooned in her chair.
Laura stared at the red-haired girl. There was no way the girl in front of her was the same Caitlin who launched an attack on a rival two days before. The same Caitlin who bulled her way through every interaction Laura witnessed. Yet, there she was, reading a sonnet in dulcet tones and flickering her eyelashes at the teacher. Laura examined Mr. Baker, trying to figure out what she was missing. Granted, he was nice looking, for an older man, and seemed to have all his teeth. Laura gave her head a shake and tried to follow with the poem. Caitlin''s reading was decent enough, sounding practiced. The other girls in class didn't seem to be paying attention to her.
Laura glanced to her side. Autumn sat, rapt in watching Mr. Baker as intently as every other girl in the class. Beside the Asian girl, Skye had a dreamy expression. Neither made notes. Laura took a swig of her coffee. Still not enough caffeine to deal with what was happening. For this, she got out of bed?
Caitlin finished reading the poem. She folded her hands again and looked up at the English teacher. "Well done, Caitlin." The redhead preened in the attention. "Now, does anyone know what the poet was trying to say?" Several hands shot up, including Skye's.
Laura shook her head. She elbowed Autumn. "What's going on?" the new girl whispered. Autumn only shh'ed back, not even looking away from Mr. Baker. "Fine, be that way." Laura opened her text to the sonnet and skimmed it.
The class remained a total mystery to Laura from beginning to end. The other girls acted as if enspelled by Mr. Baker. Laura just couldn't see why. Poetry wasn't her forte, and the discussion left her cold. Laura also didn't want to get into a competition with the other students. Whenever Mr. Baker turned his back to one part, dirty glares erupted between classmates. With a sigh, Laura shifted in her seat, trying to get comfortable for the remainder of the class.
The bell took its sweet time in ringing, ending Laura's monotony. She gathered her books and made a beeline to the door. Laura wasn't surprised to be the first girl out. The rest of the class lingered, each girl finding a way to slow her progress. The next student out was a girl who, along with the standard Academy uniform of red blazer with silver piping, grey skirt, and white blouse, had on heavy black boots, black torn stockings disappearing under the skirt, and hair tied into pigtails dyed so black it drank the surrounding light. The girl huffed as she passed Laura. "Shameless."
"Tell me about it." Laura fell into step beside the girl. "It's like they became other people."
"All over sonnets." The girl took in Laura's lack of uniform. "The new girl, right?"
"Yeah. Hi, Laura."
"Fawna." The girl shook her head, her pigtails flapping. "Sonnets. Can you believe it? Absolutely no substance at all."
"Finally, some sanity."
"Next month." Fawna smiled. "Next month, Edgar Allen Poe." The goth girl's expression became dreamy. She clutched her books to her chest. "I can just hear him reading 'A Cask of Amontillado' now."
Laura stopped dead in her tracks. She watched as Fawna continued walking, unaware that she was now alone. "Everyone's gone crazy," the new girl muttered. She fished her schedule out of her blouse pocket. Next class, chemistry, far more interesting to Laura than poetry and swooning girls. Laura waited until she recognized someone coming out of classroom. Cassie swished out, dancing, noticing no one else. Laura dodged the oblivious blonde, ducking under her long tresses. The new girl bit off a few choice words as she glared at Cassie's back.
Autumn joined Laura's side. "See?"
"Wasn't that wonderful?" Autumn sighed.
"You're wearing perfume."
"I can still hear his voice."
Laura looked back at the classroom, where Mr. Baker spoke with lingering students about poetry. "So can I. It's because he's talking."
"I know." Autumn draped herself against the wall.
"What about Jay What's-his-name?"
Laura grinned. "Then Caroline can have him?"
Autumn's reverie shattered. "The hell she can. What the hell, Laura?"
"That's my question, Autumn. What was that in there?"
"And that's why you're wearing perfume and Caitlin's wearing lipstick?"
"Caitlin always goes overboard."
"He's a teacher!"
Autumn sighed. "I know."
"I give up." Laura walked away from her roommate. "I now know that I haven't gone crazy. Everyone else has."
"Wait!" Autumn ran to catch up. "You mean you don't find Mr. Baker attractive?"
"What's wrong with that?"
Laura stopped dead. She turned to face Autumn. "First, nothing can happen between you and him. He's too old and you're too young. Second, poetry? You're going ga-ga over poetry?"
"Romantic poetry," Autumn corrected. "Weren't you listening?"
"Look, I have chemistry next. Which way do I go?"
Autumn pointed down the hall. "Go to the end, around the corner, and down to the second floor."
"Thanks. Wake me up tomorrow morning like you did today, I'm leaving a surprise in your toothpaste." Laura left Autumn gaping as she took the Asian girl's directions.
At the corner, a flock of Jennifers ran down the hallway, pursued by an older girl trying to herd them. Laura pressed against the wall to keep out of their way. She watched the older girl's futile efforts until they disappeared into a stairwell, then continued her journey. On the second floor, Laura recognized both the lab Flora's robot trashed and the lab where she recreated the gigglesmoke. Checking room numbers, the classroom she sought was across from the latter lab.
Laura entered the lab and wasn't surprised to be the first one there. The rest of the girls must still be swooning over the English teacher, she reasoned. She grabbed a seat at a bench near the back. A few more students arrived, including Flora, all sitting down near the front. An older woman, Laura placed her at least as old as her grandmother, entered and took her place at the front of the class. The woman's sharp, green eyes surveyed the room.
"You, new girl, move up." The woman looked down at her papers.
Laura got up to move. "Yes, ma'am." She joined Flora at the twin's lab bench.
"No backtalk." The teacher walked out from behind her bench. "How new are you?"
"It's my first day of class?" Laura kept an eye on the teacher.
"Ever been in a chemistry lab before?"
"Do you know the difference between H2O and H2SO4?"
Laura nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
The teacher swept her hand to indicate the rest of the small class. "Care to enlighten the others?"
"H2O is water, two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. H2SO4 is an acid, sulphuric acid." Laura sat up straighter.
"Good, good." The teacher returned behind her bench. She pulled a beaker out from beneath her desktop. "Now, new girl, which is in this?"
Laura blinked. "I don't know, ma'am."
"Both are colourless. Sulphuric acid looks like water. You might be able to tell by smell, but it's not a good idea."
The teacher raised an eyebrow. "I might?"
"Anyone might?" Laura shrugged.
"How else could you tell?" The teacher set the beaker on her bench's surface.
"A pH test strip, to see what colour it changes to, if at all. If it's water, it won't change. If it's an acid, it will, depending on the strength and type of acid."
"And if you don't have test strips?"
"If I don't?" Laura repeated. "It depends on how pure a sample I want. If I put a few drops on a toothpick and it doesn't get eaten away, it's water. Or I could see if a few drops eat away my desk."
The teacher took measured stride to stand in front of Laura. "What about giving it to someone else to drink?"
Laura's eyes widened in horror. "I could kill someone that way."
"Really." The teacher maintained her gaze on Laura, who started to squirm. "What sort of chemistry did you take in your previous school?"
"Organic, mostly self-taught, though." Laura felt her classmates looking at her, but she maintained eye contact with the teacher. "I mean, I've studied some of the more physical aspects, but I've been more interested in the reaction of molecules on the human body." Beside her, Flora covered her mouth to stifle a burst of laughter.
"I see." With great deliberation, the teacher returned the front of the room. "Do you feel like you can teach this class?"
"I don't know, ma'am. I don't know what you're teaching yet."
"So you might?"
"Did you want me to?"
The teacher's stony expression broke. "Not yet." She turned to face the rest of the class. "That is how you check the competency of a peer, not to mention the sanity. If someone suggests drinking anything from a beaker, run away fast."
Laura breathed out in relief. She took out some paper and a pen and settled in to take notes. The class was far more interesting for Laura, even with the distraction of seeing her classmates all made up for earlier. The lecture covered a mix of facts Laura had learned through trial and error and new ideas that got her thinking. Maybe school was a good idea.
The end of the chemistry class came sooner than Laura expected. She and Flora left together, comparing notes. They made their way through the growing crowd down towards the cafeteria. "Better eat with your roomies, Laura, at least for now," Flora said. "It's more for appearances, but the idea is that you and roommates have each others' backs, even if you don't get along."
"Even after what they did to me this morning?"
"If you're alone, you signal that you're on the outs and fair game for everyone, even the Jennifers. No one would last the day." Flora got into the line at the cafeteria. "Last time it happened, the girl barely made it to the Headmistress's office in one piece. She was never seen again." The twin grabbed a tray.
"How long ago did that happen?" Laura fell in behind Flora.
"A few years ago. I was just a Jennifer then."
"Did you see the girl?"
Flora shook her head. "Fawna did, though."
"Uh huh." Laura grabbed an apple.
Flora snatched the apple out of the new girl's hand. "You don't want that."
"Caf is done by the lowest bidder. Who knows how old that apple is." Flora set the fruit back down. "If you trust your roomies, buy your own food and keep it your room."
"Don't talk to me about my roommates." Laura rolled her eyes. "They forced me out of bed this morning."
"Well, yeah, classes. You kinda have to go to them."
"I never chose them."
"English is mandatory. There's no getting away from it."
"Lovely." Laura sighed. "Does every girl here have a crush on Mr. Baker?"
Flora stared at her new friend. "You don't?"
"I just don't see it, Flora."
"Don't say that out loud!" Flora clamped her hand over Laura's mouth. "Not where everyone can hear you!"
Laura fought to uncover her mouth. "Why?"
"It's dangerous." Flora placed her order at the steam table. "Like sitting alone."
"So you want me to fake it?" Laura stared up at the ceiling, trying to put a vacant stare on her face. She shook her head. "Can't do it. I just can't do it." She placed her own order in.
Flora received a plate that had some sort of meat-like substance in between two slices of what looked like bread, covered with far more gravy than needed. "Until people know who you are, try to fit in."
"This coming from the girl collecting squirrel brains." Laura received a similar plate. "Maybe he's just not my type." She looked at the mess on her plate. "What is this?"
"A hot chicken sandwich, allegedly." Flora set her plate on her tray and continued down the line. "Anyway, Laura, until people know what your type is, what's the harm?"
Laura followed her new friend. "It doesn't feel right to me."
"Then try to not complain." Flora grabbed a sealed container filled with a garden salad. She checked the best before date. "These are safe."
"Thanks." Laura picked up her own salad and a packet of vinaigrette dressing. "Fine, no complaining. Can I mock?"
"Only if you pick your target properly. Skyescraper's a bad choice; she'll pound you into the ground. Cassie's bad, too; she wouldn't get it. My sister's a great target. I mock her all the time."
Laura grinned. "Sisterly love?"
"We know each other's triggers and just how far we can go on each other."
"Is that why you're here?"
Flora laughed. "Oh, no. We destroyed our old neighbourhood with zombies and robots. Mom and Dad had no idea what to do with us." She reached the cashier and pulled out a card. "Oh, Laura, did you get one of these?"
Laura leaned in to get a better look at the card. "I got mine Sunday, yeah."
"Good." The twin handed the card to the cashier. "The food here isn't great, but it beats trying to cook your own meals."
"I can cook." Laura fished her own cafeteria card out of her pocket. "But, yeah, it's nice not having to make my own food."
Done paying, Flora put her card away. "I'm going to sit with my sister. I'll see you in math class." The twin slipped into the crowd.
Laura handed her cafeteria card to the cashier. She picked up utensils while the card ran. Once she had her card back, she, too, entered the crowd, looking for her roommates. Skye was easy to find, towering over the other girls, but she was still in line. The tall girl did point out Caitlin, whose red hair, today held back in a black hairband, made her easy for Laura to find. Laura sat down across from her roommate. "Hi."
"Hello." Caitlin pulled a brown bag from her satchel. "You're brave."
"I've never eaten school cafeteria food before."
Caitlin pointed at the hot chicken sandwich. "That counts for just two-thirds of what you said."
"How bad can it be?"
Autumn joined the group. "Hey, I was thinking of that." She nodded at Laura's lunch. "Then I realized that I like living."
Laura picked up her fork and knife. "Like we have anything back at our dorm."
"We do." Caitlin held up her bagged sandwich. "Some of us are prepared."
"Some of us also have plans to invade Italy," Autumn said. She opened her salad and added ranch dressing. "That's not normal."
Caitlin glared at Autumn. "I do not have plans to invade Italy. There's nothing there I want. Liechtenstein, now there's a good place to start. Completely mountainous, means I get the terrain advantage once I take it."
"No, no." Caitlin completely missed the sarcasm in Autumn's tone. "Too sunny." The redhead pushed up the sleeve of her blazer to reveal a pale arm. "I'd burn in minutes."
Laura cut into her hot chicken sandwich. "So, you're saying your weakness is the same as a vampire's?"
Autumn coughed as her bite of food got caught in her laughing. She downed a gulp of juice. Still red faced, she turned to her new roommate. "Care to warn me next time?"
Caitlin kept her tone cool. "Are you two done?"
Skye joined the group, setting her tray on the table. She glanced around the room. "Anyone notice anything different?"
Laura shrugged. "Different from what?"
Caitlin took a look. "It's not as loud." She examined the room a second time. "Where are the Jennifers?"
"That explains the quiet."
"This is quiet?" Laura raised her voice to be heard over the general din.
"Compared to when the Jennifers are here?" Skye nodded. "Definitely. They should be here. They have to eat. That's what caused the last Jennifer Rebellion."
Caitlin gave a demure smile. "Not the sole cause, but, yes, it was part of the Statement of Revolt. That was a work of art."
"Caitlin, remember what we did during the Rebellion?" Autumn asked.
Reality crashed in on Caitlin. "Yes. It took the senior year, the local police, the OPP Tactical Unit, the Ontario Regiment, and possibly Joint Task Force 2 to contain us." The red-haired girl set down her sandwich. "We have an emergency. Did anyone see a Jennifer at breakfast this morning?"
Skye shook her head. "None."
"Never paid attention, really," Autumn said.
Caitlin looked over at Laura. "Hey, I was still asleep," the new girl said. She snapped her fingers. "I did see some after English, though. They were being chased by an older girl."
"Any idea who?"
"Hello? Brand new here? How am I supposed to know who everyone is?" Laura glared at the redhead. "She was clean and she wasn't in our English class, where I assume all us seniors were this morning."
Skye tapped the table with her finger. "Narrows it down a lot, Cait. Removes two years from consideration."
Caitlin addressed Laura directly. "Is the girl you saw here?"
"I don't know." Laura looked around. "Maybe. I didn't pay that much attention beyond not wanting to be trampled."
"Think, Laura. This is critical. Do you know how much damage the Jennifers can do running wild?"
"They were the ones who got the car I came here in?"
Skye nodded. "Stripped it down to the chassis. Piranha would've been impressed."
Laura went pale. She took another look around, trying to find the girl she saw earlier. "There!" Laura pointed across the room. "Just leaving the line."
Caitlin got to her feet. "Skye, with me." The redhead strode across the room, purpose in every step. She kept an eye on the girl Laura had pointed out, memorizing the girl's shoulder-length black hair, her café-au-lait skin, her lack of blazer. "You!" Caitlin shouted.
The girl froze for a moment, then broke into a run towards the cafeteria's exit. Skye gave chase, pushing aside smaller girls without effort. The tall girl tackled the runner around the waist, pulling her down in a flare of skirts. Caitlin marched through the trailing chaos, ignoring the indignant questions of fellow students who had been flung aside. "Skye, let her up."
"What the hell?" The girl brushed off her skirt.
"Next time, don't run." Caitlin gave the girl the once over. "Where are the Jennifers?"
The girl looked away from the redhead's gaze. "Around. Somewhere."
"What's your name?"
"Are you some sort of cop?"
The girl gasped as Skye squeezed on her elbow. "Are you crazy?"
Caitlin stepped in closer to the girl. "What is your name?"
"Danielle." Caitlin gave the girl a cold smile. "Now, Danielle, where are the Jennifers?"
Daniell looked up at Skye, then back to Caitlin. "I don't know."
"I have a witness who saw you chasing them earlier this morning."
"I was told to get them to class. Have you ever tried chasing them? Herding cats, except cats don't throw things at you."
"You can let go of her, Skye." Caitlin took a step back. "How many Jennifers did you see this morning?"
"Half a dozen, maybe?" Danielle shrugged. "They're not easy to find when they decide to hide."
"Please. We were all Jennifers once."
"Look, all I know is that I can't find them."
"Then you and the rest of you juniors had better get on the ball. I doubt that anyone is going to be happy seeing an armoured regiment at the school's front gate."
Danielle gulped. "Armoured?"
"Tanks," Skye said. "Lots of them. And that's just the beginning."
"We have a situation. The Jennifers are missing."
"If we can't handle this, we don't deserve to be here."
"My mother hasn't called to find out what's happening."
"Stage Two is firebombing."