It’s one in the morning, and I’m sneaking down the silent dorm halls. This whole place was once an estate with a sprawling manor house, left to settle into old age and refashioned into a boarding school. By now I remember which floorboards won’t squeak underfoot.
The staff have turned in for the night. Even Allie, the young janitor. She is always the last to call it a night, though if she was awake I wouldn’t be worried. She’d just give me a conspiratorial wink and pretend she didn’t see anything. She used to be one of us. A founding member of these secret hours, they say, who somehow fell in love with the school’s charm and stayed on as staff.
I tiptoe around the last corner, finding a small group already gathered at the basement door, waiting for me to come with the skeleton key.
I’ve been more responsible with this key than I’ve been with anything else in my life.
We all wait until the door has been opened before someone lights a candle. Some of us are still in our uniform, while others are wearing pajamas with blankets over their shoulders as capes. We tiptoe carefully through the large laundry space and around storage boxes, heading for the farthest corner where there’s a small window well high in the wall. Through it, we can see the night sky.
We sit in clumps on the floor, sometimes a big group, sometimes a bunch of little ones. Tired teenagers, with dark circles under our eyes that deepen in the candle light. Here it is still and dark and forbidden. Here we are a secret community.
Here, we tell stories.
All kinds of stories. Scary, funny, sad, and adventurous, sometimes ongoing stories that span over weeks. Someone is usually able to smuggle down tea or cookies, and nearly everyone brings a blanket or two.
There is something about the night, the way it wraps us in shadow and quiets our surroundings. There is something about the way a candle flame flickers from the breath of a story. The night enchants us, and we are careful not to break its spell.
Tonight a girl whispers her fears, and we all find ourselves nodding in agreement. We’re scared, we’re tired, we’re not sure what we’re doing. She seems to gather strength from this, and she thinks for a moment before speaking again.
“Once upon a time…”
The whispers around us fall to a hush. It is a rule; if you wish to tell a story, all you have to say are those four words. Tonight, she tells a story about a young girl who was given a job she wasn’t good at, but faked it really well. One of her friends scoots closer, and when she starts to falter in the story, offers a suggestion. Maybe, although this girl may not know her job, she’s good at figuring out the other people that work there.
And perhaps this girl gets caught up in a conspiracy that’s way over her head, but by now, isn’t that what she’s used to?
We’re all involved now, and the story becomes a living thing in our midst. The girl’s name changes every other minute, the conspiracy is never fully clear, but the story is about how she becomes a constantly confused hero.
And I think, at least for tonight, that’s the hero we all want to know.
Some nights, especially before exams, we make poetry and songs out of our homework, pulling it apart into tiny, doable pieces. Making it funny and light and easy to remember. Sometimes a made-up ditty gets hummed during a test. Some of the especially funny ones get passed down from graduates, spawning a seeming never-ending supply of tunes that get stuck in the teachers’ heads.
Most of us are terrible at telling stories and making poems, but we all have things to say. And sometimes, it’s easier to say it at night, in flickering candle light, to a group who may think the same way, in the form of a story or a rhyme. We’re not supposed to be good at it, and there are no grades to fear. Sometimes it’s funnier to say it wrong. It can be easier to remember when it got messed up.
Some nights, we dissolve into helpless laughter, and we have to break it up and return to our rooms before a staff member wakes up.
Those are the best nights.
Tonight, it is sleep that pulls us back to our rooms. One of the girls nodded off during the story, and two others volunteered to help her stumble back to her room. We blow out the candles and carry away the stumps, taking evidence of tonight with us.
I am the last to leave, locking the door behind me. It’s just a basement, with laundry and boxes and the occasional spider web, but to us it has become a trove of memories that get us through our classes, our exams, our semesters inside this school.
Sneaking down the quiet halls with the key tucked safely in my hand, I find myself taking a detour through the classrooms, pausing every now and then by a window. Moonlight fills the grounds, outlining the old trees that surround us. I imagine runaways peeking out from between the branches, fairies dancing through the grass, talking animals meeting at the fountain.
I imagine telling their story, perhaps of how they tried to sneak into the school to learn. Perhaps the old walls of this manor whispers to them in its shadow. Perhaps the school books are hiding secrets for me to find. I think I’m not in such a big hurry to go to bed anymore.
I think I’m starting to fall for this place.