“C’mon, then, Mr. Forsythe.” He gave a toss of his balding head toward the cab. “Let’s get on back.”
The ride back to Oakridge was made in stony silence, only broken by Ian’s occasional coughing or the rattle of the truck as it made its way over the old, frost-broken pavement. Nick leaned his head against the window and stared out into the darkness. He kept one hand in his pocket, turning Cris’ claddagh ring over and over around his finger. He thought of Scrib, and the slice of sunshine that appeared on her face whenever she spoke with Cris. What would she do, he wondered, when he told her that they were gone? His rational mind told him that she wasn’t the sort to shoot a messenger, but the fear and anxiety he’d carried back and forth through the streets all night had worn him thin, and made rationality a little harder to hear. He closed his eyes tight, wrapped his arms around himself, and fought tears for the remainder of the way.
As Ian inched the truck up the drive onto campus, the bonfire in the green came into view. Feeling every pair of eyes upon him, Nick hunched down in his seat, then realized that he couldn’t stay in the truck all night, and heaved a slow sigh.
A few boys broke loose from the crowd and moved toward the truck as Ian drove them up toward Blackthorn House and parked a few feet away from the door. The lamps at the entryway were still lit, and Headmaster Mallory stood beneath one, his expression shut and lukewarm. As the other boys approached, he turned, raised a hand, and said something that Nick couldn’t quite hear over the engine or through the glass. The boys made a retreat back toward the bonfire, and Mallory stepped up to Nick’s door, pulling it open.
Nick felt his brow wrinkle and pucker, tears stinging the corners of his eyes. He wondered what sort of question that was supposed to be, and what sort of answer he was meant to give. Unable to decide, he shook his head without a word.
“Physically,” Mallory elaborated. “Are you hurt?”
He shook his head again.
“Then I suggest you go upstairs and collect yourself while the other boys are still out here. You’re going to have a lot of questions. I’d prefer it if you didn’t speak to anyone just yet, not until you and I have a chance to discuss what’s happened.” A gentle hand landed on Nick’s shoulder, but the Headmaster’s eyes were calm and steady: Nick saw neither worry nor warmth. “Out you get. Perhaps lying down is best.”
Nick’s calves ached as he swiveled in the seat and stepped out of the truck with another silent shake of his head.
“Thank you for fetching him up, Ian.”
“T’wasn’t a problem, Headmaster. Boy’s been silent as a stone this whole time. Might be drunk.” Ian’s scowl fell into the familiar lines of his face.
“I’m not drunk,” Nick spoke at last.
“An upper-sixth, not drunk at a pub on Guy Fawkes.” Ian snorted. “And I’m Sean Connery.”
“I’m not!” His voice rang sharp over the green, and heads turned back by the fire. Several logs shifted at once and fell, sending sprays of ember and sparks up into the night. Startled, the first of his tears escaping onto his cheeks, Nick clasped his hands in front of his stomach and slouched, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. Please … please, just let me go inside…”
“That’s enough, Ian,” Mallory sighed. “Go on, then, go have a rest and put your feet up in the gatehouse.”
“’Bout time. I’d just cracked open a box of soup when you called me…” He shoved the ignition forward, shifted the truck, and began to back it out onto the path again.
“Go on, Nicholas.” Mallory gestured to the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning in my office, please. Seven o’clock.”
“Yes, sir.” As Nick moved past the Headmaster, he kept his eyes on the gravel path, and on their shoes, unable to meet his eyes.